Lowboy was five foot ten and weighed 150 pounds exactly. His hair was parted on the left. Most things that happened didnt bother him at all, but others got inside of him and stuck: nothing to do then but cough them up. He had a list of favorite things that he took out whenever there was a setback, ticking them off in order like charms on a bracelet. He recited the first eight from memory:
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
His father had taken him snowboarding once, in the Poconos. The Poconos and the beach at Breezy Point were items nine and ten. His skin turned dark brown in the summer, like an Indians or a surfers, but now it was white as a dead bodys from all the time hed spent away.
Lowboy stared down at his deadlooking arms. He pressed his right palm hard against the glass. He came from a long line of soldiers, and was secretly a soldier himself, but hed sworn on his fathers grave that he would never go to war. Once hed almost killed someone with just his two bare hands.
The tunnel straightened itself without any sign of effort and the rails and wheels and couplings went quiet. Lowboy decided to think about his mother. His mother was blond, like a girl on a billboard, but she was already over thirty-eight years old. She painted eyes and lips on mannequins for Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. She painted things on mannequins no one would ever see. Once hed asked about the nipples and shed laughed into her fist and changed the subject. On April 15 she would turn thirty-nine unless the rules changed or hed miscounted or she died. He was closer to her house now than hed been in eighteen months. He had these directions: transfer at Columbus Circle, wait, then six stops close together on the C. Thats all it was. But he would never see his mothers house again.
Slowly and carefully, with studied precision, he shifted his attention toward the train. Trains were easier to consider. There were thousands of them in the tunnel, pushing ghost trains of compressed air ahead of them, and every single one of them had a purpose. The train he was on was bound for Bedford Park Boulevard. Its coat-of-arms was a B in Helvetica type, rampant against a bright orange escutcheon. The train to his grandfathers house had that same color: the color of wax fruit, of sunsets painted on velvet, of light through half-closed eyelids at the beach. William of Orange, he thought, giving himself over to the dream of it. William of Orange is my name. He closed his eyes and passed a hand over his face and pictured himself strolling the grounds of Windsor Castle. It was pleasantly cool there under the boxcut trees. He saw dark, paneled corridors and dustcovered paintings, high ruffled collars and canopied beds. He saw a portrait of himself in a mink pillbox hat. He saw his mother in the kitchen, frying onions and garlic in butter. Her face was the color of soap. He bit down hard on his lip and forced his eyes back open.
A self-conscious silence prevailed in the car. Lowboy noticed it at once. The passengers were studying him closely, taking note of his scuffed Velcro sneakers, his corduroy pants, his misbuttoned shirt, and his immaculately parted yellow hair. In the glass he saw their puzzled looks reflected. They think Im on a date, he thought. They think Im on a field trip. If they only knew.
Im William of Orange, said Lowboy. He turned around so he could see them better. Has anybody got a cigarette?
The silence got thicker. Lowboy wondered whether anyone had heard him. Sometimes it happened that he spoke perfectly clearly, taking pains with each word, and no one paid him any mind at all. In fact it happened often. But on that day, on that particular morning, he was undeniable. On that particular morning he was at his best.
A man to his left sat up and cleared his throat. Truant, the man said, as if in answer to a question.
Excerpted from Lowboy by John Wray, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by John Wray. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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