MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Beneath the intersection of I-20 and I-75, where stray trash tumbles about carelessly and dreams lie aborted, where Coke cans substitute for ashtrays and discarded, warped, pissy mattresses serve as sleeping quarters for discarded, warped, pissy people—beneath that invisible expanse of earth and sky dwells a man named Lazarus. Most never see him, but he’s a wonder to behold. Short, coarse, stubby black hair covers the lower half of his face, composing a thick, unkempt beard that grows midway down his neck. Sharp, piercing eyes—oh, those eyes!—framed by long, elegant lashes suggest that, under different circumstances, he might’ve been handsome. People stare at his eyes in wicked envy, as though they don’t belong to him, or as if they’re offensive against such stark, solid blackness. They’re lighter than usual, which, on a black man, means “striking.” Some say copper bronze or muddy brown. Others, russet or cappuccino. A few, golden honey or creamed latte. All agree they’re remarkable. And rare. Enclosed in almond-shaped lids, Lazarus’s pretty eyes keep others from dismissing him as the useless nigger they think he is. Thick, bushy brows, from which unruly gray hairs spring in every conceivable direction, shield his eyes and rest like grassy mountain ranges beneath a sloped forehead, causing people to glance twice before turning away altogether. A lion’s mane of massive coiled, angry dreadlocks swings from his head in belligerent disobedience. His oval, chiseled face conjures images of warrior masks worn by African ancestors in battle. Meager flesh cloaks a strong skeletal structure, although Lazarus is certainly not thin. People think of him more as lanky than slender, undoubtedly because his strut isn’t stereotypically black. There’s no rhythm, no syncopation, no glide. It’s staccatoed and hesitant, as if, somewhere along life’s journey, he lost faith in his feet. And only by his feet can one know that he’d been meant to be thick and muscular. They appear clownlike, his wide, flat feet, as if, in colossal haste or angelic mockery, God attached the wrong pair. Throughout high school Lazarus wore a 14, but that was decades ago—when his shoes were new and feet manicured. Now, with bunions, blisters, corns, and talonlike toenails, no telling what size he wears.
His other distinguishing feature, besides those pretty, golden eyes, is his ivory-white teeth. They stand perfectly even and ordered, moving, whenever he chews, like disciplined soldiers in a regiment. Upon smiling, Lazarus upsets viewers’ initial perception of him as yet another wretched, homeless soul. Many frown with apparent disbelief that a man of his station, with nothing and nobody, actually cares about dental hygiene. Yet Lazarus has vowed never to walk about with teeth so disagreeable they embarrass him. Black gums and brown, half-rotten molars are inexcusable, he believes, when a toothbrush is practically free. Toothpaste, too! At least baking soda. Shit! Who can’t get that? Being homeless is one thing, Lazarus always says, looking homeless is quite another.
Most days are spent watching cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs go by. He imagines the lives of passengers, sitting at Thanksgiving dinners, gorging themselves and laughing around their abundance. Or perhaps fixing plates and going to separate rooms where they enjoy self-induced solitude. Either way, they drown in excess, and that’s what almost killed Lazarus—the weight of excess—so he dropped it all and never looked back.
It wasn’t an easy decision. He’d never dreamed he’d sleep on the streets like some unknown vagabond. All he’d wanted was to simplify things, to stop wasting life’s energy on the accumulation of useless junk, but he’d built the expectation, and his family wouldn’t release him from it.
* * *
Deborah, his wife, didn’t understand why hating a job meant quitting it. “After all,” she explained, “everyone hates their job, or some aspect of it, don’t they?” Lazarus didn’t respond. “What gives you the right simply to walk away?” That’s how the argument began. It ended with Lazarus packing a suitcase of clothes and toiletries, which, after kissing his son and daughter lightly on their foreheads, he carried through the front door. Deborah didn’t worry. She believed his good senses would return. But they never returned. He simply walked into another life as if the previous had been a fleeting, momentary thought.
