Daddy, please, don't fight Tyson.
Why you say that, baby?
He's gonna knock you out, Daddy.
He might, Michelle. But I might knock him out, too.
He's gonna hurt you, Daddy.
He might. But I might hurt him, too.
Daddy . . .
Shelly, don't say those things to your father, it's not right. Just pray I don't get hurt. Just pray.
But Daddy. . . .
Michael Spinks stares at the ceiling. There is silence on the phone. His little girl is seven now. Perhaps the time has come to tell her everything, about life and death and fear and God and the Tysons stalking all of us, about how to dodge and feint, grab and let go, risk and run back to the shadows: how heavyweight champions and little girls survive. A million thoughts are running through his head; maybe seven's too young and he won't do it now, but one day soon he'll have to tell her. . . .
See, when I was your age, Shelly, I was already askin' Why? I'd get up at 6 a.m., before the nigger gangsters in the project with their rifles and banana clips full of bullets were up and about, and I'd lie in a patch of grass, starin' up at the sky, just thinkin', imaginin', wonderin'. Didn't see too many other folks there doin' that. Maybe that's why I'm a different sort of man and my lesson might sound strange.
I ain't gonna scream at you, This is the way. All I'm gonna do is whisper, This could be the way. It's worked for me—I am a survivor. All those cats I grew up with, now in jail or dead, and this ol' boy's still kickin'. All those boxers who won gold medals with me in '76—and only this ol' boy's still go-in' strong. I live like I box, and I box like I live: I stay out of the way, I cover my flanks, I'm somewhere in the woodwork. Got a fightin' style people can't find words for; got a mailbox with another man's name on it; got a house tucked, so close behind my neighbor's it leaves people drivin' up and down my road, scratchin' their heads and wonderin', Where is Michael Spinks? That's perfect, Shelly. I'm 31-and-oh, I'm undefeated.
One day soon you're gonna move out of your grandma's place and join me in the woodwork. We got to wait just a little bit longer, baby, we got to wait till after me and. . . .
Know what? I'm scared of fightin' him, too; I look at that man and get bad dreams, same as you do. Only difference from anybody else who fights him is that I admit it: Go ahead, boy, I tell myself, smell and taste and feel it, lie down and roll in it. Shouldn't pretend you're not afraid if you are, Michelle; start off with one big lie like that on the ground floor and you're only gonna have to prop it up with more and more little ones to keep it standin'. One good punch, one bad wind, one hard knock in life, and that house of lies come tumblin' down, and all the fear you pretended not to feel beforehand gonna gang up and run through you like a pack of wild dogs.
I guess boxers—I mean, people—need to count on things so bad, they'll do anything to fool themselves. Listen to me, Shelly—never count on nothin', 'less you want life to take it away. Maybe I counted on havin' runnin' water and heat in the winter when I was a boy, till the copper thieves ripped the pipes out of the walls and the water ran everywhere and the floors turned to ice and we had to huddle 'round the kitchen stove in our coats. Maybe I counted on havin' a daddy all my life, till that night I heard him kickin' on the door and screamin', and mama screamin' back at him to go away. And so he did—no more daddy. Maybe you counted on havin' a mommy all your life till that night Sandy made one wrong move on the expressway, and . . . O.K., baby, I won't talk about that, I won't, I'm sorry, I won't.
I know, it's hard not to look forward to stuff—I did it all the time when I was your age. Used to tell my friends before every Christmas what presents I was gonna get—see, I didn't even understand we were poor. Then the day would come, and they'd say, "Did you get it, Mike, did you get it?" and I couldn't even look 'em in the eye. I try to hide it, but when I'm let down, Michelle, it hurts bad, very, very bad. So finally one Christmas I kept it to myself, told no one in the world what I wanted. And guess what? I got it! Still keep it to this day—a Tyco racin' set.
Sure, Shelly, I can show you! And I decided after that never to look forward to nothin'—even two years ago, when everyone told me I'd walk over that Norwegian dude. Tangstad, I kept tellin' myself, No, no, the guy's a monster, why in the world they all tryin' to trick me? Every time I see myself fightin' Tyson, the minute the movie reel in my head gets near the finish, my heart starts hammerin' and my palms get wet and I tell my mind, No, stop it, man, stop! Don't care how many experts say you should picture yourself achievin' something before you try to do it—no sir, not this boy, that's messin' with life, that's messin' with God. Your Uncle Leon messed that way, and look what happened. There are signs in this life, Michelle, and if you don't pay 'em heed, it's all gonna blow up in your face. Your face too pretty for that, Shel.
