Gary Fincke

From day to day, second to second, the self preserves itself, clinging to that instrument: time, the instrument that it was supposed to play.                                                          —Walter Benjamin


Far more than one early morning Facebook post pleads, “Send thoughts and prayers,” and because so many readers are alone or anxious or accept the power of such comfort, dozens of comments begin “dear God” and “prayers sent,” phrases as familiar as passing traffic, they are erased by a gibberish of wind and starlings awakening, every teeming tree chattering what sounds, at dawn, like an invisible babble of relief. Upstairs, a door slams, the skylights open to crosswind, ceiling fans spinning sluggishly. Even this early, the fans are as helpless as the cardboard ones provided by the church my father once required, no excuses.  They opened and shut like accordions, pictures of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, blessing the loaves and fishes, healing the sick, or kneeling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. All summer, they were scattered along each pew where new hymnals, one Sunday the year I turned fifteen, were distributed, all of them purchased, I learned through opening and shutting as many as I could during the following months, to honor the memory of somebody’s loved one. Those hymnals also contained a table that listed the dates when Easter would occur for each of the next sixty-five years.  The last of those dates, which back then seemed impossibly far away, was 2025, embedded in an April for which science has prophesized worldwide coastal flooding, the city in which I was reading those forecasts abandoned like a shopping mall where, after dark, a dread of cars idles without headlights.


Because my mother died on New Year’s Day, because I visited to comfort my father, who refused to move any of her things, I saw how Christmas had stalled at gifts unwrapped but not opened, how her medicine had been arranged by frequency: Crystodigin, Diaranese, Almodet (once daily), Cytomel (three times per day). They supported her weak heart, and I lifted the vial of Percoset (as needed, for severe pain, no refills) and wondered at the gaps between the demands that had been screamed by my mother’s heart. Beside it was Nitrostat (as needed, for chest pain), those pills that the foolish in movies always grope toward as they collapse while still one room from relief, the urgency of those labels convinced me that my mother would surely have understood they represented a hierarchy of help from which she would not emerge.

During my visit, I learned that my father had been taking blood pressure medicine for years, keeping that need closeted as if it were shameful.  By then, I had issues of my own that required tablets I took, twice daily; capsules I swallowed, as needed; and vapor I breathed in the lapsed-lung darkness, lying back like Proust, whose life I’d learned for my job. His asthma, however, bedded him for years. He didn’t take Theolair, Optimine, Ventolin. He insisted, finally, that a huge black woman was chasing him. So she had caught him. So my father strained to speak, trying, “Well, did you sleep good?” to unmuzzle the morning, and I answered him, “Good enough” as if the truth might trigger prescriptions, as if accidentally we might talk, as needed, swallowing to save our faulty selves, carefully speaking from the confluence of our altered blood.

After dinner that night, my father led me outside. The falling snow was nothing but an hour’s cover. When we walked across my father’s yard, the grass returned where our shoes pressed. “There’s my sky,” he said, and not knowing what he expected, I answered, standing in his driveway, “It’s clear all right.” I stared upward, thinking my father was planning to tell me about the ancient names for the stars or the tales they inspired about people who suffered and changed and ascended while somebody left behind handed his story down to another generation. The two dippers and Orion were all I could remember and locate, and I waited for him to show me where he believed my mother was, how one cluster of stars had reformed, at least for him, to suggest a melodrama of hope. The two of us stood with the night in our lungs. We breathed a sentence of silence until he said, “Venus and Jupiter,” directed me low in the sky where there were so many lights I could nod, certain they were among them.


Her cries enhanced by the dorm wall echo, the student sitting in the stairwell weeps. A step above stands the boy who must have shown her that love is as perishable as groceries stamped with shelf-life warnings. She raises her hand to her face.  Without skipping a sob, she lets me climb. Wary at public sorrow, the boy holds his stance.

She didn’t lift her head, I tell my colleague later, even when I paused like an eavesdropper. My colleague says “aboulia” as if I should recognize a strange, ancient word for that tableau. He’s spent much of his lifetime studying the obsolete and archaic, certain there are words that fit so exactly to feeling they transcend the narratives for ambivalence, anxiety, and angst. When he’s satisfied he has me puzzled, he says, “Think of how she’s sitting there like you say. It shows loss of volition.” He waits a beat and adds, “Loss of will,” grinning as if he owns the word that would define my bald neighbor coughing up mucus beside the hybrid sapling he carried to the hole I’d dug for what he insisted would flourish faster than sumac, swelling to shade my new house, what, statistically, he is unlikely to witness despite his latest experimental cancer therapy. Or my father, his knees ruined to the threat of buckling, crawling backward down the stairs to the flood-prone basement for the years-old jars of my mother’s preserves that speak one version of eternity.


