El Gaucho has the Flu
–Guy Levesque, Esquire June 1988
el Gaucho bites off a length of black athletic tape tethered to his massive forearm and spits out remnants that have clung to his teeth. The CWA’s Transcontinental Champion tapes up while sitting on the floor of a Madison Square Garden locker room, banging his masked head against a cinder block wall to the beat of a song blasting on his Walkman.
It’s a quarter to nine, fifteen minutes until the Continental Wrestling Alliance’s flagship television show, Tuesday Night Demolition, is set to air. CWA owner and television announcer “Smilin’” Joe Spiceland has already popped his head in the locker room twice, both times making a point of asking El Gaucho how he’s feeling before rushing off to another destination. Presumably there are quite a few people Smilin’ Joe will be visiting with tonight—fellow promoters, dignitaries, sponsors, television network executives. It’s a big night for the Chicago-based wrestling promotion. Not only is tonight its first telecast from MSG, it’s also the company’s first booking in the city of New York proper. It’s the first time the CWA has been able to book the Garden.
A photographer from Three Count and I are the only members of the press in the locker room. The photographer jokes with some of the wrestlers about last week’s show in Cleveland (apparently there was a streaker), while I take notes on El Gaucho.
In April, CWA topped Global Wrestling Federation in Nielsen ratings—a first since the promotions began airing television shows head-to-head. Recently Smilin’ Joe Spiceland and GWF owner, Mike O’Malley Jr. traded jabs in the papers, with O’Malley Jr. dismissing Spiceland as a Chicago Gangster and Spiceland referring to the O’Malley family as a “dynasty of sideshow hucksters and two-bit carneys.” If this is the biggest night for the “Bush League,” as O’Malley Jr. likes to call the CWA, I can hardly tell by looking at El Gaucho.
His eyes are closed, his massive body remarkably at ease. If it weren’t for the slamming of his head in 4/4 time against the wall, I’d think he was asleep. It’s an oddly serene scene that comes to an end when the third-year CWA superstar lets out a baritone moan, a moan that emanates from some place deep within the hulk of a man. It’s a moan that conveys impatience more than suffering. He blows out three quick breaths, scoops a Dixie cup full of ice shavings from a plastic bag, and chomps down on it the way a child would devour a snow cone. He chews for a moment and spits the chips back in the cup, pulls his mask up over his mouth and vomits into a plastic bucket.
When he’s finished, El Gaucho rips off his headphones in one swift, violent motion—not unlike the same one he uses when applying his famous Bolas Tie submission hold—and the “Angry Vigilante” hurls his Walkman across the locker room. The tape player explodes against cinder block and shatters into a hundred pieces. The rest of the boys in the locker room are silent; none bother to look up. They understand that it’s better to let the superstar be when he’s in one of his moods.
Tonight it’s not another wrestler who’s gotten under his skin, but rather, a bug. El Gaucho—a man who’s wrestled matches with cracked ribs, concussions, even a broken leg—is on the verge of being sidelined by something most people would simply shrug off and call in sick for a day to nap and sip ginger ale.
El Gaucho has the flu.
When you are heir apparent to the legendary World Heavyweight Champion and the de facto “man” in the industry, even something as trivial as the flu sends shockwaves through the locker room, the Continental Wrestling Alliance, and the wrestling world in general.
At six-feet-six inches and 295 pounds, one can’t help but stand out. When one’s that large, dressed in a 2,000 dollar, three-piece Armani suit, and wearing a black mask, any semblance of keeping a low profile is shot. Not that El Gaucho is a shrinking violet. The wrestler seems to relish being the focal point of the party he’s with at Chicago’s Carson’s restaurant. It’s a rare off night for the champ, a Sunday in early May, two days before the big Demolition at The Garden. El Gaucho holds court at the center of a spacious corner booth. The green upholstery is plush and inviting, a suitable throne for the squared circle’s current emperor.
Gaucho is flanked by two knockout blondes. Yvette and Loraine are Swissair stewardesses he’d met that morning in one of O’Hare’s V.I.P. lounges after returning home from a two-week, West Coast swing. Also joining the champ this evening are El Gaucho’s close ally (in and out of the ring), The Spartan, and Hollywood casting agent, Sidney Grainger. The party has finished their dinner, a meal in which El Gaucho put away a full slab of ribs and two barbecued pork chops, amazingly, without smearing one drop of sauce on his mask.
