Jocelyn Paige Kelly
THERE'S A KNOCK AT MY DOOR.
It’s eight in the morning, and already I know that my day will be filled with the ongoing ADD of my ever-growing accounting firm, hot flashes of my mid-life crisis, and the spiraling antics of all the people that pretend to work for me. The only thing keeping me sane is Patrice. She’s the glue that keeps these worn old pair of shoes together.
The knock is louder the second time, firm yet inviting. Definitely not my partner Graham, I decide.
My eyes have yet to focus on anything except numbers, but my mind is clear about the aroma of coffee that’s beyond the door. Someone must be after a raise, I realize, and that is when I mumble back, like an afterthought, “Come in,” and I’m hoping my dreary morning nature will be seen as an accountant’s personality.
My accounting manager Patrice opens the door, peeps her head inside with a warm smile. She saunters in, comfort crocs and smelling of menthol, carrying two cups of coffee. A Virgo and fifty-five, Patrice has worked in accounting for over thirty years. It’s all she’s ever known besides child-rearing, and she’s done more than her fair share of that. Her son died young. Car accident at the age of twenty-five, and left three children behind as well as an uncaring bitch of a wife. Patrice is raising her grandchildren in a time when she should be squirreling away her retirement. I take selfish comfort in the fact that Patrice will never retire. The business would crumble without her.
“Genie,” Patrice says as she tries to hand me Contessa’s file. Unlike everyone else, Patrice calls me “Genie.” I’ve never been sure why. Maybe it is the irony of it all. We are each other’s godsend. Genie in a bottle. Everyone else calls me Genny, short for Geneveive.
She puts down the coffee cup, mine shaped like the Frankenstein, her the bride of Frankenstein. Like a monster, I grunt. It is Halloween afterall.
Normally, I’m fully awake, but here I am hunched over my desk crunching numbers in the dark. I’m the boss, and yet I still hide here in the back office, secluded, away from the rest of everyone, and more importantly away from the sun. I hate the sun. Living in Las Vegas, this is a bad thing.
I smile as she admires the outdated picture of my son Eric in his awkward tween phase sitting on my desk. “You never knock,” I say.
“Nothing wrong with being polite,” she says, and it makes me suspicious— the coffee and the knocking. She caresses the frame with her fingertip, and asks, “You ever going to put a more recent photo in here. Your boy’s going to be in college next year.”
“I’ll get around to it. Someday,” I tell her. She gives me her disdainful tick, and puts the frame back on my desk upside down. Her subtle way of giving me a hint.
“Someday will eventually become today, Genie,” she says, a creeping tone entering her voice.
“Christmas is around the corner. I guess you’re thinking about your bonus.”
Patrice gives me a dirty look and says, “Maybe I just wanted to scare you.” Her voice is calm, calculated as if she’s holding back telling me something. “Speaking of which, Contessa will be here soon.” As if she needed to remind me, why else would I be here so early?
She leaves the door to my office open even though she knows I like it closed. As I get up to close it I notice our system admin and our office admin butting heads over what’s been going on with our new server. It wouldn’t be so ridiculous if she weren’t dressed as Xena and him as Sherlock Holmes. They’re both Scorpios, and I’ve decided to hire all Virgos from now on. It is an unprecedented decision that has my partner Graham tied in knots. I tell him that Virgos are neat and organized. Patrice agrees with me. Besides, it’ll save money when September comes around and we buy one large birthday cake for the office. Happy Birthday Everyone!
I sit down and look over Contessa’s file again.
Contessa is not our favorite client. We believe, even though Patrice and I don’t have enough sound evidence, that she may have poisoned her husband. This worries us because Contessa has been married three times and all her husbands have died, all from bizarre illnesses, all long and painful deaths. There is also a creepiness about her that Patrice and I cannot explain. It’s like she has a familiarity with death that neither of us has experienced. Patrice and I have never been through the experience of watching someone die before our eyes. We both agree that neither of us would have the strength to get through a terminal illness of a loved one, so we’ve both assumed by the look of her accounts that Contessa must not have cared for her husbands. It seems that before they die, her spending triples, and there are multiple cash withdrawals as if she’s spending money on something she doesn’t want tracked.
