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Rookie Car Mistakes

06/20/2014 07:41 am ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014

I was driving home from the grocery store when I smelled something funny. I thought maybe something was burning. The gauges on the dashboard were clear, the car was not overheating or malfunctioning. Still, there was a smell. Was it tar? I checked the rearview mirrors for construction vehicles. Nothing. What about mulch? Sometimes mulch smells odd. A panoramic visual investigation revealed there were no landscape trucks in the observable vicinity. What was that smell?

Once home, I unloaded the groceries and discovered a broken bottle of soy sauce, emptied of its contents. I had found the culprit. I discarded the bottle and put the entire mess out of my mind.

Later that week, a heat wave drove temperatures above ninety degrees. My car windows were securely sealed, trapping all sixteen ounces of commercially prepared soy sauce inside the dark and damp interior cavity. I drove to work with my head out the window, much as my dog rides in the car, gulping the less odiferous exhaust of diesel trucks.

Soy sauce is made of fermented soybeans and a few other ingredients including Aspergillus which is a fungus. There were, undoubtedly, full stalagmites of fungus growing in the carpet back there. I envisioned them with beady eyes, or maybe a singular eye, carrying nefarious looking tools in their little fungus hands. Cartoon fungus. That's what was probably living in my trunk.

I went to AutoZone and bought every cleanser on the shelf. Rug shampoo, vinyl cleaner, deodorizing powder. I bought a brush, a chamois, an absorbent pad and a little aromatic dispenser to hang from the mirror. I followed the directions exactly. Until the end. That's when I made the single tactical mistake.

I rinsed it.

It seemed reasonable at the time. The store bought chemicals had succeeded in doing basically one thing. Adding new smells. In my defense, let me just say that I am smell-adverse. I don't like perfume, scented candles, room fresheners, nothing. And so rinsing away the lavender lilt, sparkling chloride, fresh cedar and mountain air was a no brainer.

Then, the airbag light illuminated on the dash. Easy enough to ignore when you're practically asphyxiated by soy sauce and cleanser. One day, I noticed a piece of car, unidentifiable but likely important, laying all alone on the driveway. I threw it into the trunk before my husband could notice.

At the car dealership, the service manager seemed confused by the hunk of metal that had dropped from the chassis of my relatively new vehicle. He noted that one edge of the slab seemed burned, charred almost, and he inquired if I'd done any repairs to the vehicle. I made some sort of whimsical remark about never applying my own deficient mechanical skills to something as complicated as a finely crafted automobile.

The service technician called a few hours later. It seemed, he explained, that there was some sort of liquid pooled in the undercarriage of the car.

"That's the soy sauce," I explained the incident, minimizing my own participation in the de-smelling process.

He was quiet too long. "How big was the bottle that broke?" he asked.

"Eight ounces," I said.

"Eight?" He cross-examined me. "Are you sure? The spare tire well has a lot of fluid in it. And the battery looks as if it was coated in some sticky brown liquid. And the wires going to and from the battery are corroded. The housing for the battery itself is degrading. There is a residue on the terminals, on the couplings. I guess that there is the soy sauce." He paused, unconvinced. "We can't determine just yet where all the fluid is from."

I did not hesitate to tell him. "I ran the hose in there." I said. "You know, to clear out the smell."

Turns out, you can't rinse out the back of your car using the garden hose.

The car required a new battery and battery housing, and the section of chassis that had disconnected itself from the undercarriage was ordered and then reattached. There was also the matter of the shorted-out electrical system, which I will forever refuse to disclose. The cost rivaled the price of a used car, but I paid anyway and pretended to be satisfied with the work. They had, after all, spent nearly a week repairing the car.

Worst of all, the car still smells.

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