Even as a kid, I knew I wasn’t cool. The cool kids wore Starter jackets and spiked their hair and they all hung out in giggly clumps by their lockers. Their moms didn’t shop at the Goodwill and their dads didn’t sell weed to pay for groceries. They didn’t wear five dollar sweatpants and they didn’t get their hair cut over the kitchen sink.
But the worst thing was my boots. I had brown rubber, wool-lined, hand-me-down Sorels that made my feet stink. They were warm, but every day I came home from school and yanked them off and the rank, vinegary cheese stench slapped me across the face. What made it so bad was that I left those boots on all day at school, where I clomped around the ice-glazed playground and stewed in them at my desk during those long, grade-school afternoons.
The Adirondack winters made insulated boots a necessity, particularly during January and February, when the temperatures dipped into the negative twenties and thirties. But while all the other boys glided around school in rugged, odorless boots that looked like high-tech Army supershoes, mine looked like leftovers from the fifties. Finally, it got to be too much, so I did the only thing a poor kid can do: I harassed my parents mercilessly.
“Heydaaad,” I whined, lying on the living room carpet, my smelly feet propped up on the arm of his broken-down La-Z-Boy. “They’re making great boots these days, right? Daddy-o? Please to give new boot…?”
“Oh, I’ll give you a boot,” he muttered, putting his lighter to the rim of the metal pipe and inhaling an after-work rip that filled the living room with the sticky, vegetal smell of weed. My dad had worked at Scheefer’s Plumbing & Heating for a few years, but before that his only job had been dealing weed and, at times, other things.
“No, come on,” I said. “It’s like, hard at school.”
“Well,” he said, exhaling. “Luckily, I know just what to do.”
With that, he touched his lighter to the bottom of my sock and a thin flame chased the little fuzzies and frayed bits up the length of my sole, disappearing in an orange-blue wave. He did it as a joke, just for effect, whenever I watched TV with my feet up on his chair. It didn’t hurt and only lasted a fraction of a second, but I hated the surprise of the flame as the fuzzies burned off. It was scary in the same way as when one of the kids at school threw a fake punch just to make someone flinch. You couldn’t predict it and the whole thing was over before you could react.
“Okay,” he said, nodding as he looked down at me. “I get it. You’re a growing boy. But we just can’t afford new boots right now, so you’re gonna have to suck it up and soak those damn feet. You stink like a Frenchman’s basement.”
“John!” my mother yelled in from the kitchen.
“Well it’s true! We can’t have the boy go traipsing around like his socks are filled with Gorgonzola. Go on ahead and fill up the tub and splash around a little. You can use the bubbles.”
“But it’s the boots!” I cried. “Soaking isn’t gonna help!”
“Well, we’ll see,” he said, putting away his pipe, pot, and bowl-scraper. He kept them all in an octagonal, hutch-like side table next to his chair, along with his scales and an ornate pewter plate he used as a set-up station to break and baggie the weed. That side table was strictly off limits; the only time he opened it was when he was smoking or selling. When people were over buying weed, I began to feel like the whole living room was off limits. My dad’s customers took up the couches and chairs as I lay on the living room carpet, watching them smoke and laugh and drink my dad’s beers.
“Yes,” my mother said, coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “We will see.”
“What’s that mean?” my dad asked.
My mom shook her head. “It means get in there and dry the dishes. And if he doesn’t get his homework done because he’s too busy splashing around in the friggin’ tub, you’re going to be doing long division tonight.”
She handed him the towel as he passed her on his way into the kitchen, then shrugged her shoulders in frustration and motioned for me to follow her to the bathroom.
On TV, there’s that comedy bit where Elmer is asleep by the rabbit hole and Bugs sticks a match in Elmer’s shoe and lights it. Elmer snores away, nuzzling his rifle as if it were a stuffed animal. The match burns down, Elmer howls, and they start chasing each other again. “Hotfoot” it’s called. It’s an old, old prank, and not exactly the same as what my dad did, but pretty close.