I can’t face Contessa fully awake. Not with a hangover. She might suspect what I know, what I fear about her.
When Contessa enters, she is like a spot of infinite darkness. Her dress is like the abyss. The fabric drapes off of her body in spirals. It is October, that time of year in Las Vegas between summer and winter when the chill factor sets in. Yet there is a genuine warmness about the fabric like it’s a cocoon.
I’m not prepared for her male companion. He comes behind her, a small man with bug eyes. He sits beside her, holding her hand. She grips it with intensity, engulfing his hand. Her hands are large, with fierce, extremely long nails that curl at the tips. The man’s hands are dainty.
“Morning Genny, my dear,”
I mumble hello, pouring sugar from packets I found last week from the bottom of my drawer into my coffee. Does sugar expire? I asked Patrice that when she saw me find it. Hauntingly she said, Everything that’s good expires.
“Coffee?” I offer, trying to be a suitable host.
I stare out the view of my office window, look down below at the cars pulling into the parking lot. I see the road, the traffic that stretches out all the way down Eastern Avenue, people hurrying to anyone of the large strip malls all along the corridor. The air is still, quiet. Not a cloud in the sky.
The man clears his throat and I look at Contessa noticing the dark circles around her eyes. Contessa shakes her head. The man doesn’t answer, but refuses eye contact with me now as if I’ve offered him poison.
“What can you tell me about the state of affairs?”
Contessa is so formal. Her use of language is much more eloquent than that my usual clients, but not that any of my clients are usual in any sense of the world. Here in Vegas, anything is possible. Every schmo needs an accountant especially those who want to buy a house, and everyone files taxes especially those who dally in organized crimes.
As I consider what to say, what I think Contessa wants to hear, it’s hard for me to look in the small man’s bug eyes. I can’t help but wonder if he’s next on Death’s list. Does he know it yet? Has it been predicted for him or will it come up and bite him when he least expects it? And will Contessa have already begun planning for the funeral?
“Everything balances,” I say. And it does, but there is an illogic to the numbers. Something only a true accountant could find, yet I’m still not sure what story the numbers tell me. All I know is that they leave me unsettled.
She looks at me with a tilt, and waits for me as if she can see right through me.
“We’re behind on the monthly statement because the firm has been working on the preparation for tax season,” I confess, half-heartedly. I know from past experience that Contessa appreciates this. She’s told me that she believes in the practice of preparation, especially when you know what’s about to come. She’s told me before she starts planning the funeral when she knows death is inevitable.
“You see,” Contessa begins, the bug eyed man reaching out to her, his hand on top of hers, and her grip onto him as tight as can be, and then our eyes meet. “Genny, it’s my turn.” The tone as much as the words take me back. My turn? Is it her turn to die? Contessa throws her head back and nods, staring at me, into my bloodshot eyes as if she always knew the horror I expected from her. She takes a deep breathe, like it might be her last one, and sighs loudly. “Do you see?” she asks, but I’m not fully awake yet. I have yet to focus on anything. Not really.
“I don’t see anything but numbers usually,” I tell her, hoping that puts her mind to rest. She gets up in silence, the bug eyed man stares at me.
“Contessa has told me a lot about you. We’re going to do lots of business together especially after she’s gone.”
Now the bug eyed man has creeped me out, and I hold my breath until the door shuts behind him.
They leave, and I regain the ability to breathe. I sit and stare into my coffee cup as if it were bottomless. Before I know it, Graham knocks at my door, opens and peeps around as if he doesn’t want to come inside.
“Are the financials done yet?” Graham asks.
Graham is like the cracker, stiff and crumbly.
I get up to walk, stretch my legs. Graham follows me down the hall, and I can hear his uncertainty in the waddle behind me, the squeak of the shoes. We’re watched as we walk by from the league of lesser known employees gathering at the water cooler, who have now hushed, our presence interrupting their busying reinterpretation of the latest news events. He waits with bated breathe, fidgeting with his tie, loosen and tightening, never getting the feeling right around the neck, and I grab the door to the bathroom and walk inside hoping the door closes behind me.
