The Art of Disappearing

A Novel

Ivy Pochoda

St. Martin's Press

Art of Disappearing
 
One

I married Tobias Warring in the Silver Bells All-Nite Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. It was a conventional start to our unconventional story. And it was an attempt to conjure something solid from the wind-scattered sands. Our faces were bathed in the pink and purple lights of the Stardust Casino flashing through a two-by-two-foot window behind the priest’s head. Our witnesses were a couple of underage punks from the QuikTrip who demanded a six-pack for their services. “Have a nice life,” lisped the boy with three rings through his lip, ripping the ring top from his beer. His girlfriend, anxious to reclaim her spot outside the convenience store, gnawed her chipped nails. The priest, an elderly Mexican in tinted sunglasses, complained about working the graveyard shift and told us he’d once led a pilgrimage of fifty blind children to the Corcavado, but had since fallen on hard times. He closed his Bible, switched off the crackly tape recorder playing “Love Me Tender,” and it was over.

We toasted our wedding at the Treasure Island casino with pink cocktails garnished with canned pineapple impaled on miniature sabers. We spent our wedding night at the Laughing Jackalope Motel. Our first kiss had been suggested by the priest: “Joos may kiss if joos want.”

 

I’d met Toby two days earlier in the Old Stand Saloon, which logged overtime as a casino, hotel, nightclub, restaurant, and employment center in Tonopah, Nevada—a five-minute town whose limits were marked by the Shady Lady brothel on the west and the Cherry Tree on the east. The black waiter, younger than the rest of the employees by at least thirty years, had a mouthful of shining teeth, sunken and scattered like forgotten headstones. When he told me that a man sitting in the back of the restaurant wanted to buy me a drink, his words whistled through the impressive gaps in his mouth. He said that the man had suggested white wine to go with my shrimp parfait. “Sounds good,” I replied, trying to peek at the stranger through the dingy reflection in the restaurant’s window. But all I saw was the waiter threading his way back to the bar, carefully avoiding an old man with an oxygen tank who was struggling to play the slots.

“I think the man in the back booth on the left,” the waiter said when he returned with my wine, “would like to join you.” He set down my glass with a wink that was misinterpreted by a retired madam at the next table eating the landlocked surf-and-turf special. She returned the wink, letting a shrimp tail drop from her lips. The waiter ignored her. “It’s good to bring a little magic into your life,” he added, showing me his disorderly teeth once again. “Not much blowing through this town nowadays,” he continued, applying a graying cloth to a corner of my table. And then he lowered his voice. “He’s a magician.”

His quiet words reverberated through the restaurant. The eaters, the toothless chewers, stopped scratching their silverware on their plates and stared at the waiter, whose voice had shattered their slot machine soundtrack. The no-nonsense town of Tonopah seemed uncomfortable with magic and the magician. With a censorious lip smack, the retired madam tucked the tip she was going to leave the waiter back into her purse.

So I allowed Toby Warring to enter my life. “Send him over,” I said, smiling at the waiter while twirling my wineglass on the uneven table. As I waited for the stranger to approach, I stared out the window, imagining a brief respite from my hours in empty buses and unfamiliar airport terminals—a momentary release from the hush of motel rooms and the solitary clink of my fork against my plate. I allowed my mind to wander, wondering whether the magician might, for a moment, make this particular set of surroundings feel like home.

As Toby approached, the jangle of the slot machines in the next room became a distant bassline clank, and their flashing lights spun into a steady orange glow. The silent eaters were content, for an instant, to savor their food, forks to their mouths. The clatter and crack of bused dishes vanished; even the waiter froze, his gray cloth dangling off the corner of a table. So it seemed that the magician and I were alone, moving toward each other at an accelerated speed—me leaning over the table, Toby striding silently among the immobile diners.

A glance would judge Toby surprisingly good-looking and surprisingly young for a guy who sends drinks to strange women. Although I had never seen him before, there was something familiar as he approached. His dark hair, dark clothes, and pale skin gave him a shadowy appearance, and somehow I felt that he, or someone like him, had often been watching me—from the back of classrooms or on the school bus, across the aisle in a train or from a corner in a museum gallery.

