"Wise, wayward, wonderfully unhinged novels.” —James Sallis, author of Drive
“John Straley’s Cold Storage, Alaska is a snapshot of the USA, with its faults and struggling possibilities. Comic, engrossing, exotic yet familiar, it’s precise to the place and its feel, keen on character and foible, full of lore and history … Over the top good.” –Gary Snyder, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Turtle Island
“Like the Coen brothers on literary speed ... John Straley is among the very best stylists of his generation. Cold Storage, Alaska is truly stunning, poetic, and smart.”
—Ken Bruen, Shamus Award winning author of The Guard
“What a warm, engaging, profoundly human book this is: its skin crackling, its heart enormous and open. It's a mystery with judicious blasts of violence and dread, but it opens also onto the bigger mysteries—of community, of family, of place. The several lives that intertwine throughout the story reach moments of quiet grace that resonate stealthily but deeply.”
—John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats
From Cold Storage, Alaska
The joke went like this:
The doctor comes back into the waiting room and tells his patient, “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, but I have some bad news. It appears you have only eleven minutes to live.” The horrified patient beseeches him, “Please, doctor, isn’t there something you can do for me?” The doctor looks around the room and at his watch and says, “Well, I suppose I could boil you an egg.”
The joke was everywhere on the boardwalk. It seemed to Miles McCahon that it had infected the residents of Cold Storage like a flu virus. He heard it everywhere, and he was beginning to wonder why.
Maybe it was the darkness or the rain. Maybe it was the fact that almost everyone in Cold Storage was either clinically depressed or drunk most of the time. But they loved that joke, and Miles was beginning to take it personally.
Miles had spent most of his life in Cold Storage. There had been trips out for a few years in college and his years in the Army Rangers. When his brother had gone to jail in 1993, Miles had been in Mogadishu as a medic with his delta team and had mustered out soon after that well-publicized mess. He had told himself he was never again going to leave the quiet of Cold Storage, but now he was beginning to wonder.
Miles was the medical technician and physician’s assistant in a village without a doctor. He splinted broken bones and stopped bleeding. He stitched up severe cuts and treated people for shock. He monitored medications and researched medical issues for the 150 residents of this failing fishing village on the outer coast of southeastern Alaska. He was the closest thing to a doctor they had, and maybe it was for this reason he didn’t get the same amount of glee from the joke as everybody else obviously did.
Miles was cooking Sunday dinner at the community center. He had used some of the money left over from a health and prevention education grant the previous PA had written. That PA had tried to hold classes on heart disease and diabetes; he had started “Healthwise” informational gatherings to which only a few people came, but none of those people were the ones who really needed the information. The principal of the school and the secretary came to the first two classes, the city administrator and her husband came to a few more, and then nobody came. The PA left town after six months.
But the money had to be spent because the administrators in Sitka could not show unspent money in their program at the end of the fiscal year. They phoned Miles and told him to do whatever he could to clear the account. The administrators had kissed a lot of ass in Washington to get these funds, and it would be an insult to leave them unspent. So Miles started hosting dinner parties on Sundays. He tried to cook reasonably healthy food, but health concerns couldn’t get in the way of turnout. This Sunday he was cooking three meat loaves, each roughly the size of a carry-on luggage bag.
“I don’t see why you can’t buy us some beer,” complained Ellen from her wheelchair next to the Jell-O molds.
“Ellen, I can’t buy alcohol with the health education and prevention money. We’ve been through this. I’m already on thin ice for the cheesecakes and heavy cream.”
“That’s just like government thinking,” the old woman wheezed. “I mean, what if—I’m saying what if—I’m going back to my place for a beer and I slip and break my hip? What the hell kind of health education is that?”
Bob Gleason piped up, “You’re not going to break a hip. You always drink someone else’s beer.” Here he nodded toward Miles. “Besides, you ride that frigging wheelchair everywhere you go, even though there’s not a frigging thing wrong with your legs.”
Ellen didn’t give even a hint she’d heard Bob’s comments. “Miles, you could at least buy us some beer,” she insisted, “if you were really serious about doing a good job.”
“Listen, Ellen, next week I could maybe include some non-alcoholic beer in the order.”
Ellen stared up at him with strange, squinting eyes as if he had suddenly started speaking Japanese. “Non-alcoholic beer?” she asked feebly. She reached a claw-like hand for something to hang on to, accidentally landing it in a bowl of raspberry Jell-O with bananas hovering at the top.
“Somebody better get her medication,” came a wheezing voice from over by the furnace.
“Take more than near-beer to kill her. Better men than us have tried.” Bob levered a shingle-sized slice of meat loaf onto his plate, set it next to the pond of gravy in the potatoes. “Goddamn, this looks good, Miles. Don’t have any boiled turnips, do you?” He held out his plate.
As luck would have it, Miles did, and he ladled them out quickly. Bob’s hand wavered, and hot water slopped against the side of the old man’s thumb.
“Christ, Miles, watch what you’re doing, would ya?”
“I’m sorry.” Miles handed him a napkin. “I’m just kind of in a hurry.”
“I heard.” Bob nodded knowingly, staring down at his plate of food. “There’s a cop here to talk to you.” He reached onto his plate, fingered a slice of turnip up into his mouth. “It’s about your brother.”
Miles wiped his hands on a dishcloth and took off his apron. He walked out the door without saying a word to anyone.
The police officer, Ray Brown, had sent word to Miles that he was in town as soon as he’d gotten off the floatplane. Miles had been in the middle of getting the giant meat loaves ready and so had arranged to meet with the trooper at the clinic later in the day, just before Brown’s plane took off for Juneau. That way, he thought, he could talk with the officer and then walk him back to the hall to check on the community dinner. It might be a good thing to have a police officer with him when he returned, in case any fights broke out in his absence.
