Prodigal Mr. Clark

by Whitney Crawford

At the funeral, Leo did not seem very much like a boy whose mother had just died, but what did Henry know? His nephew had always been something of a mystery to him. Perhaps it was only that he was young, eight years old when it happened, and it is impossible to predict how children will react to such things.

Though Henry remembered when he was eight years old, and he was quite certain he’d have behaved with far less restraint. For one, he would not have managed to keep so still, so quiet; Leo must not have uttered a solitary word for the whole duration of Lia’s funeral Mass, save for his solemn little “Amen” at the Communion rail.

Henry had resolved to keep a keen eye on the boy throughout, just in case he threw some sort of fit. It would have been perfectly pardonable if he had, and given that neither of his parents were at disposal, Henry understood it would be down to him to quell any disturbance. He’d rather buffed himself up for the task, turned over and rehearsed the comforting words and gestures he might use. But it was just as well that from the moment Leo met him outside the front of the church–dressed in what looked to be a miniature of Henry’s own black suit jacket and navy necktie, and accompanied by his seemingly ever-present CPS caseworker–his nephew had been all grim-faced stoicism. All perfect composure.

As Henry held open the door and began to lead both Leo and his caseworker (Marlene was her name–a short, bubbly black woman who smelled of minty gum and always seemed to dress in floral skirts) inside, Marlene put a hand on his arm. “Mr. Clark,” she said. “May I have a word with you after the service?”

“Mass,” Leo solemnly corrected her. “After the Mass.”

“Oh–yes.” Marlene blinked down at him, smiling, charmed by his seriousness. Then she glanced back up at Henry. “May I have a word with you after the Mass? It’s important. It’s…” She eyed Leo warily, and, lowering her voice and annunciating her words very pointedly as though this would keep the child from grasping her meaning, added, “It’s about the other Mr. Clark.”

Leo did not react to the mention of his father; but there was no chance he’d missed it.

Henry regarded Marlene a moment without speaking. Although he had only met her a number of times, he knew at once what she meant to ask him. And he was not yet sure what his answer should be. At last, he nodded. “Alright.”

He led Leo and Marlene down the center aisle to the church’s frontmost pew. Reserved for close family, a small sign read. Henry could not help notice that all of Lia’s family (her brother, her sisters, her parents) were sitting a couple of pews back, off to the left a ways. He could hardly fault them for wanting to keep their distance; as far as they were concerned, it was Henry’s brother to blame.

Jack had been the one behind the wheel. Jack had been the one drinking; it was Jack’s oversight that had caused the accident. Still, Henry also felt a twinge of resentment at their apparent disregard for Leo in all this. So what if Jack was a deadbeat husband and a drunk? So what if it was his fault what happened to Lia? Leo was the one left without a mother or a father.

It had been a long while since Henry had last stepped foot inside of St. Joseph’s–years, probably. Angela’s funeral had been held here, too, and that was… well, that was nine years ago now, nearly ten. Going on a decade. It did not feel as though it had been that long ago to Henry. He felt out of practice, no doubt.

He followed Leo’s lead–genuflecting and making the sign of the cross before filing into the pew, then pulling out the kneeler and sliding down onto it.

Head bowed, eyes closed, Leo’s cherubic little boy’s hands folded before him in earnest prayer.

Even as friends and relatives–many of whom Henry surmised did not really know Leo–gathered round to hug him and squeeze his cheeks and tousle his hair, their own eyes brimming with tears, Leo only nodded politely and thanked them for their condolences.

It was a striking image, Henry thought. There seemed a strange and unearthly dignity to it. He could not imagine where in thunder Leo might have gotten it–not from his father, that was for certain. And not from him either. Both he and Jack had been rough-and-tumble boys growing up, utterly unpacifiable in such contexts. Henry rather suspected that Leo was a singly odd child, and that was that.

There again, he remembered Jack telling him once how Lia had insisted they never skip a Sunday Mass. And he remembered her grave, reverent nature and quiet steel (and how she’d reminded him very much of Angela), and he could only suppose that the boy’s mother was behind it.

So, in spite of the charcoal curls and round ruddy cheeks (that was all Jack), Leo was his mother’s son.

Henry considered this. And he considered the matter he knew Marlene would broach with him after the Mass. He’d always known it could come to this–that if Jack was ultimately declared unfit to raise Leo, or if (as it so happened) he could not find the courage to pick up the pieces following the accident, and instead decided to avail himself of it by running off and shirking all of his fatherly responsibilities, then the task would fall to him.

