Franz Kafka, 'A Hunger Artist'
IN THE early days, before the press took him up, his outfit was pretty basic: tights and cape, plastic swim goggles and a bathing cap in the brightest shade of red he could find. The tights were red too, though they'd faded to pink in the thighs and calves and had begun to sag around the knees. He wore a pair of scuffed hightops - red, of course, and the cape, which looked as if it had last been used to line a trash can, was the color of poached salmon. He seemed to be in his thirties, though I never did find out how old he was, and he was thin, skinny, emaciated - so wasted you worried about his limbs dropping off. When he limped into the office that first afternoon, I didn't know what to think. If he brought an insect to mind, it was something spindly and frail - a daddy longlegs or one of those spidery things that scoot across the surface of the pool no matter how much chlorine the pool man dumps in.
'A gentleman here to see you,' Crystal sang through the intercom.
My guard was down. I was vulnerable. I admit it. Basking in the glow of my first success (ten percent of a walk-on for Bettina Buttons, a nasally infiected twelve-year-old with pushy parents, in a picture called Tyrannosaurus II - no lines, but she did manage a memorable screech) and bloated with a celebratory lunch, I was feeling magnanimous, large-spirited, and saintly. I hit the button on the intercom. 'Who is it?'
'Your name, sir?' I heard Crystal ask, and then, through the crackle of static, I heard him respond in the peculiar unmodulated rumble he associated with speech.
'Pardon?' Crystal said.
'La Mosca Humana,' he rumbled.
Crystal leaned into the intercom. 'Uh, I think he's Mexican or something.'
At that stage in my career, I had exactly three clients, all inherited from my predecessor The phone hadn't rung all morning and my next (and only) appointment, with Bettina's mother, grandmother, acting coach, and dietician, was at seven. 'Show him in,' I said grandly.
The door pushed open, and there he was. He drew himself up with as much dignity as you could expect from a grown man in a red bathing cap and pink tights, and hobbled into the office. I took in the cap, the cape, the hightops and tights, the slumped shoulders and fleshless limbs. He wore a blond mustache, droopy and unkempt, the left side of his face was badly bruised, and his nose looked as 'if it had been broken repeatedly - and recently. The fluorescent light glared off his goggles.
My first impulse was to call security - he looked like one of those panhandling freaks out on Hollywood Boulevard - but I resisted it. '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.
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 presenc 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, Tuxta, 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: MAN ARRESTED FOR SCALING ARCO TOWER.
I read the first lin '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 the authorities, defied death - my mind was doing backfiips; 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. 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 and Belize and Guatemala to the south. Now he wanted to be famous.
He moved fast. Two days after I'd agreed to represent him he made the eyewitness news on all three major networks when he suspended himself in a mesh bag from the twenty-second floor of the Sumitomo Building and refused to come down.
Terrific. The only problem was that he didn't bother to tell me about it. I was choking down a quick salad lunch - avocado and sprouts on a garlic-cheese croissant - already running late for an audition I'd set up for my harelipped comedian - when the phone rang. It was a Lieutenant Peachtree of the LAPD. 'Listen,' the lieutenant hissed, 'if this is a publicity stunt . . . ' and he trailed off, leaving the threat - heavy ire, the violation of penal codes, the arcane and merciless measures taken to deal with accessories - unspoken.
'The nutball up on the Sumitomo Building. Your client.'
Comprehension washed over me. My first thought was to deny the connection, but instead I found myself stammering, 'But, but how did you get my name?'
Terse and efficient, a living police report, Peachtree gave me the details. One of his men, hanging out of a window on the twenty-first floor, had pleaded with Zoltan to come down. 'I am the Human Fly,' Zoltan rumbled in response as the wind snapped and the traffic sizzled below, 'you want to talk to me, call my agent.'
'Twenty minutes,' Peachtree added, and his tone was as flat and unforgiving as the drop of a guillotine, 'I want you down here. Five minutes after that I want this clown in the back of the nearest patrol car - is that understood?'
