Constitutionally, temperamentally, against the grain of his better intentions, his background and even many of his actions, Wendell Spear, the film critic and historian, was avaricious.
Well, not quite. Avarice didn’t do justice to Spear’s feelings about money. After his wife Vanessa’s death, money became a kind of companion to him, almost a child. The nurturing and growth of his small wealth brought him a profound ease and—though he knew this was absurd—pride.
Every morning, waking, he reached for his bedside phone, pressed its memory button and, successively, the numbers which summoned the electronic voices which reported the status of his accounts. The rare times when there was a glitch in either the reporting system or his account, Spear was gripped by anxiety and anger until he could reach his broker’s office and learn what, thank God, had, so far, been a reporting error which, for anxious minutes, appeared to be either a catastrophic decline or an embezzlement.
When, in late August, a letter from the Treasury Department informed him that he was subject to a tax audit, Spear felt a terror unlike anything he’d known since Vanessa’s death. Why, after all his placid, solitary years in his Malibu Canyon cabin had he been singled out? Dismay, astonishment, fear, rage.
The letter was personalized to the extent of specifying the year the IRS was auditing, 1993, and the areas of its concern, his Contributions and Business Expenses. It also indicated the place and time of the audit, the Federal Building on Los Angeles Street, and the auditor’s sinister, comic name, G. Whipp.
Spear’s longtime accountant, Zack Wool, filed his taxes from Los Angeles, where Spear had lived till his move to Malibu. It accounted for the location of the audit and for another dimension of his anxiety, the hour’s drive on the freeways. The freeways were the incarnation, or rather impetrification, of his fears. Until the audit was over, he knew he wouldn’t enjoy a single night of peaceful sleep.
He called Wool’s office. Frances, the secretary, said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Spear. He’s in South America.”
“Vacation. He takes September off.”
“He’ll be back September 20.”
“The audit’s September 18.”
“I can request a postponement. They’re good about granting them.”
“I may not last till September 18. I’ll go myself.”
That afternoon Spear dug out of a closet the manila envelopes which held his 1993 tax forms, checks, receipts, bank books, VISA and Discover bills and went to work.
After two hours’ immersion, he went out to the terrace from whose eaves still hung the inverted blue bottles which, so long ago, Vanessa had filled with sugar water for hummingbirds. (The hummingbirds had departed with her.) Now looking over the small lawn bordered with chaparral, palms and cypress, he prepared himself for the actual hearing. He’d wear his oldest decent suit, blue, a frayed blue shirt and a faded blue tie. No, the wrong look. Too much blue. Too much attention to color coordination. The artist disguises his art; the con man also. He needed a shirt that clashed, not enough to agitate a color-sensitive auditor, but enough to suggest an old widower, careful but a bit at sea. Maybe an off-white shirt with black stripes. No, these were prison colors. The lemon-green with a few honorable white threads at the collar. For shoes, the ugly, broad-toed ones with worn-down heels. He’d polish them to show how careful he was of his old, unfashionable things. Whipp would see a decent, even fastidious man, straightforward, plain, a not-quite-with-it man, a bald, sexagenarian widower keeping up as well as he could.
Would the auditor sniff something askew? After all, he knew Spear’s income, tiny compared to many in Malibu, but probably three times bigger than Whipp’s own. I’m saving for my granddaughter, Mr. Whipp. I’m not a spender. I skimp, but not on taxes. I pay what I owe. My accountant, Zack Wool, is descended from a Confederate general. He’s stricter than a ruler. I’m sure he makes me pay more than I should. I’m hoping to get a refund.
Spear went back to the checks and receipts, expenses and charities, almost thirty of them, to some of which—thinking to avoid just such an encounter—he’d given $10 or less. The more checks, the more scrupulous the taxpayer and the wearier the auditor. In 1993, however, there were several unusual deductions. The biggest was the gift of part of his film library and filmography to Claremont College. The appraiser—Deirdre Seale, Mr. Whipp, a respectable professional—had valued the library at $7,426.00. Was this the nail on which the IRS wanted to hang him? He got out a copy of Ms. Seale’s letter, a two page account of her credentials and a detailed description of the gift. Detailed, yes, but impregnable? Perhaps Ms. Seale had left a trail of overassessments which the omniscient Whipp followed?
Who knew what Whipp knew? The myrmidons of the IRS had immense resources, terrifying power. About money, they might know everything—more than everything! Spear had heard a hundred horror stories: people, companies, studios tied up in decades of litigation, tax penalties mounting at each stage of appeal.
Beyond appeal, beyond litigation, beyond impoverishment, loomed prison.
