by Ken Rumble
An excerpt from The Accountant
The day the guy walked up to me like he knew me, like I was some unruly cabbage in his garden, it took me a minute to realize he must be the guy who Ms. Foster told me to meet about the package. But just as she’d said, he had a scar on his neck and one ear. She’d said he would find me, but after a week and a half I’d stopped believing he would, and I had felt relieved. Maybe the whole encounter with her would just fade away as if it had never happened, but here was her guy, just as she’d said.
“Hugh?” he asked.
“Albert?” I replied, looking around casually to figure out where I was, since I hadn’t been paying attention while I walked.
He nodded. We were on Newbury I realized — in the shade of the brownstones, clear sky, trees marooned in the sidewalk waving in the breeze.
“So,” I started to say, watching him shift from foot to foot like it was cold, “you have something from Ms. Foster?”
Were we supposed to chat it up? Get to the point? I didn’t know how this was supposed to work. Shoppers passed us as we stood in the middle of the sidewalk.
“You know what to do with it?” he asked with his good ear tilted towards me.
“Sure, yeah,” I glanced down at a loose button on his jacket, “I mean, I’ve been told.” I looked away to watch a group of guys in suits — nobody I knew — walk into the cupcake shop.
He took a step closer, pulled his hand out of his pocket, and reached towards me. I stuck out mine to meet him halfway but also to keep him away from me to be honest. He dropped a lumpy palm-sized object wrapped in grocery bag paper into my outstretched hand.
I hefted it up and down a bit. He stepped back. “Okay,” he said. “And you know what to do with it?” he asked again.
Jesus, honestly, I didn’t know what any of this was about — it had seemed simple when Ms. Foster had explained it, sure, but I didn’t even really know her. Looking at Albert, I couldn’t remember why I’d agreed in the first place.
“Yup, I got it,” was all I said though, and I slipped the package into my pocket.
He turned to go, then stopped and said, “Hey, do I know you by the way? Are you famous or something?”
I looked at him. “Umm, I don’t think so — I’m an accountant.”
“Huh,” he said pulling a waxy rain hat out from an inside pocket of his jacket, “strange, you look familiar,” and he walked away.
My friend Richie lived the floor below me in my building. He was a nice guy, had an artificial leg, and was rather tall. Whenever he invited me out to do things though, I always turned him down. I mean, we were friends. I liked him, and it wasn’t like my social life was so busy or anything. It was just that every time he invited me out I was busy or one of us would end up canceling. Every time. How do you explain that to someone?
So we’d just talk in the hall or by the mailboxes and make impossible plans. I think he knew it wasn’t personal — he seemed to hang out with lots of people — but sometimes I imagined a world where all that existed was our feelings, intentions, and desires — no physical bodies, no schedules, no locations, just “I like you and think you’re my friend.”
Walking home with the package, I felt like I was showing a foreign visitor around a place they didn’t much care for. I looked around and noticed how crooked the street signs were. I felt the need to apologize for the plumes of exhaust that coughed out from passing trucks. I kept thinking it was raining or about to rain, but the early evening was perfectly clear.
I shifted the package around a few times because it was warm and seemed to get warmer if I left it alone for too long. I kept thinking people were watching me, but there was no reason in the world they should be watching me any more than they would normally. No one was following me either, though I had that thought. I mean, there was no reason for anyone to be following me either, and yet there I was in that scene in the movies where I look back and hurry forward and look back and hurry forward all the way home.
When I finally got home with the package, the vuduvox rang. I stopped and just listened to it for a little while at first. I mean, my vox didn’t ring that often, and it’s a strange sound, like some bird plus cat hybrid that chirps and purrs from the same mouth. So I was listening to it, and then I thought about answering it, but then it stopped ringing before the answering machine picked up. After a second I realized I wasn’t even sure if it had rung. I mean, now, then, at that moment, I was just standing in my empty apartment, and it looked the same, I felt the same, there was nothing to indicate that it had been ringing aside from my memory. The sound, if there had been one, had appeared and disappeared without a trace beyond my own mind. I decided to think the vox had rung, and I wondered who it had been. I put the package down on the kitchen counter near my fish.
