Read More: A brief interview with Elisa Abatsis
The Boviall family disappeared while my girlfriend Ashley was still in Tennessee helping her father with his new baby and the whole thing was really burning a hole in my pocket by the time she was on the bus back home. Ashley loved anything to do with true crime, so the Bovialls were the best thing I could ever give her, too good for a phone conversation with a baby crying in the background. I drove to the bus station early and sat outside roasting my ass on an orange plastic bench, smoking and watching people. It was easy to tell who was catching the shuttle to the airport and who was coming or going somewhere on a Peter Pan Bus. The airport people left more space in line between themselves and the next person. When the airport people said excuse me, it was a question, not an order. I felt bad thinking about Ashley squashed in with the bus people and their improvised luggage and their smelly sandwiches, but she’d been the one who wanted to do it that way
“It’s way cheaper than flying,” she’d said. “It’ll give me some quiet.”
The Bovialls were probably bus people. They lived in one of the old mill towns bordering ours. Same school district, but a little rougher. Peeling clapboard, kids riding their bikes in the middle of the street, that kind of thing. Ashley and I didn’t know the Bovialls, but I was confident we’d intersected at some point, stood behind them in line at the Sunoco, maybe, or bought their old dishes at the First Parish rummage sale. The faces on the posters looked dimly familiar. Tired-pretty mother, sunburnt father, little girl with a stain on her shirt. They were the kind of people you’d see anywhere. The kind of people you are, probably, without knowing it.
Nobody was really sure how long they’d been missing. According to Terry Fletcher, it started like this: A couple down the street from the Bovialls called the police to report a dog barking. Terry was on dispatch that night, and he told them give it an hour; it wasn’t quite dark, just dusk, and a Saturday night besides. But the dog kept barking, so the couple kept calling. Local people would’ve just gone and dealt with the dog themselves, but the couple had just moved up from the city. They were still in that phase of demanding quaintness and neighborliness and better-safe-than-sorries from the town, so Terry did a well-being check to shut them up. He knocked on the front door, peered through the windows and finally entered the residence through the unlocked back door to find a starved-mad terrier mix and no Bovialls. Terry couldn’t do anything about the second thing and nor did it occur to him that he should. The Bovialls, at that point, were just irresponsible pet owners, not milk carton candidates.
Terry dispatched the dog to Animal Control and didn’t think anything more about it for a couple of weeks, but then the Bovialls’ disappearance began to drip all over the city couple’s Norman Rockwell vision. Garbage stunk and maggoted. Car loan offers and Price Chopper circulars tumbled from the mailbox and alchemized into a rainy pulp. The couple called the police station again and asked for Terry specifically, which is no surprise; the guy has freckles and an overbite and his hat slides over his eyes a little. Terry told the couple he’d been meaning to check in on the Bovialls anyway; Animal Control had been calling the station. Someone was fostering the dog with the aim to keep him, named him Murray.
Terry wouldn’t tell me more than that. The investigation was still active, he said. We’d run into each other at the Makaha. I was waiting for takeout and he was sitting at the bar. He bought me a Sam Summer and asked me where my girl was. When I told him, he said “cat’s away” and slapped me on the back and asked me if I was going to get myself some strange.
“Yeah,” I said. “Crab rangoons.”
Maybe I could have found out more about the Bovialls if I’d offered to buy Terry a round, but this was a guy who used to copy off my biology tests. This was a guy who took three tries to get his driver’s license. This was a guy who, when we were in middle school and the baseball team held a head-shaving fundraiser party for me, stood up in front of everyone and announced that he’d instead be growing his hair out and donating it to Locks of Love. For the next two years, girls who could have been petting my newly-sprouted survivor’s fuzz were fighting over who got to french braid Terry’s hair. Active investigation. Sometimes it’s hard to accept the adult version of a person.
Peter Pans kept coming, each with a fortune-cookieish name painted above its door. Thimbles and Kisses, The Neverland Star, Laughter of the Mermaids. Ashley finally showed up on Clap for Tinkerbell. I watched her face through the window, saw it turn from flat to searching to a tight little smile that said she was happy to see me waiting for her right outside, but also pissed that we’d have to pay for parking. She let the people sitting behind her get off first, but as soon as I took her bag from her shoulder, we put on shinier versions of ourselves. My shoulders squared and her hips swayed all the way to the truck.
I offered her a cigarette on the ride home, but she didn’t want one.
“We all quit on account of the baby,” she told me, yawning and propping her feet up on the dashboard. “Even Daddy. Don’t be mad.”
I rolled down the window and tossed out my just-lit cigarette with considerable flourish. I told her good for her, I’ll quit too, we’re closing in on thirty, it’s starting to matter, but she just turned on NPR and said how much she missed it. She couldn’t wait to see Mommy, wanted to know if he’d been a good boy. Fortunately, he hadn’t been. When Mommy was bad, I got the pleasure of saying the words Mommy got into the garbage; Mommy had an erection at the park.
“Well, Mommy shat in the hallway,” I said. Ashley turned up Ira Glass.
“Actually, I heard something that would make a good story,” I said.
Ashley laughed, but not her real one. “Everyone thinks that. NPR gets like three thousand emails a day.”
After we got home, Ashley showed me pictures of her new sister, who, after a week of being Brooklyn and an optimistic Sunday morning as Gwendolyn, was finally christened Evol Love and wore a tiny gold nameplate necklace to prove it.
“Not ‘evil.’” Ashley said. “It’s pronounced like the first half of evolve.”
“A palindrome,” I said, feeling smart.
“I know, but don’t ever say that to them. Then they’ll think the word palindrome is pretty and want to call her that.”
