“You aren’t really going to ring that bell, are you?” Tom asks because this isn’t the sort of thing he would normally do.
“Free tours,” I say and press the doorbell.
“Oh my God,” he says. “You really did it.”
The door opens with a creak, and before us stands a woman in her midfifties. She’s got a mouth full of yellow teeth, and she’s shaped like a Bulldog. She looks us both up and down, smiles wide, and asks us what she can do to help us.
“We would like a free tour,” I tell her. I’m holding my journal and pen, and if she thinks this is strange, she doesn’t say so. We have been on a road trip from Las Vegas to Reno, along Highway 95, also known as the Free-Range Art Highway. I’m a travel writer, and my assignment is to write about the art along the way—the neon and murals of Vegas, the Goldwell open-air art museum, the International Car Forest of the Last Church. The Alien Cathouse is not on the list, but as soon as I see the pink-and-green building at the edge of the desert, I shout, “Stop. Stop the car.”
The kitschy Area 51 Alien Center offers gasoline, but you can also buy a stuffed green extraterrestrial toy, take a photo with the resident aliens, or set off fireworks. Next door to the gas station and diner is the Alien Cathouse, a brothel advertising free tours, hot girls, and cold beer.
The stout woman rings another buzzer in code—two short beeps followed by a long one, and I wonder if she’s signaling there’s a middle-aged couple at the door. We wait for whatever is going to happen next. The Cathouse is inside a converted trailer, like most of the brothels in Nevada. There’s a small bar in the corner, where two men flip through notebooks holding pictures of women, the “Cosmic Kittens” on offer. Beer bottles sit in front of them. When the woman notices my gaze, she asks, “Want a drink?”
“Oh, no thank you,” I say.
From one of the hallways comes a tall, muscular woman with platinum blonde hair, cut into a pageboy but shaved on one side.
The woman who opened the door says, “This is Lily Grace. She will give you a tour.”
Lily smiles and puts her hand on her side, where a waist might be. She’s thin but built like a mighty tree. Her lingerie, slit up both sides, displays various tattoos—green roses and peacock feathers. She teeters on Cinderella high-heeled glass slippers, but her feet are far from dainty. The red polish on her toenails is chipped.
Her painted lips spread wide, revealing braces with tiny rubber bands. She asks us how we’re doing, and we say just fine. I try to hide my little notebook, though I want nothing more than to write down all the details. I will myself to remember them instead.
She asks us where we’re coming from, in a deep voice, and Tom tells her Las Vegas, though I think she means where we live, so I say, “We’re on our way home from Vegas. We live in Tahoe.” Tom shoots me a look, like I shouldn’t have revealed where we’re from.
“Where are you from?” I ask her. I smile like I have been caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.
“Texas,” she says, smiling like she’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to. She waves us to follow. Her forearms are strong, like a rock climber’s.
We come to a room with flowered curtains and a massage table in the middle. “The showers are over there, and we have a spa for foam parties,” she points, “and through there is a bungalow, where you can stay for seventy-five dollars a night.”
I ask if people ever just come for a massage, and she says, “That would be a pretty expensive massage. It’s usually an add-on.”
We follow her through the wood-paneled hallway. There’s a photograph of a man with a few Cosmic Kittens. I ask who it is. “Oh, that’s the old owner,” she says. Tom looks at the picture. “Isn’t that Dennis Hof?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Lily says. “He died last year.”
“How do you know who that is?” I ask Tom.
“He ran for office and won the primary but died before the election.”
Lily shrugs. “He was on HBO too.” Then she looks directly at me and asks, “Do you want to come to my bedroom and see my prices?”
Before Tom can shake his head no, I say, “Yes, let’s!”
Lily motions for us to follow her, and we do. We head back down the hall, and she points to two closed doors. “Those are the suites,” she says, “but they’re occupied.” We come to a dark room in the corner of the trailer. It has an attached bathroom and looks like a cheap motel room. The shiny silver bedspread is crumpled on the bed. A fishbowl full of condoms, a bottle of massage oil, and a box of Kleenex sit on the nightstand. Another bottle that reads “Good Head Deep Throat Spray” is on the bathroom counter, and I want to ask what it is, but I don’t dare.
Stuffed animals sit atop the dresser, and after my assignment is written and turned in, this is the detail I can’t stop thinking about. That and my mother.
My mother grew up poor in northern England, so poor they received oranges in their Christmas stockings, not toys or clothes. I tell people her childhood was like Angela’s Ashes, only British instead of Irish. She grew up in the postwar days in a coastal resort town, where everything was rationed. They had an outhouse and used newspaper for toilet tissue. My mother worked two jobs—the laundry during the day and a chip shop at night—but her parents took her wages. She had nothing of her own, except for her beauty, and maybe even that didn’t belong solely to her.
