John Straley: An Excerpt from Cold Storage, Alaska

John Straley has
been a writer and a criminal defense investigator in Alaska for thirty years.
In a 49 Writers workshop on Feb. 6 from 1 – 4 pm, he will talk about the practical talents it takes to do both
kinds of work and how he has disciplined his life to be able to complete long
projects under deadline. You’ll also learn about the talents he’s observed in
great detectives and private investigators, the minimum amounts of forensic
science a street investigator needs to know to gather evidence, the voices he’s
heard and how to use these voices in a story.
Here, an excerpt from the opening of Straley’s latest novel, Cold Storage, Alaska, available at booksellers everywhere beginning Feb. 4.  
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.
matter,” Annabelle said aloud to herself. She got up and turned off the radio
in the corner.
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.
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.
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.
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.
shifted from one foot to another, waiting for his ride. A yellow minivan
finally rolled up.
Stilton Cheesewright?”             

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