WHAT HAPPENS NEXT – Steve Cushman

I was getting ready for work when the telephone rang. Something told me not to pick up, but it was the first time it had rung since Heather had moved out two weeks ago. We both worked at the same hospital, so when I saw that familiar number on the Caller ID, I grabbed the phone, thinking maybe she was calling to say she was ready to come back.
“Wes, let’s go.” It was my father.
“What are you talking about?”
“The doctor came by, said I was free to go. They’re releasing me now.”
“Dad, I can’t come pick you up. I’m getting ready for work.” My father had fallen off a ladder two days before and broken his left ankle so badly he’d had to have surgery.
“Just tell them you have to pick up your father from the hospital. They’ll understand.”
“No, they won’t.” I’d been late so many times in the past that Ray, my supervisor, had told me yesterday he’d have no choice but to write me up if I was late again in the next sixty days.
“I need to get the hell out of here.”
“Dad, I can’t.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. I looked over at the clock—1:39. I could get to the hospital in ten minutes. He lived about twenty minutes on the other side of the hospital, so it might be possible to pick him up, drive him home, and get back, but I’d have to make great time.
“When was the last time I asked you for anything?” he said.
“What about the birds?”
“No, I mean before the hospital.”
Low blow or not, he did have a point. The last time had been six months before, the day after Mom died of a heart attack playing golf. He’d asked me to choose between the pink or white lining for the inside of the casket. I’d chosen white.
“Fine,” I said. “But you better be outside waiting.”
“Will be,” he said, and hung up.
I made it to the hospital in record time, seven minutes. He was, thankfully, sitting by the front door in a wheelchair. He stood up, holding his crutches for balance, and reached for the hood, then hobbled around the front of the truck toward the driver’s side. His left leg was in a plaster cast from knee to mid-foot.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I want to drive.”
“You can’t.”
“I’ve been sitting on my ass for the last two days. I need to do something.”
I looked back at the nurse, hoping she would assist me, say he couldn’t drive because of some narcotics or the cast. But she said neither, only turned the wheelchair back to the hospital’s sliding glass doors and disappeared inside, reminding me that he was my problem now.
The truck was an automatic, so I couldn’t use the clutch as an excuse. Maybe a stronger person would have denied his father, would have argued for ten minutes, but I stepped aside and let him climb into the driver’s seat. He handed me the crutches, and I tossed them into the bed of the truck, along with his Patient’s Belongings bag.
“If you are going to drive, then we have to go now,” I said.
He started the truck, and we headed away from the hospital. Heather’s voice came to me: “You don’t have a backbone, always letting people push you around.” This was just one of the reasons she’d given me that night she left. But this was different, I told myself. I was only letting him drive because it would speed things up in the long run.
We passed the employees’ parking lot, doctors’ offices, and outpatient surgery centers. In a few minutes we were on Walker Avenue, a two-lane residential street with a little slab of cemented-in grass for a median, decorated every ten yards or so, with palm trees held up by thin planks of woods and bungee cords. Pink and blue stucco houses lined the road.
Although the AC was on, my father rolled the window down. He always did this, and it always drove my mother and me crazy. But my father was a creature of habit. Each morning as his coffee brewed, and each night before he climbed into the shower, he’d do one hundred push-ups, fifty sit-ups.
“Can we stop and get my prescription filled?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“Fine.” He lifted his right hand in the air.
I felt guilty for being short with him, but we didn’t have any time to waste. I considered the excuses I could give Ray: my father had gotten out of the hospital and needed my help, since Mom died he had no one but me. But I knew it wouldn’t matter; Ray would write me up anyway. It was his job.
“What’s that?” My father pointed at something small in the road ahead of us. He swerved to the right, making the truck ride up the shoulder, almost tipping us into the ditch.
“Jesus, Dad,” I said, turning around. It could have been a rock or leaf floating in the middle of the boiling asphalt.
“A damn house sparrow,” my father said.
“I don’t think so.”
“It was. I’m telling you. It’s going to get killed there in the middle of the street.”
