Excuse me? said Lowboy.
Youre a truant? the man said.
He spoke the sentence like a piece of music. Lowboy squinted at him. A dignified man with an elegant wedgeshaped beard and polished shoes. His face and his beard were exactly the same color. He sat very correctly, with his knees pressed together and his hands in his lap. His pants were white and sharply creased and his green leather jacket had a row of tiny footballs where its buttons should have been. His hair was bound up in an orange turban. He looked stately and unflappable and wise.
I cant be a truant, said Lowboy. Theyve already kicked me out of school.
Is that so, the man said severely. What for?
Lowboy took his time answering. It was a special sort of school, he said finally. Progressive. They sent me home for good behavior.
I cant hear you, said the man. He shook his head thoughtfully, letting his thin mouth hang open, then patted the seat next to him. What did you say?
Lowboy stared down at the empty seat. It had happened again, he decided. Hed been moving his lips without actually speaking. He stepped forward and repeated himself.
Is that so, said the man. He heaved a gracious sigh. You arent coming out of prison?
Youre a Sikh, Lowboy said.
The mans eyes opened wide, as though the Sikhs were a forgotten race. It must be a very good school, to teach you that!
Lowboy took hold of the crosspole and let himself hang forward. There was something melodramatic about the Sikh. Something contrived. His skin lightened slightly where his face met his turban, and the hair behind his ears was platinum blond. I read about you in the library, Lowboy said. I know all about you Sikhs.
They were coming up to the next station. First came the slight falling back of the tunnel, then the lights, then the noise, then the change in his body. His left side got light and his right side got heavy and he had to hold on to the pole with all his strength. The fact that hed met a Sikh first, out of everyone in the tunnel, signified something without question but its meaning refused to come clear to him. Ill think about him when we stop, Lowboy said to himself. In a little while Ill think about him. Then Ill know.
The platform when it came was narrow and neglected-looking and much less crowded than the one before had been. Hed expected to find everyone waiting for himhis mother, Dr. Kopeck, Dr. Prekopp, Skull & Bonesbut there was no one on the platform that he knew. The doors slid open and closed on nothing.
The capital of the Sikhs is the city of Amritsar, Lowboy said as the C# and A sounded. His head was clear again but he still wanted to smoke. Amritsar is in Punjab. Sikhs believe in reincarnation, like Hindus, but in a single god, like Muslims. A baptized Sikh never cuts his hair or beard.
A fine school. The Sikh smiled and nodded. An extraordinary school.
I need a cigarette. Let me have a cigarette, please.
The Sikh shook his brown face merrily.
The hell with this, said Lowboy.
The train gave a lazy twitch and started rolling. Both seats on the Sikhs right side were empty. Lowboy sat down in the farther one, mindful of the Sikhs bony elbow and his legs in their pressed linen pants. He took a deep breath. It was reckless to get close to another body just then, when everything was so new and overwhelming, but the empty seat between them made it possible. It was all right to sit down and have a talk.
He checked to see who else was listening. No one was.
The Sikh religion is less than seventy years old, Lowboy said. His words fluttered before him in the air.
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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