At night, the city blocks move. No one knows why or how it happens. It was simply this: one morning, people woke up and the city had changed.
It started with a single block — a simple, square block in an old run-down residential neighborhood. If you ask the people who live there what happened, they might tell you something like this: They went to bed one August night and when they left their houses for work the next morning, they found themselves half a mile away, sandwiched between the financial district and the river.
It was bewildering, because it was silent. There was no sound as the asphalt buckled and cracked, no rumbling as the block moved, no screeching of metal, no snapping of concrete. Just nighttime and silence and daybreak — and the sudden realization that they were now living in a part of town where the subway lines were unfamiliar.
The block that was originally where the residential block now stood had been there for two centuries, and it had been full of warehouses. As far as anyone knows, no one was there when the residential block took its place. No one knows what happened to the warehouse block. Maybe it ended up at the bottom of the river, or maybe it appeared in the middle of another city — or maybe it’s on the moon now. In any case, there hasn’t been any news about that block. And this all happened ten years ago.
When that first residential block moved, it left behind a hole in the ground.
You would think there would be broken pipes and old foundations there — as if the block had risen into the air and floated away. But really there was just a chasm. It was as though the houses, streets, sidewalks, and trees had been sucked into the earth, just like that – yanked downward, pipes and all – and simply emerged on the other side of town, leaving a yawning pit in their place.
The city sent a team of firefighters to investigate, but they came back without any answers. They went as far as the beams of their flashlights would take them and then they kept going downward. There was, they reported, no end in sight — and not only no end, but also no trace of the residential block. Out of concern for their safety, they were ordered back to the surface.
The fire chief was worried there might be a cave-in or toxic gases or an explosion, so he deferred to a team of geologists who took measurements with complicated instruments and sampled the air and flew a helicopter over the block with a special camera on it to take pictures of the chasm. The head geologist, a young up-and-coming professor at the university, described the situation with the phrase “a curious anomaly” and said his experience with the chasm had been humbling.
Several months passed. The consternation that had dominated the news immediately after the incident had died down now, and everything had been quiet for a few weeks. Everyone was convinced that it had been a fluke. The few hundred people who needed to had adjusted their routes around the city, and eventually things had settled down. It was business — more or less — as usual.
And then, one still and starless night shortly after New Year’s Day, a second block moved.
Things were a little different this time. Rather than disappearing in one neighborhood and appearing in another, the second block simply slid into the hole left by the first. It was like one of those puzzles people give as stocking stuffers at Christmas — the kind where there’s a famous picture broken into squares with one open space, and you’re supposed to slide the pieces around until you reconstruct the picture. The first block created the empty space, and the second block scooted into it.
You can imagine what the newspapers said.
By the time a third city block moved — a few days after the second — people were beginning to realize it wasn’t a fluke. After the initial moves it seemed that one block moved every week. As more and more of them mysteriously slid over or appeared across town, a slow wave of awestruck panic swept across the city.
It wasn’t confined to a single neighborhood or a particular geographic area of the city. This wasn’t the problem of the poor or the rich, the black or the white or the brown, the long-term residents or the recent arrivals. This was no longer a curiosity. It was a problem — and it was everyone’s problem.
By April, thirteen city blocks had moved. Some switched places with others; other slid into the ever-moving empty space; others simply stayed where they were but rotated 90 or 180 or 270 degrees. It didn’t take long before the streets stopped lining up. Suddenly, a highway on-ramp dead-ended at the third floor of a YMCA; a parking lot became an island of concrete as all the streets flipped and their entrances no longer applied; a Catholic school found itself in the middle of a notorious section of the red light district.
In the early days of the Great Jumble — as the newspapers had taken to calling it — only a few hundred people had to rethink the city’s layout. Now everyone was affected, even the people whose blocks were still in place. Enough of the city had changed that getting from one place to another was a new adventure every week. Not only could you not be certain whether, say, Union Street would cross Fourth Ave the way it’s supposed to — but neither could you know whether it was physically possible to reach your destination in the first place. One hotel lost all its business when all of the streets leading up to it ran one way in the wrong direction.
It became ever more dangerous to drive — one block might have stop signs in all directions while another would have none at all. In the early days, the city planners worked overtime to figure out new traffic patterns and decide which streets should have the right of way. They were hailed as heroes. But when it became clear that standards for traffic control were a moving target, the city turned their backs on the planners and resurrected something they had only ever seen in black and white films: traffic cops. A kid right out of the academy could make good money directing traffic if he was smart enough to keep up with the changing cityscape.
Strangely, the subway lines weren’t affected by the Jumble. To this day, no one knows how that happened.
In the years since then, city blocks have continued to move, one at a time, every few days. When it finally became clear that this peculiar condition wasn’t about to change, it became fashionable to comment on the state of things. Weekly newspaper columns now feature various theories on the mechanics and logistics of it all. The university gets regular press as professors in various fields offer their insight into the phenomenon. Engineers marvel at the effects of the Jumble on city infrastructure. Geographers analyze the power dynamics of the block movements, pointing out that the most marginal people have the fewest resources for handling the changes. Educators push for a city-wide universal curriculum so that students won’t miss anything important if they wake up in a different school district. Historians debate the locations of monuments on displaced blocks. Some argue they should be moved to their original locations. Others argue that the phrase “original location” is questionable.
It also became fashionable to predict the next move. At parties, mathematicians talk about the Jumble as a code to be cracked. They offer up algorithms and make gentlemen’s bets on which one will successfully predict the next move. No one has ever won twice. The mafia has a more serious arrangement, but people don’t talk about it much for fear of disappearing down the chasm. About a month ago, a psychic teamed up with an eight-year-old Rubik’s Cube prodigy. They predict that the city will eventually work itself back into its original configuration. The kid says we’re not quite halfway there. The psychic says it will happen sometime next October. The mathematicians scoff.
And everyone else keeps going about their business, wondering where they’ll wake up tomorrow.
Circus is a jack of many trades: writer, spoken word performer, bartender, bookbinder, and college professor. His story “Magic Trick” appeared in Cleaver Magazine, and you can listen to “Radio Wiltwyck,” his fantasy/horror-tinged satirical news serial, on SoundCloud. He lives in Kingston, NY.