The Man Who Put Down Clay

How do you get to know a father — or a man — who defines himself by one single, insurmountable achievement?

Candace Opper | LongreadsJune 2016 | 15 minutes (4365 Words)

 

My father’s fifteen minutes came and went the night he won an arm wrestling match with Muhammad Ali. (Ali was Cassius Clay at the time, but Ali is the household name, and if I am to get any use out of my father it is the brief awe I inspire from his proximity to greatness.) The match went down in the middle of the night at a truck stop in Connecticut, 1965. My not-yet-father, Joe, would have been 33, a Korean War vet cum small-time boxer who had once made his way to Madison Square Garden. At 6’4” and 255 pounds, he loomed over the average man, and was known around those parts as the undefeated arm wrestling champion — or “wrist-wrestling,” as it was then commonly known. This title and the ways it once mattered are now, like my father, extinct.

Clay and his entourage were cruising the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound sometime between his two infamous matches with Sonny Liston. Somewhere along I-95 their bus allegedly broke down and they holed up at Secondi Bros Truck Stop, an infamous 24-hour greasy spoon in my father’s hometown. Joe sometimes worked for the Secondis, so whichever goombah was lucky enough to be hustling diner coffee that night didn’t hesitate to call him down there to challenge the champ.

This is how my father came to wrist-wrestle one of history’s greatest athletes. The details of the event have been extinguished with time, perhaps because I only ever half-listened but more likely because my father harped on what he thought mattered: that he’d won. “I think Clay was a little embarrassed, getting beat so easy,” he’d say at the end of a story he told me every time we saw each other. I’d raise my eyebrows in feigned amazement, and he’d smile at me with the patronizing greediness of someone who knows a secret about you that you don’t yet know.

* * *

My parents never married each other; not particularly remarkable today, but an aberration in our too-rural-for-sidewalks Connecticut town in the ’70s. Even less acceptable: my father was married to someone else and had several grown children before having an affair with my mother, who was not much older than his eldest son.

When he met my mother, she was 27 and a single mom, raising twin toddlers in my grandmother’s Colonial Revival — the same house where she grew up, the same one where she lives now. Considering her modest circumstances, Janie was deceptively glamorous: a svelte figure, hair bleached a honeyed blonde, a fashionable handmade wardrobe.  In photographs she resembles a young Meryl Streep. She liked men and men certainly like her, but after a short, failed marriage she turned her nose up at tradition. “I just wanted to be a mom and didn’t want a man around to spoil that.” My father was a perfect match; he already had a wife and a family, and little interest in replicating those conditions.

My mother proudly claims they kept their relationship platonic for nearly a decade, as though the more years of restraint, the less reprehensibly your deeds are judged. Platonic meant driving into Queens so my father could bet on horses with the high rollers. Other weekends he’d watch my mother play the piano for tips at a restaurant called The Ship’s Wheel, or they’d go to the local OTB, where the waitresses called them “Dirty Joe and Dizzy Jane” — an moniker that lent them a sort of Bonnie-and-Clyde sheen.

I happened in 1980.

me and joe

The author, age three, and her father. (Photo courtesy of Candace Opper.)

Their affair lasted until I was 7. My father was the man who took us out for pizza every Saturday at San Remo’s in the valley. He was large and hard and silvery-gray — his hair, his clothes, his eyes. His cheeks felt like sandpaper and his olive skin smelled like my grandmother’s musty liquor cabinet. On the drive home, he liked to roll down his window and scream at the top of his lungs into the night. Something about his screams terrified me — the shock of a man screaming at all, their startling volume, or the fact that he knew it frightened me and did it anyway.

They parted with little fanfare, after which my father slipped from our Saturday routine like a mid-season TV cancellation. I assumed he had moved away and was surprised to find out years later that he had lived seven minutes away the whole time, in a small red house that we drove by once a week on the way to my gymnastics class.

* * *

There were enough other men around to fill the father void, like the twins’ father and the man who would eventually father my younger sister. There was also Jimmy, the ex-husband with whom my mother endured a brief, childless marriage right out of high school. Janie deems Jimmy the nastiest of her suitors (I recall a story in which he cut all of her clothes into pieces one night because she came home late from work), although I never saw his bad side. To me, Jimmy was a syrupy man who showed up at our door every year on their wedding anniversary with a bouquet of supermarket flowers. Janie would invite him in for coffee and homemade cookies, he would profess his regret at screwing things up, she would smile and nod, and I would wait for an appropriate break in conversation to show Jimmy how well I could do a handstand.

