BY LORNA GIBB
Off the strip, a door opens and the ring, k-ching, jingle and tinny tinkling melodies sound a cacophony from the casino inside. There’s a glimpse of blank eyes staring at spinning fruit but scant evidence of the vacillating hope behind them. The door shuts again. On the tarmac a girl stands, then sits, then slumps. She wears shorts in blue, has track marks up her legs and arms. Her dyed red hair is cut close to the scalp and looks patchy. It’s warm but not hot, the ground is a pleasant temperature to sit on, not like it will be in a month or two when it will burn.
There’s no one about. It’s a dead time.
For a moment the windowless artificiality that merges all hours into one unending minute of waiting seems to have followed her outdoors from the casino. The car park is half full but no one arrives or leaves and to her, the quietness seems louder than the noise of slot machines and expectation. He’s still inside, her own hostage to fortune, following the turn of a card in the thick fug of nicotine smell and stale spilled beer. Her eyes close, she falls right over to one side, her head hits the ground and she passes into a dream of some drug’s making.
She sees a tree. It is a gnarled, contorted thing that reaches high above and its branches block out all but the smallest hints of sky. The fruit on this tree is odd, shaped in a way that is mindful of a human heart from some angles, but like a small bird, a sparrow or a finch perhaps, from others. It seems to her that there is no recurring season, no single passage of time when all the fruit is young or mature, or ready to fall, so from each branch hang several fruits all at different stages of their development, and at random intervals, one or more tumbles down. Yet they fall only briefly because it is at that point they become most like the birds they recall, and instead of hurtling down, after the briefest of seconds, they take wing and go upwards again, to whatever lies above the branches that obscure the view.
But in one of those slight fractions of a second between falling and flight, she dreams of a hand reaching out and catching one of the tiny embryonic things, not quite beating heart, not quite winged creature, and holding it there. It flutters in the gentlest of holds, trembles as it begins its transformation, for change it does.
The fingers of the hand cradle the strange being until it grows into a reflection of a child, perhaps of Claire herself, she thinks in the dream. But then, when it can be contained no more, it falls, keeps on falling down to a garden, in another place. She catches a sudden movement, a glint from the skin of a snake in a clearing that has suddenly materialised in the thick foliage. Claire is watching the snake when all her dreaming stops.
One Week Ago
She comes round from a state that is part stupor, part unconsciousness, to vomit. Sees a foot crush a cigarette butt just in front of her.
The man in a silver mustang pulls up, gets out, comes over, says ‘Hello Claire.’ She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and manages a smile. He takes her hand pulls her up. Claire leans towards him. ‘Brush your teeth first,’ he says. They get in the car, drive off.
Back on the strip, he tells her his luck has held all day. She tries to tell him of a strange dream she has had, a recurring dream about fruit and snakes. ‘Like the bible,’ he says, ‘wonder if it means I’ll be lucky again tomorrow.’ Her thoughts are filled with portents of foreboding that seem incompatible with his constant quest for omens of good fortune, but she says nothing, does not want to darken the mood that is now so light, but could so easily and quickly change to heavy black silence and her fearful watchfulness.
The noise inside the hotel casino is deafening. Bright pink walls and neon flamingos, but it’s a brief stop and he collects something while she waits in the car, then they go west to the Tropicana. It’s white and cool inside, and somehow quieter than the other hotels, without the cigarette smell that permeates every stool and curtain and green baize table top along the strip. This time she goes in too, he listlessly loses some money on slot machines as he passes, she begs him to put ten dollars in the machine with the pictures of kittens and he scores twenty back. He pats her affectionately on the rump, ‘Need to see about getting you a kitten one of these days.’
But in truth she doesn’t want one, prefers these cute, saccharine photos, thinks that the smell of cat urine and faeces in her tiny room on days when the air condition is playing up would make her sick. But she says nothing. He stops at the high stakes Black Jack table and already she is beginning to worry. If he loses, he’ll lose a lot and she knows what that means. He does his usual ritual, a half muttered prayer to some entity that he somehow thinks watches over him, keeps him safe, brings him luck. This time, because he’s in a good mood, she asks him, ‘Carver, what’s that thing you say every time?’
‘Mum used to say I had a Guardian angel watching over me, told me not to worry when times were hard and I was a kid. I used to be irritated, but now I reckon there’s no harm in it. If someone’s listening, great, if they’re not, it’s not hurting anyone. Just hedging my bets, staying on the good side of the angels.’
‘It’s cute’. She means it too, likes this way he accepts the possibility of outside agent, she believes in something too, though she’s not sure what. The RC church on Cathedral Way is called Guardian Angels. It’s cool and comforting and once, a few weeks back, when she was coming down they let her sleep the night there. When half the congregation left mass the next day before Holy Communion the priest ended the service by saying, only those of you that stayed will have a chance to win tonight. And she smiled, at this, the most appropriate and local of blessings.
Carver holds his cards close, doesn’t let her see what he has, and loses, once, twice, five, six times in quick succession. She touches his arm gently and he shrugs her off, ‘Don’t, I need to concentrate,’ he says and she hears the low note of warning in his voice.
The women’s restroom smells of coconut and she perches a leg on the toilet seat in the white cubicle and reaches down to pull out her tampon. It’s soaked through with bright red blood, she drops it in the pan and pushes another in. It’s been the same for more than a month now, the cramps, the bleeds, sometimes vivid like this other times dark dried red, a period that comes more days each month than it should. While she washes her hands she looks in the mirror and checks her too pale face, the bruised under eyes, covers them with powder. But as she leaves, goes back into the steady din of slots, her head spins and she holds the door to balance herself.
One Month Ago
On the strip, Claire kicks and turns perfectly but then the sudden spasm in her abdomen catches her off balance as she goes into a stretch pose. The audience gasp when she falls, a collective intake of breath, this isn’t a subtle mistake, easily missed. Molly steps in front, picks up her routine so the other dancers who are meant to be echoing Claire’s steps a beat behind can take their places. Claire recovers but not as quickly as she should, she gets to face level with the sparkling waist band of Molly’s g-string, then with the clear tape fastenings for the angel wings. Head up, and step, pause, step, pause, extend.
Two interminable minutes to the end of the number. Claire has taken Molly’s place in the line so at least she’s not the centre of it all, but still she thinks the audience are watching to see if she messes up again, wonders if they’re thinking she’s not good enough to be there. Most days, these days, she doesn’t think so either.
Afterwards she thanks Molly and means it but Harry comes up immediately. Like her he’s Scottish, like her he swears a lot, something the Americans still haven’t got used to.
‘So what the fuck was that about?’
‘I got a cramp.’
‘Then take a fucking aspirin. Fuck knows where we’d be if we had a line up break every time one of your girls was on the rag. That’s the third time. One more and you’re back to the chorus.’
Once he’s gone, Molly says, ‘Long period, Claire, better get checked out.’
‘I know, I know.’ But thinks, ‘Butt out’, and of Harry, ‘trumped up public schoolboy prick.’
At the back of the hotel, Carver, dressed in a linen suit, hands her a small packet of powder.
‘Where the fuck were you yesterday?’ Claire pays him.
‘Detained. Literally. Bit impatient aren’t we?’
‘I’m fine. Just made a bit of a mistake. Stuff helps the cramps.’
‘That’s what they all say. Friday then. Must say I like those stage outfits of yours a lot better than that granny shit you’re wearing. Nice titties, shouldn’t hide them away.’
Claire doesn’t answer, just tucks her little packet in a pocket concealed by folds of cotton fabric.
Six Months Ago
Claire is asked to dance the lead and she doesn’t know whether to be pleased or terrified. Pleased she can write home to her family and say, hey, I’ve made it out here. After all those years of being the stupid girl, the one who wasn’t too good at reading or doing sums, the too tall, skinny girl who couldn’t get a snog, now look at me.
Terrified because she only overcomes her paralysing stage fright in the competitive camaraderie of the troupe. Molly on one side, Kate on the other, and she gets by, knowing they’re in it together.
It would be impossible to refuse anyway. The girls she takes comfort from are already bitching. They say Harry is British, so is she, that’s why she’s got the lead so quickly, she’s probably fucking him. She isn’t. But if she turns it down, they’ll say it’s posturing. The lead dancer is the girl they love to hate.
‘You’re a fantastic dancer,’ Harry says, ‘just remember to get yourself out there a bit more.’
She tells her boyfriend, Nick, one of those is he/isn’t he yet relationships because they’ve only been out three times. They’re at lunch in a Mexican place off the strip and next to a topless bar where the food is authentic and the waitresses look like they work shifts with the club next door.
He positively glows. ‘Wow babe, that’s going to be so cool. I’ll be there, in the front row.’
Claire ventures, ‘I’m scared.’
‘What’s scary? You look so great they won’t notice if you’re out of step.’
‘I just am. Always have been. It’s easier when you’re in a troupe.’
‘You could always take something, just a little, to get the edge off that first night.’
Nick’s flat is just round the corner from the one she shares with Molly and Kate. After lunch, he invites her back, settles her on the sofa and kneels by the glass table. He takes out a square pack wrapped in cellophane from the pocket of his 501s. It’s no bigger than a fifty pence piece. The stuff inside reminds Claire of her baby sister’s talcum powder. He doesn’t line it up with a card like they do in films, instead he dampens his finger and makes a squiggle that looks like a snake then follows the shape expertly as he snorts.
