Nicholas Clemente ~ The Way to Philadelphia

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 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?


No what.

No prob­lems.

Do you think I’m an asshole?


No what.

No prob­lems.

The guy shook his head: No what.

No, sir.

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?

No. Nothing.

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.

I won’t.

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.