Cattle, Casinos, and Cathouses.
Almost every town in Nevada, no matter how small, has at least one. On the outskirts of most towns you can find a bar or trailer house with a name like the Kit Kat Ranch or Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Small town whorehouses might employ only two prostitutes, but they do not want for customers. In the larger whorehouses, a dozen or more girls might ply their trade. In 1966 my home town of Elko (pop. 4,000, large as Nevada towns go) had three whorehouses: Betty's D & D Club, Sue's Bar, and The Lucky Strike. Each employed from six to ten whores. "Cattle, casinos, and cathouses," one of my neighbors said, "that's what keeps this town running." Not yet aware of more sophisticated words like brothel, we used the local term, cathouse.
Knowing about such places fueled an adolescent boy's imagination. Older boys told stories to the younger ones, and we learned that gaining carnal knowledge in a cathouse helped earn a badge into the society of Western manhood. It conferred bragging rights. One night in early fall of our junior year in high school, my friends and I decided it was time to find out what this brand of manhood meant. But not before a chaotic and dissolute weekend--the weekend I first became aware that I was different from most of my friends and, indeed, most of the rural boys I knew. I had just turned sixteen.
. . .
My friends were a carousing, brawling lot. John and Larry Aranguena, twin brothers and the sons of a sheep rancher, worked with their dad on a ranch north of Elko during the summer and lived in town the rest of the year. Stocky, muscular boys, accustomed to hard ranch labor, John and Larry lifted, docked, and sheered sheep; carried and installed fence posts and dug out the holes for them; operated and repaired heavy machinery; and mended decaying barns and sheds. They carried loaded rifles on racks in the cab of their pickups, and shot coyotes at any opportunity. They hunted deer in the high mountains, carrying their quarry over their shoulders for miles. Larry regularly competed in the summer games at the annual Basque Festival in Elko, particularly the log chopping and weight carrying contests. The latter required entrants to carry two eighty pound weights, one in each hand, as far as they could, in Larry's case almost 800 feet before his wrists gave out. He came in second place almost every year--his father always carried the weights a few paces past Larry's mark, then dropped them. Year after year this father-son rivalry marked one of the highlights of the festival games.
Hank Brunner and Tom Nisley were tall and athletic, basketball players and all-state wide receivers on the football team. They loved the bump and grind of jockeying for a rebound, throwing elbows, and fighting for the ball. They relished jumping into the scrum of football players after a fumble, where the refs usually missed the gouging, elbowing, and kicking. Hank, Tom, and the Aranguena boys liked to drink beer and carouse as much as they liked to brawl.
I was a diffident boy; average in sports; and occasionally, but not often, thoughtful. I suppose I was assertive, at least in a pretentious way, hoping others would think I had the pluck and daring of my friends. In reality, I was too much the introvert and lacked the dynamism that enabled me to stride confidently in the world, though I tagged along with my friends--all alpha males--for the carousing. The five of us rented an apartment in town--unbeknownst to our parents--for weekend parties, splitting the $90 a month rent evenly.
One Friday afternoon in early October, we skipped school and ended up at the Deep Creek ranch, fifteen miles east of town. The cattle ranch encompassed nine thousand acres of undulating hills covered with wild grasses, sage, and juniper groves. Gullies cut through the landscape. The towering peaks of the Ruby Mountains, still covered with snow from the previous year, lay just to the south. The father of our classmate Jimmy Callahan owned the ranch, but we had not invited Jimmy because we considered him an arrogant dick. We did not have permission to be on the land, so we found a secluded spot in a gully along a spring-fed creek about five miles from the main ranch house where no one would notice us. We spent the afternoon drinking beer, hunting ground hogs and rabbits, and plinking tin cans with our .22 rifles. As we had done many times on past hunting trips, we killed, skinned, and gutted two cottontails, then roasted them over a sagebrush fire for dinner.
While we ate, a large jackrabbit appeared in an open space amidst the brush, about eighty feet away. He lingered a while, nibbled the grass, then raised his head to survey the surroundings. I slowly reached for my rifle, took aim, and shot. The rabbit leapt in the air, then flailed wildly for a few seconds after it hit the ground. I walked over to have a closer look, to see where I'd hit it. Right behind the shoulder. A perfect shot.
