Still Life: Flowers in Vase

by Katy Street Larson

I

Heidi blamed moving on the mold and blamed
finding the Picasso on her mother. Before the mold ever grew, and
before she ever found the Picasso, H Heidi had lived for the last thirty
years in a lovely apartment in Vienna’s Ist district. There were shelves
built into the wall to store all of her teacups, and her Chinese screen
fit perfectly into the nook between the kitchen and living room.
Every Tuesday, Heidi’s best friend Inge would come over. Heidi
would give her a cup of coffee, and Inge would sit on the Italian sofa,
one hand holding the coffee cup, the other hand stroking one of the cats.
And she would always say, “Heidi, you have the loveliest apartment! ”
It was true.
Six years ago, the mold started to grow. At first, there were just
little brownish-green polka dots at the edges of the living room floor
and on the tile behind the kitchen sink. Heidi would pay her Polish
cleaning lady a little extra to bleach the spots, and her friends never
noticed. But once the brown spots started growing out from the corners
of the walls, and down from behind the Chinese screen and teacups,
her friends couldn’t help but notice. Now when Inge sipped her coffee,
she would say, “Heidi, what is growing out of your wall?” Soon, it
became, “What an unfortunate apartment. ”

Heidi tried everything she could think of. She called the real estate
agent she had bought the apartment from, but he said it was her
problem now. She tried bleach and lemon juice and every other caustic
chemical she could find. She called experts and city council members, and her dead husband Frankie’s brother who used to work at a hardware store. No one could help. The problem was in the pipes and the walls, they all said. The humidity didn’t help either. They would have to tear all the apartment walls out and rebuild the whole structure. It
would cost twice as much as buying a new apartment, and Heidi
couldn’t afford that. She was living off the insurance from Frankie’s
death and the small amount of money she made as a nanny. lt was out
of the question.
Meanwhile, the mold grew thicker and browner and further clown
the wall. It was like living in a forest, surrounded by lichen. Inge
stopped coming to drink coffee and pet the cats. Heidi sat on her
Italian couch one afternoon in August with a cat in her lap and sweat
pooling in the crevices of her back, and stared up at the mold. In the
haze of heat, it looked like little brown tentacles swayed back and forth
in time to the music she heard coming from outside. It was no longer
her apartment; the mold had total control. There was no other choice.
H Heidi had to move.
Packing an apartment in Vienna in August was something only
meant to torture old women with cats and extensive china collections.
Heidi’s daughter, Angelike, had begrudgingly offered to come help her
pack, but Heidi didn’t want her to miss too much work at the airport.
She had found an apartment herself; she had found a man with a truck
to haul her belongings herself; she could pack up the last thirty years
by herself as well.
Ulrich, down at her favorite furniture store, had given her a box
full of packing supplies for free, so she spent every morning for two
weeks on her knees, ignoring how it made her ankles swell. She
wrapped each precious cup and saucer in bubble paper, swaddled her
little porcelain Chinese babies in tissue, and stacked art book after art
book in anticipation of the moving clay. The cats didn’t seem to mind
the packing and removal of their possessions. H Heidi imagined that the
mold looked on disapprovingly.
The third day of packing, H Heidi decided to go clown to her storage
unit in the basement to see what kinds of things she had forgotten she
had. The storage room was dark and had always scared her so she didn’t like to go down by herself. But this time was a must. She was
breaking free from the mold. Each storage unit was separated from the
others by a chain-link wall and gate. Heidi had made Angelike’s
ex-boyfriend Bernd buy and install a large, complicated lock that was
unbreakable. Heidi didn’t trust the neighbors.
When she opened the lock and swung the gate open, Heidi saw
everything she expected she would- furniture, suitcases, everything
she couldn’t bear to throw away. She pulled a box over to the unit
and began to pack. She had gotten halfway through the unit when she
saw something strange. In the back corner was a box that she didn’t
recognize. She hefted her skirt and stepped over the ironing machine
and a broken speaker to stand next to the box. On the top was a label: Renate Utrecht. Her mother’s name. After a moment, Heidi remembered her mother giving her the box shortly after Frankie died.

