The Case of the Missing Sock
Yes, I am fully aware there are bigger problems in the world, but this is exasperating. I do the laundry, bring it up from the basement to my second-floor bedroom to sort it and put it away, and find an odd number of socks.
The first time it happened, OK. No big deal. I assumed the missing sock had been left behind when I last emptied either the washer or the dryer. Surely it would show up in the next batch.
So before starting the next laundry, I carefully inspected the insides of both the washer and the dryer. The missing sock wasn’t there. I got down on my hands and knees and surveyed the cold, hard, concrete floor areas around both machines. No luck.
This was annoying. No more annoying, I realize, than the daily frustrations anyone else has to put up with, but aggravating nonetheless. I buy expensive socks, and losing one means losing a pair. I also don’t have that many pairs of socks without holes, and sock-shopping is the last thing I have either the time or the inclination to do.
I started my new batch of laundry. When I eventually got around to hauling it upstairs to my bedroom and sorting it, I was surprised – and frustrated – to discover an odd number of socks yet again. I was getting agitated. What the fuck is going on?
I’m a rational person, so I knew there had to be a rational explanation and therefore a solution. I hadn’t kept track of what I’d done with the odd sock from the previous week’s laundry. That meant there were two possibilities. One scenario was that I had tossed the orphaned sock back down the laundry chute instead of putting it away somewhere. Under that assumption, it would make sense that I again ended up with an odd number of socks. There would still be no explanation for a sock disappearing last time, but at least there wouldn’t now be a second sock disappearing. The other scenario is that I had indeed put the odd sock away somewhere last time and that yet another sock had now disappeared, presumably pilfered by the same ghostly thief who had made off with my first sock.
The latter scenario shouldn’t have been hard to substantiate. If I had stored the missing sock somewhere, it should have been easy to find. So I combed through my crammed sock drawer, pulling out the few remaining clean socks that I had previously tied together in nice tidy pairs. There was no odd sock in that drawer. Had I put it somewhere else, perhaps in one of my other drawers, figuring it would stand out more easily when I later found its mate and went to look for it? Apparently not — a thorough search of all my dresser drawers and every other conceivable storage place in my bedroom turned up no additional socks. I then looked under my bed and even between the grey wool blanket and the white cotton sheets. Still nothing.
That didn’t necessarily mean I hadn’t put the odd sock away somewhere. Maybe I just can’t remember where I put it. Even so, if I never do find the odd sock from the previous laundry, I will then be down two pairs of socks. I will already have lost a full pair from last time – the original missing sock and its runaway mate – and now I end up with another odd sock that effectively destroys a second pair.
Something troubling is happening to me, and it’s not just the missing socks. These days the slightest setback triggers disproportionate rage – a leaking pipe, an ant invasion in the kitchen, the credit card that I had to cancel and replace because of a perfectly legitimate transaction that the bank found “suspicious,” my wireless connection constantly being lost and then having to spend HOURS on hold during my multiple phone calls to the provider, only for them to fail to solve the problem and for me to have to call them again, repeatedly.
I never used to be like this. I was always able to take these irritations of modern life in stride. Now I can’t. Too often I’m out of control, screaming pointless obscenities at the nonexistent culprits in my big old empty house and the injustice of the hand I’ve been dealt.
I don’t know how to account for my new hair trigger temper. There’s been no recent traumatic life experience that would explain it. Now 44 years of age, I’ve been single all my life, in and out of relationships, and lucky enough to have several good friends. Hardly anything in my life has changed in years. I live all alone in this big old house, but loneliness isn’t the problem. I just know that I always feel tense. And when I say “always,” I mean, like literally every waking moment.
The sock thing is particularly maddening. The combination of losing another sock, failing to find the lost sock from last time, and being unable to solve the puzzle is leaving me increasingly frazzled. I now start to tense up each time I begin heading down to the basement to do a laundry, and the tension persists until I have finished the job and counted an even number of socks.
I know I need to stay calm. Socks don’t disappear into thin air. They obviously have to be somewhere in the house. I just can’t figure out where they could be. Worse, I can’t figure out why I can’t figure it out. My cognitive skills are noticeably slipping. Or maybe it’s not just a loss of cognitive skills, but the onset of some mental illness. Have I just imagined that socks were missing, or perhaps was it just a dream that in my tattered state I can’t distinguish from reality? This is leaving me quite disoriented.
What’s getting to me is more than just my failure to find either odd sock or even my inability to solve the puzzle, with all the questions that raises about my faculties and my mental stability. It’s simply having to search for a fucking sock every time I do the fucking laundry. It’s the stress – no, not just the stress, the resentment – that I feel whenever laundry time approaches. I don’t need this hassle right now. Between work and home, I’m taxed to the limit. Every time one of these hassles occurs, it robs me of my already scarce down time.
Maybe it’s a cumulative thing. The aggravation, the anxiety, the fury, the self-doubt — they’re all feeding my growing recognition that I am becoming less and less tethered to anything dependable and concrete.
My stress must be visible to others, because some of my patients have been looking at me strangely. I can’t articulate exactly what it is in their expressions that is giving them away, but there is definitely something different about the way they talk to me. I’m quite sure of it. I fear that some will decide to stop seeing me. I also fear the loss of my reputation as a dentist if word gets around that I’m “losing it,” which I suspect they’re thinking and saying.
The next time I did the laundry, my heart began pounding the moment I started. It continued beating loudly until I had finished sorting the socks. To my relief, there was an even number. I wanted to think my problem was finally behind me, still inexplicable but at least over. I knew, however, that I couldn’t be sure of that. How do I know two more socks – or, for that matter, two or more pairs of socks — hadn’t disappeared? I hadn’t thought to count them before dumping the load into the washer, so I really had no way to be certain. And although this wasn’t my first bout of laundry stress, it was the first time I had noticed such a heavy pounding of my heart. On top of everything else, have I suddenly become a candidate for a heart attack?
