I just learned this morning that Muhammad Ali has died. He was a hero of mine.
Ten years ago, I wrote a short story (unpublished of course) based on my own experience with our neighbors. In it, I mention Ali.
Today, I found the story on one of those hard “floppy” discs, and my husband was kind enough to find the old sidecar-like reader.
To set the stage, so to speak, the narrator’s husband Matt has befriended the neighbor, Brad, who has Multiple Sclerosis. Brad’s wife, Sherrie, is an alcoholic. The narrator (very much like me) is uncomfortable around disabled and troubled folks. She tries to cover it, but not successfully.
Here is an excerpt – with my tribute to Muhammad Ali. Thank you, Mr. Ali, for showing the world how to live a life of kindness and principle.
On Tuesday, Brad had called just before dinner. Sherrie was “asleep”, and he had no food in the house. Would Matt take him to get groceries?
Matt said, “Just tell me what you need, and I’ll get it and bring it over.”
But Brad had been in the house for days, and he really wanted to get out. So Matt walked across the street and started Brad’s van. He got Brad down the rickety ramp, and maneuvered the wheelchair onto the lift. They got to the grocery store, and the lift got stuck with Brad halfway down. Brad laughed but looked very fearful, as Matt tried again and again. A passer-by stopped and they got the thing going with a start that almost dumped Brad on his head. In the grocery store, Brad insisted on managing the cart from his chair, and cereal boxes and spaghetti ended up in the aisle. Then the lift got stuck again bringing Brad back up in the van.
“We laughed ourselves silly, because it was just so awful,” Matt told me that night at dinner. “Poor bastard.”
“And you know,” he added, “most of what he bought was junk food. Tons of candy bars and chips. A few frozen dinners, but mostly candy. I tried to get him to buy some nice steaks, like these – and some vegetables, but he wouldn’t. And he bought cereal, but no milk. I think the cereal is snack food too.”
“Sherrie doesn’t really cook.”
“How do you know that?” Matt asked.
“The pizza boxes. They don’t fit in the trash… she leaves them on top of the barrel.”
“Pizza Palace delivers. Sherrie doesn’t have to drive.”
So he had noticed. Of course, the delivery van probably comes before I get home from work. Matt probably knows the pizza delivery guy. He’s probably looked under the hood of some little Volkswagen with a sign on the top, and laughed about the Red Sox.
I softened a little. “Well at least pizza is a little bit nutritious. And I know it must be hard for Sherrie to get out.”
“I just worry about them. They don’t look very healthy. Especially Brad lately. He’s getting really thin. And he’s so pale. Maybe we could have them over for dinner – a nice home cooked meal.”
“Sure,” I said.
On Thursday night, Sherrie called at 11:30. We had just gone to sleep. Brad had fallen in the transfer from the wheelchair to the bed. Sherrie couldn’t lift him.
“Sometimes I can do it,” Sherrie said on phone, “but this time, I just can’t get him up.”
So Matt put on his jeans and tee and slippers, and made the trip across the street. Brad was all bones and bedsores, and he now wore those awful adult diapers. Matt is so squeamish. Touching Brad made Matt feel faint. But he picked him up, like he’s done a dozen times since we moved here.
“I’m fine,” Brad said, embarrassed.
Matt walked back in the dark. I could hear him washing his hands in the bathroom. He came back to bed.
Sherrie came over on Friday.
I turned from the sink and Sherrie was standing outside the screen door. Just waiting. I opened the door and she stepped over the threshold with a high and slow exaggerated step, as if she had to step over a large obstacle to get in. She was dead drunk.
In her right hand was a can of Bud. In her left hand, she had somehow managed to hold onto a pack of Marlboros, a cigarette lighter, and an ashtray. I wondered irrelevantly how she had opened her own door.
Damn, I thought, looking at the ashtray. She plans to stay a while.
She was dressed in her usual cutoffs, and a tank top with no bra. I guess that was better than when she showed up last week at Connie and Ed’s, wearing her tank top with only her underpants. She sat on their porch for an hour, shooting the shit, apparently unaware that she had forgotten her pants. Connie and Ed pretended they didn’t notice.
“Sit down, Sherrie. I’ll go get Matt.”
I poked my head into the little spare bedroom that Matt used as an office. He was on the phone with his brother. He was a great phone talker, and I always knew with absolute accuracy who was on the line. He had different voices for everyone, voices that were as distinctive to me as kittens were to a mother cat. This was his brother-voice. He reeked big brotherly advice, with as many swear words as you could possibly work into a sentence. For his mother, there was always a strong current of exasperation. My favorite was the way he spoke to my mother. When he’d finally hand me the phone, saying, “It’s your mother”, I’d just smile. Of course it was my mother. There had been no doubt from the first hello. It was his sweetest voice, and I adored him for it.
I once saw this interview with Muhammad Ali. He said that God keeps count of every good act you perform. Ali wanted to make sure he had as many good acts for God to count as he possibly could. He never turned anyone down for a favor or a photograph or a hug. I don’t remember whether Muhammad Ali said this, or whether it is my own conception, but I have this image of all these good deeds written on little individual pieces of paper. God has millions of little papers for Ali. I know He has thousands for Matt. God has very few papers with my name on them.
I closed the door and went back to the kitchen.