“The Hamster Wheel”

- Richard Risemberg

You never know what people are really thinking. Maybe people themselves never really know. Ah, human beings…. We look at someone else, and we figure we know them, but really we're just figuring they're sort of like us—and we don't even know ourselves. I guess I do this too.

What brought this to mind was the incident of the hamster cage. The hamster cage had been installed in our office by Jerry, our boss. It was, of course, mostly symbolic, despite the very real hamster whose domain it was. His exertions on the exercise wheel were meant, as Jerry all too gleefully explained, to serve as a model for our own workday. If there was nothing else to do, make do with something, no matter how pointless it might seem. It was his money that bought our time, and we owed him motion.

All the same, Jerry had a genuine affection for rodents--which he explained was why he had hired us all. Since clients never had cause to enter the room where we worked, all us rodents lived in shabby fluorescent-lit proximity, with the hamster a relentless model citizen at the head of the room.

The little beast did, however, merit a real incandescent light bulb, dedicated to his warmth and comfort. It was only a beat-up old gooseneck desk lamp, but it created the sole glimmer of warmth in the room. The rest of us made do with sweaters and grumbling. The boss was unaffected by the chill of the air-conditioning, which was ancient and resistant to adjustment—he claimed coldbloodedness—and he would saunter in occasionally in his cheap print shirts to visit the hamster, his living parable, and make sure we were all, if not actively working, at least active.

Oddly enough, the lover of rodents also kept a cat in the office. The cat was a silent, powerful-looking ex-tomcat that favored a counter on the side of the room opposite the hamster wheel. From his high station, he gazed down on us all through narrowed green eyes. He also sat on the boss's lap during job interviews, adding an air of menacing eccentricity to the procedure, but otherwise either slept, or prowled the room in search of less-privileged rodents than the hamster or ourselves. Jerry had refused to name him, but had trained him to come to a mild chirping call, which we would hear the boss emit now and then when he felt too personally indolent to amble down the hall to our workroom. The cat would lift his head and, with no change of expression, flow down from his perch and stroll to the master's sanctum. This marked the rhythm of our days: the hamster running on his wheel in the cage, and the silent predator staring over us between visits to the boss.

"It's fucking nuts," Howard would say periodically. "Who the fuck works like this and puts up with it? Why do I gotta stare at a fucking rat while I ruin perfectly good pieces of paper trying to make some asshole rich at my own expense?"

"Listen to Mr. Revolutionary here," Luis said. "Number one, lotta people got worse jobs than this. Like my fucking uncles who pick tomatoes all goddamn day for less than you, sir, get for complaining instead of working. And number two, you work here precisely because you're a complaining jerk, and only a weirdo like Jerry would hire you."

"Fuck off, Luis," Howard said. "You always talk like you're in love with that asshole."

"I'm not in love with nothing. And fuck you, Howard."

We heard the chirp, and the nameless cat ambled the length of the room to the hallway. Howard and Luis fell silent. After the cat left, Howard said, "And that fucking cat. He isn't even a real cat, or he'd eat that rat up there."

"The rat," Luis said, "is in a fucking cage, Howard. You oughta be too. Be glad you're here. You couldn't handle a real job."

"Fuck you, Luis. You're here too. Your uncles work like fucking slaves, but at least they're real men."

"Their lives are shit, and they get drunk every night. But they don't complain."

We all heard Jerry's footsteps then, and Howard and Luis hunched over their desks and pretended to be busy. So did the rest of us, who had been enjoying the show. If Howard and Luis had really hated each other, it wouldn't have been fun, but they were only bored.

I was last one out of the office that day, because I'd left a letter I had to mail on my desk and went back to get it. On the way out, I passed by the hamster cage and automatically said goodbye to the little beast…only he wasn't there. Someone had opened the cage and let him out. I tried to find Jerry to tell him, but he was in the bathroom. I would have felt silly shouting the news through the door, so I went on. I was pretty sure Jerry always communed with the hamster before going home. And anyway, where would the little rat go?

