"I freed the whaaaat?" He laughs at his favorite punch line as heartily as if it were the first time he's heard it.
It is not that his mind is diminished by the Parkinson's or that he is some old pug on Queer Street. Rather, it seems as if Ali voluntarily closed down the progress of his mind when the disease inhabited his body. Now he works only at growing sweeter. More and more he is like a soul walking. But the past is all still there, ready to be called back. Why, he can even, for a few seconds, perform the Ali Shuffle, tossing punches rat-a-tat-tat while his feet scamper back and forth. That is the best magic trick of all. But then he is winded, and he collapses, and, in mock admiration, Howard pats his potbelly.
Another time, in the Presidential Suite of a hotel where the Alis are staying, Ali sits on the bench of a grand piano and plays a very serviceable rendition of...yes, The Tennessee Waltz. Where did that come from? Howard sits by him and plays Heart and Soul. How many times have they done that? For how many years?
Now the two old friends sit together again, watching the video of a new documentary that Bingham has brought over. It is called City at Peace, and it is about black and white kids trying to get along. When one of the girls in the video laments that whites go in one car and blacks in another, Ali nods knowingly. "Nature's way," he says, "nature's way."
Bingham tries to dispute this, pointing out that the whole thrust of the documentary is that the races can get along better if only they know each other better. But Ali is having none of that—and never mind that he lives his life race-blind. Bingham shrugs. It's the old Black Muslim philosophy. "I don't argue with him on religion," Howard says. "What's the point of that?"
Like the jokes and the magic tricks, though, Ali still brings up the same standard arguments. Thirty-five years and counting, and he is still bugging Howard about his "slave name." Bingham tunes out as Ali begins again: "Germans have German names, and Puerto Ricans have Puerto Rican names, and Indians have Indian names, and you can tell who they are, but if your name is Johnson or Jefferson or Bingham, you don't know who that is till you see him."
Bingham doesn't bite. But sometimes, when Ali starts in with a newcomer, pointing out the various contradictions in the Bible, Bingham pleads with him, "Ali, why don't you stop talking against Christianity and the Bible? Why don't you just get up a pamphlet that has your picture on it and tells all the good things that Islam has done for you? Now, people would like that."
Ali ignores that suggestion, as he always has. So, he and Bingham enjoy some fruit and some crackers together, watching the documentary. Soon, though, Ali starts to nod. For real. His eyes close, his head falls to his chest. Bingham turns to glance at him. He and Lonnie do not treat the old Champ with any pity, or really with much sympathy. It angers Bingham that Ali doesn't work out hard enough. He tells Ali so—to no effect. "Ali's lazy," Bingham says. "He's overweight, but he's convinced himself that he can lose weight only in Miami, because that's where he went to lose weight when he was boxing. He just won't work at it." The past is the only present left.
There is this irony, too: Bingham was never any sort of athlete. He could never identify with his friend. But he sees that Ali has grown more like him. Their impairments are different, of course, but the point is the same: You owe it to yourself to deal with whatever infirmity you have. Once, Bingham could hardly speak, his stutter was so bad. He found out that his impediment probably came from trying too hard never to offend anybody. He held everything in. He was the oldest of seven children—too good, too dutiful, always dependable, never a problem.
Once Bingham understood better why he stuttered, he could work at correcting the problem. "See—look," he says, and, driving along in the Camry, he suddenly unleashes a stream of vulgarities. Then he smiles. "See? I let it out." It was like a time years ago when he was in a car being driven by Belinda, Ali's second wife. She turned in front of a truck, and Bingham screamed, "Look out!"