Stephanie Landrieu was robbed at knifepoint yesterday at 6:13 a.m. in the alley near William and Warren. Although she immediately offered up the $20 hidden in the waistband of her jogging shorts, she’d had three glasses of wine at dinner the night before and was still half asleep, so was slow to react when her assailant demanded her iPhone. Thus he grabbed it out of her hands, which ripped the earbuds out of her skull, which made her flinch.
The jittery knife-wielding man mistook this for an act of aggression. He responded in kind, then fled.
Sitting on the ground bleeding from wounds to her neck and chest, Stephanie recalled bitterly how her husband Barry had talked her out of getting wireless headphones. Aware that Barry harbored irrational fears about radiation from a childhood viewing of a Chernobyl documentary, she had known to ignore his advice, but in the end she’d been too tired to argue.
Served her right, she thought. For suffering a fool? For not acting on her convictions? Certainly for something.
But her mindset shifted when Stephanie realized she couldn’t get to her feet. Finally appreciating the severity of her injuries, she flooded with panic and cried for help—pleas too feeble to be heard given the injuries to her vocal cords. Mercifully, as the blood continued to leave her body, so did the terror. Her thoughts veered gentle.
As her vision grayed out, she saw her son Laurent on the playground, how his chubby legs defied gravity on the see-saw. As she lay back into a puddle of garbage water, she felt the cool autumn sunlight of her wedding day, how it had transformed Barry’s hair from brown to burgundy. As she closed her eyes, she heard her mother’s throaty laugh.
Her last thought: a piercing thirst, a sudden desire for hot coffee.
Stephanie loved coffee. If not for this unfortunate encounter, she would have drunk thousands more cups, most of them forgettable, though a few would have been life-changing.
Take the one she would have bought on the work trip to Des Moines scheduled for next month. A terrible brew—particularly bitter even for Starbucks—Stephanie would have added cream and sugar (which she almost never did) and still have been thinking about the drink when her red-eye landed back in Baltimore the next morning. She’d have raced straight from the airport to her favorite coffee shop in Hampden to rinse the taste from her mind.
Outside the Common Ground café, she would have encountered a fourteen-year-old El Salvadorian named Eduardo, who she’d have mistaken for a homeless person on account of his shabby construction work clothes and his request that she buy him a coffee, which she would have done, though not without first trying to talk him into a hot chocolate instead.
“Gracias,” Eduardo would have said, accepting the beverage, bending at the waist, and maintaining eye contact while kissing her hand, as he had seen in an old episode of “Zorro.”
Stephanie would have been hypnotized by the gesture. Transfixed, she would have watched Eduardo peel off the lid and gulp down the drink, discarding the cup on the ground as his ride pulled up. Only when Eduardo’s bouncing figure in the back of the pickup truck had disappeared down the road could she have looked away.
As her body autopiloted through the day, her mind would have been churning for an explanation. Apparitions of Eduardo’s face floating before her, she would have mentioned “that poor homeless boy” to several coworkers who had simply asked her how the trip was, how the meetings at headquarters had gone. Her recollections—the vulnerability of Eduardo’s brown eyes, the sincerity of his gratitude, the softness of his lips on her knuckles—would have made many of them uncomfortable.
Driving home later that evening, she would have been rear-ended by the ancient childhood memory that had been chasing her all day. She would have suddenly recalled her grandfather accepting the gift of a brass button—a treasure excavated from underneath a couch cushion—which a four-year-old Stephanie had insisted on placing in his pocket despite his passionate protests against her generosity. Eventually humbled, her grandfather had bent at the waist, engulfing her tiny hand in his own calloused meat, and placed a kiss upon her fingers, his eyes brimming with adoration.
So many decades later, it would have been Stephanie’s turn for teary eyes. She would have had to pull the car over.
While regaining her composure, she’d have spent half an hour looking at old photos on her phone, aglow in the warmth of her family history yet shivering. She rarely opened the “Photos de Famille Landrieu” because of how the album ended: with a picture of the front page of a long-defunct French newspaper (dug up in a small-town library by a friend who’d passed through coastal France).
