Digger Needs New Socks
On the days when the things that crawled in the back of her mind became too much, she walked into town. The ocean air flowed up her nostrils, opened her sinuses, and pushed through the lobes of her brain. It imparted the sensation of freeing her thoughts. This sense of freedom—even if, in truth, it was simply choosing to live inside a slightly larger vault—was worth every moment. It was, in fact, critical.
At first, years ago, she had imagined walking into town via the same route each time would be best. The steadfastness of her body’s actions would un-complicate things. But this had proved not to be true. When she thought about it, it had been a bad theory from the start. If the mundane were freeing, she would have been freed already. She would be freed anew daily. She would be so free that it might become mundane itself, and wouldn’t that be quite the complication. A true conundrum. Perhaps quantum in scope.
Since that realization, she walked into town via a different route every time. Sometimes she went in the mornings, sometimes in the afternoon. Sometimes she went left, left, right, and sometimes she didn’t turn at all. Sometimes she went up the hill, and sometimes she stopped for a while and sat on the park bench after the third right after the left, right, left. But no matter, she always found a way to wander past the ocean.
There, where the sidewalk turned to parking lot turned to rock pile turned to beach, she would breathe in the sickening rot of low tide and let the shrieks of the seagulls fill her ears. It was cathartic on some level that she herself had never understood. Like repeatedly licking something foul, like smelling your dirty clothes, like dating the wrong man.
There, where the sidewalk turned to parking lot, just a few steps back from the beach, a small wagon stood sentry. Maybe in its time it had been a fancy red Radio Flyer, but now it looked rusted, and bondo-ed, and painted again. Still red, but not the red of childhood dreams. Precise rows of colored bottles filled its bottom. Blue, then aqua, then purple, then blue again, then green. Tall, then short, then tall again, then fat. Each dusted with ocean sand and crusts of bacteria-laden mud.
A small sign hung from the wagon handle.
“Beach bottles 5¢.”
Each day the bottles changed, though she never saw the wagon arrive or depart. She imagined a man must pull it, certainly somebody did, but since she never saw this man or even the wagon in motion of its own accord, it occurred to her that the bottles might rearrange themselves whenever she wasn’t looking. This mystery took a hold in her mind, and with each walk its purchase grew the tiniest bit larger. Now, after months—or was it years?—of her daily purposeful losings of herself, she found herself consumed with the empty bottles. How did they get there? When did they leave? Did they simply transform or did someone exchange them?
Today, she allowed herself more time than normal, or at least usual, at the place where the sidewalk transitioned to parking lot. She didn’t worry about the trail of thoughts that might be following her, that might track her here. She had a thought in the front of her mind. She had a theory to test.
She stood in front of the wagon and blinked.
She blinked again.
She blinked longer.
No, the bottles remained the same. Was it that she looked a certain amount of times and then they changed? No, that was ridiculous. If she fell asleep here, if she curled up in front of the wagon and stayed through the night, would it matter? Would they shift in the darkness? Her instincts told her no, that it was leaving and returning, that it was her absence that allowed things to change. It was her not here that allowed them to be there.
With a sigh she turned and wandered home without even thinking if it was the same or a different way, without even worrying if she walked faster or slower than her thoughts for her brain was still blocked by this particular peculiar meandering.
Tomorrow, she would come earlier. The bottles must change earlier than her arrival. Therefore, the man who pulled the wagon—for it must be him that changed the bottles and not the bottles themselves—must be present at some time earlier than she. There was obvious logic in that.
The next morning, she arose early. She took shortcuts, she turned fewer times, and she skipped the hill. She nearly scurried across the road to the parking lot and almost to the beach. For a moment, the morning ocean haze blurred her vision, and all she saw as she approached was gray and blue. But then, the little red rectangle took form and her shoulders slumped.
The wagon was already there.
But the bottles had changed. Purple, then pink, then blue, then blue. Short, then fat, then skinny, then tall.
Tomorrow, she would come later. If the bottles changed after she left, it must be because the man came after she left. There was real logic in that.
She ran home, hoping all the while that later could come sooner.
When she arrived home she realized it had, for today had a later, not just tomorrow.
She headed back to the beach, but this time she walked slowly. She walked the curb like a high wire, she zig-zagged back and forth across the alley to cover more ground, she was determined to find the all-uphill route to sea level.
Eventually, she did arrive, but she had taken so long to do so that she’d grown tired from so much aimless walking and nearly forgotten her purpose in arriving “later.” She shuffled her feet through the place where the sidewalk turned to parking lot and was nearly upon the rock pile when she noticed a man.
A man with a bottle.
A man with a messenger bag but no shoes, only socks.
A dread-locked man placing an aquamarine bottle into the wagon.
She ran toward him waving her hands and screaming. It was only later she considered her potential banshee-like presentation.
The man observed her—then his dreadlocks spun in the air as he sprinted for the street.
He turned left, and then right, and then left again.
He ran faster, turned quicker.
He ran uphill and down.
But each block was just a little too long for him to lose her. She would catch sight of the bottoms of his feet as he turned right, and right, and right again. The threads of his socks wore thinner under her gaze. Like a gobstopper, at first they seemed brown, then blue, then green. Even a block away, she saw the colors shifting in the sinking evening light. Yellow now, or maybe a bit orange. Back to brown. These must be the thickest socks anyone had ever seen.
Right again, left, then around the roundabout.
Downhill, past the lagoon, then up by the church.
Back north, nearly to the ocean again. They both glanced to their right to catch view of the little red wagon, once again alone with its bottles, no master or witness in sight.
Left, left, right, left, up, down, right, up, up, right, down.
Blue, green, purple, brown, orange, magenta, and might that be called cyan? His socks continued to shift colors though she noticed a trail of shredded threads marking their way. A little rainbow of spirals unraveling, yet leading.
She kept her eyes on his foot bottoms while his dreadlocks floated at the upper edge of her vision.
Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Orange, orange, green, green, brown, brown, blue, blue.
They reached yet another hill—who knew how one tiny town had so many hills—and her breath finally began to struggle. The sun had sunk from its zenith and now glared sidelong into her eyes. They must have run for hours. She slowed, put her hand to her forehead, and looked to the crest of the hill.
The dreadlocked man stood there, his hand to his forehead, looking at her.
The sun dropped another inch.
She could no longer see the color of his socks, silhouetted in the light.
They stood saluting each other.
The man bent over, and even from her distance she could see that he pulled his socks from his feet and shook them.
The sun inched down a little more.
She blinked and he was gone.
She blinked again and he was still gone.
She blinked longer, and he was still not there.
She sighed, turned left, and headed home—unsure of how she would replicate today’s experiment tomorrow to see if she arrived at a different outcome, a different destination, or perhaps even a different universe entirely.
The next morning, she rose, still pondering this question of the little red wagon confounded by the dreadlocked man.
When she arrived at the place where the sidewalk turned to parking lot, she stood in front of the wagon and made her daily observations.
Just two bottles. One green, one blue. Both skinny, none fat.
A new sign hung on the wagon’s handle.
“Beach bottles 10¢. Digger needs new socks.”