The Prodigal Son, revisited

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August 1, 2012 by jmar198013

This is a myth, and it’s a true story. About how I left home once, then returned.

There was once a man who had two sons. One day, the younger of the two knocked on the door of the old man’s study. It was wide open, but the father was gazing out the window at some sparrows, and didn’t notice his son standing at the door and knocking. Five minutes passed, and the boy knocked again, then cleared his throat in a very purposeful manner. This time, the old man turned around, smiled disinterestedly at the youth, ambled back over to his mahogany desk, and sat down in his wonderfully massive overstuffed chair. “Come in,” he said to the boy, “have a seat. We haven’t had quality time lately, have we Calvin?” (For the boy’s name was Calvin.) Calvin tiptoed into the study. “Have a seat, have a seat,” insisted his father, pointing him to a very small classroom desk of a sort the boy had not sat in for several years. But it was the chair his father told him to sit in, so he did.

“Dad, we’ve never had any ‘quality time,'” said the young man to his father. “That’s the trouble. We have had no significant exchanges–ever. I feel like a stranger in this house. All you ever do is go around offering me irrelevant advice about circumstances I’ll probably never encounter. Or when you do speak to a relevant topic, the solutions you offer are always bogus and get me into all sorts of trouble.”

His father looked at him with as much shock and revulsion as a man might had he just been spit upon. “Whatever do you mean, boy?” he sputtered. “Those are some very serious charges there. Very serious. Explain yourself!”

“Alright then, Dad. Remember that big lug Harold Antipasto, that 14-year-old fifth grader who looked like Frankenstein’s monster on steroids and used to beat me mercilessly about twice a week and steal my lunch money? What did you tell me about that?”

“As I recall, I explained to you that if he struck you on the right cheek, you should offer the left one–that might disarm him. I taught you not to retaliate in return, and to give to anyone who asked you. I figured that if he was going to all that trouble, he probably needed your lunch money more than you did.”

“See, Dad–that was just dumb. Don’t you remember what happened? He started taking my lunch money every day, then a couple of weeks later, he beat me up and stole my bicycle, too!” The boy’s voice was rising, “And you refused to do anything about it!”

“I got you a new bike,” his father retorted. “Besides, I never told you for certain that the other boy would stop being a menace. It was about you doing the right thing.”

“Stop trying to weasel out of this, Dad. I mean it. You don’t know anything about me or what I have to go through,” cried his son.

“Don’t be ridiculous, boy,” said the old man, “I know you better than you think. Why, I’ve even got how many hairs are on your head written down someplace.”

“That’s not so impressive,” Calvin snorted. “For one, how is that piece of information vital to any aspect of my life? Also, in case you haven’t noticed–I’m going bald!”

The old man sighed. “Son, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that.”

The boy rolled his eyes, “Look Pops, let’s cut to the chase. You treat me like a five-year-old, and I’m fairly certain that you’re getting senile.”

“I do not treat you like a five-year-old!” his father huffed at him.

“Yes you do!” asserted the young man. “Look at this stupid little kid desk you’ve got me sitting in!”

His father replied, “It’s a perfectly good desk; sometimes I even sit in it myself. I wouldn’t have asked you to sit there if you couldn’t. If the desk fits, sit in it. That’s my motto.”

“I’m tired of your inane platitudes. And mom’s, too. I told her I was coming to talk to you about all this, and do you know what she told me? Get this, Pops, even you’ll think this is goofy. She told me to ‘sing and be happy.’ Tell me that isn’t trite!”

“Well,” admitted his father, “it is a little silly, come to think of it. But it’s not the silliest thing I’ve ever heard her say. Now look here, son–time’s a-wasting. Did you just come here to gripe?”

“No, Dad. I came here to tell you that I think I’m about ready to become a responsible adult and take control of my own destiny. To that end, I was sort of wondering if you could give me my cut of the stock portfolio before you do something demented with it and lose it all. As far as I’m concerned you owe it to me, seeing as how you’ve basically been an absentee father all these years.”

