Show Her The Money
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With the sofa and chair cushions slashed, my books strewn all over the floor, the rugs ripped up and the dishes all broken, the loft was uncannily a mirror of my career, once again. Whoever had broken in to hunt for the disks did a bang-up job. They’d not only destroyed my home, they’d slashed the tires on my car and ripped out the upholstered leather seats, leaving the poor thing’s guts hanging out. I’d had the seats and tires replaced, but it almost seemed to me that the car was wounded. Sad and dejected. It didn’t run quite as well as before.
But then, neither did I. My spirit was so low, I kept asking myself if it was all worth it. Then I’d think of all the people who would suffer because of what Marvel and Lowell had done, and I knew I couldn’t roll over and give up.
As I packed up my portfolio and left for my fourteenth job interview, I wondered why I bothered. No one would hire me. I was a whistle-blower, and despite my honorable intentions, I’d come to realize that most people saw it exactly as Barbara Clemmons and the rest of the finance committee saw it—I’d done it for purely self-serving reasons. Until I had the evidence to prove otherwise, I was as guilty of creating the problems at Marvel as any of the top brass in the company and at my firm. I was a bad guy. It wasn’t fair, but what could I do? Every single interview ended the same. “Your credentials are perfect, Ms. Pearl, but until you’ve settled your affairs with the federal government, we don’t feel it’s in our best interest to offer you a position.” Which was a nice way of saying, “You may be hanging out in the joint soon, so buzz off.”
Nevertheless, I spent the next week looking for a job. By the end of the road, I was down to inquiring about a bookkeeping position with an elderly woman who had a lot of oil and gas interests. I’d office in her laundry room, account for her money and when things got slow, I would need to run a few personal errands. Dry cleaning. Weed the beds. Maybe address invitations to her monthly supper socials.
The real killer? I couldn’t even get that job. The old lady said she’d seen me on C-SPAN, and the only reason she’d agreed to interview me was so she could see me in person. Then she asked if Mr. Bob was anatomically correct.
I came home that night to a message from my mom. “Pink, baby, come home. You’re running through your money so fast, you’ll be on the streets before long. Now I know you think moving back to Midland is the worst thing in the world, and working for me is a last resort, but I have news for you, baby. You’re down to your last resort. Besides, I could really use the help. Call me.”
Most people think I followed in my mother’s footsteps and became a CPA like she did. They’re wrong. I was a sophomore in college when Mom decided she’d had just about enough of my dad and enrolled herself in summer school. She tested out of a gazillion hours, buzzed through in two years and graduated with an MBA about the same time I wrapped up my five-year plan and got my bachelor’s degree.
We each went to work for top-dog accounting firms, me in Dallas, her in Midland.I stuck with it. She didn’t. After a few years of taking orders from managers twenty years younger, she ditched the firm and went out on her own.
She’s wildly successful, and it was really very nice of her to offer me a mercy job. I was appreciative, but moving home and working for her was honestly, truly, the worst possible thing I could imagine.
Too bad I had absolutely no choice in the matter.
I called and said I’d do it. The next morning, I put the loft up for sale, packed what I could into the Mercedes SUV and headed west, waving to Dallas in my rearview mirror.
As I drove back to the town I’d sworn never to live in again, all I could think was what a miserable failure I’d turned out to be. In spite of my devotion, my marriage had crashed and burned. I’d lost a great job because I tried to do the right thing. And I was about to take a mercy job with my mother. How pathetic was that?
To top it all off, I had a notice from the IRS in the day’s mail. I was going to be audited.
I didn’t mind so much. It gave me something different to obsess about.
Midland sits three hundred miles west of Dallas, rising twenty-four stories out of the flattest land on the planet. The twenty-four stories is the tallest building downtown and it’s joined by other wannabes that make the skyline pretty impressive, from ten miles out on the highway. It’s called the Tall City, at least by locals. Everyone else calls it the armpit of Texas, or “that town where Baby Jessica fell down the well.” After George the Second got elected, they hung banners from the downtown light poles with a photo of George W. giving the thumbs-up, and a line beneath him that says, “Midland’s Rising Son.” They are real proud of George and Laura in Midland. Even the three Democrats.
I couldn’t stop thinking of Dallas’s trees and lakes and lush, green grass as I drove that last ten miles into Midland. The landscape around the Tall City is anything but lush. In fact, I’ve often wondered if they did a little bomb practice around Midland before they dropped the Big One on Hiroshima. The loftiest plant life is maybe four feet tall. Mesquite. Lots and lots of mesquite. Some cactus, a little sage and a very wee bit of some thin green stuff that looks like the hair on Charlie Brown’s head. Midland is not scenic.
