Tax collectors are people, too. One of them is Mildred Peterson, who's worked for the Internal Revenue Service for the last 40 years, running the Cumberland, Maryland, field office for the last 35.

"Oh my gosh," she sighed the other day, alone in the middle of the final crunch. "I guess I'll just hoist a few when this is over. After you get through the filing period, you feel as though the weight of the whole world has been lifted from your shoulders, but you don't really come back to earth till July. During these 15 terrible, terrifying weeks, my house gets filthy, my animals -- three cats and a big Afghan hound -- get neglected, and I'm not myself to anyone, because I get so entangled.

"It's really a matter of time. You can't just come home April 15th and expect it all to wear off after 16 hours in bed. One year, I went to Ocean City right after it ended, but I'm afraid I didn't enjoy it one bit. It was so cold, I spent all my time looking at TV in a motel room. I'll never do that again. This year," she added brightly, "I'm going to the World's Fair in Tennessee. I can't wait."

Like Peterson, who in the last week dispensed countless answers and forms to a swarm of harried taxpayers, thousands of others at the IRS are coming up for air.

At the H&R Block return-preparing emporiums the story's much the same. One chap, who asked that his name not be used, plans to spend the weekend re-reading Winston Churchill on the Second World War. "He's really a superb technician of the English language," he said between onslaughts of jittery clients. "Almost as good as E.B. White."

Nancy Caywood, 29, a moonlighting lawyer, said, "What I would really like to do is sleep in. Think of it: a whole day in bed with a book." And Slate Ronning, 26, who divides his time between tax returns and night school, said he'll do what he does every weekend these days: "just kind of turn into a bowl of Jell-O."

"The worst is still to come," said Daphne Floyd, 26, a receptionist at the company's K Street office -- a sprawling, windowless basement with burnt-orange wallpaper.

"Most people that come in here are very nervous, and you have to make them realize that you're here to help them. The receptionist gets it all -- sometimes they burst in here mad at the world and you have to get up and stop them. When it gets too tense, I calm myself down by humming a gospel hymn. It's called 'He Cares': He cares, I know He cares, God really cares. In the shanty all alone, When I'm feeling down and low, God cares. He really cares.

So, I figure that if the Lord cares so much for me, why can't I care for these taxpayers? -- and then I'm all right." This weekend, look for Floyd on a softball diamond, playing center field.

In the district office of the IRS, where about 60 taxpayer service representatives were fielding 12,000 phone calls a day -- some abusive, all exhausting -- everyone was looking foward to the after-filing party. It's set for Saturday night at a swim club in Cockeysville, Maryland.

"It's a time to unwind from all the tension," said Mary Kariotis, who's been planning this year's bash. She chatted in the Baltimore boiler room where the calls come in, and competed with buzzing phones and a cacaphony of advice:

Whether you take her as a dependent or not doesn't have any bearing on whether she takes herself as one.

If you want to make a donation, then take that as an itemized deduction.

I can't get into the details because I'm so short on time.

It all evoked the Tower of Babel. "It'll be a lot of fun," Kariotis pressed on. "Sometimes, in the past, we've put on little skits. I think we might have a talent show this time. There'll be beer, setups, sandwiches, cold-cuts, tapes and a sound system. It'll just be a great relief." And this Sunday, Kariotis said, she hopes to be savoring roast lamb in a celebration of Greek Easter.

"It's a very stressful job," allowed Sheila Geiser, 30, taking a break from the phones, "and this is the most stressful time of the year. It's not the kind of job where you can take just two weeks out of the year, go out an enjoy yourself, and come back refreshed. So I try to take long weekends." This weekend, you might spot Geiser swirling somewhere down the Potomac on her new inflatable raft: beating on (to steal an image from F. Scott Fitzgerald), a boat against the current, borne ceaselessly into the next filing deadline.