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The Chicken Ranch by Rebeka Singer

“You know what the wonder of Vegas is? It sells people the hope of all their dreams coming true.” My father lifted a hand off the steering wheel. “Only hazard is, odds are you lose it all in a hand.” And he had, in the poker tournament yesterday. The reason he’d flown my boyfriend and me out here with him in the first place.

“I would never come here if I didn’t see opportunity,” he said as we drove down the dusty mountain road away from the Vegas Strip.

“Opportunity in the desert wasteland— Naturally.” I looked down at my sundress and adjusted the fabric evenly over my thighs.

“Space to be developed.” Luke reached his hand back from the front passenger seat to squeeze my knee.

“The town is home to some of the most upscale brothels in the state,” my father said.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, fingering the windowpane.

The Chicken Ranch is the most prestigious brothel, famed for housing the prettiest, cleanest girls. My father told me that a real estate agent had taken him to that part of town years ago when he was in the market—for real estate.

“We’ll have to move down here and put you up for work at the Chicken Ranch.”

Luke’s gentle smile apologized for him. I scowled. My father laughed and it all seemed so bizarre: the overwhelming heat, twisted male humor and last night’s cocktails. I lay down in the backseat curling my legs under me.

We drove through a dilapidated town with newly built, deserted shopping plazas and a staggering amount of fast-food restaurants. We turned down a dead-end street of empty parking lots, and stopped at a gate that bore a sign penetrated by bullets inscribed: ‘Shooting ground closed.’ Beyond the gate lay dust, and farther off multi-toned mountains, layers of sediment and time. The mountains surrounding the Valley appeared close enough to walk, but the uniform desert deceived by miles.

We parked and stepped out into the stifling heat.

“You know, when I first came down here and saw opportunity, Grandpa Nate mocked me.” The sun beat steadily on my father’s graying hairs and sweat dripped from his scalp. “He told me I was crazy.”

“Yeah?” I’d heard it before.

“Yup, and you know what I said to him?”

“What is that?”

“I told him, ‘Nate, the difference between you and me is this’—” He licked his top front teeth. “You turn silver into gold; but, I—I turn shit into gold.” He grinned a real cowboy’s grin.

“We’ll try to find the stakes I put in this land seven years ago when I first bought it. I marked out an acre of land, though thirty-six in all.”

The air was suffocating. My body felt drained of fluid and my arms fell limp. I imagined this is what it felt like to sit inside a vacuum.

“Do you hear that, Lil?” he said. “Nothing,” We all stood dumbly. “Silence.”

My father looked off into the stretch of desert. His body was stiff, frozen in mid-step. His shoulders scrunched down, neck outstretched, and each gangly leg grounded in the sparkling sand. He squinted. I looked to Luke, stalking the desert floor in search of the stakes.

“Tom, what did those stakes look like?”

“Let’s see.” My father scanned the land. “There!” he stretched his index finger into the horizon. “You see, Lily. There it is right under my finger in the distance.” I searched for a minute and spotted it. An unexpected bout of excitement infused transitory life into my veins.

“Luke,” I called. “Do you see it?” I cupped my right hand above my forehead to shield the sun.

“Not yet. But I think I found one.” Luke grasped a wooden stake, bent from wind damage.

“That’s it,” my father said. A fleeting smile rose and set on his face. His wrinkled skin, dry and golden from the sun, sunk into his bones, delineating hidden crevices under his shadowed eyes. “This used to be mine.” He sighed, breathlessly parting his lips.

I watched him standing still, his life truncated in the desert. I watched him as if in quicksand, losing ground beneath the soles of his shoes. His life had existed in the potential held by this piece of land: a future resort casino, now lost in the desert.

“Lily, what do you think?”

“Of the land? Impressive.”

“The desert land, Lily—I promised the Moon, right? What do you say?”

I watched Luke treading through the sand in the distance. We’d been dating nearly two years. My father felt obliged to invite him on the trip; the trip we had been planning since I was a little girl that we recently decided would take place just after my 21stbirthday.

I remembered how much I had wanted to come to the desert with my father as a child. He promised me the Moon. I couldn’t remember when I’d stopped wanting that.

“I say it’s dry, Dad.” He didn’t look at me. “Dry, I mean…beautiful Dad. The rocks of ancient oceans.” I took a quick breath to capture the image I’d just declared.

I fiddled with my hands, trying to release a hairclip trapped in my mess of curls. “I’m too hot.”

We all got back in the car. Luke sat in the back with me. He leaned his head against the passenger window, depositing a stain of sweat on the glass. I grabbed for his hand. His eyelids wilted over slippery globes. I looked down at my feet and scrutinized the chipped polish.

“You guys want to go see the Chicken Ranch?”

Luke nodded in amusement. I watched him, wondering if he saw anything beside desert through the window’s glare.

It looked as though we were driving into a more upscale part of town. The houses stood farther apart and the lawns were greener from widespread irrigation. Most of the buildings, if you’d call them that, were plain, box-like, but clean—no decorative windows or awnings, flags or fountains. There were very few people—a few men alone or in pairs walked slowly. They looked like clean-shaven, middle-aged men in chic cowboy attire. They looked kind.

“There it is.” My father slowed the car.

I saw an unmarked building, plain like the others, but larger. It looked well kept, not uninviting. A young girl stepped out of her car in the side parking lot. She was beautiful, with long straight auburn hair and, I imagined, tiny freckles, too. She wore dark jeans fitted to her ankles and a button-down red-plaid blouse that revealed the tops of her round tanned breasts. She painted her lips with a thin brush while peering at her reflection in the window of a dusty old Ford.

She tucked her hair behind her ears and looked up, it seemed, toward our car. She glanced briefly and I felt in that moment she had seen me. She had smiled at me with her tender eyes, and then walked in the side door of the Chicken Ranch.

I wished she would turn around, but all I could see were her tall boots glinting in the sun as she stepped through the threshold.

I looked at Luke, at my father—their eyes followed her inside.

We all left the desert that night. Sailed above its invisible planes, hidden under the night skies.

© 2014 Rebeka Singer

Rebeka Singer is a writer, teacher, and banking ingénue living in her native Providence, RI. She received her MFA in creative fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Red Savina Review, Drunk Monkeys, Contraposition, Dogzplot, The Quotable, Corium Magazine, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere.