Heading south on Broadway, Sam longed to be part of the city. Paved sidewalks, gutters, frying tortillas, old movie palaces, jewelry stores, flower stands, square patches of green where trees grew—all of it wondrous—not like the fucking sandbox of Iraq.
The rum kicked in, made her thirsty as she continued down the historic center of town. The sun’s heat radiated from her soles to her scalp. A canopy of light siphoned the city of color.
She watched a tourist slowly fold her map and use it as a fan. Businessmen slouched along, looking clammy in shirtsleeves. Women, their dresses moist with sweat, form fitted to their skin. Even the cars seemed to droop.
Waves of heat shimmered off the pavement. They ambushed Sam, planting her back in Tikrit.
She heard the rat-a-tat-tat of a Tabuk sniper rifle. Ducked. Dodged bullets.
Scrambled behind a trash bin. Searched around for casualties. She looked at the top of buildings wondering where in the hell the insurgents fired from.
“Hey, honey, whatsa matter?” An elderly black woman stooped over her.
“Get down, ma’am!”
Sam grabbed at the woman, but she moved away. “Get down, ma’am! You’ll get killed!”
“Honey, it’s just street drillin’. Those men over there, they’re makin’ holes in the cement.”
Covered in sweat, Sam swerved to her left. A Buick and Chevrolet stopped at a red light. She saw the 4th street sign below the one-way arrow. Her legs felt numb as she held onto the trash bin and lifted herself up.
“You a soldier?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Sam said looking into the face of the concerned woman.
“I can tell. You fella’s always say ma’am and sir, so polite like. Take it easy child, you’re home now.” The woman limped away.
Sam reeled, felt for the flask in her back pocket but it wasn’t there. Construction workers whistled and made wolf calls at her. “Douche bags,” she moaned. Alcohol had always numbed the flashbacks. Her counselor in Bagdad told her they would fade. Why can’t I get better, she asked herself? Shaking, she blinked several times forcing her eyes to focus as she continued south past McDonald’s.
At 6th, she saw the man with tomato color hair on the other side of the street jostling his shopping cart. “It’s Los Angeles, not Los Angelees!” he shouted. His voice rasped like the sick, but Sam heard something familiar in the tone. He pushed his cart around the corner.
The light turned green. Sam sprinted in front of the waiting cars to the other side of the road. She had grown up across the 6th Street Bridge that linked Boyle Heights to downtown. From the bedroom window of the apartment she shared with her mother, unless her mother had a boyfriend, Sam would gaze at the Los Angeles skyline.
She followed the man into skid row.
The smell hit her like a body-slam. The stink of piss and shit, odors that mashed together like something died, made her eyes water. A block away, it was another world.
She trailed the man with hair color people had an opinion about. The Towering Inferno. That’s what they called Staff Sergeant Daniel O’Conner, but not to his face. He knew, though, and took the jibe well. After all, he had a sense of humor, was confident, tall and powerfully built, the last man to end up broken, not the hunched and defeated man she was following. No, Sam thought. It couldn’t be him. It couldn’t be her hero.
He shoved his gear into the guts of the city with Sam behind him. The last time she’d been to skid row was as a teenager, driving through with friends who taunted the homeless. The smell was one thing, but what she saw rocked her. City blocks of homeless lived under layers of tarp held up by shopping carts. Young and old, most black, and male, gathered on corners, sat on sidewalks, slouched against buildings, drug exchanges going down. Women too stoned or sick to worry about their bodies slumped over, their breasts falling out of their tops. It was hard for Sam to look into their faces, to see their despair. The whole damn place reeked of hopelessness. Refugees in the Middle East and Africa, at least, had tents and medicine.
Sam put on her ass-kicking face, the one that said, “Leave me the fuck alone, or I’ll mess you up.” She walked as if she had on her combat boots, spine straight, eyes in the back of her head.
Skid row mushroomed down side-streets. Men staggered north toward 5th and the Mission. She stayed close behind the red-headed man. He turned left at San Pedro. And so did Sam.
It was worse than 6th Street. Not even in Iraq had she seen deprivation like this: cardboard tents, overflowing trash bins used as crude borders, men sleeping on the ground. She watched a man pull up his pant leg and stick a needle in his ankle. Another man, his face distorted by alcohol, drank freely from a bottle. The men looked older than on 6th. Some had cardboard signs. One read, Veteran, please help me. Several wore fatigues. One dressed in a field jacket was missing his lower leg. Most, Sam thought, were Vietnam or Desert Storm vets. She felt her throat tighten, the familiar invasion of anger afraid to express itself. She’d been told by the Army never to show emotion in a war zone. But Sam brought the war home with her. So did the men slumped against the wall like human garbage.
The red-headed man passed a large metal dumpster heaped with trash bags. It stank of rotten fruit. He disappeared behind the metal container with his cart.
Sam looked at the angle of the sun. She had about ten minutes before thirteen hundred hours.
There was a doorway across the street. She went over and stood in it.
He sat against the brick wall emptying his bag of liquor bottles and beer cans. He shook one after another dry into his mouth. She understood his thirst, one that never reached an end until he passed out. He took a sack off the cart and emptied it: leftover Frito bags, Oreo cookies, pretzels. He tore the bags apart and ran his tongue over the insides. He ate apple cores, chewed the strings off banana peels.
“What are you—” he growled. “You. Lookin’ at?” His eyes roamed Sam’s face.
Shards of sadness struck her heart. It was like seeing Marley’s strewn body all over again. Staff Sergeant O’Conner’s voice, even when drunk, was deep and rich. It identified him like his hair. How could the man who saved her from being raped by two fellow soldiers and who refused to join in the witch-hunts of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a leader, who had a future of promotions and medals, end up on skid row?
“You remind me of someone,” she said. How could a once strapping man who led with courage and integrity eat scraps like a dog next to a dumpster? What happened that the Army would leave behind one of their own? Like a militia, disillusionment and bitterness trampled over Sam’s love of country.