53 • Tow Guys
As he started around the curve, a sweaty, yeast-like smell confronted him like he’d just walked into a frat house on a Friday night.
“Oh, no.” Ahead, he saw the semi trailer on its side, rear gate open and several silver kegs rolled out, along with dozens of cases of beer strewn across the roadway, rivulets of malt liquor running down the asphalt and pooling at his feet.
“’Bout time you got out here, Phillips.”
A bearded man six inches and 100 pounds Will’s senior emerged from the ditch alongside the overturned trailer, thinning silver hair hanging limp down to his shoulders from under a greasy blue cap with a bright yellow TOW GUY logo emblazoned on the front.
Karl Wainwright’s Tow Guy operation was not the only tow company in Dennison. In fact, he didn’t even have a shop in Dennison but had his base 30 miles away at the junction of two interstate highways where he had ready access to six different towns, each with their own tow guys, all run by locally born and raised moms and pops. He also wasn’t the cheapest and he surely wasn’t the best at what he did. But somehow, every trucking fleet manager in the region seemed to be enamored of him, and they had his number in their speed dial, calling him first, and their insurance companies second, when one of their rigs went down.
“Happy to see I’m not going to be asking you to scrape chicken parts off the road this time, Karl, ” Will said, remembering another of his more distasteful misadventures with Karl and his Tow Guys. “Your boys should enjoy this one a lot more.”
“You saying something about one of my boys, Phillips? Like they might be more fond of beer than of chicken?”
“Nah, I’d never say such a thing like that about any of your boys. I’ve seen them at Wings Night at Baby Backs BBQ and it’s really a toss up which they like more.” Will pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and propped his clipboard against his belly, writing in the margins as though there were something important he needed to take down. “I was actually just saying that you still don’t have a sense of humor.”
Wainwright took off his cap and rubbed the top of his bald head. Will stifled a laugh.
“What the hell is wrong with you now?” The mechanic put his cap back on and slid it back on his head.
“Nothing wrong at all. Just had never noticed how much of that Founding Fathers thing you have going on.” He gestured in a half circle around his head. “You know. The Ben Franklin hair and all.”
Wainwright’s nostrils flared. “Ain’t nothing wrong with my humor, Phillips. Or my hair. You just be sure to let me know ahead of time if you’re fixin’ to say something funny so I know when I should laugh.”
“Easy, Karl.” Will folded the paper over the top of the clipboard and started sketching a diagram of the roadway and truck. “I’ll buy you a beer when we’re done.”
“Har har. They teach you these jokes in your fancy adjuster school?”
Will motioned toward the trailer. “You move anything yet?”
“Nah, they just got the driver out a couple of minutes ago.”
“How is he?”
“He was conscious. Jabbering a mile a minute. Looked like a few cuts on his face but otherwise he seemed fine to me.”
“And the other guy?”
“Other guy’s fine. Not a scratch.”
“What about his car?”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about, dumbass.” Wainwright shook his head. “Not a scratch on the car. He didn’t hit nothing.”
“There was no collision?”
“Nope. Guy in the Mitsubishi veered into the beer truck’s lane going around the curve. Trucker swerved to avoid him.” Wainwright twirled the toothpick in the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Over-corrected and turned himself over like a pretty girl in the back of your pickup.”
“Do you charge extra for being disgusting?”
“Nope. All part of my basic service package.”
Will put his pen back in his pocket and walked toward the crash, stepping between beer cases and broken glass. “I need your guys to clean this up, ” he called over his shoulder.
“Way ahead of you, as usual. I have a couple of skid steers coming in and we’ll just shove it all into a dumpster container to get it out of here.”
Will turned back. “You can’t just chuck it all, Karl. I need you to preserve the unbroken bottles.”
“The hell we will. That’s way too much work. Easier to cut your losses and just destroy it all.”
Karl Wainwright was still standing in the middle of the highway, arms folded over his chest. Will walked back, broken glass crunching under his boots. He winced and kept walking.
“Did you go to a fancy adjuster school, Karl?”
“I went to the School of Hard Knocks. We didn’t need no pencil-pushing classes for namby pambies.”
“Congratulations on your achievement.” Will pointed to the disaster on the roadway. “That is the insurance company’s cargo.” He pointed to his own chest. “That makes this my crash scene. And that means, even though you forget it every damn time, you work for me today.”
Wainwright closed his mouth around the toothpick and clenched his jaw, jamming his hands in his pockets.
“Your guys are going to sort the cargo. You’ve got three guys plus yourself. I don’t care how long it takes you, but I’ll only accept a bill for an hour each to pull and load the unbroken bottles and cases and another man hour plus equipment to clear the road and haul out the rest. If you can’t do it, then take your guys back to your castle on the hill and I’ll call Tibbets Wrecking. They’d love to finally get a job away from you. It would be good for Global Alliance to see that there are folks that will work faster, better and for less money than the Tow Guy they’ve got such a crush on.”
Wainwright’s lip curled almost imperceptibly, but not enough that Will didn’t see it. “You done?”
