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Next Best Friend

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Two bikers accidentally meet at a roadside diner and talk of loss.

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Chapter 1

I had been riding since just before dawn. Getting hungry, I started looking for some place to eat. There had been nothing for miles. Then, all of a sudden, out here in the middle of nowhere, there it was, one of those roadside diners you see in a movie from the late 1950s to early 60s, the kind with windows all across the front.

Pulling off the road and up to the front door, I parked to the right of another motorcycle that was there. It was a beautiful deep metallic blue, eighteen hundred cruiser. The bike was loaded. It had a throttle lock, air horn, leather saddlebags, buddy seat with luggage rack and chrome roll bars. Yeah. It was a really nice bike. There was a dark brown duffel bag strapped down on the back. This guy was obviously doing some long distance traveling.

I removed my helmet before entering the diner. Once inside, I felt I had been transported back into the Rock and Roll era. The place was empty, except for a man sitting several booths down and facing the front door. It was obviously the biker. His attire of blue jeans, jeans jacket and white T-shirt was perfect for riding on this warm day.

He saw me walk in and a huge smile filled his ruggedly handsome tanned face. His head was shaved and he looked to have about three days of dark scruff on his face. His dark eyebrows accentuated his intense hazel eyes. “Hey! Mr. Two Wheels! Come sit with me. Like your bike. Saw it when you pulled up. What is it?”

I returned his smile. “Thanks. I will.” I walked down and sat facing him. “I appreciate the invite.” I put my helmet and riding gloves down beside me then turned and looked out the window at the two motorcycles. “It’s a thirteen hundred cruiser. Looks like you’re doing a long haul.”

He looked out the window. “Looks like you are, too.”

We both started to laugh. I extended my right hand across the table. “James. Call me Jim.”

He reached out and we shook hands. “Rodney. But call me Rod.”

“Guess you’re not from around here, unless you’re just heading out.”

“No.” He spoke a little softer than before as he looked out the window. “Not from around here. Was just visiting. About seventy-five miles northwest of here. Got up just before dawn and headed out.” He had a pensive expression on his face. Not one of idle staring, but one as if remembering. There seemed to be an underlying issue of pain and anguish.

At that moment, a young lady dressed in her freshly pressed and starched uniform came up to the table. She looked at me with a smile. “And what can I get you this fine morning, sir?” I gave her my order of scrambled eggs and bacon. “I’ll bring you your coffee directly.” She left the table and shortly returned with a cup, placing it in front of me. She filled mine and refilled Rod’s. She looked at Rod. “May I get you anything else?” She looked down at his empty plate.

Rod looked up at her and smiled. “No, thank you, young lady, but you can keep the coffee coming.” We all chuckled. She removed his empty plate with a smile.

I resumed the conversation. “I did the same thing. But I’m coming from about a hundred miles east of here. Stayed with some friends last night. On my way to south Texas. It’s going to take me about three more days to get there. Where are you headed?”

“Back to North Carolina. Should get there tomorrow evening. I hate really long hauls now, so I take my time. Try not to do more than three hundred miles a day. I’m getting too old for that kind of thing anymore.”

“I know what you mean!” We both started laughing.

“Just about fifty-five more miles and I’ll hit the expressway east of here.” Rod commented.

“It’s about eighty miles for me, south west of here.” I added. “Usually don’t travel the secondary roads that often, but I knew it was going to be a nice day and I was in no hurry. Would never have seen this place, if I had rushed down the expressway.” I looked around the room. “I can’t believe these places still exist. It’s like jumping back in time.”

“Yeah. I know what you mean. Usually stop here every time I come through. The food’s good and it’s rarely crowded.” He looked around the diner with a big grin.

I took a sip of my coffee. “I don’t mean to pry, but you seem preoccupied. Like something really heavy on your mind. I’m a good listener, if you want to talk about it.” I looked directly across the table into his eyes. And it began.

“You know, life’s not fair. It’s just not fair.” He shook his head. “I came up here to visit Dan on my mini vacation. Took two weeks off to come up here. Dan and I had a lot to discuss. It turned into three.”

“Have you known Dan long?”