An uneven mop of black hair dangled in Toby’s eyes and dusted his ears. His features were elegant and angular. His eyebrows arched sharply, while his high cheekbones sloped away gracefully. And from behind the ragged fringe of hair shone eyes the same gray blue as the summertime river behind my childhood home. As the magician drew nearer, I noticed a slight stoop to his shoulders and deep lines—rivers of frustration and worry—that flowed over his temples and streamed down from his eyes. His hands were prematurely knotted with years of forcing air, an untamable medium, to produce rabbits, doves, and sometimes to support full-grown humans. He splayed these hands, as elegant as tree roots, on the table, and began to speak, dispelling a little of the dusty silence of my desert days.

“I’m not a big fan of shrimp in cream. Maybe the wine will wash it down,” he said, leaning over the splintering table. “Mind if I join you?” He had a voice that produced its own static, a voice that, while announcing itself grandly, was interrupted by blips of self-doubt, as if both the voice and the magician had grown used to mistrusting the physical world. A sandy voice filtered through the worn megaphone of the big top.

I gestured across the table. “Please.” And we exchanged names: his—Toby Warring, mine—Mel Snow.

“So, you’re a magician,” I stated rather than asked. “Can I see something?” Then I blushed, embarrassed to have asked the obvious. My eyes lingered on his hands spread wide on the wooden table.

Toby’s gaze followed mine. “At eight, I could stretch an octave. My adoptive mother said she’d never seen anything like it.” He looked out the window. “She was a concert pianist. She looked like the innermost member in a set of Russian nesting dolls.”

“I’m hopeless with music,” I offered.

“Living with a pianist is no guarantee of talent.”

I nodded.

“When I was old enough, my mother put away my toys and brought me to the music studio. We had a converted porch stuffed with four baby grands. I was terrible. When I played, it sounded as if I were grasping onto tree branches to survive a fall from a great height. My mother said my hands engorged the keyboard and spat out music.” He laughed. “They never should have adopted me.”

“And you, your father…,” I began, then clamped a hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m behind on conversational etiquette.”

Toby smiled. “And I am happy to have someone to talk to. My father was an anatomist. He looked like an owl. And he was more interested in the dead than in the living. He had no idea what to do with me. After my brief music career ended, I returned to what remained of my toys. Basically a children’s edition of Gray’s Anatomy and my blocks.”

“That doesn’t sound like much,” I said, trying to catch the magician’s mercurial stare.

Toby narrowed his eyes. “Blocks are perfect for mastering the art of illusion.”

“Good for substitution?” I asked.

“My blocks taught me that I could do magic.”

I raised my eyebrows, waiting for him to explain.

He shook his head. “That would be revealing too much. And you have told me nothing.”

“My parents aren’t as remotely interesting as an anatomist and a concert pianist,” I said.

Toby folded his hands.

I shrugged. “My mother doesn’t work, and my father is a minor league baseball scout.” Then I mentioned the name of the suburban town on the banks of the Delaware River where I grew up, which turned out to be only a few miles upstream from Toby’s childhood home.

“Perhaps we passed each other at a game or a dance?” I suggested, even then trying to join Toby’s story to mine without letting him know that I had barely attended school functions myself.

“Magicians don’t go to football games or dances. I didn’t even finish high school.”

“You ran away to join the circus?”

“Something like that. I did a little magic show to earn money. Birthday parties and weddings. I guess my teenage anxiety came through in my tricks. My shadow projections wept blood. Rabbits I pulled out of hats were covered in fake gore. The flowers I found up my sleeves were dead.”

“I guess you didn’t get too many repeat bookings?”

“Even though I could make balloon sculptures of all the famous castles in Europe.” Toby laughed. “So I left home. I went to a magic-and-circus school in California. I didn’t last very long. My classmates started to suspect that I perform magic without illusion.” He turned his hands over, showing me two square depressions.

“Your blocks?”

Toby nodded. “They showed up in places I never intended. Places I never sent them.”

I smiled. “Now you are revealing too much again.”

The magician bit his lip. “I didn’t mean to. Like my magic, this confession is catching me a little off guard.”

“How is magic performed without illusion?”

“Naturally.”

I didn’t reply.

“You don’t believe me.”

