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THE CRASH RATTLED the light fixtures in Selena Milano's loft apartment and made the CD player skip. Earthquake? Twelve–year–old son? Or dog? Betting dog, she turned from the end of the apartment that served as her studio and took a step toward the ruckus. It wouldn't be the first time she had to recycle the remnants of an Axel accident into one of her pieces.
"Drew! Are you okay?"
The response from the area of the loft partitioned to create her son's sleeping quarters wasn't good. Barking. Laughter. And a scraping noise that sounded as if someone was dragging a barge across the hardwood floor.
"Chill, Mom, we're okay."
She didn't believe that for a minute. Fortunately, their oversized apartment in a rehabbed city block in the Mission District had once housed a small garment factory. Delicate it wasn't, which was good because her family of three seemed to require industrial strength. "I'm almost finished here!" she shouted above the persistent noise. "Why don't you get Axel on his leash? Take him downstairs and wait on the sidewalk, but don't get near Sam's produce." Sam was the greengrocer in one of the storefronts under the apartment, and Axel's nonstop tail always came perilously close to destroying the perfect pyramids of fruit and vegetables Sam erected on his outdoor display counters every morning. Although the Chronicle had reported nearly one half of San Francisco voters were dog owners, Selena seemed to have drawn the one block that had little tolerance for the critters.
Axel himself, one hundred pounds of sheer canine energy, burst out of Drew's sleeping area and charged the length of the apartment, his leash whipping behind him, clearing the landscape like a bulldozer carving a new suburban subdivision. Several feet away from her, he reared up to plant his front paws on her shoulder. Turning her head to avoid his kiss, she smelled the grape jelly before she saw it on his hairy right foot.
Drew appeared seconds later. "Are you ready?" Longing for the quiet retreat that was Margo's Bistro, Selena pushed Axel toward Drew. "Wash his feet in the work sink. I'll meet you outside after I've tried to rescue this top." Examining the purple smear on her shoulder, she headed for the lavatory. "And don't let go of the leash."
That dog. Rescuing him had seemed like such a Kindhearted Margo would have taken him in, but had enough on her plate at the time. So she'd offered him to Selena, who'd been having trouble with Drew and his emerging adolescent angst. Margo thought caring for a pet would help draw him of his self–involvement. Boy and dog had bonded beautifully. One could call it a growing relationship. The vet had laughed at Selena when she'd brought what she'd thought was a small, but fully grown dog for the necessary shots. Seems Axel was a very large, but emaciated, puppy at the time. Now, ten months and several tons of dog food later, he was a gigantic specimen of overgrown–pup exuberance.
Drew wanted her to do a portrait of his beloved pet. But what materials would convey his size and extraordinary coat? Two–by–fours, an old beer keg and a bale of pine needles?
Unable to eliminate the jelly stain, Selena changed into a clean but worn sweatshirt—why did she never seem to be able to keep clothes new and pretty?—threw on a jacket, grabbed an umbrella, then dashed outside to meet her son. Drew kicked a Hacky Sack on the crowded sidewalk as Axel, tied by his leash to a bike rack, cavorted about, barking loudly and threatening to overturn the rack and a half–dozen bikes. Sam stood outside his shop and eyed both boy and dog uneasily. service dogs. Her arm pulled nearly Selena harrumphed at the thought anyone but his own dogged interconsisted of eating, sleeping and jumping, followed by more running Drew wanted to take him to the annual the Animals on the Feast of St. Francis, so ill–behaved Selena despaired of that date. Sadly, their pet would try the even a dead and sainted animal advo
want me to get you something?" Selena Drew the leash. After one afternoon the customers had had a eat the food themselves—Axel was inside Margo's during business "A ginger–peach smoothie. And, Mom, do you know you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe?"
She looked down at her feet to see a long, white streamer trailing from one heel. Not surprised, but exasperated nonetheless, she bent to remove the offending accessory, then tossed it in the trash can. "Hold on to Axel. I'm going in."
Too late. The café door opened, and a customer came out. The scrabble of claws on the pavement warned Selena that Drew didn't have control of his dog. When did he ever? Before she could sound the alarm, the overgrown mutt knocked the man aside, then burst through the doorway, shedding hair and shaking drool and looking for the biscuit that was his due.
A teenager at the counter screamed. Robert stepped protectively in front of the girl as Margo reached for a broom. Axel took the move as an invitation to play and, grabbing the bristles, proceeded to drag Margo for a turn around the café. Selena tried to grab Axel's collar, but the dog, delighted that everyone found this game as much fun as he did, spun around and planted his front paws on Selena's shoulders for the second time that day.
"Hey, you two," Robert called out, trying not to laugh. "We're only a café. We don't have a permit for dancing."
Her son managed to pull his dog to a sitting position.
