Five Minutes of Madness

Molly Giles is the author of the novel "Iron Shoes" and the short story collections "Creek Walk and Other Stories" and "Rough Translations."

Becka worked until midnight helping Danny frame his pictures, and during all that time did Jen show up at the studio? Did Jen phone, did Jen drop off a hot casserole, did Jen so much as offer to order them a pizza? She did not. Jen stayed home with a headache and watched "Moulin Rouge." Becka could not believe that a wife would flake out like this when her husband has a big art opening the very next day. It was crazy. It was lazy. But you had to say one thing: It was just like Jen.

Danny was so tired that he was swaying as he hung the last painting, and Becka had to help him down off the ladder. "You better stay here with me tonight," she warned, but Danny said no, he'd be fine, and Becka watched him limp across the parking lot to his truck. She frowned because no matter what he said, Danny was not "fine"; he was run down and needed a complete physical. But when was he going to find the time to see a doctor? It wasn't enough that he had to squander his genius working at the Art Institute. He also had to shop and cook and clean house and garden and walk the dog and rent movies, and why? To keep Jen from getting depressed.

Depressed!

Becka turned off the lights, locked up and went to bed. As usual, she had a hard time sleeping. It could get creepy in the Industrial Building at night. Drunks wandered down from the Sausalito bars and bums scrounged through the dumpsters, and every now and then a cop car cruised through, radio barking, and she had to hold her breath because she wasn't supposed to be living here in the first place; Danny was letting her stay only until she found a job. But how could she take a job when she had so much to do right here? The gallery that offered to hire her wanted her six full days a week--she'd never have time to stretch Danny's canvases--and the architect's office insisted that she show up at 9. Nine was when Danny needed his latte.

Danny was such a child--he didn't even know how much he needed those lattes. He always looked so surprised. Alone on her cot in the dark, Becka muffled a laugh, remembering Danny's wide blue eyes, his parted lips, the way his cowlick ruffled up as he ducked his head over the cup and said, "Why thank you, Becka. What a treat."

Did Jen ever "treat" him? Did Jen ever listen to his dreams or read funny tidbits out of the paper or find exactly the right radio station or keep the welder next door from making too much noise or the potter down the hall from messing up the latrine? Did Jen ever cut his curls or sew the buttons on his shirt? Did Jen ever sleep with him?

Becka closed her eyes. Some things did not bear thinking about.

The next morning, Becka went out on her bike but was back with her hammer and level and yardstick hours before the opening, and was Jen there then? Surprise: She was not. Becka put down Danny's latte, smacked a cranberry/bran/walnut muffin down beside it and said, "Well, I'll tell you one thing, my friend. If this is marriage, count me out."

Danny lifted his soft blue eyes and said, "I'd never count you out."

Becka flushed, sniffed, glanced at the time and got to work. There was the card table to set up, wine glasses to wash and set out, the flowers she'd just picked up from Mollie Stone's to arrange. "Is that wife of yours awake?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm sure she is. She's going to bring the wine and beer," Danny said.

"How about the cheese and crackers."

"I think she's doing that too."

"You think?"

Danny turned to her and smiled. "Don't worry," he said.

"I just don't want anything to go wrong for you today." Becka wiped her hands on her jeans and looked around the studio. She'd swept the concrete floor, knocked the spider webs off the rafters. She'd washed the high windows, scrubbed the little latrine. The place shone and the walls, hung with Danny's canvases, actually glowed. For the last year Danny had been painting a series of crystal gazing balls--luminescent green and red and purple globes with frail images like ghost fish swimming inside. All the paintings had titles: "Fortunate Stranger," "Fear of a Fair Child," "Travel Over Winter Water." Becka's favorite, a blue globe that blazed like a hot sapphire moon, was titled "Five Minutes of Madness." Sometimes, standing before it, Becka could feel her heart flood, her blood fizz, her lungs levitate. The blue was so pure. The core of the gazing ball so radiant. She could not talk about this. It was just the way Danny's paintings affected her. She smiled and placed a vase of white roses on a low table before the guest book.

