Joseph’s voice trembled as he stared at the computer screen. He pressed his phone to his ear while sweat dripped down his face. “The auditors didn’t list food preferences. How am I supposed to score high enough on the audit without food preferences?”
He hung up, remembering the breathing exercises he taught to his patients at the hospital. Scrolling through the .gov website, Joseph studied the hospitality coefficients for his neighbors. The Scholes had scored a 2.0, the McCall’s had scored a 2.5, The Park’s had scored 2.7, and at the top of the list, the Rodriguez family had hit a perfect. 3.0. Hundreds of other scores were listed, and at the bottom, it said: Joseph Fraser, 56 years old, H-Coefficient, 1.7.
Joseph felt his warm sweat turn cold. For a year, he had watched his neighbors poor millions of dollars into housing renovations to ensure a passing audit score. Indoor swimming pools, bowling alleys, trampolines, in home-theatres, basketball courts, and tennis courts. Time spent volunteering in soup kitchens and cleaning up highways. Holding the door for a stranger or giving a dollar to a homeless person. “It’s a small price to pay to avoid jail time,” they’d say. Or “You can’t be too careful these days,” they’d say. Or “it’s an investment in our way of life,” they’d say.
But Joseph hated the audit. He hated the idea of the government measuring your generosity and kindness. A coefficient score based on dollars donated per dollars earned, hours worked vs. hours volunteered, total RAG's (Random Acts of Generosity) and, for those in the Scholes and the McCall’s and the Park’s and Rodriguez’s and many others who lived in the millionaires club, the annual audit.
He hated the audit because it all seemed fake. Forced smiles carried by the rich and the poor. He felt like a rodent, forced to participate in an experiment. A single score awarded by a less fortunate stranger who would deem him worthy to live his life in the way he did for another year.
He called the chef back and told him to serve Swordfish, Lobster, Filet Mignon, and Spaghetti Bolognese. Then he called the maid and asked her to come as soon as possible. Be sure to buff the marble floors and polish the china and dust off the chandeliers, he said. Then he called florist and ordered new tulips and roses and daisies to place outside the front entrance of the house. Then he called the gardener and asked him to cut the grass and trim the hedges and treat the swimming pool with extra chlorine. Finally, he called the piano tuner, and had both pianos’ tuned.
And when the calls were done, he sat on the couch and said a prayer his mother had taught him. He heard her voice every time he got down on his knees and prayed. He heard the call of her voice from the kitchen as she fed pork chops to Joseph and his friends. He heard the shrill that leaped from her throat as she told Joseph and his two brothers to get ready for church. And he heard the calm in her voice when she sung to him after a nightmare.
And he remembered that small cottage they grew up in at the edge of the city. Hard floors that creaked and cabinets that didn’t close and air conditioning that sputtered in the evening and toilets that ran in the morning. The voices of family and friends echoing in the small hallways and the smell of his mother's cooking.
He wondered what his Mother’s hospitality score would have been if she had been alive today. But she lived in a different time and a different place. Before the Hospitality coefficient. Before the annual audits by the State. Before the penalties for those deemed unfit to live in The Peoples’ America. He thanked God that his Mother had lived in a different time.
Joseph couldn’t sleep the night before the audit. His mind raced, and the fear of a revenge audit trickled into his mind. Some said revenge audits were natures way of destroying the final remnants of the ultra-rich, while others saw them simply as ways the poor learned to take out their anger. The thoughts of a revenge audit fell away as he remembered who he was and where he had worked. A nurse, dedicated to his patients, who had worked in the poorest hospital in the city.
The following evening there was a small knock at the door. Joseph knew it was the auditors by the way they had knocked. Quick and angry.
In the kitchen, the chef had prepared a platter of Italian meats and French cheeses. The filet mignon and the swordfish were seasoned and ready to be served, and the final preparations were being made for a fudge desert.
