*First published in The Spillway Review, 2007; Author’s Den, 2007.
*SONNY LISTON’S EYES By
Keith G. Laufenberg
5065 Oak Leaf Lane
Hernando Beach, FL. 34607
Fate laughs at probabilities.
—Bulwer-Lytton, Eugene Arum. Bk. i, ch.10.
I’m a writer—a freelance writer—not too many people know this, because I work at other jobs too—as a matter of survival. One of those who knew I was a writer was my good friend, John ‘Jackie’ Byrne, who called me just the other day, from his home in Howard Beach, a small enclave of mostly Irish and Italian families, not far from Far Rockaway, in Queens County, New York. I had first met Jackie in the 5th Street Gym, in Miami Beach, in 1966, where I was boxing, in my second year as a pro, and where Jackie and his three brothers were training, trying to get back in shape. Four brothers and they had all been in the Marines, three of them in Vietnam. I had been in the Corps myself, from 1962 to 1965, and we all became life-long friends. I was living in Atlanta now but we still called each other frequently and I still remember the conversation that took place on that fourth day of January, of the new millennium: "Hey man, there’s a guy up here youse should talk to, he’s a hit-man for the mob. Claims he clipped everybody from J.F.K. to Sonny Liston. And, I tol’ him youse knew Liston—youse boxed wid ‘im didn't youse?"
Now, I hadn’t boxed with Liston but I had shared Bill Miller’s basement gym with him—in Las Vegas—in 1966. Liston was in the midst of a comeback and I—along with most of the other fighters—knew most of his nuances. He was an ex-heavyweight champion who had allegedly been connected to the mob for years but I paid no attention to that, what I didn’t know didn’t matter to me. What I did know was what I saw with my own eyes—and heard with my own ears—and that was that he was a womanizer, women even followed him into the gym on numerous occasions, and he was a tough customer who gave no quarter and asked for none. He was known for being rough on sparring partners but I saw him box with Candee Barnes and barely throw a punch, working strictly on speed and cutting off the ring on Candee, a talented lightweight from my hometown of Washington, D.C. I also remember something else about Liston, his eyes. This guy had some hard cold—cruel and calculating eyes—eyes that had a way of looking at people and making them shrink, right in front of you. Besides staring down other fighters, I saw Liston do this almost every time somebody would venture into the gym, looking to get something from him, even if it was just a handshake or an autograph; Liston would usually tell a joke and then stare at the person he had told it to—until that person obligingly laughed. I still remember these thoughts running through my mind, as Jackie interrupted my day-dreaming by barking into the phone, "Hey man, youse still there?"
"I’m still here Jake. What’s the deal anyway? Sounds like yah shittin’ me?"
"Naw I wouldn’t shit youse Jamie, youse ah my favorite turd. Heh, anyway, this guy just lives right up the street from me man, t’ree houses away. Says he’s ready to tell his story; yeah, and youse can be the writer of his autobiography. Bumped off all these guys including King—youse livin’ down there in Atlanta youse oughta be interested in that one?"
"King, you mean Martin Luther King Junior?"
"Yeah, he was the shooter. This is yah big break man, y'know?"
"If it’s that big a story why get a nickel-and-dime writer like me? Why’nt he get some big shot right there in New York, like Norman Mailer or Mario Puzo or some other big-name?”
"He read some of yah short stories that youse sent me, in 'ose magazines youse sent me man, and he really liked ‘em man. He thinks yah a good writer and yah the best man for the job, says he can see youse write the truth and will know it when youse hear it cause youse knew Sonny."
Now, the quickest and best way into a writer’s heart is to compliment his work and, even though I was still skeptical, I was listening much more intently now. "Yeah, he was a hit-man for the mob—hey there’s a good title man. Hit man for the mob admits to, youse know, all these hits, what ah youse t’ink?"
"Jackie, I’m here in Atlanta and you guys are in New York?"
"He’ll send youse plane fare man. What ah youse t’ink about that? Dude’s real man," he said.
"I dunno man I just started another day-job?"
"What, sellin’ cars again, man?"
"Naw, man, mortgages. Plus a scumbag my wife knows is givin’ me some side work." Scumbag was the code-name Jackie and I had for lawyers.
"Side woik for a scumbag huh, what ah youse doin’, resoich?"
"Research shit, I’m investigatin’ a guy. Workin’ for a criminal scumbag but—I guess I could put it off for a few days—man, I dunno Jocko?"
"No? Tell youse what, I’ll have him call youse, how ‘bout that?"
"Call me? What for? He’s gonna sell me?"
"Naw, just keep an open mind and listen to ‘im; should I tell ‘im to call youse?"
"Sure—why not—tell ‘im to call me man, what the hell, can’t hurt."
The call came that evening, around ten p.m. The guy had a thick New York accent, even worse than Jackie’s, and he usually ended his sentences with the word capisci, Italian for understand. He would let it hang at the end of almost every sentence, almost like a statement of his Italian-American heritage and his Mafioso identity. His voice sounded remarkably like somebody impersonating Marlon Brando, in his role as the Godfather, and it crossed my mind again that it was a friend of Jackie’s and nothing but a joke—on me—until, that is, I asked him about Liston.
"Sonny, ah, dat eggplant was a scary bastid. I had help on 'at one though."
"Yeah, you had help with that melanzane, with that jah-mook, huh?"
"Ah, I see youse speak a lil’ Italian, a paisan?"
"Yeah, very little, what kinna help did you have with Sonny?"
"I had a broad put some dust in 'is drink. One t’ing I’ll never forget about Sonny though, I can tell youse that."
"Yeah, what’s that?"
"His eyes—Sonny had some cold, hard eyes, right up to the end too."
