Image Credit: “Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia.” Photo by Jordan Kauffman
The second funeral I ever attended was for the father of a friend of my girlfriend’s, 20 years ago. [The first was Jeremy B—, who hanged himself in his father’s garage, and whose suicide inspired me to ask out a girl I secretly loved; life felt brief, and fragile, and to hold back any longer was to dishonor the dead, so on a winter’s night I kissed her, the girl who’d later invite me to her friend’s father’s wake.] The dead man’s son—an environmental studies major—was the last to speak, and I remember a story he told, about the forests of Yellowstone Park, and how certain seeds are only released from their hermetic, hard shells [creating new growth] in the most extreme heat, the kind produced by devastating forest fires.
That thought never left me—even today, as I think about the couple I just waved goodbye to from the agreed-upon six foot gap between us, who had, despite the pandemic, toured the rental house my wife and I listed for sublet. We closed on a house across town, in Tuscaloosa, deciding to stick it out in Alabama, to lay roots in a state we never dreamed, as native New Yorkers, we’d call home. [Our daughter needs stability, as four year olds do, and I can’t justify another job hunt, can’t keep pulling rugs out from under her little feet. So Alabama it is, home sweet home. For the long haul.]
The couple was young, the woman a school teacher, her husband employed by a church. Two out-of-towners—like we’d been—looking for a quiet, safe place to work and raise children. In parting, we chose not to shake hands, and they left no fingerprints on our doorknobs or light switches. Still, it was worrisome: letting people inside. But the promise of financial relief outweighed any risk of exposure. Our lease runs through November; we can’t afford to pay a mortgage and rent.
And yet, it was the pleasure I didn’t expect—amid quarantines and human distancing—seeing that young couple, that upstart crew, standing in our kitchen, searching one another’s eyes. “Yes,” said the wife, and her husband smiled. “We want the place. We’d love to live here.”
As the world falls apart one cough at a time, these strangers have found a new home, stewards of a dwelling where we raised our child, where we taught her to dance and give high fives, where we first heard her string together clusters of words into the miracle of a sentence, and if that isn’t some kind of blessing [says a man who’s only been to church for funerals] then tell me what, in a world going dark, is a better reminder that light perseveres.
Brian Phillip Whalen’s debut collection of fiction, Semiotic Love [Stories], will be released in November (Awst Press). His work appears or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Copper Nickel,The Los Angeles Review, Flash Nonfiction Food (a Woodhall Press anthology), and elsewhere. Brian received his PhD from SUNY Albany and teaches at The University of Alabama.