In May 2002, Stella Harvey formed The Whistler Writers Group, affectionately known as The Vicious Circle, to support aspiring writers in the community. The group has been a raging success with over 40 members gathering each month to read, chat and critique each others work. The collective is also responsible for an on-going and incredibly successful series of public readings and workshops. This story is the third of eight short works of fiction that were presented at the Feb. 22-23 Literary Leanings event at Ulis Flipside, part of Celebration 2010 Whistler Arts Showcase.
(A short story excerpt)
He had mayonnaise on his upper lip and a piece of onion protruding from his eyetooth like a horn. I looked away, riveting my eyes on the numbers. Zeros staring at me everywhere, mocking my work.
"How could fifty percent of your food and entertainment allowance add up to exactly five hundred dollars?" I asked him. The ocean air caused a creeping sweat behind my knees, paving the way for my eczema.
"Oh," he leaned across the papers and grabbed a small bundle of crumpled receipts. "Thats these ones." The smell of onion wafted across my face as he dropped the butter-stained package in front of me, like the dead offerings of a house cat.
"Thank you." Some of the receipts were torn in the middle where the broccoli elastic and cardboard tag, "California Organic", had scrunched them like an over tightened belt. I handed him the elastic and began flattening each gnarled receipt.
"Are you sure about that sandwich?" He was trying his best to derail me from my calculations.
"Yes, thanks." I unkinked my back in the wooden chair and tried to loosen my dampening shirt cuffs. He looked at me with the inquisitive eyes of a small animal, perhaps trying to decipher whether I meant, yes I was sure I didnt want a sandwich, or the more remote possibility of, yes Ive changed my mind. I noticed one of those little rat-tails sprouting from the back of his tangled hair and was seized by an impulse to lop it off with a pair of scissors. "This computer," I said, pointing to the outdated box on the desk. "You could enter these figures into a spreadsheet program, keep better track of your business much easier to file your return."
"I prefer to fill it with words," he said.
It can handle numbers too! I wanted to yell at him. They wont corrupt the words. But hed already left his little closet of an office and wandered off barefoot to another of his tasks. These island people think they dont belong to the same country as the rest of us. Think they can have their own set of rules with their island currency and illicit pot farms, with their crafting circles and organic produce. They dont know it can all be traced, all accounted for in the end.
The last receipt in the pile was so faded I couldnt read the total. I walked out of the old farmhouse through a cloud of pungent herbs in the kitchen. After wading through overgrown clover and dandelion his excuse for a front lawn I tracked him down in the chicken coop. "Im afraid this receipt is illegible. Did you round up to the nearest hundred when you couldnt read it?" He looked at me, one thumb hooked in the pocket of his baggy overalls like Tom Sawyer himself. His quizzical eyes seemed ready to admit defeat, until he placed the egg he was holding in my hand.
"Just wait." He strode out of the coop. The egg was still warm. I looked around at the chickens, nervously pecking at each others tail feathers, and suddenly recalled a trip to my grandparents farm in Barrie my sister and I throwing hay wildly into the air simply because wed never seen the stuff before it must have been the smell that dredged it up, the mixture of hay and chicken shit.
He walked back in with some Visa bills. "Here it is! On the top of the receipt you can just make it out Tamil Curry House." Excited like a little kid, he ran his finger down the bill and stopped at the charge in question. "I was in Vancouver, the start of a book tour $24 with tip, excellent chapattis."
The bloody zeros again. He was right, the dates matched. I placed the egg back in his hand and returned to the house. There were still plenty of battles to win.
"Dad, why does he have to spend the whole day here?" His teenage daughter didnt have the sense or the manners to realize I could hear every word through the thin walls.
"I dont know Rave, its just the way they operate. It should only be a few days." Ha! Head office hadnt seen the nightmare of book keeping when they made that estimate. I dug into the automobile expenses claim next. "Wheres your log book of mileage?" I asked him.
