Authors: Jimmy Fox
“I guess history answers a lot of questions,” Tommy said.
“That’s my job in a nutshell.” Nick placed several sheets of paper on the table. “Have a look. I’ve come up with some suggestions for qualification of applicants. You start fairly wide and after a generation, narrow it a bit to a one-parent descendancy requirement, to ensure commitment to the tribe without harping on blood quantum.”
Chief Claude excused himself, allowing Nick and Tommy a good hour of work.
Later, as Nick stuffed his papers into his battered soft-sided leather briefcase, the chief returned.
“May the Great Spirit bless you and keep you out of New Orleans parking tickets,” he said to Nick as he slapped him robustly on the back several times. The Chief had often heard Nick complaining about the city’s draconian traffic-law enforcement.
“I almost forgot.” Tommy dug in a pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a wad of cash. “Here’s a small down payment, Nick. Three hundred dollars. I won five hundred on a scratch-off lottery ticket. Guess maybe I’m not all bad luck.”
Nick left the two men and walked into the secretary’s smaller office. He looked back to see Chief Claude conducting Tommy around the room, pointing to the shelves crowded with artifacts, helping the younger man understand how to build a new identity for the Katogoula. He envied Tommy his opportunity and his courage. To few was it given to cross the impossible gap of years and mortality, to form, as much as is humanly possible, a living link with the past.
Faint sounds of the casino filtered down a hallway lined with photographs of big winners. Did he actually hear prehistoric chants and the pounding of drums emanating from the chief ’s office, mixing with the muted electronic tintinnabulation of the casino? . . . No, this was merely a figment of his rampant imagination.
I’m the bridge keeper
Now, there was a title he could live with. He stood between two worlds, serving as the bridge keeper between white and Indian, between clock time and endless cycles, “modern” religion and ancient animism, between the individual bloodlines and the tribe. And he decided who crossed the millennia.
Seldom was so much at stake in his genealogical work, and he felt the responsibility as never before.
He took a deep breath that broke the spell.
“You okay, Mr. Herald?” the young Chitiko-Tiloasha woman asked. The monitor of her computer displayed spreadsheets thick with big numbers no doubt generated by the packed casino.
“Yeah, fine, Sally. Thanks.” He found himself near a photo of a ceremony at the White House, featuring a younger, handsome Chief Claude. “What was the occasion here?” he asked, trying to show he was not daydreaming but instead studying the photo.
“That was 1994. First time all federally recognized tribes were invited to the White House. Chief Claude’s up front, because he’s short. On the right of President Clinton.”
Nick suspected it was the chief ’s skill in working the system that ensured his proximity to power. In more recent photos Chief Claude appeared with other presidents and influential muckety-mucks. The breadth of his practiced smile through the years suggested to Nick that Chief Claude didn’t care which party held the reins, as long as he got what he thought the Chitiko-Tiloasha needed.
“Sally, do you gamble?”
“Oh, no sir.” She made a disapproving face at the foolish idea. “All
extra money goes into the tribe’s retirement plan.”
Offering “free” or discounted drinks for gamblers was a Vegas trick to persuade people they were actually getting something for their money. A tipsy gambler was much more likely to keep swiping that debit card and keep pulling the arm of the slot machines.
Nick savored another cup of strong, delicious black coffee, trying not to think how much it had actually cost him. He’d decided to hazard just a few more dollars on the slots before hitting the highway back to New Orleans.
The last of twenty dollars’ worth of quarters barely covered the bottom of his plastic change cup, which was festively decorated with cartoon alligators, armadillos, crawfish, and pelicans cavorting around the casino’s slogan, “Big Luck on the Bayou!”
Nick had heard that high rollers were rewarded with free food, complimentary rooms at the adjoining hotel, and golf and tennis privileges on the professionally designed courses and courts of this growing resort complex. He wondered if the perks—or comps, in industry parlance—included illicit sex, as was the reputed practice in some gambling Sodoms elsewhere in the country.
Nah, not here!
he told himself.
This is a moral outfit, all for a good cause, untainted by the standard depravity of the industry!
“May I get you some more coffee, Mr. Herald . . . or anything else?”
Nick looked up and saw a woman with lots of blonde hair swirling onto her shoulders. Early thirties, he supposed, attractive even under a showgirl’s load of makeup. Her stunning blue eyes had an arctic brilliance. She worked for the casino, and not in an inconsequential capacity, Nick instantly sensed, from the penetrating appraisal she was giving him.
“No coffee, thanks, but you could explain to this machine that I’m a really nice guy who hasn’t won a dime all day.”
She gave him a warm, obviously practiced smile. Nick read her nametag: “Val, Management Team.” Val wore a variation of the dealers’ costume, though she looked anything but institutional: frilly white shirt with bow tie, tailored red blazer, tight black stylized riding pants, tall black boots.
A stripper on a foxhunt
, was Nick’s immediate impression.
