Ali, all was decay. Mildewed tongues of insulation poked through gaps in the
ceiling; flaking cankers pocked the painted walls. On the floor lay rotting
scraps of carpet.
He was cloaked in
black. Black street shoes, black socks, black pants, black short-sleeved shirt.
He threw a punch, and in the small town's abandoned boxing gym, the rusting
chain between the heavy bag and the ceiling rocked and creaked.
Slowly, at first,
his feet began to dance around the bag. His left hand flicked a pair of jabs,
and then a right cross and a left hook, too, recalled the ritual of butterfly
and bee. The dance quickened. Black sunglasses flew from his pocket as he
gathered speed, black shirttail flapped free, black heavy bag rocked and
creaked. Black street shoes scuffed faster and faster across black moldering
tiles: Yeah, Lawd, champ can still float, champ can still sting! He whirled,
jabbed, feinted, let his feet fly into a shuffle. "How's that for a sick
man?" he shouted.
He did it for a
second three-minute round, then a third. "Time!" I shouted at the end
of each one as the second hand swept past the 12 on the wristwatch he had
handed to me. And then, gradually, his shoulders began to slump, his hands to
drop. The tap and thud of leather soles and leather gloves began to miss a
quarter-beat...half-beat...whole. Ali stopped and sucked air. The dance was
He undid the
gloves, tucked in the black shirt, reached reflexively for the black comb. On
stiff legs he walked toward the door. Outside, under the sun, the afternoon
stopped. Every movement he made now was infinitely patient and slow.
Turning...on...the...ignition...and...shifting...into...gear.... Three months
had passed, he said, since he had last taken the medicine the doctor told him
to take four times a day.
One hand lightly
touched the bottom of the wheel as he drove; his clouded eyes narrowed to a
squint. His head tilted back, and the warm sunlight trickled down his puffy
cheeks. Ahead, trees smudged against sky and farmland; the glinting asphalt
dipped and curved, a black ribbon of molasses.
He entered the
long driveway of his farm, parked and left the car. He led me into a barn. On
the floor, leaning against the walls, were paintings and photographs of him in
his prime, eyes keen, arms thrust up in triumph, surrounded by the cluster of
people he took around the world with him.
He looked closer
and noticed it. Across his face in every picture, streaks of bird dung. He
glanced up toward the pigeons in the rafters. No malice, no emotion at all
flickered in his eyes. Silently, one by one, he turned the pictures to the
Outside, he stood
motionless and moved his eyes across his farm. He spoke from his throat,
without moving his lips. I had to ask him to repeat it. "I had the
world," he said, "and it wasn't nothin'." He paused and pointed.
Black blobs of
cows slumbering in the pasture, trees swishing slowly, as if under water rather
than sky. Merry-go-rounds, sliding boards and swings near the house, but no
giggles, no squeals, no children.