The beeping had gone on for days. Once every minute. Loud. It hadn’t bothered me at first. I noticed it during lunch. Later that day the beeping was still there, and I left the living room, retreated to my bedroom. It was strange. The only time I could remember when my bedroom was more peaceful than my living room. I’m not being a pig. Swear. My bedroom faces the street. The living room is nestled in the middle of my apartment. It’s a sanctuary, a place of peace from the noise of the street, a great buffer of contentment, and rarely was there disturbance. But that damn beeping. It was regular, dependable, and loud, in every negative and annoying way a sound could be. But after that first night, I forgot it. Parked in front of the machine, the living room took a back seat. Less living there than there should have been. But that’s the way in the age of technology, right?
The next day I noticed it in passing. I figured it was a smoke detector in the hallway, low on battery. The super would take care of it. The day after that I was eating lunch, flipping through the daytime dead zone of local television, and there it was again, the beeping. This was no longer normal. There was a serious case of neglect out there, somewhere in my building. There was annoyance ignored, and now it began to grate on me.
I looked like a fool, standing in the hallway, head perched at just the right angle for my ears to get a good listen, waiting for the beep. There it was, louder than in my apartment. Damn, I was on the wrong floor. Took me two beeps to figure that out, though. I ran upstairs to beat the next sound, managed to catch my breath before it went off. I looked for a source, smoke detector or something, in the hallway. There was nothing. What the hell? I traced it, following the beeps, to my neighbor’s door. Stood out there for three or four of them. Once I swore I could here English right after the beep. Sounded like someone complaining about the beeping. I wanted to be polite, but after three days of this shit, I just wanted some quiet.
They had moved in a few months before. I liked them. For a simple reason, really. The previous super had lived there before, but as diligent as he was at taking care of the building, his apartment was the source of a maddening scourge, an epic cockroach infestation that only began to subside the day he and his family left. They weren’t filthy people, by any stretch, but the bugs found a home, and branched out into the other apartments, creating what can only be described as a miserable summer. Truly. Anyone who’s been there knows. When the bugs get the upper hand, life gets pushed aside, and there’s nothing left but the filth, the invasion. You cede territory. That cabinet, the one on the left, yeah, it belongs to the bugs. No dishes in there. Sugar and rice get stored in the fridge. You make a deal with the bugs. No see, no kill. But they don’t cooperate. Stragglers leave the kitchen and your arm flies in the air and there’s a piercing scream when one of them crawls on you during a stay at home date and romantic film. You turn into a pussy real quick. No harm done. None possible, but damn those bugs are sickening.
When they moved out, the problem went away. The apartment was empty for months. Then the new neighbors moved in. But there were no more bugs. So that was great.
The new neighbors are Egyptian. Fresh off the boat. Not a speck of English among any of them. Except for the matron. She says ‘thank you’ in a thick accent over and over whenever I help her lug the groceries up the stairs. That took some doing. This is after months of living in the same building. Before, it was different. She’s from a completely different culture. The first time I saw her, she insisted on letting me navigate the stairs before her. Another day she insisted I go through the front door first. I saw her and her husband one day, she’s pulling a handcart up the steps, husband’s at the top watching. That’s when it struck me. Chivalry is dead wherever it is they come from. Every encounter we had in the hallway she always deferred, and there was the inevitable clash between my politeness, the western ‘ladies first’ tradition and her expected Middle Eastern deference to male priority. So there were the grand pauses in the stairwell. Who would pass first? Which one of us would blink? Whose culture would win? Hers, inevitably. I’m just not that stubborn.
But the damned beeping. I just couldn’t believe that it had been coming from their apartment, for days, piercing in the hallway, even, and they had done nothing. But it had. I knocked on the door, and swear I heard some English again, complaining about a battery. The matron shuffled behind the door and eventually found it within her to answer my knocking.
“Is that noise coming from your apartment?”
“The noise. BEEP! Your apartment?” At least I wasn’t adding volume and baby talk. I was just hoping she would catch a word here and there.
I frowned. What to do? I stepped back into my apartment and pointed towards my smoke detector where she could see. BEEP! and she knew what I was talking about.
I walked in and there was the beep, followed by a scratchy voice shouting “LOW BATTERY.”
Five minutes and three bucks worth of batteries later and the beeping was gone from my life.
But how odd.
Three people lived in that apartment. Not one of them, for days and days, had thought that the incessant, invasive sound of the smoke detector with its beep and recorded voiceover was anything they could alter. They had not just neglected to consider changing the batteries at the insistence of the beeping and the cheap recording, they had not even thought to disable or destroy this impediment to their peace, their sanity.
Where had they been? Where had they come from that such a mundane and invisible object as a smoke detector could become such a source of distraction, of confusing tumult that the look on the face of the matron when I made the problem go away I will always remember as the embodiment of pure gratitude?
A hale of proclamations and reverent thanks followed me as I left their apartment, having solved the grand riddle of the beeps. I couldn’t help feeling that a cruel world indeed awaited those that could not solve the mysteries of annoying noises and double-A batteries.