I knelt to inspect it. A slight breeze ruffled the hairs of its gray-black fur, then caught the flap of its long pointed ears, causing the tips to quiver. The rabbit lay inert and lifeless, its eyes still wide open. The eyes looked like doe eyes, big, shiny, and black. I saw the blue sky reflected in them, and could even make out my own form, distorted by the convex lens. The eyes had a penetrating, questioning look, I thought, which unsettled me. I stood, then looked out over the landscape in all directions. The valley extended both north and south as far as the eye could see. The Ruby Mountains loomed imposingly. Their shadows had begun to creep toward us as the evening drew on. I looked back down at the jackrabbit, then out again across the vast landscape. I remembered what a schoolmate--Cleve Fletcher--told me several weeks earlier, right before the opening of deer hunting season. Every year his father bought a hunting license, stalked deer in the mountains, then photographed them. That struck me as so odd--who does that in the hunting culture of the West?
"Why does he bother to buy a license?" I asked. "He doesn't need to pay just to photograph them."
"Because for every photographer that buys a license, there's one less hunter out killing deer," he said.
I was not an avid hunter, but I hunted with my father or friends on occasion. I had no objections to it. Hunting provided food and recreation. I had learned to skin and gut cottontail, and de-feather and eviscerate a duck. So why was I unsettled looking into the rabbit's eyes? No one ate jackrabbit; many of them carried tularemia, a disease causing skin or stomach ulcers, and fever, in humans, so it wasn't as if we planned to roast it. So, why had I killed it? An inchoate question passed through my mind: why the hell am I doing this? Does it have any meaning? These modest questions made me pull back, ever so much--not due to any sense of the sacredness of all living things, nor some epiphany that all killing was wrong. No, the questions had more to do with the dissoluteness--the aimlessness--of what we were doing, the lack of meaningful focus and purpose. I did not conceive it in those words, exactly, or any words really, but as an amorphous intuition that years later I construed to mean something like do these actions have any meaning in the scheme of things, if there is such a scheme?
The questions flashed instantaneously, making me pause a few moments, then just as quickly passed away. I returned to the encampment.
As evening drew into nightfall, we unloaded our rifles and gathered our gear, preparing to leave, when two sheep wandered over a hillock just to the south.
"Sheep?" Tom asked. "On a cattle ranch?" Sheep and cattle don't mix on the same land. If sheep stay in one area, they eat the grass down to the roots so that it cannot grow back. You have to keep them on the move. In fact, cattle ranchers in the nineteenth century warred with sheep ranchers to keep them off their ranges.
"Oh man Callahan probably breeds them for lamb meat," said John. "Tastes better than beef." John's father raised sheep, but kept cows on the ranch for meat when they tired of mutton and lamb. "See, there's a lamb right there." He pointed to a nearby rise.
John and Larry looked at each other, eyes glazed from too much beer.
"Let's get it," said Larry. They stumbled up the hill, gesturing with arms and hands outstretched, whistling and calling, "Here sheep. Come here, little lamb. Come on. Right here. Come here little sheep." The rest of us laughed in amusement.
"Get 'em, cowboys! Round 'em up. Whoop!"
The two sheep bolted, but the lamb remained. And not only remained; it walked right up to John and Larry with their outstretched hands. Larry grabbed it, threw it over his shoulder, and carried it down the hill to our campsite.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here! We're going to have a lamb roast."
John and Larry shoved the lamb into the back seat of Hank's car and held it down on the floor with their feet. Hank jumped in the driver's seat.
"We'll meet you at the apartment," John shouted to Tom and me. "Stop and get some more beer on your way back in!" The lamb bleated plaintively as they sped off.
Forty minutes later, Tom and I arrived at the apartment. John and Larry had snuck the lamb in under the cover of dark. They knelt over the bath tub, dressing the lamb with their hunting knives. The fleece lay at one end of the tub. They were now gutting it. They worked efficiently--they grew up doing this kind of work.
Larry asked me to turn on the shower to drain away the blood. As I turned on the faucet I surveyed the gruesome scene--blood, organs, head, fleece. It both engrossed and repelled me. I felt queasy. Why? I had never experienced squeamishness about skinning and gutting a rabbit or removing the innards of a trout. I was accustomed to casual Western violence. Was it less repelling in the open country than in a bathtub? I went into the living room and sat on the sofa. I leaned my head back against the cushion and closed my eyes. My mind swam in a sea of beer; images swirled in my mind: the jackrabbit's questioning eyes, the lamb's frightened bleating, the blood and guts in the tub. And there was this, too: we could have gotten shot for stealing the lamb. John and Larry, the sons of a sheep rancher, knew the rules--you don't steal other peoples' livestock, not even when you're drunk.
