The fire alarm had sprung to life about two AM. A noxious sounding buzz, it pervaded the background of an otherwise hushed darkness that surrounded his cot its warmth cushioning the occupant from worldly cares. A voice brought him from the midst of some quickly forgotten unworldly dilemma into the distinct possibility of a more materially cogent one. “It’s the alarm!”, her voice said with some urgency through his closed bedroom door. This verbal confirmation of that persistently aggravating undertone meant that he had to stir his sleep numbed frame to life somewhat instantaneously. His nose rabbited for the acridness of some aroma foreign and possibly in contradiction to the latent musty odor of his human habitation. Nothing to support the proposition that anything out of the ordinary was about beyond of course that insistently nagging tone. His rational mind now coming alert to the proposition of waking reality he moved to drag on the old pair of trousers that had been haphazardly draped in reach of his resting place. Teetering in the dim window illumination of cold yellow street lamps silent many stories below he sightlessly gazed out upon an otherwise undisturbed vista. No sign of fire engines, no distantly rising doppler of sirens, not yet. “How long had it been? A minute? . . . or several of same?”
He strode around the foot of his cot and made the awkward passage through the narrow entrance of his tightly arranged bedchamber. They were living in a warehouse, he thought. A small two-bedroom of barely four-hundred square feet full of momentous whose physical presence served merely to retain former memories of the faded past glory of financial affluence that had long since evaporated into daily scarcity. The brief stride of a pace or two through the small connecting cubicle that served more in name than function as a hall had him instinctively ducking an oversized ceiling mounted light fixture before he reached the equally brief cavern of the lounge. He couldn’t imagine the bull in a china shop chaos that a fully equipped firefighter would wreak in such a confined environment? Their professional haste of wrangling occupants out into the building’s to the stairway would surely entail some breakage. And the mere fact of surrendering one’s self to that customary somewhat hostile form of material abandonment would make one think twice, once one was ejected from the safety of their own private mental cocoon. He reminded himself at every successive step of the relative location of articles that would be necessary in the case of such imminent egress.
“Keys, wallet, jacket, eh shoes not these old loose crappy sandals . . .”, he mused to himself as he made a twist and turn towards the apartment’s main entryway. He pressed his face to the eyelet and strained to determine the nature of the atmosphere out in the floor’s hallway. “Regular illumination, no smoke apparent, no neighbors being bustled about by fireman”, nothing he mused again as he checked each off his mental list. Just the grating angst of the persistent alarm buzzer only now much louder from this closer vantage point. It was a waiting game now. Conventional wisdom would have demanded that he and the ninety-four year old woman that was his aged mother would be trundling down the hallway towards the elevators or the exit stairwell just beyond some eighty feet down the hall. He knew be default that this was not a possibility as her knees, both replaced, could no longer withstand the gauntlet of ten flights of stairs to the lobby on their own. Any egress on her part would have to be assisted by the energies of young men engaged in an impromptu procession of professional rescue. “Would they try to carry her?”, he mused, “No, her arthritic back wouldn’t take the strain!” She would end up in a hospital bed at best. The idea of embarking on such a proposition could only be contemplated as a last resort. He had to stay here and continue to contemplate the possible immediate contingencies that would be available once any hint of danger was fully confirmed as a viable threat.
He walked back to his bedroom window and calmly peered out down the block, his ear cocked to detect a higher frequency as one might expect with the occurrence of a distant siren rising from above the dull hush of wind and drizzle. “Nothing.” he whispered unconsciously. He grabbed a jacket and then went over to the bookshelf and scooped up his overburdened keyring. “Wouldn’t I need the car keys?”, it occurred to him. But then would the parking garage be accessible to them if the building was to possibly be evacuated. What would happen to them if that possibility went from one of many plausible options to an imminent reality? They had little if any money and no friends to call upon in that eventuality. Only two or three hundred in cash which might last a day or two at a cheap motel. Then what? The constant uninterrupted howl drew him back to the front door and the vessel confirmation that nothing had changed. His mother was fussing about teetering about in the relative familiarity of her most well-travelled region of the house before the television. “You better put something on besides that short nightgown!”, he chided her. She had become more like a little kid in recent years. Her once sharp intellect addled by a rapidly decaying short term memory. Habit made him aware that he would have to repeat himself insistently several times until it invoked an angry testy confirmation from her. Such was the current practice of elderly geriatric modern animal husbandry.
He could hear the sirens now rising in the distance. “How many minutes had it been now?” he thought, “Seven, eight?” “Ten minutes wasn’t bad considering the distance of several mile to the station.” The inner projector screen within his mind played a different image demonstrating how far a virulent fire raging currently unchecked could travel, blocking off exits to escape. Still there was no smoke evident when he once again pressed his eye expectantly to the door. No vindication of any possible imminent jeopardy but no confirmed solace of yet another false alarms. Another trip to the other apartment window facing West confirmed that the trucks were now parked out front. The multiple reflections blinking off the window glass of other nearby buildings signifying that the number of responding units was at this point minimal. A good sign? What would his late father think of his studied form of rational passivity? The constant drone of the fire alarm was interrupted for an instant as if someone in the switching station if the building office below was toggling the mechanism to determine the source of the problem. This went on for several minutes as he paced backhand forth cycling through all the probable outcomes both good and less likely so. Then suddenly as if an unexpected truce having been called in an impromptu fashion upon a raging battlefield, the alarm gave way to uninterrupted silence.
He approached his own door gingerly as if he was inwardly expecting a trap. He slowly opened his front door and took a careful step or two into the hall, his actions similar to a fugitive checking for possible pursuers. There at the end of the hall stood two young stern looking firemen stood at the end of the hall by the alarm lever dressed in what seemed to be customary outfits a couple of sizes too large for them. Their fierce expressions resembled that of a couple of Mohawk warriors whose short fuse buffered by a minimal level of patience might at any moment silently explode into wordless unstoppable action. His approach down the hall from the far end did not seem to elicit a single grunt or groan but rather the gathering cloud of an annoyed professionally dismissive look. The residents of the building were not human to them but rather an annoying type of species that served as a commodity that might potentially have to be transferred unwillingly from that customary mental fiction of their safe stalls in a burning barn to the cold homeless reality of a rainy street below. Two arab tenants stood in silent supplication, the shorter one in the caftan holding a disgorged toolkit at the ready as the fireman reassembled the small red handle of the alarm’s tripping mechanism. One of the foreigners, turned towards him and attempted an ingratiating smile but was rebuffed by a lack of response.
“Is everything OK?”, he said to the imperturbably silent warrior brave who turned suddenly towards him in a manner that belied irritability. The fireman tossed off barely a nod in answer and trudged off to a waiting elevator to descend below. Everything was alright he thought as he turned about and walked back to his own apartment. “Hookah smoke no doubt!”, he thought, “You can’t put the blame on them for having bizarre culturally annoying customs.” , he recited to himself in a dutifully testy manner as he tried not to shake his head. The fragile egg of his own tenuous existence had been shattered yet once more again. How long could he continue to go on with the longstanding fiction of a ‘everything as normal’ customary complacency? That long ingrained mental picture of his father’s unspoken displeasure accompanied him back on an equally distant journey to the immediacy of that unprotected openness of his own front door.