John Wayne goes to the grocery store…
a brief examination of my American fathers
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” — John Wayne
John sat at a cheap linoleum kitchen table going over his lines for the scene. He was cooped up in a cramped apartment on Barber Street, the set for his new movie, ‘To Catch an Angel.’ Usually his movies were shot on a soundstage, but the director wanted “realism” — whatever that meant. While the set designer and cinematographer argued about the lights, John stared dumbly at the refrigerator, curious as to why it wasn’t making a sound.
It was 1962. John was fifty-five years old.
“Ah, Mr. Wayne, sir,” the director’s assistant piped in his ear, “Mr. Ford asked me to ask you to take a little break, while these two make up their minds.”
“Yeah, maybe for a smoke, or perhaps a bite to eat or something.” The director’s assistant looked over his shoulder and added, “this may take a while.”
John was glad for the break. I know what I’ll have a bite out of, he thought, patting the bulge of his bourbon flask in his pants’ pocket. “Well, okay partner, sure!”
John gathered up his things and headed down the stairs to the back alley of the apartment building. Once he hit the street, he dug into his pants and pulled out the little flask. John was a big man — over six foot four inches tall, and thick — he tended to saunter sideways when he walked. He sucked on the flask for a good five seconds before letting out a loud, “Ah!”
As he lit his smoke, he felt the urge to urinate. Taking a quick glance around, he pulled down his zipper and relieved himself behind a dumpster. Relief flooded through him. Once finished, he zipped up his pants. Just as he was about to walk away, a small sound caught his ear — it was a gurgle followed by a muted cough. He looked around. The soft noise came again. It seemed to be coming from inside the dumpster. John kicked some debris to the side and lifted the lid. Shocked, he saw a tiny black baby, not more than a month old. It was dirty and dressed only in a filthy diaper, lying with all the garbage in the dumpster. The baby took tiny wheezes, happy for the fresh air. John could not tell if it was a boy or a girl — all he knew for certain was that it was in distress. Its eyes were bloodshot. It had a glaze of black hair. Its skin was flaky.
As soon the baby saw him, it let out a wail.
“Well now!” John exclaimed drunkenly. “That won’t do! Let’s get you out of there!”
John reached in to the dumpster and pulled out the baby. It screamed loudly. John looked into the dumpster to see if there was anything else — a note, a blanket, a bottle or a stuffed toy perhaps — there was nothing.
How could something so small make so much noise? John dipped his pinky finger into his bourbon and let the baby suck his finger. He remembered his mother doing the exact same thing when his younger sister was teething. The baby fell silent, staring up at him with its dark eyes.
“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking,” John said softly. “It’s a tough world out here.” He smiled as the tiny infant fell asleep in his arms and his heart burst. “I’m calling you Bobbie!”
John Wayne was arguably one of the most famous movie stars on Earth. His genre was Westerns and war movies, although he did stretch his wings occasionally. In almost all of his movies he is never wrong and never loses. In real life, he was enormously rich, enormously popular, a legendary personality who pretty much played a fairytale version of himself in his films.
He was married. In fact, he was so good at getting married, he had done it three times. He and his third wife had just had a son. John felt the need to be away from them often, since being a dad and a doting husband grated on him. He didn’t have a wandering eye as such, he just liked to be alone sometimes. He was also a nonstop drunk. He did love his wife, he just loved her more when they spent time apart.
John considered what to do with the baby. The thought of submitting it to the government, to be cared for by heartless bureaucrats, made him shiver in disgust. The baby would be lost in the system and destined for laziness and a life of crime. He was a staunch conservative and his imagination was filled with the horrors of the government “trying to help.”
He decided instead, right then and there, to adopt the child. He could afford it. John knew in order to convince his wife he was going to have to make adoption seem a bit more fitting to her tastes. He would need clean the infant up, make it look lovable, and that would hopefully have his wife fall in love with it as he had done. That way the baby could have a shot at a wonderful life and never remember that it started out in a dumpster. The baby could grow up and become anything it wanted.