The next plane, leaving from Atlanta to New York, left at three a.m., the next morning. I know, because I was on it.
Nicknames and whippings, when they are once laid on, no one has discovered how to take off.
—W.S. Landor, Imaginary Conversations: Du Paty.
Jackie Byrne picked me up at JFK, at a little past six in the morning—on an overcast day—on the fifth of January, of the new millennium. He complained to me that a video store had overcharged him on late fees, their computer registering that he owed them for an entire century. "Y-two-kay, huh Jackie," I said.
"Yeah, said I owed ‘em ninety large man."
I chuckled, then momentarily closed my eyes and escaped into a state of near semi-consciousness, awakening only when Jackie ran over a bump in the road. "Man, I’m beat. Hey what’s with this Dead-Eye guy, anyway? What’s his real name?"
"Well, his mailbox says Tony Rome."
"What—Tony Rome—like the Tony Rome character in that Sinatra movie?"
"Yeah, youse know how he got the name Dead-Eye man?"
"How would I know? I only talked to him long enough to realize he knew Liston."
"Knew him? Baby, he popped him—that’s right Jamie—he clipped ‘im. Got ‘is name in ‘Nam too.That’s right brother, he was in ‘Nam. There was this sniper all us Mow-reenes had nicknamed Dead-Eye—an NVA sniper—and Tony Rome popped him."
"What's he wanna tell his story now for man?"
"Lung cancer, doctor gave him a year to live. He came out of an oxygen tent. Youse din’ hear him hackin’ and coughin’ on ah phone?"
"So, that’s what that was—man, I could barely hear the dude."
"Wait’ll youse see what he’s got in his house, you'll be a believer then."
"Yeah, what’s he got, a couple ah bodies in 'is refrigerator?"
"Jus’ wait youse'll believe him—mark my woids Jake—mark my woids."
"Consider ‘em marked then Jack-oh."
THE STORY For though myself be a full vicious man,
A moral tale yet I you telle can.
—Chaucer, The Pardoneres Prologue, 1, 131.
I slept until the late afternoon and we ate a couple of sandwiches for dinner—at Jackie’s house—then walked down to Tony Rome’s place and, sure enough, he had ‘TONY ROME,’ stenciled, in big, black letters, on his mailbox. It took almost a solid minute of ringing his doorbell before he answered the door and smiled at Jackie—then let us in. This guy had a face like a catcher’s mitt, but it looked more like he had taken some serious slams all at once, like a survivor in a car wreck, unlike myself, having engaged in over a hundred amateur and pro fights—in over a decade in the ring—my features have been rearranged also but in a slightly different way. In boxing, you learn to slip or roll with the punches, but your face, especially your ears, nose and eyebrows, take so many punches that it begins a slow but sure metamorphosis, as your eyebrows are scarred, your nose is flattened and one or both of your ears harden into what is commonly referred to as a cauliflower, or tin ear. We shook hands and he motioned for us to follow him inside.
"C’mon in, I gotta bottle ah vino in ah kitchen."
I glanced at Jackie and we exchanged smiles. Tony Rome was holding a portable oxygen tank in his left hand and two oxygen hoses were rammed into his nostrils—he didn’t look like he could take too much vino. We followed him through his living room and into the kitchen, where, on a circular wooden table about six feet in diameter, sat a bottle of red wine and a half dozen, long-stemmed wine glasses. He motioned for us to take a seat, than sat down heavily, on one of the wooden chairs also. He removed the tubes from his nose. "Youse guys join me in a drink, cah-peesh." He poured three glasses about half-full then held his glass out towards us. "Salute," he barked and Jackie and I toasted him, then we both took a sip of the wine. "So, youse dah writer, huh," he growled.
"Yeah, sure am."
"Youse gonna write it the way I tell youse to—cah-peesh?"
I shrugged my shoulders and glanced around the room. I didn’t see anything that would make me believe that this guy was what he said he was. Jackie caught my glance and smiled, then nodded at Tony Rome. "Hey Tony," he said, "how about showin’ my man here youse trophy room?"
"Trophy room … ah what trophy room?" I said.
"Yeah, I can see youse need sumpin’ to convince youse dat I am who I say I am. C’mon, follow me."
We went downstairs, into his basement, and into a small room, at the bottom of the stairs. Inside were numerous weapons, pistols and rifles, bayonets and dead hand-grenade casings, along with uniforms and insignias from the Vietnam War. There were also numerous pictures with Tony Rome in his Marine Corps uniform, at different duty stations around the globe. In the three years that I had served in the Marines, I had not gone to Vietnam, whereas Jackie had, and he nodded towards a rifle with a ventilated barrel and folding stock and nodded at me, then back at the rifle and said, "That’s a Swedish K man. Only dudes had those in ‘Nam was the spooks."
I looked over at Tony Rome, who smiled wolfishly. "Yeah dat’s right, youse right, we 'as the only outfit ‘at had dum."
"What? You were a spook? You were with the CIA?"
"Sorta—I’m like an honorary membah—youse know?"
"What? Wha' … why … I mean an honorary member of the—"
"—I was sent over to the ‘Nam when I was only nineteen youse know wha' I mean—but I could already shoot like nobody youse ever saw, or the Mow-reenes eithah. Why, I could shoot the eyes outta a snipah at five hundred yards."
"Bu' … but you grew up in New York, where …?"
"… I had a lil’ pistol, a twenty-two caliber, when I was seven and a thirty-thirty rifle when I was ten, and my daddy took me to the range every week."
"His dad was a cop man."
I looked at Tony Rome, who nodded. "Yeah, poor suckah got shot in the line ah duty when he was thirty-nine."
I nodded and Tony Rome handed me a picture of himself and another Marine. "That was taken in Jay-ville in fifty-seven," he said.
