NOREEN EASED THE OLD CADILLAC onto the freeway and glanced over at her father-in-law who sat in the passenger seat, jiggling his legs. She patted his arm. “Relax, Dad. We’ll be there in half an hour. Let’s listen to some music.” She found a station on the radio that was playing oldies. Maybe it would calm him.
He glowered at the car ahead of them. “If I ever find out who stole my winnings…well, they just better hope I don’t.”
“What winnings?” Noreen knew he was talking about the scam letter he kept in his wallet, but she couldn’t think of another way to respond. She signaled a lane change and merged into the center lane.
He pulled his billfold from his back pocket, retrieved the tattered paper and carefully unfolded it. “This says I won the lottery…a hundred thousand dollars.” He pursed his lips. “I’ll know who stole my money when I see them driving a shiny new Cadillac.”
Dropping the paper, he peered around the interior of the car as if seeing it for the first time. “Like this one…” He ran a bony finger over the dashboard, down the glove box and across the upholstered door panel.
“Dad, you know this was my father’s car. Don’t you just love the leather smell and how soft the upholstery feels?” She stroked the seat between them. “In case you forgot, this car is thirteen years old.”
He huffed. “Doesn’t look it.” Without warning, he upped the radio volume. “Quiet, we have to listen to this.”
The commercial blasted so loud Noreen’s eardrums vibrated, but she forced a smile. “Oh, a John Wayne Film Festival.” She turned down the sound. “I’ll make sure you get to watch it.” Her father-in-law loved John Wayne movies.
But instead of being pleased, he groaned. “Did you hear what they said? They talked about the Duke like he’s dead.” He clutched the top of his head.
Noreen wondered if he was trying to keep it from blowing off. She flipped the blinker again. “Here’s our off-ramp.” She maneuvered into the exit lane.
“I’m gonna write me a letter,” he declared. “Those people will get a piece of my mind.” His blue eyes widened. “He isn’t dead. I saw him on television yesterday. If John Wayne were dead, which he’s not, he’d be rolling in his grave.”
Jaw clamped, he opened the glove box and dug around inside it. “Here’s a pen. Honey, do you have a piece of paper? I’ll insist they make a public apology to the Duke and all his fans.”
He closed the glove box and picked up the letter he’d dropped. “This doesn’t look important. Do you mind if I use it?”
“No, go ahead.” Noreen waited for the light at the base of the ramp to change. Whatever it took to make him forget the sweepstakes. Using his knee for a table, her father-in-law scribbled frantically on the blank side the paper, vocalizing every word. “Dear Sirs… How dare you have a commercial that insinuates the death of John Wayne. I’m sure he’s as mad as I am, or madder.”
The car bumped over a manhole cover, causing him to punch a hole in the paper, but that didn’t seem to faze him. “I request an apology be aired on this radio station,” he continued, “to the Duke and his family, friends, and fans.”
He held up the note. “Does that sound right? I’m so mad at them.”
Noreen nodded, her focus on the traffic as she navigated a busy intersection.
He snorted. “I can’t believe anyone would do that to him. John Wayne will no doubt sue them.” For a long moment, he glared at the radio. Then he folded the paper and put it in his shirt pocket.
Noreen smiled. With any luck, the letter would still be there when she did the laundry, and she could toss it—or better yet, shred it. She slowed to enter the V.A. hospital’s parking lot. What should she do? Tell her father-in-law his hero was dead, or leave it alone? “Um, Dad?”
“What, honey?” He sounded worried. “Something wrong?”
She pulled into a parking space, switched off the engine and turned to him. “Yes, Dad, there is something wrong.”
He lifted his chin, as if bracing himself for the worst. “Go ahead. Tell me. What’s happened?”
She looked into his blue eyes. “Well, you know you’re going to have some tests today to see how well your mind is working. Right?” He nodded, and she saw moisture gather in the corners of his eyes. “They won’t hurt you.”
Offering him a gentle smile, she added, “but they’re going to ask you a bunch of questions about life and facts about the date, the year, the president…things like that.”
He sunk into his seat, drawing his chin in like a turtle retreating into its shell. “Are they going to ask me about John Wayne?”
“No, probably not.” She took his wrinkled hand in hers. “But you’re very upset about John Wayne, aren’t you?”
“You bet!” He raised his bushy eyebrows. “I’m gonna write them and give them what for.” Pulling his hand away, he began to knead his legs. “Can I use the typewriter when I get home?”
“Sure, but there’s something you should know before you send the letter.” She studied his face. His brow was furrowed and he was breathing hard.
“Maybe we should cancel your appointment,” she said. “I think you may be too upset to go through testing today.”
“Doll, it takes too long to get appointments in this place. Let’s just get it over with.” He crossed his arms. “Tell me what you’re going to tell me.”
Noreen took a breath, praying, God help him. “It’s about John Wayne.”
“What about him?”
“He died.” There, she’d said it.
His mouth dropped open. “No, not John Wayne!” Tears pooled in his eyes. “When? Tell me when.”
She couldn’t help it. She started to cry, too. “I’m not sure, but it was some time ago. Maybe twenty years.” Oops. Had she said too much? She clamped her lips together, forbidding anything else to come out.
“This can’t be true.” He sniffed. “How’d he die?” Noreen found a tissue in her purse and blew her nose. “Cancer, I think.”
“Tell me it’s not true. Please, please tell me it’s not true.” But then he stopped. “Am I that far gone?”
Noreen felt terrible for breaking her father-in-law’s heart, but before she could respond, he bowed his head. After several minutes, she tapped his shoulder. “Dad, we have to get to your appointment. Are you ready?”
He blinked and looked around. “Oh, we’re at the V.A. already. Did I sleep all the way here?”
“Some. You mostly listened to the radio and dozed off and on. It’s hard not to fall asleep in these comfortable seats.”
“Yep, this is some car your dad gave you.” He released his seat belt. “Okay, let’s go. What are they doing to me today, do you know?”
“They’re going to ask you a few questions, that’s all.”
“Let’s get going, darlin’.” He opened the car door. “There’s a John Wayne festival this afternoon, and I don’t want to miss it. That man is the greatest actor alive today.”
About this story: “John Wayne Lives,” a creative nonfiction story, was originally published in Passageways: A Short Story Collection ©2014. Later posts to FICTION FRIDAY will feature ICW members’ unpublished stories of 1500 words or less.
Beliefs represented by individual authors are not necessarily shared by all members of ICW.