It was several years ago, and I was in Austin, attending the Texas Book Festival as representative of Texas Review Press, when the issue of the smell of women’s feet surfaced again, as it had for me on several past occasions.
I was at a table in a long tent in the Texas A&M Consortium exhibit, seated with a couple of our authors on either side of me signing books: novelist and short story writer Bob Winship on my left and poet Dave Parsons on my right. There were lulls in the traffic, as there always are, and our minds drifted around a bit, and during one of our desultory sessions I happened to venture a question to Parsons: Had he ever noticed that women’s feet don’t smell bad. It was a natural enough question, given the number of women walking by.
Winship snorted. “You’re still on that?”
See, we’ve discussed it before. I’ve got this scene in one of my novels where a guy who’s been beaten up pretty badly in New Orleans and had his wife abducted by street villains is getting drunk back in his hotel room, waiting for word about his wife and just in general feeling sorry for himself — really down in the dumps, you know — and he begins rummaging around in his wife’s things, handling them, smelling them, and he comes suddenly to the realization that his wife’s shoes smell like leather and dye, with maybe a trace of body lotion or powder, but not like feet, the way a man’s shoes would: sour and sweaty, unpleasant, fetid, like feet. He’s mystified by it, and he realizes that he cannot recall a time when his wife’s shoes or feet smelled bad, not a single time, not even when she’d been working in the yard in sneakers all day.
“I never was off of it,” I said.
“I’ve never thought about it much,” Parsons said, “but come to think of it, I believe you’re right. I don’t remember ever being aware of a woman’s feet smelling bad.”
“For good reason,” I said. “They don’t. And my question to both of you is, why is this so? Why should a woman’s feet be any different? I can put on a pair of shoes and walk around in the yard awhile, and my feet will smell like — like feet. And my shoes and socks will smell like my feet. My wife can work all day in her shoes, in the dead of summer, and come in and pull her socks and shoes off and neither they nor her feet will smell bad.
“All women, you’re saying?” Parsons asked.
“All women I’ve ever had the opportunity to check out that way, yeah. Not, mind you, that I’ve made it a major research issue or anything.”
Winship was grinning, and Parsons was just shaking his head.
“OK, look, guys,” I said, “take Kellye Sanford, who was just talking to us. She’s been working probably four or five hours in the Winedale booth or walking around shopping, and I’ll just bet you that if Kellye kicked off a shoe, set it on this table, then put her foot beside it, neither of them would smell bad.”
“It would be a strange sight for her to do it, being in a dress and all,” Winship said.
Parsons said, “And how would you go about asking her to?”
“She wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t ask her to. We’re talking hypothetically here. If she did do it, though, you would discover that her foot and shoe would not smell bad. That’s all I’m saying.”
Winship grinned big again. “You’re saying it because she’s nice and young and beautiful.”
“No, it’s because she’s a woman. She could be an old amorphous radical feminist deconstructionist and the same would hold.”
Parsons mused, “So you figure a radical feminist’s foot wouldn’t smell bad either?”
“I wouldn’t want to find out,” Winship said.
Well, I saw that the discussion with those two was fast deconstructing, so I lugged the weighty issue down the Winedale Press booth, where Noel Parsons (with Texas A&M Press) and Gabrielle Hale (Leon Hale’s partner) were talking. When they heard what was on my mind, they both agreed that my observation was essentially correct. Gabrielle theorized that it’s a matter of hormones oozing out of the feet, that the primitive male left traces of himself wherever he walked through the forest to mark his territory — the way a dog does, you know — whereas women, in charge of camp and children, were designed not leave an easy trail, thereby making them less vulnerable to predators. I deduced that she was applying the principle to their descendants. Noel said he wasn’t sure about that, but he has noticed that his male cat makes it a big point to wallow on his daughter’s shoes when she kicks them off. None of us knew what to make of that either, so we left it languishing, and I walked on back down to the table where Winship and Parsons were signing books and settled between them to observe and ponder.
Well, it’s a mystery I’ll have to continue wrestling with, this matter of the smell of women’s feet. As is often said, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Paul Ruffin is a Texas State University System Regents’ Professor and Distinguished Professor of English at SHSU.