Updated: Aug 1, 2021
“ Caesar looked up at me, opened up his cheeks, and vomited sunflower seeds onto my hand. He wasn’t well. I panicked. I had counted on him to bring home the trophy Grants had promised the winner..."
I saw the poster on the wall of the pet department at Grants Department Store and I gasped. The Hamster 500 Races. The question for me wasn’t if I would enter, but which of my many hamsters I would choose to compete. My brother had recently married and moved out of our house as I turned ten, and I filled his former bedroom with hamster cages and aquariums full of guinea pigs. I sometimes mated the guinea pigs, coming up with new hair lengths and what I thought were exotic color combinations in babies, which I then sold to the local pet store for four dollars each. The guinea pigs gave me the most joy, as they were cuddly and made a cooing sound if you rubbed them under the chin. As you held them tightly, they would push their heads into you and squeal with excitement, and it was the kind of affection I craved, the only kind I could find that didn’t come with the anticipation of pain. The hamsters were fun to watch and lived in orange Habitrail cages, which you could add onto with clear walk-through pipes and connectors, creating a labyrinth of colorful plastic architecture. I named each new pet myself, and kept a 3x 5 card file with their birthdays and notes about their personalities. So when I saw this racing contest I knew I was destined to enter. Each hamster would be put into a clear plastic ball, and they would all launch at once down a long table to the finish line. The day of the race, I opened the cage door to pick up Caesar, my biggest and friendliest male. He had hours of experience running around our living room in a plastic ball, and I figured him a sure champion. Caesar looked up at me, opened up his cheeks, and vomited sunflower seeds onto my hand. He wasn’t well. I panicked. I had counted on him to bring home the trophy Grants had promised the winner, a deluxe aquarium and cover perfect for my next small friend. I went from cage to cage. Julia, with her silky long hair, was lazy and sometimes nipped at me. Scarlett, although fast on her paws, had just killed Rhett, when he had tried to mount her, my mother screaming and covering the remains from my eyes as she explained why sometimes mating can go terribly wrong. That left one other male, Spartacus, short white hair with black speckles, who was somewhat aloof and unpredictable, wanting to be held one minute then running away the next. I had no choice. We got to Grants pet department and they had taken down one aisle of dog food to put up a wooden table with painted racing stripes down the center. A woman with a clipboard approached me, and I lied and told her this was Caesar, as I had signed him up days before knowing he would be too sick to compete. I put Spartacus into a ball and held it firmly to the table. The other kids did the same. We waited. He went crazy with anticipation, pushing against the plastic as if trying to escape. The whistle blew. We dropped the balls. They rolled in every direction, banging into each other and against the side walls of the table. I held my breath. Spartacus stood on his hind legs and jumped, turning his ball around in a circle and straight for the finish line, leaving the other rodents behind. Across the line he went, and cheers from the gathering crowd went up and out into the nearby patio furniture department. ”Oh my god, he won!” I yelled to my mom, and then I must have had a look of fear cross my face as the clipboard woman walked toward me with the first place aquarium, wrapped in a bright ribbon. My mom leaned over to my ear, and put her arm around my shoulder. ”Honey, she doesn’t know it’s not Caesar,” she said, and I reached out to get my prize.