The 18-year old railroad clerk (1964)
“WHOM GOD HEARS” BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
From Accounts Payable – My Life Past Due
“You are so vain,” I told my alter ego after I read Isak Dinesen’s The Immortal Story, “that you thought the story was about you, and in fact it was about me.”
Before my father died, he recommended to me, with that stern authoritative tone of his, Dinesen’s works. I perused her Gothic tales, but I did not care for her subtle obscurations or her fatalism, for I still wanted to make something of myself as the master of my own fate.
I did not get the drift of The Immortal Story at first, but it eventually dawned on me that I am not the eccentric character I thought I was, for there are an infinite number of characters essentially like me, symbolically speaking, notwithstanding the accidental attributes.
So many captains of ships bring sailors from deserted islands into virgin ports, each sailor bearing a big pink shell or conch he picked up somewhere, which he leaves with the bookkeeper of the rich man who dies when the immortal story comes true.
When the accountant puts his ear to the pink shell, it jumbles the story into roaring surf, advising all who fight riptide and undertow in vain: To thine own story be true.
Naturally the rare accountant who loves to write must render a full account of it, and after the story is told, nary a sound shall remain for the conch to jumble; only the Voice of the Silence remains for that particular cast of characters; and only by listening to that voice shall they know themselves.
I recall the pink conch offered to me in Negril, Jamaica. My current isolation resembles a deserted island, and I have high hopes that the captain will sail into port any day now. I often visit a marina in my neighborhood, and imagine myself in possession of a luxury yacht with a bosomy blonde as my first mate; a German maiden will do very well if a noble Frenchwoman cannot fit the bill of lading. When Dinesen’s sailor was stranded on a desert island, he dreamed of having the ark he would inevitably inherit; it was not a big ship, but rather a sloop, “not more than five lastages long.” Now I realize why the poor man in Negril was so angered by my rejection of the pink conch: I could have saved both of us from bad times if only I had purchased it and put it to my ear.
Yet I still did not fully remember myself after I read The Immortal Story. My version of self-revelation was flawed, as if I were at present an imposter if not a crackpot. Someday soon I may fulfill the Delphic injunction, and know myself. Might I, in microcosm, very well be, if not a bug, or a baked clay artifact, the symbolic stone in need of being stricken by the rod? Does the enigmatic archetype of Mr. Clay and the like stand for the black-emerald foundation Stone under the Temple that plugs the waters of the Abyss? Is that not the very stone which King David dared to raise to have a look into the awful pit, causing him to be duly affrighted, and to cast into the Abyss a clay shard inscribed, ‘YHWH’, lest the world suffer another great deluge?
Although I am more of a storyteller than an accountant, Elishama (“Whom God Hears”), the miser’s lonely accountant, and I have our similarities.
Elishama’s comparison of women with birds is perfectly understandable. I was given to concentrate on the features of the human body during my dancing days, particularly the delicate structure of the bones of the female’s upper body. I was wont to say, “Women come from the sky; men come from the muck.”
As for rats, I may be rat-like but I am not a little rat nor am I a mouse. Of course I would not mind being called a mouse by a sympathetic friend, for I am told the mouse is an ancestor to the human race — the little creature had to dance around at night without disturbing huge animals, thus was an extraordinary demand created for keen eyesight, intelligence, agility, and so on.
I took up dancing for about twenty hours per week when I was keeping books; both dancing and bookkeeping require a great deal of counting. I have become a fat rat after I stopped dancing. Fat though I may be, I am no pack rat. I do not ferret away property in secret accounts, at least not on my own account. I respect property but I do not want a lot of it, hence my client’s property was safe in my hands. As for money, well, I admit it, I have been lonely for dollars from time to time, but not lonely enough to steal it, which seems to be the thing to do at all levels of society nowadays.
Elishama liked to hole up in a closet. That makes good sense. I have holed up in modest quarters most of my life. You see, I was most interested in my own personal security because of my insecure childhood. The loss of my mother, my first stepmother, and my foster home initiated me into an insecure life. My second stepmother’s hatred for me prompted me to leave my third home when I was thirteen. That was risky indeed, but I eventually acquired a habit of holing up somewhere and taking very few risks, even the more so after I quit drinking.
