He's still blaming himself, and he's a pack of cigarettes away from being broke, thousands of miles from home.
She's still haunted by what she never saw, and she's wandering the country, without a plan.
John MacAuliffe and Arizona Stagaard never meant to meet, but everything's different when it's midnight at the last Howard Johnson's in America and you've been holding in too many secrets and you're haunted by what you didn't do.
It began with a flick of a cigarette lighter. And it ends
Part 1 – Prescott, Wisconsin.
At the funeral, they kept telling me it wasn’t my fault. She had a lot of problems, her parents said, and you never contributed to them. But after something as horrific as coming home to find your girlfriend hanging in her closet, you start thinking you had something to do with it. You look back and remember wrong, think you saw something when you really didn’t. She always seemed fine. Just the night before we had watchedThe Officetogether and she laughed and we made out and everything was fine. It was all fine.
Her mother cried before the rabbi even started talking. It felt strange when her family asked me to sit with them. We had been together for a year, but it just didn’t feel right.It wasn’t your fault,everyone said.She was so beautiful,everyone said,and she just needed to know it.I told her she was beautiful every day. I told her that I loved her. And for a long time, I’ve been mad, because I don’t think she was listening to me.
For the past two days, I’ve been telling people I left Detroit because I lost my job. And that’s partially true. But now, as I drive past yet another Wisconsin dairy farm, counting down the miles to Montana, I realize that it was entirely because of Erica.
So far, the road has been kind. I drove straight across Michigan, through Indiana and Illinois. Slept briefly. I’d prefer to drive through the night, living off Ritz crackers and beef jerky. Even when I had a home, I was pretty much living out of my car. Anything that was ever important is in here, and for now, this is all I have.
Three months after I—no,they—buried Erica, the music store went out of business. We used to get a lot of elementary school kids renting their first instruments from us, plastic clarinets and half-size violins. I made decent money teaching guitar and piano to anyone who wanted to learn, from ten-year-olds to people old enough to be my parents. But when the economy collapsed, so did Detroit, in maybe the worst way possible. If no one wanted our cars, there wasn’t much of a point anymore. The schools cut their music programs, and everyone figured eating was more important than harmonic scales. Sometimes we’d go entire days without customers. A bailout wasn’t coming for Allegro Music on Clinton Street. We knew that, and like Erica, we had to give up.
I schlepped around at minimum-wage jobs, serving at a diner in Greektown and busking at streetcorners with an open guitar case (in the nicer parts of town—if any part of Detroit is actuallynice). For a while, I thought about going to night school, but I didn’t know what I’d study. I sold Erica’s old textbooks. There was a memorial for her when classes resumed. Her parents went. I didn’t.
The neighborhood fell apart, piece by piece. People kept leaving. Erica’s suicide was soon eclipsed by one a few floors down—a guy so deep in debt all he had to his name was a shotgun and a few blankets to sleep on. People left, abandoning their dogs and cats—soon the streets were teeming with them. I had to leave, simply because there was nothing left for me here. The bullshit “Halftime in America” ads didn’t save us. On the national news they’d talk about how Detroit was heading towards recovery, thanks to urban renewal programs and tax incentives for movies. But I looked out my window and saw the streets were empty by the time the sun went down. I had fallen asleep to gunfire too many times. I had to leave.
So I sold my furniture. I sold my dishes, my appliances. I threw darts at a map, figured there weren’t enough people in Montana for there to really be an unemployment rate. Erica’s parents didn’t take any of her stuff. Six months on, I still had her clothes, but it was her jewelry I was really interested in. I pawned the most expensive stuff first, pledging I would use the money only for gas and food and an eventual apartment in Helena. I’ve already broken that rule, using some of it to buy a warmer winter coat, a new beanie, and a new tattoo. I still have Erica’s class ring and some necklace she got for her bat mitzvah. I’ve pledged to myself that I’ll stop at the next Cash for Gold place I see.
But it’s getting late, and the songs on the radio are becoming too slow and too sexy. I don’t know where I’ll stay tonight. Last night, I slept in my car in a parking lot of an Illinois Wal-Mart. That sounds like rock bottom, but there’s something about motel rooms. I don’t want bedbugs getting in the way of my life-reinvention process.
Am I reinventing my life, or just trying to put as many miles between Erica’s grave and myself as possible?
