Robert Branch stepped into his house in West Baltimore Thursday night, breathless from the cold. I wanted to ask about his 33-year-old son, also named Robert, who is listed with police as a missing person. Branch, a UPS driver, was eager to talk, but he had to catch his breath first.
"We were very close," the father said, halting for air. "He was my best friend. Maybe two days would go by when he wouldn't call me. But not like this ... "
Not like three months.
It has been that long — plus 11 days — since the younger Robert Branch, known by friends and kin as Bobcat or Bobby, went missing.
"I'm past worried," said the father, echoing what other family members say now — that they assume the worst, that they just want a phone call that brings that thing called closure. There's sad resignation in their voices because, in Baltimore, with its long history of violence, it's virtually impossible to be an optimist in a situation like this one.
None who know him believes Bobby Branch just left town.
"He wouldn't do that," said his father.
"He would never abandon his family," said Stephanie Randall, his girlfriend.
"He was a family guy," said a cousin, Crystal Johnson. "He never missed a family event. He would never not communicate with the family. He was very close to his [maternal] grandparents. He was a fun-loving, kindhearted guy with a sense of humor."
"He has a daughter here," said another cousin, Chanel Dudley, citing what she considers the biggest reason to believe Branch did not simply take off. "That little girl was in a serious accident on the first day of school and in the hospital for a long time, and Bobby was there every day with her."
"Every day," confirms the mother of that child, Shanay Purnell. "He was there all the time."
On Aug. 25, 9-year-old Danae Branch was struck by a van on her way home from school. Her mother says she was severely injured, with broken bones and a brain injury that sent her to the Kennedy Krieger Institute for treatment.
It was Bobby Branch's routine to visit the girl each day of her stay.
But it's not known if he ever got to Kennedy Krieger on Oct. 2, the day he disappeared.
That was a Thursday, with cloudy skies over Baltimore and temperatures in the 60s. Randall last saw him in the morning on Barclay Street, just two blocks west of Green Mount Cemetery. She drove him there on her way to work from her house in Northwest Baltimore.
"That's where he grew up," Randall said, when I asked why Bobby Branch wanted to go to Barclay Street. "That's where he hung out."
All his relatives describe him as good-natured and generous, and more than one used the term "fun-loving."
Said his father: "Everybody liked him. Everyone used to talk about what a nice guy he was."
Bobby Branch grew up in the 1980s on Barclay Street. He sometimes had to care for his younger brothers and sisters. His mother, now deceased, had a drug problem. "Bobby took care of his siblings when his mom wasn't there, when she had her struggles," said Johnson.
According to his girlfriend and a cousin, Bobby Branch did home-improvement work for a friend and had started to earn additional income from an online marketing business that offers discounts on an array of products, services and vacations. His job was to promote the discounts and recruit customers.
"People thought he had money," Randall said. "People are jealous of him."
I asked if she thought Bobby Branch had enemies in the old neighborhood.
"He had some issues down there," she said. I asked what that meant. Without offering specifics, Randall suggested that he might have had disagreements with others from Barclay Street. "He's secretive about what he does," she said.
I checked to see whether Bobby Branch had ever committed a serious crime, the kind that might have sent him to prison. But court records revealed just a few arrests on minor charges, including marijuana possession.
Baltimore police confirmed that he was reported missing Oct. 2, last seen in the area where Randall had dropped him off.
"The disappearance of Robert Branch is still under investigation," Detective Ruganzu Howard, a police spokesman, said last week. "We have no additional information to report at this time."
His girlfriend's last contact was by text message around 12:15 pm on Oct. 2. He replied to her request for one of his email addresses, and that was it. No one has heard from Bobby Branch since.
His relatives fear the worst. They just want that phone call. "I want my son home," said the elder Robert Branch, his voice breaking on the phone last night. "I want to know where he is. I want to know what happened."
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.