An Abundance of KatherinesJohn Green
“Night, nay,” he answered quickly, and she laughed and then said, “Katherine Carter. ”
He wanted so much to put his hand around the nape of her neck and pull her into him and taste her mouth, full and soft in the darkness. But not yet. He wasn’t sure. His heart pounded. “Um, okay. Her karate cretin—um, oh. I like this one: their arcane trek. ”
She laughed and pulled her hand away and placed it flat against his knee. Her fingers were soft. He could suddenly smell her over the dank basement. She smelled like lilacs, and then he knew that it was almost time. But he didn’t dare look at her, not yet. He just watched the blank TV screen. He wanted to draw out the moment before the moment—because as good as kissing feels, nothing feels as good as the anticipation of it.
“How do you do that?” she asked.
“Practice, mostly. I’ve been doing it a long time. I see the letters and pull out a good word first—like, karate, or arcane—and then I try to use the remaining letters to make—oh God, this is boring,” he said, hoping it wasn’t.
“No it’s not. ”
“I just try to make grammatical sense with the remaining letters. Anyway, it’s just a trick. ”
“Okay, so anagrams. That’s one. Got any other charming talents?” she asked, and now he felt confident.
Finally, Colin turned to her, gathering in his gut the slim measure of courage available to him, and said, “Well, I’m a fair kisser. ”
“Y’all make yourselves at home. Hollis said you might’n come over here to interview me and find out about my fascinating life,” Starnes said, and Colin sat down on a musty couch not unlike the one on which he and K-19 had shared their first kiss. Lindsey introduced Colin and Hassan, and then Colin started asking questions. The room was not air-conditioned, and as Colin pressed the record button of the digital mini-recorder and placed it on Starnes’s coffee table, he felt the first bead of sweat form on his neck. It would be a long day.
“When did you come to Gutshot?” Lindsey asked.
“I was born in the country48 nineteen hundred and twenty. Born here, raised up here, always lived here, and gonna die here, I’m sure,” he said, and then winked at Lindsey.
“Aww, Starnes, don’t say that,” Lindsey said. “What the hell would I do ’round here without you?”
“Prob’ly run around with that Lyford boy,” Starnes answered. Starnes turned to the boys and then said, “I don’t think too highly of that boy’s daddy. ”
“You just want me all to yourself,” Lindsey said, laughing. “Tell us about the factory, Starnes. These boys ain’t ever been. ” Around Starnes, for some reason, Lindsey spoke with a thick accent.
“The factory opened up three years ’fore I was born, and I worked there from when I was fourteen. I suppose if I hadn’t, I would have farmed—that’s what my father did until the factory came along. We made everything back then; T-shirts and handkerchiefs and bandannas, and it was hard work. But your family was always fair—first Dr. Dinzanfar and then his son-in-law Corville Wells. Then there was that sumbitch Alex, who I know was your daddy, Lindsey, so you’ll have to forgive me. And then Hollis, who took good care of us every one. I worked in that factory sixty years to the day. I have the world record. They named the break room after me, because that’s where I spent most of my time. ” His upper lip smiled, but Starnes’s jawless chin couldn’t follow suit.
Already, the house felt like a hot tub without the water and bubbles. This is a hard way to make a hundred dollars, Colin thought.
“Y’all want some tea?” Starnes asked. Without waiting for an answer, he stood up and walked into the kitchen.
At once sweet and bitter, it tasted a little like lemonade, except somehow more grown-up. Colin loved it—it was everything he’d hoped coffee would be—and helped himself to several glasses while Starnes talked, pausing only to take his medication (once) and go to the bathroom (four times; old people do that—they seem to love bathrooms).
“Well, the first thing that you have to understand is that in the country we weren’t ever poor. Even in the Depression, I wasn’t ever hungry, because when Dr. Dinzanfar had to lay people off, he never fired more than one person from a family. ”
Something about Dr. Dinzanfar led Starnes elsewhere. “You know they’ve been calling the country Gutshot for a long-ass time, and Lindsey, I bet you don’t even know why. ” Lindsey shook her head politely, and Starnes leaned forward out of his La-Z-Boy and said, “Aw, see. Now y’all haven’t heard a damn thing about the place then! Back in the old days, so old that even this old man weren’t born yet, prizefighting was illegal. And if you wanted to break the law, Gutshot was a fine place to do it.
