Art Inspires: Novelist Norah Labiner on the mystery of the vanishing curator

I never knew my great uncle Barton Kestle. He disappeared before I was born. He belongs, too, to a disappeared world of typewriters and teacups. In old family photographs he is captured in profile, always off to the side, distant, blurred, as though trying to escape the camera.

On a Saturday night in March 1954, he boarded a train and was never seen again. I suppose that he dreamed of escape; who doesn’t? Who didn’t? Who hasn’t? I myself once vanished in the woods for three days, and when I came back to the world, I had no memory, but was carrying a broken music box. Barton Kestle was the ghost of my childhood. I found him everywhere and nowhere at once. He was no longer the quiet museum curator trapped in black-and-white pictures. He was the one who grabbed Eichmann on Garibaldi Street. He broke up Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He was a spy. He went to Hollywood. He was writing mystery novels in Paris. He invented invisible ink. I was certain so many times that I saw his face—on the street, on television, in a crowd. And then he was gone.

When the Curator’s Office was discovered in a renovation of the museum in 2011—uncovered, really, as a walled-up city at an archeological dig—the artifacts of his life were found preserved: an umbrella, a magnifying glass, a stopped clock. I confess: I wanted to find a clue to his disappearance. I found instead a pair of galoshes, a novel by Henry James, a black telephone, a ball of twine, and a box of chocolate creams. I found the chalk outline around a missing person.

The curator’s room is a box that does not open or close. It proves that a life can be measured out in a coffee spoon or misplaced like a train ticket. The clock in the curator’s office is still right twice a day. There is a secret that even time will not tell. There is an art to absence. And you can walk through any doorway into a story. Here then is the absence of Barton Kestle.

Norah Labiner is the author, most recently, of Let the Dark Flower Blossom, a literary murder mystery about writers who do monstrous things, published by Coffee House Press in 2013.