“The Right Men for the Job” by Jared Yates Sexton

27May11

It dawned on us that maybe our luck had run out. First the car started coughing and jumping to the right, then the hot water heater leaked so bad it fell through the laundry-room floor. We were trying to lift it out when the kids came running in to tell us there was a man in the driveway. He’d hit a cat—our cat—and he wanted to apologize.

Everything seemed to be going our way before that. I was writing for the newspaper and sometimes people recognized me from the picture that ran next to my stories. Mary, my wife, had regular work as a substitute teacher and we were starting to pay off our debts. Our boys Sam and Spencer were happy and growing and never went without. They had toys and clothes and we bought a new car and appliances and every little thing that crossed our minds.

A couple of years passed and everything changed. The paper folded and Mary couldn’t get teaching gigs anymore. Something about an argument she’d had with this bitter old woman who taught junior year English. Then our things started breaking down all at once. Every day it was something new. A blender on the fritz. Bad brakes. A broken knob on the TV. Then Spencer tossed a rock through a basement window. Sometimes Mary and me would lie in bed and just list all the problems we had.

One night she asked me what it was that we did wrong.

What’s that? I said.

Did we do something wrong? she asked again, flipping her pillow over and punching it. All these things that’re happening. Did we do something to deserve it? Something to deserve our lives going all to hell?

I didn’t know what to say. I guess at that point I didn’t think we were that bad off. Course I was drinking a lot and was pretty out of it most of the time. I probably wasn’t the best judge.

Mary rolled over so that her back faced me. She sighed. I just feel like it’s all too much, she said.

I asked her what she meant. I didn’t know what she was saying.

I don’t know, she said. I’m just talking, I guess.

I put my hand on her shoulder. Oh, it can’t be that bad, I said.

It really is, Mary said. It really is that bad.

That was a couple of days before the power went out. We were in the kitchen getting breakfast ready when it happened. Mary was pouring the boys’ cereal into bowls and I was putting together an old fashioned. It was summer, the hottest pocket of July, and I didn’t feel too bad about trying to stay cool.

Mary was saying something about my drinking, something about how I didn’t have to start so early, when there was a loud pop. Everything in the house was going before that. TV, air, fridge, a radio by the stove. And then they just stopped. There was a second or two of the quietest quiet you’ve ever heard before the boys came in just a crying about their show shutting off.

What was that? Mary said, turning to me. Just what the hell was that?

I took a look around. The fuses were okay and nothing seemed out of place. The stop light in front of our house was working just fine. Then I looked out the back window and saw a couple of lines jumping around like a pair of snakes, sparks shooting from their ends.

What is it now? Mary said. She was pacing around the kitchen while I looked through the phonebook for the electric company. Oh god, she said, when’s it gonna end?

It was probably a limb or something, I said. Maybe the wind picked up.

The boys were galloping around singing The power’s off, the power’s off, clapping their hands and yelling as loud as they could. I called the number in the book and told them there were live wires out there and that they’d better get a crew over in a hurry. We got kids around here, I said into the phone.

Oh god, Mary said. What if somebody wanders over here and gets hurt? Do something, she said. Do something fast.

I told her I didn’t have the first clue what to do and hung up the phone. After that I got everybody into the living room and tried to calm them down. I told them this kind of thing happened all the time and there wasn’t anything to get upset over.

The boys handled everything pretty all right. They were asking questions about where electricity came from and what was going to happen next. I told them the work crew would be over in just a couple of minutes and we sat and waited while Mary walked to and from the back window, chewing off every nail she had.

A half an hour passed and I called the electric company again. They told me it wouldn’t be but another ten or so minutes until a truck pulled up. Then forty minutes went by. Another call and another ten minutes. An hour. Another hour.

It was hot by then. The heat had been climbing for the past week and was hitting a hundred degrees. The news had told us the night before that some people in town had already died. I believed it. Just being in the house right then, without the air or anything, it was getting pretty uncomfortable. We were all sitting around fanning ourselves with magazines and changing into shorts and loose T-shirts. Mary had to tie her hair back and even then she was sweating. After awhile we went into the kitchen and took turns opening the fridge and putting our faces into what was left of the cold air.

You have to do something, Mary said, pointing to the boys and the dark bands of sweat seeping through their clothes. Please, she said.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I made up another old fashioned and had everyone put on their shoes. With drink in hand, I led them out the side door that opened to the carport. Just a few feet away was the backyard and those wires. We moved slow and careful and climbed into the car. When I turned the key it coughed to life and sputtered. You could really tell it was on its last legs, but when I messed with the temperature control the air came on just the same.

Are you sure this is safe? Mary said. I mean, are you sure?

I flipped on the radio and found a decent station. The boys were bouncing up and down and singing along to the music. I put my drink on the dashboard and reclined a bit. Sure, I said to her. Nothing’s going to get us in here.

That seemed to ease her worries for the moment. She leaned back and closed her eyes, ran her hand across her head and wiped away some sweat. Okay, she said. I mean, what else could happen?

