From the wild and wonderful mind of Shamus Award–winning author John Straley comes a poetic masterpiece that explores the ugly truths of the prison industrial complex, the crumbling state of humanity, the role memory plays in the formation of the self, and much more.
It’s been seven years since Gloomy Knob landed in the Ted Stevens High-Security Federal Penitentiary and five years since the end of the war, the one North Korea started when they sent a missile to Cold Storage, Alaska. Serving a life sentence for the murder of his sister, Gloomy spends histime trying to forget about the past.
Then one day, Gloomy is snatched from his off-site work station. Instead of celebrating his newfound freedom, Gloomy comes unmoored—he feels he belongs in prison. But his kidnappers believe Gloomy knows where a second nuclear warhead is hidden and demand to know where it is. The clock is ticking, and Gloomy knows he needs to find the missing warhead fast, or his wife, his friends, and the entire town of Cold Storage will be obliterated. The only problem is he has no idea where it is.
As Gloomy struggles to escape, the memories he fought hard to repress begin to creep out from the strange corners of his mind, first in rivulets, then in waves. In a drug-induced haze, Gloomy makes a discovery that may just bring him the closure he desires—if it doesn’t kill him first.
About the Author
John Straley was born in Redwood City, California. He received a BA in English from the University of Washington, but settled in Sitka, Alaska, with his wife, Jan, a prominent whale biologist. John worked for thirty years as a criminal defense investigator, and many of the characters in his books were inspired by his work. Now retired, he lives with his wife in a bright green house on the beach and writes in his weathertight office overlooking Old Sitka Rocks. The former Writer Laureate of Alaska, he is the author of ten novels, including Cold Storage, Alaska and the Shamus Award-winner The Woman Who Married a Bear, the first Cecil Younger investigation.
Read an Excerpt
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.