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Ninth and Fremont

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She had gone through so many different stage names in the course of her long, unremarkable career that Buffy St. Clair had a difficult time remembering who she really was. The only thing of which she was certain was that she had bought a one-way Greyhound ticket more than twenty years earlier and had left Minneapolis with stars in her eyes and show business in her belly. But, then again, Buffy had told so many different stories to so many different people that she occasionally wondered if she had actually come from someplace else entirely, like Florida, or perhaps even Nebraska.

Ask any ten Las Vegas showgirls where they come from and eight will answer Minneapolis (the remaining two, of course, hail from St. Paul). There is no logical reason why this should be the case; why Minnesota seemingly exports so many chorus line wannabes, cocktail waitresses and exotic dancers to places like New York and Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but Buffy swore to everyone that she could look out the window of her childhood bedroom at night and see the golden, glowing lights of the Foshay Tower, a very tall building in a land of very tall tales.

It was sometime in 1955 or 1957 when Buffy traded Paul Bunyan for Benny Binion and found employment at the old Eldorado Club, which the legendary mob boss and tax evader later transformed into Binion's Horseshoe, and Buffy was either eighteen or twenty-three at the time, depending on which version of the story she happened to be telling.

As a showgirl, Buffy was a standard factory model of the 36-23-35 variety, lacking in optional features like honesty and integrity but packed with plenty of pride and vanity under her highly-polished hood—a perfect combination of torque and horsepower that allowed her to shimmy and kick for two decades until Roy Sherman, one of Benny's casino managers, called Buffy into his office with the velvet wallpaper and delivered the devastating news: Simply put, she was just a little too long in the veneered tooth to keep on the payroll. It's either 1975 or 1977, explained Roy, and folks had a hankering for showgirls that looked more like Faye Dunaway and less like Ernest Borgnine and thanks for your many years of service and here's a little something from Benny. Consider it a retirement present.

She surreptitiously tucked the roll of sweaty bills into her blouse with one hand and wiped a trail of tear-dampened mascara across her rouged cheek with the back of the other. "I'm only twenty-seven!" she protested, and she blamed Esteban, the Horseshoe's costume designer, for making her look older than she really was. Who the hell looks good in orange and blue? I'm a showgirl, not a macaw, for heaven's sake.

"Honey, you've been twenty-seven for the past fifteen years," sighed Roy. "You were going by the stage name of Sandra St. Croix back then, remember? I saw you with Minsky's Follies once at the Desert Inn."

Death row inmates and Vegas showgirls tend to make the best fortune-tellers because they know what's coming; they can see handwriting on the wall even when its written in invisible ink. But only death row inmates make the necessary preparations for the end of the road. Girls like Buffy are too busy rehearsing, too engrossed in feathers and sequins and war paint, to note the ticking of time. When they finally see the tunnel at the end of the lights it's too late to do anything about it. Buffy had a retirement plan, in the form of an orange plastic cylinder rattling with barbiturates and a bottle of grain alcohol, but she had never actually given much thought to checking out, at least not until Roy called her into his office.

Yet, deep in the kernel of her neon blue heart she desperately wanted to live, desperately wanted to tick off the goals that she had been kicking down the road for twenty years, even though time had rendered those goals unattainable. The best-looking boys were taken and the homely ones gave women like Buffy a wide berth, and the only settling down that Buffy saw in her future would be taking place in a seldom-visited corner of a cemetery in Minnesota, or perhaps Florida or Nebraska. But even sailors condemned to walk the plank will continue to paddle frantically long after the Jolly Roger fades into the mist, and although Buffy knew that she had finally been thrown overboard she wasn't quite ready to plummet to the bottom of the sea.

"There are hundreds of joints in this town," she told Roy before storming out of the Horseshoe. "Somewhere, the name Buffy St. Clair still holds some clout."

