THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Mojave

by by Michael Mount

illustration by by Becca Levinson

I.

The road to Mojave is long and thin, fading into a horizon. An old, tattered van rattles to the shoulder of the road and a man leans out the window.

“You boys lookin’ for a ride?”

“Yes sir.”

“This door doesn’t work. You’ll all have to get in through the side.”

We slide into the back of the van. I dust the cigarette butts off of the seat, leaning back with all my sweaty clothing. He puts the van in gear, rattling forward.

“Thanks for the lift,” Furniture says.

“No worries. I’ve seen your kind out here before. Doing the trail, huh?”

“Yes sir,” Furniture says.

“My name’s Bob,” he says. He lights a cigarette and the first cloud of smoke rushes back into our faces. “Where you boys coming from?”

“Mexico,” Rally says.

“God damn. What are you doing? Smuggling drugs?” he cackles.

Rally cracks his own grin, icy and sly.

“How about you?” Rally says. “Where are you from?”

“Me? I’m from right here in town.”

“And what town is that?”

The long stretches of Pinyon Pine subside to brown blankets of sand. The only thing on the side of the road is litter. High desert becomes low desert and the horizon opens up.

“Mojave.”

“So this is the Mojave Desert?”

“Sure is.” He nods to the right. “See those black smokestacks over there? That’s the silver mine. See that over there? That’s the cement plant. I used to work there. Used to lift pallets and shit. Now they got me in an office and I’m growing tits.”

 

II.

The town of Mojave is quiet. Bob drops us off at the crossroads of two broken slabs of old American asphalt, honking as he drives away. An old freight train rolls down the tracks, slowly showcasing its gallery of graffiti.

It’s easy for us to find the motel, the tallest building in the town, at three stories. It looks like the kind of place where people sell drugs and kill one another. Or perhaps a host to visitors to the concrete and sand convention.

“Nice,” Rally says, flipping on the light in our room. He unfurls the crisp comforter and falls on the mattress. He turns the air conditioning all the way up and the room shakes from the tremor of the cooling box. “Let’s get something to eat.”

As soon as he says “eat” I can feel it in my stomach too—the rumbling urge to consume something other than candy and peanut butter- the old ancestral instinct to flood one’s face in fried chicken and ice cream.

We walk across the street to Primo Burger, ordering fried everything- zucchini, fish, mozzarella, onions. It comes on red plastic trays, piled on wax paper, laying in puddles where the grease bleeds through. I can feel it slithering down my throat.

“We forgot to get French fries!” says Rally.

He accosts the cashier, a large woman whose nametag says Brenda. He comes back with a glistening pile of fries.

“I figure if anyone is a resident expert, Brenda is our girl.” He lifts up his thigh to fart.

Yesterday we were sitting in a thick slab of ice on the slope of a godforsaken mountain:

“God damn. Who moved Antarctica to California?” Rally asks.Furniture piles up a little mound of M&M’s in the ice, sorting them into colored castles.

“It’s only going to be a few more days or so,” he says.

“You said that a month ago.”

“Well it takes a long time for the Earth to change.”

“Why don’t we take some time off? You know, kick our feet up a little bit? Wait for the snow to melt?”

Furniture flicks a yellow M&M into a green one. A falcon screams far away.

At the road crossing we made an executive move to thumb into town and sit out the arctic circle for a week or two. That way we could get a little tan, thaw out our toes, and of course, eat crispy food.

“So did you call that lady about the job?” Rally asks.

“I’m going to later,” Furniture says.

We put down the last of the food, sending it to our intestines where it will kick later. The bells on the door jingle as we walk out into the hot, dry world. The town is a strange collection of desert fortresses, one-story concrete buildings and glowing fast-food syndicates. Mojave is less of a community and more of an outpost, much less of a township and more like a desperate scratching in the sand, a place to buy beer after work. One of the most remarkable things is the pedestrians: there are none. The sidewalks are just us and the occasional can that rattles down the street in the fierce wind. But then, a man stops us.