In his mind, he chose homelessness because he hated the life he’d made. Years of corporate America, wining and dining, seminars and evaluations, left him believing his life had been a waste. The harder he worked, the more he neglected his family, the richer his bosses became until, one day, he simply said, “I can’t do this anymore!” and walked out. The next morning, he woke in a panic. How would he pay bills? How would the family eat? He could’ve had his job back—He was sure of it!—but he couldn’t swallow his last modicum of pride. “Lazarus, oh, Lazarus,” his mother used to sing whenever she couldn’t understand him. She’d always end the melody with a question like, “What’s wrong with you, dear Lazarus?” Now the refrain echoed in his memory and reignited longing for a mother he could never have again.
Deborah could have it all, he’d said, although he’d meant to say she was his all. The look of rage, lingering upon her face, made him know that an attempt at reconciliation was futile. He loved her far more in his head than his heart, and once he began to despise his previous life he despised her along with it. He’d tried to separate the two, the life from the love, but the day he quit his job and Deborah didn’t understand, the two entities blurred into one lump of disgust.
The real reason he quit, he said, was because he lost everything. Overnight, just like that, the economy bottomed, and when he woke his life’s savings had dwindled to nothing. Every month, hundreds of dollars had been drafted into 401(k)s and money market accounts, and suddenly his hope of financial security was gone. Dissolved. Vanished. It didn’t matter that others lost everything, too. They weren’t him. They didn’t know what was at stake for a black man who had risked everything, who had trusted America, who had done the right things. Now he didn’t know what to do. But he knew for sure he wouldn’t do that again. Now he understood why Granddaddy had hid cash beneath his mattress. No, he didn’t earn interest, but he didn’t lose anything, either.
The meeting with Lazarus’s broker was quick and solemn. The man assured him the economy would probably rebound—“This is America, after all!”—if he’d just let things be. He understood that the hit was hard—more than 70 percent of Lazarus's savings lost—but, again, America had had recessions before. Lazarus nodded easily, like a man in a trance. None of the words had reassured him of anything, except that he would never work and save like that again. His hope had faded. His faith was gone. The word of his broker that rang in his consciousness was probably. That was enough to seal his resolve to go in another direction, live a different life. And that’s what Lazarus did.
He sat in his office in the dark for the next three days. He didn’t bathe; he didn’t eat; he didn’t say a word. He simply pondered why he’d spent his life working like a mule. Was he trying to prove something to himself? To his father? His grandfather? His mother had warned against it, saying, “One day, Son, when you have a family, spend most of your time with them. Don’t let them long for you.” He hadn’t really understood what she’d meant. His father’s contradictory words had taken deeper root: “A man who can’t provide for his family is worse than an infidel.” Lazarus didn’t know what an infidel was, but it sounded bad enough, so, at seventeen, he prepared to sacrifice everything in exchange for comfort and security.
And he did. But now he hated himself for it. His father never said it could slip away overnight. He never said a man could wake one morning and all his efforts be gone. That’s how Lazarus felt. That everything he’d ever worked for had suddenly disappeared. His pride had no strength; his ego mocked him in flight. If not for his kids, he probably would’ve walked out the front door and never looked back. Deborah certainly wouldn’t have stopped him. They’d drifted apart years ago and now neither had the will to fight. But Lazarus would never leave his kids. That was nonnegotiable. He adored them like Christ adored the church. But he’d teach them something different now, something contradictory to the way they’d once lived. It would be abrupt, he knew, and certainly they wouldn’t prefer it, but it was right. And if it wasn’t, it was what Lazarus now believed, so it was what the family would do.
He didn’t worry. Lazarus IV, called Quad, and Lizzie worshiped their father. The boy was seven, the girl five. They especially enjoyed when he tickled them until they peed. That was the sign of his absolute adoration—if he could persist until their laughter left them hoarse and yellowy wet. Tired or not, he played the game whenever the children desired, and they felt enormously blessed to have such a remarkably committed daddy. Grown now, and having missed their father for years, they were more pissed than ever.
Yet Lazarus had been looking for something. He couldn’t articulate it, but in the bowels of his belly, in every pore of his being, he knew it was out there. The desire had tumbled around in his soul until, at age forty, it simply wouldn’t be denied. He discovered that the pain of life hadn’t been in pondering things; it had been in not knowing. Thus his dream: to spend his latter years knowing, creating things of substance, constructing a life of meaning. He’d had enough of emptiness and counterfeit joy. He wanted the real thing, and he wanted it now.
