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Authors: Richard Yancey

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I examined my new tie for any picks, stains, or hitherto unnoticed blotches. I had to urinate, but knew the moment I bolted for the bathroom, Jim Neyland would turn the corner from the inner recesses of his office, looking for me. I stared at the picture of
Challenger.
Like most Americans, I could remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. How long ago that seemed—a lifetime or two. And now I was here, four months after answering an ad in the newspaper, more on a whim than design. My destination, my mission, was not as clearly defined as
Challenger’s,
but in its own way was no less perilous.

“I need the job,” I answered. I had decided not to repeat the preface I had used in my second interview, which had taken place two weeks prior to this one:
Well, I never dreamed of being a tax collector when I grew up.
This had not gone over well with one of my interrogators. “And it sounds like very interesting work.”

“Well, you’ll never be bored,” Jim Neyland said. He picked up a folder and opened it. I could see my name printed on its face in large black letters: Yancey, John Richard. Inside were my application and notes from the first two interviews. I folded my hands in my lap, rubbing the tips of my thumbs against my slick palms. There was a motel-room quality print of a beach scene on the wall behind Jim Neyland, with a lone seagull perched on a picket fence, staring out over the dark ocean.

“So, you went to law school.” His hair was thinning at the crown, a perfectly round bald spot about the size of a golf ball. Curly black hair carpeted his forearms.

“For a year.”

“What happened?”

“I left.”

“You dropped out?”

“I dropped out.”

“Why did you drop out?”

“I decided it wasn’t for me.”

“It took you a year to figure that out?”

“I was kind of trying to live up to someone else’s expectations.” My father was a lawyer, as was my brother.

“Need a job to pay off the loans?” His tone was friendly; he seemed genuinely interested.

“Among other things.”

He turned a page. “Boy, you’ve had quite a few jobs over the years.”

“Well, the application said list everything for the past ten years.” I stopped. I sounded defensive.

He ignored me. “Typesetter. Drama teacher. English professor…your degree is in English?”

“That’s right.”

“What the hell did you think you were going to do with
that?”
The question was rhetorical. He continued, “Dramaturge… what the hell is a dramaturge?”

“Someone who analyzes drama.”

“They pay you to analyze that?”

“Not much.”

“Playwright. Convenience store manager. Ranch hand. Ranch hand?”

“Sort of the family business.”

“Get along li’l doggies!”

I managed to laugh.

“Anything you haven’t done?”

“Singing telegrams.”

“Anything you won’t do?”

“Singing telegrams.”

“What’s your deal, Rick, besides comedy? I mean, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

He slapped the file closed and leaned back in his chair, cupping the back of his head with both hands, fingers laced. For a balding man, his hair appeared extraordinarily thick. It grew in tangled knots between his knuckles and the back of his hands. I had hoped the interview would not turn existential. I was about to lose control of my bladder. I argued with myself, what’s it going to hurt, to ask if I could be excused? I was afraid the temptation to flee would be too great, once I left the room.

“I’m a writer. It’s all I ever wanted to be, since I was a little kid.”

“But it doesn’t pay the bills.”

“It doesn’t pay mine.”

“You married, Rick?”

“Engaged.”

“Ah, say no more. I get it. Playtime is over.”

“Maybe something like that.”

“Well, let me tell you something about the IRS. When we bring people on board, we put them through hell. Don’t mistake me, Rick: if we bring you inside, we bring you
all the way
inside—you understand what I mean? We
try
to make you quit. You wanna know why we do that? Why we try to make you quit?”

“To see if I have the right stuff?”

“Maybe something like that.”

“I have the right stuff.”

“We don’t want quitters.”

“I’m not a quitter.”

“You quit law school.”

“I left law school.”

“You dropped out.”

“To weigh my options.”

“You bailed, buddy.”

“I guess I bailed.”

“You will hate this job. Some mornings you’ll come to work and you’ll think, ‘Why the hell did I ever take this stinking job?’ You’ll want to put your fist through a wall. You’ll think you’re having a nervous breakdown. Some people
do
have nervous breakdowns, by the way. I’ve been to many a hospital ward. Do you think I’m making this up?”

