Where There’s Smoke

by Rachel on August 19, 2010

Tuesday night, Eric and I were watching “Californication” on DVD at my apartment, and, suddenly, the life of Hank Moody was drowned out by a high-pitched, violent shriek. At first I thought it was just one of the girls that Hank was accidentally going down on, but then I realized it was not the result of the cunning linguist. It only took me a few seconds to figure out what it was. Sure, the last time I heard that sound I was high, naked, and half-asleep in a flat in Edinburgh, Scotland, but I’d recognize the sound of a smoke alarm anywhere. Thankfully, I was much less disoriented this time around. And dressed.

The thing about the sound of a smoke alarm is that it causes you to panic, simply because it’s so loud, mean, and urgent. Even if it’s a fire drill and you know it’s coming, you still freak. And even though we knew on some level that my apartment was not on fire and that there was no reason for this, we still leapt up and started shouting and screaming directions and theories. After about 30 seconds, the thing mercifully just shut itself off. So we went back to “Californication” and eventually to bed.

We had been in bed for about 30 minutes when the chirping began.

This time, the alarm outside my room was chirping. Not the panic-inducing squeal signaling fire, but the annoying little bleat signaling that it’s time to change the battery. After a few disoriented minutes and talking in our sleep, Eric finally understood my request that he go take the battery out. No lights were turned on; he just stumbled and mumbled his way through my room, grabbing the desk chair on his way. Moments later a very loud “GODDAMNIT!” came from the hall.

I really hate when people hurt themselves while doing favors for me, so I immediately felt bad about what I assumed was a stubbed toe. (Still don’t know.) I turned on the light for him in an attempt to say sorry/thank you. With the light on, he was able to get the alarm pulled off the ceiling and we saw…wires. Apparently, the smoke alarm doesn’t have a battery. It’s just wired to the one downstairs. So that was the one that needed the new battery.

So next we went downstairs — still pretty drowsy — and he pulled and pulled to get the alarm off the rather high ceiling. He finally pulled the battery out and….the chirping continued.

I don’t even know. I don’t even know.

So what else could we do? We went back to bed.

Obviously I was tired the next day.

The whole situation was really stressful. I am just renting a room in this townhouse, and my roommate, the owner, is out of town right now. In China. Not exactly easy to reach. He has a live-in bf but he travels for work. OK. Fine. I could handle this myself. So I stopped on my way home and bought a new 9 volt battery. Annoying errand, but whatever. I so had this.

I got home from work and wanted to eat lunch and relax, but I had to answer it.

So I dragged a chair over and realized…I was about two feet too short to reach the thing.

It chirped as I hunted for a taller chair, a step stool, or a ladder. No luck. It chirped while I went through the emergency numbers trying to find some sort of maintenance line. Nothing. Finally I decided I’d just go to the leasing office. It chirped good-bye as I went out in the 100 degree weather on foot and headed into…what I thought was the leasing office. Turns out, it was the leasing office of a whole different complex. Our townhouses have…no leasing office.

I wandered around the complex looking for a neighbor who might know who I could call. No luck. I was melting, so I just went back to my apartment and listened to it chirping for the next three hours, Googling, trying to find something that would help. I couldn’t. It chirped while I read, while I did Core Fusion, while I worked at my desk. It chirped until finally the guard came on duty. The guard, I figured, might know if there was someone I could call.

So I went to the front gate and chatted with the guard. She said she didn’t know if there was any type of maintenance person, but she gave me the name and number of the property manager to try. I left him a desperate voicemail, hoping the chirping was present in the background.

It chirped while I took a shower and it chirped while I made dinner. It chirped while I packed an overnight bag and headed to Eric’s where I could sleep in silence. It chirped (presumably) while we were hanging out on his turf and the property manager finally called me back.

The property manager said that he couldn’t help me. Because all the units are privately owned, there isn’t any maintenance service for the residents. He said he could give me a ladder. He said he could give it to me right then, if I was there.

I explained that I wasn’t there, because, you know, it had been several hours since I left him the message, and I had finally fled the chirping to take refuge in a quiet apartment for the night. He seemed annoyed that I wasn’t there and kept offering me a ladder.

Even if I had been there…really? A ladder?

I can just imagine just all 5’3 of me carrying that ladder across the complex, around the corner, and up the flight of stairs to the alarm. Sure. A ladder. Totally.

If I accepted the ladder, I’d need someone to help me carry it, and that someone would be Eric. And if he were coming all the way into the city to help me with the ladder, he could just stand on the damn chair again and put the battery in from there, without the hassle of transporting the ladder.

Or so I thought. When Eric heard this he said he could barely reach it from the chair and that yeah, we probably would need that ladder.

I spoke to my roommate this morning and he said that there is a step stool (I must have missed it) and that it’s probably not the battery. He said in the past, just fiddling with the wires has solved the problem.

I have not gone home yet to face this next step in the process. I’m just not ready for the chirping.

I don’t understand how a smoke detector can be so in need of attention. I feel like one of those high school students who is given a fake baby to take care of overnight. Some adult somewhere is laughing at me, I just know it. Actually, a fake baby — or a real baby, for that matter — would probably be less annoying. A fake baby can be returned, and if you ignore it, so what? You get an “A-” and life goes on. And a real baby can be dressed up in funny outfits and fake mustaches and photographed for your own entertainment.

Not so with a smoke detector. Not so at all.