The Forgotten Road
“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 plane 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 milestone 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.
I slung the backpack over my shoulder and took a deep breath, taking in the moment. As I looked around, I felt a faint sentimentality toward the place. I had lived here for seven years, longer than any place else except for my childhood home. I had left that home because it was killing me. I left this one because I was dead.
As I opened the back door, I softly spoke my mantra. “There is no God but me.”
I locked the door and walked to the end of the yard, where I had climbed over the fence the night before. I looked over the fence. There was only a single oncoming car. I waited until it passed, then lowered my pack over the fence and climbed over.
I opened my pack and brought out my hat and sunglasses. The hat sprang back into shape. The sunglasses I brought were the same ones I wore at seminars when I didn’t want to be recognized. They were black, wraparound, military-grade Wiley X—the same kind Bradley Cooper wore in the movie American Sniper.
I lifted my backpack and walked west toward the hotel.
I hoped to avoid my neighbors—not that they would recognize me anyway. In the past seven years, I had only spoken to a few of them and that wasn’t at any great length. I was on the road more than eight months out of the year, and when I was home it was usually after dark.
Oak Park is a quiet bedroom community about ten miles west of Chicago. My home was just off North Oak Park Avenue on Erie Street, just a block south of Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home. I also lived less than a mile from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. His influence was profound in the area, as he had designed more than twenty-five structures in Oak Park. It’s where he perfected his signature prairie style architecture that changed not only the Oak Park landscape but the very course of twentieth-century architecture.
I felt conspicuous walking through the neighborhood with a backpack, but the sidewalks and asphalt were still puddled from the recent storm and my neighbors seemed content to stay inside.
It took me just a little more than ten minutes to reach the hotel. The Write Inn is a four-story, redbrick structure with a large green awning shadowing the front entrance. It is a boutique hotel, small by any standard, just sixty-five rooms.
As I walked into the hotel lobby, I saw a couple at the front counter. I walked up behind them to wait and was about to remove my sunglasses when the woman turned and looked at me. I knew her. I didn’t remember how I knew her, but I did. She must have recognized me as well, or thought she did, as her gaze lingered longer than what is usually considered socially acceptable. With my hat and glasses on, I knew she couldn’t have been certain. I casually looked away, pretending that I didn’t notice her.
Then she turned back to the man and took his arm and they stepped away from the counter. I let go of the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. But then the couple stopped again and stood talking by the door.
The woman behind the desk looked up and asked, “May I help you?” She was close to my age, pale, with thick-rimmed, black-framed eyeglasses and curly black hair.
I shrugged off my pack and laid it up against a column, took out my wallet, then glanced over to see if the couple had left. They hadn’t. “Just a moment,” I said softly, acting as if I was trying to find my ID.
Then I remembered how I knew the woman. Kate. She had attended one of my seminars and had cornered me afterward. She had applied for a job as a presenter and was angry that I hadn’t hired her. Crazy angry.
Kate had called me sexist in front of a crowd of clients. Amanda had spoken before I could. “Mr. James hires a lot of intelligent, talented women, which is precisely why you weren’t hired.” Kate had gone bright red, then turned and ran from the hall.
Kate glanced back over at me once more, and then they walked out of the hotel. I breathed out in relief.
“Yes,” I said to the clerk, extracting my credit card from my wallet. “I’d like to check in.” I handed her the card without speaking my name to draw less attention to it.
She briefly looked down at my credit card, then at her computer screen. “Mr. James. Welcome to the Write Inn. I have you in a king suite. You’ll be staying for a week?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Just sign here,” she said, handing me a form. “There’s no smoking.”
“That’s not a problem.”
“Will you be parking a car with us?”
“No.” I initialed the form and handed it back.
She ran my keycards and put them in an envelope. “You’re on the fourth floor. The elevator is around the corner. Do you need any help with your luggage?”
“No, thank you. I just have my pack.”
“Have a nice stay.”
I put the keycards in my pocket, lifted my pack, and walked to the open elevator. The fourth floor hallway was partially barricaded by housekeeping carts, and I had to take off my pack to get through.
Once inside the privacy of my room, I leaned my pack against the wall and removed my sunglasses. The room’s design was surprisingly dated. It had brass candelabra light fixtures, pale-yellow walls with camel-colored upholstered armchairs and dark blue carpet. The bed had a high, colonial-style mahogany headboard with a gaudy
red-and-gold paisley duvet. It looked like they were trying to keep the décor authentic to Hemingway’s era.
As I lay back on the bed, someone knocked on my door. My chest froze, revealing to myself my anxiety. What was I so nervous about? Maybe it was because I was using a dead man’s credit card.
I walked to the door and looked out the peephole. It was only a cleaning woman, her arms piled with towels. I opened the door.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said with a thick Russian accent. “I did not leave towels. May I come in?”
I stepped back and she hurried into the bathroom, returning a few seconds later. “Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”
“You too.” I held the door for her as she hurried out.
Besides a swig of milk, I hadn’t had anything to eat. My favorite Vietnamese restaurant was only two blocks away, but eating there was out of the question. The hotel’s restaurant was called Hemmingway’s Bistro, noticeably spelled with two ms instead of one, probably to avoid licensing fees or a lawsuit.
I sat down on the bed to look over the room service menu. I ordered French onion soup and a chicken Waldorf salad with a glass of red wine. Then I turned on the television to the local news. They were still talking about Flight 227. O’Hare handles more flights per day than any other airport in North America except for Hartsfield–Jackson in Atlanta, and the talking heads were giving updates on the crash as well as the subsequent chaos in the
country’s air travel, showing video after video of stranded travelers bedding down in airports across America. When room service brought my lunch, I turned off the news to eat in silence.
I spent the rest of the afternoon studying and charting my route. Route 66 is said to be 2,448 miles long, but actually, with all its different alignments and multiple roads, there is no exact number. The Route crosses eight states and three time zones, beginning in Chicago and ending in Santa Monica, California—where my Monica was. Where I had once been happy. Maybe, the last time I was truly happy.
I didn’t know how long it would take to walk the Route, since I really had no idea how many miles a day I could walk. Using my smartphone and a notepad, I planned out my walk as far as St. Louis, Missouri, which is where I had last seen McKay, and where he’d told me he was dying.
I worked on my plans straight through dinner and called down to order a beet arugula salad, a half dozen Blue Point oysters on the shell, and chilled lobster.
Then I put away my notes and retired to the television to catch the NBA playoffs, which, unfortunately, the Chicago Bulls wouldn’t be participating in this year. I had been too distracted to follow the playoffs, so I didn’t know what teams would be playing tonight. It turned out to be the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland. There were two teams in the NBA that I loved—the Chicago Bulls and whoever was playing Cleveland.
I have nothing against the city of Cleveland itself. I love Cleveland. The people are friendly, it’s the home of
the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Velvet Tango room, Drew Carey, and Calvin and Hobbes. Some of my biggest sales had come from the city. But it was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers who had knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs last year. Then, to add rock-sized salt to the wound, media pundits had the audacity of comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan, which, to us Chicagoans, was as sacrilegious as John Lennon comparing the Beatles to Jesus Christ.
The Cavaliers crushed the Hawks by more than twenty points.