And so both Colin and his parents were utterly pleased and relieved when, just after the start of third grade, Colin Singleton proved his sociological well-being by (briefly) winning the heart of the prettiest eight-year-old girl in all Chicago.

four

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Colin pulled into a rest stop near Paducah, Kentucky, around three in the morning, leaned his seat back until it pressed against Hassan’s legs in the backseat, and slept. Some four hours later, he awoke—Hassan was kicking him through the seat.

“Kafir—I’m paralyzed back here. Lean that shit forward. I gotta pray.”

He’d been dreaming his memories of Katherine. Colin reached down and pulled the lever, his seat snapping forward.

“Fug,” Hassan said. “Did something die in my throat last night?”

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“Um, I’m sleeping.”

“Because my mouth tastes like an open grave. Did you pack any toothpaste?”

“There’s a word for that, actually. Fetor hepaticus. It happens during late st—”

“Not interesting,” said Hassan, which is what he said whenever Colin started going off on a random tangent. “Toothpaste?”

“Toiletry kit in the duffel in the trunk,” Colin answered.13

Hassan slammed the door behind him, then slammed the trunk shut a few moments later, and as Colin wiped the sleep from his eyes, he figured he might as well wake up. While Hassan knelt on the concrete outside, fac-ingMecca, Colin went to the bathroom (there graffiti in the stall read: CALL DANA FOR BLOW. Colin wondered whether Dana provided fellatio or cocaine, and then, for the first time since he’d been lying motionless on the carpet of his bedroom, he indulged his greatest passion. He anagrammed: Call Dana for blow; Ballad for a clown).

He walked out into the warmth of Kentucky and sat down at a picnic table across from Hassan, who seemed to be attacking the table with the pocketknife attached to his key chain.

“What are you doing?” Colin folded his arms on the table and then put his head down.

“Well, while you were in the bathroom, I sat down at this picnic table here in Bumblefug, Kentucky, and noticed that someone had carved that GOD HATES FAG, which, aside from being a grammatical nightmare, is absolutely ridiculous. So I’m changing it to ‘God Hates Baguettes.’ It’s tough to disagree with that. Everybody hates baguettes.”

“J’aime les baguettes,” Colin muttered.

“You aime lots of stupid crap.”

While Hassan worked to make God hates baguettes, Colin’s mind raced like this: (1) baguettes (2) Katherine XIX (3) the ruby necklace he’d bought her five months and seventeen days before (4) most rubies come from India, which (5) used to be under control of the United Kingdom, of which (6) Winston Churchill was the prime minister, and (7) isn’t it interesting how a lot of good politicians, like Churchill and also Gandhi, were bald while (8) a lot of evil dictators, like Hitler and Stalin and Saddam Hussein, were mustachioed? But (9) Mussolini only wore a mustache sometimes, and (10) lots of good scientists had mustaches, like the Italian Ruggero Oddi, who (11) discovered (and named for himself) the intestinal tract’s sphincter of Oddi, which is just one of several lesser-known sphincters like (12) the pupillary sphincter.

And speaking of which: when Hassan Harbish showed up at the Kalman School in tenth grade after a decade of home-schooling, he was plenty smart, albeit not prodigiously so. That fall, he was in Calculus I with Colin, who was a ninth-grader. But they never spoke, because Colin had given up on pursuing friendships with individuals not named Katherine. He hated almost all the students at Kalman, which was just as well, since by and large they hated him back.

About two weeks into class, Colin raised his hand and Ms. Sorenstein said, “Yes, Colin?” Colin was holding his hand underneath his glasses, against his left eye, in obvious discomfort.

“May I be excused for a moment?” he asked.

“Is it important?”

“I think I have an eyelash in my pupillary sphincter,” replied Colin, and the class erupted into laughter. Ms. Sorenstein sent him on his way, and then Colin went into the bathroom and, staring in the mirror, plucked the eyelash from his eye, where the pupillary sphincter is located.

After class, Hassan found Colin eating a peanut butter and no jelly sandwich on the wide stone staircase at the school’s back entrance.

“Look,” Hassan said. “This is my ninth day at a school in my entire life, and yet somehow I have already grasped what you can and cannot say. And you cannot say anything about your own sphincter.”

“It’s part of your eye,” Colin said defensively. “I was being clever.”

