The call came just after one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, as Janice Stringer sat on the living room floor of her apartment, tugging her legs into the Seated Twist pose. When her cell phone rang, Janice thought that it might be someone calling about one of her many recent job applications: she scrambled off her yoga mat, nearly tripped on her copy of Yoga for Dummies, stumbled to the coffee table, and seized the phone.
A hoarse male voice asked: “May I please speak to Janice Hairston?”
“Janice Stringer,” Janice panted. “This is her. I’m the same person.”
“Oh, good, okay. Ma’am, my name is Ron Diehl, and I’m an investigator with the Denver medical examiner’s office? Sorry about my voice, by the way, I have a really bad cold.”
A craving for nicotine, a bad one, rippled through Janice’s body. She reached into her purse with her free hand and groped inside it for her nicotine gum. She asked Diehl, even though she had already guessed: “What’s this about?”
“We need your help, ma’am, identifying a body.”
“You think it’s my brother, right? Kenneth Stringer?”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s correct.”
“Uh, well,” said Diehl. “Yes, I am.”
The body had turned up under what Diehl called unusual circumstances, but he wouldn’t tell Janice more than that over the phone. He had promised to explain it all the next morning when she came to the coroner’s office.
Several hours after Diehl’s call, Janice lay awake in bed, her mind turning in slow circles. She felt glad to have something to do the next day, guilty that she felt glad, and annoyed at Ken for creating yet another situation that someone in his family would have to resolve: a subspecialty of Ken’s earthly purpose and life’s mission, which was to get drunk.
She rolled onto her side and tried to remember good times with her brother, happy times, times that would prompt some feeling in her besides annoyance. Bad memories came back easily, his slurred voice screaming; his hunched shape shuffling into and out of doorways in hospitals and rehab clinics, often running into the doorjamb; his vomit on the kitchen floor of her old house in Aurora the last time, or so Janice was pretty sure, she had seen him alive. No good memories came back at all. She thought back past when he would have started drinking, back to family vacations and holidays in their childhood, and she could only remember Ken aggravating their parents on vacations and holidays. He would do bizarre things, make animal noises or walk around with his eyes closed until he ran into something; he would throw a tantrum whenever their mother insisted on taking a photograph of him.
That last night she’d seen him alive: seven years earlier? Ken had gotten evicted, so she and Terry Hairston, her then-husband, had agreed to let him stay in their basement until he found a new place to live, on the condition that he didn’t drink. For a couple of weeks Ken had behaved himself, fed the cat, watered the plants, did any other little chore Janice told him to do; and one afternoon she came home from Wells Fargo and found him sprawled unconscious on the kitchen floor. He had found and ingested all the cough syrup and mouthwash in the house, along with an old bottle of tequila that Janice had hidden, not well enough, in the linen closet. A puddle of multicolored vomit cooled on the linoleum floor near his head, spread into a neat circle like pancake batter. When Terry got home, he and Janice had flipped a coin; Terry lost, so he had driven Ken and his duffel bag of clothing to a bus stop several miles from their house, and Janice had stayed behind to clean up.
The smell of Ken’s vomit came back to her, a pungent mix of digestive juices, peppermint flavoring, and agave; it made her queasy even now. She recalled how her eyes had watered when she raised her head to watch Terry guide Ken out the front door. Ken had gone easily. He had not looked back.
For her meeting with Diehl, Janice put on clothes she had last worn to work months earlier, before the Wells Fargo layoffs: dark skirt, matching jacket. She put on makeup and pulled her hair back into a businesslike ponytail; she flossed, brushed her teeth, and gargled. She appraised herself in the bathroom mirror: not too bad, not too puffy, pale, or tired.
She drove into downtown Denver, where she arrived an hour early on the campus of the city hospital. To kill the time, she walked around: keeping up a brisk pace in the cold morning, she circled the blocky mass of the hospital. She went up and down the adjacent blocks, past health-department offices and laboratory annexes. She chewed on a tablet of nicotine gum and squeezed the racquetball she kept in her coat pocket, a simple stress-management exercise recommended by her therapist. Four times, she walked past the building on Bannock Street with the door that said Medical Examiner, clutching the racquetball so hard that the tendons in her right elbow twanged.
