A Whippoorwill Softly Sings

by M.G. Wessels

Artwork by Alexa Gaffaney


I went back to the public pool where she and I spent all our time together when we were kids. My mother said it had closed down last week, so I made the four hundred mile trip in my beat up, rusted, commuter car that I bought when I got my first full time job. Rose suggested we meet there.

We had to climb over the rusted fence and when she reached the top—after much protesting—she slipped and landed on her knees in the grass between the fence and the concrete apron. The lifeguard’s chair still stood, now vacant, with a sign attached at the top that read, “Pool Closed, No Swimming,” as if the foot of water left wasn’t enough of an indication.

We walked along the pool lengthwise, remembering the smell of Coppertone mixed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from when we were kids, then soda and pizza slices once we were old enough to go alone. The four-foot mark is where we would sit at night and drink cheap beers and smoke cigarettes we stole from our parents. It was her habit to slip at the top of the fence.

With the water green, the paint faded, and the concrete cracking, we noticed how quiet it had become, noticed how we always wanted it that way, and said it was funny that we finally got our wish.

I was only half listening, years ago, when she told me she was pregnant, right before we went different ways for college. She wasn’t drinking that night, so I pushed her into the pool.

—That’s not funny, Tom, she said. —I’m pregnant.

—You’re what?

—Pregnant

—With who?

—He doesn’t know.

I didn’t say anything.

—I don’t know what I’m going to do, she said.

—You haven’t told anyone?

—I don’t want to. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

I helped her out of the water and had another beer before saying anything else.

—Can you bring me to the city sometime soon? She said.

—Why?

—I want to, you know…

—If that’s what you want, I said.

In the silence that followed we heard the song of a single Whippoorwill—distinct in the dusk silence.

We were only able to stay for a half an hour—she told me she had other things to take care of, and that we should come back later tonight, for old time’s sake. We’d catch up, we hadn’t seen each other for years.

I went to my parents’ house to pass the time, to say hello. I don’t see them much anymore, and the first thing Mom asked was how Rose was doing.

—You know, I said, we didn’t really talk about much.

—I heard she’s engaged

—Well she didn’t tell me that. I didn’t notice a ring or anything. She didn’t say anything.

—Isn’t it about that time for you?

—I don’t know, Mom. You always say that. I wish you’d stop.

—I’m sure all your friends are married.

Rose and I almost had a chance once, junior year of college. I stayed at her apartment in the summer. She needed help with the rent; I didn’t want to go home. We talked one night about future plans, and she said she wanted to move out of the city and back to Jersey. She was set on it. I couldn’t do that. I promised myself I wouldn’t go back. So that ended that, but it sure was nice to think about.

It started to get dark and Dad was late coming home from work, per usual, so I left. Mom said I should come back soon.

—Haha, okay, I said.

It was too early to go back to the pool, but I bought a twelve pack and went anyway.

I sat at the four-foot mark and had a couple. It was still too early. I hadn’t smoked in years, but the nostalgia and heartbreak were stronger than any will to stay healthy.

The attendant remembered what I smoked. I guess people can afford to remember when nothing else happens. Glad to see he was still there, the only place in town we could ever convince to sell us booze.

As soon as I lit my cigarette, back at the four-foot mark, I heard the familiar jingling of the chain-link fence. I walked over to make sure she wouldn’t fall off the top, but she did anyway, and we both collapsed to the ground, her on top of me.

—Smoking again? She said.

—No, bought these for the occasion.

—Well give me one.

—Beer as well?

—You really know your way to someone’s heart.

So we sat and drank and talked about the old days, as they’re called.

—My mom said you were getting married.

—I was. I might. I don’t know.

—Oh.

—It’s a long story anyway. What about you?

—Nothing. Same as always.

This is where we kissed for the first time, where we had sex the first time, before the abortion and before college. Before everything nice or naive got stripped away for the cruel realities of real life separation. I didn’t come here for the pool. I came here because I knew she’d be here too, and I’d make any excuse to make a connection.

Maybe I drank too much, maybe I was desperate, but while I lay there, after a few more beers for both of us, I told her she should come back with me.

—I’d love to, but I don’t know if I can right now. Things are too complicated.

We were lying on our backs and I turned to my right and kissed her hard on the mouth, like I did years ago when she let me down the first time. That didn’t matter. Her hands were my favorite and she placed them on me so delicately so that the only thing more vivid than the smell of Coppertone was feeling my own heartbeat and I had to stop to catch my breath before we continued.

Her body had aged the same as mine, but was still as beautiful as I remembered it. Running my hands down her back, I could still feel the scar she had along her spine from a surgery before we had even met.

I got dressed and climbed up the ladder to the lifeguard’s chair and sat.

—Remember when our biggest dream was to sit up here, saving people? I said.

—Yeah, it sure was easier then.

—Come to New Hampshire with me.

—I can’t. Not now.

—You can. It’s easy.

—Maybe I’ll show up some day. What’s your address? She said.

She wrote down what I said and left. No goodbye.

I slept on the concrete by the pool after finishing the smokes and the beer and in the morning the four hundred mile drive felt so much longer. It’s a long way by yourself, with only one thing to think about.

A week later I got a wedding invitation in the mail.

A month after that there was a knock at the door, real late at night. I stumbled, drunk, out of bed and opened the door to find a tired girl with bloodshot, watery eyes standing on the porch trembling.

—What are you doing here?

—Tom, we need to talk. I don’t have your phone number.

I saw a car in the driveway, worse condition than mine, filled with furniture and clothing.

—What’s going on? I said.

—I’m pregnant.

—So?

—I don’t know who’s it is. That’s why I’m here.

I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. I heard the whippoorwill sing again.

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