“I don’t know.” I took a sip of my wine. “What else do you have up your sleeve?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I have no idea?” Toby shook out his cuffs, producing nothing.

“I might. Can you change water into wine?”

“That’s a miracle, not magic.” He passed his hand over my glass, turning the last sip of wine from white to red. Now it was Toby’s turn to smile, arching his thin lips upward with his eyebrows. “Any better?”

I took a sip. “Not really.” I took another sip, trying not to wince. “Miracles,” I said, letting the word melt on my tongue. “That’s something I haven’t seen in a while. But I’ve been waiting.”

Toby held me in his gaze. “Have you?” He laughed and adjusted the cuffs of his shirt.

“Sure,” I replied. “For a civil man to send me a drink in a small-town saloon. That’s some sort of miracle.”

The magician blushed under his ivory skin. “I don’t know what your definition of miraculous is,” he said, suddenly shy. Then he passed his hand over my glass once more, refilling it from his palm. “Will this do for now?”

“It’s nearly water into wine,” I said.

Now Toby looked out the window and took a deep breath. “I’ve been waiting, too.”

“For?”

“In this restaurant now for three days. In this desert for several years, to see someone I felt comfortable buying a drink.”

I felt myself redden and quickly smoothed my hands across my face. In an instant, Toby’s surprisingly cool fingers covered mine. My cheeks burned. He withdrew his hand and looked away. A shrimp had appeared in my palm.

“I’m not going to ask how that got there,” I said.

“I was hoping for something more romantic. Things get a little disorganized.”

“Maybe it’s better that way.”

“Why?”

“A little disorder makes the order pleasant. It makes it bearable.”

The lines in Toby’s face smoothed out. “Everyone’s always told me the opposite.” He paused, hiding his eyes in the fading light outside the window. Toby pressed his fingers into the table. “Can I ask you something?” He didn’t wait for my response. “Does a little company make the loneliness more bearable?”

What loneliness? I almost asked. Even though it had stopped being true long ago, I wanted to tell the magician, I’m not lonely, I’m alone. There’s a difference. He, on the other hand, appeared always to have been lonely. But I didn’t explain. So we sat in silence for a moment, our eyes darting from the wooden wagon-wheel chandeliers to the window. In the streaky pane, I caught our reflection—the shaggy hair and stooped shoulders of the magician towering over my desert-dried blond ponytail. And for an instant, it seemed that all the other diners had faded away again, leaving us glowing a little too brightly against the Nevada night. I saw my green eyes flash in the glass while Toby’s gray irises slipped across the window like mercury. Before we could speak, we were disrupted by a clatter of falling coins.

I looked directly at the magician. He was shaking his cuffs. “Well, now,” he said. “Not a miracle, maybe, but a minor windfall.” He gathered up the coins and tied them into a polyester-blend gingham napkin. “Here.” He handed the bundle to me.

I shook my head.

“Keep them. You might get lucky on the one-armed bandits.”

“We’d have to split the money if that happened.”

“Magicians don’t gamble. Luck and magic don’t mix.”

I tucked the money into my bag. “For a rainy day, I guess.”

Toby pressed his lips together. I saw them tremble. And then he laughed a laugh so cool, it made me forget—if only for a second—the dinginess of the Old Stand Saloon. “Not much chance of that out here. Rain.”

“It wasn’t that funny,” I said.

Toby didn’t reply. But his mouth and eyebrows arched into a silent smile.

I replaced my glass on the table. “For the wine, thanks.” Sometimes I like to put the preposition first. I find it reassuring. Because I travel a lot, I like to give what I say a place and a purpose. While I’m on the road, I need an anchor, however temporary, before I’m swept along to my next small-town appointment. And now, in the company of this surprising stranger, I needed some ballast before the magician’s words swept me too far into the desert night.

“My pleasure. Tonopah’s not the sort of town you often find two strangers in. It’s worth some sort of celebration,” he said.

“To shrimp in a glass and wine from a box,” I said, holding up my glass. “Are you here often?”

“I did a few shows at one stage. I pretty much keep to high school auditoriums and state fairs. I’m not what you would call one of the more desirable magicians.”

“You seem like a pretty good magician to me.”

