My Undertaker, My Pimp

Looking for grace in a desert brothel.

Jay Kirk | Harper’s | March 2002 | 29 minutes (7,333 words)

This essay by Jay Kirk first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Harper’s, where it was edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Our thanks to Kirk for allowing us to reprint it here.

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For a year I worked in an office where I spoke to dying people on the telephone every day. The office was that of a funeral-consumer watchdog, which meant that we kept an eye on the funeral industry and helped the imminently bereaved and imminently deceased to make affordable funeral plans. Above my desk I kept an index card with a Faulkner quotation, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief.” On a particularly bad day I scratched out the last word and changed it to “nothing.”

Because I am a person who has obsessively meditated on his own death since the age of five, my friends and family thought it uncanny, if not alarming, that I had taken the job. When I was six my parents were worried enough that my father, a minister, took me to funerals, thinking (reasonably) that my trouble was all in my mind and that a swift dose of reality might cure me. What my father did not understand was that· no matter how assuringly he winked at me over the bowed heads, death is ultimately a problem of the imagination. The funerals only gave mine dark fodder.

As did, inevitably, the job that put me on the phone with death every day. When I found myself flirting with a terminally ill twenty-two-year-old girl, I knew it was time to “move on.” On my last day, my co-workers gave me a cardboard coffin, which they had all signed, like a giant crematable birthday card. I absconded with two numbers: the girl’s (I wanted to meet her in person—to sleep with a dying girl, I think—and from our conversations it seemed mutual, but it never happened, I never called, and then she died) and that of an Oregon undertaker who, after some controversy with his mortuary board, had fled the state and opened a brothel. The man’s name is Mack Moore, and the brothel, in Beatty, Nevada, is called Angel’s Ladies. Because this man had made what I saw as the happy leap from Thanatos to Eros, I knew that I had to seek him out. He was older than I expected seventy-one but when he shook my hand, in the driveway of his Las Vegas mansion, what struck me were the lustrous strawberry-blond curls that fell like a halo around his ears.

The eponymous Angel, Mack’s wife, helped Mack and me pack my trunk with whorehouse provisions laundry detergent, toilet paper, tubs of mayonnaise, hot cocoa-before we set out on the 120-mile drive to Beatty. Angel stayed behind to tidy up, since the police had returned their confiscated belongings just a week earlier and the house was still a disaster. I was soon to hear much about the night that Angel had been held hostage in her living room while the cops looked for evidence of illegal “outcalls.”

The elderly pimp shuttles back and forth between his Vegas mansion and the desert brothel a few times a week. The lonesomeness of the drive is total and exhilarating: a haunting landscape of gray-green sagebrush broken here and there by a streak of Martian red, a rumpled mountain range, a demonic cactus. In almost two hours the only blips of civilization are the town of Amargosa Valley (Mack points out and curses the Cherry Patch 2 bordello, a rival), a New Age temple, and the south entrance to the Nevada Test Site.

Beatty, in Nye County, is the last town to survive from among the many that popped up during the 1904 Rhyolite gold rush. Now Rhyolite, once the fourth-largest city in Nevada, is a ghost town, and Beatty is the place where you had better stop to buy gas. The Bullfrog Mine, the major employer. until central hanks across Europe released large parts of their gold reserves into the market, shut down in 1998 and is now down to a skeleton crew doing mop-up; Beatty’s population has dwindled severely as a result. The economy is sporadic, and stability is as fleeting as it was for the nomadic Shoshone, who summered on the oasis. Other jobs are scarce to nonexistent. Even the Nevada Test Site, despite being literally just over the hill, provides only a handful of jobs to the few willing to commute-the nearest gates are 103 miles north and 54 miles south. The Yucca Mountain Project, a planned federal graveyard for 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive decay, offers possible hope for the future, but it’s less than certain, and even if it flies, it won’t guarantee jobs for Beatty. For now, the town survives on tourism: Death Valley hikers, truckers, gamblers, and men visiting Angel’s Ladies.

The prostitutes settled this area with the miners. Only the former remain in business. The only other trace of the miners are the wild burros that roam the town like dust-shrouded ghosts. Mack says that if some people get their way and Angel’s is closed, the town will suffer, badly, and it’s probably true. The Beatty Chamber of Commerce is one of the brothel’s greatest boosters.

Mack wears thick-soled Adidas tennis shoes with ankle socks and a powder-blue cardigan, and as he rambles on in his puttering unpunctuated way, every so often his eyes get flirty, like he’s going to share something extremely funny or something deep and meaningful, but each time he tries to address the sex-death continuum, or answer my timid, oblique questions to that end, he veers into the sententious whey of condolence cards.

