Midnight Grey Goose
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« The War Comes To Markettown ||

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A combatant patrols a nunnery near Casimir Livchenko Boulevard, 29 Maro 1976


Excerpt from Midnight Grey Goose, an autoessay recounting the grand remapping of territory between factions in the earliest days of the war.

The Swindler's Hands Are Made of Gold

One morning I wake up in my rental to find that the signs do not lead to where they're expected. The lamppost pointing to Vaslenki and Seventh at the bottom of the hill has been stripped clean, painted over; Vaslenki and Seventh have been reversed, with a third direction pointing into the heart of the streetfront across. Workmen in maroon peaked caps are clearing away at a blockade with shovels and fire axes: built into the buildings themselves, such alleys found themselves sealed off after the City Provisionals of the 30s. Under the chipping of their blades (under the remains of wooden chairs, fireplaces, fishmongers' carts) the old-new alley shines. Marshalls clad in maroon direct jeepneys and handcarts through until the evening's bombardment closes the mouth in a shower of nails and pot shards. By night the wounded are carried off and Vaslenki and Seventh are in their proper places again.

They call the remains of the alley Salaman's Close, after a particularly illustrious local card shark who lives two floors below my rental. Something about the collapsed mouth of the alley reminds me of his quick hands, all ten fingers wrapped in rings glittering under the speakeasy's candlelight. Salaman dresses resolutely in the city's neutral-aligned grey—the monochrome scarves, socks, and pocket squares sold by activists on every street corner by the dozens—and he tells me there is no faction to his game; he wins alone and for himself only. It's merely a coincidence, he smiles in a flash of golden teeth, and for a second it's easy to believe he doesn't play it, isn't a part of this ever-shifting city and its wordless, chromatic game.

"Come by the back of Ma Frust's cafeteria after the bell. You won't miss it; there is a picture of a goose, and the clock's hands are turned to twelve."

In the photographs of him there's a way to him that's never still. I want to reach out and touch him again to feel the contours of the rings against his fingers, or at least find the trick to them, but there's only the lightning blur, the quickness, trails of light soft like cattails, cold like shaved ice. If I want to imagine the trick, I only have my memory to go on: the speakeasy's walls dusted a concrete-grey, the cards splayed upon a dull baize—Ma Frust's easy arms welcoming me in, patting me down—she lets me keep my Nikon, bless her heart—I can see him settle down in the opposite corner where the newcomers are, impress them into his game with a flourish or two. They were economics students, shifty-eyed, blue-scarved, who fled through the alley's opening and were stranded when the lines shifted. Salaman welcomes them all the same. "Don't worry, sirs, it's Treaty space, here's a trick on the house I'll show you… "

Five minutes later and the chips are out. He's dealing cards like hummingbird wings and the smoke in the air is like trying to shoot through gravel. The students are betting modestly and winning big. I see (he trusts me enough to let me shoot over his shoulder, "proves there's no lie", he says) Salaman's hands expand, contract, fly over the baize, over his dwindling pile of chips. Genuine sadness seems to flash over him, and the students are nearly slipping off their seats in rapture. Then suddenly—the one thing I manage to catch—in his hands hearts flashes to clubs, diamonds to spades. There is a change in tenor of the game. Wine is poured, winner takes all: Salaman pockets the students' change.

"Ah, you'll get better at this—here's fifty, let's go another round… "

The war doesn't end at the speakeasy door. Tomorrow Salaman will spend the winnings on twelve, fifteen bottles of Carnation Label Gin. The jeepney that brings it to Ma Frust is red-aligned, from the begonia on its dash. It passes through a checkpoint; pays blue-socked newsboys the toll. Its route traces the letter Б through the city until it passes through the dead zone, becoming impossible to follow through the gunfire and the fog. Bit by bit each step reforms the city. By evening a street sign will change again.

What have I learned from this? On the surface, not much. From memory there is nothing much more to consider. The images with Salaman's face are too blurry. All I can gather is the immediacy of his game, the quickness of his hands, and the texture of his world. Upon withdrawing my hand the grey of the baize is revealed to be nothing more than cigarette ash; the grain of the images nothing more than brick dust.


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