“Boilermaker” by Susan Hammerman

Delores didn’t want to think about what she was. Her job was done now, anyway….

The window by the front door let in enough light to show the bar was a dump, but just in case Delores Reed didn’t get the picture, the lights were on. Not a customer in sight. A dozen empty round wooden tables lined the walls that were painted mustard yellow. The paint was blistered in places and made the bar look sick, as if it had the dose and needed penicillin. Delores found it hard to imagine that this was where she’d get her hands on a million dollars.

The barman nodded his ox head at her as he swabbed the red Formica bar top.

The Formica bar, iron foot rail, and ancient wooden bar stools that did not swivel told the drab history of the place in an easy glance. It was born a nickel saloon where farm hands and geezer Civil War veterans hitched their muddy boots on the foot rail and drank beer that cost a nickel. During Prohibition, the bar went into hiding as an unloved soda fountain with the addition of a Formica countertop. Finally, the bar was laid to rest as it stood today in 1952, as a drinking establishment to go to after everything else had burned down.

“A beer and a shot,” Delores said and parked it on a stool directly in front of the barman.

“Boilermaker. Ladies don’t drink those too much around here.”

“From the looks of this town, they probably should start. It might help.”

Delores lit a cigarette with her platinum cigarette lighter, a curio from her youth. The lighter was engraved with Darling D. in swirling cursive. The period was formed by an embedded diamond chip. She ran her thumb over it for luck and took a long drag on her cigarette. The coal blazed red.

She studied the barman. His arms were sunburned, and he had rough old potato hands that did tougher work than pull beers and pour shots.

This had to be the place.

He clapped the beer down and offered to dump the shot of whiskey into it.

Delores shook her head no and rested her cigarette on the lip of a glass ashtray. “Any chance you could scrounge up a cocktail napkin?”

From his face it was clear that a duck riding a bicycle would be easier to find than a cocktail napkin, but he said, “I’ll check.”

He walked to the back, opened a narrow door to a separate room, tugged the chain of a bare light bulb, and went in.  

With his back to her, Delores hoisted herself onto the bar top and peered over it. Every drinking establishment in America had something hidden behind the bar, a shotgun, a knife, a brick tied up in a pillowcase. It was an insurance policy against trouble. Delores grasped the edge of the bar and leaned over a little further. She came eye to eye with dirty whiskey glasses and a baseball bat. A baseball bat wasn’t good, but a shotgun was worse.

She righted herself on her stool, smoothed the front of her lavender dress, and pushed her auburn hair back in place.

The barman came out of the backroom with a blue flannel dishcloth in his hand.

He got behind the bar and dropped the tattered rag in front of her the way a house cat would drop a prized dead mouse.  

In a casual, let’s be pals tone, she said, “You live in town? Me, I grew up on a farm.”

It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t true either. The stockyards could be considered a kind of farm, a farm of pig guts and cows’ blood. It made the stink of a thousand farms stacked one on top of another. She downed the whiskey in one gagging mouthful. They were sixty miles north of Chicago, and the smell couldn’t reach her there, but the memory of growing up with that stench made the back of her throat burn, or maybe it was the whiskey.

“You like farms?” He asked with his eyes fixed twelve inches south of hers. “I got a farm just outside of town. You might like to come by and see it sometime.”

This was it. “Yeah. I think I would.” She stubbed out her cigarette and checked the clock above the frosted mirror with hula dancers painted on it. “Where’s the telephone?”

He hitched his thumb towards the back and winked at her for encouragement.

She called Lloyd. Lloyd was cooling his heels at the drugstore across the town square. It was Lloyd’s plan. Eddie was holed up in the alley. Eddie drew attention. He was the muscle. Delores didn’t want to think about what she was. Her job was done now, anyway.

As she made a sloppy job of the trip from the telephone back to her beer, she counted. This was her fourth bar, and her fourth beer and shot.

A little food would keep her steady on her feet. “Got any pickled eggs hiding out behind those gin bottles?” she asked the barman.

“I got this,” he said, and set a bowl of potato chips down by her elbow.

“Lying around since your thirteenth birthday or fresh?”

“Anyone ever tell you, you got a mouth on you?”

“Sure, a mouth, two eyes, and a nose. Government issue.”

“I’ll say.”

To stamp out the fuse she’d lit, Delores moved her beer and potato chips to a table facing the door. While doing a stretch for purse snatching, Eddie’s mother got a tip about a barman somewhere out by Lattimore, Illinois, who owned the farm where the money from the bank job was buried. To think that much cash had stayed hidden for twenty years. That was something. Delores ate a handful of stale chips and decided then and there, when everything was settled up, she wouldn’t go back to Chicago with Lloyd. She’d make a well-heeled start somewhere new.

