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The forgotten road, p.1
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       The Forgotten Road, p.1

           Richard Paul Evans
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The Forgotten Road


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  To Christine Pride. You earned it.

  Author’s Note

  SOLVITUR AMBULANDO: IT IS SOLVED BY WALKING.

  This is my second book about Charles James. This volume begins his 2,500-mile walk along Route 66. In accordance with our agreement, I’ve allowed him to tell his story in his own words. I can’t vouch for the veracity of his story but I am, at least, convinced that he believes it. And if he’s trying to spin his story to make himself look good, he’s not doing a very good job of it. At least not up to now. Still, there are cracks appearing in his unlikable façade and, here and there, a different man is starting to emerge. I ask you to withhold judgment on him until the very end of his story. Like the rest of us, he’s a work in progress.

  There is one other observation I’ve had that I feel is worth mentioning. Charles James’s decision to walk the length of Route 66 is an enigmatic one, perhaps as meaningful as it is absurd. While he gives reasons for walking, I suspect that, at this point on his trek, he’s not really sure he believes them himself. This shouldn’t surprise us. The most consequential decisions we make in life are made with the heart, not the mind, which leaves all of us adequate opportunity to misunderstand our baser motives. As Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So it is with Charles James. Sometimes, it’s only in walking the path that we discover why we are walking at all.

  That said, I think his story is remarkable. To begin with, not many people get the chance to read their own obituary. And, perhaps, even fewer would have the courage to try to change it.

  The Chicago Sun Times Obituary

  May 18, 1982, to May 3, 2016

  Charles (Gonzales) James, 34, of Oak Park, Illinois, passed from this earth Tuesday, May third, in the United plane crash that tragically claimed so many lives. Charles Gonzales, known to the public by his adopted name Charles James, was the maternal great-great-grandson of legendary outlaw Jesse James. He was born and raised in Ogden, Utah.

  Charles was a driven, self-made man. Growing up in humble circumstances, he left home at the age of seventeen to seek his fortune in Southern California. He worked in the landscaping business in Beverley Hills, grooming the yards of celebrities. He was still young when he went to work for famous stage presenter McKay Benson. After only a year he became a presenter himself and, in spite of his youth, he was soon the most successful in the company. In 2007 he started his own company, the Charles James Wealth Seminars, which he grew into a multimillion-dollar entity. Charles quickly made his presence known in the seminar industry as he became one of the most popular stage presenters in America. He is also the author of several best-selling books.

  Charles spent most of his time on the road and devoted his life to his work. His quick wit and winning smile will be missed by everyone who knew him.

  He is survived by his ex-wife, Monica; his son, Gabriel; his mother, Fiona Gonzales; and his younger brother, Michael Gonzales. He is predeceased by his father, Jose (Joe) Gonzales.

  Quick wit and winning smile?

  It was obvious that my assistant, Amanda, had written my obituary. There were two tells. First, she misspelled Beverly Hills. It didn’t matter how many times I corrected her, she always added an e before the y. Just like alleged murderer Robert Durst. Creepy.

  Second, there wasn’t anyone else who knew or liked me well enough to write it.

  My name is Charles James. If you’re new to my story, don’t believe everything you’ve read about me. Especially my obituary. It’s premature.

  When this story began, I was going through one of those life phases where it seems as though the universe has conspired to shake you from the hand- and footholds of your life. You likely know what I’m talking about as it happens to everybody. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, spoiler alert—it will.

  It started with a recurring dream where I’m walking alone along the famous Route 66. I don’t know where I am, but on both sides of the road there are flames and hissing and the sound of people wailing. Then fire falls from the sky, bouncing like tennis balls off the asphalt around me. I woke every night covered in sweat and panting like a marathon runner.

  Disturbingly, my waking life wasn’t a whole lot better. In the midst of all this bad sleep, my mentor, McKay Benson—the man who gave me my break in the industry and whom I thanked by screwing him out of his own company—came back to tell me that he had forgiven me. And that he was dying.

  A day after that, an old man showed up at my office in Chicago to blame me for his son’s suicide.

  Then, as if the universe were just having too much fun spinning my life around to stop, I boarded a plane, dashed off it to get my forgotten laptop, and was too late to get back on. That plane crashed on takeoff, killing everyone aboard.

  That pretty much catches you up on where I am. Everyone I know—and everyone I don’t, for that matter—thinks I’m dead. I should be so lucky.

  Before the plane crash I went to see a therapist to work through some of these issues. In the course of counseling, my therapist suggested that my recurring dream might actually mean something and that the fact that I live in Chicago and my son and ex-wife, Monica, live in Santa Monica (the exact beginning and end of Route 66) might be more than just coincidence.

  My beautiful Monica. The only woman I have truly loved. And another person I’ve betrayed. I have pretty much crashed the lives of everyone who trusted me. I know what you’re thinking. I should have been on that plane. I was thinking the same thing.

  My therapist suggested that it might be helpful for me to get out and walk part of the Route to exorcise my demons. (Or was it exercise my demons?) As Thoreau wrote, “In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” That is what I’m hoping for.