My father remains largely mythical. Not in that he was terribly important, but that much about his life was — and still is — unavailable to me. Most of what I’ve gleaned comes from the handful of stories he deemed worthy of telling and retelling. The rest comes from my mother, who saw more of him than I did but grappled with a flawed man who wanted desperately to be seen as a legend. “A big fish in a little pond,” she says, though, to his credit, he was the most renowned and longest-lasting of her relationships. She seems to know little more than I do, or has chosen to preserve what she does know in a compartment outside my daughterly reach.

When my friends’ nosy parents inquired about my father—an inevitable line of questioning—I’d tell them he painted houses (true) and that he used to be a boxer who once arm-wrestled Muhammad Ali. I wouldn’t realize until much later that they were asking about his function as a father, a role in which I never actually imagined him. I thought of him more like a public figure, a character in the line-up of my mother’s men. “I have four fathers,” I enjoyed telling people. “Like America.” I’m sure I was pitied, but I believed our circumstances to be unique, even enviable. While other children had swimming pools or trampolines to barter for friendship, I had the multi-fathered family; I’d pull aside the curtain and present the men as though they were a goofy sitcom lineup, My Four Dads. I had no clue what a father was supposed to be and didn’t much envy my friends that had the live-in version. Most fathers seemed cold, distant, depleted. They’d return home from work and drink Budweiser alone in a study or a garage. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have one, but I’d end up imagining an entirely different home with a new cast of characters.

The knowledge that I was an illegitimate child — and what that might mean — came later via my friend Lisa, whose parents divorced when we were 14. (Her mother had had a hunch and followed her husband one night from work all the way to his secretary’s house.) Lisa and I often stayed up late in the closet loft her father had built, talking about his epic misdeeds. She rightfully despised her father’s mistress: Pat, the home-wrecker. We talked about how Pat was ugly and pathetic and plotted small, unachievable ways to ruin her life.

Despite our history, my family did not consider itself broken. We just started in pieces and stayed that way, like forever-unassembled furniture.

“What would you do if Pat and your dad had a kid?” I asked one night.

“I would pity it,” she said.

I couldn’t argue with her, but I also couldn’t imagine being pitied for having been born to a Pat; I was certainly no more pitiful than Lisa, whose father had rendered her life unrecognizable. This was the first time I had witnessed a family go from together to broken. Despite our history, my family did not consider itself broken. We just started in pieces and stayed that way, like forever-unassembled furniture.

* * *

Joe reappeared the summer I got my period. I was 12, Bill Clinton was president, and my mother was dating the ex-mayor of a nearby city who was rumored to have embezzled several thousand dollars. I hadn’t seen or heard from my father in six years when his Lincoln Continental rolled up one day, idling ominously in our driveway.

“That’s your father,” my mother said, parting the curtains above the kitchen sink.

“My father?”

“Your father.”

I moved to the second floor to eavesdrop from the safety of the landing. Is that you, Joe? my grandmother joyfully bellowed. Voices tumbled over each other in the hallway. His had not changed. My mother’s instantly transformed into something performative: the tone of a woman masking the sudden realization that her blind date is an escaped convict.

They gathered around the landing and watched me descend the staircase as though I were modeling a prom dress. My father’s enormous physique had persevered, a body that made our home and my small, hunched grandmother appear hobbit-like. He pulled me in for a hug. It felt like being folded into the side of a boulder.

“She’s turning into a woman,” he said when we let go, eyeing me down and up.

“She certainly is.” My mother smiled and nodded.

“How old are you now, honey?”

“Twelve.”

“You got any boyfriends?” he asked. I recoiled and threw my mom an ewww-is-he-serious? Look.

“No boyfriends yet, Joe,” she said.

Is your cherry popped yet? Has she got her cherry popped, Janie?

“Is your cherry popped yet? Has she got her cherry popped, Janie?”

I had once believed this hulk of a man could protect me from the worst of possible scenarios, which — last time we met — amounted to my brothers’ friend Willy tormenting me with wet willies. Now he was the scenario.

