Winner, 2005 Blodgett Waxwing Prize in Literary Fiction

from Summer 2005 [Issue No. 7]



Halcyon (Part 1 of 18) ▪► J. Todd Gillette

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J. Todd Gillette

Photo by John A. Gillette



No longer, maiden voices sweet calling, sounds of allurement,

Can my limbs bear me up.  O, I wish, I wish I could be a seabird

Who with Halcyons skims the surf-flowers of the sea water

With careless heart, a sea-blue-colored and sacred waterfowl.


--Alcmen of Sparta



 He’d promised Nick Brademas he would talk to Gerald by Friday; now it was not only Friday but the following Friday; Nick would be asking about it. There had been a meeting with Nick and Gerald's supervisor, Ron D'Amato, two weeks ago Tuesday, and D'Amato had sent over the report on Gerald, but he, Arthur File, had yet to look at it. He’d put off calling Gerald each day until at last he was coyly eying the phone Friday evening, knowing it would do to call Saturday instead.

Gerald, whose last name was Milkowski, had a medical condition. Arthur File had some difficulty separating in his mind the medical term from the name of Gerald's Greek doctor, but it was something chronic, a species of bowel disorder that, justifiably or not, had given Gerald cause to miss most of the last two quarters of work. Five months on, they still could not pin Gerald down as to his work prognosis, nor on his inclinations concerning disability leave. He had become reticent and evasive early on, with the result that communications begun in an atmosphere of genial concern, amid the metronomic ticking-off of sick days and personal days and vacation days, had darkened and slid, at first slowly, into the chugging back-room copier-locomotion of an end-game. Yet, beyond the growth of Gerald’s personnel file, there had been little discernible change. Arthur File was to negotiate a resolution of the matter. They had come up with a severance proposal they thought Gerald would accept, and File was to deliver it. In essence, to fire him.

"I'm only asking because you and Gerald seem to have a rapport," Nick had said over lunch. "But if you're uncomfortable with it I can talk to him myself.”

 File looked up at him uncomfortably.

 “Let me ask you this, though, Art: If it were entirely up to you, as in a way it is, what would you do?”

File struck a thoughtful pose and adjusted his eyeglasses. "Act decisively, I guess," he said, and with a nonchalant shrug returned his attention to his lunch, hoping fervently, a little desperately, not to have to elaborate.

"It's an odd situation," Nick said.

"It is."

"He's an odd one. It's difficult," Nick said, pensive; he looked over at Ron D'Amato, who sat across the table from File with his chin in his hand, his creamed expression registering the conversation's quickened stir.

"Decisive is as decisive does," D'Amato said blandly, his gaze drifting over, then dismissing, File.

This much was true, though: Gerald Milkowski was an odd one. He had fastened onto File in the same inexplicable and annoying manner as the new Vietnamese tenor in the church choir, and File found himself seated next to him at every management meeting, and at the Christmas party Gerald had even whisked Helen out onto the dance floor ("I want him away from me!" she’d panted, grabbing File's jacket and hiding behind him), and he called File virtually every day he was at work, or about twice a month. He was short and circumferentially fat, as if seized and vigorously spun at some critical stage of his development, with narrow shoulders surmounted by a large head that, if really quite big, was perhaps exaggerated by his vanity of sculpting an artfully high, cyma reversa cornice out of his thinning blond hair. He had waxy, closely-arranged features and wore glasses of the sort that darken in sunlight and lighten indoors, but never entirely lose their puddle-tint. Although they made him look older than he was and even unhealthier, the glasses served Gerald by obscuring somewhat his disconcerting habit of blinking rapidly, seemingly on every syllable, whenever he spoke. He had a soft Midwestern drawl and on the phone could conjure in Arthur File’s mind a contemplative, rueful Elvis Presley, or possibly a duck negotiating a vast, hot, parking lot.

They knew little about him, except that he was from somewhere in southern Indiana and had been in the funeral services industry until, for reasons that went shudderingly unexamined in his employment interview, he lost his undertaker’s license. He went quite naturally into banking then, and wandered into Michigan after being relieved of a lending position at a small savings and loan in Marion, Indiana. That, too, had gone unexamined. Dean Howells, for reasons it served no purpose to examine, had taken to him instantly. Dean hired him straight off and put him in charge of the bank’s Adamsville branch. Dean had since been removed from the discussion. He was about to retire anyway.

