Like most Saturday mornings, I’m alone cleaning the streets. The morning sun hurries through the cloudless sky, already buttering me with sweat, though Las Vegas sleeps. I slog around with trash pincers and make peace with the place through solitude.
Before, I worked afternoons and wore my baseball cap with the army patch. People asked questions. Where was I deployed? What’s it like being a woman in war? Did I ever shoot someone? War stories drew people in. They tried to stare through the ugly by looking at me.
I’m picking up after a parade; I can tell by the debris. Streamers stick to the sidewalk like snakeskin. Buzzards hunch atop asphalt burgers and chicken bones, sharing sticky leftovers with lizards and scorpions. I call it desert-dessert. Delicious. They help me clean.
When I wore my hat, some people would blame me, yell at me. Others would thank me. Nobody knew any better. I came from a small town, the only way out spelled A-R-M-Y. At eighteen I copied the boys and picked up my M16 with dreams of returning to a big city. I guess it worked—Vegas, baby.
I pause, my sack heavy with trampled food, fancy pants, a sparkly shoe, ragdoll condoms, a brunette wig, and Everclear in a grenade bottle. A creepy plastic bag crinkles in the center of the road, juddering in the heat mirages, weighed down by a shrouded cylinder. I drift toward it like a hooked fish.
I was asked if I got flashbacks. People heard of IEDs disguised as garbage, but they hadn’t heard of daisy-rigging. That’s when one decoy IED, planted somewhere obvious, is linked to another, hidden. You never have a clue. To those asking, I just said: It gets easier.
My jeans swish against the steel under them, long jeans because my legs don’t get hot anymore. A vulture beats her wings to defend her breakfast. I promise her I’m not interested. A scorpion scuttles by, tail up. I give my pincers a few clicks in solidarity. A spiky lizard pauses in my shadow. He can only go a few minutes exposed without cooking alive, so I rest, offering my shade. I eye the heat weeping from that ominous bag.
Some people were curious; some were killing the cat. The latter quizzed me on my childhood. Where I grew up, we’d placed dime bets on lizard-scorpion fights in jelly jars. “So you’re a tomboy,” the people replied. No. I always chose the lizard, and I always lost. The scorpion was daisy-rigged too; it distracted the reptile with mean claws then stuck them with the flagpole stinger. One girl chided, “If you hadn’t trapped them together, lizards and scorpions would never fight.” I agreed with her.
Nowadays I rarely see anything but downed drunks and desert-dessert out here. Even when I do, my head is naked to burn, no more army hat. Still, there’s that familiar horror. It’s everywhere in Vegas—bodily fluids, confetti, meat, clothes, sun, photos, torn food, glasses, vomit, tamped dunes, smoke, torn packaging, friends, sere vegetation, shattered porcelain. Remains of a night gone wrong. The striking indifference of the desert.
A few men with chapped lips liked my figure, and I stared at their legs. They looked at my shirt sticking to my chest or at my hair curling in the heat and made sly intimations, but I just stared at their legs. Stared as if there were nothing else, no man, just calves sliced like porpoises through a propeller, toes pointed like fairy shoes, two dogs with eager snouts. They gave up eventually. Probably after telling me they had the world’s longest tongue.
This bag on the center line has a prim little knot to cloak its contents. I reach down and work it free, hand shaking. Inside, glowing in the sun, is a full angel cake in plastic armor. I smile at it for a full minute before I bring it to the curb. Yes, an untouched angel cake, forgotten, a gift from fate with no strings attached. I join in desert-dessert with the vultures—delicious. Like remains of a night gone right.