NOTE: This was getting too long so I’d broken into two parts. Then I got stuck on the "after" part. And since this had been hanging around for several days...
I needed a break after second year. University was passing too fast, I wanted to move to another campus and live in residence and I needed money. So I quit college, but the quitting of the Open Call comes later.
I would have taken anything. And that’s what was on offer. A groundskeeper at this huge mansion (is there any other kind?) and feeding the cats. I could start right away and the pay was OK (take that! Poetess Scarlett). At least it would put bread on the table and beer in the fridge while I looked for something better.
It didn’t take long to sense I was walking into something weird. There was already a groundskeeper but five minutes into my arrival, Mrs. M confided that she planned to fire him later that week. As I got to know the soon to be departed Ralph, he told me she’d already fired three before him that year and it was only June. If he realized the writing was on his wall too, he kept it to himself.
The outside job was OK; plenty of fresh air and some exercise. Inside was something else, and those cats! They were some special breed similar to Persians. Mrs. M put them in shows. All 18 of them. I had reckoned that feeding the cats would be about 5 minutes a day. You know, open a can of something, slop it in a bowl or two and get back to mowing and raking. But nooooo.
There were three bedrooms in the basement. One housed two cats and the others three. These cats were not allowed out except for shows. So their kitty-litter boxes were part of my job. Another five had the run of the ground floor. That was more liberty than I was allowed as the living room was off-limits to me. Another three lived in Mrs. M’s upstairs bedroom and two more lived in an upstairs bathroom. I wasn’t allowed on that level.
And forget about the cans. These cats needed chopped up beef hearts, kidneys and liver. Mrs. M showed me how. She could dissect those organs into little kitty bits in the time it took me to slice an apple. As she noted. And remarked upon. Rather too scornfully and excitedly if you ask me. But no way in hell did I want those little beasties to acquire the taste of human fingertip.
So it was half a day in the yard and half tending to the cats. That was half tolerable. Mrs. M was always on the lookout for things that went wrong, once had gone wrong, could go wrong, or went wrong in the parallel universe she alone had access to. Outside I got rebuked for my lazy lawn-cutting ways. By doing one strip north-to-south, and following it by a parallel strip couth-to-north, I was causing alternating strips of grass to grow in different directions. What would the neighbors say? Not that she’d know as she had suspicions of them all. But they might think. To forestall that vexation it had to be north-to-south all the time. Which meant dragging the mower back 50 yards after every strip.
To liven up things indoors, one day I accidently left ajar one of the three downstairs bedrooms. Fortunately Mrs. M was out. But so too were three downstairs cats. I immediately realized my error when I got upstairs and found seven, or was it eight, cats roaming around. YIKES!!!!
And I’d defy anyone aside from Mrs. M to tell them apart. Steady now. Two were slightly smaller. One of them came from downstairs. So I had a 50% chance on the little guy and, let’s see, a (5x4)/2, yikes again, a 1 in 10 chance of getting the precise configuration on the big guys. Altogether, a 5% chance of guessing right. Versus a 100% chance of shrill vilification should I confess my sin. As a philosophy major with a B+ in Symbolic Logic and Statistics, I couldn’t help pondering the moral and logical possibilities of the situation. But I never arrived at a conclusion as Mrs. M’s return interrupted a most promising train of thought.
She suddenly opened the door and a cat (one of those newly liberated basement varmints I guessed) bolted. “Chisholm” she screeched. (I should have mentioned that the cats were thematically named. The basement critters had a Western motif – Dodge, Abilene, Clementine, Chisholm and a couple of others, plus one Beatrice. Was she the lone survivor of a near extinct troupe of Benedick, Malvolio, Shylock, Falstaff?).
Chisholm paused and looked as startled as a cat can be. The fool had evidently failed to consider that a rabid banshee was about. In his befuddled state he was easily rounded up, by Mrs. M. She instantly identified Abilene and a sidekick and shooed them downstairs. And then expounded on the near, yet still possibly extant calamity I had visited on their delicate feline psyches. And observed that closing a door shut really wasn’t the difficult, WAS IT?
I should mention the supporting cast. Mr. M travelled a lot, mostly to Japan which was about as far away as I’d want to be in his shoes. I only saw him twice in two months. He was bald, fat, taciturn and always reading the paper. Looked about ten years older than Mrs. M but I bet they’d started out even on their wedding day. He and the cats kept a mutually satisfactory distance.
Then there was Mrs. Stevens. She was an occasional maid. I had wondered why they didn’t have one. In fact they’d had several but none lasted more than a few months. According to Mrs. Stevens (call me Helen), the agency wouldn’t send any more. Helen herself had been sacked a couple of years ago. She was in her sixties, lived alone and I gathered Mrs. M. had implored her to return when the agency put up the No Sale sign. Helen almost seemed to like the snide remarks as it got her out of the house. She only got paid for a couple of half days a week but showed up for four (well, Mrs. M needs someone and doesn’t realize she’s her own worst enemy). Hmm, they mustn’t have got to my ballot yet.
And there was Wonderful Jimmie. He was a rotund smoothie oozing sympathy for Mrs. M’s struggles in an uncaring, inept world. He was the only groundsman/cat whisperer who’d never been sacked. He wore his hair like Lumpy from Leave It To Beaver (and hey! this was the 70s!) which probably contrasted with my putative Rick Wakeman look. Wonderful Jimmie dropped in every couple of weeks to fuss over the childless Mrs. M and coo to her cats. He'd always ask “And how is Princess (one of Mrs. M`s bedroom beasts)?” but only after he’d heard Mrs. M mention the creature’s name.
A walk-on was an unnamed neighbour who was trimming her hedge as I turned off the mower to walk it back to the northern starting point. We chatted briefly. Back at the northern boundary Mrs. M was summoning me. “Don’t talk to her” she admonished. “She’s always spying on me.”
I’d realized early on that my days were numbered, probably in double digits. The blow-up came one Thursday when I was asked to clear out all the growth between the patio stones. Easy enough, or so I thought. Mrs. M demonstrated. An hour later I was halfway through when Mrs. M came to inspect. No worries; nothing remained between those stones. Oops. “You cleared out the moss!” she screamed.
“You told me to clean out between the stones”.
“You never remove moss!!!”
“You didn’t say to keep the moss”.
Ha! I was edging her in the argument but she was holding trump.
“No one removes moss. How about if I just write out your last paycheck now”.
She looked startled and stammered around about how she didn’t have her checks, how she had to go to the bank etc etc. I said I wanted the check. “Can you come back Tuesday night?”
Tuesday night I returned for my check. I was invited in. There were four young Japanese women sitting in the antechamber. Mrs. M was all friendly and whispered that Japanese work very hard and she was interviewing for a maid+cat-carer. Wonderful Jimmie had north-southed the lawn before I got there. She’d almost finished the check when I heard that familiar screech. One of the Japanese girls had blundered into the living room. Keep that resumé handy kiddo.