Part 1 of 3:
It hailed, it sleeted, it raged and blew. Then it rained, and rained some more. It rained until the sewers overflowed. Then, mercifully, Christmas Eve arrived and put its foot down. The wind and its accomplices rolled out, and fog rolled in to wrap the city in its damp embrace. Thousands of relieved people ventured out to do their last-minute shopping. The less-fortunate also ventured out, to do shopping of a different kind.
A nameless man shambled through the darkness of a sewer outflow pipe. Once again the tide was out, so to speak, having left rich deposits behind. People with names would sooner not give such ‘treasures’ a first glance, let alone a second. But our nameless man wandered among them like a child at the seashore after a storm has littered it with beautiful shells and the strange blobby remnants of unfortunate sea-creatures. Each new find felt the gaze of expectancy from his glazed, bulging eyeballs. The odd item shrank back from a scowl, received a swift kick from a shabby old boot. The luckier pieces of flotsam were scooped up with glee in a grime-smeared, bony hand, and stuffed into the deep, damp pockets of a moth-eaten brown overcoat even shabbier than the boot.
A dry chuckle gave over to a rattling cough as an empty beer-can became a victim of the right-hand pocket. It was a far cry from gold, but a nickel was nothing to sneeze at – or cough at, as the case may be. Drip-dripping from the ceiling came condensation from the evening mist. One could almost sense the horror of those droplets as they mingled with the combined output of the city’s toilets, sinks, showers, baths, and drains, before emptying into the bay where the ships ‘do their business.’ The hand descended upon another treasure: a glass bottle this time. The eyes scrutinised it up close, finding it half-filled with sludge from its journey. Nameless lips uttered a ‘bleah!’ and their owner dislodged the gunk as one dislodges stubborn ketchup, before pocketing the bottle and moving on.
So far, so mundane. Any number of bottles and cans get tossed into storm-drains. It’s what gets flushed down the loo that would boggle the minds of men not currently nameless and shambling through the sewer. Yes, there’s the obvious stuff, and plenty of it judging by what just happened to the mismatched sneaker on our shambler’s other foot, but what of the pearls of the porcelain oyster? The watches, the coins, the car-keys, the cell phones, the pens, the buttons, the countless objects small children have fed to the bowl for the pure joy of it, the prized possessions flushed by jilted lovers? All of these and more proved conspicuously absent.
“Bah!” said the nameless man, to no-one in particular. “Whatsa’ matter with these people? Too proud to flush anything but shit down the toilet these days? How’s a man supposed to make a living …?”
His crackling voice cut off. The echo rang softly down the pipe and merged with the horrified drips. He chuckled again, and after the ensuing coughing fit, steadied himself against the wall and spat out a large gob of phlegm. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand – an action which proved counter-productive – and continued his search.
To light his way, he carried a cigarette lighter: his one possession of any value. Unlike everything else on his person, it had not been pinched, found, or sourced from a charity shop. It was made of stainless steel and bore the engraved initials T.J. At this point in his life, those initials might stand for Total Jerk for all the significance attached to them. A monogrammed lighter has no relevance to a nameless man – even less to one who can no longer afford smokes. Yet he’d no sooner part with it than he’d part with his soul, and that, to his credit, spoke volumes – not that there was anyone to hear.
The flickering butane flame revealed less and less debris. He was just about to turn it off – for even he knew the danger of volatile gas in these pipes – when he spotted something promising. He shuffled over and bent to examine it. It appeared to be a small item of clothing. He gave it a poke with his boot and lifted it out of the water a little. It was a sock, but by no means an ordinary one. It appeared to be made of tiny shreds of cloth held together with papier maché. Judging by its colour – severely off-white – and it’s location, he had an inkling just what kind of paper. He frowned at it for a good long minute, then lifted his tatty trouser leg and contemplated his sock-less left foot.
“Well, beggar’s can’t be choosers,” he said, and he scooped the sock up. He gave it a good squeeze to get the bulk of the water out, and noticed it had one or two small hard lumps in it. “Let’s get you out into the night air and have a better look at you.”
