Focus


Cub held the knife vertically, one-handed in front of his chest, as if it were the final act—the prestigeof some magic trick. Tyler watched him, standing in the cratered mud behind Cub’s newish but amply dented Ford pickup, its tailgate lowered and laid out with his other “tools” like a jeweler’s display case. The wet mineral smell rose up from the muck and mingled with the breath of redwoods and Douglas firs hanging in the fog.

“What’re you going to do with a knife?” Tyler said.

“Show it to him, if I have to. People are afraid of guns, but some guys really fill their diapers when they see a blade. It’s more virile,” Cub said, pale blue eyes twinkling, longish red hair wicking mist from the Humboldt air where it twisted out from under his beanie, which was slightly askew. Everything about him looking subtly crooked.

He considered Cub’s claim. “I think you mean visceral.”

“Whatever.”

Tyler leaned against the flank of his own truck, which was older than Cub’s, but meticulously cared-fora gift to himself when he’d dropped out of college. He felt foolish for having agreed to meet this bumpkin up on the hill. And his unease was increasing, because this seemed to be a rare case of Cub following through with a plan.

“How do you know it’ll scare him?” Tyler said. Rich, their boss for the past few weeks, shady even by Alderpoint standards, owned the grow and the nearly three hundred pounds of gray-market cannabis it would produce by late summer. Weed they’d helped plant, tend and guard until yesterday. Rich’s house was nearbyCub claimed to know where.

“I don’t,” Cub said, setting the knife on his tailgate, taking up the pistol he’d laid alongside the battered shotgun. “That’s why I brought some tools.” Here was the sort of subject Tyler had set out to photograph a year ago––a living icon of grimy modern-day banditry, disreputable and uncinematic. Except this was his own life unfolding, more menacing without the added distance of a camera lens.

Cub already had a felony for evading. He’d been carrying two preciously wrapped pounds in a former employer’s Volvo when the CHP attempted a stop. He’d mashed the gas, almost immediately nicking a church van and ending wheels-up in the median. Everyone in Humboldt knew you didn’t runintent to distribute was a misdemeanor even in those pre-Prop-64 days—but it was in Cub’s nature that when under stress he lost half his meager intelligence and all his restraint.

“But I trust my boys,” Cub said. “I’ll know Rich’s whereabouts before we even go up there.”

Where had Cub heard the term “whereabouts?” Tyler had never planned a crime, but Cub’s scheme was too complicated. He aimed to lure Rich away with some rusefriends who’d set up a meeting to buy a few pounds off Rich. His friends would steal the load while, a few miles away, Cub broke into Rich’s house and took his money. A double robbery. But clearly he didn’t trust his boys to hold up their end. Hence the arsenal.

Tyler eyed the pistol in Cub’s hand. He’d only ever carried a gun the past few weeksRich had left them a pistol and an old carbine and expected them to provide security. But that job was over now.

Yesterday’s dispute had been, in the end, about wages. Rich didn’t intend to pay them. And Cub had been at faulthe’d gotten drunk at the camp, which was against the rules, and tried to drive to town to pick up some girls, also against the rules. And, when Tyler tried to stop him, Cub had forgotten to shift from reverse into drive and had ripped through almost a whole row of plants before getting high-centered. Despite this, he’d argued stubbornly for his pay. And now he aimed to settle the matter with armed robbery.

For Tyler’s part, working at the grow was the most lawbreaking thing he’d ever done, and he’d only agreed to it because of its near-decriminalization and because it’d been a favor to his friend Will. Will had wanted the job, but growers expected you to commit for the season and Will was still wrapping up a construction gig. Will had been a loyal friend, so Tyler had agreed to go up to Alderpoint and hold the spot. Plus the pay would restore his gas money, which had dwindled to only a few tanks’ worth.

“You know I’ll never help with this,” Tyler said. Despite all he’d encountered that past year, his core was preservedeven though he’d earned the money, even if Rich’s withholding was unjust, he wouldn’t take it by force.

“A college boy doesn’t need to get paid, is that it?”

“You should forget about it,” Tyler said, hoping Cub didn’t hear the quaver in his voice. “I’m going to.”

Cub’s eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. “It isn’t as easy as all that. I’m going up there. And you better think about what that means for you.”

Tyler, already certain the guy’s brain was an energy-efficient model, was now convinced he was dangerous too, so he considered the vague threat. The worst outcome for Tyler, which Cub was shrewd enough to see, was Cub getting away clean. As far as Rich knew, there were two people with equal motive to rip him off and, if the scheme worked, he’d assume they were in cahoots.

Cub grinned, with dumb arrogance. There was something new and sly in his expression, something concerning.

Tyler shook his head and turned away, taking a few steps along his tailgate toward the driver’s side. He knew something was wrong when Cub didn’t argue immediately. He took another step, wanting desperately to be out of Cub’s sight.

“Hold on there,” Cub said, behind him.

Tyler halted and half-turned to look, trying for no expression at all—seeing Cub’s pistol pointing at him now.

“Gimme your phone and keys,” Cub said.

“Man, please don’t.”

