The Man Who Isn't There
The man who asked for Amanda's hand in marriage was different. She didn't mark her new husband; he marked her. Out of all the women walking the Las Vegas Strip, he spotted her with his sharp night vision. Amanda has been strolling her stretch of the Strip searching for the clean upper middle-class young men who come to attend the bachelor parties and corporate get-togethers her adopted home is famous for since the summer after her high school graduation, but she has never looked for a husband. She doesn't gamble at the casinos or enjoy the nightlife. She isn’t friendly with the showgirls; the other group of  gainfully employed Vegas women who work after dark. She carries life necessities at all times: condoms, emergency contraception in its pretty blue and green package, cocaine in thumb-sized plastic bags, sticky marijuana buds wrapped in aluminum foil, rolling papers, red and white striped diet pills, a big bag of supermarket candy, Cipro. Amanda didn’t want to waste a second thinking about this man, she was supposed to be looking for work, but she hoped he was real and not just another figment of her unchecked and out of control imagination. Since she was a child, she has had visions of a man who doesn't exist. A looming shadowy face. A stern and foreboding visage. Following her. She sees herself falling down steep flights of stairs, crumpled and broken at the bottom. She has visions of being hit by  oncoming cars and endures the sudden urge to jump out of hotel windows. But it has been harder for her than usual to be certain of what exists in reality and what doesn't. 

Amanda found herself moving towards this man. She turned in circles in order to catch another glimpse. He fell into step behind her, walking with purpose, holding her gaze every time she turned around. She listened for the click of his shoes on the pavement. He wore a dark pinstriped suit. Black slick hair. Blue milky eyes. Square jaw. He seemed real. Solid. Made out of flesh and bone.

If he was looking for just any Vegas girl, he could have found any number of them walking the Strip in short tight dresses and secondhand fur coats, gifts from overzealous divorced men in rented luxury cars. Amanda has also taken tokens of appreciationa diamond necklace she never wears, a flat screen television she barely watchesbut she would never accept a present like a rich man's ex-wife's mink or rabbit.

Amanda has been a dedicated vegetarian since the summer of her conversion when Liz, her only junior high school friend, Liz's older sister, Eva, Eva's good-looking boyfriend Anthony, and Liz's mother took her to her first protest at a working farm and slaughterhouse. Up until that point, as far as Amanda knew, meat came from the supermarket snuggled in plastic wrap. Liz's mother taught her that consuming the dead flesh her parents grilled and roasted every night had made her fat and ugly, but there was a way to release herself from that prison. A lifestyle choice that would set her free. Make her skinny, pretty, and popular like Liz and and Eva; allow her to find a handsome, charming boyfriend like Anthony.

Liz's mother grabbed the fat around Amanda's soft preadolescent middle. She pointed to the massacre on the grounds of the working farm and handed her a bottle of red and white striped  pills.

Take two every time you want to consume the flesh of other beings, she said. There are consequences for our actions. Meat comes from animals. You see them running around outside? You think they’re cute? They’re going to be someone’s dinner. They don't pull hamburger out of thin air. They’ve been slaughtered. Butchered. Necks twisted and broken. Disemboweled with rusty metal hooks. I’m surprised they don’t reach in and grab their beating hearts right out of their chests with their bare hands. They can't wait to get their hands on fresh, bloody meat.

In celebration of the summer of her conversion, Amanda wears a long faux fox coat over her usual attire: a fitted black dress that shows just a hint of leg and breast, silk stockings, spike heels. It makes her sly and sleek. Predatory. Visible and invisible.

Corporate, Amanda asked.

Yes, the man said. International imports and exports.

I don't know what that means, she said.

That's okay, he said.

What do you want?

He smiled.

Do I have to want something?

Yes, Amanda said.

Let's get married, he said.

The man took Amanda by the hand and guided her in a straight line towards the end of the almost empty Strip. The desert air still dusty dry from the hot day, but the heavy gray clouds promised rain. A quiet weekday night. A school night, a work night. Other people had lives to live, loved ones to go home to. They walked alongside a few excited tourists pointing to the tremendous casinos, families hurrying back to their hotels before the full dark of the Vegas night, and all the working women, endlessly walking, but turning in the familiar loop and returning to safety before they wandered too far from the center of the world. Amanda never explores the Las Vegas landscape, never ventures this close to the nothing beyond the Strip.

