In The Tunnel
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. It was a good train, an uptown local. Its doors had closed already but they opened when he kicked them. He couldn’t help but take this as a sign.
He got on board and laughed. Signs and tells were all around him. The floor was shivering and ticking beneath his feet and the brick-tiled arches above the train beat the murmurings of the crowd into copper and aluminium foil. Every seat in the car had a person in it. Never mind about that. 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 head-first up the platform. Skull was a skinny, milk-faced man, not much to look at, but Bones was the size of a ticket 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. Bones kept stepping on the back of Skull’s Reeboks by accident. Giving him a flat tyre, that was called. Giving him a flat. Lowboy smiled as he watched them stumbling towards him. He felt his fear of them 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. Habeas & Corpus.
Bones saw him first and started pounding on the doors. Spit flew noiselessly from his mouth against the scuffed and greasy glass. The train gave a sudden lurch, stopped, then lurched again. Lowboy gave Bones his village-idiot smile, puckering his lips and blinking, then 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. His happiness set him apart from them at once. He was late for something, by the look of him, but not for work or school. A date possibly. His clothes didn’t fit, hanging apologetically from his body, but because he was blue-eyed and unassuming he caused nobody concern. He was making an effort to seem older than he was. They watched him for a while, glancing at him whenever his back was turned, the way people watch one another on the subway. He carried himself with authority and calm. What’s a boy like that doing, a few of the women wondered, dressed in such hideous clothes?
The train eased into the tunnel like a hand into a mitten and closed over Lowboy’s body and held him still. He kept his right cheek pressed against the glass and watched the guttered bedrock passing. I’m on a train, he told himself. Skull & Bones aren’t. I’m riding on the uptown local.
Not ten feet above him the citizenry held itself hunched against the mid-morning chill, but the climate in the car was temperate as always, hovering comfortably between sixty-two and sixty-eight degrees. Its vulcanized rubber doorjambs allowed no draught to enter. Its suspension system, ribbon-pressed butterfly shocks manufactured in Quebec, kept the pitching and the jarring to a minimum. Lowboy listened to the sound of the wheels, to the squealing of the axles 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 sleepily into place. Even his pinched and claustrophobic brain felt a kind of dull 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 brain-pan, he thought. Hostage of my limbic system. He smiled at this idea, though the truth was that it wasn’t very funny. Funny was too much to hope for yet.
I can make jokes again, he said to himself. I never could have done that yesterday.
Lowboy was five foot ten and weighted 130 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 itched. He had a list of beautiful things that he took out and ran through his fingers like rosary beads whenever he had a setback. A wad of ancient paper, warm and damp. He recited the first seven items on the list from memory:
the Bronx Botanic Gardens
His father had taken him snowboarding once, in the Poconos. The Poconos and the beach at Breezy Point were items eight and nine. His skin turned dark brown in the summer, like an Indian’s or a surfer’s, but now it was as white as a corpse’s from the time he’d spent away.
Lowboy looked down at his white dead-looking hands. He was a dreamer, and sometimes that can be considered rude: but most of the time he was considerate and obliging. He came from a long line of soldiers, and secretly felt a soldier himself, but he’d sworn on his father’s grave that he would never go to war. Not again. Once he almost killed someone with just his two bare hands.
The tunnel straightened itself without any sign of effort and the axles and the rails went quiet. Lowboy decided to think about his mother. His mother was a blonde, like somebody on a billboard, but she was already more than thirty-eight years old. She painted eyes and lips on mannequins for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. She painted parts of mannequins that no one would ever see. He’d asked her once what she did about the nipples and she’d sighed. 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 than he’d been in seventeen months. He had these directions: transfer at Columbus Circle, wait, then eight stops on the downtown D. That’s all it was. But he would never see his mother’s house again.
Slowly and carefully, with practised precision, he shifted his attention towards the train. Trains were easy 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. They almost never hit each other. The train he was riding on was bound for Bedford Park Boulevard. Its coat of arms was a B in Helvetica script, rampant over a bright orange escutcheon. The train to his mother’s house had exactly that same colour: the colour of wax fruit, of sunsets painted on velvet, of light through half-closed eyelids at the beach. William of Orange, thought Lowboy, giving himself over to the dream. William of Orange is my name. He closed his eyes tightly and passed a hand over his forehead and pictured himself wandering through the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It was pleasantly cool there under the trees. Little fountains. He glanced in through the windows as he strolled. He saw dark panelled corridors, dust-covered paintings, high ruffled collars and canopied beds. He saw his own portrait wearing a mink pillbox hat. He saw his mother in the palace kitchens frying onions and garlic in butter. Her face was the colour of old soap. He bit down on his lower 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 sneakers, his sharply creased pants, his misbuttoned shirt and his immaculately parted yellow hair. In the glass he saw their puzzled looks reflected.
