BY: Jay Shearer
This one guy at the corner—sunburned and soiled and gnarly bearded—always stands with his sign before the red light traffic, and first, he sort of prays. Crosses himself as the cars idle. A slow deliberate sign of the cross with sanctified eyes toward heaven, then he’s off: panhandling between the cars. Homeless and in need. Please help. God bless you, etc. More people than you’d guess give him money. Even I have. But that gesture—the crossing of himself—has come to unsettle me more than it should.
It sold well, at any rate. And whatever his story was, the kid was hurting. He was someone after all. Some someone’s son. Steadily hoofing the pavement all day so he could possibly score that evening, though I didn’t know for sure. Corner had a reputation.
These thoughts gathered after I parked only a half or so block from the corner and entered our living room to find my own son, Theo, deep in complicated play. The sight of him there captured me fully. All concerns evaporated. Like that. A new world.
He’d built a machine. A functioning system. Cobbled it together from cross-pollinated Lego sets and the patchwork orphan parts of toys. Blew me away when he showed me how it’s done. You put in a dead man and he came out living.
He cranked a Lincoln log lever, and a plank bearing a tiny body on its back sank into a pit or chamber. “First you lower it down into this part here,” he said, “where the body gets exposed.”
“Yeah.” He looked up, stating it flatly. “To the radiation.”
“Ah.” I nodded. “Got you.”
My son is a wild artistic soul seeded—or stained—by Lutheran school, preschool through now second grade. He’s still into farts and poop and toilets; a happy scatology lines a lot of his thinking, but when the boy puts the time in elsewhere, he’s really got something to say.
And the body (dead) was lowered into this pit or chamber, this radioactive oven thing, but “good radioactive,” Theo insisted, “filled with sunshine and vitamins and the electric blood of angels.” Electric blood, he explained when I asked, to give it a charge. The body.
And this freshly exposed—or charged—body emerged from the radioactive oven chamber through little plastic doors that open outward patiently, glacially, then sailed along these loosely connected conveyor belt-ish planks propelled by an unseen force, until it dropped at last in a kind of baptismal font (tiny plastic basin actually containing some water), from which this body popped out on the off-ramp, toy arms out in flamboyant ta-da!
“Pretty cool, right?” he said.
Amazed, I stared down at the triumphant little figure, arms out, plastic skin dripping just slightly. “It’s incredibly cool,” I said, trying not to gush. “Great job, guy. Awesome. Truly. What, uh, what’s it called?”
Theo stared at his creation and shrugged. “I call it the Resurrection Machine,” he said. “For now. But it could have a better name.”
“Oh no. No. That’s the name. That’s just right.”
“I don’t like it. Could be better.”
“It’s perfect. Simple. Direct. Right on point.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Aw come on, man. I mean, really…what would be better?”
My son, in his ageless sometimes tranquil way, pursed his lips in contemplation, finger and thumb cradling his chin. “I was thinking something that has to do with, um, Lazarus. You know him? The other one who gets resurrected? I’d call it, like…the Lazarus Factory. Or the Great Oven of Lazarus. Or…oh I don’t know what.”
“Why not Jesus? The Great Oven of Jesus?”
Theo dismissed this at once, irritated. “Everybody makes it about Jesus,” he said. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. All the time, Jesus.”
“Well. He’s pretty important when it comes to resurrections. He’s the most famous resurrection by far.”
Theo shook his head. “It’s not fair. Everybody forgets about Lazarus.”
I nodded in semi-understanding. I liked the spirit of it for sure. This guy, this nobody, had also been raised from the dead and never got any credit for it. There was monopoly-breaking there. Resistance to the dominant system. Though I didn’t really know the Lazarus story, I’ll confess. I only had vague Sunday school memories. I recognized the name and its link to resurrection but little else. What I knew was the boy knew it well.
“Alright. We’ll make it about Lazarus,” I said. “Why not call it…” I thought a second, forcing things a little. “Lazarus City?”
Theo winced hard. “It’s not a city. That’s dumb.”
“Okay yes. Maybe so. How about the, uh”—and the word just came—“Lazar-ama?”