El Gaucho chomps on a Monte Cristo cigar and pulls four more from his coat, hands one to Spartan and one to Grainger. He presents the other two cigars to the stewardesses. Yvette laughs and takes one. The champ clips the tip and lights her up with a slim gold lighter. Loraine accepts his gift but puts it in her handbag instead of her mouth. Once everyone is enjoying their smokes and Gaucho has ordered up another round of drinks for the table he sits back, arms around the stewardesses, smoldering Monte Cristo poking out the mouth of his mask.
It’s difficult to tell where El Gaucho the wrestler ends and where El Gaucho the man begins. There in the booth, El Gaucho is the star, commanding attention without trying. He’s generous, makes sure his friends are taken care of, and is content to remain silent until there’s something important to be said. It’s easy to see the same traits during his matches: clubbing members of the Legion of Four with a steel folding chair as payback for ambushing The Spartan; delivering short-but-moving speeches about how he’s going to rip the arms off of his arch-rival, The Mongoose, when he’s on the microphone; and making sure to slap hands with all the kids sitting in the front row after a bout.
I’m seated at an adjacent table with some others in El Gaucho’s entourage. It’s a scene reminiscent of a wedding with Gaucho’s table at the center. Luckily, I’m close enough to the champ—roughly where you’d expect to find the parents of the bride and groom sitting—and I’m able to listen in on his conversations inconspicuously enough.
Media access to wrestlers has traditionally been limited to a select few in the sporting press. It’s only because of a sterling recommendation from legendary boxing and wrestling columnist Spike Bruce that I’d been granted access to the champ in the first place. But even with Bruce’s vouching for me, and after a week of phone tag, I still hadn’t been able to get my interview with the Transcontinental Champion. When I learned I’d been granted access to the CWA, I made a mental note to strike words such as fake, fixed, fraud, and phony from my vocabulary and set about devising a tactful strategy to get El Gaucho to reveal himself to me without disrespecting the masked wrestler’s mystique.
A sturdy Polish woman named Alina, who seems even more out of place than I do, is El Gaucho’s personal seamstress. She’s responsible for El Gaucho’s in-ring attire and, most importantly, for upkeep and maintenance of his fabled Deathmask. She accompanies Gaucho on all his road trips and can be found backstage wherever he wrestles. When I learn this, I’m reminded of the fellow who follows James Brown on stage, whose only purpose in life seems to be capeing and decapeing the Godfather of Soul.
Next to Alina is a short, powerful man who introduces himself to me as Knuckles. Knuckles is another person who frequently accompanies El Gaucho on the road. He is not a wrestler but could have been, he tells me, if he were a foot and a half taller. Knuckles explains that he and Gaucho are workout buddies and recently broke his personal best on the bench when he “threw up 575 lubies. That’s pounds, man. L-B-S. Lubies.” I mention that he must be quite an excellent training partner to be traveling with the champ. Knuckles explains things for me. “I’m kind of like his bodyguard.” Then he leans close to me to clarify, “I run interference between Champ and the ringrats.” Ringrat— wrestlespeak for groupie.
That’s when two things strike me. One: no one at our table or any of the others besides the champ is a wrestler. The presence of a high-powered Hollywood agent and two extraordinarily beautiful blondes at the champ’s table needs no rationalizing. Two: I suspect that I am the only person who has never seen El Gaucho with his mask off. I learn that the people at adjacent tables are friends of El Gaucho’s from the old neighborhood, though no one will tell me exactly where that neighborhood is (the CWA program lists El Gaucho as hailing from “parts unknown”). But I gather from the nasal A’s, clipped D’s, and flattened O’s—An den he gaht up ahn da ladder—of the friends that he grew up somewhere in Chicagoland.
As the evening progresses, it begins to resemble a wedding even more—a Hollywood depiction of a mafia wedding. Don Gaucho walks from table to table ensuring his guests’ enjoyment, never sitting but lingering long enough at each table to hear a funny story involving himself and to make sure the waiter keeps his friends’ drinks topped off. He works his way from the outer tables, occasionally whispering something into an ear or embracing someone. He visits our table last. Finally Gaucho, the “Angry Vigilante,” turns his attention to me. “You must be Levesque.”
