Sometimes a tedious job can be a relief. I thought working at the public health labs would be a perfect complement to studying for my epidemiology degree. I should have known they would stick me with the grunt work. Today, however, I needed some rote activity to distract me.
I wish they at least had me working with human pathogens. Instead I got pests and vermin. Rodents mostly. You’d be surprised how nasty squirrels are. Don’t get me started on raccoons. On occasion I get mosquitoes for West Nile. First thing I did after I got to the labs was pick up the arrival sheet—oh, yes. Tiny Tuesday.
Every week we get in a shipment of tinies for their state license screening. Can’t do a blood draw so I gotta swab their anuses four times each to get enough samples for the panel. It’s not difficult, just tiresome and a bit gross.
I hung up my coat and dug my textbook out of my bag in case I got some time to bone up on organic chemistry while babysitting the agitators in the pertussis lab. I waved at Bob as I passed his workbench, but he was focused on his scatterplots and didn’t even look up.There isn’t a separate lab for tinies; I just use a corner of the rodent room. Today’s shipment was on a trolley next to the counter. From the arrival sheet it looked like they’d been waiting for about an hour. Long enough for half of them to mess their crates.
Animal Control sends them over in racks of a dozen, like egg cartons. Twelve stainless steel cubes, three inches to a side, barely enough room for an adult male to stand up. The tope side of each cube was a sheet of plexiglass on a hinge, perforated with air holes. Some of the newer racks have some sort of cushion on the sides, but I’ll bet it makes them harder to clean.
The protocol requires the use of a four-point restraining mount when collecting samples. The mount consists of a plastic ring with little wrist and ankle clamps that put tinies in a spread-eagle position. The clamps can be extended toward the center of the ring to accommodate shorter tinies, but so far I’ve never had to sample juveniles.
I was trained at the lab by a woman named Rose, who always followed the protocol by using forceps to remove the tinies from their crates. She positioned one pad of the forceps between the tiny’s shoulder blades and the other over their sternum. Then she would rest the forceps against the base of the mount while fitting their wrists and ankles into the clamps.
The very first time she showed me this procedure, Rose held the tiny (a female) pinched in the forceps up in front of my face. “Look at it squirm!” she said. “Careful, they bite.” This much was true, I discovered shortly thereafter, but their teeth couldn’t break through the latex gloves I constantly wore in the labs.
I put my books down in the far corner of the work station and rotated the trolley away from the counter. Three racks, and the manifest said thirty tinies. One by one, I lifted the racks off the trolley, set them on the counter, and verified the count. Most of them weren’t moving in their crates. I’m not sure I would be very active, either, in such tight quarters.
After I had printed out the tracking labels, applied them to the bottles, and readied my sample strips, I donned my gloves with an attention-grabbing snap. Here is where I deviated from the protocol. Instead of grabbing the forceps, I stood over the first rack of crates and looked down at the tinies, most of whom were gazing up at me with dread.
“This is a standard check for disease,” I told them. “I need to put each of you on this mount and swab your bottoms a few times. It’s not going to hurt, and if you don’t struggle it’ll be over quickly.”
I don’t know why I always say this. I don’t even know how many of them understood English, and none of them have any good reason to trust me. In any event, most of them refuse to come out of their crates by themselves and I end up having to fish them out with the forceps anyway. Perhaps they knew or suspected that a bad culture result was a death sentence.
There are a few, however, who climb out into my hand and let me secure them on the mount without much fuss. It slows things down but, as silly as it sounds, for just a moment it makes me feel like a real doctor and not just a lab grunt.
As usual, most of them struggled through the procedure. It wasn’t until I got to the second rack that one of them, a male, let me mount him with just my fingers. Of course, he then proceeded to shit all over the first sample strip. I got what I needed, but I had to change my gloves.
The only other tiny who came out of her crate was from the last rack, AC tracking number N2524. Like most tinies, she trembled as I curled my fingers around her. She was less than three inches tall and weighed almost nothing. When I lifted her to the mounting ring, she extended one delicate arm to the clamp, and I only had to press it shut with one fingertip. She wouldn’t look at me as I nudged her legs apart to reach the ankle clamps. Once all of her limbs were secured, I gave her face the briefest of glances before slowly spinning the mounting ring around to present me with her spread buttocks.
The door opened and I turned to see Jake walk in. I had him in a class last semester and I mentioned that I worked at the labs, and at the start of the year he finagled a part-time position for himself. Now he felt obliged to check in anytime we’re both here. At least he was more verbal than Bob.