When she got to Sixth Avenue, she saw two men standing on the street to the east, on opposite corners at the intersection of Sixth and Broadway. Ten minutes before her meeting, she paused at the corner of Sixth and Bannock to watch them. Both men wore ball caps and ragged jeans and coats, and they held handwritten cardboard signs that Janice was too far away to read. She could guess what they said, some variation on homeless and hungry, anything helps. One of them had a cigarette in his mouth, which prompted the usual urgent tickling at the base of Janice’s skull.
She took a deep breath, bounced her racquetball once on the sidewalk, and turned back down Bannock Street, toward the coroner’s office.
Ron Diehl, seated across from Janice at a table in a cramped conference room, blew his nose loudly into a tissue. “I beg your pardon,” he gasped. “This cold is killing me.”
Janice, her skin crawling, marveled at her bad luck: Diehl bore an unpleasantly strong resemblance to her brother. Though taller and heavier, Diehl had the same mustache Ken had worn in his functional-alcoholic period, before jails and rehabs and evictions. He wore the style of glasses Ken had liked, with little oval metal frames, and he even sat at the conference table with Ken’s slouch.
“No apology necessary,” Janice said; her voice emerged dry and shaky.
“Are you sure you don’t want some coffee or something?” Diehl had a Styrofoam cup in front of him, beside a stack of forms and reports and a box of Kleenex. Janice smelled chamomile rising from the cup.
“I could use some tequila,” she said. “Don’t suppose you have any of that.”
“No,” he said. “No, but that’s a good one.” He peered at his reports. “Okay. Janice Hairston—no, sorry, it’s Janice Stringer.”
“I got divorced two years ago,” Janice said. Under the table her hand found her coat pocket, found the racquetball; she closed her fingers around it lightly. “Before we get started, can I ask how you got my name and number?”
“Sure, of course. The deceased had some documents in the backpack found with the body, photocopies of old medical paperwork, stuff like that. Your name was on a form…actually, I have a copy.” Diehl flipped a few pages down in his pile of papers. “Here we go. Your name was on a form from the Haven Glade Addiction Treatment Center. He put you down as his emergency contact: Janice Hairston, relationship ‘sister,’ and your cell number.”
“Huh,” said Janice. She remembered the clinic, a nice place, the grounds attractively landscaped. Ken had done a thirty-day rehab program there, back in the middle two-thousands. He put me down as his emergency contact, not Mom and Dad? Well, she thought, in fairness, he was probably drunk when he filled out that paperwork.
“So,” she said. “What happened?”
Diehl flipped pages again; he came up with a page of official-looking text. “We don’t absolutely know,” he said, “but I can tell you what we think happened. It appears that, this past Friday night or early Saturday morning, the deceased entered the Union Pacific railroad yards up near I-70 and 48th Avenue, where he attempted to board a moving train.”
“That’s a clue,” said Janice. “Ken loves trains.”
Diehl nodded politely, as though he appreciated the tip. “The deceased,” he said, “failed to board the train. He tried to climb onto one of the moving cars and fell off. He fell back, down onto the tracks, you know, fell under the train, and the wheels amputated his legs approximately mid-thigh.”
As he paused, Diehl’s mouth quivered, causing his mustache to shimmy. Janice thought: He’s not totally desensitized, that’s great. Good for him. After a moment, Diehl continued: “Ah…the deceased would instantly have gone into shock, and probably he lost consciousness as…lost consciousness very quickly, due to blood loss. He didn’t suffer, is what I mean to say.”
Janice imagined a train’s wheels shearing through the muscle and bone of her thighs: a huge explosion of pain, fading to leave no feeling at all, the rumble of the train growing faint, the stars in the sky above her dimming, winking out.
He left her alone with a folder of pictures. Apparently, the process wasn’t like what Janice had seen on television, the dead body on a gurney, a sheet drawn back from its face. Janice only had to identify Ken from a set of photographs. When Diehl closed the door behind him, Janice took a deep breath and opened the folder.
She recognized Ken in the first picture. She recognized his pointed nose, like her own, and his eyes, their blue irises vivid against the jaundiced, yellow-tinted whites. His head lay pillowed in its own tangled hair, sandy blond streaked with gray. A thick beard rippled away from his jaw; his mouth hung open, showing spaces in his gums where some of his teeth had disappeared. The teeth that remained had rotted brown and black.
