Mark Jonathan Harris
A shrill screech, like metal scraping metal, assaulted Morris as he emerged from the elevator. He scanned the dim underground garage for its source.
The girl was crouched beside a black Mercedes SUV. Sixteen at most, he guessed, with frizzy chestnut hair and a schoolgirl’s backpack. The blade of a pocket knife flashed in her hand.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he said. An impotent reprimand for a crime already committed.
She rose to face him with an expression he couldn’t decipher–chagrin or maybe defiance. Her T-shirt proclaimed “Every Day is Earth Day” above a blue and green drawing of the planet. “Yours?” She nodded toward the SUV.
He shook his head.
“Good.” She closed the red Swiss Army knife and slipped it into her ripped jeans.
“It’s hardly the way to save the earth,” he said.
“You going to call the cops?”
He’d been too surprised to think of it.
She quickly stuck a card beneath the windshield wiper of the SUV. “The assholes who drive these should suffer for their sins.”
“You think keying them will make them repent?”
“If they don’t, we’re all going to fry.”
“I know the climate’s warming, but…”
“Then you should do something about it.” She headed toward the stairway exit, pausing as she opened the door. “Dare to be a force for nature,” she urged and disappeared.
Morris moved closer to the Mercedes to inspect the damage. Two jagged scratches scarred the side door of the G Class SUV. He read the carefully hand-lettered card she’d left on the windshield: “Your Car is Fucking Up the Planet.”
He hastened to his BMW–his wife’s choice of cars not his–to avoid any connection to the girl’s crime. The encounter rattled him. He felt that he’d somehow failed to rise to the occasion, although what the occasion demanded wasn’t really clear. Should he have tried to detain the girl? A citizen’s arrest? The idea seemed as foolish as her juvenile protest. Still her rebuke rankled. She had recognized his passivity at a glance.
As soon as Sofia hit the street, she broke into a sprint, trying to make her legs keep pace with her heartbeat. When she finally slowed to a walk on the Santa Monica promenade, her heart kept racing, like an alarm clock that wouldn’t stop ringing. That had been close, closer than she’d ever come to getting caught before. In the dim underground light, she hadn’t been able to see the man clearly. Fortunately, his surprise had given her time to escape. Men like that were cowards, too satisfied with their lives to take bold action. She was pleased she called him out before she fled. Whatever car he drove, maybe he’d remember her next time he filled his tank.
Two weeks later, the girl startled Morris again. Entering Starbucks on the ground floor of the five- story Wilshire Boulevard office building where he worked, Morris discovered her sitting alone, drinking something iced, and reading a paperback copy of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Absorbed in her book, she displayed no sign of malice. In her white Oxford shirt, dangly silver earrings and freckled innocence, she looked more like a girl whose parents drove a Mercedes than a delinquent who went around defacing them. The contradiction led him to the empty seat across from her.
“That’s a bad influence,” he said.
She put the book down, surprised either to see him or that he’d read the novel. “I haven’t finished it yet.”
“It romanticizes misfits.”
“Leo DiCaprio is making a movie of it.”
She gazed at him a moment, as if appraising him. He was suddenly conscious of the soup stain on his shirt and the plastic pocket protector that held his pens. Whatever the girl assumed from his appearance, she reached for her backpack on the floor.
“I hope you’re not headed for the garage,” he said.
“You drive a gas guzzler too?” She jammed the book into her backpack.
“It’s not my car I’m worried about.”
“No?” She stood, scornful, impatient.
“I’d hate to see you do something you’ll regret later.”
“You only regret what you aren’t brave enough to do.” She slipped her backpack over her shoulder, turned and swept out of the coffee shop.
Morris remained at the table, feeling even more inept than he had in the garage.
He purchased a slice of lemon cake for his wife and went upstairs to their fifth floor offices where they worked together in their boutique accounting firm, Fishborne and Associates. He was Fishborne, Evelyn the associate. They’d worked together and been married now for 27 years. Accounting was the occupation he’d fallen into, not his ambition. He’d imagined something more adventurous–a naturalist, a river guide–but his father’s heart attack at 49, dying without life insurance or savings, had forced him to drop out of Santa Monica College to support his mother and two sisters. A 60-year-old tax accountant had taken him under his wing and changed the trajectory of his life.
“Something wrong?” Evie asked, when she saw him at his desk, leaning back in his chair, staring at the mounds of papers atop his file cabinets that blocked the wildlife and nature photographs hanging on the walls.
