If the River Was Whiskey

If the River Was Whiskey by T.C. Boyle

Book: If the River Was Whiskey by T.C. Boyle Read Free Book Online
Authors: T.C. Boyle
shooting three-pointers into the wastebasket. I nodded. He nodded back. “So,” I said, “what can I do for you, Mr., ah—?”
    “Mosca,” he rumbled, the syllables thick and muffled, as if he were trying to speak and clear his throat at the same time. “La Mosca Humana.”
    “The Human Fly, right?” I said, dredging up my high-school Spanish.
    He looked down at the desk and then fixed his eyes on mine. “I want to be famous,” he said.
    How he found his way to my office, I’ll never know. I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t somebody’s idea of a joke. In those days, I was nothing—I had less seniority than the guy who ran the Xerox machine—and my office was the smallest and farthest from the door of any in the agency. I was expected to get by with two phone lines, one secretary, and a workspace not much bigger than a couple of good-sized refrigerator boxes. There were no Utrillos or Demuths on my walls. I didn’t even have a window.
    I understood that the man hovering over my desk was a nut case, but there was more to it than that. I could see that he had something—a dignity, a sad elemental presence—that gave the lie to his silly outfit. I felt uneasy under his gaze. “Don’t we all,” I said.
    “No, no,” he insisted, “you don’t understand,” and he pulled a battered manila envelope from the folds of his cape. “Here,” he said, “look.”
    The envelope contained his press clippings, a good handful of them, yellowed and crumbling, bleached of print. All but one were in Spanish. I adjusted the desk lamp, squinted hard. The datelines were from places like Chetumal, Tuxtla, Hidalgo, Tehuantepec. As best I could make out, he’d been part of a Mexican circus. The sole clipping in English was from the “Metro” section of the
Los Angeles Times:
    I read the first line—“A man known only as ‘The Human Fly’”—and I was hooked. What a concept:
a man known only as the Human Fly
! It was priceless. Reading on, I began to see him in a new light: the costume, the limp, the bruises. This was a man who’d climbed twenty stories with nothing more than a couple pieces of rope and his fingernails. A man who defied theauthorities, defied death—my mind was doing backflips; we could run with this one, oh, yes, indeed. Forget your Rambos and Conans, this guy was the real thing.
    “Five billion of us monkey on the planet,” he said in his choked, moribund tones, “I want to make my mark.”
    I looked up in awe. I saw him on Carson, Letterman, grappling his way to the top of the Bonaventure Hotel, hurtling Niagara in a barrel, starring in his own series. I tried to calm myself. “Uh, your face,” I said, and I made a broad gesture that took in the peach-colored bruise, the ravaged nose and stiffened leg, “what happened?”
    For the first time, he smiled. His teeth were stained and ragged; his eyes flared behind the cracked plastic lenses of the goggles. “An accident,” he said.
    As it turned out, he wasn’t Mexican at all—he was Hungarian. I saw my mistake when he peeled back the goggles and bathing cap. A fine band of skin as blanched and waxen as the cap of a mushroom outlined his ears, his hairline, the back of his neck, dead-white against the sun-burnished oval of his face. His eyes were a pale watery blue and the hair beneath the cap was as wispy and colorless as the strands of his mustache. His name was Zoltan Mindszenty, and he’d come to Los Angeles to live with his uncle when the Russian tanks rolled through Budapest in 1956. He’d learned English, Spanish, and baseball, practiced fire-eating and tightrope-walking in his spare time, graduated at the top of his high-school class, and operated a forklift in a cannery that produced refried beans and cactus salad. At the age of nineteen he joined the Quesadilla Brothers’ Circus and saw the world. Or at least that part of it bounded by California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to the north

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