St. Michael’s Maryland, 1968

The old barn stood on a far corner of Jack Willoby’s tobacco farm. The red paint covering its exterior peeled under the hot summer sun. Jack hadn’t had any time to repaint.

“Structure’s still sound I’d reckon,” said Marvin, Jack’s nearest neighbor. “It’s too far from the house to use as an equipment shed though.”

Jack nodded, crushing out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and putting the butt in his pocket. He joined the other man inside the cool barn.

Jack’s father had converted the old tobacco barn for their small herd of cattle. Jack sold off the cattle when his father died but had kept the barn. No reason to tear down a perfectly useful building he’d figured. Looking up into the hay loft he could see chaff from the hay floating in a stream of sunlight. A pair of mourning doves nested in one of the eaves. Jack could hear their coos as they were startled by Marvin’s chatter. “Have you talked to the insurance company yet?”

Jack’s gaze traveled along the beam nearest the doves’ nest to the scorch marks left by the lightening strike last week. The marks striped the wood, leaving part of the oak beam looking healthy and part of it looking fragile. Jack knew that if he dug deep enough into the wood he’d find a healthy plank under the char.

“Not yet. Appraiser’s coming day after tomorrow.”

Marvin stuck his hands deep into his overall pockets and hawked some chewing tobacco into a nearby junk bucket. A late afternoon wind from the Patuxent River blew through the barn carrying with it the smell of salt, warm sand, and decaying fish.

“How’s Bettie doin’,” Marvin asked as he dipped into his pouch for a new bit of chaw.

Jack watched a dove fly out of the nest. It stayed suspended on a warm current of air before it flapped its wings and rushed down the aisle into the sunlight. Marvin rolled his pouch back up and shoved it into the back pocket of his overalls.

“Her folks are coming in tonight,” Jack replied, “She’s worried about how the house looks.”

“Lucy says that lightening strike coming the night before you got the telegram was a sign,” Marvin said, rocking back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet.

The wandering dove flew back into the barn. The whistling of its wings was clearly audible as it flew through to the nest. Jack watched as the bird landed on the charred beam.

“Do you think I could maybe take a look at the telegram,” Marvin asked, running his hand over his nose, “You know, just so I’ll know. In case…”

Jack felt for the slip of paper in his breast pocket as Marvin trailed off. He held it out to him between two fingers. Jack didn’t need to see it again. The words were seared into his mind. Marvin gingerly unfolded the telegram, his gnarled hands dark against the bright yellow paper.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Willoby. The President of the United States regrets to inform

Marvin’s lips moved as he silently read the remainder of the message. Something small and white fell from the rafters. Jack crossed the barn and scooped up the object. The small shell felt fragile in his hand. Overhead, he heard the sound of a newborn dove.


At the age of 24, having demonstrated no great ability for anything, Lynn decided to disappear. The idea came over her as she sat with Jerry, her reluctant boyfriend of five years, in the newest of a string of trendy coffee houses that had recently started sprouting in the West End. It was so new, in fact, that the owner was still hanging paintings on the walls even as customers sipped.

“What do you mean you don’t have any talent?” Jerry asked, clanking the big mug down so that foam from his cappucino slopped over the side, “What about that art show two years ago?”

“What about it?”

“Your paintings were well received.”

Lynn simply stared at him.

“Well, they were the only ones that didn’t get a thumbs down from the Post’s art critic,” he clarified.

It had been a group show organized by her fine arts professor at the Corcoran for his spring semester students. Lynn had gone abstract for the class. She’d taken to heart the professor’s speech during the first class.

“Painting is a primal art form. Expressing yourself through your paintings takes courage. It takes learning to use your entire body to satisfy your artistic need.”

His paint spattered clothes, hair, and fingers, had attested to his own commitment to the art and craft of painting on canvas. Lynn had used her thoughts as inspiration. Closing her eyes, she’d waited for her subjects to come. She’d painted what came unbidden: the turmoil she’d felt at having to leave home for the first time, the delicious out-of-focusness of falling in love, the numbing worthlessness that had unstrung her when her first lover left her for someone else, and, she’d thought it odd on later reflection, her delight at a good cup of cappucino. Technicolor swirls flowed, dribbled, and spattered first from her brush and then from her fingers to cover the black canvas. There was never a straight line or a hard edge in Lynn’s paintings.

