Stages of Grief
by Heather Robinson
Part 1 appears in this issue.
“My friend, Martin and I bet on the contestants. I beat him about 65 percent of the time. Still he keeps playing.”
Porpoli thought quickly. “Is that Martin Gladstone, on Blue Ridge?”
“No, Fodor. Childhood pal.”
Porpoli wrote in his notepad. “You do this every day?”
“Unless one of us is otherwise occupied.”
“I’m not sure how you two bet against each other.”
“You’ll see,” said Sterling, looking at his phone. “OK, he’s on.”
The show began and Porpoli watched as four names were called, and the ebullient contestants came to the stage.
Then Sterling tapped his phone and explained. “I’m going with position #2, from the left, of course. Martin’s taking #3. Now we watch. At the end of the show, we tally up the value of the winnings by the people in position number 2 and number 3. Whoever has the most wins.”
“So, pure gambling,” said Porpoli.
“I call it an educated guess.”
“How is it educated?”
“Well, that’s too complicated to explain,” answered Sterling, with a touch of deprecation.
As the game went on, Sterling scribbled in a well-thumbed notebook, which Porpoli was amused to see looked like the one in which he wrote his own notes. In addition to writing, Sterling was getting more and more agitated, often objecting to the contestants’ choices.
“Confound it, Jose! Where could you possibly buy a Sunbrella-cushioned patio set with seating for eight costing anything under $3000? Please, oh please, Tracy, you know what a package of ramen noodles goes for, and it’s not $4! ... Murphy! No! Despite its popularity, no one is going to pay $230 for a boxed set of Game of Thrones DVDs!”
These angry responses were surprising given the general calm demeanor Sterling had when faced with the grisly death of his father. After about twenty minutes, Porpoli realized that Sterling was going nowhere and was so immersed in the show that he would likely not be stealthily hiding evidence. He excused himself to talk to the Captain.
The Captain was overseeing the photographer, who was taking pictures of the chair from all angles. Porpoli stood back from the scene.
“Well, he’s in there betting on The Price is Right. And he’s getting pretty worked up. I wonder if his anger is just misplaced. Maybe he’s just sprinting through the stages of grief. If so, we’re through Denial and into Anger. Perhaps Acceptance is just around the bend.”
The Captain turned around. “Don’t forget Bargaining and Depression. And how the hell do you bet on The Price is Right? Anyway, you’ll not be surprised that Jim and his men found no evidence of Father Sterling outside.”
“I figured. Is there at least a hummingbird feeder?”
“Yup. Didn’t look active. Smelled funny too.”
“Hmm... So who’s been lying all these years? Pops or Francis?”
“I’m assuming you can work that out, Tony.”
“Well, anyway, he’s betting against a friend named Martin Fodor. I think I’ll give Martin a call. He might shed some light. Of course, I’ve got to wait until the show’s over. You haven’t, by any chance, seen a large leather club chair in your search so far?”
At this point, Sterling emerged from the study and clapped his hands. “Time for my yoga practice. Anyone want to join me on the deck?”
“Who won?” asked Porpoli.
“Martin.” Sterling winked. “I let him win.”
Porpoli was about to say, “That makes no sense,” and then changed his mind. Instead he nodded. “Well, I’ll let you do your up and down dogs by yourself. I’ve got some phone calls to make.”
Sterling strolled through the kitchen door to the deck and could be viewed through the window snaking his way through many sinewy poses that looked much more like a gleeful seven-year old’s dance concept than any yoga Porpoli had seen. Still watching him, Porpoli looked up Martin Fodor and dialed his number.
“Hello, is this Martin Fodor?”
“This is Sergeant Porpoli from the Leicester Police Department.”
“If it’s about that 16-inch trout I caught before the season started, I can explain. It attacked me.”
“This is the police, not the game warden, and I wanted to talk to you about Francis Sterling.”
“If he’s saying I cheated him, he’s lying.”
“Look, I’m aware of the betting you do on The Price is Right, but I’m not calling about that either. Mr. Sterling had a fire in his house today.”
“No kidding? He didn’t say anything to me about that.”
“Right. That’s one of the things which are curious. Do you know his father?”
“He calls him ‘Pops’.”
“Yes, he does. Have you seen Pops around lately?”
“I’ve never met him; so, no. I’ve never met Sterling, either.”
“Interesting. Mr. Sterling said you were childhood friends. You’re saying you never met?”
“What of it?”
Porpoli rubbed his forehead. “Look, did Mr. Sterling ever talk to you about his father, or mention any disputes they had?”
“Pretty sure he loved the guy. Moved in to take care of him after his mother passed away. Why are you asking me about his father?”
“I can’t get into that right now.” Porpoli tapped a pen on his notepad. “Oh, by the way, he told me he let you win today.”
“Son of a bitch! He did not! I won fair and square.”
“Well, that’s what he said.”
