Splinter

My brand-new truck still had less than two thousand miles on it and was the first thing I bought after graduating college even though it had no air conditioning and I found out you had to buy a bumper for trucks separately.  I never bought a truck before especially one without a bumper but the salesman told me I made a solid decision and it would come in handy moving from Seattle to Pullman with all  my college life in boxes in the back for my first real job.  The signpost Aaron wanted to  steal was was going to scratch up the bed of my brand new truck but Aaron said “It’s gonna be fine — you worry too much” but he  also said he was going to be on-time when I picked him up in Redmond which was south of Seattle and kind of meaningless unless you were into a new company  called Microsoft but he was late for the drive back to WSU and now it was dark.  “It’s like you’re afraid of life or something” to which I said “Or something” because I wasn’t going to let him think I minded stopping at mile-marker 47 on State Route 26 because that was his number on his high school football team and he wasn’t getting much field time at WSU so he wanted the sign to cheer him up.  When he asked if I could stop I told him the sign was attached to a post and I didn’t have any tools in the new truck to take the sign-part off but he said he was strong and flexed his arms because he was always flexing his arms and said he’d take the whole friggin’ post if he had to.  No one would see because it was dark as Hades in wintertime when we pulled away from the 90 and Spokane and started toward the southern corner of Washington with nothing but dashboard lights and headlights.   “We can turn the lights off if you’re going to be a girl about it” he said and I knew he was baiting me but I really didn’t mind.  It was dark and I thought who really looks at those mile-markers anyway so I agreed and Aaron gripped my shoulder as I drove and said I was the best.  “Save it for the judge” I said but I was smiling in the dash-lights and Aaron could see that so he tapped me again on the shoulder and asked how things went with my girlfriend in Seattle.

The headlamps spread light out in the clean not-city  farm air as I told Aaron we were probably going to get married and I was planning a great big expensive trip down to Los Angeles so that I could propose in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion fountain before we watched Phantom of the Opera which was not at the Pavilion but at the Ahmanson right in the same complex.  I was lost in my plans and Aaron was quiet until I looked at him for being so quiet and realized he probably didn’t know anything about Los Angeles being from Redmond or why I wanted to propose there to my girlfriend and seemed to be looking forward to it when we were just two guys driving across Washington looking for mile-marker 47.  I said “What?” and Aaron looked like he was holding something back staring straight through the windshield because he didn’t want to get in an argument which totally confused me because what argument could there be over my plans to ask my girlfriend to marry me?  He put up his hands in a kind of to-each-his-own way and backed into the bench seat until I said “What, Aaron?” and I guess he figured he tried so he just hauled right off and said “Why?”  I asked what he meant by “Why?” and he said nothing with his hands and that’s the way we rode through the night down State Route 26.

It was so black outside the dashboard lights hurt my eyes so I decided to see what everything looked like without the lights after making sure no one was coming or behind me.  Aaron thought it was cool riding down the 26 with no lights in total pitch black and rolled down his window and stuck his head out into the cold night air until I turned back on the lights and the cab of my truck lit up with the dashboard and I could see the cab and Aaron again and he looked like he was weighing something again in his mind and trying to figure out what to do with it. I guess he decided because he put his hands on his knees and grabbed them and said “What are you afraid of?”  The way he asked I wasn’t sure if he was asking me so I would ask him or if he was just messing with the same thing he harped on since I met him and we shot hoops out behind the dorm.  His hands gripped his kneecaps  and then came together as he looked out his window and said it was probably none of his business but he just didn’t think I should be getting married. So soon.  “Why?” I asked and Aaron breathed a little and then stopped until he said “Forget it, man — just me being Stupid Aaron” as we passed mile-marker 32 and talked about Seattle and how different and small and water-less Pullman was and why I decided to do the whole dorm director thing at WSU.  “Easier places” he said and I could tell he missed the water and didn’t like all the Joe Farmers who got married their Sophomore years and moved into married housing.  In the dashboard light I could tell he wasn’t going to make it as he searched for the next mile marker and told me it was hard for him to meet girls and that he’d be transferring next year.  He said I was lucky but I could tell he was just saying that even though he was right.  I was lucky and scared especially when I was with him.

