The following is an excerpt from The Lazarus Kid, the third novel in a series that includes The Monk Downstairs and The Monk Upstairs (both from HarperOne).
And what I say unto you, I say unto all: Watch.
YOU HAD TO PICK your battles with thirteen-year-olds. If you fought about everything, there would be nothing left of civilization.
Sitting in the stands at her daughter’s gymnastics meet, checking her cell phone every ten minutes for calls from Mike, Rebecca still felt that the prolonged fight over whether Mary Martha should perform with a cast on her arm had been justified, if only on the simplest grounds of physical safety. Her daughter had already broken one arm, after all, her left one, taking a fall off the balance beam. It seemed reasonable enough to Rebecca that Mary Martha could at least wait until the first bone healed before she risked breaking anything else.
It had not seemed reasonable to Mary Martha. She wasn’t, as she said, like, all macho about it. She didn’t intend to do a bunch of handsprings or even walkovers. But it was an important meet, one of the biggest of the season, and she didn’t want to miss it. She was in good shape, the break was clean and healing well, and she’d shape her routines to the physical realities.
The physical realities were that she had a broken arm, Rebecca had said. End of discussion.
“You are not the boss of me,” Mary Martha had replied, and stormed off to her room. Complete with slamming door and loud music ensuing from within. It was all so mortifyingly clichéd. And eerily familiar, Rebecca thought. It was like looking into a funhouse mirror in a time machine, seeing her own slamming, music-booming teenage self. Her fights with her parents had been about curfews and boyfriends and grades. She supposed it could be seen as a plus that the fights with Mary Martha were about sports. But it didn’t feel like a plus.
They had argued about it on and off for the better part of a very rough week, but in the end, after some off-stage discussion with Mike, who appeared to quietly believe that his stepdaughter had the right to break more bones, Rebecca had become worn down and agreed to let Mary Martha perform in the floor exercise, no handsprings. She managed to veto the vault, even though Mary Martha insisted that she had a Tsukahara with a quarter-turn and layout that wouldn’t put any pressure on the broken arm. The uneven parallel bars, they could all agree, were out of the question.
The final fight had come down to the balance beam. The beam was Mary Martha’s best event. She had inherited her surfer father Rory’s effortless sense of balance and was as comfortable on the four-inch-wide slab four and a half feet in the air as she was at ground level. She even wanted to try the move she’d broken her arm on, the Korbut Salto, in competition for the first time.
“It’s a no-brainer,” she insisted to Rebecca. “It doesn’t take any hands at all.”
“Then how did you break your arm doing it?”
“I fell wrong.”
“It’s a no-brainer all right,” Rebecca said. “It’s out of the question. The last time you tried it, you wound up in the emergency room. End of discussion.”
“You are so not the boss of me,” her daughter said, and stormed off to her room. Wham the door. Radiohead at high volume.
The floor exercise went beautifully. Rebecca loved to watch her daughter dance. Mary Martha had gone from tiny to coltish almost overnight the past summer and in her daily life was still awkward and self-conscious, managing the sudden extra inches of leg, but she forgot herself in motion on the mat and it was a lovely thing to see her leap and whirl.
Rebecca teared up, as she often did during Mary Martha’s floor routines. She couldn’t help remembering her daughter at the age of four, dancing with Rebecca’s mother, Phoebe. The two of them had used to do some kind of Isadora Duncanesque thing on the deck behind Phoebe’s wild widowhood house at Stinson Beach, a hilarious pas de deux full of theatrical jetés and flourishes, complete with pink rhythmic gymnastics ribbons and the occasional veil. They would dance until Phoebe wore out, and often then Mary Martha would dance on alone, sometimes wrapping her grandmother in the ribbons as if she were a maypole.
