descent into hell: lowboy rides the subway


the opening of john wray’s
lowboy


 

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 platform’s corrugated yellow lip and kept his eyes on the train’s cab, commanding it to wait. The doors had closed already but they opened when he kicked them. He couldn’t 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. I’ll 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. What’s 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 Lowboy’s body and held him still. He kept his right cheek pressed against the glass and felt the air3 and guttered bedrock passing. I’m on a train, he thought. Skull & Bones aren’t on it. I’m 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 train’s 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. I’m a prisoner of my own brainpan, he thought. Hostage of my limbic system. There’s 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.

 

Lowboy was five foot ten and weighed 150 pounds exactly. His hair was parted on the left. Most things that happened didn’t 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:

 

Obelisks.

Invisible ink.

Violet Heller.

Snowboarding.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Jacques Cousteau.

Bix Beiderbecke.

The tunnel.

 

 

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 Indian’s or a surfer’s, but now it was white as a dead body’s from all the time he’d 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 he’d sworn on his father’s grave that he would never go to war. Once he’d 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 he’d asked about the nipples and she’d laughed into her fist and changed the subject. On April 15 she would turn thirty-nine unless the rules changed or he’d miscounted or she died. He was closer to her house now than he’d been in eighteen months. He had these directions: transfer at Columbus Circle, wait, then six stops close together on the C. That’s all it was. But he would never see his mother’s 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-ofarms was a B in Helvetica type, rampant against a bright orange escutcheon. The train to his grandfather’s 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 I’m on a date, he thought. They think I’m on a field trip. If they only knew.

 

“I’m 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 perfectlyclearly, 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.

 

“Excuse me?” said Lowboy.

 

“You’re 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 can’t be a truant,” said Lowboy. “They’ve 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 can’t 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. He’d 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 aren’t coming out of prison?”

 

“You’re a Sikh,” Lowboy said.

 

The man’s 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 he’d met a Sikh first, out of everyone in the tunnel, signified something without question but its meaning refused to come clear to him. I’ll think about him when we stop, Lowboy

said to himself. In a little while I’ll think about him. Then I’ll know.

 

The platform when it came was narrow and neglected-looking and much less crowded than the one before had been. He’d expected to find everyone waiting for him—his mother, Dr. Kopeck, Dr. Prekopp, Skull & Bones—but there was no one on the platform that he knew.

 

The doors slid open and closed on nothing.

 


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