by Peter Tyree Morrison Colwell
“Ranger would have ripped his fucking red-com pussy ass off.” My Uncle Robert sprays words around the room, cradling a near-empty PBR in his left hand. His right hand is an imaginary M9 handgun; his raised thumb the hammer, his index finger the barrel, and his remaining fingers fisted together as the stock, grip, and magazine clip. Robert aims at us, my cousin, Travis, and me, as we sit together on the couch.
Uncle Robert is always drunk and high when I see him. But he only talks about Ranger when he is really fucked up, like tonight, on a case and a gram. Travis just told us about his fight with a college kid in a bar near Camp Pendleton..
“You should’ve seen it, Dad. I beat the shit out of this fucking red-com pussy in front of his girlfriend.” Travis’s green eyes are bloodshot, drunk. Before telling his story, Travis took off his green t-shirt, exposing his massive upper-body. Each muscle on his back, stomach, and arms is sculpted and defined, like the anatomy diagram in my bio class.
Travis removed his shirt to show off a new tattoo. The tattoo covers Travis’s right pectoral muscle. It is an emblem with a black skull in the center, black Latin terms in calligraphic font above the skull, and the silhouette of a black Beretta below the skull. A red-eyed Copperhead weaves throughout the emblem. This is Travis’s second tattoo. Travis got his first tattoo when he was fourteen, on the condition that Robert chose the substance and design. The tattoo is simple black script—R.I.P. Ranger. The letters are an inch or two tall, and run down the inside of Travis’s left forearm. Robert has the same tattoo; same spot and everything, just decades older and faded grey.
Travis enlisted in the Marines two summers ago. After boot camp and some specialist training, he deployed overseas to Afghanistan, I think. But now he’s stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. He used leave to fly east and see Robert. Travis always wanted to be a Marine, he says. But he had no other career option that Robert would have blessed.
Uncle Robert calls everyone who is not a former or current Marine a “fucking red-com pussy.” This includes my father. Robert says my dad—his ex-brother-in-law who now lives in Walnut Creek, California; wherever the fuck that is—is the “biggest fucking red-com hippy pussy” he ever met. My mom says pretty much the same thing about my dad; he’s a wuss who ran from my birth. Robert says my dad got drafted but didn’t go to Vietnam because he got a medical DQ. My dad’s family doctor had been to Vietnam as a medic. The doctor thought it was so bad over there that he found any condition he could come up with to give a neighborhood kid a medical DQ. When he saw my dad, a little sensitive kid afraid of spiders and eye contact, the doctor said my dad had ulcers which disqualified him from military service. So my father never went to Vietnam even though he was drafted. Fucking red-com pussy.
I’m not a pussy, even though I’m not joining the Marines, because I received a baseball scholarship and “may go to the Bigs,” according to Uncle Robert. If I did not get the scholarship, I would have enlisted in the Marines, just like my cousin Travis. That is what Robert says. That is what I tell everyone too. But the truth is I would never enlist. I used to have nightmares about being a Marine in a foreign jungle. I’d get killed, always shot in the back with a full clip from an AK. I never saw who fired, but I recognized the sound of the gun from Robert’s stories—“rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.” The dreams rattled me so bad I missed school. My mom made me see a psychiatrist, who prescribed me antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, so I don’t have the nightmares anymore. I also don’t get erections anymore, but I can’t tell anyone about that of course. I take my pills every day, which, along with my messed up head, would disqualify me from the Marines. I will never tell Robert or Travis. They’d call me out for being the fucking red-com pussy I am, just like my dad.
Baseball saved me. My baseball scholarship is to a small NCAA Division II college in rural West Virginia. The baseball program there started just three years ago, and the team has won a total of nine games since the program started. The coach is one of my mom’s ex-boyfriends. My scholarship is basically a favor to my mom, maybe part of an apology for treating her bad. I played shortstop for my high school team and batted leadoff. I hit close to .400. But I strike out too much. And I’m too small—five feet, nine inches, a buck-forty pounds. I have no chance of playing in the major leagues; “the Bigs,” Robert calls them. I will probably be the third-string second basemen and utility infielder for four years at this no-name college, and study some boring fucking discipline my mom picks, like management or accounting. I won’t get to shoot guns or wear camouflage or kill any fucking red-com pussies. I won’t get to be a monster like Travis, like Uncle Robert used to be. You’d never guess Robert used to be like that, without seeing his old pictures or hearing his stories, like the one he’s telling now.
“Ranger would have held him up while I squeezed off six in his fucking belly. Just toy with the motherfucker,” Robert says.
Robert served in Vietnam as a dog handler for the Marines. Ranger was his German shepherd over there. But that was forever ago. Now Uncle Robert lives alone in a one-room apartment in our shitty town near Harper’s Ferry. His apartment is empty. All he has is an old microwave, a heavy-buzzing refrigerator full of mold, a broken VHS/TV combo, the faux-leather sofa where Travis and I sit watching Robert, and one photograph.
The photo hangs on the dirty wall next to the dented front door. The photo captures Robert, much-younger and muscular, with a dark, trimmed mustache, in his “jungle hump gear.” A German shepherd sits next to Robert. That’s Ranger, staring right at me. He looks ready to lie down or race after someone at the snap of Robert’s fingers. He has a broad, muscular, black and tan chest, massive paws with jagged nails, and tall pointy ears.
