The Prodigal Son

by Thomas Carlson

The bell for the Saturday vigil mass began clanging just as Eddie pulled into the church driveway. After locking his bike, he went inside and found a seat in the back. The giant crucifix on the altar, the choir standing off to the side of the pulpit, the stained-glass windows lining both sides of the nave – it all seemed like such a distant memory, it was hard to believe that only a year had passed since he’d last been here. How many times had he and his mom sat in these very pews, amongst these very parishioners, for Sunday mass? How happy he’d been back then, how carefree, before words like cherub and munchkin and prince were usurped by malignancy and metastatic and hospice. Over the past twelve months, he’d known better than to ask his father to bring him to church. Taking in his only child, whom he’d abandoned in utero nearly thirteen years prior, was about all that could be asked of his father.

The processional hymn began, and the congregation rose as one and joined in song. Not Eddie; he continued kneeling, praying for the strength to endure what the evening was about to bring.


A frenzy greeted him when he returned home from Saint Gregory’s. What with hair being done and makeup being applied and flowers being arranged, he was able to slip upstairs unnoticed. After a leisurely shower, he dressed in his good clothes and was outside with a few minutes to spare before the ceremony began.

His heart might not have been in it, but even Eddie had to admire what a production it was – canopy tent in the backyard, pizza truck in the driveway, sixty or so people (most of them Liz’s family and friends; only a handful were his dad’s) dancing and partying into the wee hours. Eddie was in line for one last piece of pizza before the truck left when he was joined by Bryn, his new stepsister, and by one of Liz’s friends.

“You must be loving this,” the friend was saying to Bryn.

“Why’s that?”

“Your mom’s so happy.”

“She’s not happy,” Bryn replied. “She’s drunk.”

Eddie woke up the next morning and, with the pizza truck no longer blocking his path, shot baskets on the hoop in the driveway. He’d recently begun wondering whether playing on the team this past year might have helped, might have made the transition to his new school easier. He vowed to try out for the high school team next year, assuming he felt up to it when the time came.

After nearly two hours, he put the ball in the garage and went inside the house. He was lounging on the sofa, a drink in one hand, his phone in the other, when Bryn shuffled into the den.

“I need you to move,” she said. “I’m watching a movie.”

He made a show of staring at the empty recliner across the room. “Sit in the chair.”

She reached for the remote. “My head’s pounding. I need to lie down.”

He carried his glass to the kitchen sink and was about to turn down the hall when Liz stopped him.

“Why the long face, Eddie?”

“Bryn just kicked me out of the den.”

“It’s a big house. Lots of rooms.”


She placed her cup of coffee on the table. “Listen, Eddie. This is going to be an adjustment for all of us.” For a brief moment she massaged her forehead with her eyes closed. “Put yourself in her shoes. After all she’s been through with her dad, she now has a new stepfamily to contend with. Give her some time to come around.”

Five minutes later, with a hodgepodge of items stuffed in his backpack, he took off on his bike. As he made his way toward the center of town, Liz’s words continued assailing him. Even so, Eddie was not without sympathy. Her husband had left her to start a new family, a new life, with a woman who was showing by the time he announced his departure. Liz had coped the best she could, by finding a man whose defining attribute – lack of ambition – precluded him from ever leaving her…as long as she didn’t get pregnant. And so now, as he rode past Saint Gregory’s, Eddie said a silent prayer for Liz.

Three quarters of a mile from the church, straight up Main Street, he passed Tony’s Bakery. He didn’t think about it until he was a couple doors beyond it, then circled back, got off his bike, and went inside.

The place was packed – all but one of the tables were occupied, and the line of people waiting to order stretched almost to the door – and he briefly considered turning around and leaving.

“What can I get you, young man?” the gentleman behind the counter asked when it was finally his turn.

He placed his order and paid.

The man then nodded toward the window, toward Eddie’s bike. “That yours?”

“I can move it if it’s –”

He dismissed the comment with a wave of the hand. “So you must be fueling up for the ride.”

Eddie smiled. “Just a quick snack.”

“Well,” the man said, handing Eddie his coffee cake and grape soda, “if there’s anything else you need, just let me know.”

The free table was in the corner, and Eddie brought his food and drink over and took a seat. Once he finished eating, he cleared his plate and was about to exit the shop when the man called out from behind the counter. “Ride safely, my friend.”


Ten minutes later he arrived at the cemetery. He rode along the driveway as far as he could, then walked the rest of the way on the grass. He was careful not to cover any markers as he laid his bike gently on the ground.

“Hi, Mom.” The top of her tombstone felt smooth beneath his hand. “I met a nice man today. At the bakery on Main Street.” He pulled his journal out of his pack and began writing while telling her about his weekend – riding his bike to church, the wedding, the conversation with Liz.