“I am a very good magician, but there are magicians who don’t think I should be allowed to perform in towns like this. Some people,” he continued, “some whole towns, and especially some magicians can’t handle the inexplicable, even if it’s just a simple trick.”

“Why don’t you go somewhere else?”

“I’ve been here so long.” Toby looked over my shoulder and out the window. Then he waved his fingers, dispensing his words into the vapors of overcooked roast beef. “Anyway, I’m still waiting for my big break. One day I’m going to play Vegas.” Now he fixed me with his glittering stare. “So, what draws you to a place like this?” he asked, leaning forward, making me worry about the cracks in my lips, the unripe olive tone of my skin—which was badly matched to my hair my mother always said—and the look in my eyes that may have betrayed my uncertainty about magic but not about the magician.

“I do a one-woman Penelope-and-Odysseus routine,” I said. “I’m a textile consultant for the hotel and restaurant industries. So I do both the weaving and the voyaging. Without the Sirens and the suitors,” I added. “Or the sorcery.” I caught his eye.

“Suitors and sorcery,” Toby echoed. I felt the silk slip of something between my fingers. I opened my hand and released a cascade of rose petals. “Perhaps that is about to change.” Toby looked down at the petals. “I was aiming for whole flowers,” he said, scattering the petals. “I’m distracted.”

I laughed, crushing some of the petals into my palms, hoping to absorb their scent. “A bit closer this time.” I rubbed a petal between my fingers. “You certainly come prepared. What else have you got up your sleeve?”

Toby laughed.

He ordered a whiskey for himself and another wine for me. The sweetness of the wine and the bitter aftertaste of its synthetic container made the flashing slot machines swirl in and out of focus.

In the beginning, Toby’s arrhythmic speech caught me off guard. His pauses sneaked up unexpectedly, and he swerved from subject to subject like a racecar driver. With no indication to mark the end of our talk, he announced, “I’m off. It’s not that I’m not enjoying myself. It’s just that I’m getting a little tired.” He cleared his throat. “Tired mind. Thoughtless hands. I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression.”

“It’s been an interesting impression.” I smiled, trying to draw him back but willing to let him go. “Maybe I’ll get to see your show sometime,” I added, even though I was planning to leave Nevada the next day.

“That might be sooner than you think,” Toby said. “Circe held Odysseus for a whole year just with magic and wine.”

By the time I’d thought up a response, Toby had vanished into the tangle of slot machines.

People always say how minutely they remember the details of the moment that changed their lives—let’s say the waltz of light and shadow, the Greek key design on their coffee cup, the bitterness or sweetness of food, the dryness of skin, the specific pathway forged by adrenaline, the black and ocher hexagons on the carpet. What I remember most about that night, besides the stop-action motion of the Old Stand Saloon as Toby crossed the room to join me, is the restaurant’s synthetic gingham napkins.

When I reached my room, I withdrew the napkin filled with quarters from my bag. I tucked the quarters away in a small pouch, then spread the napkin on the floor. From my sewing bag, I pulled out a needle and thread and a patchwork quilt—my traveling companion. When you move around as much as I do, you need your own map or trail—a time line to remind you of where you’ve been, how you got there, and if necessary, how to find your way back. Working quickly, I sewed some of the napkin into my quilt, hoping it would lead me back to the magician.

 

As I’ve said, my name is Mel Snow. I was born in the lull between a blizzard and a flood. My parents told me that it was the falling temperature that forced me into the world. I’m not sure I believe this. I do think the blizzard—its rampant disruption of our suburb—has contributed to the way I design my textiles. I love the patterns, the seamless repetitions, which are both effortless and expected, as clear and orderly as a marching band. But as much as I desire an unbroken chain of diamonds, leaves, or snowflakes, I cannot let them sit perfected and undisturbed. I want to turn up the volume, introduce a synthesizer or a zither, something out of place in the arrangement of the orderly orchestra. So I shorten a trapezoid into a rhombus, skip a diamond in a string of fifty, darken a white snowflake to an ashy gray. And in my designs, with their minute corruptions, I try to create a pattern of patternlessness.

