You can understand how I felt when, not long ago, I entered our small kitchen and heard an unusual tone. It was unlike any plaintive machine bleat I’d heard in that it wasn’t immediately irritating. It did not demand action, but, rather, attention.
I’m wary of such sounds, having had to put with car alarms that cry in the night, daytime or just about anytime we’d rather not hear them. Another car may have passed too close to the proximity detector, or the owner didn’t cut the alarm off before he opened a door. I once set off my car alarm from inside my house when pocket change depressed the panic button on the key.
Welcome to the era in which machines not merely cry, but inform us when they’re hungry (the intentionally annoying microshriek of a smoke alarm that wants a battery change), tell us where to go (GPS navigators, in a variety of dialects) and conduct humorlessly polite conversations as they provide us with music, turn our lights on and off, make a telephone call, order a pizza, tell us that someone is at the door and remind us of pending family birthdays and doctor appointments, all the while reporting back to some algorithmic overlord everything we have said and have had them do.
The tone I heard inside my house did not go away. It happened randomly, typically when I was in the kitchen. It wasn’t like other sounds I’d heard in the house. One of our toilets sings as it fills–don’t ask me how, or why. (Air in the pipes? Maybe.) The tune is oddly satisfying: it starts low and ends high, as if to say, just a friendly reminder of how grateful you should be that I’m ridding you of that which you want to disappear, and readying myself so that the next time you need me, I’ll be here!
Add to this sounds that originate outside the house. I hear the unearthly snarl of the motorized garage door opener, righteous, early-morning grumble of pick-up trucks (in our neighborhood, having a big pick-up truck earns you more curbside status than a luxury sedan or fancy sports car), the scrape of garbage cans dragged into position for the clunking, banging, devouring whine of the garbage truck, the patter of squirrels across the roof, the thunk of playing children colliding with the sides of unalarmed cars parked outside, the distant yowl of emergency sirens rushing to that one intersection that is so dangerous that you’d think something would have been done by now but no, and the glowing ambient chords from the wind chime we hung in the garden so long ago that we forget about it until the wind picks up.
But in the ten years this house has sheltered me, I have heard nothing like this sound. Like most people confronted with the inexplicable, I assumed that if I ignored it, it, too, would go away.
Until my wife heard it.
We considered all the machines in the house that could speak. The nearest was the smoke detector. We touched the TEST button and it immediately yelled at us–how dare we disturb its sleep but, now that we did, the battery was low and it was going to yell at us until we changed it.
We fumbled through the Strange Small Stuff drawer for a 9 volt battery. We found two. Both, according to our smoke detector, were insufficiently charged to meet its needs.
I was so annoyed at the damned thing that I disconnected it from the ceiling. It continued to beep. Worse than that, the beeps roused others from their beauty rest. Smoke detectors on the first and third floors began to shriek in sympathy. The machines scolded us: WE ARE NO LONGER SATISFIED WITH YOUR BATTERIES AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.
My wife and I have raised demanding children. We did not yell at the smoke detectors to shut up. We did not permit the slightest physical abuse. I went to the supermarket and spent too much money on batteries which, as everyone knows, are sold for full retail in January because in December every kid in the country has torn the wrapper off a toy that runs on batteries and, by the time the dreariest month comes around, he has drained the batteries that came with the toy. Those battery makers know they have millions of perpetually panicking parents in their pocket, and they put on the squeeze.
I dutifully fed all my complaining smoke detectors and–the sound happened again. My wife went to the fireplace and adjusted the flue. We heard the sound again. We searched the kitchen for whatever device might have caused it, and found nothing. Could the sound have come from another room? A quick check of the room near the heater revealed that a carbon-monoxide detector was on the brink. We replaced the batteries and we still heard the sound. What did this mean? My wife went out and bought a new carbon-monoxide detector while I awaited the one heater repair guy with a carbon monoxide sniffer who was willing to make a same-day emergency visit.
The repair guy did not find any carbon monoxide, but a pipe leading to the hot water heater was letting a little bit of gas into the room. He tightened it. We thanked him and felt relieved. What if that leak had become leakier? One static electric spark from an acrylic sweater or a our polyester blend fleece jacket and ker-BOOM!
The heater guy left and I did the addition: $16 for new smoke alarm batteries, $40 for a new carbon monoxide detector, $199 for the emergency furnace inspection and…
We heard the sound again.
I turned to my wife with a where-have-we-failed expression that I never thought I’d wear again, considering that both children have graduated college, are free of student debt and have decent jobs. Eldest is married. Youngest is engaged. We had searched the house, overspent on batteries and detectors, and even sought the assistance of a professional! What else could a concerned parent do?
The sound kept at us, especially when we were in the kitchen, cooking, eating and cleaning up.
I have studied folk superstitions and confess to occasional acts of anthropomorphization. I even harbor a few irrational beliefs regarding the future and Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to People Who Deserve Them. Though we live less than 35 miles from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood where novelist, screenwriter and Georgetown University alumnus William Peter Blatty set one of the most infamous horror novels (later made into five feature films and a TV series) of all time–I was not about to call the exorcist!
I resolved to endure the sound, live with it and ultimately ignore it until–
We were in the kitchen making dinner and I put my foot on a the lever that opened the lid of the stainless-steel-and-black-plastic euro style garbage can. I tossed in the skins from peeled onions (having learned NEVER to put onion skins down a garbage disposal) and took my foot off the lever. As the lid slowly closed it made a–
I opened the lid again, removed my foot, and heard the sound again.
I brought my wife over. She’s a scientist who teaches. She believes in the scientific method and, like me, is impatient for the Twenty-First Century space-age awe and wonder promised by science fiction writers that NASA is no longer delivering.
I opened the lid and let it close. She told me to do it again. I did it again.
“Must be the hinge,” she decided.
I agreed. I opened the lid one more time and realized that this was more than two under lubricated surfaces creating a sympathetic vibration as they moved against each other.
This was not a crying machine demanding attention. It was something different, deeper, a cry from that very essence of the thing’s being.
Our garbage can, having heard the clarion call from the singing toilet, was talking to us, saying, you may not know me personally but I just want to remind you how appreciative you should be that I take in just about anything you put in me and keep your kitchen stink-free so you can savor all those fragrant fumes from that roasting chicken or the Bolognaise sauce whose onions you just peeled, and I will continue to do so, whether you listen to me or not, whether you consider the existential angst inherent in being a willing receptacle for the smelly, unwanted organic material that you so blithely discard, of your as long as you carry the trash down into the garage at regular intervals, replace my liner and rinse me out with soapy water when the liner breaks.
All in one heroic toot!