What’s Next?

Gary Fincke

The last time I visit my father while he still lives alone, he tells me his longtime neighbor’s son is dead, shot by a stranger on the back porch of the yellow-brick ranch I can see from the three-paned bedroom window. “About your age, that boy,” he says, meaning sixty-three, his neighbor ninety, like my father, the son living at home as if he still walked to the school bus stop with books and a gym bag.

“They say he shot the other man first,” my father adds, making mystery, saying the survivor was found in the kitchen by my father’s friend come home from blood tests meant to adjust the dosages that extend his heart. “What’s next?” my father says.  “What’s next?” For his neighbor, I imagine nothing will ever be worse. For my father, the answer, for now, is his moving in ten days to a nursing home where he will not be leaving the stove on or falling down the stairs or forgetting a day’s worth of medicinal drugs.

In his back yard, a weeks-ago, storm-felled-tree sprawls so close to the house the door can’t be opened. What used to be the highest branches are splayed against the storm door that was never replaced, in May, by a screen. The tree, an enormous pine, was planted near the property line when we moved into the house over fifty years ago. If the yard were any smaller, it would have caved the roof in. Instead, it lived to be a miracle of geometry.

When switched on, the television shows only darkness, and my father says, “You try” as if I might resurrect the guests he watches until he sleeps. The weather inside his locked windows suggests a ceiling of thunderheads, but he buttons his sweater, closes the green drapes like a magician ready to remove that felled tree while it is safely hidden. Sitting in the self-made twilight, my father tells me his neighbor confronted the killer in his kitchen. “Where I’ve sat a hundred times,” he says, beginning to remember the shape and color of the chairs. How a clock is hung above the window that looks out on the porch. How, when his neighbor must have leaned over the sink, he would have examined the length of it for his son after that bleeding stranger nodded in that direction.

His neighbor, when I’d spoken to him during an earlier visit for my father’s ninetieth birthday, had pointed out that he was two months and ten days older than my father. “He can say we’re both ninety now, but he’ll never make up those days,” he’d said.

Now that neighbor was ninety years, four months, and twenty-six days old. The math was simple. My father began to hum a hymn I recognized. I knew that if I didn’t soon speak he would begin to sing the words. What came next was my choice. All I needed to do was wait.


Gary Fincke's essay collection The Darkness Call won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleaides Press, 2018). A new collection, The Mayan Syndrome, will be published by Madhat Press in 2023. Its lead essay "After the Three-Moon Era" was reprinted in Best American Essays 2020.