Her smile tightened and trembled as the first guests arrived. They were early, but even so--where were the wine and beer? Where was the ice? Where were the cheese and crackers? Where, in other words, was Jen? Becka, as usual, had to be the hostess, showing people around the studio while Danny stood to one side, talking to a few of his students in his usual friendly way. Several people thought Becka was Danny's wife--that always happened. It was partly, Becka knew, because she and Danny, after seeing each other every day for the last 11 months, had started to look alike, with their short gray curls and thin shoulders. Sometimes, without meaning to, they even dressed alike; today, for instance, both were wearing black T-shirts and black jeans.

Half an hour later, lo and behold, Lady Jen Herself, in a yellow cotton sundress that was too short for her fat legs, arrived with a box--could you believe it?--a box of white wine and two six packs of cheap beer and no red wine at all.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" Becka asked as Jen plunked down the grocery bags on the card table.

"Oh look," Jen said, as if that were an answer, "there's my yoga teacher."

And she wandered off. No yoga teacher had been on the guest list or on the invitations that Becka had designed, handwritten and mailed two weeks ago. That list had been tailored for buyers, people with money who knew something about art. These people crowding the studio now were nobodies, people Jen knew from her hairdresser's or the dog park. Becka heard the Neil Young she had put on especially for Danny stop in mid-verse, replaced by Jen's Neil Diamond, and gritted her teeth. Opening the wine, she made sure that the names of the few invitees who had showed up were served first because, cheap as it was, wine helped sell paintings. She slipped price lists into pockets and purses, talked about Danny's development over the years and about the magic that imbued this new series of paintings. She was explaining the gazing ball to two young lawyers when Jen interrupted her.

"Becka?" Jen said, leading a giggly woman with fake nails with hearts on them by the hand. "This friend of mine wants to see the real thingy."

"What real thingy?"

"The real crystal ball. The one Daniel used in his paintings."

"It's not here. It's next door. It's mine," Becka explained. She turned back to the lawyers. "I bought it years ago at an antique shop in Berkeley. An old man there used it to predict my future."

"Could you go get it," Jen said.

"Say what?"

"Could. You. Go. Get. It."

"Becka?" Danny came up and touched her elbow as she stood there staring at Jen. "A lot of people want to see that crystal ball. Would you mind stepping next door and bringing it out?"

Silent, Becka let herself out through the side door and into her room. It was small, a cell really, narrow and lightless. The walls were lined with half-finished sketches of Danny at work, on his stool under the skylight, listening to music, paintbrush in hand. Her few clothes were hung on a line from the rafters; her soap and towel were laid beside the utility sink. The crystal ball, inert and dull as a lightbulb, sat on top of a file cabinet. It was nothing without the infusion of radiance that Danny's vision gave it. When she reached for it and drew it close, it reflected her face, which surprised her. She hadn't seen herself mirrored like this since she'd bought the ball years ago, when she was the star of the art department, a young girl with a bright future. How pale and pinched she looked now. She remembered the old man's prediction: "You will never have fame or fortune," he had told her. "But you will have something else. You will have a great love."

She picked up the ball in both hands--it was light--and turned to go back. Through the half-open door she heard Jen's voice, that sloppy laugh of hers, "No, no, I'm Danny's wife," Jen was saying. "Becka's just a squatter here."

Squatter? I don't think so, Becka thought. She entered the studio, clasping the ball, said, "Here it is. Catch," and threw it. She watched, unsurprised, as Jen jumped aside and covered her face. The ball shattered on the cement floor, shooting out sharp rainbow fragments that arrowed toward the leaping legs of the guests. Jen was harpooned in a dozen tiny places and screamed predictably as blood pearled from her fat white legs.

"Becka?" Danny said. He looked at her in wonder. "Why did you do that?"

"You don't know?"

"I can't imagine." And he turned from her and bent over Jen, who couldn't even bleed right, who had in fact stopped bleeding altogether, who was already starting to laugh.

"Oh Daniel," Jen said. "Go get the broom."

Becka started to say, No Danny, Don't Worry Danny, Let Me Do It Danny, but she didn't, she didn't say a word, she just walked out of the studio into the bright day and marched down toward the wharf at the end of the parking lot. She could still see the glass geyser shooting up like fireworks over the ocean and the city beyond and hear Jen's screams repeated by the seagulls overhead. She opened her mouth and screamed. It felt good. It felt great. She screamed again and again until Danny's quiet voice behind her said, "Becka?" Then she turned.

Her five minutes were up.

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