P. S. I’m writing this note at 5:30 A. M. , so don’t wake me up.
“Nice bedhead, by the way, kafir. You look like you stuck a fork in a light socket. ”
“Did you know that in 1887, Nikola Tesla’s hair stood on end for an entire week after he passed fifty thousand volts through his body to prove that elec—”
“Kafir,” Hassan said, putting his fork down on his plate. “Absolutely, completely not interesting. Now if Nikola Tesla, whoever the hell that is, had a long-term love affair with a one-legged chicken, and his chicken-lust made his hair stand on end—then, yes, by all means, share with me this bounty of hilarious history. But not electricity, kafir. You know better. ”53
Colin searched through a labyrinth of cabinets for a plate, a cup, and some silverware. He scooped eggs from the frying pan onto a plate and poured himself water through the fancy push-this-lever-and-water-comes-out refrigerator.
“How are the eggs?” asked Hassan.
“Good, dude. Good. You’re a good cook. ”
“No shit. That’s how Daddy got so fat. By the way, I’ve decided to start referring to myself exclusively as ‘Daddy. ’ Everytime Daddy would otherwise say ‘I’ or ‘Me,’ Daddy is now going to say ‘Daddy. ’ You like?”
“Oh, yes. I love. ”
“Love what?” asked Lindsey Lee Wells as she came into the living room wearing her paisley pajamas, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. C
olin noticed she looked different, but not quite how, and then he saw it. No makeup. She looked prettier than she ever had before—Colin always preferred girls without makeup.
Colin sneezed, and then noticed that Princess was following in Lindsey’s wake. XIX had a dog, too—a miniature dachshund named Fireball Roberts.
No one looked more beautiful without makeup than Katherine. She never wore it, and never needed to. God, her blond hair in her face when the wind blew as they walked by the lake after school; the corners of her eyes crinkling when he first said “I love you”; the speed and assured softness with which she had replied, “And I love you. ” All roads led to her. She was the nexus of all the connections his brain made—the wheel’s hub.
When Colin looked up, Lindsey was reading the note from Hollis. “Christ, I guess I better get some pants on, then,” she said.
They piled into the Hearse after Lindsey successfully called shotgun. At the front door of Gutshot Textiles, they were met by a large man with a beard like Santa Claus’s but browner.
He hugged Lindsey with one arm, saying, “How’s my girl?” and she said, “I’m a’ight. How’s my Zeke?” He laughed. He shook Hassan’s hand, then Colin’s. Zeke walked them past a very loud room where machines seemed to smack against each other and into a room with a small brown plastic sign that read, THE STARNES WILSON BREAK ROOM.
Colin put the tape recorder down on a coffee table. The room seemed to have been furnished with stuff that employees could no longer bear to keep in their homes: a stomach-bile-yellow corduroy couch, a couple of black leather chairs with foam peeking out from innumerable cracks, and a Formica dining room table with six chairs. Above two vending machines hung a portrait of Elvis Presley that had been painted on velvet. Colin, Lindsey, and Hassan took the couch and Zeke sat in one of the leather chairs. Before they could even start asking their questions from Hollis, Zeke started talking.
“Hezekiah Wilson Jones, aged forty-two, divorced, two sons aged eleven and nine, Cody and Cobi, both on the honor roll. I was raised up in Bradford and moved here when I was thirteen on account of how my dad lost his gas station in a poker game—which is the kinda shit that happened to my old man regularly. He took a job at the factory. Started working here myself in the summers during high school and went full-time the day after I graduated. Worked here ever since. I’ve worked the line; I’ve worked quality control; and now I’m the day shift plant manager. What we do here, boys, is we take cotton—usually from Alabama or Tennessee. ” He stopped then and reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out an aluminum square. He unwrapped it, popped a square piece of chewing gum in his mouth and started talking again. “I quit smoking eleven years ago and still chew this Nicorette, which tastes like shit and ain’t cheap either. Don’t smoke. Now, the plant. ” For the next twenty minutes, Zeke walked them through the process of how cotton becomes string, and how those strings are then cut by a machine to a length of exactly two and one-eighth inches, and then how those strings are shipped off. A quarter of them, he said, get shipped directly to their biggest client, STASURE Tampons, and the rest go to a warehouse in Memphis and from there head out into the world of tamponery.
“Now, I got to get back to work, but what I’m going to do is I’m going to send in some people for twenty minutes, for their break, and you can ask them questions. You got any questions for me, by the way?”
“Yes, actually,” said Hassan. “Where would you live if you could live anywhere; what would you do for a living if you didn’t work for the factory; when did your people come to the country—wait you already answered that; and what do you think makes Gutshot special?”
Zeke pulled his bottom lip tight against his teeth, sucking on the Nicorette. “I’d live here,” he said. “If I didn’t work for the factory, I’d work for another one, probably. But maybe I’d start a tree-trimming business. My ex-brother-in-law’s got one, and he does right well. And what makes it special? Well, shit. For starters, our Coke machine is free. Just push the button, and Coke comes out. They ain’t got that at most jobs. Plus we got ourselves the lovely Miss Lindsey Lee, which most every town does not. All right, y’all. I’ve gotta get to work. ”
The moment Zeke left, Lindsey stood up. “This has been a blast, boys, but I’m going to walk to the store and go stare dreamily into the eyes of my boyfriend. Pick me up at five-thirty, okay?” And then she was gone. For a girl who’d be in deep shit if Colin or Hassan ratted her out to Hollis, Lindsey seemed quite confident. And that, Colin found himself thinking, must mean that we are friends. Almost by accident, and in just two days, Colin had made his second-ever friend.
Over the course of the next seven hours, Colin and Hassan interviewed twenty-six people, asking them all the same four questions. Colin listened to people who wanted to make a living with chain-saw sculpture or teaching elementary school. He found it mildly interesting that almost all of the interviewees said that of all the places in the world, they—just like Lindsey Lee Wells—would want to stay in Gutshot. But since Hassan asked most of the questions, Colin was free to focus in on his Theorem.
He remained convinced that romantic behavior was basically monotonous and predictable, and that therefore one could write a fairly straightforward formula that would predict the collision course of any two people. But he was worried that he might not be enough of a genius to make the connections. He just couldn’t imagine a way to correctly predict the other Katherines without screwing up the ones he’d already gotten down pat. And for some reason, his feared lack of genius made him miss K-19 more than he had since his face was pressed flat against his bedroom carpet. The missing piece in his stomach hurt so much—and eventually he stopped thinking about the Theorem and wondered only how something that isn’t there can hurt you.
At four-thirty, a woman walked in and announced she was the last uninterviewed employee of Gutshot Textiles currently at work. She removed a pair of thick gloves, blew her bangs up into the air with a puff of breath, and said, “They say one of you is a genius. ”
“I’m not a genius,” Colin said dispassionately.
“Well, you’re the closest thing I’ve got and I’ve got a question. How come the shower curtain always blows in when the water should be blowing it out?”
“That,” Hassan acknowledged, “is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the human condition. ”
“Actually,” Colin said, “I know. ” Colin smiled. It felt good to be useful again.
“No!” Hassan said. “Seriously?”