“We need to digitize more of these files.”
“All in good time,” she said, reclaiming her lemon slice he’d absently been eating. “You know that’s not good for you.”
“A lot of things aren’t good for me,” he said, thinking of all the vicissitudes that had led him to such a mundane, conventional life.
She came around the desk and messaged his neck. “You’ve been working too hard lately. You could use a break.”
A faint sadness he couldn’t identify rose in his chest as she rubbed his shoulders. “You’re right,” he said. “It would be good to get away.”
They took a long weekend in Laguna Beach, strolled along the beach, imbibed the ocean air and several good bottles of Pinot Noir. The sun and wine brightened his spirits, but at night the crash of waves outside their hotel window thrummed a constant refrain of regret. You’ve settled. You’ve settled. You’ve settled for less. The frizzy-haired girl reminded him of youthful passions, paths not taken, opportunities he’d ignored or failed to seize. If Evie had been able to bear children, they might have had a daughter the same age as the teen. Evie had come to terms with her infertility years ago, though, and with nieces and nephews to dote on, he’d accepted her decision not to adopt. Now he wondered if he should have pressed her more.
Wednesday was the day he’d found the girl at Starbucks, so the next Wednesday afternoon he ambled downstairs for a cappuccino and some pound cake. She didn’t appear that Wednesday or the next, which led him to buy coffee other afternoons as well. Evie kept reminding him that they had a coffee maker in the office. “But not a cappuccino maker,” he said.
He didn’t know if the girl frequented the coffee shop after school or if their two meetings had simply been an accident. He hoped that lecturing her hadn’t scared her away. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted from her, perhaps just a chance to change her perception, to present a bolder, more daring version of himself. She had given him no chance to explain himself, rejecting him as peremptorily as an IRS auditor who refused to hear any argument for a tax deduction a client was claiming. Their two encounters left him irritable and dispirited, unable to concentrate at work or fall asleep at night. He hated the image he imagined she formed of him.
Her mind wandered, as usual, to catastrophe. The ice caps were melting, the rainforests burning, drought and famine in Africa, floods and hurricanes in America, polar bears disappearing as fast as elephants, mad men firing assault rifles, terrorists blowing themselves up in crowds, a future so dark and bleak that it was almost impossible to bear, yet Sloan kept droning on about Calvin Coolidge and the Revenue Act of 1924.
“Are you with us this afternoon, Sofia?”
She quickly closed the notebook in which she was drawing the teacher’s effigy and looked up to see him hovering over her like his cheap cologne.
“Taking notes for your paper?”
She placed her thick political science textbook squarely on top of her notebook. Seeing that it would take force to wrest the notebook from her, Sloan stepped away. “Have you decided what you’re going to write about yet?” he asked.
“I’m still thinking about it.”
“I certainly hope so, because you haven’t given much thought to anything else in this class.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking? Can you read my mind?” From the rustle in the classroom, she knew everyone had turned to listen.
“You don’t seem to care much about this subject.”
“You’re wrong. It sucks that the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes,” she bristled, “but that’s not the way you’re presenting it.”
She saw his mouth twitch and knew she’d gotten to him.
“Well, your term paper will give you a chance to convince me.” He turned to the blackboard and changed the subject.
A few desks ahead of her, Clarice flashed a surreptitious thumb up. The school’s renegade bad girl had struck again. Sofia’s pleasure was short-lived. Now she would have to write something substantial enough to change Sloan’s opinion of her and avoid flunking the course.
The Archer School for Girls hadn’t been her choice. But the elite Brentwood prep school was one decision her divorced parents agreed on, even if for different reasons. Her father believed single-sex education would encourage her to be independent and fearless. Her mother just wanted to protect her from the lust of teenage boys. Both her parents had misjudged the school. Many of her classmates, like Clarice, were already having sex; and the social pressure to get into the right college discouraged dissent as much as her teachers’ flat earth views of the world. When she failed trigonometry as well as chemistry, her mother sent her to a psychiatrist to insure that she would graduate.
Her first session the shrink sat back in his leather chair, in his dandruff-flaked turtleneck, listening impatiently to her complaints about her stifling school as if he’d heard them all before. When she moved on to the evils of predatory capitalism, he stopped her. “And exactly how does that affect you, Sofia? Is that why your parents divorced?”
