The Quotable Evans, p.1Richard Paul Evans
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To Jonathan Karp
When I began writing this story, I thought I had some idea of what it was about. I was wrong. In my life of writing I’ve discovered that there are times when a story, like architecture, is carefully designed, erected, and furnished. Then there are tales that take their own way, and I find myself being dragged along after them like a white-knuckled water skier behind a speedboat.
This tale is the latter. My plan was to write about the changing, perhaps fading, of the American identity. The perfect metaphor of this change was a road, a dying road with many names—the Will Rogers Highway, Main Street America, the Mother Road—the infamous Route 66.
That’s what I thought I was writing about. But the road I followed took me somewhere else. Or, more correctly, to someone else. It was near the end of my journey that I met a dead man.
Back to Route 66. I wouldn’t be the first writer to take on the legendary highway. Hundreds, maybe thousands of articles have been written about Route 66, and even some greats, like Steinbeck and Kerouac, have contributed to the collection.
It has also been celebrated in film and song. The eponymous television series, Route 66, starred some of the biggest actors of all time, including Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Tuesday Weld, James Caan, Robert Redford, and Ron Howard.
In music, the 1946 Bobby Troup song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” has been performed by myriad musicians including Nat King Cole, the Rolling Stones, and Depeche Mode.
In its heyday, Route 66 was far more than asphalt. It was a path that Americans trekked as pioneers to a new world of opportunity, imaginary or otherwise. It was the American dream.
I began my journey on a Friday afternoon in early fall. I was living in Chicago at the time, which is the beginning of the route.
I knew from my research that the road was about 2,500 miles, give or take a few towns, so when I left my home that day, my plan was to drive 250 miles a day, completing the journey in about ten days. What I didn’t know then was that Route 66 doesn’t surrender itself that easily; rather, it must be hunted down, sometimes with the tenacity of a detective. There are two reasons for this.
First, there’s not just one Route 66. During its active years, parts of the road changed multiple times.
Second, sections of the original highway now lie beneath new roads, homes, and developments. There are places where metropolises, like Chicago, St. Louis, and Oklahoma City, have grown up around the highway with hundreds of new roads fragmenting the route into pieces like a mosaic. Sometimes it gets confusing. Sometimes downright ridiculous. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the route actually crosses itself and you can stand on the corner of Route 66 and Route 66.
Even where the road hasn’t faced urban development, there are remote, forsaken places no longer traveled where the road has died and been reclaimed by nature, with vegetation growing up through its deteriorating, cracked asphalt.
Route 66 runs through eight states—Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—and each of these states regards (or disregards) the route in its own way. Varying colors of signs mark the path—blue, brown, black, and white—while in some places, weary of the constant road sign stealing by nostalgic collectors, states have simply painted the Route 66 shield onto the asphalt.
It took me two weeks to reach Needles, a city on the eastern border of California on the edge of the Mojave Desert—four days longer than I thought my entire journey would take me. By then I was no longer bothered by the difficulty of the way. I felt a fondness for the road, like a wildlife photographer tracking the last of a dying species. But I also knew that I was near the end of my journey and I still hadn’t found my story.
Needles was the first California town that the Okies—fleeing the famine of the Dust Bowl to the supposed paradise of California—encountered. This is where Carty’s Camp, from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was located.
Sitting on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, Needles, like its northwestern cousin Death Valley, is the kind of place that sets national temperature records. There are days the temperature reaches 130-plus degrees.
I suppose that’s why I noticed him—the man who was to become my story. The first time I saw him he was sitting alone at a booth in the famous Wagon Wheel Restaurant. Judging by the large, dusty pack next to him, it appeared that he was hiking through this hell. He was dark featured, though I couldn’t discern his ethnicity. He was deeply tanned and unshaven, disheveled but handsome in spite of it. Or maybe because of it.
His clothes were wet with sweat, with myriad salt lines staining his shirt, not only under his arms but across his chest and trim stomach as well. The temperature that day was 119 degrees, hot enough to tax the air conditioner of my rental car. Out of curiosity, I had rolled down my window just outside of Needles. It felt like I was driving through a convection oven. I couldn’t imagine walking through it carrying a pack. Actually, carrying anything besides water.
The Wagon Wheel Restaurant had the façade of an old-time western building. Inside, past a gift shop stocked with Route 66 paraphernalia (signs, clocks, coasters, pencils, etc.), was a large dining room lit by ceiling lights made of metal wagon wheels with amber glass sconces.
My server, a blond woman with thick, dark mascara who was wearing a pink Wagon Wheel T-shirt, left me at a booth beneath a poster of Marilyn Monroe—the famous flying skirt picture from The Seven Year Itch.
