Reflections of trees in cellophane windows. Screen doors torn straight through in great big gashes. Sheldon’s trailer is the color of pea soup. Its foundation is propped on cinder blocks, and the porch wobbles with the wind. His mother lives nine blocks down, in walking distance; her trailer, the trailer he was raised in, is red-orange with chipping paint. Problems were unavoidable, but his mom made the best of their situation, working as janitorial staff for Bradley Elementary, on the corner of South and Higgins. She still worked there. She loved her job and never for one moment thought herself below anyone else.
“Every man bleeds the same blood,” she had told Sheldon, age seven, his sickly face lying pale on the chip-laden carpet with allergen eyes. Sheldon was born premature, 2 lbs., 9 oz., according to official hospital records. This caused him developmental issues, including a weakened immune system and myopia which forced him to get glasses at a young age. “Don’t let anybody tell you they’re better than you,” his mother said.
Sheldon’s younger years consisted entirely of brief speeches on how to live life from his parents, who kept him sheltered from actual experience. They relied on speeches and aphorisms, collected and taught for centuries, from parent to child to child.
A sickly and fragile youth, Sheldon snorkeled his snot and listened to the speech his father gave: the last speech Sheldon would hear from him. Sheldon’s father was a strong and capable man, the complete opposite of his son, whose lungs wheezed with asthmatic difficulty. Sheldon sat criss-cross-applesauce, staring up with wide impressionable eyes at his father standing domineering over him.
“You’re scared,” his father said, an enigmatic figure. “I know you are. You think they’re out to get you. You hear the sounds and their whispers, and you need to look over your shoulder each time to make sure they aren’t there. But, son, don’t worry, because I tell you: they’re always there. If you can realize that they’re always there—the Great Panopticon, the All-Seeing Eye—then you won’t have to worry. You remember those feelings of fear you felt even when you did nothing wrong, how you thought that maybe maybe your grandma and great-grandma and your great-great-grandma were looking at you from some lens somewhere unfathomable and they were judging you on the sole aspect of your existence? Well, son, I tell you, it’s true. They do watch. And they watch through eyes that are beyond your ken: eyes that penetrate all time and space. You can’t run from the Eyes That See. But why would you? It is not your existence that is your wrongdoing, but your actions.… You were born to circumstances beyond your control. But you can run away any time you choose. And now is that time. Now is that time, son: that time when you can finally free yourself from this nonsense of believing yourself guilty of everything horrible. You are more powerful than you know. Your belief is powerful. My belief is powerful. Let it carry me away, where I can be free to wander, and I can see all. And now, son, I’ll be leaving on this journey. To find the grassy coves I have seen in my dreams, the waterfalls of pure water, the limestone caverns. I will find them. But. Until then, don’t seek me out. Once I do, you’ll know where to find me. When the time comes.”
With that, he disappeared. Sheldon watched, blinking, and he couldn’t quite make sense of it, the linework surrounding the 3D space of his body slithering like the squiggles in books, the squiggles on signs, the squiggles moving like bacterium across his retina.
* * *
When he got older, Sheldon worked as a fast-food manager at Wendy’s, after high school fell through. He was black-haired, brown-eyed, weighed probably a hundred pounds max, 5'8", with nervous clammy hands like two squids stuck to his wrists and a proclivity for head colds.
Throughout elementary and middle school he never learned how to read. He was illiterate because he was born dyslexic and had never learned to read along the way, words taking on primitive shapes and squiggles which made no sense to him. Thanks to this reading disorder of his, he learned to bullshit his way through elementary and middle school, making sure, when teachers displayed a semblance of criticism towards Sheldon’s eight percent test scores, that his parents, Nancy and Bill, voiced their offense, and, No Child being Left Behind, he remained all the way to high school without being able to read a word.
He made it long enough into his freshman year of high school—four months—to meet Samantha, who would later become his wife. Once he dropped out, he applied anywhere he could, but, having a limited skillset, his only accepted applications were for working in fast food. Dairy Queen, A&W, Arby’s, Hardy’s, Wendy’s. He ended up choosing the chain that was closest to home.
Illiteracy came to be no issue for Sheldon at Wendy’s since the instructions of the menu were done completely through pictures. He could look at the instruction pamphlet and see three pickle slices in the picture for making a Single, and so he would put three pickle slices. It didn’t take long for him to learn, since he was a good listener, and he was always subservient.
