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The Scratch

The man

The man

Big Blue picks up a scratch. Not a big or severe one–trivial really, on the right rear quarter panel. I notice it early in the first week but don’t know where it came from. It could have been there when they gave it to me, the kid running off to find a four-wheel-drive something with a hard top, the lady with the checkout scanner relating how hard times had been, how desperate in 2008. When the kid pulled up in the big blue Escape everybody cheered. Nobody did the walkaround. I drove my first SUV and felt how girls must feel the first time in high heels.

The car is a tank, but a good car. There are no four-wheel-drive levers or switches, no hubs to lock; the manual describes automatic and transparent operation. My experience is wildly outdated. Driving with moderate care can achieve 30 mpg, which surprised me for four-wheel-drive and the size. How appropriate that Big and Little are both blue, the Hawaii one outsized and a little ridiculous.

It really is a slight scratch, breaking the clearcoat but not the paint. It’s just above the wheel well cutting into a little bit of bumper. Foresight failed and I have no picture.

Given all that has happened, I trust that this car return will be like all the others: a disinterested late adolescent walking the line of cars, scanning the barcode, checking the fuel tank, and handing me a receipt. Fate decrees this is the only time the car is subject to a walkaround. The guy really looks, bending over. I realize he may be impressing a supervisor as he draws in breath and reaches out to it. Another guy walks over and they both examine it, running their hands over it as if it were a wound.

Interrogation is brief but has a surprised intensity. Did I know about this? How did it happen? Where was the car parked? What hotel? You weren’t at a hotel? It’s a conversation I don’t want to have but know can’t be avoided, and wish it didn’t feel like being grilled in middle school after being late for dinner.

An incident report is written, which is a quarter-sheet carbonless form. He writes: Customer rented home in Hilo. Car parked at house in Hilo. Wasn’t aware of the damage. Retail pass. side fender scrape. The back of the form thoughtfully includes toll-free numbers for major credit cards and insurance companies and suggests calling as soon as possible.

A muffled anger settles as I gather my things and the guys move on to other cars. They have been friendly and I have nothing to complain about other than my luck running out. The credit card will protect me, I repeat against the sinking feeling and the buzzing static. You used the credit card. Saying so feels safe but ultimately unsatisfying.

The next car, rented only for a single day to give myself a private ride back to Hilo, is up the street. Searing, syrupy afternoon sun beats down as I walk to it, pausing under a tree to look the paper over. No time like the present to call and start the wheels of salvation turning, and I call the MasterCard number. It is action to take. A nice lady answers and will take my information, but the life office is open Monday, and I can call then if I like. I decide it’s too hot and loud to tolerate her confirmation of everything I read to her. I will call Monday.

While standing in the shade, I realize my car at home doesn’t have collision or comprehensive, just liability. I realize I depend solely on the promise of a credit card benefit I casually trusted but know nothing about. I am some guy with his stuff in duffelbags on an airport sidewalk, on the outside of a chain link fence. There is no one around to be concerned.

Budget hands over an Escort without much interest. I suggest if they have anything that has to go over to Hilo anyway I’m happy to take that, but the guy looks down at typing. Do you want the damage waiver? Just twelve dollars and if anything happens you walk away.

I give him the credit card. That’s okay, I say. I’m trusting this.

Now, weeks later, mail has arrived. The letter is of the most general sort and assumes I won’t be paying anything and have no interest in the proceedings. Email us your claims information, forward these copies. It’s easy enough. I enjoy using a friend’s copier, satisfied like I remember years ago, filling out and mailing in rebate forms for oil filters and cassette tapes.

Saturday the MasterCard statement posted–the last piece of paper needed. Somehow less than a page of charges runs up to $2700. I circle the one for the car, fold it up, put it in the envelope, and wonder if it’s too heavy for a stamp. I waste a couple days with it sitting in the passenger seat thinking I’ll weigh it at a post office, but this morning put it in the big black mailbox and put the red flag up.

Mail in mailboxes isn’t what it was. As a kid I sent off lawnmowing money to Navy Federal Credit Union in Merrifield, Virginia, exposed film to some lab that put envelopes in the Sunday newspaper. It always felt good to lick the stamps and send the mail out, but it took until middle school to put together that the mail I held would go to these far places and someone else would hold these very things.

Now, in the present moment, that sense of physical completion shines back from the white paper in the black mailbox. This is my offering to an antique bureaucratic machine, the kind lampooned by Monty Python and Douglas Adams, a system supplanted by the furious speed and unwavering attention of machines. My papers will no doubt be scanned, the signatures digitized, but now they are paper, real things I touched and sent on.

It is a little thing to mark the mail, but it comforts me to know little trips are being taken all the time.

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