His father shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “Well, alright–if that’s what you want. You’re old enough to make your own decisions, I suppose. Just one question, though: do you intend to use it for business or pleasure?”

“Yes,” replied Calvin.

A few days later, the boy got a tip from one of the region’s most astute market analysts that there was a lot of money to be made in the plaid pants sector, an industry whose numbers were going way up due to a quickly-growing trend called “grandpa chic,” which had started amongst prominent alternative music groups from the Seattle area who got tired of wearing plaid flannel shirts. Calvin took the analyst’s advice, and soon found himself very wealthy indeed.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when Calvin again went to visit his father in his study. His elder brother, Thomas, was there, too. Thomas and the old man were discussing botany, but with a somewhat philosophical bent. Calvin thought he overheard his father say something along the lines of, “Consider the lilies of the field, they don’t toil or spin.” Somehow, that had something to do with Thomas being a workaholic. Calvin wasn’t paying much attention to the details; it was classic dadspeak, and he had important news. He did not knock this time, just clomped on in. His father stopped talking and his brother glowered at him. “What do you want, you little twerp?” demanded Thomas.

“I came to talk to dad, not you, you neurotic creampuff,” spouted Calvin.

“That’s quite enough, both of you,” the old man interjected, sternly. Calvin’s brother stood up from the stool upon which he sat, and spat at Calvin through clenched teeth: “You…are…such…a…git!” Then he walked out in a very crisp fashion.

Calvin’s father smiled pleasantly at him, “Come on in,” he chimed.

“I am in,” replied the boy.

“So you are, so you are,” chuckled the old man. “Well, have a seat, then.” His father motioned him toward a big beige bean-bag chair he had never seen before. When he sat down, sank very deeply into it, so that his legs rose slightly into the air at an awkward angle. The plaid pants he was wearing were all the more noticeable because of how his legs were positioned. He looked remarkably daft, and he knew it, but he was used to these sorts of indignities where dealings with his father were concerned.

“Those are some sharp pants you’ve got there, son,” his dad said, winking at him. “Makes me proud. I’ve been wearing plaid pants for years now. I must be a trendsetter! What do you think?”

Calvin swallowed hard. “Dad, what I think is…I think it’s time for me to leave. There’s a wonderfully large world out there, and I’d like to experience it.”

His father sat erect in his chair and looked at him very sternly. “You’ve given the matter very serious thought, then?”

“Yes, the boy said, “I have, and tomorrow morning, I’m headed out east. I’ve purchased my plane ticket and I’m going to put down a deposit on a sweet loft as soon as I get to the city.”

“Well, since you’ve already made up your mind,” the old man sighed, “I suppose there’s no point in trying to stop you. Alright; very well, then. Is that all you wanted to tell me?”

“Yep,” said Calvin, who was fighting against the massive beanbag chair as he stood up.

“Alright then,” his father said. The old man reached out to shake his son’s hand, and the boy begrudgingly accepted. As the young man was exiting the room, his father called out to him, “Son!”

Calvin winced and turned around. “What?”

“I meant what I said. Those pants really are pretty cool.”

“I guess so,” replied Calvin, with a rather puzzled look on his face.

When Calvin arrived out east, he made all sorts of new friends, mostly other earnest twenty-somethings who, like himself, came from rather affluent familes. Twice a week or so they would gather together at someone’s house and grill out or order Asian take-out, and get fabulously drunk and discuss important topics, such as politics, music, the environment, and the attributes of certain young ladies in their broad social circle. When he wasn’t involved in one of these happenings, he would make the rounds of the city’s top notch java bars, showing up with his guitar at the open mic nights to sing lusty, throaty ballads he had composed about politics, nature, and the attributes of certain young ladies in his broad social network. When he wasn’t engaged in either of these activities, he spent the evening getting fabulously drunk in his apartment and playing video games with titles like, “Serial Killer Revolution!” or “Petty Larceny 3,” or “Whoo-hoo, S8boarding Rulz The Wurld, Man–Seriously!” He never got out of bed before noon.

