Issue 11, December 2013
{ The Prodigal Driver}
by Chard deNiord

One morning the president of a very large company informed his oldest son, Bill, who was hairy, overly trusting, and vegetarian, of his decision to write him out of his will because, as hard as it was for him to say it, he favored his other son, Henry, and wanted him to take over the business. Upon hearing this news, Bill wept and then departed his father's house. As he stepped over the cattle guard at the end of the drive, he felt surprisingly happy and began to weep, embracing the harlots and confidence men who were waiting for him. "Oh, taste and see," he cried. "Oh, taste and see indeed," they responded.

He climbed into their covered wagon and took the reins to the two harnessed mules, Benjamin and Cyrus, and drove them down the road. One of the harlots, Heather, yelled, "Take us to your leader," then laughed on the seat beside him. In the ensuing years he traveled with them, he told them almost nothing about himself, including his name, while they, in turn, refrained from trying to seduce or con him as long as he agreed to drive. They called him Driver, although they secretly knew his name, and lived happily almost ever after until they were arrested one day in Des Moines for double parking, and then exposed by a recent victim to be the famous "Gang of Five."

Bill and the others were sentenced to thirty years in prison for theft and prostitution. Bill spent his time writing a novel called The Prodigal Driver on toilet paper. Little did he know that he possessed a gift for writing until he started writing and the story of his life just came to him as if it had already been written and he was merely writing it down with the little pencils his jailor supplied. Upon its completion, the same kind jailor delivered it to a fancy publisher. The book was accepted soon after and sold millions of copies around the world. The manuscript in the form of an enormous roll of toilet paper was put on display behind glass at the National Library.

Bill served out his term, then checked into a cheap hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts, where tourists gathered daily in the lobby waiting for him to come down to sign their copies of The Prodigal Driver, but he rarely did, preferring to sit and read by the window with the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. Only the men and women with whom he had traveled across the country and back again in the covered wagon did he allow to visit. They had also spent thirty years in jail, growing old like him during their time inside. They'd bring bags of groceries to his room and bottles of expensive wine, then pretend they were back in the wagon stealing, making love, laughing, and trying to get Bill to say something besides, "Please pass the bagels."

Bill never admitted to his publisher that he was the protagonist of his novel, although everyone guessed he was. The book was such a success that only his story seemed to matter. One famous author wrote on the back of the book, "This immediate classic is so much stranger than fiction it captures your imagination with the truth of life as it's happening." All Bill would say, chuckling, was, "I am just a lucky orphan from Omaha. Now where are my horses?" Which people believed, even after his father showed up in the lobby one day to inform the tourists that he was William's father. On hearing this news, Bill sent Heather down to the lobby with a press release that read, "This man is not my father. My father died in 1854 when I was five." And that was that. No fatted calf or welcome back. No all is forgiven or anything like that. As for the victims of the gang's crimes, for which he felt remorse, he paid them back with interest, except for the rogues who'd slept with the harlots he'd come to love like wives.

Chard deNiord the author of four books of poetry, The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), which was cited by the Boston Globe as one of the ten best books of poetry in 2011, Speaking in Turn, a collaboration with Tony Sanders (Gnomon Press, 2011), Night Mowing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990). His poems and essays have appeared in The Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies, the Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, Slate, AGNI, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and Salmagundi. His book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets (Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Ruth Stone, and Jack Gilbert) titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets was published by Marick Press in 2012. He is the co-founder and former program director of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry. He is currently a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College and lives in Putney, Vt. with his wife, Liz.