Big Rock Candy Mountain
written by: Mark Russo
Elijah, anesthetized by the evening breeze, stands on the side of the highway facing east, his outstretched thumb pointing west. Pairs of yellow spheres rush at him and explode like paintballs against what seems to be a glazed cellophane sheet of ricocheting shards of light. One set after another, races towards him. Upon approach, each emits a rolling rumble then converts to a nasal squeal as it passes and fades away in an echoing hollow moan.
Hypnotized, he reviews the hours of flat fields framed by barbed wire and littered with golden bales of hay that lay behind him. And, for the first time, since Jessie left him at the entrance ramp onto I-74, he feels abandoned.
“I’ll try to visit you on the way back,” he told her.
“It’s a long way from Washington State to Albuquerque. What makes you think I’ll wait.”
Jessie had wanted Elija to enroll in a summer class with her at University of Albuquerque but a magazine photograph on the desk of his father’s office convinced him to go it on his own. He had already decided not to work for his father but had no clue as to what he would do. The dark mountains at the end of a straight highway straddled by white-capped green rivers and horses with runaway manes gave him an alternative and not even the feral eyes of his father would change his resolve.
Now the tether has snapped. He zips his parka jacket, grips the shoulder strap of the back pack that carries four hundred dollars, three salami sandwiches and a change of clothes. He tells himself again that there’ll be no turning back.
A truck interrupts his thoughts. It slows, stops and blocks out the lights, the noise. The cab door opens. A koala-like face peers out.
“Where you goin’ boy?”
“Chicago. Then west on I-90.”
Elijah grabs the metal handrail, plants his foot onto the door sill, pulls himself up into the cab and sinks into the seat. He blows out a mouthful of air and massages his taught shoulder muscles until the tremors subside.
“Thanks. Feels good to get warm.”
The koala grunts, the gears grind and the truck lurches forward.
“Did you say Chicago? You don’t want to go to Chicago, boy. It’s a shit mesh of highways with no beginning and no end. You might not make it out. I’ll tell you what I’ll do . . . I’ll take you as far as Le Claire and the Mississippi. How’s that sound?”
“You’re the expert,” Elijah says.
The warmth of the cab pulsates from his feet to his head.
“Where’s your final destination, boy?”
The koala chuckles.
“Sounds like a hobo’s dream if you ask me. A mountain’s a mountain . . . boulders and rocks . . . nothin’ sweet about it. Why d’ya wanna go there?”
“No real reason. Because it’s there, I guess.”
“Well I can think of better things.”
The monotonous drone of the tires against the highway hollows out the cabin. Elijah closes his eyes.
“This here’s the Le Claire truck stop.”
Elijah’s eyes open to a glaring white and yellow neon sign offering food and comfort.
“Listen boy . . . well . . . it’s late, it’s cold. If you need a place to stay, I got a bunk back there, big enough for two. With the two of us it’d be plenty warm . . . not as lonely.”
Elijah looks into the driver’s eyes. He’s seen that look in a bar, even in a sacristy.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll try to get farther down the line.”
“Oh well, it’s your life.”
The cashier at the diner tells Elijah about a place called Prophetstown.
“Not too far from here. Just a half an hour to the east. The hobos slip into one of the barns for a night’s sleep.”
Elijah walks to the I-88 entrance ramp. It isn’t long before an insurance salesman, in turned up shirt cuffs and loosened tie, picks him up and takes him to a farm just west of Prophetstown.
“My buddies and me used to hang out here when we were younger. There it is, the white one just beyond the fence,” the man tells him.
“You should be OK there. Stay in the loft. Leave as soon as the sun’s up. That time in the morning you should be able to catch a ride. Good luck.”
The moon’s bright. Elijah makes out the white barn across the field.
As he enters, the sweet scent of moist hay tickles his nostrils. He heads for the ladder leading to the loft, steps onto the first rung and hears a rustling. All he can make out is a mound. It heaves and falls. He guesses it’s a hobo. There’s a sheet of newspaper over what must be the head.
