WE are standing at the front of the church together, Andy and I. Our hands, one on top of the other. He Is Risen engraved on the white marble altar, and behind the altar stained glass rising as high as a ski slope. Ultramarine blue, royal purple, vermillion deep. Ivory silk skims my arms; Andy fills out a navy suit. Behind us, the loving eyes of our friends. This scene was the dream of so many girls when I was young, to stand at the altar with Andy.
Andy, my brother’s best friend, Andy, with wavy blond hair and blue eyes, Andy, the quarterback and starting pitcher, and also Andy: a nice guy. Dozens of girls had crushes on him, but mine felt special, because I had the most proximity. Andy’s house was just a few down from ours, and he was in ours all the time. He ate dinner at our table, he watched us blow out candles, he traveled with us to the mountains, the desert, the ocean. But he and I were off limits to each other. Or, at least, I was off limits to him. It wasn’t cool to date your best friend’s little sister. I wasn’t aware of that code back then, and was confused by the flirting that always went nowhere, my diaries a pitiful lament of Andy leading me on.
But that was long-ago youth: we graduated from high school, we graduated from college, we had our own relationships, we became friends. Now we are in our mid-forties, standing at the front of the Church of the Risen Christ, about to walk down the aisle hand-in-hand. But this is not the dream come true, the fantasy of teenage girls. My hand is on top of Andy’s hand, and his hand is on top of a wooden box. Inside the wooden box are my brother’s ashes. We study a picture of Steve on the podium. His brown eyes smiling at us. “Goodbye, brother,” Andy says, and he walks me down the aisle.
I’d found the stockpiled pills the previous day. I was at my brother’s house, once our dad’s house, once our family house, and needed an envelope. I opened the closet where office supplies were kept. A plastic Walgreens bag sat on the floor, pressed against the wall. Inside were a half-dozen plastic bottles: Xanax and morphine and blood pressure medicine, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, Ambien and buspirone and oxycodone. I started searching other places in the house, in other closets, in filing cabinets, on top of the refrigerator and inside the pantry, and found more and more pills. Sixteen different medications in all, prescribed by four different doctors, two from the internet.
I called Walgreens, the pharmacy that filled all the prescriptions, and asked if they’d take them back. At first, the pharmacist refused. She kept giving me suggestions about how to dispose of them safely, and I kept reiterating that her suggestions were impossible in the eighteen hours between now and my brother’s funeral. Then, something happened. I said his name. I said, “You must have some memory of filling all these for my brother. Steve Prato.”
“Steve died?” the pharmacist gasped gently. “I’m so sorry. He’s been a customer here for years. He and your dad.”
Something about her extremely recent past-tense phrasing of and your dad made me ask, “You know my dad died last year, right?”
“No, we had no idea!”
All this time they’d been filling my dad’s prescriptions, right along with Steve’s. Maybe those were the “pretty heavy duty drugs” the Medical Examiner told me he found near Steve’s bed, the ones not hidden, the ones he removed along with Steve’s body, early in the morning.
That evening I showered, fluffed my hair, carefully applied makeup before dinner with Andy. More blush,I thought in front of the mirror. Less gray. My hair, my skin, my body — all feeling like they weren’t mine anymore. It had been a week since I’d received the 4 a.m. call about Steve. Fourteen months since the call that my dad was gone. Seventeen years since I’d held my mom in my arms and heard her last breath.
Andy and I met at the neighborhood Italian restaurant, where Andy ordered sausage and peppers, Steve’s favorite, and I got eggplant parmesan. Both of us hardly touched our food.
“Are you going to AA meetings?” I asked him.
“I go to some meetings,” he said.
“Is your sobriety stable?” I stared outside, at the restaurant’s red Christmas-style lights glistening off rain-stained asphalt. It was unusual for it to rain this late in the summer in Denver.
“Yeah, I feel good.”
“So, maybe there’s this errand you can do with me later,” I said.
We sat in my car, bathed in the neon green of the Walgreen’s sign. “Well,” Andy said. “Let’s do it.”
I grabbed the bulging plastic bag from the back seat, and we met at the front of the car. In long strides, we aimed for the glass door. It slid open and we moved through without breaking our stride, marching down the aisles, looking straight ahead, on a mission.
“This may be the weirdest thing we’ve even done together,” I said.
“We’re still young,” Andy said grimly.
