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.

One True Thing

By Ashley Martin

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10 p.m., Friday night.

              I’m lying in bed, binge watching Stranger Things and cheating on my diet, that I swear I will be faithful to tomorrow. Probably.

              I have settled into my independent-single-lady life in what feels like the lamest way possible. In the early days of the divorce, when I was high on heartache and repressed emotions, I somehow saw this happening differently. I think I was expecting it to feel a little more Beyonce, and a little less Liz Lemon. But it’s not glamorous or sexy, it’s just… quiet.

              I scroll through Facebook for the forty-seventh time and try to post something witty. A line cast into a crowded attention pool. No bites.

              It’s not that I’m friendless, it’s just one of those nights when everyone is busy with everyone else. I tell myself this is good. It gives me alone time; time for self-care, and self-love, and self-discovery, and selfies.

              Still, I’m considering chalking up the evening as a loss, but then my phone does something highly unusual — it rings. Not a text or Facebook notification – an actual ring. I answer to the voice of my sister, back stateside after completing an international book tour. She wasn’t supposed to be in until next week, but plans changed and she’s here now, and she wants to know if I want to go out to the bar. I jump at the chance. It’s been a year since I’ve seen her, and honestly I am dying for an escape from my own company - you know what they say about too much of a good thing.

              I throw on a push-up bra and some eyeliner, and catch myself in the mirror on the way out the door. If Single-Mom-Living-On-Tacos-and-Tequila has a look, I am nailing it. But no one ever looks at me when I’m out with her, anyway. She, the blonde, chic, jet-setter, with her blue eyes, and her size 2 apple-bottom jeans, and boots with the fur. I’m kidding about that last part - she wears Louboutin’s.

              I’m slipping on my sexiest pair of Old Navy flip-flops when my phone rings again. Expecting it to be her, my breath catches in my chest when a different but dearly familiar number flashes across the screen. I feel like someone emptied a packet of pop-rocks into my stomach; the sensation is still new and delightful.

              It wasn’t until recently that I’d realized how much I had missed, even forgotten, the kind of joy that comes from these small, surprising moments in life. Not like when your husband of 15 years shows up with his pregnant girlfriend one night and tells you he’s leaving you. I mean the kind of unexpected gift that fills you with a sense of peace and euphoria all at once; like the sunset that catches you off guard, or the spontaneous kindness of a stranger. Or when someone makes you feel worthy of love again, long after you had laid that hope to rest.

                I answer eagerly and the voice on the other end spills over the way it always does, like the smoothest Whiskey. Rich and warm. Intoxicating. A vice I have no desire to walk away from.

              You see, I am a big feeler of all the things. I don’t just wear my heart on my sleeve, I cloak myself in it. I crave sincere vulnerability, both in the giving and the taking. I find the greatest sense of fulfillment in breaking myself open wide, and pouring out unabashedly into the rare few who find their way into that inner sanctum.

              So, when I find people that I bond with on a soulular level, who too prefer to swim in the deep end of life, I dive in. Subtle is not part of my vocabulary. I will love too hard, I will connect too deeply, and I cling too tightly. But not with many. Not with most.

              In fact, I need less than one hand to count the number of people this has happened with, and so when I find them, I fight to hold on until they are severed from me by a force beyond my control. Of those I have loved this way, only my sister and this shot of Whiskey remained.

              I fear even that is on borrowed time.

              Each time we hang up the phone, it ends with a resigned admittance that this probably shouldn’t happen again. There is context and technicality to consider. We need to cool it before it gets out of hand, and someone gets burned. I know that that someone will be me.

              And yet.

              I have begun to accept the beauty and power of these moments. This walking blindly into the fire just to feel the heat again. Because they mean I am alive. They mean I have not been excommunicated from love. They show me what my life, now stripped of everything I thought it was, has become: a messy, breathtakingly beautiful experience of being an authentic human who is.

              I know it may not last, but in this moment, it is real, and it’s true.

              It’s just one true thing.

