Once Upon a City

by Thomas B. Reverdy
translated by Emma Ramadan


            It coursed through him like lightning, from his first days in Detroit. It was September 2008, on the eve of the crisis. They had dumped him over there with a curvy company car equipped with a Japanese hybrid engine and the keys to a small suburban house—hardly bigger or better furnished than what they give to single people living in the Corporation’s company housing—at the edge of a city on the verge of collapse, one of those places statistically reported to be the most dangerous on the planet, as if he were some sort of blue helmet thousands of miles from home, and he didn’t even have a teabag in the kitchen cabinets, not even a lousy package of noodles. The DSL line hadn’t yet been installed and the American SIM cards didn’t work in his phone. He would need to buy a new phone, and for that would need to get a contract, and for that would need to open a bank account. Monday. He thought again of Patrick, the American factotum, smiling. Of course it was a trap. Like China a year ago, and the other interpreter from the Party.

            He understood that he was alone. That the Corporation had abandoned him from the start, that he had always been abandoned. The subprime mortgage crisis and the collapse of the banks, the failure followed by that of the credit-financed industry only precipitated things; that’s what crises do.

            Eugène believed at first that it was a fit of anger.

            He stormed out of his place and, rather than looking for the nearest shopping center, he went straight into town. Out of reflex, out of curiosity, because it was discouraged in seven languages on the Corporation’s brochures that he didn’t have on hand until he was stuck in his empty bungalow. He went down Woodward and then back up, took Eight Mile, went back toward the center via Gratiot, and went back up Woodward looking for a bar.

            Night fell for the first time on the city.

            Everywhere there was a scent of elsewhere.

            Empty buildings without lights, without windows—closed up with brick or wooden planks—sliced out in the indigo twilight a troubling mass of sleeping giants made of stone and shadow. Partitions had been knocked down to lighten some of the structures, to avoid their collapse, which instead gave them the chiseled allure of cathedrals; you could see the sky passing through like in a stained-glass window.

            The signs for restaurants, gas stations, and the rare still-open delis looked like they hadn’t been replaced for at least thirty years. They flickered red and blue, green and yellow, orange and blue, red and yellow, with gothic or cursive letters like signs for the Tigers or Coca-Cola. Fast food chains and diners illuminated, floodlit, punctured the darkness of the somber streets. They sat their customers in the window, colossal guys devouring drooping sandwiches, leaning over plastic trays.

            Eight Mile, a boulevard of strip clubs whose neon signs, often pink or red, depicted the profiles of dancers’ bodies in the night going through a series of solitary Kama Sutra positions.

            There were loiterers of course and only once did he hit the accelerator, because the street he had started down was narrower and more populated than he had imagined. He saw all their faces turn away from the passing headlights—on second thought, it was perhaps only the kids that took advantage of these last summer pleasures.

            The small houses with their porch lights on, revealing a bench or a battered sofa, so incongruous in this town with their countryside manner, punctuating the streets surrounded with hazy terrains, seemed to him less sinister than when he saw them lined up, from a distance, from the highway in broad daylight. They were certainly less sinister than all those identical houses in the more chic suburb where they had lodged him. For a second he thought that if the street number weren’t painted on the house’s mailbox—something he hadn’t thought to verify before leaving—he would have been really screwed trying to find his way back again.

            He thought once more of the empty cabinets, of his telephone line, cut until Monday, of his mother leaving messages on his cell phone. He was thirsty, he looked for a bar.

            When he opened the door of Dive In, at the bottom of a barely-lit flight of stairs, a deafening flood of conversations and music poured into the street, suddenly saturating the silence of the night. People in shirtsleeves were packed in, along the length of the bar and filling the room, the majority standing, pressed against each other in small groups, laughing and speaking loudly, clinking mugs of frothy beer, ready to overflow.

