Steven D. Stark - The Bet

Horace’s long-standing significant other Mary Ellen had ordered him out of the house “on the spot.” That meant now, which meant no breakfast, which meant he’d definitely have to stop somewhere on I-65, Montgomery to Mobile, because he needed gas too.

The Shell in Evergreen is open all night, not that it matters because it’s morning. And there’s JJ’s QV in Greenville. But new beginnings can sometimes lead to new departures -- in this case, Route 114, headed to Georgiana.

About a mile down the road, there’s the empty gravel lot of Mike’s Store, boasting a single pump and a small lot behind. Horace gets out, knees crackling.

"You oughta see this."

A dislocated but demanding voice summons him. Behind the store, to Horace’s right, rests the specter of an old man, seated in a wicker chair on his porch. The back of the fellow’s shack faces the rear of the store, so the old-timer has a fine view of anyone who happens to land at Mike’s. The old fellow is also cheek-to-cheek with a huge flat screen television, maybe 42 inches. It’s like finding a choice sirloin at Dairy Queen.

"You gotta see this," the old man says again, voice cracking.

On another day, Horace begs off and never gives it another thought. But it’s already sultry enough that sunglasses cloud when drivers emerge from their motorized lockups and that has to be a beer the geezer is swilling out of a brown paper bag. Besides, today is already distinct – a dream with a mind of its own.

"Excuse me?" Horace says, moving into the shade and scattering dust.

"This is something," the old man says, pointing to the television. Barefoot, he’s sporting faded light blue pajamas. Then again, they could be seasoned medical scrubs or, now that Horace makes himself remember, an old-fashioned prison suit courtesy of Atmore. In his lap, the old fella clasps a small green leather handbag.

"I've waited years for this," the old man says.

There’s a lot Horace has never experienced. Waiting he knows. Groggy with heat, the porch looks worse up close than afar, with no furniture other than that decaying beach chair and the TV stand, of course. On the enormous television, Muhammad Ali has just climbed into the ring and is taking off his robe. Joe Frazier is pacing in the other corner. On the lower part of the screen, it says, "LIVE FROM MANILA."

"The thrilla in Manila," Horace says. "I remember that one from God knows when."

"Joe's gonna whup that loudmouth," the old man practically shouts.

"Excuse me?"

"I've been waiting years for someone to shut him up for good." The old man makes a sour face. "Joe's gonna whup that colored man."

That word again. It’s been a long time.

“I think they're both colored," replies Horace.

"Don't tell me you're one of those fellas that likes Clay?"

Horace takes off his crown, a “B & G Trucking” mesh hat, and puts it on again. In the retelling, it won’t be easy to explain to Mary Ellen how he wound up here.

Damn, how dumb is that?

The fighters are returning to their corners after the pre-fight instructions. Ali is praying, as he always does, gloves outstretched.

"I'll tell you what," the old man says, spraying spit out of a hole where some teeth used to be. It’s hard to tell if he’s trying to grow a beard or has simply quit trying to shave, the way old men sometimes do. "I'll bet you a thousand dollars that Joe whups Clay this time once and for all."

"You don't have a thousand dollars," replies Horace, lending a hand.

"I don't have a thousand dollars?" the old man bellows. "I don't have a thousand dollars?" He reaches into his handbag -- better to call it that than a purse -- and with a twitching hand starts pulling out bills. Fives, tens, twenties, even a few fifties.

"Count it.”

The fight has started and the accounting begins, as the old man keeps producing bills.

When he’s finished, Horace says, “There’s only $635 here.”

"Then I'll bet you $635 then! What's ‘a matter? You don't think Clay can win?"

__________

"Denise, look at this," was what Horace had said when he watched the fight the first time- Wide World of Sports replayed it back in 1975. He was 19 then, shirtless, in a dim apartment encircled by the moist fragrance of baby shampoo and dirty diapers, accompanied by belligerent kitchen flies and a half-bottle of Jamesons he finished a day later. In his exhilaration over the fight, he didn't realize that Denise was packing. A day later she walked out for good, baby in tow. "Regretfully yours," was the way she signed her exit note, taped to a six-pack in a refrigerator that was repossessed the following month.

