The buzz of the bell reverberates deep inside Manny’s throat. The girls—showered, shaved, plucked, bleached, perfumed, lotioned, and powdered—arrange themselves in theneon-lit lobby facing the front door, waiting for him to open it, introduce each of them, and encourage the client to pick a date. Darla hangs back, waiting for her place at the end of the line. She thinks she gets picked most from that spot, Manny knows. Every girl would rather be picked from the lineup than have to go push for a date in the bar, even Darla, who’s a damn good pusher. Being picked from the lineup is a sure thing, cash in hand. This is how Manny convinced Darla to quit dancing in the first place. “Girl,” he said, shouting to her over the squeal of distorted electric guitar inside Spearmint Rhino. “Stripping? You might as well be waiting tables. Come work for me and you’ll never have to beg for tips again.”
Manny claps his hands. “All right, ladies. Remember, they don’t come in here for interesting, OK? They come for interested.” This is the first client they’ve had all night, and they need the business. He opens the door. “Welcome to the Cherry Patch Ranch.”
On the front step stands a good-looking kid with smooth olive skin, glossy black curls, and eyes as bright and blue as the swimming pool out back. Manny hands him a packet of brochures and a menu, ushering him through the threshold. “Is this your first visit to the Ranch?”
“Hello,” says the kid softly, reaching to shake Manny’s hand. “It is nice to, ah, meet you.”
“Well. It’s nice to meet you, too. You’re welcome to have a drink at the bar or choose a girl and let her take you on a tour. All these lovely ladies are here to make you feel at home.” Manny introduces the girls by their working names, the only names known here, a rule they need never be reminded of. Down the line they each say hello. They give a little wave and smile, and Manny can almost hear it in the space between their clenched teeth, louder for this polite, smooth-skinned kid with an exotic accent than ever before. Pick me.
First is Chyna, a heavy half-breed Shoshone in a plaid ruffled jumper outfit. Geoff, one of her regulars, brought the outfit for her as a present, hoping she’d give him an extra date for free, which she did, straddling him near dawn in the bed of his truck where they wouldn’t be heard on the intercom system wired throughout the trailers, where they thought Manny wouldn’t find out.
Next in line is Trish, a part-time beautician who does most of the girls’ waxing in a heavily wallpapered salon in Sulfur called Serendipity. She charges half price, and they tip her accordingly. Bianca is beside Trish, her hair painstakingly straightened and oiled, her waxy pink C-section scar peeking out from under her red panties. Her two daughters, preteens now, live with their grandmother during the week. They think their mother is a masseuse at a spa in Summerlin.
Lacy is next in line, and though Manny can’t smell her from where he is, she’s wearing Victoria’s Secret Love Spell body spray, which the other girls can smell. Beside her is Army Amy wearing silver hoop earrings, frayed Daisy Dukes, and a squarish camouflage hat. She’s topless, except for a pair of blue sparkly pasties shaped like stars stuck to her big nipples with eyelash glue. Amy is the Ranch’s big name, the only girl here who’s done porn. It’s her picture on the billboards, the cab signs, the snapper cards passed out by illegals on the Strip.
Next to Amy, Darla wears a black bustier and a dusting of silver glitter around her eyes. She put the glitter on to satisfy Manny, who made her change out of the satin pajamas she wanted to wear. “Honey,” he said, “those things make you look—and I’m only telling you this because I love you—like a lesbian.” She pretends to fidget with her garters now, looking innocent and eager at the same time. Her niche.
The girls are all angles: the apex of their plastic pointed heels, the jut of their wet-looking lips, the obtuse of their jaws extended in stiff smiles, the acute of their nipples made erect from a hard, quick pinch just before Manny opened the door. Each angle is a beacon, combining with all the other beacons of the body so that each emits its own version of the same signal. Pick me, want me. But the kid is fumbling with the brochures.
A lot of young kids drive out here on their eighteenth birthdays. They ring the bell long and hard in front of their friends, drunk on machismo and MGD from the minifridges in their fathers’ garages. Watch me become a man. How quickly they turn to boys again when they come inside and see the girls in the lineup, all tits and perk like they think they’ve always wanted. Most kids pretended to be lost, ask for directions back to Sulfur or Vegas, as if they weren’t born and lived all their days within seventy miles of here. As if they didn’t know what this was.
—Claire Vaye Watkins, “Gold Mine”
Illustration Credit Sterling Hundley