The Prodigy is a multi-part story, based on events taking place in central Kansas earlier this spring. This is Part Three. Part One can be found here. Part Two can be found here. Part three can be found here.
My patience had let me down in the motel, but now that I knew where Hanoch Warren could be found, I had a sense that I had completed my day's work, and that to press it further, here after dark, would be a mistake. This despite the fact that I felt annoyed at Pearson, who I hadn't remotely expected was withholding anything during our interview, much less a secret this big. I had been fooled utterly, and the prideful part of me was urging me to do something more dramatic and immediate. My hand even reached the handle at one point, but then the impulses were put in check and a cooler head prevailed. I drove back to the increasingly depressing motel and tossed and turned in the lumpy bed until I gave up and browsed the Internet, listening to several of Cainan's sermons on the Church of Luke website until I drifted off around 3 a.m.
In the morning, I drove back to Pearson's house without advance warning. Both parents were gone—his father was an executive at an insurance agency, his mother worked in Manhattan as a dean's assistant—but Pearson answered the door shirtless, wearing only a long pair of gym shorts.
"I had a couple more questions for you," I said. "You have a second?"
We took our same spots, him on the leather sofa, me on the edge of a reclining chair that must have been kept around for sentimental reasons, because its plaid fabric was faded and tattered. Today, the furniture felt like battle stations, though I was doing my best to convince him this wasn’t the case.
"It occurred to me that I forgot to ask you an important question. Did you see Hanoch again after the state championship?"
In fact, I hadn't forgotten, but now I wanted a better answer. A more artful journalist might have asked three or four unrelated questions first, re-establish whatever rapport had existed before dropping the big one, but already this story was doing strange things to my patience, and I didn't see any point in wasting time.
"How am I going to see him?" he asked. "Go to church and flail around with the nuts for six hours? No thanks."
I was impressed. He was convincing in his implication that they hadn't spoken in the two months since that fateful day in April, but he never actually said "no." If there was any discomfort in him, it could barely be detected in the way he crossed his arms, establishing an unconscious defensive barrier that is the enemy of every interviewer. He would make a good professional golfer, I thought, colorful but sly when the situation called for it. Yet again, though, something he said caught my attention: "Six hours." Even I hadn't expected the extreme length of their services, and there was no way for him to know without hearing it from somebody on the inside.
There is only one strategy to employ when speaking with someone like Chris Pearson. He's too smart to be out-foxed but probing questions, but his weakness, I sensed, was his ego, the parts of his own personality that filled him with pride. And chief among these was the belief that he was a straight shooter who wouldn't put up with the polite lies that adorned ordinary interaction.
"You consider yourself a bullshitter?" I asked. "You like people who bullshit?"
This surprised him, as I knew it would, but he contained himself to a slight smile, barely more than a twist of the mouth.
I smiled back at him. The words that came next had to delivered in an almost friendly way, so as not to insult him, to let him know that we were in on the same joke and that I wasn't remotely mad, but at the same time to fundamentally change the relationship and to make the risky move of becoming something more than the neutral observer who had done nothing but absorb his story up until this point; to become a person he'd have to either trust, or kick out of his home. I leaned forward.
"Then what the fuck are what we doing here?"
Looking back, it sounds riskier than it felt at the time. He stared at me, too self-assured and smart to bother with further lies, and while he stared, he made his decision.
"Who told you?"
I had prepared for this question. I knew I couldn't tell the truth—slinking around his house at night wasn't something that felt conducive to what I wanted—and I couldn't expose Beulah's role. Nor did I want to tell him I had to protect my sources, to close off when I was asking him to open up.
"His pastor," I lied. "I went to the church Saturday night, and on the way out he told me Hanoch was missing. And that he had taken his golf clubs. I put two and two together. But I don't think they know about you."
It was a bad explanation, full of holes, and amounted to a huge risk if anyone started to pull at the loose threads. But I was counting on the church's isolation to protect me, and to stop any questions from Pearson at their source.
