The same sun scorched downtown Los Angeles that had seared the Iraq desert. Army Private First Class Samantha Cummings stood at attention holding a stack of boxes, her unwashed black hair slicked back in a ponytail and knotted military style. She stared out from Roberts Shoe Store onto Broadway, transfixed by a homeless man with hair and scraggly beard the color of ripe tomatoes. She’d only seen that hair color once before, on Staff Sergeant Daniel O’Conner.
The man pushed his life in a shopping cart crammed with rags and stuffed trash bags. He glanced at Sam through the storefront window, his bloated face layered with dirt. His eyes had the meander of drink in them.
Sam hoped hers didn’t. Since her return from Bagdad a year ago, her craving for alcohol sneaked up on her like an insurgent. Bathing took effort. She ate to exist. Friends disappeared. Her life started to look like the crusted bottom of her shot glass.
The morning hangover began its retreat to the back of her head.
The homeless man disappeared down Broadway. She carried the boxes to the storeroom.
In 2012, Sam passed as an everywoman: white, black, brown, Asian. She was a coffee colored Frappuccino. Frap. That’s what the soldiers nicknamed her. Her mother conceived her while on Ecstasy during the days of big hair and shoulder pads. On Sam’s eighteenth birthday, she enlisted in the Army. She wanted a job and an education. But most of all she wanted to be part of a family.
“Let me help you,” Hector said coming up beside her.
“It’s okay. I got it.” Sam flipped the string of beads aside. Rows of shoe boxes lined both walls with ladders every ten feet. She crammed the boxes into their cubbyholes.
“Can I take you to lunch?” Hector asked standing inside the curtain.
“I told you before. I’m not interested.”
“We could be friends.” He shrugged. “You could tell me about Iraq.”
Sam thrust the last box into its space. The beads jangled. Hector left.
She glanced at the clock, fifteen minutes until her lunch break. The slow workday gave her too much time to think. She needed a drink. It would keep away the flashbacks.
“C’mon, Sam,” Hector said outside the curtain.
Hector knew she was a vet. He didn’t need to know any more about her.
On her way to the front of the store, Sam passed the imported Spanish sandals. Mr. Goldberg carried high-quality shoes. He showcased them on polished wood displays. She loved the smell of new leather, and how Mr. Goldberg played soft rock music in the background, with track lighting, and thick padded chairs for the customers.
The best part of being a salesperson was taking off the customer’s old shoes and putting on the new. The physical contact was honest. And she liked to watch people consider the new shoes—the trial walk, the mirror assessment—and if they made the purchase, everyone was happy.
Sam headed toward the door. Maria and Bob stood at the counter looking at the computer screen.
“Wait up,” Maria said. The heavy Mexican woman hurried over. “You’re leaving early again.”
“No one’s here,” Sam said towering over her. “I’ll make it up, stay later. Or something.”
“Or you’ll end up like that homeless man you were staring at.”
“You think you’re funny?”
“No, Sam. That’s the point.”
“He reminded me of someone.”
Sam turned away.
“Try the VA.”
Sam looked back at Maria. “I have.”
“Try again. You need to talk to someone. My cousin—”
“The VA doesn’t do jack shit.”
“Rafael sees a counselor. It helps.”
“So do the meds.”
“I don’t take pills.”
“I’m okay.” She liked Maria and especially Mr. Goldberg, a Vietnam vet who not only hired her but rented her a room above the shoe store. “It’s just a few minutes early.”
Maria glared at her. “Mr. Goldberg has a soft spot for you, but this is a business. Doesn’t mean you won’t get fired.”
“I’ll make it up.” Sam shoved the door open into a blast of heat.
“Another thing,” Maria said. “Change your top. It has stains on it.”
Oh fuck, Sam thought. But it gave her a good reason to go upstairs.
She walked next door, up the narrow stairway and into her studio, the size of an iPhone. Curry reeked through the hundred-year-old walls from the Indian neighbors next door.
Sam took off her blouse and unstuck the dog tags between her breasts. The Army had no use for her. “Take your meds, get counseling, then you can re-enlist.” But she wasn’t going to end up like her drug-addicted mother.
The unmade Murphy bed screeched and dipped as she sat down in her bra and pants, the tousled sheets still damp from her night sweats.
The Bacardi bottle sat on the kitchenette counter. She glanced sideways at it and looked away.
The United States flag tacked over the peeling wallpaper dominated the room, but it was the image of herself and Marley on the wobbly dresser she carried with her.
Sam had taken the seventeen-year-old private under her wing. She’d been driving the humvee in Tikrit with Marley beside her when an IED exploded, killing him while she escaped with a gash in her leg. Thoughts of mortar attacks, road side bombs, and Marley looped over and over again. Her mind became a greater terrorist weapon than anything the enemy had.
Her combat boots sat next to the door, the tongues reversed, laces loose, prepared to slip into, ready for action. Sometimes she slept in them, would wear them to work if she could. Of all her souvenirs, the boots reminded her most of being a soldier. She never cleaned them, wanted to keep the Iraqi sand caked in the wedge between the midsoles and shanks.
The springs shrieked as Sam dug her fists into the mattress and stood. She walked to the counter, unscrewed the top of the Bacardi, poured herself a shot and knocked it back. Liquid guilt ran down her throat.
Sam picked up a blouse off the chair, smelled it and looked for stains. It would do. She dressed, grabbed a Snickers bar, took three strides and dashed out her room.