It doesn’t. Graham pushes open the door to the women’s bathroom and follows me inside. I slam the stall door close, lock it fast, angry. We are the only two people in the women’s bathroom, ultimate privacy, yet the last thing either of us does is speak.
Graham is waiting for me to say something while listening to me pee, and I am just glad I don’t need to take a number two.
“She came in today with a new mate,” I say, then flush.
Graham’s reaction is muffled by the sound of our failing toilet. I unlock and have to move him aside to wash my hands. Clueless.
I spot him tensing the muscles in his jaws while I fix my bangs. They are in that stage of not quite long enough, not quite short enough.
“Really?” he feigns.
I push beside him and head back to my office through the same scene of the crime before only now I notice the lesser known employees wearing costumes. All zombies. Ah, yes, it’s Halloween.
I turn to Graham. “Where’s your costume?” I ask, throwing him off guard. We’ve stopped at the employee breakroom, a dozen day old donuts are picked upon at the large rectangular table facing the wall.
Graham picks at the crumbs like a hen feeding on a farm. He hesitates to answer, grabs a donut and considers taking a bite, stale and dry, and then he clomps down, begins with a mouthful, “Did you know that today is Nevada Day? My kid has the day off from school. He’s at home doing nothing.”
Just then the Grim Reaper lurks past. Graham pauses, and I can see the hamster in his head trying to spin his wheels. “I brought Eric to work with me today,” I say. Graham nods.
“What are we going to do?” he asks. We are talking about Contessa again, and we are talking about her in front of half of our staff.
I say what I know will surprise him. “Nothing. We do absolutely nothing.”
I’m not an evil person. By saying nothing of what I suspect, I am doing nothing wrong. Intuition isn’t fact. Hutches may help detective solve crimes, but they don’t help me pay the bills. I base everything on facts. Numbers. For every purchase, there is an expense. Everything balances, and everything that doesn’t gets written off. Things that get written off aren’t worth dwelling on, and people who are dying aren’t worth the investment. Death has no payoff.
If there is one thing about suspicion that I’ve learned by being an accountant, it’s that you must have hard evidence to prove your case. Having been audited by the IRS on occasion, I’ve experienced this for myself.
“Yes.” There’s a silence in the room, and my suspicion tells me that everyone wants to know what we’re really talking about.
But I can see Graham’s eyes. He’s running the numbers through his mind. I know how he works. When I think of Contessa, I think of the numbers too. She is our biggest client. She brings in good business. I don’t tell him what she told me. I don’t tell him because if he knew our biggest client was about to file a claim in Death’s department he’d lose interest in the business entirely, and everything would fall apart at the seams.
Telling him serves no purpose. I have too much to lose and nothing to gain.
We leave the mess in the breakroom and I shoot past my office grabbing a pile of paperwork from Patrice as we pass in the hall. Graham is still following, still squeaking. “Are those the financials?” he asks again as I open the door to his office.
Graham and I make a good team in the way that Oscar and Felix make good roommates. His desk looks like the Hacienda after it was unsuccessfully imploded, covered with fallen rubble, with stacks of papers that seem to be about to tumble, but don’t quite do it. Everyday he trudges in, barely saying hello, and I swear even though I have no proof that he sits at his desk, shuffling papers, looking into a vast nothingness, I know without a doubt that this is what Graham does. He makes himself appear to be working, but he can’t force himself to actually stare down at the numbers on paper and make sense of them. He is simply going through the motions.
He has become a paperweight, and I have become the paper.
I put the pile on his desks and give him a salute leaving him to enjoy the rest of his baked goods.
I get a glimpse of Patrice and a new girl whose name I have yet to memorize. She’s just another zombie right now. Our office grows every day in more than just the physical paper sense. New clients, new employees, new stacks of things to be filed that we simply don’t have enough space for. We are hiring a bookkeeping and payroll staff, expanding the business. We are going where few accountants do. We are expanding in the areas where there is the most demand, work that most accountants frown upon. Grunt work. But, we will not be doing the grunting ourselves. I will save that work for the minions we hire. Except for paper shedding and miscellaneous filing and copying that no one wants to do. I have left that job for the only person in the world that I trust outside of myself: my son, the Grim Reaper.