Miles wasn’t eager to show that police officer around. No matter where they were from, visitors always wanted to ask questions. They started with history: why is this place here? To this Miles would usually answer, “Fish . . . mostly.” He longed to tell the whole story but the truth was people didn’t really want to know.
What they really wanted to ask was, “Why in the hell would anyone live here?”
But to truly understand, it helped to know the whole story. Just walking around town you wouldn’t feel the history of the place, wouldn’t know its old jokes or see the ghosts who still roamed around in everyone’s memory.
Cold Storage, Alaska, was first settled by white men in 1934. These white men were a group of Norwegian fishermen looking for a place to ride out the storms on the outer coast. They drove a few pilings and ran a boardwalk along the edge of a steep-sided fjord. They chose it because of the good anchorage with protection from all four directions of the compass. But as one of the Norsky fishermen put it, “She’s hell for snug except when it’s coming straight down.”
Cold Storage got approximately 200 inches of rain a year; the exact number was subject to debate. That rain led to the second reason the old Norskies chose to build on this particular spot: a natural hot spring just off the beach where the thermally heated water dribbled out between the rocks. The old fishermen cribbed up some walls and a roof and made a quite passable tub where they could lounge in the warm water while watching their wooden boats ride at anchor out in the bay.
In 1935, the town got an infusion of energy when a battered logger, a woman Wobbly, and her little girl with glasses fled the mine strike in Juneau in a leaky dory and made the place their home. The logger was named Slippery Wilson. The woman was named Ellie Hobbes. She was a pilot and a committed anarchist. The little girl with the thick glasses was Annabelle. When Slip and Ellie built the first store, the old fishermen complained that the town was growing too fast. But when Ellie turned the store into a bar a few years later, the complaining stopped.
No one in his family had been fond of the police. It wasn’t an active antagonism, it was more of a wary indifference bolstered by living in a town some ninety air miles from a police station. There had been the old man who ran the supply boat who had been some kind of detective in Seattle. But that was long ago, and he had never done any policing in Cold Storage. The old Seattle detective was dead now, and only a few of the older people remembered the stories about him.
Miles stopped at the door of the clinic and put his hand on the cold metal knob. He didn’t want to go in, but as he considered going back to his meat loaf, the door jerked open, and Ray Brown stood before him in an immaculate blue state trooper uniform. He was pressed and tidy. His round, brimmed, Mountie-style hat had gold braid laid out against the blue. He was imposing, like a patriotic monument of some sort. It made Miles feel a little like Jeanette MacDonald.
“McCahon!” Brown barked, as if giving Miles permission to have the name. He jutted out his hand. “Ray Brown. How are ya?”
“I’m doing well, thanks,” Miles began. He was about to mention the fine weather for flying and maybe add something about going fishing if there was time.
“Two things,” Brown lumbered on. “First, a little bit of shop and then some personal business.”
“Personal business?” Miles walked around the big trooper to pick up the coffee pot sitting on a table in a corner of the waiting room. The coffee had been reheating for weeks as far as Miles knew. He just turned the same coffee on and off every day and evening. It didn’t matter because no one ever drank it. He kept it there only to chase people out of the clinic.
“That’s second. The first thing has to do with Harold Miller. Do you know him?”
“Coffee?” Miles held out the pot.
“No, I’m topped off.” Brown patted his flat stomach. “Harold Miller?”
“I know a Mouse Miller.” Miles put the pot back into the plastic coffee maker.
Brown unsnapped the breast pocket of his shirt, took out a small notebook and flipped through the pages. “I think that’s him. Fisherman.” Then Brown rattled off a social security number.
Miles looked for any trace of humor, any sign that the trooper was going to relax. It didn’t seem likely. “I don’t know Mouse’s Social Security number, but the date sounds like it matches his age. How can I help you, officer?” Miles sat down on a chair next to the coffee pot.
Brown remained standing, and for a second Miles worried he was going to click his heels together.
“Harold Miller has been reported missing. I’d like to get some information together.”
“I haven’t seen Mouse around. Have you been down to his boat?”
Brown had started writing in his notebook, didn’t answer the question. After a long silence, he lowered the notebook and asked, “When was the last time you think you saw him?” “Geez . . . I don’t know, couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if he even has family here in town. I think I heard he was going to fly in to Juneau for some change of scenery for his drinking.”
“Ex-wife,” Brown said to the notebook, “he had an ex-wife.”
“Really? I didn’t know Mouse was married.” And then in a bright voice, a bit curious, “Who’s his ex?”
The trooper was writing again. He looked up with a vaguely thoughtful expression on his face. “So, would you say it was two weeks ago that you saw him last?”
Miles leaned back and scanned the paint on the ceiling. “I don’t remember exactly.” If Trooper Brown had shown any trace of humor or humility, Miles might have offered to look at his calendar to see if there were any notations, but he didn’t.
“Okay.” Brown stabbed a period emphatically onto a page. “It’s just a formality. He’s probably sleeping it off somewhere.” He clicked his ballpoint pen as if unchambering a round, put the pen and notebook back into his front shirt pocket, and pulled another chair away from the wall and around to face Miles. He sat down, knee to knee with the PA. Miles sat up straight and put his coffee cup down.
“Now, two,” Brown said. “I believe you have a family member who is incarcerated?”
Miles waited, wondering if that was the final form the question was going to take. “Actually, if you include my extended family, I have several relations who might still be serving time. Maybe you could be a little bit more specific.”