              And right now, at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, I find that’s all I need

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

Sweaty Palms

By Morgan Green

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On the walk home from the bar, the two of you forced your sweaty palms together like pieces from separate puzzles. You found yourselves looking towards the barely lit street rather than each other, making small talk about things you pretended not to know from the past four years. He’s from Maine but loves the Steelers because his Grandpa lived in Pittsburgh and took him to games before he passed. You tell a well-practiced anecdote about how you and your brother used to fight over whether to watch Pocahontas or Power Rangers on television until, finally, your Great-Aunt just bought another set. He breaks the hold to wipe the sweat off his hand but doesn’t reach for yours after that.

       Do you promise to sleep over? you ask, because you long to have the familiarity of something other than doubt to hold onto tonight.

       Yea, sure. Whatever.

       After that, there’s a bit of a lull in the conversation, so you try to remember if you’d even made your bed before you left. The ground is still damp from when it rained that morning, but you’d changed out of your boots and into black sandals for the bar. You avoided wearing lipstick in case you had someone to kiss, so you made up for it with your maroon top that makes your boobs look great. The taste of tobacco from the Marlboro you guys shared lingers bitterly on your tongue, so you apply some chapstick in hopes that the smell of the mint will distract you. It doesn’t. He gets the wrong idea and grins before kissing you.

       Did you want to smoke another cigarette before we left?

       Why? You want one?

       Nah, just wondering.

       You hooked up once two years ago at a party his fraternity threw and prided yourself because he was the first guy you felt comfortable enough to give a firm no to. He fit your type—dark hair, pale, and some sort of amalgam of scrawny and muscular. You liked them big enough to pick you up but not enough to throw you down. He’d started with the story of his grandfather when you asked why he had a poster of Artie Burns on his wall rather than girls in bikinis. You kept the lights off even though you didn’t plan on making eye contact anyway. Unlike the others, he held you afterwards rather than slamming the door on the way to flush the condom. Back then, the silence felt comforting before you drifted off, but now it left an open space for questions that didn’t need to be answered.  

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

No Longer Authorized

By James Seals 


Tell me how you feel about me, Jane said. She and Will were in bed. He was lying supine, legs apart, arms splayed. Her right arm and leg rested across his body, her head nestled against his shoulder.

       Tell me how you feel, Jane again whispered. She sounded like she was falling asleep.

       Will stared at the whirling ceiling fan and wished for the Good Old Days. But he couldn’t say that phrase aloud. Nor was it permitted to say When Times Were Easier or Back Then. When the Expressive Language Association, the ELA, was instituted by the government four years ago, the ELA’s priority was to end Language Inaccuracies, or, more correctly, to enforce Language Accuracy, which had been determined to lead to Emotion Intelligence. Those phrases and many others had been labeled General Terms, then they were banned.

       Will thought about his feelings for Jane. He wanted back the liberties from the days when they first met…

       You’re So Wonderful, Will had said to Jane.

       Jane smiled. You Make So Me Happy, she replied.

       Now Will smiled.

       Or they each used similar words or phrases that satiated each other’s feelings. Will, though, wanted to say that he Loved Jane, but that word had been forbade.

“When emotions calmed, the ELA, with haste, enacted Word and Term Changes to books and songs and such for fear of new uprisings.”

During the first year of the ELA’s establishment, Free Speech Advocates protested against Language Accuracy. The ELA felt flabbergasted by these objections. They had believed that the Expression Ignorant Society needed much help. So the ELA created sentence starters: How Do You Feel About . . . What Did You Think of . . . I feel that . . .  I thought that.

       They plastered these phrases onto billboards and acted them out in commercials. After a few years Free Speech Advocates lost members as they were exiled for Word or Term Over Usage, chanting one too many times: Let Us Speak and using wordsmiths – Milton, Donne, and Shakespeare (all banned) – for posters and flags.

       When emotions calmed, the ELA, with haste, enacted Word and Term Changes to books and songs and such for fear of new uprisings. Microphones were installed throughout the country. A green light shone, displaying a warning, after someone spoke a word or phrase that had been Listed for Possible Removal (Beautiful, Like, How You Doing, Outside The Box) and an ear-piercing buzz sounded, leading to exile, when someone misspoke, using a banned word or phrase.