My aversion to risk did not, however, prevent me from being foolish and rash; how would a young fool know when he is being young and foolish? Wanting security and the family I never had, I managed to force myself on two women and ruin two marriages; I did not have the slightest idea of what a real family was.
Of course it takes two to tango; therefore I refuse to take all the blame. Badly burned by my passions and bad habits, I eventually foreswore everything but coffee and crawled into holes and cracks in the walls here and there, where I was happy enough with myself as long as I had something to read and could afford the rent.
I eventually gave up television and movies and stopped reading everything except financial statements and business reports for quite awhile. Once inside my quarters, I resented the slightest disturbance, even the peep of a mouse not to mention telephone calls.
There exists in me yet another resemblance to Elishama. If my family tree carved on the huge stone under the castle is true, I, like Elishama, have a Semitic strain, although you might not know it unless you were a Jewish mother or a Nazi. My Semitic rivulet runs all the way back to Jeremiah; who, according to my family tradition, did not get stoned to death in Egypt but managed to find security in the British Isles. Although Elishama was fanning the fires of ambition and greed in Mr. Clay, he was not portrayed as greedy himself, except for his pathetic need for basic security.
No, I certainly am not Mr. Clay. I am more like Elishama. I do have some Hebrew clay in my grind; unlike Mr. Clay, I am dirt poor. I am a friendly and somewhat silly sort of fellow. I love the world so much that I laugh at it daily, and even the more so when that little gray songbird with the long tail sings his aria at the bus stop in the morning.
No doubt Baroness Karen Christentze von Blixen-Finecke was laughing from time to time when she wrote The Immortal Story. She adopted the Hebrew namesake, Isak, meaning, “one who laughs.” My own sense of humor is so dry that people think I am as depressed as any miser or his accountant. Not so. And I am passionate, never stony.
Like Mr. Clay, I have hoarded my resources, but not because I wanted them in themselves, say, in the form of gold. Nor did I really want a luxury yacht, at least not until of late. I wanted to buy time to write my story, a golden ark no doubt, one that would carry soulful seeds to the realization of my most grandiose dream; nothing less than the salvation of humankind, which would naturally include me. Indeed, I wrote of writing myself to death to that altruistic end.
No, greedy merchant I am not: I kept books for my keep, counting the treasure but never wanting its burdens. I am willing to accept myself whatever I might be. Still I want much more than my present worth.
Mind you that I have cause to believe that I am a reality, and not a work of fiction: I can tell stories about myself, therefore I exist.
I happen to remember a few accounts of myself in the context of what I picked up along the wayside and developed under the influence of my race. One rather vague story appertains to my heritage, gleaned from various sources including the films of corpse-filled trenches, venereal disease, and marijuana madness shown to boys at Clay School, a Topeka, Kansas grammar school, where we did the Hop, and where a voluptuous sixth-grade farmer’s daughter got pregnant and married.
And I remember my father’s frequent references to his persecution by Masons and “the people with low foreheads”; my grandmother’s conversion to Catholicism, her worship of the bishop, her forbiddance of the word “Jew” being said in her presence; and, among other things, my own persecution as a child and my hitchhiking exile, at age thirteen, from the Heartland of America to the Great Lakes and beyond.
You see, I was once a troubled boy, a juvenile delinquent who admired Black Beard the Pirate and Al Capone, who as a precocious boy of eight and nine had read the Wizard of Oz, Oliver Twist, The Three Musketeers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Moby Dick. I set sail for the streets of Chicago, where I slept in bus and train stations when I did not have the price of a movie ticket. I scavenged food and scrounged small change with other runaways. I idolized the public Madonna in a church in the Loop. And when Our Lady of Sorrows did not seem to respond, I unwittingly placed on my pedestal any woman who foolishly said “yes,” beginning with a bisexual, 17-year-old stripper for the Outfit in Cal City, hoping that I might find salvation from alienation within women instead of me. Experience helped fashion me into a beer-guzzling bookworm; and then, to overcompensate, into a teetotaler with an extremely dry sense of humor and a sizeable account payable to society. I became a mystical atheist who would fain avoid the bill and become a monk if only a monk who would not have to force faith in the First Father in Heaven nor obey His infallible popes on Earth. I have a growing sense of debt and gratitude that I survived, for I do love life, and I shall endeavor to pay my debt with minted coin when my story comes true.
Little did I know that I would become a lowly bookkeeper: I imagined that I was on my way to Tobacco Road and the likes of Tammy when I ran away from home, but I was by chance dropped off in Chicago by the car thief and fireworks smuggler who picked me up at a Missouri gas station.
I cut my teeth in the Windy City, and wandered on to other cities. I took up several kinds of blue-collar and clerical jobs along the way: busboy, hospital orderly, X-ray dark-room technician, quality control clerk, drill press and lathe operator – – the union guys got me fired because I turned out too many screws.
And then I was a freight claims clerk in the legal department of the Milwaukee Road. Among other bureaucratic duties at the railroad, I and the fellow next to me added up the same lists of lost or damaged items twice. We did not have adding machines, so one of us would add the lists from the top down; the other would add them from the bottom up. Perchance calculating totals gibed with my destiny as a controller. Controllers used to be ‘contrarotulators.’ They were responsible for making sure transactions were added up twice, but on separate rolls: the totals on the rolls were compared against each other to make sure they were identical.
The Chief Clerk, pursuant to a Directive from the Controller, insisted that the totals be identical, right down to the last digit; after all, a minor difference one way or the other, he explained, could be the net result of major mistakes, unless the difference in digits added up to nine, and even then the mistake might be consequential.
A banker once explained to me many years later that his bank was out of balance one day by ninety dollars; the difference was the net result of mistakes amounting to around two million dollars, and the mistakes were never found to be corrected. I also discovered during my accounting career that it is unlawful to spend a million dollars mistakenly credited to your account by a bank. But it was supposedly all right to keep a double payment from a private company. An accounts payable manager screamed at me that it was impossible for her to make a double payment of $150,000 to my company’s account. I asked the boss what to do, and he said he would hold the money in trust. It was still in trust when the company went bankrupt two years later. I remember when a Wall Street company paid another company $350,000 bill three times after hiring an incompetent controller off the golf course; that overage was held by the boss, posted to a current account payable on demand. When the federal government overpaid another company I worked for, by $725,000, with one of those little computer checks you have to rip the edges off the envelope to get at, the boss said to return it although we did not have enough money to make the payroll; I called the disbursement officer; after that, the government paid us quickly whenever I called him.
In retrospect, my job handling freight claims in Chicago as a young man seems more worthy of a would-be writer than my bookkeeping jobs. However that may be, I wore pleated- and cuffed-pants, silver- and gold-embroidered vests over fancy cuff-linked shirts with flared sleeves, silk cravats in big gold rings, and felt fedoras. Moreover, I was an esteemed member of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks. I was credited with revolutionizing the filing system by stacking the files flat instead of standing them on edge in long rows. I still have a knack for filing, which sometimes calls for standing files on edges or ends as well as flat-stacking: for instance, I showed the manager at Kafka’s how to stand the books on end in the cheap-books cardboard box so customers could finger through them without making a mess of it. Coincidentally, that is how I happened to run across Dinesen’s book of fateful stories the other day.
Anyhow, little did I know during my railroad days that my wife, at one time a Federal Reserve check-clearing clerk, would go to work for W. Clement Stone’s Combined Insurance Company and decide to dump me in Chicago; perhaps she was influenced by the Think And Grow Rich, Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude, and The Success System That Never Fails culture of W. Clement Stone and Napoleon Hill: my father had told me that a man who lets his wife work is looking for trouble. I loved her dearly, and the divorce almost killed me.
Little did I know that I would leave Chicago and become a freight claims clerk for a private company in New York as well as a weekend hippie and student actor, or that I would do some night clerking at hotels on Miami’s South Beach, wind up with a Jewish American Princess in Manhattan for a mad passionate week, and then move on to Hawaii, where I would by chance or providence meet Mary Ann from New Zealand, who caused me to learn bookkeeping and take a job in Accounts Payable, and then become a controller. Nor did I know that I would get a job in Kona as the right-hand man of a German wheeler-dealer and marry a Portuguese-Hawaiian savings and loan teller. I loved her, but I was glad to get back to bachelorhood, yet always hoping she might want me to come home some day.
