Full Service Blonde
“The job at the Bucks County Reporter is perfect for you.”
“It is. You’re right.”
“Darling, you’ve come to your senses!”
“No, Mom. I’m going to Las Vegas.”
She was right. I was crazy. I chose a job in Sin City over a nice sinecure on the right side of the tracks in Pennsylvania. But neither one of us had any inkling back then just how right she was. Even with her overactive imagination, my worrywart mother couldn’t have dreamed up what lay in store for me. Looking back, I wonder if things would have been different if she had been able to foretell the future.
“Amanda, burglars are going to ransack your apartment. A thug in a ski mask is going to slash you with a knife. You’re going to get mixed up in murder. And that’s not the worst of it. Amanda, darling, you’re going to make friends with a prostitute.”
It wouldn’t have mattered. Once I decided to go to Las Vegas, no one could have talked me out of it.
Friday, December 9
I carry business cards that read “Amanda Burns, Assistant Editor, Las Vegas Light.” To my parents, they’re reassuring proof I’m a bona fide journalist, but what my title really means is that I update show listings and bring caffe lattes to Chris Brown, the Arts and Entertainment Editor. But my parents are in Connecticut, where it’s far more pleasant to imagine me interviewing celebrities.
“Amanda,” my mother will say on the phone, “I read that Bill Clinton was in Las Vegas last week. Did you meet him?”
No, Mom. I was standing in line at Starbucks.
Not that I haven’t learned a lot by spending eight months in Las Vegas. I know about high pollen counts and flash floods, the shortage of obstetricians and the oversupply of Mormon churches. I’m an expert at giving and following directions using casinos as landmarks. I know that when real Nevadans said Nevada, the VAD rhymes with MAD. Only newscasters broadcasting from Rockefeller Center say Ne-VAH-da. Well, I used to, too, but as I’ve been explaining, I’ve acclimatized.
Even so, I still have a lot to learn, even about subjects as mundane as the Yellow Pages. I suppose it should have come as no surprise in a city whose nickname is “Sin,” and whose taxis bear little billboards advertising tits and asses, but I was caught off guard by the fat section under the letter “E.”
I was already on the defensive, put there firmly by Ed Bramlett, who covered business at the Light, and J.C. Dillon, who had the local government beat. They both had at least thirty years on me, and they liked nothing better than to see me blush. As I toughened up, they got more creative.
I was minding my own business in the lunchroom when Ed said, “Hey, blondie, help me out and turn to ‘Entertainers’ in the Yellow Pages there.”
“It’s Amanda,” I said, but the phone book was right next to me, and I started flipping the pages. “Do you need some entertainment, Ed?” I asked, trying to sound sufficiently sarcastic.
J.C. emitted a snort that was supposed to pass for a laugh.
“Not when I have you, sweetie,” Ed said.
The pages fell open. “FULL SERVICE BLONDES,” read the four-inch headline. I looked up, and Ed smiled triumphantly as I felt my cheeks warming. I am the world’s fastest blusher, and I was glad I had worn my hair long that day. It covered my ears, which always heat up even more violently than my face. But I wasn’t embarrassed. I was mad. Ed had succeeded in turning me red again.
“It means they bring you coffee,” Ed said, and J.C. snorted again. I slapped the phone book shut and stalked out of the lunchroom.
Back in my cubicle, I pulled my own copy of the Las Vegas Yellow Pages from the bottom shelf of my bookcase and turned once again to the letter E. The section dedicated to “Entertainers” went on for at least a hundred pages, and most of the ads were just like the one Ed had needled me with: “Full-Service Blondes,” “Barely Legal Asians,” “College Hardbodies in Short Skirts.”
I called David Nussbaum, thanking God as I dialed that at least one of the reporters at the Light doesn’t treat me like an inflatable doll.
“David, this is Amanda. I thought you told me that prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas.”
“Yeah, it is in Clark County. Why?”
“Well, I’m just flipping through the Yellow Pages, and the section under ‘Entertainers’ looks a lot like—”
“Yeah. ‘Discrete and Confidential.’ ‘Full Service.’”
“You’re right. That’s what it is. Illegal as hell and all over the place. What’s ironic is that the legal brothels over in Nye County can’t advertise, but over here—well, there’s no law against promoting yourself as a private dancer. Why are you so interested all of a sudden? Tired of being Calendar Girl? Thinking of a career change?”
“Don’t start, Dave.” I told him about Ed Bramlett’s latest gambit.
“Amanda, there is nothing more threatening to an old reporter than young talent. He’s just jealous.”
“Of the coffee chick whose assignments never go beyond finding out when lounge singers perform?”
