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An Abundance of Katherines, Page 6

John Green

Page 6


  “Why?” she asked, her voice singing the monosyllable, almost smiling.

  “Your dad says it’s because I remember things better than other people on account of how I pay very close attention and care very much. ”


  “Because it is important to know things. For an example, I just recently learned that Roman Emperor Vitellius once ate one thousand oysters in one day, which is a very impressive act of abligurition,”22 he said, using a word he felt sure Katherine wouldn’t know. “And also it is important to know things because it makes you special and you can read books that normal people cannot read, such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which is in Latin. ”


  “Because he lived in Rome when they spoke and wrote Latin. ”


  And that one tripped him up. Why had Ovid lived in Ancient Rome in 20 BCE23 and not Chicago in 2006 CE? Would Ovid still have been Ovid if he had lived in America? No, he wouldn’t have been, because he would have been a Native American or possibly an American Indian or a First Person or an Indigenous Person, and they did not have Latin or any other kind of written language then. So did Ovid matter because he was Ovid or because he lived in Ancient Rome? “That,” Colin said, “is a very good question and I will try to find out the answer for you,” he said, which is what Krazy Keith said when Krazy Keith did not know an answer.

  “Do you want to be my boyfriend?” Katherine asked.

  Colin sat up quickly and looked at her, her bright blue eyes staring down into her lap. He would come, eventually, to call her The Great One. Katherine I. Katherine the Magnificent. Even seated, she was noticeably shorter than he, and she looked quite serious and nervous, her lips pulled in tight as she looked down. Something surged through him. The nerve endings exploded into shivers on his skin. His diaphragm fluttered. And of course it couldn’t have been lust or love and it didn’t feel like like, so it must have been what the kids at school called like-like. And he said, “Yes, yes, I do. ” She turned to him, her face round and her cheeks full and freckled and she leaned toward him, her lips pursed, and she kissed him on the cheek. It was his first kiss, and her lips felt like the coming winter—cold and dry and chapped—and it occurred to Colin that the kiss didn’t feel nearly as good as the sound of her asking if she could be his girlfriend.


  Quite out of nowhere, just over the crest of a tiny slope, the grassy field broke out into a graveyard. It contained perhaps forty gravestones and was surrounded by a knee-high stone wall covered in slippery moss. “This would be the last and final resting place of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand,” Lindsey Lee Wells said, her voice suddenly affected with a new cadence, that of the bored tour guide who long ago memorized her speech. Colin and Hassan followed her to a six-foot-tall obelisk—a kind of miniature Washington Monument—before which lay a plethora of not-new pink silk roses. Though obviously fake, the flowers still seemed wilted.

  Lindsey sat down on the mossy wall. “Ah, screw the speech. You probably already know this anyway,” she said, nodding toward Colin. “But I’ll tell the story: the Archduke was born in December 1863 in Austria. His uncle was the emperor Francis Joseph, but being the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s nephew don’t matter much. Unless, say, the emperor’s only son, Rudolph, happens to shoot himself in the head—which is what, in fact, happened in 1889. All of a sudden, Franz Ferdinand was next in line for the throne. ”

  “They called Franz ‘the loneliest man in Vienna,’” Colin said to Hassan.

  “Yeah, well no one liked him because he was a total nerd,” Lindsey said, “except he was one of those nerds who isn’t even very smart. Your average inbred ninety-six-pound weakling type. His family thought he was a liberal wuss; Viennese society thought he was an idiot—like an actual tongue-hanging-out-of-your-mouth idiot. And then he went and made matters worse by marrying for love. He married this girl named Sophie in 1900, and everyone thought she was just totally low-rent. But, you know, in the guy’s defense, he really loved her. That’s what I never tell in the tour, but from everything I’ve read about Franzy, he and Sophie had about the happiest marriage in the whole history of royalty. It’s sort of a cute story, except for how on their fourteenth wedding anniversary—June twenty-eighth, 1914—they were both shot dead in Sarajevo. The emperor had them buried outside of Vienna. He didn’t even bother to attend the funeral. But he cared enough about his nephew to go ahead and start World War I, which he did by declaring war on Serbia a month later. ” She stood up. “Thus ends the tour. ” She smiled. “Tips are appreciated. ”

  Colin and Hassan clapped politely, and then Colin walked over to the obelisk, which read only: ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND. 1863-1914. LIE LIGHTLY UPON HIM EARTH, THO’ HE / LAID MANY A HEAVY BURDEN UPON THEE. Heavy burdens, indeed—millions of them. Colin reached out and felt the granite, cool despite the hot sun. And what had the Archduke Franz Ferdinand done that he might have done differently? If he hadn’t obsessed over love, hadn’t been so tactless, so whiny, so nerdy—maybe if he hadn’t been, Colin thought, so much like me . . .

