“Things We Knew Would Never Work Out but Had to Try Anyway”

Do you know that if your baby brother dies Christmas night, the medical examiner doesn’t look at his body until after the new year, and even then there’s a week of backlog?  “Two to three weeks,” they’ll tell you on the phone, like they’re telling you when you can expect your amazon shipment.  Probably they could get to him sooner if you knew the right people to call.

We don’t know anybody like that.

And all that time, he’s lying there in a goddamn freezer, and you’re at home just imagining all the awful things that could have happened to him in those last few moments.  What was going through his head.  Then they tell you that you can get the body back the 4th or the 5th if there isn’t an autopsy, but that means you might never know.  But at least you can put him in the ground, where it isn’t so cold, or harsh, or lonely.   At least you keep hoping it’s not.

I know that’s not really him—not his soul or whatever people say—but even if it’s not really my brother, that’s still the body that slept on the bottom bunk for eight years.  That’s the body that used its sharp little elbows to get back at me when I made fun of him for crying after I pushed him down the stairs.  That’s the body that finally outgrew me, and then I was the one who got picked on.  Which was fair.

That body and my body have almost matching scars from when we snuck out one night and tried to climb the fence around the swimming pool.  We didn’t make it past the barbed wire.

I cut bubblegum out of that body’s hair, thinking mom would never know the difference when she called us for dinner.   I played basketball with that body almost every day until I was nineteen, and still most weeks after that.  That’s the body  I got grounded with when our parents found weed in our room, and again after the pool fence thing, and a thousand other times for doing things we knew would never work out but we had to try anyway.

I spent hundreds of hours in the car with that body, road-tripping to anyplace we could think of, or driving just to drive.  So I guess I’m kind of attached to it, even if that body isn’t still the kid I grew up with.  So I don’t want it on a cold slab in a freezer in a goddamn morgue waiting for some stranger to cut it open.

That’s understandable, right?

***

What do you put on a gravestone?  It doesn’t seem to matter, but then everything seems wrong.   It feels wrong to worry about the font they’re going to write his name in.  Like we’re reducing him to courier new, but I can’t just not care about his gravestone.  He would want something funny—a song lyric or a joke.  But what would people think when they saw it?  It doesn’t matter, I guess.  It won’t bring him back.  But what kind of brother would I be if I didn’t even care?  That’s the circle I’m turning in.

And I know exactly what he would say: feed me to a bear, fire me into the ocean from a cannon, see if they’ll let you release my ashes into space, just bury me in the garden so I can haunt the shit out of you and mom .  I don’t care, dumbass—I’ll be dead.  That’s where my real power is going to come from.  Premature death is the key to eternal power.  I’m John Fucking Kennedy–JFK.  That’s exactly what he’d want me to put on the stone.  A larger than life statue of me!  With angel wings and a sword!  Those are the kinds of things he would suggest for himself, so “dearly beloved” just doesn’t seem right.  But what am I saying if I don’t put that?

There is no way to make these decisions.

***

I’m sitting in the funeral, and the preacher has been talking for such a long time, and I keep turning to elbow him and roll my eyes, and he keeps not being there.  Is this what it’s going to be like?  She won’t stop.  She’s telling us all about God, and the right way to live, and even though she keeps saying it’s ok that we all have faith in different ways, I can tell she’s trying to convert me.

She says that she’s telling us the way that my brother lived, but I’m not sure about that.  I think that the way he lived—the way we all lived—had a lot more to do with alcohol than with god.  More cigarettes than prayers.  Were there even any prayers?   I don’t know if he ever even saw Sunday morning.  I remember him telling me once, “Dude, anything could happen on Sunday morning.  There could be a circus and a parade every week, and I would never know about it.”

She’s still talking.  It feels like it’s been hours, except I can’t read my watch.  Did I even put on my watch?  I’m not crying, but things still seem a little fuzzy.  I kind of want to hit her.  I know my brother really liked her, but it’s easier to like someone when you can tell them to shut the hell up.

And there’s a rendition of Amazing Grace that doesn’t end either, and it’s taking everything I have not to jump up in front of the altar and yell, “scene!”   Because things are best when they don’t go on so long.  In comedy, I mean.  Actually, I’m not even sure I own a watch anymore.

I’m sitting in this room, and it’s crammed full of people who love me and people who love him.  I can’t remember being so lonely.  Do they think that we’re going through the same thing?  That’s the feeling I keep getting.  My brother used to say, “we’ve all been to that party,” whenever someone needed to hear it, and these people are trying to tell me that we’re all at the same party.  Except the only other person who was ever at my party is lying in that coffin right in front of me.

And god this is a shitty fucking party.

***

There’s some kind of reception after the burial.  The funeral home told me that’s a thing people do, so we drive south to the cemetery and back north to the church.  Somehow the sun is right in my eyes both ways.  My head hurts.  And the lines on the road keep moving.  The grave markers were doing it too.  It doesn’t seem like anything’s going to be steady anymore.  Not for a long time.
The church is Baptist, but I guess since we’re not really believing in much of anything—not except for my brother being dead, and some of us believing that it’s a thing we’re in together—a beer finds my hand, except it doesn’t smell right, doesn’t taste right.  And the bottle’s hard to hold on to.  So when I go outside for a cigarette, I just throw it against the church building.  It shatters just below the stained glass window, and for just a second, it’s like the window is shattering.  Like everything’s shattering.  And that feels good, so I look for another one.

***

The service is over, and the gravestone is ordered, and the body that was my baby brother is safely in the ground, and Mom and I are sitting her living room that night, and we’re smoking even though she doesn’t smoke.  I don’t really either, I guess, but just like smashing beer bottles against a church, it feels right.  Because we’ve learned now that if it’s not broken, it will be.  So we’re drinking.

We’re still dressed from the funeral.  There’s nothing left to do for him, but we can’t do anything for ourselves.  None of it matters.  I was two the last time I didn’t have a little brother to worry about.  How is life going to be now?  What is life going to be now?

I smoke and I drink until I stop knowing that it should have been me.  And because there is nothing more that I can do for him, and because there’s no one left to set an example for, I decide that I am not going to be sober for a very long time.

About Rachel Peters

Rachel Peters is a writer, teacher, and swimming pool operator who lives in Richmond, VA, with her husband and their dog, who looks like he might be part chow and part lab. Her work has been published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology and is forthcoming in the Boston Literary Magazine.