            It was like entering another world, an endless summer swimming with body heat and the light of the yellow wood covering the walls, another world where the numbed sensations of the town depopulated by the crisis suddenly were back on top, in the cigarette smoke that was mounting up to the ceiling beneath the ineffective extractors, in the indefinable odor of tobacco, sweat, food, and cheap perfume, in the remixed, distorted jazz music, languishing waves of brass instruments washing up on electronic beaches. It was summer. Behind the dozen coffee makers on the copper-colored bar were shelves of bourbons, whiskeys, vodkas, and rums that formed a veritable library on the history of man when he chooses to live and let his hair down. Cut-up album sleeves, photos, news clippings, flyers announcing concerts, and music hall posters were stuck all over the place, papering entire walls, covering themselves up in places, telling the story of the eras in layers, a density swollen with time.

            It was summer, unexpected in this cold and rainy beginning of autumn, like everything that pops up when you’re on vacation and force yourself to pay attention to things, because you don’t know your way around.

            The first sip of whiskey burned his throat and esophagus, slowly going down behind his ribs, passing close to his heart. The waitress—he didn’t know yet that her name was Candice— had a strange laugh, gleaming and red. In the music, in this moment, crescendos of symbols were crashing against a wall of double bass as on a hollow cliff.

            And it will be on a night like this one, a few days after his arrival, that Eugène will make his decision. Chuck the house and the car provided by the Corporation, rent a room in the city and, since they had sent him to live there for a while, at least really live there. He will vow to succeed, but for his sake alone, because it was time. That’s what he’ll write in the first lines of his report, looking back on that night.

            Become a familiar face in this unknown landscape.

            Live. For the first time in Detroit.

            At heart, Eugène was an optimist.

The Devil’s Night

            With the first rain of this beginning of autumn, the crisis became irreversible. Eugène settled in the city, first in a hotel, Downtown, then a little higher in a furnished two-bedroom, lacking charm but clean, that he fixed up as best he could. The apartment was sufficiently close to Dive In for him to walk there at night. It was in crossing that neighborhood in his car to go to the office that he noticed the kids. He wasn’t paying attention at first. There were quite a few kids in the streets here, waiting for the bus in the morning and playing basketball at night; Eugène passed them every day. They were a part of the landscape, like the houses with barricaded windows and the stray dogs that had started to hang around the Zone where he worked—a large industrial wasteland that had in the end never been used. Going back a bit towards the north of the Zone was a more inhabited area, with a grocery store and diners serving eggs at any hour, atop fries or sausages, floating in a puddle of ketchup, the heart of a city still on its feet, all in all.

            When the fast food places, on the floor above the other restaurants in the building, closed, he started going through the neighborhood with the kids during the day, too. He went there in his car, in a used Mustang he had found, the radio and the heat cranked up, surrounded by soul music and a Florida climate. They were still there. Happy kids playing in tee shirts on the vacant lot on the border of the avenue, not worrying about the cold that was beginning to descend from the north, under the vigilant eye of the logos on the signs fastened to the balconies, “neighborhood under surveillance”—yeah, right!

            He wasn’t paying attention to the changes in his surroundings. He was thinking, “they should cover up more” or “at this hour they should be in school.” And then Diana Ross and the chorus of the Supremes carried him a little further away, elsewhere, and the terrain of the improvised basketball game disappeared in his rear-view mirror.

            The kids probably didn’t notice this car that drove through their street several times a day. A bit too shiny for the neighborhood, undoubtedly, they watched it speed toward the next avenue but that’s it, they had other things on their mind.

            Let’s stay with them a bit.

            That one there who just detached from the group, looking emaciated in his too-large tee shirt, that one’s Charlie. He’s the one who’ll shoulder the mission this time, because he’s the youngest and the most presentable. The nicest, a real angel face. He’ll be the one to buy the gasoline. They all contributed. With the crisis, for a little less than five dollars, you can buy two gallons of gasoline. It’s less expensive than a movie ticket, and there aren’t movie theaters in town any more.

            Walking to the gas station isn’t exactly a walk in the park; you have to cross empty streets where squatters are now the only occupants of the houses. Ordinarily, Charlie doesn’t go anywhere alone—he’s always with his group of friends of the streets, a band of kids that’s been inseparable since they learned to run. These are not bad boys.

