I know it sounds strange to say, but socks are a powerful item in my world. Not the actual wearing of them, mind you, but the folding. For some reason, I’ve always paid attention to the numbers. You know, like how many socks are missing from a given load. Or how many are present. Or how many hide when you go looking for them. It’s amazing how often sock folding doesn’t go as planned. It’s astonishing how often socks escape our predictive capacities.
Not sure why I get such a charge out of socks, but I do. If I had to take a stab, I’d say evolutionary instinct. As in, socks are important for survival, in that they make it less probable to get frostbite on the Alaskan tundra. Or there’s less chance of being bitten by ants. Or it’s less likely that you’ll bleed if you step on glass.
I’m fairly tickled when I do a load of laundry and every sock matches. For me it feels fortuitous and kinda makes me go, hey, it’s gonna be a good day. I feel a gust of wind blow through me when all the socks match. I look around my bed to make sure it wasn’t a false summit. A part of me wants to share the experience, like give high fives and such, but I’m a single guy and usually I’m alone.
Still, I feel genuine satisfaction from an entire load of matching socks, a sense of harmony about the world. Sort of like I’d stumbled on a rainbow or a free can of beer. It’s the little things in life that matter. Yeah, definitely the little things.
But something really odd started happening to me about three years ago.
All my socks matched.
That’s right, every single load without exception always drew pairs.
Same washing and drying process, same outcome. Nothing about my routine changed. I still washed socks once a week. I still used Downy fabric softener and cleaned the lint tray every load. I still tossed my socks around the house like I was playing cornhole.
A girlfriend used to tell me that she could deduce what I’d done the prior week just by following the sock trail. One sock in the living room, another in the basement, yet third and a fourth on the bathroom floor. It’s true. I’m slovenly that way. Not proud of my behavior. Just how I am.
To be clear, I’m not a religious person. Not in the slightest. Instead, I’m a man of science, a believer in evolution, quantum mechanics and such. People who believe in God have always struck me as weak and needy, sort of like toddlers suckling on their mother’s teat. I know I shouldn’t be so mean, but on that topic, I call it like I see it. Truth is, I haven’t encountered a shred of evidence for God in my entire life.
You can imagine then how uncanny the sock regularity felt. Not only did the appearance of design threaten my scientific worldview—I mean, how could randomness account for 156 straight loads of matching socks?—but it disturbed me greatly. So much so that about a year and a half into the sock experience, I turned to a psychiatrist.
Maddy was her name. She was trained in behaviorism and cognitive therapy. I felt embarrassed taking my problems to such a lovely professional, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. And boy, did I know what I had to do when I was driving home one day, and two socks scampered across the road. That’s right. There I was caught in rush hour traffic when a pair of tube socks ran right in front of my car. At first, I thought maybe they were snakes, but snakes slither when they move, whereas these scurried.
Anyhow, upon hearing this story, Maddy put me on meds and said I had obsessive qualities. She also said I probably had a sock phobia that she likened to bees and spiders. At one point, Maddy even suggested phobophobia. But that didn’t sound right. I didn’t fear fear itself. My fears were definitely sock centric.
Not to mention, the sock regularity was one hundred percent real. Know what I mean? This was not a situation where I was hallucinating or unconsciously making the socks match. No, this had genuine metaphysical legitimacy. The world itself was making this happen. Someone or something took interest in my weekly laundry.
Which was serious business.
Turns out, I was not the kinda guy who could tolerate being watched or controlled. I just wasn’t gonna be subject to that kind of infringement on my life. And no amount of selection bias could change my mind about this one. If God was watching one thing, he was watching it all, and there was no way I would be able to block this out.
I’ve been patient with the whole sock-folding regularity. Quite patient, I think. Even amused at times, sort of like I was a character in a Bill Murray movie encountering the same thing again and again. I just rolled with the sock regularity and figured it couldn’t go on for more than a couple years. But when it did, and when none of the meds that Maddy prescribed were working, I grew anxious and knew something had to give.
It was a Tuesday. I was watching an episode of Cobra Kai on Netflix. Leaning back in my reclining chair, I raised a chip with seven-layer dip to my mouth. I felt relaxed, kicked off my shoes. The only thing distracting me from the TV was a pair of Van Heusen socks on my feet. I oscillated between my socks and Cobra Kai for a good long while.
Then an extreme idea took hold.
Or it felt extreme to me anyway.