“Of youth. Of beauty. Of a degree from Princeton.”
I was so glad David and I had Princeton in common, even though he graduated four years before I enrolled. I never fully appreciated the value of a shared school until I got this job. I was still an alien, but at least there was somebody of the same species in a nearby cubicle.
“Got any good weekend plans?” David asked.
“I was thinking about driving up to Zion tomorrow,” I said. “I’ve never been.”
“It’s really beautiful with snow on the ground. Have fun.”
“How about you?” I asked.
I really had nothing to complain about. Coffee-bearing calendar girls don’t have to work on weekends.
Monday, December 12
I had my lunch in my cubicle. David said Ed Bramlett would count it as a victory, but I figured screw the old goat. He didn’t seem to have the vaguest inkling that I could nail him with a sexual harassment suit, and he was lucky I didn’t come here to be a litigious underdog. I knew I had to be tough to make it in media. I was eating lunch in my cubicle so I could get some work done instead of waste time sparring with a leathery old misogynist.
Dave was right about Zion. It was fantastic. The light crust of snow on the red rocks made it even more wonderful, and I hiked so far up The Narrows that it was getting dark when I got back to my car. The only thing that could have made my day better was if Daniel had been there with me. The countdown to Christmas seemed interminable, but somehow, I had to make it through another twelve days.
I had breakfast in the house with my sister-in-law, and we watched The Morning Show while we ate. Kathie Pitchford was interviewing a woman named Victoria McBride. Even though Victoria looked like she was on the wrong side of forty, she had masses of curly platinum blonde hair. It had to be a wig, although her fair skin and blue eyes made me wonder if it might be real. Then again, maybe the fair skin and blue eyes were fake, too. Anyway, she was wearing a tight, low-cut knit top that showed off a pair of boobs that were either very expensive or a sure sign God loved her.
“When you entered American Beauty’s Queen of Sales contest, did you tell American Beauty the true nature of your profession?” Kathie asked.
“No,” Victoria replied, “and they didn’t ask. The contest was open to active distributors of American Beauty products, which I have been for the last ten years.”
“So you didn’t tell them you work for—”
“That I’m a legal prostitute? No. There was no reason.”
“She’s a hooker,” Sierra said with her mouth full of cinnamon toast. “I knew it. Although she’s farther over the hill than most.”
“How do you know?” I asked, even though I wasn’t surprised she did. My sister-in-law had been my main source of information about Nevada culture ever since she and my brother invited me to move into the apartment over their garage.
Sierra’s a native, and she even worked as an “exotic dancer” after she graduated from Bonanza High School. That’s a secret, though, at least as far as my parents are concerned. Sierra’s convinced they’d die of blue-blood shock if they knew their son was married to a person who used to give lap dances. She’s probably right. They have a hard enough time telling their Fairfield County friends that both of their children live in Las Vegas—by choice!
“Oh, come on, Amanda, look at her. She’s closing in on fifty. Most of them are your age—mine at the outside.” Sierra turned thirty-two on Halloween.
We kept watching as Kathie elicited all the details of Victoria McBride’s rise to sales queen fame. She’d won a regional contest in Albuquerque before heading for Kansas City, where two days ago she beat out a dozen other American Beauty distributors to win a tiara, a pink Impala, and a year-long contract to star in American Beauty’s television commercials.
And now, American Beauty was going to take it all away. Accusing Victoria of concealing facts that she knew would damage the company’s reputation, American Beauty’s top brass had rescinded the crown, cancelled the Chevy, and torn up the contract.
“And they’re threatening to take away my distributorship, too,” Victoria told Kathie, “but I’m not going down without a fight. This is the United States of America, and I’ve done nothing illegal.”
“Oh, my God,” I said, looking at my watch. “I’m late for work.”
The one very bad thing about having to bring coffee for your boss is that he always knows if you’re late. Fortunately, Chris Brown was even later than I was, and his latte was cooling on his desk by the time he arrived.
I was on the phone with a publicist from the Golden Sands when David Nussbaum appeared at my desk.
“Yes,” I was saying, “I got the press release on Friday, and it’ll be in this week’s Dazzle.” I hung up. “The Golden Sands is having open tryouts for a new Golden Girl.”
“You get all the fun stories, Amanda.”
His comment didn’t deserve an answer.
“Remember how you were asking about call girls on Friday?” David continued. “Well, I’ve got to interview one today, and I thought you might like to come along.”
“What’s the story?”
“She won a national sales contest sponsored by a cosmetics company, and—”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“I saw her on television this morning,” I said. “But she was in New York. She was on the Morning Show.”
“She would have been on Late Night tonight, but she had to come home.”