Yeah, I got me a few powder burns, so I keep an eagle eye on myself. Keep my four title belts packed away in a box instead of out where I can see 'em. Don't read about myself or watch myself on tape. Don't let people call me champ, almost never go to fights, don't even follow boxin' anymore. Folks told me I was gonna have to defend my title against Tony Tucker a while back, the Number One contender. Your daddy didn't even know who Tony Tucker was.
Funny. Folks tell me boxin' is very important to Tyson, that he likes to beat people up, that he needs to. Well, I don't need it, and I don't even like it, it's just something I'm good at and they pay me for.
Who wins when two cats like that meet up, one who needs it very, very badly to live with himself and the other who doesn't need it much at all? Shelly, don't say things like that, don't even think 'em. Just pray for me. Just pray.
Michael Spinks stares at the ceiling. There is silence on the phone. A million things he wants to tell his little girl right now, but he has yet to say even one of them. No, he couldn't say any of this to her; God, she's so young, he can still smell the baby on her when they press their cheeks. But, Daddy, she'd surely say. No, honey, don't "but Daddy" me now or I'm gonna have to tell you everything—about how to make people happy and keep them confused, how to change colors like a lizard in the sand, how a man with a bird's chest and octopus arms can enter a ring against a raw block of muscle and rage and find a way to . . . no, stop right there, ain't no way I can let myself say it. (There's something odd goin' on inside me, something strange about this fight. Why am I excited about it, why is part of me lookin' forward to it? That's not right, I've got to stop, that's not me. . . .)
See, baby, sometimes you have to be exactly what people expect you to be, and sometimes you got to be what they never dreamed you'd be at all. I started to learn the way of the chameleon when I was tiny as you, back in St. Louis in the project they dynamited to dust years ago so no one would have to look at it or think about it no more. Used to be these breezeways alongside the buildings, where everyone hung out, and each and every one of them a different world. One breezeway for young people, one for old, one for killers, one for junkies, one for people nice as pie. To survive you had to be somebody different each one you walked into, you had to be able to change. This world's like that, Shelly; stay like water, girl, know how to change shape wherever you get poured.
Ever tell you about the time I was ridin' alone on East River Drive in Philly back in '82? This song came on the radio, the singer expressin' to his lady how grateful he was for all she'd done for him. I took it as somethin' spiritual, started thinkin' how grateful I should be to God for all He'd done for me, and how I never expressed it enough, and it just stabbed me, and I started cryin' right there at the wheel, I mean loud, the kind of cryin' that makes it hard to see and breathe. All at once I thought, Somethin' terrible could happen to me right this very minute, and I'd deserve it, I've been so ungrateful to God. So I pulled to the side of the road, opened the door, got out and bent over to collect myself and spit all the phlegm out of my throat, and suddenly I look up and there's four police cars and a paddy wagon pullin' over. Oh, Laaawd. As if God was sayin', You think you deserve it, boy? Then you got it; I'll mess up all your Sundays if you want it.
"What's your name?" one cop says.
"Got your driver's license?"
"Uh, no sir. Not with me."
"All right, up against the car, spread your arms. You look funny, what's wrong with you? You doin' drugs? I hear all you boxers do drugs."
"No, sir, no drugs."
"Then what's wrong?"
"Well . . . uh . . . nothin'. . . ."
An hour this goes on, Michelle; inside I'm shakin', but how can I explain? Finally cop says, "Probably some broad." Bingo! In my head it clicked—that's what they wanted to hear.
"Yeah," I say. "Me and my old lady havin' problems."
"Drop the bitch," says the cop. And that was it, like now we were all on the same team.
And you know, that's the way I got to be in public—I got to give 'em what they want so I can protect what is mine. You've seen me, Shelly, I'm a man who likes to throw back his head and laugh like he's bein' tickled—yoo hoo hoo, hee hee hee—and to close my eyes and sing like an ol' hound dog—Don't you know I want you by my side, wo wo wo, ow ow owwwww—but that's gettin' harder and harder to do without people starin' at me, pointin' and whisperin', makin' your daddy feel like he's wearin' no clothes. Bein' famous is a painful thing for a careful man like me. What choice do I have? I got to disappear. That's right, child, there are ways you can stand right in front of folks and disappear!
See, I hate it when they watch me trainin', so I always pick out one song I really like, have one of my men rewind it and play it over and over and over during my workout, just as loud as can be. Once you memorize the beat, it's kind of like the little girls on your street who can jump in on a jump rope that's already jumpin'—you just hop inside the beat and disappear!
