"Why would I have to do that?" she asked.
"To look like a lady," he said.
That was not the only time he spoke of marriage to Davis. Clay always built models in his mind, including a make-believe world with a large, happy family of which he was the benevolent father. "We watched a lot of TV at his mother's house," recalls Davis, "and little kids would come over. He loved kids—he always liked to have five or six around him—and I remember one time, it was around Easter, and my mother wouldn't let me go to one of his fights. He came by after the fight, and we sat together on the front porch. At one point he said, 'Pretty soon we're gonna get married, and we're gonna get a real big house with a swimming pool. All the kids in the neighborhood are gonna come over—we're gonna have a lot of kids—and they'll all swim in the pool.' "
Clay was his mother's son. Odessa Grady Clay was a sweet, pillowy, light-skinned black woman with a freckled face, a gentle demeanor and an easy laugh. Everyone who knew the family in those days saw the kindness of the mother in the boy. In his sophomore year, when he was still 15, Cassius began working after school in the Nazareth College library, across town, for 60 cents an hour. He carried books from floor to floor, dusted the volumes and the shelves, waxed the tables and dry-mopped the brown linoleum floors. The first day he walked into the library, Sister James Ellen Huff, the librarian, was struck by his shy, gentle manner.
"Do they call you Cash?" Sister Huff asked.
"No, ma'am," he said. "I'm Cassius Marcellus Clay."
"He had his mother's sweetness," says Sister Huff.
In fact, when Clay talked about his parents at all, it was of his mother. "Everything related to his mom," says Indra Brown. He would say, 'My mother comes first, before anybody. My mom will be treated right.' "
Of course, all the diversionary commotion he created in his life—the incessant shadowboxing and grandstanding, the flights of fantasy into becalmed worlds of aqua pools and frolicking children—mirrored and masked the chaos of his life at home, where violence and turmoil often came and went with his father, Cassius Sr., a gifted religious muralist and commercial sign painter. The old man, chesty and fast-talking, had always cut a popular figure around town. "Everybody around Louisville knew Mr. Clay," says Yates Thomas, a boyhood pal of young Cassius's. "Up on his ladder painting signs."
And down along the streets, he moved from saloon to saloon, his rich singing voice belting out his favorite songs for the audiences bellying up to the bar. The elder Clay was a wild, free-roaming drunk and womanizer whose peregrinations around town made him a legend along the river's shore. "I just loved him," says West End liquor store owner John (Junior Pal) Powell, a longtime friend of Cassius Jr. "A fun-loving type of guy. But he did drink a lot. One time some lady stabbed him in the chest, and he came up to my apartment. I tried to get him to let me take him to the hospital, but he said, and he always talked real fast, 'Hey, Junior Pal, best thing you can do for me is do what the cowboys do. You know, give me a little drink and pour a little bit on the chest, and I'll be all right.' "