Elijah flops down in the loft, lays his head on the backpack and tries to imagine the smell of jasmine, the taste of perspiration and the fluid lines of Jessie’s face.
A rooster crows. The morning sunlight slits then slips through Elijah’s eyelids. He leans over the edge of the loft. A sheet of newspaper lies crumpled on the floor below.
When he gets to the entrance ramp, there’s another hiker already there. Looks to be in his teens. Slender, short with thick curly black hair, eyes of a calf. Elijah waves.
“Going out west?” he shouts.
The boy stares at Elijah, doesn’t say a word.
“That’s where I’m going,” Elijah says.
The boy shrugs.
“It’s a free country,” he says.
“If company’s a bother, we can go first come first serve.”
The boy shrugs again, pulls out a harmonica and starts to play. It’s a bluesy melody, soft hollow and low.
It takes them three rides and the entire day to reach Sioux Falls. The boy pretty much keeps his harmonica in his mouth the entire way, removing it every once in awhile to tap the saliva out.
“What’s with the harmonica? You got something against talkin’?” Elijah says.
“Every bird’s got its call,” the boy tells him.
“My name’s Elijah.”
“My name’s Ellis, I’m from Cicero.”
“Heard Cicero’s pretty tough,” Elijah says.
“Depends if your talkin’ inside or out. Outside’s safer than in. Pretty much why I left.”
The boy cups his hands over the harmonica, draws out some notes while he opens and closes a hand over the reeds. Then he stops, looks at Elijah as if in anticipation of a question.
“They don’t even know I’m gone.”
They get to Sioux Falls about sunset, find a garbage dumpster behind the gas station and lay down.
They’re awakened by scampering rats that scratch at their pants’ cuffs. They stand at the entrance ramp, clothes damp with dew. One thumbs as the other rubs himself to get warm. A family of three, picks them up. There’s a cabin in the bed. It’s a truck that’s been converted into a camper. The man says they’ll take them as far as Buffalo, Wyoming.
It’s another long day’s ride. Nothing but blue sky, brown dirt and a black hedge of mountains. Late afternoon, the man tells them they’re going to take a short detour.
“There’s a natural monument there. It’s just a butte but the kids want to see it.”
They stop at a parking lot near the base of Devil’s Tower. The father takes photographs and the kids chase each other around the lot.
Ellis goes to the edge of the lot, stretches, studies the butte and shakes his head.
“I don’t see it. . . the fascination, I mean. It’s just a giant tombstone. ”
Elijah had seen a television special about it. He tells Ellis it’s a sacred place, that Indian tribes come every year about the third week of June to worship the sun.
“So, tell me Elijah, you any better for having seen it?” Ellis says and puts his harmonica to his mouth.
They get to Buffalo about seven-thirty that evening and the family drops them off at a truck stop just outside the city.
Elijah suggests they get a hamburger and see if they can get a ride to Billings. Ellis sticks his hands in his pockets, says he’s not that hungry. Elijah thinks of the record collection he’d sold, the four hundred dollars in his wallet.
They grab a table at the diner. A waitress comes up to the table. She’s maybe eighteen, in white shirt, starched collar turned up in the back and top 3 buttons undone.
“What’ll it be, boys?” she asks and takes out a ballpoint from the toasted chestnut curls beneath her white tiara balancing it like a top on the surface of her order pad.
Elijah looks at Ellis then the menu. He reaches into the backpack to get his wallet.
“How about we share a hamburger?”
The waitress smiles a fleshy smile. Her cheeks bulge.
“Where you fellas goin’?” she asks.
“Like to get to Billings tonight. Then head towards Washington State tomorrow.”
“I envy you that,” she says. “I’ll get your order.”
Elijah goes to the phone booth and calls Jessie. A girl’s voice tells him she’s gone to El Paso, won’t be back for a couple of days. As he returns to the table, the waitress is laughing. She’s looking at Ellis who’s playing the harmonica and tapping his feet.
Elijah asks her where the entrance ramp for I-90 is.
