Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Long Post: Ten Gold Stars If You Read Half, Twenty If You Read It All

Here is a story I will never finish. However, I promise to tell you what I planned to do with it.

A frequently made request of many couples is to tell the story of how they met. Everyone seems to be interested in that. The more unusually matched the couple, the more interest there is. If, for instance, we spy a bikini-clad woman in spiked heels wearing a glittering tiara in her hair and a sash bearing the inscription “Miss Miami” across her bosom walking arm in arm with an Eskimo decked out in furs and toting a harpoon, many people will be very curious to know how such an alliance came about. It is only natural. Happily, the case of my wife and I is not quite so extreme, but we are asked the question perhaps a bit more often than others, and the reply has invariably been this: because I knew the federal tax code much better than she.

Please allow me to explain: I am an accountant who works for the venerable State Street firm of Ferngold and Blatz in Boston’s financial district. At the beginning of this story, I had been a bachelor of some 35 years living in a small, one bedroom Beacon Hill apartment on Brimmer Street. I was quite satisfied with my life up to that point. Four years in the army taught me order and cleanliness and discipline, and I followed each of those precepts scrupulously during my every waking hour. My apartment, though small as I mentioned, was tidy and uncluttered, containing no more than was necessary, yet lacking in nothing. I arose at the same hour every morning, did my calisthenics, performed my ablutions, read the morning newspaper while munching on half a grapefruit and toast, and struck off to work at precisely 8:00 with the inevitable briefcase clutched in my hand. At all times of the year and in all weathers I beat the familiar path to work with a regularity the ever-moving celestial bodies might envy. My step was always quick and firm, my chin shaved perfectly smooth, my shirt collar a brilliant white, my every hair placed just so. I was master of my life — of that there can be no doubt.

I had been with Ferngold and Blatz for ten years and had, in honor of my tenth anniversary, been given a bigger cubicle with a bigger desk in it. Not only that, I now had to share a secretary with only two other people instead of eight. Mr. Blatz himself awarded me an electric pencil sharpener that could hone a pencil down to a lethal point in a mere second. Only Dudley and Porchnik, the two gentlemen with whom I shared my secretary, had pencil sharpeners quite so fine, only mine had the distinction of being the newest. I suppose one could have considered me “rising,” and, if so, I would find no reason to mitigate or qualify or otherwise dispute such a notion.

At tax time, we at Ferngold and Blatz have an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with every strata and shape our human race has to offer, as the United States government is never quite so democratic as it is when it comes to asking its citizens to kick in their fair share. On any given day, one may counsel a businessman in a pricey Italian suit at 10:00, and then confer with a plasterer who carries about with him the unsettled dust of his trade at 11:00. Some come to me as supplicants, viewing me as a sort of conduit or oracle in communion with the vast wealth of our national treasury, and entreat me to guide them through the tax codes and the laws, the bewildering forms and arcane language that has long been my milieu, so that their very souls shouldn’t in the end be swallowed up whole by this same ever-rapacious treasury. Others come to command me, to make me understand that this government of ours needs governing itself, and to use every artifice within my reach to see that it knows it can’t have everything. I have been lied to, sworn at, and called unflattering names, because to many I have come to symbolize all that is hateful and emasculating when poor mortals are pitted against that three-headed monster known as Bureaucracy. However, I am never offended, because I understand. Truly I do. The meek may rant and the mighty may glower, but in the end they pay.

Nearly all our clients come by appointment, but it has happened from time to time that people walking in off the street have benefited from our sagacity on the same day, and perhaps within the same hour. These instances are rather rare, but not unheard of. Ferngold and Blatz is, in some ways, like a medieval castle with its moat and drawbridge and battlements to fend off the invading hoards, only we use a receptionist and a battery of junior clerks to waylay the interloper and protect the keep from his grasping needs and requests. There is a system at work at Ferngold and Blatz, a gauntlet one must pass through, and it has been in place ever since the day Ferngold met Blatz, shook hands, and decided to make a go of it.

One may therefore imagine my surprise when young Pinkerton, that contemptible, pink-faced whelp, brought a young, platinum-haired woman to my cubicle without the slightest warning. I had been immersed in the study of several columns of figures containing an immoderate amount of red ink, and was at that moment straining my wits to devise a way to make most of that red ink go away.

“Mr. Schprokenbokker,” Pinkerton said. “This lady could use your assistance.”

I stared at them both.

“So I’ll leave you to it then,” he said, and off he went.

The lady, it turned out, was Miss Victoria Savage, a young woman fashioned somewhat after the mold of Marilyn Monroe or Mamie Van Doren, who were popular then. She was 22 at the time, but I could see beneath the make-up and ostentatious clothing the young innocent she might have been at 17. However, all that concerned me at the moment were those columns of figures and the red ink.

“I’m very sorry, Mr. Sprockel, if this is inconvenient,” she said. “Jerry ” — referring to that cur Pinkerton “— told me you’re the best and could help me.”

“Is it income tax?”

“Yes. And I haven’t been very good about record keeping.”

“Few of us are, it seems,” I sighed, closing the ledger and gesturing for her to sit down. “And the name is Schprockenbokker.”

