Hats (Excerpt)

By Curtis J. Graham


Sergeant Ticker was a third battalion Kill Hat at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. He was not authorized to speak to recruits, only to punish them creatively. During the day, he forced them to wear each other’s uniforms and fill their pockets with mud. He made them windsprint throughout the dinner hour until there were only five minutes left for eating. He denied them use of the bathroom until one of them pissed their trousers. But at night, Sergeant Ticker told stories, and the recruits listened.

He was careful never to overindulge. The moment he suspected the recruits were humoring him, feigning interest, he would deprive them for a time. He’d say they had mistaken his kindness for weakness, and he’d make them do something hot and difficult until one of them fainted. After a week or so without any stories, the recruits would send a representative to his office at the far end of the squad bay to ask for the next installment.

Ticker told his recruits the adventures of Sergeant Hayfield, a character he’d been refining since he was a Corporal. The idea for Hayfield came from a World War One recruiting poster. It pictured a square-jawed Marine with a crooked smile. His khaki shirt was sunbleached and wrinkled. He wore a canted helmet and carried a rifle made of hardwood and steel. He was extending his empty hand, inviting you inside his world. “Want Action?” it said. During his two cycles at Parris Island, Ticker had crafted a legacy for Sergeant Hayfield. After lights out, he would pace the center causeway and tell the stories he’d imagined.

“We left Sergeant Hayfield in Belleau Wood, France. The skirmish is over, an Allied victory. His platoon has fallen back to safety, and he alone has remained to fight the scattered enemies. It’s dawn now. There’s mist rising through the trees, and frost on the rocks. Hayfield stumbles through the undergrowth. He’s ditched his M1 in favor of a single shot Gewehr. Dead Germans are spread out like squirrels, and ammunition is readily available. His fingers shake from the cold as he feels their pouches and pockets for bullets and bread.”

The recruits knew better than to tell the other Hats about the stories. Ticker had promised he would punish them beyond words. Further, they would never know how the adventures ended. Near the end of each training cycle, Ticker would leave the recruits with an incomplete story. If they survived their Crucible and became Marines, they could find him on graduation day and hear the final installment. He left the offer open, but no recruit had ever come to find him.

His daughter Mindy had grown fat, and for this reason, Sergeant Ticker found her difficult to love. Mindy had grown up quickly in seven years. She had a cell phone and small friends who slept over and put makeup on each other’s faces. One morning, Ticker came home to find her lying on the couch eating Cap’n Crunch, dry and by hand. He’d just wrapped up an overnight shift that involved monitoring a suicide case, a night of pointless vigilance. Seeing Mindy, he nearly kicked over an end table. She’d been gaining weight gradually, but now her wrists were as wide as her hands. He made the decision to drive her to the base hospital. He scheduled appointments for her with pediatric nutritionists and cardiologists. It was time for a change. In the weeks to come, letters arrived in the mail, test results. Mindy had a mild condition of the pituitary. She would be monitored, but may continue to gain weight.

It was a pre-dawn schoolday, and Ticker stood at the kitchen island with an array of meats and cheeses spread across the plastic marble. He could see into the living room, where raindrops sat on the dark windowpanes. The central air kicked on overhead with the sound of mechanical breathing. He took a slice of bread and weighed it in his hand. “Goddamned Wonder Bread. White death.” A car drove by outside. Ticker watched a square of light trace across the wall, stop, and move back the way it came. The bread in his hand felt spongy and warm, like it was absorbing the imprints of his fingers. He peeled off a slice of cheese—white American, fat free—and slapped it onto the dented bread.

Mindy walked in. Her socks patted on the pale shag. “The school bus just drove past the house,” she said. Her forehead poked above the far side of the island, and all Ticker could see was her curly bangs. It reminded him of her infancy, months of sink baths and dish towel dryings. Mindy walked around the island and sat on a small plastic stool by the sink. “You gonna drive me after?” She asked.

Ticker caught a sour whiff of mayonnaise from the open jar. “Well what else would I do, make you walk?” he squirted some mustard and pressed the two halves of bread together, facing in opposite directions. For a moment, he debated switching the pieces around, making them uniform. Instead, he closed his eyes and whispered his mantra: “Marines are dying in Afghanistan.” It was the bigger picture he gave his recruits, the grand idea that both inspired excellence and swallowed small mistakes.

Ticker heard Mindy’s voice coming from behind him, a whisper. “Marines are crying in Candyland.” He turned. She was resting her chin on her fists. He handed her the bagged sandwich. “That’s not what I said,” he told her.

Curtis Graham is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.