April 11, 2010
The following short story was originally published, by Twenty3Magazine.
‘Lighted souvenirs?’ she drones, sauntering through the flashing casino. Fishnet stockings, tuxedo leotard – she almost pulls it off. Could have twenty years ago. She slithers toward the cards tables adorned with glow-in-the-dark this and that, a heavy tray of lit-up goodies strapped around her neck – glow sticks, magic wands, trinkets blinking neon. ‘Lighted souvenirs?’ she offers them, the guests – those who celebrate while she slaves.
She’s lived in Vegas for years. Made a living off the bright lights. Slept during the days, partied at night. Now an overtold joke, Vegas used to at least make her laugh. Still she keeps at it everyday. Plays the slots. Drinks her Scotch. Tries to behave.
Everyday they build it up: The Strip. How appropriate. It does just this. Takes it all off.
Stripping had been her ride to the top. Thank God she’d had the body for it. Helped that she drank her meals and smoked her desserts. The booze gave her the nerve to get onstage, the cigarettes rewards for being brave. Nowadays, her job is to make her guests feel at home here at The Stardust, even though she wishes they were. They just keep coming. Never leave. And it never, ever stops. It’s true what they say: the city never sleeps.
She can’t sleep either. Hasn’t for months. Takes a catnap here and there, ten, twenty minutes, then her body jolts awake, eyes pop open, spine snaps up. No rest.
She glides through the ruffle of the spinning slots at the end of her shift and punches out. It’s noon, time for bed. She heads to her suite on Floor Nineteen. Sits on the bed, looks out the window. Thick pings of the ice cubes dropping into her Scotch. She swishes it around in small sips – eye twitching, stockings itching. When she sleeps, when she really sleeps, is when she takes off her clothes and stands naked in front of the window for all of Vegas to see. When she shows them who she is. What she was. What she could have been. She sleeps then for hours and wakes up sometimes feeling almost alright. Not today. Today she will strip for no one.
On days like this she heads downtown away from strip, back to old school Vegas. She puts on more make up on top of the old stuff that’s worn off. It’s always doing that, sliding away in the heat. She smears on cover up under the bathroom’s red heat light with a dirty sponge. Cakes it on. The thicker, the better. Now the eyes. Damsel Discobeat eyeshadow for class, Moroccan-orange blush for sass. She look in the mirror. Stuff never does what it’s supposed to. Crappy junk. Still she doesn’t like to take it off. Although it does come off, sometimes, late at night, when she sneaks into the pool alone. She leaves it on while she swims, oily streaks of purple and orange chasing her, an eye out for security guards. She never lets them come too close. Even though she doesn’t care what they think.
The Vegas heat hurts as she steps outside. Sizzles up at her from the pavement like a rattler. She staggers down the sidewalk like she’s already drunk in her too-tight hot pink heels. Five naked asses joined at the hips moon her on the tail of a taxi as it sails past. She lifts a sagging arm to flag it down. It pulls over. She shovels herself inside
Billboards shout into the car: Girls, Girls, Girls. Live Young Girls.
‘I used to be a ripper.’ She tells the cabby.
‘Uh huh,’ the cabbie mutters, tilting the rear view mirror away.
She tries not to look out the window. The air-conditioning stings her eyes.
The old Las Vegas is empty today, every day. A few sad hot streets left behind. “Here,” she tells the cabbie nowhere in particular. She chucks a ten at his head on her way out.
She looks around. Can’t decide which one today. Nude Girls Daily. Girls: Barely 18. Girls. Little bitches only. No women. The downtown heat swarms her fast. Overheated after only a few minutes in the sun, she steps into a Seven Eleven and eyes the newsstand from from behind her eyeliner. Picks up a copy of The Daily Star and teeters to the counter, her high-heels too steep, gnarling her toes.
‘Pack of Camels, too,’ she says, eyeing a VLT at the front of the store. ‘And ten bucks of quarters.’
She slouches onto the stool ignoring her reflection in the glowing screen and pops in the quarters with last month’s fake nails. She’s played this one before. No win. No win. No win.
She goes to stand, falling off her heel, grabs her purse, and stumbles next door to a place called The Cave. Her kind of place. Dark, almost empty. No girls on stage. No girls at all.
‘Can I getcha?’ asks the bartender, his blue eyes on the empty stage.
She lights a smoke. Drink in hand, she flips through the pages. Worthless fools. Nobodies. Madonna – she’s about this close to washing up. It’ll all come crumbling down. Same story for this Spears – fake ditz with her glamour and glitz. They’ll get what’s coming to them. They’ll see. She orders another drink. At the end of the bar sits a handsome young man who deals blackjack at The Stardust. She takes her ashtray and slides over next to him. ‘You work at The Stardust, don’t ya?’