  In the end, the Archduke had two problems: no one gave a shit about him (at least not till his corpse started a war), and one day he got a piece taken out of his middle.

  But now Colin would fill his own hole and make people stand up and take notice of him. He would stay special, use his talent to do something more interesting and important than anagramming and translating Latin. And yes, again the Eureka washed over him, the yes-yes-yes of it. He would use his past—and the Archduke’s past, and the whole endless past—to inform the future. He would impress Katherine XIX—she had always loved the idea of him being a genius—and he would make the world safer to Dumpees everywhere. He would matter.

  From which reverie he was awoken by Hassan asking, “So how the fug did a perfectly good Austrian Archduke end up in Shitsberg, Te n-nessee?”

  “We bought him,” Lindsey Lee Wells said. “Around 1921. The owner of the castle where he was buried needed money and put him up for sale. And we bought him. ”

  “How much did a dead Archduke cost in those days?” Hassan wondere d .

  “’Bout thirty-five hundred bucks, they say. ”

  “That’s a lot of money,” Colin said, his hand still on the granite obelisk. “The dollar rose by a factor of more than ten between 1920 and now, so that’s more than thirty-five thousand dollars in today’s dollars. A lot of tours at eleven bucks apiece. ”

  Lindsey Lee Wells rolled her eyes. “Okay, okay—I am sufficiently impressed. Enough already. You know, we got these things down here—I don’t know if you have ’em where you’re from, but they’re called calculators, and they can do all that work for you. ”

  “I wasn’t trying to impress anyone,” Colin insisted defensively.

  And then Lindsey’s eyes lit up and she cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted, “Hey!” Three guys and one girl were trudging up the slope, just their heads visible. “Kids from school,” Lindsey explained. “And my boyfriend. ” Lindsey Lee Wells took off running toward them. Hassan and Colin stood still, and began chatting quickly back and forth.

  Hassan said, “I’m a Kuwaiti exchange student; my dad’s an oil baron. ”

  Colin shook his head. “Too obvious. I’m a Spaniard. A refugee. My parents were murdered by Basque separatists. ”

  “I don’t know if Basque is a thing or a person and neither will they, so no. Okay, I just got to America from Honduras. My name is Miguel. My parents made a fortune in bananas, and you are my bodyguard, because the banana-workers’ union wants me dead. ”

  Colin shot back, “That’s good, but you don’t speak Spanish. Okay, I was abducted by Eskimos in the Yukon Terr—no, that’s crap. We’re cousins from France visiting the United States for the first time. It’s our high-school graduation trip. ”

  “That’s boring, but we’re out of time. I’m the English speaker?” asked Hassan.

eah, fine. ” By now, Colin could hear the group chatting, and see Lindsey Lee Wells’s eyes staring up at a tall, muscular boy wearing a Tennessee Titans jersey. The boy was a hulking mass of muscle with spiked hair and a smile that was all top teeth and gums. The success of the game depended on Lindsey having not talked about Colin and Hassan, but Colin figured it was a safe bet, as she seemed pretty enthralled with the boy.

  “Okay, they’re coming,” said Hassan. “What’s your name?”

  “Pierre. ”

  “Okay. I’m Salinger, pronounced SalinZHAY. ”

  “Y’all here for the tour, are ya,” Lindsey’s boyfriend said.

  “Yes. I am Salinzhay,” Hassan said, his accent passable if not magnificent. “This is my cousin Pierre. We visit your country for the first time, and we wish to see the Archduke, who started our—how you say—first Earth war. ” Colin glanced at Lindsey Lee Wells, who suppressed a smile as she smacked orange gum.