One morning, he was jolted out of a deep sleep by the ringing of his cellular phone. It was his friend, the market analyst, whom he had also taken on as his personal accountant and financial advisor. It was 8:45 AM, and Calvin was profoundly annoyed.

“Calvin,” he panted, “you’re broke, man. Totally wiped out!”

“What do you mean, ‘broke’?!” Calvin sputtered.

“Look, did you expect the plaid pants gimmick to last forever? That fad began a month-and-a-half ago and now it’s over, buster. Very over. To borrow a phrase from the current popular vernacular, ‘that was so five minutes ago.'”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner, you dolt?” barked Calvin.

“I didn’t know, Cal. When I said it was over five minutes ago, I meant that literally. Look at the TV.” Calvin picked up the remote from the nightstand beside him and flipped on the television to the Capitalism: Suckers for the Corporate American Machinery (C:SCAM) network, where the bottom of the screen read, “Indie Rockers Declare Plaid Pants Irrelevant, Hawaiin Shirts Dubbed ‘The Wave of the Future’ by Insiders Five…no, wait…Six Minutes Ago.” There was a counter at the bottom of the screen where he could observe the value of plaid pants stocks plummeting. He felt very sick.

“Can’t we sell right now and get something?” Calvin begged.

“Nope,” said the advisor, “no one’s buying. No one wants to touch plaid pants right now. Face it kid–you’re ruined.”

“This can’t be happening to me,” the boy wailed. “What will I do? I have no marketable skills! I’ve never had a job! I’ve never even been to college!”

“That’s hardly my problem, Cal,” said the market analyst. “The fancy of the consumerist public giveth, and that same fancy taketh away. Maybe if you’d spent more time being forward-thinking about you investments and less time playing video games, this wouldn’t have happened. As for me, my services don’t come free. And as far as I can tell, you’re broke, and time is money. So why am I wasting my time listening to your sob story?” With that, the financial advisor hung up on Calvin, and the lad heard from him no more.

The boy soon found himself working for a local fast food establishment, where they had him dress up like a giant chicken sandwich and dance around on the sidewalk to attract business. Usually, all he attracted was a lot of abuse from rough-looking bands of teen-agers. The paltry sum he received for this humiliating job barely afforded him enough money to rent a room at a low-end boarding house next to the XXX movie theater at the extreme eastern border of the city. He could not afford to eat, too. But he would rather have been hungry than homeless. Also, the people who ran the restaurant were notoriously stingy, and would not share any of their food with him. “If you want a chicken sandwich,” the manager growled at him, “you gotta pay like everybody else. So go on and eat a chicken sandwich if you’re hungry, but it’s coming out of your paycheck!”

It wasn’t long before the boy’s situation became absolutely desperate, and one evening, in the restaurant’s storage room, where he was changing out of the tan leotard he wore with his chicken sandwich costume and into a smelly pair of plaid pants, he decided that his desperate circumstances called for desperate measures. Thus, he reasoned within himself, There are gardeners…pool boys, even…back at the homestead who have pot pies and other sumptuous TV dinner options every night after work, and here I am, starving to death. So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go back to my father’s house and hang my head and look very penitential. And I’ll say, “Father I am an utter reject, and would not blame you if you went right ahead and disowned me.” And I’ll grovel splendidly, and cry, and offer to be a gardener, or a pool boy, or something. And that very night he began to hitchhike in a westerly direction.

Three days later, he arrived at the gate of the homestead, delivered there by a balding cafeteria lady who had a rather nasty case of periodontitis and drove an antique car with faux wood panels along the sides. He made the long walk up the driveway, and when he came to the door he rang the bell and waited. No one answered for a while, so he rang it again. There was still no response. He tried turning the knob, and found it locked. However, he did see a note on the mat at his feet, so he picked it up and read it. It said, “Thomas–gone to the women’s clinic to picket the baby-killers, and then to a Support-Our-Troops rally. Be back around 8:00 tonight. Dad went down to town to check out that huge tower they’re building. He says it’s an eyesore, but I think it’s pretty neat. Love, Mom.” Calvin’s countenance fell.