He’d planned to get another job. At first. Yet, in the interim, his mind encountered peace he couldn’t forsake. It was a flower garden, this tranquility, aromatic and comforting, beautiful and soothing. He’d never known such internal ecstasy. All his life he’d been taught to work in order to accumulate things—but not just things, nice things that made others gawk with awe and envy. The day he walked away from it all, his spirit rejoiced as if having been set free. He promised never to do that again, and so far he hadn’t.
His only worry was how to keep his children from believing he’d abandoned them. He knew what it looked like, his abrupt departure from the house, but he also knew what it felt like, and they were not the same. He believed he was teaching his children a valuable lesson—how to love themselves, their inner selves, how never to surrender life’s energy to corporate, capitalist interests—but somewhere the lesson went awry. Lizzie felt sorry for him and told her mother so whenever Deborah spoke ill of him. Lizzie remembered his prickly beard, the few times he grew it out, against her smooth, young skin, and regardless of her mother’s contempt, she never grew to hate him. She simply filled in the paternal blanks of her life with details of a transmuted, cosmopolitan man of whom she could boast. She knew the truth. It was just a game, a friendly little game she played in her mind instead of believing her father didn’t want her.
Quad’s hatred simmered into a boiling rage the day his father walked away. The boy didn’t hate that his father left; he hated what Lazarus left behind. A mother’s sniffles and whimperings throughout the night made Quad promise to whip the son of a bitch’s ass one day and make him pay for having left a family incomplete. When, a few years later, his mother remarried, Quad watched her strength return while his vengeance for his father intensified. It stewed in his gut like an acerbic virus, churning, waiting to be expunged. Quad anticipated the imminent confrontation like a bullied child dreams of the bully’s destruction.
Lazarus believed he’d been a good father. He’d provided only the best for his family. Every Christmas, the scent of fresh pine filled their forty-five-hundred-square-foot brick mansion, just east of the Chattahoochee River, on Paces Ferry Drive. He’d travel an hour and a half into the North Georgia mountains and cut the tree himself. A few years, he’d tried artificial trees, having told the family that a tree’s life wasn’t worth destroying for two weeks of carnal pleasure. Deborah and the kids didn’t agree. They wanted a live tree—a real, authentic pine, for heaven’s sake—and they didn’t care if it died a fortnight later. It was Christmas after all, they complained, and the holiday was supposed to be special. So after trying those fake, wiry, unsightly things, Lazarus submitted and returned to erecting live Georgia pines. Usually, the mound of useless, expensive gifts dwarfed it anyway, so, come Christmas morning the tree lost all significance and Lazarus discarded it a week later as having been simply a means to a materialistic end.
And that’s what eventually sent him over the edge—the useless shit that had consumed his entire life. He realized, one sleepless night, that he’d worked a lifetime and had nothing to show for it. Nothing that really mattered. Cars and furniture had lost their luster, and with each bill paid he became more incensed about giving good money away. And for what? He didn’t care if the neighbors admired his lawn anymore. What he wanted was to see God, to hear the chorus of angels, to know what happens to the soul when a person dies. Does eternity begin right away, or is there a waiting period? Physical things had depreciated in his consciousness over the years, so much so that sometimes he wore the same suit for a week. What really pissed him off was that most of his corporate cronies didn’t notice and those who did didn’t matter.
By the time he realized this, he and Deborah had spoiled the children irreparably. They weren’t nasty or testy; he wouldn’t have tolerated that. But they had grown into people hard to please. Only name-brand items touched their backs—that was Deborah’s doing—and when other desires were denied, the children moped about like depressed zombies. Yet wasn’t this the life Lazarus’s father had prayed he might one day provide? Wasn’t this excess the dream of the slave?
Lazarus, oh, Lazarus, what have we become, dear Lazarus?
