An engaging, lyrical, and, at times, disturbing novel, The Possibility of Snow tells the story of a once-promising friendship that dissolves into antagonism. Steve and Neil room together at a small college in New England and soon become fast friends, until things go strangely wrong. Steve is eccentric, slightly paranoid, and too perceptive for his own good. He knows the difference between what people say and what they do. Neil is reflective, sincere, and not as together as he seems. There’s not much he’s sure of anymore. They know each other very well and understand each other not at all.
|Publisher:||Luminis Books, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Al Riske is a former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and ghostwriter, and the author of the novel Sabrina’s Window and the story collection Precarious. His short stories have appeared in 34th Parallel magazine, the Beloit Fiction Journal, the Blue Mesa Review, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Switchback magazine, and Word Riot. He lives in Sunnyvale, California.
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The Possibility of Snow
By Al Riske
Luminis BooksCopyright © 2015 Al Riske
All rights reserved.
Near the End
On the fourth floor of a brownstone dormitory, David Morrissey, the pudgy professor with the big bald spot on the back of his head, raps on a door that is already open, pausing just long enough to say, "May we come in?"
From his desk, Steve Bourne peers over his shoulder, brushing his hair away from his face with one hand. He looks puzzled — We? — until he spots Neil, hidden at first behind Morrissey's bulk. Then he turns, flips his book shut without marking his place, and waits for whatever is coming.
Morrissey takes a seat on the edge of the bed nearer Steve.
Hesitant, Neil Fischer slides onto the other bed, his back against the wall. He is almost directly behind Morrissey, so Steve can't see him without craning his neck — which he does, with one eyebrow raised, asking What's this all about?
Neil won't look at him.
Finally Steve stares into Morrissey's flabby face and throws up his hands. Ashes float down from the cigarette between his fingers, and that seems to irritate him because, as he sits back, he snuffs the half-smoked Winston in a jarlid ashtray on his desk.
Breaking the silence, Morrissey says, "This may be difficult for you to accept, Steve, but I've been talking to Neil and I think it would be best if he moved into another dorm for the time being."
All the muscles in Steve's face suddenly go slack. He looks to his left, then to his right, as if he doesn't know which way to turn. Staring incredulously at the pudgy professor, he lifts one hand and lets it fall back limply to his knee.
Very softly he says, finally, "Well, I don't know ... I think we could work things out. We've had a few arguments, that's all. He doesn't have to move out."
He tries to look at Neil but his face is in his hands.
Morrissey, too, turns to Neil. The squeak of the bedsprings gets him to look up, just for a second, into those droopy eyes that ask if he is willing to reconsider. Faintly but vigorously he shakes his head.
Again the bedsprings squeak.
"No, Steve, at this point I think it would be better if Neil had some solitude, some time to rest and get his strength back. Maybe in time ..."
"Come off it. You can't tell me it's all that grim. We've been friends since we were sophomores. We could —"
Morrissey stops him with an upraised hand, then motions him back down into his wooden captain's chair.
"Listen, Steve, in the ten years I've been here, including several years as a counselor, I've never had a student come to me in a more agitated state than Neil."
At this Steve tilts his head back and rolls his eyes.
"I think it would be best," Morrissey continues, "if you both had some time apart to think things over."
By now some of the guys on the floor have gathered around the open doorway, not sure they should be listening. One of them, Mark Woods, taps Neil and, without making a sound, mouths the words, "What's happening?"
Neil watches him through eyes round and bloodshot, his face covered with a patchy black stubble that has been growing for three or four days.
"I can't hack it anymore," he mutters, lowering his head again as he speaks, making it all but impossible to hear what he's saying.
Morrissey, who has been assuring Steve that this is not the end of the world, turns to see what's going on behind him.
"Maybe you boys could lend a hand," he says, seeing and seizing the opportunity to get the job done quickly and smoothly. "Neil here is going to be moving across the quad and could use your help, I'm sure."
