Up Close Everything Sounds like Welcome Home
Sheldon regrets coming home the instant his professor’s car pulls into his driveway. Clearly, his parents got a jump start on Christmas decorating. The lights on the house flickered and flashed violently; the manger was front and center on the lawn and, much to Sheldon’s surprise and horror, Santa and reindeer had been promoted to the roof where they appeared to be in imminent danger of falling off at any moment.
“Dear Lord,” Sheldon mutters while his Professor Ricks laughs beside him.
“That’s quite a display,” Professor Ricks comments, “With all those lights, I am surprised your front yard isn’t full of planes.”
“One year, I actually wired the lights to flash a distress message in Morse code - ‘Help, I am being held captive by a fundamentalist Christian.’ My mother was none too pleased when the local authorities appeared.”
The professor’s rich laugh fills the car. Due to his age, Sheldon is not allowed to live in the dormitories. Instead, he is housed with the elder Professor Ricks and his retired doctor wife. Sheldon enjoys the arrangement and tries his best to be helpful; he behaves as he would hope any house guest of Meemaw’s would. As a result, the Ricks have become very enamored of their young guest, as well as fascinated by the facility of his amazing mind.
“I appreciate the ride, Professor,” Sheldon loops his messenger bag strap around his neck.
“Anytime, Sheldon. Anytime. Now, your mother said she would drive you back on Sunday?”
Sheldon nods; he hasn’t opened the car door and wonders if it is too late to go back with the professor and accept the original offer to spend the holiday with him and Dr. Ricks.
It is definitely too late when the front door opens and Mary Cooper comes dashing out with Missy sauntering behind her. Professor Ricks exits the car to say hello. Sheldon remains inside.
His mother and his mentor are chatting in the driveway. Missy walks over and taps on the window.
“You know we can see you even if you’re pretendin’ to be in some alternate dimension.”
Sheldon tries to blow her up with his mind. Missy laughs and yanks the door open.
“C’mon outta there, Shelly afore Momma drags you out and covers you with kisses.”
Sheldon unfolds himself from the seat - the three and half hour drive has wreaked havoc on his knees. It seems ever since he went to Austin, he can’t stop growing. He evaluates his twin who has definitely grown curvier, but not quite as tall as he - she is almost nose to nose with him.
“It’s nice to see you, Missy,” Sheldon greets her. He truly means it; despite his mortification at the holiday display, seeing his mother and sister makes him realize that the lingering sadness he’s been feeling was misdiagnosed homesickness. Missy smirks then throws her arms around her brother, hugging him tightly.
“I missed you, Shelly,” her voice is choked, “It’s been hard.”
Sheldon endures the embrace - Missy was always the more demonstrative - and nods at her words. While she never even came close to him in terms of intellect or interests, like most twins, they had an instinctual bond. Missy and their older brother George teased and tormented Sheldon endlessly but let anyone on the outside (or their father) go after him and the Cooper siblings formed an impenetrable blockade. Sheldon ran interference for them as well, seeing as it took him no time at all to direct his father’s ire at him.
“Shelly? Shelly, Professor Ricks here is leaving,” his mother’s voice causes the twins to pull apart. Sheldon walks over.
“I tried to get him to join us for dinner, “Mary explains, “but he’s anxious to get on the road.
Sheldon is torn between entering his childhood home or leaping back into the cushy Lincoln in his driveway but one look at his mother’s shining eyes makes the decision for him.
“Enjoy the holiday, Professor. I will see you soon.”
“You, too, Sheldon,” the older man goes to put his hand on Sheldon’s shoulder but stops midway, “Enjoy your family. Try to have some fun. Relax. Watch a football game.” Missy snorts loudly behind him; Sheldon steps forcefully on her foot.
Professor Ricks walks to his car, gives the small group of Coopers a wave before driving off.
