Spring 2022, Volume 32

Fiction by Michael Loyd Gray

The Man with the Golden Helmet

Garrett insisted on arriving early at the Holiday Inn to set up the slide projector and arrange brochures in the Renaissance Room.

Fresh pots of coffee would be waiting, cups neatly arranged on a long table, which was always covered with a rich burgundy tablecloth. When someone from the hotel staff would peek into the room, Garrett would offer his hand and practice his smile. There would be a minute of small talk about the weather. Garrett used this time to gauge the correct modulation for his voice and to check the grip of his handshake.

His grip always had to be firm, but not overpowering, and definitely not limp. Never limp. The hands had to melt warmly into each other like butter on toast. That was important because one of Garrett’s prized techniques was to capture the prospect’s hand and imprison it in that warm buttery grasp for a long moment as he seduced with his baritone voice.

He called it reaching the pocketbook through the soul.

Only when he was alone again, and had loaded slides into the projector, would Garrett pour himself a cup of coffee and allow himself to relax slightly. He would savor the first few sips and gaze around the Renaissance Room and its fake Rembrandts, though he didn’t know they were Rembrandts at all. He would note the room’s billowing velvet curtains with golden sashes. Inevitably, Garrett would spot a row of chairs out of strict alignment and would scurry over to correct the offenders. Satisfied, he would go back to the presentation table and arrange the brochures for Pleasant Hills, a retirement community in northern Arkansas.

Garrett had been to Pleasant Hills only once, as the proud winner of total sales for a fiscal quarter, which automatically earned him the visit. He saw that there were indeed hills at Pleasant Hills, but no pheasants. A lazy river meandered calmly through the community, which was quiet orderly and clean. It was all there in the slides and brochures: the clubhouse, pool, tennis courts, and there were always a few “oohs” and “aahhs” in the darkened room when Garrett presented the slide show as though he was emcee of a popular television show, like The Price is Right.

He placed some of the brochures flat on the table. Others he erected on end, their pages open to reveal brilliant aerial photos of Pleasant Hills. As with his handshake and voice, the brochures were tools of the trade. Props. They would be the first impression of Pleasant Hills when Garrett greeted a prospect. The brochures had to be just so. The pattern of their presentation had to be correct. Garrett likened it all to advertising and rather fancied himself accomplished at arranging brochures – perhaps even gifted – at making Pleasant Hills seem like a glowing dream to people in dreary jobs. Once, Garrett took a trainee with him and the young man re-arranged the brochures while Garrett greeted a prospect. Garrett had been horrified. Stunned. It threw off his entire routine and he didn’t sell a thing that night and he fell short of being total sales winner for the next fiscal quarter. The trainee was terminated some weeks later with the excuse that he wasn’t sales material.

On this night, Garrett checked everything twice: the tablecloths for wrinkles and stains, the angles of the brochures, the rows of chairs – the knot of his red “power” tie. All was in order. Without that order, the sales process could not begin. It was that simple. Then, he gave it the supreme test: he left the Renaissance Room for the hallway and counted to sixty, concentrating on the numbers and allowing his mental snapshot of the room to fade. He sucked in a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and briskly strode back into the room, his eyes bring in on every detail, sweeping the scene from left to right. Satisfied, he allowed himself a thin smile. Those had to be rationed. They were rewards, like chocolate kisses.

Garrett smoothed his gray rousers and made sure his ivory button-down Oxford shirt was securely tucked in. He pulled a small brush from his navy blazer and ran the brush lovingly across glossy wingtips. They gleamed and he smiled again. Another tiny reward. He automatically reminded himself not to build up too much debt to himself. He checked his watch: he had twenty minutes. As was his custom, he slipped out a side door of the Renaissance Room for a cigarette, a mint ready in his pocket, and as he smoked, he stared absently at the cornfields surrounding Bloomington, Illinois.

During the drive from Peoria to Bloomington, Garrett recalled the old days. There was a time when the company paid for his meals, and often he took along not only a trainee, but one of the other associates, too. Garrett always ordered a huge ribeye steak and baked potato with both sour cream and butter and washed it down with decent California wine. In the old days, there were plenty of prospects – “sheep to be sheared.”  There was money to be made back then. Scads of it, it seemed. All the associates drove new Lincolns and Buicks and bought Brooks Brothers suits. One of the associates, an older gentleman who had flown fighters in the Pacific during the war, likened sales to the Mariannas Turkey Shoot. On this night, Garrett's dinner was two 

In the old days, Garrett had been a good tipper at dinners held in the Holiday Inn’s Copper Kettle Room. Waitresses enjoyed his easygoing banter. He told colorful stories about serving in Korea, though it was never quite clear whether he had actually seen action. He was a youngish fifty the, his stomach still trim, and though his hair was flecked with gray, he had a healthy mane that made him look closer to forty. He often fibbed, when trying to score with a new waitress who didn’t know he was a regular, that he was the president of Pleasant Hills and often threw dinners for underlings. But the old days had ended a few years ago. No more turkey shoots. Since then, there were fewer prospects and Garrett had burned through the savings he’d banked from the turkey shoot days. Pleasant Hills stopped paying for his meals. He was merely paycheck to paycheck now, almost all of it in advances piling up. He had never married and for that, at least, he was thankful given the increasingly lean times.