The boy’s eyes popped, mouth dropped. “Yes! That!” He bounced to his feet, a single motion. Part smooth, part clunky. “The Lazar-ama!”
And he ran off to tell his mother.
Well, right off, I regretted having said it. “The Lazar-ama” was too jokey. Too wacky. It seemed to belittle the beauty of the machine. The Resurrection Machine. Which was all the name it needed.
This became a point of tension, I hate to say. My fault, mostly. Don’t know why I pursued it. Something petty and controlling took hold in me. I lobbied the boy right from the start. We debated the issue for some time, actually. It got a little heated. Then Lupe intervened.
“But, Barry,” she says to me, all even-keeled and gentle-voiced, brimming over with rational calm. “Why can’t it be the Laza-rama and the Resurrection Machine? Lots of things have two names.”
This made good sense. Great sense even. She was smartest among us, after all. But Theo wouldn’t budge.
“I want to call it the Laza-rama! It’s my machine!” A flash of crazed anger here. “Why can’t I call it its name?”
The air hung thick with naked feeling.
“You can, Theo,” I said, softening the tone as coached. “But Mommy’s suggesting that we each call it the name we like. We can call it two names, right? What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong is it’s only got one name.” He was worked up now, reddening. “The Lazar-ama! Only that!” And he stormed off to his room, weirdly on the verge of tears.
I went rigid and looked back at Lupe. She shook her head in vague disapproval.
“Okay, okay,” I said, annoyed, turning back to watch him stomp off. “We’ll call it whatever you want! It’s the…fucking Lazar-ama.”
The boy froze in his tracks. The air went cold. I turned to find Lupe: ashen, eyes wide.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” I said. “Sorry, hon. I didn’t mean that. I…” I turned to see Theo trudging toward me fast. “I’m sorry, bud. I shouldn’t have said that.”
He stood before me, alive with indignation. “That’s why I don’t like you,” he said. “I can say it too, you know?” He crossed his arms, gathering up the courage—“Fuck you.”
We both gasped. “Theo!” Lupe said. And the boy trudged off again.
We stood in stunned silence—he’d never dropped this bomb before. Nowhere near it.
Lupe went to comfort the boy in his room. I stood dead still on the carpet and listened to the clock tick. The boy was crying now. I tried to enter the room but Lupe waved me away. Better to leave him be. For now. Just go.
I got in the Corolla and shot off for a ride to clear my head. This wasn’t a thing to meditate over. Apologize, make up, move on. Nothing a hot fudge sundae wouldn’t cure. Or some super hero regalia. Though I knew what ailed him—and us—needed deeper salve than snacks or clothing. As of late, his explosions had hit extremes we once assumed we’d never see. Way back, we’d called him The Buddha Baby, so pacified had he arrived. And now this?
I glanced down at the console and noticed the gas was nearly gone. I swung down the quick half block to the Shell station. As I filled the tank, I ruminated into the dark May evening. What an idiotic battle to choose.
Someone approached then. And I wanted nothing to do with anyone—especially this, which stank at once of solicitation. The guy wore a long-dated Eight Ball jacket and multi-hued baseball cap, logo-free. He seemed cut from the cloth of 1988, ’89. His eyes contained a soft plea, which as he grew closer, seemed to morph into something harder. Bearded, too-skinny dude in his forties walking toward me from the corner where the junkies panhandled for the day traffic. “Hey, sir. Can I have your ear a minute?”
“All yours. Up until I fill this tank.”
“My car broke down out here.” He waved back toward the bustling avenue. “Ran out of gas. And I left my wallet at home. Can you believe that?”
“Maybe I can,” I said. “Sometimes it’s hard to.”
“I know it sounds like a story. Listen. I’ve got my little daughter in the car back there. She’s sitting there with—”
“Your little daughter?”
“She’s, uh, she’s seven.”
I nodded. “My boy’s seven.”
“Ah. See? We’ve got a, uh, simpatico then.” Nice touch there. Simpatico. Maybe he’s legit. “I’m not feeding you a line here,” he said. “I need to get back to Waukegon. Tonight. Got work tomorrow. And the uh”—as if he’d just remembered—“my daughter has school. You know how important that is.”