The first time I called he answered from his shower and let me know, over vigorous lathering, that his brothel had been suspended because of a sting coming out of a conspiracy involving the sheriff, a rival brothel owner, a former madam, and maybe even the assistant D.A.; that he was going to sue the shit out of Nye County for violating his civil rights; that he took Viagra; that he and his wife were swingers; and that when I came to visit he would put me up in the Fantasy Bungalow. Most of the drive he talked about which swinging magazines are best for meeting other swingers and how since Angel was so much younger and prettier than he she got more dates than he did, but by the way he told me this, I was led to believe that it was probably the other way around, that he was the Lothario, something later confirmed unenthusiastically by the girls who make up Angel’s staff. Despite his candor about his sex life, the circumstances surrounding his abrupt exit from the funeral trade remain hazy. There is ample stuff for nightmares, if you believe all the accusations: The matter of a missing corpse. Bodies buried in the wrong graves. Bodies exhumed on the sly. Bodies cremated in parties of two. Between 1992 and 1994 alone, eighteen complaints were filed against Moore with the Oregon Cemetery and Mortuary Board. But, thanks to the state’s confidentiality laws, the board’s investigative records are sealed, and I’m left without a full grasp of the mystery behind the man with whom I’m now zooming into the heart of nowhere.

Mack started out selling headstones to put himself through Bible college, but when Oregon cemeteries colluded to require that markers be purchased directly from them, driving out the independent monument dealers, he was nearly put out of business. Fighting mad, Mack became a spectacle, getting dragged out of more than one cemetery in handcuffs for barging in with wheelbarrow and spade to plant a rebel headstone. Fourteen years, three trials, and three appeals after he filed a lawsuit against the cemeteries in 1969, the exclusive installation requirement was ruled a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act; Mack took over four of the defendants’ cemeteries—financially weakened by the judgment—built more funeral homes, and began his necropolitan reign over Lane County. He promptly made new enemies of rival funeral directors, who bristled at his aggressive salesmanship-full-page color ads of caskets, coupons, raffles, cut-rate burials-ploys, they felt, more suitable for selling box springs. One Christmas he advertised a special “Holiday Memorial Service,” promising a special appearance by Santa Claus, who, “in person, will tell how he remembers his wife who died of cancer.”

Soon after Angel was hired as a janitor (she quickly worked her way up to hairdresser, and, according to Mack, did a lovely job with the women’s hair), her youngest son was killed in a motorbike accident. Mack embalmed the boy. Not a year later, Angel’s husband died. Mack did that funeral too. Mack’s wife and business partner, Eva, grew suspicious of his relationship with his widowed employee, but he denied any hankypanky: “I never got involved with any woman that I’d served as a funeral director. But it was not because I didn’t have the chance.” After Eva divorced Mack and they divided the properties—making them, in essence, competitors—he tacked an addition onto one of his parlors, rechristened it Celestial Funeral Home and Wedding Chapel, and invited the entire town to his and Angel’s wedding. Because of her tragic losses, Mack says, Angel made an excellent funeral professional. It is the same compassion for human frailty, Mack says, that’s made her such a damn good prostitute-but that’s rushing ahead.

The odd rivalry with Eva came to a head, gruesomely, in late August 1993, when a man died who had prearranged for his funeral at Chapel of Memories (owned by Eva) but who had bought a cemetery plot at Springfield Memorial Gardens (owned by Mack). His body was taken to Eva’s. The man’s stepson went to Mack’s, understandably confused. Mack, with mattress-salesman finesse, persuaded the stepson that since his father was going to be buried at Mack’s cemetery anyway, it might be easier, less grief, not to mention cheaper, because, well, Mack was prepared to give him a great deal, if he just let Mack do the burial and the funeral. All he’d have to do is sign the transfer and Mack would go over to Eva’s and get his step daddy. The stepson was persuaded. Unfortunately for Mack, Eva had dumped the body in the casket, wearing nothing but diapers, covered in its own postmortem foulness. “We worked on that damn casket for hours trying to get the damn stink out,” Mack says. Sometime during the mayhem, no doubt perturbed, probably thinking that his wife had done this to him on purpose—”she did dirty”—Mack took color photos of the soiled dead man and showed them to the stepson, suggesting he file a complaint against Eva. The stepson was not pleased, and the family took both Moores to court for $7 million. Eva was eventually dropped from the suit, and Mack settled for $21,000. By this point, however, the mortuary board was fed up and proposed suspending Mack’s license for illegally soliciting bodies from a rival funeral home. This was, after all, not the first time.

