A FIVE-MINUTE LIFE • by Jennifer Ripley

“Hi, my name is Margaret. What’s yours?”

She’ll ask me this about ten times before my shift is over. I always reply: “Nice to meet you, Margaret. I’m Roger.”

“Oh, how marvelous to meet you, Roger! Marvelous. Isn’t that an amazing word? Because it has ‘marvel’ in it. And to marvel at something… at someone… what a lovely thing to do!”

I nod. “More paint, Margaret?”

She glances down at her work. A sun blazes down on a crowned figure sitting on a throne at the edge of a river. All made out of words. Chains of words streaked with pastel crayon. I squint at the tiny, perfect script. Queen quince prince prance dance dandy dandelion chameleon chamomile memory memo me…

“Why, yes, Roger. I’ll be needing yellow for my sun. The sun in Egypt is very hot and yellow. Yellow. It has ‘yell’ in it. I think that’s what my desert sun is doing. It’s yelling down at the Queen.”

She’s got this thing about ancient Egypt. King Tut. Cleopatra. All that stuff. Don’t know why but it sticks with her when not much else does. That and her word chains. Before her accident she used to be an etymologist. That’s someone who studies words, or so I’m told. Some of that sticks with her too.

I have to go to the storage closet in the physical therapy room for her paint. Margaret does PT — memory games and stuff — and then paints until her sister gets off work and picks her up. She’s never violent like some of the other car accident patients. They get pissed off because they can’t do what they used to do. I can understand that. But Margaret can’t remember anything so there’s nothing for her to get pissed off about.

“Severe anterograde amnesia,” her doc is always proclaiming to other doctors.  “A result of blunt-force trauma to the head sustained in an auto accident twenty-three months ago.  But while Margaret won’t remember who I am in five minutes, she’s retained her artistic ability.”

Her doctor is okay but he doesn’t know much. He thinks she’s pretty hopeless. And he doesn’t bother to get to know Margaret because he thinks there’s nothing left to know.

“Here ya go.” I hand her a new pastel.

“Oh, thank you! Did you know that ‘bite’ is a triple homonym? That means there are three words that sound alike but are spelled differently.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“’B-i-g-h-t’  is the middle part of a rope. ‘B-y-t-e’ is a measure of electronic space. And ‘b-i-t-e.’ The common one, of course.” She looks up at me. “Why, hello. My name is Margaret. What’s yours?”


Today I’m in the storage closet for more paint. There’s a strange sound, and for a second I think someone’s put one of those clattering gag teeth under a stack of towels. Not gag teeth. It’s a Massasauga rattler. How the hell it got in here, I’ll never know. I give a yelp and jump back. It slithers out into the PT room, sending the patients into a panic. I keep myself between them and the snake and then someone is pressing a therapy ranging stick in my hand. I hold it like a baseball bat, my hands shake… and then here’s Margaret, holding her hand to the snake like she’s trying to pet the damn thing. I shove her back and bring the stick down on the rattler’s head over and over until it’s a bloody mess.

Later, back at her table, she can’t remember the snake but I can tell she’s agitated. We make our usual introductions but her voice is too high and her hand races over the page, covering the word chains of her painting in bright swathes of red.

“Did you know that the word ‘buckle’ is an auto-antonym?” Her voice trembles. “An auto-antonym is a word that is the opposite of itself.”


“’Buckle’ means to fasten,” Margaret says. “But it also means to collapse, to come undone.”

“I understand,” I say. I think I do.

“Cleopatra lost her Antony, her everything. She took her life with the bite of an asp. Asp. What a beautiful word. Sounds like ‘rasp’ which is what snakes do when they move, don’t they?”

I glance at a new word chain on her painting. It’s coiled like a snake and sits on Cleopatra’s lap. Tragic magic mage rage cage catch trap rasp gasp asp… The sun in her sky is now red, and it swings out of the left corner of her paper, beating its wings down on the Egyptian queen. I look at Margaret. Margaret’s been painting Cleopatra for months.

Her doctor slips in later that day, all smiles and professional uselessness. I’m not really supposed to get involved, but I just beat a Massasauga to death so I’m feeling a little bold.

“She knows,” I say.

He blinks at me. “I beg your pardon?”

“Margaret. She knows she’s on repeat and can’t get out. And she wants out. Do you listen to her? Do you see her paintings? It’s all there.”

He smiles at me the way smug doctors smile at unschooled orderlies and says, “Margaret is a special case. Tragic. I’m pleased her art holds some therapeutic value but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

“But her words. She’s talking to us. We need to talk to her.”

“Her words are remnants. That’s all. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

This therapy place can’t afford much. He’s the best they got.


The next day I come up to Margaret’s table. She’s still working on her Egyptian scene but listlessly.

“Hey, Margaret. You know, ‘handicap’ is an auto-antonym too,” I say. “I looked it up. It means disadvantage or disability. But it also means an advantage, you know? Like a golfer’s handicap.”

“So it does!” She looks up at me. “Hello! My name is Margaret. And your name is…?”


“Roger, yes.” She puts pastel to paper. “It was on the tip of my tongue…”

Jennifer Ripley writes in California, USA.

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