The Numbers, Fine

He doesn't know why he keeps getting the numbers wrong. He's been an accountant for seven years and studied accounting for six years before that and helped his mother with the basic, yes, the very simple but still, household accounting for quite a few years before that. He's not sure how many. Did he just say seven? He's been an accountant for eight years, now, eight. The year just changed over into a new one and it's March already and so now it is eight. He's been an accountant for eight years and studied to be one for six years before that and helped his mother with her simple, but still, household accounting for several (he's not exactly sure how many) years before that. And suddenly he's getting the numbers wrong. He does not know why and he will not take any of the simple answers.

"You're tired," his wife tells him, "is all. It's tax season and you haven't had a day off since the second week of the year and you've got more clients this year than you've ever had before and you're just tired. Don't worry about it. Just try to get a little more sleep and in less than a month it'll all be over for a while and you can get some good rest, go on a vacation, rejuvenate. Don't worry about it now. Just don't."

He stops, starts counting his clients in mind, silently, to himself, from memory. Is this really the largest number of them he's had? He's not sure. His records, his list of clients and his database of their phone numbers and Tax ID numbers and numbers representing their respective incomes and expenses and dependents—all that is at the office. He can't get the true number of them at home, tonight, for sure. He's not sure this is really the largest number of them he's had or if his wife, even, is sure of that, if she's not just throwing that out there to comfort him, knowing it's not true but hoping he's tired enough to believe it.

He goes into his den. He sits in his big chair.

He always wanted a big chair that he could call his. One everyone in the house would respect as his. One that only he would sit in except on rare occasions when he'd invite one of the children to sit with him and the child would recognize it for the special occasion it was, remember all the details and tell her own children about it decades later. "My father had this chair…"

In the years of his childhood, fathers didn't have chairs, not in this way. It was a sort of mythological thing hearkening back to earlier childhoods, earlier fathers. It sounded so conservative, like something from a very different and very orderly world. He didn't sentimentalize all that, wanted, only, the chair.

Even his mother hadn't lived in the kind of world in which fathers had their own large and comfortable and unchallenged chairs. His mother had traveled across the country with three children (the accountant, an adolescent then, and twins on the new side of puberty) after her divorce from his father, who'd traveled with a new wife across an ocean to another country. His mother had gone to school and trained for a job in a new city in which she knew no one but her children, at first; raised the twins in a two-bedroom apartment and sent her son letters at a college in yet another part of the country, to which he'd been accepted just after the divorce. He'd lived in his mother's new-city, two-bedroom apartment only briefly, on the couch, for the month between his parents' divorce and his starting college, and for the three-to-six-week breaks between quarters.

In his mother's new apartment, every piece of furniture was everyone's. No one had an exclusive right to a piece of it.

He hadn't always wanted his own, big chair. There was a time when that sort of chair represented for him a sort of domestic tyranny. When he pictured the men who'd sit in them in short-sleeved collared shirts and greased-over hair, silent, eyes closed, scarily inaccessible. When he pictured their wives and children tiptoeing around the house so as not to wake the men in their chairs, tired from work and so they "deserved it," the wives explained to the children, "some peace and quiet." And then they'd wake up for dinner and blow up at their wives or at one of their children at the table. The wife and children would lower their heads, not talk back. Maybe one day a hippy daughter would speak up for her mother, or to hell with her subservient mother, she'd speak up for herself and storm out the door to move in with her lover, travel across the country to a new city, learn a new skill, start a new life.

It was only when he realized that his entire conception of this furniture was a cliché learned from television that he allowed himself to admit it: He wanted his own chair. A big one that no one would sit on but him unless, on a special rainy evening, he invited his children to sit on the arms and lean against his chest as he read them a story. One on each arm, his two children.

His wife would be out taking a night class. An art class, even. Developing her talents. Expressing herself.

He doesn't have two children, but three. His numbers are all off. His last client today had two dependents; he has three. He's confusing things. One of his children, the oldest, sits on the ottoman while the other two sit on the arms of his chair, special evenings, and he reads to them.