I glance at the clock on the dashboard—nearly midnight. I’ve been driving for a long time, and I’m almost out of gas. I reach towards my center console. A grand total of two cigarettes to my name. Well, fuck. I have to stop, and I have to find a reasonably safe place to sleep. I’m still in Wisconsin, approaching the Minnesota border, and people seem nice here. I don’t think I need to worry.
There’s a twenty-four-hour Howard Johnson’s on the upcoming exit, and the thought of a cheeseburger right now, even if it is almost midnight, is heavenly. And hopefully I can stock up on Marlboros. I had more-or-less quit by the time Erica died, but now I’m back to a half-pack a day. She would be furious. Considering how badly she had fucked me up, I consider it revenge.
I pull off, follow the signs to the place. I haven’t seen a HoJo’s in forever. Protein and cigarettes and the assurance no one’s going to murder me if I fall asleep in my car. That’s all I need. The peaked orange roof is some sort of relic from another era.
Inside, there’s a bored-looking kid pouring coffee for a brunette woman sitting in a booth by herself. He seats me in the booth behind her, and through many layers of plastic and vinyl, our backs are touching. She’s paging through a Vanity Fair, picking at a piece of pecan pie. Save for us and the waiter, the place is deserted.
Welcome to the last Howard Johnson’s in America,the waiter deadpans.Can I get you anything to drink?
This is really the last Howard Johnson’s in America?I ask.
The last one that’s both a restaurant and a hotel.
Anything to drink?
Is Pepsi okay?
I grit my teeth.
What is it with restaurants and not understanding that there is a goddamned difference between Coke and Pepsi?I scoff.Is Pepsi okay. Is Monopoly money okay?
The woman turns in her seat a few degrees, cocking an eyebrow.
We have other sodas.
I’ll just have a goddamned Pepsi,I grumble.Also, a pack of Marlboros.
The girl in the next booth chuckles to herself, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. Erica did that a lot.
Right away, sir.
He walks away, and I open my copy ofLeaves of Grass, starting from where I left off. The book’s technically Erica’s, but I blacked out her name on the inside cover with a Sharpie and wrote mine underneath it. Still being mad at her makes me feel like a complete dick. But Erica Rubenstein was probably going to be my wife someday, and for now I just think of her as selfish. I’m a horrible person, but I have no one left to be horrible to. My parents seemed almost glad I was leaving Detroit—they knew I needed it. It’s a strange feeling, being so haunted.
I order my cheeseburger when the waiter comes back with my fucking Pepsi and my blessed cigarettes. I open my wallet to pay him; twelve dollars left, and my debit card is nearly depleted. One more pack of these motherfuckers, and I’m close enough to broke. Glancing around, I take out my lighter and open the fresh pack.
The lighter’s almost dead. Goddamnit, another thing I don’t have the money to buy. But I finally get a flame going, and light the tip. A long exhale.
Behind me, the woman clears her throat. She’s holding her own cigarette.
Do you happen to have a light?she asks, timid, but somehow not. Her eyes are an unplaceable shade of gray-blue.
Yeah.It takes a few flicks, but I eventually get another flame, lighting the tip of her Camel. She exhales silvery smoke, and flashes a smile.
You just passing through?
She laughs and sits on her knees, facing me fully. Her hair is big and curly, moving with her. She’s wearing a cream-colored sweater, like the one my aunt and uncle brought me back from Ireland a long time ago.
Where you from?she asks.Or better yet, where are you headed?
She has the slightest twang of an accent, but I can’t place it. South of here, I know that.
Hey, you guys can’t smoke in here!the waiter shouts, back from the kitchen.
There isn’t even anyone in here,the woman says.
Look, my boss is gonna kill me.
Smokers are an oppressed demographic in this country,I add. The woman laughs as she nods.
Just do me a solid and go outside,the waiter says.
My burger better be here when I finish this,I respond, standing up and walking towards the door. Quickly, the woman follows behind, her hair bouncing as she moves. When I step outside, I realize I left my coat on the booth. It’s starting to snow, white flakes spinning down from the sky. I lean against the window and take a drag. The woman won’t stop laughing.
I don’t know who you are,she says inside shallow breaths,but I’m pretty sure you’re my hero.
This is America. Let me have my smoke where I want.
