Every year for *mumble something mumble* years, I have participated in a bet with some fellow authors wherein the losers have to write short stories with titles given to them by whoever lost less (it’s on the Kentucky Derby). It was all started by Brian Farrey (who was inspired by Stephen King). Catherine Ryan Hyde has also been a glutton for punishment and participated every year while Andrew Smith has joined us most years. This year, David Oppegaard has joined the madness (I’m expecting something terrifying from him). We’ve also had David Lubar before (though I think he was smart enough to get out while he could).
So, basically, I nearly always lose. This year was no exception.
The title I was given this year (by David O.) was The Sock Bumbler. I actually really like that title. Goodness knows that it’s a lot easier than some of the ones I’ve had in the past (I’m looking at you, Brian Farrey and Andrew Smith).
So, I wrote a story.
I’m warning you now that it doesn’t have as many words as it should have. I say that because I actually like the Sock Bumbler and I didn’t have much time so the ending is a bit rushed and formless. I kind of want to give him a hug and the story he deserves. Or, maybe, it has more words than it should because I’d also rather like to turn it into a children’s book. Maybe some day I’ll do one or the other — after all, last year’s short story, A Slight Exaggeration, actually became a book that I’m revising now. But, for now, today’s the day and the story must go up and the show must go on!
So, here it is.
The Sock Bumbler
The Sock Bumbler’s most favorite sock in the whole world was lumpy and fuzzy and far too small for him to wear on his own large, three-toed feet. So, he wore it attached to a leather cord around his neck. It dangled there comfortably in his whitish-grey fur like a lone ornament on a snow-covered Christmas tree. It had red and purple stripes and there was a hole in the toe, but that didn’t matter to the Sock Bumbler.
He had other socks, of course. Hundreds of them. Perhaps even thousands. He kept his collection hung about the walls of his house and tucked away snug in little drawers, each one carefully labelled with where he had found it. His house was full of them, from the top to the bottom and from side to side.
A small green baby sock with a pom-pom on top, hung in the hallway: Sidewalk outside grocery store, covered in snow. Evanston, IL. February 10, 1979.
A man’s plain black sock, draped over a lampshade in his bedroom: Tumble dryer, still warm. Cupertino, CA. June 9, 1998.
A sock so full of holes it was hard to tell what color it had once been, carefully folded away in a tiny drawer just bit enough: Underneath the High Line. New York City, NY. November 15, 2016.
He never took a sock that had a match. He only took the lonely ones.
He wondered sometimes where the other socks had gotten off to, the ones that matched the ones he had collected. He listened for them but they were quiet. Wherever they were, he hoped they were happy and as well taken care of as the socks that decorated his cozy home.
The Sock Bumbler went out collecting every single day because he didn’t like the thought of any sock left by itself, abandoned and lonely. Once he had found a sock and brought it home, the very first thing he did was to tell it gently, so it wouldn’t be surprised or startled, that it now had a home. Then he would wash it—not in a washing machine where anything might happen, but by hand, carefully, with just enough laundry detergent and a bit of fabric softener for fluffiness. After that, he dried it draped over the radiator or hung up in a sunny window, depending on the season, but never in a tumble dryer as they were a very dangerous place for socks. And finally, he would find the perfect spot for it to live in his house.
All the socks were very happy to be there. He could tell.
One day, as he went collecting, he felt the pull of a lonely sock that felt very familiar but different at the same time.
There was, he knew, a very clear difference between left socks and right socks, though most people couldn’t tell and thought they were the same. They even sometimes wore their left sock on their right foot and vice versa. The Sock Bumbler never ever did that.
Left socks were more independent and tended to slouch if left to their own devices, while right socks were very straight-laced and serious. They never fell down on the job. The Sock Bumbler liked them both. He didn’t discriminate when he collected them; a lonely sock was a lonely sock, whether it was a right sock or a left one.
But what he sensed as he set off felt much like one of his favorite left socks, only sideways and backwards. He had hung it in his living room by the fireplace because it reminded him of a Christmas stocking. It was very long and red and nearly as fuzzy as he was. Someone had thrown it out, probably because they couldn’t find its match or perhaps because the holiday season had ended (he had collected it in January), and he had rescued it from certain doom. Sometimes he filled it with happy things.
So, he followed his nose because it was much better at finding socks (especially dirty ones) than his eyes or his elbows. It led him all the way to a small wooden house in the middle of a big forest that reminded him of his own cottage. It had the same cheerful trail of smoke coming out of the chimney. It had a basket of flowers on the small, wooden porch. And there was a sock hung on the front door. A very long, very red, very fuzzy sock. A right sock. But that wasn’t all. There was a mitten with the thumb missing tacked up next to it and a half-unraveled scarf tangled around the door knob. A collection of earrings and hair clips were hung off a necklace that was wound round the doorbell.
So, he knocked.
Something opened the door. Something with a lot of blueish-white fur done up in ringlets and a large nose and bushy eyebrows raised up high, perhaps because no one had ever knocked on their door before. It looked surprised.
“Who are you?” they asked each other at the same time.