Then Angel’s eldest son, Jesse, died from drug abuse. The boy and his father had allegedly argued about who had the worse kidneys; it’s not clear that the father won by dying first, since Jesse died just a week short of his thirtieth birthday. For Angel, it was a world-ending blow.

Given their troubles, leaving was an easy decision. In October 1995, Mack sold to a corporate funeral home, and by March 1996 he and Angel had moved to Vegas. Then they bought the brothel, and Angel, vanquished by grief, registered as a legal prostitute.

Mack has since found new loopholes to finger, and the Nevada Brothel Owners Association has castigated him for jeopardizing an industry that likes to keep as low a profile as the funeral trade. The director of the association, George Flint, says that Mack has “turned what is a fairly halfway respected industry into a kind of farce.” Angel’s Ladies was busted in the spring of 1999 after sending their blondest girl, Cindi, to a motel when a cop, posing as a trick, called for room service. (Prostitution is only legal in Nevada inside a licensed brothel.) It took three calls for the cop to persuade the madam, Wanda Towns, but Wanda and her husband, Clint, who works as a security guard at Angel’s Ladies and who drove Cindi to the motel, were arrested and convicted with Cindi for attempting to solicitan illegal outcall. Mack argues that Cindi was just going to “dance” for the man, that it was just an “escort” date, a distinction not made by the Nye County brothel ordinance. A month later the county sheriff’s office simultaneously raided the brothel and the Moores’ Vegas home. Evidence showed a history of outcalls, and the county commissioners shut down the brothel for two weeks, but an appeals judge later ruled entrapment, reversed the convictions,’ and ordered the Moores’ belongings returned. Still, a gross misdemeanor charge of conspiracy and threatening to sue the county for violating his civil rights (holding Angel hostage, depriving Clint, who has asbestosis, of his oxygen, refusing to return important personal documents), and the county dredging up new pandering charges (trafficking girls to Vegas), the fight will likely drag on until both sides run out of steam. On the other hand, if Mack makes good on his threat to sue the county and wins, he may expand his business. There’s a vacant building across from the Burro Inn and Casino that he’s thinking about buying and turning into a funeral parlor.

Mack walks the line of the law as deftly as he walks the line between grief and lust. How very blurry that line is in a free-market culture that survives on the myopic propaganda of manufactured need, in which need is predicated on fear of loss, fear of not having; in which images of grief are routinely brought into focus as images of desire. Between grief and nothing, nothing sells better than grief. Except may be pussy.

We pull around the side of the brothel, a compound of linked trailers painted antacid pink. Electric angels dance over the front porch of the double-wide. “That’s Shanda,” Mack says before we get out of the car. “She is a bubbling-over girl. So is Cindi. Those two girls will kill you off.”Shanda, in a bowler and a pajama top unbuttoned to the navel, is ankle deep in cats; she ministers to one with an eyedropper. Thirty or forty surround her like pigeons. She drops the kitten and greets me with a chipper Texan drawl. Two litters of the feral cats were born this week; their eyes are weepy and shuttered. Shanda helps Mack and me unload my car. We can’t help but toe mewling cats out of our path to the brothel.

Dinner is already on the table, waiting (Mack called from twenty miles back to let them know to set an extra plate for me). Wanda takes off an oven mitt to greet me and then runs to the kitchen for a last-minute dish. Mack sits at the head of the table; at the other end sits Clint Towns, who watches the news, an oxygen tube strapped under his nose. Cindi is a jittery blonde in a red leather jacket. Diane tells me that if I want a good story then I should ask her about the time she and her daughter got lost in the Sahara and her daughter ran out of Kool-Aid and they were saved by a mysterious being.

On the counter is a row of egg timers, each with a girl’s name. Angel’s has a license for five girls but employs eight, so they work in shifts. Angel, out of compassion and pity, has been known to take on men that the other girls refuse, and for less money. The dining room doubles as the madam’s office, with phones, a copier, and a status board on the wall. The board says in green Magic Marker that Coco, Cajun, Dizyre, and Mia are “off property.” A joke traffic sign by the door says, “Parking for L♥vers Only, All Others Will Be Towed.” On the wall between the TV room and dining room is an authentic Old West wood placard:

Why Walk Around Half Dead When We Can Bury You For Only $22.00 We Use Choice Pine Coffins(Select Pine from Mexico) Our New Burial Coach-Finest in the Arizona Territory TOMBSTONE UNDERTAKERS