  Now that I’m officially dead, there’s nothing holding me back from following my therapist’s counsel. In fact, I’m planning on walking the entire 2,500-mile Route.

  Why would I do something as senseless as walk halfway across America? Who knows? Maybe it was my westernized version of an Aboriginal walkabout—a search for my own song line. Maybe it was that I felt mystically, or psychologically, drawn to the Route by my dreams and wanted to see how fate would play out. Or, then, maybe my therapist was right and it’s because the woman I loved was at the end of the road and my pilgrimage to her was my heart’s penance.

  Whatever the reason, my near death set me off on a cross-country journey that I’ll never forget. Actually, it put me on two journeys. One westbound across more than two thousand miles of a forgotten road. The other journey was more difficult. It’s the one that took place in my forgotten heart.

  Chapter One

  “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” Steven Wright

  —CHARLES JAMES’S DIARY

  WEDNESDAY, MAY 4, 2016 (THE MORNING AFTER THE UNITED FLIGHT 227 PLANE CRASH)

  Oak Park, Illinois

  I had a dream last night. Not the usual recurring one: this one was original. Original, but just as miserable. My dream was about my ex-wife, Monica. It was our wedding day. She looked stunningly beautiful in a champagne-colored strapless dress with pearl sequins. That part of the dream was good. Then it got weird.

  After our wedding we went to get on the pl
ane for our honeymoon. Monica boarded first. Then, as I was about to get on, the door slammed in front of me, and the jet backed out to the runway, leaving me standing alone at the open end of the Jetway. I was still there when I saw her plane crash.

  I woke with a start. As I lay there, soaked in sweat, I could only think of her. My Monica. My pearl. I wondered if she had heard news of the crash and been told that I was on the flight. I wondered if she cried. I hoped she had. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I hoped.

  I rolled over and went back to sleep. Hours later I woke with the sun in my face. I turned over and looked at my clock. It was already past ten. I rubbed my face, then groaned. My head was pounding from all I’d drunk the night before. Instinctively, I was trying to remember what I had to do that day when it hit me that I had nothing to do. I was dead.

  It’s liberating being dead. Remarkably. Zero responsibilities. Zero expectations. Actually, being a zero. A nothing. My reality was still settling in.

  As you deduced by my obituary, the world thinks I was killed in that plane crash. You probably remember hearing about the accident. For a while it dominated the media. United Flight 227 out of Chicago–O’Hare. The media reported that all 212 passengers and crew on board were killed. What they didn’t know—what no one knew—was that there were only 211 passengers on board.

  As stated flatteringly in my obituary, I was a seminar presenter. A stage salesman. I sold the Charles James Wealth package. In older days I would have been called a huckster or charlatan—the successor of a snake-oil salesman. It’s a prestigious line, really, attached to famous names like Rasputin and Charles Ponzi.

  Working the stage, I railed at people who believed in fate. “Fate,” I taught, “is the refuge of losers who don’t take responsibility for their lives.” Professionally, I had to take this position. People who believe in fate don’t buy high-priced wealth packages to change their future.

  Yet here I was, as swept away by circumstances as a swimmer pulled over Niagara Falls.

  Was fate the reason I was still alive? If so, why would it choose me to survive? Maybe fate has a sense of humor.

  One thing I was certain of was that I couldn’t stay in my house much longer. People would be coming. People always come together after a death. I wondered how it would happen. In most cases of death there are spouses and partners, mourning family, all connected to the deceased, coming together to complete the tasks and rituals of death.

  That wouldn’t happen with me. My mother and brother were likely still alive, but I hadn’t heard from either of them for more than a decade. The only familial obligation I had was a legal one. It was the child support payment I made monthly to Monica. I suppose that would be the first in a long series of legal actions.

  I couldn’t stay in the house, but I wasn’t ready to leave Chicago either. As I lay in bed thinking about where to go, I heard a noise downstairs. Someone was opening my door. Someone with a key.

  My heart froze. Already? I walked out of my room and peered around the corner to see who it was.

  The door swung open. At first no one entered. Then a woman hobbled in sideways, awkwardly dragging two large suitcases. It was Marta, one of my cleaning ladies. She was a fairly recent addition to the crew. She spoke no English and mostly kept to herself. Now she had come to take my things. My first thought was to go charging downstairs, but I stopped myself. Was it worth losing my anonymity over a few knickknacks?

  Still, the thought of her stealing from me infuriated me. I felt as though I was living the fourth stave of A Christmas Carol, where people invade Scrooge’s home to claim his belongings, stealing the very shirt from his body. “Why wasn’t he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he’d have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death . . .”

  As I thought the situation through, I realized that I had nothing to lose in confronting her. First, who was she going to tell? She was new to America and didn’t speak English. She could tell her boss, but since she had no business being in my house alone, she would likely be fired. Second, even if she somehow did tell someone, who would believe her? I was dead. Dead as a coffin nail. It was her word against the overwhelming crush of media.

