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Whippoorwill

Published: November 4, 2016

The two men surprised each other. Surprised each other so badly that neither made a sound and stood, only 10 feet apart, shocked into almost comical stasis; one was pushing aside a birch branch, the other had just raised his right boot, preparing to crush a pathway through the ferns. Both had been in the act of puckering their lips just so, the mouths now mute in the warm lake air. Both saw exactly what the other had been doing.

*

I’ll be the first to say bad habits are hard to kick. So perhaps it wasn’t hate exactly, more the long established habit of dislike. However, I would also be the first to say that Roger Gilbert and I were actively unpleasant to each other for a good 35 years. Which in terms of duration is only three years short of my marriage to Dorothy. We were simply good at disliking each other and never quite kicked the tendency.

I can pinpoint precisely the year Roger and his wife, Addie, moved to Parker and, by extension, the house next door to us, because it was the first year the whippoorwill turned up on the banks of Lake Filene. Filene is, by all popular accounts, one of the more forgettable of the great lakes that straddle the border between here and Canada. It’s smaller than the others, and boringly symmetrical for those who love the capaciousness of Superior or Huron. Dorothy and I, by contrast, loved Lake Filene for all the things it was not. We were not sailors or hunters or artists. We baked, and bird-watched, and as such Filene suited us down to the ground.

We’d had a cabin there for a year before I heard her. The whippoorwill, I mean. In a twist of personal eccentricity that never fails to annoy my colleagues at the Audubon, I refer to all birds as female, like a mariner and his boat. Her call lacks sophisticated musicality and opts instead for an appealing cheekiness; the few jolly syllables and trill are bright and clear and as such the simplicity of sound begs imitation. She’s a shy bird, mottled brown and disinclined to company. Just like Dorothy, who was my own little hard-to-catch brown bird, or so I joked to her that August when I did nothing else but sit on the porch and practice my whippoorwill whistle. Dorothy would poke me in the arm with the affection I’d worked so hard to win, and I’d pull her into my lap and whippoorwill into her ears till bedtime. I couldn’t believe one man could get so lucky, though of course I was young then and didn’t see it like that yet.

When we returned home that September, I failed to notice that the house next to us had finally sold. It had been empty for so long, we’d simply grown accustomed to a kind of polite disinterest when it came to place. Plus we were busy and wrapped up in our own little republic of two. That blissful acquiescence to social norms: picking paint for the baby’s room, applying for a promotion, extra pints of ice cream in the freezer so Dorothy could get good and fat. And of course there was my Audubon club.

As with most things, it began with the women. Dorothy mentioned one day she’d had the neighbor’s wife over for coffee that morning. In a declaration that forever sealed the two as friends, my wife deemed Addie clean, smart, and likable. She was also pregnant with a due date only three days behind Dorothy. For the women, it was the first in a series of life events that would mirror each other with almost eerie synchronicity, like two runners keeping pace and lighting parallel beacons along a ridge.

For Roger and myself, there would be no such harmony. In fact the first time we met was at my Audubon meeting some time in early October. Suffice to say it went downhill from there.

“I’m sorry, but that’s simply inaccurate.” Those were the first words he ever spoke to me. “Simply inaccurate.” The pedant. Pompous, and so pleased with himself. I had been talking about taking Dorothy up to the cabin for Thanksgiving, and of course with the lake in mind was practicing my whippoorwill whistle. And Roger said it was all wrong. He’d walked in late to the meeting (a habit that annoyed me for years to come) helped himself to a cookie (even though we don’t touch the cookies until the second half-hour) and declared, calm as you please, that the whistle went like this. Then he gave an impression of what was clearly a chuck-will’s-widow. And I told him so. Clearly not a whippoorwill, I said. The rest of the boys didn’t pick up on the tension that blossomed faster than bonfire smoke and were soon laughing about how much Roger and I had in common. Both emerging university professors, both with wives expecting, both rather good at recreating bird whistles. I left the meeting early that night to the sound of Roger making my friends laugh.

Thus began a small lifetime of back and forth resentments. Where one of us would succeed or seek to outdo, the other would quickly follow, and vice versa. Our careers and pleasures were so similar that there were very few contexts in which I was free of the man. Of course, if wives dislike each other it means the death of any two-couple friendship. Had Dot decided Addie was bad people, I would have had an ally. However, if the wives decide to like each other, then they are content to observe, sipping coffee, and shaking their heads over the men and their scrapping. I even think that as the years went by, Addie and Dorothy got to be amused by our growing repertoire of disagreements. Funny to think now how much I cared.

