“What do you call work?”

Tom Sawyer washes the windowsPete took up his brush and went tranquilly to work. Niko and Ari hove in sight presently – the very boys, of all boys, whose ridicule he had been dreading. Niko and Ari’s gait was the hop-skip-and-jump – proof enough that his heart was light and his anticipations high. They were both eating apples, and giving long, melodious whoops, at intervals, followed by a deep-toned ding-dong-dong, ding-dong-dong, for they were personating city busses. As they drew near, they slackened speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far over to passenger side and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and circumstance. They were bus drivers, so they had to imagine themselves giving the orders to the people in the back:

“Get out here! Ting-a-ling-ling!” The roadway ran almost out, and they drew up slowly toward the sidewalk.

“Stand up! Ting-a-ling-ling!” Their arms straightened and stiffened down his sides.

“We’re parked! Ting-a-ling-ling! Hnnmmm hnnmmm hnnmmm!”i Their right hands, meantime, describing stately hinges – for they were representing doors.

“Let her go back on! Ting-a-ling-ling! Hnnmmm hnnmmm hnnmmm!” The left hand began to describe hinges.

“Stop the bus! Ting-a-ling-ling! Stop the bus! Come ahead on the bus!”

Pete went on cleaning windows and appliances inside the family house – paid no attention to the city busses. The boys stared a moment and then said in unison: “Hi- yi ! You’re a pooper, ain’t you!”ii

No answer. Pete surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist, then he gave his towel another gentle sweep and surveyed the result, as before. Niko and Ari ranged up alongside of him. Pete’s mouth watered for the apples, but he stuck to his work. The boys said:

“Hello Dad, you got to work, hey?”

Pete wheeled suddenly and said:

“Why, it’s you, my boys! I warn’t noticing.”

“Say – we’re going to the playground, we are. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Pete contemplated the boys a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Pete resumed his cleaning, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Pete D.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The towel continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a Dad get a chance to clean windows and appliances every day? Cleaning also makes you bigger and stronger, you know, but you boys can never be stronger than a Daddy.”

That put things in a new light. The boys stopped nibbling their apples. Pete swept his towel daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticised the effect again –Niko and Ari watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently they said:

“Say, Dad, let us clean a little.”

Pete considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

“No – no – I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, boys. You see, mom’s awful particular about these windows and appliances – you know – but if it was the back windows maybe I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t either. Yes, she’s awful particular about these things; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

“No – is that so? Oh come, now – lemme, just try. Only just a little – I’d let you, if you was me, Dad.”

“Boys, I’d like to, honest injun; but mom – well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Gus wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Gus. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle these windows and appliances and anything was to happen to it – ”

“Oh, shucks, we’ll be just as careful. Now let us try. Say – we’ll give you the cores of our apples.”

“Well, here – No, boys, now don’t. I’m afeard – ”

“We’ll give you all of it!”

Pete gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the city busses worked and sweated, the retired artist sat on an Eames lounge chair close by, dangled his legs, munched his apples, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to clean. By the time Niko and Ari were fagged out, Pete had traded the next chance to Jonah for a bicycle, in good repair; and when she played out, Ernie bought in for a Nerf gun – and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a housebroken husband in the morning, Pete was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, a hockey stick, a telescope with a broken tripod, a Charizard card, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a bottle of Sunny D, a stuffed teddy bear, a couple of chess pieces, six fire-crackers, a half-deflated soccer ball, a broken Gameboy, a dog-collar – but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated pair of LA Gear shoes.

He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while – plenty of company – and the windows and appliances had been washed three times! If he hadn’t run out of Windex he would have bankrupted every boy on the block.

Pete said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in Dubai who charter packs of camels to go hunting using falcons, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

The father mused awhile over the substantial change which had taken place in his worldly circumstances, and then wended toward The Girl to report.

With apologies to Mark Twain.
___ ___ ___

  1. There’s a very particular sound that city busses make when they stop and drop their front loading floors to accessible wheelchair height. There’s a couple of quick high-pitched beeps as, simultaneously, the air suspension *whoosh* deflates and lowers the front-right ride height. Ari manages actually to make this sound in a single lips-sealed exhalation, a remarkable feat that took us months to figure out what he was actually replicating, but once we figured it out, it was crazy how perfect it matched the actual multi-layered sound. The kid could do sound effects for movies.
  2. I do get called “poop” and “pee” a lot, and I don’t even discourage it. Here’s hoping that my absorption of so much potty humour – rather than its repression – leads to adults who aren’t anally fixated (per Freud) and instead have a healthy relationship with their bodies. We’ll see!

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