Once upon a time (though he couldn’t have said which, anymore) there was an accountant, much like any accountant anywhere, from the days of the ancient Chinese with their beaded abacuses and nimble fingers to the futuristic post-postmodern age where sleek uninteresting machines take care of all those numbers for you. But this accountant didn’t see himself like all the others, in their gray ranks, in their cold gray institutional halls, stretching from one millennium to one far distant. He was unique among the men of numbers, the numberless men.
He paraded his difference through small defiances, doing things contrary to how others did them. He rolled his shirt cuffs inward, not out. He sold Amway, instead of sitting idly at Starbucks with a laptop and whey latte or whatever trendy thing the Silicon Valley droves—drones—were drinking these days. He ate a liverwurst sandwich every lunchtime in his blue Pontiac sedan, alone, in the soothing half-light of the Forsythe parking garage, instead of walking over to the bookstore or to Jamba Juice like everybody else on campus. He got to the office extra early to beat the worst of the traffic swarming over the Dumbarton from Milpitas, while all his coworkers including his malicious boy assistant dribbled in at nine o’clock or later. Slackers and losers all!
And after lining his ledgers up exactly with the left edge of his desk, and highlighting the most interesting numbers on the daily sales printout in a nice cheerful yellow, ignoring the view out his corner windows of Stanford’s dime-a-dozen red tile roofs, he’d sit back with a little flounce of derring-do, and with a smile no one who worked with him would ever in a million years have recognized, let himself think back to the day in 1493, on the rain-worn banks of the Arno River just beyond the bridge of the gold merchants’ shops, when he first set eyes on the love of his life—of all his lives to come, in fact—the pasta-maker’s second-oldest daughter, Linda.
A sighting no less momentous than that in May, 1275, when in that same City of Flowers what’s-his-name, that Alleghieri fellow, espied his Beatrice for the first time—typically claiming all of the attention.
He had been so near the verge of greatness in those days, of achieving lasting fame as an accountant’s accountant, a Renaissance Man’s Renaissance Man. He was thirty-five again, in love, with most of his lives still ahead of him, and no premonition of the ignominy that lay in wait for him millennia later in that monotonous place, the so-called New World, which that Genovese nobody Cristoforo Columbus had discovered, purely by accident, the previous year.
Just months before his heart’s fatal piercing by Cupid, he had stolen a peek at some fragments of an account book of a Florentine banker nearly two hundred years dead, which offered wondrous things—much more so than the alchemies others were practicing, or the flying machines that Leonardo the crazy vegetarian had been drawing for some years now. A revolutionary system of bookkeeping that would astonish the world! It was rumored that one Benedetto Cotrugli, a Ragusan merchant, one of those smarmy diplomats in the Kingdom of Naples, had been sitting on an unpublished manuscript on this double entry system for decades, but Carlo (as our accountant was called then) was feverishly working on his own book, scribbling nights with the ink of a hundred squid—taking the calamari out of the mouths of babes, he told himself with his god given gift for a colorful phrase—and was determined that he’d publish first, by means of that marvelous recent invention of the German’s, moveable type. What an age he lived in, this time! How proud of him bella Linda would be when he joined the ranks of the great,
Little, alas, did he know of the twist of fate that would make Luca Pacioli, the upstart friar from Borgo San Sepulcro, famous forever after—and Carlo himself not the Father of Double Entry Bookkeeping, but the Cuckolded-Lover of Double Entry Bookkeeping, cheated out of his legitimate offspring. And, as a consequence, of the woman he loved.
It had, of course, been ever thus. Why was he doomed to oblivion in every one of his lives, to being not the one to make history but the one to have missed making history by a damnable hair’s breadth?
Back in the Middle
In Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago, it was witchcraft that did him in. The son of a Sumerian turnip farmer, a dreamy boy more interested in decorating pots with cedar oil paint, he—Akalamdug—died tragically early when a demon became trapped in his body and tried to eat its way out. As was the practice then, a lamb was placed next to him in hopes that the demon would be enticed into the lamb, which they would then butcher, but the cure didn’t work—and the very next week the Sumerians were to announce they had developed the first system of abstract numerical representation. Young Akalamdug and his friends had been playing around with possibilities all summer, trying to keep track of all those turnips. Of course the friends got the credit.