Spear knew prisons. He’d seen Jimmy Cagney, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Wallace Beery and Burt Lancaster behind iron bars; he’d seen brutal wardens, guards with guns ready, willing and eager to shoot prisoners diverting themselves momentarily from sticking cell-made shivs into each others’ flanks. Gangs, extortion, rape. Could a man like himself last a day in such a place? Three years ago, Roger, the grandson of his friend Alice, the cashier at the Mobil station, had been sent away for six months: reckless driving and endangerment. Said Alice, “It turned him around, Mr. S. Fellow in the next cell, a stockbroker, put him onto books. Now he talks of nothing but learning the Latin language. I asked him, ‘Does this mean you want to be a priest?’ ‘Just the opposite,’ he tells me. Whatever that means.” Roger, an oil-stained giant, had grown up in the service station, not, like Spear, in an English rectory filled with the Latin books Roger apparently craved. (Although he hadn’t read one in twenty years, Spear had not given Claremont his father’s red and gold Loeb Library Classics.) A minimum-security prison with three square meals a day and stockbroker companions was a step up for him, but for Spear, who lived in the ease of unsupervised, self-pampered solitude, it would be living death.
The IRS district office was on the twelfth floor of the old Federal Office Building. For his 9 A.M. appointment, Spear was on the Santa Monica Freeway at 7:00 and on Los Angeles Street at 8:15. Carrying his schoolboy’s briefcase stuffed with rubberbanded papers, he walked around the block to compose himself.
On the twelfth floor, he gave his name to a lovely, already weary black woman who told him to “sit in reception,” a bleak beige room with three rows of blue plastic chairs and windows so begrimed Spear did not bother trying to see what could have been a fine view west over the city to the Pacific. Briefcase on his knees, he sat on the blue plastic seat like a penitent.
A small elderly black man sat two seats away. “Morning,” he said. He wore bright green slacks and a Hawaiian sport shirt; no blue suit and frayed shirt for him. This was Southern California; not even funeral directors wore blue suits.
“You being audited?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“They wanting twenty-five hundred bucks from me.”
“My cousin, he took my social security, went round the Southwest hanging paper.” He tapped a vinyl briefcase. “I got copies two of his checks.”
“Looks like you’re home free then.”
“I do,” said Counselor Spear.
“Mr. McKeeney?” A stout Chinese woman in a lavender pantsuit stood in the doorway.
“That’s me,” said the man, rising.
Spear watched them disappear round an L-leg of a corridor. The elevator discharged a wheelchair which rolled toward the reception area. Spear looked, then looked away from its occupant, a tiny white man in a brown corduroy workshirt and blue pants from which hung tiny shoes. “Not enough that God has afflicted the poor fellow, the IRS has to pursue him.” Then he heard what was surely his name, “Mr. Sthpear,” uttered in a sharp, high-pitched voice.
Spear looked at the wheelchair. “Mr. Whipp?”
The man had an almost normal-sized head which was jammed, neckless, onto small corduroyed shoulders. “Pleath follow me.”
Spear rose, his seventy inches heavy with normality. He followed the double-wheeled throne of his auditor down the long corridor and into a cubicle. Mr. Whipp’s arm pointed him to a wooden chair. He wheeled himself behind the desk. On a table to his left were a telephone, a small American flag on a stand and a six inch plastic Venus de Milo.
“Well, Mr. Sthpear,” he said with a pleasant smile, “Thall we begin?”
Whipp opened a manila envelope in front of him. “I’m going to wead you your wighth.”
The familiar phrase, even in Whipp’s infantile phonemes, coiled around Spear’s already contracted heart. “You thould have copieth of thith.” Spear nodded. “In thwee or four weekth, I’ll mail you a weport. If you don’t agwee wiv it, you can call me or my thupervithor. If we don’t thatithfy you, you can appeal. If—”
“Yes, I did read that, Mr. Whipp.”
“Have you ever been audited before?”
Whipp drew a paper from the folder. He said kindly, “It theemth you were—back in 1968.”
“Really?” Vanessa had done their taxes, but yes, he remembered something. Hadn’t the auditor come to their house in Beverly Glen? “My wife handled our finances. I’m a widower now.”
“I thee.” This was not an expression of sympathy: Whipp was looking at papers which specified the date of Vanessa’s death. “Now I will wead you a litht of thingth. Would you pleath anthwer yeth or no to each? Have you any income from weal ethtate?”
“Only the royalties described in the return.”
“I don’t speculate. Except for the investments listed.”
At each of Spear’s answers, Whipp checked off boxes. He put the paper on a pile and pulled out a long pad of yellow paper. “Thall we begin with Contributionths?”
Spear undid the leather thongs on his briefcase and with drew the envelope in which he’d put charitable checks, receipts and acknowledgments.
Whipp said, “There ith the matter of the car you donated to the half-way houthe.” For years, Spear had given his old cars to an ex-actor who ran a halfway house for ex-prisoners and addicts. The actor tuned up the cars, then sold them to support the house. “I think the appraithal ith too high.”
“It’s his appraisal, not mine.”
“I think it’th too high. Do you know the Blue Book appraithal of an eighty-thwee Buick?”
“I’ll look it up. I think we have to go by that.”
“It had an exceptionally good stereo system.” An exaggeration.
