I had a feeling he was dead. I'd felt
for a number of years --- there was this
empty reverberation in my bones
in the infrequent times I thought
When I tell you Charlie was the old guy
prepared my taxes, you will no doubt suggest
brick or two (or quite a few) short ---
light's on, nobody home
--- the Otis ain't
goin' all the way to the top floor.
But bear me out, dear dads.
Charlie was an old,
old man, no doubt about
that. He was an elderly gentleman on a
income trying to pick up a coupla extra bucks
tax time rolled around by cipherin' and
pushin' a mechanical
pencil across a mountain
of government forms at H&R. While he was
product of this century, (but just barely),
vestigial Victorian mannerisms
from his own upbringing that
in his comportment.
Despite my yearly protestations and the
fact that I was old enough
(or young enough)
to be his grandkid, he always called me
Eternally cursed as an
I always called him "Charlie."
I knew absolutely nothing about him.
He, on the other hand, knew my financial
the size of my family
--- the price
of my house and my car --- the
crushing debts I
had, the status of my job producing TV news, and
the paltry, embarrassing size of my "savings."
I saw him just once a year, and then for no
more than an
hour-and-a-half or so. My wife
and I would chase all over hell in
house, hunting down donation receipts from
Purple Heart Veterans and W-2s and mortgage
statements and all of those snippets
and scrappets you desperately
need at the
11th hour to stuff willy-nilly in a brown
paper bag for your tax preparer's
Every year, like you, I am very sure,
changes rained down on us; jobs lost,
changes; children born; emergencies;
financial strains; tragedy;
And every year, Charlie'd shake my
allow a small smile to creep across the craggy
topography of his face, and slowly, very slowly pour me a
little Styrofoam cup-o-joe that had a hint of
cinnamon thrown in,
since flavored coffee had
become de rigueur. He'd ask a
stream of questions about local TV news
star-struck for gossip. Then, he'd slowly lead me
to his cubicle, where, unbeknownst to him, he'd put
utter madness of the past twelve months
into a succinct, rational
perspective I never seemed
capable of deducing on my
"Did better this year, Mr.
"Call me H_____, Charlie, you can call me
"Certainly, Mr. F____," he'd say. "Job
Wife all right? Children growing fast, no?
like you're doing better than last year!
Next year, even better,
He was an endangered island of respite ---
Victorian calm and sanity. I got hooked up with
completely by chance one year, very early
on in my dad-dom. I
placed a random, frenzied phone call,
looking for help, even
though I only needed to file the
most brainless of forms, as these
modern times had
swallowed up all of my dadly free time with scouting
and ballet and art classes and
basketball camp and little league and frequent trips
to the the veterinarian
to name just a
Maybe it was the grandadly thing. I'd
had one of those --- not for long, anyway. The
real grandfather I had left pretty early on. I was
not quite done with the first grade when he left.
He was a gruff
Hungarian immigrant with not much
regard for the English language
or warnings about
his wanton abuse of Kessler's and cheap cigars.
He'd Kessler-up his coffee at first light and stumble
way through three fourths of a fifth, futilely
peppermints that could never hope to
quash the acrid whiskey wind
he trailed like a malevolent spectre.
the stuff forever and ever every day.
Only old age mellowed his
drunken rages into harmless,
shambling babble. He ruined the end
of my grandmother's
life, and near as I can tell, ruined my
along the way, ruining his own for good measure.
But by the time I got him, he was harmless and soused;
to the family that he was taking me to the
toy store, but always
landing us at the Dew Drop Inn
or some such blight, where he'd buy
silence with strawberry Bonomo Turkish Taffy and a
couple of dimes for the cheesy little tavern bowling
machine that always gave you another chance
if you'd had a bad
He'd regale his gin-soaked colleagues with
tales of the old country --- of being chased while
on ice skates by ravenous packs of Hungarian wolves
and escaping with the invocation of his superhuman speed ---
of feeding a
circus elephant a hot pepper as
a joke to impress the ladies, and
next year to the same circus, where the same
elephant (not forgetting) began a stampede after
wag, hell-bent on wreaking vengeance.
the elephant stampede too,
but he could not outrun the ravages of
On the day he died, I drew him a crayola
John F. Kennedy, his favorite president. I never
knew if he saw it or if my folks balled it up and
it in the hospital lobby trash before riding
the lift to his death
bed. I always liked to believe
that he did, and that though it
was the smallest
of messages, that it was a little jolt of
and of thanks for those too-few years ---
the "attaboy's" he'd toss my way in the moments
of clarity he
saved just for me. He comes to me still,
when I'm white-knuckling
my way through
the chaos of these mad dadly days.
And now Charlie is gone too.
having him do my taxes when I got irate
and up and quit my cushy
job, the one allowing me
to report to Charlie that I'd done better
after year after year. I quit in some inexplicable
mid-life fugue during which time I started a poor
excuse for a
business and floundered in a frightening
free-fall, my family
firmly behind me, plummeting together
into an abyss of
Still, I figured Charlie was just too
darn old to
figure out all these high-falutin'
business forms and stuff. I
mean, I had me one
of them thar gen-yoo-ine S-corps like you read
those business swells have in Inc. magazine and
the last section lower-left-below-the-fold of
Street Journal. Yeah, Charlie was a good guy
and all, but I
needed some high-powered,
high-finance expertise after
The old guy just wouldn't cut
After my first year and 300-plus
dinners for our family, my high-powered,
(high-fee) accountant delivered solid evidence
relating to my peculiar level of
business acumen --- my
income had dropped 60 percent
over the past year.
The following year wasn't too swell either,
nor the next
or the one after that.
During each of those
years at tax time, I'd think
of old Charlie, and how embarrassed
--- how humiliated
I would have been for him to see that, contrary
the years he'd helped me out, that I was
"...doing better, Mr. F_____."
self-inflicted maelstrom of those pompous
intervening years had been fully
mitigated by poverty and humility
and epiphany, I
collected my tax stuff up in a neat manila folder.
I divided up all the sections so Charlie would have
easy time of it. I'd drink up a cinnamon coffee
with him and tell
him I was sorry I hadn't been around,
and tell him what I had been
up to, and answer
any and every mundane question about local
TV news stars that I could answer.
I guess I knew when I pulled up to the little storefront.
"Do you have an appointment?" asked the
you a new customer?"
"Well, no, but I haven't been
back in four years.
"Charlie did my taxes --- Charlie D______.
"Is he here?"
A woman about my age came out from the
bank, all smiles and handshakes. She gave me a
coffee in a little Styrofoam cup.
it's good," I said between sips,
"is there a pinch of cinnamon in
We talked about our kids. We sat
down and she
started pawing through my file and filling out
forms with an ink pen. Every desk had a computer now.
All the little clackety calculators with
the paper rolls were
"Are we itemizing?"
"Any sales of
"Contribute a dollar to the
"Is Charlie here?" I finally
interrupting her relentless rote
drummed her fingers on her mousepad and looked away.
"Well, no, Mr. F_____, you see, Charlie passed away.
"Passed away a few years back, now. Right about when I
She cleared her throat and spoke after
an infinitely awkward silence.
"Uh, your W-2 ---
did you bring your W-2?"
"Sure," I said absently,
rifling through my
file and producing the
"Umm, looks better than last year!" she
"Next year, even better," Charlie
whispered to me from some far, far away place,
"...next year, even
better, Mr. F_____."