Once, in May, a tractor near where I lived in Western New York vanished beneath the earth, a farmer too early into the onion fields. I stared at the John Deere, large and green, as it rose from the mud, heaved up by pulleys. Those of us watching were told that the farmer, as his tractor sank, had stood, riding until his shoes had touched the soil, becoming, he’d said, a temporary Jesus, walking away from the disbelief of drowning.

One of my students, fifteen that spring, had lost an eye in a farm accident several years earlier. The empty socket had been stitched closed; her hair always hung across nearby scars like cloth. Nobody knew whether or not she would receive an artificial eye or plastic surgery. I was told that she’d been piggyback riding her father, her thin legs still pale in early May, hugging his neck in shorts and T-shirt, a model for the joy of family farming. The story another teacher told me included these details: her father’s black Harvester had flushed birds and turned over two nests of mice before it bucked and tossed her. I didn’t ask him how he knew that.

That summer, a boy my older son’s age tumbled under the harrow that trailed his father’s red New Holland. A minister said, “Remember the eight years of joy that child has brought,” as if the dead boy were that farmer’s pet. After the service, the one-eyed girl followed her father, whose shoulders were so hunched he appeared to be dragging her. 

In September, the girl with one eye said she loved unhappy endings because everyone deserved misery. By then, my last year as a high school teacher, I was a ghost who left the school before I re-entered my body and walked home to my wife and three children who had not been injured, their tragedies postponed. To walk off dissatisfaction, some afternoons I chose a longer, indirect route home. A few times, I passed tractors idling near fields to be harvested. Twice, farmers crouched beside them as if in thought.


A woman I once met had, seventeen years earlier, lost a swimmer while lifeguarding at a summer camp. Hand-over-hand, a boy had edged to deep water along the dock. No matter the reason, he’d lost his grip and gone under while she’d scolded a boy for running, adding a minute between her whistles for buddy checks.  “Last warning,” she’d said to the running boy. “Don’t let me see that again.”

Often, she said, her dreams were whistles and screams. Always, there was water-with-shadow, a still life framed by memory’s limits. She woke with what felt like heavy weight yoked by her arms. Twice each night, she rose to check the breathing of her children who slept paired in two rooms.  A trilling in her ears insisted that she evaluate the pillows, examine the chests for the relief of rise and fall.

What I didn’t tell her was that I’d practiced CPR, once, on a dummy called Mike Muscles, bringing him back from the dead with my hands and breath. Imagine yourself watching a boy dragged from a swimming pool, the instructor had said. Imagine the work of your hands on his chest was the only way to resurrect breath.

After that woman had walked away, I evaluated how hungry I was, sometimes, for a story to spew at acquaintances, believing that sort of appetite was widely shared. For once I said nothing. There is never shame in the inability to comfort.


I have been reading about scientific fraud, cases of men and women altering their data to make it fit their hopes for success. The well-known obstetrician, for example, who published a research paper in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, claiming that a 29-year-old woman had given birth to a healthy baby after he had successfully relocated a five-week-old ectopic fetus into her womb, a report that raised the hopes of women prone to pregnancies that start outside the uterus and end in miscarriage. Patient records, however, had been tampered with, suspicion resting upon the obstetrician. Moreover, colleagues knew nothing about the case he was referencing, and the mother could not be found. The doctor had falsified everything. One other patient, in fact, was already dead when he claimed to have operated on her.

Six miles from where I live, a skeleton has been unearthed from the bank of the Susquehanna River, each day regaining more of itself from six fillings and the evidence of wounds. The newspaper publishes photographs of the long-missing woman, interviews with her mother. It’s the end of uncertainty, she says. The end of miracles, she adds, when the story continues on an inside page. Beside that report, the newspaper runs a photograph of a woman displaying one thousand origami cranes she owns in order to bring fulfillment of wishes. Which makes me think, for a moment, that there is some reason to forgive the scientists who have altered data, the researchers with their “golden hands.” Absolve the man who marked mice with the ink of false verification. Pardon the doctor who beat probability with a simple shift of answers. For they do the work of our wishes. For they bring miracles and divine intervention. There are so many God signs in science we need a library for likely fraud, space enough for enormous paper flocks to dream among, those frail, paper birds so securely settled, they will not startle.


The pet cemetery near Stroudsburg was the kind of place I walked with a notebook, a grant supporting me across Pennsylvania. I copied down inscriptions that read like parodies and wondered what anyone driving Route 80 would think of Edgar Friedell paying somebody to inscribe Bambi Was My Baby on a headstone. I thought of how I was spending Pennsylvania’s money, believing I could find poems or stories daily by starting my car. I remembered the fat anthologies I carried, the number of fellowship winners like myself who filled up American highways until they found one place that convinced them they were alone in a particular inspiration. I walked down past Our Lost Little Girlie and My Sweetie and stood on the shoulder of the highway the way, as a boy, I had often done to hitchhike before I thought about poems and stories or even how much one of those drivers could have made me pay for accepting a ride, and I kept guessing how I looked to every man or woman who might be watching for hitchhikers, wanting to heave that notebook across all four lanes of Route 80, one more tax dollar symbol, wishing for Edgar Friedell to show up with flowers so I could ask him how he’d done it—how he’d loved something enough to sign his name.