Still, it has a certain charm, especially within the city limits. All that oil money buys a nice town. Mom told me once, there are more rich people per capita in Midland than anywhere else in Texas. Maybe America. I believe it.
I drove into town and went straight to my mother’s house, a zero-lot line in a small, gated community. It pained her to spend the money, but she had a certain image to uphold. Or so she said. I think she secretly craved a real house, in a ritzy part of town, and that’s exactly what she got. The place was big, with four bedrooms, decorated in luxurious fabrics, dark mahogany and old-world paintings. Very British Indies. She has a pool in the back, and with the August heat rising off the road, I’d been thinking of that pool since Abilene.
It wasn’t until I got to the door that I realized I didn’t have a key. So I got back in the car and drove downtown, to Mom’s office, located in the old First National Bank building, the one that’s the tallest. It’s had so many owners and names over the past twenty years, ever since the oil bust of ’85, nobody knows its actual name. Everyone just calls it the Old First National Bank Building.
Mom’s office is on the fifteenth floor, and her reception area is similar to her house, with beautiful mahogany, plush fabrics and recessed lighting. Mom can be so tight, she squeaks when she walks, but she spends the bucks when it comes to her professional image. Mom says, look successful and you’ll be successful. Guess she’s right. Mom makes a lot of dough.
I walked into the office and saw a pretty, young woman with light brown hair and pouty lips manning the reception desk.
“May I help you?” she inquired cordially.
“Hi, I’m Pink,” I answered, walking close to her desk, glancing at her name plate, “and it’s nice to meet you, Tiffany.” I stuck my hand out and she shook it, then said a little breathlessly, “I think your mom’s been expecting you. Go on back.”
“Thanks.” I turned and headed down the short hall toward the big hall that houses a small conference room, five offices on each side, then opens up into the bull pen, where the lower staffers have cubicles. Mom’s large office is at the end, generally a mess, with stacks of files all over the place.
I was halfway there when she popped out of one of the side offices and waylaid me. “Pink! You’re here!”
She pulled me into the conference room across the hall, we hugged, then she held me away from her and did a quick inventory. “You’ve lost weight.”
“I’ve been a little stressed.”
“Of course you have. I’m sorry, baby.”
Sympathy from Mom has never been ample. Much like rain in Midland; infrequent, longed for, but given sparingly. I swallowed back the giant lump of Pity Party tears in my throat and managed to smile. “Thanks, Mom. And thanks for the job.”
She waved away my thanks and said pragmatically, “You need a job and I need someone to work in my new forensic accounting department. It’s almost cosmic, the way things worked out.”
“Forensic accounting? I thought your practice was solely tax prep.”
“It was, up until a month ago. I hired an MBA named Sam Weston. He was with the FBI, and I hired him as soon as he retired.”
“The FBI?” My voice sort of squeaked on the “FBI” because I was so surprised. An FBI guy, working for my mom? “What’s he going to do, exactly?”
“Trace assets in divorces, testify in court, look into bad oil deals, and things like that.”
I was beyond surprised and almost shocked. Mom is hip and modern in a lot of ways, but old school when it comes to business. Forensic accounting sounded very glam for someone like my mother. “And you want me to work for Sam?”
“That’s the plan.” Mom looked like she did the year she gave me a calculator for Christmas, when I was thirteen. I wanted a padded bra and I got a calculator. “Isn’t it exciting?” She looked ready to whoop it up and start clapping.
Compared to her penthouse enthusiasm, my excitement was in the basement, but I was definitely grateful she didn’t expect me to do tax returns, because I’m not a tax accountant. I’m an auditor. Not the sort of auditor the IRS hires to scare the hell out of people. Not the sort who pokes around a company, looking for pilfering employees. Most people think companies hire us to seek and destroy embezzlers.
All we do is look over the financial statements and make sure the company isn’t lying their ass off so people will be suckered into buying their stock and the price will go through the roof and all the Big Dog executives can make off like bandits when they sell their stock options. Companies can’t claim to have oil reserves worth eighty bajillion dollars when really they have maybe forty or fifty million bucks worth. They can’t claim to have a few measly million dollars of debt, when in fact, they owe so much to every bank on the planet, even God couldn’t bail them out.
As an auditor, it was my job to make sure everything was clean and tidy at the companies I audited. If things weren’t clean and tidy, Lowell Jaworski put his foot down and demanded things get fixed, or he’d write a bad opinion and every investor out there would dump their stock. All in all, a pretty good system. Until the Marvel Energy fiasco.
Nothing was clean and tidy at Marvel Energy, but for fifty million dollars worth of consulting income, Lowell decided he didn’t care. Which unfortunately signaled the ending buzzer for my career as said auditor.
Now, Mom was opening a new career opportunity for me, and maybe I wasn’t as over the moon about it as she appeared to be, but I was glad to have a job doing something useful, something I had a prayer of understanding. The myriad tax laws were my worst nightmare. “I’ll do my best,” I told her.
She hugged me again, which surprised me. Mom seemed more sentimental than usual, and her usual doesn’t lean toward mushy.
“I’ve never wanted anything but for you to be happy, Whitney, and I feel bad for you because this has all been so awful. You deserve a break, and a fresh start.” Dropping her arms, she stepped back and gave me a funny look. “You don’t seem very fired up about this.”
Sighing, I shoved my hair behind my ears. “I’m sorry, Mom. This is really great of you, but it’s a crummy feeling to know the only job I can get is a mercy job with my mommy. It’s humiliating. And it makes me so mad, because I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, yet I’m being punished.”
“It won’t always be like this. When you’re all done with the finance committee and everything’s over, people will begin to see you in a different light. You’ll be able to get back the respect you’re missing right now.”
I mustered a smile and leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Thanks, Mom. I love you, too.”
She patted my arm, then nodded toward the doorway. “Come on and meet Gert. She’s the senior manager in charge of staffing and human resources.”
We walked across the hall and she introduced me to a dumpy woman who didn’t smile and stared at me like I was something she’d scrape off her shoe.
“Gert will get you all set up,” Mom said as she turned to leave. “Come see me when you’re done and we’ll talk more.”
The woman continued to stare at me hostilely and I sat down, trying to think of something personal to say to make the awkward moment go away.
I was forming a few questions in my mind, like “Hey, Gert, how long you lived in Midland?” or “Yo, Gert, love that blouse, you clever thing, and I’ve always wanted a blouse with little numbers printed all over it,” when she asked in a husky, manly voice, “What do you know about forensic accounting?”
I looked at Gert, in her pathetic blouse, with her pathetic glasses and mousy hair and grim reaper face, and thought, no way in hell she was gonna treat me like a first year staff, like a newbie, fresh out of college, without a clue.
Sitting up straighter, I cleared my throat and gave Gert my very best I’m A Professional With Balls Of Steel look. “Having worked as an auditor the past eight years, I can’t think forensic accounting will be much of a stretch.”
Gert made an odd noise, a cross between a grunt and blubbery thing with her lips. Obviously, she had no faith in my abilities. “Jane needs someone to work with Sam who is dedicated, fair and honest.”
Her emphasis on the word “honest” made me mad, but I had a feeling she intended it to, so I calmly nodded and agreed with her. “No doubt, that’s why she hired me.”
“All of her reasons to the contrary, I believe she hired you because you can’t get a job anywhere besides Burger King.”
“Why is my employment here any of your business? Did my mother make you a partner in this firm?”
That hit a nerve, and it dawned on me, she was afraid Mom would eventually make me a partner and leave her in the dust. A part of me felt sorry for her because she saw me as such a threat, but another part of me thought Gert needed a few lessons in diplomacy, politics and the subtle application of cosmetics. No doubt she was freaking brilliant, or Mom wouldn’t hold her in such high regard, but if she wanted to run with the Big Dogs, she was going to have to make some changes.
I’d known lots of accountants just like Gert. Miserable, bitter people, always clawing for a leg up, never getting that old saying that one wins flies with honey, not vinegar.
With her lips pursed together as if she’d just swallowed a cup of vinegar, she stared at me with blatant dislike. “We have a very strict policy about time. Jane doesn’t like to eat time. If we can’t bill it, she eats it.”
“Yes, I’m aware of billable time.”
“And we expect you to be punctual. Office hours are eight in the morning until five in the evening, except during tax season, when everyone stays until eight and works Saturdays.”
Remembering some audits when me and my staff stayed at a client’s office for four days straight, around the clock, I almost laughed at Gert, sounding so, “Hey, this is a tough job and you’re obviously a wuss and a Mama’s girl, so you better get ready for some long hours.” Almost laughed. Maybe I would have, if I hadn’t been ready to chuck an eraser at Gert’s head.
“And lastly, you’re to have no contact with clients unless you okay it with me first. You may say something that the firm could be held liable for.”
Okay, that was it. I’d had enough. Standing, I looked down at Gert and said, “Should I raise my hand when I want to go pee? Do I need a permission slip to leave for lunch?”
Gert narrowed her already squinty eyes and looked up at me through slits. “There is no one on earth I respect more than Jane Pearl, and I’m not going to sit by and let you take advantage of her. I’ll be watching, and if you screw up, even once, I have permission to fire you. Now, do you want to have a seat and let me go over the procedure, or would you care to give up now and go look for another job?”
