Common Courtesy by Steve Gergley

Friday, January 11, 2019
Wilson Clarke believes in common courtesy and respect for his fellow citizens, and he goes to great lengths to get it; by Steve Gergley.

Wilson Clark's shift had ended over an hour ago, but by 9:15 he was still stuck at the store doing cycle counts. He kneeled on the cold tile by the bargain laptops and counted the boxes stored in locked cubbies under the display shelf. The air was stale and dusty down here and a needling itch danced in his nose each time he took a breath, but the sales floor was quiet so he was able to move fast.

Soon Wilson came to the last section of his count and started walking to the video game aisles to finish up. For years this area had been his favorite part of the store. Before becoming department manager, he had often spent his lunch breaks down here, browsing the new titles with a sweating bottle of Yoo-hoo and a half-chomped Milky Way in hand; but after nine years of serving the angry customers of this store, all the thrill of conflict had been squeezed from his brain like soapy water from a sponge. These days, just the thought of playing a video game made his mouth go dry with anxiety. Now he spent his free time listening to film soundtracks and reading his old history textbooks from college.

Just before starting his count, Wilson saw a middle-aged woman tottering toward him with an iPhone case clutched in her hand. She wore a sour expression and her mouth was pinched and tight and deep vertical wrinkles fanned out across her upper lip like tire-ruts in soft dirt. Wilson swiveled his head left and right and looked around for Missy and Amanda, but they were not behind their registers or facing their aisles or anywhere else in sight, so he circled behind the service counter and pushed aside the "Next Register Please" sign and waved the woman in.

"I appreciate it," the woman said. She heaved her giant pocketbook onto the counter with a thud; the "Next Register Please" sign wobbled from the tremor of this impact and smacked against the counter with a sharp crack. The woman handed Wilson the iPhone case.

"It's my pleasure," he said, with a warm smile.

"I thought I was going to have to go all the way up front and stand on those ridiculous lines for another hour," the woman said. Wilson scanned the case and slipped it into a bag. "Those lines are the most ridiculous things in the world. It's like Chinese water torture for the modern world. So thank you for humoring an old lady."

Wilson chuckled and flashed another quick slice of a smile. A sparkling glitter drew his gaze to the woman's mouth and there he saw a tiny, diamond-tipped stud pierced through her creased upper lip.

"Well, I always say that a little common courtesy goes a long way," he said. From his reading - just last night he had finished the Battle of the Monongahela in the French and Indian War - he had recently come to the conclusion that nearly all human conflict could be traced down to a fundamental disrespect one person had for another. And to this poisonous disrespect, Wilson believed, common courtesy was the antidote.

The woman scoffed.

"Not in this country it doesn't."

Wilson didn't know what to say to this, so he said nothing. From here the woman paid and Wilson handed her the change, a dime; but when he dropped the dime into her cupped palm, it rolled off a ridge of her bunched skin and clattered to the counter. Wilson didn't want to risk the coin rolling away a second time, so he pressed the pad of his finger to the cool disk and slid it over to her. When he lifted his finger, the woman slapped her hand against the counter and dragged the dime to the edge with a grinding scrape.

"It's not funny! You're supposed to hand the change to the customer."

Wilson looked up and shook his head in confusion. He didn't remember laughing.

"I'm sorry, I didn't want it to roll off again, so I -" Wilson started to say, but the woman cut him off.

"It's very disrespectful," she said. She glared at him with an angry scowl and made a show of shoving the dime into her pocketbook with a forceful thrust of her arm. Then she shook her head in disgust and started trudging away, up to the front of the store, but apparently she could not let go of the issue so easily, so she turned around and bellowed again.

"It's not funny! It's very disrespectful!"

Wilson clocked out twenty minutes later and walked to the front of the store. Here he found Missy and Amanda huddled in the vestibule. They were whispering to each other and staring out at something in the parking lot. Wilson thought they might be worried about crossing the lot by themselves so late at night, so he offered to walk them to their cars to make sure they would get home safe and in one piece. But the moment he said this, both girls looked at him from the sides of their eyes and cackled in his face as if his offer was ridiculous. Then they dashed out to their warming cars that had been parked illegally in handicapped spots and they peeled out with tires screeching on the cold pavement and what was left behind once they were gone was nothing more than a few curving elbows of thick white smoke. From here Wilson shivered in the chilly vestibule and tried to think of something he could say to them about this behavior, some managerial lesson he could impart to them about the importance of common courtesy and the difficult challenges handicapped people face every day of their lives, but he knew such a talk would be a pointless waste of time, so he let it go and walked out the door.

Wilson started the drive home and took the back roads to dodge the holiday traffic. Muck-sprinkled ridges of elderly snow sawed past as he sliced down Arcadia, weaved onto Walnut, and curved up Hudson. The white glow of his headlights flashed off the salt-spotted bodies of garbage cans, the rounded heads of mailboxes. Gnarled arms of naked elms curled into upside-down parabolas and rested on sagging power lines.

Soon he took the right onto Smoke and knifed off into the red-baked black of a dark forest. As if on instinct, Wilson's tired eyes began flicking from one side of the road to the other, scanning for deer.