She gathered what crumbs remained of her dignity and made inquiries at the Golden Gate and Four Queens, only to be turned away. The Buffy St. Clair name closed more doors than it opened, evidently, and so she dusted off the filing cabinet of her memory and went off in search of a manager or promoter who might recall a Ginger St. James or a Kitty Van Dyke. She remembered an old acquaintance, Freddy Dineen, who had worked as a booking manager at the Pioneer Club, but Buffy was informed by a gentleman who looked too young to shave that Freddy had passed away seven years earlier.

With one eye blinded by mascara and the other throbbing in humiliation, the discharged dancer bumbled down Fremont and broke her heel stepping off a curb, and her tears—opaque and cloudy and beige—eroded a canyon down her cheek and dried chalky on the sun-warmed sidewalk. She was so frustrated that she sat down on the curb, knees drawn to her trembling chin, without giving any thought to ladylike posture or her short glittery skirt, while drivers of yellow cabs honked their horns in appreciation of the free show.

The mustachioed cabbies and Asian businessmen weren't the only ones staring, Buffy noticed. Across the street, on the corner of Fremont and Ninth, stood a thin wisp of an ancient man in front of a pawn shop. But, unlike the other denizens and visitors to Glitter Gulch, he was not leering at her. He stood in a white linen suit with his back resting against the shop window, slowly beckoning her with slow, deliberate movements of his index finger. There was something unnerving, yet magnetic, about the shopkeeper, whose complexion was a color that not even the largest box of crayons could convey, though if Buffy had to guess, it was something between raw umber and burnt sienna, like the windswept sandstone monoliths of Fire Canyon at sunset. She blinked loose a straggled tear and when she opened her eyes he was gone.

What business could she possibly have at this ramshackle pawn shop? Only a fool would mistake her bracelet of paste for diamonds or her rayon scarf for silk, she said to herself, and unless the pawnbroker was off his rocker or three sheets to wind, the monetary value of her entire wardrobe would barely fetch enough for cab fare back to the musty hotel suite she called home. It was this nonsensical realization, the uncanny absurdity of the situation, that finally convinced her to smooth her hair, tug down her silvery fish scale skirt, hitch up her blouse, and march over to the pawn shop.

"What took you so long?" asked the pawnbroker whose face, cratered and etched with deep irregular lines, resembled what Buffy thought the Martian landscape must be like. Up close he looked even more fragile than he had appeared from a distance, like a tapestry spun from spiderwebs or a mask carved from eggshells. Beneath a furrowed brow shone eyes as soft and blue as turquoise and as full of secrets as the ocean. "They've been waiting for you," he said with a smile.

Buffy spun around but saw only empty aisles flanked by shelves of cheap merchandise. "They?" asked Buffy, furrowing her own brow in confusion. "We are the only ones here," she stated. The proprietor smiled benevolently as the wood plank floor began to throb and pulse, as if a secret subway had been constructed beneath the old man's feet. Buffy thought she heard the faintest sound of music; not enough fragments to make a song, but an ephemeral sprinkle of embouchured clarinet notes and a phantom trombone glissando. Yet, when she strained her ears to listen harder, all she heard was the ticking of forgotten heirlooms.

"Look, mister, what type of stunt are you trying to pull?"

"There are no stunts here, Miss St. Clair," the keeper of the pawn shop replied. "What you see is just a humble little curio shop, but what you hear is your heart's deepest desire. It's all downstairs. The real action happens downstairs."

"Downstairs?"

The pawnbroker nodded slowly, in a manner that greatly agitated Buffy. She gave serious consideration to scolding the old coot for wasting her time but since she had all the time in the world, she suppressed the urge, though she demanded to know why the proprietor was acting as mysterious as the sphinx who swallowed the canary and, even more importantly, how he knew her name.

"Everyone knows your name!" grinned the pawnbroker, exposing teeth as white as sun-bleached bone. "You are a living legend, my dear. I've been following your career ever since you stepped off the bus from Minneapolis back in fifty-five. You called yourself Kitty Van Dyke back in those days, if memory serves."