El Gaucho extends a big paw, adorned with diamond rings and a thick gold bracelet, and pumps my hand. Though I should have expected it, the bone-crunching grip startles me. Whether it’s meant to be or not, I take the handshake as a subtle warning, Go easy, Levesque. Don’t put me on the spot.
“Good to finally meet you, Champ.”
“I’m spoken for this evening.” El Gaucho pauses to wave at the Swissair girls, “but if you want, you can hook up with me tomorrow at House of Pain.”
“That will be great,” I say, even though the name House of Pain tells me it won’t.
Mongoose, I hear you run your mouth about what you’re gonna do to El Gaucho once you get him inside that twenty-foot-tall cage of steel. How you’re gonna shackle me to the bars with handcuffs you say you’ve got hidden somewhere in the ring. How you’re gonna deliver your own brand of justice to the “Angry Vigilante.” Drop me to my knees and make me bleed. Make El Gaucho beg for mercy, then beat him some more.
Well, let me tell you something, jack. You go ahead and slap those handcuffs on me and the mightiest arms in the world will bust them apart. I’ll cast aside your shackles, Mongoose, not because of my mighty strength, but because of theirs. I’m talking about all those little amigos who mainline their energy into my bloodstream with their cheers. Yeah, Mongoose, your strength is undeniable. I’ve seen you flip over Smilinv Joe Spiceland’s Cadillac without breaking a sweat. Watched you punch holes through the stone walls of Alcatraz like they were made of paper. But I’m not worried. Not for a second. You see, I know that when the Gauchoholics rise up, Mongoose, you don’t have a prayer because the Gauchoholics give me a power that no muscle, no matter how strong, can counter. I’ve got your number, Mongoose, because I’ve got Gauchoholism pumping through my heart!
—El Gaucho, Friday Night Free For All, 9/25/87
This promo hyping an upcoming steel cage match between El Gaucho and The Mongoose is acknowledged as the birth of Gauchoholism. It’s a phenomenon that took over the wrestling world and which now seems to be on the verge of taking over mainstream consciousness with El Gaucho’s national television appearances on the talk show circuit and recent Sports Illustrated cover spearheading the effort. What makes El Gaucho’s meteoric rise all the more amazing is the fact that he’s not even the top wrestler in the promotion. More influential than win-loss records, promoters, or championship belts, it seems, are the Gauchoholics.
The champ’s diehard legion of fans—an overwhelming majority of them little boys—have helped to make the wrestler the most popular performer in the CWA by packing arenas to support him and tuning in to watch him on television every Tuesday and Friday night. But the Gauchoholics have done something else; they’ve responded to El Gaucho’s skill and charisma to make him the most lucrative branch of the professional wrestling industry by nagging their mothers to buy his cereal, wearing his T-shirts, taking the Gaucho brand vitamins that will make them as big and strong as their hero, collecting his action figures, and watching his Saturday morning cartoon. Products with El Gaucho’s name on them generated nearly twenty million dollars in revenue for the Continental Wrestling Alliance and its partners in the 1987 fiscal year alone. As of print time, video game concerns, ad agencies, the television and film industries, fast -food restaurants, and candy companies have all lined up to work with El Gaucho.
An army of ten-year-old boys, the Gauchoholics, accomplished something that Smilin’ Joe Spiceland and Mike O’Malley Jr. hadn’t been able to do in the ten years of the CWA-GWF rivalry. They transformed a blood-and-guts wrestler into a national superhero who appealed to wrestling and non-wrestling audiences alike. So when El Gaucho tells the bad guys that they don’t have a chance because he’s got Gauchoholism on his side to make him the most powerful wrestler around, he’s right.
House of Pain is a wrestling school in the far western suburb of Aurora. It’s well known that the most promising wrestlers trained by its founder, Art Stigma, will be on the fast track to developmental contracts with the Continental Wrestling Alliance.
I had expected to find House of Pain in some old warehouse in a rundown part of town, but the driver makes his way through a typical postwar subdivision. “Here we are,” he tells me when the car pulls into the driveway of a blue ranch house. Taped to the front door, a cardboard sign with an arrow pointing to the garage reads: House of Pain that way. Go thru garage if you got the nuts.
House of Pain is really the Basement of Pain. It’s a 40x24-foot room covered wall-to-wall in wrestling mats. About half the room is taken up by a 20x20-foot wrestling ring. The false ceiling panels above the ring have been removed and sections of floor joists and rafters have been cut away to give room for students to practice jumping off the ropes.
Stigma, pointing with his cane—an affectation that he adopted when he became a manager in his final FVW years—is overseeing the two wrestlers in the ring. Bob, twenty-eight, currently unemployed, is wrestling a much younger kid named Stevie. Stevie is sixteen years old and not in school. He dodges the much larger Bob, slides between his legs, vaults over his shoulders, climbs the turnbuckles, and executes a back flip from the top rope. In midair, he wraps his legs around Bob’s neck in a scissors-hold to take him down. Stevie doesn’t generate enough momentum during the move and lands awkwardly on his neck, but pops up unharmed—a testament to the plasticity of young bones. “You break your neck on your own time, pencil dick!” Stigma yells. “You should be working on your bumps when you’re in there. Learn to fall, then learn to fly. Not the other way around.” He slaps the mat with his cane to emphasize his words.
Stigma tosses his cane aside and hops into the ring. “Get out of my way. Watch my back.” Stevie climbs out of the ring and studies Stigma’s every move. Bob whips the sixty-seven-year-old Stigma into the ropes. Stigma explodes out of the whip, shoots the ropes, and collides with Bob’s clothesline. A moan that gets the attention of everyone in the room and a spray of saliva leave Stigma’s mouth as the old man goes down hard. His body strikes the mat in one crisp movement, and the snap of the mat echoes through House of Pain.
Over coffee in his kitchen upstairs, I ask Stigma, who trained El Gaucho, if his old days as a masked wrestler had any influence on El Gaucho’s development. “He was the hardest worker I’ve ever trained. He was good, not great. But the work ethic of that kid was something else. That’s what got him to where he is. I watch him on TV now, and he makes it look so easy, but I know better. And The Mask. That was all him.” I take a chance and ask Stigma if he has any old photos of El Gaucho’s days training at House of Pain. Stigma chuckles. “Sure I got pictures. There’s albums full of me and all my students. I got plenty of Gaucho.” Art Stigma laughs, squeezes my shoulder with a strength that defies his sixty-seven years. “I could show them to you, Mr. Levesque, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Art Stigma freshens his coffee and checks the time. It’s one-twenty. El Gaucho had been scheduled to drop in around one to shoot a short video for an upcoming House of Pain show. “I spent all morning getting ready for the damn promo shoots.” Stigma leads me into a wood-paneled den where a home video camera connected to a monitor is set up on a tripod. A homemade House of Pain TV sign written on poster board is taped to the center of the backdrop. A microphone that’s not plugged into anything rests on a stool. Beside the stool is a trashcan stuffed with various odds and ends. A street sign, several feet of chain link, some empty beer cans, and a bouquet of silk flowers are among the can’s contents. “The props are to encourage improvisation,” Stigma tells me. “Watch this.”
He grabs the microphone and a length of chain link. “Let me tell you somethin’, Gaucho, you ten pounds of monkey crap in a five pound bag! You know the saying, ‘sleep with one eye open?’ Well, you better sleep with both of ’em open or you’re gonna be asleep with the fishes.” Stigma casts out the chain over an imaginary body of water, watches the floor for an unseen bite on his line, then throws himself back, knocking down the room divider, struggling with the line as if he’s landed a marlin.
Forty minutes later the phone rings. It’s El Gaucho explaining that he won’t be able to make it out to Aurora this afternoon. Stigma relays the message that I can interview the champ in-between sets at his pre-dawn workout tomorrow.
Halogen light shimmering off the chromed machinery of the Curl Bar (a gym owned by Gaucho’s pal, Knuckles) stands out among the otherwise muted orange tones of the streetlamps on Racine Avenue. This stretch of Racine is mostly residential; a locksmith two blocks down and a tavern across the street are the only other interruptions of the wooden three flats and dingy brownstones of the Near Northside neighborhood. Through one of the gym’s windows I can see a large man wearing what seems to be a black stocking cap seated at a bench, shrugging dumbbells the size of a 747’s landing gear. Mounds of muscle—arms, shoulders, back, neck—tighten and roll back and forth in conjunction with the weights. Striations and veins form a clear topography beneath rice-paper-thick skin.