The dressing completed and the meat stored in the fridge, John and Larry jumped in the shower and washed up.
The next day we announced a lamb roast and bring-your-own-beer. Friends from school and neighbors from the apartment building joined us. John and Larry brought charcoal and a large roasting spit from their dad's garage. About thirty people showed up, both the invited and uninvited--including Jimmy Callahan, who dated John and Larry's cousin. He had tagged along with her.
"Oh, shit!" said John. "Don't tell anyone where we got this."
"Fresh lamb?" said Jimmy looking at the spit. "Where the hell'd you get that?"
"From my dad's ranch," said John. "God damn coyotes killed it before the old man could shoot 'em. Third time this month. He brought it back to town, so enjoy!"
It rang true. Coyotes regularly marauded the ranches.
"I wonder if that's what happened to Becky's nursing lamb," said Jimmy. "It went missing yesterday. Just wandered off. Dad sent the ranch hands out to look for it this morning, but they haven't found it. My sister's been crying all day. God damn coyotes."
"Yeah. Damn coyotes," said John.
John and Larry exchanged glances. No wonder the lamb had walked right up to them; it was used to being nursed from a bottle at the end of someone's outstretched arm.
After the meat was nearly gone and the beer dwindled, people drifted away to other activities. We cleaned up the spit, refrigerated the leftover meat, and went for more beer.
We rarely had trouble getting booze. We could easily find a drunk at one of the downtown saloons who would buy us a case of beer for a fifty-cent tip. A Shoshone Indian colony lay just outside town, and on any night of the week a number of the Indians hung out at one of several downtown saloons, sitting drunk on the sidewalk or lying in the gutter.
The Shoshones lived about two miles out of town in government-built wood shacks without indoor plumbing, electricity, or heating, except a wood stove. The majority of the adults were alcoholics. Whiskey had contributed to their ancestors' ruin in the nineteenth century and they were still hooked on it today. They lived in squalor, generation after generation caught in cycles of poverty and alcoholism. They received monthly checks from the government, much of which they spent on booze. Few townspeople gave a thought to their plight.
Elko's downtown covered a four by four block area. Only the bars, casinos, and--on the other side of the railroad tracks--the cathouses, remained open. We went to the Pioneer Hotel Saloon, which the Indians frequented nightly. There, on the creosote-stained logs along the railroad tracks behind the saloon, amidst empties of white port and bottles of beer, sat some drunken Indians. Port wine and cheap beer got them through the night, helped them sleep better in gutters stained dark with layers and years of dried Indian vomit. They slept there because they could not make the two-mile walk back to their shanties at the edge of town. They could not even make it one block, and those wives who didn't join them in the gutters no longer waited at home for their staggering return.
We approached one of them with our money, but quickly backed away when we saw commotion and heard angry shouting. A fight had broken out nearby. The Olsen brothers, Mick and Lenny, and their pals Danny Woodson and Butch Erikson, were kicking someone who lay on the sidewalk. The man tried to fend off the kicks to his head and stomach with his arms, then went limp. A crowd gathered. We got the hell out of there.
At a safe distance, I looked back and saw the man on the sidewalk. It was Pacheco Little Tree's father. Pacheco, shy Pacheco, who sat quietly in the back of our classroom, seldom offering a word, but who always snickered at our jokes. At school he shared with us the deer jerky and pine nuts he brought from the Reservation. He played on our baseball and basketball teams. He was a good outside shooter and a crafty defender. Then one day he just quit coming to school, without notice. No one knew why. Now, a short distance away, his father lay on the ground, unconscious.
"Hey guys," I said, "that's Pacheco's dad they're beating up."
We all knew his father, Sampson Little Tree. We liked him. Grownups referred to him as a "character" with affection, humor, and pity, a kind of Rip Van Winkle whose frequent drunkenness was his long sleep. Sampson Little Tree had a cheery disposition despite his alcohol addiction and poverty. He always wanted to chat when he met people on the sidewalk. He came drunk to his son's baseball games, but he always showed up. He sat at the edge of the bleachers, away from the other parents, on the top bench. When Pacheco hit a home run he stood with his right fist raised high, pumped the air, and said, "That's my son!" He sometimes bought us beer. Now, he lay on the ground, bleeding.