Porpoli could hear Martin swearing under his breath. After a moment Martin spoke more calmly. “You know, come to think of it, I do remember one day, about a year ago. He texted me he wasn’t going to be able to play. Pops had put pickle brine in the hummingbird feeder instead of sugar water. Made a big mess. He was fuming.”
“Well, that may be a clue to what happened here today. I appreciate your help.”
Porpoli saw that Sterling was still occupied with his yoga routine, and was doing a crab walk, which also didn’t look like a standard pose. He returned to talk to the Captain, who was now overseeing the delicate removal of the chair and the body, at this point inseparable. Porpoli smeared some Vick’s VapoRub under his nose as he approached the scene.
“Well, Mr. Fodor suggested that Sterling and his father may have had previous disputes about the hummingbird feeder and his father mistakenly putting pickle brine in it.”
The Captain turned. “That could well be what I smelled. Hard to make that mistake, I’d think.”
“Not if you’re 92.”
There was a metallic ring sound as they began to move the body.
“Look at this,” remarked a man in a Hazmat suit, picking up something from the floor, “It’s a gold signet ring. Had to come off the body.”
The Captain examined the ring, rubbing off the soot with a gloved finger. “It looks like a college ring, maybe, UPenn?”
“Can I?” asked Porpoli, reaching out. “Let’s see if Mr. Sterling has anything to say about this.” He headed through the kitchen and observed Sterling holding a mountain pose, the only recognizable one he’d seen.
When Sterling had said “Namaste” prayerfully, Porpoli went out on the deck. “Namaste,” he intoned.
Sterling turned. “Ah, there you are. Any news?”
“Well, some interesting developments that I’d like to discuss with you.” Porpoli gestured to a pair of classic Adirondack chairs. “Shall we sit?”
“Certainly. I suspect if you had found Pops, you’d tell me immediately.” Sterling drew in and exhaled a deep sigh. “I’d do just about anything to get him back.”
“Well, as you know, we believe that Pops was never actually missing. Anyway, I had the occasion to talk to your betting friend, Martin. He mentioned that you and your father had had a past dispute about the hummingbird feeder, and that Pops had inadvertently filled it with pickle brine instead of sugar water.”
Sterling pursed his lips. “That was a year ago about this time.”
“Yes, Martin said that too.”
Sterling shifted in the chair and crossed his legs. “I’m sorry to say that I was rather irate with Pops. He could have killed those sweet frantic birds. But I don’t know what that has to do with today’s events.”
“My Captain also said that the feeder had not been used for a while and that, if anything, it smelled musty, and not unlike pickle brine.”
Sterling sat back, pressing his fingers together and looking up. “That’s curious.”
“We thought so.” Porpoli reached into his pocket. “Another thing. We found this ring when we moved the body, I mean the chair.” He held out the ring for Sterling to see.
There was a long pause and Sterling turned and fingered the ring, and Porpoli noticed that Sterling’s eyes were beginning to water.
“This is Pops’ ” — Sterling let out a sob —“college ring. He was never without it.”
Porpoli opened his notepad and pulled out a pen. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what happened. I think you’re beginning to realize that your father is not coming back.”
“It was the smell of the brine today that made me remember,” Sterling explained tearfully.
“It does that: makes one remember.”
“I’d forgotten that whole day.”
“A year ago, when he put the brine in the feeder. I shouldn’t have yelled at him like that. He didn’t know any better.”
“Did your father have dementia?”
“Yes, and he couldn’t smell anything. But I was very upset with him. I called him out to the patio and bellowed at him. And so he just went back in the house looking very lost, sat down in his recliner and sloughed off his slippers. Later I saw he was sleeping, and I covered him with a blanket.”
“A wool plaid one? We found some pieces of that.”
“That’s the tartan.”
“Ah. Then what?”
“Well, he didn’t move, and... Argh! if I hadn’t reprimanded him, he might not have had a heart attack! I shouldn’t have done that!” A moan of anguish broke from Sterling’s chest.
Porpoli’s brows furrowed. “Are you saying he died a year ago? And that he’s been lying there in the chair all this time?”
Sterling began to sob openly. “I just got used to him being there. And then, today, the brine... It made me remember the whole bad day, and I thought maybe a cremation...”
Porpoli shook his head. There was no point in pressing the issue. Whether the father had died in today’s fire or had died a year ago from a heart attack would be determined by the autopsy. Whether Sterling would be charged with improper disposal of a corpse was another question. Memories of Porpoli’s own father laughing and chatting as they both ate strawberry cheesecake and coffee at the deli softened him.
“And the slippers?” Porpoli asked.
Sterling brightened. “That’s actually a miracle. I don’t know why they didn’t burn. Can I have them? I mean, if Pops is really not coming back. He really loved those. They’ll remind me of him.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Porpoli answered, patting Sterling’s shoulder.
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Robinson