“Holy cow, that’s a mouthful. Don’t you have a nickname?”

“People like your Jerry call me ‘Schprockie,’”

“Well, Schprockie, you can call me Vickie.”

“Very well,” I said, inwardly cringing. “What records do you have, ‘Vickie’?"

Miss Savage produced a Bonwit Teller shopping bag crammed with register receipts, bank statements, and anything else she thought worth my scrutiny; it looked more like a full bag of yard refuse threatening to spill over than potential business expenses and tax deductions. Placing it on my desk, she inadvertently knocked over the pencil sharpener.

“Oops!” she said. When she saw from my expression how I obviously regarded her careless act, she added: “That’s a mighty fine pencil sharpener you got there, Schprockie. Is it new?”

“Yes,” I said, perhaps a bit testily. “Quite new.”

I will not bore the reader with the details of my first professional interview with Miss Savage. At one point I asked her what her occupation was and she vaguely replied “entertainer,” and would allow no further refinement of this description. For an hour and a half we laboriously went through all her receipts — all of them legitimate expenses she assured me — but many were dubious and others plainly raised an eyebrow. Several expensive leather whips and a pair of silver handcuffs certainly caught my attention, those and an endless variety of negligees and other such costumes. Fancy nylon stockings were a particularly big expense. Her income was considerable and she owned several properties. I am not one to pry more into a client’s affairs than what my profession demands, but these and other things aroused my curiosity.

As I mentioned, I had been a bachelor of many years, and a natural question arising from this observation would be what my opinion of the gentler sex might be. I am afraid some people have set me down as a misogynist, which is patently untrue, for there are many women whom I admire and whose respect I have gone through some some pains to gain. Others have asked me, in various oblique and carefully worded ways, questions designed to throw light upon my sexual orientation. Few know of my exploits in the field of love — which, I may assure the reader, is storied and honorable and strictly heterosexual — and very rarely have I deigned to clear the mystery up. But please rely on this: I am not immune to the allure of a woman. As self-possessed as I am, several have had me in their snares over the years, myself a most willing victim for a time. However, all but a few of those affairs have developed beyond mere dalliance. There have been some women who have tried to change me; who have, say, approved of my raw materials but wished to shape them into something more to their liking. Others have objected to my frugal and spartan lifestyle, not guessing at the small fortune I have amassed through careful investment and prudence. Still others have simply bored me. All of them, in the end, I have found wanting.

Now Miss Savage struck me immediately as vulgar and, for that reason, should have been beneath my notice; and yet, with her, a flaw lethal to all other women inexplicably became her charm. She was uneducated and unrefined, gaudy and intellectually stunted, yet she was, in her way, beautiful. Despite all she had done to pervert it, God had graced her with a truly admirable form, with a nobility so apparent in the lines of her brow and lips and chin, in the radiance of her complexion, in the vividness of her blue eyes and in the luxuriance and sheen of her hair, that no amount of cheap showiness or number of gimcrack could diminish it. Her vulgarity, it seemed to me, was a kind of studied vulgarity, and that pointed to innocence, what I noticed upon first meeting her. Nothing in a woman can more captivate a man and so arouse in him an inclination to protect than innocence and unconditional trust. This, I quickly saw, was the case with her, but naturally I fought hard against it.

It turned out there was a mortgage statement and several other things she needed to produce so I scheduled an appointment for the following week. The interview concluded, we both rose from our chairs and I stretched out my hand to shake hers. But then she did a very unexpected thing. Miss Savage walked around my desk and, before I could react, quickly adjusted my bow tie and gave it a little pat. “Few men can look good in a bow tie, Schprockie,” she said cheerfully, “but you sure pull it off. See you next week!” Then she snatched up her handbag and sauntered out of my cubicle with a mesmerizing action to her hips. There I stood, amazed, struck dumb, feet rooted to the spot. I do believe my mouth literally hung open. In my defense, I dare say there are very few men who know precisely how to act after a pretty woman fiddles with his bow tie. The experience was entirely new to me.

Okay, it turns out this Miss Savage is a combination call girl and porn film star and takes quite a fancy to our prim, confirmed bachelor — head over heels in love with him, in fact. She is careful not to let him know how she really earns her money, but it becomes apparent that everyone else in the world — and particularly the men in his office — know perfectly well. I intended several comic scenes when the narrator has the evidence of her trade displayed to him totally and unambiguously and yet still seems completely blind to it. Finally, knowing Vickie sometimes works for a place called Pendergast Film Studios Worldwide, he goes there one day on some urgent business and finds her in the middle of one of her scenes. When Vickie finishes and dons her robe and spots him, her face goes completely white. Now he knows! she realizes. The narrator, for his part, is quite upset: face red, veins bulging, the whole works. He stops her incoherent apologizing and babbling by peremptorily demanding if she had bought some expensive feather boa he saw in her dressing room during the past year. Stunned, she tells him yes. “Don’t you know we could have claimed that?” he asks her, as if this oversight was the most outrageous act he had ever witnessed. Then Vickie realizes that the narrator had known all along the great secret she had been keeping and embraces him with joy and relief. Later on we find out she becomes a model housewife and mother.