When not disrupting my own textiles, I made a living comforting and reassuring the cheapskate owners of small hotel-casinos in forgotten Wild West towns. I had recently been working for Sew Low Fabrics, and I was struggling to get a handle on their clients who wanted to evoke a bogus respect for Native Americans. “How about something a little more Indian? One of those geometric prints in too many colors. The tourists love that stuff,” they’d say. “No one wants to forget how the West was won,” they’d add with a chuckle. The manager of the Old Stand Saloon was no exception.

I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the magician before taking the bus out of Tonopah that afternoon. But the manager had kept me overtime with a string of gripes about his order for curtains, bedspreads, and napkins, all patterned with an interlocking horseshoe motif—a bit of which I had sewn into my quilt. He had spent so much time telling me about how proud he was to “buy American,” even though I’d noticed that he’d ordered his plates and flatware from Mexico, that I had only a few minutes to catch the bus. I dashed to the lobby, the clatter of the synthetic stain-resistant horseshoes drumming in my ears like a high-speed forge, and took a harried look around for Toby.

The waiter with the jagged teeth peeked around the door of the restaurant, where he was arranging cutlery on the buffet. “He’s gone,” he said. I grabbed my bag and went to wait for the bus. The magician didn’t appear.

Eighty miles outside of Tonopah, in a small town called Beatty, I had to transfer to another bus that would take me to Las Vegas in time for my midnight flight. As I got off, I asked the driver, “Am I going to make this connection?”

“If he comes, he comes,” he replied, not looking my way. He closed the door, and with a hydraulic hitch, the bus was off.

I waited. The yellow sun began to melt and spread, dyeing the sky rust, then crimson, and finally cornflower blue. I dragged my foot through the loose stones and watched as the traffic began to pick up—the late-night convertibles and caravans heading for a night out in Vegas.

After two hours, I stood up, shouldering my bag, and prepared to walk to the gas station in the distance. I had gone only a few steps when a brown minivan came to a halt next to me. I picked up my pace, but my bag was heavy. I didn’t turn around until someone lifted it from my shoulder.

“The desert is no place for someone named Mel Snow.”

I faced the magician. “I missed the bus, I think.” I tried to hide a smile. The sun reflected off the jet buttons on Toby’s black cowboy shirt—the only visible manifestation of his time in the West. A tumbleweed rolled down the two-lane blacktop toward us. I stared beyond it, at the rusted desert disappearing toward distant mesas.

“You shouldn’t mind missing things. Things go missing for me every day. Books, bags, even shoes, both of them. It’s an art.” Toby trapped the tumbleweed with the toe of his shoe.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Looking for you.” He bit his lip and looked away. I looked down at his angular shadow stretching across the highway.

“Really?”

“I’m not good with people, normally,” the magician said, the static of his voice almost swallowing his words.

“I thought you said that I was the lonely one.”

“Are you getting in?”

I already had my hand on the door. I peered into the back of the van. “No assistant?”

Toby bit his lip and shook his head. The bravado of the previous night was absent. He reached for the shift, brushing my thigh. My fingers extended toward his but coiled instead around my seat belt as he put the car in gear.

“My last assistant vanished,” he said.

“In a puff of smoke?”

“Something like that.”

I watched the desert stretch itself out alongside the road in swirls of sand and rough plants. When I shifted my gaze across the windshield, I often found that I was looking at the spot Toby’s eyes had just left.

“You never told me where you’re going,” the magician said.

“You never said where you’re taking me.”

“To see my show.”

I smiled as I watched the mesas pop up alongside us—tea tables for Titans.

 

The town of Intersection, Nevada, lies one hundred miles east of the Old Stand Saloon, just off the Tonopah highway—a slow road that’s hardly traveled, on account of its two-lane nonsense and lack of exit signs. Intersection was built around a gas station that expanded into a convenience store, which expanded into a diner when the old highway was first built. Tract houses sprouted around the diner, and then a visionary from Reno thought he smelled gold and tried his luck with a casino. Then came a whore house and then more tract houses. And soon the town was crawling with a first generation of Intersection natives.

Greta Civalier, called Sunshine, who wove her story into mine and Toby’s, was half Quebecois and half Navajo, and Intersection born-and-bred. At sixteen, she was attractive, but not so romantically attractive as the role she had written for herself. Although she had the benefits of her mother’s sun-baked coloring and her father’s elegant profile, she hid both of these under the tattered black trimmings of teen-goth style. Her thick brown hair was interwoven with patchy black dye. Chipped black nail polish covered her chewed nails. Stripes of dark eyeliner masked her eyes, while white makeup did its best to obscure the glowing skin beneath.