When we approached the counter, a pharmacist with long, mousy hair asked, “May I help you?”
“I talked to someone earlier today about returning the un-used medications you guys gave to Steve Prato,” I said.
Her entire face drooped, like a Dali figure melting away. “We’re so sorry to hear about Steve.”
“Thank you.” I handed her the plastic bag.
She stood awkwardly, as if she wanted to turn, but couldn’t look away, either. Andy and I pivoted, and marched back down the aisle.
“She looked weird,” I said.
“She looked guilty,” he said, and he was right. That pharmacist who kept filling dubious prescription after prescription that shouldn’t be taken in such vast quantities, so frequently, together, was left literally holding the bag.
We pulled up in front of my family’s now-vacant house. The floodlight over the driveway was outfitted with a red bulb, bathing us in a creepy crimson glow. The house Andy grew up in was a one-minute walk away. I used to gaze at his window longingly, wondering what he was doing and who he was thinking of.
“We moved here when I was seven,” Andy said. “The first day, your brother came riding up on his bike with a big smile and said, ‘Hi! I’m Steve Prato!’”
I could picture Steve at that age, freckled, wiry, before he filled up and out, a smile that sometimes seemed too big for his face, a sparkle in his eyes that didn’t fade until the last few years.
“His ashes are in the trunk,” I said. “Do you want to see them?”
“Sure,” Andy said. “Let’s fully experience this thing.”
We stood at the back of the car, staring at the wood box. The rain had stopped. The world was wet. “They’re really heavy,” I said.
The mortician told me that it took nearly five hours to incinerate my brother’s 6’4”, four-hundred pound body. For the average person, it takes about two.
Andy picked up the box. He shifted it around in his hands, as if that would help him understand how his childhood best friend transmuted into this. The look on his face was the most existential form of Huh.
He set the box back in the middle of the otherwise empty trunk.
I unlocked the front door of the house I grew up in, and Andy trekked through every room — the foyer, the family room, the workout room — with me in tow. We headed up the spiral staircase to Steve’s bedroom, his “adult bedroom,” as it was called. Every inch of every surface was covered with papers and cards, collector coffee mugs and baseball caps and old Cindy Crawford calendars.
“I remember standing at the bottom of those stairs,” Andy pointed toward the spiral staircase, “Waiting for Steve to get ready so we could go out. We’d tease him about how much time he spent grooming.”
It was all there, the strangling spice of Steve’s Polo aftershave. His colorful Polo shirts. Dark blue jeans. Cowboy boots.
I followed Andy straight from Steve’s adult bedroom to his childhood bedroom. “Good Lord,” Andy said, “It’s still the seventies in here.”
Posters of Farrah Fawcett and Daisy Duke were thumbtacked to the wall. An eight-track tape player sat on the laminated wood desk. Steve’s trophies and sports memorabilia littered the bookcase, at least a dozen gold-painted figures frozen in place, swinging the bat, shooting a basketball, waiting for the hike in a three-point stance. Among the paralyzed athletes sat a baseball signed by his teammates, the scrawl indicating “Home Run.”
“Take anything you want,” I said. I wanted Andy to take it all, to give those frozen figures a home, because I knew I couldn’t, wouldn’t, save them when I had to clean out this big house.
Andy picked up a picture of him and Steve when they were seven. In white football uniforms with brown and gold stripes, no helmets. Andy the quarterback, handing the ball off to Steve. He stared at the picture in his hand, as if he was considering its heft.
“You sure that’s all?” I asked.
He nodded. We both knew that, in the long-run, these symbols of Steve’s childhood accomplishments would be nothing but trash.
My hand is on Andy’s hand. Andy’s hand is on the wooden box. My blouse is ivory silk, but my skirt and hose and shoes are black. We look into Steve’s brown eyes. Goodbye brother, we submit. We walk towards the back of the church together, friends looking on. I cry, slump, sob, shake, collapse. Andy puts his arms around me. He helps me make it to the end of the aisle.
Liz Prato is the author of Volcanoes, Palm Trees and Privilege: Essays on Hawai‘i (Overcup Press), a New York Times Top Summer Read and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Baby’s on Fire: Stories (Press 53), and editor of The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press). Liz’s stories and essays have appeared in dozen of publications, and named Notable Selections in Best American Essays and Best American Sportswriting in 2017. Her newest book, Kids in America: Essays on Gen X, is forthcoming from SFWP in June 2022.