Determined, John placed the baby on the passenger seat of his big powder blue Cadillac with ivory-colored leather upholstery and set off in the direction of the supermarket.
John parked the car and looked over towards the baby. It was fast asleep in the front seat. John felt his heart ache in compassion. He reached into the back seat and grabbed a shirt and wrapped it around Bobbie. He gently lifted the baby into his arms, careful not to wake it up.
John closed and locked the car door without making a sound. He grabbed a shopping cart and pushed it slowly into the store, trying to muffle its one erratic, noisy wheel.
The aisles were so wide he could shop riding horseback. He looked up at the signs and did his best to navigate the wide corridors of products. He had chased cow pokes in places less cavernous than this. The truth was he hadn’t been in a market for years, as he was privileged enough to have employees shop for him.
He found the baby aisle, which had everything he needed. He grabbed formula, bottles, rubber nipples, diapers, creams and a whole selection of baby soap. He unpacked his cart at the register. After he dug his wallet out of his pocket, he gave the cashier crisp large denomination bills. “And add a bottle of the old bourbon you got back there,” he told the clerk, nodding to the shelf behind her. The clerk eyed him and the baby strangely.
After making his purchases, he loaded up the car and put the sleeping baby back on the front seat. John cracked open the bottle of bourbon and took a swig. He drove the last two miles to his mansion in a drunken blur. He parked his ostentatious car in the driveway.
“Lupita!” He called out to his housekeeper. “Lupita, get out here and help me with the groceries!”
John stumbled around to the passenger side to get Bobbie, leaving the purchases for Lupita to manage. He picked up the baby and carried it into the house. It jolted awake and started wheezing again.
Lupita came out of the house and noticed the baby in his arms. “What on earth are you doing with that?”
“The groceries are on the backseat, Lu!” He passed by her. “Bring them into the kitchen!”
John carried Bobbie into the house and directly into the kitchen. He thought the kitchen sink would be the best place to wash the tiny baby. John turned his attention to Bobbie and started to undo the grimy diaper while the baby began to wail. The stench overwhelmed John; the diaper was caked in excrement and poor Bobbie’s skin was red raw and even burst open in some places. John did his best not to breathe in while he cleaned the poor baby as best he could. One mystery was solved — it was a boy!
Lupita brought in the groceries and put them on the kitchen table.
“Mr.Wayne…” she began, seeing him, “What are you doing? Where did you get that baby?”
“I found him, Lu, in a damn dumpster for Christ’s sake.” John turned on the faucet and lifted the baby into the sink. John started rinsing Bobbie and wiped him gently with a cloth. The baby screamed when John touched his aggravated skin.
Lupita, who had raised three children of her own, watched John as he did his best with the wriggly baby. “Mr. Wayne, I’m sorry, but you got to get in there more…”
“I am getting in there!” he said, scrubbing and holding his breath.
“And… be gentle!” she soothed.
“I am being gentle!” he told her.
“Mr. Wayne..?” Lupita began, “You can’t just take him home with you…”
“I’m gonna adopt him,” said John, matter-of-factly. “Gonna take him home once he’s better. My wife wouldn’t want to see him like this!”
“But… what about the proper authorities?” Lupita asked.
“Well, I’ll contact them… Eventually! First, I need to get him better.”
“Mr. Wayne?” Lupita asked. “Are you drunk?”
“Well, no more drunk than usual, Lu!” John bellowed.
Lupita sighed. “I don’t know, Mr. Wayne. I just don’t know…”
“Ah, quit your bellyaching and hand me a towel, Lu.”
John took the towel and dried the baby carefully. He opened the box of diapers and pulled one out. John rotated the diaper back and forth and tried to figure out how to use the damn thing. He laid it on the counter and placed Bobbie on top, trying his best to make it stay on the little body. Lupita gave him pointers. Bobbie continued to cry, wheezing and coughing.
“That doesn’t sound good,” said Lupita. “I think he’s really sick.”
