“Delightfully absurd . . . Straley upturns the Alaskan landscape like Carl Hiassen flipped Florida with wildly imaginative stories and droll characters.”
Shamus Award winning author of the Cecil Younger series John Straley returns with another surreal dive into Cold Storage, Alaska. Gloomy Knob—one of your soon-to-be favorite convicts—is seven years into his life sentence. It has been five years since the end of the war, started by North Korea when they sent a missile to Cold Storage…a warhead that went missing. When Gloomy is kidnapped from prison, he will have a chance to right his wrongs—if he can find the nuke and save the world. The only problem? He has no idea where it is.
Read on for a taste of Straley’s latest poetic masterpiece. Excerpt below!
It might be easier to understand this story from the point of view of the mouse, for her motivations are simple: fear, hunger, procreation, and survival: living in the now as a Buddhist might understand it. But for us, the Western Homo sapiens who have grown past the mysteries of peek-a-boo magic tricks and object impermanence, the flow of time becomes a complicating factor. Besides, the mouse died few days from when we left her, tragically for her, but not for the human beings in this story, most of whom experienced life as a kind of hallucination, unstuck from traditional time as a result of being kept in cages where nothing happened according to their own will.
It was seven years after the US president’s war with North Korea, and the whole world had gone a little crazy. It was as if all the bottled-up frustration of the administration, the repressed class hatred and racism, the fear of the Other, and the unquenched greed had started to spray from sprinkler systems in every office, every classroom, every store, and every network in the country: icy water raining down through high-pressure rubber tubes onto everything and everyone. All bets were off, and the future was chaos. At least that’s how it seemed.
The fizzled North Korean missile was nothing more than a bundle of sparklers that sprinkled warheads over a small section of southeastern Alaska. The warheads had apparently been meant for Valdez, Prudhoe Bay, and down into Wyoming and Colorado. The North Koreans had thought to contaminate most of America’s oil supplies to frighten US leaders to the negotiating table, but what really happened was a mad rush by military and terrorist groups from around the globe to gather the missing nukes, while the rest of the world watched the US Army and subcontractors liberate the hungry North Koreans. First came fire and destruction, then a river of American food: MREs and then fatty grain-fed beef, along with televisions playing dubbed American films over steam tables laden with limp yellowy pork chops, grease-limp cheeseburgers, and boiled cabbage with brisket—all under the watchful eye of white men with black guns and sunglasses.
But none of that mattered to the men serving time out on the island where the Ted Stevens High-Security Federal Penitentiary had been built. “Olympus,” as it was known to its full-time inhabitants, or T.S.H.S.F.P. on their paperwork. The employees, who rotated on- and off-site, called it “Tough Shit.” Whatever you decided to call it, it was a concrete facility built on a rocky outcropping off the coast of Yakobi Island. The nearest civilian town was Cold Storage, Alaska. Now it was 17:30, October 31, 2027, almost five years after the final peace accord with China/North Korea and the end of hostilities. The world was still in a frenzy of nervous breast beating and anxiety about dodging the bullet of nuclear annihilation. The United States had somehow balanced its trade deficit with Asia, there was no more Republican Party but a new Democratic Business Party and the Constitutionalist Party of the American Nation. The evening meal had been served in the Red and Blue Units, and the White Unit was just finishing up its Sobriety, Substance, and Spirituality class in the cooldown space, which had thick windows overlooking the North Pacific and was plumbed with pipes to flood the room with either salt water from the surrounding ocean or imported military gas.
Gloomy Knob was the speaker on this day. Gloomy, of course, wasn’t his real name, but the name given to him as a boy by the community. Gloomy Knob had grown up in Cold Storage and had graduated from the local high school. He had earned money working in the woods cutting trees and working on machinery in Alaska, Washington, and Idaho. He had been living at home and building a cabin when he was arrested; he had been building a new life—or so he thought.
