An old sock lay partly buried in last year’s fall leaves. It was in the back corner of the campsite, potentially across the border of the neighboring site—maybe the toe was in ours and the heel in theirs? If I’d been older at the time of discovery, I might have made the kind of unfunny joke about “toeing the line” that adults like to make. The lots surrounding us were unoccupied, so charting boundaries seemed unnecessary. We had a lot to explore.
The discarded sock, graying in the dirt, had potentially been there longer than I’d been alive, another thought I would have expressed had I been old enough to think existentially. My older brother pointed it out and poked at it with his walking stick. It was important to have a walking stick when you explored a forest. Mine was more of a twig, because little sisters always got second best and because I didn’t understand the sole utility of a walking stick—that it at least be long enough to touch the ground.
“Look at this old sock! Sick!” he said. He laughed, delighting in his disgust like little boys do. I laughed too, because when your older brother indicates that something is funny, you tend to see the humor as well.
He prodded it again with the stick, flinging it into the air, and watched as it landed again, in a different pile of leaves a foot away. Another opportunity for a foot pun that my 4-year-old self missed. The plop upset a small puff of dust from the dried, rotting leaves, and he did it again, flinging the wretched thing closer and closer to our parents’ campfire each time.
“Don’t get too close,” he said. “It smells.” We somehow knew that it smelled, though we hadn’t gotten close enough to catch a whiff, and if we had, any lingering foot-related odor would have been long-ago washed away by the change of seasons, masked by leaf-rot and mold spores.
We continued our journey back to our parents, excited to share with them the treasure we’d collected on the end of a stick. Our parents were not amused. “Don’t touch it,” they said. “Throw it in the fire.”
Of course you didn’t have to ask a child twice to throw something in a fire, and we watched, mesmerized, as the thing dissolved into little more than a pile of black ash and a memory.
“Stinky sock foot burning off!” we chanted. “Stinky sock foot burning off!” The designation didn’t even make syntactic sense, but that didn’t stop it from being the funniest thing we’d ever uttered, one of the stories we continue to revisit today during strolls down memory lane.
The sock was funny—possibly my earliest memory of pure glee—because of the specific combination of the delirium of a long car ride and my childish openness to distraction. As an adult, I see discarded socks fairly frequently. (If I were an alien collecting anthropological data about earth, I might begin to think one of the utilities of the sock was to decorate curbs, alleys, and piles of leaves.) I wouldn’t have thought twice about the many hundreds of unwanted socks I would see in subsequent years, little more than a natural part of the human detritus, if it hadn’t been for Stinky Sock Foot Burning Off.
The experience has given me a new appreciation for discarded articles of clothing, shorn and abandoned on the side of the road. What were their stories? Who had left them behind? Did they, too, smell terrible? Seeing an old pair of underwear among the rubble of civilization feels oddly intimate, suggesting the act of stripping, all but forcing us to consider what their former owner looked like in the act of taking them off. Additionally, clothing—when not hung or folded primly or serving its purpose on a body—tends to look like a used Kleenex in a waste basket without a lid, its contents not hidden well enough for anyone’s liking.
A Meijer opened by my house recently, and I paid the store a visit mere days after the grand opening event. The parking lot still held the frenzy and anticipation of An Event. The greeters at the door seemed genuinely happy to see me. People stood behind tables imploring me to sign up for various mailing lists and rewards programs. A days-old balloon arch stretched across an aisle, marking a festive entrance to the produce department. I was several days late to the grand opening event, but the dregs of the party remained, like a guy rallying for a beer run at 3 am when all the other guests have either gone home or passed out in their own sick.
Something about the pristine floors, still-orderly rows of apples, and the knowledge that none of this food could possibly have spoiled already, facilitated a headiness that rivaled an actual party. Finally, there was a place to buy both avocados and wrapping paper, a gallon of milk and pants. The unrelenting fountain of possibility almost overwhelmed me. I could buy anything here. And it was hardly hyperbolic; I struggled to think of any products that couldn’t be found among those aisles, short of illegal contraband and the commemorative Princess Diana Beanie Baby. They even sold Yankee Candles.
On my way back to my car, Yankee Candle in tow, I passed grids of parking spaces, identical rows packed with SUVs and minivans. The only kind of cars that can properly accommodate the burden of a Meijer haul. I passed an empty spot—but no, upon closer inspection, it was occupied by a pair of pants, wrinkled and dirty and lying in a careless puddle of fabric.
I thought again of Stinky Sock Foot Burning Off. As usual, I tried to imagine what possible coalescence of circumstances had led to this pair of pants crumpled and abandoned in a parking space, alone. I laughed as I pictured a man so enthusiastic to join the Grand Opening fray that he’d removed his pants. Perhaps the Grand Opening sale price on men’s pants was so good that the customer couldn’t waste another unnecessary moment of his life in his previous pair. Perhaps they weren’t pants at all, but rather the zip-off bottom sections from a pair of convertible pants, for which the English language has not yet developed a word.
Perhaps there was no riveting story behind this pair of unwanted trousers. They had merely joined the ex-sartorial milieu unceremoniously, without commentary, and perhaps it was better that way.
Or perhaps we, as a culture, need to collectively conceive a false mythology, an urban legend, about what it means to leave a pair of pants, a bra, a sock behind. Like the meaning we can’t help but impart to a pair of shoes strung from a phone line, every unwanted vestment deserves its own Stinky Sock Foot Burning Off legend.