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A CHAPTER FROM

LOSSES

by Robert Wexelblatt

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The Montréal Review, September 2012

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"Losses" by Robert Wexelblatt (Vagabondage Press, 2012)

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The sun hung in a basket from a hook driven into a whitewashed sky. A fluke of spring had presented us with a dog day three and a half months early. Heading up one side of the park, I passed two homeless men panting on separate benches; one wore an orange hunting cap with the earflaps down. I realized that they had to keep their entire wardrobe on their backs and that is why the homeless always seem to have too much on in summer, hardly enough in winter. An ideal response to a change in the weather would be to switch cities rather than clothes. Wondering whether or not I might make a good bum someday, I crossed the street in a phalanx of non-bums.

At nine in the morning, the shimmering business district was thick with secretaries in summer frocks hurrying on cork-soled shoes pitched to the height of champagne flutes. The Federal Building, ugly in all seasons and at all hours, shone like a gigantic toaster with black gashes in its sides. My gash was on the fourteenth floor.

With just three months of service in the nation's most loathed institution, I was a mere acolyte. The work I had been given thus far was tedious, not to be compared with the romantically sordid deportations, petty larcenies, advertising frauds, evictions, assaults, aggravated mayhems, and two second-degree murders I had amused myself with as a full-time legal aid attorney. But budgets can be slashed as suddenly as drinking partners on Saturday nights. I needed a change after seven years anyway. It was time for a sabbatical.

"No goddamned idealism," Mr. McInerny warned, even as he told me I had been taken on by the IRS. He looked not at me, but rather, ruefully, at my dossier.

"I'll make a note," I said.

 

I predict that in the lore of the Internal Revenue Service, that unseasonably sultry morning will figure as a date of no small significance. For me, it was on a par with the occasion of Pope Urban's eloquence at the Council of Clermont. A crusade is a crusade is a crusade.

Martin F. Holmans, officemate and as brand new a revenuer as myself, met me in the corridor outside the men's room. My habits being hopelessly regular, I suppose he was lying in wait for me. Marty, as regular in his ways as I was in mine, wore his customary brown jacket and sardonic grin.

"G'morning, Marty," I said.

"Good? A morning fit for folks with blood as thin as rubbing booze? Good?" Colorful grumpiness was just one feature of Marty's repertoire. "Anyhow, something's up, old man," he said with an eagerness approaching good cheer.

"Oh?"

"Must be important. Easeful Death came by at eight forty-five and told me that McInerny wants both of us in the Situation Room at nine-thirty, sharp. She asked where you were, incidentally."

"What'd you say?"

"I told her you began every day in the men's room, of course, and ended each night tucking in your little packet of genetic heritage. Who could tell an untruth to those brown eyes?"

Easeful Death, you will want to know, is McInerny's secretary-administrative assistant rather; it's like jogging and running. Her sobriquet was bestowed on her by Marty who had majored in English literature at the University of Pittsburgh before being drafted, wasting two years in Korea, then taking up the Law and, with an earnestness of which no trace was ever on display, public service. He called the indisputably attractive Ms. Citro Easeful Death because, he explained, "Every male on this floor is half in love with her."

 

McInerny used the word situation the way Chinese cooks use soy sauce. "Here's the situation," he said. "I'm going to hand you two a case to research. On your own. I don't think it amounts to shit; it's a look-at situation: lots of sheltering, about a hundred people involved. Just needs a bit more than the usual once-over. Rest of the staff's up to here with either the Wyoming coal thing or the Atlanta condominiums. So, I'm down to you two infants. Okay. Just look this stuff over and write me a report. That's it. Got it?"

McInerny pushed a stack of files across the scratched conference table. He rubbed his bald head to show us that he was in a situation he didn't care for.

I had only been in McInerny's own office once. One wall is covered with pictures of his family, all in gilt frames; there are also two framed newspaper articles about his son, the hockey player at Brown with the 3.8 average. At the center of the wall is a large formal photograph, a Father's Day present by the look of it, showing Clan McInerny sans paterfamilias. Save for the smiles, it might have been taken at his funeral. It was hard to envy McInerny his Easeful Death.

I looked at Marty. Marty beamed back.

McInerny got to his feet.

"Anything else we should know?" I asked.

McInerny frowned. "Nothing right now," he said ambiguously. "Remember. A report, that's all. Not a novel."

"By when?" I persisted.

"First thing Monday," he said impatiently and marched out.

Marty sighed loudly. "Won't do to prejudice the eager beavers," he said. "He's holding out."

"Looks that way," I allowed. "Something's fishy."

"Well, you know, don't you?"

"Huh? What?"

"You must've heard the scuttlebutt. Big shots passed down the word: not just the names we're supposed to lay off but whole categories of cases they don't want us bringing."

"Cases like this, you think?"

"Could very well be, old man."

"Then McInerny's taking a bit of a risk, isn't he?"

"Maybe he's in a bind. I mean, this needs looking at, as he said. We look, so his ass is covered. But we're newbies so we miss everything important. Case goes away and, while his rear is safe, ours isn't."

"You really think that's what he's doing?"

"Well, I guess that might be the-the situation." Marty could do a fair imitation of McInerny.

"He did look like he had ants in his pants."

"Why'd he give us that business about everybody who's any good being too busy? I think he's temporizing, handing this mess over to the new slobs. If we fall in the pig shit, so it goes."

I lifted the top folder. "You're probably imagining things. What the hell is it, anyway?"

 

It was movie deals, fifteen of them, with about five score heavy investors split into six limited partnerships, all named for the more obscure presidents of the nineteenth century: Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Taylor, Harrison, Garfield. Most of the investors were doctors and dentists, with a sprinkling of actors and athletes whose names I recognized. The partnerships had in some instances purchased films, in others produced them, and in still others had a share in distribution agreements. Every one of the films had lost money, lots of it. These losses were then applied to the taxes of the investors and, voilà , the movies turned into tax shelters, of a sort.

As Marty read, his eyes grew big as saucers. "Christ, here's a bastard made over a million and a half and paid about twenty bucks on it. Orthopedic surgeon."

Marty tore avidly through the K-1's on which each investor's gain or loss had to be reported. From time to time, he would stutter with indignation or yelp with exhilaration; both were prompted by the terrific sums of money involved. Meanwhile, I stared silently at the files as if scrutiny alone could untangle everything. I felt like a jawless spider hovering over succulent maggots, a wingless retributive angel contemplating souls black with sin. All I had were questions. Plenty of little things were missing; I noticed a discrepancy here, a possible forgery there. But, what I was really after was some sense of the scheme itself, the entirety. A tax shelter is like a philosophical system: it comes with an agglomeration of arguments which do as much to obscure the fundamental position as to support it. I began to grasp that in these movie deals, legalistic complexity itself had been a goal, that complication was, in both the military and judicial senses, a defense, an intricate breastwork. The whole was an architecture of pure thought, gossamer metaphysics which nonetheless could move the world of matter. Whoever had put these deals together was a formidably corrupt Platonist. Marty was right; this was no case for novices.

As he still had to clean up some work for Kelly, the prosecutor in charge of the coal "situation," Marty was busy for the rest of the morning. I was, however, free to soar through realms of golden speculation and did so at my desk, staring out the window toward the harbor, like a Venetian merchant. I pictured old-fashioned cartoon images of unscrupulous Cupidity doing a dance with arrogant Fraud, fat men in top hats sitting on sacks of cash. I felt disgust for the legislation that made such shenanigans not only possible, but, quite possibly, legal. My very first week hard-bitten Kelly had explained to me with gleeful cynicism how one loophole had been written by the legal staff of an oil company specifically to enable them to bring foreign profits into the country without paying a penny into the public till. It passed both houses of Congress without a comma being changed. "Well, who do you think writes the laws, anyway?" he had concluded.

And what had I replied? "The people I disliked in law school."

 

"I think it needs a poet or playwright, not a bookkeeper," I said to Marty over lunch. We usually ate at The Omega, a Greek diner two blocks from the office. But that day, I insisted on a posh restaurant, the sort that might be frequented by the people I'd disliked in law school. The Omega would have been noisy and not air-conditioned; I wanted soft voices and softer carpets; I wanted the decorum that attends money. I had made notes, questions, a sort of outline for a Socratic dialogue. Moving my dessert plate aside, I lay them down. Marty was still savoring his chocolate mousse.

"I've got these questions, but I think what we really need is a scenario, a story. I don't know how else we can hope to understand this thing."

"Two boards and a passion and look at all we've got . . . Very well, launch the inquisition, Torquemada."

"Okay. How do you establish the value of a movie?"

"Easy. Just tote up the production costs."

"No, not easy. It can't be done on costs, and it's not a question of ordinary depreciation either. It's an investment, so it's all about how much the film will make."

