The Gift of Loafering

Less active than piddling, more respectable than slacking off, this talent requires a clear conscience and a light heart
Rick Bragg

Old women call it loafering, and I've always loved that word. I guess it is just how we say the word "loafing," but the way we say it makes you think of loafers, of wearing out your shoe leather for no good purpose. Old women like to sniff and use it as a condemnation. "He ain't here. He's off loafering." It means you are shirking work and responsibility. To the men who loafer, it means they are free, free to waste time, to count mailboxes, and wave at other old men who, as the rear bumper vanishes in the distance, wish they were loafering, too....The one thing you cannot do is loafer with a heavy heart...Bill Joe rolls down his window and just drives, sometimes as far as the Georgia line. The mountains and hills are at their prettiest now...the hardwoods, the pines, even the weeds take on a luminescence that will shimmer into summer, till the heat itself makes the landscape fade. But for now it all just shines. His heart is light. His conscience is clear.
From The Prince of Frogtown

I am only 52 years old but have been badly used and poorly maintained. I have worked since I was 11, digging in dirt, heaving hay bales around, loading pulpwood. Now I mostly stack paragraphs on top of each other, which I claim to be work, though no one believes me. Anyway, I have at best a few more raggedy pages left in me. So, I have decided to retire early.

I used to say I planned to fish, but that is a bigger lie than I now have the energy to tell. The fact is, I am the worst fisherman in my family line. My grandfather came home from the Coosa too drunk to stand, coat pockets stuffed with fish. I couldn't catch a fish standing over a washtub sober with a stick of dynamite.

But I can loafer.

I can walk to my truck, turn the key, and ride. I will dodge everything worrisome—my wife, traffic, the uncollected garbage under the sink—find a country road that leads no place in particular, and let it take me there. I can lie and say I am going to exercise or pick up a gallon of hateful skim milk, say anything to slip the surly bonds of home, and roam, till the wanderlust subsides.

You may not be familiar with the word if you were born north of Fort Payne or in a bloodline that thinks a bad day is a flat tire on the million-dollar motor home. I come from a long line of loaferers, from semi-sorry men who vanished for days, if not years, in the highlands and deltas of the Deep South, sometimes with nothing more than two dollars and a Zippo lighter, men of beautiful, restless spirit and less-than-rigid adherence to jobs and spouses and other constricting things.

I had two bachelor great-uncles who loafered a lifetime, from Tampa to Chattanooga, high-stepping alongside an accelerating freight train, a guitar case in one hand as they reached, reached for freedom with the fingers of the other. My great-uncle Fred reappeared just before his death in a college bar in Jacksonville, Alabama, dressed in a checked sport coat and brown and white wingtip shoes. He finished a beer, took a roll of money off some college boys at the pool table, and disappeared forever into the night. It may be he never left very deep footprints in the sands of this society, but by God he left a lot of them.

I'd get too homesick to be like him, truly. Most of us loafer only in an afternoon. The descending sun sends us home to a woman's worried face, or sometimes wrath. It may even be we were not greatly missed while we were gone. But at least, occasionally, someone will lie and say we were.