River Bend Chronicle, pp. 230-247:
Next door neigbbor Mr. Hickey wore a black bow tie and no sweater vest on the October night we gathered in his kitchen to follow radio reports of the boxing match in Zaire, Africa, between former champ Muhammad Ali and the young reigning king, George Foreman. “Turn on the radio,” I, ten, squealed. “Soon, Benny.” I stared at his dress shirt that looked so undressed without the sweater—the sweater my heart clung to like mega-lint. “The undercard must be over by now, Mr. Hickey. It’s gotta be.” “At eleven,” he whispered. “Eleven.” Downtown at Masonic Auditorium a rowdy crowd watched preliminary bouts on a big screen, booing whenever the closed-circuit feed powdered or went wavy-granular. Jerry Bernaur, the sweetheart across the street who deboned hams at the Oscar Meyer plant, told me everything the next day—beer thrown, ushers pushed, posters ripped off lobby walls. And I told him all about my big fight night, starting with the shocking appearance of vestless Mr. Hickey on the back porch, answering the bell like a ghost-referee with four opaque eyes. The kitchen light revealed a shirt with white sleeves, yellow pocket, yellower shoulders, brownish buttons. Were moths to blame or the weird fashion of 1937? I tried to think of a delicate way to ask the question as Mr. Hickey’s pink lips pinched the plastic cigar tip like an addicted bivalve shell. During the Great Depression did the Arrow shirt company recycle cloth? No. Did Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom host ornithological masquerade parties, requiring that men come yellow-breasted like finches? No, no. “Ali’s going to whip Foreman!” I finally gasped, needing to say something and locate by sound my friend all but lost in the Tiparillo haze. Mr. Hickey softly agreed—“Hope so”—and more smoke spumed over ashtray coils, leather-girdled Panasonic radio, aqua Tupperware pill counter, prune box…reaching the far corner of the Formica table and lending the pistol a Wild West aura of shootouts past. “Foreman will be done in one,” I predicted and took another slug from the warm 7-Up bottle, bubbles foaming tepid over my teeth and prickling tongue, provoking such a wince that I was again offered a highball glass of ice cubes but again refused because tonight we were beyond the reach of quaint Midwestern niceties like aluminum ice trays with handy-dandy cube ejection cranks, far beyond checkered tin bread boxes, four-slot toasters, quilted pot holders, even though all these items were in plain sight, just a few feet away. Mr. Hickey and I were fight fans in a sweltering Cuban cabana, snacking on spotted bananas, swampy lime potions, stale cookies, and cigar smoke. We were part of a gregarious global congregation hunched around five-band radios—buzzing Philcos—whistling short wave jobs—bent and foil-wrapped antennas connecting rich and poor, the humblest locales with the snazziest venues such as Rio and Monte Carlo. Factory workers and viscounts, prostitutes and beauty queens, grand prix drivers and garbage truck drivers, winking reactionaries in tuxedos and unblinking revolutionaries with coconut leaves stapled to helmets, double-chinned me in the XXL rummage-sale Penguin shirt and Mr. Hickey wearing that Arrow shroud of two yellows—all of us in the thrall of a poetic brawl that promoter Don King called “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Since being stripped of the heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, Ali had been imprisoned, released, defeated by Joe Frazier in a fifteen-round bout at Madison Square Garden, and then? He had beaten Joltin’ Joe in an instantly historic brutal rematch (they were each other’s last name’s now; Ali Frazier / Frazier Ali: say one, think the other), and after that? Ali got his jaw broken by Ken Norton. But on this steamilicious night in 1974—the real champ would show. Floating, stinging, singing about it afterward to Howard Cosell and George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, too—the literary gorilla who’d stabbed his wife not once but twice, as mother always liked to say.
