The Race

June 25th, 2010

The Race
by Robert Scoville
©2007 Robert Scoville

“The odds are three to one, against.” The old man chewed his cigar, switching it from the left to the right side of his mouth. “That’s as high as anyone’ll go.” A lump of ash fell from the cigar, landing halfway down the royal-purple suit the man wore. “Better place your bets now, kid, or move on. I got other business too.”

“Put thirty on Windsor,” I told him. His wry glance told me I’d regret my choice. I pulled out my wallet. Inside I had a driver’s license, a picture of my sister and her kid, and two crisp twenty Real notes. I handed the orange and yellow bills over to the man. “Just thirty,” I said. He gave me a wounded look as he pulled out the red bill labeled “10 Reais” and handed it over. I waited; everyone knew you had to wait for a receipt. The man grinned, his cigar hanging narrowly by the edge of his mouth. I tried to look innocent. The man’s crumbling smile indicated I wasn’t doing a good job of it. But I got my receipt.

Finding a place to stand was hard; so many people were crowded into this little back room. It reeked of cheap kashasa; men carried large green jugs of the stuff, drinking deeply and staggering afterwards. Others had already collapsed to the floor, vomit, urine, and feces adding their stench to the ambiance. I chose my steps carefully. The faint lighting and considerable crowd made seeing the floor difficult at best. Most of the men were at least a head taller and twice as thick as me.

Finally I wedged myself between two large men, the gap barely wide enough for me to breathe in. I didn’t care. I was small; so long as I didn’t press too hard into either of them, they wouldn’t even notice me. The barricade dividing the track from the patrons reached barely above my waist, but a barbed cage protruding from the top of the wall, overhanging the track ensured no fool drunk would disrupt the race.

The energy of the crowd was overbearing. I wished they would sound the bell and release the rats. The cheeses were prepared, attached to the little mechanical arms that circled the track, always out of reach. At least four of the rats were there, but I couldn’t see in all of the cages. Windsor’s cage was still empty, that much I knew. I wondered how much longer it would take. I glanced at my wrist and saw my subtle tan line where my watch usually was. Hoping nobody saw my slip, I stood erect and motionless, watching the track.

A spot light flashed on directly above the track, shining intensely down on the track. The heat it produced struck me like a wave and rippled off the track. Sweat began glistening on my face and rolling down my cheeks. The acrid smell of alcohol, vomit and worse was now joined by a slight tinge of cheddar. The room grew silent.

A bell pealed. Eight small doors shot open, revealing a thin rat in each. No sooner had the doors opened than the crowd exploded in cheers, shouts and curses. The cheese wielding arms took off around the track, rats chasing closely after them. Their thin bodies, bred for speed and starved to desperation, deftly rounded each curve and endured each straightaway. Windsor held second place for the first three turns, then fell to third as a smaller rat overtook him. At least, I assumed it was a him. What kind of a name would Windsor be for a female rat?

On the third lap, Windsor overtook the second place rat and made good headway at overtaking the rat for first. I prayed silently that he would make it. Three to one isn’t the worst set of odds for winning, but it did pay well. The bell sounded again as the first place rat began its final lap. Windsor was still second, but only a nose behind the leader. My muscles tensed and I found my hands firmly gripping the railing. Two curves left. My heart pounded in my ears, resounding over the deafening cries of the mob. One curve left. Windsor was still second. I tried to breathe calmly. The final straightaway. Please, please! I probably screamed it, but even my thoughts were drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

Shots fired across the track in the crowd. Yelling turned to screams as inebriated patrons ran and stumbled away from a dozen uniformed policemen. Some of the larger men confronted the officers but were tazered or beaten with nightsticks. I stood in shock while the cops made their way around the track. Windsor had won.

There was a back way out. Everybody knew that, probably even the cops. It’d be blocked off. Maybe there’d even be an armored car backed into the doorway so escapees can just run right into the trailer and wait to be taken to jail. No, I couldn’t go out that way.

Chaos was in my favor, I decided, and my size. I crouched down, making myself as small as I could and awaited the cops. They came, driving the mob toward the back door, beating anyone to the floor who raised a hand to fight. Those who’d passed out were ignored. I half-shut my eyes and tried to mimic a drunken snooze. The officers passed by me. When the closest was only ten feet away, I leaped to my feet and sprinted for the door.

Voices commanded me to stop; footfalls echoed behind me. I got to the door. A cop grabbed my shoulder from behind. I dropped to the ground. He overran me tripping on my hunched body. With him sprawled on the floor, along with the filth and the booze, I dashed out the door.

The cool summer night shocked my system after that hot, sweat and filth filled air of the race room. I ran as fast as I could. There was shouting for a while. Then there was only the pattering of my feet on cobblestone pavement and my heart pounding and my heavy breathing. What luck I had. Windsor won and I’d escaped the police. Too bad I’d never collect on that bet money.

After a few minutes, the adrenaline wore off and I began to feel very cold. Holding my arms, I began the long, backstreet, trek home.

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