Moment of truth: he watched me, the question mark evident in his features. I could sense that he wanted to backtrack, but when he asked who had told me, he had given away that I was right, and now he had been outmaneuvered. His two choices were to kick me out, or tell the truth, and I was counting on the fact that at heart, Chris Pearson was someone who liked a good story, and someone who, when given the chance to keep talking, would almost always take it over silence. Our staring contest lasted ten more seconds, and I could see the millisecond when he tipped his metaphorical king; a sigh, a shrug.
"You talk about bullshit, but what do you call the pastor story? I'll find out who told you."
I only nodded, but thought, yet again, that this kid was much smarter than I had imagined.
"Anyway, he's not here right now. But the crazy thing is, it was him who came to me."
Onaga is the kind of place where people still have landlines, and the fact that the Pearsons appeared in the phone book, address included, explained how Hanoch Warren found him a week after the state championship. The knock on the door came at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, and only Chris' father was awake. The boy on the doorstep, holding a cheap set of golf clubs in an even cheaper bag, wearing baggy gray pants and a t-shirt, asked for Chris. The man dutifully fetched his son, who was bleary-eyed when he emerged from his room, and only his fatigue kept him from staggering when he saw who stood across the threshold.
Pearson had spent the last week in and out of bed, sometimes depressed at having lost the state championship, sometimes angry at the mysterious figure who had defeated him. He had tried to rationalize the day, to explain it to himself if nobody else, had even spent an hour on the phone with Oklahoma State coach Marlon Sling trying to talk it out, like a therapy session. He had found nothing approaching closure, and in his mind, Hanoch Warren took on the qualities of everyone he had ever hated. He built him into a monster, and he wanted nothing more than to slay that monster. That was the only thing, he had decided a night ago, that could redeem what happened at Wamego Falls.
But now, seeing him at the door, all the anger that had built up over the past week seemed to disappear inside him.
"I'd like to play," Warren said, his voice just audible above the birdsong coming from the oak trees in the front lawn.
"You know I have school, right?"
But of course he didn't know, and that was just the start of the things he didn't know. Pearson felt it was impossible to say yes to Warren—he wasn't exactly thriving academically—but more impossible to say no. It took a tense conversation with his parents, but he had his way, and 30 minutes later the two of them dumped their clubs into the back of his truck.
Warren was just as reluctant to talk as ever, but before they left, Pearson demanded some answers. It was like pulling teeth to extract anything, and if it were anybody else, he would have told them to get lost. But sitting in the truck, in such close proximity to the kid who had beat him, he was surprised to feel protective. Warren looked so slight, sitting there, hunched over and tentative. Pearson noticed some things he hadn't before; a scar below his ear, a habit of squeezing his hands together as if in prayer, the piercing gray eyes that had been hidden below the brim of an old Royals cap at the state championship.
It turned out Warren had left home at 6 a.m. that morning, estimating correctly that it would take him about an hour to walk to Pearson's house. (He had memorized the directions while consulting a map in the library.) Why did he choose Pearson? Because, he said, he liked playing with him at the state championships.
"Which surprised me," Pearson told me, "because I was nothing but an asshole to him for two days."
When Pearson and the tournament organizers found him passed out on the locker room floor after the final round, they tried to wake him up before anyone thought to call a doctor. When Pearson splashed water on his forehead while one of the adults shook his shoulder, Warren woke up with a gasp. For a moment, his breath came out in a high-pitched wheeze, his eyes widened in panic, and it seemed as though he were suffocating.
"I'm calling a doctor," one of the officials said, and pulled out his cell phone. But he had no service—outside, the wind was howling, and it made a whistling noise that seemed to mimic Warren's breathing.
"We need to get him out of here now."
But Warren's breath returned to normal after 30 seconds, and he sat up, hugged his knees, and shivered as a cold sweat ran down his forehead.