My old friend took a long slow drag on the cigar, smoke not shooting from the lips but dribbling down the shirt front, then I knew. I knew a thing I very much wished I did not know. I knew that Mr. Hickey, subsisting on a fixed income (Social Security plus a meager Coast Guard pension), bleached only his shirtsleeves to conserve Clorox and save dimes to put toward the purchase of treats for his many daily visitors. (Each sleeve in a bowl, held down by stacks of quarters, I imagined, the shirt front dangling between.) The shirt front nobody would ever see because of the red sweater vest—no one but me, on this evening, and it was no accident. He wanted me to see the tobacco-stained seams. He wanted to present fresh proof of what an ignoble struggle life was for even the most well-intentioned of males. It was fight night: the right night to let your animal feralness show—the sweat stains and nicotine stains and stale primal thirsts that might be tamed but never extinguished. Forget all the fatuous Sports Illustrated copy about boxing being “the sweet science,” every right cross a rogue thing of divine beauty, blabber, blabber, blabber. The beauty of a knockdown punch was its pure beautylessness—the teeth of the struck man sticking through the lower lip like boar tusks. Fans cheered broken noses, detached retinas, cauliflower ears. They rose at ringside, in front of closed-circuit screens, next to radios at taverns, bistros, casinos, piers, international airports, prisons without running water. They saw the blood-mask and pumped their hairy fists, waving rivulets their way, desiring to be sprinkled, baptized by violence, released from the stifling bonds of civilization. Weekly Mr. Hickey confessed to me the awful truth that he had run a gambling game as a young man, confessed with forceful sorrow, and I nodded, nodded, but seeing this shirt was something else—the active stain on his existence, deepening a little each day, despite generous deeds done and so many temptations resisted. He was human, that was all—and that was everything. Everything. It meant courage and fear, strength and weakness, generosity and selfishness. Contrary traits linked in the most amazing ways—illogically inter-reliant. For instance, the nakedness of boxers—their very vulnerability—required them to be more vicious than athletes in protective gear. It was Ali’s brutality in the ring that gave such beguiling legitimate power to his pretty press-conference smile, the lyrical utterances, and the long fluttering eyelashes.
The radio receiver crackled as Mr. Hickey caressed the tuning knob and adjusted the antenna. He looked like an expert safecracker subduing a giant cricket atop a little Zaire safe full of Mobutu diamonds—right, left, right, left: krehkkkkrzzkrkrezzhkkk WBBM , news radio sssseventy-eight. It was raining in downtown Chicago, wind off Lake Michigan gusting to thirty miles an hour. Sixteen elevator inspectors were under arrest for taking kickbacks, with more arrests expected soon. A Lincoln Park man had shot his girlfriend three times and then turned the gun on her German shepherd. Or something like that. And the office of Alderman Eddie Vrydoliak had no comment on the South Side waste-disposal contract scandal. “In Zaire . . .” The far off land of Zaire zebras, Zaire sky, Zaire sun, Zaire moon, Zaire jungle, Zaire villages, Zaire kalimbas—handheld teak pianos with metal strips of various lengths to pluck (mother’s sister, the globe-trotting chemistry professor, had sent us one)—amid tinkling Zaire music and Zaire dances, Zaire zoot suits and robes and dresses, Zaire limos and Zaire pushcarts, Zaire creation fables and Zaire camera cables, “The bell sounded and . . .” neither boxer did damage, trading just a few hard punches. “Ali’ll get him in the second round. Foreman will be through in two.” “Cassius,” Mr. Hickey whispered—using the former champ’s birth name out of habit. “Cassius Clay better be careful. This kid can punch.” Right, I acceded with a tilt of the 7-Up bottle poised under my sticky lips, Foreman had won Olympic gold at Mexico City in 1968—it was in the World Almanac on my bedroom windowsill. “Cassius has to play it smart.” Down went the Tiparillo and up went the delicate pugilist’s two little fists. Aggressive sugar bowls they looked like, hovering in front of the bigger bowl of Mr. Hickey’s enamel-white noggin. “Protect the head with the right,” he murmured. “Jab with the left, jab and dance, jab, jab, dance.” Hands in my lap, I agreed—yes, for certain, no doubt, that was how to win a heavyweight fight. Then Mr. Hickey reminded this 190-pound, four-feet-ten-and-a-half-inch contenda for the fat farm to “hit the rope and stay clean,” and I promised to jump rope to improve my agility and also to keep away from the mob wiseguys and gamblers who ruined many palookas, including “Two Ton” Tony Galenta and Primo Canera, the