The appeal was strong and nagging, appearing at the slightest opportunity and only avoided by guarding both spectacle and deliberation.
Even when considered impersonally, the temptation was quite comprehensible; the curt ‘For Emergency Use Only’ stenciled directly over the red handle instructing, “Pull Here” seemed a paradox in need of resolution. Such a deliberate blend of reverse psychology and imperative language might actually dictate the pulling of the handle.
And taped firmly underneath was an oblong wafer of paper that stated, ‘Warning – Undue Use of Alarm Will Result in fine or imprisonment’. The handwriting was neat and almost even, with a decisive curl at the bottom of each ‘U’ that hinted dreadfully at personal experience with the cost of this ‘Undue Use’. Although normally staunch in the face of such a small warning – speeding or climbing into derelict buildings had much bigger Signs, after all – the attraction of trying to solve the conflict with a hearty tug on the handle was a tad overwhelming.
So the problem then, as he considered it, was to pull the Alarm either without using it “Unduely”, or without being caught. An actual fire would take the away the challenge, and would probably have even worse consequences. Burning baked goods in the microwave would sound the alarm by itself and not need the handle to be pulled.
And then, of course, the “without being caught” was easy, but the “without being guilted into admission,” that would be more difficult. The alternative course, naturally, was simply to not pull the demanding thing at all. He could convince himself that the ‘Pull Here’ was the reverse psychology and that the warnings were the commands.
Picking up a thin stack of stapled papers, he held them upright and hit them the desk to make sure the edges were aligned, and slapped them into an open folder. And again with the next stack and folder. All neat, all in arranged, everything efficient and complete.
If only, if only . . . .
It would take courage, and that even more elusive quality, gumption. If only that alarm, with all the fascinating signs and commands, were not directly across from his desk.
Instead, he had the piles of organized, compartmentalized, and individualized paper folders. It was only a name tag paper-clipped to the folder, and a personalized greeting filled in at the top of the cover letter. But that counted for enough a difference, it was supposed. Rather like – if he wanted to be gloomy and clichéd – how each desk and cubiclized work arena looked the same but had a different name on the side. He could even imagine himself as a rat in a maze.
Did rat mazes have fire alarms?
“Now honey, mommy has to talk to this man in his office. Will you wait and here and be good?”
There was a woman with a little boy in the room, pausing in front of his desk to bend anxiously over the child. The child looked up at her quite intelligently, hands behind his back, eyes bright, and head cocked defiantly to one side.
“It will only be for 10 seconds. Ten. I know that you can count that much. Will you do that?” The mixture of firm and calm in her mother-voice was beginning to sound a tad bit strained.
His small, dark brows came together an expression of justified scorn at such an insignificant number. “I can count by twos,” he volunteered. “Two, four, six . . .”
“No, no.” She said hastily. “Count by ones, and wait till I am gone to start.” She herded him in the direction a chair, and looked up to give the receptionist a quick smile. He thought for moment that she was going to come talk to him, but she quickly tripped into the boss man’s office.
He watched the child for moment, as the boy stood in front of his designated seat, and looked at the wall paper. It couldn’t be that interesting, even to a child.
With great care, the receptionist chose a small silver paperclip, slipped it onto the folder, and slid the printed sticker of the individual underneath the loop. He looked up at the child.
The boy, being a child, was standing in front of the red alarm. Hands still clasped behind his back, he was leaning forward to look at the white letters. The receptionist could see his lips moving as a sounded out the words, “Pull Here”.
For a child, there is no dilemma, only instruction.
Unclasping his hands, he reached up and pulled there.
It took a moment, and a small sound screeching, but low siren began to whine through the building, and with a sputter, the sprinklers came on. The place sprang into bustling, loud, life, as people appeared, clattering and chatting, and streamed towards the fire escapes.
He sat still for a moment, feeling his hair being drenched through to his scalp, and the water trickle down his ears and neck. The words on the tags and in the folders were all streaming together on the wet paper, the bits of personalization – and hard work – dissolving under the blast from the ceiling.
The boy’s mother had him by the hand, and was talking very loudly and even more firmly and nicely.
He stepped into the collision of people, bodies and voices mingling.
And he heard, between the rustling movements and the keen wailing of the alarm, the high burbling of human laughter.