We stayed in that car for a good forty-five minutes or so, just the four of us sitting there and passing time. Some music played and some commercials too. There was even one for brand-new, suped-up air conditioner units, if you can believe it. I laughed pretty hard at that one, but Mary didn’t find it so funny. The guy came on and said that if you wanted to experience the cool you deserved, you were gonna have to shell out a few extra dollars for quality. He said nothing comes cheap and some people talked about how good it felt to sit in a home cooled by so-and-so brand air conditioner. It beats the heat, one woman said.

That’s about when the work truck pulled into the driveway. I saw it in the rearview mirror. A couple of fellas stepped out and put on some protective gear. They grabbed poles and tools out of the back of the truck and made their way toward the house. Mary asked me what those things were called and I told her I didn’t know, but they looked like just what the doctor ordered.

I got everybody out of the car and we walked back to the side door. As Mary and the boys went in I stayed behind and had a quick word with the guys.

Howdy, I said to them. How you fellas doing today?

Shit, one of them said. He was the older of the two and his meaty forearms were covered in green tattoos. Guessin’ we’re doin’ better than you folks.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I was, standing there on my carport with a pair of broken lines dancing behind me. Dressed in an undershirt and swimming trunks, no less. That sounds about right, I told him.

The other guy, the younger one, was wearing sunglasses that wrapped around his head. He pulled them off and I could see that he’d been out in the sun so much the skin under them was whiter than the rest of his reddened body. From his belt he pulled a walkie-talkie and told someone on the other end that they were at the place and to cut the juice. We watched those wires collapse into the weeds.

All right, he said. We’re gonna fix this up for you in no time.

I took that as my cue to go back inside. Mary had sat down by the back window and looked ready for a show. The boys were already playing like they were electric workers. They had on toy hardhats and carried around their fishing poles like they were those things the men were carrying. One of them said I’ll get your electricity back on lickity-split, but I didn’t know whether it was Sam or Spencer. I was too busy watching the men in the backyard with Mary.

They walked up to those wires like it wasn’t a big deal at all. Just watching them put me on edge. I can’t stand electricity. Been shocked too many times. When I was younger I helped my dad around the house and had a few run-ins along the way. One time we were fixing up the basement and I got to work on what I thought was a dead outlet. The jolt hit me so hard it liked to have blown my hand clean off. Dad took my tool belt away and said that was that. Watching those guys grab the wires without even a second thought got me feeling antsy as all get out. But I was curious. There was something about the way they went about their work that made it hard not to look on. You could really tell they knew what they were doing.

Look at them, Mary said, not even turning. It’s like they’re not scared at all.

I know, I said. I went to the freezer and got out a few half-melted ice cubes and refilled my glass. The air wasn’t cold in there anymore and I could tell it wasn’t going to be long before all our meat started to spoil. Hey, I said to her. We ought to do something about this meat.

Like what? she said. She was still watching the men outside. What’re we supposed to do?

I don’t know, I said. Take it out? Maybe find some ice somewhere?

Sure, she said. Go find some ice. That’s fine.

I mean, this could turn into a real mess if we don’t take care of it, I said. We’ve got steaks in here. Hamburger. The works.

She wouldn’t turn away from the window. Okay, she said. Get some ice.

After I realized she wasn’t going to help, I put down my glass and got the keys to the car. I stood in the carport for a minute and watched the men some more. The older one, the one with the tattoos, was yanking one of the wires off the house and the younger one had climbed all the way up a pole in the alley. They were working so fast it had to be seen to be believed.

I drove to the grocery store and when I went in the air conditioning felt so good I could hardly stand it. There were a ton of people there, it being Saturday and all, and I walked the aisles without looking for anything in particular. Here were all these people in a hurry with their lists and I was taking my time and really soaking it in. I picked things off the shelves and just read the ingredients. Then I’d put them back down and move on to the next box or can and do it all over again. Everyone was in such a rush that they kept pushing past and saying nasty things under their breath.

Finally I made my way to the back of the store where they kept their ice and alcohol. I grabbed a bag and then went over to the coolers full of cold beer. That sounded pretty good right then, tossing back a few beers, so I grabbed a case and headed for the register. The line I got into was the express lane and it didn’t take no time at all to get to the checkout girl. She was a younger thing, dark hair and light eyes, pretty, with a button on her vest that said Just Be Happy.

I like that, I said, pointing to the button. Just be happy.

Oh, she said, scanning the case of beer and putting it in a basket with my ice. Thanks, she said.

I paid my money and told her to have a good one, but as I walked away she got my attention again. Hey, she said. You’re that guy, right? You’re the guy from the paper?

Yeah, I said, saluting her with my free hand. That’d be me.

Nice, she said, smiling, and added, Always good to meet a celebrity.

Something about that made me feel pretty good, so I popped open a beer for the ride home. As I got close though, I saw the workers’ truck was still there so I drove on by and took some back roads for awhile. I cruised the country for a good half hour or so, drinking and singing along to music, happier than I’d been in a real long time. All that driving really did me some good. I mean, the car was behaving for once and the heat wasn’t so bad with the windows down and all that cold beer. I even started thinking about that checkout girl and how cute she was. I thought maybe if I went back there, grabbed a thing or two for the line, I could’ve had a real decent chance at taking her out. Right then, all those things that’d been weighing on me, all the breaking and madness, didn’t seem to matter anymore. It would’ve suited me fine right then to have just kept driving forever.

