I sat in a dimly lit room, sweating, though it was unclear if that was a result of my nerves or the room's shockingly hot temperature. Special Agent Jarvis Ham squinted at me through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke across the long, oak table that separated us.
At least, I think it was oak. I'm not great at identifying types of wood based on looking at it. One of those things I wish I was good at but I just never really dedicated the time to it, you know? That's the way it goes I guess. I discreetly rubbed my index finger along the side of the table. I don't know why.
If I can't decipher what wood this is based on sight, what makes me think my wood-decoding mutant power lies in my hands?
It does not.
"I wonder if you realize," Special Agent Ham began, "just how much trouble you're in, son. " He took a long drag from his cigarette and exhaled slowly. "I can't divulge too many details until my partner gets here, but, boy, if trouble were cheddar, you could open up a cheese shop."
"Uh huh," I said absently as I lowered my nose to the table, sniffing it as subtly as I could. Special Agent Ham didn't seem too concerned with my table-smelling; apparently being a tough, hardened, federal agent stereotype was very time consuming.
Special Agent Ham was a tall man, tall like a mountain. A Mountain of Ham. His hair was cropped short, as I imagine is the protocol for tough-looking officer archetypes.
"Boy," Special Agent Ham said, "I've seen a lot of punks come through this office." He leaned in menacingly and lowered his voice to a gravelly whisper. "But you, motherfucker, take the cake." I leaned in and lowered my voice to a delightful chirp.
"What is this, oak? Come on, tell me, is this oak?" Before Special Agent Ham had a chance to answer, his partner, whose name I desperately hope is Special Agent And Eggs, entered the interrogation room, carrying a file and a small, unmarked bag.
"Mr. O'Brien," he said emotionlessly, "I'm Special Agent Connor McCloud. Sorry to keep you waiting. I trust Agent Ham has kept you comfortable?"
"He and I were just chatting," Agent Ham said. His tone implied that he was using "chatting" euphemistically, which I don't understand because we literally were just chatting. Agent McCloud smiled and started busying himself with the file he was holding. He had short blond hair parted to one side and he wore inexpensive-looking glasses. He dressed like a man who shopped with function, and not style, in mind. I was more than a little disappointed that so cool a name was wasted on so dorky a man. If I was named Connor McCloud, I'd fight star monsters and fuck space mermaids. The real Connor McCloud shops at Target.
McCloud was clearly the "good cop" in this cheap, hastily conceived relationship. He smiled a lot, asked me how I was doing, that sort of thing. Special Agent Ham called me "son," a lot, but he mostly looked nothing like my father. He was black, was probably the biggest difference. He reminded me of Denzel Washington in Training Day, or Don Cheadle, or Morris Chestnut. Or Morgan Freeman and Dave Chappelle or Seal or Cedric the Entertainer.
Wait, is it racist that he makes me think of every black person I've ever seen? He does sort of look like Whoopi Goldberg. I tapped the bottom of the table, trying to see if it made a sound that would somehow click in my brain as the sound an oak table would make when knocked. Then I remembered that I didn't have a database of wood sounds stored in my mind and therefore would have nothing to compare the sound to. I kept tapping anyway. Got shit else to do.
"Why don't we get started with the obvious," Agent McCloud started, obviously. "Do you know why the IRS called you?"
"I have a pretty vague idea," I said, though I'm sure, with the corner of the table in my mouth, my answer was muffled just slightly.
"It's about your taxes, Mr. O'Brien."
"Oh," I said, picking splinters out from between my teeth. "Oh, in that case, no, I have no idea why I was called here. I thought it was totally this... other thing, or whatever. Wow, taxes, no, I hadn't even considered that." I didn't have the slightest clue what problem they might have found with my taxes, but I was relieved to learn that this had nothing to do with the skeleton of Pocahontas that I kept preserved in my pantry. At least that's safe. For now.
"You're acting pretty cool for someone sittin' shoulder-deep in shit soup," Agent Ham said. I am pretty cool, I thought, as I licked my lips. The table tasted sort of like Popsicle sticks. What kind of wood was that? Pine?
"The way I see it," Agent Ham continued, "is that you're going to rot for a long time, no matter how you spin it." They wouldn't use pine for Popsicle sticks, right? They'd use something cheap, I'm sure of it.
(Is pine cheap?)
"You got anything to say for yourself?"
"Is pine cheap?" Blank stares from both agents. I decided to clarify. "Is pine one of the cheaper woods?" Still nothing. "Relative to other woods, where does pine fall on the spectrum of cost? Towards the low end or to the... to the higher end?" Suddenly, Special Agent Ham reached all the way across the (balsawood?) table, grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and lifted me right out of my chair.
"What the fuck is your problem? You think the IRS is all fun and games or something?" I guess I'd never really thought about it that seriously but now that he's bringing it up, I suppose I figured there were probably a few games. Like, on Fridays, maybe. Every office has fun once in a while. I put on my serious face.