From the start, I have fully understood how ridiculous it is for me to let something as trivial as missing socks take such a toll. I have long understood that my extreme reaction to these events is just a symptom of deeper problems that I need to address. I’m not stupid. But I had a more immediate problem. I knew the sock issue would torment me until I solved it.
So when it came time for another laundry, I resolved to be methodical. The socks I wear to the office, five days a week, are all black. On weekends I wear white sweat socks. When I do a laundry, I separate the light colors from the dark ones. But there is a single laundry chute that all my clothes travel down, so I have to sort the colors before I begin the wash. To this point, both of the socks that I knew to have been missing were dark socks. And even if two additional socks, or for that matter four additional socks, had disappeared the third time – as to that, I still couldn’t be sure – they too would have been the black ones. That I knew, because on each occasion I could account for all four white socks that I had worn the previous weekend.
So this time, the first thing I did after sorting the laundry into light and dark was to dump the light laundry onto the floor and inspect each individual item to make sure I hadn’t accidentally mixed in any of the dark colors. I hadn’t. I then dumped the dark laundry onto the floor, pulled out all the socks, and counted them. There were ten. An even number. So far, so good.
I started up the washer and carefully loaded the dark clothing. I inspected the floor to make sure I hadn’t dropped any socks. When that wash finished, I pulled out each item one at a time and threw it into the dryer, keeping a mental count of the socks as I went along. There were still ten.
OK, this was good. I was narrowing down the possibilities.
I started up the dryer. When it finished, I emptied all its contents into a laundry basket and again inspected the floor around the dryer to be certain I hadn’t dropped anything. Then I scrutinized the inside of the dryer to confirm there was nothing left inside. When I was satisfied that every item in the dryer was now tucked into the laundry basket, I carefully carried the basket up the two flights of stairs to my bedroom and emptied it onto my bed.
This time I knew there would be no missing sock, because I had accounted for each one at every stage and had investigated every possible escape route. So I began separating the socks from the rest of the dark laundry, again counting them as I went along, this time with a new confidence. I got up to nine but didn’t see the tenth. Somehow I remained relatively calm, assuring myself that the tenth one must have been just clinging to or inside one of the other dark clothing items, perhaps a shirt or a pair of shorts. But as I examined each of the remaining items without success, my anxiety started to return. It deepened as the number of unexamined items dwindled. By the time I got to the last item – a dark blue sweatshirt – my heart was pounding just as severely as the last time. And sure enough, the tenth sock wasn’t there.
What the fuck! I re-counted the dark socks. Still only nine. Then I frantically but meticulously picked through each of the other items yet again, turning every solitary one of them inside out. Nothing.
I figured a sock must have fallen out of the laundry basket on my way from the dryer up to my bedroom, so I physically retraced my steps. My eyes swept the floor at each point. I must have been concentrating too single-mindedly on the floor, because I lost my footing halfway down the basement staircase and fell to the hard floor below. It all happened so fast. One moment I was walking down the stairs, and the next thing I knew, I was lying on the basement floor. An instant later I felt sharp pain in my right arm and right shoulder and an ache on the side of my head.
I lay there for a couple minutes or so and then used my left hand and arm to push myself into a sitting position. A little later, I was able to stand.
I knew I should have gone straight to the ER, but there was no way I was leaving the house without finding the missing sock. I picked up the laundry basket and resumed walking back to the dryer, continuing to search every square inch of floor for sock # 10. When I got to the dryer, I re-inspected its inner chamber and every square inch of the floor area around it. Still nothing.
Wait! Could socks be getting stuck in the laundry chute? Slowly, and in great pain, I made my way upstairs to the kitchen to get my flashlight. I then walked back down to the basement, shined the beam up into the laundry chute, and looked for any sign of blockage. None was visible. I managed to get all the way upstairs to the second floor hall and peered down through the top opening of the chute with the aid of the flashlight. There was still no visible blockage. I dropped a t-shirt down the chute and listened carefully for anything that might have blocked its way. From the sound, it was clear that it had gone the distance.
After doing this, I realized the chute couldn’t be the problem anyway. I had counted ten black socks in the laundry basket after they had already traveled down the chute. The disappearance occurred only later.
I don’t know whether it was delirium from the pain, the emotional anguish that had taken over my life, or simply stark reality. But having eliminated every other explanation for how the missing sock had disappeared between the time I put it in the dryer and the time it should have arrived in my bedroom, I had to accept that only two possibilities remained. Either I was truly losing my mind, or there was some mystical force operating outside the boundaries of our natural world.
The pain in my shoulder was now intensifying, a kind of stabbing pain, particularly with certain movements. I slowly made my way back to my bedroom to lie down. But the dark-colored laundry was still piled on my bed. So I carefully put away each item, one at a time.
When I got to the end of the pile, I noticed that my dark blue sweatshirt was no longer there.
Steve Legomsky lives in St. Louis. He is a former mathematician, Washington University law professor specializing in immigration, refugees, and human rights, and Obama Administration official. Steve has held visiting positions at universities in twelve countries and has published three nonfiction books (Oxford University Press and West Academic); numerous academic articles (full list at https://law.wustl.edu/faculty-staff-directory/profile/stephen-h-legomsky/); a novel, “The Picobe Dilemma” (Booklocker.com, 2017); and short stories in The Ravens Perch, Fewer than 500, the Broadkill Review (forthcoming April 2021), Idle Ink, 50-Word Stories, MORIA (forthcoming April 2021), Scribble (forthcoming May 2021), and Offcourse. His odd jobs have included shoveling horse manure (literally), caddying, and selling shoes.