But the sun was going down and the ice started melting, and I knew I had to get back to the house. The truck hadn’t moved, so I pulled around it and into the carport. Before I went inside I looked into the backyard and saw that the wires had been cinched up and weren’t hanging down anymore. Then I heard a humming coming from our air conditioner and knew the power was back on. I didn’t for the life of me know where those men were though.

I got my answer though. They were set up in my kitchen, around my table, Mary and the boys with them. There were plates full of hamburgers sitting on the table and all our ketchup and mustard was out too. The two of them were chowing down.

You get lost? Mary said as I walked in. Forget the way home?

Something like that, I said, putting what was left of the beer in the fridge. Hey fellas, I said to the guys. Thanks a lot. I can’t tell you how thankful we are.

No problem, the younger one said. He had a hamburger in one of his dirty hands and he was grinning while he chewed. I tell you what, he said, trying to swallow a bite down. Your lady here can cook a mean hamburger.

You got that right, the one with tattoos said.

Oh, Mary said, laughing. Stop.

I gave the workers a couple beers. Mary didn’t say much to me. She just sat there and asked if she could get them anything or if they were comfortable. Her and me watched the two of them eat in silence for awhile. She had a big smile on her face and didn’t even hear when the boys asked if they could go into the living room and play some more. I told them yes and leaned against the counter. It was so strange to me, those two men sitting and eating at my table. Watching Mary watch them eat.

Pretty soon I couldn’t stand it anymore and went in there with the boys. They had two chairs set up in the living room with jump rope strung between them. Spencer was using a wrench on it, a real wrench that I figured belonged to one of the men because it was covered in grease, and he was putting its jaws around the rope and turning it round and round. Sam thrummed it like a guitar string. I sat down with my beer and watched them.

Here you go, Spencer said, really having a go with that wrench. Here you go, we’re gonna have this fixed up real good.

Sam plucked it one last time and nodded his head. Don’t worry, he said. You got the right man for the job.

I watched them like that for a long time. The sun went down and it was getting to be dark before the workers stopped their eating and got their things together. The tattooed one came into the living room and got his wrench back from the boys. Mary was running around asking if they wanted food to go. It wouldn’t be any trouble, she said. I could fry some more and wrap them up or something.

No, the tattooed one said. That’s just fine. You’re too good to us.

Oh, Mary said. Okay. It was just so nice of you to get the power back on. That really was great of you.

The two of them took turns telling her it was all right and then thanked her for the dinner. She followed them out and I could hear her talking to them from the carport as they walked to their truck and put away all their gear. I was still sitting in the living room, still holding my drink. Sam and Spencer had moved on by then and found another game they wanted to play or a television show on in the other room.

When Mary came back in she didn’t say anything. She went straight into the kitchen and got the pan off the stove and made up the sink to do some dishes. She scrubbed the grease and droppings off with a pad and rinsed it out under a stream of hot water. She whistled and swayed a little while she did it. Everything seemed different about her then. Everything much lighter. She moved from the sink to the stove to the fridge and cabinets, it was almost like she was dancing.

I saw her from my seat there in the living room. I leaned back and felt the cold air running through, listening to the hum of all our machines, all our things. I was waiting for whatever came next.


Jared Yates Sexton lives in Indiana, where he teaches writing at Ball State University. He is a contributing editor at BULL and his collection of stories, “An End to All Things,” is forthcoming from Atticus Books.

To read Jared Yates Sexton’s comments on Eimile Denizer’s “A Fan of the Team,” click here.
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Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
The voice is so alive and authentic in “The Right Men for the Job,” readers are immediately drawn into the story. The writer explores the tired relationship of a happily married couple in a new way—they don’t fight or scream or treat each other poorly—putting us squarely in the emptiness of a once tender and loving marriage that may just find its revival through an unlikely occurrence.

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Comments on this story by Dan Reiter, author of “The Day Laborer”
Clocks, ankles, automobiles, lives. Give it time and everything will click, eventually. “The Right Men For the Job” speaks of the first breath of the autumn years, of sadness, of a household propped up on two poles and sagging in-between. A dark undercurrent runs throughout the story, at least in my reading. I have the feeling that just behind the windows something terrible is crouching, waiting to pounce. Some lines that gripped me: “A blender on the fritz.” “Putting together an old fashioned.” “We watched those wires collapse into the weeds.” This conversational tone works. Christ, it makes me long for the old days of drinking and singing and cruising the car up and down country lanes.

There is something old and new about this piece… the knobs on the television set, the tattoos on the workers’ arms, the careless, dark unburdened beauty of the narrator’s drunken drive… something hidden as well, a broken line between fathers and sons, between fathers and mothers. In the end this is a story about family, about tenuous connections, about coming into something new and comfortable and frightening all at once.




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