Val propped one glossy boot on his chair. She leaned close. Her perfume, strong even from a distance, hit him like a sadist’s kiss. He could hear the subtle jangling of her silver-and-rose quartz earrings—a product of the reservation’s crafts business, Nick recalled. He’d seen them in the casino gift shop and had considered buying them for his French friend, Veronique—but, dreaming of piles of lucre, he’d chosen instead to gamble away his commendable thoughtfulness.
“You’re the genealogist I’ve heard Chief Claude speak so highly of, aren’t you? Chief Claude’s a sweetheart. A very—oh, I don’t know—a very
man.” She waited a beat and then continued. “My company does business a little differently than the Indians. We’re aggressive, and we usually get what we want. And if our partners don’t like it, fuck them.” She seemed proud of her dirty brusqueness. “We’d like to do business with you, Mr. Herald.”
“Sorry, but I don’t see where I fit in.”
“You’d be surprised just how easily you could . . . fit in.” Her white teeth glittered viciously. “Our corporate president is absolutely fascinated by genealogy,” Val explained. “He’s authorized me to hire you to work on his family history. Of course, he’ll want
access to your time. That would mean dropping any other projects that might interfere. All of them.”
Nick stuck a quarter in his slot machine and pulled the handle.
“Projects, for instance, like helping the Katogoula get their families enrolled?” The slot windows whirled for a few seconds and then jolted to a stop on a lemon, an orange, and a bunch of cherries. He tried again. “Maybe I’ll have better luck at their casino . . . if they’re able to build one.”
Her mane of golden ringlets tilted as she took in a new perspective of his face. “Luck o’ the Draw International pays its contractors very well, Mr. Herald.
Nick’s instinct for self-preservation shouted an alarm and rushed forward to shield him.
“Let me sleep on it, Val.”
“That’s the best offer I’ve had in a while.”
“What I mean is, I’ll get back to you, okay?” He, too, was a cardsharp in psychological games of deceit. Holding up a coin, he said, “This is my last quarter. After this one, I’m outta here.”
She stopped him with a frigid hand on his wrist. Working in air-conditioning for hours on end will do that, but Nick was already convinced that Val had ice water for blood.
“This machine has been giving us some trouble,” she said, releasing his wrist with a lingering, cold touch. “A few minor adjustments should make your visit more enjoyable.”
She used a key attached to a security bracelet of coiled, plastic-coated green wire to open a panel on the side of the machine. A moment later she’d completed her adjustments.
“I’m in New Orleans all the time,” she said. “We have a riverboat casino down there, the
. Maybe we could go out for dinner, or something.” She slipped a card in his coat pocket. Her lips brushed his ear as she whispered, “I’d enjoy getting to know you
better, Nick. Especially since we’ll be working together soon.”
Nick dropped his quarter in the slot machine and pulled the handle. The wheels seemed to spin an unusually long time.
But what did he know about the mechanics of gambling, about odds and payoffs and mob connections, about the game Val was playing? His place was among dusty, mildewed archives, or in front of an archaic microfilm projector, attempting to match pieces of history for a genealogical jackpot. A scholarly hermit gets into trouble only when he leaves his monastic cell. Too many times in the past he’d forgotten this cardinal rule of his order.
The three wheels of symbols settled after much internal clanking and ticking. A trio of pots full of gold showed in the windows. Lights on the machine began to pulse, and a siren whooped. Other gamblers gathered, forming a small crowd, some patting Nick on the back, others grumbling about their own paltry payouts.
He looked around for Val, but she’d vanished like a light frost at sunrise.
Another casino functionary appeared, spoke into a walkie-talkie, and snapped Nick’s picture.
“Congratulations, sir!” the young man said with a cheerleader’s gushing good humor, pulling the photo from the camera and handing it to the flash-blinded Nick. “You just won
fifteen hundred dollars!
reret University graced an idyllic, verdant rectangle shoehorned into one of the most beautiful uptown areas of New Orleans, on the fringe of the Upper Garden District. Founded in 1839, Freret was a charter member of the ivy league of academically excellent Southern private colleges—or the “Kudzu League,” as Nick and his friends used to say, substituting the creeping weed of the Deep South for the aristocratic ivy of the North.
Along with the fine education and high teacher-to-pupil ratio it offered, Freret also dished up a sanitized taste of the addictive decadence of New Orleans. For those who survived this expensive, protected bohemianism, a Freret diploma commanded great respect, and sometimes prompted salacious assumptions, on a résumé. Prospective employers were wont to view a Freret graduate as a cross between Marco Polo and Marquis de Sade, or Sally Ride and Janis Joplin, who had sojourned in a mysterious, magical, perverted kingdom and returned unscathed—except for alcohol-induced brain-cell loss—to tell about it.
The New Orleans elite treated Freret like a distinguished ancestor who brought honor to the lineage. If you didn’t have a Confederate officer with a high-caste French or Spanish surname in your pedigree, a Freret graduate in the clan would go a long way toward redeeming that deficiency.