Sinking down to the chair, I thought about my ex-boss, Lowell, and the Marvel execs, and wished I could line them up in front of a firing squad. They were all still lunching at The Mansion, taking off for a weekend in Santa Fe, enjoying life in Dallas, where there was live music and art films and bars that served nothing but martinis, while I was taking orders from a battle-ax named Gert. It was so unfair and everything in me railed against it. How was it that I did the right thing but was the one to suffer?
I slumped back in the chair and wished I’d majored in something like basket-weaving. Of course, knowing my luck, I would have gone to work for a guy who smuggled drugs in his baskets, and still been faced with the whole whistle-blower thing.
“Okay, Gert. Lemme have it.”
For the next thirty minutes, Gert droned on about workpaper referencing and professional etiquette and office procedure and some other accounting stuff that I pretty much tuned out. I will admit, even though I hated Gert, the CPA, I felt really sorry for Gert, the woman. I wondered why she dressed that way, and wore her hair in that awful bun, and had on no makeup. Makeup was invented for women like Gert. She looked to be maybe midthirties, and she wore no wedding ring, so I assumed she was a lonely old maid whose work was her life.
I refused to think of myself that way. It scared the hell out of me.
Finally, she wound it up, then took me around to meet the other staff, who all seemed friendly enough, whether because they were sincere, or because the Big Cheese was my mom, I couldn’t be certain. I supposed it didn’t make much difference.
Although I wasn’t able to meet my new boss, Sam, because he was in court all afternoon, that was fine by me. Dressed in a wrinkled skirt and a navy cotton top, I was not at my best.
While I got the nickel tour with Gert, a client came to see Mom, so I was told to wait in one of the empty cubicles in the bull pen until she was available. Gert looked happy to be rid of me and left me there without another word.
Very tired and thirsty after a six-hour drive and a run through the rack line with Gert, I went to the break room for a Coke. On the way back to the cube, I noticed the light was on in what I’d thought to be an empty office. I walked past and glanced inside and saw a tall, meaty guy who was a dead ringer for Sammy Hagar.
He had to be a senior, or a manager, since he was in a real office with real walls, but he was dressed in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. Not standard Midland CPA issue slacks, dress shirt and tie. He was tan and his blond hair was long and wavy, in a ponytail. I’m serious when I say he looked like Sammy Hagar.
I went to the break room a couple more times during the next hour and always shot a look at Sammy, but I couldn’t ever get a good enough look to decide if he was hot, or just interesting because of the Sammy Hagar thing.
Finally, Mom’s client left and she waved me into her office. I shoved some files aside and took a seat on her small sofa. “Who’s the guy in the Hawaiian shirt?”
“That’s Sam. Didn’t Gert introduce you?”
“She said he was in court this afternoon.”
Mom frowned. “She must be mixed up. He’s due in court tomorrow.” She reached for the phone, punched in some numbers and said into the receiver, “Sam, can you spare a minute? I’ve got your new hire in my office.” When she hung up, she glanced at me and narrowed her eyes suspiciously, like she always does when she thinks I’m up to something. Mom Radar is more finely honed than anything the defense department can put out. “I’m sure you think he’s cute, but don’t get any ideas. I have a very strict policy about inter-office dating.”
“The very last thing I’m interested in right now is a date. I only wanted to know who he is, and why he looks like he just got off the bus from Laguna Beach.”
“Sam’s a little…different. But the guy’s so smart, and detail oriented, I try and overlook his odd choices in clothing. He does wear a suit to court.”
I was still bemused with Mom’s laid-back attitude toward Sam’s professionalism when the man himself walked into her office. As I stood to shake his hand, I realized he was even bigger than I’d thought. I also noticed his eyes, unlike the dark brown of Sammy Hagar’s, were as blue as the Pacific. “How do you do?”
“You’re my new hire?” he asked in maybe the sexiest male voice I’d ever heard. He dropped my hand, gave me the once-over, then dismissed me as inconsequential. He looked to Mom. “I told you I wanted a man.”
Before Mom could respond, I said, “In spite of my lack of a penis, I can actually count to twenty-one.”
He frowned at me. “It’s got nothing to do with how smart you are. I need a man for this job.”
“Why? Are you threatened by females?”
“Only when they whine, which you’re bound to do, a lot. This job entails getting out in the field, maybe getting your hands dirty, and most of all, dealing with men in the oil business. Your mother told me you grew up here, so you know exactly why it’s a major handicap to be a woman, looking for information from guys in the oil business.”
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