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CALIFORNIA STORY Short Fiction

Five Minutes of Madness

December 03, 2006|Molly Giles | 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.

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