The clip on the gas gun ticked up in the trigger rest. I re-holstered the pump and took my receipt. “I do know. I truly do. But—“
“Can you spare some money for me? Please. I need help, man. I’m not shitting you.”
He was pleading, pretty good at it, a little too good maybe, but what did I know?
I de-pocketed my wallet and found a ten and four ones. I gave him three dollar bills.
“You can’t spare a little more?” he said, having seen the spread. “I’m trying to get back to Waukegon. I got my little daughter in the car.”
It was a fabulous detail, Waukegon. Forty miles north of the city. But I didn’t appreciate the push. I leaned in toward him a bit. “Really?” I said tightly, some misguided feeling here. “Because I’ve heard this sort of story many times. I’ve been scammed before—and right near here. But … there you go”—I gave him another dollar. “That’s all I got.”
He squinted a bit and lifted his head to contemplate me. “I appreciate it. I really do.” He nodded at me with new apprehension. “Thank you.”
“Good luck in Waukegon,” I said. “Best to your daughter.” But what I really wanted to say was: next time, I suggest you bring your daughter with you. That’d win a heart much faster. And a wallet. Guaranteed.
Did he know he was soliciting funds near a recognized junkie corner? The Junkie Corner. Where young, wind-scarred males and the occasional strung out female held up signs about their homelessness and need for food, walking slowly through the traffic like wounded martyrs, pleading to cars stopped at reds. Then took the day’s winnings and scored in the evening; shot up right there in the mini-alley by the pharmacy or in the gas station bathroom.
I’d seen this a few times with my own eyes. Local models of desperation, addiction. Loss of dignity, hope, the central self—on open display if you looked long enough. Was this guy new to their number? Telling his story that close to their corner? Maybe. Maybe not. Years ago, the tall, talkative gas station kid who worked nights told me that’s what they called it. Junkie Corner. He’d many times caught them turning on in the gas station bathroom, as I had once. Which is when I started watching closer and stopped handing out dollars or change.
Why’d it matter if it was food or drugs? They’d chosen their form of sustenance and I’d chosen not to fund their survival. Any way you cut it, had to cut it cold.
That night I dreamt of a dark cave dripping with cold. The moist clay walls were impossibly smooth. Insects skittered. I held a candle and spoke in hushed tones with my cave mates. Evidently no one knew the way out. But I had to pick up Theo from Tae Kwan Do and couldn’t be late or he’d be abandoned. In the way of dreams, this was certain. Then Jesus walked up from nowhere through the dark and took my hand. He guided me toward a pinhole of light at the far end of the cave. Must be the exit out! But the pinhole of light never got larger—not really. Turned out to be the light from a movie projector projecting a film on the cave’s wall. It was a movie of ancient pictographs found on a cave wall, which was in turn being projected onto a cave wall. Even Jesus found this funny. But I was devastated. A feeling of great frustration, confusion, trapped in here when I was needed out there.
A few days later, after time with Theo at the massive park, the one it takes longer to walk to, I suggest a hot fudge sundae and of course he concedes. It’s my second attempt to curry favor with the boy since our conflict—the first a stuffed toy Batman that came unstuffed near the Bat-crotch within the hour of giving. Here, though, was a masterwork of persuasion via a corner diner: scoops of pristine vanilla potted in a vintage glass bowl, the fudge a viscous chocolate yolk from some sort of decadent egg. Took Theo hostage before he even touched his spoon.
After, we walked around the neighborhood by the park, just a little different-seeming than ours. The evening air was a balmy blanket and we both felt fat and jazzed with sugar. But at a corner gas station—here, a good five or six blocks from our place—I saw my friend from Waukegon out in the near distance: the upright posture, just a touch hangdog, the soft steady plea in his eyes. He nodded to whoever turned him down, then came toward us on the sidewalk.
“Sorry, sir. Can I, uh, can I have your ear a minute?”
He didn’t recognize me. I was some lost file in the hard drive. His jeans seemed greasier, a new unkempt something in his air. T-shirt, no jacket, basketball shoes torn at the toe. I let him go, perhaps cruelly, just to see.
“I know it sounds like a story,” he said, again, about a paragraph into it. “Listen. I’ve got my little daughter in the car back there.” He pointed around the corner.