Mary laces her arm through Sheldon’s, “I made meatloaf for you, Shelly. The professor says you hardly eat. Let’s get inside and catch up. Your father should be home any minute.”
Sheldon’s eyes fill with intense longing as they follow the diminishing dust cloud the professor’s car left.
Mary wasn’t kidding when she said George and Junior would be home any minute. No sooner had Sheldon washed his hands and placed his bag in his room, when he heard the rattle of his father’s pickup in the driveway. Sheldon shrinks inwardly to prepare for the arm punches and noogies that are sure to rain on him once Junior enters the house.
His bear of a brother comes in first, "Shelly!" He hollers and grabs Sheldon in a rib-crushing embrace. Sheldon’s hands flail uselessly, pinned to his sides. There is no escape. His brother’s physique has become even more impressive since he began roofing houses on weekends with their father.
“Lookit how you’ve grown! Any of them co-eds make a man outta you yet?”
“George Junior!” Mary snaps, “I will not have such talk in my house. Your brother is in Austin to further his education, not indulge in fornication!”
“Put me down,” Sheldon orders. His threshold for physical contact has been reached for the day.
Junior complies then swipes a biscuit from the basket his mother just filled. Mary swats at him and he laughs as he dances easily out of her reach.
The screen door slams again and instantly the whole family is all business. Mary is draining potatoes, Missy is setting the table and Junior is getting drinks from the fridge. Only Sheldon stands idle.
His father drops his tool belt by the door then fixes his younger son with a piercing blue stare.
“Yer home?” His voice is flat with none of the enthusiasm his brother showed.
“For a few days,” Sheldon replies, wondering why he feels nothing when he sees his father. Seeing Mary and Missy brought out the sadness but also the warmth of homecoming. Even Junior’s effusive greeting made him feel welcome. George is like a black hole in Sheldon’s life.
“What’s for dinner, Mary?” George turns from Sheldon and he is effectively dismissed.
“Sheldon,” His father’s voice rumbles from the far end of the table, “After dinner, you and me are going on that roof and straightenin’ out that Santa Claus.”
His father’s pronunciation sets him on edge with “roof” sounding like “rough”. His father holds his gaze while snapping open the tab of his beer with one finger. Sheldon does not reply, merely continues eating his meatloaf.
“George, the boy just got home. Give him a chance to relax,” Mary scolds but her voice dwindles when George shifts his gaze to her.
After dinner, Sheldon trudges behind his father and waits with his hands buried in his windbreaker as his father steadies the extension ladder against the side of the house. George climbs up slowly and groans when he has to stand - years of physical labor and bodily abuse are beginning to reveal themselves. Sheldon places his feet on the first rung and manages to climb halfway before the vertigo sets in. Ever since his fall out of the tree he climbed with Penny, his apprehension about heights has developed into a full grown phobia.
“Sheldon! What in hell are you doing down there?” His father’s bark causes Sheldon’s hands to clench even tighter to the sides of the ladder.
“Just look up. Just look up,” Sheldon chants softly. He raises his head to find his father glaring down at him and swallows nervously.
“C’mon, boy,” George crouches down, extending a hand to his son. Sheldon focuses on that hand and his feet climb rung after rung.
The wind is whipping along the roof and the illuminated Santa and reindeer are sadly askew near the chimney.
“Junior helped me put it up but that boy can’t measure for shit,” George swears freely when he is out of Mary’s earshot, “Your momma’s been naggin’ at me fer weeks to straighten it out.”
Sheldon’s mouth is so dry he can’t reply to his father. Moreover, he’s keeping his mouth closed because he’s sure he’ll vomit from fear if he tries to speak. His father has no patience with physical weakness. Despite his quaking knees, Sheldon looks over his shoulder at the yard below. The ground tilts alarmingly and, if he didn’t know better, he’d swear his house just spun 360 degrees.
“It’s not that cold. What are you whimpering about?” George demands. His eyes are narrowed - Sheldon knows that look. It does not bode well.