Tonight, Rebecca held her breath for the somersaults and armless cartwheels, but Mary Martha stuck every landing. The pink cast on her arm, signed by everyone on the team, added a sweetly poignant touch, a symbol of grit and pluck, the spunky heroine thing, and the crowd got into it, clapping along to the hip-hop beat of “City Strut.” The judges loved it, too, and Mary Martha’s score was the best after the first rotation.
The next two rotations, the vault and bars for Mary Martha’s team, passed uneventfully. The only one in either rotation to top Mary Martha’s score in the floor exercise was Suzie Quinton, a girl from Marin County who had dominated the Bay Area’s junior gymnastics scene for years. No one could touch Suzie-Q; they’d all been competing for second place since she first showed up in leotards at the age of three. She’d already been in a sidebar in Sports Illustrated, with a photo. It was just a matter of time until she became America’s latest pixie darling at some future Olympics. Second to Suzie-Q was as good as it got.
Idle during both rotations, Mary Martha roamed the sidelines peevishly in her warm-ups, making a point of glowering up at Rebecca when Suzie-Q posted the best score in the vault with a Tsukahara with a quarter-turn and layout, the vault Mary Martha had wanted to do, on the third rotation. Rebecca could only grimace wryly and give her daughter a what-can-I-say shrug. God clearly had a perverse sense of humor.
The balance beam was the last event in the rotation for Mary Martha’s team. Suzie Quinton had done a back handspring and backflip dismount to put up a 9.15 in the first rotation and no one had come close to that score since. As Mary Martha, up third, peeled off her warmups and started chalking up her feet, Rebecca checked her cell phone one last time. Immersed in the horror of a dying eight-year-old, Mike hadn’t been home in two days, but he had been checking in when he could, calling on his cell phone from the alley behind Saint Luke’s Mission hospice in the Tenderloin. Rebecca knew he was in the alley because she could hear the hollow echo of the traffic, and also because she could tell from the small lapses in the rhythm of their conversation that Mike was stealing the opportunity to smoke a cigarette while he talked to her.
It had been something of an achievement to get Mike to carry a cell phone. When Rebecca had first met him, he had just left a Bethanite monastery in Mendocino County after twenty years. Among other spectacular gaps in his résumé, he had been more or less illiterate in electronic gadgetry, and content with that, on vaguely contemplative grounds.
Rebecca herself had smoked back then, but had long ago quit under pressure from Mary Martha, and both she and Mary Martha were still trying to get Mike to see the irony of taking smoke breaks from the work of attending to people who were dying, often enough, from lung cancer. But Mike would just shrug and say that everybody had to die of something and none of it was pretty. It was hard to argue with someone so absurdly at peace with his own mortality.
They had all been hoping that Mike would be able to make it to the meet, but as of eight o’clock there were no new messages, and Rebecca sighed as she put the phone away. It was hard, sometimes, not to resent the dying, an ugly but apparently inevitable emotion that had the added mortification of making her feel completely selfish and petty.
“If he’s not here by now, he’s not going to be,” the woman sitting beside her, a pretty forty-something with wheat-colored hair with ash highlights, cut in a sleek, chin-skimming bob, offered sympathetically.
Rebecca laughed. “Oh, God. Did I look that bad?”
“I thought you did pretty well, actually. A little wobble on the landing. I give it a 9.3.”
“I’ll probably have to settle for second, then. I’m sure Suzie-Q’s mother will stick her landing.”
The woman smiled dryly. “Actually…,” she said, with just enough ruefulness and amusement that Rebecca got it instantly.
“Oh shit,” she said. “Foot in mouth. More points off.”
“No, not at all. Bonus for artistic presentation.” The woman extended a shapely hand, the manicured nails painted a soft cerise. “Kathie Quinton.”
“Rebecca Christopher. I’m sorry if I sounded, uh, bitter. I really meant it as a compliment to your daughter.”