‘My party piece,’ he says to her. ‘’You probably just want a straight line.’
He taps the pack on the surface and some more cocaine appears. With his American Express, he makes it into two tiny lines and hands Claire a straw. ‘Sniff quickly’ he says. But he’s too late with the advice and she sneezes. It smells funny, like a mix of cat pee and chlorine, chemical and organic. He laughs, and nods as she takes the second line much more quickly. ‘Like a pro,’ he says.
It tingles, makes her head feel like someone’s thrown on a switch in a good way, and soon it gets even better. Nick looks amazing, she realises that now, and his accent makes him sound like a movie star. He’s so at ease with his body but then she catches the reflection of her own legs in the mirror above the fireplace, stretched over the arm of the couch and thinks, God, I really do look good. It isn’t all costumes and lights; I’m a beautiful woman.
Nick leans over and they kiss, his hands move to her breasts and for the first time she lets him undress her. The intensity of her desire is newly felt and she responds, pulling his shirt off, unbuttoning his jeans, losing her inhibitions, the ones that would normally make her hesitant, worried that her body, so popular on stage, won’t hold up to the proximity of a lover. They leave the blinds pulled up and the blinking lights of early evening on the Fremont Street experience, look like stars, are wondrous to behold. She uses those words, ‘wondrous to behold’ and he laughs, full heartedly and she is delighted in that too, her ability to entertain with words, to be funny. He sucks her nipples, says, ‘I’ll think of this next time I see them up there on the stage’.
She thinks of being on stage and of the barely there costumes that made her nervous at first, but most nights now just seem uncomfortable, the too tight G-string that works its way up her bum, the rash she gets from the rough finish of the sequinned fabrics. Now she pictures herself looking like the neon lights outside, all glitter, illuminating the stage, the whole city, with her radiance. When she orgasms, it is sudden and unexpected and she shouts out her joyousness. He is delighted and when he ejaculates into her, calls out too, her name over and over, ‘Oh Claire, oh Claire,’ and then ‘my very own showgirl.’
The walls of the flat are brick painted white but Claire thinks they are snow, so cool they seem against her sex sweat. She licks the walls and their taste is better than the white chocolate soufflé she craves but can’t eat because her body is a temple. She says this out loud too, ‘My body is a temple.’ And again he laughs, says, ‘I’m going to start going to church regularly’.
‘I want to go out. Now. Look at how it is down there,’ Claire opens the window on the carnival of Fremont Street. She grabs his shirt and her own jeans and he dresses too. Four blocks have been covered in a canopy of lights. It is a carnival of fancy dress and loud rock music, all of Vegas but amplified, magnified, with blaring music in a constantly changing, plasma covered tent.
The sky is neon and from it Claire hears screaming. Looking up she sees people hurtling from the heights of the covered over street to the ground where Elvis look alikes, cowboys, clowns and girls who are mostly too short to be show girls wear spangled bikinis and feathers and mingle with the day trippers and holidaymakers.
‘Let’s fly,’ Nick says, and she tells him she already is flying, but he pulls her out of the canopied area to the entry point and they stand under the night sky. There’s a giant slot machine and she looks up, thinking, wow this is some hit, but in fact it’s real, just like the 37 foot tall models of showgirls, one dressed in a turquoise bikini that looks like the outfit for one of her numbers. She points, giggles, ‘It’s me!’
From the top of the monstrous mechanism there are zip lines that lead into the canopy of lights. People dangle from them on contraptions that look like a toddler’s safety harness and reins.
He stops at the ticket office and whispers to her, reading from a list of rules on the side window of the booth, ‘Do not go on the ride if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol,’ then adds, ‘but it’s so much more fun that way.’ He hands over eighty dollars for two tickets and gets into the lift to take them up to the top of the canopy arch. They hold onto poles suspended from the wire while they are strapped in. He goes first. Claire follows easily, feels fearless, unbreakable sees the roof and all of the neon rush up towards her and thinks she will soar right through, hit the sky and keep ascending. The Four Queens and Golden Nugget Hotels fly past, and she is above them all, moving ever more rapidly towards a dazzling immensity of brightness.
She begins to descend far sooner than she wants to in a rush of air that blows through her hair rendering her free and fast. But still she believes she won’t stop, will keep going, will climb up again, somewhere into a white, shining light. But the ride ends, and she’s at the other end of Fremont Street, under the Golden Gate casino.
He’s there waiting when she lands, takes her back to his flat, just as the tiredness hits her, the utter exhaustion. And with the weariness comes the worry that he might not want her anymore. His phone rings and he ignores it and she feels sure he just doesn’t want to speak to whoever it is when she is there to overhear and says so. ‘You’re coming down,’ he says, ‘let’s go to bed.’ She walks through the living room and there’s a snake on the glass table. No, it’s gone; it’s the memory of an image, not a real one.
In the bedroom, fully clothed, they fall onto his bed and into drug induced dreaming.
One Year Ago
It’s the longest flight she’s ever been on. Eleven hours. The only other times she has been out of Scotland were the Blackpool trips when she was a kid and the holiday in Spain when her dad got his redundancy money. She’s watched Ocean’s Eleven three times and Leaving Las Vegas twice but still when she finds it on the plane’s classic film list, she puts it on again. Claire has a travel guide, Lonely Planet, and for the umpteenth time she looks at the photo of the hotel where she will be working.
Her flat address, shared with two other girls, is just off Fremont Street which sounds amazing, but overwhelming too. The world’s largest projection screen, five football pitches long makes a sky over blocks of hotels and casinos. She imagines a cocoon of strobes, mirrors and lights if the book’s description is anything to go by. She also wonders if she’ll be able to sleep or if the Queen and Jon Bon Jovi tribute bands will play all night through her apartment window.
She’s never been one for parties; there was never time; she’s had dance classes straight after school, five nights week and dance workshops all Saturday, for the past six years. It’s all so unreal, this flight, the life that awaits her, a dream of sorts, just not the one she started out with. Her true desire was a job in a ballet company but she was too tall, just two inches short of six foot, so instead she’s going to be a chorus girl, and not just anywhere but in the showgirl capital of the world.
The audition was easy, at least for her, after all those classes, and the guy who checked out her breasts seemed more like a medical person than anything else. She was sure he’d hate them, notice that one was slightly bigger than the other and send her home. He was very detached and professional, reassuring, but also engaged enough to show he was pleased with what he saw. He made her rub ice on her nipples and then praised the outcome, something in his business-like manner stopping her shyness, relaxing her somehow.
She knew she’d done well after the second set. There were ten shortlisted girls altogether, all after one place in the troupe, but only two of the others could pick up the steps as quickly as she could, and none except her after only one run through.
One Decade Ago
Claire’s mum is coming out of the Post Office when she hears the tinkling of a piano. It’s not the usual sound she expects round there, on the bad end of the High Street, where the old men and the junkies sit on the bench by the War memorial, so she does a double take and sees the door of the YMCA has been jammed open because of the unusually warm weather. Claire’s beat her to it, has already spotted the little girls through the windows at the side and is dragging her mum, who isn’t putting up much resistance, towards the concrete building.
‘Can I go, mum? Can I, can I?’
They go into the big hall with its parquet floor and wood panelling and see a dozen girls and two boys, all about Claire’s age, give or take a year or two. Claire’s mum thinks they look adorable. Some are in leotards and pink shoes, other are in shorts and T-shirt and barefoot. One girl is wearing a party dress and smiling broadly as she does her ‘step, point, step point’. Claire’s always been shy and this could be just the thing she needs to bring her out of her shell. Her mum watches the confident, grinning girl and imagines Claire just like her, doing her steps, beaming at an audience. A newly confident child, not one that’s too afraid and nervous to speak to visitors and hides behind the couch, but perhaps, instead, one who shows off a few of her ballet steps in the living room. There’s an elderly man sitting at a white desk with a tin full of cash and she goes over to him. He’s the dance teacher’s dad. The lessons cost very little so she hands over some money and Claire, so very unusual for Claire, who always hangs back, would usually wait to be asked, runs to the far side of the room where kids’ shoes and clothes and bags are piled against a wall and various parents sit on plastic seats looking on. Claire pulls open the Velcro strips to unfasten her shoes, very carefully takes off the socks with the angel wings at the ankle and places them neatly on top of a chair. Her mum sees the other mothers watching in envy at this display of innate neatness and feels proud.
By the time Claire stands in the second row and raises her arms to fifth position, copying the girls in front of her, she is already smiling and her mum settles in a seat between two other parents to watch. The pianist plays the opening bars of a waltz. The room smells of beeswax polish, flowery soap and hopefulness. Claire begins to dance.
Lorna Gibb has written two biographies – Lady Hester (Faber) and West's World (Pan Mac) and most recently a novel, A Ghost's Story (Granta), as well as published lots of short pieces. She's currently working on another book for Granta. She lectures part time in creative writing at Middlesex University, and she used to be a professional dancer (many, many years ago), hence the idea for this story. She lives in London with her husband and three cats.