Then, when my workout's done, I disappear again, a different way. Yes, ma'am, of course I'll sign that for you. Anytime, sir, my pleasure, have yourself a good day. Sometimes I hear them say it so often—oh, he's such a nice, sweet guy—I start wantin' to throw up. Michelle, if only they knew! I mean, I am a nice guy, but I ain't no shade tree. Don't shake me or touch me, and you're fine. But leave me be; I got a temper. Everyone in my family's got a temper, but mine was always worst of all; once I even threw a can of chicken noodle soup at my poor sister's head. There's this crazy man inside me, but I buried him way deep 'cause I couldn't control him; listen to me, Shelly, he's in you, too, and he'll eat you up alive 'less you can eat him first.
You don't believe that can happen? Then you don't know the story of my lumberjack jeans with the red flannel trim. Every day in fifth grade, rain or shine, those jeans were what I wore, yeah, wore 'em till my knees poked through. See. I stuttered back then and thought I was ugly, and I counted on them lumberjacks to get me by. One day this girl in class walks up the aisle—hadn't told a soul, but I'd fallen for her real bad—and just as she passes me, her legs get tangled, and she trips.
"He did it!" she says, pointing at me.
"No I didn't," I say, but before I know it the teacher grabs my leg and raps it with her pointer, shoutin', "Yes you did, you with your holey pants!" That did it, I couldn't control it, I ran out cryin' for shame and didn't come back. Walked the streets cryin' for three days, angry at God and the world. And one thing just sort of bumped into the next after that, it all got away from me. I transferred to a different school, didn't do well there, then transferred to a third school and lived with my aunt. I'd done all right in school till then, but with all the switchin', I kept fallin' further and further behind. By the time I reached 11th grade I felt so dumb and lost in school, I quit.
God knows where my life was headin'—got in trouble with the law for little things that might have gotten bigger if I hadn't gotten that one good scare. See, one night me and two other guys go up to this man and tell him to give us his money. All he has is 17 cents and a check for $150, so one of the guys with me, just for spite, decides to tear the check to pieces. Little while later we pass the man on the street again, and he yells, and before I know it the cops come roarin' up, on foot and by car. "Stop!" they shout, but we start runnin', and the cop car's screamin' after me, and I break around a corner and down an alley, my mouth like sand, my chest thumpin' in my ears, my ears feelin' like they gonna burn, and I knew right then I ain't got the heart for this. Cops caught one of the two other guys. Your daddy ran free.
Don't take too many risks no more. Didn't even want to box again after I won the gold medal—took a job moppin' floors in a chemical plant near St. Louis, was just plannin' to ride it out there. Then one night this foreman screamed at me like a dog for fallin' asleep, and I didn't know what else to turn to.
I go dancin' now when I need to let the crazy me get out for a little air, dance till dawn, try to leave him in a sweat puddle right there on the floor. He always seems to show up again when it's gettin' close to a fight—shoulda seen me tear apart my room when I couldn't find one of my lucky socks a month before fightin' Cooney.
But mostly I keep silent. You've seen me, Michelle, I live in my bedroom; I could rent out the rest of that house for storage. Barely a stick of furniture after almost three years there—just my bedroom with the stereo and the TV, and some days all I need is the bed. I'll just lay there in the quiet, hours pilin' on hours, thinkin' out loud to myself, starin' at the ceiling. Remember when they turned ahead the clocks in April? Two days passed before your daddy even knew.
Who am I? No one really knows, Shelly. Ain't got many friends, I prefer it that way. Got my promoter, Butch Lewis, guy who wears tuxedos with no shirt and can talk like a hurricane. All I got to say to people is, Uh-huh, that's right, go talk to Butch. Then there's my brother Leon, who a lot of folks still mix me up with. Lord knows, I ain't Leon; that's the man inside me I locked away. Folks say my name and get no picture, no style or mood to fix me by. Who am I? I'm a middleweight, a light heavyweight, a heavyweight. I'm whoever it takes to survive.
See, Shelly, if you're not any one way too long, you're free to be any which way. Night I took the title from Larry Holmes—who was I? Thought about him for weeks before that fight, knew how full he was of macho pride. So I came out early with a crazy man's eyes, dared him to slug, held my hands low and waved to him, C'mon, sucker, c'mon—Michelle, I looked down at my hand doing that and couldn't believe it was hooked to me! Threw punches at him from Jupiter, Mars and the moon, didn't care where they landed, just wanted him to think I was from outer space. And it worked, it freaked him. I saw fear in his eyes when he realized I wasn't the man he expected, the one he thought would run.
