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 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.