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Itemize, Deduct—fiction by Sara McKinney


It is January 31, and the accountants, still smelling faintly of furniture polish and printer toner, sit at their desks with hands clasped, hands sliding fresh ink cartridges into fountain pens, hands balled into eager, moistening fists. The men wear black blazers with blue ties and the women blue blouses, a blue that is the shade of cornflowers and baby blankets, of sugar sand beaches and Silicon Valley. They are professional yet approachable, classic yet modern. For weeks, they have subsisted on wheat germ, watercress, juiced vegetables, cleansing their bodies of toxins and excess oils, freeing their minds of desire and bad intentions. 

The waiting room has a new Boston fern and three glass tables, their tops wiped clean of fingerprints. Outside, the sun refracts off last night’s snow and paints the wall with golden tracers. The year is still, so new you can smell the plastic of its wrapping.  

In tentative trickles, we come to fill the sensible black waiting chairs, tap our feet, clear our throats. We clutch folders whose covers pucker with a critical mass of financial detritus—W2s, 1099s, medical bills, receipts—and massage our thighs, sore from last night's spin class, which we obtained at a New Year's discount. Our eyes furtive and tired, we watch the snowlight on the wall. 

One of us, a man, broad and cherub-haired, his face like a sucker punch, stands and approaches the receptionist. Drones, “Lots of changes this year with the new laws. Bet that’s good for business.” 

The receptionist nods, mumbles something noncommittal.

The accountants come and gesture clients out of the waiting room, shaking hands and smiling. “How’s the new house?” they ask.

“Did Angela end up at Tufts or UMASS?”

“So, I hear there’s a little one on the way?” 

They lead us into their offices, where we sit in chairs that are even blacker, even more sensible than the ones outside. In them, we will endure the hour-long dissection of our incomes and mortgages and investment cost-basis. Do we pay alimony? We do not. Did we sell stock? Yes, we did. Did we donate to charity? No, but we meant to. It just kept getting away from us, really. The check was written but never mailed.

There is an irritable plastic creaking as we shift position. A tense chuckle. “Ever consider a desktop partition?” we ask. We are only half-joking.   

The accountants type dutifully, do not glance up, do not meet our eyes. This modesty is intended to preserve our mutual comfort; that the accountants deem it necessary seems a malediction, a scuppering of our precious good intentions. We imagine them later that evening reviewing the day’s work, only to arrive at a file marked with our name, shake their heads and sharpie a note on the inside cover: Did Not Make Charitable Contributions. 

We smile thinly and take the rest of the interview on the chin. 

It is February, and the streets of our New England town have given up the dazzle of winter in favor of a sodden gray. Couples spring from the frozen earth to occupy the coffee shops and bars. Who knew there were this many young people? Who knew they all owned the same black peacoat? We watch them through the windshields of our cars, waiting for the engines to grumble up warmth, while they toss their heads back, laugh silently, lean close. The cafĂ© light dews their cheeks with a glow they’ll only see in hindsight. We used to be young like that, we think, and we know what it is to waste it.  

The accountants mail us tax organizers filled with minuscule paper hearts that immediately confetti out of our hands and vanish into the high-pile carpet. “At Harmon & Harmon C.P.A.’s, we love our customers!” trills a voicemail on our landlines, love drawn out to a melodic ooze. “We know you inside and out!” In the night, a vandal paints our doorposts with slashes of red glitter. The motive is unclear, though the action feels ominous. Biblical, even, although everything feels that way these days. The neighborhood association distributes fliers: homeowners are responsible for de-glitterizing their own properties.

“I’m sorry,” the accountants tell us over crackling cell lines, harried emails, texts. “But glitter removal doesn’t qualify for a tax credit. Maybe try a more substantial renovation, like adding a mudroom or live-in shrine?” 

We tell them we’ll consider it. 

It is the week after Valentine’s Day and we are trying to do better. The bouquets we bought for our partners and spouses—red roses punctuated with sprays of baby’s breath, pale-throated lilies, too many colors of tulips—droop in their vases. A resolution has been made: we will do the dishes, take the kids to school and the various after-school commitments required to secure admission to a good college—soccer, violin lessons, math tutor. We have not gone back to the spin class but that’s okay because we’re going to use that time on our kids, our spouses. Our spouses! Yes, them especially. Spouses that we will kiss by the front door, daily, possibly nightly, letting our eyes meet in the dark crimson light that manages to filter through the splatters of glitter paint that still obscure the door’s glazing (splatters we will attend to, we promise). Spouses who will settle their cheeks against the dihedral of our neck and shoulder and say, “I love you. Tell that boss of yours that if he wants you to stay late again, he needs to help Tommy learn to factor.”  

