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John Wayne: A Novel (Dan Barden)


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  According to Duke's son Michael, Hank Fonda had said, "Well then, I'll just sit here until he does have time to see me." Michael's intention to keep Fonda away from his father crumbled almost at once. But he still made Fonda wait almost an hour before he would let him into the ICU.

Once there, Fonda distinguished himself by not reacting at all to the carnage that was spread before him--John Wayne's own body as ropey and frail as famine, his movements difficult to comprehend but certainly painful, his eyes wide with the remoteness of suppressed terror. Sinatra had been let through the door a day earlier, and he couldn't take it. He bent over as though he was going to puke all over the nurse's cart. He held his wife for support. Fonda, who brought no wife nor needed any support, looked at Duke the way he'd looked across the fourth wall of many movies--an unhurried but voracious glance, open like a net thrown over a school of fish. Fonda said, "I'm sorry to see you feeling so bad." He held Duke's hand across the bar that kept him from rolling out of bed. "I came to say that I'll do anything I can to help you."

"You got past Michael," Duke said. "That was quite an accomplishment. He's been pissing off a lot of people."

"He's still a kid." Fonda smiled. "He's easily impressed by dedication and nerve."

Duke smiled, too. He knew what Hank meant.

"I would have never done it," Duke said. "But I'm glad that someone I know did."

Fonda smiled his longest smile. "Done what?" he quietly asked. "What are we talking about?"

"I would have never hit Ford. But I'm glad somebody I know did it. I'm even glad it was you."

"I never hit Jack." Fonda kept up his smile. "Did Jack tell you that?"

Fonda finally sat down. He approached the task carefully, like an old man. His hands were hands and cramped as he pulled lightly at the bar. Duke could see the specter of Fonda's own death in his weathered hands.

Relaxing, Fonda said, "No, I didn't do any such thing. He hit me, and then I looked back up at him--he knocked me down--and I thought, This is like punching your mother in the stomach, this is like breaking your father's arms. I couldn't do it. He had a way of seeming frail sometimes even when he wasn't so frail. He was an old man then, almost as old as we are now, but he wasn't that old. Maybe it was the booze. It had to be the booze."

"Bite your tongue," Duke whispered.

"What?" Fonda said.

"Don't say anything bad about booze to a man who's dying and hasn't had a drink in six months."

"Pardon me." Fonda dipped his head. "I thought I was talking to the still living and the still drinking."

Wayne smiled. "No, you're talking to the dead and dry."

"You really gonna die, Duke?"

"After you leave here, I'm going to call in the priest and become a Catholic."

"No shit?"

"Absolutely. Cover all the bases."

"I guess that means you're gonna die." Fonda spoke quietly.

"Yeah."

"Well, I don't want to keep you from your God. You want me to leave now?"

"No."

They talked about the obvious things first. The trips to Mexico, the difficulties with their wives, the children who were trouble to them. That took about twenty minutes. And then they were left with the only thing that was really worth talking about: the Coach.

"You really didn't hit him?" Duke asked. "For years, I've thought about that." "Like I told you before"--Hank smiled--"I really didn't hit him."

"He hit you?"

"He hit me."

"Christ, I'm trying to picture that."

"Jesus, Duke, he was one of the meanest sons of bitches alive. Why are you having trouble picturing that?"

"This is what I'm saying--he was mean, but I don't remember him ever hitting an actor. He didn't need to. You must be the only actor he ever hit."

"He hit you, didn't he?"

"Oh, yeah, but that was different. That was before I was an actor. What did you do to him?"

"I was just trying to help."

"Oh, that was a great fucking idea." Duke laughed hard enough to hurt himself.

"You okay?"

"No, I'm fucking dying."

"Besides that."

"Yeah, I'm okay."

For a while, they both stared at the wall beyond Duke's bed. Amid all the machinery and hospital carts and vinyl curtains, there was one bare wall with nothing on it but dull white paint.

"You know," Duke said, "he got you that movie."

"What movie?"

"Mister Roberts. He told them he wouldn't direct it unless you were the star. They didn't want you to be the star."

"I was the star on Broadway."

"I know that."

"And they didn't want me?"

"They didn't want you. Ford convinced them."

"Jesus, no wonder he was mad."

"He didn't think you were being properly grateful."

"For what I didn't know about."

"Exactly."

"Jesus."

Fonda looked as though he'd lost something important. For a moment, he seemed more stricken than the patient. Duke was sorry he had mentioned it, but he was glad for his ability to surprise, even as he was dying. He had so much more that he could have told Fonda--conversations with Ford about Fonda's abilities as a leading man, a lifelong commentary on Hank's choices in women, remarks about his daughter, all manner of things that would have hurt. But there were many years when Duke might have hated Hank, and somehow never did. Hank was a brother, and hatred was immaterial when it came to brothers.

"What else have you got to tell me that will ruin my day?" Fonda asked.

"Nothing," Duke replied.

"Don't you think I have things to tell you that will ruin your day?"

"You won't tell me because I'm dying."

"That's right."

"But please tell me something."

"Something I've never told you before?"

"That would be good."

"Okay. You were great in that Preminger picture."

"In Harm's Way?"

"How many other Preminger pictures were you in, Duke?"

"All right."

"Yeah, I could never get over how great you were in that movie. You were almost as good as you were with Ford and Hawks."

"Almost, huh?"

"What do you want from me? You did better than anyone. Am I going to remind you on your deathbed of all the lousy pictures you made?"

"Hell, no. Not you."

"In Harm's Way was a great fucking film. I was jealous of how good you were. I cried. You made me cry."

"Hey, you were in it, too."

"Just barely."

"It was a great picture, wasn't it?"

"Yeah."

"How many great pictures do you think we were in?"

"Oh, maybe four or five each."

"We did better than anybody, didn't we?"

"Yes, we did."

Duke smiled, and it was becoming difficult to smile. Hank smiled back to let him know that he appreciated the gesture.

"So, what's this bullshit about becoming a Catholic? You held out for so fucking long, I don't know why you're giving in now."

"Like I said, cover all the bases."

"Maybe you just think you'll have a little more juice with Ford if you make an appropriate concession before you enter the afterlife."

"Could be."

"You always were a kiss-ass, Eagle Scout, brown-nosing motherfucker, weren't you, Duke?"

"That's right."

"And I was always getting beaten up because I didn't have the courage to get down on my knees."

"There were lots of things worth fighting for, and you never had a clue what they were."

"Ah, you're probably right. And I'm old enough to admit it."

"I've lived long enough to hear Fonda admit what an asshole he is. Glory Hallelujah."

"Yes, you have. So, what are you going to do when I leave here. Call in the padre? Make a confession?"

"Worse than that," Duke said. "I'm going to get down on my knees and stick my big nose right up God's ass."

"He always loved you," Hank said. "Me, he tried to love. Never quite got the hang of it, though."

Duke smiled with the grace of the exhausted. "Who are we talking about? John Ford or Jesus Christ?"

Hank laughed.
 
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Excerpted from John Wayne: A Novel by Dan Barden. Copyright © 1997 by Dan Barden. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.