Mack lets me know that they pray before meals. He takes my hand, and I take Shanda’s, to my left. During his prayer, Mack caresses my hand with his thumb, not in a kinky way but in the same way my mother does during her blessing over Thanksgiving dinner, describing the same rosette with her thumb. Unlike most Nevada whorehouses, Angel’s Ladies does not have a bar. Mack does not drink, or smoke, or gamble. He and Angel are born-again, and Angel’s is the closest thing anyone is going to get to a Christian brothel. They like to say that they “live the example.” Why not? The ancients lived happily for millennia with the paradox of temple prostitution. A timer goes off and we are presently joined by Nikki, wearing a peignoir, looking freshly showered. Wanda asks if her “guy” doesn’t want to join us, and she murmurs that no, he does not. The other women look her over and then pass the casserole.

Because we are allegedly across the street from Area 51, I broach the subject of UFOs. Instant hit. Everyone at the table, except Mack, has had a sighting. Twice since she’s been here, Wanda has seen lights above the ridge over Area 51. The second time was with a trick. He’d just buzzed and she was opening the front door. It was a brilliant yellow flare, almost gold. Clint, who worked for the government, has seen stuff, too. Diane has had the most sightings. She is writing a book, she says, called The Hooker and the Aliens. Mack gets irritated with the bunkum and pulls the dessert, a pan of chocolate-frosted cake, his way. He cuts two bricks and serves me one. He takes a bite and then asks, sternly, “You like yella cake?” I say that yeah, I like yella cake. “Me too,” he says. Then there’s a buzz and the girls scurry. Mack excuses himself.

The girls keep out of sight till called to the front parlor for the lineup. Peeking around the comer, I can’t see much more than the visitor’s shoes on the pink carpet. When we overhear the trick tell Mack that on his way over tonight he saw eight cop cars outside the Exchange Club, one of the three casino hotels in town, Wanda looks shaken. Mack sits on the couch, ankle crossed over his knee, wooing the man in his warm, unforced voice, telling him what a fine selection of ladies he has to choose from, how this place is different from other brothels: The others will rush you, the others are just in it for the money, the others aren’t Christian, but here there’s free pop and free coffee and seventy-seven acres to take a moonlight stroll or take a girl for a skinny-dip in the natural spring fed pool. Hell, one former girl, Jennifer—”she had these great big natural titties”—ended up marrying a trick; that’s right, dreams do come true. Hell, Mack had the honor of giving her away at the chapel in Reno, and after you’ve gruntled yourself with sex every which way you ever wanted, if you’re hungry, why, feel free to join us for supper, there’s still some on the table now.

During the lineup, Wanda clears dishes, and I flick crumbs, lulled by the mechanical sips of Clint’s oxygen. Wanda joins me with a cup of tea. She wears green satin pajamas. She is not a glamorous or gaudy madam. The Townses went to the Beatty Community Church until the pastor, Reverend Jeff Taguchi-also the owner of the one-hour Photoshop and, ironically, a county commissioner on the brothel-licensing board-exhorted the couple one Sunday after their arrests to “go forth and sin no more.” Wanda holds her husband’s hand on the table. She is terrified that Clint, who’s dying of the same thing that Shanda claims is taking the kittens, could go to jail. They’re holding their breath till the trial; it’s been postponed twice already. She never sent a girl on an outcall before that night, she says. They only did it because the detective lied and said he was in a wheelchair. Her son, actually both her children, are wheelchair bound. She gets up and brings me a picture: a kid with long greasy hair, in a wheelchair. Diane enters the room, naked but for a black gauzy body stocking that smooshes her nipples. She drops $600 on the table and says the guy wants two and a half hours. While Wanda “books” the cash, Diane tells me that if I want, later, she’ll let me read a chapter from her book. Then Wanda sets a timer, and Diane leaves.

After a trick chooses which girl he wants from the lineup, the price negotiation is done privately in the girl’s room. (Each girl’s room is supposed to have a panic button.) Wanda listens in over an intercom hidden in the spice cabinet. Each woman is an independent contractor who sets her own price, generally $200-$400 an hour; 45 percent goes to the house. Each sex act is negotiated and priced separately done piecework, a la carte. Or, as Lora Shaner, a former madam, puts it in her book, Madam: Chronicles of a Nevada Cathouse, “You want to play with my tits? That’s an extra fifty. Suck my nipples? Seventy-five more. Nibble my toes? Forty bucks….” Funeral expenses, as mandated by the Federal Trade Comission funeral rule, are similarly itemized.