The Adamsville branch, they learned, had fallen into chaos under Gerald. He didn't appear to know the first thing about supervising a staff. There were rumors of mood swings, speechless pouts lasting weeks, of office doors locked with the lights turned off, then entire days cloistered in the men’s room. They were trying to figure out what to do with him when in the course of idle conversation one Friday evening with the bank’s assistant auditor, Marc Wiley, the idea occurred to Arthur File that Gerald could be transferred to Dowagiac to quell Ron D'Amato's bellyaching for a lender. It would be a humane and practical move, File told Wiley, solving two pressing problems at once. And it was expedient. File obsessed over it that weekend and on Monday urgently drafted and endlessly revised a memo to the bank’s president, Nick Brademas. Brademas liked the idea, primarily on the merit of its expediency, and File took a measure of satisfaction as Ron D'Amato's reluctance was broken down over the course of several Tuesday morning Executive Committee meetings. File's influence, beyond the dreary sphere of accounting, was becoming a thing to reckon with.

It was, from the very outset, a disastrous move. Gerald spooked the Dowagiac staff and managed to offend every customer he came into contact with, and then, sometime around Labor Day, got good and truly sick. Reports of his misdemeanors and absences reflected equally on his champion, Arthur File; and soon the decision to transfer Gerald to Dowagiac had lost not merely the luster of invention, but its last shred of sense, and was broken down, over the course of several Tuesday morning Executive Committee meetings (D’Amato shaking his head and removing his glasses to stroke his aggrieved face), into a cautionary lexicon of failure: Avoidance, Laxity, Indulgence, Expediency. Now that Gerald’s illness had eclipsed all else on his agenda, D'Amato, pressed against his will to accept the arrangement in the first place, looked to File, with a measure of undisguised disgust, for an expedient remedy.

Somewhere in the mess of paperwork atop his desk  here or in Gerald’s distended, rubber-bandoliered personnel file, wherever that was, was the report he needed to review, Ron D’Amato’s meticulous absence log. He had tried to find the file last week; he was sure he'd had it. He did not want to call Personnel, much less D’Amato, to ask after it. He let his hand hover over the several inches of spill at the right edge of his desk-top, his "current" stack, then took the top sheet in his fingers to read:


To:           Arthur File

From:         Linda Snavely

Date:         January 3, 2000

Subject:      Responses due on Audit Reports

After our telephone conversation this morning I thought it best to review our discussion regarding responses that are due on audit reports. Findings/ concerns that are outlined in two audit reports, one dated November 8 concerning the 1999 fiscal year-end financial audit, and another dated December 20 concerning the interim AUP balance sheet audit, have not yet been addressed.

Although it would expedite matters, I can appreciate your not wanting to give your responses over the phone. Since you will be submitting your responses in writing, I have asked that you have these to me by Wednesday, January 9, to which you agreed. In the event that I do not receive your responses by January 9, we will have no other choice, as we discussed, than to issue the final audit reports to management without your comments. This, as you know, is not executive management's preferred alternative.

We are anxious to issue the last of our year-end final reports and move ahead into 2000.

cc: Nick Brademas


He read the whole thing, down to the officious cc: at the bottom, though he knew every parcel of it by heart. It was ten weeks old. It needed to go to a different stack. Debbie would be calling, he knew; she could call anytime. That made it current. He put it back and got up to get coffee.

There were voices in the break room: Daphne Mueller holding forth, and someone else, probably Enola Wisnant, grunting complacently. He stopped at the head of the stairs. There was a long pause, as if his approach had been noted. Then he heard Daphne whispering, vehement, "I don't have fifteen hundred dollars for a new septic, and I'll be damned if I'm going to hook up to village sewer in this Goddamn town! Village sewer. Village water. Village gas next, you wait! Then village garbage!"

"Oh, Daphne," Enola said.

"Well? So the house has to be occupied. Fine, I want it occupied, but I says, 'What about all the empty stores downtown, are you going to condemn them, too?' 'That's different,' she—what's-her-name—Bill Forker's wife—"

"Midge," Enola said.

"'That's different,' Midge says, 'we can't very well condemn every empty building in town. We wouldn't have a town if we did that,' and she laughs."

"Well, she has a point."

Shrill, like steam escaping: "Fuck her!"

"Oh." It was quiet for a moment. "You didn't say that, I hope."

She groaned, or mumbled something File couldn't make out.

"Well, all right ..."

"I should have," Daphne said, her voice full, breaking. "Fuck all of them!"

"All right," Enola said. "Now shush."

File rolled away from the doorway and bumped into the fire extinguisher. He grabbed it in both hands, then tentatively released it and leaned back toward the doorway.

"Ooo—" Daphne squeaked, "I got a new camera!" Her girlish tone, after the first exchange, was jarring. "A Polaroid. At Wal-Mart!"

File squinted, unable to be sure it was still her. She was, everyone agreed, completely out of her mind.

"Did you get film?"

File walked quickly back to his office.

At least this day would be more predictable than most.



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