“Always has been, really. I saw the inside of the Carver County Jail a few times myself, you know. I was drunk in public in 1948; I was a public nuisance in 1956; and then I was in jail for two days on illegal discharging of a firearm when I killed Caroline Clayton’s rat snake in 1974. Mary wouldn’t bail me out after I kilt that God-forsaken snake, you know. But how on earth am I supposed to tell it’s a pet? I go into Caroline Clayton’s house looking for the hammer she borrowed from me six months before, and there’s a by-God rat snake slitherin’ across the kitchen. What would you do, son?” he asked Colin.
Colin mulled the situation over. “You went into someone else’s house without knocking?” he asked.
“No, I knocked, but she wa’n’t home. ”
“That’s a crime also,” Colin pointed out. “Trespassing. ”
“Well thank the Lord you didn’t arrest me, boy,” Starnes said. “Anyway, you see a snake, you kill it. That’s just how I was raised up. So I shot it. Split it right in two. And that evening Caroline Clayton come over to my house—she’s passed on now, bless her heart—and she’s screaming and crying that I killed Jake, and I told her that someone else musta killed Jake, whoever the hell he was, ’cause all I did was shoot up a goddamned rat snake. But then turns out that Jake was the snake, and that she loved it like the child she never had. She never married, of course. Uglier than sin, bless her heart. ”
“The snake probably didn’t care that she was ugly,” Colin pointed out. “They have very poor eyesight. ”
Starnes look over at Lindsey Lee Wells. “Your friend here is a regular fountain of knowledge. ”
“He sure God is,” she said, drawling.
“What was I talking about?” asked Starnes.
“Gutshot. Boxing. The old days,” Colin answered quickly.
“Right, yes, well. It was a town for trouble back then before the factory brought in families. Just a rough sharecropper town. My mama told me the town didn’t have no name. But then they started bringing in boxers. Boys from all over the country would come here and they’d fight for five or ten dollars, winner take all, and make extra money betting on themselves. But to get around the prizefighting laws, they had this rule: you couldn’t hit below the belt or above the shoulders. Gutshot boxing. The town became famous for it, and that’s what we got called. ”
Colin wiped the back of his sweaty palm against his sweaty forehead, spreading the moisture around rather than truly dealing with it, and took several gulps of tea.
“Mary and I got married in 1944,” Starnes went on, “when I was supposed to go off to the war. ” And Colin thought that Starnes might benefit from a lesson from his eleventh-grade English teacher Mr. Holtsclaw, who taught them about transitions. Colin couldn’t tell a story to save his life, admittedly, but at least he’d heard of transitions. Still, it was fun to listen to Starnes. “Anyway, I didn’t go off to the war because I shot off two of my toes because I’m a coward. I’m an old man so I can tell you that frankly. I wasn’t afraid of war, you know. War never scared me. I just didn’t want to go all the way-hell over there to fight one. I had a reputation after that—I pretended I shot myself by accident, but everyone knew. I never did lose that reputation, but now most eve
ryone is dead, and y’all ain’t got any stories from them, so you have to believe mine by default: They were cowards, too. Everyone is.
“But we got married and oh Lord we sure loved each other. Always did till the very end. She never liked me much, but she sure loved me, if you know what I’m saying. ” Colin glanced at Hassan, who glanced back, his eyes wide in horror. They both feared they knew exactly what Starnes was saying. “She died in 1997. Heart attack. She was nothing but good and I was nothing but bad, but then she died, and I didn’t. ”
He showed them pictures then; they crowded around his La-Z-Boy as his wrinkled hands flipped slowly through a photo album thick with memories. The oldest pictures were faded and yellowing, and Colin thought about how even in pictures of their youth, old people look old. He watched as the pictures moved to a crisp black-and-white and then to the bland color of Polaroids, watched as children were born and then grew up, as hair fell out and was replaced by wrinkles. And all the while Starnes and Mary stayed in the pictures together, from their wedding to their fiftieth anniversary. I will have that, Colin thought. I will have it. I will. With Katherine. But I won’t be only that, he resolved. I will leave behind something more than one photo album where I always look old.