It was. Perfectly. And twenty minutes later, with the help of an Officer Dientes, a screaming siren, and several hundred alert motorists who fell away from us on the freeway like swatted flies, I was taking the breeze on the twenty-first floor of the Sumitomo Building. Two of Peachtree's men gripped my legs and eased my torso out onto the slick grassy plane of the building's facade.
I was sick with fear. Before me lay the immensity of the city, its jaws and molars exposed. Above was the murky sky, half a dozen pigeons on a ledge, and Zoltan, bundled up like a sack of grapefruit and calmly perusing a paperback thriller. I choked back the remains of the croissant and cleared my throat. 'Zoltan]' I shouted, the wind snatching the words from my lips and flinging them away. 'Zoltan, what are you doing up there?'
There was a movement from the bag above me, Zoltan stirring himself like a great leathery fruit bat unfolding its wings, and then his skinny legs and outsized feet emerged from their confinement as the bag swayed gently in the breeze. He peered down at me, the goggles aflame with the sun, and gave me a sour look. 'You're supposed to be my agent, and you have to ask me that?'
'It's a stunt, then - is that it?' I shouted.
He turned his face away, and the glare of the goggles died. He wouldn't answer me. Behind me, I could hear Peachtree's crisp, efficient tones: 'Tell him he's going to jail.'
'They're going to lock you up. They're not kidding.'
For a long moment, he didn't respond. Then the goggles caught the sun again and he turned to me. 'I want the TV people, Tricia Toyota, 'Action News,'the works.'
Zoltan was unimpressed. 'TV,' he rumbled into the wind, 'or I stay here till you see the white of my bone.'
I believed him.
As it turned out, he stayed there, aloft, for two weeks. And for some reason - because he was intractable, absurd, mad beyond hope or redemption - the press couldn't get enough of it. TV included. How he passed the time, what he ate, how he relieved himself, no one knew.
Finally, after the two weeks were u two weeks during which my phone never stopped ringing, by the way - he decided to come down. Did he climb in the nearest window and take the elevator? No, not Zoltan. He backed down, inch by inch, uncannily turning up finger- and toe-holds where none existed. He sprang the last fifteen feet to the ground, tumbled like a sky diver, and came up in the grip of a dozen policemen. There was a barricade up, streets were blocked, hundreds of spectators had gathered. As they were hustling him to a patrol car, the media people converged on him. Was it a protest? they wanted to know. A hunger strike? What did it mean?
He turned to them, the goggles steamed over, pigeon feathers and flecks of airborne debris clinging to his cape. His legs were like sticks, his face nearly black with sun and soot. 'I want to be famous,' he said.
'A DC 10?'
Zoltan nodded. 'The bigger, the better,' he rumbled.
It was the day after he'd decamped from the face of the Sumitomo Building and we were in my office, discussing the next project. (I'd bailed him out myself, though the figure was right up there with what you'd expect for a serial killer.) Zoltan was wearing the outfit I'd had specially made for him: new tights, a black silk cape without a wrinkle in it, a pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes in red and black, and most important of all, a red leather aviator's cap and goggles. Now he looked less like a geriatric at a health spa and more like the sort of fearless daredevil/superhero the public could relate to.
'But Zoltan,' I pleaded, 'those things go five hundred miles an hour. You'd be ripped to pieces. Climbing buildings is one thing, but this is insane. It's suicidal.'
He was slouched in the chair, one skinny leg thrown over the other. 'The Human Fly can survive anything,' he droned in his lifeless voice. He was staring at the floor, and now he lifted his head. 'Besides, you think the public have any respect for me if I don't lay it all on line?'
He had a point. But strapping yourself to the wing of a DC 10 made about as much sense as taking lunch at a sidewalk cafe' in Beirut. 'Okay,' I said, 'you're right. But you've got to draw the line somewhere. What good's it going to do you to be famous if you're dead?'
'I mean already, just with the Sumitomo thing, I can book you on half the talk shows in the country.
