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Book by Canin Ethan
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I am an accountant, that calling of exactitude and scruple, and my crime was small. I have worked diligently, and I do not mind saying that in the conscientious embrace of the ledger I have done well for myself over the years, yet now I must also say that due to a flaw in my character I have allowed one small trespass against my honor. I try to forget it. Although now I do little more than try to forget it, I find myself considering and reconsidering this flaw, and then this trespass, although in truth if I am to look at them both, this flaw is so large that it cannot properly be called a flaw but my character itself, and this trespass was devious. I have a wife and three children. My name is Abba Roth.
I say this as background, that is all. I make no excuses for myself, nor have I ever. The facts are as follows: We live in San Rafael, California, and I work at Priebe, Emond & Farmer, the San Francisco firm, where I have worked since the last days of the Eisenhower administration. At one time or another we have owned a Shetland pony, dug a swimming pool, leased a summer cottage at Lake Tahoe, and given generously to the Israel General Fund, although all that we still do is lease the cottage. My wife’s name is Scheherazade, and she will not answer to Sherri, her childhood appellation, anymore. We have two daughters, Naomi and Rachel, and a son, whose name is Abba also, although I know this name is not in fashion.
Recently a man I knew as a child called me at my office, and this is how this incident began. His name is Eugene Peters and we have known each other for most of our lives. We grew up together in Daly City, California, a suburb of San Francisco that, like accounting, has become the object of some scorn by particular segments of society. A popular song has been written on the theme that all the homes in Daly City are identical, although this happens not to be correct. In reality there were any number of different architectural plans used in the neighborhood where Mr. Peters and I grew up, although by coincidence he and I did in fact grow up in houses that happened to be built from the same one. The plans, of course, had been reflected on an axis so that each house became the mirror image of the other—each contained a living room, with the kitchen set in a side bay, two bedrooms off a short hallway, a basement downstairs, and on the garage side of the front yard a palm that in our childhoods grew from a seedling to the height of the roof. His room abutted from the left of the upstairs hall, as mine did, in our own house, from the right; their bathroom was on the right of the same hall and ours was on the left, et cetera, so that it sometimes struck me as odd when the floors and walls in his house were covered with furnishings belonging to his parents and not my own. We rode bicycles together and later drove in his Plymouth convertible; later still, we double- dated, and we played on the same baseball team. I played third base and Eugene, whose father had gone to Notre Dame with our coach, played shortstop.
I know it is commonly assumed that a shortstop has better range than a third baseman, but in this case I can attest that such was not the case.
In those days, Eugene and I spent nearly all of our afternoons together after school. He had a sister, as did I, and his father, like mine, was never at home, so that in a funny way it might have seemed for a while that our families, in our identical houses, were interchangeable. We washed his car together. We learned to ice-skate and for a time spent our afternoons in the frosty, round rink, trying to catch the skates of girls in earmuffs who glided past us snapping their gum. We learned to roll cigarettes that burned evenly and to drink whiskey without coughing.
However, there came a time when our lives diverged. After high school I was able to benefit from the discipline my father had bestowed upon us even in his general absence and go to the state university, where I began to pursue a degree in accounting. At this point our separation became clear to us both. Mr. Peters had taken a job in an auto-parts dealership stocking inventory at the time I was learning the indifference curves and just beginning to understand where the intersection of supply and demand could be found for an inelastic commodity, such as city water. He found new friends at the auto warehouse, and I began to live my life with no friends at all. I attended school during the day, answered telephones in a hospital in the evening, and studied at night. Whenever I saw him at that time, he teased me for still living at home, although he well knew why I did.
To clarify: It became apparent that we had diverged because he was interested in the present and I was interested in the future. I do not mind saying that accounting did not come easily for me and I was studying strenuously. However, I did not waver from my commitment to it. In fact, in time I came to see that it contained a natural eloquence, unbent by human will, and that it was a more profound language than the common man might have assumed it to be. Indeed, at times I felt it was capable of explaining not only outlays and receipts but much of the natural world. It was only rarely, late at night with my books of tax law and microeconomics, that I indulged the small daydream that I might one day leave my studies and instead become a professor of music history at a small college. But I seldom indulged this thought. Indeed, I came with time to cherish my daydream for the principal reason that it challenged and therefore reinforced my resolve to make something of myself. Sitting at the window in the library, where the septate leaves of a Japanese maple brushed the glass, I would look up from Samuelson and allow my mind to wander to the third movement of Berlioz’s Requiem, or to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, wherein the strings, though barely moving, weep for humankind. Then, deliberately, I would snap back to the Samuelson text and redouble the efforts that had brought me near, I do not mind saying, to the top of my class of accounting students.