It wasn't till I got home that I remembered the cat. I briefly considered calling Jerry at his house to tell him what had happened, but then decided "Fuck it." He would have made his rounds before leaving and found out on his own. It didn't affect my sleep. It was, as Howard said, just a fucking rat anyway.

The next morning, when I got in to work, the hamster was in his cage, with the door still open. And the nameless cat was sitting on the counter next to the cage, glowering at me with his green eyes narrowed and stern. I knew Jerry was in, because his office door was ajar, but the door being almost closed was his "Don't bother me" signal, so I had gone into the workroom without greeting him. Howard and Luis and the others drifted in late, as usual, and I noticed that Howard jumped a little when he saw the hamster in his open cage and the cat beside it. The cat ignored Howard, as he ignored everyone but Jerry. The hamster ran on his wheel as usual. Some of the litter from his cage was scattered on the counter.

Once everyone was in, Jerry ambled down the hall and leaned on the doorjamb in his usual vague way. He smiled at everyone in turn, and then made the chirping sound that called the cat to him. The cat glanced at the hamster, then at Jerry, who repeated the sound. The cat flowed down to the floor and walked to Jerry, who reached down to scratch him between the ears. He picked up the cat, who was not small, and kept scratching him while he addressed us.

"I suppose you thought that was funny. Letting a poor aging hamster out in hopes our fanged friend here would eat him. But you see, these two have been friends since the cat was six months old. Any other hamster would have become a midnight snack, but Toddles was always safe. When I came in this morning, my little night watchman brought him to me in the office, carrying him like a kitten. Alas, the cat is smarter and more diligent than my staff. Which is why he gets salmon and you get minimum wage."

Jerry's eyes glinted. I'm not sure I'd ever seen him so lively, though you could call it "lively" only in comparison to his usual drifty demeanor. He was exaggerating too. No one there was paid minimum wage. Jerry was cheap, but not that cheap.

He went on: "I don't have the slightest idea who did it, and don't care. But whoever it is, consider yourself to have been outwitted in advance. And get to work." Jerry gave a little bow, let the cat down, and wandered back to his office. The cat leapt up to his usual spot across the room from the hamster. Luis got up and went to the hamster cage and shut the door. The hamster kept spinning its wheel. Luis sat back down. I heard a suppressed giggle from somewhere in the room.

A voice said, "'Toddles'?"

Howard snorted a laugh. Everyone turned to gaze at him. He said, "What a name for a fucking rat!"

"Could be worse," Luis said. "At least he didn’t call it 'Howard.' Even though that's actually a good name for a rat."

"Aw, kiss my ass," Howard said.

"Fuck you, Howard," Luis said. "You haven't worked here long enough. You know why Jerry brought the cat and the hamster here?"

"Sure. To torture us with."

Luis glared at him. He took a deep breath, and then said: "No, he got them after his wife died in a car wreck. They were supposed to be for his little girl, to distract her. But the kid's allergic to fur. So he brung them here. And so, fuck you, Howard."

Howard stared off into space. "Well, so what," he said finally. "We didn't kill her. Why's he always jerking our chains like he does?"

"Just shut the fuck up and work," Luis said. "He wasn’t always like this."

"I swear, you fucking love the guy. Why don't you fucking marry him? It's legal now."

"Why don't you fucking shut up, Howard?" Luis took a deep breath again. "His wife was my sister. And I was driving the car when a fucking truck hit us. You don't know shit, Howard. Or maybe shit is all you ever knew."

Luis got up and walked out of the room. The only sound you could hear was the rattle of the hamster wheel as it spun.

Richard Risemberg was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, editing online 'zines, sneaking around with a camera trying to steal people's souls, and making a general nuisance of himself, which is his forte. He's survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. It hasn't been easy for any of us.