“The Skinny One will wait for The Fat One in the truck,” Colin said. Colin climbed in, turned the key, and put the AC on full-blast, although at first it only pumped out hot air.
Hassan opened the passenger door and immediately started talking. “She’s so bubbly around him, but then around us she’s just one of the guys, just slinging shit, and then around Starnes she was all y’allin’ it up and talking Southern.”
“Do you have a crush on her or something?” asked Colin suddenly.
“No. I was just thinking aloud. For the last time, I’m not interested in dating a girl I’m not gonna marry. Dating Lindsey would be haram.49 Also, she’s got a big nose. I don’t go in for noses.”
“Well, not to start an argument, but you do all kinds of shit that is haram.”
Hassan nodded. “Yeah, but the haram shit I do is, like, having a dog. It’s not like smoking crack or talking behind people’s backs or stealing or lying to my mom or fugging girls.”
“Moral relativism,” Colin said.
“No it’s not. I don’t think God gives a shit if we have a dog or if a woman wears shorts. I think He gives a shit about whether you’re a good person.”
The words “good person” made Colin immediately think about Katherine XIX. She would be leaving Chicago soon for a camp in Wisconsin where she worked every summer as a counselor. The camp was for kids with physical disabilities. They taught them how to ride horses. She was such a good person, and he missed her all over his body. He missed her like crazycakes. 50 But he felt, in the throbbing missing piece inside him, that she didn’t long for him like that. She was probably relieved. If she were thinking of him, she’d call. Unless . . .
“I think I’m going to call her.”
“That’s the worst idea you’ve ever had,” Hassan replied immediately. “The. Worst. Idea. Ever.”
“No, it’s not, because what if she’s just waiting for me to call like I’m waiting for her to call?”
“Right, but you’re the Dumpee. Dumpees don’t call. You know that, kafir. Dumpees must never, never call. There’s no exception to that rule. None. Never call. Never. You can’t call.” Colin reached into his pocket. “Don’t do it, dude. You’re pulling the pin on a grenade. You’re covered in gasoline and the phone is a lit match.”
Colin flipped open the phone. “Dingleberries,” he said.
Hassan threw up his hands. “You can’t dingleberry that! That’s a flagrant misuse of the dingleberry! I dingleberry you calling her!”
Colin closed the phone and mulled it over. Pensive, he bit at the inside of his thumb. “Okay,” he said, sliding the phone back into his pocket. “I won’ t .”
Hassan sighed heavily. “That was a close one. Thank goodness for the Double Reverse Dingleberry.”
They sat in silence for a moment and then Colin said, “I want to go home.”
“No, to Lindsey’s. But we still have forty minutes to kill.”
Hassan stared out through the windshield and nodded his head slowly. After a few quiet moments, he said, “Okay. Okay. Fat kid asthma attack. It’s an oldie, but it’s a goodie.”
Hassan rolled his eyes. “What, are you deaf? Fat kid asthma attack. It’s the oldest trick in the whole fat kid book. Just follow my lead.”
They got out of the car and Hassan started wheezing very loudly. His every inhalation sounded like the cry of a dying duck. HEEEEEENH; exhale; HEEEENH; exhale. He placed his hand against his chest, and ran into the Gutshot General Store.
“What’s wrong with him?” Lindsey asked Colin. Before he could answer, Hassan started talking amid his wheezes.
“HEEEEENH. Asthma. HEEEENH. Attack. HEEEENH. Bad one. HEEEENH.”
“Oh shit,” said Lindsey. She hopped off TOC’s lap, turned around, grabbed her first-aid box, and started looking through it in vain for asthma meds. The Other Colin sat silently on the stool, no doubt displeased by the interruption.
“He’ll be fine,” Colin said. “It happens. I just need to get him home to his inhaler.”
“Hollis doesn’t like it when people show up when she’s working,” Lindsey said.
“Well, she’ll make an exception,” said Colin.
