“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?”