Garrett glanced at his watch: the first prospect should arrive at the Renaissance Room at any minute. He reminded himself that he had not sold anything in two months. It was an awful dry spell, the longest he’d ever endured. No one at the Peoria office had said anything about it – yet. Theirs was an up and down business, but nobody could quite remember what up looked like anymore. Everything was oblique. Gentle hints, pats on the back punctuated with advice, and perhaps even veiled threats tucked smartly inside edgy jokes. The office manager, Porter, seemed cheerful enough when handing him an advance, though Porter no longer invited Garrett for a Sunday round of golf after church. And the office secretary, Grace, who slept with Garrett if she drank too much at happy hour on some Fridays, let it slip that the regional director of sales was making an unscheduled visit from Arkansas. When Garrett thought about that, his stomach got queasy, and he popped a Rolaids.

The first prospect didn’t show. That was happening too often. Prospects were scheduled by women in a phone room of the Peoria office. Garrett called them the Boiler Room Gals. The gals ranked prospects. A gold star was the highest ranking. It meant someone was very interested in buying property. A white star was the lowest ranking. They were prospects who might be interested but were noncommittal. Garrett often called them stowaways just looking to kill time at a presentation in hopes of something free.

All six prospects for the night were white stars. Garrett shook his head. Six white stars. Hardly worth the trip from Peoria. He could remember nights with thirty or forty prospects in the room and many of them gold stars. Truly a turkey shoot. Back then, Garrett wouldn’t even talk to white stars. He palmed them off on trainees. He’d say, “Here, rook – here’s a stowaway. Try your luck. If you can convert a white star, maybe you have a future in sales.”


It was called a whiteout.

That was when none of the prospects showed up. It was sort of mythical, really, and very few of the men Garrett worked with had ever seen a whiteout. It would have seemed unthinkable in the old turkey shoot days. He absently wondered if a whiteout was the sales equivalent of a baseball shutout. Not really, he decided. A shutout was rare, too, but a good thing in baseball. Something to shoot for. In Garrett’s business, it was deadly.

It was failure.

Sitting alone in the cavernous Renaissance Room, he glanced at the nearest fake Rembrandt, The Man with a Golden Helmet, though he didn’t know that was the title, nor that it was one of seven fake Rembrandts that festooned the walls. The helmeted man in the painting struck Garrett as having seen hard times, too. Garrett dejectedly sipped his third cup of coffee as it sunk in he was one client away from a whiteout. One more batter, in baseball. There was just one white star left on the books for the night and she was late.

He looked again at her name: Margarita Holcomb. The boiler room profile said she was widowed, but very friendly. Money? Could be. Maybe her old man had left her something. Garrett had sold a few rich widows in his time, and nailed a couple, too. One took him to Vegas for a weekend and he won $7,000 at the slots and revived his habit of telling people he was president of Pleasant Hills. He had been very excited when he won and tipped a waitress $100. Later he realized his winnings were mere chump change to the widow, who eventually made him feel like an oily gigolo from Mexico. Still, it had been pretty good money and like a series of property deals all in one.

Garrett poured himself a fourth cup of coffee and waited for Margarita Holcomb. Just the thought of a whiteout was chilling, so he was prepared to give her more time before he was forced to call it quits for the night. Absently, he wondered if her first name meant she was Mexican who’d married American.


The Holiday Inn front desk transferred a call to Garrett in the Renaissance Room. When the red phone on the wall rang, Garrett winced, and his pulse spiked. He nearly spilled his coffee. He had never heard that phone ring. It was startling. It rang for what seemed a very long time before he even got up. But he sensed it really was for him and walking over to it, felt like slow motion, his feet heavy.

The Pleasant Hills regional sales manager was on the phone, a man Garrett had never met but whose name he knew very well.

“Is this Garrett?” the man said with a jovial southern accent. The voice was deep but smooth and in control.

After a pause that he regretted, Garrett muttered, "Yes, I’m Garrett.”

“Well, Garrett,” the man said, I suppose the reason it took you so long to answer the phone is because you're hard at selling Pleasant Hills, amigo. Am I right, Garrett?”

