Snails 3 and 27 have taken the lead—first it’s one, then the other by a millimeter—and my number 52 has stopped to lift its head and angle its eyestalks like TV antennae seeking a signal, but 84 is in fourth and gaining, and my hairline itches with sweat because if 52 doesn’t win today, I’ll lose the last of my toes. The big one on my left foot. I’m swaying back and forth on it now; I can feel it holding me up, saying, “You’re gonna miss me, Arnie.”
Arnold and the few other first-time losers were silent, lined up inside the curve of the elevated wooden racetrack painted white with red lanes. Down its length was an opalescent patina of dry slime in meandering streaks.
One shoe hung from Arnold’s fingers by its laces, his sweaty sock balled in its mouth. The floor was cool and rough under his bare foot and the pads of its five toes.
The guy next to me jabs my ribs with his elbow. He’s following number 3 or 27. But my 52 has stopped to curl and explore its shell, its number painted in blue. Against the push of the crowd, I won’t move until 52 moves.
The previous winners sat in cushioned risers. They all leaned forward, grinning when the race agent slipped his shears around Arnold’s second pinky toe.
The other losers behind him in line looked at the floor. But one man with six fingers folded his arms and watched.
Elbow guy shouts, “Come on! Go, go, go!” at whichever snail is his. He shouts so loud he coughs, with a mangled fist in front of his mouth.
When he coughs some of the snails jerk into their shells, a couple of them change course. Bettors scream.
I tell myself it’s a coincidence, avoid superstition. This guy has no more power over the race than anyone else.
They all watched as the race chief shook the winner’s hand and handed him a giant cardboard check.
Arnold imagined the heavy check pressing its edge into his own fingers.
A flashbulb timed perfectly with the thick snip of his bone.
Wesley or Leslie or something like that—I can’t remember—is still back at the starting box, punching the barrier wall and screaming at 95 to move. His face is hot and wet. He knows his chance of winning is slim now, but not zero. There’s still at least six hours to go.
I’m sure the winners in the risers love this guy’s desperation, watching his squeezed face through the binoculars they hold with precision-made articulated fingers. Clucking to each other with silicone servo tongues.
Their minds have erased the memory of ever having been him.
With the previous loss of one ring toe, Arnold’s balance had changed. But then losing the other restored his equilibrium.
Tom always promised if he won, he would never sit and jeer with the winners. “I wouldn’t do that to you fellas,” he said.
We all say that.
But we haven’t seen him since his win; he’s kept his promise.
If a day comes when we do see Tom in the risers we’ll lose all hope, because we’ll know that spiritual poison is inevitable, even for the most resolute.
It hurt Arnold to run with only two toes on his right foot. He had to stop.
Elbow guy is wearing a threadbare brick-red corduroy jacket. He’s jabbed me so much I start to think the jacket might’ve been brand-new at the start of the race, and he’s worn it down against my washboard ribs.
Arnold despised stairs. He bought a cheap plastic cane, and while using it he imagined the fancier cane he’d buy when he won. He’d use some of the winnings on replacement toes with fine titanium bones sheathed in padded silicone. TV said those were the most comfortable. He might spring for the “real skin” texture.
Even after adapting to the step of his new toes, he’d continue to use the fancy cane. He’d wield it like a trophy.
The cane would be real ivory with a spiral of gold inlay, topped with a polished sphere of green and white marble.
Elbow guy coughs again, and some bits spray out his fingers into my eye. It stings.
I stab him back with my elbow for room to rub my eye, and little crystalline grains come away stuck on my finger.
A guy with his head floating between our shoulders sees this and grabs elbow guy. “Cheat! Cheater, cheat!” he screams. He points at the track, where the snails nearest to us have again retracted into their shells. Number 79 is foaming.
Arnold bet on number 16 in honor of his son Ethan’s birthday. 16 placed second.
Tom didn’t look at Arnold, and was quiet as he left with the check under his arm.
Elbow guy struggles in the man’s grip. I grab his other arm, the elbow he kept putting in my ribs, to help hold him.
The crowd noise has changed.
A race agent in red and white stripes runs behind the barrier to us.
I hold elbow guy’s arm against the barrier, and the agent handcuffs his wrist to an iron ring. That’s when we all see that elbow guy’s palm is covered with crystalline grit.
Standing outside the arena at dawn on uneven achy feet, Arnold heard another bettor say the slime is thick enough for a snail to slide along a razor’s edge, unharmed.
Someone shouts, “Checkiz pockets!”
The agent reaches over the barrier into elbow guy’s jacket pocket and removes a baggie of salt.
With his other hand the agent wields a hatchet and swings it into the guy’s wrist, freeing him from the handcuffs with a hard, wet sound.
Cheers from above. Binocular eyes shine.
Cheers among us below.
I’ve got the guy’s blood in my eye, which stings a little less than the salt.
Arnold brought Ethan, who was finally old enough to attend a race. They both placed their bets on snail 31.
Ethan stared at the previous winners in the risers as his pinky toe was clipped. Seeing his son’s stoicism, Arnold wiped away a proud tear as the agent bandaged the fresh absence of his right big toe.
Elbow guy crumples holding his wrist, and the crowd closes around him to press against the barrier.
The agent waves the dripping hatchet like a flag of surrender while young trainee agents in smaller red-and-white-striped outfits pluck the snails from the track into buckets, and another brushes the salt from the track with a hand broom and dustpan.
The hatchet agent shouts, “The incident of malfeasance has been dealt with! Snail 79 has been injured! Bettors favoring snail 79 are disqualified!”
A few curses from the crowd, the sound of tickets ripping.
Number 79, foamy and puckered, is removed from the track and placed on the center podium, where an agent crushes it with a brick.
“We request your patience while the track is reset!”
79’s bettors are ushered from the arena. Elbow guy squeezes out through the crowd’s legs to find a medic. The rest of us wait and rub our foreheads and put hands on hips. Muttering.
The snails are put in the starting box. A trainee mists them with a spray bottle, and we cluster next to the gate.
In the tumult, my son appears at my side. Other bodies push me off-balance and my last toe strains to keep me up. I put an arm across my son’s shoulders, and he puts an arm across my back.
All hush. The gun fires, and the gate lifts.
52 starts to move.