They all shrug or nod and mumble their assent.
"And Steve, you'd feel better about it, I think, if you helped out, too," Morrissey says. "Would you do that for your friend?"
Steve stands, nodding impatiently, and the legs of his chair grate against the gritty floor. That, too, irritates him but is quickly dismissed.
As soon as Morrissey exits, Neil pulls the covers off his bed.
"Wait a minute," Steve says.
Neil continues wadding the blankets, then starts peeling off the sheets (which should have been laundered a week ago, if he had been able to follow his usual routine).
"Would you sit down for a minute?"
The others have edged into the room and are milling about, wondering where to begin. Mark unplugs the typewriter and lifts it from Neil's desk.
"You got a case for this?" he asks.
"Under the desk."
Steve once again throws up his hands — a characteristic gesture. He is not being given a chance to say anything.
Someone grabs the long, narrow skis and bamboo poles that could come in so handy when winter hit this small New England campus.
"These are yours, right?" he asks, already lifting them off their place on the wall.
Neil, hearing the clatter, doesn't have to look up; he just nods. Someone else, without asking, scoops up a dogeared modern-English Bible and pulls more books from the shelf built into the wall.
Giving up, Steve hoists the melon crate containing Neil's album collection onto his shoulders and packs it down the stairs.
Outside, the sky is overcast, the air rife with the possibility of snow.
Early Evening. Steve has kicked the door shut and sits slumped in his chair, still wearing his white pile jacket as well as the offbeat tweed hat he is seldom without.
Just under six feet tall, Steve is slender with disproportionately broad shoulders and narrow hips. His hair is a dirty blond, dry and wavy, and grown beyond shoulder length. Suddenly he jumps up, throws off his hat and coat, and opens the windows to get some air.
Neil always kept the place too hot.
Outside, the sky is turning black. The cold air feels good to him because his body is like a furnace.
He looks around at the half-empty room: the one stripped bed, the one barren closet, the one cleaned-out college-issue desk, and the dresser with its drawers left open and empty. Even his stomach feels empty now.
He kicks his jacket and hat into a dusty corner and lets himself fall backward onto the gray striped mattress. Staring at the ceiling, tracing the cracks and seeing faces in the water stains, Steve suddenly catches sights of something on the wall. A poster of Neil's. The caption reads:
I believe in the sun even when it is not shining
I believe in love even when I am alone
I believe in god even when he is silent
That was just the sort of crap Neil went for. Brilliant sunset and all.
Then, propped up on his elbows, he spots something on the dresser, the built-in dresser with the twin medicine cabinets. Something else Neil has left behind: the white canvas driving cap Steve gave him for his birthday.
Did he leave it on purpose, the fucking bastard? Oh, hell, he never wore it. He probably just forgot.
Steve picks up the cap and puts it back down. Then he goes over to the stereo, puts Fisherman's Blues on the turntable, and cranks it up loud enough to drown out the throbbing in his head.
What the fuck happened here?
He sinks to the floor in front of the stereo with its cinderblock and pressboard stand and is just sitting there when the pounding starts. The women on the floor below never did care for his taste in music or his penchant for volume, and so they'd start pounding on their ceiling with a broom handle or something whenever it was disturbing them. In answer, Steve stomps on the floor. The record skips.
He stops it, looks it over: scratched. Whirling around, he flings the disk across the room. As it spins through the air, he hears a knock on the door. Someone opens it a crack and the record shatters on the wall. The door closes more quickly than it had opened.
A voice says, "Never mind."
Steve stands in the silence for a long while, then picks up his goddamn hat and his goddamn coat and goes out.
On the other side of the quad, Neil finds himself in basement living quarters known as "The Pit." The floor is bare and cold; the walls are made up of concrete blocks. He doesn't know any of the students who live here and has never wanted to.