It seemed important to ask questions and say things once we passed mile-marker 46 and I started to slow my truck down and could hear the engine slow down also.  “The wood’s going to be splintery from being out here so long” and Aaron said yeah as he geared up to steal the signpost and flexed his hands and rolled his neck.  I could tell he lived for this and I felt bright and all the things I wanted to say receded into the darkness behind us and we looked at each other like friends.  Aaron said “Awesome!” and I said too that it was awesome and that I’d never stolen anything but a piece of Bazooka bubble gum when I was six and was marched back to the liquor store to confess my crime by my mother who noticed I had gum when I wasn’t allowed.  Aaron stared ahead with clear eyes reflecting the dashboard lights and said “Damn” and that it really wasn’t stealing because we’d probably paid for the sign many times over and replacing it would probably give somebody a job for a least a while.  I could see the mile-marker roll into view next to a barb-wire fence and pulled past it and drove onto the shoulder then onto the dirt and Aaron rolled down the window fast and stuck his head out and told me I was too far away but I said I was going to back up to get the tailgate right behind the post. I shut off the lights as Aaron got out of the truck but he wanted them on because he couldn’t see what the hell he was doing in complete darkness and plus there was nobody out there which was true.  I turned them on after a quick look up and down the highway and left the engine running as I jumped out to lower the tailgate as Aaron started to throw his shoulder against the mile-marker sign and then push and pull it with his hands until the post started to move a little and crack up the dirt.  I carefully took hold of the splintery post and pulled while Aaron grabbed and pushed. I was happy to be doing this with Aaron until the entire post wobbled and we started to lift it up and a small volcano of dirt came out ahead of the cement around the bottom of the post.  We lifted up and Aaron said “Shit!” because he just got a splinter in his hand and said quickly we’d get it out later.  “Fuck!” The post was above-ground now still upright while Aaron moved to lift the cemented bottom onto the back end of the truck and I jumped into the bed to lay the mile-marker down gently.  In the bed I looked down State Route 26 and it was dark and peaceful and cold until  I saw a pair of lights heading for us and I jumped down and the two of us dove into the truck.  I was about to put the truck in gear but Aaron said to just shut down the lights quick and go dark.  “Are you crazy?” I said but his eyes looked intense and right and he reached over and turned off the headlights and turned off the engine and took the keys.  I wanted to grab them but he held them out his window and said “Just wait — everything will be alright.”  I said it might be a cop and he probably saw us from way back there and he said “Doesn’t matter” and soon a car passed us like we weren’t there and continued down the road.  Aaron took my hand in the dark cab and turned it over and put my keys in it.

The dashboard glow hurt especially after the dark that I had just about gotten used to when I turned the key and started the engine.  My eyes adjusted to the light and I saw Aaron’s hand turned upright on his leg and him looking at me like a guy who just scored the winning touchdown and still wanted more even though he was hurt. The splinter was more like a stake and was old rough red wood that was probably going to infect because it was driven deep under his skin across his palm.  You could see it like a rusted needle in his palm that he was surprised by but started to pull at anyway as the skin of his palm started to move like it was gripping the splinter, like there were barbs that would rip out a lot.  Aaron winced and laughed a little and said it was totally worth it and started to pull again but I  stopped him and said he was going to leave half in  that way.  “You need to get that looked at” I said so he said “So look at it” and held his thick dirty palm to my face so that I sat back but then didn’t and took his hand and turned it face-up as I turned on the light over the rearview mirror and thought:  “This thing is really driven in.”  Aaron said “So am I gonna live doc?” and I said he should’ve been careful but then thought how stupid it was to say that after the old dark wood was already under his skin.  I got an idea and asked for the Bic I kept in the glove compartment and he got it without taking his hand from mine and handed it to me wondering what the heck I was going to do with it.  Without saying anything I edged the cap off the pen and let the pen fall and used the cap to push the old red wood up from the bottom and watched as it slowly crept out of his hand without any blood or anything.  “You’re lucky you have calluses” I said and he said that was amazing and he didn’t feel a thing and then he whooped leaving his hand in mine but turning it over. After a while he said “What a trip, man!” and clapped his hands together and we drove onto the road and started towards Pullman and the dorm.

