In second grade, Robert Caseman and his ilk matured a bit. Finally recognizing that words can never hurt, but sticks and stones can sure break bones, they invented the Abdominal Snowman. 12 They would order him to lie on the ground (and for some reason he’d agree), and then four guys would take a limb apiece and pull. It was a kind of drawing-and-quartering, but with seven-year-olds tugging it wasn’t fatal, just embarrassing and dumb. It made him feel like no one liked him, which, in fact, no one did. His single consolation was that one day, he would matter. He’d be famous. And none of them ever would. That’s why, his mom said, they made fun of him in the first place. “They’re just jealous,” she said. But Colin knew better. They weren’t jealous. He just wasn’t likable. Sometimes it’s that simple.
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.
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?”
“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.