And then, afraid that I would die in paradise without accomplishing much, I returned to New York to do it all over again from scratch, taking up bookkeeping and dancing, counting each step with a vengeance. As for writing, I managed to avoid wordsmithing until, when on the verge of relative success, a wave of nostalgia swept me back to Hawaii, to invest my savings in solitary research and writing brilliant essays, then to return to return to the Mainland again, this time to Kansas City of all places, nearly broke, fearful that I would miss something, namely my life, and then on to Miami, at the brink of the Abyss, and in Miami I encountered a Pink Conch on the A bus, and Isak Dinesen’s The Immortal Story in the cheap-books box.
Ah, the good old days! I even recall the bad old days as good old days nowadays. No, I did not wear the accountant’s garb at work, but I played the part of an in-house accountant well enough; that is, a conservative Dinesenian accountant. I handled the accounts well enough as well, and affected a penchant for organization and overt obedience to generally accepted principles. Still, I always knew I was not really an accountant nor was I a “mediocre” organization man. I certainly was not cut out to be a lowly bookkeeper. Please! I would ask, do not introduce me as “the bookkeeper”! At least call me “an accountant,” and not my” accountant, for I imagined that I was independent; and I was in fact independent of certification, which made me more useful to the liberal client than the socialist public.
No, ma’am, I was definitely not the accounting type of person at heart. I was the creative type and everybody knew it, especially after I invited them to watch me prance across stages in tights or listen to me sing my renditions of ‘I Fall To Pieces’, ‘The Lady in Black’, ‘Purple Rain’, and a hundred and forty-one other songs in my repertoire. The outside CPAs would sometimes joke around and call me “the creative accountant.” Notwithstanding my radical political profusions from time to time — something I learned from the FBI’s anti-communism manual as a child — I was loyal to the bottom line and strove to strike a balance between right and left. I am a welfare capitalist at heart: it is, you know, quite profitable to treat people well – people who treat me right are righteous; they’re all right, because they treat me right.
As for creative accounting in the ordinary sense of the phrase, I did not cook the books or keep two or three sets of them with different totals, nor did I help executives plunder corporations. Indeed, I perceived myself as the Lord High Chancellor or King’s Conscience; someone who would not put up with any sort of unethical business, such as the fudging of numbers and capitalization of expenses and taking of bribes. By the way, I was unaware of Lord High Chancellor Francis Bacon’s impeachment: I really can’t say if I would have followed in his footsteps if I had known about his fees — King James wondered what people expected but bribery since he did not pay his high officials salaries. If I were a virtual bookkeeper, I once thought, then I was an English bookkeeper, for the ethics of English bookkeepers were once far superior to the scruples of certified American accountants! Why, even Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, mentioned the “noble bookkeeper”, for whom there was no higher art than bookkeeping – who needs the liberal arts when you have the business bible at hand? There is no hypocrisy in double-entries provided the books are perfected balanced.
Allow me to repeat myself to make myself perfectly clear: I was not what people sometimes called me, “the numbers man.” I was really a writer, actor, singer and dancer behind the numbers. In fine, an artist, and not the calculating worm in the back office behind the restrooms.
Lowly worm that I was in terms of status, I warranted a private office, somewhere out of the way, the farther away from the front offices, the better. The top executives of several firms gave me a back office or one down the hall to protect themselves from their financial statements and my jeremiads thereupon. Mind you, I liked the back offices although I often complained that they are briar patches. I felt as snug as a bug in the last one: I loved its privacy, its distance from authority, its closeness to the restrooms. And when I felt expansive and opened my door, the proximity of my office to the employee dining room pleased me greatly, for I enjoyed chatting with the workers of the world when I was not counting the boss’s money.
Incidentally, since I was someone who realized that the old overseers were fools for being cruel to slaves, I fancied myself as a humane socialist (not a moral fanatic) whenever I had to don my Human Resources hat.
