Norman Rockwell, The Accountant, 1924
I lost my job of fifteen years, and as I was filling out my tax return to explain this loss, I thought, Well, this was the one constant that had never changed. Taxes were always there. Every April, the forms explained what had happened to me that year, where I was living and what I was doing. There was a box for every loss and every gain, and there was a box for the things that would always remain the same. There was a record of everything.
I signed up for classes at a tax-prep company. In the first session, we went around the room to introduce ourselves. Many of the other students had been accountants in other countries, others had degrees in economics, some had MBAs or owned their own businesses. All said they didn’t know how to prepare a Canadian tax return and just wanted to learn.
The job I had before was for an investment advice publisher, where I learned that I liked numbers. I liked that the number four was always four and no one could argue with you about that. Every number had its own narrative power, even if you couldn’t see it right away. When a number changed, or when you expected it to and it didn’t change, that meant someone out there in the world had done something to make that happen. People made big decisions because of a little number. Everyone had a theory and a prediction about it. I had been an English major, but I didn’t feel out of place in the class. The theories we read and studied were really about people, and the tax return was a way of telling their stories.
After four months of training and an exam, I went to interview for a job at the company. The interview was set up like a theater audition. There was a makeshift office and an audience, and workers acted out client scenarios you would likely encounter on the job. Someone was cast as a client and based on the script they handed you, along with a completed tax return, you had to explain the refund or balance owing, but you didn’t know how the client in front of you would react or what kinds of questions they might have. The scene started with a handshake and a smile and a welcome. If you failed to make these gestures, you were asked to sit down and someone else would replace you immediately. The thing they wanted most was to get a client to book an appointment for next year. The hiring team watched in real time and after every scene we would discuss what we could have done better.
In my scene, the client became upset, raising his voice, saying that the return couldn’t be right—especially for the price we were charging him—and that he would go home and do it himself. I acknowledged his feelings and agreed he had a right to be upset, and I pretended to take notes so he felt I could do something about it. I told him I’d already finished the return and could send it instantly—why go home and figure this out, when it was already done. Then, I offered a free return for his troubles and booked an appointment for him for next year. This turned out to be the right thing to do. The district manager said, “That’s right. Be calm, take notes. Make them feel you can do something to help. There is no reason to lose a client. And YES … book an appointment!” He made me an office leader on the spot. This meant that on top of being a tax preparer, I would manage an office.
The office was a kiosk. It was located near the cashiers of a big-box store. The location gave the office visibility. While people stood in the checkout line, they would notice us and come by to book an appointment. At this office, there could only ever be one person working. Four padded walls, with one chair, one printer, one file drawer, one computer. I wanted to make sure I introduced myself to the other two women who worked there. When I started, I stayed to meet them, to help them get settled in.
The first person who arrived for her shift was Mrs. B. She told me I had a nice face, that no one would yell at me. She said it was her second year working for the company. She had been an accountant in Ukraine. She was retired, but was feeling bored. She said her husband had died a few years earlier. He had brain cancer. One day he fell over and she held him in her arms while he died. Before he died, she said to him, “Do you see me?” And the last thing he said to her was, “Yes, yes. I see you.” Then, she took out a lipstick, put it on, and shut the case. I loved Mrs. B right away.
The next was Mrs. C. She sold insurance and could work only a few hours on the weekends. She was excellent with her tax theory, and when she didn’t know how to do something, she never said. Our computer had something that was like a Bat-Signal. You could click on it, and someone more experienced would be able to view the computer screen in order to fix whatever trouble you were having from their remote location. Those of us in the office were trained to do only basic tax returns, not to be creative with them. The software was locked into the level we were trained at. A warning light would come on and block us from filing if we prepared a tax return that was above our training level.
In fact, this software was designed to make the tax return easy and it isn’t available to the public. The average tax return took us only six minutes to prepare. We put numbers into boxes and the software deposited them into the right place and generated the correct forms and produced the right credits. We didn’t have to think about it. But we had to know the tax theory to detect if the calculation was right. We had to know how to explain the forms the software generated. We couldn’t just say, “You owe $2,000.” We spent most of that extra time on the client experience. Mrs. C always did this—she just clicked the button and talked to a client about the weather. The client never knew.
New clients, who hadn’t used the service before, always took more time. We had to build a new file, ask for several forms of identification, and make sure we didn’t miss anything. It was harder to know what we were missing with new clients. Sometimes they had children and didn’t mention them for the tax return and then missed out on credits. Or they would incorrectly interpret what they could claim. One client claimed to have a dependent, but then when I got to the part where I had to put in the tax number, it was revealed to me that the dependent was a turtle.
Even with returning clients who had been using the service for a long time and whose previous returns I could look up, there were things that changed. You had to ask clients their marital status and list the terms that were available, as each had its consequences. This part of the return was often comical and it opened people up to tell their stories. One man said to me sadly, “Unfortunately single.” It happened to be Valentine’s Day. I didn’t want him to feel bad and said, “Sir, there is no such thing here as ‘unfortunately’ so how about we just put ‘single’ for you.” And this helped him laugh at himself.
But it wasn’t always laughs. A lot of people don’t get past this section of the return in their first hour. After I asked their marital status, some clients listed all the things that had gone wrong with the relationship or all the things that had gone right, reliving every moment and crying about them. Sometimes they were still hopeful for a reconciliation and didn’t want to list their status as separated, even though, according to the theory, they were required to declare it. Other times, couples who came together would get into an argument when it was revealed, in our office, that they were not that serious about each other. Or it turned out, the divorce hadn’t been filed. Or a child their partner didn’t know about was named in the tax document. I often had to reschedule another appointment to finish the return. An hour just wouldn’t do for that.
The tax return is, in some ways, a record of truth. People give you what they have. Or, at least, you count on that. The numbers given to us were provided by a client. We can’t always know what they kept from us. It’s up to them. There is even a place in the tax return where you can declare money obtained illegally. It didn’t matter how you made your money, it mattered that you declared that you had it and you paid taxes. In the industry, the term we use to describe this kind of work is an “artist.”
For the most part, people are good and kind and they do pay their taxes. That is why they came in the first place—to get someone to help them do this. When the tax deadline arrived, at midnight, and I’d finished up the last return, a crew came in and unfolded the office like a piece of paper. Everything was boxed up, even the office chair and the stapler and paper clips. I looked at the space I had been in, and how it was now a polished floor. Looking at that floor, you wouldn’t know that anything poignant, strange, or funny had taken place there. But every tax return I had completed was someone’s story, and the record of those stories would last.
Read Souvankham Thammavongsa’s story “The Gas Station” in our Spring issue.
Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of four poetry books. Her first short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, will be published by Little, Brown next year.
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