The chip shop owner had a wife called Bobbie, who had a blonde bouffant hairdo and drove a green Jaguar. She took an interest in my young mother, started inviting her out to the pub and introducing her to older men. They bought my mother drinks and dresses, took her out on the town and to country houses in Spain and France. I once asked my mother if they gave her money, and she said they did but then added, “I wasn’t a hooker, you know.”
“What were you?” I asked.
“I was a good-time girl,” she said.
Years later I would read Jeanette Winterson’s books. She writes about the prostitutes in her northern British town, very close to where my mother grew up; Winterson calls these prostitutes “good-time girls.” When I came across this description, I read the line again and again, knowing it revealed something essential, the key that unlocked my mother’s secret history.
I never had the courage to ask my mother directly, but once when I wrote about it in a poem, she made me take out a line about the men giving her money. “But it was true,” I said. She agreed that it was but said it didn’t belong in a poem. And maybe it didn’t, so I cut the line.
Eventually, a much older married man took a liking to my mother and kept her on as his mistress. “What did Bobbie say?” I asked.
“She was pissed,” Mother said.
“Because she lost her girl.”
This older man became possessive, even if he was married, and he had my mother followed by a private investigator.
By then my mother had saved her money, bought a car, and moved out of her parents’ house. She made a plan and flew to Los Angeles. She told this man she would be back, but within a few days of being in California, she met my father. I only heard this story in the last years of her life, and when I finally heard the truth, or at least this version of it, my mother’s coquettishness and her shame, her refusal to go back home, the fierce way she held her secrets, and the way my father protected her finally made sense as if the missing pieces of a puzzle fit into place. There will always be other parts missing, but the picture came into view. I’ve always wished I could go back and meet that young woman, the one who did what she had to do to escape.
I can still hear Mother’s voice: I wasn’t a hooker, you know. But also she had said this, “Why would I give it away for free?”
The Alien Cathouse sits in the Amargosa Valley, minutes from the nuclear test site in Mercury. There are no other houses around, so I ask Lily if she lives there, at the brothel.
“I’m here one month on, one month off,” she says, “so this is my bedroom for now.”
“And when you’re here, you’re always at work. You don’t get a break?” I picture her sleeping in the bed with the wrinkled bedspread.
“I work while I’m here,” Lily says and picks up a laminated sheet of paper from the dresser. She offers it to us. Tom backs away, but I take it and read it with great interest. An hour with Lily is one thousand dollars. A whole night is eight thousand, and there are various add-ons, like oral, massage, showering, and schoolgirl. I glance at the open closet where different costumes hang—an angel, a maid, the schoolgirl. Ropes and handcuffs hang from a nail on the wall. I ask, “Do many people choose the entire night option?”
Lily shakes her head and says, “Most just buy an hour or two, but every once in a while, someone hits a jackpot in Vegas and they just want to have fun.”
I want to stay there and ask questions about her life. How did she end up there? What does her family think? How does she feel about her work? I know that further objectifies Lily, and my voyeurism seems like the worst kind of curiosity porn. But she is saved from my interrogation because Tom thanks her and tells her we have to get going. Lily has taken my curiosity for interest, and when she sees that we’re leaving, her face falls. She says, “Are you sure you don’t want a drink?”
“No thanks. We have to drive. But thank you so much for the tour,” I say.
Lily shrugs again and says, “I’m here if you change your mind.”
The two men are still browsing the catalog of Cosmic Kittens when we pass them again to leave.
We thank the woman at the door and walk into the hot wind of the Nevada desert. Tumbleweeds roll past us in the parking lot—I know these plants are Russian thistle: transplants here, nonnative species that have come in time to define this landscape, though it’s a place they don’t belong.
We climb back into the car and head south on 95. I should be taking notes about the route, researching the next stop on my list, but instead, I stare out the window, thinking about the dark, wood-paneled room, the crumpled polyester bedspread, the stuffed toy animals, their plump, pastel bodies doubled in the dresser mirror.
Cloud shadows float across the desert, and the occasional dust devil swirls into being for a few seconds and then disappears.
Later I am still thinking of Lily Grace, so I google her. And there she is, quoted in an article about the new sex robots at the Alien Cathouse. While some of the other Cosmic Kittens worry robots will replace them, threaten their job security, Lily is indifferent. She says, “Most customers come in for the human interaction. I often hear the best part is cuddling after sex.” Also, she’s moved on from the Alien Cathouse and is now a “courtesan” at the world-famous Bunny Ranch.
I want to believe in the grace of those words: Courtesan, Good-Time Girl, a sweetheart known for cuddling.
Suzanne Roberts has two upcoming book events:
You can Purchase Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties at Sundance Bookstore or through the website, or directly from the University of Nebraska Press – Lincoln
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties (March 2022), the award-winning travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno, teaches in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada University, and lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.
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