Several of my bosses said I was “much more than a bookkeeper.” They wanted to have me up front, conferring on strategies, hanging out in meetings, flying around the country troubleshooting and the like; but I eventually wanted to be left alone in the back office so I could concentrate on the books and analyze the numbers. While doing so, I often felt like a financial desert prophet. I liked to deliver the financials to the executives along with predictions of doom, which of course was inevitable unless certain steps were immediately taken to conserve resources or curb theft, curtail expenses, increase revenue, acquire loans and investments, and so on. Deficit spending was a mortal sin in my conservative black book of accrued balances. If a corporation could not so organize labor as to minimize expenses to its customers while paying labor decent wages and providing a fair return to investors and owners, I figured it ought to be dissolved instead of being allowed to run up bills everywhere. As for my own budget, my sole objective was to save up enough money to buy the leisure time to retire to libraries where I would of course read and write books.
All the while I sincerely believed that I would become one of the greatest writers the world would ever know. I successfully pretended to be a bookkeeper, accountant and corporate comptroller, but I was in reality a natural born creative thinker and literary artist at heart. I avoided getting stepped on by the lords of land and business. I saved up for years and years, then, one day I up and quit my job and took up writing alone. I mean very alone: without even the benefit of tobacco, booze, and other diversionary drugs — except caffeine.
Others and even I might say that I blundered, and at least I did not have as bad a time of it as the British did in Crimea. Indeed, I thought I had made a terrible mistake at the time, but I insisted on persisting in my vanity against my will to survive. Lo and Behold, I was offered the job of my dreams shortly thereafter, an offshore job on an island banana republic enjoyed by tax evading money laundering, pirates of sorts. A friend said the Devil was afoot.
I feared success self-defined. By virtue of an incredible act of virtual suicide, I turned down power aplenty; two paid vacations annually to anywhere in the world; a salary invisible to the IRS, exempted from foreign taxes by special dispensation of the prime minister; pilot’s training and access to a small plane; access to wealthy people from all over the world. What especially alarmed me about the deal was all those goodies were to be had with a tourist visa and the naked promise of a prime minister. So I headed west to pursue my ideal career, to be a bookworm instead of a bookkeeper.
After all, according to the occupational preference tests I took many years ago, I was conditioned to be a wordsmith, not a bookkeeper. I would also be happy as a professor, lawyer, bookstore manager, public relations executive, and hairdresser. Crunching numbers was dead last on my preference list; you will find me with the artistic types at preferential cocktail parties. I took up bookkeeping because I was flat broke. Mary Ann said I would always make a living if I learned how to do the books. I rose rapidly from accounts payable to keeping the general ledger and cranking out financials and performing other duties associated with being a glorified bookkeeper, accounting manager, and corporate controller, aka comptroller.
Elishama managed to keep his job by fanning the fires of ambition and greed in his clients. But I can happily say that my clients have been more generous than greedy. And they were ambitious: their fires did not need any fanning from me. They paid me well in current dollars. I wanted to write full time, so I eventually saved up enough money to live well below the poverty level, and quit my job. I wish I had a better place to live in, and a million dollars to boot, but I still deem myself rich at $7.50 per day to live on after exorbitant rent for my hovel in paradise.
Nonetheless, I applied for an accounting job again because I wanted to rent a nice apartment from a Joshua Clay. A man flew down to Miami from St. Louis to interview me.
“You are no longer an accountant and business man. You are a creative writer and that is what you should be doing.”
I explained that being a creative writer narrowed my employment opportunities down to a needle in a haystack, and that I could keep books just as well as I could write them.
“That’s your problem. You must live with it.”
So here I am, after many years as a faithful button-pusher and key-banger on the ten-key adding machine, typewriter keys and computer keyboards.
I dread more than ever the probability that I might be fully discarded by society despite my literary talents. The Hindus say the body is just a coat, but it is one I don’t mind wearing for the time being. I might lose my hovel to gentrification, be tossed onto the street with the furniture I retrieved from the alley. I have no garret to go to, not to mention the condo that went for $45 million a few blocks away last week.
The very idea of not having a least a roof over my head and a toilet is abhorrent to my inculcated bourgeois sensibility. Who knows? I may bloom late, if that be my fate, and enlighten some small part of the world with a brilliant collection of stories, perhaps entitled, Accounts Payable, My Life Past Due.
David Arthur Walters
Miami Beach 2012