If it was, Lazarus decided that fateful day, he didn’t want it anymore. It had grown, this unbridled greed, into a cavernous emptiness that ached in his soul. He’d once wanted nothing more than to impress others, but on his fortieth birthday he woke with an insatiable desire to abandon it all. Everything he’d ever really wanted—to lay hands on the sick and they be healed, to have one more day with his grandfather, the first Lazarus—never came. It might’ve been because he hadn’t worked for them, he decided, not like he’d worked for his affluence. Now, for the second half of his life, he wanted to see if he could actually be happy with nothing. That’s what Christ had done, right? Found joy in the midst of nothing?
Lazarus hadn’t planned to leave home. He’d planned simply to downsize, to stop the unnecessary hoarding of insignificant things. But the ball had rolled too fast to stop. There were thousands of dollars a month for which he could not account, and Deborah, much less the children, seemed totally unconcerned. So slowly, without notice, Lazarus began to siphon money away from shopping sprees and into college funds, which, once accrued, would cover tuition to any school in the country. That gave him some relief. He was grateful that, once he was discovered, Deborah applauded his clandestine behavior as matchless foresight. That gave him permission to trim other unnecessary expenses, or so he thought, until the family was forced to consider their lives as regular people. In their eyes, Lazarus ceased being insightful and became, in Deborah’s words, thoughtless and selfish. All basic needs were still met—utility bills paid, private school tuition accounted for, a roof (a very big roof) over their heads—but somehow, over the years, Deborah and the kids had understood excess as basic and now Lazarus couldn’t convince them otherwise. He knew for sure he couldn’t perpetuate that life. He had no desire to. Not anymore. That life was dead. And if he continued to live it, he believed, he’d soon be dead, too.
A man gets to a point when he refuses to die meaninglessly, and, the morning of Lazarus’s fortieth birthday, he arrived. The day granted him a new set of eyes with which to reevaluate things. The world had shifted. It had once been framed in blue, black, and gray, but that particular morning, clad in red, candy-striped pajamas, Lazarus encountered a world of yellow, green, and orange. Standing motionless in the front yard, he gazed about as if, overnight, God had rearranged the natural order of things. Lazarus imagined he’d missed something in the conversion, something transitory but everlasting, and now, regardless of the cost, he wanted to know what it was.
So Lazarus told the family he wasn’t doing it anymore. They’d have to move to a smaller place and learn to endure like the rest of the world. Of course he’d work somewhere, he emphasized, but it would surely pay less. Far, far less. His days of kissing Whitey’s ass were over. Deborah blinked as if he were speaking in tongues. There was no hope for them anymore. He saw the disconnect in her eyes, as if she wondered why she’d ever spoken to him, much less married him, and, no, they weren’t moving, she said. “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He’ll provide like He always has.” “God didn’t pay the bills, Deb. I did.” “He did it through you,” she insisted, and, “He’ll do it through another.” This is going badly, Lazarus thought. In one final attempt, he asked Deborah to work with him, to make another life of substance and not stuff, but she refused. “If I have to provide for myself,” she declared, “I won’t let you pull me down.” Lazarus chuckled. He thought he was lifting the family up.
Lazarus walked away as the children watched from separate bedroom windows. “I’ll take care of my kids!” he screamed into the night. “I’ve always done that.” But he didn’t mean what she meant. He didn’t mean what he’d once meant. Not anymore.
Lazarus, oh, Lazarus! Are you sure about this, dear Lazarus?
There was enough money in the family account to cover the children’s needs until they were grown, if Deborah didn’t blow it. Lazarus didn’t worry. She wasn’t a fool. She’d been a good mother, except for the pretense, so he assumed she’d ration what was left and keep them provided for. She did. What he didn’t imagine was how his absence would make her bitter and sullen, so much so that the children avoided her most days and let her brood in silence before the TV, changing channels constantly although rarely watching anything. Not being the crying type, she emptied wine bottles instead, careful not to get too drunk in case the children needed her. Yet unable to articulate their precise need, Lizzie and Quad worked privately to construct worlds in which they were special. Quad found solace in Nintendo Game Boy, shouting at figures and cursing under his breath whenever he lost. The thrill of competition kept him motivated while he dreamed, day after day, of beating his father until the old man’s blood came streaming down. Down the hallway, Lizzie sat before a vanity mirror, working hair and makeup until convinced she couldn’t be more gorgeous. Then she’d shower, wash it all away, and start all over again.
