HomeFictionTopic Tag Tuesday

The Collector

Dougley was the picture of madness. He’d dumped out his drawers, flipped up the mattress, and was running his fingers along the tops of door frames, muttering to himself the whole way.

It was at roughly this moment that Effie came in, knocking the stool out from under him. His head hit the floor with a crack.

“Oh dear,” said Effie, scrambling to help Dougley up. “Oh dear oh dear, are you hurt?”

Dougley put a hand to his head while his eyes settled themselves in his skull. He was ashen, utterly pale beneath his brown fur. But it wasn’t because of the fall.

“I’ve no more tacks!” he said, getting to his feet and falling back over again. “There’s a shipment today, and I’ve nothing to fasten them with!”

Effie looked around the room. There were socks stuck to every piece of furniture, socks hanging from the ceiling, and so many socks along the walls that the place almost seemed a big, soft explosion of colour and texture. There were no echoes in here. It was maddeningly buffeted.

“I should find something for your head,” Effie said, bustling over to the ice box. “And you should lay down.”

“Can’t today,” he said, wobbling up to his feet, clutching a socked table for support. “Shipment coming in.”

“You mentioned,” Effie said, wrapping a chunk of ice in a sock and shuffling over, pushing it against the back of his head. He made no move to help her, just kept wobbling along. “I can take the shipment today, if you like,” she said.

He stopped, looked at her seriously, black eyes piercing.

“You can’t tell the difference,” he said, and continued on his way to get his hat.

“I can so!” she said, keeping the ice against his head, and catching the drips of water as they fell. “I’ve been at this a long time, Dougley! I can tell!”

He put on his hat, swatting her away, and wrapped his sun glasses around his head, pinching the middle to his pointed nose. He motioned to the pile of laundry by the window. Socks, socks, and more socks.

“Tell me,” he said. “And be quick about it.”

Effie put the ice down carefully, and raced over to the window, sorting through the pile, carefully considering each piece on its own merits. She settled for three: two with red toes, one with a red heel, and two of them a faded shade of lavender.

“Left,” she said, holding up one. “Right, and right.”

“Wrong,” said Dougley, swinging on his jacket. “Wrong, and certainly more wrong. You see? Even in all that time, you get it wrong. And what’s to be done about that?”

Effie was staring at the socks in her hands, trying to sort them out. She dropped them back into the basket as Dougley reached the door.

“If you want to help,” he said, “find me some more tacks. We can’t hang them out with glue, you know. Now quickly! The shipment is due any moment now!”

He was about to open the door when it opened for him, knocking him backwards and into his sorting table. This time, it made an impression on him, because he said “Goodness,” softly, and fell asleep.

Effie leapt down next to him, putting the ice back on his head and slapping his cheek lightly. His eyes half-opened, and he murmured something soft and irrelevant, and then went back to sleep.

“Yuh-oh,” said Archie from the door, carrying a giant basket of socks. “That don’t usually happen.”

Effie looked from the basket to Dougley, and then back again, her eyes filling with tears. She took a sharp breath in, clenched her fists, nodded, stood up.

“On the sorting table,” she said decisively.

“‘s usually on the ground beside—”

“Sorting table!” she said, and rolled up her sleeves.

Archie watched as she pulled the first heap out of the basket and laid them out on the table. There were five black ones, one dark blue, a pair of pinks, and an assortment of white ones nearly turned brown with mud. Each one had a tiny tag on it, a seven-digit number scrawled in messy handwriting, stapled through the fabric. She made sure none were touching each other, tweaking their positions a bit too meticulously, so that it betrayed her unease.

“You sure about this?” asked Archie, watching her nervously. “I could find the Doc and he could—”

“It’s fine,” she said, then picked up one of the black socks. “This one. And this, and this. And this one. And… and these two as well.”

She clenched the chosen socks in her fist, and then swept the rest off the table, into a second basket on the floor. Then she stopped, swallowed slowly, and handed the chosen ones over to Archie.

“These are the right ones,” she said.

“How do you—”

“I just do, Archie! I do! Now stop questioning me and find some tacks!”

Archie started to comply, but paused, scratching his chin.

“It’s just…” he said, “I’ve gotta start gassing the truck for the trip back. Time’s short as it is.”

“Don’t pull that crap with me, Archie!” she snapped, sorting through another pile. “I know how you spend your breaks! Now find some tacks! Dougley’s depending on you!”

She set back to work, making her way through the basket with jittery efficiency, finishing up with a pair of unworn red socks held together with a pin and folded cardboard. After some deliberation, she put one in the return basket, and carted the pile of right socks over to where Archie stooped, shoulders hanging low.

“Ain’t none around,” he said. “I looked everywhere, and there ain’t none here.”

“Fine,” she said, checking the clock. The workday was wrapping up. Two o’clock — one hour until government workers headed home. They had to move fast.

“Come on,” she said, and dragged Archie and his sock pile to the panel with the green paper above it. She jumped to reach the paper, missing each time. Archie stretched, pulled it down, handing it to her. She read the date.

“Seventy-five days,” she muttered.

“I thought t’was supposed to be seventy-six—”

“Well we’re out of tacks, so this is what we’ve got,” she said, and started unpinning the socks on the board. Archie snatched the return basket, watched each entry as it came down. When she was done, Effie had a handful of tacks rattling in her hand.

“Black ones up top,” she said, and started fishing the white ones out of the pile. “Their worries weigh more. They need the space to fall. You do those, if you don’t mind.”

“Roger,” said Archie, and stretched over, pinning the black socks up near the ceiling. After he finished a row, he cleared his throat, trying to be casual as Effie’s head knocked against his thigh. “You’re a nat’ral at this, Effie,” he said.

“I really hope so,” she sighed. “If we get any of these wrong, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble. You and me both.”

“How’d anyone know if—”

“They won’t, but they’ll come by anyway,” she said. “Last time there was a suicide in our sector, the inspectors were here for a month reviewing our records. Accused Dougley of mixing up a left and right.”

“Dougley?” gasped Archie, “The man’s been at this for longer than you an’ I’ve been alive, put together!”

Effie pinned an Argle sock to the wall, its tag curling out. She exhaled slowly, letting the breath squeak through her pursed lips.

“He always sings as he works,” she said. “How’s the rhyme go? ‘Right socks are the worries; left, the hopes and dreams; hang the bad ones till they’re dry; see how bright the world now seems’. It always seemed childish to me.” She pinned the last of her pile, ran her hand down the fabric slowly. “Not so childish anymore.”

“Tell me about it,” said Archie, standing away from the wall. “You sure you don’t want to wait for him to wake up?”

Effie looked at one of the socks before her, its toe facing left, curling away from the wall. She nodded to herself.

“It’s good,” she said. “We’re good. You’d better get the returns back. A sock or two missing, that’s one thing. People’d notice if their laundry bins went empty.”

Archie laughed, scooped the return basket under his arm. “Some of these places, I don’t think they would,” he chortled, and squeezed out the door.

Effie updated the green paper, climbed the stepladder and pinned it above her very first assignment. She stood back, noting the odd gap in the middle of the board. In time, she’d learn to it better, but for her first try, it was a respectable presentation.

When Dougley awoke that evening, he was on the bench, covered with a rough blanket, head on a pillow. He was alone. By the smell of lemon in the air, he could tell Effie had cleaned the place thoroughly, and recently. His eyes shot to the return basket, but found it missing.

“Goodness!” he gasped, and sat up quickly, recoiling when the cold floor froze his bare right foot.

This Topic Tag is from JanOda's request at the end of January for "Right Socks, because they are neglected." I apologize for the tardiness.

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