Mack has given me a key to the Fantasy Bungalow, a dismal trailer set a hundred yards behind the main compound. Mack accused his last madam of burning down the first Fantasy Bungalow. Its charred remains are scattered at the bottom-of the hill. The one where I get to sleep is perched on cement blocks, snuggled against a steep crag that bears a giant white A, like an aleph of shame. To get there I rely largely on instinct, stepping over cats tensed like fists in the dark. A few stars make an effort in the sky.

The decor of the Fantasy Bungalow is meant to be homey, as the Angel’s Ladies website put it recently, for “playing house or something different!” Angel oversaw the decorating, just as she did for their Oregon funeral parlors. The curtains are quaint and the wallpaper quainter. Mirrors in the bungalow apprise me of my whereabouts at all times, including one that surely registers my expression when I open the refrigerator and find, alone on the second shelf, a jumbo-sized box of chilled latex gloves. The video library is sparse: Hung and Hard, Bang’ Er 17 Times, and SEASLUTS, Volume 2. In the back, past a beaded curtain, is my bedroom, furnished with more mirrors, and a vanity, where I leave my car keys by a Virgen de Guadalupe candle with a hornet entombed in the wax. Two lurid lamps with red bulbs clinch the mood. I try to call my wife, but I’m beyond cellular range. Mindful of a story that Shaner tells about a moll who once forced a trick to his knees at knifepoint to persuade him to accept Jesus as his personal savior, I look everywhere but find no panic button, only an unplugged Radio Shack intercom, and beneath the nightstand a five-quart stainless-steel bowl with a dozen Liquid Tight Hygienic Disposal System Safe-T-Bags, To my dismay, the smoke detector is missing its battery.

I pick up Bang’ Er 17 Times, left in the VCR, in media res, while I fix myself a cup of Lemon Zinger from the complimentary tea sampler. The actors look lonely and bored, insincere, like the professional mourners in Greece who wail and writhe and tear out their hair for a fee; it’s easy to sift out the truly bereaved from the faker, like pointing out the professional laugher in the studio audience, just as it’s easy to tell that this porn actress is only miming lust. There is no precipice behind her eyes; she is too sober, she looks up at the camera, her audience, hungry only for ratings; she is a busker, a drone. Although the video is a bit proctologic for my tastes, I watch while listening to snippets of tape of Mack in the car.

ME: You know how some authors put sex and death together in literature. Why do you think that is?

MACK: Well, I think probably because death is so devastating in our emotions, and sex is so exciting in our emotions. It’s two highs. Or you might call one extreme low and the other high. If you want to get a newspaper, see, the most things that’s written in the newspaper is what gets the headlines, is death-murder or, uh, Clinton got his dick sucked by that girl.

Having finished the movie, now filled with a lonely, hollow pubescent guilt, I go outside. I stand in the blowing dark. Looking down at the brothel, I wonder which of the five whores will share their master’s bed tonight while his bereaved wife sleeps alone 120 miles away. Mostly, I’m disappointed that this man, who panders to those most human conundrums, grief and lust-the very antipodes of the carnal spectrum-a man who possesses a meat-and-potatoes soul if ever there was one, finds the subject of sex and death to be just that, meat and potatoes. When I go to bed I read the grief self-help book I brought. I couldn’t help but notice that the death-and dying section is coterminous with the human-sexuality section at my Barnes &Noble. This book recommends getting a puppy.

Beatty, Nevada. Photo by  Ken Lund,Flickr

Beatty, Nevada. Photo by  Ken Lund,Flickr

In the morning, after I shower with the heart-shaped soap that I found on the back of the toilet, Shanda cooks me eggs. She is wearing her bowler, and her slippered toes peekaboo like miniature marshmallows. Diane sits at the table smoking and flipping through cookie recipes. It’s going to be a slow day. Almost everyone in the industry refers to prostitutes as girls. But, as it happens, Shanda just became a grandma and Diane has two kids in college. Mack would have you think that Angel’s ladies are the demimonde, but the women I’ve met are worn and mournful. They have the wan charm of (I imagine) the whores of ancient Rome, the bustuariae, sexual servants of the gods of the dead, who made their assignations in cemetery groves. Angel herself, just a few years younger than Mack, is the most weathered. I have yet to spend any time with Angel, but I have gotten to know her, a little, from the photo album in the parlor of her and Mack copulating. It is a plain album, the sort in which you would expect to find vacation photos. A number of pictures include another man having sex with Angel while Mack, pouchy and removed, looks on. In one snapshot, her contorted face looks carved out of grief, but it could be the strain of ecstasy turning her inside out. When Mack comes in with his newspaper, Shanda runs off to dress for a Halloween Fantasy Fetish Ball in Vegas. There are Halloween parties everywhere in Nevada this weekend. Mack will not participate. He is staying in to put the finishing touches on a forty-page missive of gripes, ammunition for his lawyer. Since Mack has work to do, he can’t join me at the Burro Races, the highlight of Beatty Days, this weekend’s celebration of Nevada’s anniversary of statehood (Halloween 1864), but he encourages me to go anyway, saying he’s heard that they’re “sort of funny.” I ask Diane if she wants to go, but Mack answers for her. Of course she can’t. Someone has to be here when the fornicators ring the bell.

