Brian and his wife Jacqueline had two sons just under a year apart. This did nothing to reduce Brian’s enthusiasm for his plan to buy them cars for their nineteenth birthdays. In fact, he was delighted at the prospect of being able to do it twice. He couldn’t wait for them to turn nineteen.
One night as he tucked the boys in, Brian alluded to the big event. “There’s going to be a great surprise for you when you turn 19, boys! A great surprise!”
“How long will that be?” asked Worth.
“Ten years for you,” said Brian. “And almost eleven years for you, Ervin.”
“So I’ll already know what the surprise is when I get mine,” said Ervin, pouting. “‘Cause I’ll have already seen Worth get his.”
“That’s true,” said Brian. “OK, I’ll tell both of you right now, then. You’re both getting brand new cars when you turn nineteen!”
“Awesome!” said the boys. They high-fived their dad, high-fived each other and dreamt about driving brand new cars, but in their dreams, they weren’t nineteen. They were their current ages.
When Worth turned 19, he accepted his new car with tears of gratitude. It was a cool car, sparkly green and fast. “This is better than I ever imagined, Dad,” said Worth, birthday cake frosting still smeared on his upper lip.
“I hope so,” said Jacqueline. “It cost a fortune.” She sounded cranky, but it was just for show. She was actually very touched by the scene unfolding in the driveway.
The only person not touched by the scene was Ervin. “I can’t believe I have to wait almost a whole year for mine,” he said.
“Well, Worth was born first,” said Brian, not without sympathy. “So he turned 19 first. Today, in fact.”
“You should be happy for your brother,” said Jacqueline as Worth backed out of the driveway and zipped down the street and around the corner.
Ervin went inside and slammed the front door behind him.
“He’ll forget all about this in a little less than a year,” said Brian. He went and stood at the end of the driveway, waiting for Worth to come back so he could see him driving his new car from the front this time.
Two days later, Ervin came to Brian and said he didn’t want to wait a little less than a year for his car. He wanted it right away. He was insistent. He said that if Brian didn’t give him the new car immediately, then he didn’t want it at all.
That night after the boys were in bed, Brian and Jacqueline shared a bowl of cereal at the dining room table and discussed what to do about Ervin.
“It sounds like the story from the Bible about the prodigal son,” said Jacqueline.
“No it doesn’t,” said Brian. “Ervin’s just being a jerk.”
“Do you know the story?” asked Jacqueline. “It’s a parable. A guy’s younger son asks for his inheritance early, and the guy is really sad, but he gives it to him anyway, and then the son goes out and blows it all and hits rock bottom and then comes back to the guy and begs him to just let him live as a servant, but the guy just hugs him ‘cause he’s so happy to have his son back and then he throws him a big party.”
Brian thought about it. “So only the first part of the story is like the situation with Ervin.”
“Well, yeah,” said Jacqueline. “But with Ervin, the rest of the story hasn’t been told yet.”
The next day, Brian gave Ervin a new car. “How is that fair?” asked Worth. “I had to wait longer for my car than he did.”
“I know,” said Brian. “But it’s supposed to go like this.”
Ervin poked his head into Brian’s study where he and Worth were talking and said, “Dad, I’m taking off. Don’t know when I’ll be back. Might be a while. Like, months, if ever.”
“OK, son,” said Brian. He looked at Worth and said, “See?”
“No,” said Worth.
“He’s going prodigal,” said Brian.
“This isn’t how I thought you’d act if one of us decided to just take off and act stupid for an undisclosed amount of time,” said Worth.
“He’ll learn his lesson and be back before you know it,” said Brian. “Contrite and humbled.”
“Whatever,” said Worth. “Can I have some gas money?”
Jacqueline took it worse than Worth did. “Ervin’s not very mature, Brian! People will take advantage of him!”
“Exactly,” said Brian. “You said it yourself. He’s like the prodigal son.”
Jacqueline pressed her fingertips against her lips. “Do you have any idea where he went?”
“Not specifically,” said Brian. “But I think we can assume he’s squandering everything he has so he can be deserted by his friends, realize he was better off here with us, and come home to apologize and beg our forgiveness.”
“I really, really, really think you’re misapplying the point of the story,” said Jacqueline. “I’m going to call Ervin.”
“Don’t do that,” said Brian. “Just let this run its course.”
“He’s not picking up,” said Jacqueline. “I’m calling the police.”
“No, no, no,” said Brian. “There are no police in the story of the prodigal son.”