  “I’m Colin,” the boyfriend said, his hand extended. Hassan leaned over to Pierre/Colin and whispered, “His name is ‘The Other Colin. ’” Hassan then said, “My cousin, he speak very little English. I am his man of translate. ” The Other Colin laughed, as did the two other boys, who quickly introduced themselves as Chase and Fulton. (“We will call Chase, Jeans Are Too Tight, and Fulton shall be Short One Chewing Tobacco,” Hassan whispered to Colin. )

  “Je m’appelle Pierre,” Colin blurted out after the boys had introduced themselves. “Quand je vais dans le métro, je fais aussi de la musique de prouts. ”24

  “We get a lot of foreign tourists here,” said the only girl besides Lind-sey,who was tall and thoroughly Abercrombified in her tight tank top. The girl also had—how to put this politely—gigantic gazoombas. She was incredibly hot—in that popular-girl-with-bleached-teeth-and-anorexia kind of way, which was Colin’s least favorite way of being hot. “I’m Katrina, by the way. ” Close, Colin thought, but no cigar.

  “Amour aime aimer amour!”25 Colin announced quite loudly.

  “Pierre,” said Hassan. “He has the disease with the talking. The, uh, with the bad words. In France, we say it the Toorettes. I do not know how you say in English. ”

  “He has Tourette’s?” asked Katrina.

  “MERDE!”26 shouted Colin.

  “Yes,” said Hassan excitedly. “Same word both language, like hemorrhoid. That one we learned yesterday because Pierre had the fire in his bottom. He has the Toorettes. And the hemorrhoid. But, is good boy. ”

  “Ne dis pas que j’ai des hémorroïdes! Je n’ai pas d’hémorroïde,”27 Colin shouted, at once trying to continue the game and get Hassan on to a different topic.

  Hassan looked at Colin, nodded knowingly, and then told Katrina, “He just said that your face, it is beautiful like the hemorrhoid. ” At which point Lindsey Lee Wells burst out laughing and said, “Okay. Okay. Enough. ”

  Colin turned to Hassan and said, “Why’d it have to be hemorrhoids? How the hell did that idea pop into your mind?” And then The Other Colin (TOC) and Jeans Are Too Tight (JATT) and Short One Chewing Tobacco (SOCT) and Katrina were all abuzz, talking and laughing and asking Lindsey questions.

  “My dad went to France last year, dude,” explained Hassan, “and he told this story about getting a hemorrhoid and having to point at his butt and say the French word for fire over and over again until it came out that the word was hemorrhoid in both languages. And I didn’t know any other fugging French words. Plus that’s some funny shit, you having Tourette’s and hemorrhoids. ”

  “Whatever,” Colin said, his face flushed. And then he overheard TOC saying, “That’s awful funny. Hollis would love them, huh?” And Lindsey laughed and reached up on her tiptoes to kiss him and then said, “I got you good, baby,” and he said, “Well, they got me,” and Lindsey faked like she was pouting, and TOC leaned down to kiss her forehead, and she brightened. The same scene had played out in Colin’s own life frequently—although he’d usually been the fake pouter.

  They trudged back through the field as a group, Colin’s sweat-soaked T-shirt sticky and tight against his back, his eye still throbbing. The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, he thought. Even the name rang true. He had waited so long for his breakthrough, despaired so many times, and he just wanted to be alone for a little while with a pencil and some paper and a calculator and no talking. In the car would work. Colin tugged softly on Hassan’s shirt and gave him a meaningful look.

  “I just need some Gatorade,” Hassan responded. “Then we’ll go. ”

  “I’ll need to open up the store for ya, then,” Lindsey said. She turned to TOC. “Come with me, baby. ” The gooey softness of her voice reminded Colin of K-19.

  “I would,” TOC said, “’cept Hollis is sitting out on the steps. Me and Chase is supposed to be at work, but we skipped out. ” TOC picked her off her feet and squeezed her tight, his biceps flexing. She squirmed a little but kissed him hard, her mouth open. Then he dropped her down, winked, and trudged off with his entourage toward a red pickup truck.

  When Lindsey, Hassan, and Colin arrived back at the Gutshot General Store, a large woman wearing a pink floral dress was sitting on the steps talking to a man with a bushy brown beard. As they approached, Colin could hear the woman telling a story.

  “So Starnes is out there to mow the lawn,” she was saying. “And he turns off the mower and looks up and appraises the situation for a bit and then calls out to me, ‘Hollis! What the hell is wrong with that dog?’ and I says to him that the dog’s got inflamed anal sacs that I just drained, and Starnes chews that one over for a while and then finally he says, ‘I re c kon you could go ahead and shoot that dog and git you another one with regular anal sacs and wouldn’t nobody be the wiser. ’ And I tell him, ‘Starnes, this town ain’t got any men worth loving, so I might as well love my dog. ’” The bearded guy bent over in laughter, and then the storyteller looked over at Lindsey.