I walk around to the entrance. It’s locked. I tap a few times. Knuckles, stacking bottles of vitamin supplements in a pyramid behind the front desk, waves to me and lets me in. “Big guy’s by the free weights blasting his traps,” he says and points me in the direction of the dumbbells. The man I saw in the window is the only person in the room. I take a few steps toward him, try to get a glimpse of his face in the mirror that he’s seated in front of. A day’s growth of beard peppers a strong jaw. A large, wide nose, not exactly Roman, not exactly anything other than large, gives balance to penetrating, Mediterranean eyes and a severely deep, dark brow. It’s not quite a handsome face. It’s not what I’d imagined. Not the face of a matinee idol. But it’s right. It suits him.
The scarred and patient face of a gladiator. It’s the face of El Gaucho.
In one awkward moment our eyes meet in the mirror. “Hey, Champ,” I say. In mid-repetition, El Gaucho drops the dumbbells—210s—to the floor. The crash thunders through the empty gym, and I turn my head away from him.
There’s fascination and embarrassment and something else. Some type of culpability, a sense of shame perhaps. Before the crash of the weights dies out, El Gaucho has pulled The Mask down over his face. I pick up a set of twenty-five-pound dumbbells and sit next to him. He pulls the 210s back up into the air and resumes his set. I follow his lead, secretly wishing I’d picked the fifteens; my arms and back scream at me in agony. Neither of us speaks of what’s just occurred.
We complete our shoulder shrugs and move on to the bench press. El Gaucho uses the same pair of dumbbells and knocks off a quick set of eight repetitions—throwing up the combined 420 pounds of weight as effortlessly as if he had been tossing off bed sheets on a warm night—before I’ve even decided on a proper way to position myself on the bench.
I manage two decent repetitions with the twenty-five pound weights while El Gaucho bangs out a baker’s dozen for his second set. We take turns spotting for one another, though my spotting for him is more a formality. There is the clank of the weights and the occasional word of encouragement from El Gaucho: Push it! That’s all you, man. Come on, you’re still strong. Two more good ones. Let’s go! All the clichés one would expect to hear from a beefy man in a gym, yet they don’t sound corny to me there on the bench. They are actual words of encouragement. I begin to understand what attracts all his little Gauchoholics. There is a sense of fatherly benevolence in his words. Something in them that makes me want to finish that set.
We take a break after the bench presses have been completed. El Gaucho pulls several packets of a powdered protein supplement called Taurusboost from his gym bag and mixes them into a gallon jug of distilled water. “Protein and aminos to feed the muscles. Speeds up recovery time and promotes growth,” he tells me. He takes a few swigs, and I can hear his stomach churning. I’d heard it before when he was spotting me and assumed it was just early morning growling. The noise that his stomach now makes is more a rumble than a growl. “I shouldn’t have had that chicken salad on top of the omelets this morning. I’ll be back.” Gaucho walks to the locker room, presumably to extricate the chicken salad. He returns minutes later with his mask pulled up over his mouth.
“You get that a lot. You eat eight or ten times a day and take all the supplements. Some of it’s bound to come up. That’s the price to pay for these guns.” El Gaucho flexes an arm, veins surface on his forearm and bicep. “P.T.P., man. There’s always the price to pay.”
The price to pay for not getting the information I need from the champ—who is the man behind The Mask?—would probably be an editor killing this story. The price to pay for trying to get that information would probably mean El Gaucho killing this reporter.
Along with all the personal questions I have about the champ, there is something else that’s been on my mind for the last two days. A question that seems less threatening to me than asking about his identity. “Those Monte Cristos you were passing out the other night at Carson’s, those weren’t knock-offs, were they?”
“They were Cubans.”
“Who’s your source?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Smilin’ Joe?” There’s a grin on El Gaucho’s face. Even with only half of his face visible it’s clear to see that the smile is as genuine as it is mischievous.
“He’s a huge wrestling fan. I was doing an independent show last summer in the Dominican. When I got back to my hotel, some dudes from the Cuban consulate presented me with boxes of cigars. There was a rumor that Castro was at the show incognito. There’d been sightings of him all over Santo Domingo that week the way people see Elvis at 7-11’s in Michigan. Castro was pitching batting practice to a little league team here. Castro was sunbathing on the beach with an Argentine beauty queen there.
“There was a letter, too. A short note on official stationary that had Castro’s signature on it. It was just one sentence. Three words.” He closes his eyes and recites the message. “Somos todos luchadores.”
