They say he left one day. His housekeeper poked her head in when he was packing and he told her he was going on vacation. He gave the same story to a friend who wanted to get dinner the next night. They found his phone with all his contacts in the top drawer of his desk. He wouldn’t be needing it anymore.
He had a sensible Toyota like all the others. Silver or black or midnight blue with all the safety features. There’s a company, Trinity Motors I think, that leases them. I picture him making his escape: slamming the trunk and pulling out of the driveway in the middle of the night, skating through the empty expressways and over the George Washington Bridge, looking into the rear view and watching the skyline vanish behind him.
There was something different about us now. We looked like everyone else, or at least we tried to. We acted like everyone else, or at least we tried to. But people could tell something was different, even if they couldn’t say exactly what. They didn’t have any way of naming it; the words were no longer in circulation. That was why some people hated us on sight. It wasn’t really their fault. It was more instinct, I think, than anything else.
We were at a gas station in Pennsylvania. Just outside the New Jersey border, but Nathan had forgotten to gas up before we left. The service station was centered in a grid of white halogen lights beneath the tall black mountains rising all around it. The sky was purple at the edge and black everywhere else, and everyone in the car was silent. We had talked all the way across New York, through the boroughs and over the bridge, but the discussion had already died down. It was only then occurring to us – occurring to me, at least – what a stupid plan it really was.
Nathan was walking into the service station at the same time someone else was walking out. They did a little dance with each other when neither knew which was the right way to go. Nathan thought it was funny, but the other guy didn’t.
What’s the problem, the guy said.
Huh, said Nathan. His smile was fading, but not quick enough.
The fuck’s so funny.
Huh, said Nathan again. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
The guy took a step forward. Nathan took a step back. He raised his palms in front of him, surrendering already.
What, he said.
The fuck you mean, what. I asked you a question.
What was so funny.
Then why are you laughing if nothing’s funny.
I wasn’t. I’m not.
The other guy cocked his head: Are you going to lie to me now? Are we about to have a problem here?
Do you think I’m an asshole?
The guy shook his head: No what.
Nathan had backed up almost all the way to the car. I was about to get out to help him. Maybe I should have done it earlier. But by the time I’d made up my mind the man had already walked away and slammed himself inside of his car.
Nathan reached his shaking hands up to the ignition and started the engine. Mark had to remind him that he hadn’t paid yet. I offered to go and pay for him, but he said he was fine. He said he would go in a minute. Eventually he did. And when he came back we didn’t talk about what had happened. We didn’t talk about it that night and we didn’t talk about it ever.
Mark had a friend who lived way out near Pittsburgh. Some smaller city in the orbit of the larger one; a college town, I forget the name. That was where we were staying the first night.
There were cars lined up down the block and people smoking outside on the front porch. Easter had come late that year, and the weather was warming. Nathan had to circle the block a few times because he kept passing the distant spots in an effort to find one closer. Mark said it was fine, it was cool, he could park anywhere, around the corner for all he cared. But he sounded more nervous than anyone.
I’m sorry, man, said Mark’s friend. Fuck, dude. I totally forgot. That was tonight you said you were coming?
Yeah, said Mark.
Scott was having a party. I totally forgot.
Mark didn’t bother introducing us. His friend had come to meet us on the front lawn, as if to stop us from coming in.
Anyway, he said, there’s a keg. He hesitated a moment longer, and then he stepped aside. Help yourselves, he said.
I went first through the door. Some kids were standing in front of a TV watching a college basketball game, and a larger group was crowded around a beer pong table. We had to work our way through them before we could reach the keg. I got behind it and poured for everyone. Nathan tried to refuse, but I made him take a plastic cup of Keystone. Then I poured for the next round of beer pong. I’ll help you pump it, man, said one of the kids. I didn’t really need his help, but I let him do it anyway.
The room was too hot, the beer was cold and tasteless. I told them I was going out to the porch to bum a smoke and left before they had a chance to follow me.
There were three kids on the porch, college-aged like the rest. I asked one of the girls for a cigarette. She gave it up gladly but soon returned to the conversation that they had been having before I came. I leaned forward on the railing as I smoked, remembering why I quit, watching our four shadows move over the grass of the lawn.
I thought about the glow produced by the house on the dark block. The noise of voices rising up and falling like a cloud over the surrounding town. I thought about all the other students having a quiet night in, watching movies maybe, and hearing the voices carry during a lull in the soundtrack. Later, after the movie had ended and no one knew what to say to break the silence, they would creep to their windows and part the dusty plastic blinds to look at the house down the block and across the street.
