The ritual of Domino Night began the summer after we immigrated to the United States. On warm, dry Friday evenings, after we ate dinner, Mama and Papa collapsed the card table and a folding chair from our kitchen, then Papa hefted them the entire half-mile down the tenement-lined sidewalk to where Broad and Union Streets converged, ending in the emerald triangle called Salem Park.
Once there, Papa plunked his table and chair among the labyrinth of other players—all Russian-Jewish Papas and Grandpapas—and commenced doing battle. The United States and the Soviet Union were waging their own war in the eighties, each threatening to nuke the other into extinction. Speaking Russian within earshot of American passersby was asking for trouble. Too ashamed of their broken English, the players spoke to each other through the slide and click of their moving tiles.
When I wasn’t off trapping fireflies in old jam jars, I was hiding behind the bushes on the northern angle of the park, which pointed towards Manhattan, secretly practicing my English curses with a tribe of equally naughty grade school kids. Or, I was hanging with Mama on the southern angle, which pointed towards home, my presence shielding her from heckling in-laws. Or, I was standing beside Papa, watching him play, a distraction he would allow only while winning.
Today I know that Domino nights were a proving ground for Papa’s much later conquests—like wealth and corporate celebrity—personal victories that, according to Papa’s polemic, upheld the American Dream as something available to all who were willing to work hard and sacrifice. In between moves, he used to sit in utter stillness on Domino nights to consider his hand, bony elbows propped on bony knees. A still life of sinewy limbs folded in on each other, poised to capture a hundred black dots, like a young mantis seconds before pouncing on a colony of beetles.
Meanwhile, Mama and I waited—often in corners of hedgerows, often until midnight—for it to end. Once it did, Papa hefted my small, sleepy body onto his shoulder, carrying me back along the concrete path lined with tenements, my head bobbing beneath his chin, the sounds of motors and the threat of epithets muted by the nighttime sigh of a city that was, for the moment, too tired. The world silenced by my ear pressed against his heart.
To make room for me, Papa left the card table and folding chair behind, to be delivered later by one of his opponents—a tacit consequence for losing.
Tali Perch earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys writing about parenting, feminism, cultural anthropology, and her childhood as a Soviet-Jewish refugee. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Under The Gum Tree, The Colorado Review, Longreads, Mom Egg Review, and elsewhere. Tali’s essay “Records on Bone” (2019) was nominated by The Colorado Review for a Pushcart Prize. Currently, Tali is working on a memoir about the challenges of assimilating into American culture as a soviet-Jewish émigré during the Cold War.
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