As the anticonvulsant, antidepressant, and anti-inflammatory cocktail hammered through my bloodstream, I felt my facial muscles gradually unstiffen from their disbelieving grimace. Sleep, the voices around me said, at least for the first week or so. It’s easier.
If they’d offered me a lifetime, I’d have taken it. Better that than asking how I came to be in the Bronx Veterans Hospital. But I asked anyway. You would too. You’d want the full report.
The ward leader got on the horn to my platoon leader, who explained about the buried fragmentation mine left over from the previous war. She said the point man should’ve paid closer attention to the track and that she’d demoted him. She was so sorry, promised to look me up as soon as she got stateside, and –
I did her the courtesy of hanging up before replying.
The staff assumed I’d turned inward, a common reaction. Even so, anyone who tried to draw me out soon learned that my disability wasn’t oral. I remember a newly-qualified, newly-hired, newly-sired occupational therapist. There’s no such thing as disability, was his mantra. Visualize alter-mobility.
I freely volunteered my opinion of him, his advice, his ancestral line, and whichever luckless woman might carry his progeny. Then I threw my meds in the bedpan and said I’d take the first two-wheeler out of there.
Rezemblants. You’ve seen the corporate advertisements, but I bet you haven’t seen the price tag. A nurse whispered that the military had done its calculations: increased veteran depression rates + sympathetic publicity > the cost of top-of-the-line prostheses.
Look here. Don’t be shy. These things have fail-safe suction sockets, shock-proof electrojoints, micro-stabilizers, the works. See the solar panels? Don’t bother trying. They auto-tone to the wearer’s skin color. Fact is, you’d never know I was wearing them.
I was told there was a chance my motor system would reject them, but a growing collection of bedside greeting cards assuaged my concerns:
You’re making strides!
When you see me, you’re walking on air!
You calling me a double-amputee? Step outside!
I liked the last one most. Plenty of Hooah. Before, I had been morbidly sedentary but now they couldn’t get me to lie down. Take it easy, they cautioned, let the new biomechanics take hold. But they smiled as they said this, pleased at my progress, and it wasn’t long before my name was on every hospital day trip.
One morning, a nurse sidled up. Did I like horse races? How about going to Saratoga Springs? Change of scene, right?
It wasn’t a change of scene. It was an epiphany.
The concentrated vigor of the horses, the thundering locomotion of their hooves, the gusty outbreaths of their exertions all left me spellbound. Coiled springs in organic form, they took the last vestiges of my depression and pounded it into the turf.
I joined the ranks of the newly converted, for whom the sound of the starting bell, the smell of oaten hay, and the 40 mph speeds of a final dash are narcotics. Betting didn’t interest me, but I did buy a fancy hat. Only when the fragility of horse tendons declared themselves was I brought up short. A fall would happen, followed by crunched-up bone, then a needle and a crashing stillness. No veterans hospital awaited them.
Could I enter this world? Without connections, I couldn’t be a trainer; without youth, I couldn’t apprentice; without money, I couldn’t own a haystack. Fortunately, the racetrack-loving nurse had a few ideas. She suggested I retrain as an equine therapist.
The military sponsored my studies and, a year later, I was easing swollen pasterns and fractured metacarpals back into condition, my ears alert to pained horse squeals and worried human conversations. I thought I was on the home straight.
Evidently, losing my legs hadn’t cured me of hubris.
The veterinarian’s gazette was first to break the news: Rezemblant had brought out a line of equine prostheses, as indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood anatomy as mine were for me.
Quick off the mark, The Jockey Club teamed up with the Horseracing Authority to keep ‘synthetics’ off the racetrack. The ban was swift, immediate, and all-compassing.
They had their reasons. Good ones, too. But the industry changed, nonetheless. For one thing, in-chase fouling increased dramatically. Whereas previously jockeys had courteously done their best to avoid inflicting fatal injuries on a competitor’s mount, they now knew the consequences wouldn’t mean death, merely a permanent and bloody retirement.
Racetracks turned from green to red and when I heard of illegal bets being placed on which horse would ‘get kneecapped in the next one’ it was more than I could take.
I started dieting. My breakfast was tea, my lunch was air, and for dinner I had soup with a few lentils at the bottom. In the stalls, the horses shot sideways glances at my always-growling stomach.
The pounds fell away, but I still needed saunas to get them below the 126 limit. In private, my wife and once-upon-a-time nurse advised me to forget all about it, that at my age and height nobody would back me. She was right too. In principle. But a grateful client with shares in Rezemblant offered me a onetime champion, renamed, regroomed, and remobilized after a hoof amputation.
As total nobodies, the two of us slipped in.
Believe me, I didn’t mean to mess up your derby. I wish I could talk with that jockey who was tailing me, but I guess he’s still sore about it. He saw me as an interloper, a cyborg jockey on a cyborg horse.
Of course, he got the purse after my disqualification. But I got something too: your attention. Now you’ve got a choice. Overturn the ban and open next year’s races to para-equids alongside fully intact ones, or watch the money disappear as touts, bettors, and buyers migrate to Rezemblant-only races with no fouling. Take the afternoon off and think about it. Think hard. Visualize alter-mobility.
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