Fantastic Metropolis

Three O’Clock in the Morning

Nancy Jane Moore

You wake up in the middle of the night and reach out to touch your husband, but feel only mattress. The sound of police sirens jolts you completely awake.

Then you hear — louder than the sirens — the sound of a sultry voice promising callers the woman of their dreams for only three-ninety-five a minute. Your husband has fallen asleep in the living room with the TV on.

You’re not sure what woke you up. Light from the corner streetlamp filters around the edges of the blinds. You can see the outlines of your furniture — the fake teak dressers, the bookcase full of gothic romances. Nothing different.

You were dreaming. But you don’t remember what about.

What you do remember is that you didn’t finish that report for work on the percentage of insurance claims correctly filed. You’re hoping to get in early and do it.

You switch on the radio. The soothing voice of a BBC announcer tells you about genocide somewhere in Africa. You fall back asleep.

When you next wake up, sunlight is peeking in. It’s seven-fifteen. You’ve overslept. You put on your robe, hurry to the kitchen to make coffee.

Your husband is still lying in his brown naugahyde recliner, half-awake, watching the news. His pants are unbuttoned and he’s rotating his head, as if he has a crick in his neck.

On the TV, a perky, young woman with short blonde hair says, “In local news, a wall appeared in the middle of town last night.” The screen fills with a great expanse of concrete. A reporter stands next to it, talking into a microphone. The wall extends way above his head.

He says, “The wall appeared sometime between two and four this morning.”

You know the wall going up woke you at three a.m. Though that makes no sense. The wall is a long way away from your house. It runs along the train tracks that divide the right side of town from the wrong side.

Your husband says, “Good idea. We don’t need their kind.” He sits up abruptly, exits the chair, and goes and parks himself in the bathroom. You don’t get to take a shower until a quarter of eight, so you leave late, hit a traffic snarl, and get to work after nine.

A crisis has just occurred: The senior executive vice president for cost reduction needs to know why your department is using 3.2 percent more supplies than the other claims review departments. You join in to help the office clerk document that no supplies are wasted, which makes you forget about your report until almost noon when your boss asks for it. So you skip lunch to finish it.

A woman in purchasing lives on the other side of the wall, and didn’t show up. No one talks about this.

On your way home the radio announcer says, in a hearty voice, “Local authorities report that there is no way across or over the wall. In sports, the hometown boys lose another one. And we’re going to have some rain tonight.”

You want to watch the news, but your husband is watching a rerun of a sit-com in which madcap young people sharing an impossibly chic apartment talk about sex non-stop but never actually do it. During the commercials he clicks through the other channels at a rapid rate, only stopping for a moment when buxom but otherwise skinny blondes in bathing suits show up on the screen.

You serve dinner in front of the TV, and sit there watching a game show in which all the questions are about television programs. Even though you know all the answers, you don’t call them out. Finally you go to bed.

And wake up again at three a.m. You change the radio over to local news, and listen for fifteen minutes before they tell you anything about the wall. It’s moved. It’s closer to your house.

The next day, more people don’t show up for work. You stare at your computer, and try to concentrate on looking for the mistakes in the insurance claims in front of you. It’s hard to settle down to work. You email a coworker across the room to ask what she has heard about the walls. When a reply comes, it’s from human resources, reminding you not to use email for personal purposes.

The day after, two are missing from your department, and your boss gives a speech about everyone needing to do a little extra during the crisis. He assigns you another region. You stay late, and when you get home your husband has ordered pizza and eaten it all. You eat cold cereal.

When you wake at three a.m. the next morning, your heart is beating very fast. Your husband is not in bed, but you can hear the television. You’d like company, but you just lie there, feeling your heart bumping along. You don’t want to know what happened, so you just turn on the BBC. Only they’re talking about walls popping up everywhere and suddenly they don’t sound so soothing.

Rioters are burning an American embassy somewhere in the Middle East. The British prime minister is expressing grave concern. The Secretary General of the United Nations is calling a special meeting of the Security Council. You switch it off, and just lie there in the dark.

The perky blonde on the morning news tells you the latest: a second wall, on the other side of town. This one separates you from the more affluent. Your husband says, “Good riddance. We don’t need them hoity-toity types.”

More people do not come to work. Your boss assigns you yet another region. Today you stay two hours late. You wonder why you must do so much, when many of the people whose claims you review are on the other side of the wall. But you don’t complain.

Two days later you come home to find your husband sprawled in the recliner, a pile of beer cans tumbled beside the chair. He tried to go to work, but ran into a wall. You try to sober him up, cook him a nice dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, but halfway through he gets up and slams out the door. Comes back fifteen minutes later with a big bag of tortilla chips and a six pack of the new dry light beer you keep seeing commercials for.

You would like to comfort him, but you don’t know how anymore. You wonder if he feels the same way, or if he really just doesn’t care.

The hearty news guy tells you the next day that new walls have cropped up running the other direction. “Authorities speculate that some parts of town look like a big checkerboard,” he says, and his co-host gives the perfunctory laugh.

