Michelle Auerbach


Checkbook Elegy


"looks like we missed tax time this year," my accountant says over the phone.

"What? It’s only March first." I moan; now I'm paying attention.

"The weather, I’m talking about the weather missing tax season, not the calendar; it feels like we skipped to summer. Relax, relax, all I need from you is a copy of the income statements you have from the last year, your expenses, a copy of your divorce decree, and the phone number of your ex-husband’s accountant so we can work out any irregularities, you know, so you don’t get audited. Relax, relax, and enjoy tax season in Colorado."

The information we get about ourselves in this lifetime, we earn, like income. We earn it through hard work, extreme moments of fear, long journeys into silence, or through grace. That last one, grace, is how I hope all the information is given once we go wherever it is we go when we die. I’d rather learn through grace, truth be told, because I am finding the other ways a little rough.

When my father died, I tried to imagine him in one of those old movie theaters in New York, the plush velvet-seated ones with palms in the lobby and ornate ceilings. He would be sitting with an angel or Siskel or Ebert, watching a movie about his life—but he would have the ability to stop the film, rewind, replay, discuss. The movie would spin out on tangents; this action of yours became this experience for the person on the other end. My father was a whirlwind; I often had the feeling everything he did was going by too fast for him to understand that other people were involved. By watching the movie of his life, he would come to understand, with grace and compassion, all the things he did, all the repercussions of his actions. The knowledge of how his life affected us—we, the recipients of the strange packages of books, tapes, and other media that caught his fancy, but also of the long and painful silences, the disappearances, and the hang-ups. That knowledge of how it affected us would need to be earned, but he could earn it in that movie theater, making his death at forty-one meaningful, part of an education. He was lucky. So lucky not to have to figure this all out on the ground, while all the pieces were still moving. It is a little odd to envy someone who killed himself, but that’s where I am.

I had no such out. Because of kids, I chose to hang around here in this world and do my taxes instead of going to the great cinema on the other side. Tax season proved as telling as that freeze-frame movie watching method, if, I imagined, more painful. I had been looking away from my life for awhile, perhaps not as thoroughly or as long as my father; and I was short an angel; but I had an accountant and a lot of receipts. So, in my thirty-sixth year, I could come to understand myself through the list of expenditures in my name, which make up some blurred photocopy of who I was, who I am.

The first unequivocally me expense was a two-hundred-and-forty-one dollar library fine for a Latin dictionary and en face translation of Catullus that got lost in the move out of the joint-house and into the new, me-and-kids-alone house. I had many life glitches I kept from the man to whom I was married. These mistakes made me look flighty and incapable of dealing with everyday life. Truth to myself, I am a little flighty, and I don’t put the value on things like returning library books that perhaps I should. Not as bad as he thought, but not as good at the mundane as I could be. In any event, I had no idea if I could write off a library fine, so I wrote it down.

Clothes, unless you are in a play, and then you probably cannot declare them yourself, are not a write-off. So the American Express bills, hidden from my no longer spouse through our entire marriage, fell on me, no help from the IRS. My accountant said, "Call your lawyer."

My attorney was furious with me.

"Why was this card not dealt with when we did the rest of the cards?"

"He didn’t know I had it; I used it to buy clothes and books, things he said were extravagant."

"Still joint debt."

He immediately got on the phone with the other lawyer and rolled his eyes at me while bluffing and, finally, yelling. No go. I wrote the check.

Last year, I helped a friend to find all the tax paperwork hidden in boxes and bags in what she called, ominously, the Pantry, off her kitchen. This room held student papers graded and ready to turn back, old notebooks half-filled with her own writing, shoes, velveteen dinosaurs in two shades of green, hand-me-down blouses, letters from her bank, rejection and acceptance letters from literary journals, and, finally, almost every document she needed to file her return by five p.m. that evening. She sat stunned and huddled in a corner by the phone, while I sorted, asking what was garbage, what was save, and what needed to be left in the Pantry or be returned to bedrooms. I could never have done this for myself. I recognized her stunned look and knew that when I had to do this tax thing, I would be felled by whatever my version of the Pantry was. It was not a premonition, but the knowledge that I had that hollow, charcoal feeling in me, too. I was not going to escape by being organized, which I am not. I was going to have to march through the detritus of my life and not whine too much. That she survived—and filed her tax return—was a testament to her strength. If she was not organized and not prepared and it almost felled her, well, as my step-dad says: "Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."

It was the thirty-thousand dollar credit card bill I didn't even know about but was in my name that was the entry into my version of the Pantry. I did not know this card existed during my marriage. My beloved had gotten so good at my signature that the bank would send the babysitter back to me with checks I had signed, saying the signature did not match mine. It was mine, but the bank was so used to the husband’s signature on my account, they no longer recognized mine.