I turn to see Graham sneaking out of his office, tiptoeing into the break room again. Those stale donuts must be good.
I have yet to tell Graham or Patrice that I have also decided for reverse ageism. I plan to only hire people over the age of fifty. There is a reason for this. There is statistical data that helped me reach this decision. Vegas is so fluid, so transient, that the only people who stay here are the ones who come here to live out the rest of their lives. To die, basically.
Besides, it was my son’s idea. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Lisa rushes in dressed as Scarlett O’Hara, green drapes and all. She hurries past Graham like a tornado, and he stares at me like the office is about to burn down.
Patrice walks up to me like a woman on a mission from God. She hands me three papers to look over and sign.
“I’m going to fire that bitch tomorrow,” says Patrice.
“Great. Maybe I should put you in charge of the hiring and firing.”
Patrice hands me checks to sign. “I put an ad in the paper already, called a temp agency. We should have someone by the end of the week.”
“You’re really on the ball today.”
“We just can’t afford to have people like that right now,” she says, a quiver in her voice.
I shrug it off, it’s Halloween. I open the door to my office to find the Grim Reaper sitting at my desk, scythe and all. “Okay, son. You’ve succeeded at rising my blood pressure, now boot!” I say, pretending to be a pirate.
He rises and walks out without a word. Yes, that’s my son. He knows how to keep his cool, but Patrice stops cold the moment she sees him as if she doesn’t know who he is. She shakes it off like a bad dream or DT’s, and I begin to wonder what’s going on with Patrice. She’s not been herself today.
“You okay?” I ask.
Her nostrils flare as she hands me Contessa’s file. “When are we going to give her the ax?” she asks. And, of course, we’re speaking about Lisa as well as Contessa.
“Define ‘soon’ in accounting terms. By years’ end?” she asks, her voice firm and unfriendly. I get wind of her breath, and it takes me back. It wakes me, my eyes pop open. She smells like all her teeth are rotting.
“Years’ end,” I say. Definitely by Christmas.
“I may be gone by then,” she confesses, and breaks eye contact with me, her hand beginning to shake.
“You’re leaving me? You can’t leave me,” I joke because I think she’s joking, but then she goes silent, and gives me a look, a peculiar lowering of the eyes as if they were trembling. Patrice has never given me this look, this look that also tells me that she knows that I’m trying to hand her Contessa’s file, and I can’t understand why she hesitates to take it.
“It’s cancer,” she says, and we stare at each other. I think about all the conversations we’ve had about Contessa, and I can see all the numbers that don’t add up. I’m trying to process this, thinking of ways to bargain with Patrice about her illness, and all I can think about is trying to make sense of the spending, the expensive vacations and gifts, things you’d never buy anyone, antique toys even, and then I begin to notice an emotional thread in all of them, how each husband, Contessa had once confessed, had lived their life without having really enjoyed what they had around them. They had lived their lives carefully, with restraint in expenditures so all the cash withdrawals, the vacations, the gifts, the impulses they had never indulged, Contessa had encouraged them to indulge. It hits me, and I can’t force Patrice into taking Contessa’s file, and I know I can’t convince her of what I know suspect. I hold on to the file and go to my desk, Patrice closes the door behind her and sits down across from me.
My body sinks into the comfort of my chair. I can’t remember the last time I actually sat back in my own chair. I am always leaned over, plugging numbers into computers, hunched over statements, trying to balance everything to the last dime.
I am having an emotional response, one that I’m trying to reconcile in my head with numbers. There are things I have written off, holiday shopping, missed birthdays, sending Christmas cards, attending school plays. I think of money trails, how people have no idea how much they reveal in their spending patterns.
And this emotional response comes to me in flashes while I’m holding Contessa’s file, the file that Patrice doesn’t want, and suddenly the illogic of her numbers make sense to me as if emotions are reasonable. Desperation, compassion, bargaining, letting go. It all computes. Contessa’s only crime was that she cared too much and too often.
“I feel as if I’ve been through a field audit,” I tell her and she laughs, nodding in agreement. “Me, too,” she whispers, grabbing my hand. I hold onto it and I don’t want to let her go.
