Short Story

Soldier Boy by Michael C. Keith

‘I’m very brave generally,’ he went on in a low voice.
–– Lewis Carroll

Being a soldier had instilled in Carson Tuttle a sense of pride he had lacked. Indeed, in his young mind, soldiering validated his existence. Until he was sworn into the U.S. Army, he was just another high school dropout with few prospects. He wanted his diploma, but his alcoholic father never kept his family in one place long enough for him to receive one. At seventeen, he settled on the military as a way to make something of himself. It took a considerable amount of pleading with his father to sign him into the service, but Carson eventually wore him down. His mother had been in favor of his plan from the beginning, not only because she wanted a better life for him, but also because she was exhausted by the tension that had long existed between her son and husband.

A day after taking the Oath of Allegiance at the induction center in Oakland, California, Carson was in basic training at Fort Ord. Despite his scrawny physique––all 118 pounds of it––and tender years, he excelled at every exercise and capped his eight weeks of training by qualifying as Sharp Shooter on the rifle range. He remained at Fort Ord for clerk school (Basic Army Administration Course, more popularly known among GIs as ‘BAAC U.’) that required another two months of training. The next leg of his military education took him east to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana for a five-week course designed to turn newly minted army clerks into personnel administration specialists, alphanumerically classified by the military hierarchy as grunts with a specialty 716.10 MOS. It was during his time in the Hoosier state that an incident took place, which would follow him throughout his life.

On his first one-day pass, Carson ventured into nearby Indianapolis. He had not found anyone interested in going with him, so he went alone, with no particular goal in mind other than to see what the place looked like. Anything would be a respite from the banality of Army bases, he figured. The drab military buildings did nothing to excite his interest in architecture. He had often dreamed of designing skyscrapers and bridges, but knew that without an education the likelihood of his ever doing so was remote.

A bus stopped just outside the entrance to the base, and it was a quick ride into town. Carson was not overly impressed with the city’s structures that looked ordinary and old, artifacts from the 19th century. Most large cities in 1964 had modern buildings, but Indy, as everyone seemed to call it, appeared to be the exception. He did find one thing to admire, Monument Circle in the center of the city. He rounded it several times taking in its impressive statuary.

Then he found a small restaurant for lunch. It was empty except for an attractive young woman seated at a table across from the one he chose. When the waitress arrived he ordered a tuna sandwich and a cream soda. After she took his order and left, he noticed the restaurant’s only other occupant was looking at him. He nodded and smiled in return.

“You’re in the Army. Bet you’re at Fort Ben,” she said.

“Yes I am,” replied Carson, surprised by her words.

“My daddy worked there as a cook ‘til his heart attack.”

“Is he okay?”

“Nope. He died two years ago. On my own now, since I was fifteen.”

“Sorry.”

“No, I like being on my own.”

“I meant about your father dying.”

“Oh, him. He didn’t treat us kids good. Always yelling at us after mama passed on. What’s your name?”

“Carson.”

“That’s nice. I never knew a Carson before.”

“I was named after my uncle. What’s your name?

“Kelly. Kelly Margaret.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

The petite young woman left her table and moved to Carson’s.

“Mind if I sit here, Carson?”

“No . . . that’s fine,” said Carson standing and offering her a chair.

“You’re a polite one. I can see that.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m not being forward or anything. You seem like a nice guy. I just like to talk to people. My brother says I shouldn’t ‘cause I could get in trouble talking with strangers.”

Carson took in her sweet scent and found her thick auburn hair beautiful. As she spoke, her eyes shimmered like green rhinestones. For the next hour they ran the full gamut of topics within the realm of experiences common to adolescence. The longer they talked the more attractive Kelly became to him.

Still, he wondered if she had some hidden agenda. Why is she so friendly? he wondered. He had never encountered a girl so eager to converse with him. Was she for real? Was he getting into something that would turn out badly?

When she invited him to walk her home, he agreed though with some reluctance.

“Not too far from here. Maybe seven blocks. Got a small apartment over a shoe repair store. My landlord used to know my dad, so he gives me a break on the rent. Sometimes I think he’s flirting with me, but he’s pretty old, maybe forty, so I just try to ignore him.”

“You have to be careful when you’re a girl,” observed Carson, becoming more smitten by the young woman by the moment.

“I am,” said Kelly, smiling warmly. “You’re just the nicest guy. You got any sisters?”

“Two. They’re younger than me.”

“Bet you watch over them.”

“Kind of, but I haven’t seen them in a while. Might go home when I finish at Fort Ben. Don’t get along with my dad, but he’s okay with Kate and Gloria. That’s their names. They don’t argue with him like I do.”