Working there for many years he managed to get pay raises and cement himself as a long-lasting presence at the workplace, so that Janet, the District Coordinator, promoted him and three others to co-manager. By this time he had his own trailer on the side of the train tracks and was fathering his first child with Samantha.
* * *
“We’re alone in this world, baby,” he says to his daughter. Sheldon adjusts his work uniform. Vivian, not yet one year old, kicks at the mobile above her head, the plastic stars luminescent, levitating twirling constellations of grand unfathomable objects.
Vivvy with her hazel eyes. She stares up at Sheldon, eyes absorbing the universe.
Samantha at the other end of the room watches with her hand to her cheek, smiling. A PureFitness membership card lies untouched next to a set of dumbbells and a yoga DVD still in its shrink wrap, covered in a thin line of dust. The floorboards under the carpet creak under Samantha’s weight as she approaches the crib. She casts an enormous shadow in the rising sun. Sheldon’s hunched figure, spinal, silhouettes beside Samantha and the crib. The shadows caress each other and kiss.
“Have a good day at work,” she says to Sheldon.
“Thanks, honey,” his voice lisps. “You too.”
The walk to work is a long one, but it has to be done if he wants to get where he needs to go. Stepping foot outside he is met with an assortment of scenes, all laid out before his eyes in their spectacular arrangements of autonomy. His eyes fall on his neighbors’ houses—from the Mexican extended family across the street: the Torres family, whose house is jam packed with family come and go, from grandmothers to uncles to nieces, cousins, nephews; Old Man Callan whose owl’s eyes peep from his windows: a solitary gargoyle watchdogging its kempt lawn; the Laruses, a couple whose domestic disputes nightly fill the sky, howling at one another, the full moon overhead shining in full effect: But now is daytime, and so these characters and their novel attributes aren’t so blaringly obvious.
Sheldon walks his common path, a Walmart shopping bag in hand with his lunch as its contents. He totters with each step. The path he carves to reach his workplace has been long established through routine. The cars pass him by. His eyes lie elsewhere.
The shift proceeds in usual order. The clock on the wall ticks clicking sounds from its metal throat.
Sheldon paces back and forth in front of Wendy’s.
“This afternoon shift is bullshit,” says Bethe. “Fucking lunch rush,” puffing on a cigarette. She is heavyset; her face has the features of a strong German man. The cars move periodically across the streets. The traffic had doubled, tripled, over the last ten years, since Sheldon started at the job. Every day smoking at that corner—green one moment, fulfilling a co-managerial position the next—the winter turn to autumn, summer turn to fall.
“Don’t be so pessimistic,” Sheldon lisps.
“What? It’s true.”
Bethe lifts her quarterback’s shoulders. “How’s your little girl?”
“Do you have another?”
“She’s fine. Been a bit restless lately, but she’s fine. Samantha and I are looking to save for her college fund.” Sheldon sneezes on the concrete, and Bethe watches.
“Get her out of high school first,” she says, tossing a cigarette butt atop a small mountain built over years on the side of that building. “Better yet, teach her how to read.” She laughs with her chest and whips a cigarette from the pack in her uniform pocket and lights it with expertise—as if it were in her nature to do so.
Hunched over, Sheldon places his hands on his hips, squinting.
The door to the back of the Wendy’s swings suddenly open to much noise, as three high schoolers come out: Nick, Kyle and Joseph. They are all recent employees, workers that were nabbed to replace three others who quit the month before. The shelf life of workers at Wendy’s is less than six months, usually, Sheldon has learned. In his years, there he has had to do orientation for hundreds of people now, it feels like. Mostly the recruits are high schoolers: skater-types. They don’t usually last long.
“—and so I just left him there,” Nick says to Kyle and Joseph, and they laugh to the sky. Their attentions catch Sheldon and Bethe standing there looking at them, and their eyes pierce with a brash confidence that Sheldon has never understood, a confidence that intimidates him.
“’sup Sheldon,” Kyle says, swinging a Snapple bottle against his leg. Sheldon says “Pffft” and Kyle snickers. Joseph lumbers over to the parking area, dangling his keys in his hand. He presses a button on his chain and his truck beeps, and he opens the front door and jumps in and digs around and pulls out a baggie of weed and closes the door. He swings it by the Ziploc and underhands it to Nick.
