Whip-Poor-Wills Sing Late at Night and Early in the Morning

Grayson Treat

           I was too scared to sleep so I called the woman I wanted to have an affair with. She didn’t answer. I left a message and asked her to meet me at a divey restaurant about 20 minutes out of town.

“Sweetheart,” I said, exaggerating the drawl on my vowels.  “I think it’s time we shifted this tractor into the next gear. No, but really, meet me at Larengetti’s as soon as you can.” 

          There were only a few people in the dimly lit dining room, most of them at the bar. There was no real chance of running into anyone from my congregation here. The sign asked me to seat myself. I chose a booth. Not the farthest back. I didn’t want it to look like we had something to hide. It wasn’t near the front, either; I didn’t want to get too cocky. Walking in, I thought the bartender shot me a look. I asked the waitress, a woman with a sprawling flower tattoo on her chest to bring me a Johnnie Walker “with a twist if you don’t mind” while I waited on my date. 

            It would probably be good to say something about how I’ve never done this before, make her feel special, hand-picked, irresistible. It would also make me look more normal. Just a normal married man, looking for something somewhere I shouldn’t be.

            She reminded me of Tyra, the ex I dated before my wife. They both made dirty jokes and dragged their long fingernails across the skin of my arms. Tyra wouldn’t marry me. Never gave me a reason why. I’d drop to one knee, she’d blush, and her gaze would fall to the floor. I’m not sure she ever fancied the idea of being a pastor’s wife. I don’t blame her now, but I did then. My wife, Beth, apparently wasn’t smart enough to catch on. No, perhaps she had, but by that time she was already in it for the long haul. Could be why she had sex with the twenty-year-old youth minister while I ran our community group one room over. She confessed it to me a month later, head in hands.

           “I don’t know why I did it,” she had said with puffy eyes and a red nose. “It just happened.”

           “It felt good,” I said. I couldn’t tell if she was crying because she was afraid of hurting me or if she was just coming to grips with the idea of this new person she had become.

           “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“That wasn’t a question.”

           I walked to our window and looked out at our featureless backyard, fenced in against the trees. 

“We can afford a pool, you know,” I said. 

“What?”

          “There’s enough space I think.” At this, her mouth hung open. She scrunched her eyebrows together.

“Is this really the time to be talking about this?”

“Why wouldn’t this be the time? It’s as good as any other time.” 

           She let her head fall back into her hands and began shaking her head. “I don’t know. I just want to hear what you think.”  

           I nodded my head as though I had come to a decision. “Yes, you know,” I paused. “I think I’m going to see a contractor about putting in the pool. Think of what it could do for our property value.”

           I proceeded to walk out the door, expecting her to follow me, to try to get me to stay. I started the car. Before I backed out of the driveway I took a look toward the empty door frame. I drove down the Highway Five. I took a left at some point, then a right. Then I lost track of where I was and just drove. I found myself at some bar outside of Leach. I acted like a regular. I didn’t get drunk like I did when I failed my first year of college. That kind of over the top self-medication is for amateurs. No, I nursed a gin and tonic like a professional. I wanted people to look at me and think about how good I was at it. How much pain I must be harboring. How much effort it must take to keep it under wraps.

           The affair didn’t surprise me. Seemed like I wasn’t giving enough of what people needed my whole life. I had actually felt relieved when she told me. Before, when success was still an option, there had been tension. The only peace was in failure. Success only led the way for more tension in the expectation of success.

          We had to fire the youth minister. I felt bad for the guy. The only mistakes he made were those of being young and in the wrong place at the wrong time. We did it quietly. He didn’t make a big fuss. The kids he ministered to were a portrait of bewilderment as he walked out the door for the last time. 

 

***

           It was getting late and my date still hadn’t shown up. It had been about an hour ago that I first called and let her know that I wanted to meet up. In that time I had five or seven, maybe eight drinks. The time between grew shorter as the minutes passed, each successive drink making those to come go down easier. I considered calling, but I figured that was a impulse to be resisted. It is the nature of the appearance of confidence to be uncomfortable, uncertain, or at least I think it is. She only needed to think that I was completely confident in our success, regardless of its truth. I thought that perhaps she was having second thoughts. Maybe I had perceived her long stares incorrectly, her fake, suggestive laughs at staff meetings, her fingernails across my skin.