At Harmon & Harmon, we watch the accountants remove other clients from the waiting room in prime numbers—2, 3, 5, 7. An aging bachelor is lumped in with a young couple, a family of four is asked to either wait until another stranger shows up or abandon their least loved member in the lobby for the duration of the appointment. The office thrums with happy activity; assistants and receptionists, arms laden with paper folders, coffee cups, staplers, come and go and come again, bees in a hive, blood in the atria.

 “Just a few more minutes sir, you’ll be next.”

“Can I help you to water, tea, coffee?”

A hole has appeared in the top of the copier where someone removed the glass of the laser scanner, filling the space beneath with leaves and twigs and the bones of small predators, snake spines and owl talons, a bobcat skull with lilac bundles sprouting, frayed and desiccated,  from its eyes. In the files, the accountants are placing cold cuts. Turkey intercalated in the multi-state returns, ham in the partnerships. The meat leaves damp, circular imprints on the folders and gives the office a sweetening landfill smell. In the waiting room, we cross and re-cross our legs, stare at our phones, breathe through our mouths. 

It is March 15. The offices of Harmon & Harmon have closed early so the accountants can meet at the local Elks Lodge and trade industry gossip over immaculate white tablecloths, among carved mahogany pillars. The office shades are drawn, a piece of paper taped to the door: Closed for Staff Convocation. See You Tomorrow, During Our Regular Hours. They are passing around the ceremonial turkey baster and anointing one another with succulent, dark brown juices. Greasy drippings puddle on the granite floor, soak the white tablecloths to translucence.

“Do you think they’ll really pass the amendment on capital gains?”

“Do you revise estimated payment vouchers? Do you charge for those revisions?”

Someone lights a candle. Someone else wets a finger and circles the rim of a wine glass. One voice, then another, rises, carrying the glasses’ note in vowels that soar to the peaks of the vaulted ceiling. The accountants, looking at each other, bemused and smiling, join in. A hymn is sung.

One morning, our spouses go unkissed. We forget to pick up Tyler and Maria from orchestra practice, and the more defiant one walks home through a part of town where the lawns glimmer with broken glass, where the breweries and organic groceries have given way to eccentric tenements and beauty shops with streaky windows, and afterward, everything is fine except that it might not have been. We know that our children are perfect hothouse orchids, unsuited for exposure to such unpolished, human places. The glitter paint is still on the front door, its red faded to an exhausted, reproving pink. We study our reflections—puffy-eyed, cowed, wider, and softer—sadder? We are trying to do better, we tell ourselves. Trying to make amends for who we should have been while life keeps sprinting ahead of us, on and on, faster and faster, a silhouette receding into distance.  

The accountants are making lists. Long, infinite lists scribbled furiously on yellow legal pads. Lists of our blasphemies and heresies; the pens we stole from restaurants, the times we wore mixed fabric and masturbated, shaved and ate shellfish. They fill a page and flip it over. Finish a sheet and tape it to the end of the last. The lists coil and trail and collect in censorious mounds on the carpet, like a snake shedding its skin. The accountants point at the lists and stare us down, forgetting our appetite for drama, our distaste for admitting guilt. We huff and cross our arms. Bluster, “Is this an itemization or an interrogation?” 

It is April 1, and the accountants are sneaking into clients’ houses at night, crawling into bed and whispering our secrets back to us. Voices low and loving and full of pity, they tell us that we cannot deduct the jewelry we bought for our mistresses on a business trip to San Francisco or write off our sons’ VR helmets as childcare. The accountants are judging us, assessing the thread count of our sheets with their thin, inquisitive fingers, palpating our huddled limbs to feel for muscle tone and various cancers. They sigh to let us know we are disappointing.

“Stop,” we say. “Why are you doing this? We never did anything to deserve it!”

They do not reply.

Slipping out from under our Frette duvets and Martha Stewart covers, the accountants leave. Our mattresses chill in their absence. 

April 15. The accountants are putting on their best Brooks Brothers suits and assembling on a hill five miles outside of town. They mill and clot and circle slowly around the base of a lightning-struck pine. A news van pulls up and disgorges two men with cameras and boom mics, a woman in a green pantsuit. Her smile is warm and determined. She moves with taut, mincing steps, driving her kitten heels into the loam.  