Amen.She stops laughing and looks out at the parking lot, the highway beyond. She’s wearing dark skinny jeans and black combat boots, no makeup, as far as I can tell. The outfit of someone who’s been on the road a long time and has stopped caring, about anything.
You didn’t answer my question,she says.
She looks towards me, her eyes wide.
Y’know, where you’re from, where you’re headed. Hell, let’s throw in your name while we’re at it.
I sigh and shiver at the same time. My threadbare waffle shirt is doing little to block out the cold.
John MacAuliffe. I’m from Detroit, and I’m going to Montana.
I am too. Well, for now.
Well, I’ve been traveling for a while, without a legitimate destination. I’m just heading in the direction of Montana, really.
You on the run?
She shakes her head.
No.She stops.Well, maybe. I’m not running from the cops. Maybe just my hometown. All the shit that’s gone down the past year.
I know that all too well,I say, flicking through images forever burnt into my brain. Hanging bodies don’t look the way they do on TV. Erica was bloated, her skin a strange shade of purple, broken capillaries on her hands and feet. She had a traditional Jewish funeral, the casket closed. But everyone knew the embalmer couldn’t have made her look like she was only sleeping.
I don’t think you do,she replies. I press my lips together in a tight line, try not to think about it. In silence, I tap the ash off my cigarette.
What’s your name?I ask.
She looks up at the falling snow, biting her lip.
As soon as I say my name, you’ll know why I’m on the run. Because as soon as you know my name, you’ll know my dad’s name. And you’ll know why I’m at the last Howard Johnson’s in America.
I bite my lip, hesitate.
What, is your dad, like, the President? Are you wearing a wig?
She laughs again, shakes her head. I don’t really know what to think when it’s six months on and I’m actuallytalkingto a woman, an attractive woman. I loved Erica before she died, and for the past six months, I’ve been telling myself I still love her, even though all I’ve been since I found her is angry. Angry and depressed. Occasionally apathy, just pure absence of feeling, because I finally had proof nothing I said mattered.
And now I’m making a girl laugh. I’m tempted to run across the parking lot and get back into my car, drive through the night. I have a few cans of Red Bull in the backseat. But the snow’s coming down harder now. In an hour, it’ll be a nightmare, and I’ll have skidded into a ditch.
This is what happens to your brain after your girlfriend kills herself. Everything becomes a worst-case scenario, because you’re living one.
No,she says.Not even close.
What’s your name?I repeat. She takes a drag, looks up at the pitch-black sky as she exhales.
I nearly snort. Nearly.
What?That’s your real name?
Yes.She’s not amused. I take another drag simply to avoid laughing.Wait, you really don’t recognize that last name?
I rack my brain, but I can’t place it.
I know I’ve heard it before,I kind-of lie.I just can’t remember where.
She takes a deep breath.
My father is Jim-Bob Stagaard.
My eyes widen, and everything starts making sense.
Holy shit, the baseball coach at WVU who was, uh, the—
You’re allowed to say ‘pedophile,’she says flatly.
Holy shit. Holy shit. I just… oh my God. I don’t even know what to say.
It’s okay. He didn’t say anything either, once they took him to the courtroom.
I remember the story—for a few months, it seemed to be all they talked about on TV. But it ended a while ago. The verdict was read before Erica was gone. I remember sitting on the couch with her, watching the news. She was quiet, but I went on a too-long rant about how I was usually against the death penalty but anyone who rapes kids in their soundproofed basement deserved to fry. I decide against telling Arizona—Jesus, thatname—about this.
I’m sorry. Y’know, that your family had to go through all that.
It’s over. My father’s going to jail and my mother’s divorcing him and my sister and I left West Virginia as soon as the trial ended. It’s strange. During the proceedings, I thought it’d never end. And now that it’s been months, it’s suddenly like it never happened at all. The victims got their money and their book deals. And I’ve finally stopped getting death threats.
My eyes widen.
So many people thought my mother and my sisters were covering it up. I swear on a stack of Bibles, I didn’t know it was going on. I never did. He sent my sister and me to boarding school; we were gone for ten months every year. We never saw anything. Do you believe me?
Her eyes are pleading, almost. It’s scary, but I’ve seen so many scary things.
I believe you,I tell her, and something clicks. We both feel it, but we don’t acknowledge it, not now. She sighs and leans back against the window.