Again, I say this as background. Once a week I spent the whole night awake with my books, and I took no time away except Sunday mornings, when I ate breakfast with my family, and Saturday nights, when I allowed myself a date if I could find one or a movie if I could not. Needless to say, this regimen produced a commendable record at my graduation, which Mr. Peters attended, although he did not dress correctly.
He wore a baseball cap, and I could not help noticing—I do not mind saying this with some satisfaction—that while I was graduating with honors in business accounting, my friend seemed to want nothing more than to stock gaskets and price piston rings until the short hair at his temples turned gray.
However, shortly after I graduated and had taken a job with Priebe & Emond, Mr. Peters approached me and asked for a one-thousand-dollar investment in a concern he claimed to be starting that was going to manufacture magnetic oil plugs. At the time he approached me, we hadn’t spoken since my commencement exercises. He came to my office, again in a baseball cap. The idea was simple, he said: The magnetic plug would collect the flecks of metal that ordinarily circulated in the dirty oil of a car’s engine and caused abrasion damage to the pistons and cylinders. Engine life would therefore be extended.
I was unsure whether any of the managing partners had seen him enter my office in a billed cap, and it goes without saying that I felt some discomfort at having him there. I was still new at the firm. To be frank, the idea seemed like a good one, but since I had just spent four years in school all day, at work all evening, and at my desk half the night while he was idling his days at a warehouse and his evenings at bars, I asked him instead whether he had ever considered the flexibility of consumer demand for his product. I asked him this instead of giving him the money. He left our offices still trying pitifully to give the impression that he had understood my question, and I went back to my job, where in six months I made my first advancement.
However, the fact is that three years later his company employed twelve men, was doing $2.3 million in gross sales and was rumored to be considering a public offering. Mr. Peters had been profiled in the business section of the newspaper, and in that photograph he wore the same baseball cap he had worn at my commencement and in my office. Indeed, the cap seemed to have become a sort of a symbol for him, although I do not know of what. The magnetic oil plugs had been picked up by at least two major auto-parts chains, and I saw them for sale everywhere I went. I changed the supermarket where I shopped because one day I found the oil plugs for sale there. My friend’s company had also begun manufacturing an auto emergency kit that sold well to women and accounted for a good deal of his profits. He was diversifying. Though we didn’t speak anymore, I saw him driving a blue Chrysler New Yorker and heard through our old friends that he had bought a sixteen-room house in Hillsborough and a villa with boat bays at Lake Tahoe. By now several of our high school classmates worked for him.
“Extraordinary for its craft and emotional effect . . . [Ethan Canin is] a writer of enormous talent and charm.”
– The Washington Post
“Character is destiny,” wrote Heraclitus–and in this collection of four unforgettable stories, we meet people struggling to understand themselves and the unexpected turns their lives have taken. In “Accountant,” a quintessential company man becomes obsessed with the phenomenal success of a reckless childhood friend. “Batorsag and Szerelem” tells the story of a boy’s fascination with the mysterious life and invented language of his brother, a math prodigy. In “City of Broken Hearts,” a divorced father tries to fathom the patterns of modern relationships. And in “The Palace Thief,” a history teacher at an exclusive boarding school reflects on the vicissitudes of a lifetime connection with a student scoundrel. A remarkable achievement by one of America’s finest writers, this brilliant volume reveals the moments of insight that illuminate everyday lives.
“Captivating . . . a heartening tribute to the form . . . an exquisite performance.”
– The Boston Sunday Globe
“A model of wit, wisdom, and empathy. Chekhov would have appreciated its frank renderings and quirky ironies.”
– Chicago Tribune
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