High noon finds a crowd around the burro pit, an arena the size of a ballfield, behind the Burro Inn and Casino. Stranded in the center is a rusty oil drum. There are aisles of pickups and spectators roosting on car hoods. We are under a bleak hill painted with a giant white B. Back in the fifties, when Beatty was the closest town to the above ground nuclear tests, residents gathered at this same spot behind the Burro Inn, ne Atomic Club, in the early morning with lawn chairs and coolers to watch the apocalyptic fireballs light up over the hills. Fortunately, Beatty lies upwind of the Nevada Test Site, and residents have been spared the tragedy that has befallen many downwinders, though, according to the Department of Energy, which tests the town for radionuclides weekly-as often as the girls at Angel’s Ladies are tested for sexually transmitted diseases-the town runs a little hot. In the semi-shade of the announcer’s box, a tin-roofed platform on stilts, are three docile burros tied to the fence. The animals are cute, almost toy-sized, except for their distractingly big genitalia.

Since the species originated in North Africa, the burro adapted quickly to Nevada’s desert climate and made the perfect pack animal for the nomadic prospector. The beasts were thought to be preternaturally “tuned” to precious metals. In fact, the prospector who filed the first claim in Rhyolite was allegedly led to the gold by his own pack of ungulate dowsers.

I grab a spot close to the fence, between a perambulator and a collegiate looking guy with a camera. There must be two hundred people now, maybe more. A burro wails, just as mournful as Eeyore. There are a number of leathery- armed folk wearing visors that span the visor spectrum from monogrammed cotton to blue sparkle plastic, but more wear cowboy hats. A scruffy-looking guy dressed in suspenders and a sand-dusted crushed hat climbs tip onto a tin box and hollers the rules:

All gear must be unpacked and placed neatly on the ground before starting fire or mixing batter.

No sweets or other foods are to be used to assist in leading burros.

Pancake must be cooked on both sides. Hold pancake between thumb and forefinger for judge’s approval before itis offered to the burro.

Originally, before harassing wild burros was outlawed, the contestants first had to catch one, which they then led, over the course of three days, about forty miles, not without some violence upon the contestants’ persons. Today, the burros are tame, and the three “prospectors” are students at Beatty High School.

The arena turns to dust the instant the announcer blasts a pistol, and the jockeys launch forward in slow motion. Five minutes into this race nobody has yet inveigled their animal to the oil drum. A rangy kid with baggy shorts and white socks hiked up to his kneecaps-his name is Jeff-gets about a foot before his burro ceases to be persuaded and stops cold. Todd, who looks like the school quarterback, leads by a nose. Dottie, with red streaks in her hair, is first to round the drum, do-sido. Before Todd even crosses the drum’s lengthening shadow, Dottie has hitched her burro near where a judge sits at one of the three equidistant stations and begun unloading the waiting gear (shovel, matches, kindling, skillet) from its scrawny back. Todd clears the barrel but loses speed on the lee side of the drum. Poor Jeff might as well be trying to persuade a dog to evolve. Just as Todd starts to pack his gear, Dottie’s burro sets back out for the second loop around the drum and then back to her station, where she begins to prepare a firepit. Just a fetlock behind, Todd digs a hole the size of a pet’s grave, cracks wood over his knee, and starts striking matches. He contends with wind more than Dottie, given that his judge doesn’t block the wind as well as Dottie’s judge, deliberately or not, hard to say. Jeff’s judge sits pensively, the shovel and gear unclaimed at her feet. Dot’s judge yells “flame!” but recants when the smoke ends up just being dust kicked up by the burro. Todd takes the lead tenuously; he shelters a weak flame with his hands. Dottie has fire in the hole and it’s a good fire, better than Todd’s.

