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An Abundance of Katherines, Page 12

John Green

Page 12


  And yes, again, that was it exactly. A retyper and not a writer. A prodigy and not a genius. It was so quiet then that he could hear Princess breathing, and he felt the missing piece inside him. “I just want to do something that matters. Or be something that matters. I just want to matter. ”

  Lindsey didn’t answer right away, but she leaned in toward Colin and he could smell her fruity perfume, and then she lay down next to him on her back, the crown of her head just brushing against his shorts. “I think we’re opposites, you and me,” she said finally. “Because personally I think mattering is a piss-poor idea. I just want to fly under the radar, because when you start to make yourself into a big deal, that’s when you get shot down. The bigger a deal you are, the worse your life is. Look at, like, the miserable lives of famous people. ”

  “Is that why you read Celebrity Living?”

  Lindsey nodded. “Yeah. Totally—there’s a word in German for it. God, it’s on the tip of—a . . . ”

  “Schadenfreude,” Colin said. Finding pleasure in others’ pain.

  “Right! So, anyway,” Lindsey went on, “take staying here. Hollis always tells me that nothing really good will ever happen to me if I stay in Gutshot; and maybe that’s true. But nothing really bad will ever happen, either, and I’ll take that bargain any day. ”

  Colin didn’t answer, but he was thinking that Lindsey Lee Wells, for all her coolness and whatever, was a bit of a wimp. But before he could figure a way to say so, Lindsey sat up, animated by a new topic.

  “Okay,” she said. “Here’s the thing about storytelling: you need a beginning, and a middle, and an end. Your stories have no plots. They’re like, here’s something I was thinking and then the next thing I was thinking and then et cetera. You can’t get away with rambling. You’re Colin Singleton, Beginning Storyteller, so you’ve got to stick to a straight plot.

  “And you need a good, strong moral. Or a theme or whatever. And the other thing is romance and adventure. You’ve got to put some of those in. If it’s a story about peeing into a lion cage, give yourself a girlfriend who notices how gigantic your winky is and then saves you from the lion at the last second by tackling you, because she’s desperate to save that gorgeous, ginormous winky. ” Colin blushed, but Lindsey kept going. “In the beginning, you need to pee; in the middle, you do; in the end, through romance and adventure, your winky is saved from the jaws of a hungry lion by the pluck of a young girl motivated by her abiding love for giant winkies. And the moral of the story is that a heroic girlfriend, combined with a giant winky, will save you from even the most desperate situations. ”

  When Colin finished laughing, he placed his hand on top of Lindsey’s. It stayed there for a moment, and he could feel the worn place on her thumb where she nibbled at it. He pulled his hand away after a moment and said, “My Theorem will tell the story. Each graph with a beginning and a middle and an end. ”

  “There’s no romance in geometry,” Lindsey answered.

  “Just you wait. ”

  The Beginning (of the Middle)

  He never thought much about Katherine I. He only felt upset about the breakup because that’s what you’re supposed to feel. Little kids play house; they play war; they play relationships. I want to go with you; you dumped me; I’m sad. But none of it was really real.

  Because Katherine’s dad was Colin’s tutor, Colin and Katherine continued to see each other periodically over the next several years. They got along well—but it’s not like he burned with longing for her. He didn’t miss her enough to become obsessed with her name, to date her namesakes over and over and over and over52 again.

  And yet, that’s what happened. It didn’t seem willful at first—it was just a series of odd coincidences. It just kept happening: he’d meet a Katherine, and like her. She’d like him back. And then it would end. And then, after it ceased being mere coincidence, it just became two streaks—one (dating Katherines) he wished to keep, and one (getting dumped by them) he wished to break. But it proved impossible to divorce one cycle from the other. It just kept happening to him, and after a while it felt almost routine. Each time, he’d cycle through feelings of anger, regret, longing, hope, despair, longing, anger, regret. The thing about getting dumped generally, and getting dumped by Katherines in particular, was how utterly monotonous it was.

  That’s why people grow weary of listening to Dumpees obsess over their troubles: getting dumped is predictable, repetitive, and boring. They want to stay friends; they feel smothered; it’s always them and it’s never you; and afterward, you’re devastated and they’re relieved; it’s over for them and just starting for you. And to Colin’s mind, at least, there was a deeper repetition: each time, Katherines dumped him because they just didn’t like him. They each came to precisely the same conclusion about him. He wasn’t cool enough or good-looking enough or as smart as they’d hoped—in short, he didn’t matter enough. And so it happened to him again and again, until it was boring. But monotony doesn’t make for painlessness. In the first century CE, Roman authorities punished St. Apollonia by crushing her teeth one by one with pliers. Colin often thought about this in relationship to the monotony of dumping: we have thirty-two teeth. After a while, having each tooth individually destroyed probably gets repetitive, even dull. But it never stops hurting.


  The next morning, Colin felt tired enough to sleep through the rooster’s squawking until eight. When he made his way downstairs, he found Hollis wearing a hot pink muumuu, passed out on the couch with papers strewn across her chest and the floor. Colin walked softly past her, and thought to add “muumuu” to his mental list of unanagrammable words.

  Hassan sat in the kitchen, eating oatmeal and scrambled eggs. Without speaking, he handed Colin a note written on stationery embossed with the words HOLLIS P. WELLS / CEO & PRESIDENT, GUTSHOT TEXTILE:


  I’m probably sleeping, but hopefully y’all got up on time. You need to be down at the factory by 9. Ask for Zeke. I listened to your interview with Starnes—it’s good work, but I’ve changed my mind about some things. At six hours per person, we’ll never get through the whole town. I’d like you only to ask the following four questions: 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? and What do you think makes Gutshot special? I think that’ll move things along nicely. They’re expecting you at the factory. Lindsey will accompany you.

  See you tonight. Hollis.

  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.