The card with the $30,000 on it, with Michelle Auerbach as the holder, had not been mentioned in the divorce proceedings, and as I was signatory, the conclusion was the same as with my dinky Am-Ex bill. The Am-Ex bill really only included a peach colored shawl with beaded glass designs skirting the fringe, the black pants that fall like Marlene Deitrich is wearing them, oh, and the first edition, letterpress printed copy of Rebecca Brown’s Excerpts From a Family Medical Dictionary with hand cut pigs and real tooth to the paper that I bought and keep in a plastic bag, flat as instructed. What this other, huge credit card bill said was this: I was gullible and had allowed things to get totally out of hand. It was not mine, and yet I was responsible for its existence because I had turned my back, let my beloved husband sign my name, and looked away. That is the easy truth. The worse truth is that I wanted no responsibility while I was married for anything that was not in my purview. We divided tasks and went along, and I would not look at what he was doing because I was not supposed to have to. I had become inflexible.

I did not know how to get out of this, and it was the same rolling-eyes-and-yelling lawyer that played the part of the person who does the work while the stunned and frightened person sits and looks on with awe as the Pantry gets cleaned out.

Sometimes when a person is drowning, they fight. In Red Cross lifesaving class, I was taught how to subdue a person when this happens, how to rescue them against their will as they thrash in the water, churning up mud and trying to drag you down, too. Sometimes they become dead weight and you can put them over your shoulder and swim them to the shore, flop them out of the water, clear the air passage, get breathing going again, wait for the cough of water and then the gasp of life to re-enter. It must be a horrid feeling, expelling water from your lungs and allowing air to rush in. Akin to expelling a husband and allowing a void to rush in. I was the dead weight kind of client.

Camping equipment is a write-off if you are in the process of researching a book on traveling with children. Replacing all your camping gear—tents, sleeping bags, two burner stove, blow-up mattress, plastic or tin plates, watercolor paints for kids—might not seem of paramount importance when paying rent has become tricky. Going to the hot springs with the children and painting the view across the valley to the Collegiate Peaks, however, is more important than the phone bill—ask my long distance provider. I tallied up all the gear cost and added it to my list. Being a good mother is a feeling that has been impossible for me to hold on to through this process. I can see the tail end of my self-esteem leak out under the front door like Elijah’s cape as he secretly slinks out of the house on Passover after drinking all the wine while the other kids are not looking. A disappearing piece of shiny fabric, the last inch of which I grab for, but it is gone. I was the perfect mother in a two-parent household. Or so it appeared. In actuality, it was very, very hard for me. Even the Valentine’s Day parties with the huge, heart shaped cookies to decorate and the eight Hannukah nights with a present every night for each child. I wanted to give the kids their mom, but their mom was somewhere else, writing novels in her head and taking rather serious medication for psychiatric problems that mostly resolved themselves when she moved out from their Dad’s house.

It is still easier when someone is cleaning your house, doing your laundry, paying your bills, and even watching your kids so you can go to yoga. For a while I would find myself in the bathtub howling, "I want my life back," but I knew back was the operative word. No going back. Forward, forward.

A wonderful woman used to come to clean the house when I was married, and she would teach me to cook homemade tamales; we would fry chile rellenos and make vegetable soup together. Mostly the house would get clean too, if not, then next week. She spoke no English, and I would learn the words for everything we needed in Spanish so I could go buy the provisions and have it all ready for her. Lechuga, arroz, frijoles. Sometimes I see her at the grocery store now and feel guilty that I cannot invite her home to clean my new house.

What are absent from my register this tax year are any checks for having my house cleaned, laundry done, or even much babysitting. They would have been there one year prior. In the painting class I take, in order to learn to see and to be bad at something on a weekly basis, there are a lot of women who wear diamonds to paint, fancy sweaters, and two-hundred-dollar pairs of jeans. Who else is available on a Friday morning but the bohemian fringe and the don’t-need-to-work? My friend, who is also on the massively underpaid side, needed watercolor paint, which is not cheap; and I needed a brush. We split the cost of a brush and I gave her half the paint left in all my tubes. A few weeks later I needed Cerulean Blue and I asked the woman next to me, one of the diamond women, for a dab. She suggested I buy a tube. When I related this story to a friend at lunch after class, he said, "Yeah, when you are rich, you really don’t need to be nice. You can afford to be selfish. When you are living tight, you find that the world of kindness opens up to you, if you’re lucky." What I found, based on all the expenses no longer in the check register, was that I am trading and helping and finding kindness everywhere, where before I had simply paid someone to do it.

Books are the single largest tax-deductible expense I have. I have to come to terms with the fact that I have more books than space. I have boxes of them in every closet, I have resorted to storing some in the garage. I have Eighteenth Century British cookbooks with recipes for hung pheasant, which I would never eat. I have four separate editions of The Joy of Cooking because the ones previous to World War II have recipes for things like how to cook a raccoon, the one during the war had all kinds of cookie recipes to send your boy at the front, the 1974 version was what I grew up with and is the gold standard, and then a new one came out that I reviewed and got a copy. The books I pay for could probably pay for my retirement instead. The poetry section alone overflows my bedroom and into the hall bookshelf. The dictionaries take up three shelves. I just cannot see it as an extravagance; and, when faced with hard numbers—seventy dollars a month, or sometimes more, on books—I nod and say, "Yes." I am willing to accept that I will go without most things for books. It’s not even a lesson about myself: It’s a fact of life.

