The Duke wondered who that haggard old man was, then realized it was himself he was staring at in a gilt edged mirror across the bar. He looked even more ancient than he remembered his father as being, Claude Morrison, that ol' skirt chasing ne'r do-well deceased now these past twenty years who had always been the Duke's favorite parent, not that he didn't love his mother Molly but for whatever reason even to this day he had never been able to gain her approval no matter what he did or how hard he worked, his mother the complete opposite of his father who was naturally very easygoing, which had created a lot of tension in the family. There had been constant running arguments about money and everything else that hadn't ended until his parents had separated and divorced shortly after his graduation from high school, Claude eventually finding a much more agreeable woman to marry, but the point was, when had he, the Duke, gotten old? It seemed like only yesterday that he had been a young stud hired to make his first real movie The Big Trail, a movie that was supposed to rocket him to stardom but instead had gone nowhere and almost ruined his career even before it had begun, sending him on a long journey of two-bit parts in third or fourth rate, grind 'em out week after week western oaters that ironically were responsible for the career and indestructible screen image he had now: how had that worked? The Duke realized, for the first time though he'd always known it but hadn't thought about it because he normally didn't dwell on matters like these, that his early failures had laid the groundwork for all the success he enjoyed today. In fact, if he had gone on to stardom in his first movie as had been planned, or what he considered to be his first movie though he'd had a couple small parts in other films before, then he probably wouldn't have become John Wayne. He would still have had a career, but the Duke had a feeling it would have burned out by now if he had become immediately famous, and who knows what roles he would have had?
The Duke could not imagine not being the Duke. He was sure he would have gone on and been successful in some other field just like his characters did in the movies, but what if he hadn't? Damn such negative Commie thoughts, it was like someone was planting them in his brain. He firmly and devoutly believed that anyone could become anything they wanted to, at least in America but probably anywhere in the world, that anyone could rise to the top through their own ability and merit just like his good buddy Dick Nixon, who had risen from practically nowhere pulling himself up by his own bootstraps to become Vice-President of the United States, with the Presidency surely next in line: now that was the American dream! The Duke himself had no interest in politics as a career, it required too much evasiveness for a straight shooter like him, but he admired people who could do that job because someone had to. He wondered if his buddy Dick would offer him a job when he became President. It wasn't something the Duke had thought about before, but he supposed it was a possibility. If his country needed him badly enough, if he was offered an important job like Secretary of Defense, he'd have to take it, though it might mean the end of his movie career but perhaps it was time to hang up his acting spurs because, as he could plainly see thanks to this damn mirror in front of him, he wasn't getting any younger.
Of course none of these considerations would matter if anybody discovered that he was consorting with a bunch of Commie beatniks though, the Duke cagily reasoned inspired by an instinct for professional survival honed by decades of practice, he could always say that he was just spying on these characters and trying to find out what they were up to, having recognized them immediately, or almost immediately, as agents of the Red Menace: that would cover things up, and no one need be the wiser. He was just doing his duty as any red-blooded American would, stringing these fellows along until he could learn their true intentions, though it would be better if no one had noticed that he had come in with these subversive deviants or been riding with them, that would be the simplest way out, if he could get that lucky.
His mirror image stared back at him with an unwavering, unsmiling gaze. Perhaps it was just vanity, but there was always something hypnotic about looking at yourself in a mirror, as if you were seeing your own ghost. This mirror reminded him of all the ones in his cowboy movies, where every saloon had an ornate piece of polished glass just waiting to get broken in the obligatory barroom brawl. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all, he couldn't help asking silently. Who did he think he was all of a sudden, Snow White? That was the wicked queen's line, anyway. Now if he had asked who was the toughest of them all, that would have made sense. The Duke pondered his reflected twin, attempting to come up with some explanation for the mystery of his existence, but the only thing he could think about was how terrible he looked, much older than he actually was, and how if any of his fans saw him in this shape, they would be scared to death. He didn't look like the real Duke anymore, the real John Wayne, but who was the real John Wayne? It dawned on the Duke that it was all an illusion, especially his name, which he had never liked that much, created for him by Fox production chief Winnie Sheehan and director Raoul Walsh for The Big Trail because his real moniker Marion Morrison wasn't showbiz or manly sounding enough, so he had become John Wayne. John Wayne, John Wayne, will the real John Wayne please stand up? Shit. If in some way there was a real John Wayne, and somehow over the years he had become that person, which version was the most authentic one? The callow John Wayne in The Big Trail, his first starring role, or the slightly older version who had played the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach? Or was it the more mature John Wayne in all those WWII pictures that he had made? Or was it the old John Wayne staring back at him now, looking like death warmed over? There were probably other John Waynes too that he had forgotten, mercifully in some cases, because he had played a wider variety of roles than he got credit for. If only he hadn't thrown away his toupee, somehow that made all the difference. The Duke wondered if he should go back and try to find it. Even if he couldn't, at least he'd be moving again and maybe that was the secret, to keep moving no matter what and never stop to think about where you were going, a suspiciously defeatist Communist philosophy but the best he could come up with at the moment, thanks to this damn mirror that was making him look so old. The bartender, a short, dour man of indeterminate racial origin, pushed a drink in his direction then left without waiting to be paid, as if it already had been or was a freebie on the house, not the first time the Duke had experienced such a perk. He looked at the drink, then picked it up and drained it in a single gulp, finding to his satisfaction that it was straight whiskey.
