The King of Naked City

People say that the Naked City neighborhood in Las Vegas got its name in the 1950’s because of the showgirls and cocktail waitresses who used to lounge nude by apartment complex pools. I was one of those girls, lying in the sun dreaming of sequins and feathers in the days before the Stratosphere.

Most afternoons I lounged poolside with Carla and Caroline, two bottle-blonde sisters from Ohio. We sipped gin martinis out of crystal glasses swiped from some bar downtown. We counted exactly thirty minutes on each side and then turned over, always trying for that perfect, golden skin with no tan lines.

We used to see a man on the corner by the little white wedding chapel wearing a crown. We called him The King of Naked City and we considered him our good luck charm.

Three nights a week I put my black hair in buns and donned red lipstick and some absurd getup to serve cocktails at a casino. The men wore sport coats and their wives wore long, glittering dresses and because they were on vacation, because they were in Las Vegas, there was an illusion that they were all rich and beautiful. And maybe they really were, but none of them were looking at each other. They were looking at the showgirls with their long eyelashes and impossibly long legs who smiled up on the stage. I longed to be one so bad, but I was told that I was too short, too plain.

I had hitchhiked to Las Vegas after high school with one suitcase and one pair of heels. But I didn’t care. I was going to be a star. In those days, the air in Naked City always smelled like coconuts from the tanning oil we favored and I remember after those miserable auditions, I used to close my eyes and breathe it in and pretend that I was on an island far away.

Time went on, as it does, and one by one all the girls left. Carla went back to Ohio to marry her high school sweetheart and Caroline moved to Hollywood to try her luck there.

Years passed, but I never did.

I stayed until I was too old to be a showgirl, too old to even be a cocktail waitress. I got a job at a deli making sandwiches, watching time pass. And then one day I saw him again. The King of Naked City. Like the once golden tan on my skin, his crown had faded. He sat on the curb outside of that same wedding chapel, only it was no longer a wedding chapel. It was a vacant building. For some reason, I walked over to him and I realized then that he recognized me, even though we’d never actually met. I wanted to ask him about the crown, what it meant and why he wore it, but I realized that it no longer mattered. Everyone else who wanted to know was now long gone.

The King of Naked City held up an empty martini glass as if to toast to me and before I knew it I was sitting beside him, on the sidewalk, beneath the neon lights, the gold, the silver, the feathers, the stardust, the sparkling hope that had brought us both across the desert and landed us here, together.