Short Story: Knife, Barn, My Harvey

I carry a knife—not a switchblade or a machete or a Bowie blade with a little groove in it for the blood to run down like on the TV show from years ago, but a little red Swiss Army knife which I use for opening mail, or cutting fruit, or doing things around the house because I’m handy in a way which is unusual for a woman but I’ve always been like that. I’m only mentioning it, the knife, because of my husband’s third nervous breakdown, which he had when he was on a business trip down in Raleigh, North Carolina, whereas we live on Long Island. We didn’t always live on Long Island, either. We used to live in the Bronx where we met, at the Temple Emanuel Synagogue on Tremont Avenue, not a safe neighborhood anymore now like it used to be then.

But this day I’m talking about now is on Long Island. I was out in the rickety barn, potting plants and using my knife to cut twine, when I heard the phone and I could have let it ring but something about it sounded so upset and nasty I ran to the house and answered and I found out. About Harvey.

The airport had a plane going soon, and if I left in less than ten minutes I could take it to where they said my Harvey was slumped up against a water cooler and refusing medication and among strangers.

Of course you know that the ticket sales counter was crowded and the girl behind it was so slow in her blue polyester sweater that it was almost time for the plane to leave when I rushed to where the departure gates are with my carry-on bag (which was the only luggage I had) bumping against my thigh, and I’m not a young woman.

But my knife set off the metal detector at LaGuardia and created a hubbub. At first nobody got excited when the alarm sounded. They just asked me to empty my pockets. I was hurrying, and still in my jeans pants with even some potting soil on them, and when I did empty my pockets and poured out change and keys, everything was all right until my knife clinked in the steel tray and then one security guard “oohed” and a “tsk” came out of the other one and they had a conference I couldn’t hear. The next flight after this one down to Raleigh-Durham wasn’t until the next day so I didn’t want to miss this one and I said to them, “Confiscate it, the knife, give it to the pilot, do whatever it is you do in a situation like this one, just do it fast.” That’s what struck me then as the sensible, intelligent thing to do. I was even, because of my worry for Harvey, so ready to sacrifice the knife, which is my only one and favorite. And maybe someone, somewhere, was being mugged in trouble in a hallway where the street door didn’t lock right and maybe screaming, and no one came to help because the authorities were so interested with my knife. Like somebody like me, a Jewish senior citizen and female from the Bronx, would be a terrorist. Of course not. Anybody would know that.

They, the men with the uniforms at the airport, had another conference while I thought of Harvey, who’s had such a hard time from when he was a boy, and then they started saying how they might arrest me. Until I began crying on account of Harvey. It was a big cry and for a long time. And while I was crying the men asked me a lot of questions, which I don’t remember what all of the questions were, and then they called the hospital in North Carolina to see if my story was true or a lie and the doctor at the hospital said yes that Harvey was broken. And meanwhile the men in uniform, there were a lot of them, stopped the plane I was supposed to be on from taking off, because they wanted to make sure I didn’t have accomplices on the plane for doing bad things. And I just kept crying and telling the truth about how I needed to get to Harvey, and finally the men in uniform decided they wouldn’t arrest me and instead they would let me on the plane and not even confiscate my knife because it would be better instead to put it in a cardboard box in with the luggage. They said—I could hear them talking to one another—that I might be less upset if they didn’t confiscate the knife, which the knife wasn’t the reason I was crying so bad. I was crying, like I said before, on account of Harvey’s breakdown. But they said they would put the knife in with the luggage—they were making a big exception, they said. And I could claim it, the knife, from the luggage, when the plane landed. The world would be safer this way but first they had to fill out the papers and discuss with one another how last week Kathy, their co-worker, had gotten in trouble for having allowed a hand grenade through. It was a spot test with a fake hand grenade carried by an airline inspector disguised as a passenger, but Kathy got in trouble anyway and now the union—I think I heard them say it was the union—was trying to fix it so Kathy would still keep her job. After filling out forms came a phone call they had to make to get another security guard to bring the box, and the only box they could find was one for shipping bicycles, and it had the airline’s logo on the outside of it, and they put my little penknife inside the big box where it looked lonely. But the plane, the boarding of which had been delayed because of me, already had all of its luggage loaded on the little motor carts and someone would have to carry the bicycle box, with my penknife in it, to the departure gate to be given to a worker to put in the luggage area by hand, but it couldn’t be me since I was the perpetrator, and one of the security guards would do it even though they were so busy.