‘Sure do. How d’ya guess?’ He takes a sip of his beer, his gaze on the corner TV. Big brass belt buckle, blonde moustache, hairy arms.
‘Work there myself,’ she says, exhaling smoke the way she learned to – like you’re blowing a kiss.
He nods, looks around. ‘Speaking of I reckon I’m due for a shift.’ He tucks in his stool, slaps some cash on the bar, and flicks her a nod as he leaves.
‘I sure don’t bite,’ she says to her drink.
But he’s long gone. Cheesy jerk. She orders a shot of vodka, downs it, and steps into the burn.
It’s dizzy hot out. She grabs onto a bus stop bench for balance. The couple sitting on it leans away.
‘Matter?’ she spits. ‘Never seen an old woman before?’
She hates the term. Never wanted it to come to this. She wonders if she could still sell her body. Maybe she could – give them more for less. She smiles at the thought. No. She doesn’t do that anymore. She’s a lady now. She pulls out her compact and puts on more lipstick – pink to match the sun.
She decides to walk back to The Strip. She wants to see the transition between the old and the new. Wants to feel it. In the baking heat her high-heels draw blood from the backs of her heels. She could take them off but the sidewalk would scorch her feet. How would a lady walk? Back straight, small steps. She can do that. What would a lady do? Go for a nice drink at one of those fancy hotels. She’s good enough for those dumps. She’s what made Vegas what it is today. Shouldn’t she get to enjoy it?
She breathes in the air like nicotine. The Bellagio, the MGM Grand, the Venetian – parties she’s never had the nerve to crash. Maybe she’d fit in there as a lady. A lady on her way to have a nice drink.
Parched, she nears Casear’s Palace. In the gel of tourists, no one steps aside for her. Lousy rich folk. Hussies. Spoiled brats. She hangs her head down to the sidewalk cracks – littered flyers of naked women strewn over the ground. A deep thirst shrivels her throat. She needs that drink.
Her purse slides off her shoulder and its contents scatter. Too tired to bend down and pick them up, she lets them roll into the gutter. A white limo pulls up beside her. A starlet steps out, wrapped in glitter, head held high, and takes someone’s hand. Cameras snap as people crowd around. Her bodyguards form a shield.
‘Tramp!’ she calls out as loud as she can.
The star turns, selling her stunning smile.
The star pretends not to hear.
She spits in the star’s direction. It hits the bottom of her leg.
Ladies don’t spit she realizes too late.
The star bends to wipe her leg as her bodyguards encircle the star and the crowd encircles the bodyguards. She’s shut out, left to wither in the sun. It can’t beat her. She knows it too well. Just when you think it will, it fizzles out. Fast.
As night finally drizzles down and the blue-bright lights start to blink leftover heatwaves steam up from the pavement. Just one drink. That’s what she came here for.
The walkway of The Bellagio stares her down with its perfect curves and soft yellow lights. No. She’s too tired. Too hot. Too damn thirsty to go in there. She crosses the street to a small souvenir store and buys a bottle of water for fifty cents. Takes a sip, then pours the rest over her hot bleeding feet. She disappears down a slim sideway between buildings, looking up at the lights to find her way. Never could get a good picture of them at night. Always foggy and streaked like a photograph of a ghost. She spots an old ladder beside an overflowing dumpster and reaches up on its rungs.
She starts to climb.
Up one story, two. She drops a heel – lousy knockoff piece of crap. She keeps climbing. She’s never felt this high before, except in her suite on the nineteenth floor. She flings off the other shoe. The pain subsides. Her stomach jitters. She watches her toes to make sure they don’t betray her.
On the roof there’s a sign lit so bright her eyes hurt. She’s too close to read what its bulbs spell. She reaches out to touch one of the blazing lights. It burns her. Melts the print off her fingers. ‘Damn it,’ she curses.
She takes off her sleeveless blouse and wraps it around her hand. Freshly bandaged, she tries again. The bulb dims in her hand as she unscrews it. But nothing else happens. She hasn’t been electrocuted or anything. Dead bulb in hand, she squeezes it firmly. As hard as she can.
It doesn’t break.
She steps to the edge, barefoot and topless, her blouse around her hand like a boxing glove, the lights a nighttime desert rainbow, and looking down onto the people-clogged streets, at the vermin so crammed-in they can barely move, she drops the bulb and watches it fall.
A hole emerges in the crowd.
‘What do you know?’ she smiles.
The next one she tosses overhead like a baseball. Waits for a gap to appear.
‘Lighted Souvenirs?’ she sings.