“Toss ’em.” He held the gun aslant, but his finger was inside the trigger guard, which worried Tyler not so much because he might intend to use it, but because Cub was accident-prone.

“You don’t need to do this,” Tyler said, his voice unsteady, his heart booming. “I’ll leave town now. I won’t say a thing.”

Cub gestured with the gun again.

Tyler tossed the keys into Cub’s waiting hand. Cub pressed the fob, thumping the door locks open. Tyler's thoughts shifted to his camera gear––of the very few things he owned, nothing else was really precious. Cub sidearmed the keys over the steep embankment and Tyler sighed, shaking his head. Cub demanded his phone again.

Tyler palmed the handset––his dominant foot braced to run––and then tossed it high and a few feet wide. With a snake’s wisdom, Cub ignored the gambit and fixed his eyes on Tyler. The phone smacked in the mud. Cub sidled and stomped it down with his bootheel, the sound of cracking glass audible in the still air, silty water already seeping into the depression.

“Get your cash,” Cub said, his usual rascally, bumbling tone now dissolving into something hungry and brutish.

The envelope was in a rinsed-out can of mixed nuts beneath the driver’s seat, and it contained just less than six hundred dollars. Cub approached to keep Tyler in view. Once he had the money he took a few cautious steps backward, his expression brightening a little, and then he turned and hurried to his own truck. “Sorry, college boy,” he said. “Gotta be rough to survive in this biz.”

A year before, Will’s sister had moved around Tyler’s off-campus room in a slow arc—tall and slender, blue eyes calmpicking up and replacing objects on shelves, waiting beside a big image of Nastassja Kinski on a one-sheet for the French release of Paris, Texas. He’d picked the French poster because it showed her in that pink room, vague and mysterious. Standing beside it, Will’s sisterfor Tyler, her identity was still primarily tied to her brother, more so than her identity as Carolinelooked a little like Kinski, except her hair was longer and wavy and her eyes seemed to belong to a much older creature.

She lifted his camera from the shelf, uncapping it and eyeing him through the viewfinder. He watched her grasp it with amateur fingers, listening to the soft, plaintive whir of the autofocus. “This plan of yours, it’s going to change you,” she said, snapping the shutter. “You don’t know it yet but trust me.” She was one year out of undergrad, waitressing part time, pursuing her master’s in social work.

Earlier that night, at the bar where he’d run into her again by chance, he’d told her about buying the truckused, but in pristine conditionand his plan to travel the West, seeking out the hardscrabble towns, defiant outposts unlifted by the tech-boom tide.

“There’s a big gap between what you’re looking for and what’s going to find you,” she said.

He watched her, her confidence rendering his wit impotent. He wanted to tell her why he’d given up on college, why he’d chosen instead to photograph the shadowy side of all that bright open land and the genetic remnant of so many brash settlers, now gone to seed. But he knew that wasn’t her concern. Instead he said, “I might be tougher than you think.”

“I’m not saying there’s no man in you. There is,” she said. “But you look like the actor in the rom-com. You’re not made for action.”

She took a couple of steps toward him and leaned, bringing the camera up to her eye again, and as she did her hair swept forward, exhaling her fading perfume, its scents of green growth and citrus.

“You couldn’t even make the first move with me,” she said. He heard the click of the mirror, the whack of the shutter. “I saw you looking at me, waited and waited,” she said, her voice softening.

“You know how we are, Will and I. It was out of respect for him.”

“Respect?” she said, smirking, tucking her hair behind her right ear, her words carrying the faint scent of tequila, sweet and peppery. “You think that’s what you’re going to find ‘exploring the West’ with your little camera? You’ll need to grow some teeth.”

“I guess you know everything,” he said, smiling a little, trying to lighten the mood. Her prophet act was wearing thin.

“When I volunteer at the clinic, I see predators and victims, and not much in between. And out there you’ll have a big bright sign on you, announcing which one you are.”

Tyler imagined a pylon sign on one of those old roadside motels with half-closed shades and mom-and-pop proprietors, an atomic-age relic with pink walls––a neon cactus hanging above loops of red-neon cursive. He marveled at the power of another’s words to conjure an image in your mind, as if every thought you might have was stored someplace already.

“And a lot of them, they don’t even mean you harm,” she said. “They’re just indifferent to it.”

He wouldn’t again see the University of Oregon campus, its cold brick and wheatfield flatness receding in the predawn dark.

A day’s drive divulged lonely passes, forsaken towns and unbounded plains. A cracked fuel line stranded him between John Day and Canyon City and a box truck driver stopped to help, straining to remain polite as Tyler captured the scene with affected nonchalance. The following day, standing in a truck stop parking lot near the Idaho border, he had a terse call with his father, a bitter wind whipping away his words. During their next conversation a month later, his father didn’t bother arguing for his return to school, as if Tyler was now beneath reasoning.