"You mean lose , don't you? Okay, well, I suppose you get an appraisal then. You know, from an expert?"

"Very good." I took several pieces of paper out of my file. "Now, look at these. They're the appraisals."

"Right. So?"

"Check the signature."

He looked. "Illegible."

"Underneath, the name's typed in. See? Same name on every one."

"Aha! But not the same signatures. Pay dirt, you lucky beginner!"

"That's not all."

"Press on, Darrow. You've got me interested."

"I'm a little less certain about this."

"Try me."

"Well, here's an idea."

Marty nodded.

"Let's say a sharp tax attorney-this what's-his-name, Paul A. Ziffer, Esquire-let's say he goes to a bunch of rich neurologists and orthodontists and whatnot. Let's say he presents himself well, very respectable, shows he's comfortably off, has connections."

"No doubt, he did."

"Okay. Now these doctors aren't tax experts, but they're all looking for a way out of paying Uncle Sam."

"They'd call you a sucker at the club if you weren't."

"They all meet."

"All?"

"Ziffer, the doctors, the athletes, the actors and-who else?"

"I give up, who? A priest?"

"Think it through, Marty. These guys are all pulling in well over a million a year. Of course they've got accountants, tax men, right?

"Elementary, Holmes. Sure."

"Ziffer explains the deal, sort of, anyway. The accountants all go along."

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, what makes the deal so appealing?"

"Let's see. The good, greedy doctors are made to grasp the paradox that by losing money on the movies they get to pay less tax and wind up with more money."

"But why Ziffer's deal? What makes it so special?"

"Right. He needs a gimmick. Could be just that he hikes up the value of the schlock. He's got those dodgy appraisals, see? Doctors wouldn't know or care."

"No. Not enough. It has to be something they do know about, if he's going to sell them hundred-thousand-dollar chunks of Harrison or Garfield or Polk."

"So?"

"Did you check out the dates on the partnership agreements?"

Marty admitted he hadn't.

"Well, I did. They're all dated the same, November 10," I said. "That strike you as odd?"

"Pretty odd. But I don't see-"

"Think sneaky, Marty. Think crooked."

"Sorry, total blank. Virtue makes a man quite stupid, or vice versa."

"Let's say Ziffer convinces these guys of something, tells 'em he's found the magic loophole. They all believe in magic loopholes, don't they? The accountants go along. They call him a genius, which, in a way, he is."

"What loophole?"

"Any loophole you like. A non-existent loophole. An imaginary one. It doesn't matter."

"But such as?"

"I don't know. Something about movies, I guess. It could be anything that sounds halfway plausible."

"Then it's no good."

"Why not?"

"Those accountants and tax men you postulated would all have had to go along with it, wouldn't they? They'd catch the scam."

"You think counting makes you honest? Suppose the accountants were in on it, whatever it is. I mean, in with Ziffer. He could have offered them a commission, for instance."

"How could we find this stuff out?"

I'd thought about this earlier, but hadn't come up with anything. Now I had an idea. "What if it turned out that all these investors had the same accountant? What then?"

"The same..? But they're from all over the country."

"There are large accounting firms. With branches. They've got computers, the Internet. It's not impossible."

"Then you're saying-"

"Look, this is a house of cards I'm building here. But these phony appraisals mean something's up. It was a blunder."

"Well, it's enough to take to McInerny on Monday."

"Maybe. I'm not so sure. If McInerny wants us to screw up, if he's hoping to lay off...? That was your idea, remember."

"Then you think we need more?"

"I think there is more. I just don't know what it is. I still need that scenario."

Marty polished off his glass of house wine and looked around at table after table of tanned men in Italian suits. "The plot, saith Aristotle, is the soul of the tragedy. It hath a beginning, a middle, and an end. The key point, the emotional reward, comes when the recognition and the reversal coincide, as in 'Jesus, she really was old enough to be my mother.' Now, applying Aristotle to our weekend's work, I get something along these lines: the plot is, we'll say, stealing from Uncle Sam; rising action-that's these limited partnerships and the way they work to lose tons of money-"

"Over time," I interrupted. "Don't forget time. November the tenth."

"Indeed not. A plot is a division of time, a series of events causally connected. But as to the recognition and reversal, I just don't know."

"Not to mention the catastrophe."

Marty looked at his watch. "Shit," he said then swung his head around and shouted "Check!"

***

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.

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