Garrett looked around the empty room, the chairs still in perfectly aligned rows. The Man in a Golden Helmet now seemed to be smirking at him.

“I’m expecting a prospect,” Garrett said. “In fact – any second now.”

He stuck his head out the door to see if anyone was coming down the hallway. He decided not to mention the whiteout possibility. It wasn’t official yet. Sort of like waiting to see what the last batter will do.

“Excellent, Garret,” the man said. “That’s outstanding. How’s it gone so far tonight?”

The man’s voice now had a subtle yet detectable edge to it. Garrett suddenly wondered about Porter, the office manager. Where was he? It was protocol for an office manager to deal with the sales team. Garrett sensed danger. It was ability similar to how he could sense when a prospect was about to sign a contract.

Nervously, Garrett said, “It’s going well, sir. I have a feeling about the next prospect.”

“A feeling, Garrett? Well, bless you, old son. Is that the wily salesman in you, Garrett—feeling it?”

“It is – sir. In fact, I’m calling it a sale.”

Garrett cringed immediately. It was lame. It went against all he knew about sales. Calling a white star a sale? What the fuck was wrong with him? Did he think he was Babe Fuckin Ruth calling out which field he was sending his next homer?

Calling it, are you, Garrett? That’s outstanding.”

“Thanks-you, sir,” Garrett said before he realized he was being mocked. He felt overwhelmed. Where in Good Christ was Porter? He really needed his connection to Porter to somehow still be intact. There was a long pause on the line. Garrett wanted to just hang up but couldn’t make himself do it. Garrett could hear the man issuing instructions to someone. When he came back on the line, there was more edge in his voice.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, old boy,” he said. “Porter’s gone, Garrett.”

“Gone?” Garrett’s palms were sweaty, and the phone slipped a little in his hand.

“That’s correct, Garrett. We had to let Mr. Porter go.”

“Oh, I see,” Garret said weakly.” He needed to pee. Too much coffee.

“Things just haven’t been up to snuff in the Peoria branch for quite some time, Garrett. We’re making changes.”

“Oh,” Garrett said. “I see.”

“Well, Garrett, I hope you do. I really do.” His voice was now almost tender, but still firm and in control. “It’s all for the best, old boy. You’re an old hand at this business, right, Garrett?”

“I’ve been at it a long time, yes.” He calculated the years while he loosened his tie. He’d begun to feel strangled.

“Then you understand, old boy,” the man said. "You know the business, our business. By the way, Garrett, there’s no need for you to take the slide projector home with you tonight, like you usually would. Just come by the office when you get back tonight. I’m afraid we’ll be here quite late getting things squared away.”

Garrett didn’t say anything. He thought fleetingly of poor old Porter.

“Do you understand me, Garrett?”

“Yes,” Garrett said flatly after a pause. “I do.”

The man hung up, leaving Garrett holding the phone to his ear as though he expected Porter to come on finally and admit they were all just pulling his leg. A joke to motivate him. But it was no joke and he hung up and sagged against the wall. A few minutes later, he went outside and lit a cigarette. His mind was now remarkably clear. Garrett pondered his years in the business. What did they add up to? Not very much, really. Money gained, money lost. And then he shivered. A tear raced down his cheek. He wiped it away and considered just walking away without looking back. Just leave the projector and brochures and walk out of the Holiday Inn. He stared for a while at corn swaying gently in a breeze and finished his cigarette, deciding that walking away just wasn’t in him.

When he went back in the Renaissance Room, there was an attractive blond of perhaps forty-five sitting in a chair. Margarita Holcomb? Her purse was balanced protectively across her lap and her legs were tightly crossed, but he could tell she had a nice figure. She studied a brochure intently, as though paradise might have just been revealed to her for the first time. That was a good sign, even for a white star. It was something he could work with. He watched her for a moment and sighed as she slowly turned the brochure’s pages. Then he buttoned his blazer and cinched his tie into something resembling a knot. As he plunged toward her, he felt relieved that at least he wouldn’t have a whiteout on his record. 




BIO: Michael Loyd Gray is the author of six published novels. His novel The Armageddon Two-Step, winner of a Book Excellence Award, was released in December 2019. His novel Well Deserved won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize and his novel Not Famous Anymore garnered a support grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2009. His novel Exile on Kalamazoo Street was released in 2013 and he co-authored the stage version. His novel The Canary, which reveals the final days of Amelia Earhart, was released in 2011. King Biscuit, his Young Adult novel, was released in 2012. He won the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction. He was full-time lead faculty for creative writing and American/British literature at Aiken Technical College (South Carolina). His book of creative non-fiction, Sort of Still Original in Unoriginal Times, was published in 2016. For ten years, he was a staff writer for newspapers in Arizona and Illinois.