I always said sheltering a boy like that isn’t good for him. Doesn’t matter if his IQ is sixty or six-hundred; it just isn’t natural. Turns out his IQ is so high they couldn’t even measure it. I don’t know this firsthand. Heard it from the only man there who would talk to me: Brandon Carpenter. Everyone else only says to me, “Stick with cleaning the floors, Howard,” which is what I was hired to do.
Truth is, that’s the way it started out. I didn’t know what was going on in the building. It was just another job to me. But I’ve always been a good observer, and I noticed how secretive everyone was there. Like the way they’d speak to each other in whispers. Or the way they’d walk down the halls, looking back to make sure no one was following.
’Course, I was the one always following them, but they never really noticed me because I’m just the janitor. I mop the floors, I clean the bathrooms, I drag my cart of supplies around, and then I leave. After a while, I started working there for longer hours. I started staying late at night, even after I was done, because I was curious. I wanted to see what the fuss was about around there.
Maybe if I wasn’t the janitor, they would’ve noticed me when I walked up to Room #16 on the second floor. Maybe they would’ve told me to go away and mind my own business. But because I looked like I was supposed to be there, they didn’t notice me.
They were all looking into the room through one of those one-way mirrors. The room was bright white, and there was a boy in there. But he was all alone, sitting at a desk, reading. There was a bed in there, too, which made me realize he was living there. He had everything anybody would need: a wardrobe filled with clothes, a stocked fridge, and a big bookshelf that stretched up to the ceiling.
He didn’t have a TV, though. Or a place to exercise and have fun. I remember when I was a boy, I loved playing basketball with my friends. But this boy didn’t have friends, either. He was alone in there. He couldn’t even see the men watching him from outside, scribbling notes on pads of paper. I felt bad for him.
I found out later from my friend Brandon Carpenter that this boy was the genius. I’m not so book-smart myself, but even I’ve heard of Peter Montgomery, the famous novelist who “changed the way the novel is written.” And who did he marry but Mary Wells, American’s poet laureate who “redefined poetry itself.” The boy in the room was their son, Magnus. He was the genius.
Everything I know is on account of Brandon Carpenter. He was the only one there who didn’t ignore me. He was real courteous. Always said hello when we walked past each other. I remember I had a conversation with him once about the Knicks, and how they were a lot better this year but still had a ways to go if they wanted to win a championship. Anyway, he was the only one who was really willing to talk to me.
One day I found him alone, watching the boy in the white room. At first I walked by with my cart, making like I was going to pass him. But then I stopped.
“Why do they keep Magnus in there all alone?” I said. This was after I figured out the boy’s name, and who his parents were. I’m a good listener.
Brandon gave me a look like he knew I was curious, but he didn’t want to tell me anything too important.
“It’s just,” I said, “he’s such a smart kid. I don’t get why anybody would wanna keep him locked up.”
Brandon looked at me. “Your name’s Howard, right?” I nodded. “Listen, I know this must look odd, but I didn’t make this decision myself. It’s his parents’ will that Magnus live under these conditions.”
“But why?” I said.
“Because of who he is. Theodore and Mary feel he has the potential to do great things, to exceed even past the legacy of his parents. The way Magnus has performed on his tests confirms their suspicions. He is a once-in-a-generation genius, a marvel of his time. Magnus’s parents foresaw who their son would become, and so when he was born, they laid a careful plan for his upbringing.
“They wanted their son to become an artist like them. They wanted him to embrace language and storytelling and create a style and voice of his own. But in spite of their fame, Theodore and Mary are modest people. They see their own weakness. In a way, this weakness dates back to the beginning of time, to the very first artist.
