Cold Storage, Alaska
By John Straley
Copyright © 2013
All right reserved.
Annabelle had put the tea kettle on just moments ago. Now it was whistling, yet she didn’t get up to attend to it. Recently the past had become a hallucination that seemed to be intruding into the present moment, so she wasn’t certain what really needed doing.
She had been thinking about Franklin Roosevelt: the grinning man with the cigarette holder, who was never photographed in his frailty. But now it was early spring in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and all the news was about the President’s failings. Flawed men kept ruling the world and the radio in the corner with the long antennae squealed on and on about it. Not that the news mattered much to Annabelle now. It was raining hard and all of the events of her life—past, present, and possibly the future—were taking on the quality of a slightly malevolent screwball comedy.
She sat in her chair looking out the window. She had been distracted by so many things lately, presidents, family members, and lost animals all swirling around her. The glass on the door rattled, and she looked up expecting to see her uncle, Slippery Wilson, walk in slapping his wet leather gloves against his pants, even though Slippery Wilson had been dead for more than three decades. She found herself listening for crying from the crib, even though both her boys were grown men. The older one, Miles, was down at the Senior Center cooking dinner, and Clive was getting out of prison.
“Never matter,” Annabelle said aloud to herself. She got up and turned off the radio in the corner.
Periodically during the afternoon she had been trying to remember the joke she had heard the day before, and she tried again now. It was good, she remembered, and she thought that it would have been good to tell Miles. But the joke, like most of the details of the New Deal, eluded her in its detail.
Out her window the hillside fell away to the inlet. Alder trees grew quickly on the disturbed ground where the boys had built her house. A gust of wind came, and she thought she saw some darting color. A flash of yellow—she couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like a match head exploding. Yellow with red sparks flaring in the trees. She slid her glasses up her nose and was almost certain that she saw the bird fluttering up and away.
“Buddy?” she said aloud, as the kettle boiled over and doused the flame.
On the day he was released from prison, Clive Cahon was thinking about his plan to get home. He had called ahead to order a cab. He didn’t know why he gave the cab company a false name; it was simply the first name that popped into his head and had nothing at all to do with the plan.
He had hated living in Alaska as a kid. His father had assumed he would become a fisherman. His mother had assumed that no matter how he made his living, it would be made right there in Cold Storage. Only his grandma Ellie had told him not to listen and to dream his own dreams. Having grown up on an island on the north Pacific Clive had longed for the great American Highway. He dreamed of cars and deserts, and long straight roads. Ellie had always given him books about cars, for every birthday and Christmas; cars and guitars, bands he heard on the radio and beautiful girls who didn’t know everything about him. Ellie had understood his itch to move on. Only she seemed to understand that living in Cold Storage, Alaska, was like being born into a small maze, where everyone constantly bumped into one another. As soon as his father died in the Thanksgiving Day storm, Clive had left. He had flown north to Hanes, bought a car, without ever owning a license, without ever learning to drive, and he took off. He was fifteen. Ellie’s ashes had been scattered at sea and his father’s body had never been found, so he didn’t consider that he had anything holding him to his cloistered island town.
Clive was thirty-five now. It was early April, and the clouds were clearing away after a morning rain. The air was so clean it almost burned his lungs. Clive had served seven out of his ten-year sentence in McNeill Island Penitentiary, and he was wearing his old court clothes: a dark blue suit his mother had bought him, now far too tight in his shoulders and upper arms. Feeling the sun cut through the trees, he set his cardboard box on the ground, slipped off the coat, folded it neatly, and set it on top of the box.
There were only a few people getting off the prison boat, mostly staff members carrying lunch boxes and rain gear. There was one other inmate, a skinny white kid with red hair who walked down the dock to meet an old man waiting beside a sputtering Ford LTD. The convict approached, the man opened the passenger side door and a woman in a blue house dress got out and threw her arms around the boy before he could set his gear down on the ground. She cried and snuffled into his neck, while the old man rubbed the back of his shoulders.
Clive shifted from one foot to another, waiting for his ride. A yellow minivan finally rolled up.
“You Stilton Cheesewright?”
Clive was still watching the kid being greeted by the old couple. He wondered if he had seen the kid inside, but didn’t recognize him. He hadn’t recognize the false name the cabby was saying, either.
“You’re Stilton Cheesewright, yeah?” the driver said again. He reached behind and opened the back door of the van.
“Absolutely.” Clive set his box of personal effects in the back seat, slammed the door, and walked around to sit in the front passenger seat.
“You want to go to a grocery store?” He squinted at his run sheet.
“That’s right,” Clive said. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No problem, Mr. Cheesewright. Would you like me to wait while you shop?”
“Naw . . . just drop me. I might be a while,” Clive said but then added: “You know a place with really fresh lettuce?”
The driver smiled. “I think if you want the really fresh stuff you should go over to the Farmfresh store down Sixth. It’s good, you know. They really do buy it from the farmers and everything. It’s a couple of miles out of town, but it’s worth it.”
“Perfect,” said Clive. The driver punched the meter and wheeled to his left, down the road away from the prison.
Clive leaned back to watch the fence posts stutter by. He watched the sunlight filter through the evergreen trees and he watched a cow eating in a green field, a rusty bell hung from her neck. She lifted her head as the cab sped past and Clive could imagine the soft clonking of her bell wandering through the air. Clive asked to stop for a moment; the driver put on the turn signal and eased the van to the gravelly edge of the road. Clive thanked him, leaned back in the cab’s mildewed seat, and smiled. He sat that way for a few moments, smiling and listening for the cow’s bell.
“You do a long stretch?” the driver asked.
Clive nodded, his eyes closed. “Yes,” he said. “It’s time to go home, I guess.”
“You want me to get going?” the driver asked.
Clive nodded again, his eyes still closed.
“Let’s go get you some lettuce then,” the driver said and pulled the blinker all the way down, rolling the cab back onto the road.
Clive was both happy and nervous. He had looked forward to this day with an urgency that few people who haven’t been in prison could know. But just as it was happening he felt a kind of raw anxiety. He could not go back to crime, and although he had scrubbed his mind clean he knew that in this world of free men he understood little else besides crime. Crime was now, in his new state of mind, too chaotic.
McNeill was an old federal prison that had been remodeled as a medium security jail when it was turned over to the State of Washington. The Birdman of Alcatraz had actually done most of his time at McNeill. The main building had the original feel of the place: thick iron doors, WPA style murals on the walls of the mess hall. It could have been a large public library in some small Midwestern town if it weren’t for all the sex offenders.
He had seen arterial blood spurting and painting the shower floor red. He had seen the
black holes that hand made knives leave in young white skin. He had heard all the swearing that there was on the world and the blubbery threats made through spit stuffed lips. All he had wanted now was peace. No grittiness. He was done with it. He would always be a sinner, he knew that, but he could at least try not to sin as much. He had thought that even if he could cut back on his sinning by ten percent, that would still leave him plenty of room, while giving him a shot at some minor redemption at least.
Excerpted from Cold Storage, Alaska
by John Straley
Copyright © 2013 by John Straley.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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