Beatty, Nevada. Photo by  James Marvin Phelps, Flickr

Beatty, Nevada. Photo by James Marvin Phelps, Flickr

Dottie warms the skillet while Todd still struggles, blowing. She pours batter. Oops. There’s a problem. The judges huddle. Dottie forgot to oil her pan. For a second it’s unclear if this means disqualification, but they let it slide. The crowd is seized with suspense as Dottie lifts the now nicely browned flapjack to the burro’s muzzle. It takes a sniff. Oddly purses its lips. Then, to the shock of all, the burro bolts backward with a violent capriole. It hates pancakes. The infuriated burro storms across the pen, dragging behind it the terrified girl who is unfortunately connected to the dreaded griddlecake. Todd patiently oils his pan, pours batter, and proffers the lightly browned flapjack to his burro, who blithely opens its mouth and accepts communion.

Later that afternoon, after Mack’s nap, he and I take a drive in his RAV4 out to Rhyolite. We wind upward to the ghost town, wrapped around the slagged remains of the Bullfrog Hills, past half-dismantled mills, to a sweeping view of the tailings pond, a 340- acre lake of slurry laced with cyanide that reflects the setting sun bluish greenly. Rhyolite is nothing but ruins. Devoured facades. The wind actually whistles in a creepy minor key. Ancient street signs poke comically out of the sagebrush. Just past the once opulent bank, a three-story concrete husk, Mack turns the RAV onto a rutted path, and we bump roughly down Gold Lane, toward the trepanned mountainside. Up close it looks like the burrows of some stygian sparrow like dirt hill-dwelling people.

Trundling along here, I find Mack easy company. In this ghost town, speaking about cycles of boom and bust, I ask how well his business rode the New Economy, and it takes us, not as circuitously as you might wish, to the heart of Angel’s grief-lust nexus. Which should have been a good thing. I had been struggling over how to approach the subject. It seemed so obvious, yet delicate, and I was momentarily elated to have an inroad into what I expected would prove to be the key to understanding this central paradox. But the subject bores him. He points out a shack where miners slept. The whores back then kept “cribs,” little huts much like the ancient Roman prostitutes’ cellae, grim mausoleums with the names of each woman etched over the entrance. By my third day with Mack, talking about funeral parlors and sex parlors, sometimes in the same breath, it’s hard not to become confused, so that the tenor of my thoughts is macabre-erotic to the point that I half-consciously think of these fallen angels, in turn, as ghosts, necrophilic whores, floozily dressed zombies.

Eleven A.M., Sunday morning, the Beatty Community Church is packed. The church is on a hill, exposed to the raw wind that hasn’t let up since yesterday. (The Fantasy Bungalow creaked like a dinghy all night.) The walls are decorated with Sunday school handiwork, and the windows are pink-and-blue stained glass. Reverend Taguchi, a brawny Japanese American with longish hair and a goatee, mounts the pulpit. Service starts with three hymns back to back (all in F major). I sit out “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” but, to mark time, sing along with “All Hail, King Jesus.”

After “Unto Thee, O Lord,” everybody gets up to greet and mingle. I am touched, if uneasy, when most come over to shake my hand, all except a strung-aut-looking guy who stands in his pew, nodding forlornly. Tucked in his coat is a pit-bull puppy.

After the service the guy with the pit bull comes over while I’m waiting for Reverend Taguchi. He sits beside me in the pew and asks my name. His is Walter. For a second it doesn’t look like it’s going to go any further between us and then he starts to cry. Finally he manages to ask if we can go outside. He needs to talk privately. Why not? I follow Walter out to the parking lot. It is blustery. In fact, at that moment I see my first and only tumbleweed. It is a bantam, disappointing little thing that bounces across the parking lot and then wheels out of sight. Walter wants to know if I’m going to Vegas, he needs a ride. But I’m not going back to Vegas for three more days. Walter seems like an imperiled enough character that I briefly consider making a detour for him, but I’ve already spent an afternoon watching the burro races, a detour that led me to no conclusions except that I do not believe a burro would put up with a sport like that if he were conscious of his own mortality. I ask Walt if he worked at the gold mine, and he says that he’s on “disability,” he’s only lived here six months, that he’s from Philadelphia, which I ignore, since I live in Philadelphia and I don’t feel like having anything in common at the moment. Walt starts to cry again when the dog laps his thumb; a meniscus gently swells at the rim of his left nostril. His brow quivers. He really needs to go to Vegas. There’s this model, he says. This is the sad old story, I think, until he says Hobby Town USA, and I gather that it’s a model airplane he’s pining after.