Margo shook her broom at Drew. "Your mother doesn't give you an allowance big enough to buy this monster a leash?"
Drew held up the broken end of the now useless restraint. "The third one this week."
"Oh, no," Selena moaned. "Now how are you going to take him to the park?"
"I'll use my belt."
He might as well. The thing never seemed to hold up his pants.
"And you—" Margo shook her broom at Axel, who now lolled belly–up on the floor at Drew's feet
"—I'm not sure you deserve a cookie."
"Aw," Robert said, "can't you see he's wasting away to nothing? Skin and bones." He reached behind the counter, then palmed a biscuit to Drew. "Give it to him in the park. After he's done something he's supposed to, for a change. So what'll you have, kid?"
"I was going to have a smoothie," Drew replied, eyeing another customer walking through the door,
"but I think I'll just grab a Snapple and head out. Mom's paying." Bottle in hand, he shrugged away from Selena's attempted kiss.
"I have a meeting with a sponsor at noon," she said after his retreating form. "Pick me up in an hour, but wait outside this time." She resisted the urge to tell him to zip up his jacket. To ask if he'd remembered gloves. If he wanted the umbrella. Twelve–year–olds were a universe apart from eleven–year–olds in what they would tolerate from Mom. Pity. At times she missed her little boy.
As the door shut behind the pair, warmth and peace descended on the café. Selena desperately needed some quiet time with adults. Ever since she'd walked into Margo's Bistro from an installation she was doing in SOMA, the café had become a touchstone. A safe haven. A place where no one was a stranger for long.
Robert stepped behind the counter, and as Margo put away her broom, she surreptitiously ran her hand down his back. Selena smiled. Robert, a former flatout workaholic, had wandered into Margo's Bistro ten months ago to read the want ads over a cup of coffee. He hadn't counted on falling for Margo and being swept up in her definitely noncorporate way of life. But did he ever look happy now. Not even a visit from Axel the Demolition Dog could eradicate the smile marriage to Margo had put on his face.
Selena flopped into one of the two overstuffed armchairs by the front window. When Margo joined her in the chair opposite, Selena asked, "Is it too early for Irish coffee?"
"A wee bit. And every time you ask you seem to conveniently forget we don't have a liquor license."
"You can't blame a girl for suggesting."
"No more than usual. You know that controlled chaos I call my life? I think I'm losing the controlled part." Glancing around the crowded room, Selena didn't see any of the friends who made up their core circle. "Where is everybody?" "Well," Margo replied, stretching slowly and luxuriously as if she were the most contented woman in the world, "Rosie and Hud are still on honeymoon. A working honeymoon, some political retreat in D.C. Casey's staying with Bailey and Derrick, who've taken all the kids to Fisherman's Wharf today. Say a little prayer for those brave souls. And Nora and Erik are at a medical conference in Lake Tahoe. Nora's sister has Danny."
Pairs. Selena was struck by the realization the once tight single–parents coffee group had become a loose confederation of married friends who got together when new, blended and extended family commitments allowed.
And she was the last staunchly single person standing.
"And Ellie and Peter?" she asked before she could examine how she felt about being left behind.
"Is it your ex's weekend to have them?"
"Yes. Tom and Catherine are taking the kids to look at prospective summer camps."
Selena was pleased to see Margo finally speak of her custody arrangement without a trace of stress.
"So you have my undivided attention," Margo promised, "and Robert's on call if we need him."
As if on cue, Robert brought two cups of coffee, a double mocha with vanilla whipped cream for Margo and espresso for Selena. "Your usual, ladies. Apart from the dog–and–pony show, Selena, how's it going?" "Fine. Only if you don't count the dog."
"Oh, that sweet baby," Margo cooed in exaggerated admiration. "You can't stay mad at him."
"You don't live with him. And my neighbors aren't as forgiving as you two." Selena sipped her high–octane drink. "I know I wasn't a dog–savvy person when I agreed to take him, but who knew he'd grow this big?"
"You didn't notice the size of his paws when we found him?"
"Well, it occurred to me…." Margo suppressed a grin.
"What's the latest?" Robert asked. "Besides the exhibition here this morning."
"This week he ate the cushions on my sofa." Selena shuddered to remember. "And the mail. Five days running. I was so worried about the possible effects—on him—I took him to the vet for X rays. Dr. Wong says Axel has a cast–iron intestinal tract, if you're interested. Then I received three calls from neighbors about his barking. And, last but not least, yesterday he ran off two students from the dance studio next to Sam's. I owe for their missed lesson."
"He may be bored," Margo suggested.
"How can he be bored when he has Drew for a constant companion? And the two of them never stop moving."
"Does Drew walk him every day?" "Walk? Hah! They run everywhere. It's only a matter of time before they knock someone over, and I have a lawsuit on my hands."