"No, Sir, but I imagined there were some games and maybe the occasional inter-office contest. Is that wrong?" Ham shoved me back down in my chair. Hard. He raised his fist to hit me (also hard, I imagined) when Special Agent McCloud waved him off.
"You'll have to excuse Agent Ham," he said, excusably, "he just gets a little bit...frustrated."
"Only when it comes to lawbreakers," Ham added, his eyes staring daggers into mine. With my hands under the table and out of sight, I quietly started picking at the bottom of the table, hoping to get a few wood shavings. Worst case scenario, I could send these off to a lab somewhere and find out what kind of wood it was, even though I don't technically remember why I even care.
"Well, you know what they say," I tell Agent Ham, "If lawbreakers were jawbreakers..." I bow my head and bounce my extended palms for a few beats, as if to say Go ahead, you know the rest.
"Who says that? No one says that. That doesn't even-"
"Agent Ham," Agent McCloud interrupted, "have a seat. Mr. O'Brien, let's get right down to it: Do you remember anything odd about the way you filled out your taxes?"
"Nope, everything seemed to be in order on my end. I used that computer program... whatever it's called."
"Turbo Tax," Agent McCloud offered.
"Sure," I said, but I'm almost positive my version was called Wolfenstein.
"Well, Mr. O'Brien, the discrepancies on your tax form range from the small and fixable to the large and, to be honest, somewhat perplexing. You put down three different social security numbers, all of them belonging to deceased people."
"Yeah, I've got a bunch more, too, if you need them."
"You shouldn't really have any extra Social Security numbers, we only wanted yours. This is sort of a problem, Mr. O'Brien." I understood.
"Ah," I said, "Gotcha. A Problem. Right, sounds pretty serious. If only there was some way this problem could disappear. Shouldn't be too difficult. Things disappear all the time." While I squinted into the far corner of the interrogation room, seemingly distracted by nothing in particular, I surreptitiously slid an envelope across the table. "Why, just today, one of my envelopes full of Social Security numbers disappeared. Weird, right?" I winked at Agent McCloud, because I was being sneaky. And because I'm very good at winking.
"Let's get back to your taxes, Mr. O'Brien. You also mentioned on your form that you ran for president?"
"Oh, totes. There's that section about donating money to the presidential campaign, right?"
"So, I figured if suckers are gonna send over $3 to a presidential candidate, I might as well remind the world that I threw my hat into the ring last year with the reanimated corpse of Ol' Dirty Bastard as my running mate. See if I can collect some of that scratch, know what I mean?"
"You did not run for president," Agent Ham growled.
"Sure I did. We ran on a platform of Social Security Numbers for Everyone."
"I'm saying it's impossible for you to have run for president."
"And I'm saying that that's exactly the kind of stilted, unambitious thinking that's going to make America a two-party country forever," I said. Agent McCloud faced Agent Ham and widened his eyes and leaned forward slightly, like he was trying to mime "See? I told you." Guess I'm not the only one to pick up on Ham's inability to think outside the box.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to give Americans a choice, Mr. O'Brien. As much as I'd love to discuss this with you, we do really have to move on," McCloud said, moving on. "Now, when asked for your Head of Household, you put 'Jack O'Brien.' Now, this is your father?"
"No, we're not related. I just want you to tax him any time you would tax me. He's the head of a household. So yeah, just tax him extra. Really, go nuts."
"Oh, we are," Agent McCloud said casually, "but for completely unrelated reasons." I must remember to ask Jack about that. Agent Ham was getting restless.
"Why are you wasting time on this shit? What about the other garbage this lunatic pulled? His form's got more holes than a hunk of Swiss." Was that the second cheese reference from him today? That's weird. "Did you ask him about Third Party Designee?"
"I was getting to that," Agent McCloud replied gettingly. "Mr. O'Brien, I'm at a loss. Here, under Third Party Designee, you sent us your severed thumb." I opened my hands and wiggled my fingers broadly.
"I sent you a severed thumb, you filled in those blanks yourself, Agent McCloud. Don't make your presumptuousness my problem. You know what happens when you assume, don't you?" In case they didn't, I decided to clarify: "When you assume, you make jawbreakers-"
"Stop talking about jawbreakers!"
"Out candy and nuts," I finished meekly. Special Agent Connor McCloud took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes which, in addition to highlighting his exhaustion, is a surefire way to get pinkeye, particularly when holding my tax form which, God knows, is just silly with feces.
"Normally we don't feel we need to specify this, but severed limbs are not admissible forms of currency. Or proper designees, or... or, just everything, Mr. O'Brien, just don't send us things like that, please. We appreciate the gesture, we just have no way of filing that."
"Why file it at all? Why not just use fingernail clippers!" Agent McCloud and I had a neat little laugh about that. Special Agent Ham was not amused.
"Continuing," he said, "I'd like you to explain this." He slid a piece of paper across the table.
"OK, yes, we should get down to business. Now, first of all, it looks like under exemptions you put your own box for 'Taxes,'" Agent McCloud said.
"Yes," I confirmed, "and, more importantly, I'd like you to please note that I checked that box, so to say that I would like to be exempt from taxes this year. All taxes."
