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Week 6 – Nothing

 “Harvey,” I said, “Don’t touch the curtains.” His hands were black and oil-stained – never clean, no matter how much he washed – the hallmark of being a mechanic.

“Hush, woman!” He whisper-yelled at me without moving.

I had just come out of the kitchen after washing dishes, wiping my hands on my apron. Harvey stood at the living room window, pulling aside lace curtains to see into our front yard. The bald spot at the back of his head shone with high-noon July heat sweat through thin strands of black hair. I could see the fat that had accumulated around his middle in our six years of marriage, bulges that stretched out his white undershirt and had necessitated poking more holes in his belt. I was surprised at how old he looked for being 24.

“The curtains are lace, for crying out loud,” I said, walking toward him. “You can see through without touching them.”

He ignored me, as usual, as if I wasn’t worth listening to. That was one of the first things to go after we got married. I hadn’t expected it because his listening to me was part of why I fell for him in the first place.

 My mother had told me to wait, that someone else would come along. But who could tell me anything at the age of fourteen? Besides, I wanted to leave home in the worst way. Ever since Dad had died, Mom had been sick – at least that’s what we called it – and I had to raise the younger children. I ran away with Harvey, because he was the first one who asked me.

“Elle, look at this!” Harvey turned to me with eyes that seemed to believe he had the charm of Marlon Brando, despite his missing front tooth and the rest of his appearance. He pulled the curtain aside, and I stepped toward the window. I saw our 5-year-old son, William, standing with his back to us, bent over the lowbush blueberries that grew near the sidewalk.

“So what,” I said. “He’s eating blueberries. That’s nothing new.”

While I spoke, I saw William’s little hand shoot up in a wave to a neighbor boy across the street. As William ran away to play with his friend, Harvey grabbed my hand and pulled me outside, the screen door slamming behind us.

Harvey put a finger to his mouth to quiet me as his gaze turned to the figure of William and his friend running behind a house. He bent down with a smile and bright eyes, then pointed to the bush and look at me triumphantly. “See?”

I was confused. I saw a blueberry bush, plain and simple. Grey brown sticks covered with dark green leaves and dappled with blueberry dots. “What?”

“It’s the blueberries! William has been standing here eating blueberries for half an hour. Look at how many are still left on the bush!”

 I was confounded. “Uh, so the bushes have been very productive this year?”

He stood up, grinning and shaking his head. “There shouldn’t be that many blueberries on that bush.” He pulled me over to the bush on the other side of our walkway. “Look at this one. Hardly any here.”

During my next in-breath I considered that Harvey was insane, but with my outbreath I recognized that this was how he always acted on the verge of a money-making scheme. It took me years to realize, from experience, that they were always bad ideas. But that was poor judgment, not insanity.

“Here’s the thing…” He got his face close to mine, and I could smell beer on his breath. Of course, while William and I had been at church, he had participated in his own form of worship. He whispered conspiratorially. “I’ve been watching him. He eats these blueberries, and they grow back almost as soon as he eats them.”

“How much beer did you drink this morning?”

I turned to walk away, but he turned me back around, his excitement-filled eyes tempered with the stirring of his temper.

“I’m telling you Elle, there is something going on here. I think maybe William got that thing from your Dad.” He tilted his head at me to bring me back in, a sign of forgiving or forgetting my belligerence. “This could be huge for us. Think of it, Elle!”

He said more after that, but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking of my Dad. And I didn’t stop thinking of him for the next week.

I loved my Dad. Everybody had loved my Dad. He had been a doctor. But not like Dr. Konrad Steiner on the TV show Medic, all serious and speaking in a monotone.  Never smiling. My Dad smiled all the time. And not just with us kids and with Mom. Sometimes he would take me with him on a call to the neighbor’s. We’d walk for miles, and make up jokes as we’d go along. Here’s one I remember. Why did the little boy have the sniffles? Nobody nose! I made up that one; I pointed to my nose when I said it. It made my dad laugh – he laughed at all my jokes. It was hard on the whole family when Dad died. Except for baby Joseph, of course. He was too young to miss him.

