Muhammad Ali and me
Swaggering, my grandson returns from his privileged school, hand bandaged like an old-time prizefighter’s, describing his day’s slice of life. Routine that scunnered me burns through the lattices of my brain, memory like hunger tracking past terrain, that young time, needing a hero to shield hope’s guttering candle straining through life’s contests; wins, losses, those stalemates, draws.
The wound focuses me on hands; mine then, oil-stained charts crisscrossed with fine cuts on cold steel days, and fellow factory-hands, their overweening suspicion of education, art, travel, sexual love, ambition, even me because I pored over a newspaper daily.
We believed ex-con Sonny Liston’s huge hands would destroy that dancing poet, Ali, who still fought under his slave name, Cassius Clay, then. The long odds on offer about his chances tempted me. Although change was in the air my nerve wavered. Martin Luther King had recently shared his dream. Mine, more a gut feeling, was to emerge from the misery of those mill days, the train rail smell of steel, lest I became too angry, quagmired.
A whiff of sulphur surrounded Sonny, a ring thug owned by the Mob, whose wife taught him how to autograph his photos. Crouching out of our foreman’s sight in those vast halls, smoking rollies, rays of sunlight slanting through high windows blessing us, we listened in shock to the Miami Beach duel from the other side of the world as Ali humbled hulking Sonny for his sins, showcasing style and self-belief.
Now that age has pulled me back a peg, my past momentarily alive: brake press boredom, that shafted sunlight on the guillotine, memory’s scar tissue, my grandson, a wounded warrior with his life before him, this kid I love enjoying the limelight, requests painkillers.
My deaf sister, short-term memory flapped away, a crow disturbed in a castle’s eerie ruins, a condition I recognise, forgetfulness punctuating my own days now, stone walls cracked and crumbling, recalled me as a troubled thirteen year-old; my attempts to flee clapperclawing domestic cruelty as she had done years earlier at sixteen. Post-war immigrants, our parents carried the DNA blueprint for distress, their bid for a spangled rebirth stymied because psychobaggage crushed them, threatening all of us.
In my sister’s house, décor camera-fed, some photographs gallery-sized, where she begged not to be left alone before being moved into the comparative safety of aged-care just ahead of Covid 19’s malevolence, I confessed that in my adolescence I had ghosted away unnoticed from her traditional wedding group. Even today, a fish in an aquarium, when near other people I am separate from them. This triggered her search through her pictorial archive rummaging for mostly non-existent signs of me, as boy and man, my presence over the years like photographic motion-blur.
She confused her sons’ names, spoke of one whose death had wasted her several years ago as if he still lived. I reminded her to put tea in the pot, knowing she thought she already had. Most people would have been eating at that time. I preferred avoiding the chaos of a meal, her fridge an abandoned cave with evidence of former habitation. Because she repeatedly complained of boredom I coaxed her to name countries visited during her middle-aged travelling phase after her divorce, seeking to reach her love of place, but the subject would fall away before she tried to begin again, her bravura non-sequiturs bewildering, touching.
Although I can no longer visit my sentimental sister I return to her anecdote about waking at dawn in a loveseat in her aromatic garden beneath the canopy of a towering elm she planted. Weather warm, she had drifted off as dusk descended, sleeping under a swirl of stars. When the birds’ breakfast chorus greeted her she said it was a glorious moment. Hallowed, I thought. I remember her as a promising teenaged athlete, and helping with my early reading, also my escape from our harsh home to the city blazing with life where she lived then. We endure, like her elm, until our vanishing points.