They walked through a screen door into the Gutshot General Store. From behind the counter, a girl with a long, straight nose and brown eyes the size of some lesser planets looked up from an issue of Celebrity Living magazine and said, “How y’all doing?”
“We’re okay. Yourself?” Hassan asked while Colin was trying to think whether a worthwhile soul in all of human history had ever read a single copy of Celebrity Living.18
“Just fine,” said the girl.
For a while, they walked around the store, pacing the dusty, varnished two-by-fours that comprised a floor, pretending to consider various snacks, drinks, and minnows swimming in bait tanks. Half-crouched behind a chest-high rack of potato chips, Colin tugged on Hassan’s T-shirt, cupped his hand over Hassan’s ear, and whispered, “Talk to her.” Except in point of fact Colin did not whisper, because he had never quite mastered the art of whispering—he just sort of talked in a slightly softer voice directly into Hassan’s eardrum.
Hassan winced and shook his head. “What’s the total area, in square miles, of the state of Kansas?” he whispered.
“Um, around 82,200; why?”
“I just find it amusing that you know that but can’t figure out a way to speak without using your vocal cords.” Colin started to explain that even whispering involves the use of the vocal cords, but Hassan just rolled his eyes. So Colin brought his hand to his face and nibbled on the inside of his thumb while staring at Hassan hopefully, but Hass had turned his attention to the potato chips and so finally it fell to Colin. He walked to the desk and said, “Hi, we’re wondering about the Archduke.”
The Celebrity Living reader smiled at him. Her puffy cheeks and too-long nose disappeared. She had the sort of broad and guileful smile in which you couldn’t help but believe—you just wanted to make her happy so you could keep seeing it. But it passed in a flash. “Tours start every hour on the hour, cost eleven dollars, and frankly aren’t worth it,” she answered in a monotone.
“We’ll pay,” Hassan said, suddenly behind him. “The kid needs to see the Archduke.” And then Hassan leaned forward and stage-whispered, “He’s having a nervous breakdown.” Hassan placed twenty-two dollars on the counter, which the girl promptly slid into a pocket of her shorts, flagrantly disregarding the cash register before her.
The girl blew a lock of mahogany hair from her face and sighed. “Sure is hot out,” she noted.
“Is this, like, a guided tour?” Colin asked.
“Yeah. And much to my ever-loving chagrin, I am your tour guide.” She stepped out from behind the counter. Short. Skinny. Her face not pretty so much as interesting-looking.
“I’m Colin Singleton,” he said to the tour guide/grocery store clerk.
“Lindsey Lee Wells,” she answered, reaching out a small hand, the fingernails a chipped metallic pink. He shook, and then Lindsey turned to Hassan.
“Hassan Harbish. Sunni Muslim. Not a terrorist.”
“Lindsey Lee Wells. Methodist. Me, neither.” The girl smiled again. Colin wasn’t thinking about anything but himself and K-19 and the piece of his gut he’d misplaced—but there was no denying her smile. That smile could end wars and cure cancer.
For a long time, they walked silently through knee-high grass behind the store, which irritated the sensitive skin of Colin’s exposed calves, and he thought to mention it and ask whether maybe there was some kind of recently mowed patch through which they might walk, but he knew Hassan would think that “sitzpinklery,” so he stayed quiet as the grass tickled at his skin. He thought of Chicago, where you can go days without ever once stepping on a single patch of actual earth. That well-paved world appealed to him, and he missed it as his feet fell on uneven clumps of hardened dirt that threatened to twist his ankles.
As Lindsey Lee Wells walked ahead of them (typical Celebrity Living- reader crap; avoiding talking to them), Hassan just padded along next to Colin, and even though he hadn’t technically called Colin a sitzpinkler for being allergic to grass, Colin knew that he would have, which annoyed him. And so Colin again brought up Hassan’s least favorite subject.
“Have I mentioned today that you should go to college?” Colin asked.
Hassan rolled his eyes. “Right, I know. I mean, just look where academic excellence got you.”