“So, that’s the way it’s going to be.” Brown stared down at Miles for several long moments.
“Excuse me, Trooper Brown, is there some reason that you’re being rude?” Miles smiled and tried again to be friendly.
Trooper Brown didn’t hesitate and didn’t smile. “I don’t like drugs, and I don’t like Satan worshipers.”
Miles looked perplexed. “Wow! No. I mean, who does? Well, drugs . . . I assume you are not opposed to penicillin, unless you are a Christian Scientist?”
The Trooper waved him off. “Your brother worked for a major drug dealer in Seattle. I don’t want him moving his business into Alaska.”
“First thing, Trooper, I haven’t heard from Clive in years. I have no reason to think that he’s going to come to Alaska after his release. Frankly, I doubt it, and even if he does, I have absolutely no reason to believe that he will be engaged in any illegal activity. This is not exactly a promising spot to go into the drug trade. Unless you had some blood pressure meds or fiber supplements you wanted to move.”
“You are a veteran . . . Army Rangers, is that right?” Brown said.
“That’s right,” he said patiently.
“You were the guy in that photograph?” This was neither a question nor a conversation starter; it sounded more like an accusation.
“I know the one.” Miles’s flat voice did not invite further comment.
“That was some shit, huh?” “Yes, it was some shit, all right.”
“But that doesn’t mean I want your brother up here selling drugs.”
Miles was beginning to wonder if Trooper Brown had some kind of neurological damage or perhaps a kind of Tourette’s syndrome that manifested itself in non sequiturs. “Trooper Brown, does this somehow tie back around to Satan worship? If not, I’ll keep my eyes open for Mouse Miller and if I find out anything, I’ll be sure to let you know. And if my brother shows up and is involved in any illegal activity, I’ll let you know that, too.”
Brown leaned forward. “I’ve heard things. I’ve heard things about a Weasel character and about drugs off shore and about his sick movies and about his gatherings of men. Listen, I don’t care if you are some kind of war hero. If I get one whiff that you’re allowing some Satanists to use drugs or that your brother is back in business, if he gets one strange package, if he makes one phone call to his old associates back in the Seattle area, I’ll have him and anyone who helps him”—Trooper Brown paused and stared at Miles for emphasis—“back in jail so fast it will make their head swim.”
A swimming head, Miles thought to himself. What does that really mean anyway? “Look, we’ve gotten off to a bad start.” Miles tried to brighten the tone of his voice. “You’ve never been here before, have you? Let me show you around town. I’ll give you the whole tour. It will help you get to know the place. We can ask around about Mouse.”
“Thanks for the offer.” Brown’s smile was icy. “But I can do my own legwork. I was born in Alaska, you know.”
“Ah!” Miles said, as if long-term residency explained and forgave everything. He walked over to the door of the clinic and opened it.
“Let me explain something to you.” Brown loomed over Miles. “Your brother has an old associate named Jake Shoemaker. He’s a smart guy, he has a lot of holdings in Seattle, and a lot of money. Your brother never gave up this Jake Shoemaker, and let’s say Jake owes him now.”
“All right, let’s say that,” Miles said, smiling to the scowling face of the trooper.
“We have reason to believe that right now your brother is looking to reestablish contact with Jake Shoemaker. I also have reason to know that law enforcement in Washington is very interested in taking Jake Shoemaker down. So if you hear from Clive, you tell him to talk to me right now. You understand? If he sells one ounce of product in this state, he’s going away for much longer than the seven-year bid he just did. But if he helps us put Jake away, he can breathe easy for a long time. You understand me, Miles?”
“I understand, Trooper, but this is all theoretical as far as I’m concerned. I have not heard from my brother, and I honestly doubt that I ever will.”
“Really!” the Trooper boomed. “Well, we know that there are people right now bringing drugs in off the coast of this town. Right this second.”
“This second? Wow. You better get to arresting somebody then!”
The Trooper put his hand on the doorknob to leave. “Your mother’s name is Annabelle. Isn’t that right?” asked Brown, as if he knew every thought Miles had ever had.
“That’s right, it’s Annabelle. You know, that’s a great idea. You should go talk to her.”
Not expecting this answer, Brown squinted at him.
Miles walked over and tapped the big blue policeman on the chest hard enough that they could both feel the bullet-proof vest underneath the uniform. “But I’d be sitting on this if you’re going to talk shit about Clive to Annabelle.” Miles raised his eyebrows, faintly nodded. “And while you’re at it why don’t you ask her about Satan worship?”
Brown turned and walked out the door.
“I’ve got to get out of this town,” Miles sighed to himself. The only thing keeping him from walking down to the boat dock right now and striking out was the possibility of being there when Annabelle gave Trooper Brown a monumental ass chewing.
Annabelle lived alone in a damp frame house near the end of the boardwalk and up a set of stairs into the hillside. She had not been feeling well for the last three months, and Miles had tried to talk her into going to the hospital in Sitka. She had chronic heart disease and diabetes, but lately she’d been losing weight and her color was not good. Miles suspected she had something new, something more serious going on, but he didn’t know. Neither did Annabelle. Miles wanted to find out, but Annabelle did not.
Miles thought about that as he watched Brown’s lumbering figure barrel down the boardwalk. Miles had tried to talk his mother into moving to Arizona where the hospitals were clean and warm, where they could sort out what was going on with her health, where she could eat avocado sandwiches and watch the Mariners on TV.
“I don’t even like avocados. What in the heck are you talking about?” She’d shaken her head bitterly. “Besides Arizona? What do I look like? A cactus?” She shook her head again and looked out the window, closing the book on the subject.
