excerpt from Ballad of the Confessor
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.
Its 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 mens 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 booksuch an innocuous, common trifleis the battering ram that broke some poor souls will to live. Your comfort and conveniencewhy, your very existencedepends upon some laborers 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 contemptfor contempt is only a Scarlet Letter for one who fears his past, or his future.
Most of the men I know, they arent going anywhere. Theyll remain movers until they are old. If theyre lucky they will have attained a higher status, some lowly overseers 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; theyll 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 arthritisknee or hip joints grinding bone against bone, making each step a test of faithand especially when the back can no longer handle the daily tonnage placed upon itthis 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 dont think too far ahead. No, thats not exactly true. I think far, far ahead to the vast and monotonous plain of weariness and its sudden, sacrificial cliff; its something I can see because its what I fear most. But I dont 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. Hes white. Ill bet your mind is whirring with inferences. Thats because youre 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. Hes solid. I know because when were unloading trucks he likes to screw with me; hell pretend to accidentally bump me while I have a tree trunk in each hand, my shoulders being uprooted from their sockets. Hes a subtle prankster, Reggie. He never trips me. He just bumps me. Hes 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 doesnt joke around too much with his mouth; he uses his body. He stares a lot. I think he thinks a lot, but hes not the gabby type and so its hard to tell. Some days well go both ten-minute breaks and the whole half-hour lunch without saying a word to each other. Theres nothing to do but eat, and stare. I stare past Reggies head, and he stares past my head. Its easy to fall asleep on break. The boss, Ben I mean, doesnt mind as long as your nap doesnt 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.
"Whatre you doin, boy?" He looked at me all hurtful, as though I just farted in church. "Dont ever wake me when Im 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 were going to be sleeping, we sit under the potted trees. We sit there when we dont plan on sleeping too because its shady and private and thats where we hide our worms. The pots are just the right height off the ground. Theyre 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 Reggies watch is chirping like a bluebird. When were not sleeping or staring past each others 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?"
"Three," he said, holding up three fingers.
"Three? You know how many I got?"
"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.
"Whered 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 thereand eight monsters."
"You going fishing tonight?"
"Its Thursday," I said. "You know I cant fish except on the weekends."
"You better put em in the ice box."
"Theyll 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 wouldnt take any.
"No. You keep em."
"But I dont think Ill use em all. Go ahead."
"I got plenty," he said, jiggling his own can.
"Ill have to let some go," I said.
"Dont tell me where."
"I dont wanna know," he looked away, tossing out his tough, dry hands.
"Ill give some to my neighbor. Hes fishing all the time."
"You may as well," Reggie shrugged his shoulders.
"You going fishing tonight after work?"
"Up the Cooper River."
"Not with your wife and kids?"
"Naw," he said now with his arms folded. "They go enough."
"Sure you dont want any? You might need some later."
"Dont need em."
"Okay," I said and put the can back in the circular depression Id made for it in the mulch. "What time is it?"
"Twelve-twenty? I thought it was twelve-thirty by now."
"Naw, its 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. Reggies 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 Id had enough, so I just left. Didnt never go back. Didnt 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 sistershes a minister down toward Beaufortshe 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 havent 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 wouldve thought Id be a church-going man? But I am. Thats 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 cant wait to get there. Its the piece that was missing in my life."
Theres a Baptist church along the highway between our place and the Food Lion. It seems theres always people inside clapping and singing. They stay for hours. Sometimes I wish I was black. Id walk right down to that Baptist church and join in. I dont think anybody would stop me, even though Im white, but Im not the type who likes attention. I wish I could sing; maybe then Id have an in. Sometimes I want to trade places with Reggie or some of the other movers. They wouldnt understand that. They dont 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 dont have, and what Ill 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. Its 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 dont 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 youit consumes your mind and pushes you into fantasies you shouldnt be having. Im 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 thats mine outside this nightmarish detour. Its 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 doesnt like him, and his wife doesnt 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 Sullivans 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. Hes 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. Its easy to tell when hes peeing; he doesnt move at all, not even his head, and then hell swim up shore a little. I float on my back with my arms out, and if the suns not right overhead Ill 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. Its 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 youre filled with ecstasy and you feel powerful. Its been my experience that there isnt anything you can do with pockets of ecstasy; its impossible to even truly enjoy them. People go by. Not too many where we fish. Its 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. Its 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 terrifyingthe very thing that had seemed beautiful moments before. Thats 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.