“This is the argument I heard from them: every great writer or thinker in the history of the world didn’t make his accomplishments solely on his own merit. Aristotle had to draw upon Plato for ideas, and Plato from Socrates, and Socrates from all the great thinkers who came before him. The list goes on and on. It doesn’t matter that some rejected previous works in favor of their own. This rejection of the past is also an acknowledgement of the past, and thus the artist cannot say he performed without influence from others. Every great movement is only a reaction to a previous movement: Romanticism to the Enlightenment, Realism to Romanticism, Modernism to Realism, and Postmodernism to Modernism. Does no great thinker act on his merit alone? Must every work of art be a reaction to a previous one? Is there such a thing as pristine art, untainted by the great but often flawed artists of the past?
“Theodore Montgomery and Mary Wells asked these same questions when they conceived Magnus. They wanted their son to be different. They didn’t want his art to be influenced by what came before him. They wanted him to write with only his thoughts as inspiration. They wanted to produce the perfect artist.
“So they came up with a strictly regimented schedule for Magnus. He would have access to an almost unlimited treasure trove of knowledge. He would read all about the scientific advancements, learn all about the history of his planet, all of the lives that came before him. Mathematics, physics, history, psychology, biology, chemistry: all of this knowledge, he would have access to. Theodore and Mary would give their son nearly everything, but they would leave out one key discipline: art.
“Magnus has never read a poem. He has never seen a painting. He would not even know what to expect if you gave him a short story. By sheltering Magnus from any artistic influences, they ensured that he could create freely, that he wouldn’t be held back by the thinkers of the past. When it comes to knowledge and information, Magnus has a wealth of resources to draw upon. But art is not one of them.”
I listened to Brandon, but I only got bits and pieces of what he was saying. It just didn’t make any sense to me. I felt bad for the boy. I wanted to teach him how to play basketball. I wanted to give him a book to read. I still remember this one from high school called Robinson Crusoe. It was the first real novel, my teacher had said. But I always liked it ’cause it was about one man stranded on an island, and he could live by himself and do whatever he wanted. He got into a lot of danger, Crusoe did, but he always got out of it. I always wondered what Magnus would think of this book.
But I couldn’t give it to him, even if they’d let me meet him. Magnus had never read a book before, and he was never going to. He couldn’t even watch TV. No stories of any kind. This made me sad. I like stories. I like watching things. I like laughing at hilarious moments and getting tense and on the edge of my seat for the suspenseful ones.
I wanted to know more about this boy, Magnus, so I asked Brandon questions.
“How long has he been cooped up like this?”
“He’ll be turning twenty-one next week.”
I couldn’t believe it. “The boy’s going to be able to enjoy a beer soon, and you won’t even let him outside?”
“He’s been outside,” Brandon said. “A few times a day, we take him on supervised walks. He isn’t permitted to talk to anyone, of course, and we bring him back later on.”
“Is he happy like this?” I asked. “Does he ever want to go out and enjoy the world for real? Maybe talk to someone for once?”
Brandon shrugged. “Sometimes he’s made requests like that, but for the majority of the time he’s happy the way things are. It’s the only life he knows.” I must’ve looked disappointed, so Brandon said, “If it makes you feel any better, pretty soon they’re going to release him. As I told you, he’s turning twenty-one, and that is the age when most geniuses come out with their first great work. Sometimes it’s even their masterpiece. Magnus is becoming his own person, developing into the artist he will be for the rest of his life. When the day comes that he is fully-formed, on his twenty-first birthday, we will unleash him onto the world. He’ll be able to read whatever he’d like after that.
“He’s been working on his first poem for some time now, and we are all eager to read it. Magnus is very secretive, however. He insists on waiting until his twenty-first birthday, the day he will break out as a revolutionary new artist. I can’t wait for that day.”
“So after he comes out with his poem, I’ll be able to talk to him?” I said. I looked through the window, into the white room. Magnus was busy studying at his desk with a stack of books in front of him. “I’d really like to talk to him.”
Brandon laughed. “Yes, Howard, but you might have to wait in line. Magnus is going to be a popular man.”
“All right,” I said. “But I still don’t think this was a good idea. I don’t care how smart he is. No one should grow up without talking to anyone, without reading a good story.”