ex-champ Mr. Hickey had met in a flea-ridden Iowa hotel lobby in the 1930s. Even Joe Louis—the Brown Bomber—had ended up a “greeter” outside a dubious Las Vegas casino, his wheelchair flung like shrapnel under the throbbing spectacle of a neon sign, shaking hands with whomever. “I won’t wager any of my snow-shoveling money this winter, Mr. Hickey. I’ll save it all for college.” He smiled mildly, reinserted the cigar tip between his lips, and smoke genied out nostrils as fragile as china thimbles—belts of smoke, ropes of smoke, smoke towels and smoke fedoras floating across nicotine-stained cabana walls and shifting like lazy fronds of a ceiling fan. WBBM, news radio ssssseventy-eight, hissed John Madigan, night news announcer. It was still drizzling in Chicago, expected low of forty degress. Investigators were removing evidence of Medicaid fraud from a South Side podiatry clinic. Avoid the Pulaski Skyway due to a five-car pileup—take Roosevelt Road, the Cermak, hop the el, rent a fishing boat, anything but get on the Pulaski. Now, an update from Zaire . . . “The bell sounded and Ali retreated to the ropes, covered his face, took a left from Foreman, a right, another hard left . . .” Mr. Hickey choked on the smoke like it was milk that had gone down wrong. The Greatest retreat so early? Ali who had done the bravest thing a male could do—call himself pretty in public. “Another body blow by Foreman, another right, then a left, and the bell sounded.” Cuh-cuh, coughed my host, cuh-cuh-cuh. Over his cringing shoulder peered the oval blue eye in the oven enamel, and I had no answer for the Amana Sphinx—no friggin’ idea why Ali had willingly cowered, dancing no jig, hiding his face with both Everlast gloves. Both gloves. It just was not him. It could not be. All week he had traveled Zaire winning over the populace with his openness. That was Ali. He lived not behind castle walls but generously in front of TV cameras—prancing, preening, singing, predicting, taunting, scolding, philosophizing, proclaiming what he believed, what he would and would not fight for. In a world of phony celebrities and carefully worded press releases, Ali was the Real Deal, unmanaged by his entourage and leading them (Dundee, Pacheco, Boudini) around the globe, cutting a wide swath of excitement through every country entered. Ali = All Intelligence, All Inspiration. He was the best thing America had going for her after the debacles of Saigon and Watergate. He could not be tired after one round. He was ageless. He was the freshness a country needed, the immense energy and hope that always had been required to prop up the sprawling notion of America—and without which there would be a sea-to-shining-sea collapse, Ohio sliding into the Pacific right behind California, an avalanche of cars, blenders, blow dryers, televisions, microwaves, and millions of other consumer goods that made life so much easier but were no replacement for belief in oneself. Ali was faith in the moment of his being—faith in the power of heart, brawn, ideas—faith in free expression and faith that America was strong enough to withstand the harshest shot of any honest critic. And Ali—our one and only Ali—was crumpled on the ropes, taking an awful beating from Foreman? Yes, and it happened again in the third round, and the fourth, too, the fifth, and the sixth as well. “Another body blow by Foreman, two lefts, a right, two lefts, and the bell sounded.” Mr. Hickey dunked the host of the cookie into the wine of Sanka. It might help, but of course it would not. He crept into the bathroom off the kitchen, I guessed, unscrewed the lids of tubes and jars of muscle cream arrayed on the toilet tank, hoping I guess that the fumes would reach Zaire and revive Cassius’s failing clay. But Mr. Hickey neglected to open the frosted window. I did, and the wind was blowing the wrong direction. Minty vapor wafted into the kitchen, commingling with Tiparillo smoke to create the vintage stench of a locker room before the advent of Right Guard and Dr. Scholl’s: air bugless yet bug-heavy, astringent and stinging my nostrils. I should have gotten up and shut the window, but dared not approach the commode—the swarthy specter of wrestler Gorgeous George might be sitting on it; or Jock Semple, Boston Garden trainer; or Paul Moon, Central High basketball coach who had won thirty games in a row in 1958 while wearing the same blue turtleneck. I glanced at the sarcophagi profile of the Kelvinator, dismissing the notion of sticking my head inside for a draught of fresh air—the temptation to crawl in with the salmon loaf would be irresistible. I breathed and spoke through a finger mask. “Ali’ll get him in the seventh. Foreman will be . . .”—what in seven?—“. . . will be . . .” Leavened? No, I was all rhymed out after “driven to a knee in three,” “hit the floor in four,” “take a dive in five,” “out of the mix in six.”
