It’s the end of the first really hot day of the summer. I take off my coat, drop my briefcase and turn around to find the usual scene; two cats sleeping. Rocco, the young tuxedo cat on the back of the couch, barely troubles himself to turn in my direction. Okie, the older grey tabby on the floor, opens his eyes and prepares to flop over for an obligatory tummy scratch. Forgive me if I have trouble working up much sympathy.
“You guys have a tough life,” I say.
“Not really,” Okie says. He’s the more literal-minded of the two. “We get plenty of rest, the food’s okay, lots of free time to exercise . . .”
“He was being ironic,” Rocco says. Rocco “gets” my sense of humor, even if he prefers to ignore it.
“So what are you saying?” Okie asks, genuinely befuddled.
“What I mean is, I get up at five in the morning and don’t get home until 6:30 at night. When I leave you guys are asleep, and when I get home you’re asleep. You stay out all night and have all the food you want. Nice work if you can get it.”
“We didn’t even have to apply for it!” Okie says, ever the ingenue.
“Irony again,” Rocco says, tucking his head under his paw hoping I’ll go away.
“You know . . .” I begin.
“Here it comes,” Rocco says. “Another lecture.”
“. . . when I was your age, I had a job every summer, sometimes two jobs.”
“We have jobs,” Rocco says.
“What?” I ask incredulously.
“Rodent control. Didn’t you see that mouse I left you in the garage this morning?”
“In fact I didn’t see it. You dropped it right next to my car and I stepped on it.”
“Not a nice way to start my day. Anyway, as I started to say, it’s time you two went out and got summer jobs.”
“Who’s gonna hire me?” Okie says. “I’m 56 in cat years.”
“I think you could find something, if you’d only look.”
“You don’t exactly help things with your stupid op-eds about how the minimum wage is too high for seasonal youth workers,” Rocco says.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say, sincerely shocked. “There’s no way in hell either one of you is worth $11 an hour.”
“There’s not a lot of work out there for unskilled laborers who haven’t got opposable thumbs,” Okie says. “We’re not polydactyls, you know.”
He’s got a point. “I’m not suggesting you should become accountants and hold pencils, I’m just saying you could try a little bit harder to earn your keep around here.”
Rocco finally rolls over and looks at me. “Easy for you to say, you with twenty years of schooling,” he says. If he had eyebrows, one of them would be arching right now.
“Well, yeah, but . . .”
“No buts about it. I think we ought to just lie low for awhile, get advanced degrees and wait till things pick up a little.”
It’s my turn to be incredulous. “Advanced degrees–in what?”
“Interior decorating. Relaxation therapy,” Okie says earnestly.
“Comparative literature,” Rocco suggests flippantly.
“Those kinds of things would be fine if you two were young, but it’s too late now. You’re in your peak earning years!” I say, a little exasperated.
“We must be the change we want to see in the world,” Okie says. That was the motto he picked for his senior high school yearbook photo.
“Gandhi–right?” I ask.
“No–Bo Belinsky, playboy pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels,” Rocco says. When he gets in one of his negative moods, he can be very sarcastic.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say. “I’ll put you on a piece work basis.”
“What’s that?” Okie asks.
“That’s how you get paid when you do farm work, like de-tasseling corn, or bucking hay.”
“‘Bucking hay,’” Rocco says, rolling over on his back to laugh. “Sounds like a real hoe-down.”
”Nobody says ‘hoe-down,’” I remind him, “it’s ‘chivaree.’ Anyway, we used to get two cents a bale of hay,” I recall wistfully.
“Whoop-de-do,” Rocco says with contempt.
“It taught you that if you wanted to make money, you worked faster.”
“Thereby causing farm accidents involving the loss of limbs,” Rocco says.
“Nope–not me,” I say proudly, holding out both my arms. “A farmer told us we’d get our long hair caught in the grain auger if we weren’t careful, but it never happened.”
Rocco takes this in for a minute. “What are you proposing to pay?”
“I don’t know–five cents a mouse, maybe a dime for a chipmunk. Quarter for a squirrel. Lay off the birds.”
“Why?” Okie asks.
“Because it makes mom sad when you kill them.”
“So–incentive-based compensation, right?” Rocco asks slily. I think I know where he’s going.
“That’s right. And I don’t care if you freelance around the neighborhood on your days off.”
“Do I have to share with slow-poke over there?” Rocco asks, tilting his head towards the old man.
“Nope. As we say in business, using a metaphor drawn from the animal kingdom, ‘You eat what you kill.’”
Suddenly Rocco’s apathy is gone. “I’m in,” he says.
“Wait,” Okie says, starting to realize that his glide path to retirement will be a little longer than he thought. “Can I . . . like . . . tag along with Rocco?”
“If you mean sloppy seconds, the answer is no,” Rocco says. “Find your own goddamn mice.”
“Guys–let’s not let compensation tear the firm apart,” I say, pouring oil on turbulent waters.
“Wonder where you got that line,” Rocco says as he heads for the door. “Let me out–I’m going prospepecting.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”