Ana Kate Barker-2

Vanitas

 

Written by Ana Kate Barker

 

Bicycle-chic was all the rage in Paris according to the cigarette-scented magazine in Sue’s Hairdos. The only issue of Vogue was warped from years of being dowsed in water and hairspray then re-dried with a hair dryer time and time again. The magazine belonged to Sue, but the salon belonged to her mother, Mrs. Sue Jones. Naming children after their parents seemed the proper thing to do in such a simple town, not to preserve family heritage, but because no one living in the boondocks had an ounce of originality in Sue’s opinion. 

“Sue’s Hairdos has a nice ring to it and it rhymes to boot,” said Mrs. Jones when she first slapped the pink letter stickers onto the window. Sue blushed at her mother’s simple-mindedness, but smiled amicably. Sue had just graduated college, a small community one, but her mother had paid for the education with funds from the salon and few others in these parts ever finished high school, so Sue never complained. She also never mentioned that she didn’t plan to work at the salon forever, but her mother noticed her taste for finer things and delusions of grandeur. 

Mrs. Jones reported that a retired socialite settled in town and opened the first high-end boutique, so Sue snatched up her precious Vogue from the table next to the dryer chair and headed to her mother’s 80s time capsule of a closet. She was thankful that fashion trends resurface after finding the perfect neck scarf to mimic the cover model. She tied it around her neck in a stylish knot. 

Sue didn’t own a bicycle to complete the look, but Joe next door did. The two hadn’t spoken since Joe’s heartfelt words the day before Sue started college, so she touched up her lipstick and tousled her curls and strutted to his front door. 

***

As Sue approached, Joe lifted a brow and turned off his push-mower. “Hey, Yuppie, I reckon you don’t come to chat.” 

“Not today. I’ve come to ask a favor.” Sue spit the words out quickly because they tasted acrid as soon as they reached her tongue. 

Joe looked impatient as he crossed his arms and leaned on his mower waiting for her to continue. “Can I borrow a bicycle?” she asked. 

“What for?” 

“I thought it would be a nice day for a bike ride.” 

“It’s ninety-five degrees and you’re wearing a scarf.” 

“It’s just an accessory, Joe.” He only dressed up for church and prom, so in Sue’s mind, he couldn’t possibly understand any other reason for dressing nice. Joe spoke plainly, and Sue thought he sounded like a sermonizing puritan. “Can’t take any of those fineries our graves. It’s all vanity,” Joe the preacher once said. 

“Never mind, it makes no difference to me,” he said this time and walked to the garage. Joe wheeled out the same bike that Sue always rode when they were younger because he told her it looked pretty with her blue eyes. She blushed and assumed he’d picked that one on purpose. 

Sue rode off feeling rather Parisian and ready to enter the social scene. The sun was hotter and the trek steeper than she imagined, and no breeze came to keep her from looking like a soggy paper doll. She arrived at the shop heaving like wounded soldier with a soaked bandage tied around her neck. 

Sue stepped in to what looked like a jeweled mine. Gilded mirrors lined the dark walls and refreshments of lemonade and sumptuous fruits were placed among tables of antiques and jewelry. Sue reminded herself that she had only come admire, not to purchase anything. 

The owner, a slender woman with a leathery tan and pink puckered lips, welcomed Sue to the shop. “I’m Marguerite.” The woman extended her hand. 

“Susannah,” Sue replied. 

Sue guessed the woman was only in her forties, but days spent smoking in the sunshine made her look decades older. A gaudy locket hung from her neck. “That’s a beautiful necklace,” Sue said hoping to build rapport. 

“Thank you, Susannah. I bought it on my last European tour.” Marguerite unlatched the locket that was clearly visible from her neck and handed the massive chunk of gold to Sue for closer inspection. Sue ran her finger over the outer etchings and opened the locket to find it empty before returning it. 

“Make yourself at home and let me know if you need any assistance.” Marguerite walked to the next customer. 

Sue was determined not to spend a dime, but sighed in resignation when she spotted a single painting high in the corner of a back wall, out of reach. Sue craned her neck to gaze at the alluring flower still-life. 

“Beautiful painting isn’t it.” Marguerite approached from behind. 

“Oh, yes,” Sue agreed. 

“It’s Dutch, from the Baroque period. Have you ever studied Davidsz de Heem?” 

Sue blushed. “I’m not familiar with his work,” she said trying her best to sound intelligent. 

“Ah. Well this replica is not for sale, but since you love it so much I would be willing to give you a deal.” 

“How much?” Sue asked. 

“How about seventy-five? It’s really quite a steal. No one else here would own anything like it.” 

If I’ve learned on thing from this uncultured town, it’s frugality, Sue thought. She hesitated and strained her eyes upward to get a better look. 

“Well, seeing how much you appreciate the piece, I’ll give it to you for fifty and throw in the frame. What do you say?” 

“I’ll take it. Thank you.” 

“Excellent!” Now where did Bill put that ladder?” Marguerite carelessly scanned the room. “I guess you’ll have to wait until my assistant Bill comes back because I can’t get it down by myself. Why don’t you return in about an hour and I’ll have it ready for you.” 

***

Sue rode her bike up the street to a small burger joint, ordered an iced tea, and readjusted her scarf. She sat outside on a shaded bench because she was not interested in smelling like a French fry, despite her Paris-chic look. As Sue sipped her tea, she envisioned the painting and then her tiny house and scrunched her nose. Her wood paneled walls were not fit for such décor. Perhaps, Sue thought, she would keep it safely wrapped until she moved out, but changed her mind when she imagined the impression it would leave on any small-town folk or college pals who came to visit. 

When she returned to the shop, Marguerite handed Sue her purchase wrapped in brown paper and tied with a blue ribbon. “Pleasure doing business with you. Come back and see us,” Marguerite smiled. 

Sue had a time trying to brace the frame under one arm and steer the bike with the other. “Rough ride?” Joe asked when she pedaled up to his porch in the setting sun. 

Sue chose not to answer and smoothed her sweaty hair back into place. 

“What have you got?” Joe motioned toward Sue’s precious cargo. 

Sue sat on the steps of the porch and untied the ribbon. “It’s a replica of a famous Dutch painting.” 

Joe whistled. “Snazzy. Let’s see it then.” 

Sue released a sad “oh” as soon as she tore away the paper. “It’s not a painting at all,” she said as she stroked the smooth surface with the tips of her fingers.” 

“What do you mean?” asked Joe. 

“It’s a worthless print.” 

Joe took the painting from Sue’s hands and held it up to eye-level. “Hey, there’s a cross and a skull in the corner. Bet you didn’t notice those either.” 

Sue looked at the painting again and was no longer overwhelmed by the beauty of the flowers, but by how morbid it appeared. She looked up at Joe with teary eyes. “What do I do now?” 

“Just hang it up high,” he teased. “It will look grand.”