Lazarus and the Rich
“It’s hot as hell,” Danny said when he and Jay finally got to the playground. Michael had watched them slowly approaching from under the pointed canopy connected to the slide. He slid down to greet Danny, who was smacking a pack of cigarettes against the palm of his hand.
“Should’ve brought some Gatorade.” Danny held out a cigarette to Jay.
“You got money?” Jay asked.
“Yeah, not for you, though.”
“I didn’t ask for it,” Jay said. Danny chucked the cigarette he held out to Jay and it bounced off Jay’s sunken chest and onto the ground. Jay bent over to scoop it up. Danny took his seat on the edge of the slide and dug one of his heels into the dirt. Soil splayed over the white of his sneaker.
“Was it your birthday or something?” Michael asked staring down at Danny’s shoes. It irked Michael to see Danny show no regard for the whiteness of his shoes as if dirt came off so easily.
“No,” Danny responded condescendingly. “I just got them.” Danny’s answer dissatisfied Michael deeply because he knew Danny didn’t buy them, his parents did. And his parents were in the truest sense, lucky. Lucky they both had stable government jobs that afforded them whatever they wanted, including the ability not just to buy whatever Danny wanted, but to make him believe that he himself had this ability.
Danny’s pudgy face was always scrunched up, so his nose crinkled upwards and his nostrils flared out like a snout. His brow was furrowed as if he were always on the verge of a tantrum. Danny wouldn’t have been so ugly if he just relaxed his face, but perhaps that would make him less noticeable and therefore less confident. This was what Michael himself was envious of.
The wood chips bordered the small wedge crater Danny had kicked into existence and he lit the cigarette hanging from his lips. He kept the smoke mostly in his mouth like food he wanted to spit out before letting it dissipate into the humid summer air.
“Did you buy the jacks?” Jay asked and held out his hand for the Zippo.
“Yeah,” Danny said. “The whole pack.” Danny sparked the Zippo and held it between Jay’s cupped hands. Jay nodded as he puffed out smoke.
“From your sister’s boyfriend?” Jay asked.
“Jonny’s not her boyfriend, dumbass.”
“She just gives him hand-jobs?” Jay spit out before guffawing. Danny lowered his Zippo and punched Jay in the arm. Hard. Jay recoiled back from the blow and continued laughing despite the pain, smiling through his grimace.
Jay pulled himself up into the monkey bars and hooked his legs onto one, using the back of his knees as pivots to pendulum his torso back and forth. His arms hung slack, fingertips nearly grazing the ground. The cigarette glowed orange in Jay’s lips as he inhaled deeply and exhaled out a cloud of smoke through his mouth and nostrils simultaneously like a dragon.
“You got taller,” Michael said to Jay.
“Yeah,” Jay said nonchalantly. “My mom and dad are both tall.” Michael appreciated Jay’s honesty and his unwillingness to take credit for what he had no control over. Jay’s limbs seemed to comprise most of his body, like the daddy long legs that scurried around the playground. His face was as innocent as his demeanor, retaining remnants of baby fat in his full cheeks, but he had dull eyes and a nose that pointed out like a beak. Yet, Michael couldn’t deny the resentment he felt towards Jay as he stretched his left arm to press the ground with his fingertips. Jay was always the first pick on the basketball court and was even invited to play on a travel team in the fall with older middle schoolers. Jay declined because he was “too lazy.” During recess, Michael would hope to be on the same team as Jay, so he could be the one to pass him the ball and give him a high five when he scored. He fantasized about taking Jay’s place on the travel team despite his shortcomings.
Danny then held out a cigarette to Michael, who stared at the white stick and hesitated momentarily before shaking his head. Danny raised an eyebrow as to question why Michael had come out in the first place.
“Hey, where’s yours?” Jay looked down at Michael’s fingers.
“He doesn’t want one,” Danny sneered.
“Oh,” Jay said, “Why are you here, then?” Danny burst out laughing, incredulous at Jay’s tactless question, but offered Michael no defense. Danny never defended anyone but himself, unable to imagine himself in anyone else’s shoes. Jay stared at Michael, waiting for an answer.
