A white ibis crossed Grand Concourse when the car hit Lazarus Didaci. He glimpsed an orange bill which curved from a smudge of white feathers. Then the car, a gray sedan with a Florida plate, kept driving.
An alarm clock on the nightstand by Lazarus’s bed would play recorded birdsong to wake him every morning. He would also hear birds without seeing them throughout the Bronx, and their chirping was too much like the alarm clock’s. It sounded level with his head and close, trying to wake him.
White ibises don’t sing, he thought. They honk.
In the hospital bed, as the doctor prodded his chest, Lazarus was sure he had imagined the white ibis crossing Grand Concourse. Something else orange and white—maybe a plastic bag fluttering up from the gutter—had fit the frame of a peripheral memory. White ibises were common back home. In the moment before the car hit him, however, Lazarus had been just as sure he saw the white ibis.
He pressed these contrary certainties together.
The doctor put a flashlight to Lazarus’s eyes. She had uncannily perfect teeth like Chiclets and purple lips. The flashlight’s glare eclipsed the other features of her face. She only spoke to the bearded, bald-headed nurse. Her voice yawned with exhaustion: “Yup”—at one eye. “Yup”—at the other.
The nurse wrote on a clipboard. Then he checked his digital watch. It beeped. It was a smart watch. He called the doctor’s name, Dr. Beatrix, and said something else without finishing the thought. They left the room together.
Lazarus waited to be released. He stared at the popcorn ceiling. To temper the bad acoustics of dying, he thought. Aside from some cloudiness of mind, he felt well enough to go home.
There were voices in the hall. He did not understand them, because of their number and overlap and the distorting echo of the hall, but he recognized a few non-English rhythms. He smiled.
It hurt. With the smile, his rising cheeks throbbed, retaliating. The pain surprised him. It suggested what he had overlooked while considering the white ibis crossing Grand Concourse, the gray sedan, the alarm clock, the popcorn ceiling, the familiar foreign voices in the hall—It hadn’t hurt when the car hit him.
He panicked, as if he had forgotten how to do something fundamental, like breathing or walking. He slipped from the bed and snuck to the bathroom. He felt the need to sneak when there was none. He switched on the fluorescent light. The mirror reflected a purple face, scraped, bruised, and puffed all over. He made strange faces in the mirror, contorting his mouth.
He had been fading. The sight and sensation of his swollen face sobered him. The gray sedan kept driving. The white ibis crossed Grand Concourse. Dr. Beatrix had said nothing.
He called his mother in Miami. She would want to know if a car hit him. She did not answer. As the phone rang and rang, the sun moved across the window, and Lazarus watched over the Bronx.
No one released Lazarus from the hospital. No one even returned to his room. After hours of anxiety and desultory cellphone use, he left.
In the empty elevator, leaning against the handrail, he inhaled cleansing fumes of lavender off the recently mopped linoleum floor. A corner of the floor was cracked. The crack revealed another layer of linoleum, pink in contrast with the newer black. He recalled his cousins, the Bavosi, whose floors were always recently mopped, sticky with a cheap cleaning agent. He shifted his feet in the elevator, so he could enjoy the squeak of his rubber soles, the peeling of each foot-lift like pulling off bandages.
Distant cousins, the Bavosi. They lived somewhere in Manhattan. Lucius Bavosus was about his age. They got along once. He was the only relative who resembled Lazarus. Lucius lived with an older brother, Marcus, and their mother Caelia, and their father Silvestris was dead. Lazarus had visited them a few times seven years earlier, when he first landed in New York (a mistake, Canada, the intended destination, lying across a border less permeable than anticipated) and never again. At that age, Lazarus had felt uncomfortable in a fatherless house. He did not expect to feel that way now.
He crossed the bridge at 181st street. Turning onto a side street, away from a crush of squealing buses—the Bx11, Bx36, Bx13, Bx36, a litany which he recited—Lazarus passed through a visible wall of heat. Reggaetón, salsa, and bachata made parked cars tremble. He stepped in a heap of chicken bones on the sidewalk. Sweat ran from his forehead, and his bruised face flinched at each running bead. It hurt. He spit between his feet.
The Bavosi lived on a hill, he remembered, in an old apartment building overlooking the Harlem River. He climbed such a hill now. Unlike anywhere along the way, this hill was overwhelmed by plant life, choked with greenery. Broad-leafed shrubs, jostling for sunlight, reached into the street. The leaves were fuzzed with little fibers and flecks of black dust. As aggressively as they grew, the plants nonetheless seemed unhealthy, desperate.
They’d cough and wheeze if they could, Lazarus thought.
He found the building late in the evening, as the summer sun started to set. He recognized false columns in the building’s façade. They were bright orange, shining in the fading light. He rang the buzzer. Static blasted from the intercom. The door clicked open.
An orderly rolled an empty gurney down the checker-tiled hallway. She waited for the elevator. Lazarus took the stairs.