“How about that? We both had daddies we didn’t like. I got no sisters. Just a brother like I told you. He watches out for me like a daddy.”

Kelly suddenly stopped in front a shop, causing Carson to bump against her. They both laughed as she announced that they had reached where she lived.

“You want to come up for a little while? It’s still early.”

Carson accepted her invitation but wondered if he was doing the sensible thing. Maybe this is where she takes her marks. No, that’s ridiculous. Stop thinking that way. She’s so sweet and pretty. Really pretty, he told himself. As he climbed the stairs behind her, he felt a surge of sexual desire more intense than any he had ever experienced. He had never gotten beyond a brief kiss with a member of the opposite sex, and now he felt he might be on the verge of losing his virginity. Is that what will happen? he wondered, and then lowered his expectations. She’s probably a virgin, too.

“Well, here we are. My little penthouse,” announced Kelly, unlocking the apartment door. “Come on in.”

Kelly turned on an overhead light exposing a shabbily furnished room.

“This is my parlor. Parlor is such a fancy term, don’t you think? The kitchenette is over there, and the front room is my bedroom,” said Kelly, pointing in one direction and then another. “Let’s go sit in my room. It’s nice there with the light coming in the big window.”

Where is this leading? Carson wondered, feeling both excited and wary.

“Sorry, there’s no chairs, so we’ll have to sit on my bed.”

Carson inspected every corner of the room, expecting someone to leap from the shadows.

“It’s a nice room,” he said.

“Some of this stuff was my mother’s. She had this pink bedspread––its called chenille––and those flowery pillows. I love these things. Reminds me of her.”

“Very pretty.”

“My daddy never treated her right,” commented Kelly, a dark expression replacing her smile.

This prompted further talk about their individual childhoods. The light from outside slowly grew dim, and they found themselves sitting in the twilight. During their conversation they had moved closer to one another, but there had been no physical contact.

“Hey, it’s late. You want something to eat?” offered Kelly. “I got some Kraft macaroni and cheese. You like that? I put peas in it. Makes it better.”

“No, that’s okay, I better go,” replied Carson.

“Oh, come on. Eat something. Then you can go back to the base.”

Kelly rose from the bed and moved to the door. Carson followed. When they entered the next room, a man about Carson’s age rose from the couch and lunged at him, striking him in the mouth.

“What are you doing here?” screamed Kelly, as Carson dashed to the apartment door and threw it open.

“Leave me alone! What are you crazy?” bellowed Carson, running into the hallway and down the stairs.

He could feel blood gush from his upper lip. When he reached the street, he ran as fast as he could away from what he was sure had been a premeditated ambush. At least they didn’t get my wallet, he told himself, attempting to justify his retreat but feeling craven for doing so. I should go back and fight. No, there were probably others there. I could have been killed.

He fished a handkerchief from his pocket as he continued his escape toward the bus stop for his return trip to the base. The cloth was quickly saturated with blood, and he noticed with despair that it had also dripped on his khaki shirt. As best he could, he cleaned himself so people wouldn’t notice he’d been attacked. Fortunately, the bus was empty except for Carson and the driver, who didn’t even look up from the steering wheel when he climbed aboard. This was not the case, however, when he reached his barracks. Several of his fellow soldiers spotted him when he entered.

“Hey, what the hell happened to you?” asked the guy on the bunk next to his.

“Jesus, you look like you been hit with a baseball bat,” observed another fellow soldier across from him.

“Got jumped in town,” said Carson, pressing the bloodied cloth to his throbbing wound.

“You kick their ass?”

“No, I figured I was outnumbered.”

“How many were there?”

“I couldn’t tell. It happened so fast,” answered Carson evasively. “They didn’t get anything though. I pushed them off and got out of there.”

“Where was it?” asked someone. “Let’s go down there and beat the crap out of them. Show them if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us.”

The other soldiers agreed and leapt from their beds.

“Thanks, guys. Not worth the trouble you’d get yourselves in. Only got a split lip out of it,” responded Carson, hoping to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

Moreover, he did not want his comrades to learn the truth––that he had been attacked by only one guy and had fled like a chicken.

“You probably need stitches. That looks pretty bad,” observed one of the soldiers.

“I’ll be okay. It stopped bleeding,” answered Carson, reclining on his cot.

“Well, I think we should teach those bastards a lesson,” grumbled another troop.

“No. That’s okay,” demurred Carson. “They didn’t get what they wanted. That’s the main thing. I appreciate it, guys.”