See, sometimes you got to be the nigger gangster, and sometimes nice as pie. Night I fought Gerry Cooney—who was I? Fourth round, I'm feelin' a little tired. That's O.K., I figure, don't hide it, let him think I'm whipped. See, when Cooney figures he's got his man beat, he opens up his arms and comes at him the way I do to you, baby, when I haven't seen you in a month, and the second he did that—bam, bam, bam, I went crazy. That's the part I love about boxin'—observin', thinkin', confusin', changin'. Let 'em call me awkward, let 'em call me strange, let 'em call me Michael Spinks and not know who I am.
I'll dip, I'll duck, I'll lurch, I'll charge, I'll cower—which me will Tyson see? Ain't sayin'. This is the way, baby. I'm whisperin' that it could be. Do you like yourself yet. Shelly, I mean truly? Do that and you can do the hardest thing of all: lay real still, in your bed, all alone.
You ain't talkin', girl—speak to Daddy. What you thinkin'? Oh yes, I want you to have a mommy again, I know my all-aloneness ain't so good for you. But I ain't no shade tree, Shelly, I'm independent and stubborn and I'm set in my ways, and if that don't square with what I just told you about changin' colors like a lizard in the sand, I'm sorry, I can't help it. Both are absolutely true.
Can we make a deal? I'll get you a new mommy, but just wait for me; right now my mind's too busy figurin' which me I'll have to be so we can kiss and hug and smile on the 27th when this fight is finally. . . . No, don't say that, baby, don't think it, it's not right to feel those things about your daddy. Just pray for me, Shelly. Just pray.
Michael Spinks stares at the ceiling. There is silence on the phone. Of course not; no, he'd say none of this to his daughter. Not now, anyway.
Let's talk about eatin' ice cream, girl, or a new pair of black shiny shoes, let's shoo that man from your pretty little head. 'Cause I know you're scared, Shel, I'm scared too; I know my meter's runnin'. See, God lets us do things that aren't altogether good for us—like boxin' heavyweights or drivin' fast or drinkin' rum—yeah, He lets us, but He always flips the meter on. A careful man like me, you'd think I'd remember that, but only last year I was drivin' home one night, dark road, 4 a.m., and I tried to trick the meter. Ten minutes, that's all I give myself to drive fast each day, "cause somethin' in me loves to, but this time I let it slide to 15 . . . 16 . . . 20. Came around a bend, swerved to miss a car, hit a stone, musta done a couple flips, I don't even remember. Next thing I know the back windshield's gone and the car's totaled and I'm lucky to be alive. And the strangest thing, I'd been desirin' a new car for months—watch what you ask for, Shelly; God'll give it to you in a way you don't expect it.
Every time I do too much wantin', too much reachin', too much pushin', life's waitin' just around the bend to crush me. Even the one time I played the slot machines, I did it right; I pulled the lever inch by inch, real slow; I didn't yank it. You got to kind of feather life, Shelly; it's as if God built a spring action into it that lets you nudge it a little bit, maybe a little bit more, and then—pull back, baby, payback's comin'! I seen it happen to Leon, seen it happen to me, seen it happen all around me. Manager of our project shot my dog one day just for barkin'. Good ol' doggie, Major was, only one I ever had that didn't get the mange. I followed the blood drops till they disappeared, couldn't ever find where he went off to die, and felt too bad to cry. My mother, she's a very religious woman. She said that man'd get his, and sure enough, ended up crushed to death inside a car.
It's a hard thing, knowin' that everything you do in this life gonna circle back to you, gonna come out in the wash, but maybe it's even harder if you look at bad things as happenin' for no reason at all—then none of us got any say. And now I know you're gonna ask the question, go ahead, girl, I can feel it comin', but I can't answer it, baby. I just don't know. I'd like to believe it wasn't 'cause she done anything wrong that your mommy got crushed in the car, or because I done anything wrong. I'd like to think that the Lord just wanted her then, baby, that it was her time . . . but baby, I don't know.
Oh, Michelle, if only you knew how your daddy used to blame himself. Listen, baby, I'm gonna tell you the whole story of that time, and then I'm gonna stop talkin', 'cause I can't go on like this no longer. See, it all started early in January 1983, two months before the biggest fight of my life, when I was drivin' my car in Philly with your uncle Leland, and the cops pulled me over and found this gun. Something innocent, baby—I never carried no gun, it was just a gift that some guy had given me after the Olympics that I shot off into the sky on New Year's Eve, the way we did back as kids, and then stuck it under the seat and forgot about. But you can never be careful enough, I can't tell you that enough times, ordinary turns into crazy in a heartbeat. Next day it's all over the papers, Michael Spinks in a high-speed chase, which wasn't true, carryin' a gun reported stolen in Canada, which I knew nothin' at all about, and everybody sayin', see, just like his brother Leon.