Nice teeth, Kenny, Janice thought. Nice dental hygiene.
She went through the other photographs: Ken’s bearded face, captured in profile from the left side and the right side; a view of his head and shoulders with the sheet pulled halfway down Ken’s chest, exposing gray skin stretched tight across the bones. In one shot, she saw how Ken’s body ended a foot beneath the waist, the sudden drop of the sheet off the stumps of his legs.
Janice closed the folder and sat back. She took out her racquetball, caressed it with her fingertips; the ball’s rubber surface felt cool and firm, and Janice wondered if Ken’s skin felt the same way now. She stared at the smooth tan cover of the folder for a few moments, reached over, and opened the folder again.
Ken, she thought, you’re dead.
When Diehl came back, he brought more paperwork, affidavits and releases for Janice to sign. He said, “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“It’s not really much of a loss,” Janice said. “Ken and I weren’t close. He was older. He was almost seven years older than I am.”
Diehl indicated a line on a document; Janice scrawled her name there in blue ballpoint. “I didn’t really even know him when we were kids,” she said, “because of the age difference and the gender difference. We never played together. We never even went to the same school at the same time.”
As he nodded, Diehl handed her another form.
“He was gone a lot, too. He’d go to the hospital, to the psych ward, for weeks at a time. He went to juvie once, kid jail, whatever it’s called. Kenny had problems.”
“Well,” Diehl said, “often the homeless have a lifelong history—”
“He still had problems, obviously. Jesus,” she said, “he was so thin in those pictures. He wasn’t eating. If he hadn’t gotten killed by a train, he would have starved to death…and Ken was always a really picky eater. That probably put him at a real disadvantage, you know, when he had to dig through a garbage can. When we were kids, he had to have certain very specific brand names, or he wouldn’t eat.”
“Oh, really,” said Diehl.
“For example, if our mother tried to feed him a baloney sandwich, and the baloney in it wasn’t Oscar Mayer baloney, he wouldn’t finish the sandwich. He claimed he could tell the difference, like he had the world’s most refined baloney palate. He would only eat Ruffles potato chips, Chips Ahoy chocolate-chip cookies…”
Stirred by her talk of food, Janice’s stomach croaked. She realized that she had skipped her usual breakfast, a single slice of toast. She sighed.
“So,” she asked, “what happens now?”
“Whatever your family decides to do with the body, I can help with that. Just let me know.” He took a business card out of his sport-coat pocket, pinched by its corners in his forefinger and thumb. “Sorry, I’m trying not to get germs on it.”
Janice took the card, gripping it the same way, and dropped it into her purse.
“Also, if you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call,” Diehl sniffled. “The city can help you get grief counseling, for instance.”
“I won’t be grieving,” Janice said. “I don’t have any grief.”
“Well,” said Diehl. “Still, the city can—”
“Can the city go back in time and make Ken change every single decision he made after his thirteenth birthday?”
Diehl averted his sad, red eyes; he shook his head.
“I really didn’t need this, you know,” Janice added. “I got laid off almost seven months ago, and I can’t find a job. I should not be hanging around at the morgue.” She had to call her last words out to Diehl over her shoulder. “I didn’t need this,” she told the startled receptionist as she went out the front door, “at all.”
The weather had worsened. As Janice walked at full speed toward her car, she pushed directly into a brisk, sleet-studded wind. The wet cold numbed her hands and face, and the numbness nudged her mind back toward her brother. She wondered how much Ken had felt when the train cut off his legs: maybe the alcohol in his system had anesthetized him—surely, he’d had alcohol in his system. Maybe the pain had sobered him up. He might have died sober, though his sobriety wouldn’t have lasted long.
From her car, after she turned on the heater and the windshield wipers, Janice took out her phone and dialed her parents’ condominium in Sun City, Arizona. If she waited to tell them about Ken, she might wait for days, making the whole thing worse.
Her mother answered: “Janice! What a nice surprise.”
“Mom, I have bad news,” Janice said. “Ken is dead. I just left the coroner’s office. I had to identify his body today.”
After a brief silence, her mother started to cry: quick, rasping sobs, and handed the phone to Janice’s father. “Jan,” he said, “what happened? Are you okay, honey?”