“I appreciate your opinion,” Brandon said, “but you aren’t in charge here. All of this has happened in accordance with his parents’ wishes. And pretty soon, you’ll understand why this had to be so.”
“Okay,” I said, but I still didn’t really believe him. “I’ll just go back to cleaning the floors.”
The week passed pretty quickly for me. I got caught up in a lot of things. Bought my wife this gold necklace for our anniversary (been saving up the money for a long time). Played basketball with a few of my buddies (almost twisted my ankle after I tried to block a shot). I even cleaned out a lot of the junk in the apartment, got it ready for when my wife (her name’s Jane) had her parents come over for dinner.
I almost forgot about the genius boy Magnus and my talks with Brandon. But I didn’t forget his twenty-first birthday. The night before, I went out and bought a big cake at the bakery. I drew his name on it with icing: Magnus Montgomery. And even though they crowded the cake a bit, I got all twenty-one candles on there nice and neat, and I even added an extra one for good luck.
It was Magnus’s big day, so I knew he wouldn’t have much time for me. I wasn’t working that day, so I hung around at home for a while. I sat down on the couch and watched some crime drama on TV, and then I remembered Robinson Crusoe and how I wanted Magnus to read it. So I spent a long time trying to find that old book. I eventually dug it up in the closet. Found it underneath a pile of old books. But the cover was still attached, and the pages were still good, so I took it with me.
As I got the cake ready, I started to get excited to see Magnus. I had so many things to teach him. I wanted to take him out for his first beer. Invite him to dinner when my wife’s parents come. Play basketball with him. And most of all I wanted to see the look on his face when he read his first story.
But then I remembered Brandon and what he said about Magnus being a popular man. He wouldn’t have time for me because he had to talk about his big poem. I wondered what Magnus’s poem was going to be like. I imagined it as a super long poem, with tons of references and even footnotes at the bottom, just like that long and confusing poem I read in high school. But then I remembered that Magnus had never read any other poems or stories, and so I just pictured his really long poem without footnotes and with gaps where the references would be.
After dinner, I got all my things together, packed up the car, and headed over to see Magnus.
I figured there’d be a lot of people there, crowded around his room, but all I saw was Brandon Carpenter. I brought the cake over and put it down on the floor.
“Where is everyone?” I said.
Brandon looked pretty mad. “Gone.”
“Gone?” I repeated. I looked through the window. Magnus was on his bed, just lying there. “But what about all the people that wanted to see him? What about how popular he is? What about his poem?”
“His poem.” Brandon laughed. “Here’s his poem.”
He handed me a piece of paper, and I was confused because I had pictured it as long and complicated. But it was only three lines:
I am in a white room.
I am alone.
It is white.
I didn’t understand. I said, “This is the poem?”
“We put so much time and energy into this kid,” Brandon said. “And for what? It was for nothing. All of it: the selection of books, the careful seclusion, the meticulous note-taking.” He took the paper back and crumbled it up. “He spent so much time laboring over this piece of garbage! When he read it out loud, he said he spent months scrutinizing every word, making sure each one was perfect. Ha, what a joke.” Brandon threw the paper on the floor.
“So that’s why no one wants to see him anymore,” I said. “He didn’t turn out the way you wanted.”
“I guess you can say that.”
“Hey, do you mind if I talk to him?” I asked.
I pointed to the cake. “It’s his birthday. It’s the least I can do.”
“Yeah, all right,” Brandon said. “I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.”
I picked up the cake, along with my bag, and Brandon let me inside. Magnus was still in bed. I walked up to him and put the cake down on the table. I took out a match to light it. Magnus didn’t roll over to look at me until all twenty-one candles, including the extra one for good luck, were lit.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I’m Howard. I heard it’s your birthday, so I thought I’d bring you a cake.”
Magnus looked confused. “Didn’t you hear? They repudiated me. They disparaged my poem and denounced me as a poet.”