He was one of only two inmates who were locals. He and Ishmael Muhammad were the only two prisoners from Cold Storage held on Olympus. Gloomy had been given his nickname—and, really, the only name he used—for a cliff face in Glacier Bay he had liked to visit as a boy. Gloomy Knob was a bluff where to this day mountain goats loved to climb up and down from tidewater all the way to the alpine willows. It was a place where Tlingit elders went to gather goat hair that had sloughed onto the willow branches. Gloomy’s father, Clive, had taken him there, and his mother had shown him how the old people would make yarn and small panels of rough cloth that they eventually stitched together into a blanket. Clive had run a bar that also served as a small nondenominational and eclectic church in the tiny village of Cold Storage, which was how Gloomy Knob had become the unofficial nondenominational “pastor” of the clearly non-Christian and non-Islamic Sobriety, Substance, and Spirituality discussion group at Ted Stevens High-Security Federal Penitentiary, even though he abhorred most public speaking. Yes, Gloomy had become a preacher in jail.
“Gentlemen,” Gloomy began, “I will start today as I often do, with a story.”
The men groaned. They sat on shiny steep pillars that had emerged from the floor and were immovable. Tables and a lectern could also rise through the steel-plated concrete floor by hydraulic force when needed, but nothing could be moved or thrown. Twenty-eight men in lime-green jumpsuits sat on pillars. Some wore tight-fitting skullcaps, some had shaved heads. Some had vivid tattoos, while some conspicuously did not.
“So,” Gloomy continued despite protests, “a farmer was in his orchard with his pig, as a city slicker was driving by in his sports car, clearly in a hurry.”
“I got this already. The pig is a filthy beast. It represents the fallen sinner. The farmer is your false prophet, Jesus,” a man with a beard called out as others nodded.
“Gentlemen, please . . .” Gloomy raised his hands, palms up. “In some stories, a man is just a farmer and a pig is just a pig. Please . . .” And the grunting subsided.
“So, as the city slicker is driving by, the farmer lifts up the pig to the apple tree and lets the pig feed on an apple. The pig chews away on the nice big apple, and the farmer sets him back down. Then as the car gets closer, the farmer does it again, and the city slicker sees that this is a big fat pig, and the farmer is straining a lot to lift the animal up. The city slicker slams on the brakes and grinds to a stop, then jumps out of the sports car and walks over to the farmer.”
“What did he say?” a black inmate said unself-consciously.
“I will tell you, sir.” And Gloomy walks toward the inmates, a row of cameras in the ceiling following his every move.
“The city slicker says, ‘I was watching you, mister, and I think it would be much easier if you tried something else, Mr. Farmer.’”
“I’m sure he did!”
Now the black inmates were laughing.
“Thank you for the encouragement,” said Gloomy Knob, pausing to look each and every one of them gathered there in that antiseptic holding facility in the eye. “Then the farmer lifts that pig up again, straining every muscle. The pig eats another sweet and delicious apple, then the farmer sets the pig back down. The city slicker says, ‘I think if you were to climb up in the tree and shake all the limbs and knock the apples down on the ground, the pig could just eat the apples off the ground. It would be a lot easier for you and the pig, and it would save a lot of time.’”
“What he say, Gloomy? What the farmer say?”
And Gloomy Knob held up both his hands again and said, “That farmer walked over to that city slicker as his fine sports car was idling like a purring cat by the side of the road, and said, ‘Well, yes, sir, I suppose you are right, but what is time to a pig?’” And here the gathering resorted to a respectful and knowing laugh, and they rocked back and forth on their uncomfortable perches.
After Gloomy’s father’s generation, everyone in Cold Storage went by nicknames. Gloomy Knob took his name into prison. Gloomy Knob was convicted of murdering his sister and kidnapping his mother. His sister was called NoNo. His mother was called Nix. His cousin had taken the name Ishmael Muhammad, but he was known as “Itchy” to his family. They had both been convicted for involvement in the kidnapping of Gloomy’s mother, who had long ago been a bass player in a cruise-ship band and had married into the bar, but neither of them felt guilty for the kidnapping. Someone else had taken Nix and buried her in a box in a tideflat with a breathing tube to motivate both the boys. They never counted that as a charge against them, even though the government had added it onto their sentence. Gloomy didn’t talk about the past much due to his grief and guilt over NoNo’s death, and Ishmael never spoke up, apparently for ideological reasons. At the time, Ishmael had deep religious beliefs to explain his actions. In prison, each prisoner had to discover his own particular way of doing time.