"Penny for your thoughts, Mr. Wayne," Bill Lee shouted over the racket the band was making, his hand curled around his own drink. "You seem distracted, or are you just under the weather?"
The Duke looked Bill Lee right in the eye. "You're a Communist, aren't you? And so are your friends. And this place is probably the local Commie hq. You can't fool me, I know all your tricks, so don't even try. We beat you in Hawaii when I was big Jim McClain and you tried your infiltration there, and we'll beat you here too, no matter what your game is because good always triumphs over evil in the end." The Duke belatedly realized that he was mixing fact with fantasy since Big Jim McClain was just a movie he had made about the Commies trying to take over labor unions in the hula state, but hell, it had been based on a true story, hadn't it?
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Wayne, but I am most definitely not a Communist, and neither are my friends. Jack would be especially upset if he heard you accuse him of such a thing, since his politics are as right-wing as yours, rebellious as he is in other ways. Besides, Mr. Wayne, do you really believe that Communism is any sort of threat?"
The Duke knew a trick question when he heard one. "It isn't?" he cleverly parried.
"Of course not. Communism is just another instrument of the Plan, and since an essential feature of the Plan is a predisposition to creativity, that strongly suggests that Communism is politically an evolutionary dead end, because in practice it always winds up being merely another form of authoritarian government. It had a short usefulness in its revolutionary period but I predict that by the next century state Communism will no longer exist. I don't make that prediction for other current parts of the Plan, such as the Singing Sword."
There was that Singing Sword again. "You mean the flower?" the Duke asked.
"That's one aspect of it. It seems to be trinitarian in nature, though perhaps I am being triskaidekaphobic."
Since the Duke's first wife had been devoutly Catholic, he knew all about the trinity. "You mean like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?"
"Closer than you know. The Singing Sword---sounds like the title of an Errol Flynn movie, doesn't it?---the Singing Sword is all about power. Those who think they possess it wind up being possessed by it. One power is the power to control mens' minds, by altering their perceptions of reality through the use of hallucinogenic drugs that can be either synthetically created or natural in origin, such as this mythical desert flower my friend Allen is hoping to find---by the way, have you met anybody named Hummer Drinkwine recently?"
The name rang a bell with the Duke, but not strong enough so he could remember what it was. "No."
"No matter. Anyway, another power the Singing Sword refers to is the power of destruction, which so far has achieved its most perfect expression in the creation of the Bomb, aka the Big One, Oppenheimer's self-proclaimed destroyer of worlds. The fact that it takes the shape of a mushroom cloud is surely no accident, since certain mushrooms have powerful hallucinogenic properties and everything is tied together. The ignorant believe that the Bomb is the only true Singing Sword, but that is a naive belief since in addition to the Bomb and mind altering drugs, the Singing Sword also means the power of music. What else so deeply touches the soul of man? Not just classical music, but popular music like rock and roll, though I am not an aficionado of the form myself. But there is no denying its power to stir people, and in fact I consider the electric guitar to be a manifestation of the Singing Sword, which also may be embodied in certain influential performers such as Elvis Presley. There are of course all kinds of power, the power of money, technology, women, motherhood, something that's always underestimated, but for one reason or another these are just not considered to be the Singing Sword."
Something puzzled the Duke, then it came to him. "Why are you telling me all this?"
Bill Lee smiled. "I'm just trying to be helpful. Have you ever had a homoerotic experience, Mr. Wayne?"
The Duke wasn't exactly sure what homoerotic meant, but didn't like the sound of it. "You're barking up the wrong tree, mister. I don't go for that kind of talk."