Miles knew it wasn’t Arizona that was the problem. Annabelle didn’t want to leave Cold Storage because she was waiting for Clive. She imagined seeing her older son, tall and rangy, walking in the door of her house. He would have some outrageous story to tell about who he had met on the road and what adventures they had gotten him involved in. Miles was a good boy, but Clive made her laugh. Clive would lift her off her feet and swing her around the kitchen while Miles fretted about what might get broken.
Recently, Annabelle had been considering the possibility that she might not be alive by the time Clive walked through her door again. Still, she did not want to leave Cold Storage. She suspected the weight loss and the weakness was cancer, but it didn’t matter that much to her. She liked the taste of the meals Miles cooked. She liked to watch the tapes of old movies she had flown out from town. She liked to do needlepoint in the late afternoon while the tea kettle rumbled on the oil stove, and she liked listening to the rain. Death was no big deal, she told herself. At least she was under her own tin roof and not in some concrete jail.
Miles waited a few minutes before walking back up the boardwalk. As far as Satan went, there were only two signs of the Dark Lord in Cold Storage. One was a band that two kids had tried to start called the Boomerang Bombers, which had caused quite a stir in the school about six years ago. The boys, Ajax and Billy, painted pentagrams on the school district’s drumheads and had to write a letter of apology and work at the school for two weeks during spring break. As far as Miles knew, the Boomerang Bombers had never played a public performance, but out of solidarity for the only death metal band along the coast, the man named Weasel had the band’s name and a pentagram tattooed to his shoulder, fostering the rumor that Weasel was some kind of Satanist mentor to the boys. Which was dismissed as far too ambitious for Weasel by anyone who knew him.
By the time he got within sight of the community center, Miles could tell Trooper Brown was ready to leave. A loud screeching voice was issuing from the windows like smoke. Miles couldn’t make out the words, but old people were steadily streaming out of the front door. Some were using their canes, a couple had walkers, but they were making remarkably good time. They moved as if flames licked their heels.
Miles reached the door just as Trooper Brown hurried out. His face was scarlet, almost as if he’d been burned, and he was trying to put his notebook into his pocket but seemed to be having trouble finding the front of his shirt. Miles didn’t say a word. The trooper looked at him momentarily, averted his eyes, took two steps away from the community center.
“Did you find Mom? I think she’s in here,” Miles said evenly, without sarcasm.
But Trooper Brown was in some sort of preverbal state of rage or perhaps shock. He had never before been tongue-lashed by an old lady in a wheelchair. Annabelle was probably lucky he hadn’t pepper-sprayed her.
“D ... D ... D ... D ...” the trooper tried to say.
“Don’t leave town?” Miles offered. “Don’t worry, we’ll be here. We’ll keep an eye out for Mouse. Have a safe flight.” Miles waved, turned, and walked into the community center.
Bob Gleason was standing by the door, eager to greet Miles. “By God! You missed it, Miles. She unloaded both barrels on him. I’m telling you, I’ve worked in logging camps some thirty years and I’ve never heard the likes.” He grinned.
Miles looked over to where Annabelle sat by herself, tears rolling down her cheeks. He walked over and handed her a paper napkin. “Got something on your chin.” He didn’t look at her, didn’t draw attention to anything in particular.
“You’re a doll,” the old woman said. She took the paper napkin and held his hand for a moment, took several deep breaths as if shaking off some great exertion or bad dream. “That wasn’t really a cop, was it?” she asked.
“State trooper. I guess he found you, huh?”
“Oh my God, Miles.” Annabelle smiled up at the younger of her two sons. “You know what your father would have called someone like that?”
“Well, there are several names I think he might have used.” He smiled back, remembering.
“He would have used some choice King’s English on him,” sniffed Annabelle.
“Yes, I suppose he would have.” Miles laughed.
“My God,” she huffed. “You remember Uncle George?” “Dimly,” Miles said. “I was just tiny when he died.” “Well, he was a good man, and he had been a cop. I told you about how he didn’t arrest Slip and Ellie, haven’t I?” “Yes, you have, Mom.” Her son smiled and stroked her thin arm.
“If that flibbertigibet of a cop thinks I’m going to drop a dime on Clive before he’s even done anything wrong, then . . . well, then . . . I just don’t know.”
Miles smiled at her. His mother had always peppered her speech with crime jargon she had gotten mostly from Travis McGee novels. But he noticed she used more of it after Clive had gone to jail. Miles thought it was her way of showing loyalty to her wildest son.
She sat smoking her cigarette, remarkably tranquil for a woman who had apparently used some choice King’s English on an officer of the law.
“You really think Clive will be here soon?” She stared out into the swirls of smoke surrounding her head.
“I don’t know, Ma.”
She looked around the room at the dishes of uneaten food sitting right where people had left them before fleeing: meat loaf and cooked cabbage, potato salad, and gelatin. She smiled. “Say, Miles?” Annabelle looked up at her son. “Can you do something for me?” She snubbed out her cigarette and slid
her glasses up her nose.
“Sure, Ma.” They both knew he worried about her. “What did you have in mind?”
After the dust settled, diners started creeping back into the community hall; they hadn’t forgotten their free dinners. Miles sat by himself in a corner, listening to people talk, eating some of his own meat loaf and mashed turnips. Bob and a friend from Juneau were doing the dishes, laughing, joking, calling out to people in the hall. When they were done, Miles made himself an extra sandwich and wrapped it up. He waited until he heard the trooper’s floatplane take off, stuffed the sandwich into his wool coat, and walked down to the floating dock where his skiff was tied.