Colin couldn’t think of a comeback. “Well, but you should this year. You can’t just not go forever. You don’t even have to register until July fifteenth.” (Colin had looked this up.)
“I actually can not go forever. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I like sitting around on my ass, watching TV, and getting fatter. It’s my life’s work, Singleton. That’s why I love road trips, dude. It’s like doing something without actually doing anything. Anyway, my dad didn’t go to college, and he’s rich as balls.”
Colin wondered just how rich balls were, but only said, “Right, but your dad doesn’t sit on his ass, either. He works, like, a hundred hours a week.”
“True. True. And it’s all thanks to him that I don’t have to go to work or college.”
Colin had no response to that. But he just didn’t get Hassan’s apathy. What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable? How very odd, to believe God gave you life, and yet not think that life asks more of you than watching TV.
Although then again, when you have just gone on a road trip to escape the memory of your nineteenth Katherine and are traipsing through south-central Tennessee on your way to see the grave of a dead Austro-Hungarian Archduke, maybe you don’t have a right to go and think anything odd.
And he was busy anagramming anything odd—any odd night, handy dog tin, doing thy DNA—when Colin did his DNA proud: he stumbled on a molehill and fell. He became so disoriented by the fast-approaching ground that he didn’t even reach his hands out to break the fall. He just fell forward like he’d been shot in the back. The very first thing to hit the ground were his glasses. They were closely followed by his forehead, which hit a small jagged rock.
Colin rolled over onto his back. “I fell,” he noted quite loudly.
“Shit!” Hassan shouted, and when Colin opened his eyes, he saw fuzzily that Hassan and Lindsey Lee Wells were kneeling, peering down at him. She smelled strongly of a fruity perfume, which Colin believed to be called Curve. He’d purchased it once, for Katherine XVII, but she hadn’t liked it.19
“I’m bleeding, aren’t I?” Colin asked.
“Like a stuck pig,” she said. “Don’t move.” She turned to Hassan and said, “Give me your T-shirt,” and Hassan promptly said no, which Colin fig u red had something to do with Hassan’s man-boobs. “We need to apply pressure,” Lindsey explained to Hassan, and then Hassan calmly said no again, and then Lindsey said, “Jesus Christ—fine,” and took off her shirt.
Colin squinted through his glassesless fuzziness but couldn’t see much. “We should probably save this for the second date,” Colin said.
“Right, perv,” she responded, but he could hear her smiling. As she wiped at his forehead and cheek softly with the T-shirt, then pressed hard on a tender spot above his right eyebrow, she kept talking. “Some friend you’ve got, by the way. Stop moving your neck. The two concerns we’ve got here are some kind of vertebral injury or a subdural hematoma. I mean, slight-slight-slight chances, but you’ve gotta be cautious, ’cause the nearest hospital’s an hour away.” He closed his eyes and tried not to wince as she pressed hard against the cut. Lindsey told Hassan, “Apply pressure with the shirt here. I’ll be back in eight minutes.”
“We should call a doctor or something,” Hassan said.
“I’m a paramedic,” Lindsey answered as she turned away.
“How the hell old are you?” he asked.
“Seventeen. Okay. Fine. A paramedic in training. Eight minutes. I swear.” She ran off. It was not the way Curve smelled that Colin liked—not exactly. It was the way the air smelled just as Lindsey began to jog away from him. The smell the perfume left behind. There’s not a word for that in English, but Colin knew the French word: sillage. What Colin liked about Curve was not its smell on the skin but its sillage, the fruity sweet smell of its leaving.
Hassan sat down beside him in the tall grass, pushing hard at the cut. “Sorry I wouldn’t take off my shirt.”
“Man-boobs?” asked Colin.
“Yeah, well. I just feel like I should know a girl a little before I trot out the man-tits. Where are your glasses?”
“I was just asking myself that very question when the girl took her shirt off,” Colin said.
“So you couldn’t see her?”
“I couldn’t see her. Just that her bra was purple.”
“Was it ever,” Hassan replied.