Thirty years ago, shortly after I began teaching at a university, one of my students died in a campus accident. Afterward, I rewrote, in cursive, a few lines from her workshop poem about the possibilities of love, listening to the imagery for desire with intricate loops and decisive slants. Her setting is a garden dedicated to St. Paul and tended by two ancient nuns who, each day, inspect the light altered by arrangements of decorative trees; who prune, monthly, the rose bushes to allow kneeling before the raised right hand of a smiling Mary. Pausing, I remembered it had been years since I had noticed a nun.  Because they have abandoned their habits, I decided, and remembered how they rode the streetcar in pairs; how they gathered at the museum where I was transfixed by dinosaur bones, mummies, and animals stuffed and mounted.

My student’s sixteen lines were a gospel of surfaces, touch after touch where nerves nearly breach the skin. They detailed blossoms that flourished like sacrifice; they added topiary that shadowed erosions from frequent storms, the nuns often singing. I recalled Soeur Sourire, the Singing Nun, her song about Dominique relentless on the radio, her Ed Sullivan minutes, how I followed her brief career, discovering she had left the order for a woman, nothing certain by then but the pull of desire.

The priest who blessed my wedding fled the church for a woman who had spent seven years as a nun. Soon Sister Smile killed herself, nuns becoming improbable as faith. My student, at last, shifted to the white statue of the garden saint, her blessed hand smooth from centuries of kisses, her poem ending in an astonishment of prayer.


My father, his collection of canes arranged against a wall, accepted, at last, the walker and the nursing home. Ninety, he shuffled and imagined intruders and thieves who believed stealth obsolete in the room of the deaf. Hourly each night, he struggled to the bathroom in darkness, sure he would welcome them, wolves come to rescue him from the wheelchair, from the hospital bed, the catheter’s humiliation of extended care.

One Saturday afternoon we rode the nursing home’s elevator down to the chapel, where I guided him to the stained-glass window he’d donated, twenty years before, in memory of my mother. After the window had been installed, he’d driven me thirty miles to see it, asking, when we’d entered, “Which one? Guess.” When I chose flowers and doves, a setting suggesting what he expected of paradise, he was pleased enough to say, “Good” and wave me close to read the inscription.

When those birds and lilies caught the low sun, they seemed transfigured by eternity. “Look,” I said, hearing the light of expectation in my voice. My father stared and waited as if he were listening for me to go on, but I kept my sense of accidental symbolism to myself. He leaned on his walker so close to the identification plaque that he laid his hand upon it. “See?” he said, “to Ruthy,” as if that inscription were a miracle.


A lifelong friend has retired to South Carolina. Last spring, while we crossed the bridge to return from a resort island restaurant, my friend’s wife, driving slowly, said, “Here is where the accident occurred,” describing carelessness, inattention, and a driver texting while veering over the median and so much as murdering a woman she knew well, the husband injured but recovering, by now, for several months. “Because she was driving,” my friend said. “Because, like me, he sees poorly at night.”

The following morning, that crash survivor, unannounced, joined my friend and me for golf. I shook his hand when we met. Although I carried my knowledge of his secret misery like an extra club, the truth is I prepared, if needed, a sentence of consolation, that for three and a half hours I thought I was being asked to prove who I was and became, at best, another retiree come south in winter, easily forgotten. Afterward, over beer, I told my friend I felt like I was spying in a changing room.

This year, visiting again, I learned that widower never played another round with anyone my friend knew, that he’d moved to another state to be close to his children or to be far from the source of suffering, as if distance were a way to peace, a door to bolt against the visitor who never leaves, who does its laundry late at night and leaves crumbs for which no one confesses. 


There is light, this evening, an hour later than yesterday and strange, like the unexpected eye within a whirl of wind. For most of my life, I’ve judged myself so terribly I’ve spent whole weeks in hell. Language seems unable to define the certainty of delayed darkness except the German torschulusspanik, meaning fear of transience, how, each day, I wear that melancholy like a truss, just a bit distracted as the evening seems a false start toward traditional joy. Not as challenge, but as consolation.


Gary Fincke has published thirty-one books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction, most recently The Out-of-Sorts: New and Selected Stories (2017). He has been twice awarded Pushcart Prizes for his work, and cited fifteen times in the past eighteen years for a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays. He has just retired as the Charles Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.

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