(Note: This story is best read around April, though it can be enjoyed all year round.)
© 2000 - all rights reserved
George Bullington wanted to see himself as a valiant knight, but that wasn't easy. The lack of shining armor wasn't the problem; a gray synthwool suit was good enough for him, but his life-problems made the image of a noble warrior hard to sustain.
One winter evening, he left the office battles against governmental bureaucracy, walked through the bitter wind and swirling snow to the subway that would take him home. He arrived at his apartment, keyed the thumbpad and opened the door with a quasi-hearty, "I'm home."
Eight-year-old Marc sat with eyes glued to the tri-D. "Hi, Dad," he said, without looking up.
"Hello, dear," his wife, Mary, said from the kitchen. "I didn't have a lot of papers to grade, so I came home early to cook a proper dinner."
He found her taking a sizzling roast from the oven. Her green smock and her hair up in a bun created a picture of warm domestic comfort. George's heart melted at her smile. Though he loved his wife dearly, he couldn’t afford to show it. She moved towards him, and they kissed. He tensed, but only for a moment, then relaxed and closed his eyes in the embrace.
The taxbell rang, a soft chime in his head.
George flinched. They pulled away from each other like school-children caught necking. Her resigned expression showed that her bell had also rung.
Damn. For one blessed moment, he had forgotten the bell, that intrusion into his life decreed nine years ago by duly elected politicians. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and looked around, staring at the sink, refrigerator, Formica dinner table--anything but the cursed pleasuretax meter. No use; he couldn't resist ambling to that little cube under the wall clock and checking the amount. It registered two figures, one for him, and the other for Mary. Her kiss to him had been worth 0.3 units, but his kiss only 0.2. Ah well. I could have kissed her better if I'd wanted to. But we have a budget.
He wandered through the apartment. A beige bedspread lay stretched tight over most of the mattress, though one rumpled corner stood out. The bathroom sink gleamed, but a tube of toothpaste dripped onto the counter. George peed, flushed, and left the seat up. Vacuum cleaner tracks covered three quarters of the living-room rug, the remainder ignored. Just right, he thought. The apartment is neither sloppy enough to depress nor neat enough to trigger the bell. He suppressed the thought and asked, "When do we eat?"
"Come on in. It's almost ready, dear."
George, Mary, and Marc sat down to dinner--meat, potatoes, and salad, a simple meal, but looking and smelling scrumptious. George sat with hands clasped in front of his plate and stared at Mary.
"Eat up, sweetheart. Or do you want me to say grace first?" Mary asked.
"No. I'm waiting for you to enter the tax code."
Mary laughed with embarrassment. "Oh, silly me." She reached for her pocket keypad and entered the supermarket's tax code number for the groceries.
He struggled to control his temper. "We can't afford to pay two taxes on the same meal."
"You’re right, dear. We shouldn’t waste money." She looked down.
George clenched his teeth. She accepted the taxes without complaint. He couldn’t. He forced himself to relax, started eating and, after a couple of bites, smiled in spite of himself. "The truth is, Honey, this meal is delicious. You've outdone yourself."
Her face fell.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Oh, it’s just the bell again."
"Why did it ring this time?" George asked. "You entered the groceries' code."
Mary blushed. "I know. It rang because I felt too proud that you enjoyed my cooking. I must have been happier than the code number allows."
He threw down his fork and sighed. "My fault as much as yours. We'll just have to be more careful. This budget won't work if we enjoy life too much."
Marc squirmed. "You guys always talk about that bell. I don't hear anything. When will you tell me what it is?"
George chewed on his steak and tried to think of a way to explain the situation to Marc. "Wait till you're older."
After dinner, George fidgeted before checking the daily reading on the dreaded meters; to his dismay, the twenty-four-hour total stood at 66 units of taxable pleasures. At three percent, the tax came to almost two full units for just one day. With that money, they could spend a night out, if they didn't have so many taxes. In the living room stood his favorite chair, an overstuffed, brown relic he had owned for decades. He sank into it and felt it yield to his body, almost caressing him. Running his hands over the armrests, he delighted in the sensation of worn corduroy. He relished that chair with a huge, even ferocious passion because it was "grandfathered"; an implanted damper allowed him and his family to enjoy it--within limits--without having to pay a tax.
"You look so tired, dear. Would you like me to dry the dishes?" Mary asked from the kitchen.
He grabbed the arms of the chair so hard, his knuckles went white. "What! Are you crazy? That would be worth at least a unit which means more tax."
"You don't have to shout. I was just trying to be nice."
"Better I shout than be grateful!" he shouted, "or we'll have to pay still another tax."
George got up, entered the code printed on a bottle of Scotch, and poured himself a double. "The damned dishes can drip themselves dry," he muttered and fell back into the chair. He should have worked late at the office again. The bell no longer rang there more than once a day. When it rang more often, people would snipe and insult others rather than be civil. Civility might cause satisfaction--which could trigger another tax. As a result, production dropped, the economy collapsed, and tax collections plummeted.
That last made the Internal Revenue Service relent; except for truly extraordinary satisfactions, working hours became an oasis of blessed relief from the accursed bell. People worked late rather than go home and fight the bell. Production soared, and with them, the tax revenues. Workaholism? Not a problem. Skyrocketing divorce rates? Manageable. Even the ensuing suicide epidemic didn't bother the bureaucrats as long as the tax collections continued.
Mary sat in the sofa opposite him and took out her knitting. "Dear, did you hear how Mr. Rodgers down the hall was charged with tax fraud? I was talking to Margaret, you know, the sweet elderly woman in the other wing, and she told me he gave his girlfriend an engagement ring while they were at the movies, hoping the dampers in the movie theater would keep him from having to pay the extra tax, but her reaction drove the meter off the scale. That nice policeman, Bill, had to arrest him and take him downtown for booking."
George snarled. "Rodgers is a sentimental fool. If he had hinted at marriage gradually, they could have celebrated the engagement without extra taxes. And our neighbor Margaret is a busybody whose dog poops on the lawn." He took another scotch and forced himself to relax. This past year, his alcohol intake had increased and fantasies of a personal war against the brainwave detectors had grown more vivid. Others had taken up arms against the brainwave detectors, had been shot with tranquilizing guns, and sent to jail for their efforts. The idea of incarceration didn’t bother him much, but George didn’t like violence.
Marc bounced a basketball into the living room and sat next to his mother. "Dad, ya know, you're always saying you'll explain about taxes when I'm older. I'm eight now. That’s old enough to know the facts of life. Why do you and mom have to pay a tax when you kiss each other?"
Mary looked up from her knitting. "He's right, dear. You can't put it off forever."
George let his head drop back on the chair. Why couldn't Marc ask about sex or politics--something simple? But he had his duty as a parent. "Long ago, Marc, the government taxed people only when money changed hands, for example, if you bought something."
"Like my basketball?" Marc asked, stood up, and dribbled.
The noise made George grimace. At least he wasn't enjoying this. "Exactly. But people found too many ways to avoid paying, so the government decided to tax pleasure directly."
Marc shook his head. "That’s totally snorked. Didn’t people protest? Why aren't there riots?"
Ah, the innocence of children. "Yes, people protested, and when the pleasuretax chips were first put into people’s heads…" He stopped for a moment and frowned at the memory. "….there were riots."
"Cool. Dad, were you one of the rioters?"
George hesitated. He had been one of the protesters, but when the government attacked and jailed the young rebels, he left the resistance movement. "Freedom must not be confused with anarchy. As loyal citizens, we must all sacrifice for the common good. Governments have always imposed taxes. The chips are just a more efficient tool." George closed his eyes. He had heard and hated those bromides for years. Now, he was repeating them.
"But to tax having fun? In school they tell us we’re a free people. That doesn’t sound free. And is that the chip kids say we’re gonna have stuck in our heads?"
"Yes, Marc. When you are thirteen, the bell will ring for you also."
Mary coughed. "I hate to upset you, dear, but the radio says the tax board wants to lower the age to eleven."
"Oh, Hon..." George choked. He was about to say "honeybunch" but Mary loved that term. And they couldn't afford the tax.
George spent the rest of the evening reading a book, a thrilling saga about the heroic inventors of the brain wave detectors. Like everything else bought at a store, the price had included a code to avert further tax if he enjoyed the book. He didn't; it was crap. But the government never returned taxes. The units went in one direction only.
With careful boredom, George and Mary avoided taxable fun until bedtime. When they climbed under the covers, George lay motionless for several minutes and listened to the sound of Mary’s breathing. Finally, he snuggled up to his wife. Her perfume and the warmth against his loins aroused him. He murmured in low, seductive tones, "You know, it's legal to use our keypads to silence the taxbell for 10 minutes if the noise would be too distracting."
She turned towards him, giggled, and put her arms around him. "I love it when you talk dirty."
The taxbell rang.
Mary shoved him away. "George, we can't afford it! You know what a bill you ring up!"
Two hours later, George lay with his eyes open, body rigid, unable to sleep. Life had become unbearable. With the sound of Mary's gentle snoring in his ears, George rose from his bed. One thought resounded through his mind. Mary and Marc might suffer in the short run, but he had to kill the taxbell.
With slow and deliberate steps, he went to the cabinet where his antique hunting rifle lay and opened the doors. For years, he had kept it in working order because, as an heirloom, it deserved respect. At least, that’s what he told himself. Now, he realized the truth. This gun was the means to make his fantasies real. He grabbed the weapon, checked the firing action and, still in pajamas, strode from their apartment to the fire escape and up to the rooftop. Lightning flashed, and a roll of thunder swept over George. A torrent of freezing rain had replaced the snow and unleashed its fury, making little puddles. He scarcely felt the cold. Black, square brain wave detectors proliferated on the rooftops, their antennae like malignant flowers. He screamed at the machines, "Why weren't you set to detect rage? Then you’d have known I was coming."
Taking careful aim, George shot an antenna, exulting in the crack of the rifle and its thrust against his shoulder as the bullet splintered the mechanism into useless metal. He gloated, and shot out another, and a third. So many detectors, so little time. And so few bullets. All the while, he bellowed, "Kill the IRS."
A few blocks away, a green and white police car waited in the shadows for speeders to pass by. Bill flirted with his partner of the past two years, Susan. It was low key fun that would normally trigger the taxbell, but it was safe at work, though if she ever agreed to have sex with him, the meter would go off the scale.
An alert flashed on his computer. "Tax resister, violent, at 3904 Freedom Street. Top priority." He watched further details scroll onto the screen, tensed up and turned on the flashing red light and siren.
She pulled away from him and buttoned her blouse. "What is it?"
His voice was strained. "Another loony is shooting out pleasuretax antennas."
With flashing lights and wailing sirens, they sped to George’s apartment building. Four more squad cars arrived soon after. Susan jumped out of the car and aimed a searchlight to the roof while Bill grabbed a megaphone and shouted upwards, "Don’t be a fool, man. Anarchy isn’t the answer. Give yourself up and no one will be hurt."
Margaret and her husband, veterans of a thirty year marriage, sat watching a late night movie on television. It was an old film, one that they both enjoyed, though not too much. The wail of sirens below them grabbed her attention. She ran to the window, looked up and called to her husband. "Harry, that’s our neighbor, George Bullington, on the roof."
"My God, you’re right. It is."
"What happened to him? He’s such a nice, quiet boy, a good family man."
Her husband let out a deep, heartfelt sigh. "Paranoia. He thinks the government is against him. There’s so much of that nowadays."
It took a few seconds for George to respond to the cop. "Better to live free and in jail than have that damn bell driving you crazy all the time." The phrase sounded wrong, but he couldn’t think of anything better. Though police officers were screaming at him, he felt like a hero, not a criminal. Fighting the common enemy, the dragon of the tax collector, made him a true knight--Saint George the Tax-dragon Slayer. People below would see his struggle, understand his martyrdom and learn to struggle against injustice. Though his rebellion would lead to years of imprisonment, he accepted that. It was the price of a righteous struggle against injustice. He felt proud.
Bill put down the megaphone and aimed a high-powered rifle with tranquilizing darts at the roof. George was a madman whose illness could infect others. He had to be stopped; no one could argue with that. Charges of police brutality often made his job frustrating. But now he and his partners were protecting the public from anarchy. That made being a cop worthwhile. People would thank him.
Meanwhile, Margaret and other onlookers stared at George. This was no television melodrama, but a real, live tragedy unfolding in front of them, more enthralling than any performance.
And for George, the police, and the crowd...
...the taxbell rang.
Copyright 1998. This means only that you should give me credit by including my E-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or website (fiddlerzvi.com) address and this copywrite notice if you share this story .
STORIES BY ZVI
Revised Dec 2017