“Maybe. Are you? Or are you going to get to work?”
The Tow Guy kicked a loose pebble. “Just as soon tell you to go pound sand. But I suppose we’ll make it worth our while since we’re already here.” He pulled his cap down. “But I’m taking a case home with me.”
“And I’m citing you the appropriate insurance code.” Will took his pen out of his pocket and wrote the time on his claim log. “Get to work or get out of my crash scene, Karl.”
Will walked away. Wainwright stood watching him. About a hundred yards out, he shouted, “Get a safety vest on or get off the highway.”
Without turning around, Will raised his right hand up to his shoulder and extended his middle finger.
He completed a walk around the overturned tractor trailer, taking photos from all the corners. He slipped a gauge from his jeans pocket and checked the tread depth on the tires, making notes on his clipboard as he went along. In the background, Karl Wainwright screamed orders at his crew, telling them they could work all night but he was only paying them for an hour because goddamned insurance company penny pinchers wouldn’t pay a guy for an honest day’s work.
“It’s just that they see so few of those honest days, Karl, ” he muttered under his breath as he crouched down to examine the identification plates on the red Kenworth cab. He often marveled at the way a relationship that was supposed to be predicated on trust between the parties—the insurance company and a policyholder and all the many vendors who might be involved—was so perennially marked by disdain and mistrust from the outset.
Will wanted to believe them. He really did. But he also knew that even the best of them, even the sweet silver haired lady who offered him tea and invited him to watch The Price is Right with her after he got off her roof—even she was convinced the company was determined to cheat her in some way. This certain skepticism would, in the average policyholder’s mind, permit them to think of a way to cheat back. A little padding in the estimate, adding in a little damage from a totally unrelated incident, an extra item or two in the inventory that they never actually owned but sure would be nice to have. Insurance companies have so much money, they tell themselves, most of it swindled from hard working folks. What’s a little extra on one little claim? Will was certain that when his appointed time came, the coroner would stamp “Nickeled and Dimed” as the official cause of death on his certificate.
By the time the Tow Guys had the unit hooked up on the wrecker, Will had what he needed from the scene. He leaned on the hood of Deputy Roundleg’s black Durango and discussed the investigation while overseeing the crew picking through broken beer cases.
“You know you’ll be lucky to salvage less than half a dozen cases, right?”
Will tipped his hat back. “Yep.”
Roundleg chuckled. “Then why?”
“Because Karl Wainwright owes me a few. Last time I was on a scene with him was a grain truck overturn. Ditch was full of corn. I told him to pick up the clean corn with the grain vac and so they could haul it in to the elevator and to scrape the ditch with his skid steer to clean up the rest.”
“Was that the wreck on old 57 last month?”
“That’s the one, ” Will said. “Wainwright made a lot of noise about how long that would take but finally said he’d take care of it. I figured it wasn’t that complicated and went home. They sucked up the clean corn and swept off the roadway into the ditch and threw a little dirt on it. Billed me for 12 manhours and equipment, telling me he had 6 guys there for 2 hours just cleaning up corn.” He shook his head. “You know what happened.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I told him you have to clean the ditch of the deer come to feed. It’s just too close to the road.”
“For what it’s worth, Mrs. Wiggins had a .09 blood alcohol, Will. She shouldn’t have been on the road.”
“Maybe so. But if Karl Wainwright would have cleaned up the ditch like he was told and paid to do, those three deer wouldn’t have popped up out of the ditch and Francie Wiggins wouldn’t have banged up her new Buick Lucerne on the American Family Insurance billboard, either.”
“A little irony, eh?”
“A lot. Especially since she’s with Allstate.”
“She came out of it okay.”
“She did. Lucky. For all of us. I’d be looking at a helluva lawsuit.” Will cracked his knuckles. “Anyway, I don’t leave Karl Wainwright alone at a scene anymore. That’s for sure.”
“Speaking of, you figure they’ll be done soon? My shift’s almost up.”
Will stood and called out, “Getting close, Karl?”
“Just fifteen minutes more, Mister Boss Man Sir.” Karl made a mock pleading gesture with his hands folded in front of his chest.
“Scumbag, ” the deputy mumbled.
“Yeah.” Will looked back toward his truck, suddenly remembering Joe. “Hey, keep an eye on our scumbag for a minute? I need to go check on something.”
He made his way back down the highway thinking it would have been better to have let the Tow Guys clean the debris the easy way. Karl’s crew clearly had more than 15 minutes left. They hadn’t yet collected the errant kegs nor sprayed off the pavement. “No, ” he decided. “It’s the principal of the thing.”
As he rounded the curve, he saw his cab was empty. “Dammit, Joe. Why can’t you ever stay put? He looked across the ditch and the adjacent field, frantically scanning for his friend, hoping he hadn’t wandered far.
“Will!” Joe shouted from the shoulder across the highway. “Over here!”
There sat Joe on a stool he’d fashioned from a keg turned upright, an open bottle of beer in his hand.
“I can see why you love this job so much.”
(to be continued)