My friend is dead.
It’s difficult to process that sentence. Thursday we talked and texted. He was excited about coming to Nashville for a motorcycle swap meet.
On my bus ride home, I kept getting called from a Crossville, TN phone number; I thought it was spam so I ignored it. But I had a premonition. Maybe that’s the first time in my life that’s happened to me, but I knew I had to answer that number when they called again. Honestly, it would be much more useful to have a premonition about the numbers I need to pick for the lottery.
But I knew that I needed to answer the call.
I did, and I was on the city bus and couldn’t hear the lady on the other end. She called back and identified herself as a nurse from Cumberland Hospital.
“Are you a family member of James Hodges? He’s been involved in an accident.”
“No. I’m his good friend, but I’m not a family member, so I cannot speak to anything regarding his health.” I saved her the trouble of potentially getting in trouble; the laws on this are pretty clear and hospital employees have lost their jobs for discussing health information when they shouldn’t have.
She explained that I was the last person to text him, and that’s why she called; I helped her find his wife’s information on the phone. She called me back a short while later and said that she couldn’t get in contact with her. I explained that James’ landlord and friend is a police officer in the town where he lives. She had his driver’s license and said she would contact the police.
I told her I would pray for him. Her response was a simple “okay” and I knew, from the restraint in her voice, that prayers wouldn’t help much.
I searched online all night. No news stories; one website had a few sentences about a motorcycle accident that caused traffic to back up, but it was a traffic story, not a human story. Otherwise nothing else was mentioned anywhere.
Late Friday night I texted him. Just in case. Just in hope. His wife texted back in the wee evening hours that he had died.
Mid forties and dead. Not of the myriad health things he thought would kill him. Life had been hard on James, and he had risen above it. Then lost his job. Then risen again. Lost job again.
Then he bought his second motorcycle; his first sat on his porch, a bike as troubled as James. The new one represented, maybe, a new person as well. He joined a motorcycle club. Found peace.
Motorcycles are an enigma to many. I don’t ride anymore because I understand the attraction all too well. They represent a way, however brief, to overcome our world just a little bit. To be in control of something. That’s why he rode. And he pushed it too much, went too fast on that powerful, heavy Harley, maybe bought too much into the lifestyle – leather vest, bandana over his mouth.
That pursuit of happiness killed him.
I don’t know if I will ever know the details of his accident. Today the University of Tennessee plays Alabama, so the Knoxville news sources care only about that. The Cumberland radio and newspapers most likely are on skeleton staff for local news; everyone is too concerned with the election and other “popular” news to care that a man lost his life in their midst.
I cannot write about the accident, because I don’t know.
But I can tell you about James.
He was born to a mother who was the poster child for trouble. He talked little about her, only that he tried a few times as an adult to reconnect with her, only to fail. He wouldn't be upset to know she didn't attend the funeral; but would, contradicting that, be bothered by it.
The man he always knew as his father was not, at least biologically speaking. He and James got along, for the most part. They respected each other.
James didn’t meet a lot of his father's family until he was well into adulthood; strange that there was an entire family out there for him to discover and learn about.
I met him at the University of Tennessee in around 1997. I was married, he was not. I had lived in Japan, he had been in the military. He was a couple of years younger than me. We hit it off immediately. After he graduated, and after I moved to California, he went to Japan. I met up with him there, once or twice, around 1999. I worked for a shifty Japanese company that was into online casinos and porn sites. He taught English and lived south of Osaka near Kishiwada. We drank in Kobe. We peed on a fence because there were a couple of Japanese businessmen doing the same, and we had to pee. I showed him, in the darkness, where the buildings had been that collapsed during the earthquake.
Another time we went to some onsen (hot springs) around his home. He was happy to drive me around in his crappy little car. They probably should have kicked us out of the onsen; we were a bit rowdy, and had there been somebody else there, I’m certain we would have been asked to leave.
Many times over the years we relived those times. They made for great stories, and life is nothing if not little short films stitched together in our minds to form a rough timeline of memories.
Over the years we’ve talked a lot. When he had success, I was stagnating. Then he stagnated while I had success. We were yin and yang. Never both up at the same time, never both down. Sometimes we talked about going to Japan and opening a hamburger shop; it would succeed, we knew, but neither of us are truly entrepreneurs. Maybe we should just go back and open a small school in the country, a small town where we could earn enough to live comfortably. Maybe we should do this. Maybe that.
Always planning and scheming. Looking for the greener grass was our shared hobby. Just this past week he tried to convince me (again) to buy a Harley and ride around with him. Just this past week I (again) told him I didn’t want to, but why not come to Nashville and we can goof off? He had no job, time and desire to ride.
He said sure. His motorcycle club’s Nashville branch was having a swap meet. Sure. He would come visit again. He was just here a couple of weeks ago, but no problem coming again.
Of all my friends, and there truly aren’t many, he is the only one to ever do that. To say that he would just come visit. Just to see me. To hang out with me.
A few months back he asked when I was going to my hometown again. I told him I was tired of being the one who always went to visit others. In twelve years, only my parents have ever come to visit my family just for the hell of it. And James, after he discovered the truth of my frustration, said he, too, would come. And he did, with no plan, nothing to do, really, and I believed that he was going to continue to do so.
But now he’s dead.
How do we cope with these things? With death? This is a one-way street we’re on. We’ve all dealt with it before. My mother died, but maybe that was easier because she was at a natural end to her life. I could accept it as an obvious conclusion. But imagine if you’re watching a movie and halfway in it says “The End” and is over?
That’s what I’m dealing with now. I have to complete this movie myself, without my friend, my confidant. I alone bear witness to the stories of our youth. I alone carry that flag into battle with the harsh ambivalence that is our world.
This is the only thing I can do for him, now. My simple eulogy that maybe a dozen people will read. But that’s enough. The world should know that he was a good husband, a good father. He loved his family, and, more important, knew that loving his family was right. He was crazy intelligent and had strong command of Japanese. He always tried to take the gray out of the world, and where I’m more Zen with things, James struggled to make the world fit his worldview, because the world had chewed him up and spit him out many times, so he knew the sharpness of its teeth.
James felt life was unfair, and we debated many times this point. Life just is; there is no fairness to it. Like blaming the road for a pothole, or the wind for the dust it blew into your eye. He learned this at the end of his days. He learned it on the motorcycle that led to his death.
I love you, James. And I always will.