“Hey,” he said listlessly. He spotted the tiny on the mount as he walked over to the counter. “Oh yeah, Tiny Tuesday. Fun.”
“How’s it going?” I said.
“Could you believe the Parkway this morning?”
I never take the Parkway to the labs. “I know, it’s terrible,” I said.
“I don’t think they’ll ever finish that construction. It’s just a big handout to the unions.”
I nodded sympathetically. Jake idly reached his hand out to the mount and spun the ring around. He was looking at me, so he didn’t notice the look of terror on N2524’s face. With the same casual rhythm, he spun the ring around again.
“C’mon, leave it,” I said, raising a hand in admonishment. “How’d it go with the apartment?”
He jammed his hands in his pockets. “Oh, it went alright. The bathroom could have been cleaner, I suppose. But the balcony’s way bigger than I expected. I’m going to be out there every night!”
“Kinda cold right now, doncha think?”
“I always find a way to keep warm,” he said, pinching an imaginary joint to his lips.
“That’s great, Jake,” I said, shaking my head and reaching for the sample strips.
Mercifully, he got the hint. “Alright, this is too much fun for me. I gotta get back to it. Campylobacter waits for no man.” I smiled and nodded as he shambled out.
Turning back to N2524, I selected a sample strip and pinched it at an angle that would press upward when I touched it to her taint and slid the entire length past her tiny asshole. The leading tip had just brushed her left thigh when my phone rang.
I sighed and tossed the strip in the bio-waste bin. Pulling out my phone, I saw that it was Karen. Her second call in the week since I broke it off with her. I thought I had been mature but honest, stating quite clearly why I thought we wouldn’t work out, but she hadn’t accepted it. Perhaps if I had yelled and swore at her, she might have realized I meant it, but that just wasn’t me.
My phone kept ringing, and I hesitated a moment more while looking at N2524’s ass, then I answered my phone. “Hey,” I said.
“Hi,” said Karen. “Where are you?”
“At the labs.”
“Oh.” A familiar pause.
“So what’s up?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“I just wanted to see how you were feeling.”
“My feelings haven’t changed.”
“I think you’re making too big of a deal out of this.”
I’ve explained this already, I thought. For no reason I could explain, I found myself rotating the mounting ring again, bringing N2524 back to facing me.
“What we have is more important than that,” said Karen.
I exhaled sharply. “I wish you could understand how cruel it was for you to say that,” I said. “Ray worked really hard on that show.”
“What I want to understand is why this matters so much to you. Ray’s not even your friend.”
“That’s rather the point. He’s your friend, and you thoughtlessly hurt him. I just don’t think I can be with someone so…callous.”
I was looking right into N2524’s face. The tiny hung there on the mount, fully exposed, yet somehow I felt self-conscious. I don’t know how long I sat there, trying to read N2524’s expression, not listening to Karen’s sputterings.
The tiny woman looked a bit like Karen, actually, although the longer I looked the more differences I could make out. Her hair was longer than Karen’s, all over. I don’t suppose tinies have access to a lot of grooming resources. Some owners paid top dollar for it, of course. Nothing a student like me could afford.
“I just think you’re afraid of the responsibility of a real relationship,” said Karen, regaining my attention.
“At least I’m willing to take responsibility for my actions,” I snapped, ending the call. I couldn’t remember the last time I had intentionally hung up on someone.
I put my phone away, then I stared at the binders of protocols lining the shelves above me. Finally I looked back down at N2524, who was watching me expectantly. What did she see in my face?
I looked away to get a fresh sample strip, then looked at her again. She registered my hesitation, then—I swear—she nodded.
I rotated the mounting ring back facing away from me, then, using the thumb and forefinger of my free hand, I gently spread N2524’s cheeks open to expose her tiny brown anus. I set my jaw and swabbed her four times, thoroughly but efficiently. She flinched every time.
After sealing the sample bottles, I lifted my open palm underneath the ring and released the clamps. N2524 didn’t look at me as she climbed down into my hand and curled her knees up to her chest. I lowered my hand to the rack and she quickly hopped down into her crate.
There were only two more tinies left to sample, and both required the forceps. After they were done, I loaded the first two racks back onto the trolley, then I walked across the hall to the archive room and closed the door.
I got my phone out and called Brian at Animal Control. “This batch is ready to go back,” I said.
“Great, thanks,” he said.
“Hey Brian, before you send the van, could you tell me if any from this shipment have registered owners?”
“Hmm, let’s see. Nope. All of ’em came from the Eastside shelter. Why, didja lose one?”
Originally published: 05 Jun 2017