During the First Dynasty of
In 640 BC, when Indians were first using the glyph “0,” he—Aapo—found himself living in northeastern Finland, so his contribution to the invention of
In 1130 AD, having been born under a fractionally luckier star, he did have a hand in copying out the first surviving accounting record in the English language, the Great Roll of the Exchequer. His handwriting was so bad, though, due to a grouse-hunting accident outside Hexham in his early teens, that
Another accident in ancient Peru in the 15thcentury left him—Aucapoma—unable to knot the strings of varying colors and lengths known as khipu, the ledger books of the Inka Empire, and the khipu-keeper of the palace had him executed with a flint
When the Chartered Accountant was initiated in Scotland on July 6, 1854, our Crannog was conspicuously absent from the proceedings. Still reeling from the loss of his Linda in his previous, Florentine incarnation, thanks to that damnable Pacioli, he’d defiantly studied instead to be a whiskey brewer, and spent his whole adulthood feeling properly dour amidst the misty peat bogs of the Isle of Islay.
It was a sad account, but the accountant presently known as Cyril Ames refused to let it keep him down. He highlighted another number with his usual incisive show of character, and thought how he was going to show them all this time. How he would rise, triumphant, above the petty minds and indignations he was being forced to suffer in this benighted lifetime (like having his liverwurst sandwich pounded to a pulp by his scoundrelly boy assistant Julio when the rapscallion didn’t think he was watching).
Across campus the famous Stanford Yacht Scandal was being uncovered, dollar by dirty dollar, by a bevy of overpaid auditors; and here, in the fusty air of the Language Institute Press, where he’d found an insultingly underpaid job a month ago, Cyril was singlehandedly preparing to bring to the light of day an even more heinous fraud—one that would rock the centuries of scholarly publishing.
If only he could keep his mind on his books!
He’d called a meeting on Tuesday at 10:30 with the Italian Studies editor, just back from a four-week business trip to Italy. He was ready to question her severely about her expense reports, and several outrageously high advances to authors and translators of such works as The Use of Commas in Dante’s Later Work and Papal Bull: Popes of the Counter-Reformation and Their Boasts. But questions and severity were not to be. The minute he walked into her office, a sea of manuscript boxes, he reeled—recognizing the strapping young editor as none other than his lovely Linda, at last reborn. He’d looked for her fruitlessly in Scotland, and then during another uneventful stint keeping the books for a fly-in safari company in the Okavango Swamps of Botswana in the years leading up to World War I, and had been devastated not to find her. Now here she was, sitting in front of him in Palo Alto, California, looking quizzical!
“Ellen. Ellen Arthur.” She appeared not to recognize him. The light of love did not kindle in her fine brown eyes as it did in his myopic ones (for which he wore corrective lenses).
“What did you want?” She tapped a pile of papers impatiently—as was his Linda’s wont—with a pencil.
Cyril stammered something incoherent, gazing like a spaniel into her lovely frowning face, and sinking helplessly into a manuscript-free chair beside her wildly cluttered desk on whose back was tossed a luxurious marbled silk scarf. Deep blue, Linda’s favorite color. How could he say that in her Italian absence he’d been suspecting her of fraud? How could he accuse his newly re-encountered inamorata?
He must have been mad even to think that there was something underhanded going on. The discrepancies he’d found between the published books and the advances (sometimes paid two or three times) could surely be explained some other way. And certainly one could not skimp on a business trip to Italy. One needed 150,000 lire bottles of prosecco, and to replace one’s shoes with fine leather to meet important Milanese philosophers. One obviously couldn’t stay in fleabag pensioni, or refuse to eat at l’Enoteca Pinciorri on the ancient Via Ghibellina (which Carlo had walked so many times) or to take side trips to the Amalfi Coast to chase down a recalcitrant indexer. Though he had to admit that she had kept her fawn brown eye determinedly out for golden opportunities when they’d last met in the City of the Medici, Linda in her present incarnation as the bookish Ellen Arthur was clearly only hardworking and dedicated to her job.