‘I’m William of Orange,’ Lowboy said. He turned around to see them better. ‘Has anybody got a cigarette?’
The silence got flatter. Lowboy wondered whether anyone had heard him. Sometimes it happened that he spoke perfectly clearly, taking pains to articulate every word, and got no response 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 forward and cleared his throat. ‘Truant,’ the man said, as if in answer to a question.
‘Excuse me?’ said Lowboy.
‘You are a truant?’ the man said. He spoke the sentence like a piece of music.
Lowboy squinted at him. A friendly-looking gentleman with an elegant wedge-shaped beard and polished shoes. He sat very correctly, with his knees pressed together and his hands folded precisely in his lap. His pants were white and newly pressed and his green leather jacket had a row of tiny footballs where its buttons should have been. The top of his head was covered by a glossy yellow turban. He looked stately and wise.
‘I can’t be a truant,’ said Lowboy. ‘They kicked me out of school.’
‘Did they?’ the man asked. ‘What for?’
Lowboy thought carefully before he answered. ‘It was a special sort of school,’ he said. ‘Progressive. They sent me home for good behaviour.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,’ said the man. He laid his right hand on the seat beside him. ‘Will you sit?’
Lowboy stared down at the empty seat. It had happened again, he decided. He’d been moving his lips without actually speaking. He took a half-step forward and repeated himself.
‘Is that so.’ The man was less friendly now. ‘You aren’t coming out of prison—?’
‘You’re a Sikh,’ said Lowboy.
The man’s eyes opened wide, as though the Sikhs were a lost and forgotten race. ‘It must have been a very good school, to teach you that!’
Lowboy took hold of the crossbar above the seats and leaned forward. He looked the man over closely. There was something theatrical about him. Something contrived. His skin lightened slightly where his turban met his forehead and the wisps of hair that poked out behind his ears were the colour of piss in a bottle.
‘I read about you in the library,’ said Lowboy. ‘I know all about you Sikhs.’
They were coming to a 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 heavy and he had to hold on to the crossbar with all his strength. The fact that he’d met a Sikh first, out of all the people in the tunnel, signified something without question but the coming of the station disconcerted him. I’ll think about the Sikh when we pull out again, he thought. In a little while I’ll think about him. Then I’ll decide. 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 them waiting for him there—his mother, Dr Trabull, Dr Prekop, Skull & Bones—but there was no one on the platform that he knew. The doors slid open and shut on nothing.
‘The capital of the Sikhs is the city of Amritsar,’ Lowboy said as the door-closing music sounded. His head was clear again but he wanted a cigarette badly. ‘Amritsar is in the Punjab. Sikhs believe in reincarnation, like Hindus, but in a single god, like Muslims. A baptized Sikh never cuts his hair or beard.’
The Sikh’s smile widened. ‘A fine school. 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 twitch and started rolling. Both seats on the Sikh’s right side were empty. Lowboy sat down in the farther one, mindful of the Sikh’s bony elbow and of his legs in their bright linen pants. He took a deep breath. It was reckless to get close to a living body just then, when everything was still so new and overwhelming, but the empty seat between them made it possible. It was all right to sit down and talk. He looked around to see who else was listening. No one was. ‘The Sikh religion is less than seventy years old,’ he announced.
The Sikh pursed his lips and bunched his face together. ‘That is not so,’ he said, pronouncing each word carefully. ‘That is not so. I’m sorry.’
Lowboy put his hand on the seat between them, where the Sikh’s hand had been. It was still slightly warm. ‘Can you say for certain,’ he said, ‘that it’s older than that?’ He drummed against the plastic with his fingers. ‘You’re not seventy years old.’
I can say so,’ the Sikh said gravely. ‘I can say so absolutely.’