Along with her friends, Greta had experienced a period of eighth-grade rebellion, during which she haunted parking lots in ripped clothes and planned small acts of vandalism she never carried out. But when her friends moved on to the next fad—boys and glitter and faded denim—Greta’s personal style grew darker. Her multicolored punk fashion gave way to a mall-goth look of platform boots and oversized black T-shirts advertising bands like Obituary and Cradle of Filth. Soon Greta, no longer wanting to be a billboard for music she really didn’t enjoy, began to take an interest in the occult, finally fixating on death, dying, and the dead. At least death, unlike the rotating fads embraced by her friends, would never go out of style. Death was real. Immortality was even better.

The nickname Sunshine, taken from her mother’s favorite clairvoyant on the Psychic Friends Network, was an attempt by the Civalier family to rescue their daughter. Greta’s mother, who had abandoned her native religion, scorning its sweat lodges and canyon lore, tried everything to weed out what she called “that child’s morbid fixination.” She sent Greta to a summer camp run by a splinter group of fundamentalist Christians and enrolled her in several after-school Bible studies. But the Bible summer had served only to reinforce Greta’s fixination, and she came home with stories about how her counselors were looking forward to the day of Revelation, the day when, according to Greta, “Everyone would be, like, totally happy to die.”

We met Greta in the Route 66 Diamond Diner, which lies nowhere near the classic highway. After school, for $3.75 an hour, she tied back her half-dyed hair and traded her black uniform for a white apron and a sea green dress while she sloshed coffee, blended milk shakes, and cried “Order up!” Toby and I were seated at the far end of the counter, hoping to grab a quick burger before his show.

“Take your order?” Greta issued her questions without interrogatory words. It was just easier that way. She tapped her black nails on the counter and fiddled with the strands of ball-chain necklaces looped around her neck. Noticing that Toby was removing a creamer from underneath my chin, she said, “Cool.” And then she looked at me with the teenage horror of having ascribed coolness to something that might not be so. “That all you can do?” she asked.

“All?”

“Like, can you do real stuff?”

“Depends on what you mean by real. But I can do more than this,” he said, producing a saltshaker from the air with a pop.

“I was kinda into that when I was younger. But now it’s pretty dumb, you know.” She gave him a strange smile, one that seemed to mock the magician.

“I don’t know. Tell me.”

“Oh, not that you are dumb. Personally. It’s just that I think card tricks are sorta boring.”

“I don’t do card tricks. I promise,” Toby assured her.

Greta wandered off to the far end of the counter without taking our order. A moment later, she was back carrying a flyer. “You’re not that magician? The one performing tonight?”

“I might be,” Toby replied.

Greta tapped her nails on the counter. “Well, are you or not?”

Toby nodded.

“I saw your show.”

Toby didn’t reply.

“A couple of years ago. State fair.”

The magician’s jaw tightened.

“You made that woman disappear. Your assistant.”

“Not quite,” Toby muttered.

“So, then what?”

“Is our little punk girl bothering you?” a sandy-haired kid sitting farther down the counter asked.

“Shut up, Jimmy. I’m not a punk.” Greta narrowed her heavily lined eyes. “That’s my boyfriend,” she said under her breath.

“Yeah?” Jimmy said with a laugh, “So, what are you?”

“I’m a nihilist.”

“And what’s that?”

“It means I think there’s no point to anything, especially if you’re stuck in a dumb town like this.”

“Whatever, Sunshine,” Jimmy said.

“Don’t call me that.” Greta turned back to Toby. “I was wondering when you’d pass through.”

“Here I am.”

“And with a new assistant,” Greta said, looking at me.

I shook my head.

“No? So, you looking for one?”

“One what?” Toby asked.

“An assistant.”

“No. I stopped doing magic with people.”

“You think I’m going to work in this diner my whole life.”

“I don’t know what you are going to do,” Toby said. “But I’m hoping that, at least for now, you are going to take our order.”

“Yeah?” Greta fumbled for her pad. “I know what kind of magic you can do.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” the magician replied, then consulted the menu.