I sense an opening and ask about the championship that’s eluded him, ask Gaucho if he thinks it’s his time. “I think about that a lot. I think of the Gauchoholics, those little amigos out there watching me, believing in me. And I think about Spartan and all the rest of the boys in the locker room; they all want it for me. But I’m kind of Zen about the whole thing right now. If it happens, it happens. The fans, the boys in the locker room, they all see me as the top guy. I don’t know if I see myself as the top guy, though. Don’t get me wrong. If you ask me who I think is the best wrestler in the world today, I’m gonna tell you El Gaucho. I believe that, man. But being the top guy, the legitimate man, I don’t know if that’s me.”
In wrestling there are two types of matches. There are works—the more scripted matches where the outcome is predetermined. And then there are shoots—real matches, no punches pulled. It’s difficult to tell if Gaucho’s speech is a work or shoot. Probably a combination of both. Professional wrestlers, I’ve learned, are the most maddening group of people to interview.
Gaucho tugs The Deathmask back down over his mouth. It’s at this moment in the interview that I know I will never learn the identity of the wrestler who portrays El Gaucho.
Of course, I could dig up records, do some real investigative journalism to connect the dots and attach a name with the face, but that would only lead me to a name. Who El Gaucho is goes beyond names. It goes beyond the man’s own definition of himself. Millions of wrestling fans, the Gauchoholics, have chiseled out an identity for this man that he and, surely, a writer cannot neatly define in the confines of one feature article.
“Oh shit,” Gaucho says and runs to the locker room. I hear him wretch from the weight room. Ten minutes later he reemerges with a wet towel wrapped turban-style around his masked head. “Workout’s over, Levesque. I think I’ve got a bug. I’m gonna hit the sauna and score some Dramamine, try to catch a nap before my flight takes off.”
I offer a hand.
“These, you don’t want to be shaking, Levesque. Bowing to the porcelain god is messy business. I’ll see you at The Garden. Be cool, amigo. And don’t go back to your hotel and sleep. You’ll never be able to get out of bed. Get something to eat, some eggs, some chicken, and go for a walk, soak in the Jacuzzi. Keep them muscles loose.”
El Gaucho has the flu. It’s been confirmed by doctors. He’s spent the better part of the evening vomiting into a bucket and guzzling down Gatorade to keep from cramping up. After El Gaucho destroys his Walkman and vomits for the third time since I’ve been in the locker room, I head out to find my seat. Tension from the big night and from El Gaucho’s illness cast a pall on the locker room.
There’s no question that the champ will wrestle tonight—like any stage production, the show must go on. The question is how he will perform? A poor showing by its biggest star on the grand stage of Madison Square Garden promises to sink the CWA in the TV ratings wars with Global.
On my way out, I overhear a few of the wrestlers; the Cannonball Crew and The Spartan are speculating about the rumor that the GWF’s owner O’Malley is in attendance this evening. Cannonballer Curly Skillet is incredulous. “He’s the enemy. Why would he pay for a ticket and put money in Smilin’s pocket?” he says.
“He’s trying to give us the fear, Curl,” Tow Truck Tommy says.
“O’Malley’s not trying to spook anyone. If he is here,” The Spartan says, “it’s to give a little ‘F-you’ to the old man. Show Smilin Joe that even at the best of times, even at a sellout at the Garden, CWA’s never gonna be shit to the GWF. Just second class citizens from the Second City.”
“He ain’t here anyhow,” Curly Skillet says.
“Don’t be so sure, Curl. O’Malley’s a snake,” Tow Truck Tommy says.
“I hope the dude is here,” says The Spartan. “I got a new contract to negotiate with Smilin’ in six months. I could use a conversation with O’Malley as leverage. Here you go, Curl.” He points at me. “I bet this cat is one of O’Malley’s boys. He was sniffin’ around Gaucho back in Chicago.”
I show the wrestlers my media pass, but Curly Skillet, a fiery, baldheaded stump of a man, is hearing none of it. “O’Malley’s got some man-balls on him. Sending in a spy.”
“It’s okay, Curly. Reporter’s legit.” I feel a large, clammy hand cuff the back of my neck. It’s the hand of the champ. El Gaucho then slugs Curly Skillet on the shoulder. “Gonna kick some ass tonight, boys. Got ’em right where we want ’em, huh, Curl.”
“Yeah. If you say so, Gaucho.” Curly Skillet’s words are a question, not a statement.