She didn’t want to talk about her parents’ ugly breakup or her mother’s pitiful search to find another husband. “Exploitation affects everyone—even you,” she said. “Do you know how little the Chinese worker who made your iPad earns?”
The shrink looked down at the tablet-sized computer in his lap. “Global inequities are certainly an important issue,” he said, “but I don’t think they’re the reason you’re having so much trouble at school.” Then he started scrolling through a list of symptoms on his tablet: How often did she feel sad? Did she feel she had no one to talk to? Did she ever feel hopeless? Worthless? Did she worry that she might hurt herself? Though Sofia felt an urge to shock, to say something scandalous enough to make him drop his iPad, she mainly lied. When she left his office, she rode the elevator straight from the fifth floor to the garage and keyed the first SUV she saw, hoping it was his.
Their second session, the doctor delivered a diagnosis of depression and prescribed Prozac and monthly appointments to monitor the drugs. She didn’t want to take anti-depressants, and she didn’t want to come back again, but her mother watched to see that she swallowed a pill each morning. To avoid another blowup, and because she was also curious to see its effect, she took the Prozac and waited for the “sunshine” it was supposed to bring.
The miracle pill only made her more anxious and distracted during the day; at night she found it difficult to sleep. The doctor’s response was to switch to Zoloft. “Drugs alone aren’t the answer,” he told her. “I see how much you’re hurting, Sofia. If you persist in blaming everyone else for your problems and don’t look at how you may be contributing to them, there’s little chance things will change.” Like her mother, he believed the fault for her unhappiness was all her own. She blinked back her tears. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
Morris watched the third-floor elevator door slide open, startled to discover the girl again. This time she was slumped in the back corner with her backpack. She flinched as if he’d struck her. Not you again? her glare protested. He stepped in the elevator despite it.
She dropped her gaze and stared at her day-glow orange tennis shoes. From her puffy eyelids, Morris guessed that she’d been crying.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She dabbed at her eyes with the back of her wrist.
None of the lines Morris had rehearsed fit the tears leaking down her cheek. She pulled up the neck of her black T-shirt to dry her face. Inscribed on the shirt was the day’s battle cry: “Question Everything.”
The elevator door opened. “Is there something I can do?” he asked.
She brushed past him in silence. He followed her into the lobby. “I’d be happy to call someone.”
“Not your problem.” She motioned for him to go away.
“But you seem upset.”
She turned abruptly and faced him. “Look, one shitty shrink’s enough for today.” Then she opened the glass door and stepped into the street.
Morris hesitated a second, then went after her.
“I’m not a shrink. I’m a tax accountant.”
“Yeah?” She didn’t slow her stride.
He quickened his pace to keep up. “It’s what I do, not who I am.”
“Nobody’s who they say they are.” She altered her path to avoid a homeless man pushing a shopping cart filled with his dirt-encrusted belongings. Morris passed around his other side.
They stopped at a corner for a red light.
“You going to follow me all the way to the Metro?”
“I am heading in that direction,” he lied.
She glanced at the traffic light, then back at him. “You know I finished the book last week. In the end Hayduke lived. He got away with it.”
“It’s fiction, not reality.”
“Life imitates art, doesn’t it?”
“Not in my experience,” he said and instantly regretted it. He was sounding dreary and unimaginative again.
The light changed and he crossed the street with her. They walked another block in silence. Morris no longer knew what to say. It wasn’t how he’d envisioned meeting her again.
“I suppose I should thank you for not ratting me out,” she said, as if she’d been thinking about it for the last block.
“I didn’t see the point. I sympathize, though I can’t say I approve of your tactics. I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish…”
“Just trying to wake people up. It got your attention, didn’t it?” They reached the entrance to the Metro. “What’s your name anyway?” she asked.
“Morris Fishborne. And you?”
She shook her head. “Better to keep that to myself, Morris.”
She glided through the turnstile and disappeared from view.
Walking back to his office, he found himself whistling. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him to follow her, but he was pleased he had. He’d acquitted himself much better this time. If he never saw her again, he could still take satisfaction from the gallantry with which he’d treated her. He may not have been a force for nature, but at least she recognized that he’d been understanding, kind. Passing the homeless man again, Morris pulled out his wallet and handed him a ten-dollar bill. It wasn’t going to end poverty or save the planet, but it was something.