“Nothing, sir,” Sheldon manages.
“Well, quit moaning and take a look and see why this thing ain’t straight.”
Sheldon walks stiff-legged over toward the chimney then wraps his arms around it before looking at the plastic Santa. He looks at the rope lashing the decoration to the chimney then back at the sleigh. The angle is all wrong and the height at which his father tethered the ropes to the stack isn’t helping either. Also, there is a slight bend to one of the runners on the sleigh which is throwing it off kilter.
“So?” His father breaks the silence. Sheldon winces involuntarily - it seems his father’s voice has only two levels - loud and enraged, “Can you tell what’s wrong?”
Sheldon begins to answer then pauses, “Is that question rhetorical?” Many times his father had asked some version of that question and Sheldon, always happy to supply correct knowledge, had answered only to be rewarded with a slap in the mouth - an experience he’d rather not repeat.
His father tilts his head at him, “Just tell me how to fix it, Sheldon. This damn wind is making my hands stiff plus we gotta watch the pregame in fifteen minutes.”
Sheldon’s stomach turns again at the mere mention of football. His father will be glued to the TV most of the holiday until he stumbles to the table to try to carve the turkey through a beer and whiskey haze.
“The runner is bent,” Sheldon begins, “These ropes need to be angled about thirty degrees and six inches lower to create the effect of Santa and his team being parallel to the roof.”
“Alrighty,” George replies, “Go stand by Rudolph there and hold it steady while I untie everything.”
From Sheldon’s perspective, Rudolph may as well be hanging over a precipice instead of being six feet away. His vision swims and his grip tightens on the bricks. His feet are rooted to the spot. His father has knelt down to loosen the ropes on the opposite side.
“Sheldon, get your thumb outta your ass and hold that reindeer!”
In order for Sheldon to do that, he’d have to inch along the slanted part of the roof. His knees buckle.
George looks up from the knot he’s struggling with, “What do you mean you can’t? Just walk over and hold the reindeer steady.”
“I said, I caint!” Sheldon insists, his twang in full force from the agitation he is feeling. “I’m…” He swallows knowing the ammunition he is now handing to his father, “I fell outta a tree last summer, climbin’ with Penny and now I’m afraid of heights.”
George stares at him. Once again, Sheldon registers the fact that the only trait he seems to have received from his sire is his eyes. He looks away from his father - his face burning with shame.
“Shit!” George mutters to the shingles at his feet then hoists himself up. Slowly, he begins to edge toward the red-nosed reindeer, “Untie them ropes, Sheldon. I’ll hold this steady.
Sheldon gapes at his father’s retreating back. He crouches down and loosens the knots. When his father calls that he’s ready, Sheldon slides the ropes down until they are angled appropriately. He can also bend the runner just enough so the sleigh isn’t lopsided.
“All set, Dad,” Sheldon resumes his death grip on the chimney. His father comes back effortlessly. George, it seems, fears nothing. However, the look on his face tells Sheldon that his father has something to say.
“Sheldon, I know you came back because of your momma. You don’t really want to be here do you?”
“This ain’t any kind of life for you, Sheldon. Your momma just hasn’t realized it yet. You don’t belong here.”
Sheldon finally meets his father’s eyes, “I don’t belong anywhere.”
Mary places the green bowl of vanilla ice cream in front of Sheldon.
“Thanks, Mom,” Sheldon is pleased to see exactly three scoops piled neatly before him. He catches Missy looking intently at their mother before Mary walks casually back to the sink.
“So, Shelly,” Mary begins dishing out more ice cream. Junior is standing beside her, motioning with his hand for her to keep adding to the bowl, “Any plans to see Penny while you’re home?”
Sheldon’s spoonful of vanilla pauses midway between the bowl and his lips; he darts a glance at Missy but she is intently swirling her chocolate and strawberry scoops together. Junior clomps over to the kitchen table. He drops into a chair and grins madly at Sheldon before putting a spoon piled high with ice cream in his mouth.