You know one morning when you wake up at three a.m. that a wall is now between you and work. You wonder if other people wake up when the walls go up. You haven’t heard anything about this on the news.

You get up and dress anyway. Your husband is still snoring in the recliner when you leave. You drive down the street until you run into a wall. This is the first time you’ve actually seen one.

From the TV pictures, you expect it to be smooth, but it’s rough, barely finished concrete. You notice a man trying to climb it, using the rough parts for hand- and toe-holds, but he loses his balance and falls hard to the ground. He lies there a few minutes, then crawls to his feet and starts back up. You leave before he falls again.

Your husband is drinking his breakfast, watching the morning talk shows. They aren’t saying anything about walls. Another perky blonde is interviewing the author of a diet book that allows you to eat all the beef you want but doesn’t let you eat any chicken or fish. Or vegetables. The perky blonde swears by it, says she lost fifteen pounds.

You start to clean. Scrub the grout between the bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush. Wash the baseboards. Get on a stepstool and wipe the top of the refrigerator clean. Vacuum until your husband yells at you that the noise is interfering with the TV.

The next day you work in the yard. Cut the grass even though it’s only three days since you last cut it. Weed the flower bed. Dig a hole for a new azalea, and go off to the nursery to buy one, only to run into a wall.

In the evening you stare at the TV with your husband. You watch a new sit-com about madcap young people living on the space station. They talk about sex non-stop but never actually do it. Neither of you laugh.

The late news comes on. The anchorman puts on his most somber face, and informs you that a man was cut in half when a wall landed on top of him. They do not show pictures. The anchorman says this is not the first time that people have been hurt by the walls. His words imply a government coverup. He seems more concerned about this than about people being hurt by the walls.

They run a clip of the President, expressing compassion for the victim’s family, and promising to appoint a government commission to study the walls. Your husband starts to snore, and you take that as notice of bedtime.

At three a.m you wake up gasping for breath, as if you’ve been running for hours full speed. You lie there, looking at the familiar furniture, listening for the TV. You hear nothing.

Maybe the power is off. But, no, the clock radio changes from 3:07 to 3:08. You try to calm your heartbeat so you can hear over it, listen again. Nothing.

You’re scared to move, but you get up anyway, put on your robe and house shoes, and pad down the hall.

And hit the wall. It runs down the middle of the house, cutting the bedrooms off from the living room and kitchen. You sigh, regretting the kitchen. But at least you have the bathroom. Which you use now, before going back to bed, where you don’t sleep any more.

In the morning you climb out the bedroom window. One wall skewers your property in half. Another cuts through your next door neighbors’ house. The street is blocked on both sides. The only way out is through yards. It doesn’t look like you can get very far that way.

You knock on the neighbors’ door. No answer. They were probably in bed when it happened. Then you remember that the houses are the same. Their kitchen must be on this side. You break a window and climb in, find coffee and cereal.

The neighbor is a handy type, always fixing something. You get his drill, sort through the bits, find the ones for concrete, run an extension cord, and start in on the wall. It takes longer than you expect to even make a dent.

By mid-afternoon you have blunted all the concrete bits and made a dent three inches deep. You try the wood bits, and make no progress at all.

You go back to your bedroom, taking food and tools.

At three a.m. you wake up trying to scream, but cannot make a sound. The room is completely dark. You know without looking that the wall is right outside the bedroom window.

You climb shakily out of bed, thinking vaguely of a drink of water. But you run full tilt into the other wall. It’s between you and the door.

You back away slowly, bump into the bed, and collapse back on it. But this is not the time to give up.

You take the pickax you stole from your neighbor and begin to strike the closet floor. The wood gives easily, and soon you have a hole, exposing another layer of wood. You hack at that until you can see the ground, and thank God that the house was not built on a concrete slab.

Once the hole is big enough, you take a shovel and dig. First you toss the dirt into the crawl space, but it fills up, so you start piling it on the bedroom floor. By daybreak you can stand in the hole up to your shoulders. It’s almost as wide as the closet.

You eat a peanut butter sandwich, admire your work. It’s time to start the tunnel sideways.

You dig like a woman possessed. Now you forgive your husband his laziness: If you hadn’t spent all that time doing yardwork you’d never have been strong enough to dig this tunnel. You dig it wide and deep enough so you can crawl along on your hands and knees.

After a few feet, you can no longer use the shovel. You crawl inside and use a trowel. The going is slower now. You take a break and eat the rest of the peanut butter.

You figure you must be almost to the edge of the house. You’ll be under the wall soon, and you start getting excited about what might lie on the other side. Will the neighbors be there, house back together? Will you have to explain about the food and the tools?

You start digging faster and faster. And then clunk. You’ve hit a rock. You pull back, and do what you do when digging in the garden: dig a little farther away. Clunk.

Slowly it seeps in. You haven’t hit a rock. You’ve hit the wall.

After awhile, you get tired of crying, and just quit. You wipe a dirty forearm across your face, blow your nose on your pajama top, and crawl back out of the hole. You open a can of tuna fish.

Nourished once more, you climb back into the hole. You know you’ll never get around the wall, know it goes too deep to dig under. You start digging.

Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Jane Moore.