Michael didn’t have an answer, at least not one he could articulate. He couldn’t explain how he didn’t mind the smoke wafting over him, he even liked the stench of it, but couldn’t bring himself to burn it into his lungs. He couldn’t say how he enjoyed the hint of smoke trapped in the threads of his clothes, how his friends’ rebellious actions were in some way rubbing off on him. For Michael, it was all just temporary. The smoke would disappear without leaving a mark inside him and the stench would fade from his clothes without a trace. And that was what he enjoyed: the sense of belonging without actually having to. Michael stared back at Jay and shrugged his shoulders.
“I just don’t,” he answered and walked to the swings.
Michael leaned back into the seat of his swing and the chains became taut right as he stiffened his legs into the air. He looked up into the cloudy sky, wishing for a few drops of rain to cool his tongue. He stuck out his tongue momentarily before sticking it back in, afraid his friends would see him. Then he would have to explain himself. How desperate he was for a cola. How he wished to be inside sucking on a sticky popsicle. How he wanted his friends to stop smoking because he was sick of being outside all the time with nothing to do but to stare at his old shoes that were still two sizes too big for him even though his mother said he would grow into them, or to stare at his short legs that barely touched the ground even though his mother said a growth spurt was imminent, or at his friends who had everything he wanted even though they never noticed.
Michael remembered when the playground was fun, back when everyone decided to relinquish their thrones on the swing or abandon their place in line for the slide and to come together to play tag. It had only been a few months since Danny wore oversized white T-shirts to hide his potbelly while also blaming them for impeding his natural quickness. When Jay used his long arms to tag people back even though there was a strict no tag back rule implemented just for him. Michael would run away even though no one really chased him unless he was the closest, and the easiest to tag. Even then, the kids in Mrs. A’s sixth grade class didn’t really tag Michael, opting for someone else. Someone more noticeable. Michael remembered how the giggling and screaming grew faint around him as he ran away only to realize that no one was chasing him.
Michael should’ve been grateful to be at a neighborhood playground that summer before he entered middle school with Danny and Jay. Grateful they had nothing better to do than smoke a pack of cigarettes Danny got from his sister’s high school friend. Grateful that they texted him when he was at home wasting the only currency he had: time.
White, billowy clouds shifted past, so that the sun was in full blaze. Michael squinted before he put his head down. Rows of townhouses surrounded the playground; quiet and vacant lots waiting to be filled. The neighborhood was new. Michael saw a sign that stated, “Starting from the Upper 500s.” Michael imagined having $500,000 and wondered if that was enough money for him and his mother to live in their apartment forever. Michael rode his squeaky bike from the complex, a few miles away, near an old church that still had a bell. It rang every morning, calling everyone into prayer, including Michael who despised how early it shook him awake. Michael slept on an old mattress his mother had gotten from a church bazaar. Everything in his room—the plastic fold out desk and chair, the ancient desktop computer overheated into obsolescence, and the framed picture of blotches that supposedly hid Jesus’s face—was from that bazaar.
Instead of getting on his knees, Michael would stare at his ceiling trying to see through it, as if heaven were on the other side. He and his mother lived on the bottom floor of the complex at a discounted rate. All he ever heard were feet dragging and stomping on the other side, and muffled yelling. Sometimes, he wanted to scream into his ceiling. But that came dangerously close to prayer, and Michael refused to talk to a God who didn’t regard him or his mother high enough to give them the means of buying anything new.
Even their neighbors were old. Most were elderly Korean people—the ones Michael saw get in and out of church vans on Sundays. The men wore button up flannel and Fedora hats to cover their bald heads, and the women wore tweed pantsuits and permed hair dyed blacker than black. He saw them in the hallway, sauntering in from their morning walk, and he would bow to them deeply just like his mother commanded him to. Most would return his greeting with a pleasant nod or a dismissing wave of the hand, except for one woman.
