Sterling Brown


Sterling Brown

Standing by the office building, Lou Collins looked up the street through the snow. It blew from the northeast, a static blur of white, and he lowered his cap and began to jog. In the dark windows beside him he searched for himself, but saw no reflection.

Snow-sheathed, silent, Atlantic Avenue lay deserted. Collins ran across the intersection, slipped and nearly fell, and leaned against a wall breathing deeply. Then he dropped his skis, stepped into them and snapped the bindings. He fitted his hands through the pole straps and pushed off, feeling awkward the first few strides and then confident, pushing with the poles as he skated with the skis, lifting one ski as he kicked back with the other, balancing as he slid on the snow on the sidewalk.

At the end of the street, as he passed the casino, two doormen stood under an awning. Stamping their feet, smacking fists into palms, they didn’t appear to see him. Collins felt invisible.

It was a push up the ramp along planters of plastic holly and on the boardwalk, away from the buildings, the wind now hit him and the snow raced past. He stopped and leaned on his poles. Usually, even on the coldest days, gamblers edged along the storefronts. But today there was no one. He closed and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them the boardwalk spread before him like a long frosted cake, and it was grey winter all around. He spat, and it lifted in the wind and vanished.

Smiling at his stiff‑kneed clumsiness he started again, slowly at first, and then, as his balance returned and his stride smoothed out, faster, until the snow blew past less quickly and he felt as though he were both speeding up and slowing down. He watched the flakes disappear in the darkness ahead and listened to the slice of his skis, the tap of his pole tips and the rush of his breath through his teeth. To his right the unlit stores swept by—the pizza stands, the tee shirt shops—then he looked away to see, out past the beach, the white‑foamed waves rolling onto the sand. The ocean stretched out and merged with the sky, and it seemed that the boardwalk formed a tunnel of sky and ocean and cheap store fronts, and that he was skiing through it with the falling snow. And then he thought that if he just skied faster, caught up with the snow, everything might—


Collins slowed. "Ray, is that you?. . . Where?"

A hollow voice laughed. "Everywhere.”

Collins watched as a tall blond man stepped from behind a lifeguard shed. He wore skis, a red mackinaw and headband and looked, with the snow falling around him, like an advertisement in an outdoor magazine.

"How’d you see me out here?” Collins asked.

"I didn’t,” Ray said. “I predicted you.” He stood grinning in the snow.

Before Collins could reply, the tall man planted his poles, jumped and turned and, landing with his back to the wind, began skiing down the boardwalk. Collins rushed to catch up, and fell into Ray's tracks, the two smooth cuts in the snow. He watched Ray ahead of him and tried to match his effortless glide, his long slow‑motion reach, and kick, and lean, and reach out again, and on. The boardwalk passed beneath them and Collins looked at the sky and the wind-driven snow. He looked at Ray and then back at the sky. He looked at his boots in his skis in the snow ruts. He closed his eyes and skied in the absence of light beneath the clouds above the snow falling on Ray. He skied in the black and the snow rushed past white. He felt the poles in his gloves in his hands.

"Hey!" Ray was shouting.

"Sorry," Collins heard himself say.

"You about ran me down, old man." Ray coasted to a stop. Collins turned from his tracks. Convention Hall rose massively before him.

"So—what did they say?"

Collins wiped his mustache. "That they'd send someone."

"They probably forgot who you were.”


"Well, I hope he shows soon."

"I hope he shows late."

Ray shielded his eyes. "Louie, this was your idea—ski by the sea. We should get all we can from it."


“You called the newspaper,” Ray reminded him.

“You asked me to.”

“Stop pretending. I knew you’d make the call. If you’re afraid of violating your precious anonymity, go home.”

“I don’t like it there.”

“I remember when you did. I remember when you liked it everywhere. Now where do you like it, in the dark?”

Avoiding his gaze, Collins turned toward the hall just as a young man trudged around the corner, his cameras bouncing on his vest and his hair flying in the wind.

"Larry boy!" Ray called.


"Sometimes,” Collins finally answered.

Larry kicked through the snow. "Lovely day."

"Larry, this is Lou Collins," Ray said pleasantly. He sounded as though they were having cocktails. "Lou used to write for you. When he told me about this, I recognized a great photo op. I had him call your editor this morning."

Larry squinted into the wind toward Collins.

"Many moons ago I labored there," Collins said self-consciously, "when you were but a lad." He tried to laugh. Larry looked away.

"Louie didn't mean anything by that," Ray said to the photographer.

“Now I’m confined to an office,” Collins continued. He could tell the photographer wasn’t listening. “But lately with this snow I’ve been sneaking out on my lunch hour. Normally I wouldn’t . . . by my lonesome.” He made himself stop.

“No one to play with,” Ray said.

Larry dismissed it with a wave of his hand, then said, "Haven't seen you since the nudey cruise."

"Obviously you know each other," Collins said.