But if only they knew: there was no way to enter into that glow, there was no way to be at that party. You could get infinitely close, your skin a millimeter from someone else’s, but still you could never touch it. That was life, though – and not just for them, and not just for us.
We didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. It took a long time for the party to quiet down, and when it did there were already people passed out on the couches and beds. Mark’s friend was nowhere to be found. Nathan went to sleep in his car. The two of us scrounged towels from the bathrooms and spread them over the sticky hardwood in the living room. One of the kids who lived there was cleaning up already, stooping slowly over to pick up errant bottles, but he didn’t seem to mind that he didn’t know who we were.
We took our time on the way to Chicago, stopping for fast food and coffee at a service station off the highway. We’d spent the whole last day together, but it felt for some reason like the first chance we had to talk.
And what’s the plan, exactly, I said. When we get to Chicago.
I know some places we could look for him, said Mark. Search the parking lots, look for New York plates.
What if he ditched the car.
I don’t think he’s that paranoid.
What if he’s not in Chicago.
Where else would he be.
I don’t know. There’s 360 degrees on a compass. He could’ve chosen any one.
He’s from there. He has family there. It’s our best guess.
But it’s only a guess.
Do you have any better ones?
I shook my head and sipped my coffee. I’d loaded it with cream and sugar, but that still wasn’t enough to mask the acidic taste of the drip pot.
Remember, I said. We still don’t even know why he left.
Which means what, said Mark.
Which means he could be in some undisclosed location for all we know. Doing undisclosed things.
Mark started gathering up the trash on his side of the table: napkins, wrappers, ketchup packets from his and Nathan’s breakfast sandwiches.
Let’s go, he said. I want to get there sooner rather than later. We have a long day ahead of us.
We were late to dinner, but they already had everything prepared for us. A roast running with red juices, brussels sprouts and steamed vegetables on the side. Unadorned, unpretentious, unambitious: just food, nothing more. This was the way men cooked for each other when there were no women present. The table was already set; there was hardly any time for introductions. We draped our jackets over our chairs and sat beneath bronze chandeliers in a wood-paneled dining room. The man at the head of the table said grace and the other one remained standing to carve the roast beef. He was dressed in an apron, which he carefully untied and folded before sitting down. We didn’t start eating until he did.
So, he said. How did it go. Did you boys manage to find him?
No, said Mark.
Any leads? Anything promising?
Maybe you can go out and try again tomorrow.
Mark and I exchanged glances. I had at least wanted to get a look at the Loop downtown – I’d never been to Chicago before – but instead he made us spend all day prowling around church parking lots in Winnetka.
I don’t know, he said.
The man at the head of the table spoke up: He should’ve told someone where he was going, he said. That was very irresponsible of him.
It’s a shame, the other man said. He must have meant a lot to you. I’m so very sorry.
He put down his fork and knife to show us how sorry he was.
Tell me, he said. Was he an inspiration to all of you? Before you decided to embark on this path?
I guess you could say that, said Mark.
The other man shook his head and chewed on a big hunk of beef lodged in his cheek.
As far as I can tell you’re better off without him, he said. To be in a position like that and then do something like this – it’s just so very, very irresponsible.
It was a big house, and there were enough spare bedrooms for all of us. The mattress was some kind of foam, brand new, and I wondered why they had bothered wasting money on it. I lay on the high-tech mattress in the hush of the old wooden room and I wondered if this was what the rest of my life was going to be like.
We were silent again on the way out of Chicago. I hadn’t expected to find him, but I think Mark had. We stopped for gas in Ohio, and I mentioned that we could stay at my friend’s place in Philadelphia if we wanted to break up the trip back.
Isn’t that out of the way, said Mark.
A little bit, I said. Maybe you could drop me off.
That still means going out of the way.
So what. This whole trip turned out to be a waste of my time. What if I waste a little bit of yours.
Mark scowled out the window, the breath from his nose clouding two ovals in the glass.
It’s Nathan’s car, he said. He gets to decide.
I don’t care, said Nathan. Either way is fine with me.
Maybe you should care, I said. Have you ever thought about that? Maybe you should try caring a little bit more.
And we were quiet the rest of the way to Philadelphia.
Nathan wasn’t happy about leaving his car in the street. I asked him where else he was thinking about leaving it, but he didn’t answer. He wondered aloud if maybe it would be safer if he slept in it.
I don’t think that would be a very good idea, Nathan, I said.
Ricky let us in and bolted the door behind us. There was a baseball bat leaning up next to the door that I pretended not to notice. We did a sort of handshake that turned into a hug afterwards. It lasted longer than I thought it would; we hadn’t seen each other in years.