Why does he have to say everything twice? thought Lowboy. I’m not deaf. It was enough to put him in mind of the school. The way the Sikh was looking at him now, trying hard not to seem too curious, was exactly the way that people did it there. He forced his eyes away, fighting back his disappointment, and found himself staring down at the Sikh’s feet. They were the smallest feet he’d ever seen on a grown man. The Sikh wore penny loafers with old subway tokens where the pennies should have been. They look like shoes a doll would wear, Lowboy thought. The Sikhs are supposed to be the tallest men in Asia. He looked up from the shoes to the Sikh’s face, flat and pleasant and unnatural as a cake. As he did so he began to have his doubts.
Here they come, he thought, clenching his eyes shut. His throat went dry and tight, as it always did when the first doubts hit. The train braked hard and shuddered through a junction. The air grew warmer by exactly six degrees. ‘All right,’ he said out loud, patting himself on the knee. But it wasn’t all right. His voice sounded wrong to him, stilted and precious, like the voice of a spoiled English lord. William of Orange is my name. ‘All right,’ he said, feeling his skin start to prickle. ‘It’s perfectly all right, you see.’
When he opened his eyes they were back in the tunnel. There was only one tunnel in the city but it was wound and snarled together like telephone wire, threaded back on itself, so it seemed to have no beginning and no end. Ouroboros was the name of the dragon that ate its own tail and the tunnel was Ouroboros also. He called it that. It seemed self-contained, a closed system, but in truth it was the opposite of closed. There were openings spaced out evenly along its length like gills on an eel, just big enough for a person to pass through. That was part of the perfection of the tunnel. The trains were held prisoner, stuck to the rails, but the passengers were free to come and go. Right now the train was under 53rd Street. You could get off at the next station, ease your body through the turnstiles, and the tunnel would carry on exactly as before. The trains would run without a single person in them.
Two men got off at the next station, looking back over their shoulders, and a third man moved ahead to the next car. On my account, thought Lowboy. He could see the man in question through the pockmarked junction doors, a middle-aged commuter in a rumpled madras jacket, Jewish or possibly Lebanese, flipping nervously through a gilt-edged leather datebook. Soon the Sikh would switch cars too and that was perfectly all right. That was how you managed in the tunnel. That was how you got by. You came and sat together in a row and touched arms and knees and held your breath and stared, and after a few minutes, half an hour at the most, you separated from each other for all time. It would be a mistake to take that as an insult. He’d done the same 1,000 times himself. He was doing it now. It was a question of not thinking about what you were doing.
The incredible thing was: the people around him did it effortlessly.
The Sikh could certainly do it, and he would. He’d be getting up directly. Lowboy patted himself on the knee and reminded himself that he hadn’t gotten on the train to talk to little grandfatherly men about religion. He’d gotten on for a reason and he knew in his heart that his reason was the best one that anyone could have. He’d been given a calling. Also a purpose. Also a career. It was a matter of consequence, a matter of urgency, a matter of life and death. It was as sharp and light and transparent as a syringe. If he got careless now he might lose track of his calling, or confuse it with something similar, or possibly even forget it altogether. Worst of all, he might begin to have his doubts.
He turned to the Sikh and nodded at him sadly. ‘I get off next stop,’ he said. He coughed into his sleeve and looked around and the people who’d been watching him looked away. ‘Next stop!’ he repeated for the benefit of all present.
‘So soon?’ said the Sikh. ‘I haven’t even asked you—’
‘William,’ said Lowboy. He gave him his bankteller’s smile. ‘William Amritsar.’
‘William,’ the Sikh said. He pronounced it Well-yoom.
‘But people call me Lowboy. They prefer it.’
‘Pleased to meet you, William! My own name is—’
‘Because I get moody,’ said Lowboy, raising his voice a little. ‘Also because I like trains.’
The Sikh said nothing. He looked at Lowboy and ran two birdlike fingers through his beard. Trying to make sense of me, Lowboy decided. The idea made him feel like a hermit at the top of a cliff.
‘Underground trains,’ he offered. ‘Subways. Low in the ground.’ He felt his voice go quiet. ‘Does that make any sense to you?’
The train was pulling into the station now and he got to his feet, keeping his eyes on the Sikh the whole time. The Sikh kept himself motionless, propped up straight in his seat like a near-sighted old lady on a bus.
‘You’re not a doctor, are you?’ Lowboy said, squinting down at him. ‘An MD? A PhD? A DDS?’
