Le Grand Coup
By Kevin Tosca
“Stranger,” the captain said.
“I’m an American,” I said, “but I’m married—”
“Foreigner,” he said, his eyes cold and hard. “Disease.”
“An American,” I said, faltering. To have kept my calm after they
burst into our apartment was something. Not much, something. To reason seemed futile. I was a disease and they all had guns.
I kept speaking anyway.
“Married to a French National,” I said. “Four years. I’m
a father. I love—”
This man in charge of things put up his hand and I stopped. He made a gesture
with his other, a gesture well understood by the two men who entered our living room, grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed
me out of my home so I couldn’t look back to see my wife’s face or my son’s happy, oblivious eyes.
The stairwell was quiet, but Paris was breaking. Outside. You could hear it.
Europe too. Crumbling. The crisis had finally led to this, to gangs within gangs within gangs hunting solid ground with only
fear, ignorance, and desperation to guide them to this imaginary goal.
I could understand that, and yet I couldn’t understand a thing. Human beings
have always disappointed me. I’m no exception. All I could do was speak and keep speaking, and I spoke as we navigated
the stairs, spoke their language as I noticed strange marks on my neighbors’ doors, some kind of code. These animals
didn’t know enough to take tongues.
I said I was an American, yes, but that I wanted to become French, that I was
less than a year away, that I loved France, that France was my home, my only home, that I had a French wife, a French child,
thirteen months old.
Deaf and mute this captain was, his eyes distant.
Then I lied. I said I hated foreigners as much as he did, said that they were
ruining our country, that they were an abominable stain on the homeland, that each and every one should be summarily killed
in the streets like the dogs they were.
“Ah bon?” he said, arching his eyebrows. Really? this meant.
“C’est vrai?” he added. It’s true?
“On verra.” We’ll see.
The hands guiding my shoulders had lost their certainty, no longer felt like
executioner hands but beggar hands, clinging as much as they wanted to lead.
In the street, in my heartbreakingly beautiful Parisian street, there were five
or six other men with guns, smoking cigarettes, passing a bottle of wine. Behind them was a little caravan of humanity, a
few dozen men, women, and children with their hands tied and their waists bound to each other.
I noticed one of the unshaven men had a shovel. He was leaning on it the way
a man taking a break in a field does, both hands wrapped as if in prayer on the handle, his body’s relaxation belied
by the fear tensing the skin around his young man’s eyes. Everything was gray, as it often was in Paris, but the edges
of his shovel shone.
“You hate?” the captain asked me in English, pointing at the crowd.
He made another gesture and the man with the shovel straightened up, came over
to me and handed me his tool. It felt thick and dead and cold, like a corpse’s forearm.
Another man passed his bottle and untied a boy. I noticed how the lasso-like
rope fell to the ground, how it rested there, around absence. I noticed the other empty lassos.
The man brought the boy over to us, a boy most likely from North Africa, a boy
whose head came up to my belly button. I stared at his eyes. They were not happy, oblivious eyes, like my boy’s. The
dirt made them very white.
“Vas-y,” the captain said. Go on. “Proof it me and you have
wife and child. My word you have.”
He was serious and he was smiling, and he was here now, with me, with his eyes,
and they were sparkling. He took a batter’s phantom swing to show me what I needed to do, but he did something odd with
his hands to show me the way, the angle, with which the shovel needed to be held. Now I knew why it had been sharpened.
I took a step back.
One could argue there was a choice to be made here, if one believed in such things.
I say this because the captain was equidistant to me from the boy, and he was standing there, impassively confident, looking
like a psychologist watching his disciples run the thousandth trial, no fear of anomaly on his face. The boy, the longer I
stared, the more I broke through his fear and his courage, he became my son.
I lifted the shovel behind me, torquing every muscle and trying to squeeze the
death out of that dead handle with all my force and anger and love.
I stared straight into that child’s eyes, my own, needing to remember everything.
A plop. Then another scream. A woman’s, behind me.
I looked over at the man, another boy really, whose filed shovel I had used.
His face no longer looked so hard, the sham of nonchalance and certitude and indifference having passed from his eyes, but
the captain’s eyes were different eyes now. They were the eyes of the father. They were fatherly and tired eyes and
they looked as if they might have even been proud eyes, too, but that’s hard to say, as it usually is. He made another
gesture, this to another son who picked up a can of paint and a brush before disappearing inside my building.
“D’accord,” the captain said, extending his hand to me. Okay.
Kevin Tosca's stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Fleeting, Flash: The International Short-Short
Story Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Underground Voices, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. He lives in France. Read more at