“That’s how I took it,” Suzie-Q’s mother said, and Rebecca believed her. Kathie Quinton was wearing a white cotton poplin blouse under a seal-brown cardigan of ribbed wool with a matching V-necked vest and distressed jeans, a look that almost passed for casual until you looked a little closer and realized that the ensemble had probably run to well over a thousand dollars. Toss in the kid leather black pumps with clunky three-inch heels—heels, at a weeknight gymnastics meet—the diagonal-stripe wool trench coat, also in seal brown, and the black clutch with swirls of gathered silk on the front, and the total began to seem astronomical. Rebecca, who was wearing a baggy gray Giants sweatshirt of Mike’s, jeans that had not been distressed when she bought them, and sneakers, and whose fashion ceiling more or less topped out at Liz Baker stuff from JC Penney’s, could not begin to guess the names of the designers involved. Yet somehow, she didn’t hate the woman instantly.
“Which one’s yours?” Kathie Quinton asked.
Rebecca pointed. “The pink cast.”
“Oh, sure, Mary Martha.”
“You know Mary Martha?” Rebecca asked, surprised.
“I know all of them. You have to keep track of the competition. Mary Martha’s one of the only ones Suzanne worries about in the beam.”
Rebecca caught the “Suzanne,” and made a mental note to not call Kathie Quinton’s daughter “Suzie-Q” if she could help it. “Well, Suzanne’s got no worries today. It’s ridiculous that Mary Martha is here at all, as far as I’m concerned. She should be out somewhere eating pizza and getting her cast signed by boys.”
“No, it’s a good call, and I respect it,” Kathie Quinton said. “You’ve got to perform hurt, to make it. The judges notice stuff like this; in the long run, paying your dues is crucial. It will pay off at regionals and nationals.”
Rebecca hesitated, aware of being more delighted than she would have liked that Mary Martha had registered on the Quinton radar screen. It was almost like being a footnote to a sidebar in Sports Illustrated. But she had no intention of ever approving of her daughter performing hurt to make it. “It’s not really dues, for Mary Martha. She just hates to miss the fun.”
Kathie Quinton gave her a wink. “That’s good,” she said. “That’s a great angle.”
It’s not an angle, Rebecca wanted to snap, it’s the goddamned truth. But the floor exercise music started up just then, a Dixieland thing, canned version number 1003 of “Jammy Jelly,” and they turned to watch an anemic little girl from the south bay strut her stuff.
While Kathie Quinton’s attention was on the dance routine, Rebecca snuck a look at the label on her trench coat, which lay on the bleacher seat between them. It was Dolce & Gabbana. She had another bad moment, wondering if she should have known that, then decided that she was happy to be the kind of person who didn’t know that.
When the tinny taped brasses finally went quiet, Kathie Quinton glanced over at Rebecca with a small pleased smile.
“No threat there,” she said.
“Hard to imagine how there could be,” Rebecca said, appalled by the casual martial note and beginning to feel out of her depth. All she had been doing during the poor girl’s routine was wondering whether Mary Martha, who collected club insignia, had traded for one of the girl’s San Jose pins yet. There were a couple of classic gymnastics moms in Mary Martha’s club, grim, wolfish women who knew the latest round of amendments to the qualifying standards for the junior nationals to the second decimal place and fretted over their daughters’ caloric intakes as if there were a compulsory markdown of .8 for every Twinkie. But it appeared that these mothers had been flimsy pretenders, after all. Kathie Quinton was the steely real thing.
“We heard that Mary Martha has been working on a Korbut Salto, on the beam,” Kathie Quinton offered after a moment, a bit too casually.
Rebecca glanced at her sharply. “How in the world did you hear that?”
Kathie Quinton made a vague gesture. “Oh, you know. The grapevine.”
Rebecca puzzled over that, then decided that it must have been Mary Martha’s coach. A Byelorussian maniac named Kazimir Sziewkevich, he had been pushing Mary Martha to try the salto for almost a year. But Kazimir pushed all the girls all the time, indiscriminately, and he lacked credibility with Mary Martha, whose low tolerance for bullshit had only increased with adolescence. She called her coach Kazimir the omelet maker, because he was always saying in his dramatic white Russian accent that to mack ze omelets you had to brack ze ekks.