The maid had polished the china and the silverware and buffed the marble floors and cleaned the windows and the bedrooms. The gardener had filled the yard with tulips and roses and daises and trimmed the hedges and treated the swimming pool.
To relax, Joseph played through Mozart and Beethoven on the newly tuned piano.
He checked the .gov website one final time. He calculated what he needed for a passing score and felt his heart thump as there was a second and louder knock at the door.
A Father, a Mother, and a child. Their faces were long and their shoulders were slouched. A singular unit that looked as though they had stumbled into a museum.
The Father gave Joseph a handshake that made him cringe. Wrinkles erupted from the man’s smile. His teeth were yellow and front teeth were chipped. He leaned in towards Joseph. The smell of cigarettes wreaked from his mouth. “Lets do our duty, and let my family get out of here soon as possible,” the man said.
The woman pulled at the man's arm.
The man’s face changed. “My name is Rod. This is my wife Michelle and my son-”
“Edward Edward Edward,” the boy said, jumping up and down. “Do you have a trampoline?” The boy said. “All of the other big houses had trampolines.”
Joseph felt his heart rise to his throat as Rod stared at him. “No I don’t son,” Joseph said, kneeling to meet the boys eyes. “But I have some soda. Would you like that?”
“We don’t let him drink soda,” Michelle said.
Joseph smiled and stood aside, ushering the family into the house. He took them into the living room. Leather couches and chairs flanked a glass coffee table. Carpet murals on the walls of Jesus feeding the poor. Pictures of Joseph traveling to Spain and Scotland and Switzerland.
“You don’t have no wife?” Michelle asked.
“A husband or boyfriend?” The father said, sticking his foot up on the glass table.
“You live in the house all by yourself?” The boy said, jumping on the couches.
“Don’t you talk to him,” Rod said.
“It’s okay,” Michelle said.
“So, what do you do for a living?” Joseph said, turning to Rod.
“Trash disposal,” Rod said. “People waste so much. But I’ll tell you something right now, no matter how nice it all is, everything people own these days seems to be rotten.”
When dinner ended, they returned to the living room. Rod said how much he enjoyed the Swordfish and Michelle said how much she enjoyed the filet mignon and Edward gave Joseph a thumbs up when he asked if the Spaghetti Bolognese was to his satisfaction.
“I have to ask you Joseph,” Rod said. “You ain’t like the rest of the people we audit. How’d you come into so much money.”
“It’s quite embarrassing,” Joseph said.
The door to kitchen opened and the chef brought out a desert smelling of chocolate and vanilla fudge.
“I actually won the lottery, back when that was still a thing.”
“What’s the lottery Dad?” Edward asked.
An angry scowl grew on Rod’s face. “It’s when people get rich by pure luck,” Rod said.
Michelle rolled her eyes and bit into the chocolate desert.
“So really, there ain’t that much different between you and me,” Rod said.
“Guess not,” Joseph said.
There was a large thud on the marble floor and the Mother screamed. Edward fell back on his head, gripping his throat. On the floor, he wheezed and coughed and wheezed and coughed.
“What’d you do to my boy?” Rod said.
“I’m going to kill you if something happens to him.”
The boy’s face swelled.
Joseph ran into the bathroom. He pulled an epi-pen from beneath the cabinet. He returned to the boy and injected the epi pen into the boy's thigh.
“Is he allergic to anything?” Joseph asked.
Rod looked at him with a stern face as the boy wheezed on the floor while Michelle cried.
That night, Joseph packed as much as he could into one bag. He’d seen the score. Rod had failed him, bringing his hospitality coefficient to a .02. Low enough to be given considerable jail time. To be considered a danger to the country. Unfit to live in society.
Joseph drove through the city and came to a small and familiar cottage. He killed the engine, and through the windows, he could see a large family gathering around a table. The TV was off, the children looked happy as their Father brought food in from the grill. A woman bowed her head and the rest of the family followed. When the family was done praying, the woman looked outside the window and waived at Joseph. He waived back, turned the engine back on, and drove through the night.