Minutes later, a pair of white-yellow suns slid into Wilson's mirrors and burned his eyes with a liquid-metal scream of blinding light. He squinted his watering eyes and leaned his head to the right to escape the painful glare, but then his car began to list dangerously toward the side of the road, so he straightened back up and drove on normally. From here he tried to ignore the tailgater and continue home as if there was no one behind him, but this became impossible when the headlights suddenly ballooned in his mirrors and filled his backseat with a standing haze of whitish light.

Wilson had no more patience for games today, so he drew in a slow, calm breath, and looked for a spot to pull off onto the shoulder. If this maniac wanted to blast ahead at five hundred miles per hour and fly into a tree or get arrested for speeding, that was his business. Wilson wasn't going to stop him. After all, a man can only do so much when dealing with such wild emotions. Sometimes, the best thing to do is just get out of the way and watch your toes.

But as he drove on, Wilson realized this particular stretch of Smoke Road didn't have a shoulder, and wouldn't for another few miles. And with steep, winding driveways climbing up into the thick forest lining both sides of the road, the only things to pull off into were snow-choked runoff channels two and three feet deep. So Wilson eased his foot against the brake and listened to the breathy exhale of pad kissing rotor. The moment he did this, a car horn blared from behind and jolted him to a quivering shudder. Now the headlights flashed harshly in his mirrors as the maniac swerved across the double yellow lines and tried to pass; but this unexpected cacophony of noise and light caused Wilson to mash his foot on the gas in a panic, sending his Civic into an acceleration so forceful it pinned his body against the seat. The maniac blared his horn a second time and tried to match Wilson's pace, but his engine screamed with a booming whirr and he weaved dangerously in his lane before losing speed and swerving back in behind Wilson's Civic.

Wilson's heart pumped jets of frost as the road bent into a blind curve and snaked deeper into the forest. He took the curve going fifty-five and soon his car began to wobble and seemed about to come loose from the road, so he stamped on the brake and slowed to forty; but this caution just seemed to further anger the maniac, and in response he twice flashed his headlights and cut another deafening blast of his horn.

They exited the curve. Again Wilson surged his Civic into a frantic acceleration to escape the maniac behind, but just as his right foot pressed on the gas, his gaze snapped onto the shimmering green glow of a pair of eyes hovering in the black up ahead. Seeing this, Wilson clenched his arms and wrenched the wheel to the right. The tires screamed on the pavement and the steering wheel shuddered in his hands and the wall of trees flew up to meet him. An instant later, he cut the wheel back to the left and jammed on the brake and swerved into a private driveway. He sat in this narrow drive for no more than a second before the maniac zoomed past, leaning on his horn the whole way.

For some reason Wilson could not tear his eyes from the maniac's taillights sliding off into the night; so he turned his head to the left and followed the red glow flickering through the trees. And then before he understood what was happening, he suddenly shifted into reverse, swung out of the driveway, and roared off in pursuit of the reckless maniac who had nearly got him killed.

Leafless trees scissored past as Wilson streaked down Smoke doing sixty. He took the turns hard and braked only when he had to. At the mouth of each straightaway, he stomped on the gas and sent his engine howling. Three times his tires spun on slick pavement and three times he smelled sizzled rubber on the hissing air of the heater.

A minute's worth of this driving led Wilson back to the maniac. As he watched the taillights gliding down the road, shining like sucked candies, he suddenly felt waterlogged and heavy with anger. Never before had he been so thoroughly disrespected. Soon he found himself squeezing the steering wheel until his hands ached and his wrists trembled and the world swam before him. Once he was close enough to squeegee the maniac's back windshield, he clicked on his brights and announced his identity. The light splashed off the maniac's bumper and illuminated a gray stubble of salt stains clinging to the black body of the car. Seeing the lights, the maniac accelerated and briefly expanded the distance between them, but Wilson matched his speed and didn't let him get away.

From here Wilson followed at a distance of less than ten feet and waited for his chance to teach this maniac a lesson in common courtesy. The wait seemed to stretch on forever, but once his chance finally arrived, it was glorious. And so the instant the maniac tapped his foot on the brake and sent his taillights glowing red, Wilson slammed the heel of his hand into the steering wheel and listened to the beautiful music of his horn droning away at the full, jarring volume of its voice. Now each time the maniac performed even the slightest action - dodging a pothole, slowing to take a sharp curve - Wilson flickered his brights and administered another deafening lesson in common courtesy.

Minutes later Wilson watched the turnoff for his house sweep past, but still he drove on. He didn't care anymore about the gas he was wasting or the sleep he was losing or his seven to four shift at the store that was starting in nine hours. No, none of that mattered right now, because he had finally found a way to teach these people about the importance of common courtesy. And he can't stop now. There is so much more work to do. They have so many more lessons to learn.


  1. Good to see a genuinely likable protagonist in fiction.

  2. I think we've all had these type of moments. Glad Wilson got some satisfaction without going overboard.

  3. Hilarious! Wilson reminds me of Rick Ducommun in The Burbs. 'We're just not going to take it any more.' Nicely structured and paced.

  4. Elaine Heimers-CookJune 20, 2022 at 2:37 PM

    What a vigilante! Great descriptive piece, connects to that feeling of being walked all nice to read your writing