“Your daughter’s still in the car?” I said, unable to hold back. “She must be hungry.”
“She, uh, she might be. Yeah.”
“Gotta get back to Waukegon, right?”
A barely discernable freeze of gaze, tilt of head.
“Do I know you?”
“No. But I know you.”
He winced, not liking this, though not exactly “caught” either. I said, “I gave you a couple bucks the other night. Not far off actually. Six or so blocks south of here.”
He lifted his chin, went aaaaah. “Okay okay. Yes. Thank you for that.”
“You run out of gas a lot.”
“I have lately. Today it’s engine trouble. But…I don’t like your attitude.”
Theo chimed in, asking the obvious: “Who’s watching your daughter?”
His brow rose. This was either cunning or earnest defense. So hard to tell.
“You wanna meet her?”
“Listen,” I said. “You don’t need to do this.”
“Why not?” he said, a bit testy here. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Reluctantly, I followed with Theo. We walked west nearly half a block. Most of me was embarrassed. The guy stopped then at a junked-out, purple Toyota Tercel with a window taped up, bumper cracked.
“Here we go. She’s right in—” And we all saw the car was empty. He hunched down and gripped the back window. “Kayla!” He yanked open the back door, as if she might be hiding under a seat, then—grave panic in his eyes—he shouted her name and walked west at a tight clip. “Kayla! Kayla!”
I took Theo’s hand. We watched him storm off, calling for Kayla.
“His daughter’s gone,” said Theo. “That’s weird.”
It was impossible to know what to think, my embarrassment suddenly overruled by a white blaze of confusion. “It is,” I said, “but don’t worry.”
“Wonder where she went,” said Theo.
“Don’t worry. She’ll be back. He’ll find her.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“He will. He will.”
We watched the man look down the gangways between buildings, calling her name, searching. He crossed the street and did the same from the other side, trudging back toward the corner. He crossed back again at the crossway, half a block off from us, and stomped toward the gas station, where he went out of view. If merely a show, it was quite convincing.
Theo started walking back toward the gas station, but I didn’t follow. Most of me thought we should leave the matter be. Again, the boy gestured I should come. Let’s go see. Please. And we turned at the corner by the gas station, where we saw the man speaking to the cashier, who was behind protective glass on the island between the pumps.
Theo stood on the sidewalk, clearly worried for the man and his daughter.
“I’m not sure what we can do now,” I said.
“We could call the police. Couldn’t we? We could do that.”
The man noticed us as he moved at an off-angle toward the corner, stern of eye, shaking his head. “I don’t need you. Go away!” He gave a dismissive wave. “You only make it worse!”
And he turned again at the corner, stepping fast to the car, calling again for Kayla, Kayla!
Theo was shaken by it, his face gone cold. We walked in silence. I tried to reassure him but he wasn’t moved. A few blocks later, he stopped us at a corner and said, “Wait.”
“We can’t go back, Theo. He doesn’t want us there.”
“I know,” he said, looking up with distressed eyes. “But would you pray with me? For the little girl?”
“It’s an emergency.” He clasped his hands together, closed his eyes. The ceremony was in motion. No stopping it now. I found this—the intensity, the raw belief—disturbing, even creepy, but I bowed my head anyway. Not participating would be cruel. “Dear God, please…” And the boy was off. An impassioned prayer for Kayla and her father. Please help her, God. Help her dad find her. She left the car and is lost now. They are good people with a bad problem. Maybe show her the way or at least get her some food because she’s very hungry. French fries or a chili dog, whatever you can spare. But most of all, God, keep Satan away. Please don’t let Satan near her. Please? And Theo let out a steadying breath. Amen.
We raised our heads and met eyes, and in that gaze, I’ll concede I was moved. Not by the religion or god involved but rather, his depth of feeling. He really meant it. It was like the revelation of a new power, something I’d missed. Like he’d learned how to play an exotic instrument and somehow I hadn’t known.
That night I walked slowly through a vivid field, a gorgeous windswept grassy expanse, where big green blade swayed. Rays from the sun landed in splashes. Birds cawed.
