It had been a great New Years, and I faced the prospect of returning to work with my usual dread. My thoughts were still wrapped up in tinsel; my memories were lit up with party hats and noise makers, and it felt nearly impossible to leave the brilliant fireworks of the season behind me. January is always a tough month for those who do accounting work, and each New Year I would find myself despising the ledgers that called me back and extinguished the festive lights of the holidays. And this January was no different.
As I headed to work that morning, I felt depressed. But the last thing I expected on that winter dawn was that death was coming to my day. But death was indeed coming; with its bony fingers, it was scratching the back of my neck, warning me of its presence.
I found an empty space in front of my office and parked, and then I looked up at my office window and sighed. Because while January is a time I most wanted to hibernate in the comfort of my heaters and quilts, it was also the busiest time for me at work. The year had ended, and it was time to send out W4’s, 1099’s, and begin the arduous task of closing out the fiscal year. There were accounts to close, journal transactions to be entered, and new books to open. And that morning as I arrived at work, I felt like I was a helium balloon that had just been popped, and all of my joy was hissing out like a sorrowful gas. It was Monday morning.
I got straight to work. It has always been my goal to get out W2’s and 1099’s as soon as humanly possible. It has also been my belief that employees have the right to know, once the year ends, what their prior year earnings were so that they might plan for their taxes. But I have also always done them first thing for selfish reasons. I had learned over the years that the longer I would delay this task, the more phone calls and questions I would receive from my co-workers. So, in part, I cranked out the forms quickly as a way to give myself a little more peace; as a way to keep the hoards of curious and anxious employees at a distance.
It was a busy morning. I spent hours that day reconciling the 1099 accounts and I finally began printing the forms out on the printer. This particular task always filled me with stress; because if the forms moved even a millimeter, they would print incorrectly and render the rest useless. I stood by the printer, my heart in my throat, and watched the forms like a hungry cat; I pawed at them from time to time to guide them in the right direction, and I was ready to pounce on them should something go terribly awry. But on that morning, I had few problems, and soon enough I was stuffing the forms into envelopes and was ready to distribute them.
At the time I worked for a Real Estate office, and most of the employees were Independent Contractors, who worked strictly on the commissions they received from selling homes. Only the office workers were on payroll, so when I produced the 1099’s that morning, the vast majority of them were for people I worked with every day. My office was on the second floor, and I had a little balcony, and if I peered over I could see the entire ground floor of the office and an overview of all of the agents in their cubicles. Rather than wasting money on stamps, I began passing the 1099 forms to my co-workers as I spotted them, running up and down the stairs to bring them their envelope. I felt like the Grim Reaper; because although people wanted these forms as quickly as possible, they didn’t like receiving them. As the Accountant, I have always noticed the looks on faces as I hand out the forms; it’s a pinched, barely discernable expression of scorn and dread.
Directly below my balcony sat a nice man named Rob. Since his office was squarely below mine, I often would stare at the various pictures and things that he hung on the walls of his cubicle. He had children, of that I was sure; as I often saw childish scrawls in bright colors tacked beside his computer. And I would also peruse his photographs and the bits and scraps that made up his life. He seemed like a kind fellow; a sentimental fellow. He was always supremely polite to me.
On this morning as I was staring down, I saw Rob scurry by, and rush into his cubicle. I watched him as he hurriedly removed his coat and I noticed he looked unusually anxious to begin his day. He might have just sold a house, I mused to myself, because he looked particularly harried.
“Happy New Year Rob,” I yelled down from my perch.
He looked up like a skittish rat, obviously unnerved by my outcry. “Yes,” he said, slowly smiling. “Happy New Year to you too.”
“Morning. I finished the 1099’s,” I called back. “I’m going to toss it down there; are you ready to catch it?”
I saw his face fill with a slight twinge of pain. “Those are what we need to file taxes, right?” he asked me.
My face scrunched up without my even realizing it. I was frankly a bit surprised that he didn’t seem to know what a 1099 was. “Yes,” I called down. “Let me know if you need any help deciphering it,” I finished, smiling. He nodded, and I flew the envelope toward him like a paper plane.
He didn’t thank me. They never thanked me. They unknowingly treated me more like I was a cop handing out speeding tickets. At best, they seemed to accept my New Years gifts with polite loathing.
He caught the envelope and looked up and nodded. I smiled then returned to my work.
I don’t know how many hours had passed, but I had been working steadily all day, completing one dreaded task after another, going as fast as I could so that I might be finished with it. But when I looked up, the sky out of my office window had gone from light to the darkest black. It was winter, and the days were shorter, but I suddenly felt as though it were the middle of the night. I looked over my balcony, and noticed that Rob’s cubicle was empty, and then as I allowed my eyes to wander around the entire ground floor, I noticed that most of the agents had gone home for the day, and only a few lamps were burning. I had decided it was time to pack it up and head home, just as my phone began to ring.
I answered with my usual nonchalant greeting; the name of the company followed by my own name. I was tired, and didn’t feel like dealing with anything more that day. “May I help you?”
“Hey, this is Rob,” the voice on the other end said. He sounded frantic and hurried, and he was strangely out of breath. It alarmed me a bit.
“Evening Rob,” I said, listening with only half an ear. I was busy turning off my computer and shutting everything down for the night. I was ready to go home.
“Okay, can you explain this 1099 to me? What exactly is it.” His voice was rough; accusatory.
“Well,” I said, stopping to grab a pen and begin doodling, “it’s a report of your gross income for the year. When you do your taxes, you’ll take this number, and depending on many factors, such as dependents and deductions, you will use it to determine what taxes you owe. I assume you’ve been paying quarterly?”
There was a pause. “Paying WHAT quarterly.” He almost yelled it, and his voice scared me a little.