"Fifty-seven," Buffy retorted sharply. The pawnbroker chuckled.

"Come now, my dear. There should be no secrets between friends, and you are among friends here." The old man nodded toward a padlocked door that was barely visible behind a tall glass display case filled with bibelots and bric-a-brac. "Yes, you are most certainly among friends here."

"There you go again talking in riddles," grunted Buffy as she tucked a Virginia Slim between her smudged crimson lips. "You've been circling the airport ever since I came inside and it's time to bring her in for a landing, if you don't mind. I'm not getting any younger, you know."

The shopkeeper smiled as he offered her a match. "Splendid! Then let's talk business, shall we? Now, I'm afraid your jewelry isn't worth very much so pawning your bracelet is out of the question. May I suggest a straight up trade?"

It was the classic Faustian deal with the devil, of course, but without the nasty case of buyer's remorse that tends to follow such transactions, because what good is a soul anyway in a town like Las Vegas? Like a vestigial tail or a spouse, it just gets in the way of a good time.

As for the devil disguised as a pawnbroker, it's unclear whether or not Buffy St. Clair knew what she getting into when she made the decision to cross Fremont Street, although it is entirely possible that she knew the score long before she signed on the dotted line. The hints were certainly there, from burnt sienna to Fire Canyon. The shopkeeper's true identity couldn't have been more obvious unless he had lit Buffy's cigarette with his finger. Considering the abundance of low-hanging fruit in Las Vegas, it seems improbable that the devil would be plying his trade at lonesome Mississippi crossroads at midnight, procuring souls one scrawny bluesman at a time, and it's even less likely that he'd go through the trouble of entering fiddling competitions in Georgia. That sort of nonsense would not only be inefficient, it would completely destroy his profit margin.

At any rate, Buffy enjoys her new job. Sure, the hours are eternally long and the pay is irrelevant because she can never leave the subterranean night club secreted beneath the unassuming ramshackle pawn shop at the corner of Ninth and Fremont, but even without a soul she knew she had found that elusive quality of redemption the moment she opened the door and descended the creaking wooden stairs and beheld the stage bathed in the soft glow of pink neon light. She knew that she was home when she heard the lilting voices of the peacocked flock of costumed girls greeting her by name, and not by one of her myriad showgirl pseudonyms, but her real name, whatever it was. The rest of Glitter Gulch may have forgotten the likes of Buffy St. Clair and Sandra St. Croix and Ginger St. James and Kitty Van Dyke, but the devil's daughters welcomed her with open arms.

Decades of wandering through the desert can shake the faith of anyone—just ask Moses—but when the roaming is over and the Promised Land is reached, the innumerable blisters and broken heels are forgotten like yesterday's daydreams and memories of the long arduous journey take on a bittersweet flavor, mellowed by time like fine Kentucky bourbon. The pawnbroker was right: Buffy had not only been granted her heart's one true desire, but she also found that she was among friends. And since the devil was right on both counts, that just might make him the most honest man in all of Vegas.

It was is if everyone she had ever known was there—Jack Entratter's girls from the Sands, Harold Minsky's topless dancers from the Desert Inn, forgotten stars of the Folies Bergere—and there were others as well, every burlesque performer who fell down the deep, dark well of obscurity, every two-a-day hoofer from the vaudeville era. They all glistened like new, just like when they stepped off the bus from Minneapolis.

While many folks like to believe that heaven and hell are destinations—two extreme poles where elves are angels and penguins are demons—the truth is that they are merely states of mind. And maybe there's not really much difference between heaven and hell, except that hell has a little more dancing and cigar smoke and fewer pale-skinned Minnesotans who lived their quiet unassuming lives in cheap, ready-made suits and sensible shoes, staring out of office windows on the 22nd floor of the Foshay Tower each dismal January dreaming of pretty girls and someplace warm.

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