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The WAWLI Papers, page 1


THE MASKED MARVEL'S LAST TOEHOLD

by Richard Selzer
Esquire magazine - April 10, 1979


Morning rounds.

On the fifth floor of the hospital, in the west wing, I know that a man is sitting up in his bed, waiting for me. Elihu Koontz is seventy-five, and he is diabetic. It is two weeks since I amputated his left leg just below the knee. I walk down the (COR)ridor, but I do not go straight into his room. Instead, I pause in the doorway. He is not yet aware of my presence but gazes down at the place in the bed where his leg used to be and where now there is the collapsed leg of his pajamas. He is totally absorbed, like an athlete appraising the details of his body.

What is he thinking? I wonder. Is he dreaming the outline of his toes? Does he see there his foot's incandescent ghost? Could he be angry? Feel that I have taken something from him for which he yearns now with all his heart? Has he forgotten so soon the pain? It was a pain so great as to set him apart from all other men, in a red-hot place where he had no kith or kin. What of those black gorilla toes and the soupy mess that was his heel? I watch him from the doorway. It is a kind of spying, I know.

Save for a white fringe open at the front, Elihu Koontz is bald. The hair has grown too long and is wilted. He wears it as one would wear a day-old laurel wreath. He is naked to the waist, so I can see his breasts. They are the breasts of Buddha, inverted triangles from which the nipples swing, dark as garnets.

I have seen enough. I step into the room, and he sees that I am there. "How did the night go, Elihu?"

He looks at me for a long moment. "Shut the door," he says.

I do and move to the side of the bed. He takes my left hand in both of his, gazes at it and turns it over, then back, fondling, at last holding it up to his cheek. I do not withdraw from this loving. After a while he relinquishes my hand and looks up at me.

"How is the pain?" I ask.

He does not answer but continues to look at me in silence. I know at once that he has made a decision. "Ever hear of the Masked Marvel?" He says this in a low voice, almost a whisper.

"What?"

"The Masked Marvel," he says. "You never heard of him?"

"No."

He clucks his tongue. He is exasperated. All at once there is a recollection. It is dim, distant, but coming near. "Do you mean the wrestler?" Eagerly, he nods, and the breasts bob. How gnomish he looks, oval as the huge, helpless egg of some outlandish lizard. He has very long arms, which, now and then, he unfurls to reach for things -- a carafe of water, a get-well card. He gazes up at me, urging. He WANTS me to remember.

"Well ... yes," I say. I am straining backward in time. "I saw him wrestle in Toronto long ago."

"Ha!" He smiles. "You saw ME." And his index finger, held rigid and upright, bounces in the air. The man has said something shocking, unacceptable. It must be challenged. "You?" I am trying to smile. Again that jab of the finger. "You saw ME."

"No," I say. But something about Elihu Koontz, those prolonged arms, the shape of his head, the sudden agility with which he leans from his bed to get a large brown envelope from his nightstand, something is forcing me to toward a memory. He rummages through his papers, old newspaper clippings, photographs, and I remember ...

It is almost forty years ago. I am ten years old. I have been sent to Toronto to spend the summer with relatives. Uncle Max has bought two tickets to the wrestling match. He is taking me that night. "He isn't allowed," says Aunt Sarah to me. Uncle Max has angina. "He gets too excited," she says. "I wish you wouldn't go, Max," she says. "You mind your own business," he says.

And we go. Out into the warm Canadian evening. I am not only abroad, I am abroad in the EVENING! I have never been taken out in the evening. I am terribly excited. The trolleys, the lights, the horns. It is a bazaar. At the Maple Leaf Gardens, we sit high and near the center. The vast arena is dark except for the brilliance of the ring at the bottom.

It begins.

The wrestlers circle. They grapple. They are all haunch and paunch. I am shocked by their ugilness, but I do not show it. Uncle Max is exhilarated. He leans forward, his eyes unblinking, on his face a look of enormous happiness. One after the other, a pair of wrestlers enters the ring. The two men join, twist, jerk, tug, bend, yank, and throw. Then they leave and are replaced by another pair. At last it is the main event: THE ANGEL vs. the MASKED MARVEL.

On the cover of the program notes, there is a picture of the Angel hanging from the limb of a tree, a noose of thick rope around his neck. The Angel hangs just so for an hour every day, it is explained, to strengthen his neck. The Masked Marvel's trademark is a black stocking cap with holes for the eyes and mouth. He is never seen without it, states the program. No one knows who the Masked Marvel really is!