           “Hey, sweetheart,” I said to the waitress, talking slowly in an effort not to slur my speech. “I’ll take another when you get a chance.”  

           “Why don’t you wait a little, maybe get something to eat in the meantime?”

“What?” My grin disappeared.

           “Sorry, the managers are on our asses about over-serving recently.”

           “Why’s that my problem? I’m fine, honey.”

           “Sorry, just orders,” she nodded toward a woman who was cradling her chin in her hands behind the bar. 

           “I’ll just take the check then.” The waitress’s expression hardened like she could sense what was coming next. She walked off. I made sure to press the pen down excessively hard on the slip when I drew the over-sized X on the tip line.

            I spat on the floor as I stood up. I let her feel my hate through my glare. I thought I could see her bottom lip quiver and felt some satisfaction. I pushed her out of the way as I walked by, nearly knocking her over and drawing the gaze of more than a few nearby diners. 

            I was walking to my car when I heard a man’s voice shout from behind me, “Hey asshole.”

I turned around. It was a young guy who had been sitting at the bar. He walked towards me. My waitress scuttled behind him. It was dark and I couldn’t see her face against the light of the restaurant. 

She was pulling back on his arm, trying in futility to restrain him. He yanked his arm away from her.

            “What’s your fuckin’ problem, alchie?” the guy said.

            “Please,” the waitress pleaded. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she had been crying. “It’s not a big deal.”

            “This ain’t about you anymore, it’s a matter of principle.” He turned his attention back to me. “You got an excuse for this behavior?” Now that he was closer and I could see his face.

            “Aden Williams?” I said, the girl’s tattoo catching my eye. The white petals spanned her chest and reflected the moonlight. The stem traveled down the skin between her cleavage and continued, out of sight, underneath her shirt.  “Do you remember me? I taught you Sunday school when you were a kid.”

“What?” He got even closer, close enough that I could almost see his dirt-filled pores, even against the dark of the night. “Ain’t no Williams. You got me wrong,” he said. “How about you apologize?”

           “Your mother is probably worried about you.” I poked his belly. He recoiled and swung his outstretched right arm, nailing my left temple. The waitress screamed.  I twisted and fell back, face first, onto the hood of someone’s Camry. 

           “Fucking freak.” He grabbed me by the back of my coat and threw me on the gravel. I tried to catch myself, but only succeeded in scraping my hands. He proceeded to kick me three times in my side. I rolled over and saw the bottom of his boot hovering just above my face. Then he fell backward, spiraling his arms in an attempt to regain his balance. He and the waitress fell on the gravel in a heap. 

           She cursed him and asked him something about what his probation manager would do.

           “Alright, that’s enough,” interrupted who I assumed was the restaurant manager. “Misty, go ahead home, I’ll take care of the rest of your tables.” The waitress apologized. She and the guy who looked like Aden walked around the corner of the restaurant, out of sight. He was muttering something about how he was a grown ass man and it was a matter of principle.

          “Do I need to call an ambulance?” The manager looked down at me. I couldn’t hear her very well, my head reverberating with the force of his fist. The pain in my side consumed most of my consciousness. I managed to shake my head.

          “Okay then,” she turned. “Please don’t come back.”

          I stumbled away, clutching my side. A few bruised ribs probably. A throbbing headache. Warm blood dripped off my face and onto my jacket. I took a look in the rearview mirror. There was a gash across my forehead. The threads of blood extended down my nose and cheeks. It looked like a reimagining of some river delta.

          Dad came home on occasion in similar conditions, but there was one night in particular where dad’s friend, Eddie, had taken a bottle of PBR and smashed it against his head. I think Ma was pulling shards of glass out of his face for the entirety of that evening and the next day. He had even needed stitches. He was a charismatic type, Dad. Everyone loved him. He didn’t need to fight often, but could scrap though if he needed to. It was part of his rough and tumble charm. 

 

***

           I tried to drive in such a way that I would not draw attention to myself. I figured I was still drunk, but the beating had made it harder to tell. I thought about whether it was the injury or the alcohol that affected my driving more. Then I wondered whether it actually mattered. The swelling was beginning to make sight difficult. 

           I didn’t panic when I was a few miles out of town and blue lights appeared in my rear view mirror. They couldn’t do much worse to me than what had already been done.

