Flowers in Concrete

Rosa Maria stopped in front of C tower. Boys and girls from the neighborhood were turning up in clusters, they’d waited for this moment for a week now, good mood, party clothes, name brand clothes, tracksuits. Last week’s success was on everyone’s minds. Black Move had a reputation as a gathering place now, good music, no fighting, nice atmosphere; word had spread through the housing project. With some worry, Rosa Maria noted the new faces, especially girls who might make it even harder than it already was to catch Jason’s eye.

Milling near the entrance to the basement. The crowd drew nearer, surprised to find a pair of new faces before them, orange armbands with the word Police over plainclothes.

Captain Moussa Traoré and his partner Laurence Da Silva were waiting, the door closed, a stop sign on a fluorescent yellow ribbon: No Entry. The way down to the party was blocked off, administrative ruling.

Tasked by the town’s police commissioner with a community mandate—getting to know the local population of 6,000, to better meet their needs—the two dressed-down civil servants had been sent without an escort.

“Evening, everyone. I’m Captain Moussa Traoré of the National Police. This is my colleague Lieutenant Da Silva. No music tonight: the mayor’s office, in conjunction with the police, has decided to seal the entrance to the basement for the well-being of local residents. It’s for your own safety and security; the facilities below are not up to standard for public festivities. You probably don’t even know, but spending hours down there is toxic. The air isn’t good for you—throw in cigarettes on top of that and it’s a clear health hazard. Why don’t you head out to a real nightclub? This is just a public nuisance.”

***

Sure of himself, Traoré raised his hands, smiled, and added, “No worries—it’s just a temporary closure. I will personally do what it takes and see to it solutions are found. Opinions will be sought from active members of the community. We’ll come up with safer activities that are a better fit. Be on the lookout for proposals, which will follow shortly.”

A voice rose from the middle of the crowd. “Take your press conference bullshit and shove it. All we wanna do is dance. We don’t need you and your dumbass proposals. No one even lives in that building. We’re not bothering anyone. You’re not from around here, so why don’t you and your old lady just take a hike?”

Da Silva could feel the tension rising. She’d given in grudgingly to her superiors; they hadn’t given her much choice. She and Moussa were stuck with these projects.

They had to calm things down, especially since there were a lot of young people here, many more than expected. Da Silva took Moussa aside. “Captain, we can’t back down, but we absolutely have to defuse this situation. These people are getting worked up, and there are only two of us. Maybe we should call in reinforcements? Just in case.”

Traoré turned back to the crowd. “Settle down. Let’s everyone try and stay polite, OK? We respect you, so show us the same respect back. Cooperate, and everything will work out just fine. We are fully aware there’s been a lack of activities aimed at teenagers and young adults in this area. We’re doing all we can to fix that.”

“Got that right! There ain’t shit to do around here, so we figured it out on our own! We don’t know you, so all we’re asking is get out of our way, go back to your precinct, stop hassling us. This is our home. You forget you’re black or something? You couldn’t even catch whoever killed Antonio! This basement was his idea. We just wanna dance! Maybe you guys offed him! Get out of the fucking way or there’s gonna be trouble. C’mon, guys—for Antonio!”

***

The throng was slowly making for the two officers, a clash close at hand. Moussa held his ground, arms open. Anxious, stricken, Laurence wavered, then stood firm by his side, calm and impassive.

***

The abuse was contagious, an unspeakable roar from the menacing swarm. Frustration, rage, Black Move regulars were protesting, they could make out, “Shit . . . assholes . . . fucking burn the place down . . . racist pigs! . . . right in their fucking faces!”

Fists were clenched tight in pockets. “Same old story . . . banning everything . . . can’t let those fuckers get away with this!”

***

Suddenly, from the building across the street, someone snickered. His voice drowned out the racket when he shouted, “This isn’t fucking Africa! Take your bullshit somewhere else. Go on, scram! Beat it!”

A man was yelling from his window, gray chest hair boiling out of his wifebeater, a wicked, revanchist gleam in his eye. “The hell you waiting for? Why don’t you go hassle your shiftless dads? I said move!”

Lucien had been watching. Lucien Marchand, embittered former colonial army corporal, regretting the best years of his life given over to his country. Proud of having brought, with kicks and blows, civilization to savages in the tropics. Twenty years of serving the flag and he could solemnly declare, as if after considered reflection: “Muslims are shifty and negroes are shiftless!”