“Yup, she’s one of our own. Works at the Beavertail Ranch in Pahrump.”
“I’d love to go, but I can’t leave now,” I said. “It’s Monday, and—”
“I know,” David said, “but she doesn’t get in until this afternoon. I’m meeting her at the Silverado at five. You can ride with me if you like, and I can bring you back here afterwards.”
The Silverado is a “locals casino” a few miles south of the airport. I had never been there, even though the person handling their publicity offered me free tickets to a magic show every time I talked to her. I was going to have to skip lunch and talk fast to get all my Monday calls and calendar updates done, but Chris Brown had an editorial meeting at 4:00. If I were caught up, he wouldn’t mind if I left half an hour early.
So I was about to meet a real live hooker who was smack in the middle of her fifteen minutes of fame. And for fifteen minutes, the Calendar Girl could have a chance to feel like a real reporter instead of the title of an old Neil Sedaka song.
David Nussbaum reappeared at my desk just as I was making my last call, and we walked out to the parking lot together. Dave is an east coast Jewish preppie who wears tweed jackets, rimless glasses, and Hush Puppies. But instead of the Saab that would complete his Ivy League style, he drives a Jeep, and it isn’t one of those upgraded soccer mom models. It’s a basic, canvas-topped Army man vehicle. He’s even got two extra gas cans strapped to the back, as though he’s never sure when he might get an assignment in the middle of Death Valley.
Not that I really think it’s fair to assess someone based on the car they drive. I mean, I hope no one thinks mine is a four-wheeled personality statement. I drive a white Chrysler minivan, a “Town & Country” I would never in a geologic age have selected for myself. My father chose it using the flawed logic that I’d be safer driving a large vehicle. He drove the thing—“right off the lot”—out to Princeton in October of my senior year. My mom followed in their BMW, and they handed the keys to me over dinner. “Happy Birthday!” they said. My birthday’s in January, so the car was a definite surprise. So was the fact that it looked like the sort of thing a suburban housewife might chauffeur her brood to preschool in.
The supreme uncoolness of my ride was not lost on my best buddy Jessica.
“It looks like a Kotex!” she proclaimed as soon as she saw it. “Big enough for those ‘extra-heavy’ days!”
She had a voice like an Alpenhorn, and I had managed to pause in front of Witherspoon Hall at rush hour.
“Dude! It’s a freakin’ maxipad!” she added in a voice that could shatter glass, and that sealed my poor minivan’s fate. From then on, it was known as the Maxipad. Contrary to my father’s safety-conscious prediction, it wasn’t really a plus that it seated seven people with dedicated seatbelts, because it held at least double that if they were willing to share. Whether I liked it or not, I was an instantly popular designated bus driver. By the time I graduated, “the Maxipad” had mercifully shrunk to “the Max.” “The Max” it remains, but only because I’m used to it, and no one in Las Vegas knows what it’s short for. I’d trade it in for a Jeep like David’s in a New York second, but I know it would hurt Dad’s feelings. And I have to admit that I like being able to buy bookcases and take them home without renting a truck.
Anyway, Dave’s Jeep was covered in a thin layer of dust, which made me wonder if he might actually get assignments in the howling desert.
“Sorry it’s dirty,” Dave said as he opened the passenger door and moved a plastic bag and a stack of mail to the back. “I had to cover a housing development groundbreaking in North Las Vegas. No pavement.”
We took the freeway south to Blue Diamond Road and arrived at the Silverado with ten minutes to spare.
“I told her I’d meet her in the coffee shop,” David said as we wove our way through the slot machines.
The coffee shop was sparsely populated, and even in the dim light, it was easy to see that Victoria wasn’t there. A hostess showed us to a table near the entrance.
Before we could check the menu, Victoria materialized in front of us, enveloped in a cloud of musky-smelling perfume. She was wearing the same outfit she’d had on for the Morning Show: a purple leather miniskirt and a low-cut black leotard. She’d clipped her hair into one of those deliberately messy up-dos, and she was carrying a zippered shoulder bag large enough to hold a body.
“Victoria McBride,” she said, holding a scarlet-taloned hand out to me.
“Oh! Hi! I’m Amanda Burns,” I said, “and this is—”
“You must be David,” Victoria said. “Thanks for coming down here to meet me. I came directly from the airport.”
“The pleasure’s mine,” David said. “Please, have a seat.”
“Thanks,” Victoria said, but she didn’t sit down. Plunking her huge shoulder bag on the table, she rummaged through it and extracted a glasses case. Then she pulled out a package of batteries, a gold cigarette case, a disposable lighter, a notebook, two pens, and a small tape recorder.
