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Date Due, detail, Sewn Date Due Library Cards, 96” x 96”, 2012 by Daniella Woolf

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Elizabeth McKenzie

The John Wayne Bust

     Albert wondered how long it would take Julie to freshen up and climb into bed. Her room was like the rooms of many girls he had slept in for a night or a week; clothes and shoes scattered across the floor, a few bald stuffed animals sagging on the chest of drawers, a clock radio and nail polish next to the bed, an ashtray full of long butts, warm cola in a glass on the sill.  In Julie’s room, the only unusual item was a life-sized head of John Wayne on the floor in the corner.  It had to weigh 80, 90 pounds.
     Julie sailed from the bathroom at last, turned and let her robe slide down her naked back.
     "Where'd you get that John Wayne head?" Albert asked.
     "It's a bust," said Julie.  "It’s solid bronze.”
     "Means it's worth a lot," Albert figured.
     "$10,000 at least, three years ago."
     "You ought to sell it," Albert said.
     "Don’t think I haven’t wanted to, but it meant a lot to my dad, and he's dead." 
     It had been eight months since he'd been with a girl who had a job.  His son would like Julie because she lived in an apartment with a pool.
     "Your Dad, or John Wayne?"
     "Both," she said.
     Later, when Albert reached over and accidentally took a sip of the flat coke, he swallowed without a complaint. 

     Miller loved doing belly flops in the pool.  Water sprayed across the cement.  "Why?" Albert asked.  Miller could dive.  Miller spent summers at Day Camp in the Oaks.  He grabbed acorns from the floor of the deep end.
     "I want to see if I can make the whole pool get empty!" Miller yelled.
     Miller was in afternoon classes for gifted kids.  Albert didn't understand how.  Miller’s mother was an alcoholic who disappeared five years ago.  Albert never liked school and had apprenticed as a mason then had his fingers crushed by a wheelbarrow of bricks.  He was on disability.  He was very proud of Miller and imagined him as a doctor or a lawyer or a nuclear physicist one day.
     "Time to come in," he said.
     "What for!"
     "I'm tired of watching you."
     "Don't watch me then."
     "We could go to the movies.  How 'bout it."
     "I want to go to Sean's."
     "Fine.”  He’d wait for Julie.  They could order pizza and make love on the couch.  He always found that exciting, not making love in bed.  Maybe he didn't like John Wayne watching them.
      Albert rented The Wrestler.  A compromise.  He liked wrestling, she liked movies.  But when she walked in her eyes had dark rings of eye makeup around them, rubbed in by her little fists.
     "What's wrong?"
     " I lost my job.  Decided they don't need someone at the front desk,” she sniffled.
     "So maybe now we can sell John Wayne," Albert said.
     "I'm not selling it."
     "The market for John Wayne stuff could dry up.”
     "I'll have a new job by next week, stop complaining.”
     Later, while they were making love on the couch, Albert heard plinks.  He pushed himself up on his elbows. Miller and Sean were pitching bottle caps at the window from down by the pool.
     "If you smoked the whole god-damned cigarette, it would save a ton of money," Albert nagged a few weeks later.
     "Go get a job," she said, drinking a warm coke.
     "Let's sell John Wayne," Albert said.  "And take a trip."         
     Albert ran into the bedroom and grabbed the bust. His crushed hand was better, but he still didn't feel like going back to brick work.  He hefted the head into the living room.
     "Albert, put it back.  I mean it."
     "If it's so great let’s look at the fucker!”
     "Don't handle it like that.  It's mint."
     "Mint?"  In a flash Albert imagined throwing the John Wayne bust off the balcony into the pool.  All the scaggy neighbors would come out in their underwear, to look down at John Wayne under water.  Then Miller could dive and get it.  Maybe the news crews would come.  "We just want jobs," Albert would plead to the camera.  The offers would come in through the television station.  Albert had always wanted to be the groundskeeper on an estate.  Someone with an estate might call and Miller could go to a private school, and Julie could be the maid.  “All right, I’ll leave Marion alone.  That was his real name.”
     “So what?”
     “Marion the librarian.”
     The next day, while Julie was out at interviews, Albert showed up in a pawn shop with the John Wayne bust.  They needed a vacation, time to get their thoughts together, make a plan.  But the pawn man only offered $250.  "Are you kidding?" Albert said.  "This thing's worth at least ten grand.   It's mint."
     "You're lucky what I'm offering.  Take it or leave it."
     The whole place felt better without John Wayne around.  That evening, Julie seemed cheerful.  She ran into a friend from high school who knew of an opening at company she worked for.  "I always thought Sue hated me, and here she's practically offering me a job.  Pretty decent."
     "Very," Albert said.
     "When's your disability run out?"
     "Listen," Albert said.  "I've got a surprise for you, so be chill, okay?"
     And then came a loud rap on the apartment door.
     Julie discovered two cops on the doormat.  "Albert Johnson live here?"
     "Right here," Albert declared, with a sinking feeling. 
     They took him outside.  The John Wayne bust was stolen property.  They wanted to know where he'd gotten it. "See, I know she didn't steal it,” he told them.  “Her Dad was a mover, someone gave it to him on a job.  And hey, he had a stroke like a year ago.”
     "Then we’d better speak to her.”
     "Whatever you gotta do, sir." 
     "Was she aware you were trying to pawn this bust?"
     "No sir.  I was going to surprise her." 
     "Two hundred fifty bucks buys what?"
     "Time to think, sir."
     Albert and Miller answered an ad for a room, and moved in with Nancy, an elderly woman with back problems on disability.  She liked to make big crocks of corn chowder and mend socks and often volunteered to drive Miller places, although Miller thought she was a drag because she always nagged him about joining her church.  Miller was excelling in Creative Writing, which impressed Albert.  He read Miller's poems to his new friends when he went back to brick work in the fall.
     "'Birdbath-enzymes, digest me, make me part of your perfect order,'" Albert read.
     "What the hell does that mean?"
     "He's creative," Albert said, and for now, that was enough.
     Julie told the police how much her father loved John Wayne. Customers often gave him old stuff they didn’t want on moves. But her father was dead, and it was all she had left of him.  They seized the bust.  She got a warning.  Her new boyfriend was a forklift driver at the freight company and she liked him much better than Albert.  He’d get her to stand on the forks.  Then he’d drive all over the warehouse in crazy eights, carrying her up and down, up and down the floor.

Elizabeth McKenzie is the author of the forthcoming novel The Portable Veblen, as well as a collection, Stop That Girl, short-listed for The Story Prize, and the novel MacGregor Tells the World, a Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal Best Book of the year. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others. She is the Managing Editor of Catamaran Literary Reader and Senior Editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review.

Wallace Baine
Elizabeth McKenzie
Jill Wolfson

Carolyn Burke
Patrice Vecchione

Stephen Kessler
David Allen Sullivan

Daniella Woolf

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