I had been stationed at the naval base in Jacksonville, Florida myself, only in 1963, for training in the Air Wing, which I was attached to. "What, you were in the Air Wing?"
"Yup, got trained as a sixty-four twelve."
"Man, that’s a jet mechanic, ain’t it?"
"Yeah, but when they found out I shot two-fifty they retrained me for sniper duty."
I nodded at Jackie and shrugged my shoulders and Jackie smiled at me. "Two-fifty, man, that’s as high ah a score as you can get? Nobody shoots two-fifty?"
"Nobody but me, cah-peesh," he said and handed me another picture, posing with another Marine—at another base. "That’s in Atsugi in Jay-pan. Dah Marine Air Control Squad I was in for awhile, in late fifty-seven, early fifty-eight, somewhere around then." He then handed me another picture. "Yeah and this is in El Toro, in fifty-eight." He nodded at it and I stared at the last photo he had handed me and noticed that the same Marine was posing with him again—the same Marine was in all three pictures with him. "Yeah, youse see it’s the same guy wid me, right? Yeah, he got out a year later but we still kept in touch; he even wrote me when I was in ‘Nam," he growled, "right up until I got out in sixty-two and me and him we wuz close pally—real close."
I stared at Jackie, then at Tony Rome. I was beginning to doubt he was anything more than an ex-Gyrene who wanted to get drunk and commiserate. "Look, so what?" I barked. "These pictures with this guy, this stuff you got here it don’t mean shit, anybody that went to the ‘Nam could have gotten this shit."
Tony Rome scowled and rasped, "Take a closer look at the other Marine in 'ose pictures and tell me youse nevah seen dat face before, writer—cah-peesh?"
I stared at the pictures and was about to leave when he unloaded a bombshell on me. "That’s Lee man."
"Lee Harvey Oswald."
I stared again at the photos and then at Jackie, who smiled and nodded at me. "Yeah, youse gettin’ the picture now, huh," he said, and his smile widened, "I tol’ youse man."
"Man, how, I mean how did you ever get to … you know to—"
"… I was already wid ah eye by then and mobbed up. I had been back maybe t’ree months when I got a chance to get my button."
"Get your button?"
"Yeah, din’ youse see the Godfaddah, ahahaheerah …" Tony Rome began a coughing fit that lasted for almost five minutes and only ended when he grabbed his oxygen bottle and shoved the hoses into his nose. He gasped for breath and finally recovered, then started right in where he had left off. "Yeah, I had a chance to get made just like ‘at and ‘at ain’t often. They had ah books open in sixty-t’ree and see they wanted Kennedy dusted off so I got it."
"Who wanted him dusted off—the mob?" I said.
"Them and the Eye," he rasped.
"The CIA and the mob were workin’ together?"
"They did it all ah the time pally—still do."
"Yeah, so how did you … I mean—"
"—I was still in touch with Lee at this time and when we found out he had tried to clip Walker but missed and he was woikin’ at the depository in Dallas, well we …"
"… Wait a minute—he tried to clip Walker? Who’s Walker?"
"A retired army general who was livin’ in Dallas and who was into politics that Lee didn’t agree wid—but then Lee didn’t agree wid hardly anybody’s politics. Anyway, he tried to shoot the guy. He couldn’t even hit him from a hundred yards."
"Well then how did he get the—"
"—I jus' tol’ youse, he didn't—I did. Once we knew he was woikin’ at the depository we made sure it was onna route Kennedy was takin’ and then we talked him into helpin’ us. See, Lee was a commie, he was a little nutty youse know wha’ I mean but he was no shooter. Ssssh, he barely shot two hundred on ah range."
"Yeah, well I went You-n-que but then I was never a shooter either. But two-fifty, hell that’s a bull’s eye everytime. I never heard ah anybody shootin’ two-fifty on ah range."
"Why youse t’ink they call me Dead-Eye? I offed a Vee-Cee snipah that t’ought he was me, hehah. Yeah Lee never was a shooter eithah, hell he barely made sharpshooter and that’s onna stationary target, c’mon, I hadda pop Kennedy while he was in a moving car and from more than five hundred yards. Lee was set-up—he just didn’t realize it ‘till they arrested him. Tippet was just icing on ah cake for us."
"Tippet …?" I said.
"Yeah, dah cop Lee shot after he took off from the depository. See, we had a poifect shot at Kennedy—we wuz up in a position over on ah grassy knoll area, yeah we had a Ford pick-up truck and we had a hole in ah tailgate where I stuck the rifle—a freakin’ antique but I used it—and a sheet ah plywood coverin’ the top and as soon as Lee opened up I put one right into JFK’s t’roat and another in 'is skull; man we wuz gone before anybody knew we wuz even there, and Lee’s instructions were to get rid of his weapon and beat it outta town. The only t’ing I din’ like was usin’ dat six-point-five bolt action Carcano but then I practiced wid it on ah range for two weeks straight before I made the shot—just shows youse, heh-heh—only one Deadeye and ‘at’s me. We even had a couple ah spooks there in case anybody seen the truck pull away but nobody did. Lee, he actually t’ought he mighta hit Kennedy, a real eggplant he was and it woiked out real good for us."
"Oswald was that stupid?"
"Yeah, Lee nevah was altogether there but then neither was I—youse know—cah-peesh writer?"
"What about Jack Ruby? I mean if …"
"… Ruby was wid us—cah-peesh?"
I was shook up but didn’t let on that he was convincing me. I wanted more proof. "Look, I dunno about Oswald or Ruby but I did know Sonny Liston and …"
He cut me off in mid-sentence and handed me a pair of bronzed boxing gloves. "Those were Sonny’s—the ones he kayoed Patterson wid. I took ‘em outta his house."