“Grapevine, my ass,” Rebecca said. “Kazimir is a blabbermouth.”
“It’s true, then? Is she going to try it tonight?”
“No way. If it was up to me, she’d never try it again.”
Kathie Quinton nodded, apparently satisfied with that—no threat there—and they turned their attention back to the arena. The second girl on the beam had just landed on her butt, under-rotating her somersault dismount, to a hushed gasp from the crowd. But she popped up gamely, made her salute to the judges, and received a nice round of sympathetic applause.
While things paused for the scores to come in, Mary Martha moved to stand near the springboard beside the beam, humming quietly to herself, still looking inward. Kathie Quinton leaned forward, frankly anticipatory, and Rebecca felt again the weird mix of thrill and uneasiness at the high-level attention to what had always seemed to her nothing more than a particularly focused kind of play, an extension of normal kid tumbling and monkey bars tricks. Mary Martha had not even started gymnastics until she was almost ten.
Rebecca had resisted the added activity at first. Their lives had already seemed too crowded with the demands of soccer, the endless round of drop-offs and pick-ups, practices and games, dinners missed, homework stinted, and Saturdays blown on tournaments. But Mary Martha had cried until Rebecca relented.
Mary Martha in the early going had been good but not spectacular. She really did have an extraordinary sense of balance, she was utterly fearless, and she delighted in anything that got her up in the air. But it was only in the last year or so that Mary Martha had qualified for the competitive team and started practicing three times a week. And it was only in the last six months that she had started trying moves like the Korbut Salto, a tucked pike backflip, the kind of moves that got the attention of people like Kathie Quinton.
The new elements terrified Rebecca. She would have preferred, on the whole, that Mary Martha had stuck with soccer; bruised shins and the occasional ankle twist were more Rebecca’s speed. The problem was, Mary Martha loved the leaps. She had a videotape of Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics, elfin and agile, wowing the world. She kept a poster on her bedroom wall showing the Sparrow from Minsk in mid-air over a balance beam, impossibly high, tucked, concentrated, and intrepid. A girl in flight.
Mike had been no help. Mike, in fact, was a big part of the problem. Mary Martha had been working tentatively on the Korbut Salto, her breakthrough move, for a long time, but she didn’t like to practice it at the Sziewkevich gym, because Kazimir would always hurry over to urge her to brack ze ekks. There had been almost no real progress on the backflip until Mike had set up some mats in the backyard and begun spotting for Mary Martha in private sessions, just the two of them out there, often in the twilight or after, Martha Mary with her hair still wet from her shower after regular gymnastics practice, her ponytail dripping, Mike with an open beer on the back steps after sitting around all day with dying people. The mats had killed all the grass in the backyard, but Mary Martha had been improving steadily, practicing the move over and over again with a patience Rebecca had never seen in her before, wearing out the four-inch wide strip of paint that represented the margin of error on the balance beam.
The two of them even had their own laughter-driven scoring system, rating every attempted flip against the physical consequences it would have incurred if done from the height of the real beam: bruised shins, bruised butt, bruised ego; broken wrist, broken leg, concussion. Rebecca remembered the night they had come back inside after a session exulting over what seemed to them a particularly good day’s work, in which less than half of the flips had resulted in virtual broken bones.
They had finally set up a real beam at regulation height in the backyard the month before. Mary Martha started landing real Korbut Saltos; there were several intense weeks of putting together a killer routine that included the move; and then Mary Martha had broken her arm. She and Mike had come in from the backyard that night in more or less the same spirit that they had come in to report the virtual injuries—“It comes with the territory,” Mary Martha had shrugged—and they had all trotted off to the hospital.