Rod chuckled. He looked out the window again as if recalling old memories. A calmness came over his face. “Yeah. You could say that. Met Dan about sixteen years ago. It was actually a dare.” He chuckled again. “I was all wrapped up in my work projects, not socializing at all. Folks started telling me I needed to get out and mingle or I would die old and alone. When I explained how much I hated the bar scene, they recommended I try some online stuff. That, to me, seemed worse, but finally they convinced me.”

“Reluctantly and cautiously, I started checking things out online. I came upon a website that had a slogan of ‘come here and meet your next best friend’. Yeah. Sure. Trust me. I did chuckle. But strangely enough there was a profile that stood out and intrigued me. After several communications, we decided to meet and have coffee. They’d never admit it, but everyone I knew was ecstatic.”

“It’s funny. It seems like yesterday. I see him in his baseball cap, jeans, flannel shirt and chucka-boots coming up the hill, with a big smile on his face. I knew he was a landscaper from his profile. Coffee led to dinner and the conversation lasted all night. We immediately became fast friends. I laughed when I thought about it. The website was right. Strangely enough, I HAD met my ‘next best friend’. We were more than brothers. More like lovers, but without the physical.” Rod chuckled then sipped his coffee. “But you know, it worked.”

As I ate my breakfast and drank coffee, Rod told of his and Dan’s adventures together. Several of them made us both laugh out loud. He explained that periodically they would live together, but it wasn’t essential, since they were both free spirits.

“I lived in North Carolina and he lived way out here. Mainly because he wanted to be near his mom. Distance was not a problem for us. You know that old expression about abstinence making the heart grow fonder? Well, that was us.”

He told about the day they were watching television, and there was a news report about retirees who had moved to Mexico because things were so inexpensive there. That’s when they both decided they would do it, too. Yes, it was a huge step, but they didn’t care. Since Dan lived in a small college town, when they were ready, he could rent his house. Rod would sell his so they would have the capital to build their retirement house.

After doing some investigation, Rod heard of several places on the western coast that were noncommercial and laid-back because that’s what they wanted. No Cancun or Puerto Vallarta for them. They also picked the west coast due to the infrequency of hurricanes. He snickered as he recalled Dan getting out his globe and checking out the ocean currents. After some deliberation, he decided the water was warmer in one of the locations they were considering. This place was called Zihuatanejo. Dan had picked it. Zihuatanejo it was.

I was totally shocked. “Really!!? You’re kidding!?”

Rod saw my expression. “Why? What’s wrong?”

I slapped my hand on the table and began to laugh. “Zihuatanejo! You’re not going to believe this, but I’m building MY retirement home there right now! Well, it’s actually some forty-five miles up the coast from Zihuatanejo. That’s amazing! I can’t believe someone else has considered retiring to Zihuatanejo, much less heard of it. Maybe we’ll be neighbors.” I laughed out loud. “Yeah. It’s supposed to be finished in just about a month. And you are right. Things are less expensive there. It’s the reason I’m going there. Not to mention the weather and the beach that’s two hundred and fifty feet away.” I kept laughing.

“Yes. It was going to be just like at the end of the movie ‘Shawshank Redemption’.” Rod gave a reluctant chuckle. “We each had set up a special savings account we called our ‘Redemption Fund’. And when it was time, we were going down, just like the two guys at the end of the movie and live out our days on the beach with a cocktail in hand.” Rod smiled but slowly turned and looked out the window. I could see the anguish return to his face.

“Rod. Something is wrong. What is it? Tell me.”

Rod looked down at his coffee cup, holding it and rubbing the sides with his thumbs. After a few moments, he spoke softly. “As I said, I came up here for a two week stay. When you work for yourself, your time is your own. Dan and I were discussing our retirement plans for Zihuatanejo and how much we had both saved. We figured we could do it in about two to three years. We were both so excited. Dan loves the beach. He even ran in and put on this skimpy bathing suit and pranced around the room. Dan’s built like a brick shit house, if you don’t mind the expression, and always drew the looks when he was on the beach.”

Then I saw Rod’s smiling face become more sullen. He was quiet for a moment before speaking again.