During the show Lynn’s abstractions, ones that she’d explained to curious attendees represented some of life’s more messy decisions, had hung next to a series of cat paintings where each feline adopted a different occupation. Lynn had sold all four of her paintings, all to relatives. Jerry had bought a painting of an Abyssinian stockbroker. He motioned for the waiter to bring him another decaf.

“Well I certainly liked them.”

Behind him, the cafe’s owner put up a large, ornately framed painting of a Siamese cat dressed like a French waiter.

Her mother tried to encourage her, to point out different areas where Lynn had been successful.

“Your remodeling business is flourishing. You’ve done at least a dozen buildings in the past year.”

Her tone was motherly. To Lynn she always sounded as if she were grasping for something good.

“The firm has done, Mother. My drawing table has dust on it an inch thick.”

Along with her math minor, Lynn had somehow managed to gather enough credits in college to qualify as a draftsman. Taken on by a solo-practicing architect, Lynn had shown a talent for making design improvements on his original ideas. She’d asked for, and had been given, the opportunity to redesign a firehouse into a series of apartments. What resulted as a group of airy, light filled rooms, four apartments in all. Lynn’s mother delighted in showing her bridge club the six month old article in Architectural Digest. The thick, glossy pages had become creased, stained with coffee and appliqued with watercress through repeated viewings. Lynn had been elated as she’d toured the rooms with the reporter and the photographer. After they’d left, Lynn lay in the middle of the living room of one of the upstairs apartments for hours watching the sun move around the room and dreaming about what the people who lived in this place she’d created would be like.

Lynn didn’t have the heart to tell her mother that her architect business partner had very politely asked her to say in the back office with the books after Lynn’s initial design success had been cited as violating all but one of the hundred building code regulations. Not only had the firm been forced to make repairs on the firehouse, they’d had to stop work on the conversion of an old school building.

“You’ve such a talent for numbers. I never have to worry about the boring little details that are so necessary when you are around,” he’d said, handing Lynn a check that included an obscene raise over the split they’d agreed upon for the new business the article had spurred.

Claude, Lynn’s upstairs neighbor, was no less encouraging and was little more help. Lynn pressed him into giving her saxophone lessons after she’d seen him practicing on the fire escape one evening. He’d seemed so romantic silhouetted against a pollution-orange July sky.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather learn the guitar?” he asked as he watched Lynn pull slivers of bamboo out of her tongue because she’d forgotten to wet her reed before the lesson.

“No guitar,” she replied.

Once she decided, Lynn thought about how she would do it. At first it was only in idle moments, while she stared at the candy displayed and waited for the checker to ring up the purchases of the customer in front of her at the grocery store, while she was on hold with a client who was really to busy to be redesigning his own house. Disappearing, Lynn found, turned out to be more complicated than she’d first imagined. A true crimes book she’d unearthed in the back shelves of her branch library listed in detail several successful ways. Most of them involved the ocean, a thing of which Lynn had always been frightened. The rest involved pig bones and incendiary devices. Lynn had been forced to swallow hard when she read that sometimes partially ashed porcine remains were mistaken for human. She had nothing in common with the insurance cheats in the book anyway, Lynn realized as she’d slid it back onto the shelf. Where they had erred was in trying to resume the same lives with only slightly different decoration. That wasn’t what she wanted. Lynn knew, besides, that wouldn’t do for her to suddenly take up sailing, and in February. She began to ponder the various ways while she sat, camp style, on the floor and did her breathing meditation.

“I could just go, just pack up and leave.”

The monologue ran over her breath count, over the creative visualization that her therapist had insisted upon.

“It’s good for you to see the connection between your mind and your body,” she said, kicking off her shoes and tucking her legs under her.

“I already do. I meditate every morning anyway.” Her therapist had frowned and motioned to the spot next to her. Lynn had oozed off the couch and onto the floor.

“Have you considered that maybe you aren’t actualizing the potential of the energy you give off when you meditate?”

“No, it hadn’t occurred.”

Lynn had sat quietly on the floor, the sound of the white noise machine masking both conversations in other offices and her own thoughts. After she’d done her usual routine, calming her breathing and listening to her heart, Lynn had contemplated the most efficient way to get done what she had to do that day, something she often did while she sat in meditation. She’d finished up by listening to her heart again. After a while, she’d snuck a peak at her therapist out of the corner of her eye. The woman had appeared to be so serene she was almost floating. Lynn had watched her for a few moments, trying to decide if she needed to get a mirror to hold under her nose when suddenly her therapist inhaled sharply and opened her eyes.