So it made perfect sense that she should hurry him out of her office, embarking brusquely on a search for her phone amidst the admirable clutter—o bello disordine!—that was her desktop. He had to rush off to a tedious book launch in any case, so he just wiggled his yellow-tipped fingers at her coyly as he left the sun-drenched realm of joy for the dim, dreary halls of academe.
Finding Linda again completely changed Cyril’s life, his lives.
He took to wearing a jaunty mauve Camiceria Etrusca sportshirt.
He bought a marbelled Montegrappa pen to replace his yellow highlighter (only sorry he couldn’t on his Stanford pittance afford the sterling silver Thrilla in Manilla fountain pen set).
He peppered his presentations at launch meetings with Italian aphorisms. Mysterious profundities like “A
Instead of his lunch in the parking garage he zoomed off every day on a little red vespa he’d spotted on Craigslist to A.G. Ferrari, where he bought assorted pastas to woo his refound darling with—quill shaped penne rigate, straw-like fusilli Napolitani, little curled riccioli, farfalle like sporty bow ties, hollow bucatini, and of course his favorite, strozzapreti—the “priest chokers.” (If only he could have choked that wicked priest-substitute Luca Pacioli back in Florence!) And tempting sauces, from pesto to porcini to crema with the aroma of truffles.
But the change was not all happy. Bit by bit Cyril, who’d been for all his lives the honorable man of numbers, living proudly by the golden code, was persuaded after much soul-searching and tormented nights without sleep to leave aside his convictions, to look the other way or turn a blind eye as he’d always scorned others doing. Before the summer was over he had become consenting partner to the irresistible young editor’s deceptions, her extravagant—even breathtaking—abuses of the Language Institute budget, which he couldn’t dream anymore of disclosing to the world with a dramatic flourish. He was determined he would keep her lovely name from scandal—however often she denied it was Linda!
And in the new fiscal year, convinced that he would win her love this time, by proving his deathless devotion (unlike that flighty friar with the short attention span she’d left him for in Florence!), he turned his uncommon talents to abetting and concealing. He felt unfamiliar and unholy delight at the delicious thought of drawing the porcine minds of the university accountants and any potential auditors off after red herrings—aringhi rossi—though of course every auditor in the greater Stanford area was tied up with yachts and cottages at Tahoe for the foreseeable future.
He kept Julio, his annoyingly curious assistant, constantly occupied with busy-work, with photocopying and filing invoices and petty cash disbursements, so he wouldn’t find his keen young mind wondering at those cooked or undercooked numbers in the editorial expense accounts. So he wouldn’t notice that they were overpaying their Italian translators thousands of dollars, millions upon millions of lire, paying for translations that somehow never happened, and making bimonthly trips to Italy to meet with nonexistent authors and high-flying series editors.
Cyril burbled with optimism, with Faustian self-confidence. He would become famous at last. Not, as he’d hoped misguidedly before, for his ability to lead, to head the dogged pack that nipped forever at his tender heels, but for his ability to mislead!
He rose at dawn one joyful Tuesday in November, the Year of our Lord 1991. Linda had just returned again from
Arriving even earlier than usual on the still-deserted campus, the students all off in their gruesome little dorm rooms sleeping the untroubled sleep of the entitled rich, he let himself into the silent Language Institute building, and glided down the hall, laden with gifts, to Linda’s office. He slipped open the door with a key that he’d had made. Then—oh, astonishment! oh, horror!—dropped everything with a tremendous clatter just inside the door, physically stunned and emotionally reeling. He’d caught his delicate flower of womanhood with his unspeakably common assistant Julio, in flagrante delicto as they say in Italy—have said since the time of the Romans.
“But you don’t understand, damn you–” he howled in agony at the young man who grinned up hardly flustered from the rug at him, the hand-knotted silk Roubini rug she’d brought back from a recent trip (and he had entered in the books as “corrections in typesetting”). “She is my Linda!” The tears burned hotly in his eyes, blurring though not enough the sorry, seamy scene of the before-hours tryst.
“Yours, you say?” the shameless fellow mocked him. “How do you figure that? You’ve rather grabbed the wrong end of the stick—ha
“What do you know, you miserable lackey?” Cyril howled again, in his agitation not stopping to wonder why his assistant was quoting Italian at him. “What can you know of
“What indeed, Carlo