"Oh, I dont exactly have a mileage book, but Ive got my own working system." Nothing surprised me anymore so I sat back and listened. "I only drive into town on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Thats eight miles each way." I nodded to confirm I was still with him. "Those trips are always a combination of work buying supplies, mail-outs, interviewing people. The other half is personal stuff groceries, visiting friends, you know." I flipped through the papers where hed done these haphazard calculations. "Whenever I go to the city I mention it in my journals so thats all noted. Those trips are primarily business, though I throw in a few personal matters, so I calculated them at seventy-five percent business, twenty-five percent personal."
"Ill need to see them," I blurted out, wondering if I should really wade in that deep. While he disappeared into the kitchen, I stood up to stretch my cramped legs. The bookshelf in the narrow hallway had some good literature: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, then right beside Anna Karenina, the Guide to Healthy Pruning a writer who cant organize his own literature. He ambled back up the hall with his slightly limping gait, and handed me two chewed up books.
"Be careful with these," he said.
I prised the first one open. The handwriting was sprawling but legible:
November 30, 2000
The rain is harder and colder here in Vancouver than on the island. Still, I like the urban energy its pitched and zany a mad experiment of people trying to get along in close quarters. If we can survive in cities without destroying the place and one another, theres some hope for humanity.
I sank into my chair and slammed the book shut. What the hell did he know about living in cities? Mad experiment, yes. People trying to get along, no. Joe Ferucci running off with Stans wife after ten years of playing tennis with him every Friday is that getting along? Or Jennifer Goran, finally accepted into the Rideau Club only to cut loose her mechanic husband because he didnt fit in with the three-piece suit crowd. Hope for humanity? More like phony civility while clambering for higher ground and stealing each others husbands and wives at every turn. I took a deep breath and set the automobile expenses aside. Dont get sucked into that vortex again, youll only tear yourself up.
I was beginning to curse my decision to take the temporary Vancouver placement. Sell the house while Im away, rid myself of anything to do with Meghan and return to a fresh slate. Great idea; too bad it wasnt working. Sure I could escape Ottawas oppressive summer heat, but bitter memories dont stay in their province of origin; they travel all too well.
I grabbed the business-use-of-home form like a life raft and began crunching numbers. Heat, electricity, phone, internet. It all added up until I discovered he was counting the office space as twenty-five percent of the house and I had to call him back in.
"Without bringing out the tape measure, Id say this room isnt anywhere near twenty-five percent of the total house maybe ten."
True enough," he said. "This one gets a little complicated ..."
"Try me," I countered, hearing the anger in my own voice. He ran a hand over his unshaven cheek, preparing to spin another of his tales, no doubt.
"Sometimes I spill out into the kitchen area so I calculated that as a quarter of the one sixth of the house it occupies. Then I have my upstairs office which is slightly larger than this one. So all told its about twenty-five percent." He gave me that matter of fact look again. The mention of another office made my jaw drop and I finally managed to ask him where it is.
"Oh, thats where I do some of my writing when its too noisy down here. Its a personal space. I dont keep any books of your sort," he smiled, "up there."
I finally exhaled through my nostrils. "Well, Ill let you know if I need access to it."
"Im going into town in about an hour," he said. "Do you want a ride to the B&B?"
"But its Wednesday."
"I changed my schedule this year," he smiled, undaunted.
I sat on the bench seat of his old pick-up, one arm on my briefcase, the window closed to keep the dust out. His was rolled all the way down, his arm resting on it like the bloody Marlboro man the one from 1970, with his unbuttoned work shirt and sun-tanned smile lines. These people were in a time warp. I half expected Duelling Banjos on the stereo. But what did he put on Beethoven! The sixth symphony as we rolled through the countryside. He must have been trying to impress me.
"What kind of music do you like?" he asked, flipping his annoying little rat-tail from under his collar. The roar of his truck drowned out the orchestra.
"This is good. Im more accustomed to hearing it in the concert hall though."
He grinned. "Looking forward to getting home?"
