"Flashbacks, Lonnie," Howard sighs. "It's only flashbacks." She smiles; Lonnie knew Ali long before he married her, when he was a notorious skirt chaser. Now he's just a looker and a flirter. A few minutes later, after Scavullo is through shooting, Ali sneaks up behind Sheila and tries to flick her ear. But she turns her head at just that instant, and he isn't agile enough to touch her. Sheila never even knows what happened.
Bingham doesn't see this. But not two minutes later, he sneaks up behind Sheila and tries the exact same thing. Only he succeeds at yanking her hair, so she whirls about in surprise. "Pranksters," Lonnie says, sighing. Sometimes it's hard to see where Ali stops and Bingham begins. Bingham is 59 and has two grown children, and Ali is 56 and has eight grown children, but more often than not Lonnie, who is 15 years her husband's junior, seems to be the only grownup on the premises, Wendy to the Lost Boys.
Now it's true that Lonnie sometimes goes into cahoots with Howard. To all Ali's previous wives, Bingham could say—would say—"I was here before you, and I'll be here after you're gone." But Lonnie is different, and, like Howard, she isn't going anywhere. She was literally the little girl next door; she met Ali when she was only six years old. Now the two silly men-boys sometimes drag her down to their level. Their favorite skit, the three of them together, works best when the mark is a reporter who is earnestly interviewing Ali while Lonnie or Howard interprets his murmurings. Invariably the reporter is very solicitous, very moved that the Greatest is now nothing but this trembling shadow of what he was. Ali nods off, and the game is under way. This time, you see, Ali is pretending. Lonnie and Howard play their parts. Sharply Howard barks, "Lonnie, don't let him do that. Wake him up!"
She snaps back, "The doctor said to let him go when he does this."
The reporter, mournful, tries to remain composed amid this sadness. Ali, eyes still closed, starts to throw little jabs.
Sorrowfully, Lonnie explains, "His mind is playing tricks on him. He thinks he's back in the ring, fighting again." Howard nods in melancholy.
Then—pow! Without warning, Ali throws a monstrous jab that just misses the unsuspecting man's chin. Ali's eyes are open wide now, and he chortles. Lonnie and Howard grin to beat the band.
A lot of life with Ali is Kabuki theater, the same polished routines over and over. He levitates off his feet, performs the disappearing handkerchief trick, scowls when Bingham introduces him as Joe Frazier, repeats the same few timeless gags. "Ali wants to tell you the Abraham Lincoln joke," Bingham says.
You draw closer. Ali says, "You know what Abraham Lincoln said after he came off a two-day drunk?"
No, Muhammad, what did Abraham Lincoln say after he came off a two-day drunk?