This is middle age.
Beatrice Winser turned from her left side onto her back. Experience told her that she would lie in the dark for five minutes before executing another quarter turn onto her right side. Then she would return to her back in preparation for another interval of futility in her original position.
She could only guess at the time, but it must be well after midnight. For hours sleep had teased her like a murmured conversation in some exotic language. In the morning she would rise and force herself to act the part of the Librarian of the city of Newark.
She would instruct, commend, exhort, and discipline her staff, all the while longing for her bed, where she would spend another night like this one.
What was it about age forty-seven? Since her birthday in March she had spent uncounted hours staring into the darkness. Was it fear of mortality? She had no such conscious fear, but who knew what her depths harbored? Dr. Freud made much of the duality. Her life was certainly more than half over, but she had many productive years ahead of her.
She knew that this fretting in the dark was futile, but her mind refused to stop.
And now it was time for that richest of rewards for stubborn wakefulness, a trip through the darkness to the bathroom. If she turned the light on, she knew she would be giving up on even a catnap in the brief period before she left her bed for good.
The night was cool for July. First she had to disentangle herself from the sheet and light blanket. When she caught herself mistaking the hem of her nightgown for the sheet, she nearly cried out in frustration. Finally she swung her feet to the floor and found her slippers where they should be. If they had moved, she would have lost her composure completely.
Miss Winser stood, and the floor lurched sideways. That, she decided, was just too much to bear. If her own floor refused to cooperate, she gave up.
The nonsensical thought jolted her completely awake. A thin veil of sleep must have settled on her unnoticed, but it had fled. The next moment brought a prodigious clout of—what? Thunder? No, not exactly. The noise was on the same scale as thunder, but different in quality.
Right on top of the wallop came the cringeworthy chatter of glass breaking in her living room, which faced Mount Prospect Avenue.
Now there was no choice. She needed to see what was happening. Long habit guided her hand to the lamp on her night table. She turned it on. Her eyes flinched, and she waited for them to adjust to the light. She looked at her alarm clock next to the lamp.
2:08. That meant it was now Monday morning. Her methodical mind insisted on completing the thought: July 31, 1916.
She pulled the bedroom door open and peered around the doorframe toward the living room. A wedge of illumination from the bedroom spread and dimmed on its way down the hall. She followed the light.
Her front window had indeed shattered. She avoided the shards of glass on the floor as she went to the reading lamp by her favorite armchair. But with her hand on the switch she decided against turning it on. Interior darkness would help her survey the scene outside.
The entire neighborhood had awakened. Light from countless apartments and from the corner street lamp glinted off broken glass on the sidewalks. Many windows must have broken under the assault of—what? She still did not know.
She pondered what to do next. After a moment her responsibility became clear. She went to the telephone next to her reading lamp on the end table and lifted the receiver. She pressed the plunger several times, but heard only dead air on the line. Of course. Other citizens would also be calling the police and overloading the lines.
The dim illumination in the living room had taken on a strange hue. Miss Winser went back to her front window and looked again. The neighboring buildings loomed as against a background of glowing red.
Fire, she thought.
What should she do? The fire appeared distant, but it must be huge to occupy so much of the sky. She could not get through to the police or fire department, and she could not fight a fire herself. Nor was she capable of sparing herself recrimination, even when the responsibility was not hers.
That was the end of sleep for the night. She could not even consider it when she had no idea of what was happening.