“Listen, dude. You gotta know your audience. That bit would kill at an ophthalmologist convention, but in calculus class, everybody’s just wondering how the hell you got an eyelash there.”

And so they were friends.

“I’ve gotta say, I don’t think much of Kentucky,” Hassan said. Colin tilted his head up, resting his chin on his arms. He scanned the rest-stop parking lot for a moment. His missing piece was nowhere to be found.

“Everything here reminds me of her, too. We used to talk about going to Paris. I mean, I don’t even want to go to Paris, but I just keep imagining how excited she’d be at the Louvre. We’d go to great restaurants and maybe drink red wine. We even looked for hotels on the Web. We could have done that on the KranialKidz money.”14

“Dude, if Kentucky is going to remind you of Paris, we’re in a hell of a pickle.”

Colin sat up and looked across the poorly kept lawn of the rest stop. And then he looked down at Hassan’s clever handiwork. “Baguettes,” Colin explained.

“Oh, my God. Give me the keys.” Colin reached into his pocket and tossed the keys lazily across the picnic table. Hassan snatched them as he stood, then made his way to Satan’s Hearse. Colin followed, forlorn.

Forty miles down the road, still in Kentucky, Colin had curled up against the passenger window and was starting to fall asleep when Hassan announced, “World’s Largest Wooden Crucifix—Next Exit!”

“We’re not stopping to see the World’s Largest Wooden Crucifix.”

“We shitsure are,” Hassan said. “It must be huge!”

“Hass, why would we stop and see the World’s Largest Wooden Crucifix?”

“It’s a road trip! It’s about adventure!” Hassan pounded on the steering wheel to emphasize his excitement. “It’s not like we have somewhere to go. Do you really want to die having never seen the World’s Largest Wooden Crucifix?”

Colin thought it over. “Yes. First off, neither of us is Christian. Second off, spending the summer chasing after idiotic roadside attractions is not going to fix anything. Third off, crucifixes remind me of her.”

“Of who?”

“Of her.”

“Kafir, she was an atheist!”

“Not always,” Colin said softly. “She used to wear one a long time ago. Before we dated.” He stared out the window, pine trees rushing past. His immaculate memory called forth the silver crucifix.

“Your sitzpinkling disgusts me,” Hassan said, but he gave the Hearse some extra gas and shot past the exit.

five

Two hours after passing the World’s Largest Wooden Crucifix, Hassan brought it back up.

“Did you already know that the World’s Largest Wooden Crucifix was in Kentucky?” he shouted, his window down and his left hand waving through the fast-passing air.

“Not before today,” Colin answered. “But I did know that the world’s largest wooden church is in Finland.”

“Not interesting,” Hassan said. Hassan’s not-interestings had helped Colin figure out what other people did and did not enjoy hearing about. Colin had never gotten that before Hassan, because everyone else either humored or ignored him. Or, in the case of Katherines, humored then ignored. Thanks to Colin’s collected list of things that weren’t interesting,15 he could hold a halfway normal conversation.

Two hundred miles and one pit stop later, safely removed from Kentucky, they were midway between Nashville and Memphis. The wind through the open windows dried their sweat without actually cooling them much, and Colin was wondering how they could get to a place with air-conditioningwhen he noticed the hand-painted billboard towering above a field of cotton or corn or soybeans or something.16 EXIT 212—SEE THE GRAVE OF ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND—THE CORPSE THAT STARTED WORLD WAR I.

“That just doesn’t seem plausible,” Colin noted quietly.

“I’m just saying that I think we should go somewhere,” Hassan said, not hearing him. “I mean, I like this interstate as much as the next guy, but the farther south we go, the hotter it gets, and I’m already sweating like a whore in church.”

Colin rubbed his sore neck, thinking he would never spend another night in the car when he had plenty of money to pay for hotels. “Did you see that sign?” he asked.

“What sign?”

“The one about the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.”

With little regard for the road, Hassan turned to Colin, smiled broadly, and punched him softly on the shoulder. “Excellent. Excellent. And anyway, it’s lunchtime.”

As Colin climbed out of the passenger’s seat in the Hardee’s parking lot at Exit 212 in Carver County, Tennessee, he called his mom.

“Hey, we’re in Tennessee.”