Giving me the hotfoot became sort of a party trick. My dad’s buddies and customers would be over—there was a big overlap between the two groups—and they’d be sitting around the living room smoking. He’d wait until he knew I wasn’t paying attention then flick his lighter at the heel of my sock. They all laughed at the spectacle and my huffy reaction.
My dad’s customer-friends came in the evenings or at lunch or on Saturday afternoons, knocking sheepishly on the front door the way reluctant, after-hours regulars are wont to do. I could tell who they were from the way they walked onto the porch, a little heavy-footed for their nervous business, their big shadows wavering in the textured, opaque doorway window. After a while I got to know most of them, and they were usually weird and polite guys who had the bearing of raccoons on top of garbage cans.
But it was one those odd men who finally came up with a solution. One afternoon a tall, skinny guy called Nehi was over, buying a baggie from my dad. He had bushy red hair and he had to duck to get in through the living room doorframe. I was on the floor, watching Elmer fire a volley of bullets as Bugs leapt around the screen, and my dad gave me the hotfoot.
“Hey—ain’t that dangerous?” Nehi asked, his voice a basoonish baritone.
“Probably,” I said, kicking at my dad’s hand as he pulled it away.
“Nah,” my dad said. “Besides, it’s the only way we can keep the stink off. Got to burn it away.”
He was joking, of course, but Nehi was one of those people that couldn’t quite pick up on sarcasm or irony or other social cues.
“Hell, you don’t need to set the kid’s feet on fire,” he said. “I got the same problem. Lenore kept saying my feet stank too much after work. Go on over to the Ames and pick up those Odor-Eaters socks they got now.”
That afternoon, my mother and I went to the store and poked through the clothes aisles. I remember thinking that they’d have run out, that Odor-Eaters socks were such an incredible invention that there must have been a rush of customers out to buy them. Since we were a poor family, we were usually the last to know about cool things. But there they were: socks made of Odor-Eaters fabric.
“It says you can put them right in the washing machine!” my mom exclaimed, turning the package over in her hands. Neither of us could quite believe it. We bought two packs and I could barely wait until the next school day to try them out. It was hard to believe that such a simple, elegant solution could really work.
At first, I was still afraid to take my boots off in school. I’d seen my classmates eviscerate a little girl who accidentally sat on a chocolate Snak-Pak during snacktime. Her name was Alicia, and for months after she’d been known as “squishy Lishy.” I wanted to avoid announcing my smelliness at all costs. Some of the boys in class had already taken to calling me “colon poop,” and that was just for fun. If I’d actually stunk, god only knows what they would’ve done.
But, unbelievably, the socks worked. I started taking my boots off when I got to school to let my feet dry. The boots themselves still had a slight odor, but I flopped around in my socks just like the other kids. After a few days, I completely forgot I’d had a problem. In fact, after my feet stopped stinking, I started noticing how many of the other kids had problems with their feet. It wasn’t just an issue of having old boots: kids’ feet stink.
“Don’t worry,” I told some boys manfully. “You can just go get Odor-Eaters socks. Like me.”
After that, my nickname became Odor-Eater. I think they meant it in ridicule, but I liked how it gave me an identity that didn’t revolve around being stinky. And I noticed that some of those boys started showing up to school with socks like mine. Inadvertently, I’d become a trendsetter.
One night, a week or so later, Nehi and Philbo and Huey were over after my dad got off work. They had the look of men who’d been underground all day, working in the sewers and wading through rivers of “foo-foo,” as my dad called it. Many of his customer-friends were work buddies. They’d come to buy dimebags and quarters and to smoke a bit before heading home. I was lying on the floor, as usual, while they passed the bowl over my head.
“I always wondered…” I said. “Why do they call it a dimebag?”
“Cuz it costs a dime,” my dad said. His words came out on white smoke, stray rods and puffs spiraling away from the stream of his breath as he spoke.
“I know it doesn’t cost a dime,” I said, turning over to face the guys. “If it cost a dime, we’d have a garbage bag full of dimes and mom could buy me that scooter for Christmas.” With that, I flopped my foot down on the armrest of his chair like a gavel against a block.