How far are we from Montana?
Well, actually, Minnesota’s just over the river. Like ten minutes from here. And after that, it’s about seventeen hours on the Interstate. Well, to get to where I’m headed.
You’re going to a specific place in Montana?she asks.
It’s a big fuckin’ state,I reply.I’m going to Helena. I heard there’s work there.
So that’s why you left Detroit,she says. I realize we’ve both finished our cigarettes, both ground them into the ashtray outside the door. But we’re still standing here, in the freezing cold.You lost your job.
That’s part of it,I say, crossing my arms over my chest, trying to keep warm. I should’ve brought my hoodie in.
She looks down at her feet, and then up at me. We’re facing each other now, and I can’t remember how we got this way.
What’s the other part?she asks, pushing her hair out of her eyes. I can tell it’s been a long time since anyone told her she was beautiful. She looks up, expecting me to answer. But I can’t. Not yet.
Can we head inside?I ask.I’m afraid my balls might be permanently shrunk.
She nods, and we walk back into the building. Should I tell her?
No. The world doesn’t need to know about Erica. Certainly not Arizona Stagaard, daughter of a sex offender, habit smoker, woman of the road. My brain wraps around her name.Ar-i-zo-na.Throughout all the news coverage, she was never mentioned. I don’t even think I saw a picture of her, for all the pictures I saw of her father. I keep wondering if she testified. But she didn’t see anything. Didn’t hear those boys, hand-selected from charity events and WVU summer camps, screaming for help.
I wonder if it eats her up inside. I know what it’s like, to feel you weren’t listening hard enough.
My burger is waiting for me when I sit down, but suddenly I don’t have an appetite. I take a bite anyway, and when I look up, Arizona is sitting across from me, with her magazine and piece of half-eaten pie.
There’s something awfully sad about two people eating by themselves. I’ll let you have a few bites of this if you let me have some of your fries.
I chuckle, push my plate towards the middle of the table.
It’s more than I’m gonna eat anyway,I assure her. She smiles. It’s a captivating smile, one they could put on TV.
For the next hour, we talk. About where we grew up, about good movies we’ve seen lately. She teaches me that if you hit the 57 to make the ketchup come out faster. I find out her sister’s name is Alaska—the other place her father was stationed when he was in the Army, she tells me. She’s entranced when I mention I play the guitar, even though I didn’t pick it up to get girls. It didn’t really work on Erica anyway; she yelled at me for practicing too loud.
I want to ask for Arizona’s number, until she tells me she chucked her phone into a lake before leaving home.
Fuck. You were really serious,I say.
She takes a sip of my Pepsi. It’s basically become ours, at this point.
It’s hard, leaving everything behind,she says.Until it’s not.
Our food is long gone, and the waiter is sleeping at the cash register. She picks up my book, flips through it. She comes to a poem in the middle.
‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’she reads.Why did they write it without the H in the olden days?
I guess the O by itself just started looking wrong after a while.Like if you stare at a word long enough it just turns into scribbles.
Yeah,she says, stroking the creamy paper as though it’s a purring cat.Pioneers. I guess that’s what we are.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had to fight off roving herds of buffalo. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past you…
She laughs. I’m losing count of how many times that’s happened tonight. Today. I don’t know what time it is, and I don’t care.
No buffalo,she says.But, I mean, if you think about it. The pioneers left everything behind, simply because they made themselves believe that everything would be better in a new place. I think we all do that.
We do,I agree.It’s just how humans work. Grass is always greener.
And I guess it worked, for some of them. But some of them had to eat each other in the mountains.
The Donner Party. You’ve never heard of them?
They were this group of pioneers heading to California, and they headed out too late. So they got stuck in the mountains as winter began. And they only found a few of them alive. They had eaten their relatives to stay alive. It’s just an insane image, search parties coming across these people, stranded in the snow, blood dripping down them.
I make a face of disgust.
I think we’re all like that, secretly.
She looks down, tracing the edge of the table with her finger.
I dunno. No one’s good. I know that.
Yeah. And sometimes you don’t know that until it’s too late.
‘We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger, we the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, pioneers! O pioneers!’she recites. She doesn’t even look at the page. She knows it. She always has.I think we’re fucked if we try to depend on each other too much. Although I feel like a hypocrite for saying that, considering I hitched here.