The restaurant was nearly vacant, and besides my waitress (and Miss Monroe), there was only the hiker, who was carefully wiping his table with an antiseptic wipe. Considering his sweat and dust-crusted attire, he didn’t look the part of a germophobe.
When my waitress returned, I ordered lemonade, chicken-fried steak, and a cup of navy bean and ham soup, then picked up my notepad and began recording my surroundings.
My waitress brought me the lemonade and returned to the kitchen. I furtively glanced back over at the man. He had finished wiping down his table and had arranged his silverware symmetrically. He was reading a book.
Everything about this man looked out of place. There was a properness to how he held himself that didn’t quite seem congruent with his dress or circumstance. But there was something else that caught my attention: he looked familiar.
He suddenly looked up from his book, and we shared eye contact. He tipped his head. I felt a little embarrassed being caught looking at him.
“Hot enough for you?” I asked.
“Yes, sir.” He returned to his book.
I returned a few text messages while I finished my lemonade. When my waitress came out with a refill, I asked, “Where’s your washroom?”
“It’s right over there,” she said, pointing to the far back corner of the room.
When I returned to my booth, the man had a plate of food in front of him—a T-bone steak, mashed potatoes, and gravy. He suddenly looked up at me and asked, “Are you from Chicago?”
I looked at him with surprise. His voice and articulation were smoother than I expected. “How did you guess?”
“You asked for the washroom. That, and your accent. I’d guess the upper east side.”
“I’m from Lakeshore East,” I said. “You’re from Chicago?”
His answer surprised me. Like everything else about him, even his hometown seemed incongruent. Oak Park was an upscale suburban village to the west of Chicago. I always thought there must be something special in the water in Oak Park, because it had spawned more than its share of world shakers—the famous and infamous. Writers Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Rice Burroughs, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and in business, Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s; Richard Sears, of Sears, Roebuck & Company; even James Dewar, the inventor of the Twinkie.
There were also TV and radio personalities including Betty White, Paul Harvey, Bob Newhart, Hannah Storm, and Peter Sagal. On the infamous side, there were crime bosses Joseph Aiuppa and Sam Giancana.
“Nice part of town,” I said. When he didn’t comment I added, “You’re a long way from Oak Park.”
A curious smile crossed his lips, but all he said was, “Farther than you can imagine.”
“You’d have to be crazy to be walking in this heat,” I said.
He took a sip of his water, then said, “They don’t let me set the thermostat.”
“Do people stop to give you rides?”
He shook his head. “I’m not looking for rides. Water, sometimes, but not rides.”
“It seems kind of dangerous.”
“Life is dangerous.”
Again, he seemed strangely familiar. “Where did you start walking?”
“The beginning,” he said.
“The beginning of what?”
“You walked the whole way from Chicago?”
“Started on Jackson Street, across from the Bean.”
“The Bean” referred to the Cloud Gate sculpture at Millennium Park in Downtown Chicago. It was the same place I’d begun. “You walked the entire way?”
“Now that’s a question,” he said, sidestepping mine. “What about you? What brings you to Needles?”
“I’m writing a book about Route 66. I’m a novelist.”
“What’s your story about?”
“I thought it was a nostalgia piece about the changing of America—sort of a Travels with Charley meets Garrison Keillor. But now I’m not sure where it’s going.” I looked at him, still curious. “What’s your story? What makes a man walk twenty-five hundred miles?”
“What do you think would make a man walk twenty-five hundred miles?”
I hesitated with my answer. “Honestly, my first thought was that maybe you were a little off.”
He laughed. “You wouldn’t be the first to think that.”
“But since you’re not, I’d guess you’re running from something.”
“You’re getting warmer,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Richard,” I said.
“My writing name is Richard Paul Evans.”
“I’ve heard of you. You write Christmas books.”
“Some of them are,” I said. “My first book was.”
“What’s your genre?”
“The publishing world has had trouble with that. I’ve found my books shelved in literature, inspirational, romance, religious . . .” I trailed off. “What’s your name?”
“Charles.” He hesitated a moment, then said, “Charles James.”
“You share a famous name.”
“Should I know this person?”
“I hope not,” I said.
“Why is that?”
“He was a huckster. He made millions selling get-rich-quick scams to the gullible. He was killed in that O’Hare plane crash last year. Flight 227.” I suddenly remembered where the article had said he was from. “James also lived in Oak Park. You must have known him.”
Without flinching he said, “I thought I did.”
For a moment we just looked at each other. Then, through his sunburned skin, beard, and long hair, I suddenly recognized who I was talking to. I think he must have realized that I’d figured it out, because his mouth rose in a slight grin. “Yes?”