Out went the lighter with a ‘flick!’ He turned and walked towards the circle of soft light at the opposite end of the pipe, pocketing the sock as he did so. At least, that was his intention. Somehow between slipping his hand into his pocket and taking it out again, it grew tingly, as if he’d been lying on it for too long.
“What the hell?”
A grotesque face stared back at him from the darkness.
“Jesus Christ!” He ran like greased bacon from the phantom of the outlet pipe, slipping and sliding and cursing as he went. To make his flight even more awkward, he’d completely lost the feeling in his left hand. At last, wheezing and coughing like an iron lung full of glue, he crawled out onto the muddy bank. He turned on his knees, irregardless of the muck, and lifted his lighter to the end of the pipe. A gentle trickle, the horrified dripping, and unfathomable darkness were all that were evident.
He gave a rattling sigh, and turned his attention to his hand.
“I’m still here, y’know,” said the thing he saw in place of it.
After an incredible scream escaped his throat, he came to realise what he beheld. The sock had draped itself over his hand. Its misshapen patchwork of cloth and toilet paper was smeared with mould and disturbing brown smuts. The lumps he’d felt turned out to be eyes, of a fashion. Their composition he couldn’t determine, but ordinarily they would be buttons, and these were button-shaped.
“It’s a sock puppet?” he found himself saying.
“That’s one hell of a scream you’ve got,” said the puppet, via the nameless man’s vocal chords. Somehow his rough, aged voice came out cleaner, much younger, and slightly goofy. “You could be in films with a scream like that. Well, a film, ’cos you’d end up dead in the first one. But what a memorable first and last performance it would be.”
The nameless man stared at the travesty and caught his breath. He felt sure he’d breathed something he shouldn’t have in that pipe. He glanced at the line of yellow caution-tape he’d crossed for his clandestine treasure-hunt, struggled to his feet and groped past it into the park.
“Those bastards and their bio-weapons – it’s gotta be!” he said. “Dumping it down the sewers to test it on the population. You won’t get away with this!” He raised his fist to the fog-shrouded lights of the city.
“The only weapon ’round here is your B.O., buddy,” said the sock puppet. “But then, I’m no rose either after my journey. Thanks for fishing me outta there, Tom. Mind if I borrow your coat?”
The nameless man stopped dead in his tracks. He looked at the sock puppet long and hard as it wiped its face on his coat. “No-one’s called me that in a long time …”
The sock puppet succeeded in wiping the gunk from its eyes, which turned out to be buttons after all. One was small and black, with a broken edge. The other was twice the size – the kind used for button-up flies – and made of faux-pearl plastic.
“Why not?” said the sock. “It’s your name, isn’t it?”
“I have no name, you got it?” He jabbed the sock puppet in the snout, and it took the equivalent of a step back.
“What am I supposed to call you, then? Even I’ve got a name – it’s Mr. Sockforahead, by the way – and I’m just a shadow of my former sock.”
“Don’t even talk to me, sock. You’re a delusion.” Tom reached the deserted path and trudged steadily along it.
“A delusion, huh? I get that a lot, but I don’t let it bother me.” Tom gave the sock a sideways glare. “Let’s say I am a delusion,” Mr. Sockforahead continued. “Why not humour me? Who knows, we might have fun together. What do people do ’round here, anyway?”
“Hah! Most folks will be celebrating,” said Tom with contempt. “Drinking and dancing, wearing silly hats, wrapping presents … drinking.”
“You said ‘drinking’ already.”
“So I did, sock.” He moistened his lips. “Maybe they’ll have something at the hostel I can drown us both in.”
“I hope they don’t have a dress code, ’cos you look like the stuff you were wading in back there.”
“You don’t say. Just you behave yourself or they won’t let us in.”
Lamps thrust hazy globes of light into the fog. An orange glow wafted over Tom as he passed beneath. It poked at his thin face and sharp nose and moved on – tumbling over his flat cap as it departed. Some of it lingered in the dew collected by his spectacular pair of grey bushy eyebrows.