After a potluck lunch Reverend Taguchi invites me over to his house, a block away, a peeling wind-rattled home with chimes dangling on the porch. As a county commissioner who vice-chairs the brothel-licensing board, Taguchi, despite his moral qualms, cannot say much about Mack’s case, except that he thinks Beatty will survive just fine without Angel’s if the brothel goes under, so we talk about whether or not Beatty will turn into a ghost town now that the mine’s gone. He thinks not. I ask him again how dependent Beatty is on the revenue of Angel’s, and he brushes it off. He cannot abide the suggestion that his town is in any way dependent on the sinful lucre of merchandised sex. There are plenty of other economic options, he says. Like the Yucca Mountain Project? As for the $38 million that the DOE will have given the county by the time the final site recommendation gets approved by President Bush later this year, his official position, he grins, as a commissioner, is “neutral.” He’s more eager to talk about the county getting money from Mercedes, BMW, Chevy, and Ford, who all do heat testing in the summertime in Death Valley. “They can actually go from below sea level to 10,000 feet in a two-hour period. The extremes.” When the reverend walks me out the door we find Walt on the porch. He’s still looking for a ride to Hobby Town USA. By the way that Reverend Taguchi kindly sends him on his way, I get the impression that this is an ongoing thing and by refusing I’m not supposed to feel bad, but I can’t help feeling like 1should help Walt escape this place, maybe even take him back to Philadelphia, if that’s where he’s really from. Walt is the saddest thing I’ve seen since I got here; sadder than the burros, sadder than the bored whores flipping through cookie recipes. He is clearly bereaved–of what, I know not. But I can help him no more than the aging pimp can help me. When it comes to grief and lust we are all tumbleweeds.

I end up going to Vegas alone. Halloween morning, I meet Mack for the last time at his gated stucco mansion in northwest Vegas. He answers the door wearing a pink ‘shirt and looking five years younger than the last time I saw him. He’s just gone to his “beautician,” he says. His cherubic curls look freshly gilt. Elvis croons in the background. Angel is off somewhere sorting through their returned possessions, which choke the hallway along with chaotic piles of court records, unopened mail, and boxes. Mack says that everything hasn’t been returned by the cops, including some pictures of Angel’s dead boys. When he goes in search of something he wants me to see, I poke around. In every nook and cranny is an Elvis doll, an Elvis telephone, or a tiny Elvis under a bell jar. I’m on my knees looking at a video in an evidence bag when Angel emerges, hovering over me.

Her face pale, her mouth drawn, she looks convalescent. She takes me for a tour of her Elvis collection, down the hallway, where pictures of her boys hang on the wall beside portraits of Elvis, to a back room, where all four walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with plates from the King’s Franklin Mint collection. There is not enough cake in the world to fill all the plates.

Then for no real reason-other than that I was just nosing around their video collection-Angel starts to tell me about the night that the cops searched her house and kept her hostage in the living room. Her voice quavers, and she clutches the bagged video in her hands the way a woman about to be mugged would clutch her purse. She was alone. Mack was in Beatty. When she thought she would lose it (they wouldn’t let her get her “pressure” pills), she got up and put a video in the VCR. It was a tape her son Jesse had made two months before he died. He wanted it played at the funeral, she says, “mainly to apologize to anybody that he had ever done any wrong thing to.” Her eyes jump when a bird flies past the window; after a long moment, while she struggles not to cry, she says that her son told her on the tape, “If you think that you’re alone, you’re not. He said, It’s going to be all right, Mom. It’s Our Father in Heaven.” I am, I think, convinced when she tells me that the cop guarding her was moved to tears, too.

Mack bustles into the room and, with a pained expression, shows me an official inventory from the police; typed at the top it reads, “Swinging File has been removed from this evidence bag and placed in evidence bag marked employee/record files. Reports: 00-0578.” This list of potential lovers, Mack lets me know, has not been returned. It makes him mad enough to launch into a hot tirade about suing the bastards. This is a great loss to him. He wants that list back and he cannot quite believe that it is gone. I can see it in his eyes. It is a dire, horrible loss.

For the rest of the day, waiting for my midnight flight, ominously moody because I have to fly, I nap in my room at the Imperial Palace to minimize exposure to the Strip and thereby avoid the migrainous hell’s bells and numismatic crepitations of the slots. When the sun goes down I meekly venture out for something to eat. Although it’s Halloween, hardly anyone on the street is in costume. I see the pope hailing a cab. Then I see a hooker in a black velvet cape and a silvery metallic top. I don’t know if she’s a real hooker or not-it doesn’t matter. I stand still until it is all thoroughly convincing. The smell of chlorine from the fountain. The unpared fingernails of the Mexican kid who hands me a flyer for an escort service. The couple that passes and the man who says to his wife:”It beats a sharp stick in the eye!” These details come to life. My life, like the night, seems never-ending.

***