There are five seasons in the accounting business - spring, summer, fall, winter and taxes.
The tax season at the Associated Bookkeeping and Tax Service of Fairfax starts in January with the arrival of refunders, clutching their newly arrived W-2 forms and expecting an instant refund, according to accountant John Fagot Jr.
Refunders are followed in early February by the mailers, Fagot said, who are former Northern Virginia residents who continued to send their tax information for preparation by the family bookkeeping business.
By the end of March Associated Bookeeping is glutted with business, and most of its clients by this time owe the government money. Fagot calls them the payers.
The foyer of the family business yesterday was jammed with 150 clients and had the atmosphere of a dentist's office where all the patients have toothaches. Payers pass the time checking their watches to mark the time they are missing from work and reviewing their tax data, looking for the break that will save them a few dollars. Nobody smiles.
Emily Fagot assesses her family's last minute clients: "They're all scared.
"Don't get me wrong, she says," they have a right to be scared. Here they are paying out a lot of money and they don't even understand how the figure came up."
For most of the year the lifestyle of the family - John, wife Emily, and son, John Jr. - is almost placid. They take four-day weekends in the summer for traveling, their workdays begin at 10 a.m. and end at 4 p.m., and they engage in leisurely conversations with their regular bookkeeping and accounting clients.
But tax season changes all that. From January through April, their small whitewashed offices sitting on a barren lot on Little River Turnpike between car dealerships and fast food outlets becomes bedroom, living room and kitchen. Their recreation becomes the chance to work on a regular client's payroll instead of filling out the familiar variety of tax forms. The only friends they see are those who have been their clients over the 30 years the Fagots have been in business.
Payers currently dominate the family business, John Sr. 59, does back-to-back interviews with them and completes their forms all day.John Jr. takes over the accounting and bookkeeping ends of the business to keep things running smoothly. Often he spends the night at the office, since is not worth the time commuting to his apartment in Prince George's County when he finishes work late in the evening. Emily sends off the forms to the Internal Revenue Service and manages the files.
The family has been working Saturdays and Sundays. They say they are lucky if they can manage to fend off new clients with a 'closed' sign on the door. It doesn't always work.
John Sr. says he has been thinking about stopping tax work. The income from preparing the forms makes up less than one-fourth of the family's total business he says.
"It's one of these things you never get around to doing," John Sr. says. "You don't remember how rushed it was until you're in the middle of it again. Then it's too late."
He does not speak of the tax season as a hardship. He rather enjoys some of what the season brings. Preparing somebody tax forms is like opening a window into their lives, he says.
"If a person is troubled, has conflicts, you'd better believe they spill out onto the forms," Fagot said. "It's evident in how he handles paying taxes. He shows if he's trusting, if he's intelligent, if he's patient or through."
Then there are the cheaters. Butch estimates about one in 20 clients try to cheat the government.
"You can tell it by the questions they ask, and by the glint in their eyes," he said. "When you do taxes as much as we do, you can see that some of the padding they try is ridiculously obvious. When you find that, they you have to drop them as clients."
And there are the characters, like the client the Fagots have had for at least 10 years who shows up without fail at 4 p.m. April 15.
"he's a refunder, as I remember," John Fr. said. "But he's in no hurry to get his money. He just walks in here withe big grin across the face, embarrassed because he's late again another year."