In Chicago the barometric pressure was still dropping. Authorities had identified the Lincoln Park shooter as a thirty-year-old Jack in the Box employee: unregistered gun, five prior convictions, and neighbors can’t believe it—such a nice man murder a girl and a dog? The elevator-inspector kickback scandal had oddly widened to include eleven forklift operators, eight welfare caseworkers, five meter maids, and three high school principals, but no partridge in a pear tree, not yet. The mayor had no comment on that oversight or on Alderman Vrydoliak’s not commenting on the waste-disposal contract scandal. Now, an update from Zaire. “The seventh round began with Ali again retreating to the ropes. Foreman delivered a right to the ribs, another right to the chest, a left almost too low, warning issued. Then Foreman went back to work on the ribs, a right, left, right . . .” Mr. Hickey leaned toward the radio as if trying to take the ferocious blows himself and spare the old champ further punishment. “A left to the gut, a right,” and Foreman leaned on Ali, the fighters exchanged words and the ref stepped in, round over. Back soon with more action. That is, if Ali answered the bell. It was a massacre. The Greatest had not landed a hard punch since last week. Foreman had done him in—and Mr. Hickey, too. “Goodness,” my old friend moaned, sinking in the chair. “Gracious.” I suggested taking some oxygen. He inched his way into the dining room and emptied the slender green tank on the doily table—bow tie inhaling, safety shoes inhaling, slacks inhaling and straining the belt circling the waist like a glossy licorice whip. Fatter, he returned and immediately deflated like a dapper balloon—chest withering, waist shrinking, shoulders slumping, lending the shirt little more bulk than a hanger. “Oh boy,” he sighed, grasping for the pill counter. Outside, frost fingered the fallen leaves, but in here the steam heat had curled the corners of the VFW wall calendar, and the wooden pistol handle glistened through the haze as if it had broken into a nervous sweat—worried more about Ali than burglars crawling in basement windows or stoned Weathermen bombers taking the wrong interstate exit on the way to Berkeley or the mere existence of nude John and Yoko in New York City. Only the sixty-four-ounce prune box had no fears or concerns whatsoever. The clock had struck midnight, and the photo on the clotty black label intimated with cold confidence that it was autopsy time: Snap on the rubber gloves, open the drain, Igor. Atop the counter the oatmeal box loomed like a totem-pole stump, and the garish expressions of the cows on the Carnation cans made me wonder by what Medici means milk was condensed. I shivered. I dampened. My eyeframes slid down my nose and through the very top of the greasy lenses I saw Zaire planes circling, pulsing like fireflies over the extravaganza squatting in its own chimerical mire. I bit my fingernails. I swigged the last of the 7-Up, now a flat liquid the consistency of spit, supremely swishable but absolutely unswallowable: if only Hickey’s cabana had a dirt floor. I requested a highball glass. He gestured to the cupboard—Get it yourself, I’m tuckered—and I got the glass, and behind Mr. Hickey’s back did what had to be done: speeeeew, just like Ali on the corner stool in Zaire, cup under bloody mouth. Ali being worked on by Angelo Dundee, a doctor who operated without instruments, closing gashes with whispers and Vaseline. Ali glaring and biting his bottom lip as he did during interviews, mocking the rubes who believed they could destroy him. Ali aching, angry, not through— “He’ll answer the bell. Right, Mr. Hickey? Won’t he?” The old man said nothing, peeling cellophane from a Tiparillo box with the needy tenderness of a tobacco fiend—undressed the box, really, tugging a red strip, lifting off the flimsy blouse above it and sliding down the skirt below and placing both garments next to the ashtray. In the ashtray already were nine plastic cigar tips, each with a dark shag of ash protruding from the fat end like rotten incisor roots. The sucked narrow end shined like bone, hollow and faintly smudged by Mr. Hickey’s kisses. “Ali will answer the bell,” I mumbled. Mr. Hickey lifted an open hand and turned it over twice, as if to say—ech, that might not be so good, a kidney punch can cripple, saw it once at the Muscatine County Fair, Sugar Stevens laid out flat. He inhaled. He exhaled. The smoke twisted into awful midair faces—contorted mouths and noses and ears