Why not throw one of my socks in the trash? And, actually, while I’m at it, why not do the same with one of the socks in my drawer? This would ensure at least one missing sock in my next load of laundry, and presumably, my sock woes would be a thing of the past.
Yep, made sense. Not sure why I didn’t think of it earlier. Take those socks, place one in each hand, and toss ‘em. Toss ‘em like a couple old banana peels or used tea bags, doesn’t matter which.
But I’ll be damned, if only two days later, there I was, folding socks on the upstairs couch, when a painful symmetry occurred. The numbers looked even. Each sock pile I formed displayed cohesion and color alignment. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions quite yet, so I carefully folded the socks to confirm the outcome. Sure enough, they all matched. Each one had a partner.
Not only that, but the socks came out of the dryer with a different quality. They seemed emboldened in a certain kind of way, or perkier, almost like they felt more confirmed in their existence, or had a new pep in their step.
How could this be?
I launched into verification mode, trying to account for the matching socks. Maybe a couple fell on the side of the washing machine? Perhaps I threw more socks away than I thought? I startled rifling through the trash. I mean, I went hard at the trash can, and I went deep, real deep, sort of like I was spelunking or evaluating a new theory. Down and down and down I went until I hit bottom and confirmed that there were no socks.
But maybe they were in the outdoor trash?
I burst out the door, made my way to the big plastic trash can, the green one, which leaned against the cedar fence. It was October. Rain fell hard as I swam through butter, grease, coffee grounds, eggshells, cantaloupe rinds, milk cartons, empty cans of tuna, everything from last week. Sleet tattered my bare chest. Thunder boomed. I examined the outdoor trash no less vigorously than the indoor one.
But my worst fears were confirmed.
There were no socks in the trash.
Not a one.
That day rocked my world. The fact that I’d challenged the sock gods and failed felt ominous. I couldn’t even walk through my own house without feeling some kind of presence watching my every move. It was as if a pair of crew socks might pop out from behind a corner and chop me down at the knees. Or a set of business casuals might steal money from my bank account and enroll me in a Ponzi scheme.
Even sleep was a problem.
I was having horrible nightmares about socks, or at least I assumed they were nightmares. In one, a blended wool sock—the kind one might wear skiing or snowshoeing—tried to choke me out. Yep, that mutherfucker wrapped around my neck like a boa constrictor. I coughed, fought for air. It was a major struggle fending it off. Major.
Not sure how many more of those nightmares I could handle. I mean, when I closed my eyes at night, I felt bullied and feared for my life. And it just seemed as though the influence of socks was expanding, getting bigger and bigger, like a giant black hole pulling me in, with no sign of letting up. My confidence shrunk, worldview in shambles, I felt like I lived in a sock matrix at the edge of an abyss.
After the trash episode, Maddy put me on some new meds. I think it was Abilify this time, though could have been Paxil. There’d been a few. Not sure which one.
Interestingly, I think the meds made things worse. Worse because my sock loads still matched. Worse because when you try to solve a problem and fail, that means fewer options left, less territory to explore a solution. Thus, all these failed attempts only added to the dread that continued to mount.
Also, it’s not like Maddy and I weren’t talking about my life, you know, like about all the horrible things I’d experienced as a kid. I didn’t really want to go down this road because I didn’t think it mattered, but the big one was that I was abused at a young age. Abused by an uncle. A sexual thing, I guess you can say.
My uncle was a professional ventriloquist, a pretty successful one, I believe, and I’d sit on his lap while he practiced. Basically, he’d ask me to operate the puppet and such, which required putting my hand under its clothes and manipulating its mouth while my uncle talked. I didn’t really know what was happening at the time. I think I just wanted to please my uncle and be a ventriloquist like him. When he was happy, I was happy. I felt a sense of purpose. The world of fact and fiction blended like an after school special.
One day I told Maddy about how the puppet was dressed. I said it wore black pants with red and white socks. That was a mistake. I never should have mentioned the socks, as Maddy loved to press that conversation over and over. Obviously, she pressed it because she suspected the abuse was related to the sock regularity, which I understood and didn’t blame her for thinking.
But here again, we were talking about two separate issues, and sometimes I felt insulted when she tried to reduce one to the other. I mean, I’d already done that work. I’d already cleaned out my closet as far as the sexual abuse goes. I wasn’t the type to shy away from hard questions. I was well versed in ambiguity and how it plays tricks on the mind.
That November, my parents were visiting for my birthday. I hadn’t seen either for a couple years and was excited about their stay. Of course, I hadn’t told them about the sock situation, as I didn’t want them to worry. Plus, I just knew they wouldn’t understand.