“Your taxes? It depends on your income, but most Independent Contractors have to pay their taxes quarterly.”
“And how in the hell am I supposed to know that?” he asked me. He was getting angrier. “Why didn’t you mention this to me before now?”
I didn’t like his tone, and I pushed back. “Listen Rob, I’m not in charge of your income taxes. I’m in charge of the company’s income taxes. Your income taxes are your responsibility. What did you do last year? Is this your first year as an Independent Contractor?”
He let out a long seething sigh. “Yes. My taxes have always been taken out in the past. I thought you were taking my taxes out.”
“No, that’s not how it works with commission,” I answered him. “You pay your own taxes. You’re not technically an employee. You get all of your money gross.”
There was a pause. “GOD DAMN IT,” he screamed into the phone.
“IF I HAVE TO PAY TAXES ON THIS, DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH GOD DAMN TAX I OWE? I DON’T HAVE THIS KIND OF MONEY. I’VE USED THE MONEY I’VE EARNED HERE TO PUT GOD DAMN FOOD ON MY TABLE. I DON’T HAVE ANY SAVINGS. I THOUGHT I WAS PAYING MY GOD DAMN TAXES. GOD DAMN YOU!”
I was becoming increasingly annoyed by his attitude. “Rob, this isn’t MY fault,” I said softly, trying to steady my voice. “I’m sorry this came as a surprise to you.” I noticed my hands were shaking.
“OH WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO DIE,” he screamed in the phone, and then I heard a deafening click as he hung up on me.
I sat there for a moment dumbfounded as his voice still rang in my ears. When I looked down, I saw the doodles I had created while talking to Rob; I had pushed the pen so hard that I had made holes in the paper. My doodles were overly dark and angry. The way he had talked to me had shaken me to the core, and as I gathered up my belongings and shut off my lamp, my heart filled to the brim with nagging sorrow. I knew that I wanted to cry. I knew I hated my job. I knew that I hated January. And that night as I got into bed, I tossed and turned for hours, going over every last word that he said to me, wondering how I would face him the following morning.
But I wouldn’t have to face Rob.
When I awoke the next dawn, I dreaded going to work even more than I usually did. I decided that I would give myself a little treat so that I would feel better, so I went in a little early so that I could enjoy a cappuccino before work at the coffee shop across the street. On this morning it was bustling with patrons, and I spotted at least five of my co-workers talking excitedly in the corner, their eyes dancing wildly, their voices frenzied.
I smiled hello and walked toward the counter to get my coffee. But the group waved me over; it was apparent they had something urgent to talk with me about.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I approached them.
“Did you hear about Rob?” they asked, almost in unison.
I felt a black shadow pass over my heart. “What about Rob?” I asked.
“He killed himself last night,” was the answer.
It was one of those moments that time seems to stand still. It was difficult to believe what I was hearing; I almost felt as if I were dreaming. I was stunned into silence, and couldn’t speak. The group of agents continued to talk. “Apparently he left the office last night and killed himself. He never spoke to anyone after leaving here last night.”
I didn’t want to say it, but I had to say it. “Yes, he did. I talked to him last night.”
The group of agents stared at me, their collective eyes as wide as saucers. I heard a gasp. They wanted every detail; every last word that was uttered. But I didn’t want to talk about it; it felt strangely private. I knew now that I was the one who had witnessed his grief; his final hour. I knew what I had heard on the phone the previous night was his last good-bye.
But I also felt a horrific sense of guilt creeping over my extremities. I felt somehow responsible, as though it could have been my words, and my actions, which pushed him over the edge. Or at the very least, I knew that in those final seconds before he took his life, it was me who he blamed.
I felt connected to him, and strangely protective of him. My throat was dry. But the group continued to hound me for details. “The family will want to know what he said to you,” they scolded me, trying to coerce the truth out of me. “And probably the police too. Because if you have a clue as to why he did this, you have to tell. So you might as well tell us. What did he say? Come on. It’s important.”
Their voices were shrill, like cackling hens.
I felt sick.
But I couldn’t get the words out that cold January morning. For just a few more hours I was going to allow this man his privacy. I was going to allow him to rest in peace.
Instead, I was treated to a diatribe of what had occurred.
He must have been at home when he called me. There were no cell phones back then.
After he spoke with me he gathered several necessary items from his house, and then packed them into his car. He drove for over an hour, to a remote cabin that his family owned.
But he didn’t park in the driveway of the cabin. He parked about a mile away, and left his car hidden in a grove of trees. His car couldn’t be spotted on the road; he made sure that no one driving by could see that he was there, and surprise him.
He walked a mile to the cabin. And once inside, he gave himself the triple cocktail of death. First he swallowed a bottle of pills. Then he covered his head with a plastic bag. And if that wasn’t enough, he took a gun and blew his brains all over the gnarled walls of his family log cabin.
There would be no mistake. He took every possible precaution. This wasn’t a cry for help, a dramatic gesture; a plea for someone to find him. He made sure he would die. Triple sure.
When my co-workers finished telling me the story, I could taste the poison. I could feel the plastic sticking to my sweating face. I could smell the gun powder.
I was not self-absorbed enough to believe I caused this man to take his life that evening. Nor did I think his suicide was my fault. But I do believe I might have been the final straw that snapped the back of the proverbial camel. And for that reason, I have always felt connected to him; it has always felt as though my left hand holds his, six feet under the damp earth, and I touch his corpse with compassion.
On a cold January evening, when the year was brand new again and ripe with possibilities, and when smiling people were still wishing each other a Happy New Year as they passed by on the street, this man let a monetary reality determine the value of his life.
I am still saddened that he felt that the numbers on that form were of greater value than his own soul. Because I am assured that whatever that number was, it was only a fraction of his worth.
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