“Who is it?” someone shouted from the sixth floor. It was a shout that might precede an attack. Lazarus shook as he climbed, a little fearful, and cautiously looked up through the empty space between flights of stairs. A sweaty face shimmered at the top. It was oddly cropped by the twisting bannister. Nostrils and teeth came into focus by the third floor. He recognized his cousin Marcus Bavosus.
“Lázaro?” Marcus said. He was pale and freckled, with a piercing squint, and his small head had grayed since Lazarus last saw him. Despite his age, Marcus wore long jean shorts and high socks, like a cheerless toddler. He never laughed.
He brusquely asked Lazarus about the face, comparing his battered state to shit. He did not wait for the response. Lazarus began to explain about the gray sedan, but Marcus shoved him into the apartment. He announced the unexpected visitor, and shouted at his mother that she should make coffee.
It’s weird, Lazarus thought, when seconds after being spoken to, you can’t remember which language you heard. Hard to file away the past. He thought of a potential lesson plan. Marcus insulted his appearance—his bruises, sweaty clothes, his pallor—in Spanish.
The mother, Caelia de Bavoso, dressed in an orange bathrobe and slippers, shuffled up to Lazarus. Her hair was thinner. Exposed spots of her scalp reflected pale light. She pecked Lazarus’s cheeks with greeting kisses. Each kiss stung the bruises on his face. She scolded him for never visiting and asked where he had hidden himself. She continued scolding him while she rushed to the kitchen to prepare coffee on the stovetop.
Lazarus apologized to the apartment in general. He had been busy.
“Work?” Marcus said.
“Yeah. I’m a teacher.”
Marcus moved things to clear a path to the couch. The living room was cluttered with plastic chairs, dumbbells, TV remote controls, framed photographs, basketballs and footballs, cracked iPads, magazines, and action figures. Lazarus took a G.I. Joe’s seat.
“Teaching what?” Marcus said.
Lazarus said he taught adults English as a second language. He also prepared permanent residents for the U.S. citizenship test.
“No shit! Why do they want it?”
Lazarus offered a few reasons for wanting U.S. citizenship.
“To vote?” Marcus said. “The fuck for? It’s a rigged system.”
Caelia beat sugar and the first drops of coffee together in a tin cup. Her spoon clanged from the kitchen. It was loud as a church bell. Making espumita, Lazarus thought. Nostalgia for the foamy, sweet Cuban coffee of home lessened the discomfort he felt around these estranged relatives.
The telephone rang. No one answered it. Caelia carried a metal tray of tiny coffee cups into the living room. She maneuvered past the obstacles. After Marcus and Lazarus took their cups, she remained standing with the tray, gripping it with one hand and lifting her own tiny cup with the other, sipping from it and replacing it whenever her grip weakened and the tray trembled.
The coffee was hot and very sweet. Lazarus felt sleepy as soon as he finished it. Sometimes, in settings such as this, in a familial environment, regardless of any discomfort or anxiety, Cuban coffee had the opposite effect of American coffee. Instead of energizing him, it plunged him into lethargy, and he saw himself in miniature, curling up in the cozy darkness of his stomach for a nap. He studied the golden film of sugar at the bottom of his cup. As he tilted it, the sugar slid into a V shape. The telephone rang. No one answered it.
“So where’s your brother?” Lazarus said.
Caelia closed her eyes. She whispered something and bit her lip. Then she collected the empty coffee cups and replaced them on the tray. Returning to the kitchen, however, she failed to avoid the many obstacles in her path. She stumbled. She dropped the tray. It crashed to the floor, porcelain cups and saucers clapping and ringing against the metal tray and sputtering across the parquet floor.
Lazarus stood to help her pick up the scattered dishes. He noticed how sticky the floor was then, and the squeaking of his rubber soles recalled the hospital elevator, how the peeling of each foot-lift had felt like pulling off bandages. A lavender-scented cleaning agent, probably Fabuloso, briefly overcame the coffee smell in his nose.
“Ay, gracias, mi cielo,” Caelia said. She returned to the kitchen. She switched on the radio and started washing dishes. A woman read the evening news from the radio: “El empresario multimillonario y estrella televisiva ha presentado este martes su candidatura oficial a las elecciones de 2016…”
“Lucio is very sick,” Marcus said. “She gets upset about it.”
“Oh,” Lazarus said. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry. What is it? Is he in the hospital?”
“No. He’s in his room.”
“But what’s wrong?”
Marcus switched on the TV. A sportscaster narrated basketball highlights and summarized results. The Heat lost. Their sneakers squeaked frantically on the court. It was already loud. Marcus steadily increased the volume.
“Go in when Lucio wakes up,” he said. “He’ll want to see you. But text him first, maybe. He’s moody as hell. You have his number?”
“Okay. No, I don’t.”
Marcus sighed and shook his head.
“You’re a shitty cousin.”
