William Zink


excerpt from Ballad of the Confessor

Editor's note:

The main character of Ballad of the Confessor, William Zink's second novel, is Lorne, a nursery laborer near Charleston, South Carolina. Andrei Codrescu, author of it was today: new poems from Coffee House Press, says the novel is "a muscular and gripping tale from inside the world of work. 'The Confessor' brings home the real shape of a reality nearly erased by television and statistics. Is this the start of that much-needed social realist fiction? Perhaps. Zink is one hell of a writer."

Ballad of the Confessor will be published in the summer of 2003 from Sugar Loaf Press.

Prologue

It’s the backs of men that move the world. Here at the nursery we move peat, mulch, manure, trees. Elsewhere, they move cast iron, fruit, books, beer, shoes, washers, dryers, stone, brick, coal, cars, houses, cities, philosophies, revolutions, anesthesia. Everything you own was moved by somebody. He moved it in a standing sleep, or daydream, or better yet, fantasy. The fantasies he keeps from his wife or girlfriend because they have not moved the earth all day long, they have no idea. They perceive only the threat and do not see the necessity. The tiniest of things have broken men’s backs. The pencil of eyeliner or tube of lipstick that you use each morning to ready yourself for the day is an accomplice to psychosis, or perhaps chronic lethargy. The beautiful new hardwood floor in your beautiful new nine hundred square foot great room is a partner in murder. This very book—such an innocuous, common trifle—is the battering ram that broke some poor soul’s will to live. Your comfort and convenience—why, your very existence—depends upon some laborer’s discomfort, or more likely, his misery.

We are the movers of the world! Our fraternity has no volunteers. All were impressed from other ships and lashed to this wheel, the wheel of the invisible, mute beast, purgatory of sweat, blisters, and fatigue. Some know that this will be their station in life. Others believe it is only temporary, are fooled or fool themselves, and later are destroyed when the balloon of self-delusion bursts. For some, it is temporary, and they escape and forever look from the outside-in; but they never forget, even those who attempt to bury it beneath layers of contempt—for contempt is only a Scarlet Letter for one who fears his past, or his future.

Most of the men I know, they aren’t going anywhere. They’ll remain movers until they are old. If they’re lucky they will have attained a higher status, some lowly overseer’s position; pointing, directing, heaping misplaced retribution on innocent bodies. These lucky ones might work until suddenly the dim flicker that is their life is blown out by a wind, or is doused by a storm. Most will not be so lucky; they’ll labor up to the very end. Their future is a dark tunnel of slow and miserable decay without exit, and without retreat. When hands can no longer grip, when legs become shot with arthritis—knee or hip joints grinding bone against bone, making each step a test of faith—and especially when the back can no longer handle the daily tonnage placed upon it—this man will be discarded, like rotten fruit, and his early demise will be secretly prayed for by neighbors, relatives, and maybe even his wife. Alcohol, very likely, will become his daily companion, his reminder of the capricious nature of his God, or gods, or no God, and it will end pitifully, without mercy, until his heart beats its final beat.

I don’t think too far ahead. No, that’s not exactly true. I think far, far ahead to the vast and monotonous plain of weariness and its sudden, sacrificial cliff; it’s something I can see because it’s what I fear most. But I don’t think of tomorrow, or next week. The daily collisions with trucks, and trees, and humiliation have ground my once sharp edges. The tonnage has made me who I am and will determine, much more than my intellect or desires, who I will be. I am shaped by the erosive elements of time, like a river, or valley, or tree. I bend when I must bend; I give way layers of myself when I think it will keep the rest of me whole. My limbs become fleshed with muscle. My face is scored with refusals and silent confessions to an ambivalent sun. My eyes watch but my lips seldom give evidence of thoughts which are in constant excitation and then detonate, like popcorn, in my mind. This is my life. This is the life of the movers of the world.

* * *

From the Chaos

Reggie is black. I am white. I make note of this for purposes of visualization, to allow your imagination to fill in gaps, or impose preconceived notions of the cookie cutter variety. Reggie is the boss. Of me, anyway. Ben is the real boss. He’s white. I’ll bet your mind is whirring with inferences. That’s because you’re out there looking into this fish bowl. We, within, know better.

Reggie has a compact frame. His muscles come from moving trees, blocks of peat moss, bags of manure. You should see his shoulders. He’s solid. I know because when we’re unloading trucks he likes to screw with me; he’ll pretend to accidentally bump me while I have a tree trunk in each hand, my shoulders being uprooted from their sockets. He’s a subtle prankster, Reggie. He never trips me. He just bumps me. He’s like a bull on two legs. Even his gut is solid. One day we were on break sitting under the potted trees, and I felt it. It was sticking out like a bowl of raised dough. I thought it would be soft, but when I placed my open hand on it, it was firm, like a big hunk of clay.

