(T-G Photo by Tracy Simmons)
In real life, grown men don't just up and walk away. Not in the middle of November when there's a brand-new girl's bicycle hidden in the closet and a granddaughter just tall enough to ride it.
Bobby Smelcer, 52, disappeared last November, leaving his family with not much more than questions.
Bobby was doing better, they all agree. After some rough spots, he was putting his life back in order, renewing relationships with his daughters Brandie and Jennifer, relishing time with his five grandchildren.
"It's like living a dream at first," said Bobby's sister Kristy Ray. "You just kind of watch everything going on around you."
As far as anyone can remember, they last spoke to him on Nov. 21. Thanksgiving was later in the week, but with seven brothers and sisters, the large family gathers together in between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He was a mechanic; his brother had seen him working on a car that Sunday morning.
Bobby, an employee of Shelbyville property owner James Farrar, was renting a trailer from his employer. When he didn't show up for work, on Monday, then Tuesday, Farrar sent someone to his residence to look for him. The back door was open, and it was raining.
Bobby's brother Bryce and some other men went looking for him. Maybe he was at a friend's house. Maybe he went walking. Maybe he went fishing. Maybe he hurt himself.
Bobby was known for being fiercely independent, "My dad got offended if you worried too much about him," said Jennifer Smelcer, the younger of Bobby's two daughters.
By Friday, Bryce called the police.
Soon, brothers and sisters descended on the modest trailer. "You know, when I went in, there weren't a whole lot of things out of place. Everything he had was still there. It's not just like he just left. If you leave, you're going to take your stuff with you. My dad never went anywhere without his cell phone. His wallet, his money, his ID were all still there," said Jennifer.
"It was so odd. His ashtray was on his bed, like he maybe was sitting there smoking," said Kristy.
"The odd thing to me is, my father is a very clean person, he can't stand dirt. There were dirty dishes in the sink. If something was dirty, he was going to wash it right then and put it up. Wherever he went, he was coming right back," asserts Jennifer.
And then, there was that pair of blue jeans rolled up in the bathroom. According to Kristy, they were ripped throughout the seat. Blood had been wiped down the front.
Tests would later confirm the blood to be Bobby's own, but it caused the first spark of fear. Had he busted his knuckles while working on a car? Had he been in a physical scuffle? "[Seeing the jeans] scared me to death, it sent cold chills all over," recalls Kristy.
A search party by strength of their own numbers, the family continued to look, to interview neighbors. Pleading, "Do you remember anything? Think. Think back." The answer to their personal pleas ... was nothing. No one remembers having seen him. No one.
That big family Thanksgiving never arrived. Christmas came and went.
When referring to Bobby, both Jennifer and Kristy switch tenses without realizing it. Both admit he had been missing about four months when they arrived at an acceptance of his likely fate.
"My daddy's not coming home. He's not," says Jennifer now.
Bryce rallied friends to help, and help or no, he continued to search for months. Three brothers, four sisters, two daughters -- all are searching.
Sometimes it's ditches, though it doesn't sound quite sane if you admit how often you've pulled off the side of the road to open a discarded trash bag or peer into a ravine.
Sometimes it's faces. "It makes you where you don't trust people the same way," says Kristy. "Do you know? Did you see him? Would you tell me?"
They search the internet, seeking help and support from organizations supporting families of missing persons.
Lately, they've searched Bobby's things. Returned by his landlord, they had been stored for months. Jennifer and Kristy picked through them, wearing gloves, wielding plastic storage bags.
"We're trying to get things out for dogs that might have his scent," explained Kristy. "We need to bag those up and get ready for future searches" in the event a search party can be organized -- if scent-trained dogs can be available to look for him.
They've grieved a loss, as much as social convention will allow. "It's just different than a death," says Kristy of this time of waiting, of not knowing. "If someone were to die, you know where they are, you know what happened. There's no closure for us," said Jennifer.
Grieving means the passing of time, of holidays. In the week before Father's Day, his younger daughter sits with her aunt and slips posters into plastic sheet protectors. The old ones were fading, damaged by rains.
They are determined that people remember.
"My brother was a mechanic, just another regular guy," said Kristy.
"My dad is still a person," Jennifer interjects. "He's my dad."
With Father's Day coming she laments, "What am I supposed to do? I don't have a grave to go to, a lunch to make, a card to buy."