The next day I was at work counting and I realized that I couldn’t remember what I had for breakfast or whether I’d had breakfast. I didn’t even really remember getting up and going to work. It seemed like I’d just somehow arrived there without being aware, counting the potatoes one by one. I looked around the counting floor and saw Javiere directing a forklift crew, Amy with her camo shirts, and the rest of the crew and items stretching out over the vast concrete floor. There was a pleasant rustle on the floor during the working day, a comforting sound of labor and motion. It was strange that I couldn’t remember getting up and getting ready to go to work, but everything seemed fine otherwise. I relaxed and got back to counting.
I wondered where the potatoes came from — I wasn’t really supposed to think about them that way exactly. As they say, “a good accountant counts.” Were they local, organic? I knew that they were each unique even though they seemed to be of the same variety. In the beginning, I had no sense of one from another aside from whether or not it had been counted.
For me, the longer the job the better it was. I mean I liked accounting, and the longer the jobs the closer you were to just pure accounting — no decisions to be made, no to do list, no looking for a next job, just endless and relentless counting for weeks. With the potato job, I was going to get to count numbers no one ever gets to count or only gets to count like once in their whole lives. The prospect of going through all that wilderness of numbers was thrilling. I mean, sure, lots of people use the number 1,000,000 everyday, but few people have actually counted all the way there. Few people get to savor the richness of 999,999 or stand on the edge of the silent scream of 1,000,001. To visit these numbers, to be paid to count these numbers and feel them manifest in the dry, solid weight of a potato, I still couldn’t quite believe it.
When I got home that day, I thought about opening the package. I hadn’t moved it or touched it since I’d gotten it, but I assumed it was still warm and still heavy. I stood by the counter looking at it while the light outside dimmed.
At first I thought it was drugs. It was so conspicuously nondescript, but for some reason I didn’t think Ms. Foster would be mixed up in drugs. Industrial secrets seemed more plausible, like a special vuduvox chip or something. If it had been a manila envelope with the little metal clasp, I would’ve assumed it was papers or photographs or something. It could have been documentation that her husband was having an affair or something. I didn’t get a married vibe or sense of jealousy from Ms. Foster though.
I just had no idea. As I looked at the package, I wondered if it was somehow watching me, if it was communicating with something out there somewhere. Maybe there was a network of these packages in other guys’ apartment, or maybe it was part of some CDIH radio number bunker. I wondered if it could perhaps move on its own. I mean, it didn’t seem like it was moving, but who knows, right? I thought about putting it in the closet, but it wasn’t in the way of anything. Ms. Foster had just stopped as we walked around the lake, looked me in the eye, and said, “I need you to do something for me.” Of course I’d said yes.
“One potato, two potato, three potato” — accountants don’t work like that. It would add two or three months to the job, and nobody is going to pay you to say “potato” a million times unless that’s the actual job. We just say the number, and we count one type of thing at a time. One person counts it all. Then you put all the numbers together in a report; that’s your inventory, and it is absolute.
In the old days, they tried having two or three people count sections of the same thing, but it doesn’t work. With multiple accountants, first you have to split the pile, which is never a good idea, and then the numbers don’t agree. After they were done, the accountants would go to check each other’s piles, and they wouldn’t get the same numbers as the previous accountant. Then they would check their own piles, and they get different numbers again. Over long periods of time with lots of stuff, it’s impossible for a group of people to get the same results.
So it’s one person, one count. Since there aren’t exactly any checks, you could cheat, but why become an accountant if you didn’t want to count? If you don’t like counting, then the job market is your oyster, let me tell you, no need to be an accountant.
After work about a week later, I unlocked my door and found a pack of unopened “thank you” cards on the counter near the package and my fish. They were simple white with a silver line across them and “Thank You” spelled out off to one side. My door had been locked. I stood there by the counter and looked around, but there was no sign of anyone or anything out of place. I thought maybe it was the super, but I couldn’t think of why she’d leave me a pack of thank you cards. Nobody else had a key to my place though.
