"The Trusty" by Ron Rash Originally published in the May 23, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Again The New Yorker reminds me of a relatively young yet relatively prolific American author whom I have failed to read ever. Over the last ten years, Rash has published four novels and three collections of short stories (his debut collection was published in 1994). Yet I hadn’t heard of Ron Rash until his novel Serena was named a finalist to the PEN/Faulkner in 2009, and I never really even looked into that book. From a quick glance around, it seems most of Rash’s books take place in the Southeastern United States (certainly that is true of this story), and it is there that his books have received the most recognition. Until recently, that is. Before being a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner, Rash was a finalist in 2008 for a collection of short stories called Chemistry and Other Stories. Then, in 2010, Rash followed-up being a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner when his collection of short stories, Burning Bright, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. But, on to “The Trusty,” Rash’s first piece of fiction for The New Yorker.
“The Trusty” takes place in South Carolina during the Depression. A chain gang is working away the hours. I didn’t know what a trusty was until I read this story, so I’ll pass that information on: a trusty is a prisoner who has been granted certain special privileges. In this case, Sinkler, the trusty, is in charge of fetching water from local wells; consequently, he does not wear restraints of any kind and is free to wander unsupervised for longer periods of time.
When the story begins, Sinkler is trying to find a new farmhouse with a well. The chain gang is moving further down the road, and each day his hike is longer and longer. In the second paragraph, he finds it.
The next day, Sinkler took the metal buckets and walked until he found a farmhouse. It was no closer than the other, even a bit farther, but worth padding the hoof a few extra steps. The well he’d been using belonged to a hunch-backed widow. The woman who appeared in this doorway wore her hair in a similar tight bun and draped herself in the same sort of flour-cloth dress, but she looked to be in her mid-twenties, like Sinkler. Two weeks would pass before they got beyond this farmhouse, perhaps another two weeks before the next well. Plenty of time to quench a different kind of thirst.
That’s the first indication that, while Sinkler may have been a trusty and while his crime might not be the type to put fear into the hearts of housewives (“What you in prison for?” / “Thinking a bank manager wouldn’t notice his teller slipping a few bills in his pocket.”), he’s not safe. In his long walks alone, he must think of hundreds of ways to take advantage of the bit of freedom he’s been given.
Much of this story unfolds as Sinkler insinuates himself into the mind of the young woman while her older husband works out in the fields. He plays with her own sense of being in a prison, until, as he hoped, she suggests they both make a break for it. She knows the terrain, after all.
Tension builds when we don’t know exactly what Sinkler plans to do with the young woman once they escape. It isn’t in his interest to keep her with him for long, but abandoning her too soon — or at all — might lead her to seek vengence by calling the law. At the same time, we become aware that the young woman is seeking out her own salvation too.