“Now, don’t you feel much better?” she’d asked sunnily as she resumed her pose in the canvas chair.

“That’s the problem. I don’t feel anything at all.” Lynn’s inhales appeared to her as pure, clean air and her exhales as air that contained all her body’s impurities. She contemplated throwing herself in front of a Metro train, imagining the mess and confusion it would cause until she remembered that it wasn’t to die that she wanted, it was to vanish.

Every morning, impurities flowing from her lungs, limbs, and torso, Lynn would turn the idea of simply being no longer available over and over in her mind. She turned the idea until it was polished, rounded on the edges, and no longer shocking. The unreachableness she wanted, she concluded, was something more than not answering her phone or picking up her electronic mail. Total and complete unavailability was all she would accept. She knew that just cutting herself off from communication would never be enough. Already her friends and family had started clinging, as if they sensed she was contemplating something new.

“You look a little pale dear,” her mother remarked at their weekly luncheon, “Have you been up late over the drafting table?”

“No mother.”

“I do hope you’ll be well rested next week. I’ve finally gotten the club to coordinate so they will all be there to meet you.”

Even Jerry, who didn’t take notice of much and only when it suited him, expressed concern.

“Don’t work too late into the night sweetheart.”

He kissed her lightly on the forehead, leaving her outside her apartment door.

“I know how you get when you are painting. Up until all hours, drinking caffeinated coffee at 3am.”

He wandered back down the hall, hands stuck in the pockets of his overcoat which flapped about his thighs anyway.

Lynn noticed too that since she made her decision she felt lighter. Not hollow really as that had such a negative connotation, but clean somehow. Her morning meditations got easier for her. Assuming the proper sitting position had always meant having her incongruously bony ankles and feet poking the bulk of her thighs. She folded herself with ease onto the floor mat ignoring the directions for leg lifts and stomach curls printed on its vinyl covering and thinking even as she did so of the goal she had taken to consciously using her morning ritual to consider. She became obvious, however, that even using this time didn’t alleviate the need. The thought of disappearing became background noise for the rest of her contemplations.

That morning Lynn ran through the list of ways. Faking her own death would be costly and would definitely involve property damage as she’d learned from her library research. She couldn’t just simply pick up and move to another city. Guilt would cause her to phone her mother within a few weeks.

“Just disappear,” Lynn thought, knowing that was all she really wanted.

As Lynn continued breathing and counting she felt herself grow faint. She felt the morning sunlight shine through her eyelids with a strength that was undue for mid-winter.

“Just disappear.”

When Jerry came to pick her up that night for dinner, Lynn didn’t answer the door.

“Lynn,” he called out, putting his eye up to the peep hole and trying to peer in, “Lynn!”

He banged on the door loudly enough to cause her next door neighbor to step into the hall in her robe and slippers. Jerry shrugged and moved away from Lynn’s door. Later in the week Claude received a frantic call from Lynn’s mother.

“She’s missed our luncheon and my bridge club!”

Claude called Jerry before he went downstairs with the key Lynn had given him so he could feed her fish while she was away on business.

“I don’t feel right going in there when she might be at home, asleep in her underwear or less,” he said into the phone.

The door to the apartment was chained and only opened enough for Jerry to press his mouth against the crack and shout for her.

“Lynn! Are you ok in there?”

“I’ll try the fire escape. Sometimes she leaves her window unlocked,” Claude suggested. He tried not to stare at the deep woodwork indentation on Jerry’s cheek.

Claude went up to his apartment and came back down the ice covered stairs to Lynn’s landing on their mutual fire escape. He slid the window up and crawled through, knocking over one of her plants in the process. He let Jerry in and they searched the apartment for Lynn. They found no note. Her suitcases were still in the closet, her passport still hidden in the false bottom of her jewelry box.

“She never can stand to be away for long,” Jerry said, stowing Lynn’s exercise mat in its place behind the sideboard, “She’ll probably call tomorrow from somewhere warm to let us know what a wonderful time she’s having.”

He followed Claude out of the apartment shutting the door firmly and making sure to lock the deadbolt.