The Sikh looked surprised. ‘A doctor, William? What could possibly—’
‘Can you prove to me that you’re not with the school?’
The Sikh gave a small, dry laugh. ‘I’m past seventy, William. I once was an electrical engineer.’
‘Bullshit,’ said Lowboy. He shook his head. ‘Balls.’
Everyone in the car was looking at him now. There were times when he was practically invisible, monochrome and flat, and there were others when he gave off a faint greenish glow, like teeth held up to a blacklight. When that happened his voice got very loud very fast and the only thing he could do was to keep his mouth shut. He decided to do that now. The air outside the glass got thicker. There were things he wanted to explain to the Sikh, to apprise him of, but he held his breath and pressed his lips together. He could keep himself from talking when he had to. It was one of the first things that he’d learned to do at school.
‘Who were those men chasing you?’ the Sikh said, leaning forward on his beautiful sticklike legs. ‘Were they truancy officers?’
Lowboy shook his head fiercely. ‘Not sent by the school. Sent by—’ He caught himself at the last moment. ‘By a federal agency. To frighten me. To try and make me follow their itinerary.’ He turned measuredly around to face the doors. ‘You’ll have to excuse me now,’ he said. It was too warm in the car to move any faster.
The train seemed to hesitate as it came into the light. Its ventilators went quiet and its mercury strip-lights flickered and it rolled into the station at a crawl. The station was a main junction: six lines came together there. Its tiles were square and unbevelled, like the tiles on a urinal wall. The only person on the platform was a stooped guard who looked ready to fall down and die of boredom any minute. Lowboy frowned and bit down on the knuckle of his thumb. There was no good reason for the platform to be empty at 10.30 in the morning.
The guard watched the train coming out of his left eye-corner, careful not to seem too interested. The old school trick. Lowboy thought of the last glimpse he’d had of Bones, pounding on the glass and shouting at the conductor. He thought about Skull running alongside the train and making great slow circles with his arms. He looked at the transit guard again. Something was clipped to the inside of his collar and he held his head cocked towards it, moving his lips very subtly, like someone reading from a complicated book. Watching him made Lowboy want to lie down on the floor.
‘I fucked up,’ Lowboy said, turning back to the Sikh. ‘This isn’t my stop.’
The Sikh nodded approvingly. ‘Why don’t you sit back down?’
‘I’ll tell you why they expelled me,’ Lowboy said. He sat. ‘Do you want me to tell you?’
‘Here comes the policeman,’ the Sikh said softly.
Lowboy turned his head a quarter-turn and saw the transit guard dragging himself up the platform, glancing sideways into each car and mumbling into his collar. The doors stayed open. No announcement was given. If the guard looked bored it was only because he knew every 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 Sikh’s shoulder. The collar of the Sikh’s shirt smelled faintly of anise. Lowboy’s eyes began 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 staring at the transit guard, then back at the Sikh and Lowboy, then away. Some of them were starting to look restless. ‘Do you have a family?’ the Sikh said. He cleared his throat. ‘Do you have anyone—’
‘Give me a hug,’ said Lowboy. He took the Sikh’s arm and ducked his head beneath it. The anise smell got stronger. He saw the guard reflected in the windows and in the doors and in every set of eyeballs on the train. He buried his face in the Sikh’s green leather jacket.
‘Hello, officer,’ said the Sikh.
As soon as the guard was gone Lowboy coughed and bent forward as far as he could go, pressing both his hands against his ribs. The Sikh pulled his arm free as calmly as a nurse and smoothed out a crease in his pant leg. ‘I have a grandson in Pakistan,’ he said finally. ‘When he was sixteen years of age—’
‘I’m not ready yet, you understand,’ Lowboy said, tapping out a rhythm on the seat. ‘I never should have got myself expelled.’
As the train began to roll again 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, unbearable silence but he was glad to hear it. He hummed to himself for a few seconds, 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 Sikh 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 men’s lives.
‘Your religion values sacrifice above all things.’ Lowboy caught his breath again. ‘Sacrifice is important. Am I right?’
The Sikh didn’t answer. Lowboy had expected him to react in some way, to cry out or to shake his head or to laugh, but instead he kept his sallow face composed. He wasn’t looking at Lowboy any more but at a girl across the aisle who was fussing with a pair of silver headphones. He no longer seemed wise, or kind, or even especially 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.
‘You’re drying out,’ said Lowboy. ‘Are you listening?’