"You got somebody in there?" I said.

Reggie just grinned.

"Jesus. You got a hard stomach. Is that from all those potato chips?"

"Huh-uh," Reggie said with a lurch. He answered me seriously. Reggie doesn’t joke around too much with his mouth; he uses his body. He stares a lot. I think he thinks a lot, but he’s not the gabby type and so it’s hard to tell. Some days we’ll go both ten-minute breaks and the whole half-hour lunch without saying a word to each other. There’s nothing to do but eat, and stare. I stare past Reggie’s head, and he stares past my head. It’s easy to fall asleep on break. The boss, Ben I mean, doesn’t mind as long as your nap doesn’t spill into work time. The first time I saw Reggie fall asleep on break I woke him up. I thought he was going to get canned. He got mad.

"What’re you doin’, boy?" He looked at me all hurtful, as though I just farted in church. "Don’t ever wake me when I’m sleeping," he said. He stood up, and walked away shaking his head. Reggie has a watch with a timer on it, and he always sets it first thing when we go on break. If we know we’re going to be sleeping, we sit under the potted trees. We sit there when we don’t plan on sleeping too because it’s shady and private and that’s where we hide our worms. The pots are just the right height off the ground. They’re full of wood chips that cushion your behind like a pillow. You fold your arms, lean back against a tree trunk, and next thing you know Reggie’s watch is chirping like a bluebird. When we’re not sleeping or staring past each other’s heads, we talk about things. We talk an awful lot about worms.

"How many you get?" I said to him.

"Oh. . . I don’ know. A dozen maybe."

"Big ones? You got any really big ones?"

"A few."

"How many?"

"Three," he said, holding up three fingers.

"Three? You know how many I got?"

"How many?"

"Eight."

"Eight? Gee."

"Wanna see ’em?"

I reached behind me to where I hid my coffee can and brought it out for him to see. He leaned over and looked inside. His eyes got big with amazement.

"Where’d you find ’em?" he asked me.

"Found ’em when I was moving the azaleas. Man, those roots were grown real thick into the black matting. Worms everywhere."

"Are there any more?"

I shook my head no. "Got ’em all moved. But look. Must have three dozen in there—and eight monsters."

"You going fishing tonight?"

"It’s Thursday," I said. "You know I can’t fish except on the weekends."

"Tomorrow?"

"Hope to."

"You better put ’em in the ice box."

"I know."

"They’ll die out in the heat. Whew!"

"You want some of ’em?"

"Awww. . ."

"Here," I said and offered him the coffee can. He looked inside again, but wouldn’t take any.

"No. You keep ’em."

"But I don’t think I’ll use ’em all. Go ahead."

"I got plenty," he said, jiggling his own can.

"I’ll have to let some go," I said.

"Don’t tell me where."

"I won’t."

"I don’t wanna know," he looked away, tossing out his tough, dry hands.

"I’ll give some to my neighbor. He’s fishing all the time."

"You may as well," Reggie shrugged his shoulders.

"You going fishing tonight after work?"

"Maybe."

"Where?"

"Up the Cooper River."

"Who with?"

"Just me."

"Not with your wife and kids?"

"Naw," he said now with his arms folded. "They go enough."

"Sure you don’t want any? You might need some later."

"Don’t need ’em."

"Okay," I said and put the can back in the circular depression I’d made for it in the mulch. "What time is it?"

"Twelve-twenty."

"Twelve-twenty? I thought it was twelve-thirty by now."

"Naw, it’s only twelve-twenty."

Reggie used to be a sinner. He told me about it one day, just before quitting time. We sat on piled up railroad ties with the sun cutting low and sharp through the trees. My feet were dead. Reggie’s words floated through my ears like soft doves, and the creosote smell reminded me of our place in the world.

"I used to be a sinner something awful. I cussed all the time, and smoked that funny stuff. I smoked it constantly; well, every day a little. I was married before I married the wife I have now. We lived in Baltimore. I was a DJ at this club. She was always nagging at me. Nag, nag, nag. One day I’d had enough, so I just left. Didn’t never go back. Didn’t call to let her know where I was ’til six months later. There she was, nagging at me on the phone. ‘Good-bye,’ I says to her and hung up. That was the last time I ever talked to her. I came back to Charleston. I was still smoking the funny stuff and messing around with the ladies." Reggie paused. His eyes narrowed and he grinned out one corner of his mouth. "Oh," he said, his voice high and giddy with memories, "those were some times. I was a bad, bad man. Lord, forgive me. Something told me I was doing wrong. Not a voice exactly. Something inside. But I kept smoking, and kept taking advantage of the ladies. I was on a subway to eternal damnation, you better believe it. One day my sister—she’s a minister down toward Beaufort—she asked me if I wanted to go to church on Sunday. You see, she asked me every week for three years. I always said no. But this time I said yes. I just said yes, just like that. So," he shrugged, "I went. And then, because I liked it so much, I went the next Sunday. Then the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that. I haven’t missed a Sunday since, and that was over ten years ago. I go two or three times a week. I stopped fooling around and smoking the funny stuff. Now I got a wife and two kids. You never know. Who would’ve thought I’d be a church-going man? But I am. That’s me. The thought of going to church used to make me wanna run and hide. I laughed at people who talked about the Lord. But now I can’t wait to get there. It’s the piece that was missing in my life."

