Tax Days with Morrie

Mitch Albom avoids an audit.


Friday, April 1, 2005: Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie, files a column with the Detroit Free Press that describes two pro basketball players watching their alma mater play in the Final Four. The game takes place on April 2, and the column appears on April 3. It subsequently emerges that, contrary to Albom's account, the players didn't make it to the game as planned.

Miss Johnson opened the door and let me in. Morrie was in an elevated swivel chair behind an enormous solid-wood desk, wearing a silk designer tie and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. The carpet was soft and the ceiling was the color of talcum powder. "I'm puzzled by your tax return," my old accountant told me.

The afternoon sun was coming through the window behind him, falling on a blue-green folder that rested, without any apparent purpose, on the edge of a maple-colored shelf, like an endless descriptive passage in a book of treacly life lessons. It was Tuesday. We had always met on Tuesdays, because we both were free between 3 and 4 on Tuesday afternoons. In years of instruction, Morrie had taught me everything I needed to know about family, work, charity, depreciation of investments, and how to maximize the related deductions on my tax forms.

This was the year, I thought to myself, that I had graduated from our class. This was the year I told him that I'd filled out my 1040 myself.

Hello, Morrie. What's the problem?

He stared at me, waiting for me to say something.

"Hello, Morrie," I repeated, this time remembering that most people can't hear me without the quotation marks. "What's the problem?"

"There's several problems, Mitch," he replied. "For one thing, I see you're claiming a substantial charitable contribution to help rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Ivan. But there's no record here that you made such a donation.

"In fact, we looked it up, and Hurricane Ivan didn't actually hit New Orleans."

As Morrie spoke, he carelessly plucked the leaves off a pink hibiscus plant. I looked around his office, which hadn't changed much in the years I'd been visiting him. The computer was the same old model, Miss Johnson's telephone was the same old model, the books and the carpet and the mini-fridge—all the same. And yet the room had changed so drastically. It had filled with calculations and lectures and audits and tears. It had filled with colleagues and clients and lawyers and federal agents. It had become, in a very real way—

"Mitch? Are you listening? I asked you about this hurricane."

"Oh, yes," I responded. "Well, they were predicting the storm would hit the city when I filled out the form last fall. I figured I would give some money to the victims, so I wrote that I did. Then it changed course."

Morrie frowned. He believed in the inherent goodness of charitable deductions. But he also saw the nightmare they could become.

"You did your taxes last fall?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "I thought I'd get them done early. It's good to do the important things while you still have time."

Morrie sighed. "Well, that answers my next question, which is why you were using last year's tax forms."

I nodded at him and squeezed his hand.

"Stop touching me," he complained.

I backed off.

"I guess it also explains these capital gains you reported. Did you really think you'd get that much for your U.S. Airways stock?"

"That was my dream," I replied. "If I really wanted it, I thought, I could make my dream happen."

My old accountant sighed again. "Well, the IRS probably won't bother you about that, since it just means you'll owe them more. But what's with this new dependent you're claiming? Did you have a new kid last year?"

I had thought the phantom baby might cause some problems. On the cab ride to Morrie's, I had made a small list on a yellow legal pad, some ideas about what I might tell the IRS if they questioned me. "While it was hardly the thrust of the return—which was about my earnings and expenses—it was wrong just the same," I had scrawled. "You can't write that something happened that didn't, even if it's just my deductions of the past year. Perhaps, it seems a small detail to you—my wife and I still want a kid, we're still nostalgic for our own childhoods, we simply never got around to having the baby—but details are the backbone of the income tax, and planning to give birth is not the same as doing it…"

I showed my notes to Morrie. He read them slowly, took a deep breath, pulled out a form marked "Request for an Extension," and said, "I'll have to start from scratch, but I think we can beat the deadline. This is going to cost you extra."

I blinked back the tears, and he smacked his lips together and raised his eyebrows at the sight of my face. I like to think it was a fleeting moment of satisfaction for my dear old CPA: He had finally made me cry.

I look back sometimes at the person I was before I rediscovered my tax man. I want to talk to that person. I want to tell him what to look out for, what mistakes to avoid.

Mostly I want to tell that person to get in a cab and visit a gentle old accountant in Franklin, Michigan, sooner rather than later, before he dies and you're left with only a memory, only a—

"I'm not dead yet," said Morrie.

"Sorry," I said, not realizing I'd been speaking aloud. "Just getting ahead of myself again."