It was late when I pulled into my spot behind the old brick dorm with a mile-marker in the bed of my new truck.  The dorm was still alive with lights on in almost every room and I suddenly wondered how we were going to get the sign-post up to  Aaron’s room.  I figured he’d lift it into my office on the first floor but then thought he could put it in the basement with all the other storage and just get it later.  Maybe there wouldn’t be anybody hanging around the lobby studying or taking a break from studying but Aaron said he’d take care of it and ran inside the dorm through the back door before I had a chance to tell him I couldn’t get caught helping a resident steal a sign-post.  I thought about lifting it out of the truck myself and got out to take a look but then figured it was too heavy with the cement around the bottom and leaned back against the truck and waited for Aaron.  He came out the door first and then four other guys followed who said hi to me before looking at the sign-post and saying “You took the whole fucking thing?” in awe and judgment so Aaron hit one in the chest and everybody laughed.  Aaron beamed and said it was the coolest thing but he needed to get it upstairs to his room and Eric who was strong and smart said unless Aaron was going to plant it all he needed was a crowbar and he’d get the sign off the post.  Eric asked me “Do you have a tire-iron Greg?” and I thought of the brand-new unused tire-iron behind the bench seat which I got and gave to Eric who jumped into the bed of the truck and wedged the sign from the weatherbeaten post.  He stood in the back of my truck with a wide strong smile as Aaron rubbed his hands together and said he hadn’t had this much fun in such a long time and it was all thanks to me as he clapped my shoulders.  The guys nodded and said something about studying though I could feel the drinking signal in the word studying and started to replace the tire iron and lock the truck.  The guys got the rotted broken post out of the truck-bed and threw it in the dumpster around the corner from my parking spot and waved goodbye after brushing off their hands on their jeans.  Aaron started to follow them but then turned and said “It was really fun — thanks, man” and then started again for the back door with mile-marker 47 in his hands.  He turned one more time at the door and I thought he was going to say one more thing, something important because he stopped with the door open and stood there looking at me before nodding up at me and walking into the dorm.

Photo by Cara Thomson on Unsplash

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Piedras Blancas

Avi climbed up the yellowed sandstone rock that had once been part of the headland bluff but now sat six feet in seawater during high tide and fronted by sand during low tide.  He stood completely naked because he’d always wanted to be naked on a beach in Big Sur or near Big Sur and the rock was there so he stripped off his jeans and sweatshirt and shoes and climbed until he reached the very top. From the top of the towering rock he looked toward Piedras Blancas lighthouse and the hidden winter home of the elephant seals we’d seen the day before that seemed fat and lazy but could move in unexpected ways and were actually quite fast.  Every year a tourist or two learned the hard way that poking the blubberous giants could get you crushed underneath an angry ton of lunging seal.

Who knows why men feel the need to get naked before the ocean and then sometimes in it or why Avi thought he wouldn’t get wet standing high above the ocean or why he thought no one back at the Piedras Blancas Motel could see him when all we needed to do was look out our windows at the lighthouse to the left and him to the right.  Maybe Avi knew and that was part of the thrill of it all but I didn’t think so because of the way he scanned the beach and the coast behind him and then crouched on top of the rock like he was surveilling the motel until he found himself safe from prying eyes.  He stood again after that and looked carefully over the edge of the front of rock and swayed a little before recoiling at a wave that rushed inward but only made it halfway up the rock and since it looked like a pretty big wave Avi relaxed a lot and scanned the entire Pacific Ocean from left to right before he made the sign of the cross and began to pray.  I thought there were other things I’d be doing on that rock but to each his own and I knew anyway that he was probably going to pray from the top of that rock before the entire western hemisphere of seawater, that’s just who he was,  but I guess the couple in the next room didn’t know because through the old wall that had been repapered so many times small bubbles had long since become large domes of trapped air I heard:  “Good Lord there’s a naked man on that rock over there!” 