The front door sailed open. Delores and Lloyd locked eyes. Lloyd smoothed his mustache and flicked the brim of his hat with his forefinger, a nervous habit. He stepped into the bar. Eddie filled the doorway behind him like a dump truck loaded with gravel. He shut the door, locked it, and just in case the barman didn’t get the score, Eddie pulled the gray shade down over the window for privacy.

The barman snatched up the baseball bat from under the counter.

“Don’t get rattled,” Lloyd said to him. “We’re your excavation crew.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the barman said and choked up on his grip.

“That baseball bat tells me otherwise,” Lloyd said.

The barman looked wild-eyed from Lloyd to Eddie and back again.

“Put the bat down or Eddie will cleave you straight down the middle,” Lloyd said.

They gave the barman two heartbeats to think it over.

He didn’t budge.

Eddie didn’t wait for any more talk. Without a word, he took off his coat, dropped it on the floor, and stretched his arms over his head to loosen up. He cracked his knuckles for good measure. Eddie’s picnic ham fists were about to get some exercise.

Delores said, “Fellas, I’m going to powder my nose.”

She went to the toilet and locked the door. If the barman didn’t talk, Eddie would make him scream, once for every dollar that was on the line, one million of them. Delores turned the cold water tap on full blast. The water ran brown. She didn’t want to hear screams. She couldn’t stand to hear that.

Out in the bar, she saw that she’d misunderstood what the silence meant.

Delores didn’t know what a million of anything looked like. Would that much cash fill a room? It didn’t matter. She’d pay someone to haul it around for her. Well, not all of it. They planned to split it. That’s what everyone said.

If Harvey J. Bailey were sitting in the bar, Delores would go up to him and kiss him right on the mouth for burying a million dollars in the middle of nowhere then getting caught and sentenced to life in Leavenworth before he could go back and dig it up.

With her palm, she wiped the mirror to make a clean spot. She took her lipstick from her dress pocket and rouged her lips. Forty-three years of life had etched itself deep into her forehead and dragged her cheeks down her face. She couldn’t keep at it much longer. The money would make it so she wouldn’t have to.

Delores turned off the tap. She put her ear to the door and listened. It was dead quiet. Things got out of hand quiet. Seeing as no one had come to get her, it was a fair guess that her team lost. She looked around, a toilet, a sink, a chipped, dirty mirror, and a window that was painted over and painted shut with more mustard yellow paint. A blindfolded painter must have done that job. Nothing useful, not even a bar of soap.

With her hand on the lock, she flipped an imaginary nickel in her head, go out and bluff or stay put. Stay put until when? Until the bar turned back into a saloon? Both sides of the nickel went for bluff. Ready to swear that left was right, and two plus two made sixteen, she turned the lock and yanked the door open. She’d say whatever it took to get her out on the street again.

Out in the bar, she saw that she’d misunderstood what the silence meant. The three of them were cozied up at a table with their hands wrapped around glasses of beer.

The baseball bat was gone.

“Were you gonna let me stew in there until next Christmas?” Delores said to Lloyd.

“Sorry, honey.”

“This is Vernon.” Lloyd hooked his chin toward the barman.

“We’ve met,” Delores said as she took a seat.

Lloyd said, “Vernon, here, he wants our help. Digging is slow. He doesn’t mind equal shares, minus the price for buying the farm. I think that’s fair. Split four ways. It’s still plenty. Isn’t that right, Vern?”   

“Maybe you covered this, but how do you know you’ve got the right farm?” she asked. “Eddie’s mother didn’t get a treasure map.”

Lloyd said, “Vernon heard from the neighbors that Bailey used to come around there from time to time, and there’s never been anything but corn planted on his fields. Corn seed is planted just two inches deep, so nobody’s dug it up yet, either.”

Vernon and Eddie sat mute. They drank their beers. Lloyd smoothed his mustache. He couldn’t flick his hat brim. His hat was in the middle of the table.

“He’s been at it for about three months,” Lloyd said. “Straight out into the cornfield from his back door.”

“Besides us and Eddie’s mother. Who else knows?” she asked Vern. “How big is the crowd when you got a shovel in your hand? Could you fill Carnegie Hall?” Delores stopped. Among other things, she’d been a performer and could feel when she’d lost her audience.

“The rows of corn make it so nobody can see him,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd wanted to convince her. Vernon and Eddie were already convinced. In fact, the three of them seemed ready to elope. Delores wondered what deal had been cut when she was taking a powder. Three sets of eyes shifted, blinked, and looked everywhere except at her.