It had been years since Miles had caught a king salmon. He had spent hours in his boat dragging a line through the water. He used the right gear, fished at the right depth, trolled at the right speed, and still he had been denied. He had a subsistence permit and had dipnetted enough sockeye salmon to smoke up for the winter. He had brought in coho salmon and chums when they were running. But there was nothing quite like catching a king salmon. The electric tug and the zing of line spooling off into the deep green. It had been so long since he had had that feeling. He longed for it like an old man longing for youth.
Tonight as he scanned the sky and checked the wind fluttering through the pennants in the rigging of the few boats left in the harbor, he was—despite all odds—flush with optimism.
He walked down the boardwalk, noticing the soft spots in the planking. Rot was creeping up from the water through the pilings and in around the edges of the entire town. He could smell mildew, sooty diesel stoves venting out of broken stacks, a whiff of fish slime, and the egginess of the thermal water trapped in the old, concrete bathing tub.
It was early spring; he would have enough daylight for fishing. The herring had been spawning late on the outer coast, and he had heard people were catching king salmon out at the mouth of the bay. He was determined to bring one home.
Miles had an aluminum skiff with a temperamental outboard motor. He had fought the engine, sworn at it, even threatened it with violence. Only in the last three months had Miles’s relationship with the cranky piece of equipment changed; he now tried to think of it as a kind of teacher, one with the temperament of a wild animal. If you wanted something from an outboard such as this, you had to display the virtues of understanding and patience. If you rushed up to it and started jerking on the starter cord, the soul of the machine would immediately fly out into the cold air and what would be left on the stern was an inert pile of metal. You could pull on that cord until your knuckles bled. You could change plugs and clean the fuel filters. It would not matter. The engine was no longer of this earth. It was as if the outboard were watching him from the trees as he pulled and swore and pulled and swore until steam rose from his sweater and sweat stung his eyes.
Miles arranged everything in the skiff carefully; the trooper had put him in a bad mood. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out before speaking softly and gently to all the equipment.
“Well, old girl, I’ve heard there are fish out there. What do you say to going out there with me?” He patted the machine, checked the mixture of the fuel. Whenever he could, he’d add some of the fresh gas stored in a sealed jug under the hatch. He pumped the bulb on the fuel line and pulled the choke halfway out. He pulled three times until the engine sputtered.
Closing off the choke, he opened the throttle halfway, then paused to say a few words he had settled on months ago and never changed. In a perfectly serious voice, free of irony, he spoke: “I want to thank you for all the hard work you’ve done in your life. I promise I’ll treat you well today.”
The sun hung behind thin and ragged clouds. Across the bay, Miles saw a raven watching him, sitting all by itself, shrugging and ruffling its feathers in the wind. Lonely, Miles thought. Lonely for the irascible soul of the outboard engine.
The light at the head of the bay was silver grey now above the dark green sea. Beyond the few islands to the west lay only the Gulf and distant Kamchatka in Asia. To the east, mountains rose up two thousand feet on both sides of the inlet and eased back against the more fractured and eroded slopes of the outer coast. Here the sky widened, and the wind freshened. Here the swells were larger, and the breeze carried the smell of waves broken apart on the shore. As he ran up and over the smooth swells coming in off the coast, Miles passed through occasional warm pools of air; they carried the scent of cedar trees from the outer islands.
Just ahead, gulls circled a tight ring of water, and Miles began to slow the motor. He saw dark squalls rolling in toward the coast from the north, but to the south, clouds floated almost white, threaded with blue. The gulls were diving on some tiny silver fish. Herring, Miles guessed, although he couldn’t see them clearly enough to tell for sure.
He quickly rigged his salmon pole and lowered the throttle on the skiff’s engine as far as it would go. He picked up a green hoochie, a small plastic squid surrounding a hook that danced behind the twisting motion of a silver flasher. Miles watched the progress of the dark squalls to the north; he didn’t want to be caught in the rain. He let the flasher drag out perhaps thirty-five feet behind him, snapped his line onto a downrigger with a small cannonball attached to a wire cable pulled by a hand crank, and adjusted his reel’s drag, keeping his thumb on the spool of monofilament line. He lowered the cannonball to sixty feet beneath the boat, played out the line from his reel; the tip of his pole bent over from the weight of the rigging.
Miles put his rod into the pole holder and navigated a course through the circle of feeding birds. If a fish didn’t bite, he would move, change depths, change gear. For now, though, he let out a long breath, eased back against the plastic seat bolted onto the hard wooden bench built into the skiff.
Miles loved this kind of slow fishing. Since returning to Cold Storage, he had rediscovered his respect for the uneventful life.
Miles had served in the first Gulf War. All it had left him with was an almost unquenchable thirst and a sliver of metal in his shoulder. There had been a photograph of him in a national news magazine, the one to which the trooper had referred. The image of Miles helping another bleeding man into a helicopter had spun its way around the world. The image meant nothing to him now. He could not, nor did he want to, recognize himself in the photo.
Miles’s father had been a good fisherman who had disappeared off the coast in a storm while Miles was a small boy. But he didn’t dwell on grief. He had been satisfied with where he was. Even as a fatherless boy, Miles had loved the little cabin on the water and the thousands of acres of ancient forest just up the hill. In this he was like his old Uncle Slip, who had loved every unchanging stone and tree of the place. Though Slippery Wilson was good with tools and hard work, he was uninterested in catching fish, and Miles was beginning to think he might have inherited some of the old man’s bad luck.
Somewhere near his skiff, a loud exhalation of breath woke Miles from his thoughts. Miles fussed with the drag on his reel. First he tightened it, and then he loosened it back up. He unscrewed the top of his water jug and drank about half of it down.
