Factory Tails — Short Story Six
by Barbara Anne Helberg
*** Lost Parts
The black knit cap on Lady Dill’s head normally sat tilted, but just now it slipped forward a little, and Jethro, across the aisle, felt embarrassed as he sneaked a peak at Lady Dill’s swift adjustments. Everydog wondered about Lady Dill’s cap. Were the ears still under there?
Jethro started. She was looking directly at him from behind The Glazer, the Health Biscuit press she humbly had accepted after twelve company championship show seasons. Lady Dill sat still, oblivious to the lunch traffic moving past her, and continued to look at him through the square opening formed by The Glazer’s top and bottom dies and its tall green iron sides.
The break buzzer had rung. It was time for lunch. Yet Jethro, too, was immobilized.
Jethro had heard the rumors about the champion St. Bernard’s cap. Everydog wanted to know. He, too, just two months on the job at Northwest Ohio Big Blackie Biscuit and Specialty Items, Inc. had begun to navigate coy glances in the direction of Lady Dill’s head. She was an elderly red and white long-haired St. Bernard bitch of company showmanship stock, and Jethro was a young pup, brown and tan and white, a shaggy-haired mixed terrier of mixed parents with no hope of living a charmed life of champion ribbons and wreaths. Lady Dill’s repeated surgeries the last several months had reduced her to press operator status, the same lowly beginner’s rank as Jethro. And everydog on operator’s row wanted to know. What about the ears?
Jethro wrecked off his press stool, crashing awkwardly onto three paws, barely maintaining upright control. The owner of the ears, or non-ears, in question was headed straight for him. He gulped.
Lady Dill gathered her full ruff and bosom, substantial for a small St. Bernard bitch. She stopped in front of him.
Jethro quivered. He was large for a terrier mix, but Lady Dill towered above him.
“You may as well get it from the bitch’s mouth, my young pup,” she said.
He was mortified, momentarily. Her voice was, surprisingly, sweet, as always. Her kind eyes showed no malice, no purposeful intent. Jethro saw only dim, gray motherliness, and yet that in itself prompted fear and a sense of uneasiness and inadequacy in him, for his own mother had been a stern, no nonsense shepherd.
Lady Dill rattled on about her illness, and Jethro further cringed. His unwilling ears nonetheless pricked forward as Lady Dill continued. He could feel his fur standing on end across his back and the flush on his fuzzy face. So personal, he thought. He knew he didn’t want to hear all. What had made him think he needed the sordid details? Everydog had speculated about Lady Dill’s illness. Now hearing about it first hand was not so exciting, Jethro decided. It was…embarrassing and dreadful.
No ears, Jethro thought.
“That was just the beginning, you see, the loss of my hearing — perhaps you’d noticed, before the cap, of course, that I didn’t wear ear plugs in here. After my hearing fled entirely, I began to have less social life, of course, you understand. It was totally degrading. I couldn’t compete any longer.
“My championships over the last two seasons at nine show grounds were banished, revoked, my good young pup, because the standing judges said there was no way to prove, or disprove, that I already had been deaf when I won my ribbons. Imagine! Accusing me, the highest ranking bitch of our honored championship line, of deceit!
“My stars! Of course, I protested. But then I began losing tufts of hair around my ears, and the trips to veterinary clinics began, and the awards, the ribbons, seemed so small, far away. The Greyhound Whiz himself, the highly regarded Doctor Shim Azute, attended me. But it was no use. The Icky Bub had metastasized. I’m doomed. My ears were the first to go.”
Jethro shivered. They’re really gone? he thought.
“More hair loss, then the seepage and infection fevers.” She laughed, almost shrilled.
Jethro unconsciously pawed his own healthy ears, relieved to find them in place. He allowed himself a little sigh as he lowered his paws.
“Oh, my dear young pup. It’s not fair, of course — life. But we do die a little every day after maturity, don’t we?”
You’re dying, then? Jethro thought, and he tucked his tail close to his body. He suddenly shivered into a need to keep all his parts collected together.
Lady Dill seemed not to catch on to his compounding fears. Apparently, she had already looked the subject of death in the eye and found it mostly bearable. She went on: “Such a come down –” she glanced slowly around “– ending here in this greasy, smelly plant. I was born for something classier. Well, disease alters that. But I won’t sit at Golden Paw Society and fade away. The disease will win, of course, but before it does, I’ll make myself useful.
“At least they put me on The Glazer, where I can concentrate on contributing the Health Biscuit to growing, potential champion offspring in our line. I requested it, of course, you know, when they said they were going to declassify me from company Showmanship Team to press operator. It’s something to go with. Of course, I’ll get uglier and weaker; probably the ruff next, you know, Doctor Azute says. It eats away everything, you know, The Icky Bug. Everything ends, of course, doesn’t it?”
The Icky Bug, Jethro thought, shivering. He couldn’t help it. He lifted both paws to his head and hugged his ears. The Icky Bug was a deadly mutant insect that had developed after the wipeout of fleas. There was no cure for the disease spread by The Icky Bug.
Lady Dill smiled and pulled off the black knit cap.
Jethro shook. Gone! No ears! Red stubs instead. With pink, wet, squishy spots. He whined uncontrollably. Everything ends!
After the encounter with Lady Dill, Jethro inquired about the company health care plan. He decided he was not too young to enroll. It was just like his Grandpa had warned him. Heath insurance was the thing. “Can’t have enough of it,” Grandpa Cause had said. “Too many infectious bugs around these days.”
Any dog could catch The Icky Bug.
Story and Photo from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg