He loaded her clothes into the washer, those he could find. They were scattered everywhere, in the bottom of closets, balled up under the bed, tossed on the basement floor and yellowed with cat piss. He'd wash and fold them , put them in boxes. Magnolia would come by soon ormaybe he'd drive the fifty miles to see her. This was the second time she'd left him and it had a familiarity that dulled the pain. Three years back, she'd run off for eight months and then come home saying, "I made such mistake, Jerry."He'd washed her things then toobecause she had run away with just the clothes on her back. He'd boxed them up and she'd eventually come for them. He'dbeen afraid his heart would never mend. It did, but only after he swore to get her back.
He did win her back and they were happy for a year. Then this past winter, she'd only gotten out of bed to play hearts on the internet. She played fourteen ... sixteen hours a day. Cut their loving down to once a month.
He paid the bills and let her be. Finally, Magnolia sold some of the jewelry he'd given her and bought a get-me-by car.
She put money on an apartment and got two jobs in the city.
"You're doing too much again," Jerry said when she finally got around to telling him her plans.
"I can handle it." She was standing outside the bathroom in her underwear. She had holes in her panties and the bra was dingy.
He loved her like some people love wounded birds.
Leslie, his ex, called when she found out Magnolia had left and she said the kinds of things women say when they'll let you fuck them . He thought about that, especially at night. He thought maybe he should go back to Leslie but she didn't need him like Magnolia did. She wasn't crippled in the head.
Magnolia finally asked him to come see her. "Spend the night?" she said. And he wondered what she'd ask for. Would she need money again? But it wasn't like that. It wasn't like anything they'd ever done and yet it was all the same somehow. She fixed dinner. They ate in front of the television. She cleared the dishes and rinsed them in the sink. Her place was spotless. He found it irritating that there were no gnats in her sink. This last year with him, she wouldn't wash a dish.
He asked for water and she said, "Here ya go,"spilling it into his lap so that he jumped off the
"What the hell?"
"I'm so sorry," she said. "Let's get those pants into the dryer." It was clear to him that she'd drenched him on purpose and she took his shorts too so that he was naked and vulnerable and there was nowhere to go except to bed where he discovered she'd shaved her entire body and when he stared, she said,
"I made myself ready for you." He wasn't surprised by that, though she'd never done such a thing before.
It was some kind of sexual ritual, he thought. Something to chase away demons and he took her in his arms determined to enjoy this moment which might be the last time he and Magnolia made love.
When he got home, it was three weeks before she called and then it was to say she'd enrolled in school. "Good," he said. "I'm happy for you." The word "hypomania" came into his mind.
"You said you wanted to know what I was doing." She sounded happy. "I'm letting you know, okay? Well, I've got to go. Big day tomorrow."
"Yeah, baby. I love you," he said. It would have been pointless to tell her he wanted to know things before she did them . Not just before. Not so close to the doing that the telling of it and the doing felt as if they were one thing. He sighed.
It was dark now and he stepped out onto the porch because it made him feel better to be outside.
The last time she'd left, he'd spent hours bundled up in two-degree weather. He had to be under the stars no matter what. This time he was lucky. It was June.
A towering thunderhead covered half the sky to the southwest and lightning flashed over and over but no sound reached him. The cloud was far away and only seemed close because of its size. All he heard was the sound of crickets and frogs and a whippoorwill somewhere in the distance.
Another, smaller thunderhead was to the east and he stood watching the two of them signal each other with enough electricity to power a continent.
Directly overhead in the part of the sky the clouds had not reached, the stars were hard lights against the empty blackness and after the drama of the thunderheads the stars seemed to calm him.
It was only after a few deep breaths he realized the air below the horizon was filled with fireflies echoing the stars. Males in the air like Christmas lights strung between the trees. Females on the ground.
They too signaled each other electrically. Point, point, point. Their species depended upon it.
"Damn," he said aloud and sat down on the steps. The cat had come home for dinner and rubbed against Jerry's back, its tail curled into a question mark. He twisted his wedding ring and looked at the sky. The glint of lightning against the gold ring brought his eyesight back to earth. "Come on, cat. We've things to do," he said and he went inside to wash the dishes.