“It’s not far. But, hey listen, like I told your friend, I’m off in a half an hour and don’t have anything to do. I can take you on to Billings.”
“You mean it?”
“Sure. Besides, giving freaks a pass is an old tradition in these parts.”
When they get to the car, Ellis climbs into the passenger seat. Elijah puts his wallet into an inside pocket of his back pack and stretches out in the back. It’s a nineteen fifties black Chevrolet with silver trim. Its fins so wide you’re sure it could fly.
“My name’s Kali, by the way,” the waitress says.
After Elijah and Ellis introduce themselves, she looks at Ellis out of the corner of her eye.
“You runnin’ away from home or somethin’?”
“More like strollin’. And I wouldn’t call it ‘home’ more like prison with hard labor.”
“Was it really that bad?”
“Pull over,” Ellis tells her.
She pulls onto the berm. Ellis pulls up his shirt to his chest, points to a jagged scar that goes from his stomach to his armpit.
“Family did that.”
He twists around and bends forward.
“Those are cigarette burns you see. Dad did that.”
The waitress presses her index finger against the scars.
“What’ya goin’ to do when you get out west?”
“Goin’ to get a job as an actor.”
“Wow. You got a gig lined up?”
“No, but I got confidence.”
Kali whistles low between the gap in her teeth.
“Confidence’s not enough. I left home too. About a year ago. Same age as you I guess. I had confidence too. At first it was fun . . . living on my own, I mean. But it gets old fast.”
“Got my harpoon. I’ll play the bars and coffee shops ’til I find somethin’.”
Ellis starts to play another blues tune.
“You’re pretty good, I’ll grant you that,” Kali says, “but what do I know.”
“You with someone?” Ellis asks her.
“Not at all. The guys around here, they’re all hicks, always lookin’ to get somethin’ for nothin’. I’m not a soup kitchen, know what I mean?”
Kali laughs and pulls back onto the highway.
“You wouldn’t need an agent would you?” she says, “I’m pretty good with figures. They have me help out at the restaurant sometimes.”
The two start to talk beneath their breath. Elijah shoves the back pack under his head and doses off. About thirty minutes outside the Billings junction Ellis lets out a laugh. Elijah wakes with a start.
“No way! Cannibals?” Ellis says.
“Oh yeah, they were. Happened a few weeks ago.”
Kali looks over her shoulder, then in the rear view mirror at Elijah and grins.
“Yeah. Some hippie guy. To think that I gave him a ride to Billings just like I’m givin’ you. As I remember it, Baker was his name. Said he was hitchhiking to California. Well, word is after I let him off he must of met up with a friend — if that’s what you’d call him — at the gas station. Some poor son-of-a-bitch gives them a ride probably thinkin’ he’s doin’ a good deed, earnin’ his way to heaven or somethin’.”
“Well a few days later I see Baker’s picture along with some long-hair in the Bulletin.”
She shivers again.
“Makes me sick to think of it but the paper said he and his buddy killed the guy that gave them the ride. As if that ain’t enough, they ate him.”
She pulls into the gas station at the I-90 junction, turns off the engine and looks first at Ellis then at Elijah.
“They were in a hit and run or somethin’; stole another car; later dumped it; then started truckin’ on foot down the highway as if nothing had happened. Well, the cops found them still walkin’. In no apparent hurry, mind you. The cop asks them what their doin’, where they’re goin’. Well, the long-hair just out and says he’s a cannibal and to prove it, he takes out a shriveled ole finger, black as coal, from his pants’ pocket and licks it.”
The waitress sticks her index finger into her mouth and sucks it as she slowly pulls it out.
“Where you guys goin’ to be staying tonight?”
“Haven’t talked about it,” Ellis tells her.
“I need to stretch. You want a coffee?” she says.
Elijah just groans and curls up in the back seat. He tries to shake off the image of two guys grabbing at him and biting his fingers.