A car pulled in off Fernwood and parked halfway down the cemetery driveway. A family – mom and dad, a couple of kids maybe a little older than Eddie, all in their Sunday best – climbed out and began approaching. Without effort, a story took shape in his mind: mass at Saint Gregory’s, then out for a nice lunch before coming here. Probably the anniversary of grandma or grandpa’s death. They smiled, said good afternoon as they walked by.

He waited until they passed, then resumed talking to his mom. “I met the school social worker this week.” He’d spent the appointment telling Mrs. Holmgren all about his mom, about moving into his dad’s one-bedroom apartment after she died, about them giving that up for Liz’s a week later. Mrs. Holmgren mostly listened, but before the session ended, she handed Eddie a journal. “I want you to write about your emotions anytime they feel overwhelming. It might help you process them more easily.” Eddie wasn’t convinced, but he’d already filled up twelve pages.

Two fifteen. He didn’t feel like writing anymore, but he wasn’t ready to go home yet. He opened his pack and exchanged his journal for the church bulletin. Jennifer Santini was marrying Eric Quinlan in a couple weeks. The youth group was holding a fundraiser for their mission trip to Appalachia. Many thanks to everyone who helped out last weekend with the spring clean-up.

He laid back and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, lazy shadows stretched across the grass. The family was gone. Eddie checked the time on his phone, blinked hard, checked it again. Five forty. The bulletin was nowhere to be seen, and he eventually zipped his backpack without it. “It was good talking to you, Mom, but I have to get going.” He leaned over and kissed the top of her stone. “See you soon.”


The week passed slowly, the minutes and hours and days a seemingly endless montage of snippets overheard accidentally, stories from the weekend shared between schoolmates in the classroom, the hallways, the locker room. Each afternoon he walked home from the bus stop, dropped his stuff in his room, and went out to the driveway to practice. Dribbling with his left hand. The dexterity drills Coach Feehan taught him when Eddie played for Saint Gregory’s. Free throws and baseline jumpers and lay-ups. He’d been out for only a few minutes Thursday afternoon when Bryn came out.

“You need to go somewhere else,” she said. “My friends are coming over.”

“How about I play with you guys?”

She shook her head. “No offense, but you’re thirteen. We actually want to practice.”

“I’m going to be fourteen next month.”

“Congratulations. Come back and see me then.”

No sooner had he walked into the house than Liz called out from upstairs. “Bill, is that you?”

“No, it’s me.”

“Have you heard from your father?”

The absurdity of the question made him want to laugh. “No.”

“He promised he’d be home in time to go with me,” she said, a hint of desperation in her voice. “If he went to the bar with his friends…” Her bedroom door closed behind her.

Deciding a change of scenery was needed, Eddie threw his pack over his shoulders, got on his bike, and began riding. Fifteen minutes later he passed Saint Gregory’s, and five minutes after that he reached Tony’s Bakery. Once again, the decision to stop was made at the last second.

This time the shop was quiet; if it weren’t for an older couple out for their afternoon treat, Eddie would have had the place to himself. The husband sat at a table minding his walker while his wife placed their order with the same gentleman behind the counter. “You know how I feel about your Danish, Tony,” the woman was saying as she fumbled with her change. “I can’t say no to it.”

A conspiratorial smile crossed Tony’s face. “Mrs. Leone, if you keep flattering me like this, Mr. Leone is going to get jealous.” He got their items, carried them to their table for them, then returned behind the counter.

“Welcome back, my friend. Coffee cake and a grape soda?”

Eddie nodded.

Tony glanced at the bike leaning against the shop window. “So where you riding to today?”

Now it was Eddie’s turn to fumble with his change. “I’m going to see my mom.”

“Where’s that?”

He took a breath. “The cemetery. On Fernwood.”

Tony’s dishtowel fell to the counter. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Eddie’s eyes began misting, and he reached for a napkin from the dispenser on the counter.

“She must be proud of you.”

“Why do you say that?”

“To have a son who visits her like you do.”

“I like talking to her,” Eddie said, wiping his eyes. “I know, it’s not like she’s actually there, but…I like it.”

“You listen to me, my friend.” Tony leaned closer to the boy, resting his elbows on the counter. “Listen good because I don’t ever want you to forget this.”

Eddie looked him in the eye, though not without effort.

“When you talk to your mom, you need to know that even if you can’t hear her, she can hear you.”

“Do you really believe that?”

Tony stood upright again and tapped the counter with his knuckles. “As much as I believe anything.”

Eddie sat at the same table as Sunday, across the room from the couple enjoying their coffee and Danish in companionable silence. Before long Tony came around the counter and began sweeping the floor, engaging the Leones in a spirited conversation. He paused when Eddie cleared his plate and slipped his pack over his shoulders.