Hassan kept up his wheezing for the drive home, and as he raced up the Pink Mansion’s stairs toward his room. Colin sat with Lindsey in the living room. They could both hear Hollis in the kitchen saying, “This is an American product. It’s made with American labor. That’s a selling point. That’s a marketable, promotable facet of our product. People buy American. I’ve got a study here . . .” Colin had wondered whether maybe Hollis just watched the Home Shopping Network all day and left other people to run the business, but obviously she did work.
Hollis came out then and the first thing she said was, “Please don’t interrupt me during working hours,” and then Lindsey said Hassan had an asthma attack and forgot his inhaler, and then Hollis took off running up the stairs. Colin followed quickly, shouting, “I hope you’re okay, Hassan!” so that Hassan would know she was coming, and when they all got to his room, he was lying peacefully on the bed.
“Sorry I forgot my inhaler,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”
They ate a dinner of hamburgers and steamed asparagus in the Wells family backyard. Colin’s backyard in Chicago measured twelve feet by ten feet; this backyard went on for football fields. To their left, a hill rose to its peak, the forest broken up only by a few rocky outcroppings. To their right, a well-kept lawn stretched on down the hill toward a soybean field (he’d found out from Starnes that they were soybeans). As the sun set behind them, a citronella candle burned in a bucket in the center of the table to ward off mosquitoes. Colin liked how Gutshot felt wide open and endless.
When he finished eating, Colin’s mind returned to Katherine XIX. He glanced at his phone to see if she’d called and noticed it was time to call his parents.
For whatever reason, Colin could never get reception in his house in the third-largest city in America but had all five bars in Gutshot, Tennessee. His father picked up.
“I’m still in the same town as yesterday. Gutshot, Tennessee,” Colin began. “I’m staying with a woman named Hollis Wells.”
“Thank you for calling on time. Should that name be familiar to me?” asked his dad.
“No, but she’s listed in the phone book. I checked. She owns a factory here. I think we’re going to stay here a few days,” Colin said, fibbing. “Inexplicably, Hassan loves it here, and also we seem to have gotten jobs.”
“You can’t just stay with strangers, Colin.”
Colin considered lying. Staying in a hotel. Working in a restaurant here. Getting my bearings. But he told the truth. “She’s nice. I trust her.”
“You trust everyone.”
“Dad, I survived seventeen years in Chicago without ever getting mugged or stabbed or kidnapped or falling onto the third rail or get—”
“Talk to your mother,” he said, which is what his dad always said. After a few moments (Colin could just see them talking while his dad held his hand over the receiver), his mom picked up. “Well, are you happy?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Happier?” his mom tried.
“Marginally,” he allowed. “I’m not lying facedown on the carpet.”
“Let me talk to this woman,” his mom said. So Colin walked inside, found Hollis on the couch, and handed the phone to her.
And after talking to Hollis, it was decided: he could stay. He knew that his mom wanted him to have an adventure. She’d always wished he could be a normal kid. Colin suspected she’d be secretly pleased if he came home one night at three in the morning reeking of booze, because that would be normal. Normal kids come home late; normal kids drink warm forties of malt liquor in alleys with their friends (normal kids have more than one friend). His father wanted Colin to transcend all that stuff, but maybe even he was starting to see the unlikelihood of Colin ever becoming extraordinary.
Colin walked up to Hassan’s room to tell him his parents were cool with him staying, but Hassan wasn’t home. He hunted around the cavernous house, eventually making his way downstairs, where he found a closed door with Lindsey’s voice emanating from behind it. He stood in front of the thin door and listened.
“Right, but how does he do it? Does he just memorize everything?” Lindsey was saying.
“No it’s not like that. It’s like, if you or me sat down and read a book about, say, the presidents, and we read that William Howard Taft was the fattest president and one time he got stuck in a bathtub,51 that might click in our brains as interesting, and we’d remember it, right?” Lindsey laughed. “You and me will read a book and find like three interesting things that we remember. But Colin finds everything intriguing. He reads a book about presidents and he remembers more of it because everything he reads clicks in his head as fugging interesting. Honestly, I’ve seen him do it with the phone book. He’ll be like, ‘Oh, there are twenty-four listings for Tischler. How fascinating.’”