So began a series of sporadic visits extending over the next eight years. These have coalesced into a single memory: Joe’s Lincoln Continental in our driveway on a Saturday afternoon, without warning. His looming figure in the doorway. His gray dress pants and track jacket; sometimes a suit jacket, depending on whatever murky engagements follow these visits. He sits in my favorite chair and scans my body from the bottom up, assessing how hungry other men might be to ravage me. I sense he believes this is his most important responsibility as a father: to protect me from men like him. He verbally evaluates my breasts or my increasingly childbearing hips or the status of my virginity as though he is judging cattle at the county fair. Sometimes he tells a dirty joke. Have you ever been caught playing with yourself? I mumble, No, I haven’t, and focus on a distant object in the room like they tell women to do during childbirth. Then you must have a good hiding place. This: a father. I’m only kidding wichoo. Janie look at her, she’s embarrassed. He laughs the wheezy laugh of an old man about to slip into a coughing fit. On particularly lewd days he reminisces about my mother’s libido and pulls her body into his lap. I watch her face, a face that knows she is no match, that she too must just endure. I can’t stay long. I gotta meet a guy about something. But the visits drag on and on, like piano recitals. When he is through belittling us he talks about himself, often in the third person. Did you know your father was a boxer? As though he’s not sure we’ve met before. He flexes a titanic bicep and requests that I touch it, that I substantiate its hardness with a disinterested nod. Your father fought in Madison Square Garden, he says. Ask your mudder, it’s the troot. He mistakes my indifference for disbelief. Eventually he tells the Cassius Clay story. When he finally leaves, he tells me he loves me. I love you too, I say, to which he replies, No you don’t. Eventually I switch to: I know.

He pulls two or three twenties from a stuffed billfold whose fullness hints at some distant source of corruption. I take the money without hesitation: because I need it, because I have earned it, because we both know this is the only consolation for these visits. He reminds us that he has to meet a guy. I watch until the Continental disappears past the edge of our property, just to be sure it is over.

* * *

Joe claimed to have fathered seven children: four sons with his wife, a fifth out of wedlock, a mythical sixth that had come before marriage, during a brief stint living with an aunt in Florida after being expelled from high school for knocking out a teacher who called his sister a dirty little guinea, and me. He named three of his sons “Joe” after himself; the others were Johnny, Jerry, and Tommy. I would have been “Frankie,” but broke the mold and came out female.

Jerry died of AIDS in the early ’90s, shortly before Joe came back into my life. He contracted it from shared needles back when boys like him thought AIDS only happened to “homos” and “inner-city junkies.” I met him once, unintentionally, at our town’s annual summer carnival. I was eleven. He was strung out and wearing a tattered denim jacket that straddled punk rock and poverty. We talked for a few awkward minutes, in the flashing yellow and orange glow of the Zipper. I don’t know how close or far he was from death that night; I never saw him again.

I met Tommy and one of the Joe Jr.’s the same day I met Beth, my father’s wife. After months of invites, I reluctantly agreed to have Sunday dinner at their home. I was 14 and assumed my father arranged it with the intention of making me uncomfortable: the emotion that singlehandedly guided our interactions. Later I’d also wonder whether he intended to torment his family by obliging them to fraternize with the living evidence of his misdeeds.

Joey and Tommy greeted me at the door. They resembled slightly smaller and younger versions of my father, like the insides of a Russian nesting doll. My father introduced me as “your sister,” which seemed to suggest: she is your responsibility now. They commented on how much I looked like my father, then returned to the television. I followed my father into the kitchen where Beth leaned against the stove wearing a high-waisted apron and smoking a cigarette like it was 1958. “This is my wife,” he said. She smiled and shook my hand. “She looks like you,” she echoed, and gave my father an I-guess-you-were-right look, as though my legitimacy — or, perhaps, his infidelity — were just now being authenticated.

‘She looks like you,’ she echoed, and gave my father an I-guess-you-were-right look, as though my legitimacy — or, perhaps, his infidelity — were just now being authenticated.

We gathered around a spread of familiar Italian dishes. Beth and my father sat at opposite ends of the table like proper parents. She smiled and steered the conversation with neutral questions about school. Her warmth surprised me; I had expected little more than begrudging acceptance, but she seemed genuinely concerned with my comfort level. Maybe she felt sorry for me: the pitiful love child. Or maybe she had grown so accustomed to my father’s infidelities that what I saw as graciousness was actually indifference.