The shelter wasn’t so bad, Lazarus thought. Of course he could’ve gone to a hotel, but that was the exact life he’d sought to escape. For two weeks, he said nothing to a living soul. The world went silent. It was as if he were watching the universe from some ethereal place. Each day, he went by the house and sat among the trees across the street, watching his family’s movements and praying they’d one day understand. Only Lizzie smiled at him, waving from her bedroom window like a prisoner hoping he’d barge in and set her free, but Lazarus simply waved in return. Every hour or so, they’d repeat the ritual, staring hard, trying to see into each other’s eyes, hoping to be convinced that their love could survive this. Then, as always, Lizzie would turn away sadly and return at dusk and wave, only to realize that Daddy wasn’t there. She’d continue waving nonetheless, seeing his form in her head and believing in her heart that he felt her. No one could tell her otherwise. This went on for several months until Quad convinced her Lazarus wasn’t coming back. Not to stay. Not to touch or tickle her again. So, one day, Lazarus sat among the trees and waited, but Lizzie never came. That’s the day he discovered the pain of unrequited love. Or dwindled hope. Shivering in the rain, he wept the gloomy afternoon away.
As part of his daily routine, he visited their schools, but only from a distance. Musty and unshaven, he decided to save the children the embarrassment of a father who had nothing and, now, looked like it. They saw him, too, slightly outside the fence, milling about casually, and Quad reported that a strange man lingered nearby who might be dangerous. When officials investigated, they found no one. “He was there! Right there!” the boy insisted, but the assistant principal patted his head and told him there was nothing to worry about. “If you did see someone, he’s probably just a stray old man with nothing else in the world to do. I’m sure he’s harmless.” Quad seethed with rage and promised in his heart to kill the bastard one day.
When Lizzie saw him, her wilted hope revived. Even if he wasn’t coming home, and clearly he wasn’t, he was at least coming to her and that was enough. It made her smile. She never questioned whether he loved her; she wondered why he’d stopped loving himself. Who in the world wanted to live that way? He’d had the best of everything—house, BMW, expensive food, cable TV in every room—and now he was content with nothing? It didn’t make sense. Maybe, she considered, he was looking for something she couldn’t see. Perhaps all his life he’d longed for one precious thing, one tiny significant moment, which now he couldn’t live without.
Of course Lizzie didn’t know that Lazarus hadn’t always been privileged. As a boy, he’d spent summers in Arkansas, deep in the woods, with a grandfather, the first Lazarus, who couldn’t have cared less about material things. The man lived in a shack in the truest sense of the word—a four-room structure he’d built himself with discarded two-by-fours from the local lumberyard. He’d never bothered painting it and never knew why he should. “A house ain’t got to be pretty,” he’d told his wife. “It’s just got to be lived in.” Certainly he’d done that. Vowing never to leave the land, he was content to drink beer and smoke a pipe every evening until someone came and carried his lifeless body away.
His son, the second Lazarus, whom everyone called Junior, left apprehensively. He loved the land and its tranquility as much as his father, promising himself and God to return one day, but the father convinced him that there was something in the world, something out there, that belonged to him and he’d be wrong to leave it unclaimed, so at twenty-one he left in search of this obscure thing. He never found it. By thirty, he decided his father was a liar who simply wanted the homestead to himself. So Junior let him have it. Yet, for the sake of familial bonding, he sent his son, the third Lazarus, to dwell with the first, in hopes that Grandpa’s work ethic might take root in what appeared to be a lazy child in the making. By age five, Trey, as Granddaddy called him, so adored the old man the child could hardly stand to be without him. He’d built a small rocking chair, an exact replica of the larger one in which he lounged, and given it to the boy wherein to sit with him on the porch. Trey thought of the chair as a kind of throne, commissioned by the first Lazarus, the King of Lazaruses, from which he, as a child, could help keep guard over the kingdom, watching rabbits and possums scurry about the yard carelessly.