There was a Korean woman about Michael’s height with grey curls, who wore a fitted, red tracksuit that hung loosely off her thin frame. Once, Michael bowed to her as she walked down the hallway, and when he had lifted up his head, she was gone. Her door slammed behind her with no notice of him or his greeting. He saw her again at church with his mother. She sat alone at the end of a bench, away from the other elderly women. His mother bowed and she nudged him to do the same to every woman. The other women responded with smiles and comments about Michael’s ragged but apt appearance. When they reached the old lady in the tracksuit, she cleared her throat and stared straight ahead. After a few silent moments, Michael’s mother ushered him on.
When Michael was heading out of the apartment to come to the playground, he peeped out of his door to make sure the hallway was clear. Right when he thought it was okay to go out, the old lady appeared, gliding down to her door. Michael stood safely behind his door and waited for her to go inside. Right as the old lady opened her door, she turned around and stared at him as if she saw right through the door. Michael nearly jumped back but maintained his position. She lingered for a few moments and then went inside, but Michael couldn’t shake the suspicion that she saw him on the other side and expected him to bow.
Michael looked back out at Danny and Jay, who never bowed to anyone. Danny took out his phone and shifted the cigarette to the right side of his mouth and lifted his phone while tilting his head up. Danny’s black shirt took in all of the sun, and streams of sweat began to streak down his face. Jay fumbled for his phone, crunching his body up halfway, and it slid out from his front pocket and dropped to the ground.
“Fuck.” Jay craned his neck to where his phone had fallen. “Yo, Mike.”
Michael had watched the whole thing and was already on his way to pick up Jay’s phone.
“What’s your passcode?” Michael asked.
“Give it to me,” Jay said. Michael knew Jay wouldn’t let him use his phone without first checking what he needed to. But he was still grateful that Jay only made fun of how frugal Michael’s mom was, instead of how poor they were. But Michael had learned what being pitied felt like early on and that’s what he felt from Jay. Usually, Michael would only take out his phone to check the time or scroll through his short contact list to see if there was anyone he could text.
Michael handed Jay his phone, who unlocked it and held it for a moment, before giving it back to Michael.
“My head hurts.” Jay said, and Michael took the phone as Jay unhooked himself from the bars. Michael saw the notifications on Jay’s phone and couldn’t help but read them. The unanswered texts, likes, and comments saved up like a little collection to go through, something to do.
When Michael arrived, there were no flames licking up the building, but he could still feel the heat waves emanating from below. The fire had started low and restricted itself to one floor, the bottom floor where Michael and his mother lived.
“Ow, fuck!” Danny yelled from the slide. Danny shook his right hand and sucked on his knuckles. Jay giggled as if this was how karma worked, an eye for an eye. Before Michael saw Jay drop his phone, he noticed how Danny let his cigarette hang between his fingers as he gazed at his phone. The ash accumulated as the burning ring drew dangerously close to his hand. Michael could’ve warned him, but merely panned his attention over to Jay instead. He watched Jay’s phone slip out of his pocket and didn’t say anything either.
Michael felt a twinge of guilt because he could’ve prevented these mishaps, but he also figured they would’ve happened if he wasn’t there.
“Shit, man.” Jay stopped giggling when he and Michael walked over and saw how red Danny’s knuckles were, glowing red. Michael remembered when he had sunburn and how his mother kept an aloe plant just for that inevitability. His mother took a kitchen knife and cut a leaf off, viscous juice oozing out of it. His mother took the juice from the plant and lathered it on his red shoulders, his then chubby face wincing at first and then settling into relief.
“이유가 다 있어,” his mother said. There’s a reason for everything. Michael was unsure of whether he believed that statement then. He believed it now. Cause and effect.
“Do you want some aloe?” Michael asked, offering all he could. Jay started giggling again.
“What the fuck?” Jay covered his mouth and resumed his fit. Danny managed to scoff and shake his head before sticking his knuckles back into his mouth.
“My mom has a plant at home,” Michael added, hoping to clarify.
