On our motorcycle trip out west this past summer, Jim, Roxanne and I had been on the road for several days, traveling north on the first leg of our journey. There was never any shortage of things to talk about at our many rest stops.

As everyone knows, the best thing to talk about when you're among friends is a friend who isn't there, and we eventually worked our way around to Max, my sister's husband.

Forever affable, Max has a grin that never quits. He'll pull your leg with one hand, yank your chain with the other, and make you want to hang around for more. It was natural during those road-trip conversations that at least one Max story would come up.

"Know what Max told me?" I began, while we three sat in the shade, sipping frozen lattes during one of our rest stops. "He told me this himself, so I know it's true. He said he'll stand in the middle of a group of friends, and if it just happens that he needs to pass gas, he'll do it. Silently."

" 'The sneaky ones are the worst,' he'll boast."

"Immediately after passing his ugly little surprise, he'll sniff the air a couple of times and casually comment, 'Hey, I smell popcorn.' "

"Now, everybody loves popcorn. Everybody has wonderful popcorn memories going back to early childhood. And of course, everybody is curious to know where such a delicious, innocent aroma could possibly be coming from at such a time, in such a place."

"Max's lie immediately gets everyone in the group sniffing and snuffling the atmosphere he's just turned deadly. Not just smelling, no. Enthusiastically EXPLORING the air with their noses."

"While Max takes a step backwards from the malodorous 'gag gift' he's just left for the group of former friends to discover, it takes less than a second for everyone to realize they've just been Max'ed again. The joke explains itself at the first disgusting whiff -- to no one's special amusement except Max's, of course."

"Max will grin, totally pleased and completely at peace with himself. (He's a fellow who has no problem laughing alone.) Meanwhile, it will be a couple of lifetimes before anyone who shared in this unique experience will ever again enjoy popcorn in a movie theater."

That's the Max story I told to Jim and Roxanne, not so elaborately there on the side of the road, but it lost nothing of humor for being shortened to a few short, descriptive sentences. Roxanne and Jim laughed out loud, as I had figured they would, and I laughed all over again.

But that's not the end of the popcorn story. For the rest we have to move forward in time, forward in our travels, by several days and a few thousand miles.

We've left Roxanne in northern Idaho to visit with family. Jim and I are biking down the Interstate on our way to Colorado, the second part of our two-week adventure. Deep in southern Idaho we stop at a highway rest area, and while I shuffle around in my luggage to find more sunscreen to apply to my burning face, Jim saunters off toward the native stone building that houses the restrooms, the snack machines and the visitor's information center.

I need to use the restroom, too, so after a few minutes I follow the path Jim has taken to the main building and the restrooms. I enter and step up to a urinal, next to a line of stalls. Below the closed door of the nearest stall I see boots, and realize why Jim has been taking so long. I go about my business, and let him mind his own.

A few seconds later, from the stall comes the rather noisy, blattering release of intestinal gas. As Universal Men's Room Protocol dictates, this is something that is always ignored, and certainly never remarked. God forbid!

But I can't miss an opportunity to beat a punch line to death, or abuse a standing joke. Since it is only me and Jim in the place, on hearing that honking blast from behind the closed door of the stall I observe in a loud, clear voice, "Mmm, that smells just like popcorn!"

My declaration is amplified by the cold, hard tile covering the floor and walls of the place, violating every sacred etiquette of public restroom decency. Still, it is too funny to resist, at least it seems so to me.

Apparently Jim doesn't think so, for his only reply is silence. I shrug, not particularly surprised. I never know when to keep my mouth shut. It was a cheap effort, anyway. Toilet humor at its lowest.

I conclude my business in the restroom and walk out through the swinging door, back down the sidewalk toward where we'd parked the bikes.

Halfway down the sidewalk, I round the corner and see the bikes. The bikes...and there, also -- my friend Jim. Standing by the motorcycles. Waiting patiently for me.

I chuckle. I grin. I laugh out loud as the incident, still echoing in the tile restroom behind me, makes its full outrageous reality known.

Now I'm stumbling down the sidewalk like a potentially dangerous lunatic, making desperate noises that only barely resemble laughter. Parents clutch children by the hand. Dogs find their leashes suddenly shortened. By the time I get to the parked bikes where Jim stands in innocent wonder, my eyes are pouring.

"What's so funny?" he asks.

I don't know if I can answer. "Think you had to be there," I manage to choke out.

This is a lie, of course. This is a story that screams to be told. I just need a little more time. Please!

Jim's not one to settle for less, not when there's obviously much more. He presses the issue. "Had to be there? Are you sure?"

I shake my head, catch my breath, and manage to tell him of the comment I'd just voiced in a public men's room -- a comment that could not possibly have been understood, nor construed as sane, by the confused and probably frightened stranger in the stall.

The loud comment that wasn't appropriate. The man on the commode who wasn't Jim. The smell of popcorn that wasn't popcorn.

I apply more sunscreen to my face, but no amount seems to relieve the burning. It requires another 200 miles of Interstate to remove the grin from Jim's face.

As for the anonymous stranger? I never did see him, thankfully (although I think I might have been able to recognize his boots.) He may be still locked in that stall, in a lonely highway restroom, somewhere in Southern Idaho, afraid to come out.

Max himself would be proud.

The Bad Ted.