I’ll never forget the year he bought that red Ford pickup truck. Or the countless times he “forgot” to let me know the time of the Audubon’s field trip. Or the time he beat me to tenure and was given the keynote address at one of the last graduations we saw together. Or the trip to Boston. Or the fact that my Edith dated his Andy for two years in high school and I was so scared they’d marry I said yes to sending her to Paris for a semester. And of course, I thought I would just dry up and die when he and Addie bought a summer cabin one lot down from us on Lake Filene. Dorothy was ecstatic. I said I wanted a gun.

They had left buying a second place to later in life, to the point where retirement was on the horizon for both of us. It was the same year that Edith and Michael were expecting our first and much-anticipated grandchild. I remember so well because I had wanted to buy a new pair of binoculars and Dorothy said I shouldn’t because we should save for the baby. I said I didn’t see what the cost of binoculars had to do with the cost of a Donald Duck romper suit. Roger had looked as smug as cream with his new Viess binoculars just the week before, all excited to get up to Filene and try them out.

But I never lost the habit of trying to please my wife. I was always so happy to see her happy. And I mean happy on some concrete, deep down level, a level below the part of me that stung like a salted wound to see Roger wave those glasses around so proud you’d think he’d invented them. No I mean deep down like where spring water starts in the earth, below the topsoil and the roots and the gravel that sends a twang through a spade, the deepest you can go without hitting the heart of the earth. It’s that part of me that seemed to sing out when I held Edith for the first time, or when I heard the whippoorwill on summer nights, or when I helped Dorothy get her way in life. I was so happy to see her happy, and it made it so much worse when she only got to see the twins a few times. Just a few times before everything folded in upon itself and that deep reserve of happiness went sour. My little brown bird went quiet.

In a way I should have been ready for it, the pattern so predictable I barely noticed, but six months after Dorothy died, Addie passed away as well. I heard later on, when I finally returned to the Audubon, that it was a quick and pernicious cancer, the kind that kills before it has barely introduced itself. The loss of Dorothy had loosened my grasp on anything outside the boundaries of my own coping. I spent my days, now stripped of their purpose and company, relearning how to occupy myself with loneliness. Thus I missed the final chapter of Addie’s life and the first chapter of Roger’s grieving, where perhaps I could have been of comfort. But as I said before, habits are hard to kick. By the time I had regained a little sense of myself — walking by the river, grilled cheese sandwiches, attending the Audubon — Roger had vacated his house to go stay with Andy, closer to Springfield. He hadn’t sold his home, and in a kind of bookend to our neighborly narrative, the house next door stood empty once again. Thus, what with one thing and another and the passage of the year, Roger and I lost track of each other. Though I’ll admit, bonded now by something greater than pickup trucks or promotions, I thought of him sometimes, and wondered.

It was about a year and a half after Dorothy died that I finally returned to the cabin. Neighbors had looked in on it and reported it safe, if a little damp. But I knew it was time. If nothing else, Edith said she wanted her children to know and love it the way she had. I didn’t say it, but I wasn’t sure how that would be possible without Dorothy there.

Prepared as I was for loneliness, like one braced before a blow, I didn’t spare a thought for Roger as I cracked the car door open and let in the smell of water and mossy pebbles. I didn’t pause to wonder if he still owned the next-door property. The onslaught of memory was disabling, and I made no attempt to clean or air the place, and instead sat on the porch that first evening thinking about the whippoorwill. I hadn’t practiced birdcalls in ages. So I tried it. I was out of practice, but the whistle came back easily enough, as did the feeling of missing Dorothy so much it drove me to my feet and to the edge of the woods. I was whistling the whole time, trying to take my mind off that missing and casting the feeling out on the tune. Listening. Hoping to find her. And then I heard it. My little brown bird was whistling back. The whippoorwill was in the woods calling out. I whistled again. She whistled back. I pushed my way into the tree line, my lips puckered, my feet crushing the ferns out of the way.

*

And then both men saw what the other had been doing. Both were whistling the same tune and following not the call of something longed for, but the call of each other. Without saying anything but with unsure smiles that broke into laughter, the two approached each other and embraced, smacking their backs in rough camaraderie and shaking hands. For the first time in months, both men felt slightly less alone. And then suddenly, without warning, they fell silent, their heads tilting back in the darkening air. They were listening.

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  • kedzie penfield

    Lovely story! brings an understanding of relationship and life that is refreshing and informing. More, please!