Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Gets in Your Eyes?

Here comes the last weekend I will be spending in Tehachapi for a while. As of next week, I will officially be a resident of Sacramento County, with all the attendant joys and miseries which that implies. As most of you know, with the exception of my university years, Tehachapi is the only place I have ever lived, so I am inclined to grow a bit sentimental over leaving my kith (that would be TMPD) and kin (obvious culprits), the weather, the mountains, the local insects. . .the myriad of small pieces that have made the mosaic of life here truly beautiful. (That's a sappy metaphor, but I mean well by it.)

One thing I do not expect to miss is my smoke alarm. A smoke alarm is supposed to serve mankind, to save lives and property, not to lurk on the ceiling, winking its one green eye and plotting as to just how it might drive the human mind squealing over the brink of insanity. Most smoke alarms know their place, and keep it. My smoke alarm, however, is unprincipled.

The first day I was in the apartment was in November. I don't remember whether it was so early that I was fixing coffee, or whether it was late enough to warrant tea, but what I do remember is that I put a pot of water on the stove. Water. And the smoke alarm went off. My culinary skills are not exactly Cordon Bleu, but I had, until that time, prided myself on being able to boil water without burning it.

And that is how it has been ever since. The smoke alarm crouches on the ceiling so quietly, that I think it is asleep, and sometimes, perhaps, it is, but it is impossible to tell just when it might awaken, and pounce. I can understand if it complains about my using whichever burner has received the latest overflow of oatmeal, rice, or potatoes, but if I use a clean burner--a clean stove--why the attack? It has no morals, I tell you.

I am quietly cooking my supper, adding various ingredients to a pot of chicken broth. Work is behind me for the day. Time has slipped into a deep stream of silence that is only heightened by the occasional drum roll of sleet against the windows. I like cold weather very well, but it has been a long day, and I am looking forward to loosing myself in the soup. I add a handful of broccoli. The wind howls through the back yard. I toss in some noodles. The smoke alarm, which I had foolishly turned my back on, suddenly screams itself awake.

In apartments all around me, I can feel unknown neighbors putting on their shoes, grabbing axes and St. Bernard dogs, getting ready to beat down the door and rescue me. The fire department is suiting up, and calling in reinforcements from Bakersfield. In a single graceful motion, I wrench open the back door (the sleet is beating on the screen), bruise my knee on the corner of the counter, grab the desk chair, stumble over a couple of books, and leap up (nearly tipping the chair over) to the level of the alarm. It is winking at me ghoulishly. I, however, am a human being, a master over any mere collection of plastic and wires. I press "Reset," and the screaming stops. I look down, suspiciously at the stove. A bit of steam, but nothing more catastropic. It looks like a very normal, unburned pot of soup to me. There does not seem to be any smoke in the air. I look (unkindly) at the smoke alarm. It winks once, very sleepily.

I close the back door, put on an extra sweater, and begin to chop some ginger. I get a handful of green beans out of the freezer and add them to the soup. The alarm turns over in its sleep, takes a deep breath and begins to exercise its little electronic vocal cords again. It has a strange power over me. Just a word, and I panic (and so do the firemen, who, down the street, are hurrying into the jackets they just took off. They call for air support to stand by). There goes the door again, the knee in the counter, the desk chair (wisely, I had not moved it back to its place), and my finger on the reset button. This time, I make sure. I leave my finger there until my arm is stuck in a position permanently over my head, while icecicles three feet long form on the kitchen ceiling, and the sleet drifts across the soup, which has frozen solid. Then it is safe to come down.

If it were only a matter of recognizing the defects inherent in a bunch of wires and plastic, I wouldn't mind the whole problem, but the fact is, my smoke alarm is something more than wires and plastic, something more evil and calculating.

A couple of weeks ago, I was warming up corn tortillas in a frying pan. This was after I had started packing to move up north, and the house at large was, to put it quite mildly, a mess, with books stacked all over everything, and everything stacked all over books, with more books and everything on top of that. But I was hungry, so in the midst of this confusion, I was standing at the stove, eating tacos as fast as I could warm the tortillas, when from somewhere in the wilds of the books and everything, there was a monstrous sound. The smoke alarm was going off. The shrill insistence of the thing--it was like having a five pound mosquito nesting in your head--sent me into a panic. Still, my reflexes were good, as they kicked in. The door was thrown open, the knee was bruised, the desk chair--! The desk chair was buried under everything, with some books on top, with everything around it, and some more of everything on top of that. Even in my agitated state, I could see it would probably take me a couple of months to dig it out.

"Hee hee! Hee hee! Hee hee!" said the smoke alarm. This infuriated me. I grabbed the tallest thing that had the least amount of books on it, which was the bar stool. I am not good with heights. I dislike standing on the desk chair, so you will understand, this was a drastic measure. I dumped the books on top of everything on the floor. "Hee hee! Hee hee! Hee hee!" the alarm chortled. The mosquito in my head seemed to be attending a homecoming game, at least there were now several thousand more of them in there with her.

I thrashed around the floor under the alarm, trying to clear enough of everything away to give the stool a place to stand. "Hee hee! Hee hee!" It is a fairly tall stool, and I was hoping kneeling would bring me within reach of the reset button while still allowing me to keep my balance. "Hee hee! Knee knee!" the alarm taunted me. My fingers were just short of reaching the reset button. To make up those few inches I would have to stand up on that ungainly bit of furniture. I thought about how it would be when they found me with a broken neck among the books and everything. This idea pleased the smoke alarm. "Hee hee! Hee hee! Hee hee!" it said, realizing its evil machinations were close to their goal. "Hee hee! See See! See See!"

I stood up, quivering, slowly, and felt the reset button touching my finger, "Ye See! Ye See! Ye See!" the alarm screamed defiantly.

"You are only a machine," I said, and pushed the button.

"See--!" And the horrible, taunting voice was dead. The 3,796 mosquitoes in my head were suddenly gone. It was quiet, oh such a quiet! Still shaking, I climbed down from that Everest of a stool. Oh, silence is golden! Is platinum! Is diamonds! Is--

But why that awful echo that still whispered, "Ye See! Ye See!" with such calculated clarity? I looked up at the alarm, which was silent, smirking at me. Smirking, because when I looked at the stove, I did see. When I had gone out to battle the smoke alarm, I had left a tortilla in the frying pan, and now the tortilla was smoking.


Elizabeth in Alaska said...

Molly, this is brilliant. Only you could make a story about a smoke alarm read so interestingly. :)

Molly said...

You are too kind!