"Good," says Uncle Max. "Now you'll see something." He is fidgeting, waiting for them to appear. They come down separate aisles, climb into the ring from opposite sides. I have never seen anything like them. It is the Angel's neck that first captures the eye. The shaved nape rises in twin columns to puff into the white hood of a sloped and bosselated skull that is too small. As though, strangled by the sinews of that neck, the skull had long since withered and shrunk. The thing about the Angel is the absence of any mystery in his body. It is simple THERE. A monosyllabic announcement. A grunt. One looks, and knows everything at once: the fat thighs, the gigantic buttocks, the great spine from which hang knotted ropes and pale aprons of beef. And that prehistoric head. He is all of a single hideous piece, the Angel is. No detachables.

The Masked Marvel seems dwarfish. His fingers dangle kneeward. His short legs are slightly bowed as if under the weight of the cask they are forced to heft about. He has breasts that swing when he moves! I have never seen such breasts on a man before.

There is a sudden ungraceful movement, and they close upon each other. The Angel stoops and hugs the Marvel about the waist, locking his hands behind the Marvel's back. Now he straightens and lifts the Marvel as though he were uprooting him. Thus he holds him, then stoops again, thrusts one hand through the Marvel's crotch, and with the other grabs him by the neck. He rears and ... the Marvel is aloft! For a long moment the Angel stands as though deciding where to make the toss. Then throws. Was that board or bone that splintered there? Again and again the Angel hurls himself upon the body of the Masked Marvel.

Now the Angel rises over the fallen Marvel, picks up one foot in both of his hands, and twists the toes downward. It is far beyond the tensile strength of mere ligament, mere cartilage. The Masked Marvel does not hide his agony but pounds and slaps the floor with his hand, now and then reaching up toward the Angel in an attitude of supplication. I have never seen such suffering. And all the while his black mask rolls from side to side, the mouth pulled to a tight slit through which issues an endless hiss that I can hear from where I sit. All at once I hear a shouting close by.

"Break it off! Tear off a leg and throw it up there!"

It is Uncle Max. Even in the darkness I can see that he is gray. A band of sweat stands upon his upper lip. He is on his feet now, panting, one first pressed at his chest, the other raised warlike toward the ring. For the first time I begin to think that something terrible might happen here. Aunt Sarah was right.

"Sit down, Uncle Max," I say. "Take a pill, please."

He reaches for the pillbox, gropes, and swallows without taking his gaze from the wrestlers. I wait for him to sit down.

"That's not fair," I say, "twisting his toes like that."

"It's the toehold," he explains.

"But it's not FAIR," I say again. The whole of the evil is laid open for me to perceive. I am trembling.

And now the Angel does something unspeakable. Holding the foot of the Marvel at full twist with one hand, he bends and grasps the mask where it clings to the back of the Marvel's head. And he pulls. He is going to strip it off! Lay bare an ultimate carnal mystery! Suddenly it is beyond mere physical violence. Now I am on my feet, shouting into the Maple Leaf Gardens.

"Watch out," I scream. "Stop him. Please, somebody, stop him."

Next to me, Uncle Max is chuckling.

Yet the Masked Marvel hears me, I know it. And rallies from his bed of pain. Thrusting with his free heel, he strikes the Angel at the back of the knee. The Angel falls. The Masked Marvel is on top of him, pinning his shoulders to the mat. One! Two! Three! And it is over. Uncle Max is strangely still. I am gasping for breath. All this I remember as I stand at the bedside of Elihu Koontz.

Once again I am in the operating room. It is two years since I amputated the left leg of Elihu Koontz. Now it is his right leg that is gangrenous. I have already scrubbed. I stand to one side wearing my gown and gloves. And ... I AM MASKED. Upon the table lies Elihu Koontz, pinned in a fierce white light. Spinal anesthesia has been administered. One of his arms is taped to a board placed at right angles to his body. Into this arm a needle has been placed. Fluid drips here from a bottle overhead. With his other hand, Elihu Koontz beats feebly at the side of the operating table. His head rolls from side to side. His mouth is pulled into weeping. It seems to me that I have never seen such misery.

An orderly stands at the foot of the table, holding Elihu Koontz's leg aloft by the toes so that the intern can scrub the limb with antisceptic solutions. The intern paints the foot, ankle, leg, and thigh, both front and back, three times. From a (COR)ner of the room where I wait, I look down as if from an amphitheater. Then I think of Uncle Max yelling, "Tear off a leg. Throw it up here." And I think that forty years later I am making the catch. "It's not fair," I say aloud. But no one hears me. I step forward to break the Masked Marvel's last toehold.

Note: For years, "wrestling result nuts" like Uncle Burt Ray, Tom Gannon, Don Luce, Jim Melby, Fred Hornby and myself kept wondering about a myriad of things, but especially perplexing was the Masked Marvel in Toronto, who was eventually unmasked as "Lew Reynheer." Back in the same era, there also began appearing a veritable profusion of "Hard Boiled Haggerty" types, in San Francisco, in Houston, in Columbus and, later, in Minneapolis. Now it develops that, like so many things, these bits and pieces may all tie together ...

 
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