“I’m fine, Dad. Ken’s dead,” said Janice. “He died in a train accident.”
“Well, Ken had an accident,” said Janice, “involving a train.”
The news struck her father dumb. Not much could shut him up: Janice almost smiled, but she suppressed it out of habit, even though her father couldn’t see her.
“Good lord,” he finally said. “I never expected that.”
Thursday, midmorning: Janice prepared to assume the Cat Pose on her yoga mat. She had placed the phone on the floor, near Yoga for Dummies, for ease of answering; she expected a call from her parents about their travel plans. From her hands and knees, she studied the phone; she waited, expecting it to ring again the way it had on Wednesday, with Ron Diehl on the other end of the line. She sat down, stared at the phone, and remembered sitting in the conference room at the coroner’s office. After ten minutes of that, she gave up. She put on a sweatshirt and jeans and shoes and drove back downtown to the medical examiner’s office.
Summoned to the lobby, Diehl came out looking sicker than the day before. He ushered her to a small, cluttered cubicle in a shared office; he found her a chair.
“I just wanted to apologize for how I acted yesterday,” said Janice.
“There’s no need to apologize. There really isn’t. I’ve had a lot worse. In terms of reactions from people, I mean—a lot worse.”
“I’m still apologizing,” said Janice. “Because I’ve…like I said yesterday, I’ve been out of work. I’ve mostly been sitting around in my apartment by myself. Emailing resumes, stuff like that. I guess I’m rusty, dealing with actual people.”
“Miss Stringer, I should really apologize to you. I mean, if I said something to upset you…”
“No, I’m apologizing. I apologized first. I have dibs,” said Janice.
Diehl managed a pained, watery-eyed smile. “Okay,” he said, “but you really shouldn’t worry about it.” He sighed, swiveled his chair, swiveled back with a file folder in his hands. “I spoke with your dad this morning.”
“Oh, did you,” said Janice. “I’m so sorry.”
“We worked out the arrangements for your brother’s body.” Diehl opened the file folder, frowned at something inside. “He said that he and your mom are coming from Arizona in the next couple of days?”
“If he said so,” said Janice. “I haven’t talked to him. They’ll do whatever they’re going to do, and they’ll let me know about it whenever it’s convenient for them.”
“Ah,” said Diehl. “Well, we’re releasing the body to the funeral home, and then our office’s involvement is pretty much over, unless, like I said, you need any help.” He shrugged. “In which case, we will try our best to get that. I will try my best.”
Janice smiled. She had thought up a request on the drive downtown—frivolous, maybe dumb, but she thought Diehl might feel better if she gave him a chance to help. “Now that you mention it, I think I would like something from you.”
“Just name it,” said Diehl.
“I’d like a copy of one of the pictures you showed me. I’ll pay to have it copied, if you want.”
Grooves appeared in the damp slope of Diehl’s forehead. “We don’t usually give those out. I don’t mean there’s a policy against it; I don’t think there is, anyway. We usually don’t give them out because people don’t ask for them.”
“First time for everything,” Diehl said. He picked up a pen, scribbled a note in his file.
Her mother would take Ken’s ashes back to Arizona with her, so that someday they could be interred with her own, but—to Janice’s relief—she had not insisted on a funeral service.
Early on Tuesday afternoon, another soggy spring day, Janice’s parents arrived at her apartment from the funeral home. Her mother hurried in from the rain, cradling a small black plastic box in her arms. Janice looked at the box, and her mother said, “It’s Ken. I didn’t want to leave him out in the rental car.”
Janice’s father followed, face pinched with fatigue and irritation. She forced herself to smile at him. In silence, he took off his long khaki raincoat and handed it to Janice, and she hung the dripping coat in her closet.
Still holding the box of Ken’s ashes, Janice’s mother hugged her from the side. “It’s good to see you, honey,” said the old woman. “I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with all this. We would have taken care of it if we were still here.”
“It’s okay. It was my job,” said Janice. “I was his emergency contact.”