It took a while for him to get to sleep, and in the morning, he was shocked by how bad his lip looked. A scab had formed into a dark purple knot that made it difficult for him to speak.

“What happened to you, private?” inquired his division’s sergeant.

“I tripped on a curb and hit my face on a fire hydrant.”

“Yeah, sure you did,” replied his superior skeptically.

A couple days passed and Carson could not get the incident out of his head. She was so nice, he kept thinking. How could she do this? He began to doubt her complicity in the attack and then to his surprise, he received a telephone call from her.

“Carson, don’t hang up. I’ve been trying to get you. I’m so sorry for what happened. My stupid brother thought we were doing something in my bedroom. When he saw you come out of my bedroom, he really freaked out. When I told him we were only talking he apologized and would like to tell you in person.”

“What, so he can jump me again in your apartment?”

“No, really. It was a misunderstanding. Danny is a good brother. He just thinks he’s my parent or guardian. If you knew him, you’d like him. Please come over. Nothing bad will happen, I promise. I like you and want to see you again.”

“I don’t know.

“Please, Carson. My brother is totally embarrassed by what happened. He was going to be a soldier, but he has a heart murmur. Believe me, he won’t do anything to hurt you.”

“Hurt me? He’s lucky I didn’t fight back. I’m not scared of him,” said Carson indignantly.

“So will you please come over? Danny feels really bad, and I want to see you.”

When?”

“Tomorrow?”

“No, I can’t get away during the week. But I could come Friday night after classes.”

“Good! Don’t change your mind, okay. I want to see you.”

During the days that followed, Carson debated the wisdom of returning to Kelly’s house, ultimately concluding that it was safe to do so. He mentioned his intentions to his cohorts, and they warned him against doing so, saying it was probably a setup to finish what they had started. Despite their admonitions, on Friday evening he boarded the bus into town. On his walk to Kelly’s, he strategized what he would do if her brother made a hostile move on him. The idea of something bad happening dampened his enthusiasm for seeing Kelly. He might be crazy. Just pretending to be sorry to get another shot at me. Kick him in the nuts as hard as you can, Carson. Then get away and never return . . .

Kelly was sitting on the steps of her apartment building when he approached. When she spotted him, she jumped up and ran to him, throwing her arms around him.

“You came! I didn’t think you would. Thought you’d back out . . . I mean, didn’t want to see me.”

“Your brother here?” inquired Carson, looking up at the apartment’s front window.

“He wants to apologize. Don’t get mad at him. He doesn’t want to fight,” said Kelly, resting her head against his arm as they climbed the inside stairway.

“Danny,” Kelly called, “we’re here.”

Her brother emerged from the kitchen with his hand extended.

“Look, man, I’m really sorry. I just thought you were messing with my little sister. She’s only fifteen.”

Carson looked at Kelly with an expression of surprise mixed with betrayal.

“I thought you were seventeen.”

“I know. I didn’t think you’d be my friend if you knew my real age,” muttered the teen contritely.

“You told him you were seventeen, Kelly? Look, I hope you don’t hold a grudge over what happened. You can take a sock at me if you want. That lip looks pretty bad.”

“No, that’s okay,” replied Carson, extending his hand to take Danny’s.

As they shook hands, three of Carson’s Army buddies stormed in and started beating Kelly’s shocked brother. Before Carson could fully grasp the situation, Danny was on the floor screaming.

“Leave him alone!!” shouted Kelly coming to her fallen brother’s aid.

“Stop it guys! What are you doing here? It was all a mistake. He didn’t mean to hit me. He thought I was messing with his baby sister. Leave him alone,” pleaded Carson.

After a few more blows, the GIs relented. Kelly kneeled next to her bloodied brother weeping. She then turned her full wrath on Carson.

“How could you do this? I thought you were different. I told you my brother didn’t mean to hit you. You had to get your friends to do your fighting? You’re a coward! Get out of my house . . . all of you!” shrieked Kelly, wiping her brother’s damaged face with the hem of her skirt. Carson and his fellow troops did as they were told, heading back to the base.

In the years that followed, when asked about the lasting scar, he claimed it was the result of an encounter with the butt of a Viet Cong soldier’s rifle. I did the smart thing. Would have been stupid to fight back. Only make matters worse if I had, he told himself every time the long-ago incident in Indianapolis entered his mind––which was often. Then he’d be overcome with powerful regret and self-recrimination. Never run away! Never! Never! You were a soldier. You should have killed the son of a bitch . . . destroyed him!

#

Michael C. Keith is the author of four story collections and an acclaimed memoir. http://www.michaelckeith.com

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