It Could Have Been Worse

(Monte Dutton sketch)
(Monte Dutton sketch)


I’ve been writing about a bad guy named Glen Trimmel in what will be my fifth novel, so I guess I was in the mood to write this short story.


Johnny Wangerin began the day by giving his nephew a ride to work. Then he stopped by the pharmacy, where his call-in prescriptions weren’t ready.

“This is the fourth time we’ve called the doctor,” Mr. Gower said. “We’ve been having trouble with the call-in prescriptions lately.”

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

Johnny shared his own frustrations with the doctor’s office, which had gone all automated on him. He told Mr. Gower he reckoned they’d switched over to some centralized means of communication implemented by the hospital system that had bought up the practice by promising to keep making the doctors rich one way and buying them the other.

“Believe it or not,” Mr. Gower said. “Your doctor’s office is far from the worst.”

It was raining hard when Johnny walked outside. He wished he could lift the hood on his sweatshirt over his graying hair, but his hands were full with a bottle of zinc tablets, and some saw palmetto, but not the medicine. Oh, well. He still had a few days’ supply.

He started the truck, looked in the mirror, backed up so that he could clear the Buick parked in front of him, and felt a bump. He got out. Some kid had parked a bicycle right behind him in the space. In the rain. Why was he out on a bicycle? Was he picking up a prescription for his grandmother? Was it a he? Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any damage. Johnny righted the bicycle, leaned it on its kick stand, and got back in the truck. In his mirror, he saw a girl about fourteen return to the bike and waited for her to ride off. She pulled what looked like a Bic lighter from a small bag and stuffed it in her jacket pocket. Why in hell was she buying a lighter? She couldn’t smoke in the rain.

Johnny stopped at a Shell station to fill up. He got fifteen cents a gallon off by using his Bi-Lo Bonus Card, which made Shell cost roughly the same as the cut-rate fuel at the wanna-sack store. Johnny routinely referred to convenience stores as wanna-sacks because no matter how much a customer bought, the clerk always said, “Hey, you want a sack?”

No. I’ll just take several trips back and forth to my truck.

Johnny stopped by the house, stuffed the zinc tablets (“strengthens the immune system”) and the saw palmetto (“for prostate health”) in his overnight bag, where he already had his daily medication, a change of clothes, and a shaving kit. He didn’t know whether he’d make it back that night or decide to stay over. It depended on how smoothly things went and how tired he’d be when it was over.

Smoky Mountains, I-40. (Monte Dutton photo)
Smoky Mountains, I-40. (Monte Dutton photo)

He hit the road at nine-thirty. Knoxville was about three and a half hours away. He looked forward to it. Driving through the Smokies on I-40 was nice. A little hairy, but nice. Johnny did his thinking on the road, that and his music listening. He liked to match the music with the scenery. Sometimes he’d scan the AM frequencies, looking for some local station playing bluegrass or classic country until it faded into crackling static around the back side of the next mountain. He had some CDs, though, and the precipitation was almost over. A rainbow arched over the Blue Ridge to the north. It was a good day for Del McCoury Band.

Five miles shy of the Tennessee border, he noticed a squad car speeding up, blue lights popping, behind him. He squeezed over between trucks to let the cop pass. The cop didn’t pass. He squeezed his Dodge Charger in between Johnny’s F-150 and an automobile hauler carrying Kias and Hyundais.

Johnny couldn’t believe it. It hadn’t even occurred to him that the trooper was stopping him. He didn’t know how fast he’d been going, but it wasn’t any faster than anyone else. He’d just been vaguely following along at the pace of a candy-apple-red Ford Taurus, the one that looked a little better once they got rid of the oval rear windows. He should’ve known better than following an ugly car.

It wasn’t easy to find a place to pull over in the mountains, but Johnny got the pickup off the road, inches away from a temporary concrete barrier and just out of the truck lane. It didn’t bother Johnny a bit that the cops didn’t let motorists get out of their cars anymore.

Was there a cop in America who didn’t stroll up to the window and ask, “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?”

              I thought that was your job, Officer.

              Don’t get him riled.

“No, sir,” Johnny said. “I’m in no hurry. I may not have been paying the best attention, but I had no idea I was speeding. I was just sort of following along behind that Taurus in front of me.”