The image showed most of the Landrieu clan smiling, gathered as they were for her grandfather’s seventy-fifth birthday, standing on the dock before his weathered boat, a commercial fishing vessel that had transported generations of Landrieus on countless voyages, including what would be their final one later that afternoon, thanks to a sudden cyclone that tore through the waters off L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. The sunken ship had sailed her family of fishermen to the afterlife so long ago that she remembered them all as tall. Only a bad flu had kept Stephanie and her parents off the boat that day.
By the time Stephanie would have made it home to her three-year-old’s happy embrace, her sense of place in the universe would have been solidified: she was a debtor still paying an obligation to those who had come before. And of course, only new blood could replenish old.
Stephanie would have realized there was more she could do: her son needed a sibling.
A controversial topic in the household, to say the least. Barry had left his job three years earlier based on the strength of simple math: a single salary would more than accommodate one child, but with two the numbers didn’t add up. And Barry had detested his job, vastly preferred baking muffins and visiting pediatricians to consulting work.
Yet Stephanie had never taken Barry’s distaste for consulting seriously—after all, she found almost nothing not to love about her own work optimizing operations for the salad dressing department of a consumer goods conglomerate. Over the next few years, her determination would have been difficult for Barry to deny, peppered with persuasively timed fellatio, vague threats about the impermanence of marriage, and soothing reminders that she would probably be promoted and Barry wouldn’t have to go back to work after all.
By the time Stephanie would have been passed over for department head the second time, (a key executive having questioned her dedication to the job based on the smattering of “kiddie talk” that would have entered her work conversations), her third in vitro would have taken, her face like sunshine as she glided to the office each morning, escaping the gloom gathering around Barry as he would have looked longingly at his muffin tins and then gotten back to updating his résumé.
I would have been born on a cold day in March, three months after my father would have found his way back into consulting, into his old firm in fact—same project even: advising on corporate strategy for a midsize rubber manufacturing operation with dubious supply chain practices. And although he would have been haunted by the same moral reservations about his work, because his salary would only have been two-thirds what it was before retirement, he would no longer be forced to consider himself a sellout.
Until the moment of my birth, my father would have been busy wearing a new crease into his brow, expecting my first cry to be a Siren’s song calling him toward the rocks of a white-watered midlife crisis he could feel coming on. But suddenly there I’d be, howling out my baby fury, and what can I say? He’d have smiled.
My first month would have been wonderful. I’d have been aghast at the inconveniences of the post-womb universe, but the love in my home would have been huge. My mother, exhausted and overjoyed, would have imagined an astonishing resemblance to “that poor homeless boy” who had inspired her to conceive again. Having never learned Eduardo’s name, she wouldn’t have appreciated the coincidence of naming me after the favorite grandfather upon whom she’d once bestowed a button: Édouard.
My father would have returned to work a week later, surprising himself by abandoning his podcasts so that he could better hear the birdsong during his walk to the office. Along the way each morning, he would stop into the best bakery on Federal Hill for a muffin. The mouthfuls of moist blueberry cake would have prompted not the bottomless remorse he was expecting, just a smug certainty that he could have baked better.
I wouldn’t have been able to say enough good things about Laurent. He would have spent hours showing me the most interesting objects in the home, repeating their names and revealing their secrets. The soccer ball and its bounce, the squeeze bottle of mustard’s juiciest flatulence, and of course the stapler, which he would have taken great care to warn me away from, having sacrificed his pinky finger while scouting its dangers long ago. Laurent would have liked to hug me a little too hard, and though I would have often exploded in tears, it was just because I would have been a fussy baby, not because I would have really minded.
You see? Huge love would have been in that home. Love so large it would have pushed the walls out.
So can you imagine what would have happened if a love that big suddenly popped? With those walls bowed, what could keep the roof up?
