Two years ago, Portland welcomed a new resident: former New York Times Ethicist columnist, onetime Grantland editor, and pop culture savant Chuck Klosterman. We’re still waiting on the Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs author to write about his adopted city (perhaps essays on Damian Lillard and Nu Shooz?), but in the meantime he’s just released Raised in Captivity, a brisk, irreverent collection of short stories about wokeness, humpback whales, and extremely inconvenient assassins.
Here is the title story from Klosterman’s new collection, best enjoyed on your next long flight.
It was better than anticipated, at least for the first twenty minutes. Not $1,200 better, because that’s impossible. But still: Hot towels for the jowls. Enough territory to extend your entire left leg into the aisle without fear of sanction or reprisal. A glass of orange juice while still at the gate, served in a glass made of glass. He thought to himself, “I could get used to this.” But that thought was a lie. He would never get used to this, even if it became the only way he traveled anywhere. The experience would never seem unremarkable. It would always feel gratuitous in the best possible way.
Would he read a novel or watch a movie? Maybe neither. The chair was so supple, perhaps he’d just sit there and stare robotically ahead, fixated on the degree to which he wasn’t uncomfortable. There was Wi-Fi in the cabin. Maybe he’d send a group email to all his old high school chums, playfully bragging about the altitude from which the message had been sent. His friends didn’t understand his job, but they would understand that. He couldn’t tell them what his salary was, but he could show them how his company treated its employees. That might scan as pompous, of course. It might make him seem like a bit of a douche, and he didn’t aspire to become the kind of person he’d always been conditioned to hate. But he was proud of himself, maybe for the first time. His life had changed, and this was proof.
He asked the attendant about the flight’s duration. She estimated just over three hours. He got up to use the lavatory, delighted by the absence of a line. He wondered if it would be different from the restrooms in coach—larger, perhaps, or cleaner. And it was. It was slightly larger and slightly cleaner. But he barely noticed those details, because it also included a puma.
He immediately closed the door and returned to his seat.
For a solid seventy seconds, he considered doing nothing at all. “Don’t panic. Don’t choke. There’s no way what you think you saw could possibly be the thing that it is.” He reached down into his leather satchel and felt around for his book. His father had once told him that the key to life was an ability to ignore other people’s imaginary problems. But he wasn’t sure to whom this particular problem belonged, or if it was real or imaginary, or if his father had ever considered what that advice actually implied.
He again got up from his seat and walked to the lavatory. He cracked the door two inches ajar, enough for the automatic light to illuminate. He peered into the tiny room. There it was, sitting on the lid of the toilet, looking back with an empty intensity that matched his own.
He closed the door and returned to his seat.
Seeing the puma a second time did not prompt the internal reaction he’d anticipated. He was, for whatever reason, a bit ambivalent. On the one hand, he was trapped in a contained space with a two-hundred-pound cat. On the other hand, at least the puma was truly there. If the lavatory had been empty, it would have meant he was hallucinating. Better to be a noncrazy person in peril than a crazy person who was safe. He turned to the passenger sitting to his immediate right, an older man in a pin-striped suit who was drinking his second martini.
“Excuse me,” he said to the gentleman in 2D. “This is going to sound bizarre, but . . . have you used the restroom on this flight?”
“No,” said the man. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know how to explain this,” he began, almost murmuring. “I don’t even know how this happened, or what this means, or what you’re supposed to do with the information I’m about to give you. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t even tell you this, although I don’t know why I would think that, since I’m sure this is something you’ll want to know. None of this makes sense. None of it. But I just got up and went to the lavatory, twice. And both times, when I opened the door, there was a puma in the bathroom.”
“Yes. I realize how insane that must sound. I’m sorry.”
“A puma? In the bathroom?”
“A mountain lion.”
“Yes. Sure. A mountain lion.”
“What? I don’t know. Maybe. Yes?”
The older man in the pin-striped suit leaned across 2C, dipping his head into the aisle. His hair smelled like rubbing alcohol and coconut water. He studied the closed restroom door. It looked like a door. He resituated himself back in his chair, straightened his jacket by the lapels, and took a quick sip of his translucent beverage. His hands and feet were massive, too big for his frame.
“Let me ask you something,” the older man said. “And don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not being judgmental. I’m drinking gin in the middle of the morning. I’m no priest. And you don’t seem like a kid on drugs. But tell me if you’re on drugs. We just left California. I get it.”
“I’m not on drugs,” he replied.
“Not even the prescription variety? Lexapro? Valium?”
“Any history of mental illness? Again, no offense intended.”
“No, and I’m not offended.”
The two men looked into each other’s eyes, hunching their shoulders and leaning closer. The interaction adopted a conspiratorial tone. They spoke in stage whispers. The other passengers barely noticed and didn’t care.