“No, man. I don’t need your mom’s fucking plant. I can buy my own shit.” Danny scrolled his phone momentarily before putting it away. He took out the pack again and licked up a cigarette from it like a toad. A spark of rage flicked inside Michael, furious even his kindness was being denied. He gnashed his teeth, but Danny didn’t pay attention as he lit up and took a brief drag into his mouth.
“Why don’t you inhale?” Michael suddenly asked. Jay stopped laughing and Danny scrunched his face up.
“What?” Danny asked. Jay stared at Michael again, his turn to be incredulous.
“You’re supposed to inhale,” Michael said. “Not just suck it into your mouth and blow it out like a little bitch. That’s not really smoking.”
Danny scoffed and stood up. “You’re not even smoking, stupid.”
“You’re not either,” Michael responded. “You’re just puffing like a fucking idiot.”
Danny rushed towards Michael and Jay wedged himself between them.
“Yo, yo. Chill, chill,” Jay chanted, but Danny walked through him and got in Michael’s face. Danny took a deep drag, inhaling the smoke this time, but his creased face folded into discomfort and he sputtered smoke into Michael’s face.
The smoke blew past Michael’s face and disappeared into a sudden breeze that came through, lifting the rest of the smoke up into the sky. As Danny went into a hacking fit, Jay followed the path of the smoke and saw dark grey billows further away in the distance.
“What the hell?” Jay’s gaze followed the grey to its source. Danny and Michael finally turned to see what had captured Jay’s attention.
To the far right, Michael’s apartment tower complex was engulfed in clouds of smoke cascading upwards. Sirens blared as the firetruck plowed towards the smoking building.
Michael was already on his bike, pumping quickly on his pedals to gain speed. Danny and Jay watched for a few more moments, each taking their phone out to record the distant fire.
When Michael arrived, there were no flames licking up the building, but he could still feel the heat waves emanating from below. The fire had started low and restricted itself to one floor, the bottom floor where Michael and his mother lived. He took a breath and tried to sniff out the burnt scent of his room and all its used furniture. He imagined the blotches of Jesus smoldering in his room, intact in its glass frame and the only item to survive from his belongings. His mother’s room barely had anything of value in it, except for a vanity station. It was bought secondhand, but Michael knew his mother treasured it based on how much time she spent in front of it. He hoped it survived, too, but doubted it.
Michael’s mother was still at work, so he didn’t bother scanning the crowd of tenants in front of the complex. Michael noted how different the men and women looked outside of their church clothes, vulnerable and ordinary. Their wrinkled faces were creased even deeper by an unknown source of pain. He found it strange because he couldn’t relate. He and his mother had nothing, so they lost nothing. Some stood by, watching the flames in disbelief, some wiped tears from their eyes in reluctant acceptance, and some were being held back by firefighters from trying to go back in.
Michael couldn’t make out all of what they were saying to the men in those heavy yellow jackets, only the broken English and bits from the cascade of Korean flowing out of their dry lips.
Inside… 어떻게… We need… 비켜… Inside…
Looking at the crowd, Michael was struck by a feeling he had only been on the receiving end of. His heart tugged down into his stomach and he was moved to pity. Michael gazed up into the sky again, the smoke thinning like rolling clouds, and he reflexively stuck his tongue out. He retracted his tongue quickly when he felt a touch on his shoulder. The elderly Korean woman standing before him. Instead of a tracksuit, she was wearing a white nightgown that hung loosely off her thin frame. Michael lowered his head in a slight bow.
“한국 말 하니?” she asked, demanding rather than hoping. Michael understood her but couldn’t respond as to how he could only understand some Korean and speak little. He searched his brain for the right words, filtering through all the lectures his mother gave about respectfully greeting his elders. He breathed in deeply and took in a lungful of steam and smoke, then exhaled.
Michael settled on slightly shaking his head and simultaneously holding out his hand with his index finger and thumb spread slightly apart, indicating the amount of Korean he did know. The old woman nodded in response. She then held on to Michael’s shoulder and led him towards the firefighters.
