Lexa’s mother had always been funny, but cancer put her over the top. “Intestine pieces are no big deal,” she said in month six of a six-month sentence. “It’s my uterus I miss most. Now there’s an organ that could throw a party.” She wore red plastic clown shoes under hospital sheets and clicked them seductively at male nurses. She balanced cubes of Jell-O on her nose. She changed the name on her chart to read “Madame Ovary.” Before its rebellion, her uterus had grown three children, and they’d all turned out sunny, quick to smile. Then it grew something unauthorized. Despite their mother’s resolute cheer, Lexa and her brothers clouded over.
“Chin up,” her mother would say. “It’s not nuclear war.”
Before the cancer mounted its manifest destiny, Lexa, barely fifteen, kept dancing out of habit. Weeknights, while her morphinated mother heckled contestants on Jeopardy!, Lexa stayed late at the studio, perfecting pirouettes en pointe. It pleased her to catch her own eye in the mirror at each revolution, meeting again and again the elegant cast of her blank and expressionless face.
Since her father muffed taping her production of Swan Lake, and since her mother was in chemo when she’d performed it, one day at the end of September Lexa danced “Odette’s Solo” in her mother’s last hospital room, accidentally brushing the IV drip with a sweep of her arm in allongé. Her mother said Lexa floated like a bumblebee, that least likely of creatures to fly.
While her younger brothers scaled the wonderful apparatus of their mother’s hospital bed, Lexa curtseyed beneath the flatscreen bolted to the ceiling, chafing the palms of her hands raw with the Brillo of her tutu’s gauze. When she looked in the sterile bathroom mirror, this time she saw only a pale child’s face in a child’s costume, dreaming childish dreams.
That night Lexa burned her tutu collection in the gas grill, both brothers standing a grim watch in the yard. Without their mother, the house was quiet, despite Grandma Edith’s appearance in the kitchen over a pot of homemade gnocchi. Lexa dumped the ashes in the alley bin and wiped the residue on her stiff new jeans. The next morning, their mother came home in a silent ambulance. No emergency here. Lexa’s father led the paramedics down the hall, her mother waving from the gurney like the Queen of England and shooting puns at the paramedics. Her father had fixed up the guest bed, as if her mother did not really belong at home.
“You know what they say about gravity,” Lexa’s mother said, winking as the uniformed men prepared to unload her. “It always puts everyone down.” They swung her onto the narrow bed on three. “Smooth landing,” she called to the departing paramedics. “Cheerio, my Cheerios!”
“Comfortable, Janey?” Lexa’s father said, tucking in a sheet.
“Snug as a bug in a flying carpet, Jim,” her mother said, smoothing her headscarf.
Lexa’s father blushed until the skin beneath his barely-there hair glowed pink. The boys approached the bed slowly. There was a year between them. When the younger put a hand on his mother’s sheet-covered, skinny ankle, the older batted it away, hissing, “Be careful with her.”
“It’s okay,” his mother said. “You’re not bulls and I’m not a China shop.”
The boys looked at their mother with wide eyes, the younger huddling back against Lexa.
Lexa looped an arm over the boy’s chest, lifting her other hand to point to the silver bell on the bedside table resting next to her mother’s favorite clown wig. “To call us,” she said.
“Thank you, darling,” her mother said, looking at Lexa as if for the first time.
The room emptied out until only Lexa stood in the doorway. “Need anything now?”
Her mother settled the rainbow wig over her orange scarf. “Bring me a magic lamp with a really hunky genie inside. None of that Robin Williams crap.”
“Ha, ha,” Lexa said, noticing she was standing in second position out of habit. She shifted against the doorframe, crossing her arms and cocking one hip to the left.
A wrinkle creased her mother’s brow. “Shouldn’t you be at the studio, Twinkle Toes?”
Lexa shrugged. “It’s time to get real, Mom. I’m way too old for tutus.”
Her mother’s eyes slid closed. “I wish I wasn’t so tired,” she said. Lexa thought there might be more, but there was only her mother, breathing evenly in and out.
The following week, Lexa found Rebekah waiting for her at the fake lake downtown, walking the back of a concrete bench like a balance beam, sun-oranged arms out for balance. Over the years they’d gone from crawling to crayons, Barbies to Brownies, and lately playground crushes to after-school clinches with boys whose kisses they used for practice.
What Lexa needed now, according to Rebekah, was “True Love,” procured from one of the area’s upperclassmen, or more ideally, a freshman at the university. Tonight would be Bachelor Number Six, Lexa having rejected candidates one through five for reasons as trivial as a sickle-shaped birthmark on one knee, a crooked smile, a whiff of overly-eager minty breath.
“This is stupid,” Lexa said, nibbling a ragged fingernail, tasting salt, trying to remember the punchline to her mother’s favorite joke about love. “Why do men believe in love at first sight?” it began. Her mother liked to trot it out for company. Though Lexa’s father was now mostly bald and stoop-shouldered, round-faced, she had come to understand the different figure he had cut in high school: valedictorian, prom king. “A catch and a half,” her mother claimed. He was the first and only man her mother had dated; they still claimed True Love status.