In the last few months, Gloomy hadn’t seen his cousin in the prison, and his memory had become a stuttering and chaotic dream that interrupted his waking life. Gloomy could look at a clock and then look again and have lost hours while visiting some other time in his life, which gave him great anxiety as to how time was actually passing. Hence the pig joke. What interested him most was why many of the other inmates found the odd joke funny.
Nix kept replaying the events in her mind. She didn’t see the men who took her. She had been walking down the gravel lane and it was suddenly dark. She twisted inside a scratchy bag for several moments and then everything was gone; there was no struggle, no scratchiness, and no sounds of boots running down the gravel lane.
Sometime later, she awoke in darkness so pure that she couldn’t be certain her eyes were even open. Her arms were pinned to her side, and as she twisted her torso, she could feel the rough surface of the wooden box she had been buried in. She kicked her feet and heard dirt shifting down around her head. Her breath came back against her face as she struggled. The smell of peanut butter from her sandwich at lunch mingled with the yeasty scent of the wet rocky sand that had been heaped on top of her.
She banged her head against the surface of the box, and her forehead butted against the end of a pipe. Cool air came down the pipe, and she could hear the shooshing sound of waves breaking on a beach. Somewhere in the dark was the barking call of a raven. A drop of water dripped down the pipe and landed on her lips.
“Our Father, who art in heaven—” she began.
Then a voice interrupted her. She didn’t recognize the voice. It was a distant hiss that seemed to be riding down the air through the pipe.
“Hush,” the voice said.
“Help me. Please help me out of here,” Nix said.
“Hush . . .” the voice wheezed again. “I will . . .”
“Why am I in here? When will you let me out? I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She felt her tears track down her cheek and get cradled in the folds of her ears.
“Don’t ask questions,” the voice said soothingly. “There is only one answer worth knowing.”
“What?” she said, stammering. Her heart was beating inside her chest as if it were kicking to get out. “What is it? Please, what is it?”
“Close your eyes.” The voice came all around her body. She could still hear waves breaking. She kicked against the box, shaking dirt down the sides.
“In a few moments you will know the answer,” the voice said.
The darkness sat on her, and the smell of the earth filled her nose and mouth. A fat drop of water landed on her open eye.
As Gloomy and the other prisoners filed back to their cells to read their religious materials, a technician spun on his chair in a bunker buried three levels down beneath the housing floor of the prison. This was a secure area with just two entrances, its own communications trunk, and a dedicated dock and helipad on the far side of the facility. This security team had one office at the prison and one temporary communications center and interview room in the town of Cold Storage. The technician handed his boss a file.
“It took the Iranians fucking years to give the specs to the Koreans, and then it took their people forever to work through their lawyers before we could get it to our technicians and sort out all the noise and what looked like chatter and background stuff—”
“Enough with the caveats, Pete. Just tell me.”
“There is a faint but intermittent transmission of a power source being fed to one detonator.”
“Where is it?”
“They didn’t have satellites; they didn’t have GPS; they didn’t expect they would be hard to find.”
“How far along are we to detonation?”
“Unknown? A thermonuclear device. Unknown?”
“Jasper . . .” The technician cupped his head in his hands and took a long breath. “You want me to quit and go home?”
“I want you to wander around in the fucking woods until you find it or it goes off . . . that is what I want.” Jasper, the supervisor, wore a short-sleeved shirt with brown stains down the front. After he read the memo one last time he clipped the document to his board and drank a long swallow, one of many, of cold, bitter coffee. Both Jasper and Pete were discovering a new and irritable way of experiencing time, a way that felt like a jittering caffeine nightmare, as if they were both drowning in the surf and trying to drag themselves back to shore without touching bottom.
Now while Gloomy was telling the joke about the pig and the farmer in prison and Jasper was feeling his stomach ache about the bomb, Nix was in Cold Storage, Alaska, wiping the cedar bar top with a dry towel. She had set her sketchpad down a moment before, and one of her drawings had been smeared with beer. She came to the bar sometimes when she couldn’t stand the atmosphere of the house where her husband lay dying. Lilly, the nurse who usually slept above the old cold storage, had agreed to stay the night. She had been making bread and was reading a book from Clive’s library. In the last few weeks, when it seemed that he was going to die at any moment, Lilly had virtually moved in. Lilly was strong and patient with him. Patience was what Nix had wished for, patience while lifting him onto the commode or changing his diaper in the middle of the night.
