No one had seen Tom for about a week, and we’d just kind of assumed that he went on some weird, spur-of-the-moment vacation, or that his grandma died. So, no one really expected it when Tom called to say he was on Mars.
“Hey,” Tom said, that first time he called, “I’m on Mars.”
“You’re on Mars?” Frankie asked.
“Yeah,” Tom said. “Has anyone been taking my mail in for me?”
I’d probably known Tom the longest, so it came as a real surprise for me. Mars, boy, that’s somewhere I never really expected any of my friends to go, and least of all Tom. He’s always been a homebody. When people were first speculating on whether it was a spur of the moment vacation or maybe his grandma dying that made Tom disappear, I assured everyone it had to have been the grandma explanation, it just wasn’t like Tom to up and go somewhere far away. He’d usually just rather stay on the couch in his pajamas and drink a beer, maybe watching a little TBS Superstation.
“Victor,” Tom said, “can you believe it, man?”
“No,” I said, “not really. How’d you get up there?”
“I built a rocket. You know…”
“A rocket, huh?”
“Yeah,” Tom said, “a little one-seater rocket.”
“How’d you learn how to build a rocket?” I asked.
“My ex-wife subscribed to a lot of magazines.”
We all assumed that Tom would come back after a week or two of being on Mars, but something about it must have really struck him, because we quickly realized he was never coming back, not unless the Earth got all dried up and turned red and changed its name to Mars. Then maybe he’d come back, we thought, but then what would be the point?
After the first couple weeks Tom stopped calling as regularly, but he sent photographs and letters. There was one of his rocket, which looked pretty banged up from what was obviously an amateur landing. There were pictures of a house he’d built himself that looked like a geodesic dome, and the hydroponic greenhouse he’d constructed out back.
“I’ve grown some pretty sweet pot,” Tom wrote to me. “It’s legal up here.”
Tom had never been a big pothead before, but once he went to Mars I decided he couldn’t really surprise me with anything anymore. Might as well dye his hair blue and change his name to Jesse, it wouldn’t matter. New Tom, that’s what I called him, and Old Tom was dead as far as I was concerned. But I liked getting the dispatches from New Tom, Pothead Tom, Mars Tom, until, that is, he turned into Re-Married Tom.
“I’m getting hitched,” he told me over the phone, “again.”
“To whom?” I asked.
“This Martian, her name is Sarah. Well, I mean, it’s some Martian name, but it’s like the Martian equivalent of Sarah, so I just call her Sarah.”
“How did you meet her?”
“Oh, you know, whatever, we just both saw each other around and then one day I started talking to her out on the edge of this three hundred-story rock face and one thing led to another…”
“What do you and Sarah have in common?” I tried to sound thrilled, because I knew Tom needed some hometown support, but it seemed like he was rushing into things, since I’d never even heard of this Sarah before. Besides, he’d still been sifting through the ruins of his previous marriage the last time I’d seen him.
“We both like the Rolling Stones. What more do you need?”
After a couple years, when I myself was married to Helen, and the baby was on the way, I’d gotten pretty used to not hearing from Tom anymore. He’d send Christmas cards, a picture of him and Sarah in front of a sea of red sand, a picture of him and Sarah holding hands in the hydroponic, pot-filled greenhouse, etc. So I was surprised when the phone rang one afternoon to find Tom on the other end.
“What time is it up there?” I asked.
“I think it’s three a.m., four?… I don’t know… does it really matter, can’t you tell I’m upset?”
“I thought maybe it was a bad connection.”
“Victor, you’ve always played straight with me, am I a bad guy?”
“No, Tom, of course not.”
“So then what is it? Why do I have such terrible luck with women?”
“Is this something to do with Sarah?”
“Of course it has something to do with Sarah, this has everything to do with Sarah. She’s left me.”
“Look at it this way, Tom, now you can call yourself an intergalactic failure with women.”
“That would probably have been really funny to me about three years ago.”
Then there was a long pause, and I could hear Tom opening a bottle and pouring something into a glass of ice.
“But it’s not funny now. Mars changes a man,” Tom said.
That was the last time I heard from Tom. Some gossip would float around at parties, now and again, that he’d joined a faction of underground Martian rebels who were trying to invent their own perpetual source of fresh water, another one I heard was that he had blown up his geodesic dome house in a crystal meth experiment gone awry. Someone leaned over a buffet table at a practice dinner for my sister-in-law’s wedding to say that they’d heard Tom had gotten back together with Sarah and had the most beautiful little mixed children you’d ever seen, and then he stuffed his mouth full of cocktail wieners and laughed. But, especially after the second baby came, little Liza-Beth, my princess, I haven’t been going to many parties.