So one of the security guards, a very rough-looking man (in my opinion) who, if you saw him get on the elevator when you were the only one on it, you would get off, carried the box. Me, I was just grateful that I wasn’t in handcuffs anywhere and I followed him down the airport corridors and every once in a while he held the big box up and tilted it so he could hear the knife slide from one end of it to the other until we got to gate 6 and he handed the box over to the gate employees and said, “This is the woman with the knife, and this is the knife,” very loud and indicating me and then the box. All the passengers who were wondering why they hadn’t been allowed to board the plane yet, which was late from being held, leaned forward in their waiting-area seats to see the woman in the messy clothes with the knife, and when they saw the oversized box their eyes got very excited.

Nobody talked to me on the plane, which was fine with me because I was thinking that Harvey was having breakdown number three and here he was oh so close to retiring, and maybe even he should have retired a few years ago, and why did it happen now, the breakdown. One and two I understood because number one was right after his business in ladies’ handbags failed and then he found out it was because his brother, the accountant, was playing games with the books, and there were all those legal problems because, for a long time, no one would believe Harvey didn’t know about the playing with the books. And number two was when he got so sick, with the lung problem the doctors couldn’t diagnose, and Harvey thought it was probably cancer and he was going to die. But then he didn’t and that was twelve years ago. Now this number three I couldn’t understand, and meanwhile the passengers were looking at me like I had plans, which had been thwarted, of standing in the aisle with my penknife and yelling horrible things with my voice, which is a not-very-loud voice anyway anytime. When I had to go use the airplane toilet they were all very polite, those passengers, and pulled their knees in tight as I walked past them in the aisle, and I noticed that the blue color they put in those toilet bowls is the same color as the blue Sno-cones you can purchase at all-night convenience stores like the one near me on Long Island.

When the plane landed I was taken to the luggage carousel to make sure I didn’t forget my knife or leave it so some other terrorist could get it and make trouble, and then I was escorted to the parking lot where I didn’t have a car. I guess they had called ahead from the airport in New York. After they escorted me to the parking lot, they left me alone, and I opened the cardboard box, which was difficult to do since I didn’t have my penknife, but I got the knife out and put it in my pocket and then I put the box in the garbage container there, which you’re not supposed to do because it’s too big to fit. I could have gotten a ticket for illegal trash disposal. Then I got a cab to take me to the hospital where they had my husband, and the cabbie never even knew I was armed or noticed anything unusual about me.

My husband is tall, skinny, handsome, and athletic, but I was very sad with the way he looked when I saw him in room 302, his chest curved in and then so pale and little bumps all over his skin like a plucked bird. He didn’t look like Harvey usually looks, which is like Fred Astaire, I always say. I told Harvey that the doctor at the hospital, where we were now, said I was going to be able to take Harvey home and he could get better in his own living room reclining chair with his poodle, Mottsie, who has bug-eyes and who growls and bites some people but not Harvey. Mottsie would be right there with him while he improved. And how this was all arranged when the doctor here talked to our doctor in Long Island, Dr. Philip Cohen. But all Harvey said was, “Who’s Dr. Silicone?” which I figured he misunderstood the name because of all the sedatives they’d given him, and then he said, “Mottsie doesn’t growl at people, she’s just talking to them,” and he mentioned nothing about me standing there all frazzled with worry and my hair not even combed. Then a little boy doctor, I mean he looked like he was maybe seventeen, and a nurse who only whispered took Harvey for a test I didn’t understand in a different part of the hospital which would take one hour, and before the doctor left he didn’t say to me either what was going on, just like Harvey didn’t explain to me. Even though I said, “Harvey, Harvey, we’ve been married so long and from when we were young. Why are you so upset?” And all Harvey said was, “Where’s Mottsie?” like he was even thinking they would have let me bring her on the plane. Imagine that. Mottsie on the little thing that slides under the cloth fringe by the X-ray machine at the airport.