Or, come to think of it, had she finally walked out after the third Norton fight a year later?

__________

The first round is almost over. Ali is dominating the action, peppering Frazier with jabs. "You're not doing so well so far," Horace explains to the old man. “Why don’t we just call it off?”

"Hah," the old man says. "Hah. Hah."

Time for one of those beers, to “think on it,” as Mary Ellen says. Horace walks through the doorframe and on into the kitchen. It’s one thing to not have a back door. But no refrigerator?

"Trying to back out?" the old man hollers when Horace returns. "Frazier's my man."

He sticks out a paw. If Methuselah wants to make a bet this badly, who’s to argue?

They shake as the bell ends the second round. The old man is wearing a silver wedding ring but his finger is so wasted the ring falls off in Horace’s hand. The old man greedily grabs it back.

"You're a real sucker," he says, waving his hand wildly, as if he isn’t the greasy one. "Pull up a chair."

But there isn’t one.

Round three goes much like the first two. "Joe's just getting warmed up. He's just getting warmed up," the old man says.

"I don't think so,” says Horace.

On the super screen, Ali begins to joke and gesture to the fans. "Ali! Ali! Ali!" they shout in return.

__________

When Ali fought Leon Spinks the second time, late in his career in New Orleans, he blew kisses to the crowd after the fight was over, as his handlers carried him around the ring. That was neat: Horace did the same thing to everyone in the bar watching that night too.

Two weeks later, as his daughter left after a weekend visitation, he blew her the same kiss. She just made a face and ran to the car.

"I am the greatest!" he shouted, as the mustard Mustang convertible of his ex retreated into another world.

__________

"Fellas like you don't know anything about boxin'," the old man says. "Ever hear about Kid Gavilan?"

Horace hasn’t and replies, "Everyone knows about Kid Gavilan."

The old man belches, a trumpet call. "Then what about Sailor Thomas?"

The conversation is moving into familiar territory. "Sailor Thomas was a wrestler," replies Horace.

"He was not! He was not!"

Horace puts up his hands to surrender the point. Bad idea: One of the flies attacks him.

“Shit.”

"Sailor Thomas was one of the greats," the old man continues, disregarding Horace’s distress. "He never ducked a conductor."

He must have meant “contender” but why point this out now, just as it would be foolish to mention that in round five, Frazier is taking it to Ali with body punches. No sense getting gramps more worked up in his pipe dream.

"I saw Sailor Thomas up close many times in Mobile," the old man goes on. "He had a tattoo of a naked lady on his arm. And he could ripple his muscles better than any man." He thrusts a bony forearm in Horace’s general direction.

"Here. Feel this."

Manners have their place but this is a bridge too far.

"Yellow, huh? Feel it."

Do as you’re told. It’s a broken twig.

"I told you," the old man says proudly.

The fight continues. The announcer is saying he doesn’t see how Ali can take this kind of punishment much longer in the heat of Manila. Except he says, "Pun-ish-ment" real slowly, as if he’s sampling the taste of every syllable. The camera shows a close-up of the nation’s President between rounds. He wears a white suit, head to toe, just like Colonel Sanders.

"I've lived here for 24 years," the old man says.

When Horace and Mary Ellen were together, she did the talking. It’s easy to get hooked on that.

"I've watched a lot of sports," the fossil says hopefully. "I've seen a lot of things."

A nice response would be to reply, "What things?" But Mary Ellen isn’t here is she? And it's not like this fellow needs a lot of prompting to go on.

"You curious about what I'm doing here?" the old man asks.

When Ali returned from retirement for his last title fight against Larry Holmes in 1980, Horace scrimped up a few bucks so he could watch the fight on closed circuit TV at an arena. He had never done this but it was a special occasion -- Ali's triumphant return. On the day of the fight, he left work at the garage early and met some friends for a few drinks. OK, maybe a bit more than a few. At five, he went home to take a nap, setting the alarm for eight, so he'd have plenty of time to get to the arena and catch the fighters in their dressing rooms before the big event. Ali always did something special then.