When the neon lights gave way to the dark of the suburban neighborhoods, Amanda stopped. She turned to see if this man was, in fact, real.

She touched his arm. It was warm and smooth. Alive. Blood coursed through his veins.

She's going to have a real life. Children, dentist appointments, soccer games. Holiday pictures. Arguing about the laundry and the dishes. Nourishing the babies that will be the products of her redemption.

The man pulled a ring out of his pocket. No velvet box, just the loose ring in his pocket. A slim platinum band with a bump of a diamond jutting out from the center.

Amanda accepted the man's proposal.

The ceremony was short, the chapel almost empty. The organ player practiced scales. A short, heavyset woman with cat-rimmed glasses officiated.

My dress isn't white, Amanda said.

He slipped the ring on her finger.

Her new husband took her to one of the hotels on the Strip. Amanda has watched thousands of couples take the famous walk from the wedding chapels to their honeymoon suites over the years, but she never had a reason to step inside of one of the special rooms reserved for brides and grooms. She was a bride now, like all the happy girls who wear new white dresses, hold impromtu champagne toasts in the street, and force prickly gray-green twigs of sagebrush from their trip to the desert into their hair.

The entire room was painted gold. It had an ocean of a water bed, a mirrored ceiling, fresh rose petals on the pillows. There were giant chocolate dipped strawberries floating in a fishbowl of champagne, keepsake gifts of truffles in tiny baskets, an enormous frosted angel food cake resting on a shiny plate. Room service provided the wedding night special: blue-veined steaks dotted with sweaty globs of fat, asparagus wrapped in thick pink bacon, cold baked potatoes topped with thin milky sour cream, hard slabs of butter.

Amanda's new husband cut his steak into chunks and hunched over his plate of flesh.

She told him about the working farm. How Liz's mother showed her the reality of the killing floor and the path to redemption.

Her new husband cut slices of the angel food cake with a gold-plated knife.

No meat in the cake, he said.

After he finished eating, he undressed, kicked off his shoes.

Amanda knew this is what people do. They get married, eat supper, make themselves comfortable. Unzip their pants, take off their tight shoes, rub their own toes without taking off their socks, watch a little TV, maybe the last ten minutes of the news. The husband flips through all the movie channels looking for a glimpse of naked breasts, preferably a pair of perfectly round, heaving, naked breasts belonging to a well-known actress. The wife pretends not to notice.

I grew up on a farm, her new husband said. We raised animals and ate them. I’m proud that my roots are in farming. My family has been in Kansas since the mid-nineteenth century, they came for the land and to fight the Border War. We’re in the history books. It’s always been my mission to find my way home again. Become an upstanding citizen. I'm from salt of the earth people. I'm ready to take my rightful place beside them. I'm ready to change, to be redeemed. I want to go home.

I've never been to Kansas, Amanda said.

In Kansas, one learns responsibility to home and family, he said.

Amanda nodded.

I want kids, he said.

Children are important, she said.

Boys, he said. That would be nice.

I like boys, she said.

All the men in my family are Henry, he said. It goes back four or five generations.

I like Henry, Amanda said.

Good, he said.

They had sex as husband and wife. It was slow, halting, unfamiliar. Afterwards, her new husband rolled over and slipped into sleep. There was laughter and music coming from the other rooms on the floor. Doors slamming. Other people enjoying themselves, drunk in the early morning, doing lines off glass tables. Having sex with women they don't know and would never see again.

Amanda waited for the man's face to appear. She wanted to smoke a joint, reach into her bag of candy, but forced herself to lie absolutely still.

The last day of fifth grade they had a makeshift graduation ceremony. Stained white robes and huge motorboard caps from the local junior high. Elementary school was over. They were about to embark on the journey of their young lives: junior high. They celebrated with juice and cookies. The parents lit cigarettes, opened a few bottles of wine. Afterwards, they were allowed to play in the park by themselves.