Their visit turned out great. Lighthearted and fun, we ate good meals and stayed up late into the night. A lot of poker. Quite a few old blues records. We visited the capitol, the Denver Art Museum, and the zoo, which, to be honest, were some of the best days I’d spent with my parents in years. The sunset we witnessed over a bottle of wine on my porch looked like it was painted in the sky.
The only hiccup came when I was opening presents. There were four, each wrapped in fall colors. I opened the first two, which put a smile on my face. A fancy garlic press and a tripod for my camera. Who wouldn’t want those? But the third present...the third present really threw me off.
I sensed trouble brewing right when my mom handed me the package. Soft, squishy, oblong, it was the sort of present any young kid knows from a mile away. Yep, you guessed it—a whole dozen socks. One set of Merrell’s, one set of Reeboks. High-end socks these were. My mom has good taste.
But what an awkward moment. There was just no way on earth I could hide my feelings. Basically, I felt like the world was messing with me. Like the rug I was standing on had been
pulled from under my sock-addled feet. This present felt cruel. It felt unusual. And I can only picture my expression when these new socks entered my life. I’m sure I looked like a ghost or some kind of deformed snowman melting in the sun.
Of course, I tried to be polite. “Nice socks,” I think I said. Though I’d imagine my words didn’t register that way, which was super sad, because I know my mom intended the socks to be light-hearted and useful. You know, a kind of ha-ha-throwback-mom’s-giving-you-socks kind of moment. Too bad I wasn’t able to see it that way. I didn’t even crack a smile.
But the fourth present, that was different.
The fourth present was downright cool.
My dad slid a flat box over to me. I picked it up and felt intrigued. This one had weight to it and clanked a little when I shook it. I immediately knew these could not be socks.
I opened the box slowly.
To my amazement, there was a handgun inside.
A 9 mm FN 509 with a red dot scope.
I was shocked in the best of ways. This was one of those presents that you like but don’t know why, and I actually felt relieved when I opened it, even peaceful. My sock-related heaviness evaporated like a chunk of ice.
Though my mom, she didn’t look happy. She’s not a gun person. And I’ll bet my dad didn’t even tell her about this gift. Long story, but my mom wears certain scars from my childhood. You know, regarding the sexual abuse that happened with my uncle, the ventriloquist. I don’t think I mentioned this, but my uncle was my dad’s brother. And when my dad found out about what his brother had done to me, he left the house in a rage and didn’t come back for a long time.
It was a weird period in my life. I never saw my uncle after that. We never talked about him ever again.
Anyhow, I appreciated this present from my dad.
The handle on the gun had a sweet curve and felt good in my hand.
My dad had always been a believer in owning a protection device. He said it gives people a sense of control over their lives because you never know when you might need a weapon for self-defense. Although I’d never given these words much thought, I felt their wisdom on that particular day.
After my parents left, I carried on in much the same way. Load after load after load of laundry with the same result. Socks that just kept on matching. Trips to the basement that felt like I was entering a cave. I just couldn’t shake the coincidence. No way in hell my socks could be so ordered within this chaotic world.
My visit with Maddy that week was tense. Both of us seemed tired of talking with no tangible progress to speak of. Maddy kept looking at her phone during our session, which was unlike her. Normally, she was patient, in the moment. During all the other trips to her office, I felt like the world revolved around me. With this one, I felt insignificant, out of place.
But we all have bad days, and sometimes these bad days turn into good days, or decent days anyway, such that there’s light at the end of a tunnel, and the pressure cooker can release.
Maddy threw her arms in the air.
“Why don’t you just stop wearing socks,” she said.
Wait a minute, what? I paused, considered her suggestion carefully. At first it struck me as offensive and careless. No socks. Really? Is that a choice I should make? I mean, it snows in Denver. There’s mud and dirt on the ground. My shoes would smell. I might need to attend a special event.
But then I started to see the undeniable logic:
If no more socks, then no more washing socks. If no more washing socks, then no more drying socks. If no more drying socks, then no socks to fold. If no socks to fold, then there couldn’t be pairs!
Her suggestion made sense.
The chain of reasoning ironclad.
Maddy wanted to get to the root of the problem.
The next day I rolled out of bed and cut up all my used socks with a pair of kitchen scissors. Kind of absurd, I know, but that’s where I was at. I no longer wanted to contend with socks. I didn’t want to be tempted to throw on a pair. Time to ride bareback as it were. Let this thing breathe.