He heard the loud breath again and scanned the waves. The western sky glowed with a pink haze above the wavering line of the horizon; the view of the outer coast was blocked by islands, their humps glowing with silver and tipped with red as the sun washed over the curve of the ocean.
Underneath his boat, a cloud of silver fish roiled in the green. He could hear them boiling up on the surface. He reached over and turned off the motor. The sea was thick with herring pushing their quicksilver bodies into the air and slapping them down on the surface. The air smelled cold, oily. Down below, he could see large slices of silver shoot under his hull.
Miles, twitching with energy, lifted his pole from the holder. The drag was rolling, and he tightened it down slowly. A large salmon leaped into the air a hundred feet from the boat, a rail of pure lightning coming up out of the darkness of the water. Miles pulled back hard, felt a sudden and heavy jerk; his fish was gone.
The water was quiet. The cloud of silver had moved on.
But he heard the breath again, and he held tightly to the side of his skiff, half expecting to be nudged by an orca whale chasing the school of fish.
He looked in all directions, even peering into the sky, until he caught sight of a sea lion some twenty feet behind him, its head steady above the water, seemingly impervious to the motion of the waves. Its eyes glowed milky brown with sympathy and from its mouth drooped a king salmon, graceful as flowing mercury.
“Goddamn it!” Miles shouted.
The sea lion looked at him for a long moment, shook itself, huffed a short breath, then dove under the waves.
“You son of a bitch!” Miles yelled out over the cowling of the outboard to the ripple of water left on the surface. “Bring me back that fish.”
But the sea lion was gone, and Miles was left with the food in his freezer. Muttering about bad luck, he tied off the loose end of his line, lay his pole down on the floor of the boat, and jerked on the starter cord. No response. He pulled again. Silence.
He shouldn’t have been swearing. Miles knew that. And now he knew he might as well get used to the idea of sitting out in the bay for a long time. He would sit and take some deep breaths, try to get his mind right so he could coax the soul of the cranky machine back into the boat.
* * *
Lester Frank was the only Tlingit Indian living full-time in Cold Storage.
There were traditional native villages elsewhere in the area: Hoonah, Sitka, Juneau, Angoon; even Pelican had native communities. Cold Storage had Lester Frank, a contemporary artist who lived next door to the clinic. Miles had asked him once why he had moved to Cold Storage, and Lester had given his characteristic answer: “I study white people.”
Lester carved wood and silver. He painted in acrylic and even sculpted in stone. He said he was writing a book about white people called Circling the Wagons, but no one had ever seen even a scrap of a manuscript.
Lester’s house was one large, square room with a smoky wood stove sunk down three steps in the center. His bed was high up in one corner, a kitchen was in another corner, and everything else was desk, bookshelves, and studio space. As Miles walked up the boardwalk from the dock, Lester stuck his head out the shoreside window and yelled down, “Oy, Doc! Where’s all the fish?”
“In the sea where they belong.” His voice was barely loud enough to carry.
“I got tacos. Plenty of them and good tomatoes, too. You come up and eat.” He shut his window without waiting for a reply.
Miles went into the clinic and checked the bulletin board for messages. He looked at the answering machine to see if anyone had called. The relay towers up on the ridges were always being blown over and phone service was sketchy; there would be weeks in the winter without any telephone contact at all. Tonight there was a fine, strong dial tone but no messages.
The sky was almost dark, and the air thick with moisture as Miles walked up the stairs to his apartment. He hung his wool coat in front of the oil heater, reached into his refrigerator to grab a bottle of sparkling apple cider, and went back next door for dinner. He could barely see Lester standing at the far end of the room, laying a warm flour tortilla on a plate.
“Just in time. I got venison. I got cheese.”
“I’m not too hungry. I ate at the center before I went fishing.”
“You never eat your own cooking. I know that. Eat a taco, for Pete’s sake.”
Miles took the plate and ate the taco. Arguing with Lester was like arguing with the weather.
“I saw you, you know. I saw you in your skiff before you went fishing.” Lester walked down three steps to a seat in front of his cast iron stove.
“You saw me doing what?” Miles tried to flatten his voice. “I saw you praying to that piece of junk engine.” Lester shook his head, held up an empty glass.
Miles walked down and poured sparkling cider into the cup. “It’s not a prayer exactly.”
“It’s some goofy new age prayer.” Lester snorted into the mouth of his glass. “I’m telling you, man, you are going to be a whole chapter in my book about white people: the man who makes devotions to recreational equipment.” Lester smiled.
“It’s not recreational equipment,” Miles mumbled from his seat on a round of wood next to the woodbox. “It’s a thinking thing.”
Lester rolled his eyes, slapped his friend on the shoulder. “A thinking thing? I don’t know about that. That engine was owned by an Indian. It just doesn’t care for white people is all.”
“Why not? What did white people ever do to that engine?” “How should I know?” Lester said. “Do I look white?”
They sat silently while the fire inside the cast iron box popped, sucked air through the draft. Lester was comfortable without words spoken every second, which suited Miles; he sat and ate his venison taco.
They finished and started eating cookies that Lester had had flown in from Juneau. He probably could have afforded the most expensive cookies on the market, but he preferred cheap, off-brand things bought in bulk. At first they appeared to be brand cookies you could recognize, but once you bit into them you were reminded that you were in bush Alaska and a long way from the centers of culture where people probably ate a better class of cookie.
Miles washed the dry crumbs down with juice. Lester took a bite and stared at the grate on the front of the stove. The fire rumbled, and a gust of wind pushed against the sides of the old frame house.
“So, you going to the movies tonight?” Lester asked.
“What’re they showing?” Miles held little hope of surprise.
“The Bad Lieutenant.”