“How are you feeling, buddy?”

“Better, I guess. I don’t know. It’s hot. Did, um, did anyone call?”

His mom paused, and he could just feel her wretched pity. “Sorry, love. I’ll tell, uh, anyone, to call your cell.”

“Thanks, Mom. I gotta go eat lunch at Hardee’s.”

“Sounds delightful. Wear your seat belt! I love you!”

“You too.”

After a relentlessly greasy Monster Thickburger in the empty restaurant, Colin asked the woman behind the cash register, whose body seemed to have suffered from perhaps a few too many meals at her place of employment, how to get to Franz Ferdinand’s grave.

“Who?” she asked.

“The Archduke Franz Ferdinand.”

The woman stared at him blankly for a moment, and then her eyes lit up. “Oh y’all are looking for Gutshot. Boy, you’re headed for the sticks, aren’t you?”

“Gutshot?”

“Yes. Now what you want to do is you pull out of the parking lot and you turn right—away from the highway I mean, and then in about two miles, the road’s gonna T. There’s a closed-down Citgo there. You take a right onto that road and then you’re gonna drive past a whole lot of nothing for ten or fifteen miles. You’ll go up a bit of a hill and then that’s Gutshot.”

“Gutshot?”

“Gutshot, Tennessee. That’s where they got the Archduke.”

“So a right and then a right.”

“Yup. Y’all have fun now, y’hear?”

“Gutshot,” Colin repeated to himself. “Okay, thanks.”

Since its last paving, the ten- or fifteen-mile-long road in question seemed to have been at the epicenter of an earthquake. Colin drove cautiously, but still, the worn shocks of the Hearse creaked and groaned at the endless pot-holes and waving undulations of pavement.

“Maybe we don’t need to see the Archduke,” said Hassan.

“We’re on a road trip. It’s about adventure,” Colin mimicked.

“Do you think the people of Gutshot, Tennessee, have ever seen an actual, living Arab?”

“Oh, don’t be so paranoid.”

“Or for that matter do you think they’ve ever seen a Jew-fro?”

Colin thought that over for a moment, and then said, “Well, the woman at Hardee’s was nice to us.”

“Right, but the woman at Hardee’s called Gutshot ‘the sticks,’” Hassan said, imitating the woman’s accent. “I mean, if Hardee’s is urban, I’m not sure I want to see rural.” Hassan rolled on with his diatribe, and Colin laughed and smiled at all the right places, but he just kept driving, calculating the odds that the Archduke, who died in Sarajevo more than ninety years before, and who’d randomly popped into Colin’s brain the previous night, would end up between Colin and wherever he was heading. It was irrational, and Colin hated thinking irrationally, but he couldn’t help but wonder whether perhaps being in the presence of the Archduke might reveal something to Colin about his missing piece. But of course the universe does not conspire to put you in one place rather than another, Colin knew. He thought of Democritus: “Everywhere man blames nature and fate, yet his fate is mostly but the echo of his character and passions, his mistakes and weaknesses.”17

And so it was not fate, but Colin Singleton’s character and passions, his mistakes and weaknesses, that finally brought him to Gutshot, Tennessee—POPULATION 864, as the roadside sign read. At first, Gutshot looked like everything that came before it, only with a better-paved road. On each side of the Hearse, fields of squat, luminously green plants stretched out into a gray forever, broken up only by the occasional horse pasture, barn, or stand of trees. Eventually, Colin saw before him on the side of the road a two-story cinder-block building painted a ghastly pink.

“I think that’s Gutshot,” he said, nodding toward the building.

On the side of the building, a hand-painted sign read THE KINGDOM OF GUTSHOT—ETERNAL RESTING PLACE OF THE ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND / ICE-COLD BEER / SODA / BAIT.

Colin pulled into the store’s gravel driveway. Unbuckling his seat belt, he said to Hassan, “I wonder if they keep the Archduke with the soda or the bait.”

Hassan’s deep laugh filled the car. “Shit, Colin made a funny. This place is like magic for you. Shame about how we’re gonna die here, though. I mean, seriously. An Arab and a half-Jew enter a store in Tennessee. It’s the beginning of a joke, and the punch line is ‘sodomy.’” Nonetheless, Colin heard Hassan shuffling his feet on the gravel parking lot behind him.

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