Harvey devised tests to see if William had the healing touch. But he didn’t even know what the healing touch was, for crying out loud. He had this idea that it was like some sort of miracle thing that could save people’s lives. But it was more than that. Dad didn’t just go up and touch a sick person and then suddenly they were healthy again. He listened to people. He cared about people. Harvey didn’t care about anyone but himself. If he cared about someone it was because they might make him some money.

Anyway, Harvey thought he was being so sneaky, not telling William what he was doing. He would go out to the flower bed by the side of the house – my flower bed, that I had planted and nurtured and was very proud of – and he’d go out and wreck the flowers one by one using different methods. He even tried to be scientific about it. He poured bleach on one dahlia, one zinnia, one lilly, then he’d ruin more flowers, one each of the different kinds, with some other method. He’d uproot them then set them back on the ground. He’d light some of the leaves on fire. He’d cut holes into the stems with his pocket knife. My God, I had never seen that man be so creative as when he was destroying my flower bed.

And he was thorough, too. He made a little chart, or maybe you’d say a map? –  of the flowers and what he had done to them. He didn’t go to the auto shop where he worked, either. I guess he figured he wouldn’t need to with the money he’d make from William’s talent. So after a couple of days, once the flowers got particularly droopy, he called out “Billy! Come help me out, will ya?”

William was only five, but even a little kid could tell something was up with a man whose idea of yardwork up to that point had been drinking beer until his wife or his neighbors finally nagged him into mowing the lawn. This Dad who never even played ball with his kid is all of a sudden spending all day with him?

Yeah, William knew something was going on. Harvey would make William touch a burned leaf or pick up a limp stem – had him touch all the flowers, one by one. At first he’d ask questions like, “What do you think happened to this flower? How would you fix it?” 

William was confused. And just a kid. At one point, he saw his friend, Tim across the street and he got up from the ground – filthy , by the way; nobody cared that I had to wash those clothes – and he started to go over to Tim. Harvey snapped. All of a sudden that smile was gone, and he yelled out, “William Harvey Dobson, you get your ass over here RIGHT NOW!”

I had been looking out the kitchen window, but I had to go away, do something else.

I wanted to stand up for William and say, “Leave him alone!” I wanted to tell Harvey that he was being stupid. But believe me, the only way Harvey was going to let this go was for me to let it run its course. Years of experience had taught me that. If I complained about something he did, he’d go at it twice as gung-ho, just to spite me. And when it came to William, if I defended him, same thing.  He’d get it twice as bad.

The worst part of the whole thing was seeing that William really did have the healing touch. The thing my dad had. Those flowers, all the ones he touched, started to get better, and Harvey got dollar signs in his eyes. I was so nervous, worried about what would happen.

One time Harvey had this idea to make money fighting dogs. I hated it so much. He brought four dogs to our house. I don’t know what breeds they were. But they were such precious puppies when he first brought them home, so energetic and bouncy. William was just a baby – he laughed so much then. He and the puppies played together those first few weeks, rolling around on a blanket on the floor. It was like I had five little babies.

But when the puppies got bigger, about the same size William was at the time, Harvey took them to the shed out back and told me to leave them alone. They whined all day while Harvey was at work – he put a lock on the door so I couldn’t get to them. Then when he came home, he beat them. Every night. So they’d turn mean. I tried to stop him, but when I did, he’d beat them even harder. I just had to stay away. He’d take them somewhere late at night, bring them back, lock them up. I’d see the trail of blood leading to the shed.

One day the dogs didn’t come back. Maybe Harvey sold them. Or they died.

It’s not like I thought Harvey was going to kill William with his money-making plan. But I knew it wouldn’t be good.  At night in bed, Harvey would tell me about how he would make this miracle scheme work. I didn’t really understand it. I said maybe our boy could become a doctor, like my dad did. Harvey laughed at me. Like I was an idiot.

I wanted to sabotage Harvey’s plan, try to make the flowers wilt again, maybe spray them with poison. But he watched the flowers very carefully. I couldn’t get near them, even at night. He set booby traps, too. He took my knitting yarn and made a kind of yarn web held up by sticks poked into the ground all around the flowers. Then he hung little bells from the yarn. And mouse traps all around that – hidden in the grass that he wouldn’t mow. Only he knew where they were. He also nailed the kitchen window shut, so I couldn’t do something to the flowers from above.