His belongings — skis, clothes, books — lay scattered around him and, ordinarily, the disorder would make him uneasy, but right now he doesn't care. He looks in on the tiny tropical fish that were carried here, ten-gallon tank and all. The few that were still alive to make the trip seem to have come through it alright. He whispers to them in a hoarse, tired voice, and the words — like so many he has spoken in the preceding weeks — sound hollow to him even as he speaks them.
Neil has roughly the same build as Steve, although he is not quite as tall and his shoulders are not nearly as broad. He wears baggy trousers and a sweatshirt that bears the college insignia. The quiet feels good to him. If only he could get some heat out of this old radiator. He is tinkering with the mechanism when a rap at the door causes it to creak open a few inches. He turns, straightens up, waits.
Damn it, Steve, leave me alone.
His jaw locks tight; his hands curl into fists.
A head peeks around the door.
"Have you seen —?"
Whoever it is doesn't recognize Neil either.
"Uh, skip it," he says and disappears.
Very quietly, Neil pushes the door closed, making sure it clicks this time and is locked. Faint sounds echo in the hallway: boots and voices, a toilet flushing.
His back against the door, he notices for the first time that twilight has faded into blackness, and although it is still early by college standards, he starts clearing the lower bunk. His clothes, still on their hangars, go into the closet a fistful at a time until all that's left on the bed is a pile of books, including his Bible, which is worn but not from recent use.
Stuck between the pages is a letter with Lena Faulkner's perfume on it. He slips it out and sniffs the envelope. Not much is left of the scent. Setting the Bible aside, he taps the letter against his left palm three times. Then he sighs and flips it onto the dresser. If she were here she could take his mind off his troubles, but she is far away and that diminishes her powers.
Finally, he fits the mattress with the wrinkled sheets and the blankets, switches off the light, and crawls into bed. All he can hear is the ticking of his wind-up clock somewhere across the room, and the sound reminds him that he has not set the alarm, but he no longer cares. He is asleep in minutes.
The next day, a Thursday, it begins to snow. As Neil looks up through his window, only the bare trees stand out in dark contrast to the gray sky. Book in hand, he is about to begin the reading assignment from the only class he made it to that morning, when he notices a figure approaching. But his breathing has fogged the glass — he must have been standing there longer than he realized — and about all he can make out is a shirttail hanging out below a short pile jacket. That's all he needs to see to know it's Steve; the fact that he's wearing sandals in the snow only confirms it.
In a minute he'll be at the door. Neil checks to be sure it's locked. His mind is racing. Steve will pound on the door — I know you're in there — for God knows how long. He can climb out the window and sneak away, he figures, but he'd have to leave it unlatched. Steve would discover that and get in while he was gone. He'd just be here, waiting, when Neil came back.
He unlocks the door, climbs onto the top bunk, and waits for the knock on the door. Even so he is startled when it happens.
"What are you doing up there?"
"Reading." He shows Steve the heavy text. "Exam coming soon."
Steve nods and says, "I brought you this."
He flips the driving cap onto Neil's dresser.
"You left it."
"I know how much you like to wear it," Steve says, only mildly sarcastic.
"So I don't like to wear a hat. Any hat. So what? Is that a crime?"
"Hey, I was kidding, alright?"
Yeah, sure you were.
"That's the problem: You never know when I'm kidding anymore."
Neil doesn't answer.
"You left your poster, too. I'll get you another one. It tore when I was taking it down."
"No, really. I'll replace it. It was an accident."
"I said forget it."
"Okay, okay, Chrissakes, don't get mad. You don't want the fucking poster, why didn't you say so?"
Calmly, Neil says, "I don't want the poster."
"Fine. You want me to take the hat back?"
"Why not? You never wear it. You never even showed up for your own birthday party when I got it for you."
He knew Steve would bring that up.
"Just leave it," he says.
"That hat doesn't have any value to you at all, does it?"
Neil refuses to answer.
"You left it on purpose, didn't you?"
Neil opens his book.