“No, sir,” the officer said. “You were catching him pretty fast.”

“Well, look, Officer, I’m not disputing anything. I had no intention of speeding, but I guess I screwed up, and I’m just thankful of any consideration you can give me.”

“License and registration, please, sir.”

Johnny handed them over.

“I’ll be back shortly,” the officer said.

Johnny sat waiting, thinking about how stupid he had been. He hated those days that were one bad break after another. He hadn’t had the cruise control set. Too much speeding up and slowing down in mountain traffic. This was a slight variation on the theme. Once he was unlucky, he became lucky. He hadn’t crumpled the bicycle at the drug store. Johnny often observed that his days were seldom mediocre. Either everything went wrong, or everything went right. This day seemed intent on being bad but not too bad.

The patrolman returned and said he was going to cut him a break and just charge him with going forty-five miles an hour in a sixty zone.

“Mr. Wangerin … is that how you say that?”

“Hard ‘G,'” Johnny said. “Wan-guh-ren, not Wan-juh-ren, but that’s completely okay.”

“Well, sir, you’ll notice that you have a fine of thirty dollars.” He handed him a slip of robin’s egg blue paper.

“That’s reasonable, Officer.”

“Yes, sir, plus there’s a hundred and eighty-eight dollars for court costs, so your total is two hundred and eighteen dollars.”

“Dadgum, Officer, that makes me feel like I need to come up here and go to court,” Johnny said. “I’d hate to see the county miss out on a chance to spend the court costs.”

The trooper ignored the sarcasm.

“You have that right, Mr. Wangerin, or, if you do not intend to contest the charge, you may pay by mail or through the website listed on the ticket.”

Johnny sighed. “Well, thank you, Officer, for doing your job the best you can.”

No telling what's out there. (Monte Dutton photo)
No telling what’s out there. (Monte Dutton photo)

He waited for the trooper to get back in the Charger and then pulled away. The more he thought about it, it wasn’t so bad. Sure, having to shell out more than two hundred dollars was going to cut into Johnny’s profits, but it was his own fault. He hadn’t gotten nailed for speeding in at least five years, maybe ten. He’d talked his way out of a couple tickets, here and there.

It sure could have been worse. He could have been stopped on the way home, and the odds were it would have been the same way, and he’d have given the cop his license and registration, and his record would have been clean, and he’d have gotten the same highway robbery in the form of a ticket.

On the other hand, the cop could have searched the trunk, and one thing might have led to another, and then there would have been a squadron of other cruisers flashing blue lights in the darkness, and Johnny Wangerin would have had to nip that in the bud and get out of there.

It might have meant shooting the cop.

As it was, Johnny was free and clear, and being a little light in the wallet wasn’t much of a hindrance. He could stand it.

Johnny Wangerin – not his real name — would have plenty of cash by the end of the month.

(This graphic was designed by Meredith Pritchard)
(This graphic was designed by Meredith Pritchard)

              I’m pretty fortunate, I guess. In fiction, I sometimes have someone in mind when I write about the good guys. The bad guys are more made up because I don’t know many bad guys.

(Joe Font cover design)
(Joe Font cover design)

              In my first novel, The Audacity of Dope, the bad guys were nefarious government operatives. Buy it here.

(Melanie Ryon cover design)
(Melanie Ryon cover design)

              In The Intangibles, the bad guys were mostly bigots. One was booze- and drug-addled. Another was a jealous administrator.

              In Crazy of Natural Causes, a pretty TV commentator betrays the protagonist, Chance Benford, and there’s also a cocaine-fueled TV evangelist lurking around.

(Jennifer Skutelsky cover design)
(Jennifer Skutelsky cover design)

              Early in 2016, Forgive Us Our Trespasses will be out. In the bad-guy department, there are a crooked politician, a murderous cop, a devious mistress, a major drug dealer, and a sinister pair of teen-aged twins.

              What I’m working on right now is Cowboys Come Home, which is a modern western set at the end of World War II in Texas. Bad guys include a double-crossed assassin, a small-town crook trying to make the big time, and a respectable rich man trying to keep his hands clean.


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