Now, I knew that Liston had lived in a house on a golf-course, something all fighters liked, as it was good for roadwork, the grass was better for your legs than concrete. All fighters ran on golf-courses and I knew he had gotten the house from one of the hotel magnate’s in Vegas. They were just some little memories from my past life but would they help me now?
"You killed him then took evidence from his house? Tell me where he lived?"
"It didn’t mattah if I took sumpin’ from ‘is house, nobody cared about Sonny—they barely investigated it—the local pees were all onna pad, youse know wha' I mean? Sonny had a nice place, his backyard overlooked the sixteenth green of the Stardust Country Club, right on ah golf-course. Got it from Kirk Kerkorian, a wheeler-dealer who owns more real estate than Donald Trump—in Vegas anyways—lived on Ottawa Drive and about a mile from his pal Joe Louis, who was on smack and kept buggin’ Sonny that he hadda pay too much for it and so Sonny gets some from the wiseguys and they give it up for nuttin’, figuring it’s for Joe but then Sonny has these other punks wantin’ his help so he gets more sayin’ it’s for Joe and then he sells it to these addicts and pockets the difference."
"And they killed him for that? I remember the papers sayin’ he overdosed on heroin?" I had been in Vegas, in 1972, for a fight with Vicente Medina, a tough Mexican, fighting out of Tucson, and had heard from several fighters—who knew Liston—that although he drank a lot of liquor and was a well-known womanizer, he never touched drugs and he was scared to death of needles. But, some of these same fighters also told me that they knew that Liston had gotten on the wrong side of some wise guys, by taking some of their merchandise and not paying them—what kind of merchandise had not been divulged to me. They also said that when he got drunk, he was also known for spouting off that he knew their secrets and could go to the papers whenever he felt like it.
"Awheehowwheaaack, ah-num, wait a minute, cah-peesh—" Tony Rome hacked out.
I glanced at a smiling Jackie, as Tony Rome went for his oxygen tank, again. If half of what he was saying was true, it would indeed be like hitting the lottery, for I knew of at least a half-dozen publishing houses and newspapers that would pay through the nose for a story like this. Not that Sonny Liston would be the story; no, the story would be JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. but I didn’t know either of those two gentlemen personally, it was Sonny Liston I knew a little bit about and had warm bodies who had confirmed my facts and so I was interested in his story on Sonny because if I could prove that, to myself, then I’d know that he was being straight-up about the others.
He came back but not with his oxygen tank, as I had expected. He had a watch in his hand. It was bejeweled and expensive-looking, with a thin golden band. A woman’s watch, obviously. He handed it to me and croaked, "Look on ah back ah it, cah-peesh?"
I turned it over and on the gold band, just under ‘24k’, it read: ‘To Mary, Love Sonny.’ Jackie came over and glanced at it also.
"C’mon man, shee-it this don’t mean nothin’ to me. Anybody could ah done that."
"Yeah but they didn’t. I got it from diz broad Mary. She was a low-life but Sonny was sweet on her, cah-peesh? He knew her when she was a real high-class hooker—hundred an hour she got. Used to call her Mary the mouth ‘cause she could get youse excited jus’ by lickin’ her lips, youse know wha’ I mean? The booze did her in finally but she was still lookin’ good in 1970, when she helped me wid Sonny. She died a couple ah years after Sonny, cee-rosis ah the livah, used to call her Vodka-job Mary at the very end, ‘cause she’d blow a guy for a glass ah vodka. Yeah, ain’t life funny though?"
As he was talking, a bell went off inside my head and I remembered a picture of a blonde, a blonde duplicate of Dolly Parton and I remembered another fighter pointing her out to me and telling me she was available but for a hundred smackers an hour. I had shared an apartment with this fighter a light-heavy named Andy Kendall, and had never known him to lie. He was a straight shooter and I had boxed with him on numerous occasions. He came straight ahead and took a hell of a punch, and his face showed it, but he had guts and—like me—was scared of no man, and he talked just like he fought, straight—never any bullshit—and I knew now that Tony Rome was the real thing.
"You remember the fights at the Silver Slipper or the Castaways, Tony?"
"Sure do. Jackie tells me youse fought out there huh? I remember a kid they used to call Kayo, was that youse, huh?"
"I see you know more than you’re lettin’ on, huh?"
"Naw-aww, I remember youse now Kayo. Youse fought a southpaw at the Slipper once when I was there. I remember youse lost a split decision."
"Yeah, I fought at the Slipper a few times." Split decision losses were the story of my ex-life as a fighter but I didn’t want to get stuck on reminiscing about my boxing career.
"So, this Mary helped you clip Liston?"
"Yeah, she put some dust in 'is drink, just before I popped a needle into his veins."
"A needle, huh? Heroin … I mean …?"
"Yeah, I know what youse t’inkin’, cah-peesh? Sonny was afraid ah needles and he din’ do drugs and that’s all true, but—like I said—nobody gave a shit about Sonny. And, the heroin was a good, extra touch ‘cause, like youse now know, his idol, Joe Louis was on dah horse."
"Yeah—that was in the papers—I remember that. Well Dead-Eye, or is it Tony Rome?"
"Either one; Anthony Romaneico is my real name."
"Oh, so Tony Rome is your street name then?"
"Yeah but youse never hoid ah me, cah-peesh," he hissed, breathing very heavily.
"How do you know? The fighter’s in Vegas knew a lot of the underworld guys."
"Yeah, I know but not me pally. Not me." Tony Rome’s lips parted slightly.
"No, you were too big then, huh? But we knew all the low-life’s Tony, they liked to hang around the gym and the fights, you know?"