“You take care, my friend,” Tony said. “I hope to see you again soon.”


“I saw the nice man from the bakery,” Eddie said when he was seated in front of his mom’s stone. “His name’s Tony.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out the small hand rake. While he worked on the flower bed fronting her marker, he told his mom about the goings-on at home, about his week at school, about his second appointment with Mrs. Holmgren. “She’s nice enough,” he said, “but I’m not sure she can help me.”

During their meeting the previous afternoon, Mrs. Holmgren explained that loss was an inevitable part of living, that he had to pick himself up and find a way to move beyond it. How? he’d wanted to scream at her. Whose example was he supposed to follow? His dad’s? Liz’s? Bryn’s? Now, more than twenty-four hours later, he still didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know if you can hear me, Mom,” he said, putting the rake away and zipping his backpack, “but if you could help me figure this out, that would be great.”


The next afternoon, Eddie had the hoop to himself. After a couple hours of practice, he called it a day and went inside. His father was sitting in the recliner in the den, drinking a beer while watching TV.

Eddie sat down on the sofa. “Where’s Liz?”

“No idea. She’s apparently not talking to me at the moment.”

“She’s still mad at you?”

“She has no right to be.” The program went to a commercial, an advertisement for long-term care insurance. “She knew from day one what she was getting herself into.”

“What do you mean?”

His father took a sip of beer, took his time swallowing. “I never pretended to be cut out for family life.”

“Why is that?” Eddie asked.

When his father finally responded, his eyes were locked on the TV. “I just think some people weren’t meant to have a family.”

“But you got married twice.”


“And had a child.”

“That was…”

“That was what?”

His father continued staring at the television.


Eddie rode his bike as fast as he could, his legs and lungs and heart doing what Mrs. Holmgren’s journal couldn’t. He didn’t so much as glance at Saint Gregory’s as he sprinted up Main Street. Didn’t slow down as he passed Tony’s Bakery, the Sorry We’re Closed sign no more than a blur in his peripheral vision. Didn’t give a passing thought to the car parked in the cemetery driveway as he pulled in off Fernwood. When he reached his mom’s stone, he dropped his bike and fell to the ground. He then closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath, tried to slow down his heartrate. He was still sitting like that a minute or two later when he heard a noise and opened his eyes. Several rows over, on the far side of the cemetery, a man stood in front of a stone, his hand resting on the top of it while his body trembled. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be speaking, but his words were drowned out by his sobs. After what felt to Eddie like an eternity, the man finally came to a silent rest. He stood there quietly for another minute or two, then bent down to kiss the top of the stone before turning and making his way to his car.

Eddie froze, his brain struggling to process the information it was receiving. Tony. The man from the bakery. Here.

He appeared to be in no rush walking across the grass to the driveway. Eddie waited patiently for him to start up his car and exit the cemetery onto Fernwood before walking over to the tombstone he’d been visiting. It wasn’t hard to find – there were fresh footprints in the dirt and the marble was streaked with fallen tears. Eddie stood in front of it and read the epitaph.

Olivia Gennaro
Loving Wife, Mother, Daughter

Eddie said a quick prayer, then retraced his steps back to his mom’s stone. Grazing the top of it with his hand, he thanked her, then said good-bye.


The sun was just beginning to peak above the trees when Eddie hopped on his bike the following morning. He’d been awake since three thirty, had slept fitfully at best prior to that, and couldn’t stomach waiting around the house any longer. From his vantage point as he rode by on the sidewalk, Saint Gregory’s looked buttoned up still; he continued past without slowing down. A couple doors before Tony’s, he jumped off his bike and walked it the last twenty or so yards, leaning it once more against the front window.

Despite the hour, there were several people in line already, and Eddie took his place behind them. He watched for a minute, then closed his eyes and listened as Tony interacted with his customers. “Medium or dark roast, Bev?” “The usual, Mrs. Thompson?” “How are the grandkids, Andy?” If there was any sign of pretense, any trace of despair, Eddie couldn’t find it. How do you do it? he wanted to ask. Tony handed the woman in front of him a cup of coffee and a scone. Show me how. She thanked him, paid, and joined her friend at a table. Please.

When Tony saw who was next in line, his face lit up. After exchanging pleasantries, after Eddie ordered and paid, Tony’s eyes flitted to the seating area. “For here or the road?” he asked.

Eddie glanced over his shoulder; only then did he realize how crowded the room was. There were no empty tables, and the line behind him now spilled out onto the sidewalk. He took a breath, then turned back around. “For here,” he said, mirroring Tony’s smile. “I’ll figure something out.”

Thomas Carlson is a psychologist in private practice in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and their three children. His short story “Empty Promises” was published by Litro Magazine (July 7, 2021). He is currently working on his first novel.

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