His favorite thing about the country was Granddaddy’s sheep. No one else had sheep, and Trey thought of the meek, quiet beasts as the chosen lambs of God. That’s how Granddaddy had described them. He hadn’t raised them for food or wool; he simply loved their demeanor, their slow, kind, simple nature. So he fed them and watched them grow. Whenever one died or was killed by a fox, Granddaddy buried it on a hill in the distance, weeping and singing the while, “Surely he died on Calvary!” Each lamb was named for a biblical prophet: Isaiah, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Simeon, Jahaziel. Then there was Elijah, Grandaddy’s favorite. His wool was thicker than the others’ and white as field cotton. Sometimes Elijah would look at his comrades as if he were their protector, their bestial savior, and they’d nod slightly and follow him. When he died, folks in Swamp Creek said the heavens went dark and wind blew like a monsoon. Granddaddy buried him, along with the others, on the hill now called Golgotha and posted placards on each grave, complete with names and epithets: “Joel, the one who sees what others have missed” and “Obadiah, the great negotiator.” Folks thought Lazarus I was crazy, raising sheep for no good reason, then burying them like decent, Christian people, but what Granddaddy thought of other folks’ opinion could’ve danced on the head of a needle. “They my people,” he told Trey, and the boy accepted the beasts into his heart simply because Granddaddy had done so. Trey loved feeding them and rubbing their soft, thick wool. They never seemed to mind. After a while, he, too, could distinguish one from the other, Joel from Obadiah, Haggai from Simeon, but Trey could not solicit their obedience like Granddaddy could. Kindly and sweetly, the old man would call their names, not beseeching their approach, but reminding them who they were, and they’d lift their heads and come. Just like that. As if Granddaddy were one of them. Perhaps they knew how much he loved them. Whenever Trey called their names, the sheep looked up, but they wouldn’t come. They knew their master’s voice, and although Trey was a Lazarus, he didn’t possess the power of the first.
Junior regretted leaving Swamp Creek. Or perhaps he regretted never returning. He started college at NYU but dropped out a year later. Smart as a whip, he could’ve been anything he’d desired, Granddaddy had said, but Junior didn’t desire anything. He just wanted to come home and live the way his folks lived—simply and without debt. He wasn’t lazy—Granddaddy had assured that—but without nurturing him Granddaddy had also assured Junior’s eventual rejection of him so that by the boy’s twenty-fifth birthday he was lost in drugs and desperate, diseased women. Pride blocked his way home, so he suffered alone on the streets of New York, working at CVS during the day and Pizza Hut part-time at night. Ends never met, so he shacked with the one woman who could tolerate him, and, in their haste, they created the third Lazarus. Junior loved the boy from the start, but he wasn’t good at showing it, so Trey grew up believing his father didn’t want him. From Junior, Trey inherited an uncanny ability to grasp complex concepts and translate them into practical reality. From Zeporah, his mother, he learned humility and grace and how to forgive a man who, on occasion, stayed out all night, fighting himself and his own personal demons. Trey never saw his mother bitter. Usually she left his father’s dinner simmering on the stove or wrapped neatly in foil next to it, a kind of gesture of love, Trey thought, reminding Junior that he was always welcome in her heart. In his teens, Trey asked why she stayed with the man, and she answered, very softly, “Because I promised God I would. And I keep my promises.”
She’d wanted to be a doctor but settled for being a nurse-practitioner. Helping people get well made her happy. Born and raised in the Bronx, she knew about death and dying and, even as a child, she wondered why someone couldn’t stop it. She didn’t know any doctors personally, but she saw them on TV, healing the sick and transplanting organs like car parts, and she believed she could do it. Her parents confirmed it. They weren’t rich, but they were full of faith, and all she had to do, they said, was study hard and do well in school and one day she, too, could be a healer. The plan worked meticulously—until she met Lazarus II, the disgruntled son of the King, and decided she wanted him more than the health of the world. When, at twenty-four, she discovered her pregnancy, she knew the rest of her life would be consumed with trying to stabilize one Lazarus while raising another.