After dinner we parted ways with kind words spoken in a doorway that this was nice, that we should do it again, and then we never did.

Johnny found me a decade later, via social media. “I don’t know why, but I wanted to reach out to you,” Johnny wrote. “We have the same father.” His stories offered a daunting glimpse into life under my father’s rule. “Our Dad always tried to convince us to leave school,” he wrote. “All my other brothers quit by the 10th grade. I think he had a fear of his children being more educated than he was.” The times I’d mentioned college to my father he’d replied: “Know where I went to school? What’s-a-mattah-U.”

John told me how Beth was broken-hearted about my father’s affairs with Janie and other women. “I think he really loved your mother.” (This pleased me. How could I not rejoice at the thought of my father loving my mother, even though that love had eroded this family? Still, I felt guilty for being pleased. Though I am only a byproduct, I feel compelled to acknowledge the remorse they never felt, or, at least, never openly recognized. My illegitimacy is a constant battle between admitting betrayal and admitting I would not exist without it.)

I only once came across one of the other illegitimates, Joe three of three, at my mother’s fitness club when I was 19. He, too, looked like our father, but even more shocking was that he looked like me — a degree of likeness I didn’t share with any sibling on either side. This Joe was in his mid-30s, a father himself, sage and hardened by our father’s delinquency. “We were better off without him,” he said to me, over the white noise of cardio machines. “Just remember that.”

* * *

When I Google my father, the first thing I find is his boxing record listed on a rather utilitarian database that offers basic biographical information: his DOB, his division, his middle name (Carl!). Below that is a record of the time he fought at Madison Square Garden: November 28th, 1952, against a Jersey Irishman called Billy Mack. Mack won that night and went on to fight nine more in the New York area. My father only fought that one. He was 20 years old.

The second thing I find is his obituary. He died when I was 32. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in six years; during that time he had developed Alzheimer’s and moved into the dementia ward of a resting home. I considered attending his funeral, but couldn’t afford the airfare. A kind friend offered to pay, rightfully assuming that missing your own father’s funeral would result in epic regret. Still, I declined. I mostly wanted to go for selfish reasons: to gawk at the people for whom I am both a family member and an impostor. To have them gawk at me: the youngest, the only girl, raven-haired and olive-skinned and cut from the same flesh but cultivated in a different habitat.

The obituary mentions that my father was a Korean War vet, a beloved husband, a member of the local Elks chapter, and, of course, a boxer. I am not listed among his surviving relatives. Neither are the two other illegitimates. This absence is unsettling, like Marty McFly watching himself disappear from the family photo. I forward the link to my mother. “It’s sort of like I don’t exist,” I write her. “I think this partially sums up what illegitimacy feels like.” My mother is an illegitimate, too, conceived inside an affair and put up for adoption to erase the evidence. She met her biological mother only once. Her name was Evelyn, and she had three grown children and a house full of plastic-covered furniture.

* * *

I last saw my father alive at an Italian restaurant called Costa Azzurra on Long Island Sound. I was 26, unattached, and living at home for a month before a move to Oregon. My mother suggested the dinner: “He’s getting old,” she said, which we both knew meant he might be dead before I’d get another chance. I agreed on the condition that she join us. I wondered whether the old man would recognize me, but it turned out that I barely recognized him — a frailer, grayer version of his former self, like a decaying crow’s feather that’s lost all its ebony.

“There she is, my daughter,” he said, rising from a stool at the bar. We coolly pressed our bodies together. My mother smiled into the room like she was watching me perform in a dance recital. My parents had also not seen each other in half a decade, and spent several minutes praising one another on their relentlessly impressive physiques: he still bench pressed imposing figures, she still worked out at the gym five days a week. They are the type of people described as “looking good for their age.” For the first time I noticed how prideful they both were about their bodies; they suddenly seemed perfect for each other.

A waitress with three inches of hairsprayed bangs sat us at a table by the window and left us to our uncomfortable silence. Outside, the murky Sound rolled onto a rocky strip of beach, the same shores where I had spent long summer afternoons collecting smooth shards of sea glass. A stretch limo pulled into the foreground and dumped a group of bridesmaids onto the sandy pavement. They clustered together, holding their peachy skirts down in the sea breeze.

“Aren’t they pretty,” my mother said with a vacant smile.