“No.”

“You’re damn right I’m not making this up,” he said pleasantly. I was having trouble reading him. His words were harsh but his tone was playful. A big raven-haired cat. He said, “I like that, ‘the right stuff,’ like we’re astronauts or something. No, we will try to break you. Crush you. Push you to the brink. Because that’s what we do. You know what we do, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“So if your manager comes to you and says, ‘We’re gonna seize this guy’s house,’ you think you could do that?”

“Take somebody’s house?” I was just buying time, and he knew it.

“We put people on the street for not paying their taxes. You understand that? So could you do that? Could you take somebody’s house?”

“I think I could.”

“He’s got a wife. Two little kids. You’re going to put two little kids in a homeless shelter for something like
taxes?”

“Maybe he could live with a relative.”

“He’s an orphan.” He could use the money he was paying on the mortgage for rent.“

His dead mother left him the house, free and clear. There is no mortgage.“

I took a deep breath. We were playing dueling scenarios, and I wasn’t sure why. I was fairly sure, however, what answer he was looking for. “Yes, Mr. Neyland.”

“No.”

“No?”

“Call me Jim.”

“Yes—Jim—I think I could do that.”

“Why?”

I gave the best answer I could. It was the first answer I gave, the only answer I had. “I need the job.”

“Everybody needs a job,” he said, waving his hand. “I’m talking about
this
job. The job of taking people’s houses.”

“Yes, I think I could.”

“Think you could you sleep that night?”

“Which night?”

“That night. That night. The night you took it.”

“I don’t—I don’t know.”

“You see, Rick, the kind of people I’m looking for seize houses even if it means they
can’t
sleep at night. Anyway, I don’t want you to have a false impression of what you’re getting into. Look around you, Rick. I mean, literally, don’t look at me, look around this room. You see up there, that molding up there, and that baseboard down there? Go ahead, check out that baseboard. You notice anything special about that baseboard? Come on, this isn’t a test. See how it’s a different color? The walls are off-white, kind of an eggshell, but the baseboards are white, bright white, a brilliant white. See how carefully those baseboards have been painted, and the trim around the top? Not just anybody could do that. It takes a
professional
to do that, somebody with an incredible eye for detail. So what do you think?”

“About the baseboard?” I wasn’t being sarcastic; I had fallen off the conversational train and was stumbling down the tracks, trying to catch up.

“If you had to seize someone’s house, if it was the right/thing to do for the case, for the good of your country—could you do that?”

“Yes. Yes, I could.” I had no idea if I could, but he had made it clear seizing someone’s house was a patriotic act.

“Not many people do—revenue officers, I mean. A few years back the law changed and all personal residence seizures had to be approved by the District Director. All of a sudden, nobody was doing them anymore. No one wanted the DD to look at the case.” He drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “So… tell me something about yourself, Rick.”

* * *

The ad copy did not contain the words “collection” or “IRS.” It was styled as an invitation to an open house, a get-acquainted party. The starting salary was printed in bold type at the bottom. It was the starting salary that caught my eye, and the job requirements. It sounded too good to be true.

The day I found the ad—or the day the ad found me—I showed it to my live-in fiancee, Pam. After four years of living together, it had become apparent that, unless something changed, we would stay engaged for the duration of the relationship. Pam was tired of bearing the financial burden while I worked a series of menial jobs that barely paid for my upkeep. “Why should I marry you?” she often asked. “You can’t even hold down a job.” Marriage also came at a price: Pam was a widow and received a government annuity that would terminate when she remarried. In other words, marrying me could hit her hard in the pocketbook. The house we shared on a small lake in Clearview was hers. The furniture was hers. The plates and cups and glasses and utensils were hers. The towels and linens and curtains were hers. The pictures on the walls and knickknacks on the shelves were hers. I had some clothes, my rattletrap of a car, and a collection of paperback books. I was twenty-four and living with my parents when Pam and I met at the local community theater. I had recently returned to Florida, after earning my four-year degree in a mere seven years. Pam was six years older than I, and had taken a maternal interest in me from the moment we first spoke. Six months later, we were living together, officially engaged. Four years later, we were still living together and still officially engaged.

“You want to work for the IRS?” she asked incredulously.

“The ad says the Department of the Treasury.”

“That’s what the IRS is, dummy.”

“But look at this. All I need is a degree and a 3.5 GPA. And look at the starting salary. That’s almost triple what I made last year.”

“What the hell do you know about taxes?”

“It doesn’t say I—”

“Or accounting? Or auditing tax returns?”

“It doesn’t talk about that.”

“Why don’t you go back to work for the college? You liked teaching.”

“They won’t hire me full-time without a master’s, you know that. We’ve talked about that.” Two years before, in one of my frequent episodes of near-adolescent angst, I calmly informed her I was moving to Tampa to return to school for my masters degree. She responded by slugging me as hard as she could in the middle of my back. A year later, when I actually made good on my threat to move to St. Petersburg to attend law school, she greeted the news by slapping me so hard my glasses flew across the room. Pam had abandonment issues.

“This is a very bad idea, Rick,” she said.

“Oh, it won’t last long,” I said. “Just something to pay the bills till I can sell something.”

“Sell something? Sell what? You hardly write at all anymore.”

“Maybe this job will be so horrible it’ll motivate me.”

“It
will
be horrible.”

“Then I will be motivated.”

* * *

The open house was held at the federal building in downtown Lakeside. The building was small, one-storied, brick, resembling the old county courthouses so prominent in the South. Four Doric columns stood at the entrance. Behind it, across the alley, towered the tallest building in town, the ten-story Wesley Building. In high school I had worked in the Wesley; my father’s company owned it. I had been a glorified handyman, changing lightbulbs, fiddling with the twenty-year-old air-conditioning system, running errands for my father. He had since sold the building to a bank, which had performed extensive renovations after succeeding in having the Wesley declared a national historical landmark. It dominated the landscape downtown; its marble facade glittered in the streetlights as I pulled into a parking space across the street. Since this was not a formal interview, I had dressed comfortably in jeans and my lucky flannel shirt.

I stepped into the foyer and immediately fought the desire to hightail it home. About a dozen people were milling about sipping punch from Dixie cups, eating pretzels, wandering from display table to display table—and wearing their formal business attire. Heads turned. A man about my age with the physique of a boxer and a haircut like the sergeant from
Gomer Pyle
frowned in my direction.
Hey, buddy, deliveries in the rear!
A large woman in a loud floral print pants suit touched my elbow.

“Hi, are you here for the open house?”

I considered replying I had just popped in to use the rest room. I said, “Yes.”

“Hi, my name’s Beth.”

She extended her hand. It was surprisingly small and delicate, given her size. I shook it gently. Her hand was icy cold.

“I’m a revenue officer,” she said.

“Oh. What’s a revenue officer?”

“The job you’re here for. There’s refreshments in the conference room down the hall to your left, some chips and pretzels and punch, but stay away from the bean dip.”

“Okay. Thanks for the tip.”

“And watch out for the little woman in the black dress.”

“The little woman in the black dress?”

“That’s right.”

“Why should I watch out for the little woman in the black dress?”

“Lots of reasons, but tonight mainly because she made the bean dip.”

“Oh. Gotcha.”

“We have some material for you to look over at the tables over there against that wall. The program starts in five minutes.” She spoke rapidly, like someone who was used to being interrupted. “You know you need a college degree.”

“I have one.”

“And a 3.5 GPA or higher.”

“Have that too.”

“You know what a revenue officer does?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out.” It’s the IRS. I don’t know why they didn’t put that in the ad.“

“I figured it was.”

“You’d be surprised how many people didn’t. They walked in tonight, took one look at that door, and walked right out.”

BOOK: Confessions of a Tax Collector
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