“I had been at his place for about a week. Got up early and started breakfast. It was not unusual for Dan to sleep in since he stayed up later than me at night. But after a while, I thought I had better go check and see if he was hungry. I quietly entered his room so as not to startle him and softly called his name. Walking over to his bed, I looked down. His head was on the pillow and his hands were folded up on his chest. He seemed to be asleep. With my hand, I touched his hands and face. They were cold. In an instant, I knew. My Dan was gone. My world came crashing down and my heart broke. I called out for him not to leave me. But there was nothing I could do to bring him back.”

“Sitting on the bed with him for a while, I finally knew it was time to call the EMTs and police. I sat with Dan till they got there. One of the EMTs was so nice. She said I could stay with him until it was time to take him. They were so respectful and kind in how they treated him and me. I was so afraid they would handle him like some piece of luggage, but they were so careful, as if he was sleeping, trying not to disturb him. She said that the way he was laying with his hands on his chest and his position, he had died peacefully in his sleep. It looked like a heart attack. This was confirmed by the medical examiner.” Rod was quiet then turned and looked out the window again. I saw his eyes glint as they began to well up with tears.

He spoke softly again. “I am so glad I was there and was with him. I would have just died if he had been there alone and no one knew for a long time. That would have killed me.”

“His funeral was six days later and I knew it was going to be some stuffy, somber thing. I asked his mom if I could say something at the service. She hoped I would. I started the whole thing off by telling about him and what a great guy he was. Then I told of some of the crazy things we used to do and pull on one another. I had them all laughing. Dan would have liked that, I know, because THAT’S the kind of guy he was.”

“Interestingly enough, I had sent two shirts for the director to choose to dress him in. He chose the twin to the one I was wearing that day. We looked like the Bobbsey Twins.

“His mom also wanted me to be one of the pallbearers carrying his coffin. I was glad of that, too, as it meant I would be with him all the way to his final resting place and had hold of him till the very last minute. What a grace was that? God and the Fates were kind to let ME be the one to be there with him till the VERY END. What can I say?”

“I stayed a little longer to help sort through his things. His mom told me to take the things I wanted. There were several things that will always remind me of him. I had them shipped since there was no way I could carry them all on bike. If I get to Zihuatanejo, all his things will go in his room there.”

As I watched and listened, I saw his heart pouring out. It was like a cup slowly emptying. I had never met Dan and I was just acquainted with Rod. But after hearing Rod tell their story, I felt like I had lost a friend and my heart was in pain for Rod. Hearing all of this, dredged up old memories for me.

Rod shook his head. “It’s just not fair. Dan had worked so hard all his life and was so looking forward to our retirement of rest and relaxation. He deserved that. He should have had that. We were right there ready to jump off into our new adventure. And now, I have to go on without him. If you only knew the pain inside me.”

“Rod, I do understand. I lost my Phillip eight years ago. He caught a cold that developed into pneumonia and within a week, he was gone. Yes. I know the pain you feel.”

I had been very cognizant of the young lady waiting our table. She seemed to be extremely attentive to our mood and only brought coffee at an appropriate silence. She never spoke or interrupted our conversation, realizing how intense it was.

“Jimmy, you would have liked Dan. He was one of those who never met a stranger. So full of life and laughter. I’m going to miss him so much. And all our plans. They’re all gone.” His head was bent down trying to hide the pain on his face.

My heart was crying for Rod. I spoke softly. “They say that time heals all pain. I can tell you it’s not true. The pain of your loss will be with you for the rest of your life. Yes, it will ease, but every once in a while there will be those moments. It still happens to me now and again. I tell you now, remember the good times and how lucky you were to know him. That was a gift unto itself.”

Rod looked at me with soulful eyes. “Oh, Jimmy, I didn’t know. You, too. I’m so sorry. Yes, I know you’re right. I was truly lucky to know such a man. Others should be so lucky. And I have sixteen years of memories.” Rod gave a reluctant smile and sipped the last of his coffee. He wiped his eyes with his napkin and looked up at the clock on the wall then back at me. “Well. I guess I should hit the road. Tempus fugit and I’ve got a long way yet.” He gave a sad smile. Pulling out his wallet, he placed several dollars on the table. He reached across the table with his right hand. “Nice to have met you, Jimmy. Sorry it wasn’t under better circumstances.” We shook hands.