He rose shakily to his feet, lifted his hand, and let it drop. Two weeks on the face of the Sumitomo Building with no apparent source of nourishment hadn't done him any good. If he was skinny before, he was nothing now - a shadow, a ghost, a pair of tights stuffed with straw. 'Set it up,' he rumbled, the words riding up out of the depths of his sunken abdomen, 'I talk when I got something to talk about.'
It took me a week. I called every airline in the directory, listened to a lifetime's worth of holding jingles, and talked to everyone from the forklift operator at KLM to the president and CEO of Texas Air. I was met by scorn, hostility, disbelief, and naked contempt. Finally I got hold of the schedules manager of Aero Masoquisto, the Ecuadorian national airline. It was going to cost me, he said, but he could hold up the regular weekly flight to Quito for a few hours while Zoltan strapped himself to the wing and took a couple passes round the airport. He suggested an airstrip outside Tijuana, where the officials would look the other way. For a price, of course.
I went to Sol again. I was prepared to press my forehead to the floor, shine his shoes, anything - but he surprised me. 'I'll front the money,' he rasped, his voice ruined from forty years of whispering into the telephone, 'no problem.' Sol was seventy, looked fifty, and he'd had his own table in the Polo Lounge since before I was born. 'If he bags it,' he said, his voice as dry as a husk, 'we got the rights to his life story and we'll do a paperback/miniseries/action-figure tie-in. Just get him to sign this, that's all.' He slid a contract across the table. 'And if he makes it, which I doubt - I mean I've seen some crazies in my time, but this guy is something els if he makes it, we'll have a million and a half offers for him. Either way, we make out, right?'
'Right,' I said, but I was thinking of Zoltan, his brittle limbs pressed to the unyielding metal, the terrible pull of the G-forces, and the cyclonic blast of the wind. What chance did he have?
Sol cleared his throat, shook a few lozenges into his fist, and rattled them like dice. 'Your job,' he said, 'is to make sure the press shows up. No sense in this nimrod bagging it for nothing, right?'
I felt something clench in my gut.
Sol repeated himself, 'Right?'
'Right,' I said.
Zoltan was in full regalia as we boarded the plane at LAX, along with a handful of reporters and photographers and a hundred grim-looking Ecuadorians with plastic bags full of disposable diapers, cosmetics, and penlight batteries. The plan was for the pilot to announce a minor problem - a clogged air-conditioning vent or a broken handle in the flush toilet; we didn't want to panic anybody - and an unscheduled stop to repair it. Once on the ground, the passengers would be asked to disembark and we'd offer them free drinks in the spacious terminal while the plane taxied out of sight and Zoltan did his thing.
Problem was, there was no terminal. The landing strip looked as if it had been bombed during the Mexican Revolution, it was a hundred degrees inside the airplane and 120 out on the asphalt, and all I could see was heat haze and prickly - pear cactus. 'What do you want to do?' I asked Zoltan.
Zoltan turned to me, already fumbling with his chin strap. 'It's perfect,' he whispered, and then he was out in the aisle, waving his arms and whistling for the passengers' attention. When they quieted down, he spoke to them in Spanish, the words coming so fast you might have thought he was a Mexican disk jockey, his voice riding on a current of emotion he never approached in English. I don't know what he said - he could have been exhorting them to hijack the plane, for all I knew - but the effect was dramatic. When he finished, they rose to their feet and cheered.
With a flourish, Zoltan threw open the emergency exit over the wing and began his preparations. Flashbulbs popped, reporters hung out the door and shouted questions at him. Had this ever been attempted before? Did he have his will made out? How high was he planning to go? - and the passengers pressed their faces to the windows. I'd brought along a TV crew to capture the death-defying feat for syndication, and they set up one camera on the ground while the other shot through the window.
Zoltan didn't waste any time. He buckled what looked like a huge leather truss around the girth of the wing, strapped himself into the pouch attached to it, tightened his chin strap a final time, and then gave me the thumbs-up sign. My heart was hammering. A dry wind breathed through the open window. The heat was like a fist in my face. 'You're sure you want to go through with this?' I yelled.