I would have passed away when I was thirty-one days old, just before 3 a.m. on a Wednesday. My father would have discovered me, knowing instantly that I was gone, his throat clogging with cement. He would have rushed over and picked me up, felt the cold, and begun the funeral procession to the master bedroom, where my mother’s bliss at getting an inexplicable five hours of uninterrupted sleep would have suddenly been explained.
Do I need to describe the scene that would have ensued? My mother’s stuttered stampede of words to a 911 operator, the mustachioed paramedic whose confirmation of the obvious left her as a puddle of a primate, the way my father would have sat stone-faced in the bedroom Barcalounger, replaying the events of the previous night and nurturing a dark suspicion that perhaps he shouldn’t have put me to sleep on my stomach.
But before Barry could mentally lacerate himself into a bloody mess, Laurent would have heard our mother’s breakdown all the way from the neighbor’s house and rushed back home, which would have forced our father to push pause on his self-flagellation, jackhammer through all the concrete encrusting his voice box, and soothe my distraught brother.
If we’re not being sentimental, it actually would have been my father’s fault, though not because of how he’d laid me down to sleep—or should I say not just because of it. Barry was a track star in his youth, an incredible swimmer, an inspired baker, but as far as serotonin transportation went… not his strong suit. He would have shared those genes with me. Combined with an overheated room, the pulmonary infection I’d have been developing all day from inhaling an old blanket, and the way he’d have lazily laid me to sleep facedown, and my father would have indeed been the person most responsible for my passing, though mercifully he never would have known for sure.
After the funeral, my father would have thrown himself into his work, eager to get out of the house and away from my mother’s depression, which would have landed on him like a judge’s gavel every time she summoned the strength to lift her eyes from the floor and lay them on him. Inside six months, while studying the local socio-political conditions of his rubber manufacturing client, my father would have found an alternative workforce to the child laborers that no nonprofit had yet proven the company was using: loggers newly unemployed due to a recent environmental protection law, loggers who had families to support and so few options that they were somehow willing to work for even less than children.
My father’s proposal would have shaved three percent costs off the company’s bottom line and been heralded in the trade press as proof that climate protection and job creation could go together. He’d have been promoted once, then again, and within four years been offered the COO position at a competing firm.
If my father would have asked her, my mother would have advised him against taking the job. An old college friend of hers had worked at the firm years previous and—during many a tearful lunchtime—shared the scars inflicted by the company’s cutthroat culture. And although all that poison would have rolled off my father’s back, the fact that they were all big drinkers over there? That would have been his undoing.
Barry would have been pretty thickly upholstered by then, using food to cope with my passing. He would have long since stopped walking to work, replacing that single morning muffin with a dozen drive-through donuts that would have continually occupied his passenger’s seat. All that extra weight would have lent him a gravitas that made people listen—would have been key to his career ascendancy—but combined with four nights at the bars each week, he would have been dead inside seven years.
So my mother’s warnings not to accept the job offer would have saved his life, unenjoyable as he would have found the extension. But he never would have asked her opinion because by then my parents wouldn’t have been talking. In fact, my mother would have been mostly silent most of the time.
She’d still have been collecting long-term disability based on the debilitating depression that came on after my passing. Increasingly certain that my conception had been inspired by a mystical coincidence, she would have suspected she had been chosen for special punishment. Over the years, she would have become convinced that only a Supreme Being would have put “that poor homeless boy” in front of her, and that meant that only a Divine Plan would have taken me from her.
And thus she would have made herself a martyr. Perhaps even a saint?
She would have mused about the possibility, though never out loud. In fact, few would have guessed she cultivated a coherent train of thought as she stared at the spiderweb crack in her bedroom window from deep under the covers. Only an eleven-year-old Laurent, filled with pre-adolescent frustration, would have once torn the sheets off her in a rage, and so only Laurent would have seen—for 2.5 seconds, while my mother would have sluggishly pulled the comforter back up—her lips moving silently as she continued her conversation with God.
