ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"The Below Job" by Harvey Sutlive


 “Let me out by the mailbox,” Mr. Bell told Reverend Evans. "You put the truck in the shed." He was glad he was home – driving on the main road bothered his eyes.

"What about your fountain," Reverend Evans asked politely. There was a concrete yard fountain shaped like a palm tree in the back of the truck.

"Do like I tell you," said Mr. Bell. He climbed out the passenger door.

Reverend Evans nodded and drove away to the back of the house.

Mr. Bell walked towards where he knew his picnic table and benches would be. His shin grazed a bench and he sat down.

In his own yard, in the shade, he began to see better right away. He stared at his house.

He made out the pattern of windows first, on the house front… and the steep roof and chimney. Powder-blue mountains rose… over the roof… now he saw porch steps… he stood and started walking.

The screen door creaked and his wife Marie walked out on the porch. She was slender, and taller than her husband, with dyed-black hair, and dark intelligent eyes. She shifted a rocker on the porch by the door.

Mr. Bell continued walking. “Hey there,” he said gruffly.

“It’s me Owen,” she said.

The toe of his shoe struck the bottom porch step – he ignored the handrail and climbed methodically – at the top the steps Marie took his hand -they walked to the kitchen in the back of the house.

By then Reverend Evans was standing on the back porch, daydreaming, staring through the back screen door. He was a quiet person and a good worker. A slick garden-supply brochure stuck out of his shirt pocket.

“Come in Reverend Evans,” said Mrs. Bell. She went straight to the stove.

Reverend Evans laid the brochure on the kitchen table. It was a cheerful description, plus installation advice, on the palm tree fountain in Mr. Bell's truck.

Mr. Bell felt the screen door, to make sure it was closed. Delicately and precisely he grasped its latch and fixed it in place. He sat at the table at his place at the far end from the stove.

Mrs. Bell pointed with her eyes to Reverend Evans' spot in the middle. She was ready to eat. To manage the pans on the stove she stooped slightly.

Mr. Bell patted the kitchen table to locate his knife and fork. "Marais - is getting bad," he said loudly.

Over the years, doing surveying work, and raising cows on the side, Mr. Bell had learned to be heard over long distances. "They say they can’t four-lane Orly Road," he remarked, at top volume, "but soon we won't be able to..."

"Don't talk so loud Owen," said Mrs. Bell. She finished serving the food and sat in her own place close to the stove.

"Ask Reverend Evans,” said Mr. Bell. “He was driving.” He nodded encouragingly at Reverend Evans

Reverend Evans nodded back at Mr. Bell. He glanced at Mrs. Bell. He had a thin handsome face, and a wiry, interesting body. He was not much of a talker, but he was always a good listener. When he was a preacher he was known for being a good listener. He had trouble handling money that was his only real difficulty back in his preaching days. He opened his mouth to explain what he thought about traffic in Marais.

“What about my fountain Owen,” said Marie.

“We got that,” said Mr. Bell dismissively. “It’s in the truck.”

“That’s what we need, a fountain," said Marie. She picked up the slick brochure. It was only two pages.

"Not really," said Mr. Bell. He and Marie argued for a month about putting a fountain in the yard by the mailbox - Mr. Bell finally agreed to the idea.

“I’ll go get it myself if I have to," said Marie. "I'll carry it home in the trunk of my Regal.”

“I picked it up this morning," fumed Mr. Bell. “And paid for it.”

“With my money,” said Mrs. Bell, to keep the record straight. The screen door creaked in the front of the house.

"Hello!” trilled a nearly musical, nearly pure voice.

"...your money, what you threw away,” Mr. Bell was saying.

Their daughter Peggy entered the kitchen. She was tall, like her mother, with black hair and black eyes, and worry lines on her forehead.

“Hey,” said Mr. Bell grudgingly.

She climbed in a chair at the kitchen table - she was directly opposite Reverend Evans - he avoided looking at her.

Mrs. Bell rose and fixed Peggy a glass of iced tea. Peggy reached for Mr. Bell’s hand and patted it. "Did you get Mama's fountain?” she asked him tenderly.

“Yes,” he said.

“Apex Gardens in Asheville has a sale on lawn stuff," she said.

“The devil that's a twenty mile drive,” said Mr. Bell. The phone in the dining room rang - Mrs. Bell got up to answer it.

“That's too far for you isn’t it,” said Peggy. She stroked Mr. Bell's hand, as if it was a cat’s head - he made a noise and yanked away from her.

“Angela says to call her,” said Mrs. Bell when she returned.

Mr. Bell squinted

"What a pretty day," said Peggy. She shot a look at Reverend Evans.

"Beautiful day," said Mr. Bell.