'One hundred percent, A-OK,' Zoltan shouted, grinning as the reporters crowded round me in the narrow passageway. Then the pilot said something in Spanish and the ffight attendants pulled the window shut, fastened the bolts, and told us to take our seats. A moment later the big engines roared to life and we were hurtling down the runway. I could barely stand to look. At best, I consider flying an unavoidable necessity, a time to resurrect forgotten prayers and contemplate the end of all joy in a twisted howling heap of machinery; at worst, I rank it right up there with psychotic episodes and torture at the hands of malevolent strangers. I felt the wheels lift off, heard a shout from the passengers, and there he was - Zoltan linging to the trembling thunderous wing like a second coat of paint.
It was a heady moment, transcendent, the cameras whirring, the passengers cheering, Zoltan's greatness a part of us all. This was an event, a once-in-a-lifetime thing, like watching Hank Aaron stroke his seven hundred fifteenth homer or Neil Armstrong step out onto the surface of the moon. We forgot the heat, forgot the roar of the engines, forgot ourselves. He's doing it, I thought, he's actually doing it. And I truly think he would have pulled it off, if - well, it was one of those things no one could have foreseen. Bad luck, that's all.
What happened was this: just as the pilot was coming in for his final approach, a big black bird - a buzzard, somebody said - loomed up out of nowhere and slammed into Zoltan with a thump that reverberated throughout the plane. The whole thing took maybe half a second. This black bundle appears, there's a thump, and next thing Zoltan's goggles are gone and he's covered from head to toe in raw meat and feathers.
A gasp went through the cabin. Babies began to mewl, grown men burst into tears, a nun fainted. My eyes were riveted on Zoltan. He lay limp in his truss while the hot air sliced over the wing and the jagged yellow mountains, the prickly pear, and the pocked landing strip rushed past him like the backdrop of an old movie. The plane was still rolling when we threw open the emergency exit and staggered out onto the wing. The copilot was ahead of me, a reporter on my heels. 'Zoltan]' I cried, scared and sick and trembling. 'Zoltan, are you all right?'
There was no answer. Zoltan's head lolled against the fiat hard surface of the wing and his eyes were closed, sunk deep behind the wrinkled flaps of his lids. There was blood everywhere. I bent to tear at the straps of the aviator's cap, my mind racing, thinking alternately of mouth-to-mouth and the medical team I should have thought to bring along, when an urgent voice spoke at my back. 'Perd6neme, perd6neme, I yarn a doaktor.'
One of the passengers, a wizened little man in Mickey Mouse T-shirt and Bermudas, knelt over Zoltan, shoving back his eyelids and feeling for his pulse. There were shouts behind me. The wing was as hot as the surface of a frying pan. 'Jes, I yarn getting a pulse,' the doctor announced and then Zoltan winked open an eye. 'Hey,' he rumbled, 'am I famous yet?'
Zoltan was right: the airplane stunt fired the imagination of the country. The wire services picked it up, the news magazines ran stories - there was even a bit on the CBS evening news. A week later the National Engulrer was calling him the reincarnation of Houdini and the Star was speculating about his love life. I booked him on the talk-show circuit, and while he might not have had much to say, he just about oozed charisma. He appeared on the Carson show in his trademark outfit, goggles and a]], limping and with his arm in a sling (he'd suffered a minor concussion, a shoulder separation, and a fractured kneecap when the bird hit him). Johnny asked him what it was like out there on the wing and Zoltan said: 'Loud.' And what was it like spending two weeks on the face of the Sumitomo Building? 'Boring,' Zoltan rumbled. But Carson segued into a couple of airline jokes ('Have you heard the new slogan for China Airlines?' Pause. 'You've seen us drive, now watch us fly') and the audience ate it up. Offers poured in from promoters, producers, book editors, and toy manufacturers. I was able to book David Mugillo, my harelipped comedian, on Zoltan's coattails, and when we did the Carson show we got Bettina Buttons on for three minutes of nasal simpering about Tyrn nosaurus II and how educational an experience it was for her to work with such a sensitive and caring director as so-and-so.