“If we’re lucky,” Lilly had said to Nix just that night, “if we’re lucky this is how we end up, I suppose”—she paused—“at home with people who care about you.”
Nix had been putting on her slicker to go out to the bar as Lilly stood in the kitchen kneading bread dough. “Yes . . .” Nix said.
Lilly was looking down at the floor. “I don’t mind it,” Lilly said softly. “He’s got the long trip ahead. I don’t mind helping him get ready now.”
Lilly was a blessing to Nix. She gave her time to get out of the house. Time to sit and work on her drawings. Blessed time away from the dying in the upstairs bedroom.
Nix hated it. She hated the smell of the house, the disinfectant in the bucket for dirty linens, the sour smell that made even the warm kitchen with baking bread smell boggy.
Norma the barmaid on duty brought Nix a martini. Nix held her mechanical pencil above the paper. Every time she was about to begin a new drawing she would remember the words her art teacher had made her write in ink all around the top of her computer monitor at school. She had looked at those words every day whether she consciously read them or not: When beginning any depiction, the artist must consider the angle and the source of the light.
She held her pencil steady and took a drink. She didn’t really like martinis, but she wanted something that would change her mood. Yet, when she sipped the cocktail, all she tasted was the disinfectant in Clive’s room. She set the long-stemmed glass down gently and took a deep breath.
This moment of beginning a new drawing always created tension within Nix. It was a delicious tension, like the moment just before kissing a stranger. She placed the tip of her pencil down and drew the first curve of a raven’s beak. Like with the kiss, she could tell how propitious the next move and the one after that would be. There was the curve of the head in profile; there was the raucous call and the weird intelligence. There was the source of light slanting in at a long angle from the southwest, where Raven stood on the ridge of a roof, tipping forward and ready to fall into the gliding first curve of flight.
This first feeling having been revealed to her, Nix hurried on to capture the moment. She sketched from the top down. She even put in a faint background. The world itself became visible as the new light fell upon the bird.
Norma walked down her side of the bar, turning and twisting her back to loosen her tight muscles. “You wanna trade for your tab?” Norma joked.
“Can’t afford to.” Nix smiled as her forearm moved across the page. “I might, if I drank more. But I’ve got to zap these down to the editors and the book designers in three weeks or I don’t get the second half of the advance.”
Norma craned her head and watched Nix draw. Raven on a roofline, the islands in the background. Raven leaning forward as if he were going to spill out the rest of the drawing. Norma was some twenty years younger than Nix. She was thin, weathered, with short brown hair and a bright scar on the left side of her throat. Nix never asked about the scar—not because she wasn’t curious but because she already knew part of the story and didn’t care to know any more. She knew because she had shared in the events that had left the mark on her old friend’s throat.
“How’s it going at home?” Norma said, and her voice softened, hesitant to ask.
“It’s going . . .” Nix said absently, then stopped and looked up at the barmaid. “It’s going slowly,” Nix said finally, staring into her friend’s eyes. “I had to get out of there.”
Norma reached over and covered Nix’s hand with her own, and she let it sit there a moment without saying a word. “Well, tonight will be some distraction”—Norma’s voice brightened—“Halloween. My God, there will be some loonies in here for sure.”
Nix swiveled around in her chair, looking out the windows of the bar as if to remind herself what time it was, and what month. “Halloween?” she said. “I must have forgotten.”
It was early evening and already very dark. The wires above the boardwalk along the beach swung crazily in the gusts of wind. Rain sheeted down the smudged windowpanes, the windows fogged where they reached the level of the booths. Outside, one light flickered as if it couldn’t decide whether it was going to burn out. The rain fell through the light as if it were a ripped curtain flapping there. Two electric carts hummed by and a rusted-out gas cart sputtered down the boardwalk like a rockslide. Dance music wheezed out of a radio and then faded into the clatter of the bar. A guy by the pool table was bobbing his head in time to the sound effects of the game he was playing on his goggles. His vision obscured, he slowly pulled his beer glass toward his mouth by instinct and feel alone.