“Ellis, c’mon, I know a place back of the station where you and I can go and talk in private after we get our coffees. You can tell me what you know about actin’, maybe play a few more of those tunes. I like the way they make me feel. Say, maybe we can come up with an agreement where you sign me on to run things in exchange for me providin’ room and board.”
In the morning, Elijah raises his head from the back seat. Through the windshield he sees Ellis and Kali walking towards the car, hand in hand.
“Elijah,” Ellis says, “Kali’s going with us. But we’re going to California, San Fran. There’s nothin’ for us in Washington.”
Elijah had not slept well. At some point during the night, he’d imagined the look on the face of that truck driver in Le Claire and arrived at the uncomfortable thought that cannibals could be drivers as well as passengers.
“That’s OK. I’ve got a friend in Albuquerque. I think I’ll take a detour, give her a visit,” Elijah says.
Kali and Ellis drop Elijah off at the I-25 ramp in Casper and pull away. A harmonica wines and Kali laughs. She juts her arm out of the window and rapidly flaps her hand up and down.
At a rest stop outside Fort Collins, Elijah stares at a field of dust to the east. A few prairie dogs pop in and out of holes chasing each other. The way they stop and sit up with their fore-paws curled against their chests makes him think they’re playing. He laughs and throws bits of bread from his sandwich at them. In the distance there’s an occasional gunshot.
A truck behind him starts to pull out of the lot and a man in a straw Stetson hat calls out.
“Wouldn’t be gettin’ too friendly with the devil, boy. You do realize you’re courtin’ the bubonic plague don’t you?”
Elijah shakes his head.
“Mind givin’ me a ride?” Elijah asks.
“I’m goin’ to Taos. Can drop you off in Raton. That good enough?”
Elijah nods. The cowboy opens the door.
“Get in. Just move that revolver there to the floor and hang your pack on the rack above you.”
“What do you use the guns for?”
“What do you use for targets?”
After a few hours the cowboy pulls into another rest stop.
“If you need to use the john, now’s the time. I’ll watch over the truck while you’re gone then I’ll go,” he says.
It’s sunset when the cowboy drops Elijah off at a park on the outskirts of Raton. The stars are bright, the breeze warm. He climbs onto a concrete picnic table, puts his backpack behind his head and hugs his knees to his chest. The smell of a cigar keeps his eyes open. A man leading a dog on a leash steps into the light of the park lamp and walks up to the bench where Elijah lays.
“Kid, you can’t stay here. They’ll get you for loitering. You got to go.”
“Got nowhere to go.”
“No problem” the man tells him, “there’s a jail just a few blocks from here. They’ll put you up for the night, no questions asked. Just have to sign in . . . make an X if you’re particular about your reputation.”
Elijah walks two blocks to a two-story cinder block building. There are iron bars on the windows. He walks into the lobby, goes to the sliding window and rings the bell. A man in uniform sitting behind a desk looks up at him.
“What can we do for you, boy?”
“A guy in the park said I could spend the night here. That right?”
The officer calls out to someone in the next room.
“Jimmy, got a young fellah here without a reservation . . . wants a room for the night.”
“Well, sign him in, Tommy, so we can finish our game.”
Elijah enters a large room with three gray metal desks. Behind the desks, on the walls, are two gun racks, a photograph of the President of the United States and one of the State Governor. Tommy spins an open ledger around on his desk so that it’s facing Elijah.
“Sign on the next available line.”
“The guy in the park said I could make an X. That true?”
“It’s OK by me. I’ve got the key.”
Tommy leads Elijah up a flight of metal stairs and down a metal corridor. The grated catwalk rattles like chains. They stop at the last cell.
“You’ll be spending the night with ole One-Eye Cy. He had a rough night.”
Tommy opens the cell, points to a bunk and locks the door behind him.
“Wake up’s at six-thirty.”
The lights in the hallway go out. Elijah looks at the other bunk where there’s a large clump of man, curled up like a pill bug and face half buried in a pillow. Light from the street reflects off of the man’s uncovered eye like glitter off a marble. He stares at Elijah, doesn’t move, doesn’t say a word.
“Why you in here?” Elijah asks.