"I applied for a job at Apex Gardens," said Peggy. “They need weekend help. I hope they call me."

"You better get a job, somewhere," said Mr. Bell. Peggy rented her own place at the top of the Bell's road. She borrowed from Marie regularly to pay her rent. 

"Oh I will," said Peggy. She picked up the fountain brochure and looked at it carefully.

"You better get you some money," said Mr. Bell. He and Marie were into their forties, before they had Peggy. They never knew what to do with her.

She glanced at Reverend Evans again. He pretended not to notice.

As Reverend Evans' ministry career was unfolding, at the second church he was ever assigned to, he spent the Building Fund, with no construction to show for it afterwards. In a panic he started a fire in the annex, in the minister’s study – it was just to get rid of a hard drive and some check stubs - but he used too much gasoline, and he burned the whole building. He was in jail two years because of that. Then he transitioned to farm work.

Mr. Bell bit a biscuit. He ate some beef stew. "This is good Marie," he announced.

A truck drove into the back yard. Its motor shut off. Heavy footsteps thumped the back porch, and the screen door rattled. “Unhook the latch,” said a vibrant slurred voice.

“Hey there,” Mr. Bell said loudly - his sister Angela was on the porch. 

Marie Bell poker-faced gathered her plate and silverware and moved to the counter alongside the stove.

“Hang on Angela,” yelled Mr. Bell. He motioned for Peggy to unhook the door, but Mrs. Bell was already doing it. In that moment Peggy and Reverend Evans looked at each other directly.

Mr. Bell's sister Angela stood in the doorframe “What are y’all doing,” she said. She ran the words together.

She was a heavy-set, good-looking woman, with lots of makeup on her face - her features were battered from years of heavy drinking - she wore a flowery cotton housedress over painter’s overalls and work shoes. She stepped in the room and swayed.

“Sit down Angela,” said Mr. Bell. He gestured at Marie Bell’s empty seat.

“He got my fountain,” said Mrs. Bell.

“Uh-huh,” said Angela.

“Fact of the business…” said Mr. Bell.

"Reverend Evans drove you I guess," said Angela. She smirked at Peggy, and raised her eyebrows, which were black with liner.

“What,” said Peggy right back at her.

The month previously, around dawn one morning, Angela was hunting rabbits on the river below the Bell's homeplace. She saw a woman leave an old tenant house in a clump of pine trees where Reverend Evans lived, rent-free. The woman walked away uphill - she was pretty sure it was Peggy.

"Angela I heard about your nickname in high school," said Peggy. "Somebody told me but I can't remember." She reached with her foot under the table and pushed into Reverend Evans’ leg.

"Watch your mouth," said Angela.

“Gunsmoke!" said Peggy. "Because you always loved to...”

"Lots of gals today hunt deer, and rabbits, and wild pigs," said Mr. Bell diplomatically. "It ain't unusual. Now - on blowing up John LaPointe's car, with dynamite – well, if he treated Angela like he should have, about the way he carried her to the..."

"Reckon what they called you in high school, slut,” Angela asked Peggy.

"Watch your language," said Marie. She was leaning on the kitchen counter.

"Marie, you watch your..." said Angela.

“I need your advice, Angela,” lied Mr. Bell loudly, by way of changing the subject. His mouth was full of beef stew. “Beavers have dammed up my creek on the riverbottom again, and…”

“What about beavers, Owen,” said Angela. She grabbed for the glossy fountain brochure - Marie took it and set it on the table.

"After Truman’s back from Clearwater, he can dig the whole creek out," said Mr. Bell. Angela's husband Truman owned a backhoe on tracks and a six-ton dump truck.

“Beavers'll rebuild the following day,” said Angela. "You know that.”

“Hm,” said Mr. Bell. He did know that.

“Instead of paying some fool to dig with machinery, or by hand, either one,” she paused coolly and stared at Reverend Evans, “what you need, is dynamite. And you got it too."

Mr. Bell did have dynamite, from his surveying years. A box with a dozen sticks and half sticks.

"Half a stick the first time," said Angela. "When they come back, use a quarter stick. Discourage the bastards.”

“Hey,” said Marie Bell. She thumped Angela on the shoulder.

“Sorry,” said Angela. She made a face.

“There ain’t a good place to set dynamite really,” said Mr. Bell, who liked loud noises as well as the next person. “It’s all limbs and mud. The force'll go straight in the air.”

“Use post-hole diggers. Put a big old fieldrock on top of the hole,” said Angela.

“Mmm,” said Mr. Bell.

“They’ll learn that powder smell and keep away,” said Angela.

"You love explosives Gunsmoke," said Peggy. "You should discuss that with a counselor." 