Which should have been the end of the story, as far as Rebecca was concerned. She didn’t want territory that involved broken bones. She had actually suggested field hockey at that point. Mary Martha had given her the kind of look you might give to a container of unexpectedly curdled milk, and gone off to slam the door to her room. Rebecca could tell how mad her daughter was these days by the music she played after a slam, and how loud. The field hockey suggestion had rated the New Mexican Disaster Squad singing “Coughing Up Blood” at maximum volume, heavy on the bass, a sort of Korbut Salto of attitude.
The scores for the pale girl from San Jose came up, a series of low 5s and high 4s, and there was a polite smatter of applause. The girl buried her face in a towel on the sidelines and began to cry. Across the gym, the next floor routine started, the theme from “Finding Nemo” booming over the loudspeakers.
Mary Martha moved into position beside the springboard at the foot of the beam and stood briefly at attention. She raised her undamaged arm to salute the judges, then took a breath, turned her attention to the beam, and settled briefly into perfect stillness.
A Mike moment, Rebecca thought. One of the unexpected side effects of all those hours in the backyard was an emerging contemplative depth in Mary Martha’s routines, a thread of something like serenity running through them, beaded with moments of pure quiet, like a rosary.
Mary Martha made a quick run, leaped onto the springboard, and launched herself into a tucked forward somersault, landing both feet on the beam with an authoritative thunk. The crowd gasped and applauded. It was the best mount of the night by far, a strong C element in a crowd of As and Bs. Even Suzie-Q had done a B mount, a jump to a reverse planche.
Kathie Quinton shot Rebecca a look that said, You’ve been holding out on me. Rebecca, who had never even seen Mary Martha practice that move, much less pull it off in competition, could only shrug and give her an almost apologetic smile. She knew that Mary Martha and Mike had been working on a one-armed or even armless routine in the two weeks since the broken arm, but she had assumed that would involve easier moves, not scarier ones.
Mary Martha moved briskly into her routine, making her way along the beam with her usual unstrained sure-footedness. She had revamped her entire routine, it seemed, upgrading almost every element, adding a full twist to her tuck jump, and an exquisite full turn to her arabesque, pivoting flawlessly on her left foot with her trailing right leg held well above horizontal. She threw in a tour jeté, and then a straddle jump with a full turn, a move that looked so much like a fall at first to Rebecca that she gasped aloud.
“She didn’t get this routine from Kazimir,” Kathie Quinton said. The note was almost accusatory. “Or at Kazimir’s gym.”
“No,” Rebecca conceded, and left it at that, rather than trying to explain the backyard thing, or that Mary Martha wasn’t really being coached, it was more like abetted, by a renegade monk.
Mary Martha did a full turn in a tuckstand, her free leg coming through the arc like a compass needle, then rose seamlessly into the briefest upright stillness and took a breath.
Oh my God, Rebecca thought. She’s going to do it.
And Mary Martha did, launching herself into the tucked backflip of the Korbut Salto almost casually, as if the idea had just occurred to her. She landed it cleanly, held her arms up as the startled crowd applauded, and then skipped playfully into a front aerial walkover that took her to the end of the beam, and from there in one continuous motion leaped into her dismount, a front layout with a full twist. She stuck the landing and pivoted to salute the judges, and then the crowd, as the applause swelled.
“That certainly looked like a Korbut Salto to me,” Kathie Quinton said dryly. “And that walkover is a D move.”
“Teenagers,” Rebecca said. “She’s grounded, I swear.”
The woman believed she had been lied to, Rebecca realized. But Kathie Quinton wasn’t offended; indeed, she seemed impressed. More respectful, taking Rebecca much more seriously. Rebecca had to marvel at that. Suzie-Q’s mother thought she was a player.
Down on the floor, Mary Martha’s teammates were all hugging her excitedly. Kazimir came through and scooped her up in a bear hug that seemed derivative somehow, a poor man’s Béla Károlyi, a bit late to the party. He looked as surprised as anyone, but you had the sense that wouldn’t last long.