What followed was one of those moments where the light in the room seemed to squeeze itself together and the smell of dried leaves filled my nose. There are moments like that when, as a kid, you start to wonder how the human mind operates. For whatever reason, I knew something bad was about to happen, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was. I sort of unfocused my eyes, as though I were preparing to detect movement in my periphery.
“Well,” my dad said. “You’re just too smart for your own good then, aren’t ya?”
Just as I figured out what was different, my dad touched his lighter to my sock and it burst into a torch of green flame, covering my foot in a shoe of fire. I looked up at it, my eyes wide, my leg stiffening as I tried to figure out what to do. This was not the hotfoot. The entire sock was blazing and there was a whooshing sound like the first ignition of a gas stovetop.
“Put it out! Put it out!” I demanded, beginning to wave my leg around. I could hear everyone laughing, far off in the disasterless background. A smile on his face, my dad grabbed me by the pantleg and pulled my foot down. My panic escalated; I realized how ill equipped I was to handle the sight of my body afire.
“Keep still!” he commanded, trying to tamp the flames with weak slaps and wispy puffs of his breath. He, too, was laughing, and while my foot began to char under the chemical burn from the Odor-Eaters socks I suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to be able to put the green fire out. Because this was still a joke to him.
I yanked my leg down and began rolling around on the floor, kicking at the air and trying to stamp out the flames with my other foot. The sounds of their laughter grew louder and louder as I struggled until I began to wonder if I was overreacting. Just about the time I got the flames out and had ripped my socks from both my feet and hurled them across the room, I considered how having one foot on fire might not have been such a great emergency. Maybe someone could go for quite some time with one foot on fire and not even realize it. Maybe, if the pain was just a joke, it wouldn’t really hurt. Panting, I looked around at all the guys. They were rolling around and holding their stomachs, and my dad was imitating my body’s terrified flailing and my fear-stricken face, goading them further into hysterical laughter.
The socks lay in an innocent pile by the front door when my mom got home that night. They were an experiment gone awry, an explosion instead of a solution. Disheartened, I told her the whole story. Then she asked my dad what happened.
“He wasn’t really hurt,” my dad said, grinning. “It was just a scare.”
By that point, I was already working hard to agree with him. I told myself it had only been dangerous in my head. If I could’ve relaxed, maybe I would’ve laughed too. But instead I kept wondering what would’ve happened if I waited for him to put out the flames. My foot had come out mostly unscathed except for a dark red welt across the bridge, but this was only because the Napalm-like fabric hadn’t burned through to my skin. What if it had? What if I hadn’t been able to kick out the flames? What if they’d climbed my leg and burned me to cinder?
After dinner, I sat on the counter next to my mom as she washed the dishes and I told her my thoughts. She stiffened a little, then shook her head.
“Well, maybe the best thing is not to put your feet on your father’s chair anymore,” she said. She’d said it before, knowing how I hated the hotfoot, but something in me didn’t want to give up that armrest. My dad had control of the chair and the side table and the couches where his buddies sat and even the air in the living room, which he filled with smoke nightly. That armrest was one place I’d claimed, one comfort for one piece of my body. But she was right. I couldn’t relax around my dad or his friends, couldn’t close my eyes or look away for fear of being burned or laughed at or both at the same time.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s easiest.” I conceded, and not only did I never put my feet up there again, but I learned the essential difference between awareness and vigilance. At school, among my well-groomed classmates, I was aware of myself as dissimilar; at home, I became as tense as a minesweeper, always scanning the rooms and horizons for the faintest whiff of potential danger. When people came over to buy from my dad, I drifted into the kitchen and waited instead of lying on the floor. There, at a safe remove, I listened to them laugh and chatter almost like they were sitting in the living room of some TV show, just filling time between jokes with acrid puffs of smoke that hung in the air even after they were gone.
Colin Pope grew up in Saranac Lake, New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Willow Springs, The Los Angeles Review, and Texas Review, among others. He has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Gemini Ink and is currently a PhD student at Oklahoma State University, where he serves on the editorial board at Cimarron Review.