You hitchhiked? Is that even legal?
Depends on the state, actually. I took a bus from West Virginia to Chicago. But after that, I realized I’m not in a rush and no one recognizes me anyway. My mother didn’t allow my sister or I to be filmed or photographed. We were barely mentioned, honestly.
That’s in your best interest.
I had to drop out of school,she confesses.I was a literature major at Sewanee. My sister’s still at Stanford, but she’s managed to lay low. It just wasn’t going to work for me. There wasn’t a person on campus who didn’t know me. Who didn’t know my father.
I went to see him, before his sentencing. I just told him that he’s ruined too many lives. And I wonder if that makes me a bad person. But he’s a worse person. But after a while you start to realize we’re all bad people. There’s just different degrees of badness inside us. Maybe the badness to rape children or eat people to survive. Maybe the badness to ignore the man who raised you or run away from everything.
Well, like the poem says,I say.You have to march. Even if you lost your job and even if you’re currently a pack of cigarettes from broke.
She sighs, looks out the window.
Where are you sleeping tonight?
In my car, most likely.
She shakes her head.
Not in this weather. You’ll freeze.
I don’t have money.
She reaches into her tote bag—it seems to be all she has with her—and pulls out a wallet. And then, a debit card.
My mother put two thousand dollars on this when I told her I wanted to leave West Virginia. I don’t even think she cared where I went. But she cared enough to ensure I could get a motel room.
You’re gonna get me a room here?
We’ll just get a room for the both of us. I mean, safety in numbers, no?
I’m not really sure, because she is charming and thoughtful enough to be a raging psychopath, underneath the doe eyes and harrowing life story.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like a friend to roll into Helena with.You in?
She holds out her hand. I just sit and stare at it.
I’m not an axe murderer,she assures me.
You just went on a tangent about cannibalism.
She rolls her eyes.
That doesn’t mean I’m gonna do it. C’mon, John, do me a solid. No one really wants to travel alone. They’re lying if they say they do.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was her smile or her eyes. Or maybe it was the way her tongue curled around those centuries-old words. The way the snowflakes hung in her hair was we walked across the parking lot to our room, like baubles on a Christmas tree. My breath catches in my throat as she unlocks the door. I’m a few steps behind her. I just keep thinking of all she’s told me in the past few hours, and it hurts, because I left her hanging from that conversation that now seems like decades ago.
It was my girlfriend,I spurt, realizing seconds later how dumb it sounded. She looks up from the doorknob.
My girlfriend was the main reason I left Detroit. Losing my job was just… something shitty that happened. It was mostly my girlfriend.
Did she dump you?Arizona asks.
I shake my head, massage my temples. Don’t fucking cry, don’t fucking cry.
No, no, she… she hung herself.
Holy shit. I’m so sorry.
Don’t apologize,I say, looking down at my feet. The asphalt is now covered in snow, a few inches thick. It’s supposed to keep falling through the night, into tomorrow morning—no, today. It’s nearly three in the morning.It’s not like you told her to do it.
Did someone?she asks nervously.
No,I answer immediately.No one did. I don’t even know why she did it. She just… she didn’t leave a note, or anything. She didn’t even really have those signs they always talk about. I just made myself believe that I had missed something, but I didn’t. It’s been six months and I’m still blaming myself. For something I have no explanation for and never will.
She doesn’t say anything. All she does is put her bag down, slide the keys into her pocket, and approach me, until our hipbones are touching and she’s looking straight up at me. I didn’t notice our height difference when we were sitting.
She takes the Marlboro from my mouth. Her fingers are slender and pale, and for a split second, her skin touches mine. I look into her eyes, the color of the Detroit River before a storm, and something changes. The snow falls faster and I finally feel I can change, could be happy someday. Tonight, I won’t have another nightmare about Erica, coming to me in the dress she was buried in, a thick line of purple-red along her neck.
There is no past,she whispers.It’s gone before you even realize it.And that’s the beauty of it all.
She’s right. And at three in the morning, in Prescott, Wisconsin, at the last Howard Johnson’s in America, I’m kissing Arizona Stagaard.
It’s another seventeen hours until Helena. And I suppose that’s enough time for the past six months to go away.
Strength is coming, somehow. And I feel it’ll find me soon.