He never thought Danielle Imbo would be interested. Since she was separated, though, and seeking a divorce, he took his shot. They saw each other sporadically. But he told his parents how he felt.
More importantly, he told her.
After she broke things off, that Valentine’s Day without her was hard. But several days later, he pulled a gray hoodie on against sub-freezing temperatures, walked the two blocks from his apartment to the South Philly Tap Room, and ate dinner alone. He was mulling going to Abiliene’s later to see a band. Then he called his sister, who was with Danielle.
RICHARD PETRONE SR., 64, wakes each night around 2 a.m., dresses quickly, and steps outside to start his workday at the bakery as the bars close. He slides into the driver’s seat of the family car and with a flick of his wrist flips the engine over and the radio on. When a song his son loved floods the vehicle, his loss arrives with every line.
Petrone channels his pain into writing, posting poetry, prose and song lyrics, liberally referencing Springsteen, on the memorial website Richardpetrone.com:
Nothing to say
Even less to feel
There’s no more left
For this sorrow to steal.
He takes detours, sometimes, on the drive from Cherry Hill to Ardmore, still looking for Richard’s truck. Then he drives on to the bakery and registers the silence. When his son lived upstairs, he would hear slow footsteps before Richard Jr. came down to start his own workday. Once, the footsteps came very fast, almost tumbling down the stairs. Richard Jr. had just scored Springsteen tickets and was going to take his dad.
Angela now works in the bakery. At 23, she has moved past the fear, which dogged her as a teenager, that whatever evil took her dad will come back for his family. Her boy, Timothy, the grandson Richard never knew, means everything to the Petrones, whose lives have been mostly blown apart.
They get on the phone with old friends from time to time. But the gulf left by Richard’s passing sits between them and the rest of the world, enormous and untraversable. “I don’t blame people for not wanting to be around us,” says Marge. “We used to be fun, and now we’re always sad. If I was them, I wouldn’t want to be around me either.”
When Richard Sr., the writer, tries to talk about his son, he breaks down, sobbing, hiding his face behind his hands until he can regain his composure. Marge, the talker, keeps going, her eyes always wet with tears that roll slowly down her cheeks, like blood pumping from a wound.
“We’re in so much pain,” she says, “that we could kill ourselves tomorrow. But then I wouldn’t know what happened to my son. And that’s what keeps me going now. To find out what happened, and to see justice done.”
As for the Ottobres, Felice wakes up, and before she gets out of bed, she cries, her grief bubbling up in wracking sobs. She lives her entire day with a sick feeling in her stomach, like something is wrong. And then the next day she does it all over again.
I learn this from John Ottobre, who finds talking about his sister’s disappearance so painful that he often neglects to return my calls. “Everyone loves their sister,” he says, “but we went out together on Saturday nights, and she was close with my wife.”
He is married, the father of 11-year-old twin boys, and describes himself as “bitter.” Before she went missing, during football season he and Danielle would watch the Eagles, and if the team needed a score, he’d hide his face until his sister “gave my head a squeeze so I’d know it was safe to look.” Now, Sunday is just … Sunday. He watches the games alone.
Like Richard’s father, he still speeds up to get a closer view of any black truck. He detours through parking lots when he spots one from the road. “She’s my sister,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll stop till she’s found.”
The police have warned him: Danielle and Richard may have been incinerated, or left inside Petrone’s truck and run through a compactor. But John Ottobre continues to hope, even if his hopes are the smallest. “I know this might sound strange,” he says, “but justice isn’t the important thing to me. What’s really important to me is to know what happened.”