"Those bastards!" said Hank. We knew we had to go back. We ran as one into the midst of the fray. Hank rammed his shoulder into Lenny Olsen, knocking him to the ground.
"Leave him alone!" Hank shouted. "You get the hell out of here!" Lenny's brother Mick was defiant. "We're not afraid of you. We'll kick your asses, too!"
Action swirled. Tom confronted Mick, but the Woodson boy came at him from the side, throwing a fist. Tom pivoted quickly, blocked the swing, and punched him squarely in the jaw. Woodsen's knees buckled and he staggered backwards a few paces. Mick drew a pocket knife but Larry tackled him before he opened it, got him face down on the ground, and wrenched his right arm tight behind his back. The knife lay nearby; John kicked it away. Butch faced off with me, fists raised, in a boxer's stance. Why's he coming at me, I wondered, but then realized that was the safe choice. John would have done to him what Larry did to Mick. I had been in previous fistfights but was not known as a tough fighter, despite my self-image as one. Fortunately, Butch had no more fighting skills than me. We danced around each other trying to land punches, without much success. We had been there barely more than a minute when we heard a police siren in the distance. Everyone in the melee perked up.
"We gotta get out of here," said Hank. The police would smell liquor on our breath. They knew our parents; would tell them we were involved in a brawl at the saloon.
The Olsen gang ran to their car. "We'll get you motherfuckers!" one of them yelled as they drove away. "You better watch your back."
A group of Indians surrounded Pacheco's father, trying to wake him. They lifted his head and back into a sitting position. A saloon keeper brought a pitcher of water to pour on his face. There was nothing more we could do. We took off.
We had to get beer elsewhere.
Deer hunting season had arrived in Northern Nevada, and hunters came to Elko from the surrounding counties and states. Elko County is the third largest county in America, larger than some states in the northeastern us: more than twice the size of New Jersey; the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined; and just under the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire. Deer congregated during rutting season in the numerous mountain ranges, drawing out-of-town deer hunters to Elko. As we drove away from the fight, Hank noticed the many out-of-state pick-up trucks--hunters' pickups--parked near the casinos. Many had tarps tied down over the truck beds. The hunters went to the mountains provisioned with camping gear and coolers full of food and drink. After a few days or a week of hunting and camping in the wild, they came to town to gamble or visit the whorehouses. They parked their trucks in the casino parking lots.
"I bet we can get some free beer from these pick-ups," Hank said. We patrolled the parking lots, looking for a truck with an empty parking space nearby. We found one. Hank pulled into the vacant space, jumped out of the car, and slashed the cord of the tarp with his pocketknife. He lifted the cooler and put it in the trunk of his car. We drove away quickly. The cooler was full of beer, sodas, and half a ham. We feasted on and drank the spoils of our theft.
Pleased with our cleverness and bravado over the previous two days and high on the excitement of the fight, we were feeling it, even at 1:00 A.M.
Hank asked, "Have any of you been to a cathouse yet?"
"No," we answered, aware of the expectation conveyed by the word "yet."
"Let's see if we can get in."
"I don't have a fake ID," I said.
"Me neither," said the others.
"C'mon," said Hank. "Let's give it a try."
Giddy and drunk, we knocked on the front door of Betty's D & D (we never knew what the D & D stood for). A large black woman--the Madame as she was called--opened the door and welcomed us heartily. To our surprise she did not ask for IDS. We recognized the Madame right away: Bella, formerly the cook and housekeeper at the rectory of the local Catholic church. News of her new job had created quite a stir in the parish. The priest even went to Betty's to persuade her to give up her evil new way of life. Bella, for her part, tried to persuade him to come in for some rest and relaxation. The priest's exhortations failed: Bella remained at Betty's for a number of years. No one knew for sure whether or not Bella had been persuasive.
Bella was well known to the boys of Elko. Big Bella, black and sensuous, the ritual guide. That first night, she led us through poorly lit corridors to the choosing room, which was also the barroom. A chime rang down a hallway. Ladies filed out of their bedrooms and lined up, side by side, showing their barely clad wares. Wow. Whores. Six of them. Young ones with glowing skin still taut over firm flesh; a middle-aged woman with hair bleached blond, hiding wrinkles beneath layers of make-up; and a tall black one in a striking white negligee. Bikinis, short negligees, and high heels were the dress code.