I couldn’t help staring as she unpacked. She was so… constructed. Not one square inch of her was accidental, and there were many square inches. She was a lot taller than I expected, taller than me, taller than David even. I glanced down and managed to see that her spike heels had something to do with it, but even flat-footed, she had to be nearly six feet.
“I hope you won’t mind if I record our conversation,” Victoria said as she sat down. “My lawyer’s advice.”
“Not at all,” David said, “as long as you don’t mind if I do the same.”
Victoria laughed, and her laugh struck me as being just as calculated as her appearance. Slightly breathy, intentionally sexy. “Of course not,” she said as she snapped batteries into her tape recorder.
Just then, the waitress came back. We all ordered coffee, and David started asking questions.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen David in action. He invited me to an air show at Nellis Air Force Base when I first started working at the Light, and in the last few months I’ve tagged along to a motorcycle rally in Laughlin, a bomb scare at a high school, a tour of a gypsum mine, and the opening of a new street. But as I listened to him talk to Victoria, I realized that this was the first genuine, one-on-one interview I’d watched him do, and he was good. Better than Kathie Pitchford, even. In three minutes, Victoria had repeated everything she’d said on TV, and David was poking deeper.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Forty-seven,” she said, “a prime number.”
“And you’ve been selling American Beauty products since 1995?”
“November of ’94. I’m their top distributor in this region. Utah-Nevada-Arizona-New Mexico. And I’m damned if they’re going to take that away from me.
“How do you manage? I mean, isn’t your work at the Beavertail a full-time job?”
“Yes, when I’m there, which is usually two weeks a month. I’m due back out there Thursday morning, as a matter of fact, unless this American Beauty mess blows completely out of control.” She sighed a stagy sigh and patted her hair. “I have a partner, and Richard does all the paperwork. My husband.”
Her husband? I stared at Victoria again, and I can’t swear my mouth wasn’t open. How could a prostitute have a husband? And what kind of husband would a prostitute have?
“Yes, I’m married, honey. Twenty-three years.” Victoria patted my hand, and I looked at those talons again. So perfect, and even though her hand had a few ropy veins poking through, it was unblemished and soft.
“You had to know you’d stir up controversy,” David was saying, “as soon as they found out.”
“If I’d told them at the get-go, they would have barred me from competing,” Victoria said. “I decided the only way this was worthwhile was to keep quiet and win. To expose them as the hypocrites they are.”
“So your motive was—?”
Victoria laughed. “You won’t believe this, but at first, it was a case of Forever Young.”
“American Beauty’s new anti-wrinkle face-firming lotion. Any distributor who entered the contest and wrote a 300-word essay about how great Forever Young is would get a whole case. Twenty-four jars. Four hundred dollars retail. Richard figured there was no down side, so he sent off an entry in my name. I didn’t even know about it until his essay qualified me for the regional pageant.”
“What made you go for it?” David said.
“I decided it was my chance to improve the status of working ladies. Get us some respect.”
Victoria had a lot to say on the topic of “sex workers’ rights,” and David let her ramble. At first, I wondered why he was allowing her to run the conversation, but gradually I realized that even though it seemed inefficient, it was a fabulous way to get answers to questions you’d never think to ask. As Victoria regaled us with her grand plan to elevate legal prostitutes to “the level of other personal therapists,” she also revealed that her husband had been a mechanic for Nate’s Crane until his left elbow was accidentally crushed. Their fifteen-year-old son Jason also had health problems, and their medical bills had added up to over $76,000 so far this year. There was so much more on David’s cassette when he finally clicked off his recorder that I was jealous. He probably captured a Pulitzer-worthy story on that tape.
On the other hand, it looked like I might get my own chance. Before we said good-bye, Victoria McBride invited me to go with her to the Sekhmet Temple the following night.
“I’m going to the New Moon Ceremony, Amanda,” she said, “and I’d love it if you’d join me. I’d invite David, but men aren’t allowed. They can come to the Full Moon Ceremony, but the New Moon is goddesses only.”
“I’d love to,” I said.
“Let’s meet here then,” Victoria said. “Six o’clock. I’m happy to drive.”
David let me have it on the way back to the Light.
“Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into?” he asked. “Do you even know where the Sekhmet Temple is?”
I shook my head. “I don’t even know what it is.”
“Why did you say you’d go?”
“I don’t know. I’m kind of fascinated by her, I guess. She’s nothing like I expected.”
“Take your own car. Rule number one is, stay in control. Don’t become part of the story.”
“So where’s the temple?”
“Indian Springs. About forty miles north on Highway 95. You go by the prison, then take a left just past the air base where the Predator squadron lives.”
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