Uncle Robert fills out my view of Ranger with his stories. Stories about how he and Ranger walked point through jungles in Vietnam for over a year. Robert says Ranger never missed an enemy tunnel or mine; never walked by one without identifying it. Robert likes to tell the story about how Ranger scented a group of VC over five-hundred yards away. Because of Ranger, Robert’s platoon had time to plan an ambush that killed the whole lot of red-com VC without suffering any casualties or wounds. The enemy didn’t fire a single fucking shot. When Robert’s platoon reported the action, FOB radio operators thought it was a joke, too good to be true, some kind of set-up attempt by the NVA or VC; the enemy occasionally sent messages on U.S. radio frequencies using American hostages. The base didn’t believe it until a chopper flew over and reported the same story. Every time Robert tells this story, he changes things to make Ranger sound more impressive. He increases the kills, the distance from the enemy, the vulnerability of his position. He makes it rain, makes it night, makes the platoon out of ammo with an injured rifleman. The story is an exaggeration. But it’s one we never question. Robert exaggerates a lot. But he needs to think Travis and I believe every word. So we pretend we do.
Robert has some heavy feelings in him tonight. I see them. His eye sockets are dark, casting shadows over his eyes, solemn and transfixed, like he’s watching a casket drop.
I brought twenty dollars for Robert tonight. My mother gives me money for Robert, her only sibling, every time I visit him. He lives just blocks from our apartment, but my mom never comes to Robert’s place. She loves it when I visit him, though. “Good to get some male influence,” my mother says. She knows Robert has drug problems, among other undiagnosed mental conditions, like maybe schizophrenia. She knows drugs, booze, Vietnam, and Travis make up Robert’s entire life, in that order of priority. My mom figures she satisfies her duties of sisterhood by sending me to visit Robert. Maybe it helps her manipulate herself into believing he’s all right. If I don’t come home and tell her that Robert is gone, dead, or in prison, then her brother must be fine.
Robert used the twenty from my mom to buy the PBRs we’re drinking. When I arrived, Travis was looking over some infected clumps of raised skin on Robert’s legs. Robert was starting to nod off already; looked calm. He probably won’t get upset tonight, I thought. Turns out I thought wrong.
“Ranger,” Uncle Robert starts faintly. He stands in the center of his apartment. He lowers his arms and drops an empty PBR can onto the floor. His green eyes stare right through Travis and me, sitting on the sofa. If you didn’t know Robert, you’d think he’s looking at us. But he isn’t. His eyes look beyond us, but Robert isn’t using his eyes for sight. He’s zoned out, remembering shit. I can see it on his face, his head turning inside out. He’s thinking about it again.
Standing there, Robert looks like a bony scarecrow wearing a wig of light brown locks and wiry silver strands that tickle his shoulders. His t-shirt is full of orange stains and crimson blots, cotton worn so thin that parts of it are see-through. The shirt is just long enough to cover his butt crack peeking over his sweatpants’ waistband.
Robert shakes his head violently, shedding the trance he feels clinging to his hair. He sprays sweat and beer spit; drops glance my face.
“I fucking did Ranger in.” Robert looks down at his bare feet. His legs wobble. I get up from the couch and touch Robert’s back, trying to guide him to sit down next to Travis. He bats away my arm.
“Don’t fucking touch me.”
“Sorry, Uncle Robert.”
Travis stands up and tries to put his arm around Robert. “Come on, Pop. Sit down and shake this off. You’re tired. You’re fucked up. You can’t think straight right now. Fuck, I can’t either. Let’s smoke some weed and fall asleep. I have a joint right here. All right?” Robert pushes Travis away.
“No, Travis. You don’t fucking hear me. They wouldn’t let me take him home, for fear of disease or some bullshit. They said we had to leave him there with the equipment, all going to the fucking ARVN. So I took him to a clearing near some rice paddies. I said some shit, I was so fucking sorry. He just sat there still, looking up at me. I pulled out my sidearm, aimed at him, and he still didn’t move. He looked right at me while I squeezed one off in his head, a fucking execution. I fucking killed him.”
Robert lets tears drizzle down his gaunt cheekbones onto his chest and shoulders. His head vibrates like an electric razor.
“Ranger looked up at me, eyes all lit up, sun shining right on em, god’s lantern or some shit, lighting up his last breath. He just sat there and let me fucking blow him away.”
Robert falls to the floor, tucks his knees into his belly, and lies on his head. His voice sounds hoarse and strained, like his vocal chords are about to give out, just quit like a dying motor.
“His brains, skin, and blood were everywhere. On my hands, neck, face. I looked away after I shot him. I was a fucking red-com pussy right then. Fuck, man. I wish they could transplant what’s inside, you know? Take Ranger’s inside and put it in another body. My fucking body.”
Robert rocks back and forth on the cement floor for a few seconds. Then he stands up abruptly, quicker than my blink, and I nearly stumble back.
“Get my rig, Travis. Get out, Mikey.”
Robert never asked me to leave his place before tonight. I shouldn’t have fucking touched him. I shouldn’t have tried to make him sit down. Fuck me.
“Okay, Uncle Robert. I’m sorry. Love you.”
I get up and walk to the door, but stop in front of the photo of Robert and Ranger. I touch the frame glass on Ranger’s face.
“I love Ranger, Uncle Robert.”
I look back at Robert. He’s up on the couch. His eyes are closed, and his knees are tucked under his chin. He cradles on his hips, and looks at me.
“Maybe he’s in you. Yeah, that’s where. I see him. Good kid, Mikey.” Robert slurs, but I make out his words.
I nod at Robert and Travis, turn away and walk out the apartment door. As I head down the building’s rubber-coated stairs, I feel a high, something different than I’ve ever felt from drugs or booze or sex. Ranger is in me, he meant. Uncle Robert thinks I am like Ranger. Fuck, that’s the best thing he could say to anyone. What if he’s right? What does that make me? Am I still me? It doesn’t fucking matter. It’s better than me. I should get a “R.I.P. Ranger” tattoo like the ones Travis and Robert have. Yeah, because he’s in me. Robert sees it, Ranger in me.