High summer on the plains and all Craig wanted to do was get out of the sun. He’d been driving for four hours, and the AC in his rental was just barely wheezing along. To the left and right, fields and fields of corn waved in the wind, keeping time with his tires as they crunched along the pavement. He wiped a bead of sweat from his eyes and blinked back the haze.
Ahead, a green sign appeared in the midst of the yellow, white lettering blazing in the afternoon sun. It read BOTTINEAU 1. He passed the sign, and the corn parted, the road opening into a small town. Craig could see several older homes set back from the road, and just up ahead, a small main street. The car rolled into town, past a dog sniffing something in the ditch, and a pair of dirty children chasing a ball in what passed for a park.
The main street was mostly old wood buildings, painted in faded whites and grays. There was a small hardware store, a five and dime, a diner (Maude’s – Best Pie in Town), and a drugstore. At the end of the strip, before the town ended and the road passed grain silos and more damn corn was the holy grail of weary travelers. A sign on the square facade read Marv’s, and below that, in script: ‘Cold Beer, Hot Food’.
Craig pulled the car over, into an open diagonal spot out front, between two big Fords. He cut the engine and looked at the front of the building. The entrance was recessed, the main door a house door someone had fit into the frame. A sign proclaimed it a smoke-free establishment. He looked to the side, at the big Fords, and wondered how welcoming the locals were of strangers. Probably not very. Still, it was probably dark and cool inside, and there would be Cold Beer. He screwed up his courage and got out of the car. After a minute of waffling, still staring at those big trucks, he went inside.
The door creaked when he opened it, and a blast of cool air hit him in the face. A part of him sighed, and he stepped into the dim interior. The inside was simple – booths backed against the walls, and small tables in the center of the room. A long bar took up one wall, with small pull-tab machines at one corner, and bottles of liquor and coolers of beer and pop lined up behind it. A jukebox stood against one wall, wailing out something by Willie. In an opposite corner stood a tall glass and wood display case, the interior dark from where he stood.
Craig let the door close behind him and paused as heads swiveled to see who had entered. There were a few farmers, hats on tight, skin wind and sun burned, and a woman who looked as though she had once been homecoming queen twenty years ago sitting at the bar. A chubby waitress stood behind the bar wiping out glasses. They looked at him, weighed him, and disregarded him. That done, Craig bellied up to the bar.
The waitress put down her glass.
“What can I get ya?”
“Bud’s fine. Uh, bottle.”
After a moment, it was sitting in front of him, and the first drink was like Heaven in his throat. Cool and crisp, with just a bitter bite. He took another sip, and another, and let the beer relax his road sore muscles. A few minutes later, he found his gaze drawn to the case in the corner, and stood to take a look at it.
The case was old, like the ones he’d seen pictures of in old traveling shows. It reminded him of a curio cabinet, just plainer. Scattered around the base of the box were rose petals and half-melted candles. He could just make a plaque. It read J. Hoffa.
He frowned and leaned in.
Inside, he could see a wizened figure, in an old suit. It looked like a mummy, and though it was thin and spindly, there was a squareness to the jaw and a width to the shoulders. Its hands were crossed over its chest, and its eyes were closed, as though the man inside had fallen asleep and decided to stay that way. A hand-printed sheet of paper was taped at waist high. It read
Make a Wish, $1
Oh, so this was a charity thing. He looked over at the waitress behind the bar.
“Is this thing real?”
She popped her gum and nodded. “Yeah. Jimmy Hoffa. Make a wish.”
“Like for the kids?”
She shook her head. “Nah, like birthday candles.”
Huh. He pulled his wallet out and grabbed a dollar, then turned back to the waitress.
“Where do I put this?”
“Basket.” She nodded her head at a small table he hadn’t noticed. A basket sat on top, empty.
