I made a mistake, he said, turning back to the Sikh. This isnt my stop.
The Sikh seemed happy to hear it. I suppose, then, that you ought to take a seat.
Ill tell you why they expelled me, Lowboy said, sitting back down. Do you want to know?
Here comes the policeman, said the Sikh.
Lowboy turned his head and saw the transit guard hauling himself up the platform and glancing sideways into each car and mumbling into his collar. The doors remained open. No announcement was given. If the guard looked bored it was only because he knew about each event before it happened. Lowboy let his head rest against the window for a moment, gathering his strength, then eased his body sideways until his cheek touched the Sikhs shoulder. The collar of the Sikhs shirt smelled faintly of anise. Lowboys eyes started to water.
Can I borrow your turban? he whispered.
You should go back to school, the Sikh said through his teeth.
I wish I could, said Lowboy. His left hand gave a jerk. The rest of the car was looking from the transit guard to Lowboy to the Sikh. Some of them were starting to get restless.
Do you have a family? the Sikh said. He shifted in his seat. Do you have anyone
Give me a hug, said Lowboy. He took the Sikhs arm and ducked underneath it. Hed seen the trick in the movies but he had no way of knowing if it worked. The anise smell got stronger. He saw the transit guard reflected in the windows and in the doors and in every set of eyeballs on the train. He buried his face in the Sikhs leather jacket. The Sikh sucked in a breath but that was all.
Hello, Officer, said the Sikh.
As soon as the guard was gone Lowboy retched and leaned forward. The Sikh pulled his arm free as matter-of-factly as a nurse and smoothed out a crease in his pantleg. I have a grandson in Lahore, in Pakistan, he said. You put me in mind of that boy.
Was he a truant?
The Sikh smiled and nodded. His name is Sateesh. A bad boy like you are. When he was sixteen
Im not ready yet, Lowboy said, tapping out a rhythm against his chest. They never should have kicked me out of school.
The train began rolling and the niceties of life resumed, the breathing and the coughing and the whispering and the singing out of key. The singing especially seemed strange to him after the long awful silence but he was overjoyed to hear it. He hummed to himself for a little while, grateful for the rocking of the train, then took a breath and made his face go flat. What he had to say next was solemn and imperative and meant for the Sikhs ears alone. He had nothing else to offer, either as a gesture or a covenant or a gift: only his one small discovery. But lesser gifts than that had saved mens lives.
Your religion values sacrifice above all things, he said. He caught his breath and held it. Sacrifice is important. Am I right?
The Sikh didnt answer. Lowboy had expected him to react in some way, to cry out or throw up his hands or give a laugh, but instead he kept his sallow face composed. He wasnt looking at Lowboy anymore but at a girl across the aisle who was fussing with a pair of silver headphones. He no longer seemed wise or elegant or even clever. The longer Lowboy stared at him the more lifeless he became. It was like watching a piece of bread dry out and become inedible.
Youre drying out, said Lowboy. Are you listening?
Its because of the heat, Lowboy thought. Were all baking in it. The Sikh stared straight ahead like someone sitting for a portrait. Hes preparing himself, Lowboy thought. Mustering his resources. The Sikh would get out at the next station and move to another car, or transfer to a different train, or call the police, or even send a message to the school: Lowboy knew hed do one of these things. But it was terrible that the Sikh would act in ignorance, without waiting until hed received his gift. A worse setback could not have been imagined.
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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