  I quietly walked downstairs to the dining room, where Marta was putting a silver serving platter into one of her bags. That platter had been a Christmas gift from Amanda two years back. I waited until she finished, then said, “Hola, Marta. Qué tal?”

  I don’t know if Marta’s horror came from being caught stealing, seeing a ghost, or—the worst possible scenario—being caught stealing from a ghost, but no matter; she was out of my house like an Olympic sprinter off the starting blocks, leaving her loot and suitcases behind. Honestly, I didn’t know she could move that fast. I wouldn’t have guessed it from watching her clean my house.

  Back to my dilemma. As underscored by Marta’s appearance, the fact was, I couldn’t remain in my house. I needed a place to stay while I prepared for my journey.

  Fortunately, there were several hotels within walking distance, including one I’d put a client up in just three blocks from my home. The Write Inn. I called and made a reservation.

  Next, to plan for my walk. My hiking equipment was kept in my garage in a storage bin that probably hadn’t been opened since I’d filled it. For someone who never hiked, I had premium equipment—expensive and never used. I had purchased the bulk of it when I was dating a swimsuit model who liked to hike. We broke up before I had even taken the tags off the equipment.

  The first thing I retrieved from the locker was a backpack. All I knew about the pack was that the guy at the sporting goods store said it was one of the best ever made—and their most expensive. Bizarrely, the second reason was more important than the first. I always bought the most expensive version of everything I purchased. Always. There was something deeply psychological about this habit. I bought the best of everything not necessarily because I wanted it—there were actually times that I would have preferred another option. I bought the best because I could. I suppose that’s what happens when you grow up with deprivation. You feel driven to purchase what you would have been denied before, just to prove that you can’t be denied now.

  I filled my pack with only the most essential things: a water bottle, a rain tarp, a sleeping bag and inflatable pad, a one-man tent, and a small first-aid kit.

  In spite of my lack of camping experience, packing for the road wasn’t especially daunting. I’d been living on the road for months at a time, and it’s not like I was heading to Nepal or hiking K2. What I didn’t have I could always purchase. And since I would be carrying it all, I wanted everything to be as minimal as possible.

  I carried the pack back to my room, then emptied my travel hygiene kit, sorted through what I needed, and put it all in a small, waterproof bag, along with a bottle of hand sanitizer and a tub of Clorox disinfectant wipes. So much for my OCD.

  I filled the rest of the pack with clothing. I figured I would need more socks than usual. I packed rain gear, underwear, two pairs of light pants, and some basketball shorts. All softer fabrics and blends, nothing that would chafe. It was one of the few times in my recent life that I didn’t pack a tie.

  I also packed a pair of sunglasses and one of those crushable wool felt fedoras that made me look like Indiana Jones.

  I went into my walk-in closet and pushed my suits to the side, revealing a wall safe. I took out a vinyl bank bag that contained the ten thousand dollars that I kept for emergencies. I don’t know what kind of emergency would require 10k in cash, but it just seemed like a good idea. It was also where I kept my handgun, a 9 mm Smith & Wesson, along with a box containing fifty rounds of ammo. I was probably the only one in my neighborhood with a gun. Or at least the only one who would admit it.

  I took out the Rolex watch my partners had given me in Las Vegas a few years back. It was an 18-karat gold President Day-Date with a diamond face. It retailed for more than fifty thousand dollars. The partners had given it to me to celebrate the mi
lestone of the Charles James Wealth Seminars reaching a half-billion dollars in sales. It was the last time we met. We broke up the company three months later.

  Of course, a Rolex isn’t the kind of watch one would usually take on a cross-country walking trip, but it wasn’t something one would just leave behind either.

  In the back of the safe was something that had sat undisturbed since I put it in there seven years before. I reached in and pulled out a small black velvet jewelry box. It was of greater worth than the Rolex, not in price but in personal value. It felt almost like a religious relic. It was Monica’s wedding ring. I snapped open the box, revealing a white gold band with a seawater pearl surrounded by marquise-cut diamonds. A pearl flower. It was the ring I’d given to Monica when I asked her to marry me. I smiled as I remembered the look on her face as I gave it to her.

  My joy turned to pain as I remembered the look on her face as she took it off and set it on the stool behind the stage of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The moment was frozen in time, like a car crash. Her words, spoken softly, still echoed as loudly as shredding steel: “I’m not your pearl.” I had thrown away my pearl of great price.

  I unhooked the gold chain I wore around my neck and attached the ring to it. I was walking to her. It was fitting that I kept it close to my heart.

  I went back to my nightstand and grabbed my leather journal. I was ultra-disciplined about writing in my journal. In fact, throughout my life I had filled twenty-three journals, which I stored in a private indoor storage site only Amanda knew about.

  I grabbed my phone, this time remembering my charger, and carried my pack downstairs.

  I locked the front door that Marta had opened and went to the kitchen. I opened the fridge and drank some milk directly from the carton, then poured the rest down the sink. I didn’t know when, or even if, I would ever come back, but if I did, I didn’t want to return to one-hundred-day-old milk.

 
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