Trey graduated from high school three days before his mother’s fatal heart attack. She’d wrestled throughout his senior year with his father’s addictions, manifested in abuse, theft, and eloquently rendered promises that he never fulfilled. Only at the moment of death did she realize she’d loved a man with no mission. Though he was great at starting things, his quintessential weakness, she discovered, was not finishing them, so depression and self-loathing consumed his life like a sluggish, all-consuming cancer. He’d stopped coming home most nights, although he would drop by occasionally during the day and leave money or simple notes, like the one that read: Don’t give up on me. I’m trying. Zeporah kept the notes in a shoe box beneath her bed. Sometimes she’d leave notes, too, which Junior kept in a leather pouch hanging over his heart. Hers read like scripture: A man cannot live by bread alone. Or Junior’s personal favorite: I await your resurrection. The day he saw the ambulance at the house, he ran and burst through the front door, reeking of Corona and KOOL menthols, only to encounter the stiff, ice-cold expression of the only woman he’d ever truly loved. In his son’s arms, Junior wept and moaned with pain too intense to describe until collapsing onto the living room floor, sure that, without Zeporah, he and Trey would be lost. Junior had fought the good fight only because of the woman who’d supported him. Now, with her gone, he was sure he’d lose the battle. And he did.
Throughout the summer of 1972, Trey packed up the apartment, giving his mother’s things to Goodwill and his father’s to the dumpster. Junior came by only once. He told his son that he had too many burdens to bear and he didn’t know how to be free of them. Trey suggested he seek refuge in his own father’s bosom, the first Lazarus, but Junior refused. When Trey asked why, Junior shook his head violently.
“You don’t know the man. Not the one I knew.”
“People change, Daddy.”
“I know. That’s the problem. Why couldn’t he have changed for me?”
Trey had no answer. All he knew was that Granddaddy loved him, in his own stoic, non-expressive way, so he couldn’t imagine why the old man wouldn’t have loved his own son. What Trey really wanted to ask was why, if Junior couldn’t bear the presence of his father, he had sent him south each summer? There must’ve been something redeemable about the old guy, right? Something Junior wanted his son to emulate? Only now did Trey consider that maybe something had happened between the first two Lazaruses that made their coexistence impossible, something that might’ve caused even God to tremble.
On August 20, Trey locked the apartment for the last time and carried his bags to the subway. Within two hours, he was on a Greyhound bus destined for Morehouse College in Atlanta. He said a prayer aloud for his father, asking his mother to guard him. Tears came, but they didn’t dissuade Trey. He had to go. Where Junior would live Trey didn’t know, but he guessed he’d stay somewhere. Like where he’d been staying. Trey’s plan was to finish school and return to New York and, he hoped, find a healed, renewed, resurrected father. Over the years, however, Junior’s attempts failed and upon Trey’s return his father was lost in thick, smoky crack houses too nasty and vile to enter. Trey’s love simply couldn’t save him. Trey worked on Wall Street for two years while accompanying his father from one rehabilitation center to another, only to give up the day Junior looked deeply into his son’s eyes and said, “I’m done. I can’t fight anymore. I’m tired o’ losin’. Nothin’ and nobody’s gonna beat me again.” Then he whispered, “Tell Daddy I never forgot.”
Trey returned to Atlanta and worked for Deloitte and Touche. The money was good, but the hours were long. Still, for the sake of success, he endured. Never having had much, he saved money easily and quickly. From each check three or four hundred dollars went directly into a savings account, and usually annual bonuses left him with more than twenty or thirty thousand at year’s end. Friends called him cheap, but he thought of himself as wise since, like his grandfather, Trey loved the freedom of doing whatever he wanted. After five focused years, his stash was just shy of $150,000 and all he thought about was buying more land to add to the fifty acres Granddaddy owned. Maybe then Junior would move home, since he wouldn’t have to be all that close to his father, and maybe then he could get himself together. But even if he didn’t, just being there would be better than loitering in New York City. Being poor and destitute in the country is far better than being broke and alone in the city. In the city people look at you and judge you and make you feel like God gave up on you, but deep in the woods no one really sees your struggles and the few who do usually feel sorry enough to help. It’s funny, really, but country folks know how to struggle and live well. They pride themselves on giving even when they don’t have much. Granddaddy always said that if he were going to be hungry he’d rather be in the country. “Food all around you, boy. Bound to be somethin’ you can find on a vine or a tree. If you hungry in the city, you’re liable to starve before someone gives you a piece of bread.”