"Sure, I know pally and I went to the fights once in awhile too, like I said, but nobody knew I was there—‘cept me pally—cah-peesh?"
"I still don’t get why you guys had to kill Sonny, I mean he wasn’t …"
"… I tell you why, he knew too much pally, youse know. He threatened to spill his guts once too often for us. He hadda big mouth when he was on that Jay and Bee Scotch, cah-peesh?"
"Yeah but what in ah hell could he tell anybody, c’mon Tony he was washed up by then. That dude from Philly that knocked him out in sixty-nine—Leotis Martin—used to be Sonny’s sparring partner. Anyway, Sonny was over the hill in nineteen-seventy.
"Sonny t’rew both the fights to Clay, cah-peesh."
"C’mon man, no way, no way. Ali was too much for Sonny, too fast."
"Youse got any idea how much we made on ‘ose fights? Sonny was a nine-to-five favorite in the second fight until Clay had the hernia and the odds started changin’ to even money. We got seven to one if Sonny tanked in ah fois’, which—as you know—he did. Hell, the boys in Cleveland got over t’ree mil-yun just themselves. C’mon man, Sonny was a scary bastid but he did what he was told when Frankie tol’ ‘im to."
"Yeah, Frankie Carbo," he said, giving me his skull-like smile or sneer.
"What? Man, c’mon I seen Liston get up before the count of ten, if it hadn’t ah been for that idiot referee—Jersey Joe Walcott—how could a guy be such a good fighter himself and then blow the count like that?"
"It wasn’t Jersey Joe—it was Nat Fly-sha that told Jersey Joe to stop the fight."
"What? Nat Fleisher? You had the publisher of Ring Magazine on ah pad?"
"Let’s jus’ say we got our ways ah protectin’ our money.Look, Sonny knew he was supposed to tank and when he got hit and went down he was supposed to stay down but he always had too much pride and he got back up. We had to have insurance. We had a lotta money on ‘at fight, cah-peesh? Like I just said everybody got well on it and the fois’ fight was even bettah, we got eight to one in 'at fight, made a killin’ pally—a real killin’.
"C’mon Tony, if that’s true how come they couldn’t prove it? I mean the F.B.I. would have known if there were a big payoff on the fight, they would have …"
"The Eye knew, who youse kiddin’—the spooks knew too—they all knew."
"Yeah, but that first fight man—I mean he quit in the corner?"
"Lis’en, Sonny hated Clay, he wanted to kill him—so they gave ‘im six rounds."
"Wait a minute—six rounds—I don’t get it?"
"They couldn’t get Sonny to tank, so they told him he had to kayo Clay before the sixth, cah-peesh. We put just enough on him to kayo Clay before the sixth to make it worthwhile, than we put ah bundle on Clay in ah sixth. Anyway, Sonny said he didn’t need six, he only needed one but he couldn’t do it. Clay was too good; believe me. Sonny even juiced the globs. He really hated Clay."
"Juiced the gloves, when?"
"Just before the fourth round, his corner put ‘at liniment-shit and some other special shit all over his globs, Clay was blinded all t’rough the fourth round. But—Sonny still couldn’t kayo him—Clay was too fast and he gave it up just before the bell for the seventh. He was outta shape pally believe me he didn’t train for that fight like he shoulda. Youse know Chris Dundee, don’ youse—Jackie says his bruddah Angelo managed youse for awhile, is zatrye?"
"Yeah, so what, I fought for Chris for five, six years. I knew him pretty good."
"Chris was from Phillie—he was wid Carbo—pally."
"C’mon man, Ali was blinded and wanted to quit before the fifth, if Sonny was gonna tank anyway and Angelo knew that, then why—"
"Angelo knew nuttin’ pally, it was Chris what knew; why youse t’ink Angelo pushed him out for the fifth, huh? Cause Chris musta tol’ ‘im he only needed anuddah round to win. Angelo got the message pally he wasn’t stoopid, was he? Lis’en, pally, dah group ‘at was promotin’ Sonny, which he got his money from, cut a deal wid ‘at Louisville group what had Clay under contract and they made a deal, t’ree or four months before the fight, to have promotional rights to Clay’s next fight and paid fifty large for it too."
"Wha' … what …? But, if they figured Sonny for a sure winner then why would they?"
"My point exactly pallie; I can see youse ain’t too stoopid eithah, huh?"
"Yeah but Chris and Angelo never knew, they never …"
"Chris knew pally—he mighta kept Angelo outta it but he knew, Chris knew. Look Carbo was boxin’, for a long time, he had the IBC in 'is pocket and the play was to control both dah fighters in any big bout; see we woulda had Clay and Sonny but then Clay became Ali and they couldn’t deal wid the Black Muslims. Anyway, the second fight, which they had the promotional rights on, like I jus’ said, Sonny was in better shape, until Clay got the hernia, but we still got good odds and ‘at’s why they wanted him to tank in ah fois’, we got seven to one, like I said."
"What’d Sonny get for that fight?"
"He got paid but he blew it on ah dames and ah booze—he was broke by the end of the year. Yeah, funny t’ing about Sonny, when he was on top just before he kayoed Patterson everybody wanted him to lose, youse know, he was the bad guy and he took to that, ‘cause youse know he was a bad guy but when he fought Clay, then Ali, everybody wanted him to win and he became the good guy and it was like youse know he couldn’t be the good guy. Course that visit he had from the Black Muslims didn’t help, see after Clay hadda hernia Sonny stopped trainin’ and these Muslims come around his trainin’ camp and tol’ him he needed to lose. Like I said, youse couldn’t control them Black Muslims."
"What? They threatened Sonny Liston, hah, man-oh-man."
