I follow his look, try to see what he sees. "Right now," I say, "if you could do or have anything in the world you wanted, what would it be? What's your dream right now?"
Roughly 12 seconds have passed since he told me that he is tired of movement and people and noise and lights. "Do anything?...I'd get me a big special-built mobile home, sleep about six people comfortable, me and five more.... Get two good drivers and a cook.... Get my own tractor trailer riding behind it. Fill it with 300,000 books on Islam, and 300,000 pamphlets, and tapes of lectures.... Pull into city after city, open the doors.... See the people come running, yelling 'Champ!'...Slapping my hands...and I sign for them...and give them all books."
In Los Angeles, at the end of his career, Ali lived in a mansion. There was a guard in uniform who telephoned the house before opening the gate to visitors. There were antique chairs inside with ropes from one armrest to the other so no one could sit in them. There were vases half as high as a man, flowing draperies, gilded furniture, a gleaming Steinway piano, Renaissance-style paintings and Oriental rugs. There were fabulous gifts from presidents and kings that I was afraid to touch. A woman came downstairs, an ice sculpture. Veronica nodded to me, said nothing and left. So this is how a god lives, I thought. Ali seemed depressed.
How do other gods live out their twilight years, after their mirrors show them wrinkles? I think of Joe Louis, a greeter at Caesars Palace before he died. "Get your arm around him, Joe. Smile now, Joe, just one more shot...." Of Greta Garbo, speaking to almost no one, hiding her face from cameras. Of Mickey Mantle, appearing at conventions where men sell his baseball cards, at one time plummeting into depression. Of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, overdosed, dead. People running to the past or running from it. People desperate for some new cliff edge to walk along in place of their old one.
Ali lives in an old farmhouse today. There are trees outside, cows, a pond. A big sofa you can sink into, a coffee table you can take your shoes off and prop your feet on, an end table with chewing gum stuck under it that Ali was too lazy to take to the trash can.
Now there is a wife named Lonnie who grew up on the same street in Louisville where Ali's parents lived when young Cassius Clay was still in his 20's. Today, all his decisions—when to travel and see people, when to stay home and rest—she shares in. She smiles and looks you in the eye and offers you lunch. "You got something to nibble on that ain't fattenin', darling?" Ali asks her. Now Ali lives in a home.
Since that night in the Bahamas in 1981 when he stopped fighting, that night he stopped standing in front of men whose punches could kill, he has only approached the edge once. That was in 1987, when he considered undergoing a new form of brain surgery that a Mexican doctor was using on patients with Parkinson's. The surgery was dangerous—two of 18 patients reportedly had died shortly thereafter. Others had shown marked improvement. Ali flew to Mexico, neared the precipice, the all-or-nothing. Then he backed off. He accepted who and what he is. He went on bending over the keyhole.
What if he had had the surgery? What if his stride was swift again, his eyes danced, the words romped once more off his tongue? Could he deny, all on his own, the side of himself that was never quite so self-assured as people thought? The side that always needed to give people what he thought they expected of him; the side that always led him, unasked, to work out for me after he had retired, to perform magic tricks, to show me all his fan mail? Could he resist, all on his own, without the illness, the impulse to be what the world still wanted him to be?
He visited a home for the aged once when he was still boxing. An old man's eyes lit up as Ali approached him. "Do you know who this is?" Gene Kilroy, Ali's companion, asked the old man.
"Sure do," said the old man. "That's Joe Louie."