I rushed into the car rental place, bringing the heat outside into the air-conditioned room. “I need to keep my rental car for another week,” I explained to the man behind the counter.

“Ah, Allison,” the man said walking towards the customer service desk. I was a little startled. I didn’t realize Gary (the tag on his shirt said his name was Gary) knew my name.

Of course, I had been in several times the previous week. My old beat up Subaru was on its last legs and was in the shop. For the last several years I had been commuting to graduate school in Chicago. My car and I were both weary of the eight-hour round-trip. I was now finishing the last few weeks of my summer fieldwork assignment in Chicago and was desperate for transportation. I had come in the first time the previous week asking for a good rate on a rental car. My budget didn’t allow much room for the unexpected and it certainly didn’t allow for extensive rentals of expensive cars.  I came in needing a cheap car for a few days. Simple enough.

But then the mechanics working on my Subaru reported they were having problems and it was going to take more time and cost more money…so I went back to the rental car place a second time to see if I could keep the car longer. And to negotiate the cost below their normal rate, somehow trying to make it fit within my precariously unbalanced budget. Now the mechanics were saying my Subaru still wasn’t done and probably wouldn’t be done until next week. So I was back again. Good grief. Gary didn’t seem particularly happy to see me.

“I need to keep my rental car for another week,” I said again. “But I don’t need it the whole week. How about I keep it on your lot and only actually rent it from midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday and from midnight Wednesday to midnight Thursday?”

I figured that way I could get to Chicago on Tuesday and Thursday as needed without having to pay for a full week’s rental. I had no idea who was going to give me a ride to and from the rental car place at midnight or how I’d get around the rest of the week; I was just trying to focus on one thing at a time. Like expensive rental cars, planning and prevention were luxuries I could not afford. The demands for my time, attention and money kept hitting faster than my limited resources could keep up. The best I could do was triage and try to tend to whatever problem was screaming the loudest at any given moment.

“If you still need the car, why don’t you just keep it for the week?” Gary sounded slightly annoyed. I probably would be too if I saw myself from a well-planned, well-ordered perspective based in a world of plenty.

“Because I can’t afford a whole week’s rental,” I said bluntly. I was way beyond shame.

Gary held my gaze for a moment as if considering. “Your car is in the shop, right?” he asked. I nodded yes. “Didn’t they tell you it was going to be ready last week?” he probed.

I nodded again. “Yes, but I guess they’re having some problems with it.”

“What kind of problems?” he asked.

Good grief….I don’t know! Problem problems. The kind of problems mechanics have when they work on cars. How was I supposed to know?  “I’m not sure,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. Gary was still looking at me.

“Maybe you should have your husband call and talk to them about your car,” he suggested.  Great idea Gary, but that leads us to yet another problem.

“I don’t have a husband,” I said flatly.

“Well, then your boyfriend,” he said, shaking his head, exasperated and gesturing, obviously annoyed by details that were beside the point. Clearly, his point was I should ask whatever man was in my life to talk to the mechanic.

“Look,” I said, suddenly embarrassed. “There is no one to make that call. I mean, there was someone…” Why was I embarrassed? Why did I feel the need to explain? “I was married. But then we separated and then we divorced. And then he died. Suddenly and unexpectedly…”

And then suddenly and unexpectedly, I started crying. “He died last Christmas Eve!” And then I started wailing. “I still can’t believe he died on Christmas Eve! He left our kids standing on his porch, knocking on his door, looking forward to having Christmas with him…they were still in his driveway waiting when the police came and hauled his dead body out the door!” By then, Gary seemed embarrassed too. Poor Gary.

“Well, maybe your Dad could call and talk to the mechanic,” he said quietly. He no longer sounded annoyed; his tone was beginning to twinge with compassion.

Oh boy, I could feel it coming… is he ever going to be sorry he said that! I involuntarily rested my elbows on the counter and held my head in my hands while great sobs wracked through my whole body.  “Daddy’s dead too!” I cried. “He died the year before! They’re both dead and I’m trying to finish graduate school in Chicago while I live and work and raise my kids here in Indiana!” I was beyond embarrassed. I was pathetic.

Gary must have been afraid to say anything else because he waited in silence until I regained some composure. He handed me the tissue box from his desk and asked quietly, “Allison, where is your car and what kind of car is it?” I told him and he looked up the number in the phone book. He dialed the shop and said, “This is Mr. Ballard calling about the Subaru that my wife brought in last week. I’ve been on a business trip and just got home and discovered the car is still not ready for pick up. I had understood it was supposed to have been ready last week. I’m not happy to find that she’s still driving a rental car. I need an update on the Subaru’s status and need to know when it’s going to be finished.”

Go Gary! The conversation went back and forth on the phone. Mechanical banter appeared to be a language my new husband could speak.  “Okay,” I heard him say. “So she should be able to pick it up this afternoon? Great! And if you have any problems, could you please call me at this number? Thank you. Goodbye.”

Gary got off the phone and handed me his business card. “Allison, if your car isn’t ready for you this afternoon, give me a call.” He came around the counter and awkwardly patted me on the back.  “It’s okay,” he said reassuringly. “Everything is going to be okay.”

I resisted the impulse to bury my head in his chest. Instead, I mumbled thank you and walked out of the cool air conditioning, back into the sweltering heat.

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