When we got to a picture of Evol Love’s mouth affixed to a giant, veiny tit, I cracked up and waited for Ashley to laugh, too, but she didn’t.
“Carmen had some trouble getting her to latch,” Ashley said, “but now she’s a pro at it.”
Mitch’s wife Carmen had never been called by her legal name in our house. We used to call her 99 Cent because her bleached hair reminded Ashley of the imitation Barbies they sold at the discount store.
“Good for Carmen,” I said now. Ashley sometimes got mad at me for choosing funny over nice, so I reminded myself to choose nice. Carmen, new mother. Carmen, pro-latcher. We laid together on the couch and looked out the window at the sun pulling at the tops of the trees and I realized how often I had been talking to Ashley in my head while she was gone. Being with her felt quieter that being alone did.
“We did so much stuff this week,” she whispered. “We got Carmen all set up with WIC. I helped Daddy open a 401k at his work. Just a little one. You know, three percent. There’s black mold in that apartment. Was. I think we got all of it.”
I rubbed her neck while she talked.
“He’s in a new group,” she said. “SMART. It’s like N.A, but less God, more personal responsibility.”
“That’s good,” I said, rubbing lower. “Mitch could use some of that.”
Her hips lapped up against me and we went from there. After, it was okay to choose funny. We laughed at Mommy licking the wet spot we’d made. I told her about things that happened while she was gone. Stories about work and Mommy. How my mother called me frothing with excitement because she’d seen my Pediatric Oncologist from when I was twelve in the frozen food aisle at Shaw’s.
“She wants Dr. Mancuso to give her that good, good healing,” Ashley said, writhing and licking her lips.
“Radiate me, baby.”
“I’ve got one last wish. Guess what it is, Dr. Mancuso?”
We went back and forth until we ran out of cancer puns. I told her how my mother was starting in again about me signing up for the Landscape Architecture program at UMASS. “Dad and I are happy to pay for it. Seven thousand dollars is a small price to pay for your future,” I mocked, crisping out the syllables. Ashley didn’t laugh.
“You know how I feel about her,” Ashley said, “but you’d actually be good at it.”
She thought this because I tended the strip of garden in our front yard. The landlady shaved a little off the rent in exchange for me pulling up daffodil stalks and trimming the rosebush whenever it started creeping over the railing. I’d planted some tulips too, on a year when Ashley’s birthday coincided with the car insurance payment and there wasn’t money for much else.
“Yes,” I said, in a British accent. “I am a doctor of mowing the lawn with a minor in shrubology and a special interest in garden gnomes.”
She didn’t laugh at this either, so I rubbed my nose against her nose over and over until she was in a good mood again. I held out the Bovialls and she took them like the gift that they were. She widened her eyes. She grinned and sighed and dug her nails into my arm. She forgot all about landscape architecture and told the parts of the story she liked best back to me, which incidentally, were the parts I’d cobbled together through my own research, not the parts that Terry had told me. She liked how their Dodge Neon was found a quarter mile from the fitness challenge obstacle trail behind the high school, and how the father, Dean Boviall, used to be the assistant soccer coach for his daughter’s team but had not been invited back last year and how the mom, Marina, owed the Partylite Candle Corporation a lot of money due to some bounced checks. I showed her the flyer I’d been carrying around in my wallet and we tried to place their faces in our lives until the sky lightened and we had to make ourselves sleep.
When the alarm went off, Ashley said she wasn’t going to work.
“I’m just going to pretend I gave them the wrong dates for the trip,” she said. “Or act like they wrote them down wrong.”
We worked together in a call center that processed applications for people trying to get Social Security Disability. We had started off the same department. Then most of the company got outsourced to the Philippines. Management put Ashley in charge of listening to the calls and grading them for quality. I was still doing the same job the Philippines people did, just with significantly lower productivity metrics. I didn’t stick to the provided script and let people talk sports and grandkids and regrets for as long as they wanted. I was full of other people’s secrets. If you cut me open, you’d see sons hanging in barns and thwarted artistic ambitions and trysts with sisters-in-law that started with helping to wash the supper dishes and ended with abortions. You’d see repossessed cars and flooded basements and a weakness for methamphetamines.
“You could stay too,” Ashley said. I let my hand go limp in hers and she played catch with my fingers. “We’ll just ignore our phones if they call. Tomorrow we can say that you were supposed to pick me up this morning, like really early, but the bus broke down and you had to come get me and we didn’t have our phones.”
She tugged me back toward the bed. “We could go on that trail,” she said, once she knew she had me. “We could look for the Bovialls.”
The trail was steep but I liked the way the air cut at my lungs. I’d expected quitting smoking to be horrible, but it wasn’t, not exactly. Quitting smoking means wanting something very badly all of the time. Out on that trail, there was pleasure in the wanting. The air had that burning fall smell and the first few leaves were starting to yellow. Ashley and I looked for clues and sniffed around for bodies. We veered off the trail to check out the old foundations and the dried-up waterfalls. She stayed right with me the whole time, waited it out with me when I needed to catch my breath. We passed bird watchers and beer bottles and popsicle wrappers and fresh piles of horse shit and people walking their dogs. Every time one of our phones buzzed from our back pockets, we laughed and gave it the finger. On the way back down, Ashley saw something glinting in the leftover sunlight and ran over to investigate. She made her way back toward me with arms extended, hands cupped like she was saving a house spider. She opened her palms to show me a pink hair elastic with a tiny plastic cupcake attached to it. […]
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Elisa Abatsis’ plays have been seen throughout New York City. Her prose has appeared in or is forthcoming in Bourbon Penn, Burning Word, Elsewhere, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has been supported by the Sewanee Writers Conference. She lives and writes in the woods of Massachusetts.
Read More: A brief interview with Elisa Abatsis