“Ah, Christ, isn’t that the third time?” He picked up a stick of wood to feed the fire.
“I think it might be the fifth time in, like, six months. It’s Weasel. He loves it. I think it makes him happy or something.” Lester opened the door to the stove, and Miles threw a piece of wood on the fire. “I think Weasel wishes he were Harvey Keitel,” Lester added, shutting the door. “Harvey Keitel lets ugly white men think they’re still sexy.”
The Cold Storage Film Society was made up entirely of men. After a truly horrendous argument about Reservoir Dogs, the women had splintered off into their own film group and had “Movie Tuesdays” instead. Now an insurrection was starting up again in the men’s group.
“Naw, I’m not going,” Miles said. “Are you going?” “I might.”
The two men sat for several minutes, listened to the fire hiss and suck at the grating; the new stick of wood was damp. A gust of wind slapped against the house, and Miles looked toward the dark windows to see the reflection of a tiny light above Lester’s workbench.
“Have you seen Mouse lately?” asked Lester.
“No.” Miles didn’t look away from the window. “Didn’t he fly to Juneau?”
“I don’t think so. I went down to his boat a couple of days ago, and his stuff was all there like he had just walked out.”
“You tell that to the cop?”
“Hell no. Mouse doesn’t need to be found by a trooper.” They both sat looking into the fire box for a few more moments before he added, “He wasn’t looking so good when I saw him last.”
“Not so good . . . like how?” Miles turned his face away from the window.
“Not so good like drunk, pale, thin, and about ready to fall over.”
“That doesn’t really distinguish him from many people around here.”
Both men let the silence sit between them again while wind pounded against the window.
“I didn’t even know you had a brother, let alone a high-ranking crime boss brother,” Lester said.
“Yeah, well, you learn something new every day.” “Your brother going to come here?”
“I have no idea.”
“I hope he does.” Lester looked over at him.
“You do?” Miles kept his eyes on the floor. “Why?”
“You know, for my book.” He laughed, stood up, and slapped Miles on the back. “I better get after it.” Over at the bench where his jeweler’s vise held a thin strip of silver, he picked up a tool and started working. He sold his work in two galleries—one in Seattle and one in New York—and a shipping deadline was coming up for each one.
Miles rinsed off his plate, dried it, and placed it back in the cupboard. He walked out of the house.
Clive that he had money waiting for him at this last stop, he gave fifty dollars to the driver for the ride. He scratched the corgi’s head as he was getting out, but the dog seemed to be ignoring him now.
Clive’s dog, Samson, was the kind of golden retriever who got progressively wider and wider. Eventually, he could have been used as an animate end table. Samson was sweet-natured and loyal beyond all reason. Clive remembered Samson lying on the rug, watching baseball on TV. Any time Clive made the slightest move, the dog would lift his head and stare, sometimes worried, sometimes excited, but always with the knowledge that something good was going to happen and it would start with Clive. Samson was an optimist.
During the early years in prison, Clive had not dared to think about him. He’d left Samson with Oscar because there was no one else; he’d told himself that Oscar could be trusted and that he loved dogs. But during those early years the goal was clear: everything good on the outside had to be buried away and hidden from the life inside, the life that circled the concrete hole of protective segregation.
Oscar worked for Jake Shoemaker, though it would take a lot of digging to figure that out. The warehouse where Oscar was the manager was called Little Switzerland. It sat in the Never-Never Land of warehouses and sketchy motels and iron-barred bodegas in the neighborhood you get lost in when you miss the turnoff for the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Stunted pine trees were planted in a border around the edge of the paved parking lot, and Oscar sat in a windowless office inside the first door of the building, the one closest to the chain-link fence. He was a short man with a full moon face and a thin covering of mouse brown hair swept back over a bald spot.
He sat back in his chair, flicking a butterfly knife back and forth with a quick clicking sound. His feet rested on an open desk drawer, and the light made him look even whiter than Clive had remembered.
“Hey, man, your dog’s dead.” Oscar made it sound as if they were in the middle of an argument.
“What do you mean, dead?” Clive reached over, grabbed the front of his shirt, pulled him to his feet.
“Don’t put your fucking hands on me.” Oscar’s teeth were clenched, and he held the knife blade up to Clive’s ear awkwardly.
“Just tell me what happened.” Clive didn’t pay attention to the knife. He was looking at the pudgy man’s mouth instead, noticing the missing tooth.
“What can I tell you, man? He was old, and I got a ton of fucking vet bills. If you want to get snotty about it, I suppose I could let you pay me back for them. I mean, you were the model of a concerned pet owner. Fuck!” Oscar threw the knife on top of the desk, and Clive eased him down into the seat. “Just don’t touch me again. All right?” Oscar added, reminding himself that he wasn’t a man to be messed with.
“Did you want me to break out of McNeil, swim across the Sound, and take him to the vet?” Clive sat down on an overturned wastebasket in a corner, his body sagged, and tears came to his eyes.
Clive hadn’t cried when he was arrested or when he was sentenced. He hadn’t cried on the DOC bus that drove him out to McNeil. He hadn’t cried that first night in the dorms when men rustled around his bunk like bears at the dump. He hadn’t even cried the first time he was assaulted in the sign shop and had spent those weeks in the infirmary.
But now he was out of jail, Samson was dead, and he was going to cry like a baby. “He was a good dog,” he said in a thickening voice.
“Yeah, he was.” Oscar pretended to read some invoices. He didn’t want to watch Clive cry; he didn’t like to witness any kind of weakness. He waited a second. “I got another dog. You want him?”
