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The International Writers Magazine: Walk/Don't Walk

Marie Dunham's Practical Socks
• Julie McSmith
Marie Dunham worked for a charitable organization that sent books to prisoners in jail.  She was a quiet, tiny woman with meticulous habits.


Marie Dunham worked for a charitable organization that sent books to prisoners in jail.  She was a quiet, tiny woman with meticulous habits.  One might have called her mousy except for the bellowing voice that she unleashed when she went to choir practice at church.  In another time she would have been called a spinster.  Now it was the future, however, and there were no spinsters still classified as such? 

            Just last Christmas when she went home to visit her father, he asked her as he always did, about the fact that she was still alone.  He asked her, as he always did, about her work and if, at last, she had not found someone, a man, or a woman for that matter, with whom to share the intimacies of her existence.  Her father, the database analyst and hardware engineer, always encouraged her this way.  Yet, Marie enjoyed her vocation and her solitude. 

            Her father was a man of medium height and build.  He was average in every way from his eyes that were neither brown nor blue to his hair that was neither blond nor black to his skin that was neither fair nor dark.  Marie's father was a quiet man, and he never went in for social engagements or entertainments of any kind.  The death of Marie's mother years before, from cancer, had marked the end of the period of his life in which he listened to music.  Being so inured to the pursuit of pleasures, Marie guessed that he now regarded that sort of thing as hedonistic.  To make things worse for her father, her mother's death had come only months before a new treatment became available that would have saved her life. 

            During this latest visit at Christmas, Marie saw that there were no decorations of any sort in the house.  Usually, her father put up at least an imitation tree, decorated with silver tinsel and fiber optic lights, on top of the dusty, old upright piano in the foyer.  In the living room she saw her mother's old paintings and books piled up in boxes, and her father explained that at last he was reorganizing.  He was planning to set up a workbench for assembling small hardware projects, because his basement workshop did not have enough room to accommodate the customized devices that he planned to make and sell.

            They went to the kitchen.  Marie took out a bottle of red wine and a tray of gingerbread men and sugar cookies with sprinkles, and she offered these to her father.  Yet he refused, saying that his doctor had advised him to watch his sugar intake.  He encouraged her to partake of the cookies and wine, but she also declined.  They talked and looked out the window. A crust of grimy snow sat on the kitchen sill.  The yard behind the house was an empty space choked with crab grass matted with patches of dingy ice leftover from a previous storm.  Marie recalled the lilies and tulips and irises her parents had planted there when she was a child.

            So lost in thought Marie was, as she sat at her desk by the window, one evening after everyone else had left for the day.  Marie realized that Christmas was now months ago.  Today, like every day that she looked out the window at work, Marie felt thankful, because there was never any snow. 

            The prisoners who received the boxes of books that she sent sometimes wrote her letters. She read them at her desk as she looked out across the parking lot to the palm trees at the opposite end.  Sitting in her stained, yellow office chair, Marie always read this correspondence as she drank black tea from a heavy mug.  Some of the notes came electronically.  Others were hand-written with neat or with barely legible words. 

            The letters were usually notes of gratitude or requests.  "Thank you for sending me that book about economics," one man wrote, "Can you please send me more?"   Another prisoner requested, "I like love stories.  Do you have anything that will help me go to sleep at night?"  "I ain't read this many books in my whole life.  Darn it. Send me something funny," said a last.  Marie would try to fill their requests from the boxes of donated books that took up the greater part of the center of the room.

            One day, worrying that her figure was growing to fill her chair, Marie made a resolution to improve her constitution.  Thus, she began a regime of pedestrian activity thrice a week that involved parking her car a mile distant and walking the remainder.  In the pursuit of this aim she purchased a straw beach hat for the sun, which was intense sometimes, even at seven-thirty in the morning.  She also got a pair of walking shoes and several pairs of cotton socks from the local big-box store.  Across the toes of the white socks was printed the brand's name: Practical Socks.

            The week she began her walking, Marie noticed that she felt very tired in the evenings, and she went to bed a half hour earlier than usual.  Yet, she liked the springiness of her new walking shoes, and wearing the beach hat made her feel like she was on vacation even though she was on the way to work.  Her circuitous route took her through a residential neighborhood.  She found that it piqued her curiosity to look at each of the little bungalows along her walk.  Some of the neighbors invested in green lawns, others had ecologically optimized landscaping, and finally still others had a mess of weeds.

            The strange condition with her feet began the second week.  Marie noticed this as she pulled on a pair of the cotton socks she had recently bought.  One side of each big toe had an extra bit of fleshy skin and the skin on the other side had withered and grown hard.  Calloused skin was around the nails of each of the other toes.  Marie saw too, that one of her ankles was puffy, and the side of her other foot had a strange, rough protrusion where the bones met under the skin.  Yet, none of this was particularly painful, although her ankle ached from time to time.  She kept up her walking and hoped that this was just an adjustment.

            A month later she threw out the walking shoes she had bought, and she got another pair along with new socks.  These shoes, like the previous pair, were comfortable.  Marie enjoyed walking in them, although she would have enjoyed it more had it not been for the strange condition of her feet.

            She went to get a pedicure, and the nail technician exclaimed that she had never seen anything like the skin growths around Marie's toes.  Yet, the woman went about her craft of setting Marie's toes in order to the best of her ability, and Marie felt relieved at having shared with someone an objective assessment of the situation.  At the end of that second month she decided to stop walking and threw out the socks and walking shoes and even the straw beach hat.  She sat down to write a letter that evening, after walking back to her car after work for the last time:

Dear Practical Socks Customer Service Staff,

            I am writing with a concern about the cotton athletic socks that I purchased two months ago. All I wanted to do was start walking a couple of miles a day. So I bought your socks and some walking shoes.  The week after I bought these socks I developed this strange condition with my feet.  Look at these pictures.  Have you ever seen anything like this?  Can you please send my money back?  Here is the receipt.


           Marie Dunham

            The reply came a month later, and with it there was a refund check for the socks along with a coupon for a new pair.  In the letter, the head of customer service expressed regret that Marie should suffer from such a condition.  She was quite sure that the socks could not have been responsible for these maladies.

             Marie did feel a sense of relief for having quit her daily exercise, particularly when the skin on her feet began to return to normal several weeks later.  She went back to the pedicurist, who poked and prodded the skin of her toes with curiosity.  The woman remarked that the change was truly impressive, given the puffiness and calloused flesh there previously.  A part of Marie missed her walks, however, and she began to wonder what would happen if she tried swimming or biking.

© J McSmith May 2015

Typo Confession
Julie McSmith
Father, I am sorry for I have sinned. In particular, I am sorry for having made certain typos and mistaken contractual stipulations.

Dear AR
Julie McSmith
I’m writing you a letter that I know you won’t be able to read, because you have dyslexia. Yet, I feel I must write to you.

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