A desert wind swept the smell of the lake to them, the air momentarily reeking of trucked-in trout. “How’s my breath?” Rebekah said, kissing-distance close.
“Listerine and nicotine,” Lexa said, mesmerized by the gleam of Rebekah’s sequined top.
“Perfect,” Rebekah said, waving to the pair of boys she’d met at church, both of whom biked toward them over the wasted winter grass. Rebekah called dibs on the blond, who steered her away through puddles of orange security light. Lexa’s boy did not believe in ceremony. He was tall and olive-skinned and kissed her with elbows glued to his sides, tasting of beef jerky. Otherwise, his kiss was identical to the others she’d had: a smoky, slimy, halting waltz.
They crossed the expanse of what their town optimistically called “Tempe Beach Park,” heading for Mill Avenue. In the dark, A Mountain with its A-shaped rock was a looming shadow to their left. The boy lit a joint, its cherry bright against the night, exclaiming “Jeepers” when he burned his finger instead of the swear she’d expected. They smoked until her limbs hummed.
“You have anymore?” Lexa asked. “I’ll buy it off you.”
He shrugged. “I can get more this weekend.”
“It’s for my mom,” she said, though her mother had tried pot once and hated it.
“Sweet,” the boy said. A streetlight gave him a halo. “She tokes?”
“No, she’s dying.” It was the first time she’d said it aloud.
“For real?” he said, as if Lexa was the joker instead of her mother. It was hard to tell in the dark, but his face seemed to pale, giving him a greenish glow.
“Let’s talk about something else. Say something. Anything.”
They were passing the old flour mill that gave the street its name. The boy pointed at it.
“That shit’s creepy,” he said.
The mill awaited demolition between an Urban Outfitters and a burrito place called Big as Your Head. The fence around the site was covered by a tarp. Lexa went into the street for a running start. “Hey,” he said, “what are you doing?” But she was running, vaulting, flying too briefly, landing winded on the other side. She peeked through a tear in the tarp. In the weak puddle of streetlight, he was thin-faced with long arms that suddenly seemed boneless.
“Jeez,” he said, worming after her through a gap in the fence. “Are you insane?”
Lexa charged the mouth of the dilapidated mill despite its breath of beer and urine. The building was rumored to house otherwise homeless men, women, and children that annually migrated south to Arizona along with flocks of cold-stung birds, but an unlocked wooden door led to a big, empty ground floor echoing with dead air. The space held nothing but some faint graffiti, a grain elevator, an empty forty, and a stack of crates. The elevator appeared grounded forever. He threw the bottle so its neck broke off against the wall.
“Why do elevators cheer ghosts up?” Lexa asked. Another of her mother’s favorite jokes.
He squinted at her. “Is that a real question?”
“Because they lift the spirits,” she said. She’d laughed when she first heard that one, surprising both her mother and herself. Now no one laughed. Before he could try for another kiss, she sprinted to the gap he’d found in the fence and ran back to the park, her buzz replaced by disappointment. She’d hoped to meet more danger in the mill. Something she could vanquish. He followed her to the park where both of them biked off in different directions without exchanging numbers.
At home, someone had struck the deadbolt. She considered sleeping on the porch, but knocked rather than battle the scorpions and geckos. The door was opened to a terse scolding, a ban on associations with Rebekah, and the silver tinkling of a bedside bell.
It was after all that, in her bed, atop twisted sheets, that she remembered the punchline to her mother’s favorite joke. Men liked love at first sight because it saved them time. Without her mother’s delivery, it didn’t seem as funny.
Lexa’s mother was a gorilla for Halloween. The girl guided her mother’s stick legs into the suit, then settled her in the wheelchair with the headpiece on her lap.
“It’s nice to have some hair again,” her mother said, stroking arms of matted fur with simian fingers. Flakes of dry skin marred the smooth plane of her mother’s bare, wigless head.
The boys, aged seven and six, had transformed into superheroes: the younger a man-bat hybrid and the older a brainy boy scout with a cape. The younger tugged Lexa down to kneeling.
“Momma looks scary,” he whispered loudly.
“Well, don’t get too concerned,” their mother said, trying and failing to pull the youngest child into her lap. “Pretty soon this monkey will be off your back.”
Lexa wanted to tip the wheelchair over then. To beat her mother about the head with the rubber gorilla mask. A normal mother, dying, would cry sometimes, or give her daughter items from a jewelry box laden with familial significance. This mother hadn’t said one serious thing in the last six months. Refused to ask for help. Wouldn’t stop smiling. Had never, not once, cried.
Last year their mother had dressed as a gypsy to lead the boys, a pair of tiny pirates, around the neighborhood rich with sugary booty. Lexa had stayed home to hand out fortune cookies to the Harry Potters and skeletons and Lady Gagas who rang the bell. She’d eaten her fair share, too, and saved the fortunes: Welcome change; Love lights up the world; Long life is in store for you.Tonight, Lexa volunteered to take the boys out in search of treats. For a costume, she dug a Steve Nash jersey from her father’s drawer and held a basketball at her hip.