"The sailboat!" Ray shouted. "How about those two?—with their bikinis tied to the mast."

"Poor girls, they wanted exposure," Larry said.

Ray glanced at Collins. "We couldn’t help but take advantage. I told them it was a swimsuit ad, without swimsuits."


"Doesn't matter," Ray said. "But you don't see that every day. Oh mama!" He thrust his poles and smiling face toward the sky. Collins had seen him do the same pose for a wine advertisement.

"Well, let’s go," Larry said. “We’ll make front page."

"Right on!" Ray shouted, pumping his hips. Collins listened to Ray's voice bounce off the hall, as if the storm agreed. Then he watched Ray ski toward the stairs, leap, and land on the beach.

"That's my Ray!" Larry shouted.

Collins followed slowly. He stepped down sideways, holding the rail.

"This would make a good shot," he said to Larry.

Larry said nothing. Easing off the bottom step, Collins supported himself with his poles. "There," he said.

Before he could push away, Larry bounded past him. "Ray!" he called. Ray was somewhere in the snow. "Come on, Ray man!"

Collins skied out looking for him. There was white and dark and grey and wind; by the water the beach looked swollen. He felt very alone, and wondered why he had made the phone call, and why he now stayed. Then Ray came from nowhere, tall, gliding smoothly, his blond head into the wind. He looked up and grinned. "Great, huh?"

"Great," Collins said.

"We'll make you famous, Louie," Ray said, before shouting to Larry, "He's never been in the paper before."

"Not my picture," Collins said after him. "In my day they didn't put your picture in."

"Your day, huh?" Larry said. He was pulling his hair from his face, trying to hook it over his ears. "Over there," he said, pointing. "I want that behind you."

From under his cap Collins gazed up the beach at a white pier shaped like an ocean liner. With its portholes glowing through the whirling snow it looked like a great ship advancing through the storm. Inside was warmth and light. Then he remembered the pier was a shopping mall; and he remembered meeting his wife there for lunch, when he was a reporter and she was alive.

Larry was examining one of his cameras. He tapped the motor drive housing. "You want your lens cold but your batteries warm. It's a problem."

"I keep my batteries hot," Ray snickered, stepping back. "Tell me when."

"When," Larry said. Ray stopped about twelve feet from him. Larry looked at Collins, who hadn’t moved. "Well?"

"You want me by Ray?"

Larry waited.

"Okay," Collins said. He skied over to Ray. Then, realizing his back was to the photographer, he clumped around, laughing.

"He's never been in the paper before," Ray said.

Larry in the wind was all business now. His hair flapped out like a flag. "When I say now, ski toward me. Go slow, but show action. Look ahead . . . brave the snow. Then pass me on either side.”

Collins nodded. Ray adjusted his headband. Larry raised the camera, his finger on the motor drive trigger.

"Ready," Ray said, gazing now beyond Larry toward the pier. Immediately his face assumed an expression of intense physical exertion, yet of happiness. The air about him seemed brighter. Collins blinked, aware of the change. "Now," Larry said, and Ray pushed off, and Collins pushed also, and as they approached the camera Collins heard it click and the whir of its advance; and he felt the brightness that was with Ray. “I see you, I see you,” Larry was saying, feet spread, poised, and then Ray and Collins parted and skied on.

They circled and returned. Larry wore a slight grin. "Front page," he said.

Ray danced lightly on his skis. “That’s what I want,” he said. “Up at the top, where no one can miss me.” His voice was radiant. Everything about him seemed to glow. Looking over at him, Collins suddenly knew why he was here. He wanted this thing that Ray had, this greed for life and exposure, and did not want to remain unseen in the darkness where he had been. She would have to wait. He had tried, but could not be with his wife, not yet. It was foolish, he knew, and perhaps vain, but he realized he very much wanted his picture in the newspaper. Collins opened his mouth as if to tell someone, but Ray abruptly was advancing, and Collins, a step behind, nearly fell trying to catch up.

"Sorry," he said loudly. He watched Larry wheel with the camera as Ray went by. Ray continued skiing into the distance, striding long and purposefully. Collins stopped and began stepping back. "I guess I wasn’t watching," he explained as Larry turned around.

Larry stood adjusting the lens. "I guess not." Then he looked up. A smile spread across his face and Collins felt relieved. "You know," he said, "I got some fine shots of you that first time."

"Good," Collins said.

"So why don't you stand over there while I take more of Ray."

Collins saw Ray coming to join them.

"Sure," he said, and pushed away. "You told him?" he heard Ray ask, and then he heard only the wind. He skied toward the white pier, and it was like a ship run aground, overcome by the storm. The light through the portholes seemed to recede into the cold. For a moment he turned to watch Ray glide again past Larry, who held the camera to his eye and spun.

"Front page," Collins said. He turned from the pier and headed toward the boardwalk, and all the way back he felt the snow in his face, blinding him, hiding him.


The End