As I moved forward, a figure appeared, hunched down in the giant grass, revealed in flashes as the wind swept the blades back and forth. She was seated on the ground, arms cradling her knees, in a thin-threaded white cotton dress that vividly played against her skin. She looked up with untroubled calm. I asked her if she needed to get back to Waukegon.
She shrugged. “Probably,” she said. But she didn’t seem scared. Or even lonely. She told me she’d had a huge lunch from an all-you-can-eat buffet, and no one, not even God, needed to bring her any food. There were empty white China plates around her, some with piles of bones from chicken wings or pork chops, plus Chinese carry-out boxes, plastic soda cups. When I asked where it came from, she said her new friend had brought it. And I see off in the distance, from a figure also hunched in the grass, a pair of jaundiced beady eyes. Some underworld demi-god is the implication. Corrupting and using her. Shaken, I asked if she wanted me to take her to her dad, and she said that wasn’t possible. He had to find her on his own. Just like you do, she told me. I winced. Like I do? She winced, also confused, and said, “You don’t have someone you need to find?”
It was a zinger of a dream, the kind where you jerk awake and touch something nearby to confirm the world. That it exists. And it does, for the most part. At least in the waking hours.
After I woke, I saw in the kitchen that Lupe had left out her copy of the Holy Bible, New International Version, bookmarked at the Lazarus story. So she hadn’t known it either, which gave me a vain, dim relief. But as I read, I was shaken by the details, even angered. The resurrection of Lazarus wasn’t a separate, off-Jesus event at all. In fact, read one way, it was a publicity stunt—pure and simple. Cynically timed so the Superstar could show off his hotshot magic. Here’s how the apostle John reports it:
Mary, the sister of Lazarus, sent a request for Jesus to come help her brother, who was deathly ill in a distant town. Jesus knew the guy well, really loved him, and understood he needed immediate help, yet Jesus Christ decided, without explanation, to wait two days before leaving. Two full days, intentionally stalling, when he could have been healing his friend. Then, from nowhere, he gathers the disciples and tells them he’s taking off; their old friend Lazarus has expired. Seems he allowed the poor guy to die. So he’d have a chance to weep about it.
One of the most famous phrases in the bible, in fact, pops right out of the Lazarus story: Jesus wept. Praised for its economy and dramatic force: Jesus wept. And he did after Mary gave him the official word. My guess is his tears for Lazarus were real, as was his grief, though I’d bet some guilt got in there too. Self-loathing, etc. After intentionally waiting for his friend to die? So he could put on a killer magic show? Like one of those corny mass appeal magicians who make buildings or boats disappear, then bring them back—poof—as if our eyes, our very senses, are naïve bumpkins caught in a world we can’t begin to see.
When Lupe came home from work, before I left to pick up Theo from Tae Kwan Do, I confronted her about Lutheran school, which I thought we should reconsider despite the obvious perks. She was defensive right off.
“I know, I know,” I said, palms up, keeping her at bay. “The classes are small and he seems to thrive there and of course he gets the mostly free tuition.”
“Mostly free?” said Lupe. Her sister Carmelita taught there and had worked it out so we didn’t pay a dime.
“Oh I think we’re paying in other ways,” I said. “Or Theo is. I mean, he believes in Satan. Did you know this? Like, he closes his eyes intensely and begs God to ‘keep Satan away.’”
Lupe was addled; this broke her serenity a second.
“There are a few new families there,” she said, eyeing some enemy in her mind’s eye. “Real evangelicals. Firebrands. I’ll tell Carm to keep her eye out.”
“Well, he’s around that every day and I…I just think we should try public school.”
Lupe sighed. “Why would we do that, Barry? He’s thriving there. You just said so yourself. His test scores are off the charts. Plus he loves it.”
I shook my head and retreated from speech. She knew what bugged me: people I didn’t know with ideas I didn’t care for, his budding mind under their influence. He was learning a language and code for living neither of us endorsed or understood.
When I picked up Theo from Tae Kwan Do, he was still in his sharp white robe with the black belt. Inside the Corolla, he opened his bag to show me a project he’d started in art class. The teacher’d told him it was very conscientious and brave.
“Conscientious and brave? Wow. Sounds pretty avant-garde.”
