What’s a name worth?

An early morning sun awakens the leaves of autumn. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford
An early morning sun awakens the leaves of autumn. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

SHE FLED DURING THE AUTUMN of her thirty-eighth year. No one saw her go. No one knew where she had gone. Phone calls to her apartment had gone unanswered for days, and the director of the downtown Rosenberg Art Gallery dreaded what he might find when he unlocked her door and walked in. Nothing was out of place. Her clothes were still hanging in the closet. The black gown she had worn to the opening of her new show lay in a pile of silk on the floor at the foot of her bed. The only thing missing, as far as he could tell, was her purse and, of course, Abigail Kern. Edward Rosenberg did the only thing he knew to do. He called the police.

He was waiting on the sidewalk just south of Central Park when the balding investigator ambled back down the stairs.

“What did you find?” Rosenberg asked.

“No much.”

“Any sign of a struggle?

“Not that I could tell.”

“What do you think happened?

“I think she’s gone.”

“Foul play?”

“Possibly.”

“Should I offer a reward?”

“It’s your money.”

“Has a reward ever brought someone back?”

“Not alive.”

Rosenberg posted a two hundred thousand dollar reward. No one called. No one ever collected.

Abigail Kern, virtually overnight, had become the hottest new commodity in the New York Art community, which meant her impressionistic paintings of street scenes, especially those blurred by the rains, were selling for a quarter of a million dollars, and her last work, entitled The Mist Comes Mourning, had been purchased at auction from an anonymous online bidder that, rumors said, paid north of a million dollars. If you were among the art world’s rich and fashionable, it was important and almost essential to have an Abigail Kern hanging on your wall.

Now she was missing. Maybe kidnapped. Maybe dead. But definitely no longer painting. Abigail had shown her latest collection on a grand and special night at the gallery, and by the time the art critics had posted their rave reviews in the early editions of the New York Times and New York Post, she had vanished.

Edward Rosenberg had mourned her. He had grieved for her. After all, he had discovered Abigail and was responsible for her ascension as an acclaimed artist, the brightest young star in the business.

“Do you have any news about her?” he asked the detective.

“No.”

“What are the chances of finding her?”

“Alive?”

“Yes.”

“After forty-eight hours, hardly any chance at all,” the detective said.

Rosenberg nodded, walked sadly back to the gallery, and quietly doubled the prices on his Abigail Kern paintings. He kissed each canvas and smiled in spite of the tears.

The woman had driven into the struggling little community of Elkmont, Tennessee, shortly after sunrise on an autumn morning. It was only a dozen or so funerals away from being a genuine ghost town, but the tourists came through on their way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and it looked and felt like home.

She bought an old abandoned building on a downtown corner, patched it up, applied a new coat of paint, hauled in a few display cases, and opened a small curio and gift shop. She paid cash. Nobody asked any questions. That’s what she liked about Elkmont. Nobody asked any questions. Even when she signed her name, no one asked any questions.

Everyone smiled and gossiped a little too much, they no doubt talked about her behind her back, and the eggs were fried in too much lard at the little café on the edge of town, but she was left alone, and she liked it that way.

In the early morning hours, she would hike back among the hemlock and pines on the far side of the mountain, search the ground for flat rocks, stack them in a bucket and bring them back to the Elkmont Curio and Gift shop. She had painted single autumn leaves on a half dozen of them before the first car stopped outside.

She didn’t have a lot to sell. Only a half dozen rocks.

“They’re beautiful,” the lady said.

“Thank, you.”

“They look wet.”

The artist smiled.

“They looked like they have been lying in a soft rain.”

The artist kept smiling.

“How much are the rocks?” the lady wanted to know.

“Do you really like them?” the artist asked.

“I’ve never seen anything more beautiful,” the lady said.

“I’ll take a dollar for them,” the artist said.

The lady walked out the door with all six rocks, and the gift shop was empty again. The artist didn’t mind. She locked her door and drove back into the mountains. Everywhere she looked, the ground was littered with rocks. The rocks were free, and there were enough of them in the Smokies to keep her busy for the rest of her life.

Abigail Kern was sitting beside a small mountain creek in the autumn of her thirty-ninth year when Edward Rosenberg found her. His small staff began each day, scanning through every newspaper in the country, large or small, looking for stories about art and artists.

A travel editor in Knoxville had mentioned a woman painting autumn leaves on flat rocks down in Tennessee, and even published a photograph of one. Edward Rosenberg immediately thought he recognized the style and technique. He looked again, closer this time. There was no doubt about it. He was on his way to Knoxville as soon as he could find a flight leaving LaGuardia.

Abigail smiled when she saw him scramble awkwardly down the side of the mountain, past the hemlock and toward the creek bank. He was definitely out of place. She knew how he must have felt.

“You’ve been hiding,” Rosenberg said.

“No,” she said, “I’ve been painting.”

He picked up the rock she was working on. “Exquisite,” he said.

“I’m glad you like it.”

“Why did you leave?” Rosenberg asked.

“I’m an artist,” she said.

“And a very successful one,” Rosenberg said. “Your work is worth a lot of money.”

“Once,” she said, “people bought my art because they liked my art “ She shrugged. “Now, they just buy my name. They don’t care about the art. Here, no one knows me. They buy the rocks because they like the painting of the leaves.”

“You want to paint rocks,” Rosenberg said, “come back to New York, and I’ll let you paint rocks.”

She smiled, took the rock from his hand, and tossed it into the creek.”

“You’ve just thrown away fifty thousand dollars,” Rosenberg said.

“No, I didn’t.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I didn’t put my name on it,” she said.

Abigail Kern had walked back up the mountain by the Rosenberg, on his hands and knees, had retrieved the flat rock from the crevice where it lodged among the boulders. He looked at the painting of the autumn leaves. He had been right. It was exquisite. No one he knew had her talent. Rosenberg took a deep breath and tossed the rock back into the water. He would have kept it. He would have sold it.

But Abigail had been right, he admitted to himself. Without her name, the painting was as worthless as the fallen autumn leaves lying beneath his feet.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Little Lies.

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