"Yeah—don’t laugh pally—those Muslims was some scary bastids. Remember, they kilt Malcolm X?"
"Look whose talkin’. You guys were scary bastards. C’mon?"
"Yeah, but Sonny knew these Muslims from when he was inside—he nevah bought into them but he never understood them—he t’ought they was crazy, cah-peesh? Believe it or not Sonny was the leas’ prejudice poison I evah knew, it was Ali and ah Muslims dat was prejudice and these Black Muslims were preachin’ that they was the mastah race, so Sonny jus’ t’ought they was crazy and Sonny was a lil’ uptight about crazy people. He didn’t like their visit, youse know, he t’ought everybody wanted him to lose ‘at fight."
"Man, the way you’re tellin’ it Tony, everybody did?"
"Yeah, poor ol’ Sonny, of all my hits, all ah ‘em, Sonny’s is the one I regret the mos’."
I looked at Tony Rome’s face; like a stone, with two ice cubes for eyes. "Yeah, well, how did you, ah-um, exactly ah-er …"
"He was partyin’ wid Mary and she put the powder in 'is drink to knock him out, youse know, and then I come in a lil’ later with the needle and go over to Sonny, he’s sittin’ in 'is chair and pow, he wakes up."
"Wha' … what," I barked out at him and he gave me his thin smile-sneer.
"Yeah, ‘at jah-mook was tough, Mary had given him a triple dose in his drink too. Funny t’ing t’ough, he just sat there while I stuck the needle in his arm and didn’t do nothin’, as much as he was scared ah needles, to this day I t’ink he let me do it to him."
"Yeah, why would he let you kill him—c’mon Tony?"
"No, he was tired man. He was tired ah life, youse know tired ah bein’ used by everybody. He didn’t have the will to live anymore—poor kid."
"Yeah and so you killed the poor kid, huh Tony and maybe you were just doing him a favor then ah, how much you get for clippin’ Sonny again?"
Tony Rome stared at me for about ten seconds and his eyes were cold, hard and calculating. But, then he had a coughing fit and when he finally recovered, he seemed to have forgotten my sarcasm. "Ten large, pally, I got ten large for Sonny." His voice had taken on a tone of disgust, as he told me how much he had been paid to kill Sonny Liston and I glanced at Jackie, who was smiling indolently.
"How much did you get for Kennedy?"
He sat silent for about thirty seconds and his ice cube eyes bored into mine, and—then just when I figured he wasn’t going to answer me—he croaked, "Two hundred and fifty large for Kennedy and, like I said, I got made with Kennedy."
"You got a quarter mil’ for Kennedy and only ten grand for Sonny," I said, giving Tony my thin smile-sneer now.
He stared at me and shook his head slightly and we both knew he wasn’t telling me everything. Then, he said, "Okay, okay I owed them a little something and they forgot my debt for Sonny but, like I said already, nobody cared about Sonny, it was an easy hit. He didn’t care anymore, like I said, cah-peesh?"
"Who paid you for the Kennedy killing?" Tony sat quiet again but this time for a full minute and I had to prod him, this time. "C’mon Tony, you want me to write your autobiography or not? I need it all?"
"Yeah sure, ahhacccck, I’ll be dead before anybody reads it anyway. I got paid by two different guys—one was a spook, the other was a mob underboss."
"Tony? You’re tellin’ me you got paid to kill the President of the United States by the mob and by the federal government, the C.I.A.?"
Tony smiled crookedly. "I’m tellin’ youse what happened, cah-peesh? The same spooks I worked for in ah ‘Nam recruited me for the Kennedy job."
"And that was your first hit for the spooks?"
"Outside ah dah ‘Nam yeah, they wanted me to do Castro when I had only been in-country a couple months but the spooks had me already signed up to do some woik in Cambodia and Laos. Yeah, diz guy May-hew, dude woiked for Howard Hughes; see he had contacted Roselli about a hit on Castro and the spooks wanted me to do it. Roselli never came across for them and they took him out for it."
"Roselli …?" I said.
"John Roselli, a guy I knew before I went in ah crotch, I did some woik for ‘im and he got me in with the wiseguys—youse know—back when I’us still jus’ a kid."
"This guy Roselli, who took him out … I mean—" I said.
"The spooks, I t’ink," he barked back at me.
I glanced at Jackie and read his mind. I should have brought my tape recorder. I started to ask him another question but he went into a spasm of coughing, all the while attempting to catch a breath of air. I found it ironic, in the extreme, that the same guy who had assassinated John F. Kennedy had also murdered Sonny Liston. The former was, as has been well-documented, someone who had been born into the lap of luxury and wealth and had been on the receiving end of all the benefits and accoutrements that were accorded as such, to a multi-millionaire’s son, including a Harvard Law degree, an endless supply of money and a political future ensured by a savvy savory father; while the latter was a man who had been condemned—almost at birth—by being born into the family of a poverty stricken, black sharecropper, who was an abusive alcoholic, in Arkansas, one of twenty-five children who would receive no formal education, never have enough to eat and be looked upon only as a potential field worker. Sonny Liston, who, at age thirteen, followed his mother, when she left her abusive husband to find work in a shoe factory, in St. Louis, where he would fall in with a gang of thugs that were doing stick-ups and petty robberies. He was caught and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary, a place where he never complained about being because he could finally eat all he wanted to and regularly. Another ironic twist of fate between these two men was that when it looked as if Floyd Patterson would defend his title against Sonny, in 1962, John F. Kennedy—the thirty-fifth President of the United States—called Patterson in to the White House and counseled him that he must beat that thug—Sonny Liston.
Tony finally recovered from his coughing fit. I asked him if he had known about President Kennedy wanting Patterson to beat Liston and he smiled thinly. "Sure, everybody—like I said before pally—wanted Patterson to beat Sonny. Know what Sonny called ‘im?"