They stared at each other a moment and then the Something in the door said, “Shouldn’t I be the one asking that? You’re the one gone knocking on my door, you know.”
“Oh,” said the Sock Bumbler. “Yes, sorry. I’m the Sock Bumbler.” He held out his hand for a shake because he’d always read that was what you were supposed to do when you met someone for the first time. “You can call me Bumble, if you like.” He’d always rather fancied having a nickname.
“Nice to meet you, Bumble. I’m the Jumbler.” The Jumbler smiled at him, showing a great deal of shiny teeth. She took his outstretched hand and shook it. “I suppose you could call me Jumbly? Or is that silly?”
She did look rather silly. Her ringlets were tied up in a multitude of different colored hair clips and bows and ribbons. She was very colorful. He rather liked it.
“Jumbly,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. They stared at each other again. “What can I do for you, Bumble?”
“I think that’s my sock.” said the Sock Bumbler, giving himself a shake and pointing at the sock on the door. “At least, I mean, it’s the right sock to the left sock that I have at home.” He felt a little tug, and then another. He could hear more lonely socks, though they sounded muffled. Without thinking, he pushed his way past the Jumbler into her house and took a long look around. There were socks everywhere, though none of them were tidily labeled and most of them – the horror! – were unwashed and simply lay in piles on the floor mixed in with everything from hats and mittens to baseball bats and kittens.
But he recognized many of the socks. Or, rather, their matches.
“Why do you have all of my socks?”
“These are my socks,” said the Jumbler, looking around proudly at the mess. “I collected them and everything else in here too.”
The Sock Bumbler took a deep breath. And then coughed it out again because it tasted of unwashed sock and other smells he couldn’t identify but that were equally bad. He picked up a sock from the pile closest to him. It was a dark blue one with grey spots. “I picked up the mate of this one in Florida in June,” he said. “It was lying on the ground under a washing line, slightly muddy. I’ve got the right one.”
“That’s a left,” pointed out the Jumbler.
“I can see that.” The Sock Bumbler was bothered and confused. The sock in his hands was STILL MUDDY. He had a horrible suspicion about where the Jumbler had found her socks, which meant, in turn that his own socks had only been lonely because their match had been collected by the Jumbler. They hadn’t been abandoned or lost or discarded at all.
“When did you get this one?” He shook the slightly muddy sock in the Jumbler’s face. She backed away from him a tiny bit. “Where did you get it?”
“I don’t know. I find a lot of things.” She tilted her head and looked closely at him. “Do you collect things too?”
“Socks,” he said. “I’m the Sock Bumbler.”
“Oh, I see,” she said and smiled. “Just socks, then? What about all of the other interesting things to collect?” She waved a three-fingered furry hand around the room.
He took a good long look. Lumps he had mistaken for furniture were, in fact, piles of things.
“What all do you collect, exactly?” he asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.
“Oh, everything,” she said. “I like everything.”
“But why do you even collect things if you’re not going to take care of them?” The Sock Bumbler felt almost faint. Not a single thing in the house had a label and nothing, absolutely nothing, was where it was supposed to be. It was all a hodgepodge mishmash mess.
“I’m not?” The Jumbler seemed genuinely confused. She looked around and it was obvious that she didn’t see the same thing that he saw.
“No!” The Sock Bumbler was trying hard not to be mad but his fur had puffed out, rather like a cat faced with something disagreeable. “Did you ever think about the people these socks belonged to? Or the socks themselves! What about the socks!”
“No.” The Jumbler seemed to shrink down a bit and even her curls deflated. “I’m not even all that fond of socks,” she whispered.
“I’m really more into mittens,” she said. “And gloves. And hats. And—”
He held up a hand to stop her because he had the feeling she could go on and on for a long time. “There are rules to collecting, you know,” said the Sock Bumbler.
“Yes,” said the Sock Bumbler firmly. “There are. You shouldn’t collect things that are still useful and loved, you know. We’re only supposed to save the ones that need us.”
“But how will I know?” asked the Jumbler.
“You have to listen,” he said. “Here, close your eyes.” He took her hand in his, their fur together blending like ice and snow into something that sparkled a bit, much like when the sun hit a frozen pond first thing in the morning. She listened and, for the first time, heard.
The Sock Bumbler brought all the socks home with the Jumbler’s help. Together, they washed them and dried them. Then they carefully matched them up with the socks in his collection one by one, until each of them were folded together neatly in a pair. When they were done, his collection had dwindled down to only handfuls of socks, but he didn’t mind. It was more important that they were happy and whole. Now he just had to get them where they belonged, together with the Jumbler. She had much to learn.
That was how people all over the world began waking up to a recently laundered, nicely folded pairs of socks left at the foot of their beds. Sometimes, they remembered them and wondered where they had been. Sometimes they were confused, as not everyone treated socks with the respect they deserved. And sometimes, it meant a great deal to them, like the tiny pair of small green baby socks with pom-poms on top that magically reappeared just in time to be worn by a newly arrived baby as they were far too small to be worn by the original owner any longer.
And sometimes there was something else there as well; a lost hair ribbon or a pair of mittens, freshly washed.