“I don’t think it was a bird.”
He flicked the turn signal, and I glanced at the clock on the dash again—2:00. “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting that bird. We can’t leave it in the middle of the street.”
“Dad, there isn’t a bird there.”
“Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.” He turned the truck onto a neighborhood street that paralleled Walker Avenue and began to circle the block.
Calm down, I told myself, this shouldn’t slow us down more than a minute or two; he’ll see it wasn’t a bird, and then we’ll be on our way.
This street was filled with concrete-block duplexes. The majority of them had brightly colored wooden shutters and loose-stone driveways, a palm tree or two in the front yards. They reminded me of the duplex Heather and I had rented when we’d gotten married five years before. The duplex she’d walked out of and where I still lived now.
The night she left, I’d come home and been surprised to see her sitting on the couch, drinking a glass of wine. My first thought, an absurd one now, was that she had waited up to have sex. The last three times we’d had sex we’d also been drinking. After I showered, she handed me a glass of wine and proceeded to tell me she was unhappy and unsatisfied with her life, and she needed a little time. She said she wanted to separate for a few months, until she figured some things out. This was a speech she’d obviously practiced beforehand. I could almost see her mentally checking off each point.
When I didn’t say anything, she changed course and spent five minutes telling me what she didn’t like about me: how I’d gained weight, lacked passion, didn’t do much around the house, and when I did do something it always turned out half-assed.
Heather had always controlled the relationship: when she was happy, I was happy. When she pulled away, I pulled away. And as stupid as it sounds, even to me now, I had thought she liked it that way.
Because I needed to do something as she talked, I threw my empty wine glass at the wall, smashing it. Heather looked shocked, though I hadn’t thrown it anywhere near her. She said if I’d shown more passion like that in our relationship, maybe it would have worked. But passion isn’t something you can turn off and on like a faucet. I could have promised her I would change, but I didn’t. I could have gotten on my hands and knees and begged her to stay, but I didn’t do that either.
Back on Walker Avenue, I spotted the object in the road. My father was right. It was a little sparrow. He pulled over.
When he reached for the door handle, I grabbed his arm. “You can’t walk out there.”
“I’ve got to get it.”
“For Christ’s sake,“ I said, climbing out. “Stay here.”
The bird kept turning his head left and right, as if trying to work up the courage to make a run for one side or the other. There was no oncoming traffic, so I took three steps to the center of the road, picked the bird up, and climbed back into the truck. It didn’t try to fight or fly and weighed no more than a store-bought egg.
My father reached over and took the bird from me. “A damn house sparrow. Must have fallen out of a tree.”
We both watched it walk in a tight, confused circle in his palm, opening and closing its beak as if trying to speak.
My father had always liked birds, so we’d kept a feeder or two in our backyard when I was growing up. The only thing he’d asked me to do during his hospital stay was feed the birds in his back yard. He said there was a five-gallon bucket full of bird food in a cabinet in his garage. When I walked out into the garage, there were twenty-two birdhouses hanging from the ceiling by fishing line. I half-expected a wren or chickadee to fly out of one of the tiny holes. On the worktable behind me, there were another half dozen in various stages of completion.
The one consistent memory from my childhood is of a table saw buzzing away while I sat in the next room watching TV. My father was a damn good woodworker. He tended to build a certain thing—a chair, a table, a box—until he perfected it, tearing apart his earlier efforts and starting over. So I assumed the birdhouses was his latest woodworking project.
When I stepped out onto the back porch, holding the bucket, there were fifteen birdfeeders and about thirty birds in the backyard: cardinals and jays and sparrows and doves and a pair of mockingbirds. It looked like some kind of damn aviary. Gray and brown and green birdfeeders hung on shepherd’s hooks and from the clothesline. Along the wooden fence, every ten feet or so, was a wooden birdhouse like the ones in the garage.