The worst part was thinking about what tests Harvey would conduct next. These were just plants, but I couldn’t imagine he would stop there. How much money would William make him bringing plants back to life? Somehow he would have to work his way up to healing people. How? Get more dogs? I didn’t even want to think about the possibilities. I was sick with worry.

And then, it just stopped. It felt like a miracle. Five days into the week, the flowers started dying. I couldn’t talk to William about it, so I don’t know for sure, but I think he just stopped healing them. I mean, he still did the same things as before, holding the wilted stems like his dad told him to, listening to his Dad tell him to make the plants healthy again. But nothing happened.

I felt a wave of relief when I saw those dying flowers. I thought Harvey would finally drop the idea and leave William alone. But he didn’t.

One day, when almost all of the flowers were dead, I was making breakfast in the kitchen, and I looked out the window to see Harvey standing with his hands on his hips and staring down through the yarn web at the dirt and decaying plants. His neck was red with sunburn, and he wore a white shirt with yellow sweat stains under the armpits. His face seemed peaceful, his breathing slow. Then all of a sudden, he started tearing at the yarn, pulling out sticks, throwing the mess of them around the yard while he yelled and screamed and bells banged around, clinking and ringing. His arms flailed around like the Tasmanian devil cartoon. I almost laughed. But when he bellowed, “William!”My heart stopped.

Harvey ran out of my view, and I turned and ran, too, following his pounding footsteps up the stairs to William’s room.

I got there just as Harvey was holding him up by his collar with one hand and hitting the side of his head with the other, yelling, “What kind of game do you think you’re playing, boy?” William and I were both crying as Harvey pushed past me, dragging our little boy down the stairs by his shirt. I ran behind them, to the flowers, where Harvey shoved William’s face into the dirt. “What is this?” He yelled. “Why are they dying? What did you do to them?”

Seeing William’s face smashed into the ground, I screamed “STOP!”

For a moment, there was silence except for William’s quiet whimpers. Harvey seemed to move in slow motion, and his face gradually changed from full-on anger into a dead-eyed smile which he directed at me. He reminded me of a cat stalking its prey – you know, the slow walk it does right before it crouches down to get ready to pounce?

He looked me in the eyes and said, real quiet, “What did you say?”

I didn’t plan it – I just blurted out, “He doesn’t have it.”

Harvey cocked his sweaty head, eyes still locked on me and said, as if I were a child to be humored, “Doesn’t have what, Elle?”

I looked at William, who was sobbing softly and looking up at me, still sprawled out amongst the ruins of my once beautiful flowers. I whispered, “He doesn’t have the healing touch.”

Harvey’s eyes widened in surprise, and he glanced at William as if sharing a joke with him. “Really? How do you know this, Elle?”

I looked at him and gathered my voice. “He didn’t heal the flowers. I just watered them, put fertilizer on them, did whatever I could.”

It wasn’t a good explanation. But I knew that, in that moment, Harvey just needed someone to blame. And I didn’t want it to be William.

Harvey put his hands on his hips, looking down. Then he looked up at me, nodding slightly as if he understood. “And you couldn’t get to the flowers after I put up the netting.” He called it netting, that mess of yarn. “So after that, the flowers started to die again.”

He pointed at his head, staring at me. “I knew it.” He tapped his head a few times, looking at William. “See Billy? Science. That’s why we use science. To figure out the truth.”

Well, things weren’t so good for awhile after that. I mean, they were worse. At least Harvey left William alone. Though after that he would tell William stories about how my Dad was stupid – how people thought he was so honorable, such a good person being a doctor and all, but that he left his family and died in the war, leaving his wife to raise four kids on his own. And how honorable was that? That wasn’t how it happened, but I kept quiet.

One time Harvey said, “Billy, your grandfather had such a big ego that he named all four of his children ‘Joe’ after himself. Even your mom.” He looked at me and smirked, like it was a joke on me.

William asked, “Is that true Mom?”

I couldn’t show how sad I was, how much I missed my family. I don’t know why Mom and Dad named us Joelle, Joline, Johanna and Joseph. I know it wasn’t dad’s ego. But I just made myself smile and say, “Yes, William. It’s true.”