I dunno, it’s nothing — why do you ask?
Is there any word lurking in the English language that’s more jam-packed, crammed and stuffed full of nuance, meaning and danger than the word “nothing”?
Ask a 2-year-old what he’s up to and he will nothing you to death.
You come home from work and find your spouse curled in a fetal position beneath the dining room table. Your spouse whimpers and points toward the living room.
You tiptoe in and see little Jimmy sitting quietly on the floor with a coloring book and a tube of lipstick. You take a deep breath and ask, “So, Jimmy, what’s going on?”
Jimmy stares up at you with those big brown eyes, sways to a tune you can’t hear, and draws out that fearsome word, “Nothiiiiiing.”
You look around. The drapes that used to cover the windows are crumpled cloth balls in the corner. Letter-shaped frosted oats from the box of Alpha-Bits you didn’t remember you had are strewn across the carpet. Mustaches decorate every family photo that remains on the walls. (To be fair, Aunt Mable already had a mustache, but not quite as walrusy as the one she sports now.) There’s a kitten on the computer keys even though you don’t own a cat.
“Jimmy, what did you do?”
Jimmy scans the room, mystified at the question. “Nothing.”
An Alpha-Bit crunches beneath your shoe. “Then who did this?”
Little Jimmy shrugs. “I dunno.”
Like Mary’s little lamb, everywhere that “nothing” goes, “I don’t know” is sure to follow.
I don’t know how “nothing” became such a threat. To me, nothing is a goal.
“What’s left to do on that work project?”
“What’s on the schedule today?”
“What are we going to do at home tonight?”
I love it when the answer to each of those questions is, “Nothing!” Why? I don’t know. Bliss, I suppose.
Instead, “nothing” usually means I’m in trouble. Again.
My dad ran out to the barn one day to find water spraying from a broken pipe, two cows galloping in circles and a grain barrel overturned. Oh, and I happened to be standing there, too.
“What did you do?” he yelped as he dodged a bucking cow to clamp off the water.
“Nothing,” I said.
Dad crammed the cows back into their stanchions, picked up the barrel and handed me a shovel. “What happened here?”
I dug into a scoop of grain. “I dunno.”
Somehow, Dad blamed me even though I assured him I knew nothing, nothing happened and I did nothing. I don’t know why he was always so suspicious in these situations.
The menace of the word “nothing” probably peaks at its perilous worst when it’s uttered by a spouse.
I can see on my sweetie’s face that she’s troubled. So I ask, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
The logical response is to say, “OK,” pick up my newspaper, and finish reading the funnies. Look, I knew that it really was “something,” but I figured if she wanted me to know, she’d tell me. I wanted to honor her by respecting her privacy.
Hoo-boy, was I wrong.
Later, during the debriefing, she asks, “Why didn’t you keep talking to me?”
I said the only thing that made sense at the moment: “I dunno.”
It was something.
—- Write sweet nothings to Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the Burton W. Cole page on Facebook.