Three men sat at the bar, treating other ladies to drinks. One of the men was a sheepherder visiting town after several months in the mountains. We knew him. He used to herd sheep for John and Larry's dad before going to work for another rancher. He winked at the Aranguena boys and shook his head affirmatively. Near him sat a trucker, taking a break from a cross-country haul along Highway 40. Next to him was the local real estate agent, recently divorced. The men smiled at us, perhaps wondering if the courage from beer would see us through. Hank chose his girl right away--the tall black one. She led him to a room in the back. The rest of us, reticent in unfamiliar circumstances, sat at the bar to order drinks (I ordered a Vodka Collins, the only hard drink I knew the name of). I wondered who these young women were--definitely not locals. If they were, we'd have known whose sisters or daughters they were. Where did they come from? Did they live in this house? Cook their own meals? Did they get mail from their mothers? Was it addressed in c/o Betty's D & D, or just the street address? Did their dads know where they worked? As these questions swirled in my mind, one of the ladies sat on the barstool next to me, placed her hand on my thigh, gave it a squeeze, and asked,
"Hey sweetie, would you like to buy a girl a drink?"
She was a pretty, black-haired girl with gleaming white skin, probably in her early twenties. She wore a short, silky black slip. Other ladies did the same with my hesitant comrades. What could we do? We bought them drinks.
The black-haired girl said,
"You're sure a young one. What's your name, honey?"
Hesitant to tell her my real name, I said, "Jimmy. Jimmy Callahan. Yours?"
"Samantha. Really?" I had never met anyone named Samantha and wondered if everyone used fake names here. "Where you from?"
"Massachusetts? Wow, that's a long way. What are you doing way out here?"
She put her arm on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, "Earning my way through college."
"Really? Where do you go to college?"
"Smith College? Where's that?"
"Northampton, Massachusetts." Puzzled, I asked,
"So how come you're not at school? It's fall. Aren't there classes?"
"I'm taking a semester off. I go back in January." She began to stroke my thigh again.
"How did you find out about this place way out in the boondocks?" I asked.
"A classmate of mine used to work here. They like east coast college girls out here."
After a poignant pause she added, mischievously, "And so will you, Jimmy Callahan."
I smiled giddily, burning now with desire, but my curiosity right then was still stronger than my lust. Not knowing protocol, I followed the curiosity.
"So how did your classmate find out about this place? Does she have family here or something?" Who in Massachusetts would even know this little town existed, let alone that it had whorehouses where you could get a job?
My curiosity wasn't scoring any points. Other customers were arriving. She inhaled deeply, trying to be patient, then softly sighed. She gently took my right hand between hers, set my palm on her thigh, and helped me caress it. It was warm, smooth, and soft.
"Let's talk more about it in my room," she said, and gave me a tug.
That was all the coaxing I needed. Samantha the Smith girl took my hand and led me down a long hallway to the inner room. On the way, a curious thing happened. I was struck by the strangeness of a window with open curtains at the end of the corridor, in which I glimpsed, through my own pale reflection, dim lights in the distance. I was discomforted and puzzled. What's with those dim lights in the darkness, I wondered. It was as if I were on the outside looking at myself on the inside. Is that apparition in the window really ME, I wondered inchoately during my twenty minutes in the room, and then wondered it some more in the weeks ahead.
The amorphous and incipient questions that flickered through my mind that weekend--about what the hell I was doing and why--came not in the form of some epiphany, but as inklings--flashes of intuition that something was awry, that I was not quite at home in this world, certainly not in the way my friends were. And what, exactly, did I mean by "this world?" Certainly not a sense of the "profane" vs. the "supernatural," words with which I was not yet familiar. What then? Killing? Human sordidness that debased sexuality? The comings and goings and doings and aspirations of the people I knew? A little of all of these things? Maybe. Yet I admired some of those doings: the skills and practical know-how of my friends; their daring confidence,-the quick realization that something had to be done to rescue Sampson Little Tree, and their unhesitant jumping into the fray. We grew up as so many youth did in that time and place, fighting and drinking and hunting and whoring. We played sports, had girlfriends, lived mostly in the present. My friends went on to do well in life, one a civil engineer, another a corporate vice president; one a sheep rancher, the other a state government official. That weekend was nothing out of the ordinary. I envied my friends' ease with the world and loved their camaraderie, even as I gradually grew aware, over the years, that I was ill fit for the world, that I belonged somewhere on its margins.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
|Previous Article:||Ocmulgee Burial Grounds.|
|Next Article:||Their Own Brand of Misery.|