We sat around the kitchen eating chili from mismatched bowls with mismatched forks. It was still hot from the stove, the pot was still simmering; the heat had steamed up the kitchen windows completely. We blew out of our full mouths and chased the food down with cold bottled beer.
So you drove all the way out to Chicago, said Ricky, and you never found him?
No, I said. Not a trace. It was a longshot to begin with.
And you still don’t know why he split?
I shrugged and didn’t say anything.
At first we thought it might have been a three-week retreat, said Mark. But he just never came back.
Ricky cocked his head at me, and I did my best to explain:
Every priest has to take a two-week retreat every year. If they’re gone for three weeks, that means they got sent somewhere. Detox. The funny farm. Problems with alcohol, problems with women. Who knows.
Does it happen often? said Ricky.
I don’t know. It happens.
One of his roommates came down and bent over to look for something in the fridge. She was wearing gym shorts and high socks and a black punk T‑shirt that she’d cut up to look more like a blouse. She took a drink of cloudy liquid from a mason jar – kombucha or something – and looked us over.
Hi, she said. These are your friends?
Yeah, said Ricky. These are my friends from the seminary.
Her eyes widened.
The seminary. Which one?
New York, I said.
And you’re allowed to drink?
You just can’t fuck.
She moved her eyes over us with her mouth slightly open and her index finger on her lower lip, trying to think up more questions.
Anna, said Ricky. We were talking.
So what. I wanna talk too.
She fell into a flimsy wooden chair, her legs bent inward at different angles. She was the type of person who inhabited her body easily, fluidly, maybe too much so, her head wobbly on her neck, her thighs marked with bluish bruises.
So what do you guys do, she said.
I paused to give Nathan or Mark a chance to answer. Nathan was staring at the table and Mark was peeling back his Yuengling label with his thumb.
We pray a lot, I guess, I said.
Anna threw her head back and shrieked silently, emitting only a high unlaughterlike noise and gasping for breath.
I love it, she said. But that can’t be all you do.
Anna, said Ricky.
I don’t believe in any of that stuff. God or the saints or any of it.
So what, said Ricky.
It’s alright, I said. We’re used to it. I’m used to it.
I think women should be allowed to be priests, she said. I don’t think there should be a pope.
But she was already standing up to go, smiling pleasantly on her way to the door. Her teeth were too nice, I thought, for her to be a real punk.
I think priests should get married, she said. I think they should work like everyone else.
Alright, said Ricky, we get it.
It was nice to meet you, I said.
She set her face solemnly and made the sign of the cross over us, and I watched her disappear down the dim hallway. She really was very pretty, in her own way. Maybe too pretty to be a real punk.
Sorry about that, said Ricky.
Nathan was still staring down at the table. Mark was still trying to peel the label off his Yuengling. It’s alright, I said.
Do you get that a lot?
Mark looked up and nodded.
And that’s not the worst of it, I said.
What’s the worst of it? said Ricky.
I pretended to check my watch. I don’t know, I said. How much time you got?
An hour passed, and then another. Nathan and Mark had already gone to sleep, but Ricky and I had made it our mission to empty out the case in the fridge. It was perfectly quiet in the house and in the world outside: we could hear the ticking of the idle stove, the hiss of steam in the pipes, the clicking of the cat’s nails as she walked over the checkered floor.
So are you really happy, he said. Doing what you’re doing.
Sure, I said.
You don’t sound too sure. That’s all I’m saying.
I hesitated. I owed him an explanation, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. We hadn’t talked in so long. We listened in silence to the water dripping from the faucet.
What if you become like that guy, he said.
But what if you do. You said it happens.
I shrugged. We’re like soldiers, I said. It’s like a war. There are casualties. It happens.
And you really believe that.
Yeah. I really believe that.
He raised his eyebrows at me. You really think you’re soldiers. You and Mark and what’s-his-name.
You really believe that you and Mark and Nathan are soldiers.
Yes. I really do.
I waited to see what would happen next. The tense silence, the moment before the explosion. I had seen it happen enough times before; I had burned enough bridges, I had lost enough friends. Often over little matters like this. I was shaking: shock of adrenaline, fake and limping bravery. Sometimes you don’t know you’re hit until long after you walk away.
Nathan was on the couch, Mark was on the loveseat, I was curled up on the rug. Ricky and Anna were sleeping soundly in their beds on the other side of the ceiling. He told me, as he handed me the spare blankets, that I should come to Philly more often. After all, he said, we were so close. I said I would try. Maybe only because I didn’t know what else to say. I don’t know. Maybe it was a lie and maybe it wasn’t. It was almost like living on different planets. It seemed like such a long way just to get to Philadelphia.
Nicholas Clemente is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Sycamore Review, Hobart, and other journals online and in print.