Ambrose finally customized his ringtone long after anyone he wanted to talk to started texting exclusively. Consequently, he was beginning to dread the sound of one of his favorite songs, The Libertine’s “What Became of the Likely Lads?” but was too lazy to change it to something appropriately awful, like “Tubthumping” or “We Built This City” or the sound of Pyramid Head dragging his sword across the floor. When the opening guitar riff crashed through the formerly silent living room, Ambrose cringed. Worse, the phone didn’t recognize the number so it was either a telemarketer, pollster, collection agency, or the automated voice of any number of local institutions to remind him of an appointment or due date.
“Hello?” he asked, hoping this would be quick. He was sitting on the couch playing Fallout, procrastinating from doing anything productive now that he was off work. How anyone finds the energy to do things after they become independent adults still baffled him.
“Hi… Ambrose,” said someone hesitantly.
“Yes, this is he,” Ambrose said.
“This is Lyle.”
“Lyle.” Ambrose sat up. “How are you? We haven’t talked in… what? Two years?”
“Yeah… I guess it must have been that long. When did we last talk? Do you remember?”
“It must have been… Yeah, it’s been two years. We talked at Katie’s birthday party.”
“What did we talk about?”
Ambrose wasn’t sure where the conversation was going, but he felt there was probably a punchline at the end. This was typical of Lyle. They had been close in high school, had minimal contact in college, and saw each other sporadically around the holidays when they were both visiting family. In all that time, his sense of humor, bizarre and usually only made him and no one else laugh, had not changed at all. For two weeks when they were juniors, he tried to convince their friends that Ambrose, as a freshman, had tried to orchestrate an elaborate cheating ring in Spanish. He hadn’t. When Ambrose confronted him about it, Lyle admitted that he was just trying to see if he could change people’s memories and then laughed.
“Health insurance, I think. We were both griping about not having dental plans, but that it was a good excuse not to go to the dentist,” Ambrose said.
“Oh yeah. Have you gone, yet?”
“To the dentist?”
“Kind of a strange place to start catching up,” Ambrose said.
“We’re friends right?” Lyle asked suddenly.
“Well, yes, we’re friends. Are you mad about something?”
“How close of friends are we?”
Ambrose was almost certain, now, that this was a joke he didn’t understand, but asked, “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. It’s just that I’ve got this amnesia thing going on.”
“Nothing. Just a joke. It’s been kind of a weird few days. You know what? Forget I called,” Lyle said and hung up.
As seniors, they took Advanced American Literature together with Mr. Badger, who did not at all live up to his name but was famously forgetful. Whenever someone didn’t turn a paper in, he wrote their name down on the board to remind them that they were losing points. Lyle’s name went up on the board every assignment, and every time Lyle would erase his name while Mr. Badger wasn’t looking. He got a passing grade in the class because he convinced Mr. Badger that he’d turned in every essay, but that Mr. Badger had lost them.
Lyle didn’t answer when Ambrose tried to call him back. A few phone calls to old friends confirmed what Ambrose suspected. Lyle was missing. “He called me, too,” Nina, a mutual friend said wearily. “This isn’t the first time this has happened, though. Last year, he disappeared for four days and they found him in a hotel under the name John Dee.”
“Shouldn’t we be doing something?”
“Talk to his family.”
Ambrose walked to the convenience store down the street to buy aspirin. It was almost New Year’s Eve and he didn’t have any plans. He didn’t even know where to look or who to ask to find an interesting party for the evening, which made him feel old.
Somewhere, not far from the store entrance, someone was celebrating early and playing Auld Lang Syne on a piano. Meditating on the words, Ambrose sang under his breath, “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind…”
“There looks like trouble,” someone said behind him. He turned and saw a man with dirty blond hair and beard wearing a green canvas, WWII trench coat and holding a leather briefcase walking toward him, one hand outstretched. “Ambrose, are you living out here now?”
Ambrose shook hands and smiled, certain that he’d never seen the man in his life.