Columnists > Soul Food

It doesn't add up

A few thoughts on rendering unto Caesar

Issue: "Spring Draining," April 12, 1997

I hate doing taxes. I have good reasons: it involves math and forms written in a foreign language.

Several years ago I made a decision that made our tax preparation a nightmare--I began selling personal-care products out of our home. Of course, no one ever told me the IRS would be interested in this also. Hey, all I wanted was to put our kids through college and buy my husband a new car. I planned to pay cash for a silver car to match my hair, drive it home, and hand him the keys. He would be so grateful he would never again complain about my leaving the seat too far forward. As for me? All I wanted was enough profit to cover the products I used.

By April I was ready to see JoEllen, the expert who stood between us and the IRS. I had carefully added up a lot of totals and collected folders full of little papers and notes. JoEllen's nails flashed as she worked the calculator. About 30 seconds into the forms, she looked at me over her half-glasses and said; "Um, these figures don't work out quite right. Can you check them?"

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That was nothing new. I've been accident prone with numbers since fourth grade when I began to do math by simple blind faith. I mean, really, how can four times zero be zero? If you have four brownies and multiply them by zero where did they go? My eighth-grade math teacher tried valiantly to help, but he was a recent immigrant and couldn't pronounce my name, which distracted me and made the class laugh. "Not like that, Mao-gee!" he would say.

Sensing trouble, I glanced at my husband, Denis. Silently I pleaded: Try to make me look good in front of this woman. Please.

"Sweetie," he gently asked, "What were your total sales?"

"Right here," I sighed. "Would that include retail? And stuff I sell at my cost?"

JoEllen: "Did you subtract products for personal use?"

"I think so. Somewhere here." I opened a file and everything fell on the floor.

JoEllen and Denis: "What was the total from your invoices?"

I looked at the floor.

Denis: "Sweetie, that should be the first thing you do." (I flashed him an eye signal about calling me that name.)

"You didn't mention that, but I can do it. Add numbers. I don't need to know why. Just give me a minute."

JoEllen: "So, does this include shipping expenses? Sales taxes? What were supplies and demos? Did you pay interest?"

Did you subtract your inventory? Did you sell any lotion? Did you multiply a potion and get a shampoo? It works because we don't have dandruff anymore! I wished I were home sucking toads.

She gave up on my business and moved on while I slid down in my chair.

Then: "Any change in occupation?" I sat up and adjusted my collar.

"A writer now," I say. I had been a "Homemaker" for so many years I thought it would be fun to try something different.

JoEllen: "Any income from it?"

I hadn't anticipated that question. "Must I say?" I whispered to Denis. He nodded.

"One hundred dollars," I muttered. "You know many writers are not even discovered until they die."

She crunched the numbers. "Well, this is good. Your business was a big loss, but that will lower your taxes and the writing income is insignificant."

Denis looked at me fondly, but I could see that JoEllen pitied me.

Caesar was satisfied that year, we thought. Until a few weeks ago when the IRS sent us a letter. Final notice, it read. (Of course, it is irrelevant to ask them whether "Final" implied there may have been other notices sent--which we did not receive.) "Unless you immediately pay your overdue taxes and penalties from 1993, agents will be dispatched to seize your assets and freeze your bank accounts."

"Isn't there anything in between?" I yelled, worried that this was going to be my fault.

I was nervous until we found the multiplication error my husband had made. I generously forgave him.

What a good thing Christ told Peter to pay that temple tax. And if he hadn't said, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," I would be finding plenty of excuses not to send a penny to the IRS, the least of which is: "I can't do the math!"


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