"Ottawa, right? Beautiful bike trails along the river. Too bad you have to put up with all that hot air from the politicians."
"Theyre not in session in the summer." We crested a hill and my stomach rose to my chest the worn out shocks made a roller coaster ride out of every pothole and cattle crossing.
"Get to travel much in your work?" he asked.
"Yes, I get to travel to Prince George next." I felt like I might throw up as a stand of trees whipped past in a flash of green and white. A couple of sheep looked up from an open field, their mouths mawing on grass as they stared stupidly at the speeding truck. I opened my window a little as we rolled down a long hill, the ocean spreading out in the distance. He geared down, careened around a sharp corner and suddenly we were on the main street of the town.
There was nobody in sight, and as we pulled up to the B&B I found a note tacked on the door: Back at 6. "Can I buy you a beer?" he asked, pointing up the empty street to a pub sign carved out of driftwood. I had nowhere else to wait so I accepted. Christ, who would buy their auditor a beer?
The place was dimly lit, and once my eyes adjusted I saw there were only a few patrons sitting up at the bar. I wondered if theyd all dressed from the same theatre trunk. One guy wore a kerchief on his head like a pirate, ripped up shorts and bright yellow Wellingtons; the blonde woman next to him was in a flowing cotton dress and a Stetson hat; and the guy beside her sported some kind of see-through macramé shirt and a white hard-hat. They scrutinized me closely, obviously the outsider with my white shirt and sports coat. Now I got it; he wanted to parade me in front of his local friends. He exchanged a few words with them while ordering the beers. As soon as he joined me at the table, he began quizzing me. "So tell me, how does one become an auditor with the feds?"
"Are you thinking of changing fields?" I asked him facetiously.
"No, I just have a writers curiosity." He gave himself a little face massage before settling down to listen.
"You become a certified accountant," I told him, "a good one. You work at it for maybe ten years. Once youve got a name for yourself, you apply with the government and hope some of the connections you made along the way come in handy. Some apply two, three, four times. I got in the second time. You work at it for another five or ten years gaining experience and seniority, climbing the ranks until youre sitting pretty with a good salary, eight weeks of annual holidays and a nice retirement plan." Then you come home one day and find your wife in bed with her yoga instructor and wonder what the hell it was all for.
He stared at me as though hed heard the thought echoing in my head. I fumbled with the salt shaker. "How do they decide who gets audited?" he asked.
"Its largely random, but there are some signals that point in certain directions those I cant tell you about." I would have loved to enlighten him about zeros. "So where is everybody in this town?" I asked. "Nobody on the street, the pub almost empty?"
"Id guess theyre out farming," he said. "Plenty of weeding to do at this time of year."
"I thought weed is the biggest crop."
He smiled knowingly: "We grow lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, peas, oregano, thyme and, yes, marijuana." The guy in the macramé shirt burst out laughing, and the woman flashed me a coy smile from under her cowboy hat. I knocked over the salt shaker and quickly stood it back up.
"So what do you write?" I asked.
"About ten years ago I published a book called Emerging Cultures kind of a laymans sociological study of island life. Ive done a few childrens books over the years. My latest coup was a piece in Harpers comparing our little paradise to A Midsummer Nights Dream ."
"Hm." Id expected his complete oeuvre to be a couple of ring-bound cookbooks. "Which issue was it in?"
"January of this year."
"Perhaps Ill read it," I said, looking at my watch and seeing that it was six. I thanked him for the beer and picked up my briefcase to go.
"See you tomorrow," he said, pulling a notebook from his bag and writing God knows what in it as I walked to the door.
Stephen Vogler has written for the Georgia Straight, Explore Magazine and various CBC Radio programs. He is the author of Whistler Features, described by BC BookWorld as "informative and satiric a collection of essayish discussions on mountain culture, real estate prices, champagne powder and irritating little dogs in sweaters." (available at Armchair Books) The above is an excerpt from his short story, Audit.