“They say I got drunk and shot up the Seven-Eleven.”
Elijah pulls off his boots, grabs his pack and feels for his wallet. He lays on his back, wads the pack under his head and looks into the darkness. He’d call Jessie in the morning, he thought. Maybe she’d go with him to Candy Mountain.
Cy clears his throat.
“Got any money, boy,”
Elijah buries his head deeper into the pack.
A clang of tin against iron bars wakes Elijah out of a dead sleep. He’s on his side facing Cy across the room. Cy, both eyes shut, doesn’t stir. Elijah’s backpack is on the floor.
“Time for you to roll out, boy. Cy, your breakfast will be on the boy’s bunk.”
Elijah grabs his pack, cups his hand over the wallet and shoves it into his front pants’ pocket.
Downstairs Jimmy sits behind the desk with his head bent over a piece of paper. He doesn’t look up when Elijah approaches. He calls out to Tommy.
“Listen to this, Tommy. Got a report that some kids, girl and boy, held up a diner just west of Casper. No one saw which way they were goin’. We’re supposed to keep a look out.”
Jimmy doesn’t look up from his paper.
“Boy, you come down from Casper?”
“You run into anyone on the way? Other hikers?”
“Just hikers in line for a ride.”
“See a girl and boy?”
“No, no girls.”
“OK, you can go. I-25’s just two blocks from here.”
A Navajo family in an old Chevy pickup offer him a ride. The patches of rust against the white paint gives the truck the look of a pinto horse.
“Just jump into the back with the kids and Jake. We’re in a hurry.”
Elijah climbs in. There’s a boy and his two young sisters. Jake lays at the other end of the bed. Elija looks at Jake, the girls giggle and the boy stares at Elijah.
“Been bit,” the boy says, “Rattle snake. They’re everywhere. We’re takin’ him to the clinic. Pop says if we don’t get him there fast he’ll lose his foot. Could die.”
“Where’s the clinic?”
“Albuquerque. But Pop said Jake saved us some time when he shot off his toe.”
The girls are playing a game similar to jacks but use what looks to be black glass for jacks.
“What are those black things?” Elijah asks.
“Apache tears,” one of the girls says.
“Yeah,” the boys says, “they’re all over these hills. Takoda, give him one.”
She gives Elijah three.
They pass women baking bread in dirt ovens outside beige adobe homes for two hours before they drop Elijah off a few blocks from the University.
He looks at the piece of paper with Jessie’s dormitory address but decides he’s hungry. At the pizza place, the smell of melted cheese and sausage makes his stomach squirm and squeal.
He pulls out his wallet to sort through his bills but there’s nothing there. He walks out of the joint. Outside it’s dark. He stomps the pavement. He feels caught in a cross-fire of thoughts. Where’d it go? Someone took it. Who? He accepts that there’s nothing he can do about it and sure that Jessie’ll help him out.
He follows a flat stone path to the dormitory. A brown whiptail lizard jets across the white door. Elijah knocks. The door opens but it’s not Jessie. It’s a dark-haired round-eyed girl. He tells her that he’s Jessie’s friend. She says that Jessie’s not there but she’ll call her. When she returns, she doesn’t look up at Elijah.
“Jessie says you can stay in the solarium down the hall for a few days. But she has no plans to come back so you’ll have to find somewhere else to stay after that.”
“I’ve only got a hand full of Apache tears. Was hoping that Jessie’d help out,” he tells her.
“There’s a blood bank a few blocks from here. They pay and first timers get a bonus.”
“My name’s Angie, by the way. I’ll get you a blanket and pillow,” she says and shows him to the solarium.
When Angie comes back, she squats down next to Elijah.
“Jessie said you’re going to Washington state.”
“Was going to Washington,” he says.
“Well, I’m from Washington state,” she says, “and I’m heading home next week. Could give you a lift if you want. It’s a two-day ride. Give us time to get to know each other. Could be fun. They got plasma centers there too.”
Elijah searches Angie’s eyes and smiles.
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