“That’s right. I do say it, Curl. We earned this, man. You earned it, Curly. Tommy and Spartan. All of us.”
“Hell yeah!” Tow Truck Tommy adds.
“What do you say, Curl? We’re in the Garden. We made it, pal. This is our night,” Gaucho says and slugs Curly on the shoulder again. His words take hold and Curly slaps himself in the face, an homage to his Three Stooges namesake, to pump himself up. When he’s done, Skillet’s soft face has transformed into a harder visage. Anxiety is replaced with determination. The Cannonballers walk off, punching walls and each other.
The Spartan puts a hand on El Gaucho’s broad shoulder. “What about you? You sure you’re good to go?” he asks.
“No worries, amigo.”
Spartan nods his head. “Then that’s that.”
“That’s that,” El Gaucho says. The two wresters slap hands and The Spartan wanders off.
Once again I’m alone with the man. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll walk you to the door.” We walk down a long, dimly lit corridor that is saturated with the tang of sweat and blood, a testament to gladiators of past eras. El Gaucho stops me before we reach the door. “This morning you asked me about winning the World Championship someday. You see what happened back there? It’s times like that when I’m grateful not to have that gold around my waist. It’s like I’m already carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, Levesque. Ten pounds, five ounces. That’s how much the Heavyweight Championship of the World weighs. That’s a burden that just might break me. But sometimes… Sometimes I think about my little amigos, my Gauchoholics, and—” The National Anthem begins to echo through The Garden and El Gaucho cuts his words off mid-sentence. Whether it’s out of a sense of patriotism or self-preservation is unclear.
He waves me off, and I walk the final steps to the door alone. Before I open it, I turn to catch a final glimpse of El Gaucho before the show, before a show in which the CWA’s Transcontinental Champion will summon up the intestinal fortitude to overcome his sickness, his insecurities, and burdens to deliver a performance that will leave the Garden crowd—that toughest, most jaded, and savvy congregation of wrestling fans—slack-jawed and shaken to the core with the knowledge that they had been witness to greatness, to a maestro at the peak of his craft. But when I turn back, I do not see a comic book god. I do not see a prodigy or a savior. I do not see The Mask.
He peels that façade off, tosses it to the ground, and doubles over to purge what little is left in his stomach—nothing more than bile and water. He re-composes himself and stands tall. For a moment, chest and shoulders and head are raised high; then just as quickly he deflates, slumps, leans his forehead on the cool brick wall. He cocks a fist. Muscles twitch and send the knockout blow on its way, but the punch stops short of its target, and he simply rests his hand against the wall. It is unclear whether the wall supports him, or he it. What is clear is that the figure who lingers there in the shadows is mortal, consumed by the illness of self-doubt which comes along with great responsibility.
El Gaucho shakes his head as if he’s giving himself the same pep talk he’d delivered to his comrades, and bends down to pick up The Mask, a man, but not a defeated one.
Dan Mancilla lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan where he’s working towards his PhD in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University. Dan’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in such publications as The Chicago Tribune, The Columbia Review, The Dos Passos Review, Work Literary Magazine, The Pinch (formerly River City), Specs Journal and Slice Magazine. Dan was a 2009 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award winner.
“We witnessed plenty of accidents from our front porch. Fender-benders mostly or near hits-cars locking the breaks, laying rubber, then honking apologies or f-u’s to each other. Occasionally there’d be real devastation. There was the drunk who gunned his 4x4 through the intersection just in time to crumple a hatchback, mangled it like he was running the dirt track at one of those monster truck rallies instead of navigating a narrow Chicago side street. But the one that gets me is the old man piloting a Cadillac, not going too fast, but not slowing at the intersection, either. The grimy dude on a Harley is going too fast. Flaco and I are on the top step, hunched over a pile of comic books talking trades, a two-part Punisher/Wolverine crossover’s up for grabs. This is serious business. There’s the crash of metal on metal. It’s not Wolverine’s claws shredding The Punisher’s body armor. Flaco sees it before I do. ‘Watch out, homes,’ he whispers. Who knows if it’s to the biker or the old man? The Harley t-bones the Caddy. The hog throttles up; then the engine cuts. The dude on the bike bounces over the Cadillac, bounces across the pavement, and lands on our front lawn. A white sneaker, just as grimy as the biker it belongs to, skips end-over-end across the porch and scatters our comics.”