“This isn’t the story of the prodigal son, Brian! This is our real life son!”
“I know that,” said Brian. “And our real life son is 18 and he’s in his own car and he told us he was going, so that’s not really, you know, illegal. I think we should just let him come back in his own time.” He paused, knowing he shouldn’t say it, but then added, “Like the prodigal son.”
Jacqueline went to their bedroom and slammed the door.
“Why’s mom so mad?” asked Worth, walking through the living room on his way to the weight bench in the laundry room.
“She doesn’t think your brother is like the prodigal son anymore,” said Brian.
“He just called me,” said Worth. “He’s blowing his savings with a bunch of strangers at a casino.”
“Mm-hmm” said Brian, nodding happily. “I knew it.”
“Can I have some gas money?” asked Worth.
Brian handed him a twenty.
Brian took the next week off from work to sit on the front porch and wait for Ervin’s return so he could rush out to meet him in the driveway when he came home broken and remorseful.
As long as Ervin was calling Worth with occasional updates, Jacqueline couldn’t bother the police with a missing person’s report so she invented errands for herself to run and tried to keep from worrying about Ervin. Brian couldn’t get her to take his relaxed approach. She had no confidence that Ervin would act exactly like the prodigal son and return home, lesson learned and unscathed, to rejoin the family.
“How could he not?” asked Brian. “It’s too perfect.”
“It’s just a coincidence!” said Jacqueline. “Even if he comes home soon, you don’t know that he’ll be sorry. It could very well be more of the same selfishness. It probably will be.”
Brian didn’t want to argue. Time would prove him right and then there would be nothing to argue about.
Three days later, while Brian was sitting on the porch and reading the newspaper, a pickup truck pulled up to the curb in front of the house, Ervin got out of the passenger’s side, and the truck drove away.
Brian ran across the lawn and embraced his son, who was already crying.
“Dad, I’m so sorry. I never should have left.”
“It’s OK, son,” said Brian.
“I just want to live here with you and mom,” said Ervin. “I’ll even pay rent.”
“There’s no need,” said Brian. “I’m just happy you’re home. In fact, we’re going to throw a big party in your honor.”
Ervin was too overcome with emotion to answer.
“Where’s your car, son?” asked Brian.
“I sold it,” said Ervin between sobs. “My savings ran out and I sold the car and blew the money on prostitutes. And then I didn’t even have enough money to eat. So I had to get a job tending those tiny pigs that race at carnivals.”
Brian released his son and took a step back, his hands on Ervin’s shoulders. “You sold it? You sold the new car?” His face hardened. “How much did you get for it?”
“I wasn’t thinking, Dad,” said Ervin. “I just took the first offer. I was so stupid.”
“How much. Did. You get for it?”
“Four thousand,” said Ervin. He tried to hug Brian again but Brian stepped back and held him at arm’s length.
“The party’s cancelled,” said Brian. “And you’re grounded. And you have to mow the lawn this afternoon.”
Ervin shuffled up to the house and went inside.
A few minutes later, Worth came outside and said, “Hey, dad, Ervin’s home.”
“I know,” said Brian. “Want some gas money?”
Brian could tell Jacqueline was mad at him. She was humming a showtune she knew he hated. It wasn’t even one of her favorites.
“Jacqueline, why are you upset? You were right. Ervin was nothing like the prodigal son.”
Jacqueline pretended to laugh. It didn’t sound like a laugh. It was just a derisive noise. “No, Brian, you were right. Ervin was like the prodigal son. But you, you are nothing like the prodigal son’s dad.”
“Well, I don’t see it,” said Brian. “I think the situations are totally different. There’s no similarity, when you really think about. That was a whole different time, a whole different culture, and plus it was just a parable, so…”
“Fine,” said Jacqueline. “Just keep telling yourself that.”
Brian went to Worth’s room and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said Worth. He was lying on his bed reading gushy reviews of reissued albums that had been released decades before he was born.
“Hey Worth,” said Brian. “You want to invite some friends over this weekend? We’ll barbecue a goat. It’ll be fun.”
“Sure, dad, what’s the occasion?”
“Because,” said Brian. “I don’t have to worry if you’re alive and well. And you don’t get lost and make your mom and I wonder if we’ll ever find you again. And I appreciate that.”
Brian went outside and walked around the backyard in the fading sunset light. He stamped down molehills with his heel and savored the feeling of calm assurance that all had turned out just as it should.