Anyhow, cutting up my old socks did make me feel a sense of relief along with optimism and hope. Even the prospect of a straggler didn’t bother me. If a random sock turned up while washing shirts, oh well. Maybe that would mean that the curse had been lifted, and I could move on.
But I’ll be damned if on that very next load, two socks appeared. Not two socks of a different kind, mind you. A fucking pair. Two New Balance runners. The kind with extra padding in the heel. Same ones I’d used on a hike a week prior. Little bastards must have been in my backpack when I dumped it out, or in the garage where the wet clothes hung. Hard to say for sure, but let me tell you, I felt frustrated and angered and ultimately enraged, like a wild animal trapped in a boma under the light of a full moon.
To be clear, my particular form of enragement doesn’t involve breaking stuff or yelling. No, when I become enraged, it means I wanna hop on a train to Siberia with nothing but a pack on my back. It means I don’t care about my own well-being. It means I wasn’t taking shit from anyone.
I was completely done with socks.
I wouldn’t do it anymore.
I called Maddy.
“Maddy,” I said. “I’m done.”
To her credit, she sensed the urgency and got me in that day.
We pow wowed hard on the latest sock development. Real hard. Neither of us left anything to the imagination. We laid it all out. Three full years of trying to escape the same pattern. 156 loads of socks without a straggler. Numerous medications tried. Tons of conversations explored—the sexual abuse, my parents, why I’d never been married, how I’d turned into a recluse these last few months.
Maddy was patient during these conversations, way more so than before. I felt like she was there with me this time, really there, occupying my world, thinking as I do. And I sensed that she believed me, really and truly believed that the sock regularity was real. And that the world itself might have a built-in intelligence that took interest in the pairing of my socks. This wasn’t deception or delusion or mental illness or randomness. This was design.
Two key points clinched this for her, I believe. First, I had video footage of my laundry sessions, a good seven or eight loads anyway, right there on my iPhone. Second, I’d gone to see a trusted intellectual, a mathematician as it were, who’d been a professor for a decade. He ran the numbers. Based on my prior sock-matching pattern (about one in five loads had matching socks), he put the odds of having 156 straight loads of laundry without a straggler at less than 1%. Less than 1%.
Maddy knew I was done playing games. She knew I was done being bullied. Done running. Done letting someone flog my dignity. Time to face the enemy. Time to slide my chips in the middle of the table and go all in.
Before I get into specifics on what it meant for me to go all in, let me just say that I’m grateful for this life I’ve lived. Profoundly grateful. Barely a moment escaped my attention. Hardly an evening passed when I didn’t feel something new. The twists and turns in the road. The mud and the bumps and stomach-dropping descents. So many fascinating moments on this adventure I’ve been on. So many peak experiences large and small.
I mean, the mountains I’ve climbed.
The oceans I’ve surfed.
Volcanoes erupting before my eyes.
Lunar eclipses from my porch.
Owls drinking from a river.
A grizzly bear once stalked a deer outside my tent.
Even professionally, I felt fulfilled, working in kitchens most of my life—fry cook, pantry cook, executive chef. Yeah, the nights were long, but preparing food that people enjoyed meant a lot, it really did.
And when the culinary creek ran dry, I pursued another profession where I worked with my hands in a creative way. Yep, just up and quit the food industry and started painting canvases with oils and acrylics. I didn’t make much money, but my work hung in art galleries and coffee shops around Denver, and those paintings allowed me to explore a different part of myself. Although I never did grasp the elusive I, each artistic expression gave me a glimpse into my own inner galaxy. Every arrangement of lines and colors brought me closer to what was real.
I wouldn’t replace these experiences for anything.
I really couldn’t ask for much more.
The solution that Maddy and I agreed upon was to do one more load of laundry. Yes, only one. I’d use the socks my parents gave me for my birthday and would wash them just as I’d washed all the other loads in my life. If this load had a straggler, I’d consider myself free and would move on. But if this load was matching, I’d do a different kind of load—I’d load the gun that my father gave me, and I’d put it to my head.
Now, it probably goes without saying that Maddy didn’t know about the latter. She only knew that if the last load matched, I was done with counseling. There was no way I could tell her about the gun. It would be a huge burden. She’d be obligated to call the police.
At any rate, I felt good about my decision. Seriously, I was very much at peace. If there was some kind of designer of this world, and if the designer had preordained my laundry, well, I guess it was time to formally ask it to stop. To be clear, this was not a challenge. I wasn’t operating on ego or pride. This was me asking for mercy and waving the white flag in the face of defeat.