"Are your parents here?" Pearson asked him, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"No doctor," Warren whispered, before a coughing fit racked his body.
They watched him, unsure what to do. Moments later, he stood, reeled slightly, and put a hand on the locker for balance. His face was pallid, clammy, and he looked at them, seemingly unable to register who they were, or where he was.
"I'm okay," he said. "My ride is outside."
And just as quickly as he'd woken up, he pushed open the heavy door leading to the side parking lot, and left carrying only his golf bag. Later, Pearson and the tournament officials would wonder why they hadn't said anything, hadn't stopped him, but at the time they felt almost paralyzed.
The spell was broken when the door closed, and the lead official went to look after him. When he opened the door, a small stream of water flowed in, and the sound of the pounding thunder intensified.
"The hell?" he said, peering through the rain.
The others joined him and saw what he saw, which was nothing. No car, and no Hanoch Warren. In the distance, they heard the tornado siren wail. Pearson raced out into the rain, but the afternoon now seemed darker, the wind stronger, and as he became soaking wet, he shouted Hanoch's name to no avail. There was nothing in sight. After five of the longest minutes of his life, he raced back to the building, where the officials were holding the door open for him. They gave him clean towels, and they made their way to the basement, where they sat for an hour as the twister came through.
Pearson discovered in the truck that when Warren didn't want to answer a particular question, he just remained silent. No apologies offered, no attempt to lie or evade, just silence. That was the case when he asked where he had gone that day, why they lost sight of him totally when he left the locker room. Pearson even asked a second time, but to no avail.
"Okay, then where do you want to play?"
"Somewhere they can't see me."
"Where who can't see you?"
Goddamit, thought Pearson, but he started the truck and began driving south. A half hour later, just before reaching Interstate-70, and about halfway between Topeka and Manhattan, he pulled into the parking lot at Paxico Flats, a municipal course that was never too crowded on a weekday, even on a weekday like that Monday, when it was sunny and not egregiously hot.
"This meet your standards?"
"Sure," said Warren.
They lifted their clubs from the back, and when they checked in, Pearson paid for himself and stepped out of the way.
"I'm sorry," Warren said.
"What do you mean?"
"I've never paid for golf before."
Pearson wondered how his day could get any stranger, but he paid for him, and the two went straight to the first tee.
"This is usually where I'd offer to put money on it," Pearson said. "But I get the feeling that ain't happening."
As on the first day at the state championships, he was only mildly impressed with Warren. He was a decent stick, and had more length than you'd guess by looking at him—a product of the arms that seemed to stretch down forever, creating a steep, whippy swing—but he was a little sloppy, missing greens on what should have been simple approaches, hitting his drives too high, and even duffing a chip once. He made up for it with his putting, where every stroke was made at the perfect speed and the only question was whether he had the right line or was just an inch or two off, but after nine holes, he'd only shot a 39 on a flat, short course with no trees, few bunkers, and only a dry creek bed wending its way through the front. It was the kind of track Pearson ate alive, and the only time he needed to use a club longer than a pitching wedge after his tee shot came on the lone par-5, when an 8-iron was plenty to set him up with a 12-foot eagle putt. He posted a 33, and felt that it could have been better.
He cooled off on the back, but Warren was no better, struggling to three pars and two bogeys through the 14th hole.
Then it happened. To that point, walking the fairways, Warren had seemed almost sad with his long, loping strides, head down, as though golf was a chore. Conversation was impossible; Warren looked at him warily when he looked at him at all, and clearly the bond of trust hadn't been established. He even seemed to groan when he bent down to pick his ball up from the hole. Pearson gave him at least three putts of minimal length, but it was as if Warren didn't hear him; he marked his ball just like any other putt, and finished every hole.
Then, on the 15th tee, after his practice swing, Warren stopped cold. The only movement Pearson could see was the slight rise and fall of his shoulders. He remained there for 30 seconds, head turned away.
"Everything okay?" Pearson asked.