Later, Colin knew their six hours were up when Lindsey Lee Wells stood up and said, “Well we gotta get going, Starnes. ”
“All right,” he said. “Good to have you. And Lindsey, you just look perfect. ”
“You need an air conditioner, bud? It’s awful hot in here, and Hollis could get you one no problem,” Lindsey said.
“I get by all right. She’s done good by me. ” Starnes stood up and walked them to the door. Colin shook the old man’s shaky hand.
In the Hearse Colin drove as fast as the roads would permit, with the windows down to try to cool off.
Hassan said, “I think I just lost sixty pounds in sweat. ”
“Then you could stand to stay out in the heat a while longer,” Lindsey said. “That was the easiest hundred dollars anyone ever made in Gutshot. Hey, no, don’t turn. I need you to take me to the store. ”
“So we can all hang out with The Other Colin in the sweet, sweet air-conditioning?”
Lindsey shook her head. “Uh-uh. You get to drop me off and then you make yourselves scarce till you pick me up in two hours and then we tell Hollis that we spent the afternoon running around the country. ”
“Well,” said Hassan, sounding somewhat annoyed, “we will certainly miss your abundant charm and bubbly personality. ”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just kidding around. Anyway, I like you, Hassan; it’s the Smartypants I find unbearable. ” Colin glanced through the rearview into the backseat. She was smiling at him with her lips closed. He knew she was kidding, or thought she was, but he still felt anger rise up in his throat, and he knew the hurt was betrayed in his eyes. “Jesus, Singleton, I’m just kidding. ”
“You’ve got to remember that usually when he hears a girl call him unbearable, it’s the last words of a Katherine,” explained Hassan, talking like Colin wasn’t behind the wheel. “He’s pretty touchy on the whole subject of his being unbearable. ”
“Dingleberries,” said Colin.
After dropping off Lindsey, they ended up back at Hardee’s, eating a mid-afternoon snack of double cheeseburgers and fries limp with the weight of their own grease. Colin read from Byron for the first thirty minutes while Hassan repeatedly sighed and said, “God, you’re boring,” until finally Colin put the book down.
They still had an hour to kill when the meal was over. Standing in the parking lot with the heat radiating in waves off the pavement, Hassan wiped his forehead and said, “I think we should stop by the Gutshot General Store. ”
They pulled into the store’s dirt parking lot fifty minutes early and strode up the staircase and into a blast of air-conditioning. Behind the counter, Lindsey Lee Wells was sitting on what appeared to be a boy, who had an arm draped across her lap.
“Hello,” said Colin. TOC peeked out from behind Lindsey. He nodded at Colin without smiling or blinking or in any way moving any of the muscles in his strong, round face.
“What’s up,” said TOC.
“Not much,” said Colin.
“You’re a lucky couple a guys, to get to live with Lindsey. ” Lindsey let loose a chirpy laugh and contorted herself to kiss her boyfriend sweetly on the neck. “Oh, we’ll live together one day,” she said.
“If you touch her,” TOC said out of the blue, “I’ll kill you. ”
“That’s a little clichéd,” Hassan called out from the candy aisle. “And if we touch her? I mean, what if I brush up against her as we walk through a hallway?”
TOC glowered. “Well,” he said, “this has been fun. But Lindsey and I were in the middle of a very important talk, so if you wouldn’t mind . . . ”
To defuse the tension, Colin said, “Oh, sorry. Yeah, we’ll just, uh, take a walk or something. ”
“Here,” Lindsey said, and tossed them a set of keys. “Colin’s truck has AC. ”
“Don’t take that truck out of park,” TOC said gruffly.
As they walked out the door, Colin heard TOC ask Lindsey, “Who’s the genius—the fat one or the skinny one?” But he didn’t hang around to hear Lindsey’s response. As they walked across the dirt parking lot toward TOC’s SUV, Hassan said, “God, he’s built like a brick shithouse, isn’t he? Listen, The Fat One’s gonna take a piss in the field. ”