It wouldn’t have been quite as much of a shock to me if I’d been visiting him regularly, especially now with Mom gone, but I hadn’t been over to the house in at least two months. Had the birds, and birdhouses, been an attempt to stay busy now that he was alone? Maybe keep him company in that lonely home now? Hell if I knew.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked, nodding toward the bird.
“Don’t really know.”
“Dad, I have to get to work. Maybe we should just set it on the side of the road, under some trees. Let it find its mother or the nest.”
“It might be injured Will probably just walk back out into the road.”
He brought the bird close to his face and smiled at it, made a sweet, cooing sound. Was that why he had always been so nice to Heather, because she might someday bring him a grandchild to dote over? It surprised me that he had gotten along so well with her. Not that I’d expected him to dislike her, but he had always shown a certain indifference to the girls, and later women, I dated. With Heather, his eyes lit up every time she walked in the room. I hadn’t told my father about her leaving because I wasn’t sure if it was over for good, and if she did come back I didn’t want him to hold it against her. Though, in reality, I’m pretty sure he would have thought I was the one to blame.
“You’ll have to hold it,” he said, handing me the bird. I cupped my palms together and felt its claws, feet, tapping against my palms. The bird started flapping its wings, and my father said, “Grab it!” as the bird fluttered in front of his face and then flew up into the truck’s ceiling before falling back into my lap.
“Damn it, Wes!”
“It just flew up.”
“It’s going to smash its skull flying in here.” He reached over, grabbed the bird, and placed it in his lap. There was something damp on my hospital scrubs, and I looked down to see an oval of grayish-white birdshit.
His tone, the way he yelled at me, reminded me of Heather and how she’d said I couldn’t do anything right, couldn’t change a light bulb without breaking something or turning it into a major operation. Over the years, I’d blamed my father for this. He hadn’t shown me how to do the simplest household tasks when I was growing up. It was Mom who’d washed the cars and mowed the yard with me each weekend, Mom who’d helped me paint my bedroom every couple years. And it was Mom who’d played baseball and basketball with me. Maybe my father had been too busy in the garage, working on his latest woodworking project, or maybe he too was incapable of doing these things, some damn gene he had passed on to me. Whatever the reason, it had always been Mom I felt closer to. That’s why, on that Saturday six months ago when Heather had hung the phone up and told me to sit down, my first thought had been, Please let it be him and not her.
At the funeral, Heather had held my hand and hugged me tight, but looking back on it now, I could see that she was slipping away even then. We hadn’t made love in almost three months and rarely had more than a five-minute conversation. We’d become very good at avoiding each other. She told me on the night she left that she’d been planning to leave before Mom died but had decided to stay for a little while, until the initial shock of her death wore off.
The sparrow flapped its wings and lifted again, landing on the dashboard. Dad reached for the bird, but it sidestepped him. When I reached for it, the bird stepped back toward him.
“Just leave it,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t fly, it’s okay.”
The sparrow paced back and forth. The clock read 2:10. It didn’t seem possible that I could make it to work on time now. We still had another five minutes before we were at Dad’s house, and it wasn’t as if I could just drop him off. I’d have to get him into the house, set him up somewhere comfortable. I wasn’t sure if he’d even had lunch yet. I tried to stay calm and watched the bird stepping from side to side, as if plotting its next move.
Eventually, it stopped in front of me and I reached up and took it in my hands, cupping them together so it wouldn’t be able to fly again. My father pulled onto 52nd Street, a block from his house. I parted my fingers, and the bird opened its beak wide, as if asking for food or water or for me to roll the window down so he could get the hell out of here.
“What are you going to do with him?” I asked.
“Try and feed him, then let him go.”
“You think he’s going to make it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I found a sparrow like him last week in the back yard. He didn’t look too bad, just a spot of blood above his beak, but he couldn’t fly. I figured he’d probably gotten clipped by a hawk, so I wrapped him up in one of your mother’s old sweaters and placed him in a shoe box, fed him and gave him some water. An hour later I checked on him, and he looked alert, was turning his head from side to side. The next morning he was dead.”
“Do you miss Mom?”