And Colin thought of K-19 sitting over him on his bed wearing her purple bra as she dumped him. And he thought of Katherine XIV, who wore a black bra and also a black everything else. And he thought of Katherine XII, the first who wore a bra, and all the Katherines whose bras he’d seen (four, unless you count straps, in which case seven). People thought he was a glutton for punishment, that he liked getting dumped. But it wasn’t like that. He could just never see anything coming, and as he lay on the solid, uneven ground with Hassan pressing too hard on his forehead, Colin Singleton’s distance from his glasses made him realize the problem: myopia. He was nearsighted. The future lay before him, inevitable but invisible.
“I found ’em,” Hassan said, and awkwardly tried to place the glasses on Colin’s face. But it’s hard to put glasses on someone else’s head, and finally Colin reached up and nudged them up the bridge of his own nose, and he could see.
“Eureka,” he said softly.
Katherine XIX: The End (of the End)
She dumped him on the eighth day of the twelfth month, just twenty-two days shy of their one-year anniversary. They’d both graduated that morning, although from different schools, so Colin’s and Katherine’s parents, who were old friends, took them out to a celebratory lunch. But that evening was for them alone. Colin prepared by shaving and wearing that Wild Rain deodorant she liked so much that she’d nestle up against his chest to catch its scent.
He’d picked her up in Satan’s Hearse and they drove south down Lakeshore Drive, the windows down so they could hear, over the rumble of the engine, the waves of Lake Michigan beating against the rocky shore. Before them, the skyline towered. Colin had always loved Chicago’s skyline. Although he was not a religious person, seeing the skyline made him feel what is called in Latin the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—that stomach-flipping mix of awestruck fear and entrancing fascination.
They drove downtown, winding through the soaring buildings of Chicago’s Loop, and they were already late, because Katherine was always late to everything, and so after ten minutes spent searching for a parking meter, Colin paid eighteen dollars for a garage spot, which annoyed Katherine.
“I’m just saying we could have found a spot on the street,” she said as she pressed the elevator button in the parking garage.
“Well, I’ve got the money. And we’re late.”
“You shouldn’t spend money you don’t need to spend.”
“I’m about to spend fifty bucks on sushi,” he answered. “For you.” The doors opened. Exasperated, he leaned against the wood paneling of the elevator and sighed. They hardly spoke until they were inside the restaurant, seated in a tiny table near the bathroom.
“To graduating, and to a wonderful dinner,” she said, raising her glass of Coke.
“To the end of life as we’ve known it,” Colin replied, and they clinked glasses.
“Jesus, Colin, it’s not the end of the world.”
“It’s the end of a world,” he pointed out.
“Worried you won’t be the smartest boy at Northwestern?” She smiled and then sighed. He felt a sudden twinge in his gut—in retrospect, it was the first hint that some piece of him might soon go missing.
“Why are you sighing?” he asked.
The waitress came then, interrupting with a rectangular plate of California maki and smoked salmon negiri. Katherine pulled apart her chopsticks, and Colin grabbed his fork. He knew a little conversational Japanese, but chopsticks eluded him.
“Why did you sigh?” he asked again.
“Jesus, no reason.”
“No, just tell me why,” he said.
“You’re just—you spend all your time worrying about losing your edge or getting dumped or whatever and you’re never for a second grateful. Yo u ’ re the valedictorian. You’re going to a great school next year, for free. So maybe you’re not a child prodigy. That’s good. At least you’re not a child anymore. Or, you’re not supposed to be, anyway.”
Colin chewed. He liked the seaweed wrapped around the sushi roll: how tough it was to chew, the subtleness of the ocean water. “You don’t understand,” he said.
Katherine placed her chopsticks against the saucer containing her soy sauce and stared at him with something beyond frustration. “Why do you always have to say that?”
“It’s true,” he said simply, and she didn’t understand. She was still beautiful, still funny, still adept with chopsticks. Prodigy was what Colin had, the way language has words.
With all the nasty back-and-forth, Colin fought the urge to ask Katherine whether she still loved him, because the only thing she hated more than his saying she didn’t understand was his asking whether she still loved him. He fought the urge and fought it and fought it. For seven seconds.
“Do you still love me?”