The voice was female and older from Milwaukee or Fond du Lac but definitely Wisconsin and was loud and very moral at the same time.  Another lower more resigned voice told the woman to put down the binoculars and give the man the peace God intended when she said he was PRAY-ING in such a way that it sounded as if Avi was committing a high crime which I found hilarious because their lovemaking the night before was a high crime and had woken me up for almost seven minutes and then left me with thoughts.  The woman went on to say that she thought Avi was a CATHOLIC even though he didn’t look it because he’d MADE THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and that she thought the entire display was disgusting and perverted and very inappropriate and had half a mind to report it to the management.  The man repeated the word management with irony and I could almost see him sweep the shabby expanse of his motel room with his arm to prove his point.  She continued undaunted:  “I won’t be able to look out there without seeing him.  Him! He’s ruined this vista forever.”

I looked out the window again, differently this time because I’d heard what the woman next door had to say about Avi ruining the view — vista — forever because he was naked before his God with his hands down at this sides but turned out towards the sea and he was beautiful and didn’t someone in the bible once dance naked before the Lord?  He stood still against the San Simeon headlands and light-blue almost white sky and slowly lifted up his palms as if offering the earth and all its wonders to the waiting heavens. That was when a wave sliding from the rock back to the sea created a crescendo of seawater that an incoming wave rode until it crashed and cracked and spumed upward to the sky white sea-spray upwards upwards to shower the rock and the man praying on it who did not move but stood there in the glorious surprise of the world still and true, still and true.  Shivering and surprised and completely himself in the world.

This communion was interrupted by a knock on the door that startled me and that I didn’t want to answer because it was probably the woman from next door  that had enjoyed seven or eight minutes of lovemaking and was now angry.  But the knocking was tentative and plaintive and I thought maybe Avi deserved a bit of privacy out on his rock under the sky so I turned from the window and walked to the door to peer through the peephole and saw the motel manager Robin who we met the day before  standing outside the room.  I opened the door and saw a car rush past her on the highway alongside the motel and a bottle of white zinfandel and two wine glasses that she extended with a bashful smile as she explained:  “For tonight and watching the sunset.  It’s spectacular.”  As I took the glasses and the white zinfandel she leaned in and looked straight up at my face and said:  “You’re a very lucky man.” I swear I saw a small slight wink before she pulled away and started walking as I said thank you for the unexpected gift on a morning of unexpected gifts with only a little bit of dampening coming from the voice next door.  But that didn’t really matter as I set up the white zinfandel and glasses for later and went back to the window where I was tempted to find Avi again on the rock but decided to leave him alone and in peace with the ocean and sand and his God as I turned to the lighthouse and imagined its slumbering seals.

Piedras Blancas Motel after it had seen better days. (San Simeon, CA)

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Dillon Beach

The wind from the ocean blew up the dunes that sunny Sunday when I was twelve and my mother sat beside me under an egg-blue sky on morning-cold sand that lay under the stars the night before and now formed to our bodies if we wiggled back and forth to make little troughs for our legs and butts.  “In the Name of the Father,” the priest began, his voice muffled by the wind rushing up the dunes and carrying his words someplace else away from us, but we knew the drill and made the sign of the cross sitting in the sand with sixty other kids and the chaperones who cooked our food these past four days and made sure we didn’t get into fights in the tents.  We were like happy dogs on the beach, running everywhere because you can run everywhere when you’re young and then sleep and run some more later.  The tent was different.  