“Why don’t you just use a shovel?” Sheldon snipes.
“Hey, don’t be picking on me just cuz Momma asked you something you didn’t like.”
Sheldon turns once more to his twin; she is licking ice cream lasciviously off her spoon.
“Why do I feel as if you are behind this?” Sheldon hisses. Missy blinks innocently at him.
“Shelly? I asked you a question,” Mary prompts from behind him.
Sheldon places his spoon down and turns to answer his mother. Mary always insisted on eye contact when he spoke to her and there was many a time in his childhood when his comics or access to Star Trek were taken away because he did not adhere to correct protocol when speaking to her.
“He’ll see her tomorrow at the football game, Momma,” Missy pipes up. Sheldon’s head whips around. “Football game?” He mouths.
Missy leans in, “It’s either that or stay here while she and Daddy fight about the proper method of turkey-frying.”
“Gotcha by the short hairs once again, huh, Shelly,” Junior hoots. Sheldon aims a kick at him under the table but his brother pulls his legs up and Sheldon hits the chair instead.
“If y’all don’t settle down in there,” George’s voice booms from the den where he is watching Hawaii 5-0, “I’m gonna take the strap to each and every one of ya.”
Mary shakes the ice cream scoop at her errant offspring before speaking again, “I think I still have one of Junior’s old high school jerseys, Sheldon, if you want to get in the team spirit.”
“What am I supposed to wear?” Junior protests.
“You’re going too?” Sheldon is horrified.
His brother tilts his bowl of melted ice cream up and slurs up the remnants before answering, “Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Little Brother. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Sheldon lays in his bed, motionless. This visit home is turning into a nightmare. First, his mother makes him meatloaf that could sink a battleship, then his father makes him climb onto the roof, nearly giving him a heart attack and now, tomorrow, he is supposed to attend a game of a sport he loathes in a stadium full of people about whom he feels equally not to mention…Penny.
A heavy sigh escapes him. Penny. His perfect recall has done nothing but torment him with the sensory images of how her lips tasted and the strength of her grip on his forearms. Sheldon would swear on a stack of Bibles that it took at least a month for the smell of her to clear out of his olfactory node.
His bedroom door swings open and Sheldon bolts up in bed. Missy tiptoes in.
“Shove over,” She orders.
“Do you have any regard for the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign on the door?” Sheldon protests, but moves over to give her seating on his bed.
“Nope,” Missy plops down next to him, switching on the lamp as she does. Sheldon shuffles over until he is practically hanging off the bed, “For God’s sake, Shelly, we shared the same womb.”
“And you have been encroaching on my personal space ever since.” Even though he scolds her, Missy’s warmth beside him is comforting and familiar.
“So, about tomorrow,” Missy begins.
“I want it noted I am merely choosing the lesser of two evils,” Sheldon’s voice is stern. Missy raises an eyebrow at him.
“Dontcha think I know that?” She smiles slightly, “Though I reckon it’ll be a lot harder for you to see Penny than to referee George and Mary. You really haven’t talked to her since before you left?”
Sheldon shakes his head.
“Well,” Missy drawls, “She’ll be there tomorrow but you may be able to avoid her still since she’ll be cheering on the field. Oh, and she’s dating the quarterback - Kurt. What exactly happened between you two - y’all were thick as thieves through middle school. Even I couldn’t be part of your secret club,” She nudges his leg playfully with her foot.
Sheldon turns on his side and curls into a ball, “Missy, all this bonhomie is tiring. I’m sleepy now. Get out.”
Missy sits beside him for a while so Sheldon must make his breathing steady and even so she’ll believe he’s actually sleeping. Finally, the weight on the bed lifts, the lamp is turned off and he hears her bare feet pad to the door. The click of the door opening would be inaudible to anyone without his hearing.”