Watching Mary Martha receive the congratulations, Rebecca couldn’t help smiling. She felt that she should be angry with her daughter, not just over the salto but over the high degree of risk throughout the routine. But she wasn’t—not yet, at least. She hated to admit it, even to herself, but it had almost been worth it, just for the look on Kathie Quinton’s face.
In the car with Mary Martha on the way home from the meet, Rebecca began to mentally rehearse the opening speech of her upcoming confrontation with Mike. I know that you’ve had a rough few days, and I realize that this is not a good time to have this fight, but— No, not a “fight.” Too much hostility up front. Points off. A “conversation,” better. I realize that this is not a good time to have this conversation. But let’s face it, honey, somebody’s always dying, there’s never a good time to— No, too resentful. Just the facts, ma’am. Mike, we really need to talk about you encouraging Mary Martha to break more bones….
Beside her, Mary Martha, her hair wet from her shower, was bent over her cell phone, texting someone in that impossibly swift way she had. She was wearing a bright pink Sunset Gymnastics T-shirt with a picture of a girl spinning high above some uneven parallel bars, trailing a cartoon balloon that read, Look Ma, No Hands! Rebecca suspected that the shirt’s caption was pointed commentary, and even a provocation, but she had resolved to not go there with Mary Martha. She blamed Mike. It was going to be awkward arguing about the routine, given that Mary Martha had actually won the balance beam that night, the first Bay Area girl in five years to beat Suzie Quinton in any event. But the issue wasn’t success; it was the price of success. That seemed like the high ground to Rebecca.
I realize this is not a good time for this discussion, but….
Mary Martha hit the send key for her text and glanced up. A window, briefly.
“Who were you texting?” Rebecca asked.
“Penny. And Kerrie. And Daddy…. I was going to text Mike, but that seems sort of insensitive, doesn’t it? Like, some poor person is dying and his phone rings and it’s me, going ‘Hey, guess what, I got a blue ribbon!’”
“He turns his phone off when he’s with them.”
“Yeah, I know,” Rebecca said. “I have the same thing sometimes. It seems so small and selfish to leave a message asking him to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home from a deathbed. But he always says we should.”
Mary Martha considered it briefly, then shook her head. “I’ll tell him when he gets home.”
Rebecca drove in silence for a moment, then said, “Did he, uh, know what routine you were going to do?”
“We had a couple different ones sketched out—easy, mixed, and hard, basically. He said to leave it up to how I felt after the floor exercise.”
“And you did the hard one?”
Mary Martha gave her an amused look. “What do you think?”
It was the crucial moment in the conversation. Rebecca weighed her response, then said in as even a tone as she could manage, “I think that I would like to be in the loop on decisions like that. I didn’t even know you were working on half those elements, much less that you were going to do them at this meet.”
“You were in the loop. I told you I was modifying the routine so that I didn’t use my arms as much. You take the arms out of a back walkover and you get a backflip. You take the arms out of a cartwheel and—”
“For most people, if you take the arms out of a balance beam routine, you get a seat on the sidelines.”
“Yeah, if you’re a flicking loser.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady,” Rebecca said, hearing her mother precisely, in the words, in the tone. It had come to this.
“I said flicking.”
Rebecca ran the tape back in her head and realized that it was true.
“I think it still counts as profanity, if it’s that vivid,” she said tentatively.
“No way. It’s a euphemism. Like gosh darn or heck or shoot. You should be happy I’m making the effort. I’m being a good flicking citizen.”
It was humbling, Rebecca thought. She was turning into her mother, and Mary Martha was turning into her, and it all felt completely mechanical and out of control. And why were they arguing about this anyway? It wasn’t the point. It was just one more of the endless border battles of adolescence, one more boundary tested and trampled until the line faded into a blur.
“Well, flick it,” she said. “At least you didn’t break anything new tonight.”
“We’ve also been working on how to fall,” Mary Martha said, as if that was supposed to be heartening.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.