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Fiction #485
(published May 6, 2010)
After The Olympics
by Joshua Willey
Rueben woke up to the silence of fresh snow. There were cars on the street, but they made no sound. Steam rose with his breath, though his body was warm and naked beneath the giant quilt his mother had slept under in her old age. Despite bare feet and a hardwood floor, he rose and stood motionless at the icebound window, the quilt around his shoulders, investigating the frostwork, watching the flakes come down. The snow fell in torrents, masking the trees, darkening the rising sun. All this time, Reuben stopped for the snow, breathed deep, rubbed it between his fingers like a sailor does the dirt when arriving on land after months at sea. Its temperature, its color, its shape; they all bespoke a shard of infinity for him. He saw the universe in that snow, its purity, anonymity, its tendency to swiftly fall and swiftly melt. Reuben stepped outside. He did not linger on the shivers that ran down his spine, the splashes of light which speckled his vision, the lightness in his stomach. He barely even recognized that he felt this day as he had never felt before. Across the street a giant oak was dying of the mysterious sudden oak death syndrome which had been sweeping the state, causing cankers and dieback. Reuben turned and walked to the back door and, letting the quilt fall open, pissed into the yard. He closed both doors and threw the quilt back onto the bed and turned on the shower, staring at himself in the bathroom mirror as the water warmed. He stepped into the water and closed the world-map curtain and put his hands against the wall, and the heat ran over his shoulders and down his body.

He spit and blinked his eyes, ran a hand through his hair, and turned off the water. The air which hit his skin when he pulled back the curtain was freezing and he was covered in gooseflesh in mere seconds. He dried himself and put on skiing clothes, and when he was dressed his eyes lingered on the quilt crumpled on the bed, focused, blurred, and focused again, and then his hands spread it out evenly. He sat still in his car for a long moment before pulling out onto the street, letting the engine warm and playing with the radio, considering whether to force himself to listen to the news, or else to treat himself to music first thing. Normally he was rigid in the enforcement of an hour of news; usually half on the radio and half in print, before he permitted himself music, fiction; other entertainments which he enjoyed more but felt were less important. However, when he struck the classical station, and heard it was Brahms, he stayed there and forgot all about the possibility of something else, he put it in reverse and was off. An hour later, he heard her voice.

"Reuben." He had been looking right at her, without seeing what he saw.

"Daphne." They stood like that, just like that, as it stopped snowing.

"Shall we get on the lift Reuben?" She smiled, and he felt as though he might begin to cry.

"After you."

"You had better put your skis on," she said. He dropped them and pushed his boots into the bindings, then returned his gaze to her face. She kicked out one leg and slid into the line with Reuben at her side. The silence between them became awkward, but happily so, he remembered a greeting he had learned to say in Arabic and thought he would try it out on her, as she had studied when she lived in the Middle East, but she spoke first. "The snow is perfect. I took a run. And the sun is coming out."

"The oaks are dying" he said loudly, and then laughed. "I don't know why I just said that."

"I heard, about the syndrome, it's sad, those big trees, the tans, the blacks." She laughed. "How is your daughter?" They reached the front of the line and boarded the lift. The operators rubbed their eyes and listened to Bad Brains on a boom box in the kiosk.

"She is always singing. She is taking lessons actually; teacher says she has perfect pitch. It's wonderful. You'll have to meet her. Do you think you'll ever, have children."

"No." She looked down at the ground moving beneath her, wistfully. "I don't think so."

"You look healthy."

"As do you. Still sleeping naked I take it?"

"Ah, you remember the secret to my health."

"I remember everything."

"Is there anyone?"

"You didn't wait long to ask."

"I figure I might as well be honest. I can't feign an absence of interest."

"Hah. No. Nobody special. There was. He's in Iraq now and, we decided to leave it, he decided, to leave it off . . . "

"Better that way?"

"Yes." She paused. "You?"


"Have you been here before?"

"Oh yeah, many times, with my daughter too, she snowboards now."

"Is there somewhere in particular you want to go?"

"Sure. I know a place." They reached the top of the lift and disembarked. She followed him across a flat and around the base of an amassment of granite boulders. Suddenly they were alone. He stopped. "It's good to see you again."

"I've missed you Reuben. You wanna race?"

"This runs out to another lift, the backside."

"I know where we are. First one through the turnstiles?"

"OK. Count of three." They spoke in unison.

"One . . . two . . . " and they were off.

It was like flying he thought, or else like being born again, in awe of everything. Daphne wore no hat; her lustrous black hair flew behind her with the puffs of powder she dislodged as she turned down the pitch. The trees were all ardent and green, the air cleaned his face, dried his eyes as his muscles warmed beneath the synthetic fabrics of the clothes he wore. Gaining speed he lost her, he had cut left, into the trees. Coming over a cornice he could see a frozen, snow covered lake in the wilderness, in the distance. The snow had ceased falling, the clouds had all cleared, and it was a bluebird day. His feet had never been so light, nor his head. He cut deeper into the woods, a treacherous line through the tightly packed pines. He would beat her for sure. Due to the heat of the sun, or maybe a slight gust of wind, a snow-laden branch dropped its load and Reuben, passing perfectly beneath, was covered. He laughed, but the snow masked his face and he could not see. When he hit the tree he was going so fast, his heart collapsed immediately, and he was dead within an instant.

At the bottom of the mountain, Daphne waited, smiling, ready to gloat over her victory; the sun circumscribed by a subtle rainbow ring as it sometimes is on winter mornings in the Sierra-Nevada.

Joshua Willey lives in San Francisco and writes full time.

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