Clive didn’t say anything for quite a while. He was thinking about Samson, curled up those last few months on the blanket of his cell. He was thinking about the look in the golden retriever’s eyes and thinking that even then Samson was probably already dead. He looked around the messy office, covered with old cardboard cups and circle-stained copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine; he was amazed that he had ever thought this life of crime was anything but pathetic.
“What kind of dog?” Clive wiped his eyes.
“He’s an ugly son of a bitch.” Oscar looked at Clive. “A guy left him here in trade on a bad debt. He said he was a fighting dog. He said he’d be a good guard dog for the warehouse. I mean, the fucking dog is ugly and scary enough to chase anybody off, but he don’t listen to a goddamn thing anybody says.” Oscar got up and grabbed a large ring of keys off the desk. “Let’s go look at him. You can have him if you want.”
Outside, Oscar opened up a chain-link gate with barbed wire coiling along the top. Clive’s stomach tightened.
Oscar laughed. “Hey, dude, we got the keys. No worries. I’m not locking you up.” He jingled the keys and laughed again.
“I got to get into the locker, Oscar,” explained Clive. “Can you arrange that for me?”
“Is it cool with Jake?”
“Of course it is. I did his time, didn’t I? I should think it is very cool with Jake. Call him if you want.”
“I don’t know. There’s nothing much in there anymore. But still, Jake would take my nuts if I let you in.”
“Oscar, man, it’s all my stuff. Jake’s just been paying the storage bill.”
Oscar stopped, jingled his keys again, shifted his weight from foot to foot. “So,” he asked, “you aren’t going to mind sharing whatever’s in there?”
“Sharing? What, like the United Fund or something?”
“I thought you’d want to cover the vet bills I fronted. Shit. You know, I don’t have to let you in that locker.” He looked Clive in the eye.
“We’ll work something out.” He put his hand on Oscar’s shoulder and turned him back in the direction they’d been walking. “Let’s go take a look at that dog.” Gently, he put a little pressure on the small man’s back.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” said Oscar with enough bluff to maintain his dignity.
They came to another fenced area. Inside was a shack and tied to it was a strange gangbanger mix of rottweiler, pit bull, and wolf, a brindle-dun carnivore without an ounce of extra fat and with chewed-off ears.
“Lord have mercy,” Clive said under his breath.
The dog was 120 pounds of head, jaw muscles, and shoulders. His eyes scanned the yard and stopped on the men. Slowly, he walked forward with the off-kilter stare of a Mexican street dog charged up on a jolt of methamphetamine. He did not look anything like Clive’s golden retriever. He looked like something that fed on golden retrievers.
“What’s his name?” There was a degree of awe in Clive’s voice.
“Well, his father was supposed to be a real good fighting dog. That dog was called Big Brother, and I guess he made a ton of money for the guy. When he dropped this dog off, he said his name was Little Brother, but it doesn’t matter. He won’t come to anything.”
“Does he bite?” Clive walked around the fence; the dog’s dark eyes followed him.
“I don’t give him the chance,” said Oscar. “When I want him out, I open the gate to his pen. He wanders around inside the fence. When I want him back in the morning, I carry this and he goes back in.” He reached over and picked up a wand with a battery pack on the end. “It’s a cattle prod. They use ’em for loading bulls into trucks.”
“Then how do you get the chain on him?”
“I put this on.” Oscar picked up a single sleeve attached to a thick glove that looked like a piece of hockey equipment. “Got this from a guy who trains attack dogs. I put it on and clip the chain to his collar. This dog’s never actually bitten me, but shit, I mean look at him.”
“What do you mean, ‘actually’ bitten you?” Clive inched closer to the fencing.
“He’s never bitten me, man, but I know he really wants to.” He touched the switch and there was a metallic buzzing sound; the dog cowered in a corner. Oscar walked closer and jabbed the end of the probe through the fence; the dog started snarling, thick saliva falling through its teeth. Oscar kept pushing the probe further until it hit the dog; there was a sharp yelp and the animal fell to the concrete.
Clive put his hand on Oscar’s elbow and pulled him back. “I said don’t fucking touch me, man!” He swung around and glared at him. Clive recognized that look: Oscar both did and didn’t want to kill someone right now. Clive hoped Oscar never went to jail, for prison was the place where cowards learned to kill.
Clive slowly took the prod away. “It’s okay.” He smiled. “I’ll take the dog.”
As he got closer to the fence, the dog got to his feet, sniffed the air in front of him as if there were a frightened cow being lowered into the pen. Clive saw deep scars around his throat and shoulders; his back leg had a crook to it like one that had been seriously broken and badly set.
“Little Brother . . . That your name?”
The dog’s expression didn’t change. He said nothing. Clive leaned in to listen carefully.
Nothing. Silence like looking down a well.
“Well, I guess I’ll take you with me, dog.” Then he turned to the ugly man and fished his wallet out of his pocket.
“Here’s fifty bucks for nothing, and there is nothing more. Now open my locker.”
Oscar snorted, grabbed the bill and backed slowly away, keeping his eyes on the big boulder-headed dog, who watched him like raw meat.
Cold Storage, Alaska
About the Author
The youngest of five children, John Straley was born in 1953. He received a BA in English and a certificate of completion in Horse Shoeing. He has brown eyes and likes jokes and a wide variety of literature and music. He is the Shamus Award-winning author of The Curious Eat Themselves and The Woman Who Married a Bear and was appointed the Writer Laureate of Alaska in 2006. John Straley lives with his wife, Jan, a prominent whale biologist, in a bright green house on the beach in Sitka, Alaska, where he works as a criminal defense investigator by day and sleeps, writes, and plays with his band, The Big Fat Babies, whenever he can.