“So what?” I said. “You’re young. You’ll have plenty of time to make up for whatever mistakes you make. But you only turn twenty-one once.”
He sat up. “You got me a cake?”
“’Course I did,” I said. “Do you want to blow out the candles?”
He looked at me strangely and said, “I’m supposed to blow them out?”
“You never had a birthday cake before?” He looked sad. “That’s okay. All you have to do is take a big breath, and then blow out as many candles as you can. I managed to fit twenty-two on there, so it’ll be pretty tough.”
Magnus smiled. He took a big breath and blew, and he only needed a second try to blow out the rest.
“That was interesting,” he said as I cut him a piece.
“Hey, I have something else for you.” I got out the book from my bag. “It’s a really cool story. I think you’d like it.”
I handed him the book. He looked at the title like he never saw a book before. He opened it to the first page. “It’s a story?” he said. “With characters? And a plot?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s about this one guy who gets shipwrecked on an island and has to fend for himself. I figured you’d like to read it.”
Magnus smiled. “Thank you, Howard. I would.”
I smiled back. “Listen, have you ever played basketball before?”
The next day, I taught Magnus how to play basketball. Dribbling was tough, but he started to get the hang of it. He even got his shot down once I taught him the correct form and everything. His first shot went a little too far and went over the hoop and hit the fence. But the second hit the backboard and sunk right into the hoop. I could tell he’d never done anything like that before. He went up to me, real excited, and I told him he did a great job.
Nobody really pays attention to Magnus anymore. Ever since that poem of his, everyone kind of forgot about the genius and his “incalculable IQ.” He lives with his parents now, but I visit him now and again to play basketball and talk about what he’s been up to. He reads a lot, sometimes dozens of books a day. Can’t enough of the stuff. Says he’ll try writing again, but not till he’s read enough. I kind of know what he means. You can’t do something without knowing what others did first. It’s what I tried to tell Brandon, but he never listened.
I saw Brandon once, a few weeks after Magnus was sent home. I was working one night at the building, cleaning the floors as usual. I was trying to get done early so I could go home and get the house ready. Jane’s parents were coming the next day for dinner, and Magnus was, too. So I was hurrying to get done, and I almost went by Brandon without seeing him. But I saw him. I knew to stop because of where I was standing: in front of Magnus’s old room. Only now the lights were off and you couldn’t see inside. But Brandon stood there all the same, just looking. I went up to him.
“Hello, Howard,” he said.
“Hey, Brandon. How’ve you been getting along?”
“Oh, just fine,” he said, but the look on his face told me he was lying. I gave him a look of my own. “Well, I’ve been better. I was so convinced that Magnus was going to be a prodigy, even better than his parents. I never once questioned it. I never once thought I might be wrong.”
“How do you know you were?” I said.
“Are you kidding? Did you read his poem? He’s a joke now, Howard. He’s done. Finished. This whole experiment was a failure.”
“Magnus isn’t done,” I said. “I visit him sometimes, and he tells me about all the books he’s read since I last saw him. Then he shows me a long list of books he’s going to read. I’d say he’s just started, if you ask me.”
“So what?” Brandon said. “He can read all he wants. That’s not going to make him the poet laureate like his mother, or a Nobel Prize winning novelist like his father.”
“He’s still young,” I said. “Give him time. I’m willing to bet you’ll see something from him before long.”
Brandon looked into the dark empty room. “You were right, Howard. This isn’t a way to raise a boy.”
“I told you so,” I said. “But I guess nobody ever listens to a janitor. Even though we’re the best observers.”
Brandon gave a small laugh and hit me on the back. “Do you want to get a drink?” he said. “I need to cool down after all of this.”
“Only if I can invite Magnus.” Brandon looked at me funny, but I smiled and said, “He can drink now, and I’d bet he’d like to try a beer.”
So the three of us went out for drinks, and I bought Magnus his first beer.