Zoltan had arrived.
A week after his triumph on 'The Tonight Show' he hobbled into the office, the cape stained and torn, tights gone in the knees. He brought a distinctive smell with him - the smell of pissed-over gutters and fermenting dumpsters - and for the first time I began to understand why he'd never given me an address or a phone number. ('You want me,' he said, 'leave a message with Ram6n at Jiffy Cleaners.') All at once I had a vision of him slinging his grapefruit sack from the nearest drainpipe and curling up for the night. 'Zoltan,' I said, 'are you okay? You need some cash? A place to stay?'
He sat heavily in the chair across from me. Behind him, on the wall, was an oil painting of an open window, a gift from Mu's bass player. Zoltan waved me off. Then, with a weary gesture, he reached up and removed the cap and goggles. I was shocked. His hair was practically gone and his face was as seamed and scarred as an old hockey puck. He looked about a hundred and twelve. He said nothing.
'Well,' I said, to break the silence, 'you got your wish. You made it.,' I lifted a stack of correspondence from the desk and waved it at him. 'You're famous.'
Zoltan turned his head and spat on the floor. 'Famous,' he mocked. 'Fidel Castro is famous. Irving Berlin. Eve] Knievel.' His rumble had turned bitter. 'Peterbilt,' he said suddenly.
This last took me by surprise. I'd been thinking of consolatory platitudes, and all I could do was echo him weakly: 'Peterbilt?'
'I want the biggest rig going. The loudest, the dirtiest.'
I wasn't following him.
'Maine to LA,' he rumbled.
'You're going to drive it?'
He stood shakily, fought his way back into the cap, and lowered the goggles. 'Shit,' he spat, 'I ride the axle.'
I tried to talk him out of it. 'Think of the fumes, ' I said, 'the road hazards. Potholes, dead dogs, mufflers. You'll be two feet off the pavement, going seventy-five, eighty miles an hour. Christ, a cardboard box']] tear you apart.'
He wouldn't listen. Not only was he going through with it, but he wanted to coordinate it so that he ended up in Pasadena, for the swap meet at the Rose Bowl. There he would emerge from beneath the truck, wheel a motorcycle out of the back, roar up a ramp, and sail over twenty-six big rigs lined up fender to fender in the middle of the parking lot.
I asked So] about it. Advance contracts had already made back the money he'd laid out for the airplane thing ten times over. And now we could line up backers. 'Get him to wear a Pirelli patch on his cape,' So] rasped, 'it's money in the bank.'
Easy for So] to say, but I was having problems with the whole business. This wasn't a plastic dinosaur on a movie lot or a stinko audience at the Improv, this was flesh and blood we were talking about here, a human life. Zoltan wasn't healthy - in mind or body. The risks he took weren't healthy. His ambition wasn't healthy. And if I went along with him, I was no better than So], a mercenary, a huckster who'd watch a man die for ten percent of the action. For a day or two I stayed away from the office, brooding around the kitchen in my slippers. In the end, though, I talked myself into it - Zoltan was going to do it with or without me. And who knew what kind of bloodsucker he'd wind up with next?
I hired a PR firm, got a major trucking company to carry him for the goodwill and free publicity, and told myself it was for the best. I'd ride in the cab with the driver, keep him awake, watch over Zoltan personally. And of course I didn't know how it was going to turn out - Zoltan was amazing, and if anyone could pull it off, he could - and I thought of the Sumitomo Building and Aero Masoquisto and hoped for the best.
We left Bangor in a cold drizzle on a morning that could have served as the backdrop for a low-budget horror picture: full-bellied clouds, gloom, mist, nose-running cold. By the time we reached Portland the drizzle had begun to crust on the windshield wipers; before we reached New Hampshire it was sleet. The driver was an American Indian by the name of Mink - no middle name, no surname, just Mink. He weighed close to five hundred pounds and he wore his hair in a single braided coil that hung to his belt loops in back. The other driver, whose name was Steve, was asleep in the compartment behind the cab. 'Listen, Mink,' I said, the windshield wipers beating methodically at the crust, tires hissing beneath us, 'maybe you should pull over so we can check on Zoltan.'