Today, with that last client, he'd put the numbers from an escrow closing statement in all the wrong places. Put the numbers where they'd go for a buyer, when his client was the seller. His client hadn't bought anything new all year. So the total came out wrong. The client caught it: "Wait. Are you sure? That can't be right." And he went back and double-checked each step along the way and finally caught it and said, "Right. You're right. I see it right here. I'm sorry about that. You're right. Here's the true total."

"That looks more like it," his last client of the day had said. "Thanks."

But he could tell, the accountant could, that his client's simple trust in him was shaken, that the client might go to one of the big tax-prep chains later in the week to see if they came to the same totals, just to be safe.

His wife was at her desk in her home office, typing away. She'd be in in a few minutes, she said. They'd talk about ordering take-out when she came in, in a few minutes. "Just relax till I get there," she'd told him. "Don't worry."

He sat in his chair, his own, a big one, for more than thirty minutes. "I'm hungry," he called to her. "Are you coming or should I just order something on my own? Should we just fend for ourselves?"

"Fine," she called back. "I just have to answer one more e-mail, but fine. If you don't want to wait, that's fine with me. We can fend for ourselves. There's stuff I can eat in the fridge."

"Are you sure?" he called from his chair. "Are you sure you don't want me to order you anything?"

"No, just get something for yourself. I'm fine with what we have here," his wife yelled from her home office down the hall from his den.

His daughter, the oldest, was studying at a friend's house. The younger children his wife had fed hours ago, and now they were sleeping.

He remembered, out of nowhere, that for a time in early adolescence, when his whole family lived together on another coast, he'd read tons and tons of trashy—and rather gruesome, really, now that he thought of it; highly sexualized, grotesque sorts of sick scenes—crime novels. He'd forgotten all about that. Now he'd remember it next time he told someone "No. I don't read crime novels. Don't know that author. Sorry." Suddenly bits of those stories started coming back to him, solid-seeming, fast. A broken window in a farmhouse. The words "pummeled", "masticated," somehow made to seem erotic. Sex before violent death, it seemed always. Is that a genre? he wondered. Is that—sex before violent death—a certain subgenre's stock scene? Can it have been just the peculiar schtick of this one author he'd gotten so into for a time when he was thirteen or fourteen? Can that time have been longer than a few weeks, a bit of one summer break?

He remembers the forgotten and misplaced numbers like that. It's very similar. He's going along as if everything's usual and exactly the way he usually knows to make sense of it and then all of a sudden an incongruous image, an at-first unfamiliar moment from his own past, inserts itself into his mind, wedges its out-of-order way into his present. The querulous look on a client's face when he asks for the returns back—"just lemme check one thing, real quick, just one little thing. I'm sure it's fine but I just want to be perfectly sure"—and then the client's crossed arms when he goes back into her returns for more than an hour, revises what seems to her like the entire thing, produces a new version showing a very different amount owed.

Now I understand, he thinks to himself, but then thinks that he's cheating. Now I understand the fathers who just wanted, who really needed, comfortable silence at the end of the day in their big chairs. But he knows he's cheating, skirting, pushing all sorts of information about the fear instilled in the wife and children, the unjust blow-ups at the dinner table, out of the way, tying a facile knot of understanding. He doesn't know why, really, he keeps getting the numbers wrong. He doesn't want to get up from his chair till he's figured it out and so he keeps sending himself simple explanations, but he knows they're specious ones. He knows he doesn't deserve to get off so easy. He knows his clients deserve more. He knows his wife, still working on that last e-mail in her home office, doesn't have the time to help him sort this all out and he can't expect her to, really. She worries about everything. She's telling him, again, from the other room, calling it down the hall as she types a long message to someone she works with: "Don't worry, honey. Just don't. Just order yourself some dinner and relax in your chair. The season will be over soon and then you can take a good long break, go on a vacation, get a change of scenery. You're just tired, is all. You'll get through it, I know you will. You'll be fine."

About the author:

Jessica Hoffmann writes fiction, essays, and occasional bits of poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Kitchen Sink, Clamor, Bitch, and Rain Taxi Review of Books.