In my Wednesday writing group, I read Tony Hoagland’s poem, and then gave the writing prompt: “The Accountant in My Heart.” Here’s the poem and my response to that exercise:
The Loneliest Job in the World
by Tony Hoagland
As soon as you begin to ask the question, Who loves me?
you are completely screwed, because
the next question is How Much?
and then it is hundreds of hours later,
and you are still hunched over
your flowcharts and abacus,
trying to decide if you have gotten enough.
This is the loneliest job in the world:
to be an accountant of the heart.
It is late at night. You are by yourself,
and all around you, you can hear
the sounds of people moving
in and out of love,
pushing the turnstiles, putting
their coins in the slots,
paying the price which is asked,
which constantly changes.
No one knows why.
“The Loneliest Job in the World” by Tony Hoagland, from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. (c) Graywolf Press, 2010.
Here’s what I wrote in response:
The accountant in my heart has a very thin face and slender beak nose. He wears exactly the kind of glasses you’d expect, narrow little black half-moons that slide down to the bottom of his nose, where they perch precariously, always askew. He wears white button down shirts stained with sweat in large streaming circles under his arms. His back is bent in a permanent curve since he spends all day and night hovering over a giant thick ledger with mildewed parchment pages. His face is creased with a permanent frown. His watchword is “Never Enough.”
The accountant in my heart has been weighing and measuring since the moment I was born. He was there when I was wrenched away from my twin sister, forced screaming into a world where Loss and my name, Laura, were twinned with the same first letter. What is the cost of a dead baby sister? That was his first actuarial task. What does it cost the survivor to live? What cost the bright lights, the cold hands, the first ragged breath, and all the breaths that follow? He has calculated exactly how many breaths are allotted to me; he knows the final tally, the time of my death, but he will not tell. But he never lets me forget that each breath costs me. I don’t know the price per inhale or the cost per exhale, but each breath I get, that she didn’t have, is running up my tally.
When the fee comes due, month after month, day after day, moment by moment, I pay with grief and loneliness and despair. I pay by believing him, “No, there is never enough.” I pay by floating around, a tiny lost speck of dust, alone in the universe. I pay by crawling into a hole deep in my broken heart and staying there, alone.
The accountant in my heart has been with me so long I have come to depend on him. I have come to believe him: that I came into this world owing a burden, with a price on my head. This one got away and she must pay. This one wasn’t supposed to make it and she survived. Keep an eye on her.
He is watching me. He never stops watching me. If I loosen the bars around me, if I puff up my heart with possibility, if I extend myself fully and frankly to another human being, he barks in my ear, “Stop that. That’s not safe.” He never lets me forget that I am on borrowed time and what’s the point of love anyway.
But I am older now. I am wiser. And stronger. And I have been pushing back. Slowly but surely I have said yes to love. I have said yes to love. I have said yes to my children, yes to my wife. I have said yes to my students and my friends, to the community that rallied around me when I was sick. Yes to the God who stirs in my heart when I sit. I have brought loving kindness into my heart and spread it out again into the wide vast world.
The accountant in my heart does not like this. He hates it when I shake the walls of his fiefdom. He works harder. He sharpens more pencils. He bends more vigorously over that moldy old book. Somehow, I don’t have the heart to turn him out on the street. So he’s still there, muttering and pulling on my sleeve and whispering in my ear when I’m tired, or worn down or feeling sad. I’m just doing this for your protection, he tells me. I’m just doing this to keep you safe. I pat him on his greasy little head and ask him to straighten up his spine. I bring him tea and cookies and tell him I will never make him go away. He will always have a home with me.
And so he is there still, counting what I owe and what I’ve spent, whom I can love and who loves me. He tells me I don’t do it right or that I don’t give enough and that there’s still a debt I owe. I smile at him. I tell him I love him.
Eww! He says back, a grimace crossing his weasely face. Don’t do that!
Can’t help it, I say, gently closing the door and walking back into my life.