Monday, October 10, 2005



Note: The setting is in the far future.

The old woman was rushing to the building of the K-9 ZooLab, Inc. And instead of pressing the buzzer, she banged the door with her palm. There was a short buzz and the door opened to welcome her to a solitary table of the small office.

She was grumbling when she entered and somewhat furious when she took the seat fronting Mr. Harp's table. It is the place where the buck stops - according to the sign above the name of Mr. Harp. He mans the Complaint Department of K-9 ZooLab, Inc. and the way he looked, Mr. Harp seemed to be used to this kind of tantrum.

"I want a refund," the old woman barked at Mr. Harp before producing a small paper from her shirt pocket. "Here is the hardcopy of my receipt. It says in the bottom that there’s a guarantee. Now, I want a refund or perhaps even an exchange. You know…” The old woman talked with restraint, obvious of her raging fury.

Mr. Harp appeared impassive and it gave the old woman a notion that she was talking to a machine. The old woman made a pout of her lips then continued. “Your company is known for quality, right? You boast of satisfied customers, right? Now see here, see what you gave me.”

Mr. Harp pressed the rim of his eyeglasses to get him a better look of the strange animal on the woman's lap. It was kind of small with thick fur, pointed ears and with eyes that could penetrate one’s soul. The strange animal appeared to be contented on the woman’s lap.

Mr. Harp took the slip of paper from the trembling hands of the old woman. He gave it a look and after a few headshakes, he nodded as if he already got hold of the problem. The old woman licked her lips as the slow rhythm of the keyboard was heard. Mr. Harp adjusted the position of the flat screen resting on his table while waiting for the answers to appear. However, it took some time.

"I specifically stated the details in the order form." Angst could be sensed in the old woman's tone although milder than when she just came in. Her face exuded self-pity as if her life depended on her complaint. "There, you see?" as her hand almost covered the entire display of the flat video screen.

The screen showed a list of specifics for invoice number 45900123. Twenty percent poodle. Twenty percent great dane. Twenty percent spitz. Twenty percent dalmatian. Five percent pekingese. Five percent chihuahua. Ten percent in equal stock mixture of doberman, st. bernard, labrador, boxer, collie, dachshund, beagle and mongrel.

Mr. Harp seemed to be in a trance with his expressionless face. His eyes fixed on the flat screen as if thinking how to respond to the complaint. There had been countless of cases before but this one appeared unique. The company may be at fault and a refund may be in the offing. Or so it seemed.

"It's all there, right?" The old woman's hand moved up and down on the flat screen. She was like a teacher pointing the lesson to her students. "See, I specifically stated what I had wanted. And I didn’t get what I wanted. How could I name this pet Lanky Poodle Dandy when..." She was interrupted by the blaring speakers.

"The disclaimer clearly states that K-9 ZooLab, Inc. is not responsible for any product defects caused by..." The computer was using the voice of a young female. "Number one, unintentional power fluctuations. Number two, miscalibrated DNA dosing due to unintentional equipment errors. Number three, unintentional in-vitro fertilization quirks. Number four, unintentional faulty genetic stock. And any unintentional mistakes that may occur from time to time."

Mr. Harp sighed in relief, his full body weight relaxed on his seat. It can be a battle of wits but definitely the company is always free of any liability. Talk of fine prints, ha? Out of habit, Mr. Harp deliberately avoided the old woman’s eyes.

The old woman appeared dumbfounded with the technical terms forced on her ordinary ears. The fine print, as she already knew, would give omnibus protection to the corporation. She may be on the losing end but it’s worth giving her last stand on the issue. An old woman’s charm may still work after all.

But Mr. Harp grinned as the female voice ended the litany of defense. His face showed confidence that the matter seemed to be already settled. In these days, the customer is not always right because the company is never wrong.

With utmost care, the old woman placed the pet on the table. Right in the middle of Mr. Harp’s table, the animal lazily drooped its head and rested its small body on the smooth wooden surface. After a short while the pet timidly sat and bent its head, seemingly wanting a lap to sleep on.

"But," the old woman was groping for words, "my husband's life insurance, I mean, the proceeds all went to this... You see, all I needed is a companion because I couldn’t bear the emptiness since my husband passed away last summer. Honest, all I want is a good cuddly dog for a pet. And as I said, I already had a name for it - Lanky Doodle Dandy. Is that hard to understand?"

Mr. Harp licked his lips and adjusted the rim of his eyeglasses again. He made a “wait, let me see what I can do” gesture to the old woman. Mr. Harp carefully held the animal and handed it back to the old woman. He pulled the keyboard nearer to him and pressed a few keys. A few seconds passed and the speakers came alive with a male voice this time.

"Invoice 45900123. Quality assurance reassessment. Factory defect found due to unintentional miscalibrated dosing of genetic stock. The term unintentional frees K-9 ZooLab, Inc. of any liabilities arising from a defective product. Sorry but a refund is not allowed this time. Thank you and have a good day."

Sensing she had lost the battle, the old woman produced a hanky and started to sob. The strange animal moved a bit as if to console her. And to share her anguish, the old woman petted the animal.

Mr. Harp was used to tears but he couldn’t stand it this time. The balding man pressed some keys again on the keyboard and the video screen displayed a 3-D image of an animal similar to the live one on the old woman’s lap. Mr. Harp silently read the text at the bottom of the image.

"I think you've got a better bargain, Ma'am." Mr. Harp's voice was cool and his slight smile was very reassuring. Without taking his eyes off on the video screen, Mr. Harp gave out a happy grin this time. "This kind of animal,” Mr. Harp’s voice was rising in a cresendo, “used to be a household fixture before it went out of style a century ago. And according to the footnotes, this pet is friendlier and cuddlier and neater than a dog of any breed. It is called a cat."
*** This story won the Futuristic category of Animal Scene Magazine, 2003 contest.

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