Authors: Susan Dunlap
to Natalie Fischer Heling
EOPLE WHO DON’T SEND
in their taxes sleep in jail, Howard, not in the prize bedroom of a brown-shingled house.” I might as well have called it a brown-shingled other woman. But I didn’t. A homicide detective hates to sound petty, particularly here in Berkeley, California, where the politically correct tone is laid-back snide.
I was sitting cross-legged on the bed in the prize room tensely pulling strands of brown hair loose from the clasp at the nape of my neck. It didn’t ease my tension any to watch Howard pacing in long-legged strides between his work table and his newly painted wall. Spatters of white paint marked his jeans and the forest-green turtleneck I’d given him. The room had smelled of paint for a week now, but it was better than the downstairs, where he’d just sanded the dining-room floor. It seemed the stench of sawdust and singed wood never cleared there.
Seduced by the hint that the owner of the decrepit five-bedroom house he leased and loved might consider a purchase option, Howard had devoted the last three months to refurbishing the aging siren. His latest gift had been an expensive
he’d planted next to the front door like a Mother’s Day corsage.
I knew what this house meant to him and why it was so important. But I was coming to hate it.
This morning Howard had commandeered an oak door he’d been refinishing and turned it into a table that took up half the free space in his bedroom,
bedroom. Howard appropriating part of his oak-trimmed inamorata was like Romeo using Juliet’s balcony for ballast. Now the door-cum-table sagged under piles of tax booklets, schedule As and Ds, form 4562s, yellow pads, pencils, pens, erasers, hillocks of receipts, and mountains of eraser dust. On top was the 1040 that proclaimed that Howard owed the IRS a bundle. That bundle, alas, Howard had already spent on paint, varnish, and the azalea.
And the table was so close to the king-size bed that one communal tumble could create a tornado of tax forms. The prospect of organizing caresses to suit a 1040 is hardly an aphrodisiac.
“Deductions,” Howard muttered now, running a hand through his curly red hair. “I must have been to twenty charity dinners this year. I’ve got to have more to deduct.” He extricated the 1040 instruction booklet from the mire on the erstwhile door, leaned back in his director’s chair, propped ankle on the opposite knee, and read sarcastically: “‘Gifts to Charity.’ What ‘you MAY deduct’ is one paragraph, followed by three paragraphs of limitations. What ‘you MAY NOT deduct’ is a whole fucking column and a half.”
“Who said it’s better to give than receive?”
Jill,” Howard corrected.
If he’d caught my disingenuous tone, he wasn’t commenting. But we’d commented on less and less over the months since I’d moved in here. The only thing we both had wholly endorsed lately was the tacit decision to avoid conflict. I didn’t know how we’d landed at this impasse. My first marriage had ended in screams. Then Howard had been my buddy—funny, sexy, anxious to protect me, and ready to accept that a homicide detective doesn’t need protection. I was the one who pushed people, baited them till they talked. I was always taking chances. But here I was paralyzed.
“Besides,” Howard said, “if the IRS believed in blessings, they’d tax them too.” He turned back to the instructions. “You may not deduct ‘travel expenses (including meals and lodging) unless there was no significant element of personal pleasure, recreation, or vacation in the travel.’ I drove to San Francisco to speak to the Nob Hill Club. Does the IRS mean if I got caught in rush hour and sat on the bridge for an hour and was teed-off the whole time, then it’s okay to deduct the mileage? But if I missed the traffic and the sun was shining, there’s no deduction?”
I had no more idea than he. What I did know was that I needed to get out of here. Particularly since my own tax return had required nothing more than a 1040 and W-2. Lack of possessions has its privileges. In contrast to Howard with his five-bedroom albatross, I had lived on a porch for two years and house-sat for months. Moving here had taken only one trip in Howard’s Land-Rover. I liked the freedom of traveling light, of needing no more than a sleeping bag, a deck chair in the living room, and a single 1040.
Howard stood up, stretching to his full six feet six inches, and began pacing around the bedroom, which now boasted an undercoat of white that barely veiled the dark green beneath. “And when I went to a charitable dinner that I didn’t speak at and paid a hundred dollars”—Howard cringed slightly, and I could guess that he was balancing that chicken dinner against the flock of azaleas he could have had nesting in the front yard— “does the IRS say, ‘Thank you, Detective Howard, for being so generous’? No. No thousand points of light for them. What they say is “Well, Seth, you ate the bird, didn’t you? You’re going to have to subtract that dinner from that C-note.’”
“So you deduct ninety-five instead of a hundred dollars. It’s not like they served pheasant under glass.”
“Aha! Logical thinking! IRS hates that. They don’t care what the dinner was worth; they want to know what the restaurant would have charged for the meal.” He put down the booklet. “Jill, we’re talking neckbone marinara.” Howard’s blue eyes narrowed, his lantern jaw jutted forward, his curly red hair virtually vibrated with outrage. Felons who had seen that look were now in San Quentin.
“I take it the instruction book is no help?”
“It says ‘Get Pub five-twenty-six for details.’”