Her parents had never seen her Littleton apartment: the last time they’d come back to Colorado for a visit, she and Terry had still been together and living in the house in Aurora. Her father looked around as he combed his damp white hair with his fingers. He had, Janice noticed, a suntan: both her parents looked tanned and hearty, relatively speaking. Her dad went to the center of the living room and peered at the bare walls, the sparse furniture: couch, table, rolled-up yoga mat. “It looks like a prison cell in here, Jan,” he said. “I would have thought you could have afforded some furniture, at least, after you sold your house.”
“I’m trying to be careful with my money, Dad,” Janice told him. “Nothing’s coming in.”
He shook his head, a little twitch of exasperation.
Janice forced another smile. “Who’s hungry,” she asked.
Her mother looked surprised by the question. “You don’t have to feed us, Janice,” she said. “We can go out.”
Janice took her mother lightly by the elbow and guided her toward the kitchen.
The packages Janice had laid out on the counters seemed to light the small, bare kitchen like a barrage of fireworks. She had gone to the supermarket early that morning and spent two weeks’ worth of her grocery budget on Ken’s favorite brand-name foods, as many brands as she could remember. For sandwiches, she had Oscar Mayer baloney and pimiento loaf, a bottle of yellow Heinz mustard and a jar of Miracle Whip, plus a loaf of flimsy white bread. She had Ken’s two preferred flavors of Doritos, nacho cheese and ranch; she had Ruffles, Chips Ahoy, a big yellow sack of peanut M&Ms, and a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew.
Janice glanced at her mother. She saw a flutter of pleasure cross the old woman’s wrinkled face.
“Plates and forks are right there,” she told her parents. “Help yourself.”
Her father said, “What is all this junk?”
“Lunch,” said Janice, “in honor of Ken.”
“Oh, good lord,” said her father. “Okay, let’s go out to eat.”
Her mother turned to him. “Norm, shut up,” she said. “Janice bought all this food. The least you can do is make a sandwich and drink a pop.”
“Peggy, for God’s sake, I would like to order my lunch off of a menu. I want to choose what I eat.”
Janice smiled at him. “Dad, you have a choice,” she said. “You have a choice of Oscar Mayer bologna or Oscar Mayer pimiento loaf.”
She patted his arm, and his shoulders slumped. His pointed nose dipped downward as he surveyed the counter again. “Do you have any mayonnaise? I don’t like Miracle Whip.”
“Today, you’re having Miracle Whip,” said Janice.
To eat, Janice sat cross-legged on the living-room floor, giving her parents the couch. Her mother placed the box of Ken’s remains solemnly on the coffee table. Eating off a paper plate in his lap, her father took small bites of his pimiento-loaf sandwich and chewed them slowly. He kept his eyes on the box; he seemed uneasy. When a polite knock came on Janice’s front door, he twitched in his seat, startled.
Janice didn’t have to force a smile. “Don’t worry, Dad,” she said as she rose, “I’m expecting somebody.”
Ron Diehl stood at the door, as expected: sniffling, morose, and rain-soaked. Before Janice took his overcoat, he handed her a large envelope with the City of Denver seal in the return-address corner, Janice Stringer handwritten across the center. She slipped it onto the coat closet’s top shelf, placing it gently atop her winter hats: she didn’t want to explain the picture to her parents, and she did not want to show them the picture. They had not seen Ken’s body.
“I would shake your hands, but I don’t want to give you this cold,” Diehl was telling her parents. “It’s a real monster. I can’t seem to get rid of it.”
“Let me get you a chair,” Janice told Diehl.
“No, please, don’t bother,” Diehl said. “I can only stay for a few minutes.”
Janice saw her parents watching Diehl carefully; she knew that they must see his resemblance to Ken. “I asked Ron to drop by because he’d been so much help,” she said. “Wasn’t he helpful, Dad, with making all the arrangements?”
“Helpful,” said her father.
“Thank you so much for your assistance, Mr. Diehl,” said Janice’s mother, sweetly. “You seem like a very nice man.”
“Ron,” said Janice, “I have all kinds of food, a bunch of Ken’s favorite stuff. Do you want a sandwich? Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine, really. I don’t have much of an appetite.”
“Our son did,” said Janice’s father. “He certainly loved his baloney.” He took a sip of Mountain Dew and grimaced. “He loved baloney, toy trains, booze, and costing me money.”