Riding the bus from school to Santa Monica, Sofia considered whether to keep this week’s appointment with the psychiatrist. She hated the numbing meds he’d prescribed and tossed them a week before. The Zoloft was worse than the Prozac; it made her feel as if everything had slowed and dulled, that she was watching an old black and white movie with fuzzy sound. If she told the shrink that she’d ditched the pills, he would just alter the dosage or prescribe another anti-depressant. What good was it to change your chemistry if the world remained as corrupt and ugly as before?
She fingered the Swiss army knife she carried in the pocket of her jeans. Her cinematographer father had given it to her as a birthday present when she was 10, just before he ran off to London with his pretty camera assistant. Her father had grown up next to a forest, where a knife had many uses, and he still carried it with him to the many threatened ecosystems where he filmed around the world. The Swiss knife was about all that still connected Sofia to him, although she doubted he would approve of the way she used it. But better to cut a Mercedes than herself. She’d tried that once and it had only brought more pain.
Exiting the bus, she felt the urge to wield the knife again. A block from the shrink’s office, she passed a public parking lot. Six or seven floors of cars to choose from. She took the stairs, searching for an empty vehicle that deserved trashing. Maybe a Porsche this time or a Lexus LX 570 like the one her mother’s latest loser boyfriend drove. An oversize Cadillac Escalade caught her eye. There was no one else in sight. She waited until a car passed leaving the garage, then she opened her knife and approached the SUV. Suddenly the elevator sounded and a middle-aged woman stepped out holding her keys. Sofia quickly closed her knife and scrambled down the stairs.
She stood outside the parking structure, breathing heavily. It was too dangerous to keep doing this in garages. Across the street a homeless man stared walleyed at her as if he knew her secret. A few doors away a figure lay sprawled in a doorway covered by a filthy blanket. Everywhere she looked was pain and misery. The shrink had no meds to cure it. He wanted her to shift her gaze, take responsibility for her own unhappiness, as if she’d created the fucked-up world around her.
There was no point going back to see him. He had no good answers for the mess that adults had made of the world. She needed to find someone else to explain why people acted so selfishly and cruelly.
Morris sat at his computer working on a complicated late tax return involving schedules A through D and forms 1116, 6251, 4562, 8959, and 8960, with more to come. There was a satisfaction in the work, a comfort in its rigor. Immersing himself in the numbers, he could forget the deceits and evasions of his clients. Focus on the figures, add them up, calculate the percentages, mark them down, neat and precise. The numbers were a discipline, a practice that shut out the venality and corruption of the world, made it easier to live with himself and the frequent avarice of his clients.
Evie opened his door a crack. “There’s a young girl here to see you, something about a research paper…”
Morris tried to look past her to see who was in the outer office of their suite.
“She says she met you at Starbucks.”
“Yes…of course.” He felt a flush of pleasure, instantly dampened by embarrassment at what Evie might think. “Yes, send her in.” He stood to greet the girl.
“You didn’t expect to see me again, did you?”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Sofia.” She slipped off her backpack, plopped down in the chair opposite his desk. Her T-shirt today declared “Apathy Kills.” Morris wondered if she’d worn it especially for him.
“I want to know about tax policy,” she said.
“Tax policy?” It seemed an unlikely reason for her visit.
“I have to write a paper for my poly sci class. It’s supposed to be original research. Not Wikipedia. We’ve been talking about taxes in class, and I want to understand more about them.”
She looked around his office at the Sierra Club photos that lined his walls. “Like you care about the environment, right?”
“So how come you’re helping rich people destroy it?”
“What makes you think I am?”
“You help people avoid paying taxes, don’t you? Isn’t that your job, to help them get away with it?”
“No, that’s not what I do,” he said curtly. There were deductions he refused to defend, fraudulence he would not abide.
“It’s just a question, Morris. I don’t pay taxes. That’s why I’m asking. You work for rich people. I thought you’d know their secrets and why they don’t give a shit about any of the damage they do.” She looked at him expectantly, as if he really understood greed and selfishness.
“I think the psychiatrist or psychologist you’re seeing might have a better explanation.”
“I’m not seeing him anymore.”
“He wasn’t a very good listener.”
“That’s not a good quality for a shrink.”
Morris looked out his half-opened door to see if Evie was listening. He considered closing the door, then thought better of it. “You really want to know about taxes?”
“I’m trying to understand why everything’s so screwed up.” She paused a second. “I don’t know any other adults to ask.”