Few days later I got a press conference to go to in Atlantic City, to talk about fightin' Dwight Braxton. He was light heavyweight champion at the time, and so was your daddy—don't ask me to explain. And your mommy asks if she can go with me. We were arguin' some at the time, not gettin' along so well. And she had this way of takin' forever to get ready to go somewhere. So your daddy said no, child. Your daddy said no.
I go off to Atlantic City. And your mommy, she gets in a car that night, going God knows where, and she's passin' this ramp on the expressway, and God knows why, but she . . . she doesn't see this other car. Baby, the next day when I saw what was left of the car your mommy was in, I fell down and cried, and I cried every day for weeks, right out in public, made people look up from their plates in restaurants and then look away; your daddy couldn't bear the guilt and pain. Went to the house to pack her things up and, Shelly, I still can't figure it, Sandy had packed all her clothes into suitcases before she'd got in that car, as if she knew she and this world were partin'.
What had I done to deserve this, I kept askin' God, but I knew it couldn't be one thing, it had to be a whole list. But instead of soothin' me, God just kept right on poundin'. My brand-new car gets stolen a few weeks later, on the day I leave for training camp, then my sparring partner slams me in the ribs so hard I can't take a breath without squinchin' up my eyes, and here I got this fight against the toughest guy in my division and I'm doubled up in pain on both the outside and the inside, my life feelin' like it's comin' off its hinges, like it did when I was young, and I'm beggin' someone to say the words for me 'cause I can't bring my lips to say 'em—please, call off the fight.
So now I'm in the locker room, few minutes before I got to fight Braxton, who's a Tyson minus 40 pounds, and your aunt all of a sudden brings you in. You were two then, baby, and you look at me with those big eyes and say, "Where's Mommy?" and that did it, all my fightin' thoughts just leaked away, and I crushed you to my chest and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. And all of a sudden people are shoutin', "It's time! Let's go, Mike! Time to do it, man," and there's tears runnin' down my face beneath my hood on the way to the ring, and there's Braxton, dark and thick, like a cloud.
Shelly, I ain't gonna say this but once, and never again, and excuse my language, and remember it when your in-sides are shakin' and Tyson's standin' there starin' at me in the ring: Your daddy is one tough sonofabitch.
I beat Braxton. Beat him and held my head in disbelief and babbled like I was talkin' in tongues and wondered what had made God finally stop shakin' me 'tween his teeth. And decided that I just had to start livin' even more careful than before, even though I thought I was livin' careful, decided I had to circle up my wagons even tighter. And still, over and over to this day, I keep havin' this same dream, me walkin' on a flat surface with holes everywhere, and just thin little spaces between 'em to put my foot down on, and whump, I keep fallin' through, catchin' myself at the armpits at the very last second, then pullin' myself up again, tryin' to keep walkin'—God knows where—tryin' to step more and more careful.
And now it's comin', I can smell it, I can hear it, I can feel it comin', one last question; go ahead, child, ask it:
Why would a very, very, very careful man fight Tyson?
Michael Spinks stares at the ceiling. There is silence on the phone.
Maybe he would answer this the simple way, ask her to hold a dollar bill in her hand and teach her how to multiply it by 13 million.
And maybe he would answer it the hard way: Oh, Shelly, it's so hard for a man of 31 to understand—how in the world could a little girl like you?
Baby, let's pretend somethin'. Let's pretend that, for some reason, it was very bad and dangerous to cry, it could kill you, and so you never let yourself do it, you just always smiled and smiled like all the world was dandy. And that part of you just got locked away, all those tears just got more and more backed up, a whole swimmin' pool of tears.
And then one day someone handed you an onion, and because you had no choice, it was all right to cry, you could cry and cry and cry, let out that whole swimmin' pool of tears! Imagine how great that would feel!
Baby, do you understand now? Tyson's my onion! No, I don't need to cry, that was just pretend, what I need to let go is something different. And it's all" right this time because I never once asked God to let me fight that man, I just waited and waited and finally it happened on its own. That's my sign that it's O.K. And because he fights for blood like no one else I've ever fought, because he makes it do-or-die, I got no choice—I have to let go to survive, I have to wait till he makes a mistake and then go wild—bam, bam, bam—like I've never gone wild before—bam, bam, bam—I have to let that poor crazy man inside me out of his coffin and run absolutely wild, and God'll understand, no paybacks, baby; God won't mind!
Michael Spinks's eyes leave the ceiling. Of course not, no, he couldn't tell her that.
Just pray for me, baby, he says. Just pray.