"Don't worry, Mr. Wayne, I'm not making a pass at you. I was just curious. You're too old for me, as I'm too old for Allen, I'm afraid." Bill Lee sighed and gazed longingly over the Duke's shoulder. The Duke turned and saw Allen dancing ecstatically with the others. "I had such high hopes when he came to visit me in Tangiers with Jack, such expectations, but from now on we'll just be friends and collaborators, nothing more. Such is the Plan."
The Duke was getting tired of hearing about this damn plan. "Just what kind of plan are you talking about, pardner? Some Commie plot for world domination?"
"You have a one track mind, don't you, Mr. Wayne? I would call it an unhealthy obsession, except I have too many of my own. Let's just say it has something to do with the word planet. Get it?"
"The two words in one, plan and net. Some coincidence, eh? That should be all the clue you need."
"I hate to break this to you, friend, but you're the only one who knows what he is talking about."
"Let me ask you this, Mr. Wayne. Do you think everything that happens is by accident or design?"
"Has to be all one way or the other, doesn't it? How can the universe work any differently?"
The Duke thought for a moment. "Yer talking about God, then. The Big Guy." The Duke hated it when he fell into the habit of using words like yer as if he was doing a parody of himself, but sometimes he just couldn't help it.
"I'm not a great believer in the Almighty myself," said Bill Lee, "but the idea is the same. If we're not living in a random universe that exists for no reason, then there has to be some kind of plan. You can fight against it by indulging in all sorts of deviant behavior as I and my friends have, but that's just part of the Plan too, assuming there is one. There's no escaping it. The world is a stage and we indeed are merely players on it, the script written by someone else, the bastard."
Shakespeare, the Duke recognized. Back in his high school drama club he'd actually done a few of the Bard's plays, though he hadn't understood half of the archaic lingo he'd been spouting, but he had more of an acting background than people thought. It wasn't all cowboy roles, he just didn't get a chance to show it. "So everything that happens is planned, huh? Sounds like a load of Commie hogwash to me, bud."
"Who can deny that we are subject to forces that we have no control over, even the great John Wayne. We have no choice over the type of person we become, as far as I can tell."
The Duke was going to strongly disagree with that when he realized that he was no longer talking to a man but to a horse, or more accurately to a horse's head on top of Bill Lee's body, and not just any horse's head either, but the head of the most difficult and ill-tempered nag he'd ever had to ride for the movies, a four-legged creature from hell called Thunderbolt, named for a jagged white streak down the middle of its coal black forehead, who had tried to throw or step on the Duke every chance it could during Riders of Destiny, a Singing Sandy film, confirming the Duke in his opinion that horses were the stupidest creatures God had created, a prejudice that had formed when he had first learned to ride them as a youngster in California. He blinked a couple times to make the apparition go away, but it didn't.
"Why do you think this place is called the Cafe H, Bill?" asked Jack, coming back from the bathroom and taking a spot beside his friend without noticing any transformation. "What do you think the H stands for?"
"Who knows," shrugged Thunderbolt\Bill Lee. "Hollywood, hallucination, H-bomb, heroin, hero, here, hotspot, hell, horse. H is a more interesting letter than most. I could just keep guessing, which I'm sure is the idea. Are you all right, Mr. Wayne? You have a strange look in your eye, which from my long personal familiarity with such matters leads me to believe that you are not yourself."
The Duke began backing away, slowly at first, then he abandoned all pretense at dignity and bolted for the door, catching some kid right in the head with a flying elbow and knocking him down, but the Duke wasn't about to stop and help him up because he had to get out of that place fast and he did, making his way through the dancers who obligingly parted for his mad rush as if it had all been pre-arranged and then he was outside in the cold glittery desert night where the stars, he could swear, were trying to talk to him, speak to him, but he couldn't hear what they were saying because their voices were a hiss, a sibilant undercurrent of whispers. The night was alive and he ran as if he was running for his life, like he was still the USC football player he had been for one year on scholarship, legs fearlessly pumping, arms churning, heading for the goal line eyes closed but still able to see all kinds of crazy shapes and colors until he ran into a wall, a wall he had known he was going to contact but hadn't wanted to avoid in a test of strength to show that he was still as good as he ever was, but even in his prime he couldn't run through walls, though once on a drunken dare he had punched through a closed door and knocked his good buddy Ward Bond out---or had he just broken Ward's nose that time?---but this was a different situation though he was drunk again, but this was still a different situation and in this instance he had lost the fight, as sometimes even true blue heroes did and had to pay with the temporary loss of his consciousness, which seemed fair enough to the Duke because getting your bell rung that hard, if a bit drastic, was one way to clear your head.