“You new here?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“Well let me tell you something. This town’s full of history. You look around and think, ‘This place is a dump,’ but it’s not. It’s brimming with history. Famous people lived here. You see that house over there, for instance? Emmylou Harris took the photograph for her second album cover there. You know that album? The one where she’s propped up on the porch. You see that building over there? I know it’s got boards on it now. And it looks dilapidated.” He uses his fingers to quote dilapidated. “But Frank Zappa spent the night there once. It’s true.”

His wide-open brown eyes glow. Rally looks nauseous. I don’t know if it’s the heat or the food or the prophet. Prophets will do that to you sometimes.

“I’m Bob, by the way, the town historian.” He extends his hand.

His scalp, peeling off in crispy brown flakes, comes off on his hair, curling in white ringlets.

“It’s so nice to see some young men in town. If you want, you should check out the library. That’s where we keep all the books.”

“Really?” Furniture says.

“This town is just full of history. But I won’t stop you any longer. Nice to meet you boys.”

“Good lord,” Rally says.

We watch Bob walk away into the dust. “Is the sun more intense out here?”

We walk down the sidewalk, kicking the errant bottle caps. A large sign swings above us: MOJAVE THRIFT, the lettering rubbed raw by the weather.

The store is dark and musty.  It smells like America’s bunion, rotting in silence. Strange clothing has been piled haphazardly, losing sequins. Glowing blue pants, strings of fake pearls. Trucker hats and umbrellas, shoved in corners where the dust accumulates.

“Can I help you with anything?” a spidery woman behind the counter asks.

“We’re just looking,” Furniture says.

“How’s this?” Rally asks. He puts on leather dress shoes, slick and shiny. “Ish, try this pic out.”

He shoves the pink comb in my hair. I haven’t had it cut in two months now, and it’s starting to develop a critical mass of its own, tangling every time the wind picks up.

We put money in the cashier’s little wrinkled palm, and she tediously counts the dimes and pennies. “You boys visiting?” she asks.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Have you been to the donut shop yet?”

“No ma’am.”

“It’s the best in town. You must go.”

Rally looks like he’s going to vomit.

Out in the hard daylight again, we wind through the concrete alleyways, past the polished glass fast food storefront, past the abandoned lot. Furniture swings his plastic bag gently against his thigh, slapping his old pants against his new pants. His beard is getting longer. The little scrap of his cheeks not covered in hair is tanned to a crisp, and I can almost imagine crow’s eyes creeping out from the corners of his eyes. What is it that he used to do? Sit in an office with a hammer and chisel and play with wood? A name is the only thing in life that goes unchanged, even when our bodies shed all of their old mannerisms. The name is the last to go, Furniture.

The neon sign on the donut store is unmistakable: DONUTS. At least Mojave is articulate. We see our reflections coming to meet ourselves in the front door. The inside of the store is cold and the air conditioner rattles and drips. The last of the day’s glittering donuts grow old beneath a glass case. I can feel the fried food settling in my stomach, as the heavy-weighted insulin crash creeps through my veins.

Rally chooses a black donut, dusted with sprinkles. Then a cruller, polished with glaze, then a few donut holes. The cashier raises his golden eyebrows. We stake out the table in the corner, looking at the long Mojave road, with the long Mojave train rolling beside it.

“Why are we here?” Rally asks.

“Because we walked.”

“No I mean why are we at the donut store.” He looks at his donut, untouched and shiny.

“I don’t know. I guess we were hungry.”

 

III.

Cold wind blows by us on the way back to the hotel, rustling the plastic bags with our leftover zucchini sticks and our new clothes. I wonder what my mother and father are doing right now. I wonder what all my friends are doing right now. I wonder if Furniture and Rally miss their family too, or if the way they look at the sunset is the way they feel all the time. A little cricket clings to a strand of grass on the sidewalk and he flings himself into the air before we collide, streaming away in a green blur. I wish I could put him in my pocket, and carry him to safety.

Rally turns on the National Geographic Chanel, ogling at the African men who run from the mountains to the sea, dark and lean.

“Those guys are incredible,” he says. “I bet they could pound some donuts.”