He’d been hesitant before. He loved his brother (and still did, though at present, the mere mention of Jack set Henry trembling with rage and indignation), but he did not think he had the strength to bring up another Jack. More troubling than that: Henry had never before tried his hand at fatherhood, and if his brother’s performance–the other Mr. Clark, Marlene had called him–gave any inkling about the caliber of his own, it stood to reason that he had better not.

It was not as though Henry had never wanted children of his own, but when he’d lost Angela, all hope of that had gone with her. He’d always been a man very wary of loss too; perhaps that was why he’d never made much of an effort after. But now, watching his nephew’s display of reverence with renewed interest, he pondered whether he might not be capable of bringing up another Lia.

The Mass lapsed in a haze of half-remembered hymns and responses. Henry stood close beside Leo. Every so often, he would place his hand over the boy’s shoulder–not that Leo needed it; he remained serene as ever. Perhaps it was Henry who needed to brace himself against the nostalgic waft of incense and candle smoke; against the transcendent noon light splintering in through the high rose window at the back and casting brilliant deep hues all about the black-clad nave. To brace himself also against the mounting sorrow he felt for poor Lia—for Angela, even for Jack.

For Leo, most of all.

It was a beautiful service, really–Mass. If you could say that of a funeral. By the time the whole thing had ended and Marlene approached him in the narthex (once she had seen to it that Leo was adequately distracted among a particularly bold gaggle of mourners), Henry’s mind was already made up.

Marlene told him he could bring Leo home immediately. That she would bring the paperwork round tomorrow–that because Henry already had testamentary guardianship, and because Leo’s one remaining natural guardian was effectively indisposed, it would be a fairly painless process.

Or a straightforward one, anyway.

Henry and Leo rode home together in weighty silence. They had never spent very much time together, just the two of them. Although Lia and Jack’s place was not far, Henry worked a lot. He liked to keep himself busy. And now he could not think of a single thing to say to the boy who had just lost his mother, who sat quiet and composed in the seat beside him.

“You can stay in the guest room if you want,” Henry ventured. “The big one with the TV.”

He may have been a bachelor for going on a decade, but he had never found it in himself to part with the proper family-sized bungalow he and Angela had bought together. Lucky thing now.

Leo nodded. “Thank you, Uncle Henry.”

Another prolonged silence followed. Henry glanced sidelong at his nephew. “Are you hungry? I didn’t see you eat much at the reception.”

“Not really.”

“Okay. Well, if you change your mind, I can make you a grilled cheese or something. I don’t have much at the moment, but we can go shopping first thing tomorrow.”


“And don’t worry about getting your things. Marlene said she would bring some of that stuff over tomorrow as well. I have an extra toothbrush for you tonight… and I’m sure I can find something for you to wear.”

“Okay,” Leo repeated. He stared out his window, head turned so that all Henry could see was the still-stiff collar of his miniature suit and the crown of silken black curls he’d inherited from Lia.

Henry wanted to ask him if he was alright, but it seemed too silly a question.

It was already growing dark when they pulled into the driveway. Henry leaned forward to draw the keys from the ignition; Leo abruptly reached out and tugged him by the sleeve. “Uncle Henry?” he said, his voice small.

Henry turned in his seat and searched his nephew’s face. “What is it, son?”

Leo gazed back at him with eyes that belonged to a boy much older than he. “Am I going to be living with you now?”

“Yes. Yes, you are.”

“And did Miss Marlene… did Miss Marlene tell you if my dad is in jail still?”

Under different circumstances, Henry might have tried to circumvent the question; but then, Leo was no ordinary child. Henry leveled with him. “No, he’s not in jail anymore.”

The look Leo gave him then–the puzzled frown, the sudden, crestfallen crease between his brows–was enough to make him wish he could take it back at once.

“So where is he?”

Henry went very silent; he could not think what to say. Angela would have known what to say.

“He’s not coming back, is he?” Leo pressed, with an aching note of resignation.

Henry swallowed back the lump in his own throat. “No,” he said finally. “I don’t think he is.”

For a moment, it looked as if Leo would swallow it back too–that he would accept this with that same placid dignity, that same quiet grace. Henry rather expected him to give his small nod, a little “okay,” and to climb out of the car without another word about it.

Instead, he watched as Leo’s eyes welled with tears; he watched, frozen with shock and uncertainty, as they began to stream down his ruddy little cheeks, now crumpled in full-blown anguish. Leo burst out sobbing. Loud, wracking, wrenching sobs–screams, really. An animal caught in a trap.