"Whore," said Angela. "Streetwalker."

“Go home Angela before I knock you down,” said Marie. 

Angela stood - the body smell of somebody drinking was in the room. She nodded warily towards Marie, and ignoring everyone else she left the kitchen.

From the porch she turned and pressed her face to the screen door. "Another thing Marie, I brought you some oranges. Truman’s back from Clearwater already.”

"Since when?" demanded Mr. Bell. He liked oranges.

Angela pressed harder to the screen, to make eye contact with Reverend Evans. “Reverend you drove Owen I guess, to get Marie's fountain,” she said thickly.

“Angela knows everything,” said Peggy. “She has a crystal ball.” Peggy picked up the fountain brochure and pretended to look at it. She had slipped off her shoe, and she was kneading Reverend Evans' thigh with the ball of her foot.

“I know some things,” said Angela. Her nose was against the screen.

“Not how to act,” said Peggy absent-mindedly. She was rubbing Reverend Evans.

"Eat shit, you little..." said Angela.

“Is the sun - on them oranges Angela?” said Mr. Bell.

Reverend Evans dug his spoon in his beef stew and stirred it once or twice.

“Come look,” said Angela. “Got you half a bushel. Good ’uns.”

“We don’t need that many,” said Marie almost kindly.

“He got you that many,” said Angela indignantly. Marie swung open the screen door - Angela stepped out of her way.

“Hold on,” trumpeted Mr. Bell. He slurped a spoonful of beef stew and rose and made his way across the kitchen.

As he exited the back door, he thought he saw Peggy shove back her chair and slip under the table, towards Reverend Evans. Could that be possible? Why did she do it?

He realized he'd noticed monkey business before, between Peggy and Reverend Evans. While they were supposed to be eating. If she was under the table, and he stayed in his chair, what did that add up to?

He grasped the banister at his back steps and descended to the yard. He chastised himself for being suspicious, and put Peggy and Reverend Evans out of his mind. His wife and Angela were looking at the oranges. 

A big hickory-nut tree by the shed in the back yard broke up the sunlight, even on bright days. His father set that tree out as a pecan tree when Mr. Bell was a small child. But the pecan graft on the hardy hickory rootstock failed - his father was disappointed when that happened. The tree grew anyway and made good shade.

Angela sorted through a large sack of oranges to find an extra nice one. She handed it to Mrs. Bell.

In his own presence Mr. Bell was thinking, these past few weeks, his daughter and Reverend Evans hardly spoke to each other. That was peculiar. They acted… a certain way. He thought he could figure out what was happening in the kitchen, if he put his mind to it. He considered himself a knowledgeable person.

He’d carried on plenty of times, and he wasn’t no angel, he was the first to admit it. But monkey business, under his own kitchen table… where he heard the news… on the radio each morning…   "You can look at these oranges, and know they taste good, without me explaining," Angela was saying to Marie Bell.

"I do see that," said Marie. She was peeling her orange. 

Mr. Bell faced facts. There was a name for what was going on, in the kitchen. He'd heard it, and he knew it: a below job.

In ’seventy two, he had a below job himself, from a whore at a motel in downtown Atlanta. He was surveying down there for several months. John LaPointe’s brother Lonnie paid, for a birthday present that year.

Lonnie talked like it was some big thing, he mumbled to himself irritably.

"What Owen," said Angela.

"Thank Truman for the oranges," said Mr. Bell.

He never liked Atlanta anyway. That gal liked to suck the sap out of me, he recalled. He could barely walk afterwards. He was weak down there for several days.

"Marie dinner's getting cold," he grumbled. He wasn't going back in the kitchen by himself. Angela got in her truck.

"In the morning we'll look at the beaver dam," Mr. Bell told her.

He turned and climbed the porch steps, into deep twilight, and through the kitchen screen door - Marie was behind him - he made noise on the porch before he opened the screen door.

He spotted Reverend Evans, at the kitchen table – Peggy was slipping in her chair and smoothing herself down.

“I dropped my keys and kicked them under the table,” she declared. “I had to crawl under there like a kid and pick them right up. Can you believe that?”

No, Mr. Bell told himself. He sat down.

"Where's my stew," he said. He picked up his napkin to wipe off his mouth. The napkin was slick and hard and it smeared his face shockingly.

"You got the instructions, for the yard fountain," muttered Reverend Evans.

"CHRIST," said Mr. Bell.

“Owen,” said Marie quietly. She took the brochure. She slid his stew bowl to his open fingers.    


Harvey Sutlive lives outside Athens, GA. "The Below Job" is part of a chapter of a novel in progress. Sutlive's stories of Marais have appeared frequently in Offcourse.

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