“He just needs a warm blanket and some milk in him,” said John. “Heat up some of that formula, will you?”
Lupita did as she was asked. John held Bobbie close as the tiny human whimpered and huffed. Once the formula was ready, John tried to feed Bobbie. At first, the baby wasn’t interested — the wheezing made it impossible for him to latch onto the nipple. After a small struggle, Bobbie affixed his lips to the rubber nipple and sucked.
“There we go!” laughed John. “Told you, Lupita!”
She shook her head.
Despite the strong latch, Bobbie didn’t eat much. He began whimpering and breathing heavily again, trying to catch his breath.
“I think he may need a nap,” said John. “I’ll make a bed out of the living room pillows.”
“I’ll clean up while you do that,” said Lupita, sighing.
Bobbie wouldn’t sleep in the pillow bed. John took to rocking him as best he could as he watched news on the TV. Reverend Billy Graham had just paid Martin Luther King Jr.’s bail, and the black pastor was being released from jail. It was apparently a big deal. John wasn’t so sure. He didn’t know what to think of the black agitators. Sure, they got the wrong end of the deal. What could anybody do about it?
But Bobbie was special. It wasn’t a fluke that John found him when he did — it was Providence. Under John’s care, Bobbie could be anything he wanted when he grew up — a lawyer, a doctor, or a movie star — it didn’t matter. The color of his skin would not prevent him from achieving greatness.
Lupita came into the living room and asked him what he was watching. He replied with a drunken mumble.
“Look, Mr. Wayne,” she began. “I don’t want to speak out of place, but… you’ve got children of your own. You can’t take this boy in like this. He belongs to someone. You should contact the authorities…”
“Ah, I know what I’m doing, Lu. Don’t worry. Once I get my wife involved, we’ll do things right.” He thought about calling his wife and telling her the situation, but he drunkenly reckoned that might not be such a good idea yet. She hated when he drank. It was one of the main reason they spent so much time apart.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wayne, but I am worried. That boy has parents out there, and even if they don’t want him or deserve him, it’s not your place to take him.”
John became angry. “You can leave and go home now, Lupita,” he said.
“OK,” she replied. “Your dinner is in the oven.” She turned on her heel and left.
Bobbie continued to breathe with difficulty. John watched as the little guy struggled. He wished there was something he could do but knew that sometimes illnesses just needed to be waited out. As awful as it was to let the baby cry, John knew he needed to let the little bug pass through Bobbie’s system. The baby started to cry loudly again; John decided to give him another lick of his bourbon-soaked finger. Bobbie quieted down immediately.
With Bobbie fast asleep in his arms, John passed out. It had been a long day, what with being woken up early to be at the movie set, and then the chaos surrounding Bobbie.
John woke up abruptly to Bobbie crying forcefully again. The sun had lowered in the sky. It was late in the afternoon. He looked down at the baby struggling in his arms. Bobbie’s nostrils flared as he breathed; his little mouth gobbled at the air but he just couldn’t swallowed any. His incessant wailing worried John.
He realized, with a crushing sadness, that since he had found the baby, he had not seen him smile once. Babies were supposed to smile.
John realized Bobbie was really sick.
The baby made a particularly heart-wrenching noise. Fear ran through John; he decided he needed to do something. There was a hospital just down the road. He realized that he was not capable of dealing with Bobbie on his own. He loaded up Bobbie in the Cadillac and headed to the emergency room.
John did not give the baby any more bourbon. That didn’t mean that he didn’t need a nip or two himself. He refilled his flask and took a long, long sip.
In the car, Bobbie screamed and wheezed louder and louder. “Okay, pilgrim, just hang on, I’m working on it,” promised John.
John parked the car and walked into the emergency room with the screeching baby. People in the waiting room immediately turned their heads to the ruckus. Some recognized him and gave him a familiar nod as if they were friends.
John came up to the desk and spoke to the nurse. “This baby is sick,” he said.
“I see,” said the nurse. “I’ll get the doctor.”
They escorted John and Bobbie into an examination room. The doctor asked John to lie the baby on the table. The doctor listened to his chest, checked his mouth and eyes. The doctor ordered a slew of x-rays and other tests. John agreed to all the tests, despite the cost.
A nurse took the baby away while another nurse asked John the baby’s date of birth and blood type.
“Well, ah, I don’t know,” he said. He didn’t want to tell them where he found the baby. “I’m just a friend of the family. I’m babysitting.” He hoped his famous stature would keep them from asking too many questions.
John sat for a long while, waiting. A few times he got up and asked the nurse what was going on, but no one would tell him anything. His impatience made him sip from his flask. The doctor came out into the waiting room and approached him quietly.
“Mr. Wayne?” he asked.
“That’s me,” said John in a drunken haze.
“You’re the one who brought in the negro infant…?”
“Was that his name?”
The doctor took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wayne. The boy — Bobbie — he had a serious lung infection. We did everything we could, but… he passed about three minutes ago.”
“I’m sorry. He expired. He’s gone, Mr. Wayne.”
John felt wetness fall from his eyes. “But,” he said. “That’s impossible! He was just a little sick!”
“I’m afraid he was very sick, Mr. Wayne. It’s amazing he survived as long as he did.”
“Well,” said John. “I… uh…I don’t know. Are you sure?”
The doctor looked sympathetic. “I’m sure, Mr. Wayne.”
John thought to himself for a moment. “Hey, doc… did… anytime when he was with you…did you see him smile?”
The doctor shook his head. “No, I don’t think so, sorry.”
I never got to see him smile. Maybe he never smiled his whole darn life, thought John.
“Well, thanks for telling me, doc.” He turned to leave.
“Ah, one more thing, Mr. Wayne?”
“Yeah?” John turned back around.
“Who is Bobbie’s next of kin?”
John returned to his mansion a broken man. For a long moment he considered calling his wife and telling her everything but decided he couldn’t bear to see or talk to anyone. He went to his bar and looked for something strong enough to numb the pain. He found a 100-proof bottle of moonshine someone had given him long ago. He couldn’t stand himself. He missed Bobbie.
After he drank the moonshine he punched at the walls. In his drunken stupor, he remembered Lupita’s roast. He opened the oven; it was burnt. He ate it anyway, starved as he was.
He climbed up the tall stairs and collapsed into his bed. He lay a long time without stirring, unable to fall asleep. He thought about the long day and where it had taken him.
Eventually, he drifted off, and dreamt –
In his dream, Bobbie was a grown man. The two of them were riding horses in Monument Valley, Utah. Their steeds stepped their hooves through the rushing waters of a creek as the brisk summer wind blew. Scratches of clouds floated high in the blue sky. The sun was blazing and let off a warm, soft, reassuring heat.
They both wore cowboy hats and dungarees. They braced their boots in their stirrups and held their leather reins loosely as they trusted their horses. The grasses around them blew gently in the breeze.
After they crossed the creek, they stopped because they found the perfect place to make camp for the night. They dismounted, gathered firewood and unsaddled their horses.
Their evening meal consisted of beans and biscuits. After filling their bellies, they rolled cigarettes and watched as pictures played in the flames of the fire. Neither of them spoke; there was no need.
When the sun set, Bobbie and John unrolled their bed mats and settled in for the night. John broke the silence.
“Good night, Bobbie,” he said.
The boy smiled.
The next day on the set John physically grieved over the loss of Bobbie. He felt sick to his stomach and his head thumped. He almost called in sick to work, but John Wayne didn’t call in sick.
He sat in the kitchen as the set designer and cinematographer argued about the lighting again. John’s head was full of thoughts that had little to do with the movie they were filming.
“Mr. Wayne,” the director’s assistant piped in his ear, “Maybe you could possibly take a break. Perhaps like yesterday?”
“No,” said John firmly. “No, I think I’ll just sit right here.”