Nothing more is said about Patrice’s leaving. I cannot bring myself to say the real words. I think of it like a client’s 1040 that I am reluctant to file away. There will always be new clients, new returns to file. The inbox will always have more stuff piled into it. I will always have a feeling of being constantly overwhelmed, and somehow still love what I do even though I am on the verge of burning out. And in the midst of all that I cannot bring myself to think that my time with Patrice is now limited. She will not be here during tax season. She will be gone before the yearly statements.
I tell Patrice to go home. Spend time with her family. It’s the only time I don’t have to convince her to go. Patrice leaves the office before finishing the monthly statements. The day passes. My son comes in dressed like the grim reaper, with a black robe and scythe. He stands at the door to my office. Everyone else has left, and he is the only one I know with a key who’d come in to see me this late at night. Tonight is Halloween.
My son groans as he stops at my door.
“You’re not scaring me,” I say to him. I don’t even bother lifting my head up from my reconciling sheets. I just shot a glance. I don’t want him to see that I’ve been crying.
He spends the next thirty seconds in silence staring at me, waiting. “Ok, you’ve officially creeped me out, kid,” I say to get him to stop. He pushes back his hood and smiles at me, which is hard to imagine because he’s painted his face black and he’s blacked out his teeth.
“There’s only two sure things in life,” he begins.
“Yeah, yeah, death and taxes. You’ve got the sense of humor of an accountant.”
“I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree then.”
“I don’t have any treats for you today, son.”
“Why’d you have to go and tell me that? Now, I’m going to have to egg your office, Mom.”
He gives an aggravated sigh as if the sun and the moon have conspired against him. My son is only seventeen. Scholastically, he’s got the mind of a grad student. Unfortunately for me, he’s got the motivation of grad student who just moved back into his parents house and spends his entire day playing World of Warcraft.
“There are these things called jobs. Maybe you should get one.”
“I have one.”
“Then get to work.”
“Don’t you think it’s too early in my life to become a wage slave?”
“Never too early. Besides, you like money.”
“Yes, but there’s this thing that you have to do when you have a job that I’m not particularly fond of.”
“No one likes to work, son.”
My son is smart. Perceptive. I love my job. I love what I do. It’s tedious, mundane, and it gives me a strange satisfaction; a sense of closure. There is an end and a beginning even if it’s about to start all over again the next day. Life is full of too many middles.
“You know I love you, right?” I ask. He responds with silence, standing there holding his scythe. I put down my pencil, sit back in my chair, and look at him through the abyss of his hood. His face is covered in black makeup, but I can see his eyes. His scared, seventeen year-old eyes. He is so young, and I cannot believe he has gotten so old. Time has passed by so quickly.
I decide to change the subject. “Do you like nature, son?”
“Please don’t tell me you want me to start mowing the lawn. You know how terrible I am with that.”
I can tell Eric is smiling, holding back the laughter. Somehow Eric could mow an entire lawn and miss great chunks of grass.
“Remember when you used to cut your own hair.” When he was five, he’d gotten a hold of scissors and decided to give himself a haircut. The only thing to do was to start over again. Shave the head.
He groans. “Yeah, yeah. Is this Humiliate Your Child At Work Day?”
“What? No one’s around. Just us.”
“I let her go early today. It’s Halloween.”
His eyes grow big, and then they narrow.
“That is unusually nice of you.”
“Thanks of thinking so highly of me, Eric.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he says, and pulls back his hood. “Is everything okay, Mom?” he asks.
My son knows me. We speak a language that no one else speaks. A language beyond words or numbers or gestures. I cannot tell him no, but I can’t lie to him either. I say nothing instead and look at him with eyes of a woman who he must know is moments away from crying.
“I say we blow this popsicle stand and get some dinner,” he says. “Your treat, of course. I am the kid, this is Halloween, and you owe me a treat.”
“How can I resist an offer like that?”
We leave the office, and the papers remain right where they are. Nothing has been filed. Nothing has been completed. I have left my office without finishing to a point of exhaustion, and I am okay with shutting the door behind me and leaving it behind because I know that it will be there for me tomorrow and the next day after. There are many things I have left unaccounted for, and reconciling with that is something that I’ll have to appreciate over the months that follow.