The sock puppet contented itself with taking in the surroundings as Tom negotiated the city as inconspicuously as possible given the circumstances. Tom still couldn’t feel his left hand, which made watching it bobbing about of its own accord an uncomfortable experience. At least the hostel was in the seedier part of town, with streets mostly deserted on a night like tonight. The unlikely pair ducked past an alley. A series of lively sounds, smells, and sensations wafted from the other end of it: Christmas shoppers in search of last-minute gifts; charity hunters hoping to squeeze a few more drops from dwindling purses; chestnut vendors with hot-carts; lights, bells, and, worst of all, carol singers and counterfeit Santas.
Mr. Sockforahead latched onto a sign-post, nearly ripping Tom’s arm from its socket.
“Gah! What the hell, sock?”
“You sure you’re going the right way, Tom? It sounds like they’re having fun down there.”
“Trust me, no-one on Main Street wants to see the likes of me. Even the chestnut man would sooner run a mile than cast his eyes my way. You have to understand something. You and me, we’re undesirables. We’re put up with as long as we stay where we’re expected to. If we don’t bother them, they don’t bother us.”
Mr. Sockforahead took a moment to think – if indeed he had the capacity to do so. “You’re right. Besides, their singing sucks.”
“Then you won’t object if I carry on?” he said sarcastically.
“By all means.”
Rubbing his shoulder, Tom continued up the street. In truth he had personal reasons for avoiding the festivities on Main Street, but he wasn’t about to bare his soul to a sock. Besides, the singing really was terrible.
The fog was thinning as the night grew colder. Tom’s clothes were still wet from where he’d fallen in the muck, and pretty soon they’d freeze solid if he didn’t get indoors. Even the sock puppet was in danger of turning to ice.
“Gonna be a cold night. Whoever ordered this weather should be shot.”
“It’s that Santa guy, right?” said Mr. Sockforahead.
“He should be shot, regardless, but he’s just a symptom of the whole diseased concept. Gifts are hollow …” Tom fingered the lighter in his pocket, “leastways they are nowadays. I gotta make a stop.”
“If you need to pee, don’t expect any help with your zipper.”
“Will you get your mind out of the gutter?”
“It’s kinda hard when I’m eighty per-cent bog-roll.”
“Fair enough. Gotta cash-in the day’s takings.”
Tom crossed the street to the parking lot of Thrifty’s. He waited in the shadow of the building for some shoppers to leave the store, and approached the recycling machine. He then proceeded to empty the contents of his pockets into it, one can or bottle at a time. If the bottle was good, there was the pleasing sound of glass being crushed. If it was a dud—
“Crap. The barcode is no good on this piece of shit.”
“I didn’t know they put barcodes on pieces of—”
“Ha-ha. You should be a comedian, sock. Well, so much for that one.” He slipped the bottle back into his pocket. “Okay, machine, lay it on me.” He pressed a button. There was a whirr and a piece of paper slid out of a slot. Tom scrutinised it, and screwed it up. “Not even a buck! Lousy piece of junk. A day’s goddamn work and that’s all I have to show for it? A piece of paper worth less than a buck! Merry fucking Christmas.”
He stormed off down the sidewalk. By now he didn’t care if anyone saw him or not. Maybe looking crazy as well as down-and-out would work to his advantage, anyway. They passed a young east-Indian chap who looked like he’d taken a wrong turn. The man avoided his gaze, then saw the sock puppet and took ‘trying not to stare’ to an extreme.
“Merry fucking Christmas,” said Mr. Sockforahead jovially as they passed.
The man broke into a sprint. Tom stopped to watch him go, looked at his uninvited friend with a grin, and burst out laughing.
“That was superb, sock. Delusion or not, you’ve earned a drink. Merry fucking Christmas, one and all!”
“Say, can you even drink?”
“I’m a sock, what do you think?”
“Guess not, huh.”
“But it’s not to say I can’t get drunk. My buddy Daniel and I used to get drunk all the time. Especially if one of his birthday parties for the little brats didn’t go well – which was often if I had anything to do with it, and I usually did. Ah, happy days. It’s a shame really.”
“Why, what happened?”
“I blew his brains out.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?” said Mr. Sockforahead. “He blew my brains out first. Though, when I say my brains, I mean his knuckles.”
“You, uh, blown a lot of people’s brains out?”
