“Look,” she said, “I’m tremendously flawed as a person, but I’m trying to do something here. I’ve got eight days. I’ve got lawyers. A lot of lawyers. I’m paying them a lot of money. There’s a lot going on here you don’t know about. You can try me tomorrow afternoon.”
Then she hung up.
(Photography by Christopher Wray-McCann, illustrations by Miguel Valenzuela)
Fleiss’ paranoia is par for the course. She lives in Pahrump, about 60 miles outside of Vegas. The town serves as the back door to Area 51, where “they” may or may not be reverse-engineering alien technology, but where “they” most certainly are testing secret military aircraft. Along similar lines, Pahrump is also the home of Art Bell, the founder and notorious longtime host of the paranormal- and conspiratorial-themed Coast to Coast AM-radio program. Bell, in turn, owns a local oldies station, KNYE, 95.1 on the FM dial, which uses as its slogan “Where things go Pahrump in the night.”
About 25 miles beyond Pahrump, where the valley floor drops away and the view is deep desert and far sky, there is what Tom Waits would call “a wide spot in the road.” This is the town of Crystal, Nevada, the perhaps future home of Fleiss’ stud farm and the current home of the Cherry Patch Ranch and Mabel’s Ranch, both of which are cathouses of the traditional double-wide-trailer variety. Each of these brothels has a bar attached to it, but beyond the brothels and the bars, the town stretches for a few lonely blocks before dead-ending into scrub brush.
We drove those few blocks and spun back around and headed for the Crystal Springs Bar, where, instead of a sign out front, there’s a bomb half-buried in the gravel parking lot with tail fins sticking skyward like some kind of angry weathervane. The bar itself is rickety and ramshackle, with a long wooden porch, blacked-out windows, a flavor that’s pure Old West. Inside, the walls are plastered with the contents of Nevada’s Brothel Art Museum — a human skeleton in a glass case and several hundred newspaper articles and photographs documenting a couple hundred years of local whoredom.
We took seats at the bar and ordered beers. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that Fleiss had called ahead to tell them we were coming. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. We told them who we were and what we were doing, and after giving us the once-over twice, Barbara the bartender introduced us to a grumpy old guy, whose name no one caught, and to Charlotte LeVar, the chairperson of the Crystal Community Group, and her husband, Dan. Charlotte looked more like a suburban mom than a woman you would expect to find drinking early in the day at a brothel bar, while Dan looked like an aged rodeo star, complete with husky mustache and fancy duds. They lived in nearby Crystal Heights, which, according to Dan, is distinguishable from Crystal proper because “we’ve got better junk in our front yards.”
The LeVars told us that they were in favor of Fleiss’ plan, but there were others who felt differently. In fact, the LeVars said, Fleiss had started something of a local war with her proposal. Barbara handed me a copy of one of two competing petitions now floating around town. This petition was in favor of the stud farm, while the competing one — available down the road at Mabel’s Saloon (conveniently located in front of Mabel's Ranch) — was against.
“You know,” mused Dan, “people move out here to get away from all the big-city riffraff, but this is a small town. Everybody knows everybody’s business, and everyone’s got an opinion about that business.”
Then Charlotte asked us about Fleiss’ business, but before I could say anything, Dan whisked me out front of the bar, telling me he had to show me something in the parking lot. There was nothing to see out there; instead, I was warned that the grumpy guy sitting to my left was actually part of the anti-Fleiss camp and that anything said would be quickly repeated down the street at Mabel’s. I couldn’t believe my luck; we had left The X-Files behind and proceeded straight into David Lynch’s follow-up to Twin Peaks: Crystal Heights.
We went back inside the bar, and just to see what would happen — and not mentioning many specifics — I talked a little bit about Fleiss’ truck breaking down. Within three minutes, the grumpy guy disappeared. Ten minutes later, Kathy, the woman who ran Mabel’s and headed up the anti-Fleiss faction, showed up. Rather than risk starting a stud-farm shootout at the Not So Okay Corral, we finished our drinks, asked for directions to the property, and were gone.
The directions were to drive to the end of town, take a left, drive until the road ends and park. We did as we were told and found ourselves staring at a landscape that was exactly as had been described: nothing but cactuses. Just across the state line was Death Valley, and the division seemed ultimately arbitrary. Everywhere we looked was parched earth and impossible dreams. We were spitting distance from one of the hottest places on Earth, where the summer temperatures averaged well over 100 degrees and it rained less than 2 inches a year. Never mind the politics of desire; building here seemed a primal arrogance, an utter disregard for anything close to common sense.