I was waiting and I was thinking what I should do with my penknife so that I wouldn’t have the same problem at the airport in North Carolina like I experienced at LaGuardia, especially not with Harvey with me because it could make him more upset. I pondered and decided that, even though I like to have the knife with me for use and not part with it, I should send it to Long Island without me. So I went outside the hospital to where there was a post office, right next door, and I bought one of those cushioned envelopes and mailed my penknife back to myself at home. As soon as I put it in the mailbox I began to worry that I might be committing a federal offense, shipping a dangerous weapon across state lines without a license, but it was too late since they make the mailboxes with the little slits narrow so you can’t change your mind and stick your arm in and retrieve your package, even though I tried it until people in the post office started to notice me. So I stopped and walked out nonchalant and I talked to myself, not out loud, to relax and maybe no one would ever know and I’ d be safe and not go to jail.

Then I called our neighbor, Mrs. Terrazinia, to take care of Mottsie because Mottsie only bit her once, and not so deep, on the finger.

The next day I brought Harvey home to Long Island and had to make sure he took his  medication, which they convinced him to take otherwise he would have had to stay there in North Carolina where he knows no one, and sometimes I think he didn’t take those pills but just held them in his mouth somewhere until I wasn’t looking and then got rid of them some sneaky way.

Here at home at least he knew the doctor, but Harvey didn’t talk much anyway which is a bad sign, though he’s never been a blabberer. I’m the one has always been the talker in the family, especially when I get upset from something and start thinking so many kinds of things so I can’t concentrate. And then sometimes Harvey says to me, “Rhoda, take a breath, you’re in such a rush all the time.” But when you’ve been married to someone for 52 years and 4 months you’ve seen them chatty and not and just about everything else too, and there have been times when we didn’t get along together so well and Harvey talked only to the dog for maybe five days. Though we never had a dog that was a biter, before Mottsie.

So a few days after me and Harvey got home, my knife came in the mail. On the day that my knife—addressed to me by me—came, I was again in the old barn—by the way a small barn but bigger than a shed and sagging in the beams. Then I went to the basement in the house and was doing the laundry while Harvey was napping upstairs in the bedroom, his energy was so sluggish all the time from his anxiety. I was only down there for how long it takes to sort the dark colors out and select cycle and water temperature and that’s when I remembered that I forgot the knife on the barn workbench next to the plastic bag of compost which I purchased for my tree peony growing near the place where the irises are doing so well that the neighbors are full of compliments. This was bothering me immediately, it was so unlike me that I’d be forgetting my knife in the barn, which is not right near the house because the garden is in between. So I went up the basement stairs to right away get it, and opening the door that’s how I heard faucet noises in the bathroom near the bedroom where Harvey was napping. And when I got there, Harvey was not in bed he was in the bathroom, and when I inquired at the door he told me he wanted to take a nice relaxing bath, which he hadn’t done in a while but usually used the shower where, when he was in a happy mood, he sang and his stutter completely disappeared. He has a stutter from when he was a child and his mother was a very nervous woman, and some people say that makes problems for the children, and I think they’re right. Like Harvey’s always been nervous too, I think maybe because of that, though it’s not like he would say so.

I had things to do and I put potatoes—Harvey just loves potatoes—to bake in the oven for dinner later and put Mottsie’s harness on her and walked her down to the Gulf station, right near the convenience store where they have the Sno-cones, and back, and vacuumed the sofa because they always say that poodles don’t shed but Mottsie is different and sheds plenty, and I straightened up a little in the den and then it was time to put the laundry from the washer to the dryer. Then I went back up to check how Harvey was and he was still in the bathroom and didn’t answer me when I was talking to him through the door. I became suspicious right away from that and because I had noticed he didn’t behave regular with Mottsie at breakfast and that he had locked the bathroom door, which was not a necessary thing. So I called 911.

