Stages of Grief
by Heather Robinson
The firemen were opening the windows and packing up their gear when Sergeant Tony Porpoli entered the residence. There he met the homeowner, Francis Sterling, a somewhat disheveled man, wearing a purple ascot tucked into a wrinkled light blue oxford atop a pair of faded jeans.
Mr. Sterling was shaking his head as he peered toward the living room. “I am unable to explain what occurred,” said Sterling.
“And yet you were here, in the privacy of this home, that you admit,” said Porpoli. He flipped over the page of his yellow notebook and noted the man’s appearance and demeanor.
“With your father, who is — or was — 92 years old.”
“I’m certain that Pops simply wandered off after adding sugar water to the hummingbird feeder.”
“How do you explain the smoldering ashes, where, according to you, your father’s recliner used to be?”
“I repeat, I don’t know what happened.”
“And yet, Mr. Sterling, you called the fire department screaming about the chair.”
“Thank God they came when they did, otherwise my whole house would have been engulfed.”
“Is this really your house? We understand that it is owned by your father.”
Sterling adjusted the brass tie bar on his ascot, which had been askew. “We had it put in both our names a few years ago.”
“How very interesting.” Porpoli stepped in front of the charred remains of what appeared to have been a chair. “Do you see a pair of tan slippers still remaining in front of the ex-chair, seemingly unsinged?”
“Those are my father’s.”
“Yes, I surmised that.”
“I’m impressed that they didn’t burn up. Pops will be happy to see that.”
“Are you sure you didn’t place them there after the fire?”
“Why would I do that?”
“I have no idea.”
Porpoli then turned towards the chair, walking carefully around it and sniffing high and low, front and back.
“Why are you doing that?”
“Hmmm. Gasoline? No, more likely kerosene. I assume you can smell that?”
“I must say that I can’t,” said Sterling, looking down sheepishly. “A bit too much smoking and toking in my reckless days, I admit. That explains my loss of smell.”
Porpoli ground his teeth and shook his head. “No, it would not. There is no correlation, and, if I may quote you from your frantic call, ‘I smell something burning! It’s in my living room!’ So you can smell smoke but not the overwhelming reek of kerosene?”
“There is no need to ridicule me with the hand-waving. I was very frightened.”
“Were you? Excuse me for a moment.”
Porpoli stepped out onto the patio and unclipped his radio to report in. “Listen, we’re going to need a Joyce Warrant here. Definitely an accelerant. Yup, good. Send the detective unit ASAP. Also, the resident may be 1052, so we may need a bus for him, I’ll let you know. No bus needed for his father. And notify the M.E.”
When he returned to the living room, Sterling approached him, suddenly excited. “I think it was spontaneous combustion. That has been known to happen. Kaboom! The whole chair just exploded in a rage of flame. I read of a case just like this. And the shoes were there, too. Untouched!”
Porpoli felt a reality check was in order. “You seem excited by this event and not grieving, as would be expected. Are you oblivious to the fact that your father is not taking a walk and is, instead dead? His charred corpse is most clearly sitting in that chair.”
“It cannot be.”
“I’m also noticing that, despite the thorough destruction of the chair, that it seems to be reclined, rather than forward.”
“He would normally remove his slippers and then push it back.”
“And yet you say that hideous mass in the remains of the chair is not his blackened, crisp body?”
Sterling energetically shook his head. “No, he’s out feeding the hummingbirds. I don’t see any evidence that he sat in the chair this morning. It would be out of character. He always got up first thing, still in his PJ’s, slipped into his slippers and fed the birds. ‘The help gets fed first,’ he always said.”
“Can you explain then, how the person who reclined the chair was able to leave it without returning it to its normal position?”
“I will leave that to the experts.”
“Ah, now you will leave it to the experts. Good. And be assured, there will be any number of experts in this house very, very soon. Your story will be easily dismissed once the Medical Examiner gets here and we do an autopsy. The cadaver will be matched to your father’s dental records and you will have a great deal of explaining to do.”
“If that happens, then I think the dentist will have a lot of explaining to do, because he doesn’t have any teeth at all, just upper and lower dentures, which he hadn’t put in. He hadn’t had breakfast. So if he matches anyone, it won’t be my father.”
“Dentures? Even better. You seem to have a better understanding of his schedule than you first implied. How do you know that he hadn’t eaten?”
“Remember? ‘The help gets fed first’? And he hadn’t returned from the hummingbirds.”
Porpoli was quiet for a moment while he observed Sterling, then he spoke evenly. “Sir, I hesitate to say this, but I think you may be suffering from the shock of losing your father, despite the fact that you did him in. Perhaps we should request a medic for you.”
Sterling turned and gestured to the kitchen. “I don’t think so. Not right now. I was in the middle of making the pickles when this happened and I need to get back to it.”
“Yes, the cucumbers are perfect now. I picked almost a full bushel yesterday and I need to get them into the brine.”
Porpoli’s radio sounded, and he picked up. “Yeah, OK, but for God’s sake get here soon!”