When Horace woke up, the radio was on and the clock read 1:38. The first thing he heard was, "For the first time in his career, Ali took a real pummeling. Fighters can get old overnight."

There was nothing else to do so Horace smoked a joint and went back to sleep. Years later, some his friends still loved telling the story. But it had begun to make him feel bad so he stopped hanging out with them.

__________

"Whoo-eee!" The old man tries to clap but his hands go in different directions.

Ali is seated in his corner, breathing hard. His corner men are waving towels in his face. One appears close to tears.

"He's gonna quit against Frazier," the old man squeals. "He's gonna quit."

Call it, how to show an old-timer a good time.

"Double or nuthin?" the relic asks him.

"You don't have the money," Horace replies.

"I don't need it," the old man says. "I don't need it. This thing will end soon. Look at Clay! Double or nuthin'. Double or nuthin'."

They say to never press your luck, but Father Time is never going to listen to anything Horace tells him. He never did. They shake on it.

The fight is now in the late rounds.

__________

Once, Horace met Ali. Well, not actually met him but seen him up close. It was before Ali got sick, the way he is now. He was speaking at a hotel in New Orleans, at least four hours away since the Interstate wasn’t finished then. Horace took his girlfriend to the hotel and they waited in the lobby for Ali to appear. He was late and they stood a long time. Finally, the entourage swung around the corner, eight deep, Ali in the middle. All the light in the room seemed to go to that one spot.

When Ali was near, Horace stepped forward, his girlfriend in hand. "Champ," he called out. Ali glanced in his direction and then stopped and looked over his shoulder. He grabbed his girlfriend's other hand.

"I'm the prettiest man in the world," he said winking.

"I know," she answered.

And then he was gone.

"I think he liked me," his girlfriend said, drawing on a cigarette on the long ride home.

__________

"Can you read?" the old man asks.

"Can you?" answers Horace, even though he knows the answer. Mary Ellen once told him that one way to make polite conversation is to repeat the same question back. “Back at you,” she called it.

"My wife could."

“Your wife?”

“Could read,” the old fogy says. “My wife used to read the paper aloud every single day, including Sundays. Even the funnies. She liked the Katzenjammer Kids the best. You like them?"

This graybeard knows the answer to that too and Horace is of a mind to tell him. But there’s a fight to watch. Horace salutes the screen.

"Oh no," is all the old man can say now. “Oh no.”

Ali's punches are coming from every angle. Frazier's eyes are reduced to slivers and he’s bleeding badly at the mouth. The announcer is saying that Frazier is going down. Going down! Still he stays up, though he has to be led to his corner when the bell rings.

It’s hard to tell who looks worse -- Frazier or the golden ager whose upper lip can’t stop quivering. Frazier's manager is refusing to let his fighter out of the corner, fearing further punishment. Ali has his hands up. The attendants are celebrating, the crowd roaring.

It’s over.

Horace reaches down to take the purse, expecting a struggle like the old days. Instead, the old man straightens and grazes his arm. Instinctively, Horace flinches.

“Are you my brother or my father?” the old man asks.

The  proper thing to do is to not answer the question but use your sleeve to wipe away the drool gathered in the corner of the old man's mouth. Tenderly, the way Horace’s  mother used to do it.

"Still double or nothing?" asks the antique. He whispers it like a child's prayer and it’s not worth answering either. In a spasm, the old man clutches at the remote.

Let him grasp. After all, Radio Shack sells channel changers for only $14.95. It takes several minutes to disconnect the television from the cable, and several more to move the heist to his car. Sure, Horace could use help carrying all that stuff but this fellow is long past that. As he gets into his car, the old man is still seated in his rotting chair, apparently trying to change the stations on the remote control.

“So long Pop,” says Horace. And then he drives away, for what will surely be the last time.

Steven D. Stark is the author of four books and one e-book and has written frequently for a variety of publications including the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times

Posted on December 7, 2013 .