Aimee Keeble: Red Dog, a short story
Southern Legitimacy Statement: Growing up in Florida during the war with Iraq I saw the resulting effects ravage a generation of young men with all good intentions.
Mama cracked an egg and I fell out punch drunk that’s how it always starts. We live on an island off of Never-Never land where Elvis is king and your dreams cost a dollar on the turn of a jukebox machine.
When I was young, Daddy shook out river water like a blanket and collected all the crawfish that was hiding underneath. He sold them up river to folks that sold it on for folks who ain’t never known a word of Creole but they sure like the taste of it. Then when I was bigger, Daddy decided a life off the Mississippi would be better. He left us our houseboat “Atlantis” and I learned to lift the river’s skirts just like he did. That was ok for a time, but a man’s gotta see things outside of what he knows. So I signed up and shot some brown boys and come back four years older and full of shakes like I always got my finger on a lightning bolt.
Welcome to the White River folks, the big ol’ water snake that carries our house on its back. This is where I am returned to after my service in Afghanistan. Now I’m back home with Mama. I come back broken though which makes it hard. They told me I got PTSD.
Home never changes. The shops on Main Street in town are the same. Our houseboat is the same, same smell of pine tar that sticks to your clothes. Mama says don’t leave me again baby, they’re hiring at the new Walmart.
The boys in the KKK, they stop me at traffic lights and tell me I’m all right. Handing out their leaflets like scraps of America that should have been tore up long ago. I look at their uniform and think about it-a man should belong. But I don’t know where to go anymore.
I am a man of routine. I wake up early, lift weights, eat breakfast, and watch the morning news with Mama before she goes to work at the school.
The rage comes sneaking. I call it my Red Dog. Red dog is angry. Red Dog gets the shakes all over and drools like a baby. I went to see the medic before I got home, they tell me this dog gonna be following me my whole life. I see his snarling face creeping round the corners at me, those red eyes like blown out taillights. When Red Dog comes I forget.
Mama will get home and I will still be sitting. Waiting. I’m not sure for what, but I am a patient man.
There’s an easy time just before dark when the sky is smeared with pink clouds and the swamp buzzes with mosquito song. I sit in a plastic deck chair by the river and slug on a Bud and try not to think about sand. It still feels like I got desert in my eye. Sitting still like this lets my mind drift and the warm hum of the beer in my blood rests my shaking hands. But then it starts, all this red like a giant pair of scissors that got me by the throat….
I am a bird that can’t touch down; the winds of my misfortune buffet me from safe ground…
A plop of water and I’m awake again, the catfish are chasing each other’s tails. Mama hollers for supper. I am safe inside our home. I know how to tame a blade if it gets in my hand. All in here is a weapon under my touch. Mama stokes the hamburger helper in the big skillet as I set two plates. She tells me she seen a job in the paper looking for janitors at the hospital.
And that’s you all over baby, she tells me and touches my hand and I try not to show that I flinched. You went to war to help people. Well now you got a chance to help again, safe this time, I won’t let you go.
Nighttime on the Mississippi. When them hoodoo spirits come out of the trees and ride on the backs of alligators. Mother River never sleeps and neither do I. Sleeping is not a part of my routine, since with sleep comes nightmares. I stare at the ceiling in the only bedroom I’ve ever known and listen to the shadow world of the bayou. Red Dog grins at me in the dark.
Wake up. Lift weights. Eat breakfast. Watch the news. Sit.
I’m in my plastic chair by the water when Mama comes to tell me I got an interview at the hospital tomorrow. I get my suit out of the closet in my room. Mama irons it for me since my hands are shaky tonight. She gives me a hug and says see baby it always turns out right. We have some grilled cheese sandwiches for supper and once I finish eating I decide to go out and celebrate that somebody wants to give me a chance tomorrow. I say to Mama I won’t be late and take the truck out. I prefer driving at night since there are fewer cars on the road. Less chance of an accident if my hands get twitchy.
The River Bottom bar is all lit up and noisy when I pull in. The air is musky inside and the jukebox is playing some old country tune I can recall the chorus of but not the name. I buy a beer and sit at the bar and pull my hat low over my eyes. I don’t like catching eyes with strangers. I look down at my hands instead and count the pale slug trails where shrapnel cut my flesh.
Has it gotten louder in here? I go take a leak. The lights in the toilet flicker too harshly and my head starts to pound. I walk back to my seat at the bar; a group of men are standing there now, passing along shots of Jim Bean. I go to the end of the bar and raise my arm to catch the barman’s eye for another beer. My arm bumps one of the men. He turns to me and tells me to watch myself. The music is so loud (or is it my ears?) so I ask him again what he said, just to be sure I heard right. You heard what I said the first time hill billy, he says and pushes me so I stumble back and knock a bar stool over. Something inside me stops waiting. The thing that’s been waiting quietly ever since I left Bagram Airfield. Red dog jumps in front of me and grabs the man by the throat.
Well okay bone daddy!
Florescent red blood in the shape of Coors lite,
You got your swamp kickers and I gots my switch blade
Let’s have us a real good glade dance
(I all boondock and you so yella)
And you can ask me in between kicks thru your oyster gum pearls,
How do I like you now?
And I’ll tear you an answer with a flick wrist trick,
You gonna ride that white horse well
Down now, splashing dark
We keep planting them tombstones like trees
Make the green world gnash at the air with grave teeth
Come on, let’s have one more spin-
Show God we can unmake ourselves,
(I’ll match your fist kiss with gator hide)
Out of dirt
…Dirt. The feel of it cool on my knees. I’m outside the bar holding something wet, I’ve softened the man’s head with my fists. I know a body when I see one. These colors don’t run but there’s red all on my fingers. Red Dog sits beside me.
I think of the man I just killed.
I think of my friends that came home in boxes.
I think of myself.
I think I ain’t got nothing left.