My parents gave me twelve pairs of socks, so I’d wait twelve days to do the final load. Prior to, I’d get my affairs in order, draw up a quick will and such. I didn’t have kids or a partner, so all my possessions would go to my parents and friends. Interestingly, of all the stuff I owned, my artwork ended up mattering most. Old sketches, charcoal drawings, canvasses I’d painted in random moments between dusk and dawn. Not sure why I cared about my own art so much. Not even sure about the quality. I guess I just wanted it to live on in some way.
The days before the ultimate load of laundry were good. I made a few trips around Denver that were meaningful to me. Places I wanted to experience one last time. The Botanic Gardens, a punk rock show at the Bluebird, a couple of my favorite sushi joints, a stroll along Tennyson.
I finished the week with a hike down Cheeseman Canyon, where I was hoping to see a few big trout and maybe a hatch. Sure enough, the water was crystal clear, and blue-wing olives bounced along the surface while trout sipped from eddies and ripples and even the deep pools.
Besides my friends and my parents, I think I’ll miss wild places most. Places where you experience a sense of wonder without knowing why. I can honestly say that these last twelve days were some of the best of my life. I felt free and in control. I felt dignified. I felt honorable and brave.
What kind of load would it be?
I got up that morning and ate breakfast. Eggs, bacon, orange juice, a side of oatmeal, fresh cantaloup. I took a shower. I moved the socks, shirts and underwear from my wicker laundry basket to the square plastic one, which is what I always do.
Not gonna lie, when I walked down those stairs to wash what could be my last load of socks, my eyes were misty, and my arms shook when I dumped clothes into the washing machine. I tried not to examine the load. I didn’t want any indication of whether or not there were stragglers.
I poured washing detergent in, turned the machine on and sat on the couch outside the laundry room. The gun rested on a pillow. A journal sat on the arm of the couch. I picked it up and started writing a letter to my folks. Though shaken, I wasn’t gonna overthink this. I just wanted them to know how much I loved them and how grateful I was for everything they’d done. My mom and dad were good people. The last thing I’d ever want is for them to blame themselves for what happened to me.
The washer beeped.
I placed clothes in the drier and set the timer for seventy minutes, because that’s how long I dry my loads. I sat back down on the couch and listened. Metal clanked as it spun. The dryer made a low hum. The furnace kicked on. A wave of heat moved through the air.
Time escaped me during those moments.
Wasn’t sure if it was afternoon or night.
All I thought about were great emotions, times I’d experienced trauma and came out on the other side. An old girlfriend popped into my head. Cat was her name. Damn she broke my heart. If only I’d met her when I was older, more composed. Maybe she would have loved me as much as I loved her.
The dryer tumbled to a halt.
I stared at the socks in the drum for a good long while.
When the time was right, I carried the laundry upstairs to my bedroom, cradling it as I walked. I dumped the clothes out, separated the shirts from the underwear and the socks. Even though there were two different colors, black and white, I decided to leave the socks in one big pile. Not sure why. I guess it just didn’t matter.
I started folding, tucking one sock into the other. By this point, there was no hesitation, only numbness. Eight pairs down, nine pairs, ten pairs, two pairs to go.
But wait a minute.
There were only three socks left.
Where was the fourth?
I looked under the pillows. I looked at the sides of the bed. I looked under the blanket and shirts. I looked deep into the times I sat on my uncle’s lap with a glass of lemonade in one hand and the puppet in the other. I recall my uncle a wore straw hat and had a harmonica in his pocket when he made the ventriloquist sounds. Not sure why I thought about this. Not sure why I wasn’t happier about the missing sock. I guess I knew it wasn’t so simple.
The gun was still downstairs.
I needed to put it away.
In my basement, there is a white bifold door separating the laundry room from the living area. Just at the hinge of this door, where carpet meets concrete, I noticed a single sock. I leaned over and picked it up, examined it closely.
It was the missing sock.
Was it dirty or clean? Did it fall out of the basket on my way in or out of the laundry room?
I couldn’t quite tell.
I just knew I was confused about what it meant and whether it was the cause of, or solution to, my problems.
I leaned over, put the sock in my pocket.
I walked over to the gun, put it in my hand.
The last thing I recall thinking that day was that sometimes you carry a weight so heavy you don’t know when you’ve stopped carrying it.
Photograph by Ahmed Adel (2022)