“Just the one set so far, but not for lack of trying. I shot a cop in the foot once. You should’ve seen his face! He was like—” Mr. Sockforahead pulled a face that would have cracked the Pope up.
“Ha-ha-ha! You’re brilliant. You had me going there for a minute.”
“I hope not, you smell bad enough already.”
Tom had to lean against a lamp-post until his laughter and coughing subsided. The dew was already frozen.
“Damn. Let’s get warmed up already.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing?”
“Good, well save some of that comedy for the jokers at the hostel. They’re a sour bunch.”
The Salvation Army Hostel was a sign of life on an otherwise lifeless street. A few dishevelled characters with little more going for them than Tom had were already heading towards it to escape the cold. Across the top of the building a white sign bearing the red Salvation Army shield cast its backlit glow into the night. Not quite half of it was lit, and a bit at the far end kept flickering. Beneath this, and next to the door, stood a bell ringer with a red vest and Santa hat. He looked about as cheerful as a grave-digger, and his bell might just as easily be tolling for departed souls as lost ones. To his left stood a pole with a bucket hanging from it.
The man perked up as he saw Tom approach. He gave a halfhearted smile and said a halfhearted, “Merry Christmas.”
“You missed a word out there,” said Mr. Sockforahead helpfully. “What’s in the bucket?”
The man paused to consider the strange pair through a thick pair of spectacles. His bell arm stopped in mid-swing, before continuing as he gave his reply. “I’m collecting,” he said. “All donations gratefully accepted.”
“Good luck getting anything out of us,” said Tom. “All I’ve got is a piece of paper worth less than a buck – and I don’t mean a dollar bill!”
“Here,” said Mr. Sockforahead, and he screwed up his face and made an awful sound as if gathering phlegm from his throat. Then he craned over the bucket and spat something into it. Whatever it was, it clattered through the hole in the lid with a satisfying clunk. “Give Santa a boot up the patoot for me, if you see him.”
“Er … thanks?”
Grinning, Tom pushed his way through the door. “How did you manage that, sock?”
“I took a bottle-cap from your pocket. Neat trick, huh?”
Tom chuckled. In the relative warmth of the hostel, he joined a line of fellow down-and-outs leading up to the soup-kitchen. He breathed deep the heady smell of watered-down chicken-noodle soup, and licked his cracked lips.
“Peeuw,” said Mr. Sockforahead. “This lot smells worse than we do. Hey, buddy, how about moving downwind?”
The large man in front of them gave Tom a bulldog scowl, but upon seeing Mr. Sockforahead his bloated face tried to look disgusted and alarmed at the same time. In any event, he decided to move to the back of the line in rather a hurry.
“Well done,” said Tom from the corner of his mouth. “But that guy is twice the size of me. That could’ve gone badly.”
“Feh. Relax, I’ve got a few tricks up my sock.”
“Well just keep ’em there till I’ve had some dinner.”
Mr. Sockforahead saw his reflection in the glass sneeze-guard and looked himself over. “Say, I’m looking pretty dapper for a sock that’s been through a garbage disposal and beyond. Too bad about the loo-paper, though. It itches something terrible.”
Two more people moved to the back of the line, giving Tom access to the counter just as the man with the ladle was about to dole out a helping of soup. Tom picked up a bowl and deftly saved the floor from partaking in an unwanted meal.
“Nice save, mister,” said the ladler, a black man wearing a bright white Salvation Army uniform. “Merry Christmas to you.”
“They just can’t get it right, can they?” said Mr. Sockforahead in Tom’s direction.
“Hush, sock. Say, I’m mighty grateful for the soup, but you don’t have anything a little more … festive, do you?”
The man grinned widely. “I hear you, mister. We just so happen to have eggnog on the menu tonight. Let me get you some.”
“Make it a double!” Tom gave Mr. Sockforahead a wink. A moment later the man returned with a tin cup filled with thick creamy liquid smelling of nutmeg.
“You’re a true gentleman,” said Tom, lifting the cup to his lips. He gulped. He frowned. He gave the cup an analytical sniff. “Hey – there’s no brandy in this!”
“Sorry, but those are the rules. We can’t serve alcohol to the homeless, it wouldn’t be right.”