I know a man who deeply believes that taxation in America is unconstitutional. He will wax your legs for free, forever–this is what he does for a living–if you can find anywhere in the constitution where it says that taxation of personal income is, in fact, a right the government may exercise over its citizens. I ponder this while I try to figure out if I can deduct the videos I’ve shown to my students in class, ones I paid for out of pocket. Have I, over the years, lost the ability to fight for what I believe in? Would I still be willing to get arrested in the streets as I did in ACT-UP demonstrations in the Eighties? Has parenthood and a straight job made me into someone who wonders, "Can I deduct this?" Instead of, "Is this system legal?"

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Crack-Up, says that knowledge about your self either comes in a flash and hits you on the head, or you look back and see it spinning out behind you. Everyone who has ever been divorced before you wants to save you from either of those kinds of knowledge and has a bit of wisdom for you about how long it takes to come back to yourself and feel normal again. I cannot see how this is possible. In the time since you were without this person in your life, you have become someone all together different. My cells have regenerated twice since I was supine on the sticky New York City pavement, closing down the Brooklyn Bridge, and chanting with my ACT-UP drag queen friends, "Your shoes don’t match your purse," at the feet of the cops. The goal is to have understanding of newness in the world and how it came about, not to find the old equilibrium. Sitting for hours shuffling papers and concentrating with the devotion of some Zen monk is as arduous a way as any to find myself. It requires a certain not-thinking that I have read about in books but never achieved meditating. All I get meditating are grocery lists, phantom pains, complex novel plots, and psychedelic colors behind my eyes. I am surely not doing it right.

I am also surely not doing my taxes right, a thought that brings gripping fear to my early morning wakings. Five a.m., in the dark, I am jolted awake by a picture of myself visiting with the IRS over something I did not even know I was supposed to do. There is asbestos in the ceiling, fluorescent lighting; I am wearing inappropriate clothing, as usual—a blowsy hat and overalls with no shirt for example—; and there are at least three of them and only one of me across a folding table; and they have reams of documents. I have a bunch of credit card slips from bookstores and Video Station. "I cannot handle this, I cannot handle this." Until I end up in the bath with a good book. What is there to not handle? I don’t have much of a choice. My basic assessment of myself is that I am not up to the exigencies of life. I can explain to you the open field in poetry; I can warn you of a comma splice; I can paint a great rendition of a high-top sneaker in water color; I read a good bed time story; I make very good soufflé; I can write novels; I can maintain friendships over many decades; I can read in Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit; I can love my kids to pieces. What I cannot do is believe I can handle all the tasks I handed to someone else over fourteen years ago. No, the real knowledge is a strata deeper than that.

I must believe that my own rendition of what makes a worthwhile existence is the important one. Believe in memorizing Emily Dickenson’s

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you—Nobody—Too?

Then there's a pair of us!

Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

Believe in Salman Rushdie, home grown tomatoes, Jamaican coffee, kids reading A Wrinkle in Time, Billie Holliday singing "God Bless the Child," flying to Cleveland because my mom needs to see me, putting words on the page one after another, and just making it come out okay that day, and the next one. The "it" being my life and the lives of my kids and the people I love. Something I value like the Master Card commercial: "Doing your taxes, $247.00. Knowing your heart, priceless."

Once I separated my checkbook from that of my kids’ dad, I realized that what I lost from looking away during my marriage was me. I lost a clear view of me. Kind of like my father did in his hyper-sped-up life. At the beginning, I said my father was lucky to have checked out and learned all this in the great movie theater in the sky with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert angels at his side. But, once I put the folder, signed tax forms, and the checks for the IRS into my accountant’s hands, he surprises me. He goes into the other room and brings back a bouquet of irises. He has a greenhouse out back. These irises are blue on the edges and yellow in the center, and the contrast makes them hum. Like Frank O’Hara’s hum-colored cabs.

How would I have seen that if I gave up? How would I arrange the irises in my grandmother’s blue vase on my dining room table if I were dead? I know that the desire to check out like my father did will stay with me for a while. What I am doing here—taxes, divorce, work–is often miserable. There is no way to make it work out in a balance sheet or a checkbook register. But it doesn’t need to. Not on April 16. Not for me, anyhow. The hum-colored irises are worth more than all the money in my bank account. I know it, my accountant knows it, and the angels probably know it too.



Michelle Auerbach is a writer and journalist living in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has been published in Denver Quarterly, XCP, Bombay GinThe New York Times, and others. Michelle is the winner of the Northern Colorado Writer’s Short Fiction Contest for 2011. 

"I have not lived in a house with a front porch for years. What we have could be generously called a stoop. But we treat it as a porch, and so we sit out there and contemplate life. One summer evening when it was too hot to eat in the house, my three kids and I were sitting out on the stoop eating dinner and listening to our neighbor call her dog. Our neighbor has a particular accent, developed by being a Kansan farm girl in a rowdy family with a lot of siblings. When she calls her dog, she really calls her dog. My middle daughter turned to me and said, "That's how we know where we live." I looked at her quizzically. "You know, because we know all our neighbors without having to see them." And she was right. She described an exact sense and feeling of place. Of course, she also described aural voyeurism, but you try to explain that to a twelve-year-old."

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