Morris felt the tug of her appeal, even flattered that she’d turned to him for help, but also alarmed that she was asking him, a stranger she barely knew, to provide answers other adults had failed to give her. What truths could he offer when he was often unsure how much his clients were lying or hiding from him? The intricacies of the tax code hardly addressed the questions he sensed Sofia was asking. Stalling for time, he rummaged through the papers on his cluttered desk until he found a copy of the annual newsletter he sent his clients. “Here, this might help, a piece I wrote about the new changes in the tax law.” He read the opening lines: “Whenever tax laws are rewritten, the effects are uneven. Some of you will see your taxes rise, others decrease significantly…”
“You mean all the billionaires and gazillionaires who run the country.” Sofia took a notebook from her backpack and began to write.
Sofia’s visits to Morris produced a paper on tax policy that even Sloan couldn’t dismiss. Though she imagined he had to grit his teeth when grading her, he ended up giving her an A. “Excellent research,” he wrote. “Happy to see such a thoughtful analysis of a complex subject. Wish you would share more of this in class!”
Pleased with her work, Sofia left the paper on the dining room table to prove she was doing better at school and no longer needed the pills; and also to postpone the inevitable fight when her mother discovered that she’d stopped seeing the shrink. To prevent the psychiatrist from calling, she’d sent him an email from her mother’s computer firing him for failing to help her “very unhappy daughter.” She knew eventually her mother would learn the truth—probably when the shrink failed to send his monthly bill—but by then maybe her grades would be good enough to demonstrate that she’d been cured.
Meanwhile she continued to visit Morris at Starbucks on Wednesday afternoons. Their conversations cheered her. She took pleasure in castigating him for his failure to live according to his beliefs. “You say you believe in global warming, yet how does hanging Sierra Club photographs on the wall change anything?”
“I could say the same of defacing SUVs.”
“It’s a warning to climate deniers and polluters. A reminder that there are consequences for the damage they cause. You could join me, Morris. Be a Hayduke. Rebel.”
“I’m afraid changing the world’s a lot more complicated.”
Her father had said something similar when he left them. “I don’t expect you to understand this now. At your age life is black and white. When you get older, you’ll see how gray it is.”
She told Morris what she wished she’d said then to her father. “That’s just a copout, an excuse for acting badly. It’s way toocomplicated. People always say that when they know they’re wrong.”
“But life is complicated,” he replied with a resignation that made her want to goad him even more.
“I think you’re just afraid, Morris, afraid that if you really take a stand, you’ll be a misfit like me.”
He stared a moment at the cappuccino cradled in his hands as if considering her accusation. He took a last sip of the coffee. “There’s a price to pay whatever you choose.” He brushed the crumbs of lemon cake from his shirt and rose abruptly. “I should go. I have work I need to finish.”
Watching him leave, Sofia felt a hollow opening up inside her that she couldn’t explain. No other adults would let her speak to them the way she did to Morris. She didn’t know why he put up with her.
Her mother had her own suspicions. “Who’s this accountant you interviewed for your paper?” she asked.
“You actually read it?”
“Of course. I’m interested in what you’re learning. Where did you find this accountant?”
“Did he approach you?”
“Yeah, we started talking.”
“Sofia, you don’t know anything about this man or his intentions.”
“We just talk about the environment and tax policy.”
“You’re being naïve, Sofia. You’re an extremely attractive young woman. You need to be careful with men you know nothing about. I don’t want you to see him again.”
Clarice was even blunter. “You having sex with him?” she asked one day as she walked Sofia to the bus stop after school.
“You sound like my mother.”
“Well, how come you’re seeing him instead of your shrink?”
“I like talking to him.”
“He’s probably just waiting to fuck you.”
“He wears a pocket protector to hold his pens.”
“If he’s that careful, then he won’t get you pregnant.”
“You’re sick,” Sofia said.
She worried, though, that she might be missing something about him. Why had he walked her to the Metro that afternoon? Did he have motives she failed to perceive? Is that why he put up with all her taunts and insults? Could he be a perv as her mother or Clarice suspected? She didn’t trust either of them very well when it came to men. But then she didn’t trust her own judgment either. All adults confused her. Why did Morris prefer meeting at Starbucks instead of his office? She needed to see how he acted with other people, outside the coffee shop.
“My teacher was impressed by your comments in my paper,” she told him the next time they met. “He’s interested in your speaking to our class. You know so much about tax policy, and you explain it so clearly. It’ll be a relief from our teacher, and I’ll get extra credit for bringing you.”
And a chance to see Morris with other people, a way to test her own faulty instincts.
Morris hesitated before accepting Sofia’s invitation to speak at her exclusive prep school. Her description of her classmates — “spoiled sluts and anorexic airheads” – didn’t suggest an audience interested in the tax code. Still, it obviously mattered to her that he visit, that he see for himself why she felt so alone and miserable at school.
He never expected her to appear in his office and was surprised each week when she returned to rail against the destruction of the planet and chastise him for his failure to combat it. Although he refused to indulge her adolescent fantasies of eco-terrorism, he endured her attacks on his “comfortable complacency” because he understood that, like the cars she defaced, they stood for everything for which she had no other words. It was also hard to defend himself against her accusations. He was not the person he wanted to be.
Evie had little patience for his regrets. She was twelve when her parents emigrated from Lithuania and immediately fell in love with the good life America promised. The U.S. offered so much more than she’d experienced growing up in Lithuania that she considered any qualms or misgivings he had petty; so he kept them to himself and Sofia away from Evie.
“Who is this surly girl and how did she end up on your doorstep?” Evie asked after Sofia’s first visit.
“She was seeing a psychiatrist in the building.”
“You’re an E.A., not an M.D.”
“I know the difference. She needed help with a school paper.”
“How noble of you to come to her rescue. A pretty girl in a short skirt.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’d do the same if we had a daughter.”
“Well, we don’t, and she looks like a poor substitute to me.” Her face tightened and she turned away.
He saw that he’d hurt her, but her imputation offended him. It was true he was flattered that Sofia kept returning. The idea that their conversations might offer her some value pleased him. Her constant prodding also encouraged him to face his own doubts and reservations. “Question Everything,” her favorite motto.
“Exactly what do you want me to talk about to your class?” he asked.
“The truth, Morris. Not the usual crap our teachers feed us. Shake them up for a change. Make them think about something else besides boys and clothes.”
“And what truth is that?”
“Fires are going to incinerate their Malibu estates, and the ocean is going to wash away their fancy beach houses.”
“And how is that connected to taxes?”
“It’s why they can afford their multi-million dollar homes, isn’t it? If they paid what they really should, we might still have a chance to save the planet.”
“I don’t think the world is coming to an end just yet.”
“Maybe not your lifetime,” she countered, “but certainly in mine.”
Though he feared it might be a fool’s errand, he finally agreed to visit her school, a small act of solidarity in her battle against apathy and authority. Pulling into the parking lot of the sprawling Spanish style campus, he saw immediately why she felt in enemy territory. The lot was filled with the kind of expensive vehicles she targeted, BMWs and Audis and Range Rovers that had to be the students’ cars. The only vacant space was a narrow slot between an adobe wall and a Porsche Cayenne, which left him barely enough room to fit his outdated BMW. The license plate on the SUV spelled RICHGRL.
Sofia was waiting for him by the side door with a friend she introduced as Clarice. “So you’re the secret Sofia’s been keeping,” she said.
“He’s not a secret.”
“Not anymore, no.” Clarice offered Morris her hand. “I’m glad she’s finally found the courage to introduce you.”
Sofia rolled her eyes. “Ignore her.”
“Sometimes silence reveals more than lies,” Clarice said.
“And sometimes you’re so dumb,” Sofia retorted. She grabbed Morris’s arm. “C’mon, class is about to start.”
She led him through the Spanish-tiled halls to their classroom and introduced him to their teacher, an earnest young man who seemed to have balded prematurely. He took Morris aside.
“I appreciate your coming. It’s good of you to take such a strong interest in Sofia,” he said as if suspicious why Morris might aid such a rude and truculent girl. Then he retreated to a chair in the back. The wall behind him was lined with posters of women who had rebelled long before Sofia: Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony.
The teacher turned the class over to Sofia. “This is Morris Fishborne,” she announced. “An expert on our screwed-up tax system. He was the source for my term paper, which you’ll be amazed to hear, received an A. So he clearly deserves your attention.”
Sixteen teenage girls turned their faces toward him.
“It’s true our tax code is very complicated,” Morris began. “And I certainly agree it’s in need of reform. But I think it’ s important to understand how we reached this point and how our tax system has evolved over the years. It’s often said that taxes are the price of civilization…” It was not the fiery warning that Sofia had urged and the girls’ attention quickly flagged. One stared out the window; another opened a book. Clarice seemed to be texting something on a cell phone in her lap. He quickly skipped from Andrew Mellon’s theory of “scientific taxation” to the present.
A pony-tailed girl impatiently tapped a pencil on her desk. Unable to restrain herself, she flung her hand in the air. “My father says 48% of the people in this country don’t pay taxes, so people like my parents pay way too much, and most of it’s wasted.”
“Yeah, that’s what’s so screwed up,” another girl added. “It’s high taxes that keep people from starting new companies and creating more jobs.”
Morris saw Sofia scowl. “That’s not what’s screwed up, is it, Morris?” she said.
“No, Sofia’s right.” He was happy to come to her defense. “Economic growth can take place even when taxes are high. In fact, there’s no real evidence that lower tax rates create more jobs.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Sofia corrected.
Morris didn’t understand.
“It’s all screwed up because rich people don’t pay their fair share.”
“It’s true, the present tax code is designed in their favor.”
“Yeah, but they also cheat, don’t they? They pay people like you to find ways to hide their money.”
The girls swiveled in their seats to hear his answer.
It was a charge she’d made before, but never so publicly. “It’s not a crime to use every legal means to minimize your taxes,” he said.
“But you’ve said yourself, it’s the rich and powerful who’ve rigged the tax code. If you work within a corrupt system, you’re part of the problem. Admit it, Morris, you’re an enabler. You help the rich keep the money they’ve gotten by screwing the poor.”
His chest constricted and his stomach plummeted. “I don’t file false returns. And I don’t condone cheating,” he said as evenly as he could. “I help people pay what they legitimately owe the government. That’s what honest tax accountants do.”
“Maybe you think it’s legitimate to help the rich and greedy,” she continued. “But I don’t. I think it’s really fucked up.”
“Sofia!” Her teacher rose to intervene.
Morris waved him off. “No, let me answer.” Was this the real reason she had brought him here? To humiliate him? “You want the truth, Sofia?” He gazed directly at her. “You can’t make the world a better place by trashing it and other people. That’s not how those women changed the world.” He stabbed at the posters on the wall. “What you call rebellion is just destructiveness. It might feel good for a moment, but —and I think you know this—you still hurt the same the next day.”
She flinched as she had that day she saw him standing at the elevator door. Not the truth she wanted, but what he should have said to her from the start. He scanned the room for the reaction of the other girls. Several were smiling, either at his or Sofia’s distress. Their smugness infuriated him. What did any of them know about the compromises life exacted? He nodded toward the flustered teacher. “Thanks for inviting me. I hope it’s been useful.” He headed for the door before anyone could stop him.
He slammed out the building and squeezed into his car, choked with anger. Why had he ever believed he could make a difference in her troubled life? He’d tried to help her and this is how she’d repaid his generosity.
He jammed the car in reverse, stomped on the accelerator, and shot out of the parking space. CRUNCH! The rear of his car caught the bumper of the Porsche with a thump that shuddered through his body. He glanced back at the SUV’s smashed fender and dented RICHGRL license plate. Fuck her for parking like that. Her Cayenne deserved the mutilation. But how unjust that he had to pay the price. When the IRS caught his clients’ deceits, the clients always blamed him for the audit. Why did he put up with it? He unbuckled his seat belt and turned to open the door. Then he saw the parking lot was empty. Not a witness to report him. He hesitated. What point was honesty in a world of greed and selfishness?
Sofia didn’t wait to hear Sloan berate her. She didn’t need anyone to tell her she’d made a mistake in driving Morris away. She didn’t know why she’d acted so meanly, but she knew she had to catch him before it was too late.
She reached the door to the parking lot just in time to see him decimate the Porsche. More damage than she’d ever gouged with her knife. She started to run toward him to celebrate the destruction, then saw him emerge from his car, jot something on a card and stick it on the windshield of the mangled car. “Oh, Morris, why waste such an opportunity when you’re already halfway there?”
She dashed to the Porsche and quickly replaced his business card with one of her own handcrafted cards. It was the least she could do to make up for her meanness.
She wasn’t sure what to expect when she invited him to speak. But she saw now that whatever hopes she had for him were foolish. Morris would never be a Hayduke. Or a real ally. She watched his BMW peel out of the parking lot with the sinking feeling that he was disappearing from her life forever. He was no different than any of the other adults who’d failed her. In the end, you couldn’t trust anyone to save the world who drove a BMW.
Mark Jonathan Harris is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and Distinguished Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has also written five award-winning children‘s novels and numerous short stories.