The cop leaned forward against the door, resting his elbows in the open window. 

           “Mr. Toldo?” He said. I squinted, his face was hard to see from the glare of the revolving  lights from his cruiser. I recognized him, the son of one of the elders at my church. His name was Adam. 

           “Lovely night tonight isn’t it, Adam?” I said, pretending to be someone else. Someone who was substantially less drunk. I contorted my face into the best impression of a smile I could muster. He didn’t seem to notice the facade, which I thought boded well for my acting skills.

          “Mr. Toldo, you look like hell.”

          “Fell down a flight of stairs at presbytery. I’m actually just getting back. Six hour round trip in one day.” If he was suspicious of a lie, his expression did not betray it.

His eyes swept the interior of my white Chevy S-10, its suave velour interior. 

“Mr. Toldo, this is a 45 and you’re going 15.”

“It’s been a long drive, Adam.”

“If you’ll just stay here a moment.” He walked back to his car. 

 

***

            I laid my head back. I wanted to see if I could pick out the whip-poor-wills against the night’s cacophony.

            I hadn’t heard them since Dad died about a year ago. My room as a child had been directly above the back porch, this meant I could tell when dad couldn’t sleep by the metallic coo of his rusty metal chair rocking back and forth. He had said that it was given to him by his Daddy. That same chair sat on my back porch at home, despite Beth’s protest. 

            I would walk downstairs when I knew I was supposed to be sleeping and sit next to him. He never got mad at me. He often wouldn’t say a word. He would just smoke his cigarette and stare out at our back yard.

“You hear that sound, son?” He said one night, breaking the stillness between us.

            I nodded, knowing he couldn’t really see me in the pitch dark.

            “Those are the whip-poor-wills calling up the sun,” he continued, not seeming to care if I had actually heard or not. “If they didn’t do that every night, it wouldn’t know when it was meant to stop hiding.”

            It had seemed vitally important at the time that I hear them. That if I didn’t it meant the sun wouldn’t come up the next day. I think all the birds may have left with dad. Perhaps he had been the only thing remaining that kept them anchored to the earth and when he died they just floated off into space. I could believe it. Dad was less of a human and more like an ancient deity who kept things moving the right way in the world. Ever since he died seemed like all rhythm had left. Steps didn’t fall in the right places. The light and the shadows intermingled. God was no longer just, but vindictive.

            Adam walked back to my truck, but didn’t lean in. A part of me hoped he had some bad news for me in the form of a breathalyzer.

           “How’s your Daddy?” I asked him, noting with slight disappointment the emptiness of his hands.

“Been a minute since we talked, you probably know more than I do.”

“Why’s that?” 

           “Couldn’t tell you a reason, just been busy. He’s busy too, the concrete business never slows, you know. Not for nothing.”

“Nothing slows for anything these days, it seems.” 

           Adam nodded. “I’ll let you go, but pick up the pace a little bit. Driving slow is as bad as driving too fast, you know,” he said. “Get home safe.” 

          “Come visit us at church some time. I know your momma would love that.” 

          “Maybe this Sunday. I’ll talk to the old lady about it.”

          “Take care,” I told him as he walked back to his patrol car. When people said, “maybe this Sunday,” it usually meant tentatively any Sunday in between now and the next year and a half. In truth, I didn’t care whether I ever saw him again or not.

            I wiped the blood out of my eyes as I passed the church on the way home. We had just put a new LED sign out front. One of the elders, who just happened to own a LED sign business had said that a business wasn’t a business unless it had the proper signage, and if there was a way for a church to succeed it was as a business. This was the same man who held a community group, the motto of which was “Witnessing for the blind.” 

            This idea of church as product, and congregates as consumers, was a sentiment many of the other elders seemed to share. Tonight the sign read: “Is your soul TRULY on FIRE for the LORD?” I had said in seminary that my presence at a church and any of those signs would be mutually exclusive. I don’t have such convictions these days. I couldn’t point fingers, I hadn’t preached an original sermon in years.

 

***

            We had been at our current church for three years when Beth and I decided that having a kid would right the ship, add some missing permanence to our coexistence. It was the night Jack was born that I started having the dreams. I would be strung up on a cross and left for days by my congregation, sometimes they burned me alive. Sometimes they burned my wife and infant son and made me watch. Sometimes I was the one pouring the lighter fluid and scraping the match against the matchbox. They were sharp and constant images, every night for those 13 years.