not unlike those of the foam-rubber store mascots mother often pointed out to me as role models. Her fondest wish was that I become a penniless unwashed and/or deranged poet like all those bleary angels pictured on the wanted-poster cover of The Little Treasury of American Poetry (mug shots of Walt Whitman and gang), but epic poems like “Song of Myself” did not come easy, and if I failed to produce such a masterpiece by age eighteen, then, well, then I should do the next best thing: don a cheese-wedge costume and wave and smile at passing cars with an eighteen-inch rubber smoocher while suffocating under twenty-eight pounds of orange foam rubber. “Wouldn’t it be fun to be Mr. Cheddar?” she chirped. “Sure,” I said to her, and promised myself: Never never never, I’d rather feed myself to the rollers of Lock and Dam 13. I wanted to be fancy-free like Ali. Stable and reliable and as well-provisioned as Hickey. Safely free—if such a thing was possible—orbiting absolutely untethered around a Kelvinator provisioned with pimpled 7-Up bottles and salmon loaf. “Heavens,” whispered my host, without a following “to Betsy.” His oyster eyes disappeared into their deep shells, the bald head fell forward so it was possible to see the dent marking the spot where he had been dealt that knockout blow by a swinging boom on a Coast Guard ship. Dead-tired, my neighbor, not dead—his yellowed Arrow shirt undulated with shallow yet intent breath. I left that old sea lion sleeping, made my way to the window, rubbing a peephole in the steam. The moon glowed down on our backyard trash—the boxes of all sizes, the bags, the cans, the bottles, the circulars, the Pennysavers, the junk mail, the paperbacks, the newspapers and slick magazines stripped of valuable Chas. Addams cartoons or sex-advice columns or sage quotes for businessmen and nincompoops like us to memorize and flaunt. The light was the hue of adhesive: it made me want some glue. Glue enough to put the tons of garbage together, build a Watts tower of trash that would cast a long shadow to the Mississippi River like a phantom tributary. I had to find a way to make use of the stuff of our existence—low as it was, worthless though it appeared. Because it was not without value. How could we be nothing if our lives were woven entirely of the tatters and shreds of America, the undeniably beautiful? We were . . . something. We belonged, somehow. The nation was not just the best in its people but the worst in them, too. It was about clinging to ideals like Mr. Hickey did and losing them like we did each day, and Mr. Dankert, also, with his jokes about Polacks, and Mr. Major with his wife-beating—every generation figuring out its own new way to squander, or utilize, the tremendous gift of freedom. The pane turned glossy with my breath, then paler . . . white as the translucent leaves of a humid jungle closing in, bringing Sanka birds and Lipton lizards and Folger Instant Insects, and in my chest suddenly there was a rustling that was not breath, it was a cabana patron in a frayed tuxedo, flipping through movie stills—photos of Erroll Flynn and Greta Garbo and Glenn Ford and Leo Gorcey and Abbott and Costello and the Bride of Frankenstein with the four-foot hairdo. She was the love of his life, really, he had dressed like a groom to see that movie and then cried when the lights had gone up. He had run out of the theater and past the harmonica-playing beggar, past the legless fortune teller, climbing the glittering ridge to reach the night behind Cuban casinos, there with the rotting heaps of lemons and limes and rats and the moldering discarded villa furniture. He blew the fetid kisses of last resort, blew kisses to the rats, the bats, the gamblers, the prostitutes, the sportswriters—Robert Markus, Dave Condon, Jerome Holtzman—and more kisses to the poppy sellers, the Siamese cats, the dogs, the dead fish, the ace of spades and the piano players and the palm trees, and . . . “Benny, come here.” Mr. Hickey had risen, was waving me over. On the floor burned a Tiparillo. I rushed to him—no heart attack and no dream, better: the five-band radio. News crackling over the receiver. “TKO by Ali. In the eighth round. Foreman came out tired, hands low. Ali went at him, swinging—a right, a left, the champ fell. Hit the canvas. Whipped. Ali fooled the kid into punching himself out. Calls it ‘rope-a-dope.’ A minute ago, in the press room. Rope-a-dope, rope-a-dope. Again, here in Zaire, it’s Ali! Ali. Ali, everyone! Ali wins! Ali’s done it again!”