Marcus turned back to the TV. He opened the channel guide and scrolled until he found a featherweight boxing match. It had been broadcast live two nights before. He selected it. Grunts and the thud of gloved fists flooded the living room. The punching sounded level with Lazarus’s head and close. It boomed in his ears as if projected from a cerebral loudspeaker, seizing his breath and speeding up his heartbeat. His face began to itch intensely, too. He scratched it despite the tender bruises. Flakes of red skin peeled off, clung to his fingernails.
The bell ended round six. Lazarus’s discomfort suddenly disappeared. He felt relief and then some fear, because now there was no sensation at all. His body was too quiet. I’ve passed through it, he thought, but then where am I? The boxers went to their corners. The one in orange trunks, who would lose the fight by TKO, couldn’t see. His left eye was almost shut. The cutman applied an enswell, working to open the eye, while the coach shouted hoarsely: “Levanta las manos, papo!”
Exhaustion finally caught up with Lazarus. He fell asleep in round seven.
Lazarus woke terrified, heaving a harsh gasp. Caelia, her pale face hovering above his, pressed a plastic bag of frozen peas against his bruised cheeks, trying to soothe and numb what she didn’t know was already numb. He was sorry for troubling her. She shushed him.
“No, no,” she said. “Keep your eyes closed.”
He didn’t. He heard unfamiliar voices in the kitchen. He gently pushed Caelia away and sat up to look around.
A line of people wound from outside the apartment’s front door, around the couch in the living room, and through the kitchen, stopping at the refrigerator, where Marcus stood. They were women and men of various ages and ethnicities. Some dressed conservatively and some did not. A few were in the traditional garb of foreign traditions, others were in jerseys and jackets branded by the logos of New York sports teams, or they were in expensive business suits and ties, or they wore scrubs, or, in the case of two of them, they wore black plastic trash bags and duct tape-sealed sneakers. But they all had the same solemn expression.
“Who are these people?” Lazarus said.
“Lucio’s friends,” Caelia said. “Here to visit.”
These friends performed the same ritualistic actions when they reached the end of the line, that is, once they stood beside Marcus and the refrigerator. They opened the refrigerator door, admired an object within it, bowed their heads, and nervously muttered a set phrase, which Lazarus couldn’t understand from where he sat. Then they each handed Marcus cash. The amounts varied, like contributions to a collection plate. Those who had completed the line began to crowd the living room. They carelessly stepped on the discarded objects littering the floor, and those toys and electronic gadgets crunched under their feet.
“Please, let me see him before they do,” Lazarus said to Caelia.
She nodded in agreement. She started to speak but hesitated. She gestured for Lazarus to follow her, instead. She led him out of the crowded living room and down a dark hall, where she straightened the wrinkled carpet with her feet as she walked, complaining about how hard it was to keep order in her house.
The bathroom door was open at the end of the hall. Water ran continuously in the tank, echoing against the bathroom tiles like a monotone choir, emanating to herald Lazarus’s arrival at the door to Lucius’s bedroom, which was just to the left. Caelia knocked on the closed door. Then she kissed Lazarus’s cheek, as if saying goodbye. He didn’t wince. She left him.
“Who is it?”
Lazarus entered. He shut the door behind him. Unlike the living room, Lucius’s bedroom, lit by an exposed lightbulb at the center of the ceiling, was nearly empty. There was no furniture. There was one window, and it was barred. A fire escape zigzagged in the night behind it. Deep scratches dug into the wood floor. They ran parallel, like rails on a train track, and led to a pile of white feathers in the corner. Lucius squatted on the feathers.
His skin was blotchy and flaky, and his eyes were perfect circles, black and larger than Lazarus remembered. His nose had more noticeably transformed. It was longer, orange, keratinous. It was a bird’s beak, and it, not the thin-lipped mouth beneath it, opened as Lucius said:
“You. What’s up? I texted you on your birthday and no response. What the fuck, man?”
“Sorry. I’ve been…”
“You’re a big scab startled awake by scraping,” Lucius said.
“A seam opened in your self, and now little bits of scab-you flee that place like buttons from a sleeve caught on the out door. You rode a planet with black grass, sinkhole pores, and oily deserts, and you were you until God’s fingernail shuffled under it and flicked. Now you’re falling into the turbulent stream of debris that is surface, a wine-dark piece of person, a replicant spore becoming with ingestion, and confusing, too.”
“Your brother told me you were sick,” Lazarus said. “Are you okay?”
“Well, I’m not dead.”
Lazarus, worrying the pain might return, cautiously lowered himself to the floor beside Lucius, but he relaxed when he still felt nothing, and contentedly sat with his cousin on the pile of feathers. A car honked outside in the street below. The driver, or whoever sat in the unseen car, held down the horn. Lazarus turned to tell Lucius about the white ibis crossing Grand Concourse, about the gray sedan that hit him and kept driving, and about Dr. Beatrix who said nothing…
He found himself alone in the room. There was a knock at the door.
Michael Díaz Feito is a Cuban-American writer from Miami, Florida. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Big Echo: Critical SF, FIVE:2:ONE, and Danse Macabre du Jour. You can find more of Michael’s work at michaeldiazfeito.com and follow him on Twitter @diazmikediaz.