 

***

             I pulled into our driveway, the light of the television flashed intermittently through our living room window. I gave myself another cursory glance into the rearview window. My hair was greasy with blood. The pain drilling in my side made me want to spring up and cry out and roll around in the grass. I dreaded the conversation that I knew awaited me inside. Since the affair Beth and I hadn’t talked. Well we talked, but not really. About maintenance, who was taking Jack to school, when we needed to attend family birthdays. In honesty, the thing I dreaded most was that there might not be a conversation, that she would see my ruined face and she would wordlessly turn her attention back to the television. I would prefer any amount of scolding to avoid that pit.

 

***

             When I was 13, my older brother Tim got caught up with the cops for giving blowjobs out behind the Valero on the Highway Five for 20 dollars a pop. Dad was drunk, had already been looking for someone to hit when the cops knocked on the door. He beat Tim bad, so bad that he had to be carried back to his room. We thought Dad might have killed his brain. He eventually woke up again.

             Tim killed himself one week later. The note had only three words: Love you, Mom. The week before his suicide he had acted normal, was even cracking jokes about the whole thing. He would say that he was so good that every gay Tom, Dick, and Harry in town came to visit him, especially the dicks. Tim would always bring home Coca-Cola for me. It was my favorite drink, but Ma always said we couldn’t afford it. 

              “If we can afford that pisswater for him, who’s nothin but shit,” he told me, “then we can definitely afford your Coke, cause you are nothing but the shit.” If I had known where he was getting the money I might have asked him to not bring them home anymore. 

             Ma is the one who found him. He had hanged himself off of the top bunk with a belt in the bedroom we shared. I had just gotten home from school. She was screaming her head off. Dad was passed out on the couch.

             I spent a lot of time as an adult wondering what Tim would’ve been like. In a way, it has affected me more as an adult than it did as a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I cried at his funeral. I missed him. But now I feel guilty. I often wonder if it had been an act of rebellion or an act of submission. I figured it was in reality an act of violence.  

             He was the first person who tried to save me. I had needed to give him back more than what Dad’s beating took away. I should have seen the change that only occurs when one has been shelling out parts of their soul in exchange for cash in the dim light of the parking lot of some Valero. I knew I never had anything I could give Tim that he would take, though. Even if he would have, I wouldn’t have near enough to cover his deficit. To save his dying soul without in some way sacrificing my own. I would do it now in a heartbeat, but at twelve years old, my soul had still been worth something to me. 

 

***

            I stumbled in the front door. Beth was sitting on our couch. A glass of what looked like wine was on the table. She didn’t seem to notice me.  The only light in the room came from a television on the wall. Some movie with Tommy Lee Jones was on. The volume was too loud. I just stood there for a moment and watched. Tommy seemed to be in the role of a lawman of some kind. He was in the middle of some conversation with a man in a wheelchair. The man in the wheelchair had apparently at some point been a sheriff too. They were talking about some criminal who the man in the wheelchair had put in prison. I stood silently there for about a minute. It had been a while since we watched a movie together. Beth muted the television when she finally noticed me.

            “How long have you been standing there?” She asked.

            “A minute.”  I kept my gaze directed toward the television. “What are you watching?”

            “Just some movie I found.” She stood up and stretched. She turned on the light switch. She was wearing a white summer dress. I turned my face away, but was too late. I heard her inhale sharply. “Jesus, come here.” I let out a small sigh, and made my way to her. I shored up my defenses in preparation for the scolding that I was certain would come. She didn’t say anything for a few seconds, just looked at my face.

            “Come.” She pulled me by my arm and sat me down at a chair by our dining room table. She went over to the sink and ran water over a washcloth. She came back and started lightly dabbing at my face with the washcloth. The sting felt good. She had this somber, but somehow humorful expression when she took care of someone. This half grin that put her dimples on display and at the same time she would crease her thin eyebrows. 

            Beth was still in nursing school when we met. After Tyra left I took a year off of college and went home to work with my dad laying sheetrock and painting houses. Her parents needed their living room repainted, and Beth was already home for the summer.

            She had walked up while I was painting a wall with a roller. “You’re doing it wrong,” she said. “Give me that.” 