When there was no response, he walked up to him, then around to get a look at his face. The eyes were brimming, the mouth wide open, and when he tried to find the words for what he was witnessing, the best he could do was call it a "trance."
He put a hand on the boy's shoulder, and slowly Hanoch Warren looked at him. His eyes retained the look of...ecstasy? shock?...and for a moment he didn't seem to recognize Pearson. Then he smiled.
"It's okay. It's okay."
"Okay," Pearson said.
The 15th was the most difficult hole on the course, though that wasn't saying much; a 178-yard par-3, slightly uphill, guarded in front by two of the course's only bunkers. The wind, Pearson noticed, had picked up appreciably. Warren's shot pierced through the gusts, a low, drawing 7-iron, landed softly, climbed the slope, and stopped six inches from the hole.
Sixteen was a par-5, not long enough to deserve the name, and Warren's crisp drive split the fairway and rolled out of sight. He needed just a pitching wedge in, and this time he played a fade over the right side of the green, watched it settle on the top of the hill, and teeter downward, trickling to within two feet. Seventeen, another par-3, shorter this time, and a 9-iron landed at the rear of the green and spun backward until it hit the hole and lipped out. And on 18, the concluding par-4, he drew a 3-wood around the dogleg, then chose strangely to chip a 4-iron from 130 yards, running it along the mogul-like contours of the fairway, first left, then right, until it, too, came to rest just feet from the pin.
On each of the fairways, Pearson watched him, and he seemed transformed. Where once his affect had been morose, his procession solemn, now he seemed to bounce, knees fully bending and springing up again as he traversed the fairways, head up, eyes seemingly fixed on a spot in the clouds. He didn't often smile, but the picture he conveyed was one of joy.
"You ever made a hole-in-one?" Pearson asked him after his tee shot lipped out on 17. It was one of his pet peeves that despite all his accolades, he himself had improbably never had an ace.
"It'd be hard to say."
Warren played the final four holes in five-under par, with three birdies and an eagle, to finish with a 71. Pearson, who always kept track of the score even when a round wasn't supposed to be competitive, watched what felt like an insurmountable lead nearly vanish in a heartbeat. His scorecard said 70—a victory, in a way, but it didn't feel like one.
On the ride home, which was once again made mostly in silence, he couldn't decide if he felt annoyed, bitter, jealous, or whether he only expected to feel those things, based on a lifetime of precedent and bone-deep hatred of losing, but couldn't muster the emotion. It was 2 p.m. when they pulled into Onaga, but Warren insisted on being taken back to the Pearson home rather than his own.
"I'll walk," he said.
Which meant he had another hour before his journey was over. Between his insistence here and the way he wanted to get out of town in the morning, Pearson got the feeling that he didn't want anybody to know what he was doing that day, or who he was with. He gave him water, two sandwiches, and a handful of chocolate chip cookies. Warren ate them at the kitchen table like a starving man, and then he was gone. Unlike the day he left the locker room in a thunderstorm, this time Pearson could watch him outside his living room window, trudging down the road.
That night, at dinner, his parents quizzed him on his day, and on Warren himself. Is he your friend? his mother asked. I don't know. Maybe.
He wouldn't admit it to his parents, and had trouble admitting it to himself, but he already thought the answer was yes. Which struck him as strange, because their relationship to that point had consisted of Warren destroying one of his dreams, being the object of his loathing for a week, showing up at his door, and saying almost nothing while they played golf.
"Still," he told me, in his living room, "I couldn't help but feel that yes, he was my friend. And I also had another odd feeling, and I couldn't shake it. I had the feeling I'd never see him again. It was almost like I knew it."
At 7 a.m. the next morning, Hanoch Warren, sweating in the humid morning, sagging under the weight of the golf clubs on his back, knocked on Pearson's door again.
SO GOOD. Tie me off and shoot it in my veins...
Clearly Hanoch Warren is the second coming. Great story.