“So why not get it?” I said, more snappishly than I’d intended.
But he was too deep in the world of revenue to notice something so mundane as pique. “Where do you think you get Pub five-twenty-six? The IRS office, right? The IRS office, which is closed on weekends!” Howard slammed his fist on the table.
Scraps of paper bounced.
I hadn’t realized the IRS was closed. The two hours I’d spent on my return was on a Wednesday, or maybe Thursday. (It was so long ago, I couldn’t remember, but I restrained myself from mentioning that. I didn’t want to
petty.) In a show of support, I said, “Why don’t you call Pereira?” Patrol Officer Connie Pereira was the department’s financial maven.
“On patrol,” Howard growled. “By the time she gets off, I’ll be staking out People’s Park.” At work, Pereira’s commitment to financial maneuvers was equaled only by Howard’s love of stings.
The sting Howard would be orchestrating tonight had been weeks in the planning. At midnight, Howard would reel in one of Berkeley’s biggest drug dealers. Normally, just hours before countdown he would be pacing around, worrying about every detail, compulsively discussing every option, weighing his assumptions against my opinions, coming up with six variations on the theme. The Howard I loved. I realized with a start that I had been counting on this sting to resurrect him from this coffin of a house.
“Forty dollars! That’s what the Nob Hill Club charges for their meal! It couldn’t have cost them more than three. They must have found the chicken in a taxidermist’s trash!” Howard broke pace and stalked toward the phone. “No way is IRS going to screw me. I’m going to get every ingredient in every charitable meal I ate, and deduct the real price. Let the bastards challenge that!”
I didn’t think much of Howard’s chances, but at least thumbing his nose at the nation’s most powerful bureaucracy was better than obsessing about the advantages of azalea over alstroemeria, or hornbeam over hackberry trees. It was a bureaucratic sting. “Look, Howard, I’ll go by the station and get Pereira thinking about your talks, dinners, and deductions. I’m going out anyway.”
“Ah, free time.”
Before Howard could go on, I walked downstairs, careful not to run my hand along the stripped and splintery bannister, across the newly stained floor, and out past the hornbeam or hackberry (whichever) and the
, destined to produce large white flowers with a splash of pink, Howard had told me more than once. So far, it and its numerous cousins had produced only green leaves and resentment. I headed to the Mediterraneum Caffè on Telegraph for a
and a slice of Chocolate Decadence. I had cashed my refund check yesterday. I planned to spend it all on coffee and chocolate—and if things didn’t improve at Howard’s, on the first, last, and cleaning deposits on an apartment.
I had to admit that Howard’s oak-paneled, balconied, brown-shingled place had lots of potential. A speculator could have renovated and made a bundle. But parting with it, regardless of the profit, would never cross Howard’s mind. For him the house brought back—with the immediacy of smell—a big old house his aunt rented for the family one summer in some California Valley town.
Howard had spent his childhood on the move. His father had been off somewhere on ever-longer jobs. His mother (I met her once—a fey woman with strands of red hair running through her gray like single-lane roads in the desert) was there and not there. She moved around on the spur of the moment to cities and towns in California. Howard would come home from school to find his clothes in cardboard boxes. He was lucky to be tall, good-looking, and most of all athletic. A boy athlete can fit in anywhere. And he grew up playing football on small-school teams or pickup basketball in the cities. He learned to garner confidence quickly. But the teams and the friends could be snatched away by the cardboard boxes. The only place he’d ever felt at home was his aunt’s summer house.
And now this one.
I knew how much it meant to him. I wished I could share his love for it. Or even feel neutral about it. But every time I walked inside, it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of it. I wanted to open all the windows and knew they were nailed shut. Of course, they weren’t—that’s just how it felt. I wished I could figure out why it unnerved me. It wasn’t just its other-womanness. It was something more basic than that. Something I couldn’t draw into consciousness.
It was after ten thirty when I finished a second
and headed for my car on Regent Street a block above Telegraph by People’s Park. The rain had stopped, but the night was still windy for April. It had been one of those warm dry winters that are becoming all too common here in drought country. And then in March, when every county in the Bay Area had instituted water rationing, it poured and turned cold. Now the wind sliced between the cotton fibers of my jacket.
I was turning onto Regent when I spotted the double-parked patrol car near the far end of the block. Its pulser lights flashed red on the white wooden and stucco buildings and turned the macadam brown. The squeals from its radio pierced the wind.
Behind me in People’s Park men’s voices provided an ominous counterpoint.
People’s Park, the symbol of the flower-child era years ago, had changed. No longer was it the site of free flowers, vegetables, and love. It’d been taken over by the homeless, the dealers, the addicts. And in that mix the just plain homeless walked warily and slept with both eyes open. Near People’s Park there were too many drugs and too many nervous dealers with weapons that we on the force only dreamed of. Add to that, paranoid users, fed-up neighbors, students, and street people, and the old-time crazies—and it was a recipe for violence. All too often a crowd’s anger coalesced and turned on the one outsider, the cop.