“You’re supposed to be dead,” I said.
“Charles James is.”
I just gazed at him for a long moment. “Tell me your story.”
“What makes you think I’d want to share it?” He took another drink and abruptly went back to his meal as if he were done talking to me.
I watched him for a minute, then said, “I think you do.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because you told me your full name.”
He looked back up, and his grin reappeared. “I have thought about it. In fact, I’ve started to write my story. Writing isn’t new to me. I’ve published three books. One of them was a New York Times bestseller for a couple of weeks.”
“I remember that. Something like Making the Millionaire.”
“Waking Your Inner Millionaire,” he corrected.
“Right,” I said. “So you’re a writer like me.”
“Not like you,” he said. “There’s a big difference between us. I write nonfiction, you write fiction. I write truths that tell lies. You write lies that tell truths.”
I smiled. “You started writing your book?”
“Twice. But it wasn’t right. I think I’m too close to the acorns to see the forest. Does that make sense?”
“It takes a certain . . . sensitivity to write romance. And on the deepest level, my story is a romance. I didn’t realize that when I started, but I do now.”
“There’s a broken heart behind most journeys,” I said. “From Beowulf to Ulysses.”
He looked at me for a moment and said, “So you think you’re the kind of writer who could write my story?”
“Maybe. If I’m not, we’d know soon enough.”
He shook his head. “Like I said, I’ve thought a lot about this. If I gave it to you, it would come with conditions. You won’t like them.”
“All right. First, no one is to see the book or even know that I’m still alive until I tell you. It could be a month; it could be a decade. The story’s not over yet, and I’m still not sure how it ends. If anyone finds out, it could ruin everything.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
He looked a little surprised. I guessed he thought that his timeline would be enough to deter me. It wasn’t. Some stories are worth waiting for.
“Second, you write the story as if I were telling it. A first-person account.”
I nodded. “I prefer writing first person.”
“Third, you give me the benefit of the doubt.”
“What do you mean?”
“You might not believe what I tell you. In fact, you probably won’t. I get that. Just as long as you believe that I believe what I’m telling you.”
“I can do that too,” I said.
“And last, you tell the whole story. That includes my history. You can’t understand the end if you don’t know the beginning. Trust me, it’s for your benefit. Nothing is more certain to kill a story than an unsympathetic protagonist, which is what I am. At least I was. Maybe I still am.”
“And if I accept your terms?”
“Then come over here and I’ll order you another lemonade or whatever it is you’re drinking.”
We talked for the better part of four hours. Actually, he talked. I’d ask a question now and then for clarification, but a good writer knows when to shut up and listen. We stayed for dinner. It was after dark when I drove the late Charles James to a small Best Western in the center of Needles.
“How do I get ahold of you?” I asked.
“Give me some of your paper,” he said. I handed him my pad, and he wrote out an e-mail address. “That’s my e-mail. I’ll get it.”
He smiled. “Tell me that after the book’s published.”
We talked many times
This is Charles James’s story in his own words. On the outside, it’s a story about why a man walked away from a successful career and fortune. On the inside it’s much more. It’s a story about one man’s search for redemption and what he might do if given the chance to live his life over.
Charles James’s Story
The well from which we receive grace is only filled by sharing it with others.
—CHARLES JAMES’S DIARY
SUNDAY, APRIL 24 (FOUR YEARS EARLIER)
St. Louis, Missouri
My name is Charles James. I have waged a fierce internal struggle over whether to share my story—the devil on one shoulder saying it would only serve to humiliate me, the angel on the other saying it might help others. If you’re reading this, the angel won—though not without a few cuts and bruises.
That’s not to say you will like me. You won’t. Some of you will hate me. I don’t blame you. I have spent a fair amount of time hating myself. But I ask that you might extend me just enough grace to hear my story. Not so I can excuse what I’ve done—there is no excuse for what I’ve done—but so you can see how even someone as lost as I was can find himself. Who knows? Maybe it will help you with your struggles. Maybe it will even help you find a little grace for yourself.
You might assume that my journey started the day I died to the world. But it started long before that. The day of my death, Tuesday, May 3, was just the day the tracks switched beneath my life. I’ll begin my story a week or so before.
It was a rainy evening in St. Louis, Missouri. I was doing what I do—preaching the gospel of wealth to an auditorium of hopefuls and believers. There were about twelve hundred people in the audience that night, each attendee bought and paid for through advertising. There was a science to the numbers and a price placed on each attendee—$327 for each butt in a chair.
The Quotable Evans by Richard Paul Evans / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes