By Claire Wolfe
with thanks to Oliver Del Signore and Joel Simon
December 1, 2006
|Mark your calendars! Beginning January 1, 2007 a new Hardyville column appears every Monday, exclusively on the Backwoods Home Magazine website.
The fates answered some of our questions before we could even get in a little target practice. As is typical with gods, fates, and others of their tricksy ilk, the answers were as unpleasant as they were unpredictable.
Actually, that's not quite fair. Magical powers weren't required -- merely the combination of the Young Curmudgeon and the 30th-cheapest alcoholic beverage. But what came next could have been executed by Loki, Coyote, or Murphy.
In the dark of one night, Mudge smashed his latest beater of an old American truck straight into the Bon Mot ice cream store. The Bon Mot had opened recently and unseasonably. Our young rebel-who-can't-remember-his-cause -- aided by about a tank's-weight of steel -- closed it. They plunged through glass and brick, through tile-topped wrought iron tables, into freezers, and ended up in inventory.
Mudge and his truck came out looking like a wedding cake as imagined by Tim Burton, all macabre whorls and bows of chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and flavors more exotic.
But was it really an accident?
The newcomer owners of the Bon Mot had leaped off the fence after the government raid on the tax-resisting Goodins. Thoroughly cowed by that sneaky midnight show of force, they had been first, after Mayor Pickle and his Groce Mart, of course, to rush into city hall to pay the sales tax. In buying off the threat from the governing mob, they had incurred the quiet wrath of the ungovernable mob.
So could Mudge have done his dive into their premises on purpose? Or was it just the likker acting? Mudge said nothing inflammatory as our two old deputies, Emin Borgo and Tomas Castenon, dragged him out of the flavorful wreckage and hauled him off to the jail (a caged-off spare room in the sheriff's house). Mudge just mumbled incoherently and tried to grab another hit of Gallo as the deputies cuffed him.
He was out next morning. Between Hardyville's bail money and two dozen witnesses prepared to swear under oath that they'd seen the tax-collecting store jump off its foundations and smack into him, there wasn't much else Borgo and Castenon dared do.
But while Hardyville's Bad Boy stumbled off to sleep it off, we wondered what our Mudge was up to.
We didn't have to wait long to find out. The very next night, Mudge, in a borrowed pickup of suspiciously unknown origins and bearing fake Republic of Montana license plates, plowed into another of the town's brand-new businesses, Sassy Frassy's Natural Hemp Boutique.
This time he came out smelling real pretty (or at least he would have to a police dog, which we don't have; the Goodins' Newfie, Spooner, found him rather attractive after both "accidents").
Yeah, everyone hated to see a hemp botique go. That could have been an asset to Hardyville. But some folks nevertheless found Mudge's "taxidents" all too amusing. And judging by that truck, some Hardyvillian must also have helped make the accident less accidental.
But you see, "Sassy Frassy" was in real life Susan Pickle-Chutney -- spawn of the mayor and recently also the preying-mantis-like mate to the son of Epperson Chutney, aka the chief Birker and head of the city council. Can you spell N-E-P-O-T-I-S-M? Do I have to tell you that she also collected and paid the sales tax? And got a variety of highly favorable considerations in return?
Or did until that moment of Mudgeness.
After that morning, Mudge remained in jail for a while, contemplating restitution. The storefronts of Liberty Avenue and Freedom Way were safe once again. For the moment.
Hardyvillians seemed to like the notion of going after the tax-cooperators, even if most weren't willing to risk their own Cowboy Cadillacs on the effort. Shortly thereafter, it became difficult for the owners of the taxpaying stores to buy a pair of shoes (at a non-taxing store) or get a cup of Hog Trough coffee. Their mail got mis-filed at the post office. Respectable neighbors wouldn't speak to them. They were, in short, shunned.
Sassy Frassy and the Bon Mot, as if they hadn't already suffered enough, both got to deal with Hiram J. McCarty, an insurance adjuster with (do I need to say it?) a long Hardyvillian pedigree, who made the post-Katrina insurance Scrooges look like Lady Bountiful.
"Well now, I'll tell you the pr'cise value of ice cream with tire tracks in it. In November. Not a penny. Obviously, not one red cent. No reasonable soul would think otherwise."
And "Hemp? Well, heck, That's ditchweed; you can't tell me all those washcloths and wallets made of it were worth more than you'd get at Wal-Mart. B'sides, now they're all ruint, which makes 'em worth even less."
The store owners protested in vain. Eventually they would work their way past Hiram and get compensation. But in the meantime, they were finding out that government wasn't the only body in Hardyville that could make life miserable.
And now, of course, Hardyville knew that even the generally apolitical Mudge, was on the side of the angels. Which was kind of like having Godzilla on your side, a distinctly mixed blessing. It made everybody wonder what might happen after he got out and worked off his restitution (which, based on Hiram J. McCarty's figures, was going to amount to about a $1.98.)
What, you don't think smashing through storefronts and plowing through praline is terribly angelic? You think it shows a certain disrespect for both private property and the rule of law? You don't think refusing to speak to your neighbor just because he cooperates with a wrong-headed gummint is angelic? You don't think making life miserable for collaborators is the sweetest thing in the world?
Well, you're right. I agree with you. Personally, I felt lost and out of control. Our real job, I thought, was to get our old Hardyville back. Attacking each other until the town fell down around our ears wasn't going to be a winner for anybody. Not speaking to our neighbors didn't feel ... neighborly.
Yeah, Sassy Frassy and the owners of the Bon Mot needed to learn that there is a price for collaboration. But wasn't it a lot more important to get the Big Message to the taxers themselves? I wanted to say to those taxers, "When you take money out of a man's pocket that he hasn't personally committed to give, there is a word to describe you. In fact, there are dozens of words for you."
And it doesn't matter one pile of beans whether the thief claims he's doing it "for the common good." If you don't have unanimous consent, then you don't have consent.
But I digress.
I felt we were striking out at random and at the wrong targets. That we weren't being much better than the people we were opposing. And we were wrecking Hardyville's first chance in a long time at prosperity.
Carty just shrugged when I voiced my reservations. "Collaborators," he said, "are traitors. Would you rather we shot them?"
Sassy and the Bon complained to Mayor Pickle and the city council. Our August Rulers huddled in the private splendor of high office (albeit a slightly besieged and mostly unfunded splendor) and discussed how to contain the riff raff.
And I admit I worried about the riff raff myself. Both about what our new "legitimate government" might do to us and what we might do, ourselves.
So things stood. Those few businesses who were paying the tax were doing it under the table, just bumping up their prices enough to cover the cost. They were terrified of what hardcore Hardyvillians might do to them. Those who didn't pay waited, watched, and hoped Carty's citizen patrols would be protection against whatever cretinous relative or college-brained lawyer "expert" the Birkers would bring in to try to confiscate their assets.
A few, like Janelle at the Hog Trough, cheerily joined the Goodins in outright, but non-violent, protest. She hosed the spit out of the shiny new brass pot by the door and set it up as a kettle to collect "voluntary contributions to fund the new government of Hardyville."
Or maybe she forgot to hose the spit out. Anyhow, no coin was ever heard to ring into those brassy depths.
Now that was a form of protest I could understand. But was it going to be enough?
We had a standoff. For the moment. Few taxes were making their way to city hall. But the taxers showed no sign of backing down, either.
The riff raff thought of the guns in the back room of Goodins' Second Time Around, eyed the newly boarded-up storefronts, and went about their business.
But what their business was was another thing.
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