Several junior high school boys crashed their party. A tall, gawky girl from one of the slow learners classes was the first to experience the new world. The boys snapped her training bra and lifted her skirt. They stepped on her feet, swiped her across the knees so she'd buckle and fall. They lifted her skirt to reveal white cotton panties, the kind sold in drugstores. The boys circled her like yipping, baying dogs. She wiggled her hips and stamped her feet, but they wouldn't let go. They picked her up and took her behind a tree.

You're next, one of the boys said to Amanda. He jabbed a finger into her forehead and grabbed at her flat left breast with one of his dirty, meaty hands.

Amanda turned to run, and there it was. A shadowy man's face conjured itself out of thin air. She blinked, closed her eyes, tried to make it disappear, but, when she opened her eyes, it was still there.

It watched her. Followed her.

Amanda grabbed the boy's arm.

What is it, she asked. What do I do? Why won't it go away?

The boy pulled himself out of her grasp.

What's wrong with you, he said. Are you crazy?

Once Amanda started telling her new husband everything, she couldn't stop. He listened,  nodded his head in all the appropriate places, but every once in a while she thought she saw a glimpse of a cold stare. A flicker of his inner thoughts.

The way he looked at her when she told him she's a vegetarian. About the protests. The killing floor. She told him about her first visit to Las Vegas with Liz and her family. About Anthony. Eva was in a teen swimsuit competition, so her parents used the opportunity to take what Liz's father said was a much-needed vacation. Liz's mother invited Amanda so she could keep an eye on her waistline.

Don’t worry, Liz’s father told her. Plump girls have big round asses, and we might deny it in front of skinny women—he rolled his eyes in his wife’s direction—but the truth is that a lot of men really like plump girls with big round asses.

Stop filling Amanda’s head with nonsense, her mother said. Nobody in their right mind likes a fat girl.

He lowered his voice to a whisper.

Don't be afraid, he said. Go ahead. Eat a big juicy steak.

At thirteen, Las Vegas aroused her. That feeling when she saw the Strip for the first time. She didn't know such a place could exist. Showgirls roaming the streets in costume. Cocktail waitresses in tiny shorts. The lights. The buffets. Drunk grown-ups stuffing themselves until they couldn't move. Until they were sick. From their hotel window, Amanda saw men pulling up to the curb in their fancy cars. All the working women in floor-length fur and spike heels. When Amanda took too many of her red and white striped pills and couldn't sleep, she slipped out of her rollaway cot, past Liz, Eva, and their parents asleep in their beds, and Anthony, who was still awake on the couch. He noticed her, saw her, looked in her direction. Outside, the still desert air and the thick Vegas night greeted her.

Amanda told her new husband about her first night walking the crowded, noisy Strip on her own, four years later, and fifty pounds slimmer in her first black dress, pair of spike heels, and brand new faux fox coat. The upper middle class boys fought over her. She was safe. Like the girls they knew back home. Young and ripe, clean, scrubbed behind the ears. Round enough to look cared for. Like a girl somebody loved. She wasn't diseased, strung out, or obviously damaged. She wasn't hungry. They didn’t have to take her to dinner or coax her into bed. Amanda did whatever they wanted in the penthouse suites their parents paid for. Sometimes, in a moment of uncertainty about the rules, they bought her presents and invited her to the all-day breakfast buffets. As if she was a girlfriend. Someone to take home to their mothers. These young men happily abandoned their diets, their workout schedules, and their tightly controlled lives, but they were used to buying their female overnight guests a morning meal. Amanda watched them gorge on mounds of bacon and runny eggs. They drank gallons of defrosted orange juice pulp swimming in cheap champagne. They wolfed down stacks of greasy pancakes in oily syrup. Hidden by the discolored tablecloths, she gave them blowjobs under the table.

Amanda watched the red sun rise, but still the man's face did not appear. She had willed it away. Eliminated it with her own strength and desire.

In the dry, hot Vegas morning, the Strip was quiet.

The bed swayed. Her new husband slept next to her. She curled up beside him. She was calm. Happy.

Warm and sleepy.

When Amanda woke, it was dusk. She snuggled back under the covers, reached for her husband, expected to feel his warm arm under her fingers.

