“But you’ll win,” his dad would say. “You have to imagine that, Colin, that one day they will all look back on their lives and wish they’d been you. You’ll have what everyone else wants in the end. ”
But it did not take until the end. It took until KranialKidz.
At the tail end of Christmas break his junior year, Colin received a call from a cable station he’d never heard of called CreaTVity. He didn’t watch much TV, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because no one had heard of CreaTVity. They’d gotten his number from Krazy Keith, who they’d contacted because of his scholarly articles about prodigy. They wanted Colin on their game show. His parents disapproved, but their “active, results-oriented” parenting meant that they gave Colin a measure of freedom to make his own decisions. And he wanted to go on the show, because (a) the ten-thousand-dollar first prize was a lot of money, and (b) he would be on television, and (c) 10K is a lot of money.
They gave Colin a makeover when he arrived for the first taping, turning him into the cool, snide, troublemaking prodigy. They bought him glasses with rectangular wire rims and caked his hair with endless product so that he had a kind of curly, mussy’do like the coolest kids at school. They gave him five outfits—including a pair of designer jeans, which hugged his ass like they were a needy boyfriend, and a T-shirt that read, in a hand-printed scrawl: SLACKER. And then they taped all six preliminary rounds of the show in one day, pausing to change the prodigies into new outfits. Colin won all six rounds, leaving him ready for the finals. His opponent there was Karen Aronson, a towheaded twelve-year-old kid studying for her PhD in math. Karen had been cast as the adorabl
e one. In the week between the first tapings and the final, Colin wore his new trendy kid button-downs and his designer jeans to school, and people asked him, Are you really going to be on TV? And then a cool kid named Herbie57 told Hassan that this girl Marie Caravolli liked Colin. And since Colin had, not too long before, been dumped by Katherine XVIII, Colin asked Marie out on a date, because Marie, a perennially tan Italian beauty who would have won Homecoming Queen if the Kalman School did that kind of thing, was the hottest girl he had ever, or would ever, come across. Let alone talk to. Let alone date. He’d wanted to keep his Katherine streak alive, of course. But Marie Caravolli was the kind of girl you break streaks for.
And that’s when the funny thing happened. He got off the train after school on the day of his date; everything was perfectly planned. He had just enough time to walk home, clean all the fast-food wrappers and soda cans out of the Hearse, take a shower, buy some flowers from the White Hen, and pick up Marie. But when he turned onto his street, he saw Katherine I sitting on the steps outside his house. As he squinted at her, watching her pull her knees up almost to her chin, he realized he’d never seen Katherine without Krazy Keith.
“Is everything okay?” Colin asked as he approached.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I’m sorry to drop by unannounced. It’s just I’ve got this French test?” she said as if it were a question. “Tomorrow? And I don’t want my dad to know what a dumbass I am in French and so I thought maybe—I tried to call, but I don’t have your cell number. So anyway, I figured that since I know a world-famous TV quiz show star, I could maybe get tutoring from him. ” She smiled.
“Um,” Colin said. And in the next few seconds, he tried to work out what it would really be like to date Marie. Colin had always been jealous of people, like Hassan, who just know how to make friends. But the risk of being able to win over anyone, he found himself thinking, was that you might pick the wrong people.
He imagined the best possible scenario: Marie actually, improbably, ends up liking him, whereupon Colin and Hassan vault up the social ladder and get to eat lunch at a different table, and get invited to some parties. Now, Colin had seen enough movies to know what happens when dorks go to cool-kid parties: generally, the dorks either get thrown into the pool58 or they become drunk, vacuous cool kids themselves. Neither seemed like a good option. Also there was the fact that Colin did not, technically, like Marie. He didn’t even know her.
“Hold on,” he told Katherine I. And then he called Marie. She’d given him the number earlier that very day, during their second-ever conversation, 59 a remarkable fact considering they’d attended the same school together for nearly a decade. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “But I’ve got a family emergency. . . . Yeah, no, my uncle is in the hospital, and we have to go see him. . . . Well, yeah, I’m sure he’ll be fine. . . . Okay. Cool. Sorry, again. ”
And so it came to pass that the only time Colin came anywhere close to ever dumping anyone, it was Marie Caravolli, who everyone agreed was the most attractive individual in American history. Instead, he tutored Katherine I. And one session turned into one each week, and then into two each week, and by the next month, she came over to his house with Krazy Keith to watch, with Colin’s parents and Hassan, as Colin annihilated a poor sap named Sanjiv Reddy in the first episode of KranialKidz. Later that night, after Hassan had gone home, while Krazy Keith and Colin’s parents were drinking red wine, Colin and Katherine Carter snuck out of the house to have a cup of coffee at Café Sel Marie.
The folloWing Thursday, Colin woke up to the sounds of the rooster mixing with Hassan’s prayers. Colin rolled out of bed, pulled on a T-shirt, peed, and then entered Hassan’s room through the bathroom. Hassan was back in bed, his eyes closed.
“Is there a way you could pray less loudly? I mean, shouldn’t God be able to hear you even if you whisper?” he asked.
“I’m calling in sick,” Hassan said without opening his eyes. “I think I have a sinus infection, and also I need a day off. Jesus. This working business is all right, but I need to sit in my boxers and watch Judge Judy. Do you realize that I haven’t seen Judge Judy in, like, twelve days? Imagine if you were separated from the love of your life for twelve days. ” With his lips pursed, Colin stared at Hassan silently. Hassan blinked open his eyes. “Oh. Right. Sorry. ”
“You can’t call in sick. Your boss works here. In the house. She’ll know you’re not sick. ”
“She spends Thursdays at the factory, dumbass. You need to pay better attention. It’s the perfect day to call in sick. I just need to charge the emotional batteries. ”
“You’ve been charging the batteries all year! You haven’t done anything in twelve months!”
Hassan smirked. “Don’t you have to go to work or something?”
“At least call your mom and tell her to send a deposit to Loyola. The deposit deadline is in four weeks. I looked online for you. ”
Hassan didn’t open his eyes. “I’m trying to think of a word. God, it’s right on the tip of my tongue. Duh—doo—dii. Oh. Right. Dingleberries, motherfugger. Dingle. Berries. ”
When Colin got downstairs, he saw that Hollis was up already—or maybe she’d just stayed up all night—and dressed in a pink pantsuit.
“Beautiful day in the country,” she said. “High’s only 83 today. But Lord, I sure am glad Thursday only comes around once a week. ”
When Colin sat down beside her at the dining room table, he asked, “What do you do on Thursdays?”
“Oh, I just like to go in to the factory and check on things in the morning. And then around noon I drive to Memphis and visit our warehouse. ”
“Why is the warehouse in Memphis instead of Gutshot?” asked Colin.
“Lord, you ask a lot of questions,” Hollis answered. “So listen. Y’all have interviewed most everyone who works at the factory now. So I’m gonna start sending you out to the other folks in Gutshot, factory retirees, and that sort of thing. I still just need you to ask the four questions, but you might want to stay a bit longer, just to look polite and all. ”
Colin nodded. After a bit of silence, he said, “Hassan is sick. He has a sinus infection. ”
“Poor thing. Okay, you’ll go out with Lindsey. It’s a bit of a drive today. You’re going to see the oldsters. ”