“It’th hard to appraith thingth. Do you have any retheits for the thound thystem?”
“I probably did,” lied Spear, “but I don’t know where they are.”
Whipp wrote on the lined pad. “I thee. We’d better uthe the Blue Book.” He looked up as if awaiting Spear’s approval. Spear nodded, and bending low over the pad, Whipp wrote more, his fist encircling the ballpoint pen as if writing required every bit of his strength and concentration. “Now we thould look at the donathon of the film bookth and—thith ith a new word to me—filmogwaphy.” His accent was on gwaph. “To the college libwary.”
Spear said, “I have the appraiser’s letters and the college’s thank-you note here.”
“Your accountant thubmitted them.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Ith a filmo-gwaphy movieth?”
“Mine’s a detailed, alphabeticized description of films, categorized by genre.”
“What is genre?”
“Type of film. Comedy, tragedy. Whatever.”
“I thee.” His neckless head bobbed in appreciative comprehension. “I think we can acthept thith appraithal.”
“Fine,” said Spear, surprised at the depth of his delight.
Whipp wrote several more lines, then looked up. “Charitieth? You have lotth of thmall oneth, thome under Mithellaneouth. Of courth, people can’t document everything. Like you go to church and put in a few dollarth.”
“That’s right,” said Spear who hadn’t been to church since he’d listened to his father’s tortured sermons forty-odd years ago.
Item by item, the examination continued, Whipp writing away, Spear occasionally contesting, Whipp nodding, agreeing, asking for documentation. “The IREth won’t accthept undocumented twanthacthionth.”
“I understand. I wish I’d kept everything.”
“I know that’th hard to do.”
An hour, two hours, three hours, Whipp and Spear faced each other over the checks, receipts, appraisals and assessments scattered over the desk.
“You mutht be getting hungry. Wouldn’t it be better to make another appointment?”
“Lord God no, Mr. Whipp. I’d like to get it over now, if that’s all right.”
“All right. We’re almotht finithed.”
The final twenty minutes went by in a blur. Drained, Spear agreed to everything, but he had the impression that most of his claims were being accepted. What a good, decent person Whipp was. How beautifully he handled his deformity and handicaps. He touched Spear’s heart. When they discussed the expenses of a trip Spear had made to a film festival in San Francisco, Whipp said, “Than Fwanthithco ith thuch a beautiful thity. I wath there oneth, for four dayth. It wath my happietht perthonal time.”
The drive home on the freeway and coast highway was actually pleasant: few cars, much relief. Home, Spear slept, till wakened by the phone. “Mr. Sthpear?”
“Mr. Whipp. Is anything wrong?”
“You left your briefcathe here.”
“How careless of me.”
“What thall I do with it?”
“Why don’t you keep it as a souvenir?” Spear almost said. “I’ll have to come get it, unless you could possibly mail it to me. Of course I’d reimburse you.”
“I might be able to do that,” said Whipp. “Let me athk at our potht offith.”
It happened that Jennifer, Spear’s granddaughter, had been sent down from San Francisco to do a deposition at the Roybal Building across the street from the Federal Office Building. She was spending the night with Spear, a rare treat for him. She said she’d pick up the briefcase during her lunch break.
That night, she said, “The people in the office here all know him. At least they’ve seen him in the street being carried into taxis.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Not very much. He was embarrassed, I think, a bit gruffer than he might have been with you. All he said was, ‘I have it right here.’ Strange lisp. Maybe because his throat’s constricted.”
“I’m sure he was delighted to see you. I don’t imagine he gets a chance to talk to attractive girls.” For Spear, Jennifer was lovelier than any film star, a solid, pink-cheeked Natalie Wood or Winona Ryder, or like the eighteen-year-old Hannah Arendt as she was spotted in the Freiburg lecture hall by the swinish genius Heidegger. “You made his week,” said Spear. ‘‘And you probably improved my case.” He decided to send Jennifer whatever refund he got. “It makes me feel good about technology. Fifty or sixty years ago, Whipp wouldn’t have been able to get a job in a circus; they don’t use cripples. He’d have been human junk.”
“He makes the case for affirmative action,” said Jennifer. “One up for the US of A.”
Three and a half weeks later, Whipp’s report arrived, six pages long and so ambiguously phrased that Spear couldn’t tell whether he owed money or was getting some back. There were also spelling errors and such peculiarities as credit for a safe-deposit box which Spear hadn’t listed, let alone claimed. The upshot, though, was that Whipp disagreed with much of what Spear thought he’d agreed to, and Spear owed thirty-four hundred dollars, including two years’ interest. It was not a great sum of money for him, and by agreeing to accept the assessment, that would end it, but something held him back. He felt his new friend wasn’t such a friend after all, and this made him both angry and sad. It also occurred to him that if he agreed to Whipp’s refusal to recognize, say, the tax deductibility of a film festival, then other Whipps could question other returns, past and future. The thirty-four hundred dollars could be the first of many installments.