Something like that.


I gave myself the weekend off from house painting. The only thing I needed to do that smacked of responsibility was to patch a hole in the kitchen wall of a condo we rent out. Yesterday (Saturday) I went for a bike ride with the Charles River Wheelmen, the bike club I’m a member of. That day’s ride was called the Four Burro Ride, and on their website they showed a picture of four burros (the same one duped four times actually) with human eyes, noses and mouths Photoshopped in. Quite humorous. The route took in the Massachusetts towns of Northboro, Southboro, Marlboro, and Westboro, leaving the question of why there isn’t an Eastboro just dangling there, unanswered. I didn’t consider it well planned because at around the sacred 35 mile mark there was no place to take a break. No Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks or Honey Dew, no place to refill my water bottle or grab a large cup of joe with a blueberry muffin. Instead I just had to pedal on until I returned to my car 51.3 miles later feeling rather dehydrated.

What the ride did do was calm me. I am a naturally anxious person, a worry wart, and a total prude when it comes to the subject of psychiatric drugs. A radio program I once listened to had a guest on it who called people like me “chemical puritans,” meaning that I and those of my stripe are repelled by the notion of taking Zoloft or other similar drugs because it somehow suggests weakness or an embarrassing inability to master such a silly, nonsensical thing as a mental hang-up. The truth is, I just want to take as few pills as possible, and this method of dealing with anxiety — cycling — has the side benefit of keeping me in shape. I’m afraid that if I do take a pill that makes me feel less of a nervous nellie, I’ll turn into a hopeless couch potato. Then I would need anti-depressants, high blood pressure medication and whatever else such a pitiful circumstance would require. So I’m better off pedaling my bike, as you can plainly see.

But biking has its occasional drawbacks. While riding to work last Wednesday my keys bounced out of my backpack and disappeared from my life forever. It was only a question of time when that would happen and I have no one to blame but myself. I use a messenger bag, one of those single-strapped affairs that crosses over your chest and has a center pocket where I foolishly choose to stuff my wallet and keys. This pocket is convenient to reach but rather insecure, being completely open at top. So many times I’ve arrived at my destination, whipped the bag around to grab my keys and found them more than halfway out of the pocket, poised to make a break for it with my wallet ready to follow. And do you know what I always say to myself when that happens? “Someday I’m going to learn my lesson. Someday I’ll lose those keys.” I actually say that. I suppose it was my guardian angel speaking through me, that little voice of common sense and reason I have regularly blown off all my life. Do I ever listen? Ha! Why should I if I never listened before?

So Wednesday my keys escaped somewhere on Commonwealth Avenue — they’re probably halfway to Tijuana by now. I cannot remember the last time I lost my keys. I’ve lost and recovered my wallet twice, both times missing just long enough for me to cancel my credit card, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost my keys. When I’m not riding my bike, when I’m in my street clothes, I keep them in my right front pants pocket along with a small Bic pen and a tiny Leatherman Micra, a handy gadget that’s a knife and a screwdriver and scissors and other useful things all rolled into one. My keys were an established member of a group, the Right Pocket Club. Whenever I put my hand into my pocket, there they were, hard, sharp but organized, a neat cluster: two office keys, three house keys, a car key and a bike lock key. One of the house keys was the old fashioned skeleton type, something you don’t find on many key rings nowadays.

For some reason losing my keys felt like an event in my life. It wasn’t a death in the family or losing a job or a limb, but it was a strange kind of loss, awkward in its way. I needed to gather the originals and go to a hardware store I consider particularly good at copying keys (some stink at it, you know). The key to our 1995 Honda Odyssey represented a challenge. My wife’s key is worn and a little bent and the hardware store guy told me he couldn’t guarantee the copy would work. He spoke to me as a surgeon would to his patient and I half expected to see a release form shoved in my face. But it did work because, as I mentioned, they’re very gifted there.

My new keys are shiny and clean, a little lighter, and don’t feel the same as my old keys. The oil of my skin hasn’t discolored them yet and they feel especially sharp-edged, as if they could cut glass. They’re newly-minted strangers. But I think I know why they appear to have significance. How many times has a change in our lives been accompanied by the dismissal of an old key and the introduction of a new? Moving to a new apartment or house, or buying a new car, usually means the cozy clan of the key ring gets broken up. My old key ring hadn’t seen any action since 2004 when we moved to our current house, an event that nearly put me in the nut house. I can still remember getting my driver’s license as a teenager and adding the all-important key to the family wagon to my ring. By God, there should have been a ceremony that day, a key-mitzvah. Keys can be so important, so precious. They can mean ownership and stability and belonging, represent a part of what we are. A key implies, a key states. You can imagine Sherlock Holmes divining someone’s whole biography merely by analyzing his keys. An elderly person might view the key to his assisted living unit as his last key, the final stage, while a young couple see their house key as symbolic of the first, true start of life. You hear of Palestinian families who still hold onto the keys to houses they were dispossessed of more than half a century ago, because keys mean something.

Which reminds me — I better not lose these.


That is all.