Their father was affixing an extension cord to the electric pumpkin on the porch as they left. It glared at them cheerfully. “Happy hunting,” he called to their passing trio. He’d gone sans costume this year, unless his pocket-protector, gold-rimmed glasses, Oxford shirt, and sensible slacks constituted a year-round daddy-dearest disguise.
An hour later, they returned holding pillowcases full and filthy from trailing along the ground. By the plug-in pumpkin sat the bowl of mini Mars Bars their mother had been determined to hand out. The bowl was half-full, or half-empty, depending.
Inside, Grandma Edith waited up on the loveseat. She’d been knitting a scarf no one needed in this desert city, bathing in the TV’s blue flicker alongside the discarded gorilla skin.
“They’ll be home in a jiffy,” said Grandma, of their parents who’d taken an ambulance to the hospital thirty minutes before. Lexa took her cell phone to the kitchen and called her father. His phone was off and his voicemail too full for her to squeeze in her message. When her mother’s phone asked her to “Beep a message at the leave,” Lexa said, “The boys are scared. Call when you can.” Then she called back three more times just to hear her mother’s voice.
In the living room, the youngest boy had curled up, rodentlike, in the gorilla’s deflated lap. On Wheel of Fortune, the big wheel turned, blending bankrupt with jackpot. Lexa admired the sparkly blur while, in the background, a studio audience clapped to quell the killing suspense.
When at midnight Grandma Edith snoozed over her scarf and no parent had yet returned, texted, or called, Lexa left through the back door to meet Rebekah in a tryst the girls had pre-arranged. At the fake lake, Rebekah waved the stub of a cigarette. She was dressed as a dead cheerleader, a bloody line circumnavigating her neck.
Lexa fiddled with her silent cell phone. “I can’t stay out late,” she said.
Rebekah held the stub between her lips, folding and tucking Lexa’s jersey until she’d revealed a peachy perfect midriff. Then she ground out the butt of her smoke.
“You’d make a sweet Nash zombie,” Rebekah said. “The makeup’s at my house.”
“No, thanks,” Lexa said. “He’s got a few years left in him, I think.”
They rode their bikes to a party in a squat little house by the tracks. In the backyard, a half-familiar boy held a freezing can of Coors to Rebekah’s naked back, then laughed with gusto. Rebekah met his gusto and raised him a guffaw, whirling after him with a cold can of her own.
Lexa noticed a mummy leaning against a warped exterior wall of the house. She stared at him long enough for him to notice her. “What are you supposed to be?” he asked, ACE bandages muffling his words and covering his every inch, minus inadequate slits for mouth and eyes.
“Guess,” Lexa said.
“Let me think,” he said, retrieving a beer from a cooler at his feet. “Steve Nash?”
It was unnerving not to be able to see his face. Lexa patted the phone in her pocket, expressive as a rock. “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” she said. The beer he gave her sprayed a fine mist. “You must be a burn victim. Rubber band sculpture. Plastic man. Wad of chewing gum. Silly putty. The first aid aisle in CVS?”
“You’re funny,” he said, brushing her arm with his bandages.
“It’s genetic,” she said, beginning to dance with him in a way that negated all her training. She ground her hips against where she guessed his hips were. Dancing, it was harder to think of naked scalps, chemo needles, silver bells, silent cell phones.
“Wanna jet?” he said, after a time. Sweat shadows had spread beneath his arms.
Lexa found Rebekah in the kitchen, sharing the imperfect privacy of a ghost’s ventilated sheet. Pointing out the mummy, Lexa said: “I’m leaving with him.”
Rebekah tilted her head. “How can you be sure it’s a him?”
The mummy unlocked the passenger side of a station wagon and laughed when Lexa buckled her seatbelt. “You really want to go somewhere?” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “St. Luke’s hospital, please.”
His name was Arthur. A junior at Phoenix Country Day. He turned the key in the ignition. “You some kind of freak? Want to see some real blood on Halloween?”
She watched the streets blur by. “This way you can give their bandages back.”
He unwound enough fabric to show a red flattop and freckles without number. “You’re lucky I’m not a freak. I could murder you in the desert.”
“Go ahead and try,” Lexa said, letting her jersey fall softly back over her skin.
At the hospital, the night receptionist, explaining patient confidentiality, accidentally revealed her mother had checked out. And there, in the lobby, her cell phone rang.
“Where the hell are you?” her father asked, his whisper as good as a scream.
“We’re almost home,” she said, hanging up before he could ask the inevitable.
Their arrival brought Lexa’s father into livid, full-throttled attack. “Grandma Edith thought you’d been kidnapped,” he said, dragging her one-armed from the woodchuck wagon.
In the house, his ire petered out. Her mother was sleeping, after all. “You’ve got some nerve,” he said. But he allowed her arms to come around him, her face to press his pressed Oxford shirt. They stood that way for some time; she, alarmed at the rapid pace of his heart.