Nix thought of the man dying in her house. He had been a jailbird and a drug dealer long ago. But he and his brother were good men and had built a community in Cold Storage that she had grown to love. She loved him. She loved his crazy preaching on Sundays. She had sat with him for days during his sickness, she had cried, and now she was ready for him to die.
She looked down and pictured his shrunken body as his bony chest slowly rose and fell.
“I’m not worried,” Clive said as if he could read her thoughts. Then he said in his reed-thin voice, “Not near as worried as you are, girl.”
Nix tried to smile. “That’s good,” she stammered. “I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.” But as she said the words she felt icy gravel gather in her chest.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said again, this time with a little more force. Clive had been so much fun, so irreverent and funny, but now he was pale and his eyes were still. He blinked once in slow, reptilian consideration. She felt her hands shake, and he gripped them firmly, as if to apologize for the awkwardness of dying.
“Here we go,” Norma said, and took a deep breath.
At the door some kids were running back and forth, daring each other to knock. They were all wearing sheets over their heads.
“Come on,” Norma said. She elbowed Nix as she reached under the bar for two big handfuls of wrapped toffee. “Let’s give the ghouls something . . .” she said as she moved around the end of the bar.
A couple of fishermen in wool coats with the sleeves cut off pushed their dirty linen caps back off their faces and sat up straight in the booth by the window. They made faces at the specters running back and forth on the sidewalk. They looked through the records that the bar kept near the old stereo system, and one looked at Nix to make sure he had her approval. Nix smiled at him because she recognized him and liked his taste. The fisherman put on Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Knowing there was a scratch on side one, he put on the second side and sat down with his partner, who spilled his beer. The other started swearing as he squeezed back into the booth, never taking either of his hands off his beer. Nix threw them a bar rag because Norma’s hands were full of candy.
Both women arrived at the door at the same time and just as the smallest of the four ghosts was about to knock, Norma jerked the door open.
“Boo!” she shouted, and she sent the ghosts shrieking and jumping back. They laughed and then eased forward, holding out plastic bags with their dark mouths open.
“Trick or treat!” the four of them sang out in unison.
Nix stood behind Norma’s right shoulder. She looked at the children and for some reason felt short of breath. It was a familiar feeling, that of struggling for air. She did not move but stared at the tiny ghosts with half dollar–sized holes in the white sheets. Their eyes were far back from their ill-defined skulls. The smallest wore a plastic garland of flowers that had been used in last year’s fifth-grade play.
As Norma was doling out the candy, a rumble came from the south as a plastic garbage can rolled in the middle of the boardwalk, for there were no roads in this little boardwalk town in the Alaskan wilderness. The wires running to the back of the hotel started howling and a great gust of wind hit the side of the building.
The kids shrieked and the wind pushed the door wide open against the wall. The napkins on the bars scattered like leaves, and the kids howled all the louder, wind billowing up underneath their costumes and lifting the sheets up off their heads faster than they could grab them while still holding on to their bags of candy.
Norma stepped back, turning away from the blast of wind, but Nix watched with a kind of fixed panic as the ghosts’ costumes rose up into the air, twisting and spinning like single sheets of newspaper blown down the canyon of the street. They rose straight up above the roofline, toward the waterfront, until all four sheets became entangled in the power lines running down to the harbor.
The rain came suddenly, pelting down out of the blackness of the squall. The little-girl ghosts ran into the bar shivering and laughing, holding on to their candy bags with both hands.
Norma got a dry towel and the fishermen ordered another round of beers. The embarrassed little girls covered their mouths as they spoke and sucked down their giggles as they asked if they could call their mothers. Nix walked over to the windows and watched the wind push the twisted sheets against the power lines. When the wet tip of one of the sheets slapped against another, sparks showered down on the street and the bar went black.
“There’s no saving them now,” Nix said aloud, although she hadn’t meant to.
The girls who had once been ghosts laughed and shivered in their thin, wet clothes, as Ella Fitzgerald’s voice skittered up into the darkness.
Intrigued? Purchase What Is Time to a Pig? here!