“Olive-toned girls shouldn’t wear pastels,” I said.

She gave me a to-each-her-own nod. My father stared at a point on the tablecloth. The hairsprayed waitress returned with steaming plates of red-stained noodles.

“Joe, your daughter graduated summa cum laude.” She enunciated the Latin, like a tourist trying to nail down local dialect. “That’s the highest honors you can get.”

He almost looked impressed. “Know where I went to college? What’s-a-mattah-U.”

I forked at my linguine. He turned to my mother. “My daughter doesn’t think I’m funny.” She used the nod again — this, a favorite — and sipped Coke from a straw. The bridal party was being puppeteered around the outdoor patio by a tuxedoed photographer scouting the perfect background.

“Janie, has she heard the story about her father and Cassius Clay?”

Janie, has she heard the story about her father and Cassius Clay?

“I think she has, Joe.”

“Your father wasn’t always an old man,” he said. “How old is she now?”

“Twenty-six,” I answered for her.

“Does she even know who Clay is?” To my mother again, as though she was the interpreter.

“He’s Muhammad Ali,” I said. “I’ve heard the story.”

“He wanted a rematch with two hands but I wouldn’t give it to him.” I raised my eyebrows in feigned astonishment. He seemed to be slipping in and out of the present. I now realize Alzheimer’s had begun its slow onslaught, but at the time he seemed bored, vacant. Outside, the bridal party posed against an orange September sky. A flash and they’d reconfigure: just the girls, just the guys, just the bride and her parents. It was sweet and deceptive and temporary, and for a minute I envied that family. However contrived their festivities appeared, I knew I would never share a moment like that with the people at my table. It didn’t matter whether I had wanted such a moment; it mattered that I had taught myself, long ago, that wanting it was useless.

My father interrupted this rumination with the only question he’d ask me all night. “Why are you moving to Oregon?” His mouth was full of scallops.

“Why not.”

He shrugged and continued to eat. We had both given up.

After coffee and dessert my mother suggested that I still had a lot of packing to do. My father said he had to meet a guy about something anyway. In the parking lot, Tommy waited behind tinted windows of an unnecessarily large American car, like a chauffeur. We waved; my father repeated himself about meeting a guy. After another wooden embrace he loaded himself into the passenger side and Tommy drove off.

We watched until the car disappeared around a bend, just to be sure it was over.

* * *

A week later, my father left a large manila envelope for me at my mother’s house. I later found it on her dining room table with a note that said, Your father dropped this off…I wonder what’s inside!!, as though it might hold a pair of tickets to Disney World. When I opened it I found a Xerox copy of a newspaper article titled, “Joe Chipello: Man Who Put Down Clay.” In the center is an obviously posed photo of the two men post-match, simulating their stance at a small diner table. “I’m supposed to be one of the strongest men in the world,” my father told the reporter. “That’s what people say. I don’t know. I never beat the best, yet. But I’m game.”

At the bottom of the envelope was a chiaroscuro copy of a candid photo taken during the match. My father is shirtless, his huge white bicep crowding the photo’s foreground. Clay sits opposite him, clutching Joe’s right palm in his while his left hand grips the table’s edge. Their elbows press into the formica, a Heinz ketchup bottle peeking out from behind them. A few spectators crowd the background, smiling with the goofy excitement of those witnessing something extraordinary. The camera’s angle hides my father’s face. Instead it reveals precisely the way he wanted to be remembered: a huge body flexed in the throes of victory.

clay

Photo courtesy of Candace Opper.

The photo is an attempt to bequeath a legacy, to prove his own legitimacy to me — not as a father, but as a person worth remembering, though I’m not sure he knew the difference. I’m not sure I know the difference either. I display it conspicuously in my home because, I’ll admit, I like telling the story. My father’s brief proximity to greatness — and consequently mine — never fails to impress. The belated consolation hardly absolves my father, but I feel vindicated, which is better than grieving a father I never had.

* * *

Candace Opper writes and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in GuernicaBrevity, Creative Nonfiction, LitHubBitchBUSTand various publications put forth by the American Association of Suicidology. She has an MFA from Portland State University and is the former producer and co-host of Late Night Love Affair, a beloved podcast about books written by women. On most days she is busy at work on her own book—an exploration of suicide and the ways we give it meaning.

Editor: Michelle Weber