“Not even on Christmas Eve? What a gyp! Thanks for nothin’!” Tom slammed the cup down on the counter, picked up his tray of soup and bread and made his way over to one of many folding tables. He thought it best in the circumstances to pick one that was deserted. “So much for my hopes of getting wasted.”
“The black-and-white minstrel did you a favour,” said Mr. Sockforahead between Tom’s gulps of soup. “You spend Christmas in a drunken stupor every year so you don’t have to deal with it. I think it’s time you got to the root of the matter.”
“What would you know about it?” said Tom, stuffing half his bread roll in his mouth and narrowing his eyes.
“Oh, very mature. I know everything you know, and then some. I even know what it feels like to be a sixteen-year-old girl, how about that?”
“Oh sage of sages,” said Tom dryly.
“Listen, I can help you. It’ll be a cinch, ’cos I know your secret.” Mr. Sockforahead leaned close. “I know why you hate Christmas. You hate Christmas because that’s when she threw you out.”
Tom got up so fast his chair toppled over. “Shut the hell up, sock!”
Silence fell. His outburst attracted the eyes of everyone present. Even the bell-ringer stopped in mid-clang to stare through the window.
“What? Can’t a man yell at his sock puppet without the world watching?”
Tom backed away from the table, paused to snatch up his unfinished bread roll, and retreated into the hostel dormitory. Several rows of low cots and an odour not unlike urine and mould filled the large, dimly lit room. Tom picked his way through slumped and sleeping forms to a radiator bolted to the far wall. Here he huddled, devouring his bread and forcibly ignoring Mr. Sockforahead.
After the two had respected each other’s silence for a while, Mr. Sockforahead crept into Tom’s field of vision. Tom gave him a cold look, then sighed. “She took my son, the good for nothin’ bitch …” Tom took the monogrammed lighter from his pocket, lit it up, and gave something of a smile. “He gave me this lighter, that very same Christmas. I know he was too young to pay for it himself, but he picked it out, and he insisted on getting it monogrammed. I smoked like a chimney in those days, and I was always losing my matches. But I never lost this. Never will.”
He replaced it lovingly in his pocket.
“I’d shed a tear,” said Mr. Sockforahead, “but the best I can do is some stale bog water.”
“Really, now?” said Tom, not quite believing.
“Sure. I can appreciate the sentiment. People are always losing me – albeit on purpose, and not so much losing as throwing away.”
“I can’t think why …”
“You and me, we’re both someone else’s trash. That’s why I wanna help you pick yourself up, Tom. You’re a hundred times better than Whatsherface will ever be.”
“Trisha was her name. Can’t say I blame her for what she did. But you’re right – she was no saint, either. Sure, I was drunk that night, sure, I hit her, but she overstepped the mark, getting too friendly with Harry—”
“Santa Claus. See, I told you he was no good. Just look at these poor socks nailed to the wall here, waiting for the fat bastard to stuff them full of crap. Makes me shudder just thinking about it. We need to show Santa he’s through trampling us into the ground. We gotta show him we mean business!”
Tom waited patiently for Mr. Sockforahead’s passionate outburst to cease. “Hey, now. Your average street Santa has nothing to do with the guy that screwed my wife …”
“He was wearing the suit, right?”
“And this Harry bloke, you know where he is?”
“Then it’s simple. You can’t move forward until you’ve dealt with your frustrations, so find the first Santa that comes along and have it out with him. It’s therapeutic psychology.”
“Where’d you learn that kind of talk?”
“You’d be surprised what kind of reading material gets flushed down the loo these days.”
Tom scratched at his grey stubble and shrugged. “You think this’ll work?”
“Do I smell like something a bear did in the woods?”
“All right, that’s good enough for me. How do we proceed?”
End of Part 1.
Joshua Blanc is the author of Tales of Elves and Trolls: The Crystal Goblin, a fantasy novel for all-ages. His no-holds-barred Mr. Sockforahead stories have appeared on TheWeirdCrap since 2000, making this year Mr. Sockforahead’s tenth anniversary. For more of Joshua’s eccentric wit, please visit: www.manitouslair.com. For more of Mr. Sockforahead, be sure to visit the My Strange Stories archives.