It’s because of the heat, Lowboy said to himself. Everyone’s baking. The Sikh stared straight ahead, as though he was sitting for a portrait. His posture was impeccably severe. He’s preparing himself, thought Lowboy. 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 in his heart that he’d do one of these things. He accepted it as a given, as something long ago ordained. But it was a terrible thing that the Sikh would act out of ignorance, without waiting until he’d received his gift. A worse setback could not have been imagined. There could be no covenant between them if that happened.
All at once, without warning, without turning his head or taking in a breath, the Sikh said quietly and clearly, ‘What is your reason, William?’
‘My reason?’ Lowboy said. He could hardly believe it. ‘My reason for running away, you mean?’
The Sikh blinked his eyes slowly, like a kitten sitting in a patch of sun.
‘I’ll tell you why,’ said Lowboy, ‘if you really want to know. The world’s going to shit.’ He laughed. ‘The world won’t make it past this afternoon.’
The Sikh turned and regarded him now, though only his watery close-set eyes had life. Lowboy couldn’t be sure that he was listening, since he hadn’t said a word, but it seemed likely that he was. There was no life in him anywhere but in his pinched, dark eye-sockets but even that trace amount might be enough. The Sikh sat forward, bobbing his head impatiently, digging the heels of his penny loafers into the floor. Fidgeting like the girl across the aisle. Why was everyone impatient? It was true of course that there was very little time. There were two transfers at the next station: an orange and a blue. Choices would have to be made there. They were being made already.
A hissing came off the rails as the train crossed a switch and the noise cut straight through the car, hanging in sheets down the length of the aisle, as if to offer the two of them a kind of shelter. Lowboy blinked and took a breath and said it. ‘The world’s going to die in six hours. Six hours exactly. Is that all right, Doctor?’ He pressed the heel of his palm against this teeth until he could finish. ‘By fire.’
The expression on the Sikh’s face was impossible to make sense of. His body was the body of a somnambulist or a corpse. Lowboy closed his mouth and caught his breath and nodded. It was difficult, even painful, to keep his eyes on the Sikh, to sit and wait for the slightest trace of feeling, to smile and nod and hope for the one true reply. He decided to look at the girl with the headphones instead.
She was sitting straight up in her seat, the exact mirror-image of the Sikh, as poised and geometric as a painting. It was possible that she was making fun of him. The longer Lowboy looked at her the less he knew. His take on the girl, on the Sikh, on everything in the car refused to hold still any more. His thoughts careened like mercury from one possibility to another. The white spaces between each event got heavier and wider. In no time they’d outnumber his ideas. He forced himself to focus on the surface of things and on the surface only. There’s more than enough there, he said to himself. No need to see what happens underneath. He let his eyes rest flatly on the girl.
The girl’s hair was coloured a mute shade of red, the way dyed-black hair gets by the end of the summer. It was cut in a way he’d never seen before, with long feathered bangs hanging down into her eyes. Ugly bangs. When she leaned forward her face disappeared completely. Lowboy pictured a city of identical girls, their faces all hidden, silver headphones plugging up their ears. A year and a half was a long time to have been gone. He’d been a cosmonaut for seventeen months, a castaway, an amnesiac, veteran of an arbitrary war. The world had gotten older while he’d been away. Away at school, regressing. He smiled to himself in acknowledgement of the joke. He studied the girl’s hands, cupped protectively in her lap, hiding whatever the headphones were attached to. A sentimental and affecting picture. She seemed ashamed of her hands, of her lap, of her intentionally torn crocheted stockings. She’d hide her whole body if she could, he thought. He felt a sudden rush of recognition. So would I.
Her hands were chapped and pink, with short ungraceful fingers, and it took him a long time to see what he liked about them. Only when she raised one to her mouth did he notice that the nails were bitten down to the cuticles, torn and unpainted, the nails of a girl half her age. She was smiling as she bit down on her finger. She was smiling without question but the meaning of her smile kept itself encoded. ‘It’s the music,’ Lowboy murmured, nodding confidently to the Sikh. ‘There’s music in those headphones that she likes.’ But even as the Sikh nodded back—blankly, disaffectedly—Lowboy knew he was wrong. The girl’s smile wasn’t private: it was unabashed and open. And she was smiling it at nobody but him.
That made Lowboy remember about why he’d left the school.