"I've got a lot of pages to get in, if you don't mind."
Leaning on the dresser, Steve stares up at Neil, huddled in the corner with his theology book.
"That's all you want to do anymore is fucking read," he says. "Come on, you can do that any time."
"This isn't light reading, Steve. I'm in trouble in this class, okay?"
"You'll ace it, don't worry."
"No I won't. I'll be lucky to pull a C."
Unconvinced, Steve lets it slide.
"How can you study in a dump like this anyhow?" he asks.
"It's not so bad."
"Why don't you move back to our old room, and I'll live here?"
Neil closes his eyes for just a moment and shakes his head almost imperceptibly.
"Why not? I said I'd move over here. That way you could be with your friends."
And be rid of me.
Fully aware of what Steve has left unsaid, Neil refuses to be sucked in.
"They're your friends, too," he says.
"No they're not. Not really. I never wanted to live there. It was your idea."
"Then move somewhere else, damn it. Just leave me out of it."
Steve wants to scream but holds back.
"Look," he says, "you didn't have to move out in the first place, you know."
Neil heaves a sigh, a loud sigh.
"Could we not do this?" he says.
"Couldn't you give me one chance, one fucking chance? I mean, isn't that supposed to be part of your religion — to forgive people and give them another chance?"
"It won't work, Steve."
Suddenly Steve lunges at Neil, trying to grab his ankle and pull him off the damn bunk, but Neil shrinks out of reach.
"Come down from there!"
Steve collects himself.
"So this is it, huh? The divorce is final?"
"We were never married, Steve."
"You know, I think I've figured it out. I've thought about it a lot now and I think I know."
"It's because I'm not a Christian, isn't it? You've never had a friend before who wasn't."
"I have too."
"Name one. Eddie, your best friend, is a Christian. Mark's a Christian. Hell, they're all Christians over there. I feel like I'm living in the Bible Belt. You never had a friend who wasn't into that."
Neil nods his head.
"Name one then."
"A guy I grew up with. We were born in the same hospital and everything. Our mothers were in the same room."
"How long did that last?"
"Must have cost a fortune with hospital expenses as high as they are."
Reluctantly, Neil has to smile.
"Get out of here," he says, good naturedly.
Surprisingly enough, Steve does. Just that easily.
His back to the red brick wall of the commons, Neil huddles under its tiny eave, watching the rain fall on his shoes. It's an ice-cold rain, and by the looks of the dinner line, he won't be able to get out of it for twenty minutes or more.
Standing next to him, Mark says, "Let's go over to the SUB and check our mail."
"I already checked mine. Nothing."
"I haven't checked mine yet. Come on."
They start toward the Student Union Building at a trot, carefully because the sidewalks are slick.
"The line will be shorter when we get back," Mark assures him.
Mark is one of those barrel-chested athletes who has to work hard to keep off excess weight. He keeps his light wavy hair trimmed short and brushed back. It's starting to thin enough to make him look about twenty-five, four years older than he is. Always clean-shaven, he has a square jaw, bushy eyebrows, and deep-set eyes.
At the SUB he peeks between the chipping numbers painted on the window of his mailbox and sees nothing.
"That spider is going to starve in there," he says.
Neil forces a smile. Cobweb humor.
"I wasn't really expecting any letters. I just wanted to talk to you, man. Do you want to talk about it?"
"I wouldn't know where to start."
"I can tell you this much right now: You shouldn't get down on yourself like you are. You're a good person, Neil. You just got into an impossible situation."
"You don't know the half of it."
"I think I do. I could hear the way that guy harassed you half the night."
"You could hear that?"
"Are you kidding? Half the floor could hear it."
Excerpted from The Possibility of Snow by Al Riske. Copyright © 2015 Al Riske. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Al Riske has a rare talent for connecting the reader to complex emotions. The Possibility of Snow showcases that talent – taking readers through highs and lows – and excels at evoking all the difficult-to-label feelings in between.