He turned back to Sterling. “Now you’re all about some pickles? I must reiterate that you are not reacting in a normal fashion. Either your 92-year old ‘Pops’ is quite lost somewhere outside in his pajamas, barefoot, as his slippers are here, or he is, much more likely, incinerated, along with his favorite chair.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say it was his favorite. He used to have a lovely leather club chair where he would read The Times in the morning. Now that was his favorite chair.”
“I hesitate to ask you where that chair is.”
“That’s a good question. Every once in a while Mama would settle into it when he wasn’t looking. That was strictly verboten. When she died I noticed that the chair was no longer here.”
Porpoli expressed a long sigh. “I don’t want to know.”
“By the way, I don’t mind if you want to watch me do the pickles. You might learn something.”
Porpoli reluctantly followed Sterling into the kitchen area, which was not as cluttered as Porpoli was expecting it to be.
Sterling pulled out two large crocks from the pantry. “I had just finished making the brine when kaBOOM!”
“So you are definitely saying now that the chair imploded?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Sterling, waving his hand. “Anyway, you need two gallons of water, two quarts of white vinegar, a dozen garlic cloves, one finely sliced onion, kosher salt, and loads of fresh dill. Why don’t you give it a stir?”
Porpoli used the big wooden spoon to mix the juice. It smelled comforting for some reason.
“Anyway, now we’ll simply mix it into the cucumbers.” Sterling proceeded to pour brine over the gherkins and stir the mixture.
“Hm,” said Porpoli, remembering. “It reminds me of trips to our local deli with my father when I was a boy.”
“Well, then you must taste one!” exclaimed Sterling, dragging a different crock from underneath the counter. Before Porpoli could stop him, Sterling had pulled out a half-sour with his bare hand, which he handed to Porpoli. It was crisp and refreshing. Porpoli wished he had a thick Reuben sandwich and some chips to go with it. He nodded. “It’s delicious. Thank you.”
From a distance, Porpoli could hear tires squealing. “You carry on. I’ll be right back,” he said, walking to the front door. Opening it, he saw that the detective unit was there. He let them in.
“Where’s Sterling?”the Captain asked.
“He’s working on the pickles.”
“The pickles?” his Captain asked.
“Exactly what I said. Anyway, he’s busy and I’ll make sure he doesn’t go anywhere. I’ll keep him talking. He continues to make incriminating statements.”
“Is there anyone else in the house?” asked the Captain.
“I doubt it, but have the guys take a look-see.”
Detective Tara Marshall approached. “We’ve got the warrant, and I’ll need to take samples off Mr. Sterling and get his clothes so we can check for accelerant.”
Porpoli snorted. “Good luck with that. And he’ll just say he got too close to the scene.”
“OK, but his hands were in a bucketful of pickle brine when I left him.”
“Then don’t eat any of those pickles,” advised the Captain.
“Too late for that.”
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” asked the Captain.
“Of course. Frankly, I’d rather be in there with him and the pickles than out here with that godawful smell. By the way, someone should probably go looking for ‘Pops.’ Mr. Sterling is insistent that he was not sitting in that chair when it ‘spontaneously combusted.’ Anyway, if we tell him that we have a full force out looking for his father, then, when he’s not found, it might make it easier for him to accept the inevitable.”
“Fine,” said the Captain, turning to one of his team, “Jim, take a few men and scour the property to try to find Mr. Sterling’s father.”
“I’d look for the hummingbird feeder,” said Porpoli. “’Pops’ was supposedly refilling it.”
Jim looked confused. “I have no idea what a hummingbird—”
“Google it, Jim! Sheesh!” said the Captain.
Porpoli headed back to the kitchen but met Sterling coming out.
“Ah, a full court press I see,” Sterling nodded. “Good. I’m certainly hoping you can find my father. I’m now a bit worried about him.”
The Captain nodded. “Mr. Sterling, I have just sent out half a dozen of my best men. I assure you no stone will go unturned.”
“A turn of phrase, I trust? I hope he hasn’t gone far.”
“Mr. Sterling, Sergeant Porpoli will return with you to help with the pickles. No need to be here as we do our work. In fact, we prohibit it.” Somewhat apologetically he added, “We will be needing the clothes you are wearing, however. Also, Detective Marshall needs to swab your hands, if you don’t mind. We do have a warrant.”
“The pickles are done for now. An excellent batch. And I wish you didn’t need my clothes, but if you insist.”
“Well, let’s be quick about this then. The Price is Right is on in exactly eight minutes.”
Porpoli and the Captain exchanged a glance. “Of course,” said the Captain. “Tara, can you swab Mr. Sterling now?”
Sterling’s hands were thoroughly swabbed, and Tara followed him into his bedroom, where he changed behind the closet door and dropped his clothes in an evidence can, which was immediately sealed. Bounding from his bedroom wearing a navy tracksuit, Sterling headed to a nearby study, where Porpoli joined him. They took seats at the opposite ends of a tweed couch.
“You like this show?” asked Porpoli.
“I’m in it to win it.”
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Robinson