Colin felt an odd mix of feelings, like his talent was at once being inflated and ridiculed. It was true, he guessed. But it wasn’t just that he found things fascinating in and of themselves and could memorize the whole phone book because it made for such excellent literature. He found stuff fascinating for a reason. Like, take for example the Tischler thing, which happened to be true (and Hassan remembered it correctly). “Tischler” was the German word for carpenter, and when he was looking in the phone book that day with Hassan, Colin thought, How strange that there would be exactly twenty-four German carpenters in Chicago when the all-night manicure place on the corner of Oakley and Lawrence is called “24/7 Nails.” And then he got to wondering whether there were exactly seven carpenters of some other language in the Chicago phone book, and it turned out that there were precisely seven Carpinteros. So it wasn’t just that things interested him because he didn’t know from boring—it was the connection his brain made, connections he couldn’t help but seek out.
“But that doesn’t explain why he’s good at, like, Scrabble,” Lindsey pointed out.
“Right, well, he’s good at that because he’s ridiculously good at anagramming. But anything he takes up, he just works insanely hard. Like, typing. He didn’t learn to type until ninth grade, when we were friends. Our English teacher required typewritten papers, so over like two weeks, Singleton taught himself to type. And he didn’t do it by typing his English papers, because then he wouldn’t have been good enough at typing. What he did is he sat down at his computer every day after school and retyped Shakespeare’s plays. All of them. Literally. And then he retyped The Catcher in the Rye. And he kept retyping and retyping until he could fugging type like a genius.”
Colin backed away from the door then. It occurred to him that he’d never done anything else in his whole life. Anagramming; spitting back facts he’d learned in books; memorizing ninety-nine digits of an already known number; falling in love with the same nine letters over and over again: retyping and retyping and retyping and retyping. His only hope for originality was the Theorem.
Colin opened the door and found Hassan and Lindsey sitting on opposite sides of a green leather couch in a room dominated by a pool table with pink felt. They were watching poker on a huge, flat-screen TV hanging on the wall. Hassan turned around to face Colin. “Dude,” he said, “you can see all their zits.”
Colin sat down between them. Lindsey and Hassan talked about poker and zits and HD and DVR while Colin graphed his past. By the end of the night, a slightly tweaked formula had worked for two more K’s: IX and XIV. He barely registered the change when they turned off the TV and started playing pool. He just kept scribbling. He loved the scratching of pencil against paper when he was this focused: it meant something was happening.
When the clock read midnight, Colin put his pencil down. He looked up at Lindsey, who was standing on one foot, bent over the pool table at an absurdly awkward angle. Hassan seemed to have left the room. “Hey,” said Colin.
“Oh, you’re out of the Twilight Zone,” she said. “How’s the Theorem?”
“Okay. I don’t really know if it will work yet. Where’s Hassan?”
“He went to bed. I asked you if you wanted to play, but I don’t think you heard me, so I figured I’d just play against myself for a while. I’m beating me pretty handily.”
Colin stood up and sniffed. “I think I’m allergic to this house.”
“It could be Princess,” Lindsey said. “This is actually Princess’s room. Shh. She’s sleeping.” Colin followed Lindsey to the pool table and knelt down beside her. Beneath the table, a large sphere that initially seemed to be a ball of shaggy carpet grew and then shrunk rhythmically, breathing. “She’s always sleeping.”
“I’m allergic to pet dander,” Colin announced.
She smirked. “Yeah, well, Princess lived here first.” She sat back down with him, her legs tucked beneath her so that she seemed taller than Colin. “Hassan told me you’re good at anagramming,” she said.
“Yeah,” Colin answered. “Good at anagramming—dragon maggot mania.”
Lindsey’s hand (she’d painted her fingernails an electric blue since yesterday) was suddenly against his forearm, and Colin tensed up from surprise. When he turned his head to look at her, she placed her hand back in her lap. “So,” she went on, “you’re a genius at making words out of other words, but you can’t make new words out of thin air.”