“You want one, Sheldon?” Nick laughs, packing and sealing off the ends of a RAW-brand rolling paper.
Sheldon shakes his head.
“Told you he wouldn’t,” Kyle smirks.
“Suit yourself,” Nick puts the joint to his mouth.
Bethe finishes her third cigarette. “Come on, Sheldon,” she says. “Break’s over.”
Kyle finishes off the remainder of his Snapple and sinks the empty bottle in the dumpster thirty feet away, ringing hollow. The crowd goes wild.
Sheldon looks off into the distance at his house where Samantha watches after Vivian until 4:00 PM, that time when Sheldon’s shift at Wendy’s ends and Samantha’s graveyard shift as janitor begins, and they have a half-hour to talk or kiss or look at the baby together before fate divides them.
He follows Bethe inside.
His work shift consists of him standing on the sidelines and observing that his lessers meet the requirements that were demanded of them in the contracts they signed. A clock on the wall is the constant thing that keeps his attention. He always keeps his eyes on it, watching. The clock’s consistency fascinates him: it is always there in that same spot above the grills, unmoving, following the laws set before it with no abstractions. No one can cheat that clock there on the wall—
“May I use the restroom?” Kevin says, and Sheldon snaps to.
“Oh, um, yes. Sure,” Sheldon stutters, “but make it quick.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” Kevin walks away, hands in his pockets. Sheldon knows that Kevin has a burger and fries hidden in his pockets, but he’s young so what can you do?
The clock’s metal throat ticks in a language that can be understood by all.
After failing driver’s ed for the umpteenth time, Sheldon realized that the written portion of the exam would permanently result in his never being able to get a license. So he tried to get Samantha to teach him how to read, and this led to them staying up late some nights, both of them tired, with bags beneath their eyes, reading Dr. Seuss books together, until interrupted by the baby monitor’s crying from an awakened Vivian, bawling her little eyes out in the living room. Eventually, however, the belief in Sheldon’s ability to learn how to read wavered, and Samantha disliked the arguments she had with him when things didn’t work out.
They had finished reading Cat in the Hat (more of Samantha reading to Sheldon than Sheldon’s reading of his own) and had now moved onto a small marine-life National Geographic book for children.
“Fish! It says fish!” Samantha would say. “Come on, it’s like you’re not even trying.”
“How the hell does that say ‘fish’?!”
“I’m done with teaching you.”
“Oh come on, Samantha. I need to learn how to read, if I’m gonna pass the driving exam! That written part kills me!”
“Tomorrow,” Samantha would say succinctly and then leave for work.
So Samantha was given the task of grocery shopping and taking care of restocking everything in the house, having the driver’s license and rarely trusting Sheldon’s driving abilities and Sheldon rarely trusting Sheldon’s driving abilities, except for on rare occasions.
“Sam, we’re out of mustard,” Sheldon spoke, with his face hunched into the empty refrigerator.
“I’ll get some on Wednesday.”
“I guess it’s a mustardless sandwich for me today,” said Sheldon, mumbling to himself and sitting on the couch.
The Democratic debates were on the TV, and Sheldon sat on the couch of gritty material, watching. The politicians were speaking about equal opportunities and arguing on stage. One of them said something that upset Sheldon. “I don’t want to pay more takthes,” Sheldon said. “I’m already busting my hump over here. I’m already paying out of my ass.” Samantha heard him from the bathroom where she was brushing her teeth and laughed.
“Are you talking about yourself again, Sheldon?”
“These politithshans don’t know what I want,” Sheldon crossed his arms.
“Don’t talk politics in front of Vivian. She hears everything, you know.”
Samantha had subscribed to a story she had been told by her mother that said that babies could subconsciously understand the words being told in the world around them, even though they themselves were not yet capable of language. They had done studies around a pregnant woman who had been exposed to prolonged references to murder and violence, beginning in her second trimester. Her child later grew up to be juvenile delinquent and violent offender Lenny Reeves, who was arrested and placed in a maximum-security prison where he subsequently killed an inmate during an attempted—and failed—escape.
“Oh yeah.” Sheldon sat, watching the TV, whispering to himself about how much he hated politics.
Samantha leaves to work, and Sheldon sits in the house watching Vivian. The hours sing with their metal throat, passing by in continuum. He reclines on his La-Z-Boy in the living room watching his TV: first American Idol, then TMZ, then Bones, then House. He sits there for a few hours, holding the baby monitor on the armrest, until his stupor is broken by howls from outside. “They’re at it again,” he scowls and walks into the kitchen and pulls the curtain open. “Those darn new neighbors.”
