On November 11 Lowboy ran to catch a train. People were in his way but he was careful not to touch them. He ran up the platforms corrugated yellow lip and kept his eyes on the trains cab, commanding it to wait. The doors had closed already but they opened when he kicked them. He couldnt help but take that as a sign.
He got on board the train and laughed. Signs and tells were all around him. The floor was shivering and ticking beneath his feet and the bricktiled arches above the train beat the murmurings of the crowd into copper and aluminum foil. Every seat in the car had a person in it. Notes of music rang out as the doors closed behind him: C# first, then A. Sharp against both ears, like the tip of a pencil. He turned and pressed his face against the glass.
Skull & Bones, his state-appointed enemies, were forcing their way headfirst up the platform. Skull was a skinny milkfaced man, not much to look at, but Bones was the size of a MetroCard booth. They moved like policemen in a silent movie, as though their shoes were too big for their feet. No one stood aside for them. Lowboy smiled as he watched them stumbling toward him: he felt his fear falling away with each ridiculous step they took. Ill have to think of something else to call them now, he thought. Short & Sweet. Before & After. Bridge & Tunnel.
Bones saw him first and started pounding on the doors. Spit flew noiselessly from his mouth against the scuffed and greasy glass. The train lurched then stopped then lurched forward again. Lowboy gave Bones his village idiot smile, puckering his lips and blinking, and solemnly held up his middle finger. Skull was running now, struggling to keep even with the doors, moving his arms in slow emphatic circles. Bones was shouting something at the conductor. Lowboy whistled the door-closing theme at them and shrugged. C# to A, C# to A. The simplest, sweetest melody in the world.
Everyone in the car would later agree that the boy seemed in very high spirits. He was late for something, by the look of him, but he carried himself with authority and calm. He was making an effort to seem older than he was. His clothes fit him badly, hanging apologetically from his body, but because he was blue-eyed and unassuming he caused nobody concern. They watched him for a while, glancing at him whenever his back was turned, the way people look at one another on the subway. Whats a boy like that doing, a few of them wondered, dressed in such hideous clothes?
The train fit into the tunnel perfectly. It slipped into the tunnel like a hand into a pocket and closed over Lowboys body and held him still. He kept his right cheek pressed against the glass and felt the air and guttered bedrock passing. Im on a train, he thought. Skull & Bones arent on it. Im taking the local uptown.
The climate in the car was temperate as always, hovering comfortably between 62 and 68 degrees. Its vulcanized rubber doorjambs allowed no draft to enter. Its suspension system, ribbonpressed butterfly shocks manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri, kept the pitching and the jarring to a minimum. Lowboy listened to the sound of the wheels, to the squealing of the housings at the railheads and the bends, to the trains manifold and particulate elements functioning effortlessly in concert. Welcoming, familiar, almost sentimental sounds. His thoughts fell slackly into place. Even his cramped and claustrophobic brain felt a measure of affection for the tunnel. It was his skull that held him captive, after all, not the tunnel or the passengers or the train. Im a prisoner of my own brainpan, he thought. Hostage of my limbic system. Theres no way out for me but through my nose.
I can make jokes again, Lowboy thought. Stupid jokes but never mind. I never could have made jokes yesterday.
Excerpted from Lowboy by John Wray, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by John Wray. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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