The Whip-poor-will

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over a cardboard box full of photos from days ago and long before.
While I squinted, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping their knuckles against my study door.
“It must be some annoying neighbor,” I mused softly, “at my door.
Only this and nothing more.”

Ho, ho, ho, how I remember, it was early in December;
Our house was hogtied with Christmas junk like a gaudy retail store.
There were candy canes and reindeer, plastic elves strangely odd and queer
And wooden nutcrackers, stuffed doll angels, old toys, and so much more.
This crap was strewn about, from shore to shining shore,
Need there be anything more?

All these old photos intrigued me, like those gifts under our flocked tree.
Memories going back to when we were young and poor,
Right up to today, money wise, our bank accounts a healthy size.
We’ve come such a long way, my wife and I, and there’s much more.
We no longer fret about growing up and the adult pitfalls in store.
Our lives are good to the core.

Anyway, back to the tapping and my alarm it’s happening.
I hesitated no longer, and twisted the door’s knob to open and see
Who was there this hour of the night. Also, I turned on the hall light.
I looked to see who was there, but this peace-disturbing he-or-she
Wasn’t anywhere in sight. I asked myself how this could this be?
Only an empty hall and me.

Down the dark hall I was peering, curious, not really fearing.
Who could it have been? Who would be awake, rapping at my door?
“Hello?” I said, and then again. From outside I could hear the wind.
Maybe it was no more than that! If I shut the door, would there be more?
One last time I said “Hello?” But there was nothing for me to explore.
Just the silence and nothing more.

I did finally close the door and I walked across the creaky floor.
I was back to my box of photos, and once again came the rapping.
It came like little snare drum blows; beating now from yonder window.
Was it this window all along? I stepped over and drew open the drape.
A loose piece of wood trim, or maybe a length of cord?
Was it wind and nothing more?

I opened the thick cloth to see for certain what was teasing me,
I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! There was a whip-poor-will on the sill.
This innocuous little bird, at first said not a single word.
And then! It flew around in my study and perched at will
On top of my head. Then it said both deliberately and holding still,
“I’m special, not run-of-the-mill!”

“Jeez Louise,” I said. “I’ve never heard a bird talk before, ever,”
I looked around for the ventriloquist who was responsible for this show,
I found no one in the study who could be the bird’s good buddy.
This was fantastic! A talking bird! I truly didn’t want it to go,
But I didn’t want it making a nest in my hair, so I said come down low,
And it just said, “You never know.”

“Come on down and chat for a bit,” I said. “Here’s a place you can sit.”
I patted my hand on my desk, and the bird flapped it wings like a pro
And landed on a stack of books, you know, and gave me a gay look.
“Do you like to read books?” I asked, and immediately I felt like a toad
For asking such an inane question. Birds don’t read, as everyone knows.
But the bird said, “You never know.”

“I was looking through this box here, at photographs from my past years
Right before you came a tapping at my window, just so you know,
Did you already know of that, arriving here just to look at
The pictures with me?” The whip-poor-will just said, “I never grow
Weary of learning about the human race.” There was another ho, ho, ho,
And it then said, “You never know.”

Maybe you’d like to see this shot of the lot of us in one spot.
Dad told me the picture was from a spring afternoon in sixty-four
We all got together that day to honor our mothers in May
I don’t remember that exact day. I do remember the park, though.
We’d eat there on the picnic tables, and throw the baseball to and fro.
The bird said, “Well, what do you know.”

“It’s the only group shot I own of our whole family alone.
Every one of us is standing in this picture, even good old Auntie Flo.
As much trouble keeping her still as a puppy on a diet pill.
Everyone loved the heck out of Flo, and she was always on the go.
Who knew where she’d wind up next? Paris, New York, or Rome.
The birdie said, “You’d never know.”

Funny thing about my dear aunt; she got hitched to a guy named Grant.
He liked travelling as much as he liked drinking furniture glue.
And the two of them spread their roots, and Flo’s urge to travel grew moot.
And soon the grocery store was as far as she ever went, and you
Wouldn’t recognize her at all, and my fine feathered friend blew
Three words to me: “I never knew.”

“See this kid here,” I said, with my finger on the photo. I sighed.
“Do you see who I mean? He’s my cousin Eddie, and this was before
His parents got divorced. He was such a great kid, of course,
Until the break up. Slow but sure all hell broke loose, and he acted up so
Badly that they had to lock him up. Poor kid, he sunk so low.”
And my bird said, “You never know.”

Standing in front of Eddie was Mary Jane who I knew because
She was another of my cousins. I didn’t see much of her, although
I can tell you about this girl, that she was pretty as a pearl.
She was also shy. She’d get tongue tied in front of her own shadow.
You’ll never guess what she now does for a living. Gives speeches so.”
And my bird said, “You never know.”

“Do you see this man over here?” I asked. “His first name was Greer.
He’s no longer alive, but when he was living, he and my dad were more
Than Mom could handle. They acted like rowdy boys and exacted
My mother’s wrath every time they got together. Dad was shaken to his core
When Greer came down with cancer. Just like that, they were no more,
The bird said, “To know what’s in store.”

I told the whip-poor-will, “This print is more than just a subtle hint
That anything can happen in life. Some men lose their wives, and other go
On to lose their lives, and others grow rich and famous, and mothers
Fall for other fathers, and children become criminals, and low
And behold, like musical chairs, some sit, while others have nowhere to go.”
My bird said, “Yes, you never know.”

“Have you no more to say?” I asked, and the bird looked at me and cast
A wise and all-knowing expression my way, getting ready to say
Much, much more than I expected. Yes, my objection was rejected.
“There is a lot I could tell you; I’m trying to think of the best way
To put it into words. Like many people your age, you’re looking for a way
To make sense of your fickle days.”

“I am, I am,” I said. And the whip-poor-will laughed out loud, and the
Violent wind kicked up outside and howled. I watched it blow
In through the window then causing the drapes to billow and pausing
Our conversation dead in its tracks. Then the bird spoke to me low
And calm. It said, “By the way, my name is Fred.” Ah, so.
“Just one thing, that you need to know.”

I tried to speak up, but the bird raised his small wing in an absurd
Gesture of superiority, instructing me to say no more, and what’s more,
Fred somehow made the wind die down, giving him an air of renown.
Who was this crazy whip-poor-will who could speak words and control
The wind, and say to me exactly what I needed to hear. And so
Again, Fred said, “You never know.”

“Okay, I will elaborate, just this once I’ll open the gates.
There are so many cards in the deck. There is loyalty, depravity, wealth,
And poverty. There is wisdom, and raw foolishness. And the dumb,
The brilliant, the jealous, and the overtly generous. We are all so
Fat, so thin, so prideful, so terribly ashamed of ourselves. We have no
Idea where we’re going to go.”

The bird looked up at me and smiled, at least I thought it was a smile.
Scratching at the surface, Fred was telling me that God made no pact
That our lives would follow a plan, no matter how tight we held hands
With the futures we longed for. That’s the whole lesson intact
From the whip-poor-will I found on my sill, and who spoke to me exact.
So little did the bird’s words lack.

If someday you should share some words with a loquacious little bird,
A humble whip-poor-will, my case in point. Don’t scoff and say, “No,
I don’t talk to birds, not ever, beak, claw, or colorful feather.
Keep an open mind if you can, and if you hear it rapping at your window,
Let the little winged character come in from the bluster and speak so.
Ah, because you just never know.

Take me seriously, now; I’m not making a word of this up.
You may doubt, and you may laugh, and you may shake your head,
But I’m quite sane and I do know the difference between a saucer and a cup.
You know, here’s something I now find myself doing when I go to bed.
I don’t count sheep, or make plans. Instead I recall what was said,
My pal, the whip-poor-will named Fred.

Did I just say make plans?
Ha, ha, ha, that’s pretty good!
Okay, carry on.