(5)-DevotionWhere I grew up in Queens, New York City, there was a boy living in the house across the street. His name was Sherman. Somewhere, there is a photo of the two of us from the day I turned seven: I am in a yellow dress and a yellow birthday hat, running down the driveway with friends; he is standing in the background, watching. He is tall, lurching, awkward; his small, sloped eyes are magnified behind the thick lenses of his brown glasses. On his face is a gummy and lopsided smile.

All through my childhood and adolescence, Sherman called my family’s house two or three times a day, hoping to engage whomever picked up the receiver in conversation. He never wanted to hang up. He invited my family to his birthday party every year, came heaving up our driveway whenever he saw one of us outside, and once a week he asked my older brother and me to come over for microwaved White Castle cheeseburgers and to hang out in his bedroom. Sometimes we went, and sometimes we didn’t.


When I was twelve years old, a boy named Sherman decided he loved me. Sherman was nine years older than me and had been born with Down syndrome, an unfortunate effect of his father’s exposure to the chemical Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. For nearly all of his life, Sherman wore a hearing aid and depended on crutches and a wheelchair for mobility.

Puberty had thickened his body and turned his belly into a potbelly; his skin had inflamed with red pustules of acne and then scarred. Sherman’s laugh was guttural and so was his speech. He repulsed me, but my feelings did not sway his devotion. Whenever he saw me he gripped me in a number of uncomfortable, humiliating embraces, and no matter what I told him, he stubbornly insisted that I was his girlfriend. The very idea made me indignant. But Sherman thought I was his; he believed this for years.


I was twenty-eight years old when my neighbor Sherman passed away. His body had weakened from strokes and organ failure until, on a sunny morning in early October, his heart gave out for good. He was thirty-seven.

I had last seen Sherman a year earlier, as he lay in a metal bed resembling a crib, his body wasted, his eyes blind. His skin was soft and swollen from medications and lack of exercise; his fingers were pale and groping. Since I moved out of my parents’ house, I had not gone to see him, so I had not understood or witnessed his deterioration. But now I entered his bedroom, moving gingerly around the stacks of adult diapers and pill bottles. I breathed through my mouth to avoid the smell of disinfectant that permeated the room.

I stayed for an hour, and during that time a live-in nurse assisted him with defecation. I waited in the living room, pretending I couldn’t hear him. When I went to say goodbye, his hand reached up from the crib, seeking contact with mine. “I love you,” he said. He wanted me to stay. Would I?

“It was nice to see you,” I said. I ignored his words. I took my hand away from his and went up the stairs and out of his house.


I’ve narrated exactly what happened and still I am not absolved.


This is what I wish were true: I treated his affection for me with grace and humility. I did not embarrass him; I was not embarrassed. I made him feel respected and whole. During an afternoon in his bedroom, I ignored the smells and my discomfort, came close enough to the bed so that Sherman could reach me. I held his hand until he fell asleep. I was not a monster, no.


Sarah J. Lin is a fiction MFA candidate and composition instructor at Colorado State University. “Devotion” is her first publication.

Photo by Ryan Rodgers