About an hour later, his father returned from town, in a foul temper and muttering to himself. “A tower into the heavens, huh? How dumb! What will they come up with next?” He unlocked the door, seemingly oblivious to Calvin’s presence.

“Dad?” said Calvin rather sheepishly. His father did not respond. The boy tapped him on the shoulder, “Dad! Hello! It’s me, Calvin!”

His father turned around and stared at him. “I see you, boy!” he said. “What happened to you? You look rough.”

Calvin put on a dreadfully abased expression, looked at his feet, and with a voice like bruised read timidly offered, “Father, I have been a selfish, irresponsible, and ungrateful twit. I wouldn’t blame you if you disowned me right now. But I beg of you, at least let me be a lawn boy or one of the guys who cleans the muck out of the pool.”

Calvin’s father grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him through the front door. “Get in the house, boy! And hush with all that talk about working with the landscaping crew. You’ve never done an honest day’s work in your life, and you’d either die of heat stroke or kill yourself falling off a bush hog or something. Now go upstairs and clean your stinky self up and put on some clean clothes.”

Calvin went back up to his old room, but all his things were gone and items that looked as if they should belong to a very trendy pre-adolescent girl had been put in their place. His dad came in behind him. “Yeah, I forgot to tell you that after you left, we took in a Third World orphan girl named Magdalena. We gave her this room, because you weren’t using it. But don’t flinch now, boy. You know full well that this house has many, many rooms. While you’re getting cleaned up, I’ll go and set you up an air-mattress in the attic until we decide which room we ought to give you.” The old man handed him some plaid pants and a button-down shirt. “Your stuff is packed up down in the basement, but you can wear these. They’re mine, but I think they should fit you okay. You go get cleaned up, now. I’m going to go set up the grill.” His father turned to walk away, but then looked back at him and said, “Welcome home, son.” And then, he left.

After the lad had taken an extravangantly long shower and had changed into his father’s clothes (which were somewhat too big for him, but marvelously comfortable), he went out into the back yard, where his father was busy grilling steaks. “I called your mother, and told her you’d come home. She didn’t sound too thrilled about it, but she told me she’d pick you up a cake on the way back from her warhawks meeting.”

That night at about 8:45, Calvin, his father and mother, and Magdalena were sitting around the dining room table eating gigantic porterhouse steaks and seasoned potato wedges and wearing party hats. “Our House” by the British ska group Madness was playing on repeat on the big stereo system in the den. There was a small chocolate cake sitting in the middle of the table with the words, “Yay Calvin” scrawled in red icing on it. Magdalena could not speak much English, but she smiled at him a lot and kept constantly blowing on a noisemaker and throwing confetti in the air. Just then, Thomas came through the door, having just gotten back from town where he’d been tutoring inner-city school-children. He surveyed the whole scene, curled upper lip in disgust.

“Well, well, well–look who decided to come back,” he snickered. “Couldn’t hack it out there in the real world, could we? What happened, Calvin? Did your heathen friends run off and leave you after you ran out of filthy lucre and unjust mammon? Did you blow your wad on cocaine and hookers?”

“Actually,” Calvin replied, “I blew my wad on imported lagers and popular video games. But if you want to say cocaine and hookers, be my guest. The truth is actually disappointingly boring.” With that, Calvin’s brother stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

“I’ll go talk to him,” said their father, who exited quietly.

“Calvin,” said his mother, “I was thinking. Now that you’ve come back home, perhaps we ought to discuss your future. Frankly, you have no marketable skills.”

“I know,” he muttered.

His mother continued, “I sort of always hoped you’d make a preacher some day. We can send you to seminary to polish you up a bit.”

“That,” agreed Calvin, “seems very reasonable.”


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