“You ever do Vegas?”

“Soon.”

“Like you’re ever going to Vegas,” Jimmy called.

“What do you know?” Greta snapped. Then she turned to Toby. “If you do Vegas, you’ll need an assistant.”

Toby shook his head.

“I’ll come.”

“Why don’t you start by coming tonight?” Toby asked.

“You gonna do anything dangerous?”

“I might.”

“Maybe. So maybe.”

 

When I joined the thin line of spectators trickling into the Intersection High auditorium, I wasn’t surprised to see Jimmy, Greta, and her two best friends already sitting in the second row, right down from the seat Toby had reserved for me. They looked around nervously, doing a poor job of smothering their excitement with teenage skepticism. There was an uncertain electricity running through the auditorium as people prepared to abandon their common sense.

Toby’s show smelled of sideshow and vaudeville. Crushed velvet capes shiny with wear, three-note music box crackle, and black top hats green with age formed the backdrop that allowed him to be distrusted and believed. He had all the lines from magicians past. “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you are going to see things behave in a way you never thought possible,” he began, using the worn pomp and circumstance opener of any magic show. It was as if he was trying to conjure the image of a traditional magic show to distract the audience from his brand of magic—the kind that didn’t involve tricks.

His hands—which seemed so much smoother onstage than they had on the Tonopah table—cut through the air with disarming grace as he opened with a series of shadow projections that showed the road from Beatty to Tonopah with its parade of passing mesas. As he bent and curled his fingers, the mesas ran together until they exploded on the screen as a rushing river.

Once Toby had folded away the screen, he took off his top-coat and turned it inside out. As he reversed the sleeves, the coat vanished and was replaced by a canopy of black silk on which local Native American cave paintings appeared. Then he wrapped the black fabric around his shoulders, and it transformed into a red robe embroidered with Chinese dragons.

Toby reached into the pockets of the robe, pulling out handfuls of sand that I’d seen him collect outside the auditorium. He flung these into the air, transforming the sand into snow. Then he reached up, capturing some of the swirling snowflakes in his fingers. He cupped his hand and put his lips to his palm, blowing the snow in a perfect helix that spun from the stage into my lap. As the snow descended over me, Greta looked in my direction and rolled her eyes. “Lame,” I heard her whisper to her friends.

I don’t think the Intersectioners noticed or appreciated how Toby conjured with objects he’d collected from their town that day—street signs, coffee cups from the Route 66 diner, a wreath from the war memorial. They had been expecting rabbits and hats and enchanted bottles. They didn’t know what to think when Toby caused a seasonal shift onstage or when he made a bed of verdant flowers grow from the dry desert earth. They looked confused as he transformed one of the school’s banners into a cactus shaped like a famous Vegas casino. I’m certain the audience didn’t appreciate the greasy gingham napkin that produced a windfall of quarters. They simply slid to the edges of their seats, hoping that the traveling magician could offer them a low-impact release from the binding laws of crop cycles, ten-cent slot machines, droughts, and the rest of the everyday. They were hoping not for magic but for a church revival on the grandest scale—salvation instead of levitation.

I’d already had a foretaste of Toby’s singular mastery of magic, his impressive tricks. Now, with all the awkwardness I’d seen in the car banished, his hands carved the air, finding pockets of space visible to him alone. He pulled statues and busts and paintings from nowhere onto his stage. He made them change shape. He made the figures in the paintings move, the eyes on the busts wink. And while he conjured, when he looked at me, his lips curved into a subtle smile.

While the rest of the Intersectioners furrowed their brows at the unfamiliar and all-too-real magic, I glanced over at Greta. What was she seeing in all of this? Not bizarre transformations that confused her friends. Not the red, oily tinsel that made the more religious members of the audience believe they were witnessing the devil’s work. What Greta saw was frustration in Toby’s magic. “Who cares,” she whispered to Jimmy, “if a banner becomes a cactus?”

“I dunno,” Jimmy replied. “It’s just a show.”

“Yeah, well, I thought it was going to be real,” Greta snapped. “You know, dangerous.”