            “Sure, I could use a break.” I dropped the roller into the paint pan, causing blue paint to splatter on her jeans.

            “You ass,” she said. I shrugged in response. “Come here.” I walked over and braced myself to get hit or yelled at. “Grab the roller and give me your hand.” I grinned and grabbed the roller with my left hand and tried hold her hand with my right, but she swatted it away.

“Like this?”

 “No, give me the hand with the roller.”

            “Oh, I see,” I said, feigning understanding. She pretended to not hear me.

            “Now, look,” she said, moving the roller vertically. “It doesn’t leave streaks if you do it like this. The way you were doing it, it leaves streaks that look like shit.” 

            “Is that right?” We stood there for a while, me letting her guide my hand. 

“I like the way the paint looks on the skin of your hands,” I said.

            She looked stunned for a moment, and I got worried. Then she smiled — the first time I saw those dimples — and my worry dissipated. “Could you teach me more?”

 

***

            Beth had taken a couple of root beers out of the fridge.

            “All we have to eat is fried chicken. I can heat it up.”

            “No need, I can eat it cold.” 

            “Suit yourself.” She came back to the table and sat down. She put down the singular plate between us and popped the caps off the bottles and handed one to me. Then she started at my face again with the washcloth.

             “This cut is going to need stitches you know.” She looked straight into my eyes, then back at the television, there was some sort of gunfight scene going.

“I know.” I said. “What were you all dressed up for so late?”

“I just wanted to look cute for a bit,” she said. “It’s been a while since I felt pretty.”

“It hasn’t been long since I thought you were.” She showed her dimples.

“Honestly, I’ve had a hard time sleeping lately.” 

“I hadn’t noticed,” I replied.

Woody Harrelson looked like he was being questioned on the wrong side of a shotgun.

          “Which of us was meant to save the other?” I asked, surprised at my own sudden candor. She gave me a blank look for a moment, then sighed.

          “I thought that I might be saving you,” she said. “Now that seems silly.”

“You did save me.” 

           “Lot of good it did us.” I wanted to come up with a reason, a way to fix where we were. It felt like if I didn’t come up with something now, I never would. She looked at me with urgency, she sounded defeated.

 I ended up thinking of my mom and dad. It became clear that the men in my family were haunted, may have been for generations. Something ate at us. It consumed Tim. It recruited my dad into its ranks. I don’t think he knew it did. Somewhere along the way the darkness slipped in. And he dealt with it the only way he knew how. He tried to lock it away. Mom was never let in. My heart softened then. I thought that it might be time to try something new.

           The chicken was still as of yet untouched. I stood up and wrapped my arms around Beth’s waist, pulling her in tight and laying my head face down on her shoulder. She seemed unsure for a moment, not really reciprocating, her hands up in the air, but then she hugged me back, dropping the washcloth. We stood there like that, she dragged her hands up and down my back.  When I pulled back, I wiped a tear from my eye and rubbed my nose, she made a similar gesture. 

“It’s so hard to sleep without you,” she said. “I’m not sure I could do it.”

I nodded.

          “I need to take a shower, and I’ll be right back.” I could feel the vibration of my heartbeat through my shirt.

          “I bled on you.” I said, nodding toward the golf ball sized stain on her shoulder.

 

***

            I was scared to sleep so I decided to go sit on our back porch. My dad’s old chair was displayed for all to see at the top of the porch steps. I rocked back and forth, letting the chair voice its age old aches. I stopped rocking when I heard the emanating whirrr, phurr wheeeeof the whip-poor-wills. I let their beckoning fill the night air without hindrance from me. Something inside me loosened. My shoulders, which I hadn’t been aware that I was holding up, relaxed. I listened. I listened for an uncertain amount of time. 

“Honey,” I heard Beth’s voice behind me.  

           “Listen to them, Beth,” I said. “Just listen. Come here.” She stood beside my chair. I took her hand, and pulled her onto my lap. She rested her head on my shoulder. 

           “I think my dad was wrong,” I said.

           “About what?”

           “He said that the whip-poor-wills were calling up the sun, that they beckoned the sun to rise. I think he was wrong.”

She didn’t respond, so I continued.

           “I don’t think they’re calling the sun. They’re telling the moon and the stars that it would be okay to stick around just a little bit longer.”