Yesterday a co-worker walked into my office, handed me a sealed manila envelope, and announced that it was a belated holiday gift for me from Bill. When I remarked on the packaging, my colleague said, "You didn't think he would have wrapped it, did you?"
Well, no, I guess I didn't, now that you mention it. I'd worked with Bill (not his real name) for about 18 years, the last three as his supervisor, until he retired last spring. Bill was my nerd-friend, but I haven't stayed in touch with him, partly because he's not easy to stay in touch with since his retirement: he does not possess a cell phone, and up until very recently, did not possess a home computer or email account. Bill turned 60 last year, and has never lived anywhere but the house in which he grew up; his parents died many years ago, and he remains there alone. He is an active member of his local Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe societies, and he celebrates both of their birthdays. He travels frequently to New York to visit museums, libraries, and certain select bars, at which he claims to be a favorite of all the barmaids. He also occasionally travels to other countries, accompanied by his aunt. He haunts used bookstores, where he snatches up anything he can find about his particular interests: General George C. Custer and certain segments of classical Roman history. Bill's sexuality is undeclared and perhaps unknown, even to him. He prides himself on his ancient British lineage, his legendary stinginess, and his vast knowledge of esoteric subjects like the Battle of Hastings.
In light of all the above, you probably can understand why I approached this gift with a little trepidation. But I bravely opened the envelope, and found a pair of socks. In fact, this pair of socks:
Yes, previously unbeknownst to me, there evidently exists a House of Hotsox (hotsox.com, in case you want to look it up) that produces a "Famous Artist Series." Bill knows that Vermeer is my favorite painter. I'm sure that's why he bought me these socks; perhaps he thought they were beautiful. One never knows with Bill. But to me, these socks are truly disturbing. That's a reproduction of Vermeer's "Girl With Pearl Earring," by the way,
and I don't know whether you can see it in the photo, but the sock actually does contain a small 3-D "pearl" - it's that spot of light to the right of her jaw, just above the center of her collar. I don't want to impugn Bill's generosity by suggesting that it might not be a genuine pearl, but I do have my doubts. The price tag, which Bill neglected to remove, says $8.00, and I haven't priced pearls lately but that does seem on the low side for one, let alone two (yep, one on each sock. I just checked to make sure.) In any event, though, this sock-girl to me represents not so much Girl With a Pearl Earring as Undead Girl With a Pearl Earring. Can you see the ghastly colors, the sickly pallor of her skin, the blood-red of her lips? What, or whom, has she been eating to produce that garish hue? Even her turban is red instead of blue, as if to enhance the zombie motif. And instead of directly meeting the eyes of the viewer, as the original Girl does, the sock-girl has a fixed, unfocused look in her eyes, as if piercing the veil that separates this world from the next.
Do I dare wear these? Reader: would you? Or would you fear looking down sometime around midday and seeing blood seeping out of your shoes? Tearing the shoes off only to find you have a smaller complement of toes than you started the day with?
Maybe for now I'll just leave them in my sock drawer. And keep it very tightly closed.
p.s. A few updates 2 weeks later: I obtained Bill's newly established email address so I could write and thank him for the socks. From his response, I now know that: 1. He LIKED the socks. He said he wanted to get a pair for himself too, but they didn't have them in men's sizes. 2. His British lineage dates back way before I thought it did. He can trace his first patrilineal ancestor, the one who came from France to England, to the Domesday Book record of 1086. This information, and much more like it, was not solicited by me in any way. Evidently, knowing a thousand years of one's own family history tends to leave one slightly unhinged. Duh.