Thursday, 11 September 2008

Crescent City Queen

They were roughly half black and half white, though definitely comprising a group for which race was the least significant feature. They seemed, all of them, bent on offending by their dress most reasonable standards of taste. Most wore gaudy workout suits in which, by the look of them, none had even thought to take a brisk five-minute walk. Chunks of fake gold and diamonds and pearls dangled from or were clipped to their ears, and gold chains, some fake some not, encircled their fleshy necks and wrists. All of them – at least fifty Nat reckoned as the crowd swept him and his party, including the personal assistant a few yards behind, to the boat – were chewing gum it seemed, and they were paired or in clumps of four to seven unto themselves, manless and seemingly content to remain so for the evening and beyond. From long straps they shouldered enormous purses the main purpose of which no doubt was to haul huge profits home to Chalmette, Jefferson, or the Bywater. They smoked, and fisted go-cups with various cocktails in them. Whatever they were preparing to do on the boat had about it an odd, romantic tinge, as though they were all singularly out on a date with the same cad who promised, and largely delivered, equal pleasure and exquisite heartbreak to each.

On the boat Nat, Roberto Mancini, Cookie Bates, and the personal assistant who followed them, wandered from deck to deck quietly observing the rituals of gambling. The Chubby Little Women had established altars before their chosen slots; from their enormous purses they’d pulled plastic Mardi Gras cups – Comus, Proteus, Bacchus, Zulu, Bards of Bohemia, Isis, and so many others, some tiny, that rolled in each season from all over the region – filled with dull silvery coins, fake leather or frankly plastic cases in which they kept their cigarettes (most seemed to smoke long, chocolate-colored Mores); some even retrieved snacks from the depths of those purses, and their go-cups never emptied. One actually fixed her make-up in a tiny compact mirror before slipping the first little silver wheel into the machine.

And the common emotion Nat sensed throughout the fields of silver slots, from floor to floor on the great ugly floating casino, was one which did not have a precise name like Joy or Despair or Indifference, but seemed an admixture of all three. A small anticipatory joy accompanied the dropping of the coin and the pulling of the handle, and was followed hard by yet another failure and therefore small despair which melted quickly into the vast lake of indifference upon whose mild swells the hopes of all true gamblers ride, minute to minute to minute. Some people, who seemed to have been at their stations the longest, actually appeared impatient to get the next disc into the slot before the flickering images of the current spin had even revealed success or failure. Pinching the coins, their hands hovered near the slits into which they dropped, one after the other, slivers of their lives: grocery money, a new transmission, school clothes.

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