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The difficulty of dealing with a dent

Took the proud, shiny new Sunmobile to the dealer for the six-month checkup. That's where they change the oil, give the fan belt a tug and hand you a bill for $103.86. Still, we love our Sunmobile, so proud and shiny with its swell sunroof which slides open so you can get a tan on your skull if you're bald and the tops of your ears even if you aren't. At first my wife didn't want a sunroof.

"You know they can't make that sunroof watertight," she said. "If there were truth in advertising, they'd call it a rainroof."

"Ah, you women!" I chortled, lapsing into my old-fashioned sexist mode, which calls for chortling whenever women talk about automobiles. "Don't you know Japanese competition has stopped car makers from turning out junky stuff like leaky sunroofs?"

About this I was right, as I am about so many other things, because the sunroof let in nothing but sun, and I was shiny and proud when I took the Sunmobile in for its six-month checkup. That afternoon I paid the $103.86, drove the car home, got out and walked around to admire it.

What was this? A dent? A dent in the back of our Sunmobile? A dent where there had never been a dent before?

Darkening with fury, I immediately drove back to the dealer and stood glaring at the woman who had taken my check for $103.86 only moments earlier. The service manager, obviously wondering why Darth Vader had suddenly appeared on the premises, asked could he be helpful.

"My car! It's dented! So proud and shiny when I left it here this morning! Now - dented!"

Outside he looked at the car. "It's dented all right," he said.

"What are you going to do about it?"

Well, how could he know I wasn't armed? Everybody else is these days. His gunshy mumbling about "the body shop" sounded like a guilty plea, and I stalked homeward to await satisfaction.

Days passed with no news from the body shop, which wasn't alarming, if you know body shops. When you're finally sore enough to phone a body shop, they've always just finished your car and are "buffing it" as you speak.

As this time passed, however, my dent fury abated. My tender nature - the real Casper Milquetoast me - took over. "You were pretty hard on that service manager," it said. "Are you really sure the dent wasn't there when you took it to the shop?"

Well, pretty sure, but not really 100 percent sure. I'd stood behind it at Jock's U-Pump-It Gas Emporium the night before and hadn't seen any dent.

"You couldn't swear in court there was no dent before you took it to the shop, could you?"

Milquetoast had me there.

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt. I had to admit I'd acted rudely to the service manager. He probably thought I was a cheap chiseling lout. It was painful thinking I had lost that good man's esteem.

So when I finally went back to get the car, I was hoping he would give me a big bill for the work, so I could pay it without complaining and win back his respect.

He didn't, though. Just looked at me with that expression good people give human rats, and said, "Does it look all right?"

"Like new," I said, and it did look all shiny and proud, which made me feel so ashamed that I felt an impulse to say, "Let me write you a check for $103.86," but he strode away before I could speak.

It rained that night. Next morning there was a puddle on the front seat. The sunroof had leaked. I'm ashamed to go back to the shop and complain. Anyhow, I probably deserve it.

New York Times News Service