Cautiously, as an experiment, he tried to duplicate her smile. He kept his eyes wide open and made sure to show his teeth. The strangeness of what he was attempting made the roof of his mouth go numb. He had no name for the smile that he was making. There’d been no girls at the school, and he hadn’t cared about them before he got sent away. But now he did care about them. Now they made him feel wide awake.
‘Don’t leer at her that way,’ said the Sikh.
‘I’m not leering,’ Lowboy said under his breath. ‘I’m making myself sexy.’
‘You’re frightening her, William.’
Lowboy waved at the girl and opened his eyes wider and pointed at his mouth. Her smile went blank and stiffened at its corners. He adjusted his own smile accordingly. The girl pulled her backpack open with a jerk and let her head hang forward, lowering her bangs across it like a shutter across a storefront. She stared into her backpack like a baby looking down into a well.
‘Why won’t she take those fucking headphones off? I want to tell her something. I’ll sing it to her, if she wants. I want to—’
‘The world will end?’ the Sikh said. ‘Why is that?’
Lowboy stopped smiling. What magnetism he might have had was neatly and resourcefully sucked away. The question had been meant as a distraction, nothing more. To disarm him. To keep him from establishing contact with the girl. That he should choose that to ask out of all possible questions. Out of all questions that one: the most critical, the most grave. How ignorant. How heartless. The girl with the backpack receded and the Sikh slid quietly forward and took her place. Still smiling politely. The rest of the car went dark, as though the Sikh were in a spotlight. He was not the same person he had been before. There was no curiosity in his expression, no humanity, no love. He spoke in a completely different voice.
‘Your voice has changed,’ Lowboy said to the Sikh. ‘I don’t think I can hear you any more.’
‘Don’t trouble that poor girl any longer, William.’ Behind his sparse, discoloured beard the Sikh was grinning. The grin looked fastened to his face with wallpaper adhesive. He slid full into the light and gave a wink. ‘Why not trouble me, instead?’
It was then that Lowboy saw the danger. The fact of it hit him in the middle of his chest and spread out in all directions like a cramp. ‘No trouble,’ he said. He said it effortfully, slowly, biting his breath back after every word. ‘No trouble at all, Grandfather. Go away.’
The Sikh flashed his teeth again. ‘Grandfather?’ he said at the top of his voice. He said it to the rest of the car, not to Lowboy. He was making a public announcement. He looked up and down the car, the consummate entertainer, and brought a hooked brown hand to rest on Lowboy’s shoulder. ‘If I was your grandfather, Boy—’
His voice was still booming up and down the car, like the voice of a master of ceremonies, as Lowboy slid his hands under the Sikh’s beard and pushed. The Sikh lifted out of his seat like a wind-tossed paper bag. Who’d have guessed he was as light as that, thought Lowboy. The Sikh arched his back as he fell and clutched at the air and opened his mouth in a garish, slack-jawed parody of surprise. A pole caught him just below the shoulder and spun him counterclockwise towards the door. The booming was coming not from the Sikh any more but from an intercom in the middle of the ceiling. ‘Columbus Circle,’ Lowboy shouted. ‘Transfer to the A, C, D, 1, 9.’ No joking any more, he thought, laughing. No part of this is funny. A woman halfway down the car was standing gasping in the middle of the aisle. He turned towards her and she shut her mouth.
‘Boy,’ the Sikh said breathlessly. He was sputtering just like the intercom. ‘Boy—’
Lowboy crouched down next to the Sikh. ‘Sacrifice makes sense to me,’ he said. ‘Am I right?’
The Sikh flashed his teeth and made thin, meaningless noises and brought his fingers together at his throat.
‘You’re worried about me,’ Lowboy said. He shook his head. ‘Don’t worry about me, Doctor. Worry about the world.’
The Sikh slid backwards until his head came to rest against the graphite-coloured crease between the doors. His eyes transcribed a mournful circle. His turban sat next to his elbow like an ornamental basket, still immaculately wrapped and folded. So that’s how they do it, Lowboy thought. They put it on and take it off like a hat.
‘Boy,’ the Sikh said again, forcing the word out stiffly with his tongue. It seemed to be the only word he knew.
Lowboy bent down and took hold of the Sikh by the collar of his jacket. He could feel the little footballs grind together under his fingers. ‘It’s going to get very, very hot,’ he whispered. ‘Are you ready?’