Sheldon stands looking out his kitchen windows. Across the street in plain sight—the night darkness consuming the flatness of the earth—his neighbors are at it. The lights in their house across the street stand on, a multitude of cars parked in rows before the yard numbering in double digits, pantheons of people assuming the areas about the porch and open door. Like layers of dust they waft, shouting in mesmerizing party-howls, the sight a thing full of suspense. Lights on, the door open, cans strewn about the lawn—a haze infesting … Rain batters the pavement and accrues, glittering like Pop Rocks.…
Sheldon holds the phone to his ear, a Blackberry. “They’re at it again,” he pouts.
“How’s Vivvy?” Samantha picks up on the other line.
“The people across the street are at it again. Bunch of drug addicts.”
“Are they making a commotion again?” asks Samantha.
“Yup, get a load of these guys.” He clicks the Blackberry to speakerphone, squinting, slides open the window and holds it outside.
“Okay, I get it,” says Samantha, and Sheldon pulls the phone back in.
“So how’s work?”
“I’m booked cleaning the gym. It’s a big job. There was a basketball game for the little leaguers—or whatever you call them.”
“No, Sheldon, that’s for professionals.”
“I think that’s all of them.”
“It’s not … Anyway, those boys make a lot of messes. They leave wrappers in the stands, and I have to wax the floors for the fourth time this month, ’cause, believe it or not, their little shoes make a heck of a lot of a mess. Those designy things on the bottoms of their tennis shoes really melt into the gym floor. I’m thinking they should make the bottoms of the shoes flat, y’know, without the bottom-things, to keep it from happening. It would make my job a heck of a lot easier.… Give them like, what are they called … tap-dance shoes.”
“We should put Vivvy in tap dance.”
“I was thinking the exact same thing!”
“Anyway, I’ve gotta work, I’ll talk to you later, Shelly. Love you.”
“Love ya too,” Sheldon says. He puts the phone on the counter and squints, assessing his surroundings. He sighs. “I’m pooped.” Still dressed in his Wendy’s uniform, he stands at the kitchen countertop. The shift had gone by slowly but surely. The thing he liked most about it was that he could shut his brain off and work on autopilot. Hear a sound, put the food together, package food, deliver, thanks for your time, have a good night. Barely any thought is required of him, but he prefers it this way, since he has learned that it is the people who think often and are stuck in their thoughts who are the most unhappy.
Sheldon falls asleep with Vivian in the crib beside him, and she magically doesn’t make a sound the whole night.
The sound of the door closing and keys on the countertop wakes Sheldon up, and Samantha consoles an awakened Vivian. Sheldon rubs his eyes and walks into the kitchen. He mixes together and drinks from a cup of orange-flavored Emergen-C, effervescent, to get his vitamins, and downs alongside it the pills he needs: his medication. Samantha stands in place in the dining room, reading a magazine. It has a picture of a UFO on the front, the headlines purposefully attention-grabbing: “BAT-BOY DISCOVERED IN CAVE”; “PARIS HILTON CAUGHT DOING EXACTLY WHAT YOU THINK.” ’70s music plays from the radio: Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd. The air is thick, and an inscrutable pressure forces itself throughout the atmosphere. Breathing is difficult. The sun is in the same spot it was a month ago. A car engine roars down the street, muffler shot: ambivalent to speed limits.
To calm his nerves, Sheldon recites a story his mother told him time and again when he was a child and causing a fuss, a story about oxen. It went something like this:
There once were a pair of oxen who were tied to a very heavy wagon. Every day all day with all their strength the oxen carried the wagon, without ever complaining. Every day as the oxen pushed along the path carrying their heavy load in the thick mud, they never complained about it. But while the oxen were silent, the wagon wheels, on the other hand, were not: they screeched and creaked and moaned, even though it was the oxen who carried the burden of the weight. Every day the wheels did this, they screeched and creaked and moaned. Deciding finally they had had enough, the oxen turned to the wheels and cried out: “Will you wheels be quiet already! Why is it that you must always complain? It is a difficult time for us all, but you never hear us who carry the weight making such noise about it.” And with that, the oxen turned around and continued pulling the wagon in silence.
And the wheels keep turning.