Mink shifted his enormous bulk in the seat. 'What, the Fly?' he said. 'No sweat. That guy is like amazing. I seen that thing with the airplane. He can survive that, he's got no problem with this rig - long's I don't hit nothin.
The words were barely out of his mouth when an animal - a huge brown thing like a cow on stilts - materialized out of the mist. Startled, Mink jerked the wheel, the truck went into a skid, there was a jolt like an earthquake, and the cow on stilts was gone, sucked under the front bumper like a scrap of food sucked down a drain. When we finally came to a stop a hundred yards up the road, the trailer was perpendicular to the cab and Mink's hands were locked to the wheel.
'What happened?' I said.
'Moose,' Mink breathed, adding a soft breathless curse. 'We hit a fuckin' moose.'
In the next instant I was down and out of the cab, racing the length of the trailer, and shouting Zoltan's name. Earlier, in the cold dawn of Bangor, I'd watched him stretch out his mesh bag and suspend it like a trampoline from the trailer's undercarriage, just ahead of the rear wheels. He'd waved to the reporters gathered in the drizzle, ducked beneath the trailer, and climbed into the bag. Now, my heart banging, I wondered what a moose might have done to so tenuous an arrangement. 'Zoltan]' I shouted, going down on my knees to peer into the gloom beneath the trailer.
There was no moose. Zoltan's cocoon was still intact, and so was he. He was lying there on his side, a thin fetal lump rounding out of the steel and grime. 'What?' he rumbled.
I asked him the question I always seemed to be asking him: was he all right?
It took him a moment - he was working his hand fre and then he gave me the thumbs-up sign. 'A-OK,' he said.
The rest of the trip - through the icy Midwest, the wind-torn Rockies, and the scorching strip between Tucson and Cila Bend - was uneventful. For me, anyway. I alternately slept, ate truckstop fare designed to remove the lining of your stomach, and listened to Mink or Stev their conversation was interchangeab - rhapsodize about Harleys, IROC Camaros, and women who went down on all fours and had 'Truckers' Delite' tattooed across their buttocks. For Zoltan, it was business as usual. If he suffered from the cold, the heat, the tumbleweeds, beer cans, and fast-food containers that ricocheted off his poor lean scrag of a body day and night, he never mentioned it. True to form, he refused food and drink, though I suspected he must have had something concealed in his cape, and he never climbed down out of his cocoon, not even to move his bowels. Three days and three nights after we'd left Maine, we wheeled the big rig through the streets of Pasadena and into the parking lot outside the Rose Bowl, right on schedule.
There was a fair-sized crowd gathered, though there was no telling whether they'd come for the swap meet, the heavy-metal band we'd hired to give some punch to Zoltan's performance, or the stunt itself, but then who cared? They were there. As were the 'Action News' team, the souvenir hawkers and hot-dog vendors. Grunting, his face beaded with sweat, Mink guided the truck into place alongside the twenty-five others, straining to get it as close as possible: an inch could mean the difference between life and death for Zoltan, and we all knew it,
I led a knot of cameramen to the rear of the truck so they could get some tape of Zoltan crawling out of his grapefruit bag. When they were all gathered, he stirred himself, shaking off the froth of insects and road grime, the scraps of paper and cellophane, placing first one bony foot and then the other on the pavement. His eyes were feverish behind the lenses of the goggles and when he lurched out from under the truck I had to catch his arm to prevent him from falling. 'So how does it feel to conquer the roadways?' asked a microphone-jabbing reporter with moussed hair and flawless teeth. 'What was the worst moment?' asked another.
Zoltan's legs were rubber. He reeked of diesel fuel, his cape was in tatters, his face smeared with sweat and grease. 'Twenty-six truck,' he rumbled. 'The Human Fly is invincible.'