Heidi had been so distraught after Frankie’s plane crash that she
hardly noticed the comings and goings of her family for a few weeks.
Now, thinking as hard as she could, she had called up a hazy memory of her mother coming into the kitchen with the box and saying something about cleaning out her closet. Heidi had never bothered to open it; rather, she had told Angelike to put it down in the basement. That was ten years ago. Now, she pulled at the tape and lifted the box flaps.
It was probably just an old icon that had been smuggled back from the
war, or something equally uninspiring. But, still, she wanted to know.
The box held two things- an envelope and a painting in an old
golden frame. Heidi opened the envelope first. Inside was a card from
her mother. It said, “Keep this painting with you always as a reminder
of Frankie and of my love for you.” That was all. Heidi held the
painting up to the light. It was simple- only a few flowers in a vase. It looked like something Angelike could have painted back in kindergarten. The vase was only a blue outline. The flowers were had simple green lines for stems and small globs of blue and yellow for petals. Not very exciting. Heidi threw it in the packing box and reached for her
next belonging.

II

Heidi didn’t think anything more of the picture until she unpacked
it in the new apartment. She didn’t really want to hang it up, but she
kept hearing her dead mother’s voice reading the card: “Keep this painting with you always as a reminder of Frankie and of my love for
you.” It would be disrespectful to ignore it, even if it was rather simple.
She held it next to the Chinese screen and above the kitchen sink and
over her shelf of teacups, but it never looked quite right. Finally, she
decided to place it on the wall in the entryway, above her shoe rack.
No one would see it there. No one did see it until Angelike came over.
Angelike was on her way to work at the airport and had stopped
by to pick up a tablecloth Heidi had bought for her. As she bent to take
her shoes off, she glanced up at the painting hanging on the wall. She
stood straight. She leaned in closer to the picture and examined the
lower right-hand side.
“Mother,” she said softly. “Mother, where did you get this?”
Heidi was slightly confused. Angelike never cared about her art or
collectibles. She practically had to sit on top of her to make her look
at a new teacup, even when it was a Versace. Why would Angelike care
about a stupid little painting of flowers?
“Your Oma gave it to me,” Heidi said, taking Angelike by the hand
and walking into the kitchen. “When Frankie died. ”
“Where did Oma get it from? ”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe Opa brought it back from the war. Do
you want some coffee?”
“Mother. ” Angelike stopped and grabbed Heidi’s shoulders.
“That’s a Picasso.”
Heidi laughed. A Picasso? What had Angelike done during her
education? Slept? “That is not a Picasso, schatzi.” She laughed again
and wiped the sweat from her forehead. “There is· no way that is a
Picasso. ”
Angelike was unwavering. “Come and look, then,” she said. ‘Just
look here in the bottom right-hand corner.”
Heidi sighed and walked over to the painting. Angelike always got
so difficult when she had an idea in her head. She grabbed the glasses
hanging from the string around her neck and put them on. She leaned
toward the painting. “It’s just a scribble,” she said.
“What does the scribble say?” Angelike was tapping her foot.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Heidi said. “It’s a word, ends in o, I think.
Starts with a … ” She stopped talking and looked at Angelike. She
suddenly felt hoarse and lightheaded. “I think I need a tranquilizer,
Ange like.”
“It says ‘Picasso,’ doesn’t it, Mother?”

“Angelike. I need a tranquilizer and some coffee.”
Angelike grinned. Her first smile since walking in the door. “Get
your own tranquilizer, M1other. I’m calling an art dealer. ” She walked
into the living room and picked up the phone. Heidi could hear her
dialing and then talking to someone, but she didn’t know who. She
looked again at the painting. It did say it. It did say Picasso. She sat
down in the middle of the hallway, her green skirt bunching at the
knees. Charlie, one of the cats, came and sat in her lap and pushed his
Oat face against her stomach. Heidi patted his head, not really aware
that he was there. A Picasso. That’s all she thought. A Picasso. She
took a deep breath and flicked the hair out of her eyes. A Picasso.
Angelike stepped into the hallway, still on the phone.
“A dealer is coming over right now, Mother.” She said something
else into the phone, then looked at Heidi again. “I would suggest
getting off the floor.”
The dealer came and looked at the painting. He thought it was
authentic. Another dealer came. He thought the same thing. A third
came and confirmed it. “This is a real Picasso,” he said, practically choking up. “If this were to go on to auction, a brand-new, never-before-seen piece, it would make millions of Euros.” Heidi stepped on Charlie’s tail. Angelike grinned again.

III

Heidi didn’t know what to do. Angelike was always over here at the
apartment now, talking to art people. The Picasso still hung on the wall
above the shoes. Three different newspapers had come over to take her
picture with the Picasso, and her friend in Hong Kong had called after
seeing her face on the evening news. Everyone wanted to know what
she was going to do. Keep it? Sell it? SELL it? Heidi didn’t know. She
only had questions, no answers. She kept hearing her dead mother’s
voice in her head. “Keep this painting with you always as a reminder
of Frankie and of my love for you.” Couldn’t she remember Frankie
and her mother without keeping the Picasso? It was beginning to feel
like a threat. But did her mother know this reminder was a Picasso?
Was her mother really threatening? It’s not like she could do anything
now to make Heidi keep the painting. Couldn’t she remember Frankie
and her mother without keeping the Picasso? All Heidi really knew
was that it was the end of August in Vienna, and humid outside. All
she really wanted to do was lie on her bed in her undershirt.
Angelike had sat her down one night and explained the options.
Independent art collectors had been calling with offers. Millions
of euros. Museum curators called with oilers. Millions of euros. Auction
houses had been calling, wanting to know if she was interested in their
services. Millions of euros.
Heidi just shook her head. “When you say millions of euros, how
many do you mean?” She needed a real number that she could roll
around in her head. A real number whose hand she could hold, and
talk to when she drank her coffee in the morning. A real number she
could use in planning.
Angelike shrugged her shoulders and lit a cigarette. “Anywhere
between six and forty million.”
Heidi swatted at the smoke. “You know I don’t like that smell in the
house,” she said.
Angelike made a face.
“It probably isn’t good for the Picasso. I’ll bet it reduces its value. ”
Angelike put her cigarette out. “This is what I’ve been able to
figure out so far,” she said. “The Picasso that Christie’s sold last year
made 8.87 million euros. The most anyone has ever paid for a Picasso
was 44 million euros. Ours could fall between those two, or be worth
even 1nore.”
Since when did Angelike get to say the Picasso was ours? The note
was addressed only to Heidi- it was her burden. She picked up her
leftover coffee from breakfast and took a sip. The thick cold espresso in
her throat felt good when it was so humid.
“But what about the note from your Oma?” Heidi said. “She said
to always keep it. It’s supposed to remind me of Frankie.”
Angelike rolled her eyes. “Think of Frankie when you see the
Picasso in the gallery, and think of Oma’s love when you buy yourself
a new bed.”
Heidi sighed. “But what if. .. ”
Angelike interrupted her. “Grow up, Mother. It’s time for you to
stop believing in ghosts.”
The next day, a man called. He said his name was Michael Buehl.
He said he was the curator of art at the Leopold Museum in the
Museums Quarrier in the 7th district. He was very interested in
the Picasso, and wanted to help keep it in the city. He wanted to stop by the next day and make an offer. Heidi wanted to know what his
offer was right then. Eleven million euros, he said. Eleven? she said.
Eleven, he said. Finally. A number she could work with.

IV

Heidi sat down at the kitchen table with a pad of paper, a pen, and
a fresh cup of coffee. Mimi, her favorite cat, jumped on the table
and rolled around. Heidi was going to make a list of all the things she
could buy with Eleven Million Euros. (She had already capitalized
the words in her mind.) If she could decide what to do with Eleven
Million Euros, she would sell the Picasso to this Schroeder Buehl man
at the Leopold. If not, she would keep it above the shoes and keep her
dead mother and husband happy.
She licked the tip of the pencil. Eleven Million Euros, she thought.
“For my Picasso, I will buy,” she wrote, ” the Versace Barocco
Dinnerware collection for eight people, for €6.208.” She smiled. ”Also,
the Persian Rug rug from that store in the 7th district which was
€23.699, and a trip to Morocco to buy some new tables for my
terrace.” She laughed. “Then I will buy a new €30.000 car for
Angelike.”
Heidi paused. If only she could have afforded a new car for
Angelike last year when she was in that awful crash on the highway. Or
if she had had money five years ago when Inge’s house had flooded,
and all she could do was bring over some coffee. Or if she had had the
money fifteen years ago when she wanted to put Angelike in a private
school, but couldn’t. She licked her pencil again.
“For my Picasso, I could have gotten Frankie that €700 suit he
needed for his trip to China. Or I could have paid for Father’s cancer
treatment in the ’80s, or a honeymoon trip to Morocco when Frankie
and I got married in 1976. I could have gotten Angelike a much nicer
apartment two years ago when she moved. I could have gotten a
better dress for Frankie’s funeral or that antique diamond watch I
loved.” She gasped. ” I could have fixed the mold on the walls in my
old apartment.”
What a waste. All this time the Picasso had been sitting in the
storage unit, and before that in her mother’s closet. If she had opened
it when her mother was alive, she wouldn’t have had to worry about
warnings from the dead. Instead, though, she had had to work the whole time Angelike was in school. Here she was, sixty-eight, and still
working. Frankie wouldn’t have had to take that flight that crashed and
killed him. Maybe Father would have survived his cancer. Angelike
could have gone to university instead of working at the airport. Heidi’s
whole life had been ruined all because no one had the presence of
mind to open a stupid box in the closet. What a waste.