Pretty quick, I have no complaints about that, two policemen showed up. When they rang the bell I put Mottsie, who was barking and barking, into the den and then I opened up the front door and had this twinge of wondering whether the police were there because of Harvey or that maybe they’d heard about my penknife, which feeling only lasted a second because I remembered that the knife was still in the barn. I’d been so busy, enough to forget it again. Maybe it was good I didn’t have that knife on me just then because of the police right in the house, they shouldn’t worry about it, and if they had to search me they would find nothing.

I told them in a few sentences about Harvey and we all got upstairs and stood outside the bathroom where we got no response still. They asked me for permission to get the bathroom door open and I said yes right away and then they had trouble doing that because they were looking for a way they could do it without being too destructive to the door, especially the policeman named Pinkwater on the nameplate right next to his badge, and figuring maybe they could get the hinges off instead. Except the hinges were on Harvey’s side and that’s when we finally heard from Harvey. He was cursing at how stupid they were that they went all through the police academy training and nobody taught them how to break down a door, which it seems was just basic information as far as Harvey was concerned, which was something I’d never known about Harvey having that opinion, even after all the time of knowing him. He cursed at me, too, as in, how three adults on the other side of the door could be such idiots and incompetents.

This gave me a scared feeling on account of Harvey isn’t a person who says nasty things. So I told the policemen to hurry about getting the door open and right away the officer not named Pinkwater started kicking the door right near the lock part. He kicked it maybe three or four times. He had strong feet and was wearing those stiff shoes that they give policemen to wear, shoes what look very uncomfortable if you’re on your feet all day, if you ask me. And the fourth kick was quite a zets, which, if you don’t know, is a Yiddish word for a big hard smack. And the door near the lock splintered and the door opened and even came off one hinge.

When we got the door open Harvey was in the tub, just like he’d said, but the tub water was all pink from the blood where he’d cut his wrists with a razor from the medicine cabinet, which no one had confiscated the razor blades and put them in a bicycle box because who would think of that since we weren’t at an airport. And besides, Harvey had never done anything like this before, ever. I didn’t even think older people like us thought to do such a thing, which occurred to me while I was also looking at the pink water and thinking wasn’t it funny that the one policeman, who was fatter than the other one, should have that name, what a coincidence. I wonder if he noticed like I did. The Pinkwater policeman was the one who called for an ambulance.

Meanwhile, I turned the oven off so we wouldn’t have a fire from the baking potatoes, on top of everything else, and I let Mottsie out of the den, so right away she went to bite the policeman whose name was not Pinkwater. But his shoe was thick and she was not successful in getting her teeth through the leather, and he gave her a little kick and she went sliding all the way over to the couch, which I can’t say I blame him. The ambulance came and drove us—but without the siren going because Harvey wasn’t about to die right then—to the emergency room. They called Dr. Philip Cohen and when he came he poked Harvey who paid him no attention. I noticed that because before, in the ambulance, when I touched Harvey he didn’t feel so right either to me, which fact made me worry, of course. Dr Cohen said, too, like the ambulance people, that Harvey wasn’t going to die from this but how this was serious so they would keep Harvey there and observe him and we would all think about what to do next. Meanwhile I should go home and get some rest for deciding things because it was going to be up to me since we had no children, though we tried for years, but it had turned out that Harvey’s sperm wasn’t so normal inside him and we decided that it was meant to be like that and not adopt but just enjoy one another, the two of us. Dr. Cohen said that Harvey was in good hands and would probably live to be a hundred and it was the other stuff we’ d have to worry about. Other stuff like Harvey feeling so sad.

Officer Pinkwater and the other one, both nice boys, very polite, drove me home. I’d never been in a police car before. I had to sit in the back, because that’s the regulations, with the steel mesh between me and them, just like a criminal that could attack has to, and it’s a good thing nobody from the airport was there to recognize me in their suspicions. Sitting in the police car was when it came to me that maybe my Harvey was feeling bad in his lungs again, like last time, and he was not telling me, just like he didn’t say anything the time twelve years ago and back then I never knew until Dr. Cohen explained it to me. Because, like I said before, I’m the talker in the family, Harvey keeps to himself what he’s saying always and doesn’t like to worry me.