“Tell me this,” said the older man. “What are your theories?”
“In terms of how this could have happened.”
“I have no idea,” the younger man said. “I have no theories.”
“Try,” said the older man. “We’re just brainstorming. There are no wrong answers.”
This was not what the younger man had expected to hear. But he had no expectations at all, so it wasn’t awkward or off-putting. He did what he was told.
“I suppose it’s possible that some millionaire might own a puma as an exotic pet, and he was hauling it across the country, and it escaped from its cage in the cargo hold and crawled through the air-conditioning vents, and it somehow ended up in the bathroom.”
“Excellent,” said the older man. “Let’s have another.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it prowled down from the Hollywood Hills and ended up at LAX, and it was drawn into the airplane hangar by the warmth of the cooling jet engines, but it got scared when the engines were restarted and scampered into the only cavelike crevice it could find, which was the restroom inside the aircraft.”
“Less plausible,” said the older man. “But still possible. Keep going.”
“Maybe this is a psychological experiment, and the puma is a trained puma, and I’m being watched. Maybe this is some kind of radical research project. And maybe you’re the scientist who came up with the experiment, which is why you’re seated next to me and asking these questions.”
“That’s compelling,” said the older man. “But let me assure you—if this is a research project, I’m not part of it.”
“Maybe this is advertising. Maybe this is some kind of guerilla marketing for Puma basketball shoes.”
“Too high-concept. Try again.”
“Maybe this is a symptom of some deeper problem,” the younger person continued, oddly delighted by the older person’s interest in his improvisational hypotheses. “Maybe mankind has encroached upon nature too much, to the point of no return. Maybe animals and humans will start coming into conflict all the time, and this is the beginning of that looming crisis. Maybe in five or ten years, it will not be uncommon to encounter a puma on an airplane.”
“Intriguing,” said the older man. “But let’s not lose focus on the moment. Keep yourself grounded.”
“The puma could be rabid,” the younger man speculated. “Rabid animals lose their instinctual fear of humans. It might have just slinked onto the plane in a state of confusion, camouflaged by the carpet. I mean, look at the carpet. The carpet is taupe. Taupe is pure puma. Or maybe he’s some type of hypermodern service animal. Maybe instead of getting a seeing-eye dog, you can now get a seeing-eye puma. It’s also possible the TSA has started using pumas to sniff for narcotics, or maybe for bombs. Who knows? Maybe pumas are better at bomb detection than beagles.”
“Pumas have a relatively weak sense of smell,” said the older man. “But these are viable theories.”
“I suppose a deranged person could have done this intentionally,” the younger man said, abruptly alarmed by the prospect that he’d stumbled upon the true explanation. “A terrorist. If the intention of a terrorist is to incite terror, what would be more terrifying than being attacked by a puma on an airplane? It would change air travel forever. Who would bring an infant on a flight if there were any possibility of a puma encounter? Who would let their elderly mother travel alone? There are so many ways this could be done. It wouldn’t be difficult. You heavily sedate the puma and place it in a canvas bag. You place the bag on the outskirts of the airport and you bribe a baggage handler. The handler hauls the bag planeside and a passenger with a fake passport casually picks it up, claiming it’s hockey equipment or medical supplies or the fossilized remains of a saber-toothed cat. The passenger gets the bag on board and dumps it in the restroom, unzipped. The puma rouses itself. I realize pumas aren’t normally aggressive, but this puma is hungry, and bewildered, and trapped in a small space. He’s weaponized. Some entitled businessman with a bloated bladder opens the bathroom door. The puma pounces.”
Their noses were now six inches apart. The old man raised his eyebrows. The younger man tried to construct an expression of concern, but he felt himself smirking. His puma theories were above average.
“Will you be having lunch?” a female voice intoned from behind the younger man’s skull. “We have a cheese lasagna with a side salad and we have sliced chicken breast with wild ramps.” The men broke eye contact and bolted up in their seats. The younger man ordered the lasagna. The older man said he only wanted another martini. They both relaxed as the stewardess moved on to the third row and repeated the same information to the woman in 3A. She ordered the lasagna as well. The man in 3B went with the chicken. When the orders were complete, they could hear the woman in 3A ask the man in 3B if he could let her pass, as she needed to use the restroom.
“Here we go,” said the old man in the pin-striped suit. He turned away, toward the window.
“Shouldn’t I tell her about the puma?” asked the younger man.
“That’s not my problem. Or yours,” said the older man, still looking away. “We’re all in this together.”
From RAISED IN CAPTIVITY by Chuck Klosterman, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 Charles Klosterman. Used with permission.
Aug 6, Powell’s City of Books, FREE