With nothing left to do but go out to the farm, Eddie and Vernon piled into Vernon’s truck. Delores and Lloyd got into his Ford and followed them. They exited the town in three blocks, then bounced along on dirt roads, traveling by corn, corn, corn, fields of corn, rows of corn, and more rows of it.

It wasn’t dusk yet, and Delores focused on the tall green stalks as they sailed by. It made her carsick. She lit two cigarettes, one for herself and handed the other one to Lloyd. She kept her lighter in her hand and ran her thumb over the diamond chip. It was easy to understand how Harvey Bailey could have hidden a million dollars out here. They hadn’t seen another car, truck, or even a farmhouse in a dozen miles. No people. Nothing but corn. Not even a stray dog slinking along the road.

“So, what’s the plan, Lloyd?”

“Nothing to it. We get out there and dig.”

“What? Me too?” She glanced down at her dress and new turquoise wedge sandals with peekaboo toes.

Delores turned to look at Lloyd. His polished white teeth clamped down hard on his cigarette. His lips were stretched so taught that she caught the glint of his gold molar way in the back of his mouth.

Lloyd tossed his cigarette out of the window, flicked the brim of his hat with his free hand and said, “You? No. You won’t do any digging.”

A ramshackle white farmhouse came into view. It was the first structure Delores had seen since leaving town. The house, surrounded by cornfields, had a sad dirt track leading up to it. It was hard to picture a worse looking, more remote spot.

Vernon’s blinker flashed.

“You aren’t fixing to double-cross me, are you, Lloyd?”

“Would I do that to my Darling D?” Lloyd said in his best impression of it’s a funny story about how that lipstick got on my collar.

They pulled in behind Vernon’s truck and parked.

Lloyd turned to face her and said, “Here’s the thing, seeing as you can’t do any of the tough work, we thought you’d handle the cooking. The laundry.”

“Sure. Cooking, scrubbing floors, washing dirty undershirts. The easy stuff.”

“Just until we find the dough. Then, you’ll never look at another frying pan again. Cooks, maids, doormen, you name it. Think about it, Delores. A million dollars cash.”

Delores climbed out of the car and followed Lloyd up the creaking wooden steps to the house. The white paint curled away from the wooden planks of the front porch in long ribbons.

Vernon opened the door and showed them the first lousy room, a sitting room with a ripped black horsehair sofa and piles of old National Geographic magazines heaped in the corner. A sheet of brown cardboard with arrowheads lashed to it with twine decorated the mantel. Lloyd put his coat and hat on the seat of a wooden chair, and they marched in single file down the hallway. They went by a small bedroom with an unmade camp bed under an open window without curtains or a shade.

Vernon said, “Two more bedrooms upstairs.”

The tour ended at the back of the house in the kitchen.

“We’re going to get right out there. Delores, think you can fix us some dinner?” Lloyd said with his hand on the doorknob to the back door.

Vern lifted a faded plaid apron from a hook, handed it to her, and said, “There’s coffee, bacon, potatoes, two dozen eggs, and a loaf of bread.”

The gas stove was a decrepit beige Magic Chef. It was the same model Delores’s grandmother did battle with to get her grandpa’s breakfast on the table. “Am I going to blow my hair off when I light the burners?” she asked, as she lifted the enamel cover to see that the burners were just as grimy as the stovetop.

Eddie said, “Gimme five eggs, sunny side down with plenty of ketchup, and bacon.”

The others looked like they wanted to place orders too but thought better of it.

Lloyd said to the kitchen floor, “Call us when it’s ready?”

Alone in the kitchen, Delores looked out of the window that was over the stack of filthy dishes in the kitchen sink. The three-foot-wide strip that Vernon had dug up stretched farther than she could see. There were hundreds of rows of corn on either side of it. As she watched Eddie push his shovel into the start of the next row and topple four stalks at once, she pictured what a million looked like, a million forks and spoons to wash, a million days waiting, a million eggs to scramble, boil, and fry sunny side down with plenty of ketchup for Eddie.

Delores heard a truck as it rumbled down the road.

She tossed her apron on the floor and ran out of the house. As she flew down the front steps, she signaled for the black pickup truck to stop.

The farmer pulled up behind Lloyd’s Ford and called out, “Where you headed, sister?”

Delores climbed into the front seat of the truck. With her thumb on her lighter, she figured there had to be a million easier ways to get her hands on a million bucks.

Susan Hammerman has published short fiction in Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine and Mondays Are Murder, with forthcoming stories accepted for publication by Mystery Weekly Magazine and Blood and Bourbon Magazine. She is the recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Hugh Holton Award and serves as the Sisters in Crime We Love Libraries coordinator. 

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