The cameramen corral a young accountant in wingtips and, after a brief struggle, clip a microphone to his lapel. The reporter leans close, bathing him in a cloud of perfume and coconut skin cream.

“Sir, my name is Carman Vergaras with WFT3. Can you tell me why you’re gathered here today?” 

The accountant stares at her. “Ma’am, this is an end-of-season review.” He glances back over his shoulder, trying to make eye contact with his fellows. No one takes him up on it. Defeated, he frowns at the cameras. “We’re discussing sensitive institutional policies and opportunities for improved efficiency. You can’t be here.”

“This is a public park. Pretty sure we can be here.” The reporter smiles as if to say, we can definitely be here

“Isn’t this all a bit unnecessary? Not to mention, well, invasive?” His brow wrinkles. “Look, if you people don’t leave, I’ll have to call my supervisor. And if it goes to my supervisor, he escalates it to arbitration. Do you want arbitration? Because I don’t.” 

“Hey, get over here,” someone shouts. “It’s almost time!” 

“Excuse me.” The young accountant un-mics and, before the reporter can grab him again, escapes into the crowd. 

The accountants are assembling. Clapping each other on the back, grinning and showing too many teeth, they coalesce into a shifting oval at the top of the hill, a place visible for more than ten miles on all sides. We watch them from parking lots and sidewalks. Pull over onto the highway shoulder and squint into the sun, each of us a link in a long, gravel-bound chain of BMWs and Lexuses, Toyotas and well-loved Hondas. There is an attempt to identify individuals among the crowd, but our efforts prove fruitless; we have only ever known the accountants as an aggregate, a service rendered, and so any small flaws—an aquiline nose, a scarred eyebrow, a harelip—pass us by, unindividuating and unremarked.

What are we missing? We imagine the accountants, already privy to the secrets of the tax code, now in possession of some new divinatory revelation. The accountants, more worthy. The accountants, presiding. Why them and not us? Was it a failure to itemize, the lack of charitable contributions? Or is it some more fundamental shortcoming, some original sin inseparable from who and what we are? 

Where trees split the crowd, the accountants scrabble up into the lower branches and roost, patches of fabric—black, grey, blue—peek through the dusky needles like the feathers of an exotic bird. The news crew follows, panning the scene. 

When the light comes, the accountants look up. All of them, at once—a mass gesture less like a ripple and more like a snap. Heads crane back. Faces upturn. Mouths open, exposing overbites, underbites, snaggleteeth, cavities, all shining for a brief and ecstatic moment, then vanishing. We cannot see the source of the light, only the way it consumes; treetops and suit jackets, faces, expressions. Is this god? The bomb? The hands of a free market no longer invisible and at last wildly triumphant? Our vision is full of a brightness that is terrible, ineffable, rapturous. It is beautiful, so beautiful it makes us tremble and shake and writhe the way we have only writhed during very good, very kinky sex. We shield our eyes, squint, try to take it all in without going blind, but it is too much and too painful and one by one, we look away, covering our faces. 

When we glance up, the light is gone, and so are the accountants. The air hums, as if struck by a tuning fork. The wind dies; a stillness descends. Some of us linger, watching the treetops. The rest return to our cars. Drive off.

The camera crew wanders the scene for hours after, filming the landscape in search of a straggler, but the hill is empty, and the trees keep their secrets. 

At home, we kiss our spouses, slowly, imperfectly, sensitive to the prickle of stubble on knees and cheeks, the electric thrill of heat and human skin. Our fingers trip over shirt buttons; theirs graze moles and freckles and age spots. Neither falters or even notices. Our contact is moist and conductive. Alive and unselfconscious, it is here and now and urgent: the flesh's soft and pressing insistence that we have never been more beautiful, more tenuous, more whole. 

Outside, a postcard from Harmon & Harmon sits on our welcome mat. It’s never too early, the postcard reminds us in its too-bold type, to schedule next year’s appointment. On our doorposts, a splotch of paint, now the palest shade of rose, catches the sunlight and shines and shines and shines. 


image credit: Derek Keats

Sara McKinney’s short fiction has previously appeared in Scribble Lit Magazine and has been nominated for the PEN/Dau Award and the Pushcart Prize. Sara was born and raised in Bloomington, IN, and remains a proud Hoosier.