“Glad to have met you, too. Hang in there. Be safe on the road.” I gave a big smile.

“You too.” Rod slid out of the booth holding his helmet and black leather gloves.

As he did, I also slid out of the booth and stood in front of him. I took his right hand in mine, shook it and leaned towards him giving him a man hug. His left arm reached around my back as he returned the hug. It was then that I realized he was just over six feet tall and not an ounce of fat on him. “Hang in there, Rod. And know that someone is thinking about you. Remember this also, you never know what’s around the next corner.”

As we stepped away from each other, he looked down at me with a smile. “I will, Jimmy and thank you.” He then headed towards the register. His black, flat towed harness boots resounded on the tile floor. After paying, I watched him leave the diner. I returned to my seat and looked out the window. I saw him head to his bike, put on his helmet, snap up his jacket, put on his gloves then mount his motorcycle. He turned, looked at me and gave a salute wave. I smiled and saluted back. Shortly, the roar of his engine filled the air. He grabbed the handle bars, pushed up the kickstand, rolled the bike back and he was off, heading east. I watched him disappear into the distance down the road.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. “Oh, God! What have I done!? What have I done?” It was immediately evident. I had just let an incredible human being come into my life then ride right out of it. How could I have been such an idiot? Here was a man who was straight forward, kind, considerate, loving, caring, not to mention incredibly handsome, and now he was gone, riding to somewhere in North Carolina. How could I have been so stupid not to get any information on how to contact him? All I knew is that his name was Rod. That sure is a big help. I shook my head in disbelief. It was crystal clear that I had just let my ‘next best friend’ slip through my fingers like sand through a sieve.

The clock on the wall let me know I had to get moving. I knew I would be thinking about Rod the whole rest of the day and beating myself up over my grievous mistake. I could not imagine not seeing him again. I shook my head. “I’ll be thinking about him for more than a day. Damn!”

Pulling out my wallet, I thought of the attentive and considerate young lady. I saw what I had and placed four ones, a five and a ten atop the bills Rod had left before getting up to pay at the register. Turning to leave, I saw her, smiled and spoke. “Thank you for being so nice today. I truly appreciated it.” I headed out the door.

As I was putting on my helmet, I heard a voice from behind.

“Sir! Sir! Wait!”

I turned. It was the young lady who waited our table. I took off my helmet and placed it on the seat of my motorcycle. I smiled at her. “Yes ma’am?”

“You gentlemen are way too kind. I want to thank you so much. When you see the other gentleman, would you please thank him for me, too?”

I gave a sad smile. “Unfortunately, we had just met and I have no idea how to contact him.”

“But sir.” She fidgeted through the bills in her hand. “You all left this by mistake, I’m sure. It was stuck amongst the money you all left on the table for me.” She extended her hand towards me. She was holding a business card.

I reached out, took the card and looked at it. There it was. HIS business card with all the information I could ever need to find him. I tilted my head back and with my right hand punched up into the air. I yelled out. “YeeeeHaw!!! YES!!! There is a God! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I was so overwhelmed I began to cry. To me, it was a sign. The Fates had been kind and were pointing out the direction of my future. I looked at the young lady. “My dear, you have just made my day. No. You have just made my life.”

“Why, thank you sir. I’m so glad I could be of some help to you.” She gave me a big smile then turned heading back to the diner.

I called to her as she left. “I will! I will tell him!” And when I did it, I know he, too, would be amazed at what had happened.

I wiped my eyes, put on my helmet, zipped up my jacket and mounted my bike. I pulled out my cell phone and entered his number. My heart was happy and I smiled. When I got to my destination that evening, I would send him an email. Maybe I would even call.

Within a few minutes of putting on my gloves, I was headed down the road to the south west. Thinking about it, I felt Rod would be getting to Zihuatanejo after all and we would be raising many a glass in honor and in the memories of Dan, and Phillip as well. I could not contain the joy in my heart knowing I had not lost…my ‘next best friend’.

The End

This story is dedicated to my best friend, Dan, who passed away on May 20th, 2014, and my partner, Phillip, who passed away on May 10th, 1996. I miss them both so much.

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