And then the band started in - smokebombs, megadecibels, subhuman screeches, the works - and I led Zoltan to his dressing room. He refused a shower, but allowed the makeup girl to sponge off his face and hands. We had to cut the old outfit off of him - he was too exhausted to undress himself - and then the girl helped him into the brand - new one I'd provided for the occasion. 'Twenty-six truck,' he kept mumbling to himself, 'A-OK.'
I wanted him to call it off. I did. He wasn't in his right mind, anybody could see that. And he was exhausted, beat, as starved and helpless as a refugee. He wouldn't hear of it. 'Twenty-six truck,' he rumbled, and when I put through a frantic last-minute call to Sol, Sol nearly swallowed the phone. 'Damn straight he's going for it]' he shouted. 'We got sponsors lined up here. ABC Sports wants to see the tape, for christsake.' There was an outraged silence punctuated by the click of throat lozenges, and then Sol cut the connection.
Ultimately, Zoltan went for it. Mink threw open the trailer door, Zoltan fired up the motorcycl a specially modified Harley Sportster with gas shocks and a bored engin and one of our people signaled the band to cut it short. The effect was dynamic, the band cutting back suddenly to a punchy drum-and-bass thing and the growl of the big bike coming on in counterpoint . . . and then Zoltan sprang from the back of the trailer, his cape stiff with the breeze, goggles flashing, tires squealing. He made three circuits of the lot, coming in close on the line of trucks, dodging away from the ramp, hunched low and flapping over the handlebars. Every eye was on him. Suddenly he raised a bony fist in the air, swerved wide of the trucks in a great arcing loop that took him to the far end of the lot, and made a run for the ramp.
He was a blur, he was nothing, he was invisible, a rush of motion above the scream of the engine. I saw something - a shadow - launch itself into the thick brown air, cab after cab receding beneath it, the glint of chrome in the sun, fifteen trucks, twenty, twenty-five, and then the sight that haunts me to this day. Suddenly the shadow was gone and a blemish appeared on the broad side panel of the last truck, the one we d taken across country, Mink's truck, and then, simultaneous with it, there was the noise. A single booming reverberation, as if the world's biggest drum had exploded, followed by the abrupt cessation of the motorcycle's roar and the sad tumbling clatter of dissociated metal.
We had medical help this time, of course, the best available: paramedics, trauma teams, ambulances. None of it did any good. When I pushed through the circle of people around him, Zoltan was lying there on the pavement like a bundle of broken twigs. The cape was twisted round his neck, and his limbs - the sorry fieshless sticks of his arms and legs - were skewed like a doll's. I bent over him as the paramedics brought up the stretcher. 'Twenty-five truck next time,' he whispered, 'promise me.' There was blood in his ears, his nostrils, his eye sockets. 'Yes,' I said, 'yes. Twenty-five.'
'No worries,' he choked as they slid the stretcher under him, 'the Human Fly. . . can survive . . . anything. '
We buried him three days later.
It was a lonely affair, as funerals go. The uncle, a man in his seventies with the sad scrawl of time on his face, was the only mourner. The press stayed away, though the videotape of Zoltan's finale was shown repeatedly over the air and the freeze-frame photos appeared in half the newspapers in the country. I was shaken by the whole thing. Sol gave me a week off and I did some real soul-searching. For a while I thought of giving up the entertainment business altogether, but I was pulled back into it despite myself. Everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of Zoltan. And as I sat down to sort through the letters, telegrams, and urgent callback messages, the phone ringing unceasingly, the sun flooding the windows of my new well-appointed and highflown office, I began to realise that I owed it to Zoltan to pursue them. This was what he'd wanted, after all.
We settled finally on an animated series, with the usual tie-ins. I knew the producer - Sol couldn't say enough about him - and I knew he'd do quality work. Sure enough, the show premiered number one in its timeslot and it's been there ever since. Sometimes I'll get up early on a Saturday morning just to tune in, to watch the jerky figures move against a back-drop of greed and corruption, the Human Fly ascendant, incorruptible, climbing hand over hand to the top.