The other side of the bed was empty. She listened for evidence of her new married life. Newspaper rustling, coffee brewing, shower running. Her husband's footsteps. His breathing.

The air conditioning turned off. Curtains drawn. Two empty glasses on the table. Remnants of the wedding night meal. Cake crumbs. Dried and crusty. Animal flesh sweating in the still air. The room abandoned, ready to be scrubbed and starched brand new. Everything smelled like him, her new husband, clean and antiseptic like hospitals or schools, but there was no sign of him. Her new husband's clothes, his briefcase, all of his things, gone. Except for the gnawed bones, it was as if he had never been there at all. Deadly quiet. Separated from the rest of civilization by thousands of miles. There was humanity somewhere, but she was stuck here. Her limbs heavy, sticky, weighed down by an unseen force. She saw glimpses of the man's face in the darkened room. She hid under the monstrous comforter, wrapped herself up tight, dug her heels into the sheets. Unable to free herself. Dull laughter and distant music from the room next door. The whine of the elevator. Everything unreachable and disconnected. The bed rippled and bucked forward. Seasick. Going down with the ship. Phlegm rising in her throat. The bed heaved with her. Lost and disoriented. Fated to spend the rest of her days in this dark cocoon. Hands shaking. Heart screaming.

The next night, Amanda tried to walk her stretch of the Strip, but found it unrecognizable. Angry thunderstorms and rain. White lightening against the purple desert sky. Howling wind. There was plenty of time to find shelter, but she was sluggish on her feet. Decisions came slowly or not at all. She let the rain ruin her dress, her shoes, her prized faux fox coat.

In the morning, dull gray light flooded the Strip. She huddled under the awning of one of the city's new family style restaurants. The kids ate double-decker cheeseburgers and played on the spongy jungle gym the city of Las Vegas built for their fragile new visitors. The parents spotted her immediately. Knew exactly what and who she was. They were ordinary people visiting from some unremarkable American place, just tourists, but in Las Vegas they became detectives. They sniffed her out. In their oversized bermuda shorts and crossbody bags, they marched right over to the manager. They flaunted their new power. Made demands.

They wanted to send her back to Old Las Vegas. Take her to the city limits. Tell her she's not welcome in these parts ever again. Toss her out. Let the wind kick up the desert all around her and the sun burn a hole in her head. Let the sagebrush cut her legs and disturbed scorpions take out their frustration on her exposed toes.

Just turn around, whore, and keep on going. If you look back, we’ll shoot you.

Amanda started walking.

At the end of the Strip, near the tip of middle-class surburban Las Vegas, Amanda found Kathy Then, a lifestyle counselor who works in the basement of an all faiths church. Homemade posters announced HIV testing, weight control meet-ups, group therapy for drug recovery.

Kathy Then has feathered and frosted silver blonde hair. There are deep crevices, acne scars, and smoker's lines on her face. She smiles big, like a clown.

Glad you found your way here, Kathy said.

Amanda nodded.

How old are you? Thirty? Thirty-five?

Amanda shrugged.

Tell me about yourself, Kathy said.

I don't know what you want to hear, Amanda said.

Tell me anything, Kathy said.

I might lie, Amanda said. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m lying or not.

So why now?

They found me knotted in the blankets. They called the police.

I see, Kathy said. What would you lie about?

I don’t know, Amanda said. Everything. Nothing.

Is there anything you won't lie about?

I didn’t say I couldn't tell the truth, Amanda said. I just said I might lie.

Do you want to tell me what happened?


Were you high?

Being high makes it go away, Amanda said.

What go away?

Amanda shook her head.

Marijuana, Kathy asked.

Yes, Amanda said.


Only with with clients, Amanda said. Young men like coke.

Heroin? Meth?

No, Amanda said.

Show me your arms, Kathy said.

Amanda stretched them out in front of her.

Will you try and find your way back?

Amanda nodded.

Is that the truth?

I think so, Amanda said.

Kathy Then made a note in her file.

After Amanda's conversion, Liz's mother insisted she join Liz and Eva for a healthy snack after school. She served them soy patties on dense, dark bread and chunky apple juice. Two red and white striped capsules and a tall glass of water for dessert.