"Called who? Kennedy?"
"No Floyd Patterson, Sonny called him Patsy, hahherah."
"Oh, the same thing you called Oswald, huh?"
Tony scowled at my ironic retort but then asked us to go back upstairs with him—he wanted another glass of wine.
When we had all sat down, he tried to pour the wine but his hand was shaking too much and Jackie did the honors. He toasted us and drank a sip. "Yeah, it’s the only t’ing I got to look forward to anymore, youse know, a lil vino every now and then."
I nodded at him. He looked so small and pitiful, even though his eyes were still venomous and cold. I couldn’t help believing he was the genuine article now but you always have doubts and I wanted to air them. "Say Tony how is it you guys got away with this for so many years? I mean …"
"… I tell you its all bullshit and money," he growled, cutting me off.
"Bullshit and money? What ah you mean by that?"
"Just that, pally, we’d t’row up a smokescreen and t’row enough money aroun’ to everybody had any interest in it, cah-peesh? Course there was always guys that knew."
"Yeah, like who?"
"There're always some spooks and some mob guys what know."
"Yeah, you wanna give me some names?"
"I’ll give yah some names but lemme enjoy my vino now, cah-peesh?"
"You know Tony it looks to me like the spooks and the mob had a lot in common?"
"The spooks couldn’t be trusted."
He had said it as if the mob could be trusted—and it left me speechless for an instant. I shook my head and turned towards Jackie.
"Sonny Liston and J.F.K., two guys at the opposite end of the spectrum, huh Jackie?"
Jackie nodded but Tony Rome scowled and hissed, "Wait a minute now there. Lemme tell youse sumpin’, those two guys was a lot alike."
"A lot alike, what’re you jokin’?"
"Youse know what Sonny said after he lost the first Clay fight?"
I glanced at Jackie, who was smiling thinly. "What?"
"Said he never felt as bad since J.F.K. had been shot," Tony said, staring solemnly at me and then Jackie.
"Hah, and you clipped ‘em both huh Tony?" I said, smiling slightly.
"Yeah, I wish I hadn’t hoit Sonny like that."
I looked over at Jackie, who shrugged. The guy had murdered the president of the United States and then an ex-heavyweight boxing champion—who was also a mob enforcer—and he was sorry about killing the latter.
"Man, you got more remorse for Liston than Kennedy, Tony?"
He looked at me and his hard, cold eyes softened, for just an instant. "I always liked Sonny youse know, I mean he was really misunderstood."
I pondered silently that maybe Tony himself thought that he was misunderstood, too. "Yeah but Kennedy was the president?"
"Yeah and youse know what? Him and Sonny, like I said, was a lot alike, they was both hounds youse know? Kennedy couldn’t leave the broads alone and neither could Sonny. And, also, youse know, both ah ‘em went to the top ah their professions. Kennedy was President and Sonny was the Heavyweight World Champeen and he was a tough bas-tid, I knew 'im good too, cah-peesh?"
"Yeah, you got a point there, Tony. Now, how about you tell me about how you whacked Martin Luther King, Jr."
Tony nodded but then began a steady staccato of tubercular coughs that only ended when he finally got the hoses up his nose and began a slow, sustained staccato of gulping breaths until finally—after about five minutes or so—he was breathing normally again, or as normally as could be expected for someone with terminal lung cancer. "Yeah, I did King, youse know and it was easier than Kennedy."
"Wait a minute; what about that James Earl Ray guy? I mean I thought that he did it?"
"Annudder patsy, youse kiddin’ me," Tony said, inhaling deeply and looking paler and paler, as the night wore on.
"How about Jimmy Hoffa …?" I said, causing Tony to smile-sneer at me for the hundredth time that night.
"What about him?"
"You clip him too?"
"Nope but I know who did."
"Really, who … c'mon … Tony …?"
He was about to say something when another fit of coughing began and he put his hand up in the air, looked, for a second like he was about to talk again, but then, shook his head resignedly. "Come back tomorrow, it’s gettin’ late, it's too late."
I glanced at my watch—it was already past midnight. We had been there for over six hours and we were all getting tired anyway, so I nodded and stood up then shook hands with him. "Okay tomorrow then, we’ll be back tomorrow."
He smiled and cackled slightly. "Sure, I know youse’ll be back tomorrow, I wasn't made wid a finger, cah-peesh?"
We told him we’d be over the first thing in the morning and he nodded, as he walked with us to the front door. We stepped outside and could hear him slide the deadbolt into place. We stood on his front porch and looked at each other for an instant and I said, "Man, I knew I shoulda brought my tape-recorder, yah know Jackie?"
Jackie shrugged his shoulders, as we walked down towards his house and inhaled the clean, crisp, freezing air. "Just bring it tomorrow man just make sure youse bring it witch youse tomorrow maw-nin."
"Yeah, I will man, for sure I will."
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
—Byron, Darkness, 1. 1.
There are asking eyes, asserting eyes, and eyes full of fate, some of good, and some of sinister omen.
—Emerson, Conduct of Life: Behavior.
