by Michael Waterson
The horse opera starring John Wayne as Genghis Kahn,
miscasting so riotous there aren’t enough rotten tomatoes
in the tomato-picking world to launch at the screen, a bomb
shot downwind of a nuclear test site
at a time when A-Bomb tourism was exploding,
when Las Vegas casinos hawked spectacular views
of neon-bright mushroom clouds, and doomsday-
midnight gamblers caroused away
the countdown to a sunburst nuclear dawn,
on government assurance it was safe.
After the location wrap, producer Howard Hughes trucked
tons of desert dirt back to the studio to match
the color of terrain for realism in the final cut.
When forty-six of the cast and crew
were later overcome by carcinomas,
critics zeroed in on radiation exposure,
although (spoiler alert!) the fatalities fell
within the national statistical average:
Wayne, for one, inhabited a toxic nimbus
of smoke from his five-pack-a-day habit.
Hughes, it was whispered, passed his recluse years
pent up in his penthouse under a cloud of guilt
from his decision to shoot at those hazardous sites,
buying up every print of the film
to keep it locked away, and viewing his epic
obsessively in his Desert Inn hermitage,
while Wayne went on to greater triumphs,
vanquishing malignancy in his lungs before
losing his battle with stomach cancer.
Michael Waterson is a retired journalist originally from Pittsburgh. His career includes stints as a seasonal firefighter, San Francisco taxi driver, and wine educator. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including California Quarterly, Cathexis Northwest, and The Bookends Review. His first collection, Cosmology of Heaven and Hell, was recently published by The Poetry Box. He holds an MFA from Mills College. michaelwatersonpoetry.com.