Then I searched all around my apartment, but again, nothing was out of place. I stepped out into the hall and looked around, but nothing was unusual there either. I went back into my apartment and voxed Richie to see if he’d noticed anything, but he hadn’t. I didn’t bother to explain why I’d asked and set the mouthpiece down. It probably wasn’t that big a deal, I told myself. Nothing felt wrong or anything. I didn’t think I could call the cops on someone on someone who just me something anyway.
I saw Ms. Foster’s assistant, Albert, again the next day on my way to work. He was standing outside the travel agency. He had his back to the flow of pedestrians and was staring intently at a tropical-looking poster. I started to make my way over to him from down the block, thinking I’d say hello or thinking he might be looking for me. I wasn’t really sure what I’d say — “how’s this secret mission going?” seemed inappropriate. I suppose the point of this wasn’t to make friends exactly. I did want to ask him about the thank you cards though; I wondered if he or Ms. Foster could have had something to do with them. Someone stepped in front of me, and I sidestepped to get out of the way. When I looked again, Albert was gone.
I don’t remember when a day or a few days or a week stopped feeling like a long time. At some point though, a day ending and a new day beginning stopped feeling like a real beginning and a real ending, like nothing would be substantially different just because it was Wednesday rather than Tuesday. Now it took months for things to change. Months would go by, and then I’d realize it’d been months, and there were only like two or three things I could really remember from that time. I didn’t understand how all that time could go by without leaving any memories. Maybe I should’ve written down what I did every day or something. I mean, sometimes I’d try to keep a journal, but I never thought I’d ever read it. I remembered some stuff, and some stuff I really knew well — like all this stuff I’m telling you. But there’s so much I must’ve forgotten. I remembered Ms. Foster and the potatoes, but for all I know, it could have been me that left the “thank you” cards on the counter without thinking about it.
I was walking out the spiral doors after work a few days later when I first saw Ronald James. He stood near a bench just out of the flow of people leaving the building. His sunglasses were dark and angular, and a wave of graying hair was pushed back from his forehead.
I noticed him in part because he was quite tall, and as soon as I looked at him, he was looking at me, or he’d been looking at me the whole time. He watched me walk a few steps and then walked directly towards me.
“Hugh?” he said as a question though it seemed he already knew who I was.
“Yes,” I said slowly, stopping to look at him.
He reached out his hand and said, “you can call me James. I wanted to talk to you about Ms. Foster.”
I shook his hand slowly. “Ms. Foster?” I asked.
“You met with her recently, correct?”
I just looked at him, trying to get my bearings on the situation.
“Let’s get a cup of coffee,” he said and clapped his hand on my shoulder and turned into the flow of the crowd.
I followed him for a few steps then stopped and said, “who are you?”
He turned towards me, “I’m an associate of Ms. Foster’s. I’d like to tell you some things about her that you may not know and that you probably should know. Let’s get a cup of coffee and talk about it for a moment. If you don’t want to keep listening, you can leave any time.”
I looked at him and tried to see through his sunglasses. “Okay,” I said and began to follow him.
After we’d sat down in the booth with our coffees, he asked, “Do you know who I am?”
“Someone famous?” I suggested, looking into the golden darkness of his glasses, which he hadn’t taken off.
“Do I look famous?” he asked.
“Well, I mean,” I said, “I don’t know — I guess not?”
“So you met Ms. Foster recently?”
“Yeah, just briefly — we were doing some accounting business — you know,” I lied, sitting up in the booth, “I’m an accountant.”
“I know. Did she give you any money? Give you anything?”
“No, nope — it was just pro bono work I was doing — I thought it’d pay off later.”
“And has it?”
“Well, I don’t know yet,” I said, looking down into my mug.
He said he was a soldier and had fought the AFL in the early 70s. He didn’t go into detail, but he told me to be careful with Ms. Foster. For some reason, he couldn’t tell me tell everything yet. He said he’d meet me again and tell me what he could.
“Do you think she could have broken into my apartment?” I asked when he seemed to be done.
“I can’t say,” he said. He stood up then, and I did too. “Goodbye, Hugh. Stay clear of Ms. Foster.”
“Okay,” I said insincerely. He walked away, and suddenly I started wondering how he’d found me.
Perhaps I should have been more cautious with these people at the time, but I just walked and counted potatoes. I thought I knew things.