He turned to me for a split second, then stared straight ahead at the road again. “That’s a strange question.”
“I’m your son, so I get to ask strange questions.”
“Bullshit on that. But of course I do. I miss sitting across from her in the morning, discussing what was on her agenda for the day. She planned something different every day, while I always did the same damn thing: went to work, came home and worked in the garage, ate dinner and went to bed.”
I missed my mother too, but I knew my question hadn’t really been about her. It was about Heather, a way of preparing myself for life without her. A way of feeling my father out to see how much pain I was really in for. Why had Heather married me? Had one or both of us changed? Had our vision of what a marriage should be, what a partner should be, split and gone off in different directions? Was it about getting older and wanting something different? I figured it was probably a little of all of those things. Not that any of that made me feel better. She was still gone, and I was still alone with some new, vague life ahead of me.
“Dad, Heather and I—”
“I know,” he said. “She came by and visited me last night.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “We don’t talk like that.”
“I don’t know what happened.”
He reached over and patted my knee once before gripping the steering wheel with both hands. I couldn’t remember the last time, prior to an awkward hug at the funeral, he had touched me.
As we pulled into his driveway, he said, “Here we are. You got him?”
“Sure.”
I turned to the clock—2:14. There was no way I could make it back to the hospital in sixteen minutes. My father climbed out, reached for his crutches in the back of the truck, and slowly made his way around to the front. I held the bird against my chest and opened the door. I hoped my father was right, that we had helped this bird and it would get better. That would mean something, wouldn’t it? A bit of good karma for the Wilson men. We could use some of that.
Climbing out of the truck, I reached for the doorframe with my right hand while holding the bird with my left. I imagined the bird recovering, eating from one of those feeders out in the backyard, starting a family in one of my father’s birdhouses. Then the sparrow began to flap its wings. I tried to hold on, but its tiny claws poked me. Instinctively I opened my hand, and the bird flew out.
By this time Dad was just a few feet away, and he reached into the air but was nowhere near the bird; the distance made his reaching seem more symbolic than a real attempt to try and catch it. The sparrow flew up ten feet or so above us, hung in the air for a few seconds, and then rose and disappeared into the thick branches of the oak tree.
I felt a quick chill travel through my body as I traced the bird’s path. I expected my father to be mad at me. “I’m sorry.”
Dad laughed. “He seems okay now. He can fly.”
Looking back through the open door, I read the time on the dashboard—2:18. I shut the door and took a step closer to my father, held my arm out to support him. He leaned against me as the two of us looked up at the oak tree, past the Spanish moss and into the thick branches, and waited, together like that, to see what would happen next.

Author’s Statement

What Happens Next is the story of a father and son, Guy and Wes Wilson, thrown together after the death of the family matriarch, which is followed six months later by the son’s wife leaving him. Guy and Wes have a distant relationship at best, but when Guy falls from a ladder and breaks his leg, Wes is forced to come to his father’s aid as he recovers—even though he would rather stay away, as he’s dealing with the fallout from his dissolving marriage. Through the course of a summer, as Guy’s leg heals, the men come together to finish a woodworking project that Guy started before the injury. During this time, Wes’s job as an X-ray tech, at the same hospital where his wife works, is thrown in doubt after a confrontation between Wes and a young doctor. By the end of the novel, Wes will have to decide whether to go back to his old life or to follow a new path, and a new sort of life, ahead.
The novel is about fathers and sons but also about how we deal with loss and hope, how sometimes external elements bring us together, and how, ultimately, what we are left with is family, for good or bad. As the father of a fifteen-year-old son, I find myself constantly writing about our relationship. We, as writers, don’t get to choose our subjects; they choose us, every damn day, whether we want to write about them or not. In my writing, I hope to convey somehow what I can’t say.

 

Steve Cushman lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has earned an MFA from UNC-Greensboro and published three novels. His first poetry collection, How Birds Fly, won the 2018 Lena Shull Book Award. More information on Steve and his writing can be found at stevecushman.net.