In Eva's room, Anthony taught Amanda how to smoke a joint. How to hold it deep in her lungs. At first, Amanda couldn't follow his directions, couldn't figure it out. Liz was experienced and dragged on it like an expert. After it went around a few times, Amanda was able to get the hang of it. She had Anthony's attention. He was focused on her. She relaxed a bit. Her usual hum of anxiety quieted. The man's face was nowhere to be found. She was sleepy. Happy. Hungry.

Eva, your sister's going to be a hot piece of ass, but her little friend Amanda is fat and has a bit of a monkey face,  Anthony said.

She's not my friend, Liz said. She's a stray dog. My mother saw her walking home from school by herself and told me to bring her home. She said we could save her.

No more reefer for the fat girl, Anthony said. It's just going to give her the munchies and she's going to dig into that weird bag of candy she carries with her everywhere.

Eva laughed. Anthony leaned over and kissed her open mouth. He caressed Eva's skinny arms.

Come here, monkey face, he said to Amanda, shaking her bag of supermarket candy. I've got a treat for you. I know how you like treats.

Amanda looked down at the stretch marks and swollen veins on her own fat arms. They stuck out, purple and ugly, the blood pumping, coursing through, ready to burst.

Look at her, Anthony said. She's so high.

Amanda's attacks come in waves. They have rhythm. They show themselves in beats. Wrap themselves around her like ivy. She’ll be fine one minute, and then it hits her.

There are hushed voices. Ringing in her ears. Unidentifiable music looping in her head. Images of her skin split open by needles or kitchen knives or sharp paper edges.

Once, trying to escape the man's face, she went down hard on the searing hot cement right in the middle of the Strip. Red rings burned into the palms of her hands. Broken glass and sharp pebbles bit into her skin. She vomited. The thought of food excited her for a moment. A sudden craving for bloody meat rose up in her hard. She heaved again. No one stays still for long on the Strip, but she didn't know where to go. No map skills. She hasn't gone home. Hasn’t called or contacted anyone. Not once. Not even for a short visit. Maybe one of them cared enough to put her face on a milk carton or pin up grainy xeroxed copies of her high school photo on utility poles or traffic lights, but she wouldn't know. She doesn't know how much time has passed. No math skills. If she goes back now, will she find she has irreversibly damaged the space- time continuum? If she returns, will she find she has aged appropriately, been dragged down by the years, but everyone else remained the same? If she returns the woman she is now, will she find that her parents moved on long ago, or are they perpetually in a state of waiting for her to walk through the front door? As if time stood still. As if she had never left.

I'm going to tell you about the man who isn’t there, Amanda said.

Sounds like a good idea, Kathy said.

He’s been following me ever since I can remember, Amanda said. I just turn around and there's a man's face staring at me. I can't see him clearly, but there he is.

What does he look like? Is he familiar?

I’m not sure. It's just a shadowy face.

Does he want to hurt you?

I don't know, Amanda said.

Why is he there?

I don't know, Amanda said.

Has it always been the same man? Kathy asked.

I think so.

Did something happen during your childhood?

No, Amanda said.

Were you molested?


Kidnapped? Abused? Raped?


Are you sure?


Do you dream about him, Kathy asks.

I did when I was a kid, Amanda says. Until I was too old to believe in ghosts. My parents told me I was being ridiculous. They told me there are no monsters under the bed or in my closets. I told them I didn’t see monsters. I saw a man, a real man. They could handle the fact that I thought there were monsters, but they were not interested in my visions of a man.

They were quiet for a long time. 

If you want, you can stay a little longer, Kathy said.

Amanda kicked off her spike heels, wrapped her matted faux fox around her, tucked her knees under her chin, and fell asleep.

Amanda sat at a coffee shop counter at the edge of the Strip in sweatpants, an old t-shirt she found in a dryer at the laundromat, and plastic flip-flops. Hair on top of her head. Face unwashed.

Ready to order, the waitress asked.

The woman next to her was eating an enormous burger. The earthy, musty smell of rare meat smothered in sweet sauce enveloped the entire room. The fries had a shiny tallow glow.