Next Toby wheeled a bank of lockers onto the stage. He fiddled with the combination locks until they all opened at once. Inside each locker was a pet belonging to one of the audience members. Now the audience was engaged, certain that none of their family members would have lent a dog or cat to the traveling magician. Toby closed the lockers, and when he reopened them once more, the animals had vanished. Then a bark sounded from the back of the auditorium, and Billy Redtail McCallister’s dog—a rusty animal that traced its roots back to the coyote—appeared from behind a dusty curtain, followed by the other animals.

Greta snorted. Best Friend Number One rolled her eyes and asked Best Friend Number Two “what Greta’s deal is.”

Her deal was this: “I thought he was going to do it for real.”

“There is no real, stupid. It’s a magic show,” Best Friend Number Two advised.

But Greta wasn’t listening. “Imagine if you could vanish for good. Now, that would be something,” she said to Jimmy. “Hey!” Greta called loudly from the audience. “Why don’t you make it disappear for real?”

Toby shook his head and smiled. Greta’s friends squirmed as she opened her mouth again.

“I thought you were going to do something good. Like cut someone in half.”

Toby didn’t lose his cool. He just slid into his next illusion.

“You should cut someone in half,” Greta managed before Jimmy silenced her.

“You’d love that,” Best Friend Number One said.

“Only if it were real,” Greta said.

The show finished. The audience filed out of the theater more baffled than entertained. I hovered in the wings, still warmed by the inexplicable thrill of the performance. Finally Toby emerged.

I rushed over to him and clasped my hands around his wrists. “That was incredible. The mesas. The coins and the napkin. It’s like you made it up on the spot.”

Toby winked. He leaned toward me, but I shied away. The magician cleared his throat. “Sometimes the audience gets it, sometimes they don’t. I’d say tonight was fifty-fifty.” I let go of his arms. “But you know what, it doesn’t matter. By next year, they’ll have forgotten what they didn’t like. And I’ll be up there again with a completely different show.” Toby looped his arm around my shoulder.

I allowed my head to rest against his arm as I watched the crowd disperse, wondering if the magician had forgotten his last assistant as easily as this audience would forget him.

Outside, Greta and her friends were loitering around their cars, smoking, flirting, cursing.

“Hey,” Greta called, “I thought you said you were gonna do something cool.”

“I thought it was cool,” one of her friends said.

“Yeah, like with everyone’s pet. That was cool,” Jimmy offered.

“It wasn’t,” Greta said. “Nothing happened. Everything’s the same as it was before.”

“I don’t know, Greta,” Best Friend Number Two said. “Most of the show was, like, kinda too real.”

Greta shrugged and turned her back. “Good luck in Vegas,” she muttered.

We got in the car and drove out of Intersection. A few miles down the highway, we stopped for gas. I fiddled with the glove box, searching for a piece of fabric from Toby’s show that I could join to my quilt. Finding none, I wandered into the small convenience store and waited for him to pay. Just inside the door was a solitary slot machine. I reached into my bag and found the pouch filled with quarters. I wriggled one out and fed it to the slot. I pulled the handle. The wheels whirred. Music clattered out of the machine. I looked over at Toby as he tucked his receipt into his pocket. Then money began to fall. It slipped out of the machine, tumbling down onto my shoes: $325.

“Well,” the attendant said. “Well, well, well. She ain’t paid out in a while.”

I shook my head in astonishment.

“Three hundred and twenty-five’s the max,” he continued. “That outta do you just fine.”

“For what?” Toby asked.

“For a Vegas wedding. That’s where you’re heading, ain’t it? Same machine paid for me and my wife.”

I married Tobias Warring in the Silver Bells All-Nite Wedding Chapel on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. But you already know that. It was our way to end the pro cession of lonely roads and empty hotel rooms. For Toby, it was a way to conjure something permanent into his too-malleable world and perhaps, I wondered, to replace someone he’d made vanish. For me, maybe it was a way to fill the hole torn by my brother’s defection—but that was a story I had yet to tell my husband. That night we shared a bed in the Laughing Jackalope Motel at the bottom of the Strip. The room had a vibrating bed, a quarter for fifteen minutes. I used three dollars of change to rock us to sleep. And we slept wound around each other, shaking like giant rubber teardrops.

 
ART OF DISAPPEARING. Copyright © 2009 by Ivy Pochoda. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.