He covered his flaming face with his cherub’s hands and cried and cried.

It took another long moment for Henry to gather his wits about him enough to react. He reached over the center console and drew his nephew close. Henry held him tentatively at first, tenuous little bird that Leo was, then strengthened his grip in an effort to still his heaving.

At last, the great, hiccupping sobs abated. Henry went on holding him, though. The silence between them was curiously comfortable. They may have remained that way for twenty minutes, or an hour, or perhaps longer; Henry could not have said. But by the time he slowly pulled back and led Leo up the step to the bungalow, it was completely dark outside.

Henry pulled the door shut behind them. He flicked on the light.

Leo wiped his nose with the back of his hand, looked up at him, and said, “Uncle Henry?”


“Can you make me grilled cheese?”


A deepest understanding seemed to have passed between them, and from the evening of the funeral on, Henry and Leo became like father and son. Henry was fiercely determined to see through what his brother could not–to cover the duty of the other Mr. Clark; he used the savings he had put away after Angela’s passing (as well as everything he’d made since then) to send Leo to private school–at St. Joseph’s, no less.

And why not? Henry had done relatively well for himself; Leo, he’d determined, was one of the cleverest boys he’d ever met; and anyway, he would need all the help he could manage if he was going to get by without his parents. So every Sunday at Mass (which, at Leo’s insistence, became Henry’s own weekly custom), Henry would dress in his dark suits and slide into the frontmost pew. He would make welcome, friendly conversation with the parishioners and with Leo’s teachers (and for Henry, such conversation had never been welcome exactly).

When Leo took up altar serving, Henry would watch him closely (and with unfailing wonder) from where he sat: his boyish profile, the round ruddy face that he gradually grew into. The unaccountable peace, the mystifying stillness. The folded hands and ever-bent head. The long black cassock and white surplice with crochet lace trimmings.

It was–all of it–a routine that Henry would have very much liked to hold fast to.

Leo was in the seventh grade when his father came back for him. Henry was returning from work. He’d just gotten off his late shift, so Leo should have already been working on dinner for the two of them. He liked to make omelets for dinner (in part because it was one of the only things he made that Henry could stomach), and the crispy finish of a mildly burnt egg was about all that played on his mind the whole way home.

He ought to have recognized Jack’s decrepit old Honda Accord parked out along the curb. Plus, the absence of smoke coming from the open window. But it was not until he was halfway up the front path and a familiar exchange of laughter reached his ears that he stopped in his tracks. Only then did he notice the Honda. He was not much taken to swearing these days, but he swore then.

The kitchen window facing the front of the house was open, and there could be no mistaking Jack’s gravelly, good-natured lilt–well, it was not always so good-natured, and Henry dreaded to think what could possibly be putting his long-lorn brother in such good spirits tonight.

As he stood before the house, his jaw set with bitterness, Henry heard the sounds of their talk. Then when the conversation fade away for a moment, Leo’s voice, clear and bright: “Well, I mean, thought I heard him coming.”

“I’ll understand if he doesn’t want to see me.” Jack.

“Give me one second.” The screech of a chair against the kitchen floor.

Leo appeared in the doorway, still dressed in his school uniform: the khaki slacks and St. Joseph’s-crested blazer. “Uncle Henry,” he said.

“Are you going to go with him?” Henry made no effort to keep the bitterness from his voice.

Leo came closer. “No, not…not forever. We were just talking–laughing… Aren’t you coming inside?”

“You look happy.”

Leo gave a small shrug–as though to ask: Why shouldn’t I be? “He’s my father.”

And Henry, in keeping with their long-shared silent way, gestured toward the bungalow behind his nephew, as though in return: I’ve given you everything a father should.

“He’s my father,” Leo said again. Then finally padded the rest of the way down the front porch steps and closed the distance between them. He was only thirteen but nearly as tall as Henry now, and he placed an arm on his uncle’s shoulder–tentatively at first, tenuous man that Henry then seemed, then firmly: You already have my love. “He’s my father, and he’s come back for me.”

Without another word, Henry laid a hand over Leo’s. Evidently, the wonder of him–the mystery of Leo–would never abate. Together, they made their way up the path to go in and see Jack: the other Mr. Clark; the prodigal Mr. Clark.

Whitney Crawford was born and raised in Houston, Texas, but she currently resides in Virginia, where she is working toward her doctorate in clinical psychology. She is the winner of an honorable mention in the San Antonio Writers Guild’s 27th annual writing contest for her historical fiction short story, and her poetry has appeared in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans.

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