From the fourth floor, he sorrowfully oversaw his country’s decline, pained to watch it slide into chaos, clamor, and filth, the very land he’d sacrificed his youth and spilled his blood to save. Now they were taking his home away from him.

A misanthrope, Lucien Marchand had lived alone since his wife died, sudden cancer. Powerless, he’d been a witness to the death throes of the only person he’d ever really trusted. Nothing could cure her of the insidious disease that gnawed away her insides. He’d tried everything, knocked on every door, to no avail. The indifference they’d met with had made them feel lonelier still, and she’d died in his arms, on her side of the bed they shared. Lucien had kept watch over her body for a whole night, weeping freely, before calling an ambulance.

His wife . . . his last link to the world. Sometimes he went hours now, even whole days, without speaking to a single soul.

Rage. He couldn’t take it anymore. It was all blowing up right outside his building. No one was safe. Those foreign languages he couldn’t stand, right in the street, a daily assault on his ears; swarms of rude children, rowdy and dirty—an invasion, especially during vacations, morning till evening, and sometimes well into the night. Sheer torture. Backfiring scooters, other vehicles—no, those people had no respect for anything, they were wild animals, not to mention the illegals who couldn’t even speak French. By dint of writing letters and complaining to the mayor and the prefect, he’d finally gotten the authorities to do something about the deafening din on Saturday afternoons.

“Go home! Go back to your shithole countries! I never want to see you here again!”

Furious middle fingers rose his way, a flood of threats, tension turning to hatred among the teens. “Shut up, you old bastard! Bored? Can’t beat your wife now? You’ve been on our case ever since she bought it. Take a hike before shit gets real.”

“You little shits! Don’t you dare! You’re not even fit to mention her! Don’t you dare!”

In the middle of the agitated crowd, Jason stomped the ground several times. “Goddamn sick of this shit! We never get a break!”

***

Jason had spent the week shelving items of every sort under the gaze of his unpleasant boss, taking out the garbage and mopping the floor of the superette where he worked. His free time was focused on the party planned for Saturday afternoon. Outside of work, his every ounce of energy was bent toward readying for it.

He downed the rest of his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, a gleam of nasty resolve in his eye. He was wearing his well-shined black shoes, white jeans, and a sky-blue polo shirt under a light jacket. That morning, he’d been to Boubacar’s for a haircut. He had class, he had style, he was ready at last to dance and strut—and the cops had stolen his show. It was too much. Then that other racist added, “I said beat it! The hell you still here for? Deaf or something? No speak French?”

“Now that is too much. Shit! Can’t let him treat us like that!”

Rosa Maria had squeezed up next to Jason. She thought he was handsome, stunning. She whispered in his ear. “Forget it, Jason. Maybe they’ll open it up again next week. C’mon, things could go bad any second here, everyone’s all worked up. Don’t listen to that old asshole, just ignore him. He’s always a jerk. C’mon, forget it, please?”

The young man was deaf, irate. Injustice, yet again; humiliation as always. He worked five days a week for a pittance. That basement was the only place Jason really came alive, king of the world, the gleam in girls’ eyes when they gazed at him out there on the dance floor. He cracked. “Fucking drives me crazy!”

He shouted something about the man’s mother, everyone taking it up, echoes, insults ringing out from the crowd. “Go home to your whore of a mother and stick this where the sun . . .”

Captain Traoré, getting worried, called out for calm. “OK, OK! That’s enough! Sir, please close your window, no point aggravating the situation!”

Which was threatening to escalate. A beer bottle sailed through the air, crashing violently into a face red and misshapen with anger. Lucien Marchand howled; the howl of a wounded animal was lost in the furor from the street; he vanished from the rectangle of the window.

The police panicked. “Who threw that bottle?”

Everyone was still laughing when the former soldier showed up in the window again, his face scarlet with blood and rage, a hunting rifle in hand. He leveled it, muttering vengefully, “Sons of bitches! Little shits! I’ll teach those wogs and niggers something, I’ll blow ‘em all away!”

He took aim. A terrible blast tore the sky in two over the project of six thousand people. Another followed. Screams, sobs, every man for himself, push and shove, cut and run. Horrified, Traoré and Da Silva hurried teenagers toward cover, waving their arms. Someone called the police, reinforcements needed, emergency. Maximum alert.

from Fleur de béton. © 2012 Wilfried N’Sondé. Translation © 2014 Edward Gauvin.