Deborah had just finished Spelman in May of 1977, when she and a girlfriend first double-dated Lazarus and an office mate. They went to a movie, then to Paschal’s on MLK. While the others chatted and giggled, Deborah and Lazarus hardly spoke a word, glancing back and forth and smiling politely. The thing Deborah remembered most from the evening was Lazarus’s name. Of course she’d heard it before—wasn’t he Jesus’s best friend or something?—but she’d never met anyone with the name. And, anyway, who actually names a child Lazarus? When he told her he was the third, she was even more perplexed. Generations of Lazaruses? Trey relayed the story Granddaddy told him about how and why Granddaddy had gotten the name.
“I ’a year old, damn near talkin’ in sentences, but I hadn’t walked yet. Wunnit nothin’ wrong wit’ my legs, ’cordin’ to the doctor, so Momma couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t taken my first step. One day, she got fed up and said, ‘You gon’ walk today, goddammit! I’m tired o’ this shit!’ So she laid me on the flo’ and shouted, ‘Rise up and walk!’”
“Granddaddy, stop it!”
“I’m tellin’ you what she told me. I didn’t move at first. Just laid there cryin’, reachin’ out for her to pick me up. But she wouldn’t do it. If I was gon’ be lame, I was gon’ start gettin’ used to it that day, she decided, so she went about her work as I screamed my head off. When she couldn’t take it no more, she went out in the yard and got a little green switch and threatened to whoop me good if I didn’t stand up and walk.”
“Whip you? Who whips a baby?”
“My folks! Shit! They didn’t play. They didn’t have time fo’ this modern-day bullshit you kids puttin’ down. When they said somethin’, they meant it. Don’t care how old you was!
“Momma stood flat-footed, hands on her thick hips, and repeated, ‘I said, Rise up and walk!’ I still didn’t move. She marched over to me and put that saplin’ twig across my back like I was a runaway slave. Then she shouted louder, ‘Rise up and walk!’ And all of a sudden, according to her, I pulled myself up, trembling like a newborn calf. She called, ‘Come forth!’ and, to let her tell it, I let go of the coffee table and started walkin’ like a natural man.”
“That’s what she said! So she called me Lazarus. Said she knew the Word would bring me forth if nothin’ else did.”
“What was your original name? Weren’t they already calling you something by then?”
“I asked Momma that, too. Said Lazarus was my original name. She didn’t call me nothin’ before then. Didn’t know who I was.”
Lazarus, oh, Lazarus! Who are you, dear Lazarus?
Trey thought Deborah pretty enough, so he asked her out again. Without other suitors, she sighed and went. Eventually they laughed about things, but mostly Trey talked about Granddaddy. He was the only man the boy admired, so he spoke incessantly of him. Deborah asked about the second Lazarus, the obvious link between the young and the old, and Trey spoke of the man as if he were a comma—a slight pause between independent variables—whom the other two could live without. The involuntary twitching of Trey’s eye when he spoke of his father revealed an emotional connection that the son could never shake, so out of respect for his fragility Deborah stopped asking about the lone, lost Lazarus and instead inquired of Trey’s mother. He adored her, floating in his consciousness like a constantly recurring thought, and regardless of memories of his father, thoughts of Zeporah always segued Trey back to center. That was one thing for which Trey respected his father—the fact that, in one exceptionally insightful moment, he’d married Zeporah, and had he not, Trey was sure he could’ve forgotten the man altogether.
Trey and Deborah married a year later without fanfare. Her mother had wanted a big wedding, but since no one else did, she relinquished the fight and met them at the courthouse in downtown Atlanta. When she discovered Trey’s fiscal responsibility, she relaxed and apologized to God. Trey and Deborah bought a house—a very big house—because he wanted five kids. Deborah wanted only two but loved the house because others admired it. That was the first sign Trey ignored, he told himself the night he walked away, and it would be years before he could admit the others. But he’d loved her. He loved her still. Yet lying beneath the heavens, staring at stars thousands of light-years away, he realized that love doesn’t do a couple much good. The only thing that cements people beyond time and space is mutual admiration, and much as he’d tried, he’d simply never admired Deborah. She hadn’t admired him, either. So what real hope did they have?
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Black