Roberts Ruminates: Disorderly Conduct

I enjoy getting the mail. There’s always some hope when I go to the front porch each day. Maybe a paycheck has come, maybe a package from Amazon on which I’ve already blown said forthcoming paycheck. Maybe, at least, there’s a graduation announcement. But every August, when that wide envelope hits the box bearing the words “West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles,” my heart sinks into my gut.

It’s time to renew my auto registration.

I’ve been driving and owning cars for a very long time. So you’d think I’d have the process down pat by now. I don’t, though.

It’s not that I don’t know how it works. You pay for a new sticker and prove you’ve paid your personal property taxes. Easy enough. Just pop a check in the mail and a copy of your tax receipt. Or, thanks to technology that has actually existed for several decades, you can finally renew your West Virginia registration online.

Unless, of course, you haven’t paid your personal property taxes.

Let me be clear about one thing: I’ve had 25 years to get this right, and every year, I screw it up. I used to try really hard to get my taxes paid on time and in an orderly fashion, but mastery of the process evaded me. One year, I sent the check to the water department by accident. Another year, I got duplicate rabies tags. Once, I paid taxes on a jet ski I don’t own. I get confused.

Why is this so difficult? Well, it’s possible my organizational skills, or lack thereof, play a part. When the mail comes in, it goes into The Pile. Once it’s in The Pile, the tax bill finds company among overdue hospital bills, a bag of blue corn tortillas and two separate notes reminding me to pick my kid up from his field trip two weeks ago. (It was fine. He showed up at the house eventually.) I always intend to go through The Pile, but then some kid puts his Easter basket on top of it. Then someone tosses a bag of dog food up there, and someone else throws down a papier-mâché model of Saturn. Then, suddenly, it’s August and the Ebbert’s tomatoes — which also go in the same pile because, hey, tomatoes have to go somewhere — have oozed all over everything. And then it’s time to renew my registration, and I realize I’ve got to go downtown and straighten it all out.

Every year it’s the same scene: Drive downtown, find a place to park, realize I have no change for the meter, dig around under the seats, stumble across the source of the mystery stink that’s been plaguing the car for two months (it’s a cheese Danish, and it’s furry), find a quarter, and almost get hit by a car as I dart across Chapline Street. Then it’s the metal detectors where they ask me if I have any weapons on me, and I get smug and say of course not, I’m a pacifist, and then watch in horror as they pull out the pepper spray I forgot about. (My husband makes me carry it in case I meet a bear when I’m on a solo hike in Oglebay. Or an overly-inquisitive Canada goose.)

The writer searches for a quarter and finds … well … whatever lurks beneath her car seats.

I made my annual pilgrimage to the courthouse the other day, and it was no different. Everything happened as usual (including the pepper spray), except it wasn’t a cheese Danish this year — it was an ossified snow pea. As I rode the elevator up to the assessor’s office, I pulled out my mental list of excuses why I hadn’t paid my property taxes. Past excuses include:

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  • I weed-whacked my own foot the same week the tax bill arrived in the mail, and the mailbox was too far away.
  • There was an earwig on the envelope.
  • The bill fell behind the stove, and I couldn’t get back there because a wren was nesting in the exhaust vent, and they say if you disturb the nest, the mom abandons the babies, and I don’t know how to raise wrens, but I suspect it involves feeding them things like earwigs, and I don’t do earwigs as you probably remember from last year when I didn’t pay my tax bill because there was an earwig sitting on the envelope.

I came up with a good one about fleas and practiced my contrite face as I walked down the hall. And as I turned the corner and entered the room, there stood my father, talking to the assessor about a map.

Now I’m almost 40, and I may be disorganized and lazy, and my car may smell like the food pantry on a German U-boat after five months at sea. But dammit, I just don’t have the cojones to weave a good yarn about kitchen floods and woodpecker infestations when he’s standing right next to me. So this, then, would have to be the year that I was honest with the patient ladies at the assessor’s office.

Keeping my voice low, I leaned over the counter.

“I need to pay my personal property taxes,” I said.

The lady looked my info up.

“Oh boy,” she said. “You still owe for all of 2017.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I … it’s just that there were … I had the bill and …” I searched for the mea culpa I needed. It was time to come clean. I was a delinquent. A sham. A deadbeat. I took a deep breath.

“Here you go,” she said, handing me a piece of paper before I could open my mouth. “Take this next door to the sheriff’s office. Pay the taxes, and then you can get your registration there, too.” She looked past me to the next guy in line. “Who’s next?”

That was it. For the 25th year in a row, I’d screwed up, and nobody remembered or noticed. Nobody knew I was a disorganized dingbat. True to the Wheeling spirit, they helped me out, gave me what I needed, and told me where to go to get the process finished. Perhaps it was time to retire the Rolodex of excuses. They didn’t care about the oozing tomatoes or lurking insects or the maple syrup mishaps. (For the record, I’m saving these excuses for all the other bills I ignore and misplace.)

By now, I was so pleased I didn’t notice a) I owed over $300 in taxes, and b) I’d forgotten to write my insurance information on the back of the registration card. So when it came time to get my sticker, another patient city employee had to send me back to my car to get the info I needed. This, too, happens every single year.

Insurance card in hand, I grabbed a jacket for the incoming raindrops, dodged a garbage truck on Chapline Street and hurried through the metal detectors. When they beeped, the poor guy sighed and asked me if I had any weapons on me. Again.

“No sir,” I said. “I left the pepper spray in the car. I’m not dumb enough to do this twice. I’m getting my act together this year.”

He zeroed in on my raincoat pocket. Alas, I’d forgotten about my 4-inch fishing knife.

Here’s to success in 2019.

Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at