Not a lot of takers. Ah, what the hell, he thought. He dropped the dollar in and tried to think of what to wish for. He looked around the room, and his gaze fell on the former beauty queen. Lines had eroded some of her looks, and beer had made her a little soft in the middle, but in all, he could see what had made her once a gem in a field.
Wish I could get laid.
He waited a minute, then two, for something to happen. He even closed his eyes. After another minute, when nothing had, he chuckled to himself and made his way back to the bar. He picked up his beer and looked down. Next to his coast was a napkin, neat block writing on it. He read it.
Meet me in the bathroom
Craig looked around and noticed the beauty queen was gone. He shrugged, got up, and made his way to the short hall in the back of the building. It smelled of urinal cakes and Lysol there. He couldn’t think of a less romantic place on the planet, except maybe in an actual puddle of urine. He shouldered open the door to a bathroom the size of a closet and stepped inside. The woman on the other side met him with a kiss and a hand in his pocket. After his initial shock, he returned the kiss.
The sex was quick and awkward, and afterward, they separated, and she left first. He took his time cleaning up, and then went back to his beer. It was warm, so he ordered another, and looked at his watch. He still had time before he had to be on the road. The beauty queen was gone. He found himself looking at the case in the corner, where J. Hoffa was ensconced. Wheels in his head started to turn.
What did he wish for? Money? Fame? Power? He thought back to the bathroom sex and thought that while easy, it all seemed a bit trite. Still…he thought of his mortgage, and his kid going off to school soon. He thought of the new car he’d like – something fun, like an Audi, or a Jag. He thought of his tiny ranch home, and his cramped rooms. That last thought made up his mind. He was tired of too little space, of rooms that smelled vaguely of mold in the fall and sweat in the summer. He stood and made his way over to the basket by J. Hoffa, fished a dollar out of his wallet, and tossed it in.
Wish I had some money. A lot of money. Enough for a new house, maybe.
His stomach twitched and gurgled suddenly, and he knew he didn’t have time to wait around to see if it worked. He shuffle-ran to the bathroom and slammed open the stall, barely getting his pants down in time. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, and while his body evacuated, his foot kicked out and hit something.
When he was finished, he flushed and looked down, trying to find the thing he’d bumped. Part of him was mortified to think it had been one of those farmer’s feet. He breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw that hadn’t been the case. In the stall next to him, furthest from the door and closest to the wall, someone had left a leather duffel bag. Craig leaned down and snagged it, pulling it to his side. He looked around, though the bathroom remained empty, and then unzipped it. The zipper was loud in the tiled room, and he thought for sure someone would hear. He waited a minute, counting between heartbeats. When no one came, he opened the bag and looked inside.
Bundles of hundreds, with those bands like the bank used, were stacked neatly in the bag. Though he wasn’t sure how much money it was exactly, he was sure it had to be at least a half million, maybe more. He hurriedly zipped up the bag and cleaned up, then left the stall. After he washed his hands, he stood by the door, trying to figure out how to play it. He had after all, not come in with a bag. They might not notice, he thought. Just a couple left in the bar, and I’ve already paid my tab.
He squared his shoulders and made his mind up. He pushed through the bathroom door, bag in hand, and walked out. No one looked up. He had made it to the door when he had another thought. What about another wish? He looked down at the bag in his hand and figured he should put it in the car first. He could always come back inside. He made his way out, the door squealing behind him.
Light, bright and fresh blinded him for a moment, and he stood on the sidewalk, the heat baking his face, and tried to blink away the spots in his eyes. When he could see again, a big man, over six foot, was blocking his path, his shoulders like the eaves on a house. The beauty queen stood behind him.
The big guy gestured at him. “This the guy, Darlene?”
She nodded, mascara streaked on her cheeks. The big man looked down at the bag in Craig’s hand. His face grew dark.
“Looks like you got two things of mine today, pal.” He raised a meaty fist, a tire iron in it.
Craig briefly wondered where they’d find his body and wished he were anywhere else.
He found not all wishes come true.