There’s a Baptist church along the highway between our place and the Food Lion. It seems there’s always people inside clapping and singing. They stay for hours. Sometimes I wish I was black. I’d walk right down to that Baptist church and join in. I don’t think anybody would stop me, even though I’m white, but I’m not the type who likes attention. I wish I could sing; maybe then I’d have an in. Sometimes I want to trade places with Reggie or some of the other movers. They wouldn’t understand that. They don’t realize that loneliness is the worst thing there is. They might be poor, and they might have a crummy job, but they have what I don’t have, and what I’ll never have. When I see people walking through the nursery, I try to read their faces. I look for clues, and then expand on the clues and a life emerges, an imagined life, I know, but it seems plausible, and not only plausible, but probable. Loneliness, I have determined, is widespread. It’s covered by many things. Wealth, laughter, activity. But it never goes away. Some of the black movers resent me. I can understand them, but they don’t understand me. They see my fortune for being white. I see their fortune for being black. You envy what is beyond your grasp. It hammers away at you—it consumes your mind and pushes you into fantasies you shouldn’t be having. I’m trapped. No one in his right mind likes being a mover, but I do sometimes. I do, but everything funnels my attention to the outside, and escape. I think vaguely about my real life, the life that’s mine outside this nightmarish detour. It’s filled with cars, houses, boats, and hammocks. Even those here who resent me, acknowledge me. I belong. Not to the brotherhood of their race, but to the fraternity of all men who sweat, and groan, and wish. This is the great equalizer. Here, respect or no respect is earned by physical exertion. Nobody cares who your daddy is.

We go fishing, me and Reggie. My wife doesn’t like him, and his wife doesn’t like me. We go just the two of us. He likes the rivers where he can use his skill in casting, but I like the ocean. We were out on Sullivan’s Island one day. It was hot. We wear cut-offs so we can walk right into the water whenever we want. I was in the water doing a breaststroke, occasionally going all the way under to cool off my head; Reggie was onshore sitting on his upside-down bucket. He wore a long sleeve shirt unbuttoned, and a straw hat. He’s not afraid of the water, but only goes in when he has two big amoeba sweat spots under his arms, and the ridge at the top of his gut is full of warm sweat. He just sort of sits in neck-deep water bobbing up and down like a buoy. It’s easy to tell when he’s peeing; he doesn’t move at all, not even his head, and then he’ll swim up shore a little. I float on my back with my arms out, and if the sun’s not right overhead I’ll open my eyes and look at the clouds bleached white from the brightness, and sometimes I want to die right then and there because nothing feels better. It’s hard to know what to do with moments like that. Sometimes you want to preserve them, and other times you want to devour them because you’re filled with ecstasy and you feel powerful. It’s been my experience that there isn’t anything you can do with pockets of ecstasy; it’s impossible to even truly enjoy them. People go by. Not too many where we fish. It’s funny how a girl in a bathing suit makes the day sparkle. You can watch her, and hold her image in your mind everywhere you go; think about her at dinner, watching TV, let her consume you in bed before you drift off. It’s a form of infidelity, I suppose.

Once I drifted way, way out there close to the big buoy with the light on it. Because I was so near, and so far from shore, I swam to it. I climbed up and sat on the faded, round fiberglass surface covered with gull and pelican shit. I shivered until I dried off, and then it was hot and that gave me the courage to dive back in and swim to shore. Just before I dove in I looked into the slate-colored water; it mesmerized me, and I thought about all sorts of wild, dangerous things. I thought about hostilities, and vengeances, and chaos, and for that first instant it was all clear and strangely beautiful; but it quickly faded and became terrifying—the very thing that had seemed beautiful moments before. That’s what made me dive, really. Not the courage from the heat, but the fear from the chaos.

 * * *

This excerpt is from Ballad of the Confessor, William Zink's second novel, his first being The Hole, a satire about a modern day David who battles the Goliath of professional stadium proliferation. He is also the author of Isle of Man, a combination of short stories and poetry, Torrid Blue, a self-described book of "distilled seaside observations," and his most recent compilation of verse, Homage, which will be published in the summer of 2003.