"You can't make your own boxes," Agent Ham barked. Without being condescending, I slid the paper back to Ham and pointed to the spot where I made the little box, to assure him that I could, and in fact I did.
"It's right up there under exemptions," I added helpfully, in case he still couldn't see it. Agent Ham started loosening his tie and cracking his knuckles, which seemed like a strange way of saying 'Thank you.'
"Why don't we just move on... Would you care to explain the dependents section?"
"Oh, no doubt. I allegedly have a few kids running around, but I'm not spending a dime until I see some proof that they're actually mine. And not the kind of proof you can get from a doctor and a blood test, either. Until then, I have no on-the-record knowledge of these children and have never spoken to them, especially not the girl one. Oh, and I put 'maybe a few more' because I wasn't sure if these other alleged kids counted. Do mixed race babies count? Like, as people?" A full minute passed, while McCloud stared at the floor and Ham audibly coaxed an aneurysm into submission. Finally, Ham spoke up.
"Mr. O'Brien, there was a whole lot wrong with that explanation. I don't- I'm not even sure I know what to do. Not just with your taxes, but in life. I mean that I'm honestly not sure if I can live in a world that allows a person like you to exist. If you received some justice, I mean... If... If you- But you didn't, and so... so- If.... but..." He was getting choked up. I figured I'd help him out.
"If 'If's and but's' were candies and jawbreakers-" Agent Ham threw a stapler at my head.
"Let me get this straight," Ham started, once he was out of staplers."You refuse to legally acknowledge these kids as yours because you don't want to pay any child support, but you're still claiming them as dependents and demanding a refund? And not one bit of that sounds off to you?"
"Sounds fine to me, Agent Ham." He was glaring at me, and I needed some way to soothe him. "It sounds about as right as Gouda, you know?"
"The boy's got a point," Agent McCloud said, as he wrote a check for the DOB/ODB campaign fund.
"He does not have a point, McCloud. I know you're the superior agent on this case, but your handling of this situation is just a bit delicate for my tastes." Agent Ham stood up, his eyes glistening with tears that were formed, but not quite yet ready to fall. He held his head up high, looking like Terrence Howard or Mos Def or Theo Huxtable. As quick as he was earlier to lose his temper, Agent Ham's speech now was firm and measured. He spoke with the eloquence and passion of a man who truly cared about and believed in his subject.
"We have a system of laws in this country, Mr. O'Brien, and that you share in the benefits and freedoms inherent to being an American citizen means that you sign a intangible contract that binds you to those laws. By living here, by enjoying the luxury that is freedom, you agree to follow the rules that make said freedom possible. This unspoken social contract is what separates us, not just from the animals, but from those who live under tyranny and it is one of the most important aspects of this country. You are breaking your end of the contract, Mr. O'Brien, with your flagrant disregard for the rules this country has in place. This is a serious situation, and all you can do is rub the damn table and sit there with that brain dead, son-of-a-bitching smirk on your stupid face."
"I just wanted to know if this table was birch or Bolivian rosewood."
" It is clearly a steel table."
"Huh. So it is. Boy, that's a little embarrassing."
"Don't beat yourself up," McCloud said.
"Man," I started, "between Ham on my back and this egg on my face, I've got quite a balanced breakfast going on!" Agent McCloud and I slapped high five.
"Whew, this kid's a riot, this kid. Ham, did you hear this? The kid's alright. Shit."
"Dammit, McCloud, you're handling plutonium with kid's gloves. This is serious. I can no longer take-"
"Then don't take it anymore, Ham. Why don't you go for a walk, or something? Leave me and the kid for a while, would that be alright, kid?"
I mumbled something in the affirmative, but really I was pretty distracted licking the table to find out what kind of steel it was. Bolivian Red, maybe? Or the kind they use on Popsicle sticks, but in the future.
"Yeah," Agent Ham said, "yeah, maybe I should... take a walk." He shuffled out of the interrogation room, a broken shell of a man. McCloud gave me one of those What-are-ya-gonna-do? shrugs and we shared a brief chuckle.
"So, McCloud, level with me: Is this whole tax thing really that big a deal, or is Agent Ham getting all uppity for no reason?"
"It is a bit troubling, but, uh, I wouldn't worry about it, Mr. O'Brien," Agent McCloud said, pocketing the Social Security numbers I'd slipped him earlier. "I have a feeling that this problem of yours will--How did you put it?--disappear." He winked, and I winked back because, hey, winking opportunities are rare in these trying economic times.
"What about your partner," I asked.
"Agent Ham? Oh, he's harmless, he has no authority. He's just a bit... over enthusiastic."
"Yeah, weird guy." I figured this was as good a time as any to crack this little mystery. "So what's with Ham and 'cheese,' anyway?" McCloud tilted his head to the side, as if this was the first time he'd noticed Ham's odd tendency to relate things to cheese.
"What's with Ham and cheese," he repeated. "Mayo, usually, and certainly bread. I like a little lettuce, myself."
We laughed for about three and a half hours.