V

It had been a week. Heidi was so disgusted with her list that she
hadn’t looked at it again. Perhaps it was a sign from her dead mother
that she shouldn’t sell the Picasso but keep it hanging above the shoes.
Michael Buehl called again. I see you’re driving a hard bargain , Frau
Tse-Scholz, he had said. I’ve talked to the board of directors, and
they’re willing to offer you 13.5 million euros. 13.5? Heidi said. 13.5
he said.
Heidi did nothing.
The next week Michael Buehl called again. Fifteen million.
Seventeen million. Nineteen million. Angelike had started to bring her
friends over to look at the painting. They always tracked dirt on Heidi’s
clean floor and scared the cats. The oldest cat got sick from the draft,
and Heidi had to take him to the vet twice before he died. It was
halfway through October before she got the list out again.
Now the offer from the Leopold- she had stopped talking to
anyone but Angelike and Michael Buehl- was up to 23 million. Heidi
picked up her pencil to write, but set it down again. Angelike had
yelled at her the night before for not selling the Picasso. Heidi had tried
to explain the lists, and how their lives had been ruined, but Angelike
wouldn’t listen. Then Heidi tried to explain the threat from her
mother and how nervous it made her to sell the Picasso. Angelike only
snorted- a hard sound that Heidi had never heard before. Frightened,
she told Angelike that she would make a decision the next clay.
Heidi picked up the pencil again. She had stopped looking at the
Picasso weeks ago. When she did, she saw the floating shadows of her
mothe1~ Frankie, and now her dead cat in front of it. Death was so
thick there that she couldn’t see through to the brushstrokes anymore.
She wished she could get the Picasso out of the house and live her own
life again. Yet, she was afraid of what the dead would do if she sold it. She drew circles around the numbers on the list, and sighed.
A new car for Angelike, or a respite from the ghosts of her dead
family? The Versace dining set, or a scribble of flowers above the
shoes? She put the pencil down and picked up the telephone.
”Angelike,” she said. “The Picasso stays here. ”
Angelike hung up.
That night, Heidi slept like a child.

VI

In the morning, Heidi stayed in bed until 11:00. She ·was celebrating her freedom. The cats came in and sat on her pillowcase and swatted her toes under her blanket. She opened the door onto the terrace
and inhaled the fall air. She heard the clatter of a train passing, and a
car honk as it drove by. The plants on the terrace swayed in the breeze
and looked somehow greener than she remembered. The Picasso was
downstairs, and her dead mother was happy.
Heidi padded downstairs, wondering if she should make an apple
strudel or just make a fresh cup of coffee. She pushed a shoe that was on
the floor out of her way and looked up at the wall. The Picasso was
gone. Taped to the wall was an envelope.
Heidi pulled it off the wall and opened it, her hands shaking.
“Mother,” a card inside said, “Oma never said that I couldn’t sell it.
You can visit the Picasso at the Leopold, and me in America. Bernd
said he would come with me if I went.”
Heidi felt her knees go spongy and braced herself against the wall.
”Angelike,” she said aloud, shaking her head. “I need a tranquilizer
and a coffee.” No one answered. Heidi hiccoughed. She heard a sound
in the kitchen.
”Angelike?” she called. Silence.
She heard the sound again. Maybe it was the cats getting anxious
for their food.
“Mimi?” Heidi said. “Charlie? I’m corning, schatzileins.” She
tested her weight on her spongy knees. They held.
Heidi walked around the corner into the kitchen. Frankie stood at
the stove pouring a fresh cup of coffee.

 

Katy Street Larson is from Stockton, CA, and is a graduate student
at BYU emphasizing in creative writing. She enjoys hiking, reading YA
novels, watching The Food Network, and listening to her husband play
bass. Her thesis is a novel entitled Greyhound.