When we got back to the house, the policemen let me out of the car but they didn’t offer to put the bathroom door back and I didn’t feel right asking because it’s not their job exactly and so I let the water out of the tub, which fortunately I didn’t have to put my hand in the pink water but only pull on the silver thing at the top. I didn’t feel like cleaning the tub or floor, I just wanted to take a shower, which I was able to do because we have the shower stall separate from the tub from when we did the renovation and Harvey thought it would be easier to give Mottsie a bath that way, in the shower.  Every Tuesday he would just put on his bathing trunks and get in there with her till he had her all cleaned and then groomed, and they both looked so nice. In the shower I felt strange a little because of no door where the bathroom door usually was and because of Harvey’s blood around, but I thought let’s not get so overexcited about such a thing when Harvey, I hear, will live to be a hundred, and after all, once I let the tub water run down the drain, there was just some little blood on the floor, but not so much. The tub just needed a good scrubbing, maybe tomorrow. I cried in the shower and that’s not the first time during those couple days, like when I had my big cry at the airport. But I didn’t worry that I was crying, because crying, well, that’s to be expected. After all, Harvey was always good to me mostly and didn’t run around or be mean, and that cursing at me from when he was in the tub on the other side of the door was not a usual thing for him to do at all.

Anyway, then the barn fell down which it did when I was in the shower and that’s why I didn’t hear it. It was standing up when the police dropped me home because I saw it there the way it usually leaned that reminded me of my aunt Gladys who had a spinal scoliosis, and I guess I should have called someone, like a contractor maybe, sooner to fix it. To fix the barn, I mean, not aunt Gladys’ spine. But who knew it was going to collapse altogether? Certainly not me. But when I was getting out of the shower I saw it from the window. It wasn’t a barn anymore, it was a heap of wood poking out all directions, and lucky thing I wasn’t in it when it fell, and my green bucket sticking out from underneath and crushed. That’s the same time that I noticed me naked in the bathroom mirror and my body was pale, like Harvey’s in the hospital, and splayed out like an old toothbrush head. So I put a towel around me, the nice blue towel from when Harvey and I took that vacation in Miami. I went downstairs, but not outside since I didn’t have clothes on, but only flip-flops on my feet and the towel, to look closer. From the window I could see the garden, which is so restful, especially the garden swing where I sit in the early evening with Harvey, or alone if he’s working late. Once I was sitting in that swing and I was wearing red flannel pajamas and a hummingbird flew up to me thinking I was a flower and you should have seen the surprised look on its face when it recognized I was not a gladiolus but a human. Sure enough, the barn it was gone and all my garden tools and clay pots, and right on top of my only favorite penknife too. How was I going to get it back? Harvey had given me that knife oh so many years ago because he has never been mechanically minded and just did the business things and I was the one who changed the light bulbs and made sure the doors didn’t squeak, and I fixed the dishwasher myself one day when it wouldn’t rinse right and kept the house going and could use such an object like a knife, which was not an object Harvey could use. Not him. Not even when he was young, like I remember him very clear us dancing together, such a good dancer Harvey was that we used to go to Roseland all the time on Wednesday nights, which is ballroom night. My Harvey, he was dancing all the time, the rumba, tango, and oh, such a waltz. He would hold my hand, waltzing, and he would close his hand. I like his hands, both of them. But not close his hand all the way when we were dancing, and then he’ d stand up tall, and while he danced the waltz like I’m describing, he hummed to himself, not so much that anyone else could hear but more like he could hear himself humming and then he’d go, one-two-three. One, two, three. And no one else doing the waltz just then at Roseland was a dancer like my Harvey. But it hadn’t occurred to me before to think that he was never a man who would carry a knife but was somebody who liked to do things that didn’t need talking. I never stopped to think this before, because what’s the use when there’s all the time so many things to do living a full life, like I’ve had always, and I’m not a complainer. But after I saw that the barn had fallen down, I just sat down in my blue Miami towel on the kitchen floor, in the middle, and noticed how flabby and loose my arms were and when did that happen? When did my arms get loose and flabby? And I thought all about having to decide what was the next thing to do about how Harvey felt so bad, and how being married so long a time was a building, but how it wasn’t a building like the barn was a building. It wasn’t just going to come down one day while I was not noticing in the shower.