            Once he’s on the premises of the gas station, he sees the two guys who are there, filling the tank of their Ford, tense up a bit and verify with a glance that he’s alone. They can’t stop themselves even though it’s broad daylight, even though he’s only twelve years old and wearing a tee shirt under which it would be difficult to hide a gun—Charlie is too skinny, his friends call him Skinny Charlie. It’s not their fault. Charlie, too, is uneasy. It’s clear from the way he walks without looking at them. Everyone finally eases up when he pushes open the door and enters the store. That’s how it is, in this neighborhood.

            He pretends to look around the aisles. Feels the gaze of the cashier, behind his cage, scrutinizing him as he lingers for a bit near the candy. The packs of chewing gum tempt him, the red cinnamon ones, they’re the strongest, almost as though they had pepper in them, like in the old gag candy Charlie never knew. Those are the only ones he likes, which astonishes his grandmother, who’s raised him since he was little. She always says: “This child only likes fire!” and it’s true. There are packets of every kind of chip, many chicken or BBQ flavored, donuts of every color, coated with a smooth layer of synthetic sugar, they could be plastic bath toys displayed in their transparent wrapping. There are containers of corned beef and pressed ham, tightly-packed, vaguely gelatinous, greasy purée, even the photo on the box is vomit-inducing, but we know there are people who buy that, too, surely people much fatter than Skinny. As for him, it’s the cinnamon chewing gum. He pretends to hesitate.

            Hesitating in stores is a reassuring comedy. If Fat Bill were there, he would probably tell him to hurry up, though he wouldn’t say it like that, mind you, he would shout at him from the other side of the street that he has a lot of fucking work to do and that he’d like to get a move on, but Charlie likes to idle about in stores. It doesn’t matter what store, in any case in this area there aren’t any more except for a few grocery stores and gas stations; the last florist closed when he was little. It’s a kid’s dream: he starts to idle around, picks up goods—cheap things—and puts them back, as if he had the money to buy everything. Which is exactly what he’s doing now, admiring a turbo kit guaranteed to work on any naturally aspirated engine. The cashier doesn’t take his eyes off of him.

            He smiles faintly when Charlie approaches him with the two rectangular containers he came to get. A year ago, he would probably have asked him what he planned to do with them, as a matter of form, to maintain his image as an adult that cautions kids against all the stupid things not to do with a jerry can of gasoline.

            Before, people acted as though all the kids of the world sort of belonged to everyone. They thought of their own kids. They wanted to shield them from worries. That was before the Catastrophe, or perhaps we ended up here gradually.

            But that’s over now.

            Charlie slides his five-dollar bill into the slot under the grate, and the cashier gives him back his change without a word, relieved that the kid didn’t try to leave without paying.

            All Charlie has to do now is meet back up with the others and wait for night to fall. Fat Bill is very excited, he hops from one foot to the other and talks nonstop. That night, it’s a celebration. The night before Halloween. Fat Bill is the oldest of the street kids, he always has ideas to keep himself from getting bored. He brings things, cigarettes, a baseball glove, a can of gasoline. He’s always in high spirits. He’s by far the tallest, or perhaps he only seems that way because he’s obese. Fat Bill is so fat that he looks tall. He’s a sort of inspiring figure, but he’s not the leader, there is no leader in their little band because it’s not a gang, just a group of kids that grew up on the same street and that find themselves there at night or when they’ve decided not to go to school, like on that day. They throw baseballs back and forth, they talk to the girls of the neighborhood. But there’s more and more room to throw the ball without risk of throwing it into the road, and fewer and fewer girls in the neighborhood. Families leave. Houses stay empty. The kids don’t go in them. The burglars, the metal pickers, the scavengers, the crack heads, and the squatters go in them, they are older and more dangerous. The kids stay away from trouble.

            But the night before Halloween, it’s a celebration. The “Devil’s Night.”

            Every year it’s the same thing. It’s the newspapers that gave it its name, but it really caught on here, in Detroit. Since the 1970s, after the big riots, one could even say that troublemakers go to great lengths to make the Devil’s Night resemble Hell as much as possible.