The entrance was blocked off with yellow tape, although that didn’t stop a few old men from trying to go through. A firefighter went to deal with the persistent men, while one stayed in front of the crowd. The old woman brought Michael to the firefighter, who held his hands up to indicate that no one could enter. Michael saw the frustration in the man’s sweaty face, how he wanted to yell at the crowd even though he knew they wouldn’t understand.
“You can’t go in,” the firefighter said preemptively.
“화분 필요 한다고 얘기 해.” The old woman nudged Michael to translate and Michael looked up at the firefighter who waited as a courtesy, but whose lips were pursed to deny any and all requests. Michael stared back at the woman, hoping she would repeat herself.
“화분 안에 있다고.” Hwa bun. Michael had heard that word before, his mother’s aloe plant came to mind and how she told him to water the hwa bun.
“Plant!” Michael blurted out. The firefighter stared blankly back at Michael and furrowed his brow in confusion.
“She needs her plant,” Michael said. The old woman pointed straight at the complex. The firefighter turned to look at the blackened tower and turned back around.
“Listen,” began the firefighter. “Tell her the plant is gone.” Michael racked his brain for the right words.
“업… 없어요,” Michael muttered to the old woman.
“뭐가 없어.” The woman pointed back at the complex, jabbing her index finger at the entrance, like she could see behind the walls.
“밖에…” the woman said. Michael followed the trajectory of her pruned finger, which then curved inward like a fishhook. The woman curled her finger and pointed to the right side of the tower, where the lower balconies were. As she did so, the sun peeked out from behind the tower and shimmered.
“It’s on the balcony.” Michael found his own index finger pointing to the balconies, as well. The firefighter sighed and turned to the tower again.
“How important is this plant?” the firefighter asked no one in particular. As Michael looked to the old woman to translate, she had already grabbed the firefighter by the shoulder.
The firefighter didn’t turn back around to protest, he simply nodded his head and began drifting towards the entrance. Michael stayed with the old woman, wondering what kind of plant this woman had left on the balcony, and if it had withstood the smoke. The crowd of men and women now stood behind Michael and the old woman, as if they were also eagerly anticipating what was to come.
As soon as the crowd saw the firefighter emerge with the hwa bun, they swarmed the entrance. The old woman quickly went ahead of the crowd and grabbed the large hwa bun from the man before he could say anything. She split through the sea of people as she walked back to Michael, and the firefighter was soon swallowed up by the crashing wave of protests. Michael stood in place, watching the other firefighters trying to put out the crowd.
It wasn’t until the old woman stood directly in front of Michael that he noticed the hwa bun, deep enough to hold a few gallons of water, didn’t have a plant in it. The pot was filled with empty soil. Disappointed, Michael turned away, and he saw Danny and Jay with their phones out. Their phones were pointed towards the crowd getting closer to the complex’s entrance. Michael scanned to see where he had left his bike, but he felt a tug on his shoulder. He turned to see the pot on the ground, soil scattered everywhere. The old lady held a Ziplock bag full of rolled up bills.
The old woman clutched the bag tightly to her chest but reached out with a closed fist. She didn’t say anything, but simply opened up her fist and deposited something into Michael’s palm, then closed it. She walked away right as Danny and Jay approached Michael, her gown wavering behind her like the tail of a ghost.
“Oh, shit,” Jay said and pointed his phone at Michael now, genuinely impressed. Danny stared in slight disbelief, as if Michael had just gotten lucky.
Jay recorded Michael staring after the old woman, and then bending at the hips into a deep bow. When school began in the fall, classmates would ask Michael if he had started the fire on purpose. If he knew his mother would come home later and cry because the renter’s insurance would give them more than the fire had taken. If he knew about all the money that the old people stashed in their apartment. If he anticipated this newfound attention that was burned into his memory. He would walk the school grounds with a strange veneer that would incite rumors, attract girls, and draw envy from boys. But on that hot summer day, Michael looked up at Jay’s phone and unfurled the hundred-dollar bill in his hand. He stared down at what the fire gave him. A drop of heaven.