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Excerpts from The Art of Disappearing

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 that 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 mouth full 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 the 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 bussed dishes vanished, even the waiter froze, his grey cloth dangling off the corner of a table. So it seemed that the magician and I were alone, moving towards each other at an accelerated speed—me leaning over the table, Toby striding silently between the immobile diners.

A quick look 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 a pair of eyes the same grey-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 the air, an untamable medium, to produce rabbits, doves, and sometimes to support full-grown humans. He splayed these hands, as eloquent 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 produces its own static, a voice that, while announcing itself grandly, is interrupted by blips of self-doubt, as if both the voice and the magician have grown used to mistrusting the physical world. It’s 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.