Ana follows me beyond a guard house where we see four sentries watching the workers. We enter a row of apartment buildings, each identical to the last and capable of housing eighty workers. Construction proceeds with haste on the newest building, the population of the community swelling beyond the current capacity. The buildings are made of gray concrete, each with three stories.
Beyond the apartments we arrive at THE MATRIX, a western style bar with a dirt floor and a broken splinter of a front door. The bar teems with workers even at midday, most being in construction or some other manual labor. The men eye us warily, keeping a distance as we walk around the mini-city. Beyond the bar we see a bank and a barber shop. A man approaches us, a silver star on his chest.
“Afternoon ladies. Do you need an escort to the bar?”
“Do we need one?” Ana asks.
“It’s compulsory,” he says. Ana’s eyes go wide and the man chuckles. “It’s for your own safety, I can assure you.”
Ana’s eyes lock with mine and I feel the questions in her stare, but keep silent while we follow the man into the bar. A dusty piano occupies one corner and we take seats at one of the three small, round wooden tables in the center of the room. The men stare at us, all conversations coming to a halt. I wink at a construction worker and he drops the cigar from his mouth.
The barkeep hustles over to us, simpering a bow at me.
“What’s your poison tonight? Beer or whiskey.”
“What types of beer do you have?” Ana asks.
A few men cough in laughter and I wonder if this room is safe. Looking around, the front door seems to be the only exit and the men number twelve. I don’t know the man with the badge.
“Beer, singular,” he says, point at the bar. A solitary tap handle sticks from the bar, the side printed with the name: BEER.
Ana laughs and asks for whiskey.
The bartender rushes away without looking at me. Am I getting a drink? Is this happening? Do these men even know who I am? He returns in a flash, putting a bottle of whiskey, two glasses and two mugs of beer on the table.
“This place looks like it got stuck in a time warp from more than a hundred years ago. What’s the story here?” Ana whispers to me after he leaves. I watch the men stare and think how to phrase my answer.
“This is something of a social experiment.”
I pour whiskey and drain my shot. The heat rising to my face calms me and I begin to relax. I can see playing cards on the table closest to us, with small mounds of poker chips in front of each of the three men.
“Social experiment? You mentioned Gogol. I don’t understand.”
“I got the idea from his novel of buying ‘souls’. The homeless population in Vegas seemed a good place to start.”
One man grabs the cards and deals the next hand, keeping a hostile eye on me.
“These men were homeless…now what?” Ana says, wanting me to finish my thought.
“I bought their lives. Now they live and work here, never to leave, part of my grand experiment. These men work construction on a special project I’m building on the outskirts of the city.”
“I’m building a new city, from scratch. Each inhabitant will be invited and must swear allegiance to me. It will be a city built for and run by women.”
Ana pours another glass of whiskey and watches the men play poker. “Can I join?”