“Avant what?” he said and then pulled out what he had to show me. “No. Just these. Will you help me put them up around the neighborhood?”
I nearly rear-ended the car before me. The tires screeched. Pedestrians stared. I pulled over and put on the hazards. What he’d shown me were three to four 8×11 posters of a little pig-tailed girl with sad eyes in a pink dress. Across the top: Missing—Kayla, five years old! Then beneath the picture: Have You Seen Me? Please Help! Call 773-423-2323.
“Theo, you can’t…well, you can’t broadcast our phone number through the neighborhood. What would we even do if someone did call?”
“I don’t know. Find her. Help her.”
“How do you even know what she looks like? Or how old she is?”
“I saw her in a dream. Just last night. She looks just like this—” and he pointed.
It didn’t surprise me he’d dreamt about her too. The incident had been striking and rife with weird stress. It’d be first in line at the door to the subconscious. And now it was his turn to lobby hard. “I don’t care!” he insisted. “I’m putting these up!” When we got home, Lupe thought his heart was in the right place and defended the effort, which infuriated me. Was she suggesting we actually poster the neighborhood? Seriously? With the hand-drawn picture of a child’s dream of a missing girl who might not exist?
Theo flipped into a wild fury. Did the most destructive thing available. He stomped the Lazar-ama to smithereens right there in the living room proper. Tinker toys, Legos, tiny limbs from figurines—in seconds flat, tornadic devastation.
Lupe comforted him, held him close. After he settled down, he explained: he had instructions that were maybe from God, right? God sent messages in dreams, right? I saw her, he said. I talked to her. She’s five years old and looks exactly like this. Lupe looked up at me. She knew the whole story and my take on it. And she gave me the warm if devilish smile I’ve been helpless against since we met. She said: how about we do this?
Theo wanted to make Xeroxes and post them throughout the hood—like, fifty of them, which Lupe explained was out of the question. We hashed it out. Lupe was sure to include me. I even gave the suggestion and/or ultimatum it was hardest for the boy to accept. But he came around. We compromised: he could put up the four existing posters if he blotted out our phone number with heavy black Magic Marker. The directive would now read, simply:
Please Call the Police.
I’ll admit I felt silly taping them to poles and bus stops. And not just silly but strange. Strangeness pulsed through me, a bright-blooded feeling, like a mischievous ghost passing through. And I’d hoped to avoid Junkie Corner, but Theo insisted we post one near. Why would we skip the busiest corner? I wondered of course if I’d run into the man from Waukegon. What would he think if he saw the poster? How would he feel? Angry maybe. On the other hand, possibly amused. Who knew? And what if she existed? And what if she didn’t?
While posting her picture on a pole near their corner, one of the guys with a sign returned from having worked the traffic and came to read Theo’s poster. He had busted-up, sun-drenched skin and rare, angelic eyes. The dirt beneath his nails was dark as ink.
“I’ll keep an eye out for her,” he said. “She your daughter?”
Theo answered: “She’s someone else’s daughter. We’re just friends.”
The guy talked to us a while, and brought it around soon enough to what he needed and if we could help him out. I patted down the poster for good measure and told him sorry. Can’t today. And I took Theo’s hand and shipped off.
Again, the boy was resistant. Why couldn’t we give him some money? I tell him it doesn’t necessarily help to give them money. And he winces hard, like: how doesn’t that help them? That doesn’t make sense.
We made a deal without rancor, a new way between us, and bought a dozen donuts from the Dunkin in the gas station. The corner guys—three of them there—appeared reasonably pleased. We talked and joked a bit as these three young dirtbags in their twenties ate Long Johns, Boston creams, blueberry cakes, krullers. They really were hungry. Very. I don’t know why I’d put that in question. They looked malnourished, exhausted, a few ways over. Now they licked their lips and went mmm, that’s good, as they took a brief break from walking through the traffic with their signs.
Jay Shearer’s writing has appeared, among other places, in Southeast Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Mayday Magazine and Tikkun. He is the author of a novel, Five Hundred Sirens (Cairn Press), a chapbook novelette, The Pulpit vs. the Hole (Gold Line Press) and a play, The Full Treatment (performed last year at Broom Street Theater in Madison). He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lives in the city with his family.