That evening I slept fitfully and I had a dream. I dreamt it was 1966 and I was back in Las Vegas, where I was in Bill Miller’s basement gymnasium, just underneath his restaurant and bar. In the ring with me, all shadowboxing as I was, were Benito Juarez, Ralph Dupas, Andy Kendall, Ferd Hernandez, Johnny Little and Larry Clark, all fighters who I knew well and saw in the gym—almost everyday. We were all working up a sweat when suddenly Sonny Liston came into the gym, followed by a trainer and another fighter. The trainer informed us that Sonny and his sparring partner needed the ring and we all quickly vacated it. Liston and his sparring partner had barely gone a round when Liston caught him with a short left hook and he went down, unconscious. They took him out on a stretcher and the next thing I know I’m doing my sit-ups and I look over and Liston is skipping rope to Wipeout, a drum solo that he had playing on a small record player that was sitting on the floor. I saw that he was giving me the evil eye, something I never took from nobody and I wasn’t about to start now, Sonny Liston or no Sonny Liston. I stared back and he smiled thinly, than winked at me. I nodded and then looked around the gym and saw that everybody else was gone. I finished my sit-ups and went into the dressing room to shower. I was taking a shower when suddenly the shower curtain was ripped open and I was staring into the menacing, scowling face of Sonny Liston. I was really startled but I managed to eyeball him back—again—and he chuckled and barked, "Hey man, maybe we’ll spar a few rounds tomorrow—huh?"
Liston’s face metamorphosed in a heartbeat and his scowl returned shaking me for a second, visibly, as the blood drained from my face when I saw his eyes go cold and hard like two icicles but then, just as suddenly, they turned softer and became kind and friendly and warm. "Hey man you know man we’re friends—ain’t we man?"
"Yeah we are Sonny, sure."
"Hey—I love yah man."
His hand was stuck out towards me and I was in a state of shock. All the times I had trained in the gym with him and he hadn’t bothered to say two words to anybody—much less kind words—and now, out of the blue, this. I shook hands with him but then suddenly inexplicably, his eyes metamorphosed yet again and became cold and hard, just like I had always seen them in the gym. He squeezed my hand hard and it felt like it was in a vice and I frowned and his eyes turned soft again but then, just as quickly, they went hard again. He was just about to say something to me when I woke up. It was freezing outside, and one of the windows had been left open, but—nevertheless—a thin sheen of sweat ran across my face and down my neck and my right hand was pulsating and numb.
SONNY LISTON’S EYES
They breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
—Shakespeare, Richard II. Act ii, sc. 1. 1. 8.
Someday they’re gonna write a blues song just for fighters. It’ll be for a slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.
Truth sits upon the lips of dying men.
—Matthew Arnold, Sohrab and Rustum, 1. 656.
His soul seemed hovering in his eyes.
—Shelley, Rosalind and Helen, 1. 799.
I had awakened from my dream at six a.m. and slept fitfully until about eight-fifteen. The smell of bacon and eggs greeted me when I got up and stumbled into the bathroom to wash my face and hands. I threw my clothes on and walked into the kitchen, where Jackie was already in the middle of a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast, with a pitcher of orange juice sitting in the middle of the table. Jackie’s wife was there and she made me confirm what Jackie had already told her about what Tony Rome had told us, the previous night. She looked like she still didn’t believe us but said nothing, merely leaving, with one of her daughters, to go shopping. Almost as soon as I finished eating, I stood up and pulled the tape recorder out of my pocket and nodded towards Jackie. "I’m heading for Tony Rome’s man."
Jackie nodded back. "I’m comin’ man but it’s freezin’ out, let’s get our coats?"
I was in a hurry and grabbed my coat off the rack he had hung them on the previous night and I ran out the door, only to be slapped in the face with the ice-cold air. I inhaled and my lungs felt like they were frozen for an instant, then I exhaled and a stream of cold air blew visibly out of my mouth. I always liked breathing in deep breaths of cold air it always seemed to be fresher than the damp, humidified air of the summertime. Jackie joined me. "Shee-it man, cold’s a witch’s tit out here," he said, shivering involuntarily.
We walked down the steps of his house and onto his front sidewalk then turned left, towards Tony Rome’s house. We both saw him at about the same time. He had a hose in his left hand and a windshield scraper in his right and was scraping furiously at the ice on his front windshield. We quickened our pace and were walking up his driveway, just a few steps away from where he stood, when I saw him reach for his neck. His face was as white as a sheet and he was gagging for breath. I glanced over at Jackie and when I looked back, Tony was already on the ground and appeared to be choking. I ran over to him and propped him up, slipping my forearm under his head. He was as white as the snow that was already covering his front yard. I looked into his face and his eyes stared straight back at me and they were cold and hard—just like I remembered them from the previous night. Then he began coughing up blood and I turned towards Jackie, who was already on the way back towards his house.
"I’ll call nine-one-one—I’ll call nine-one-one!"
I didn’t know what to do, as the blood soaked my shirtsleeve. I looked down at Tony and his eyes seemed to metamorphose, from dead, cold eyes, to alive, warm eyes and his voice gurgled and he rasped something but I couldn’t make out the words. I put my ear right next to his lips and heard him utter: "Do youse believe in ah soul?"
"Yeah, yeah Tony I do man. I think we all got souls Tony."
"Yeah, yeah, I do too. Forgive me man, please forgive me, please?"
I noticed the cross around Tony’s neck and realized he was probably Catholic. "I’ll get you a priest Tony—I’ll go get a priest."
But his grip tightened on my arm and his strength startled me. "No! No priest. I need forgiveness. Forgive me—please forgive me?"
"Tony, forgive you for what, for Kennedy? For …"
His grip tightened and I could see he was out of it but he kept asking me to forgive him and so I forgave him. I could swear he smiled then and breathed a last gasp, as I bent my ear so close to his mouth that his lips grazed it, and I just barely made out the words, spoken only seconds before he died. "I’m so sorry for hoitin’ Sonny, sorry for hoitin’ Sonny. Hey—I love youse man."
As an ambulance and several police cars pulled up, to the curb in front of his house, I stared into Tony Rome’s eyes and it came back to me where I had seen them before. They were in my dream, I had seen them the night before in my dream—they were Sonny Liston’s eyes.