It would have been hard on Laurent to say the least—our mother gone mad and our father trampolining between the office and the bars. He would only have seen our father those late nights when a racket in the kitchen would wake him and a tiptoed trip down the stairs would reveal Barry standing before the refrigerator, door hanging open, eating the meals left by our neighbor straight out of the appliance, his hand shoveling spaghetti and sauce into his mouth, some sort of ravenous, ursine creature devouring what was meant to be his son’s lunch.
If you could call it luck, Laurent would have turned eighteen the week before our father’s heart would have given out, and so he would have been legally capable of struggling through the probate of the will and puzzling out a decent care facility to place our mother.
And he would have had money left to burn. With grand plans for international travel, he would have made it no further than New York, which turned out to be a large enough labyrinth to find himself or forget himself—after a while he wouldn’t have remembered which he was hoping for.
One night, in a drunken fit of senseless motion, he’d have ended up in a makeshift BDSM club with a head full of Rohypnol. Laurent would have passed out in a room featuring a contraption with wrist and ankle harnesses and companions all too happy to demonstrate its operation using his easily undressed body. But before they could do more than tie him up, one of maybe three people in the place with the gumption to protest would have walked in.
Suddenly transformed from voyeur to savior, Louis would have gotten pummeled by the disappointed would-be rapists, but he also would have landed enough punches to persuade them away, though not before one took Laurent’s clothing as consolation. An anonymous, unconscious boy now his ward, Louis would have draped his coat over Laurent and brought him home. He would have given my brother the bed and taken the couch.
The next morning, the pair would have had an interesting conversation consisting mostly of Laurent shouting accusations at Louis, (and at one point Laurent would have even gone to the bathroom to examine his anus in the mirror), but there also would have been pancakes. Louis was hypoglycemic and needed to eat even if Laurent wanted to keep hurling invectives. And Laurent would have been starving no matter his suspicions.
Somehow pancakes would have become the benefit of the doubt and then a casual fling and then a cautious friendship and then true compassion, and their love affair would have lasted four years, with Louis even paying for a good chunk of Laurent’s art classes when my brother’s money would have run out, and then his graphic design classes, and then help finding him his first job. Louis would have been Laurent’s first safe place since he was seven years old, and they would have remained steadfast friends well after their romance had run its course. In fact, even though Laurent would have been with his second serious girlfriend by then, he would have asked Louis to accompany him to our mother’s funeral.
And I could go on, but what’s the point? Believe me, it’s easy to see with total clarity all the things that will never happen.
The fact is that the woman who would have been my mother was killed yesterday morning and she left behind the button-cute three-year-old who would have been my brother, who is befuddled about why his father keeps forming these faces that start off looking strong, but crumble almost immediately like the sandcastles he built too close to the waves once.
What’s going to happen to them? Barry will have to go back to work eventually, right? Stephanie had decent life insurance but it’s not the type of money that’ll last past the decade.
Will he lose himself inside a bigger, pastry-stuffed body? Or will Barry be able to juggle work, parenthood, and recovery?
And how will Laurent handle life without a mother? Is he young and resilient enough to incorporate the hole into his story in a way that somehow makes sense?
I don’t know and it’s tearing me up. But what can I do? I have no hands, no heart, no breath, no options.
So I’m watching, waiting, hoping for the best, saying a prayer for these people, the family I’ll never have, I would have loved them.
Henry Presente’s short story collection is Personal Earthquakes (Czykmate Productions, 2018). His tall tales have been published with Harpur Palate, The Columbia Review, The MacGuffin, Prime Number Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, helped save enough energy to power one million homes for one year, and once led a spontaneously formed conga line—fearlessly and with no regard for tomorrow. Find him online at www.HenryPresente.com and @HenryPresente on Twitter.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Prayer for the Living”:
The voice and unusual perspective of this piece grabbed our attention. While it seems to begin in a rather ordinary telling-narrative way, it soon diverges from that into its very different perspective and engrossing story. As if that weren’t enough, author Henry Presente caps it with a hell of a punch for his ending.
This combination makes for the kind of well-crafted, powerful, and unexpected story we look for.