“Shelly, I know you’re only playin’ possum over there,” Missy’s voice reaches through the darkness, “She asks about you. Couple times a week ever since you left. She told me not to tell ya, but I thought you should know.”
Sheldon sits up in bed but the door has already closed behind his sister. He stares at it for a few minutes before falling back hard on the bed.
Why, oh, why did he ever think coming home was a good idea?
Sheldon swipes at the fly buzzing near him but keeps his eyes closed.
“ZZZZ!” This time the fly is walking lightly across Sheldon’s forehead. He waves at it again then pulls the pillow over his head.
A snicker and a giggle cause him to open his eyes. He pulls the pillow off his head and looks right into a set of matching blue and a pair of hazel.
“Rise and shine, Shelly!” Junior hollers before grabbing the pillow and whomping Sheldon on the head with it.
“George!” Sheldon protests, trying to grab the pillow only to be knocked over by another pillow fired by Missy.
“Traitor!” He yelps at his twin. The two of them ignore his cries and sock him with pillows as fast as they can. Sheldon is gasping out laughs, which is making it difficult for him to return fire. Finally, he grabs a pillow and manages a dead-on shot to Junior’s face. His brother moans and collapses on the bed, writhing and twisting. Sheldon continues to pummel him; Missy, for some reason, is holding her fire.
“SHHH!” She finally says.
The brothers stop tussling instantly. From below, the muffled voices rising in pitch and speed reach all their ears.
“Shit,” Junior swears softly. “We haven’t even had breakfast yet. What could they be arguing about?”
“The turkey?” Sheldon suggests hopefully, preparing to pull one of the many pillows over his head again. Missy is at the door, listening intently. She looks at her brothers and shakes her head.
“Sounds like Daddy got a phone call this mornin’.” Missy is looking at Junior.
“Phone call?” Sheldon is tying on a robe, “From work?” Below, their parents’ voices sound like thunder rumbling.
“Shelly, Daddy apparently has a new ladyfriend down at the local bar that doesn’t really care that he has a wife and three kids anymor’n he does,” Junior explains patiently.
“I see,” Sheldon ties a perfect knot then smoothes down the front of his robe. They all hear the screen door slam and go to Sheldon’s window. George is climbing into the pickup under a barrage of sweet potatoes, celery and Durkee fried onions.
“That sonofabitch,” Missy’s fists are clenched; Junior’s mouth appears to have settled into a permanent frown.
“At least she hasn’t…” Sheldon’s words die in his throat as the turkey bounces off the pickup’s tailgate and rolls in the dirt of the driveway.
Junior turns from the window first, “I’ll go downstairs, see if Momma wants me to call Meemaw or hose off that bird. You two get dressed for the game. Try to pretend you didn’t hear them.”
Missy nods but Sheldon can already feel the stress of having to lie settle into his body. His fingers fiddle with the belt of his robe then his left eye begins to wink.
“Shelly,” Missy grabs his face and turns it toward her, “You get a holda yourself, you hear? It ain’t gonna do Momma any good to know we heard all that. You know how proud she is.”
Sheldon nods vigorously but his mouth keeps pulling to the side.
“I mean it, Sheldon,” Missy gives him a little shake, “It won’t do a bit of good. She’s only gonna take ‘im back anyway. Now, git dressed and I’ll see you downstairs in ten.”
Missy releases him and leaves. Sheldon sits heavily on his bed. The complexity of human relationships continues to mystify him. Science is so pure - there are right and wrong answers, some compounds interact well and some do not and it’s all just a matter of finding those elements that live in harmony.
He looks at his reflection in the mirror and, not for the first time in his life, wonders what could have happened to turn his parents against each other. At one time, they must have felt about each other the way he feels about Penny. Sheldon picks up the purple t-shirt with a tornado (the school mascot) in the center. If he had stayed in Galveston, would his relationship with Penny have deteriorated like his parents’? For once, Sheldon is happy not to know the answer.