An Abundance of Katherines

Page 13

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.