Mom held my hand while we listened to the cool priest say cool things, and I wondered if she thought this was okay, having mass outside with a bunch of sixth graders when my dad said public schools had no business getting into the religion game.  I didn’t know about that because dad was behind in his child support and the priest said things about nature being God’s temple and how cool it was to get outside to worship God, so why not be here in the sand thinking about Mark Sager in the tent the night before and Shawn Ayre who was mean but seemed to want to get close to me in his sleeping bag, moving inch by inch by inch until he was right next to me with his arm resting just where my side met the ground. I was sleeping on my side and his hand rustled against me and didn’t move even when he fell asleep and continued breathing deep and low, deep and low.  I went back to thinking about Mark Sager with his shock of blond hair when all the rest was brown and his baby-faced smile.  He wore V-neck shirts to school and his skin under his throat looked tanned, but we were poor so I wore one of my mom’s V-neck shirts to school one day.  It was cut too low for playing four-square and the kids started to laugh even though I was better than them and could kick their butts in four-square.  Mark Sager and I weren’t friends anymore after that but our tent requests were already made so he slept far away from me in the six-man tent that smelled like a wet dog, lined up next to ten other tents that probably smelled the same.  He tried to switch when we got to Dillon Beach but they wouldn’t let him.

Mom held my hand as the priest said a muffled Gloria that was also carried away and then the readings began as I thought about the sea anemones we touched the day before, how Aaron Mills put his tongue into one after being told not to and had to be taken to the chaperone’s motorhome to make sure his tongue didn’t swell up too big.  Mom and I sat in the cool sand under the white-blue sky and listened to the readings and then the homily, which was probably more about how the beach was God’s temple and we didn’t need walls to pray to God for whatever we needed, so I prayed that mom would forget what Arvelia Johnson told her over the chili pot, and she seemed to forget because she held my hand all the way through the mass.

The wind was warming up and the sun was on my back.  I was no longer cold from the night in the tent next to Shawn Ayre with his closed eyes and arm on my sleeping bag right up against my back. I wanted to roll over to see if he would move but also didn’t want him to move at all, and then it was morning and the tent was cold and wet-dry, dry but the air inside was the kind that made your hair sticky.  Beach air.  Mark Sager told me not to look at him while he got out of his sleeping bag and that woke Shawn Ayre up but he didn’t move his arm away, in fact he moved it closer, further into the fold between my side and the ground so that I was caught a little.  I could hear his breathing change when Mark Sager opened up the tent flap and told me again to stop looking even though I mostly wasn’t, and then Shawn Ayre’s arm was more under my side so I rolled a little towards him and onto his hand and I could feel his fingers through the sleeping bag move near my butt before he whispered “fag” so that only I could hear it, so I rolled back on my side and then he sat up and said, “Hey, look!  Beckman’s trying to roll on top of me!” Suddenly everyone was awake and pointing at Shawn Ayre’s arm almost buried  under my side, and he’s acting like he can’t get it out, like I wanted it there and he was innocent when I knew he wasn’t because I could see it in his low eyes.  The kids laughed and said “Fairy” and ran out of the tent in their shorts yelling “Fairy” until a teacher told them the next word he heard was going to get twenty pushups.

I was alone in the tent until my mom came to get me and we walked up the sand dune to mass.  Maybe she didn’t hear.  Maybe they kept quiet around her because moms would never want to know what Arvelia Johnson told her and what they went yelling through the tents until they were told to shut up.

We sat in the sand until mass was over and the priest said “Go in peace” and a teacher stood up and started telling us about breakfast and how we would be leaving Dillon Beach after eating.  “Don’t leave anything you don’t want the ocean to get,” he said.  His sunglasses shined light back on us and we all started to laugh because kids were diving out of the way of the rays. Then I started to stand up but mom put her hand on my shoulder and we sat together until everybody else had gone to breakfast.  She said, “You know, you don’t have to like them.”  And I decided I didn’t like them, not even Mark Sager, but I still liked Shawn Ayre because he had low eyes and kept his hand there but then made me look like I was a fairy.  I squeezed my mom’s hand and looked at the sand between my legs.  She said, “I couldn’t wait to get out of school.”

Even though she probably heard, I became quiet and peaceful in the cool sand under the warm sun, and thought I didn’t care so much if she did hear because she hated school too and now all the kids thought she was beautiful and friendly and she was the most popular chaperone on the beach trip.  We got up and walked down the sand dune and into the camp and left for home.

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