Amanda smelled the woman's meaty breath in her face.

That mad desire for flesh.

The waitress stared at her.

Something sweet, please, Amanda said. Chocolate cake. Two slices.

A boy sitting at the table next to Amanda watched her eat. He drank a beer, picked at a plate of fries. His friends were involved in a conversation with a few showgirls at the next table.

When Amanda finished, she pushed her empty plate towards the waitress.

More, please, she said. Ice-cream too. Chocolate. With caramel. And hot fudge.

The boy arrived the same time as her dessert.

Hey, he said. I know you.

No, you don’t, Amanda said.

Yeah, I do, he said. You were at Taylor’s bachelor party, right? You’re the girl he brought back from the bar.

No, I'm not.

Taylor’s parents’ suite, the boy said. A couple of months ago. You came back to our hotel room. It was an awesome party.

I don’t know what you’re talking about, Amanda said.

They stared at each other.

Amanda was suddenly aware of herself. Her body. Stuffed in terry sweatpants and the old t-shirt from the laundromat. The first few stabs of menstrual cramps. Her nipples hard in her tight bra. Her stomach strained and full.

We're here for another one, he said. All my buddies are getting married.

The boy pointed to Amanda.

This is the girl, he said to his friends.

They laughed, shook their heads, returned to their conversation with the showgirls.

Amanda looked away, moved her fork through the pasty frosting.

Do you want to tell me what happened that night, Kathy asked.

Amanda shook her head.

Tell me, Kathy said. What were your dreams when you were a little girl?

Amanda lit a joint.

I don't remember, Amanda said. I don’t think I ever considered the future, what I’d be like as an adult. It was all uncharted territory. No expectations. Nothing. What did you think you'd do when you grew up? Is this it? What’s your life like? Are you happily married? Got a retirement fund, a split-level three bedroom house, a white picket fence?

Kathy laughed.

This is what I always wanted to do, she said. Yes, I'm married, and I'm happy. Yes, I have some of those things.

Good for you.

Amanda, it’s not easy for anyone

It’s easy for some, Amanda said. And other people just can’t figure it out no matter how hard they try. Got kids?


Why not?

You Vegas girls are all the kids I need, Kathy said.

No, we're not, Amanda said.

That's how I feel, Kathy said.

It doesn't matter how you feel, Amanda said.

Just because I have some of those things, it doesn't mean I don't care about you girls, Kathy said.

Yes, it does, Amanda said. That's exactly what it means. Those are the things everyone dreams about, the things everyone saves up for. If you have them, nothing else matters. They're why people get up in the morning. Everyone in the world is busy working for those things. Why would you care about me? I don't understand those things, and I never have anything to do or look forward to. Long stretches of meaningless time pass slowly until it’s time to go to work.

There are a million things to do, Kathy said.

Amanda dragged on the joint.

Like what? she said. Those girls I see walking towards the chapels? They have plans. They’ll wear this dress and carry those flowers. They spend their lives planning. This is the man they’ll marry, this is the house with charming breakfast nook they’ll buy. This is when they’ll have the first baby, this is when they’ll have the second. It all makes sense to them. They make decisions. They understand the way the things work. They exist beautifully within the system. Those girls always have a million things to do because they understand who they are and what they are supposed to be doing.

Amanda stamped out her joint with her spike heel.

My husband is from Kansas, Amanda said. He wanted me to rough it out on the plains like his ancestors. Wanted me to live on a working farm. Wanted to be salt of the earth people. He had the ring, he was ready. I should have congratulated him on coming from a long line of brave selfless people, on believing in his own ability to redeem himself and in my ability to be redeemed. I should have told him what he wanted to hear.

When she was a high school senior,  Amanda met Anthony again at Liz’s Christmas party. She and Liz hadn't spoken for years, but Liz's mother invited her, and Anthony, even though Eva had dumped him for a college boy.

He walked right over to her.

I remember you, he said. Liz's friend.

He looked her over.

Not bad, little girl, he said. Lost some weight. Straightened your hair. Put on some lipstick.

Thanks, she said.

You have a great mouth, he said.

Amanda smiled.

So what are you doing after high school? he asked. Going to college?

I don’t know, she said. My parents don't have the money.

Mine didn't either, Anthony said. I didn't go, and I’m doing just fine.

I don’t think I’m going either, Amanda said.

It’s a waste of time, he said.

Absolutely, she said.

I didn’t like school anyway.

I don’t either, she said.

Then we agree, he said.

She nodded.

I like you.

I like you, too, Amanda said.

I’d like to take you out sometime, Anthony said. Just me and you. What do you think?

Okay, Amanda said.

He took her bowling, to the movies, ice-skating. She could call him her boyfriend. The man's face did not appear.

A couple of months before prom, Anthony asked her if she wanted to do something fun. He picked out a black dress and a pair of spike heels.

He took her to a bar on a deserted sidestreet.

The bartender wore a ripped wedding dress. Her veil wrapped around her head like a bandana.

What happened, Anthony asked.

The fucker didn’t show up, the bartender said.

Anthony shook his head.

He’s an asshole, the bartender said. It was my night to work anyway.

She pointed to Amanda.

Is she twenty-one?

Of course, Anthony said.

Twenty-one is a great age, isn’t it? No worries. You can fuck who you want. You still have dreams. Nobody leaves you at the altar and lets your parents pay for a stupid buffet.

Absolutely, Anthony said.

He led Amanda to a dirty booth.

What do you think of that guy, Anthony asked her, pointing to a middle-aged man.

Why, Amanda asked.

Anthony nodded in the direction of a man in a leather jacket.

How about him, he asked.

I don't understand, Amanda said.

Nothing, he said. Forget it.

They sat quietly for a long time.

Anthony pointed to a young man in pressed jeans and a starchy button-down shirt doing shots at the bar.

Do you like him? he asked.

I guess he’s okay, Amanda said.

He’s perfect, Anthony said. Go over and say hello.


Because it's a nice thing to do, Anthony said. Tell him your name. Tell him you'd like to get to know him better.

The young man was on his way to his best friend's bachelor party. He was leaving for Las Vegas in just a few hours. His mission was to pick up girls. Let loose. When he asked Amanda her age, she told him she just turned twenty-one. He offered her a joint and some blow.

Anthony talked business with him in a bathroom stall.

Go, he whispered. It's just a fun thing. We'll split the money. When you're finished, I'll buy you some cake and ice cream. Or maybe a big bag of candy. I know how you love your big bag of candy.

He nudged her towards the eager young man and the back door.

On her first night back at work, unsure of what to do, she headed to the coffee shop to collect herself.

A chubby young man sat at the counter near the desserts. The brightly colored ceramic lazy susans all in a row. Doughnuts carelessly tossed onto the spinning plates. Pudding and jam and frosting spilling from half-eaten cakes. The young man had a sweet freckled face. A shock of reddish blond hair. His shirttail hanging out. His pants pulling, straining, at the seams. He finished his rack of ribs special. Only a pile of stripped bones and stringy marrow remained. He wiped his fat, pink face with a wet cloth.

Amanda sat down next to him.

The chubby young man grinned at her.

The meat falls right off the bone, he said.

She ordered two slices of chocolate cake.

The waitress served her cake, placed three doughhnuts in front of the chubby young man.

You like your cake, he said. I’m a doughnut man myself. And I never eat just one. Always two or three at a time.

Amanda nodded.

You look familiar, he said. I've seen you around.

She turned to him.

I'm always around, Amanda said. 

The banter is familiar. She could go back to work. Even if it is in a coffee shop instead of the Strip. Even better. She can fit in dessert too. She can do this. Her husband won’t mind.

He didn't touch his doughnuts or even acknowledge their presence. He patted his stomach.

I should get more exercise, he said. I was thinking about going for a walk. I've heard that's how you really experience the Strip.

Amanda put down her fork.

It is, she said.

You know the Strip well, he said.

I do, she said.

You must get a lot of exercise, he said.

Would you like to take a walk with me? Amanda asked.

Yes, he said. I would.

A hundred and fifty, Amanda said.

His smile changed. He stood up, reached in his back pocket. Amanda backed away. It was a sting operation. Suddenly, she was absolutely sure. He's been following her -- of course he knows who she is. They’re rounding up anyone they can find. Take her to North Vegas, throw her in jail without a care in the world. Amanda knows North Vegas means Dr. Miller. There was nothing really wrong with him, but even the most hearty and stubborn Vegas girls cried when they knew they'd have to see Dr. Miller. He did his job efficiently. Checked for infected needle scars and scaly meth sores. Examined noses and ears with rubber tools and a cold metal mirror. Looked in open mouths for receding gums and tiny white spots on the back of the throat. Swabbed for diseases. Everything clean, neat, orderly. Up to standards. It was the feeling in the room, the way the temperature dropped. The ice cold table, the scratchy protective paper spun out of a giant roll like sandwich wrapping in a deli. It was the way he looked. The idea of him. His large, meaty face; all cheeks and chin like a cartoon. The uneven bruised rings under his eyes. The ruddy red nose. The rumor that he was accused of doing something terribly wrong in his former life, a botched  C-section or a negligent D&C, and he was being punished for his miscalculations with a lifetime of assessing and examining wayward women.

This fat boy is sweet on the outside, but on the inside he is all cop. A fat cop who wants to send her away to prove to the rest of the world that Las Vegas isn’t any different than any other red-blooded American place. They don’t tolerate this kind of behavior here either. It isn’t legal. It’s endured and tolerated. The inhabitants of Las Vegas humor the women walking the Strip in search of work for the night, but they are trying to make their city hospitable for nice American families. 

Whores! they say. These women are whores! How can we let them walk the streets near our children?

Then they have them rounded up like pigs in a pen.

Amanda is a married woman. A solid, grounded member of the community. She can't let them throw her in a holding cell with the dirty crack whores in their thirdhand dingy fur coats. Laugh a spurt of laughter that isn't really laughter at all. Just the sound of satisfied men doing their job.

Anthony made sure the young men she hooked up with were clean, well-behaved, upper middle class. He knew the clientele, understood what they were looking for. He told Amanda he'd protect her as much as possible—he had an edge, he made plans—but the undercovers still might be lurking in the shadows; she might stop the wrong car, chat up the wrong guy.

They did trick her a couple of times. Said all the right things. Then, triumphantly, they spun her around, jerked her arms up, almost completely out of their sockets, and clamped handcuffs tightly around her wrists. Hauled her off to a holding cell. Sleep it off, they said. Cackling. Amanda sat on the benches until she was so tired she curled up next to the other working girls and slept on the damp cement floor.

Amanda’s in jail? Liz's mother said. Good God! The problem with Amanda is that once you develop a taste for flesh, you have to fight the urge your entire life. The problem with Amanda is that no one taught her how to have a proper moral compass.

Amanda got up and smoothed her tight, wrinkled dress around her thighs.

She walked past the fat undercover cop. He called after her, but she kept walking. As she pushed open the glass door, Amanda caught a glimpse of what she believed to be her own reflection.

The man's face loomed above. Closer, brighter. The features a little clearer, coming into the light.

The wind brushed her neck. She began to run in a straight line towards the darkness. Away from the Strip.

She wants to go home. Arrive on an autumn afternoon. The ground bare and waiting for winter. The air thick with pumpkin and burning wood. The neighborhood children, the offspring of her high school classmates, play outside. When her parents see her, in the flesh, right before their very eyes, they'll move towards her, slowly, unsure, blinking in the orange afternoon light. Embrace her. She’ll be the lost child come home.

Her feet pounded the pavement. Dress too tight. Buttons stressed across her breasts; her stomach straining the fabric. Spike heels digging into her skin. Blood trickling down her feet. 

Kathy Then's office appeared before her. She conjured it herself with her own strength and desire.

Amanda threw herself against the door.

The man's face moved closer. His breath on the back of her neck. She turned around. To finally see him.

There was no one there.

NAOMI LEIMSIDER'S stories have appeared or are forthcoming online and in print, most recently in Quarterly West, The Summerset Review, and Blood Lotus Journal. She teaches creative writing at Hunter College and York College in New York City.