Janice took a Chips Ahoy cookie from her paper plate. She offered it to Diehl in silence. He studied it, looked at her, looked back at the cookie, and reached out for it.
Meanwhile, her mother said, “Norm, please. This is not the time to get on your soapbox.”
“Janice,” said her father, “how much would you guess it cost to render your brother down like that? I know Ron knows, because we talked about it on the phone.” Diehl, chewing slowly on a bite of cookie, offered a very small shrug. “I’ll just tell you, Jan, it cost a lot. I would have thought cremating Kenny, of all people, would have cost less, given how flammable he must have been, all the goddamn alcohol he’d absorbed.”
Her mother shook her head, but Janice saw a glitter in her eyes, the anger building. Her father said, “Jan, you had the right idea, but you should have served cheap booze instead of all this crap. The cheapest, worst booze you could find, and some half-eaten food from your trash can. That would have been the right way to see him off. We could all have gotten stinking, puking drunk, and then we could have gone out and slept in the gutter.”
“What a sweet, sensitive thing to say on this occasion, Dad, and in front of my guest.”
“Do you think I’m wrong? I’m not wrong.” Her father shook his head. “I’m not wrong,” he said to Diehl, more sullenly. “All those years; all that trouble, and here’s what we end up with, right here.” He leaned forward and exchanged his paper plate with the black plastic box. “All those goddamned toy trains and all those medical bills, and this is the result, this, it’s unbelievable.”
He stared at the box’s shiny lid. Janice thought her father had caught his own reflection in it, or else he had drifted off, distracted by a stray thought, maybe a memory of Ken. He raised the box and shook it. The box gave out a soft rattle—gritty powder, Janice thought, mixed with bigger, harder fragments, slivers and chunks of her brother’s bones.
Her mother shouted, “Norman Stringer, stop that! Give me that!” She reached over and snatched back the box.
Empty-handed, he shrank back.
Diehl had finished his cookie. He pulled an unused tissue from his pocket, dabbed his mustache, his lips. “Well,” he sniffled, “I should leave you folks alone.”
“Please don’t go yet,” her mother said. “Let me fix you some hot tea or something, some soup, before you go back out in that rotten weather.” Her face pleaded with Diehl from the couch, above the black box she clutched to her chest, the hard edges nestled in the pale wool of her cardigan.
Janice thought of Ken as a kid—a skinny prepubescent kid, nine or ten, so she had barely been out of diapers; she thought of his dislike of hugs, and the face he’d made when aunts or grandmas trapped him and wrapped him up in their arms. That face, that look of misery, had always induced the giggles in Janice the little girl, and she began to giggle now, first under her breath and then aloud, the giggles bouncing her where she sat on the floor.
Her parents and Diehl all looked at her, puzzled, which only made her giggle harder.
Only when they had all left, only when she had locked her door behind them, did Janice take the envelope from the closet.
As requested, Diehl had brought her a copy of the first picture in his file, the one that showed Ken’s face straight on, his beard and rotted teeth and open eyes. He had added something that Janice had not requested: a photocopy of Ken’s decade-old admission form from Haven Glade, the rehab clinic. The copy showed wrinkles and fold marks and stains from the original as white voids and blotches, but Janice’s old name remained clear, two-thirds of the way down the page on the left: Janice Hairston, in the field marked Emergency Contact.
Janice had some cheap plastic eight-by-ten picture frames in the closet, the pictures—herself and Terry on vacation—long since removed, torn up, and thrown out. She put the photograph of Ken and the photocopied form in two of the frames and stood them up on the coffee table, facing toward her yoga spot. She put away all the leftover snack food, wondering if she would touch any of it again; wondering if she would throw it in the trash in a week or two, after all the trouble and all the expense. Finally, she changed into her yoga clothes.
She switched off her cell phone before unrolling her yoga mat on the carpet. She opened Yoga for Dummies to a page she had dog-eared, and she stretched out on her back and lay breathing deeply, deliberately. When she felt calm enough, she turned her head and saw the image of her brother staring back with his blue-on-yellow eyes, staring at her and gaping as if in confusion.
“Kenny,” Janice said, “this is the Corpse Pose.”
Ted Downum was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in Littleton, Colorado. A 2018 graduate of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA Program in creative writing, he lives in Denver and is working on a novel.
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