We’re talking about a fairly representative slice of Atlanta’s urban middle-class. My clients’ incomes range from modest–such as dependents who don’t need to file but are entitled to a refund–to those who earn annually around half a million dollars. This is the dry money-angle: Some people cut even, some owe, and some are entitled to huge refunds–all depending upon their particular tax situation. This is where talk of not giving “Uncle Sam” more than his due capers in.
But there is so much more to tax prep.
Genuinely interested, I tend to chat with all my clients. Some like to tell me stories, while others want to hear a story. Preferences aren’t always obvious, and I have to adjust quickly in order not to offend or annoy—or to bore. But tax preparation is boring, to most. The conversation is important, though, for a good tax preparer listens for life-changing events that affect taxes. The process should then quickly boil down to a logic and math problem, you’d assume.
Oh, except it doesn’t.
This is a social encounter. There will be people who demand you pour energy into them. Others want to pour energy into you. A surprising number of people seek a deeply personal exchange, a connection, while having their taxes done.
A few come to me lonely. We’ve all been lonely at some time or another, and I always feel for them. I figure, we can for a short spell be less lonely together.
One night after work, I was plagued with a series of stress dreams about compassion. All my loved ones were dying. I draped my arms around them and reminded them how wonderful they are and what amazing adventures they’ve had. In the last dream, I found myself at the pound, petting old dogs, the sort that will never find a home. One large blind poodle-mix stood perfectly still, relishing the rare affection, while I ran my fingers through his thick, warm fur. I woke up weeping.
And, as you might expect, some clients struggle with mental health. I’ve sensed family hovering in the background, allowing them this precious independence. Some clients, as sane as any of us, come in so boiling angry at the society they believe has wronged them that I, the messenger, am forced to tread very carefully when delivering bad news. One year, an office had to bolt its doors on the last day of tax season and unlock only when clients arrived for their scheduled appointments. Taxes can bring out the raw in people.
Most nights I’d come home exhilarated, bursting to share my day with my husband—frankly, unable to stop for a full fifteen-minute spread. The surprising fact is, a person can be overstimulated by the emotionalism of tax work. The tax preparation itself is interesting to me. It can be complex, even a challenge, but never particularly draining on its own. Most scenarios are routine, and the ones that aren’t only require some extra focus and research—my training and experience have made me pretty quick. However, I’m naturally empathetic (there’s the rub!), and I’ve never been trained to distance myself from people’s feelings. I could ‘switch off,’ as they say. And yet there’s the risk of seeming (if not actually becoming) detached. One client of mine, and not the only one, burst into tears during her appointment. “I didn’t know I’d be so upset,” she said, “and it has nothing to do with my taxes! This is so unfair—you’re not paid to listen to this.” A sensible person, she was just overdue for a sympathetic ear, so I reassured her: “Nobody has to pay me to be a human being. Don’t you worry about it.”
Clients share their passions, too: news of upcoming weddings or, squirming with delight, that a new grandbaby is due. They speak of their business ventures, such as a beauty salon or a photography studio, or their last Alaskan cruise. They tell me about their volunteer work with the local Golden Retriever rescue. Hundreds of clients. Between my standard tax questions, they share with me even their children’s accomplishments and how proud they are of them, and I happily echo their sentiments. It’s fun to participate in another’s joy.
Of course, there are people who demand that I acknowledge their accomplishments and how superior they are. Okay, I might be less accommodating in those instances. But sometimes not—sometimes I take pleasure from giving people exactly what they want from me, whether they have earned it or not, just to see if I can manage, just to see how well I bend. My heart is still warmed if the gift strikes home.
People can accomplish just about any feat if they care enough to work at it regularly.
I tell them.
“I write fiction.”
The conversation may stall for a moment—usually a good time for me to get some tax analysis done. A few will then glance at my business cards, read the ‘JD,’ and immediately set to work compiling all the wonderful careers I could pursue when I’m finished with all this tax prep nonsense.
They never say: “when you grow up.” But they mean it. To them, writing is a hobby, and they assume, for whatever mysterious reason, that I’m putting off my real life. Writing is a dalliance, a luxury—in fact, they’ve been planning to put a book together themselves, they tell me, but are too busy right now. Writing is something one does in one’s spare time.
I am an author. I work hard. This is my real life.
Developing a creative writing career is thrilling. It takes time, effort, and sacrifice—and, while we’re at it, let’s throw in a staggering amount of masochism. The writer’s life comes with significant risk. People don’t realize this, nor do most care. With inordinate enthusiasm for my future as they’ve envisioned it (and I can’t help wonder how conflicted they must feel about their own paths), these clients gleefully announce that I could take the CPA exam and become a CPA (!), or I can take the bar exam in Georgia and practice law again (!)—tax law, in fact, since I like taxes so much.
“You are right,” I say, smiling. “With an investment of time and money, I could do either of those things or something else… if that was what I wanted to do. But I’m not the least bit interested. Right now we have this lovely arrangement through which I have the privilege of preparing your taxes. I exercise my rational, puzzle-solving self during tax season. I exercise my creative side as I write during the off-season. A good balance, wouldn’t you agree?”
To this the naysayers have little to add. What a peculiar thing to want for oneself, I hear them thinking, when money and a secure future could be had so easily. What a waste. Silly thing doesn’t know that only ‘other’ people succeed as writers.
Occasionally, to my delight, the face across the cubicle lights up:
“So I can say I knew you when, huh? When you’re some famous writer like what’s-his-name… John Grisham!”
“Yes!” I reply. “Or maybe not quite like John Grisham… but thank you for your well wishes. It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? You being able to say that. –But for now, we need to focus on you and your taxes. Would you like to pay up front for my services today, or shall we deduct the fee from your refund?”
Funny, these tax-desk exchanges.
Beauty: white wispy hair, veined hands, and sagging faces smiling back at me. Or at the other end of the spectrum, the slick new adult who taps his smartphone, nervous and tense but brimming with aspiration. At all ages and every stage, as people say: wisdom and fretfulness, courage and foolishness, and the occasional disdain for our fellows. Even the vampiric ones who come in deliberately seeking to sap my energy—who’ve cost me hours of saying “Wow” in a daze while I recovered—at the very least, they provide for vivid encounters.
In the end, why should anyone bother to be other than who they really are? I consider myself fortunate to have had a glimpse yearly into so many interesting lives.
I am home again.
Burned out but recovering. Dumped on this gritty shore with my silent ruminations. I just got word of my last submissions: rejected.
Several writer friends helped me maintain a social media presence while I was gone. I’m so grateful to them. I should probably let the last four months go.
The walls have been alarmingly quiet this past week.
I managed to draft a short story while puttering around barefoot, about a precocious child in stark circumstances. Tomorrow I’ll start another story. I’ve been considering scenarios for the second installment of my paranormal/sci-fi series, The Last Will and Testament of Mary B. Tate, and plan to dive in late this summer after finishing another full edit of the first book. It’s almost time to query.
But…. have you.… Have you ever considered how surreal the quiet is? Sometimes I pad along in my little insulated house flanked by its tall bright windows, when suddenly the air conditioner kicks on, droning like a spaceship’s engine, powering me safely through a green space—what with all the flashy spring leaves outside and the sticky heat, where small birds swoop and wiry brown wasps drift among the hedges….