       The ELA had banned Love with immediacy. The ELA’s labelings happened during the time of Careless Speech. Will and Jane during that time had attended verbose parties and effusive dinners. People had chattered nonstop and without regard. Will remembered entering music-filled rooms, crowded with stylish dress and primped hair and bright lights.

       How Are You Doing? Will often said as he shuffled by friends, acquaintances, strangers.

       Cool, someone replied.

       Then Will said to a group, It Is What It Is.

       Everything Happens For A Reason, A friend replied, laughing.

       At The End Of The Day, Will later said to an acquaintance.

       Believe You Me, some stranger offered in return at the end of the night.

       Phrases all now outlawed.

       Also, during the time of Careless Speech, words similar to Get and Literally and nonwords such as Irregardless and Conversate were spouted without thought. So the ELA met, ending those Generalities and Nonwords. They too purged society of words used wrong: Terrific and Ultimately, and gross sounding words: Squirt, Chunk, and Discharge. They freed society of confusing words: effect and affect; and their, they’re, there. All exclusions were meant to help create a Clarified Society.

       Will really wanted to say the word Love because he does have strong emotions for Jane. The ELA had explained, Citizens without restraint used Love to describe feelings for someone, for movies, for songs, for activities and even for bananas. Then the ELA had asked, How could someone Love all these things? Will remained quiet, knowing that if he used a banished word or phrase the government would exile him.

       Will continued to watch the fan rotate. He distracted his mind or avoided answering Jane’s question by trying to follow the revolution of one blade. He felt it impossible to track, as he felt it impossible to consider accurate words. Will though was no different than many persons within this new time period.

       Within four years of the institution of Language Accuracy, the ELA identified a change from a Careless Society to a Downfall of Social Interaction. The ELA felt angry, hurt, frustrated. They watched and listened as fewer people met for parties or dinners. When people did gather minutes ticked in silence, or those individuals who refused to learn new words or to concentrate on emotions or who feared the green light and piercing buzz – in fact there were fewer citizens in this new world of exactitude – sat muted, listening to those with a precise vocabulary and identified sentiments speak unabated.

       Soon people stopped asking about feelings. Then friendships ended: no one had anything to say. Then couples separated because one of them was unable to explain his or her feelings. Then married folk divorced as one or both of them told the truth.

       I am bored with your company, a husband said.

       You gained too much weight, a wife replied.

       Jane again said, Tell me how you feel about me. Will believed she had fallen asleep. He had hoped she had fallen asleep. He laid as still as possible. He had taken shallower breaths. Will thought of words and phrases to say: adorable, fabulous, Girl Of My Dreams, Everything I Have Always Wanted. He laid struggling to identify his feelings toward her, just as he had struggled to identify his feelings toward events and bananas.

       Then he said, There are no words to explain how I feel.

       Jane shot upright. Will though closed his eyes then sighed at the sound of the piercing buzz. 

A Moment to Breathe

By Jessica Nicole Knop

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I excuse myself to the bathroom before anyone else can hug me.

           It’s not that I mind the hugs, I just hate all the useless condolences that come with them. Thanks, but I don’t need you to tell me you’re sorry for my loss, or that he was a good man. I’m aware of both. I know everyone is just trying to comfort me, but here’s a newsflash: I don’t feel comforted. I feel angry and frustrated, and I swear to God if one more fucking person tells me that my husband loved me, I will scream. I’m aware that he loved me, you idiot. You’re not being helpful.

           I look around our bathroom, with its fresh coat of mint green paint, and I laugh. You fought me for three months about this goddamn color, but in the end, we compromised. I got the mint green bathroom, you got a beer tap in the new basement.

           I rest back against the vanity, taking in the scope of the renovations: new paint, new shower, new vanity. New renovations for a new life together.

           A tear rolls down my face, its gravity dragging me to the tile floor. Another tear. Then another. Through blurry eyes, I stare at where the floor meets the wall, and I realize something for the very first time:

           You were a shitty painter.

Jessica Nicole Knop is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.