The Faulty Sensor
Dan Townsend

My wife has taken my car to work, and I have been waiting for her failing car to be repaired at Birmingham Benz. The Z is backwards on the sign by the road. The waiting room and office area is wood-paneled. Plaques above the coffee pot are three years old, from the Better Business Bureau. A potato shaped woman dressed from head to toe in purple sweatpants material dozes peacefully in one of the other two butt-sullied waiting room chairs. Her double chin appears to cushion the weight of her downward tilting skull. The elbows and knees of her sweat-gear have faded to lavender, the color of Easter eggs declared purple prematurely. The man I take for her husband paces outside the glass door, disappearing left to right, disappearing right to left. A surprisingly current smart-phone stays on his ear, a cigarillo in his nubby fingers. Every few minutes, he takes the phone from his ear and swipes at its glassy face. I assume he is trying to contact his insurance company. His belly pulls his shirt tight enough to show the eyelid of his navel. I hold the cigarillos responsible for the yellow umbra in his otherwise stately white mustache and beard. If there were instructions that came in the box with him, I would feel stupid for not figuring out what the cigarillo was and where it went. When he speaks the only words I will ever hear him say, they do not surprise: “1993 Chevrolet Astro van.”

The potato woman has awoken and asked me a question, “What did you say you’re having problems with?”

I say, “It’s a Volvo.”

“A Vol Voh?” Her face twists, a face angry to be confused.

I tuck my lips and nod. “Yep.”

“I heard of them.”

“They’re German.” What else is there to say? “How bout yourself?” I ask, even though I know about the Astro van.

“Got us a Chevy. Only buy American in our family.”

In this moment I think of what my father-in-law would do. My wife is Southern, born in Tupelo, an Elvis person, not a Beatles person, raised in the Nashville metro area, though her parents are quick to point out that when they moved there it was yet to be a metro area; it was just Tennessee. I have wormed my way to Alabama from a different metro area. The football has been good. My father-in-law grew up in North Georgia, in a small town rumored to have been the inspiration for Deliverance. When he was a boy, there was a little girl from across the tracks – hair with grass in it, wart-knuckled – who invited everyone from their class to attend her birthday party. There would be cake and games, a singing cowboy. My father-in-law was the sole attendee. Later, he became a primary care physician.

“A Chevy’s a wonderful car. I’m sure you’re very happy with it.” I nod like I think my father-in-law would.

“A hunk o’ junk is what it is,” says Madame Lavender.

I laugh. That’s what he would do, my father-in-law. “I’m sure it’s just a loose wire, something like that.”

“They say it’s something to do with the fuel pressure.”

“Oh right,” I say, “That sounds easy enough,” Now I am full-on lying. Fuel pressure sounds like a horrible, complicated problem. “I’m sure they’ll take good care of you here.”

She says, “We on our way back to Limestone County. My husband don’t know anything about cars.” She looks out the glass door to where the man now stands idle, another cigarillo held smoldering in his teeth. She refolds her arms over her bulgy middle. “He’s worthless.”

I smile again. I don’t say anything. My smile says: Let’s end it here. Let’s just read magazines, okay?

I have no trouble on the drive home from Birmingham Benz, but the Volvo stalls at a light the next day, during my wife’s afternoon commute.

I promise to take care of this. I tell my wife not to worry.

The Volvo dealership is eleven miles from our house, which is old and wooden, located in an affordable, yet stylish, pocket of Birmingham proper. Our realtor was a nice man, a blue dot in a red state, who wore sensible jeans and approved of our selection of neighborhood. He said many homosexuals and artists lived in the neighborhood where we wanted to move. He said this with his normal voice, smiling in the sandwich shop where we had just finished a worksheet showing us how much we would have to spend to get a house like the one we wanted. My wife asked if my soup was good, and we talked soup, basking in the satisfaction of a worksheet recently completed.

The Volvo stalls at red lights during the eleven-mile journey to the dealership. It seems to be stalling somewhat less frequently than before I took it to Birmingham Benz but that could just be me. As I press the brake, the car shudders, exhales, and goes still, not like it’s dying, like it’s fainting, swooning. Drama queen. I turn the key when the light goes green. I give it the gas, and we lurch forward like nothing happened. Then, approaching a yellow light, the stubborn German Volvo goes into its act, like it doesn’t remember what happened last time, like each time is the first time for everything.

The service center employee in the dealership polo shirt calls my name, smiles big. I have been watching Good Morning America on mute. The television stares down from the wall in an empty corner. The ceilings are high, the wall all window. I hop up and stride to a kiosk, wherein there is built a computer meant to be used while standing.

“Mister Thomas, Mister Thomas… Says here you had a new ignition sensor put in at Birmingham Benz.”

I affirm this.

He pulls a part from a blue box with large white letters on the side. VOLVO. The part is clean, metallic, circular, shaped like a top, like the kind you spin. To use the parlance of dangerous precipitation, it is softball-size. “This,” he says, “is a new ignition sensor.”

He reaches into a cubby in the kiosk, beneath the computer.

“This,” he says, “is what we removed from your car.”

The part he holds up is the shape of the first one, but it is dirty. It is dirty the way socks found near swimming pools are dirty. The placement of fingerprints in the grime seems planned. Toothy aspects of the new part can be found rounded off in the thing I am shown.

Before he gives me the estimate for the repairs – transplant of plugs and wires, fuel injector cleansing, restorative measures for engine corrosion – he tells me he will leave the old ignition sensor in the trunk, in case I want to take it back to Birmingham Benz. He would try to get his money back if he were me.


I am back in my car, which feels right, even though it is a Honda C-RV. My friends teased me when I decided to go CR-V. They said, Cool car, these cars are always parked at places where cool people go.

I have the ignition sensor on the passenger seat when I drive to Birmingham Benz. I have the invoice that I signed before they ran my credit card.

I walk inside holding the part in one hand, the invoice pinched between two fingers, fluttering flag-like.

I explain my motives to the lady behind the desk. Manda is the name of the lady behind the desk.

“Uh oh,” Manda says, “I better see if Garrison’s in the back. Might take a second.”

I move to the waiting area. A lean woman in a leather jacket hunches over a tiny Styrofoam coffee cup. Her jacket is the cheap kind that smells like hamster cages. She makes me feel like I’m early to an AA meeting, but I’ve never been to an AA meeting. NA, however – N for narcotics – meets in the first floor of an old brick building on the edge of my neighborhood. They have a big sign visible through a window that must have once been a display window. It says NA in the middle of the circle and Narcotics Anonymous in smaller letters bending around the circle. The people who hang around that building have a look to them. The building is at the corner where you have to turn to get in and out of the place from 3rd Avenue South. Men stand outside smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee from the same Styrofoam cups preferred by Birmingham Benz. Last week a grill showed up, a big iron smoker, and they were barbecuing outside NA. The air filled with train sounds. The air filled with the smells of pork and hickory. It was a cloudy day, brisk, the type of day when some people wear sweaters and some don’t and the people wearing sweaters ask the people without sweaters if they are cold. If they are, the recommendation to put on a sweater is made. When I first drove by, I hoped the cookout was a celebration of a milestone. Good for them, I thought. Now, I hope there was no meaning behind it at all, that they just felt like grilling up some meat and so that’s what they did.

Dan Townsend has a story on the way from Barrelhouse. Others appear at Wigleaf, Drunken Boat, and Monkeybicycle. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama. He is on Facebook.