In Madras a road was blocked by the finale of a high-speed chase and Tyler got out to shoot the viscous black fluids and bright shell casings mingling in the twilight, shimmering like some dark mirage in the police light. The sight of blood left him lightheaded. Outside Ontario he snapped migrant workers hand-topping and bagging onions in the morning magic-hour, rasping chapped hands on the burlap sacks, exchanging groggy Spanish phrases that carried over the paper-flat land. At night he grieved for his friendships at school, having discovered his comfort zone was not a matter of geography but of social routines.

He learned the fanciful names of some of the poorest townsCorcoran, Calipatria, Adelanto and Arcata. On a street in McFarland he was robbed at knifepoint and ticketed for a cracked windshield when the police arrived. In El Monte an off-duty cop outside an evening church service spotted him climbing into his canopy and called some on-duty friends who arrested him for illegal camping. His cooperation was met with scornful glances and condescension, as if they knew him already and had written him off. And yet he was more and more energized by his everyday interactions with strangersby unprocessed lifeand spent less time thinking of the comforts he’d cast aside.

By summer he needed paying work and found it as a Walmart stocker in Bakersfield, heaving bags of kibble and charcoal briquets. At his next job, as a bar-back at a roadhouse, he began his affair with Virginiashe had knowing, sage-colored eyes and a laugh that softened the desert evenings. She was ten years his senior with a husband deployed to Afghanistan and she called him “Ty.” He was certain they were in love, despite her vow not to leave her husband and his assurance he’d move on when he had reserves. And it was on a certain night in the roadhouse parking lot that he got stomped by the husband’s friends. Three weeks later in Long Beach, the ER bill still unpaid, his bruises tinging yellow, he examined himself in the mirror for the first timea slice of his right eyebrow was blighted with scar, and that eyelid would forever droop a little—and he cried and thought of home.

On a winter morning in San Diego, he found work on a rockfish trawler, motoring out of the harbor with Navy ships glowing through the haze in the grainy predawn, spangled with lights, each like a walled city. A shipmate called Flanagan saw his face and taught him how to block a punch with his elbow and finish with an overhand right. And it was in a boatyard that he had the call with Will, who promised to set him up on a Humboldt crabber, neither of them knowing that, by the time he arrived, Fish and Wildlife would’ve closed the season and Will’s construction gig would be badly delayed.

The night before he drove into Eureka, as he hunched under his canopy going through a batch of images he’d shot, the camera cycled back to a picture Caroline had taken in his room. He inspected the year-old version of himself and for a dreadful moment he saw what she hadan affected toughness, ignorant of what might be waiting in the primordial dark, wholly unprepared for the world’s ultimate unconcern. With two clicks of his thumb, the image was erased.

When Cub’s truck disappeared around the curve, Tyler didn’t bother retrieving his soaked phone or discarded keyshe went for the little key vault in the trailer hitch. He weighed going to the sheriff, but only for a moment.

He drove with his hands cold and steady on the wheel, his truck moving with weight and inevitability, his course and Cub’s fate in that moment indistinguishable. When his bumper was alongside the fleeing truck he steered into its fender and the tail slid out. Cub made a common mistake, hitting the brakes, and his truck pirouetted and rammed tail-first into a steep hillside covered with ferns and mossy rocks. Tyler skidded to a stop. Cub panicked and tried to gas his truck around and keep going, but he oversteered, overcorrected and slid off the opposite bank into a shallow ravine.

Tyler bailed out into the road and ran to the edge. The truck had settled flat on its driver’s side, wedged snugly against a nurse log furry with ferns and frail saplings. The exhaust wafted up among the watery forest smells.

Cub yelled––an anguished cry muffled by the cab.

“You put that piece away?” Tyler said, his voice no longer quavering.

Cub groaned, loudly. “My arm’s fucked.”

Tyler climbed down, crouching on the passenger door, staying away from the window. He leaned and shot a quick look into the cab. Cub was pressed against the driver’s door with his left shoulder hunched, his wrist disappearing along the side of his seat, vised against the crumpled door.

Tyler climbed down under the canopy, stepping around the broken side window in the vertical truck bed. The rear window of the cab was open and the interior smelled of stale weed smoke and spilled coffee. Cub’s phone was in a holder on the dash and Tyler poked his arm through the opening and pulled it loose. Too late, Cub saw what he was doing and grabbed for him.

“What’s your code?”

“Fuck that. Fuck you.”

“I’ll leave you. Gimme your code.”

“7595,” Cub said, his voice rising in volume and pitch. With steady fingers, Tyler tapped the digitsCub’s birthday, probably. He climbed further back into the bed and squatted on the side of the canopy, scrolling Cub’s texts to find a string with Rich. When he found one, he quickly tapped out a message.

Don’t go to the buy. It’s a setup. Go back to your house. I’m sorry.

He’d added the apology for verisimilitude, figuring it wasn’t off the map of plausibility that Cub would have second thoughts and confess his scheme. He hit send.

“Aren’t you gonna help me?” Cub called back.

“I want my money first.”

“All right,” Cub said, whimpering as he adjusted, using his good arm to draw the wad of bills out of his hip pocket. He lifted it up toward the back window, groaning with the movement. Tyler grabbed the cash and pressed Cub’s phone into his empty palm. He started to climb out the back.

“You gonna pull me outta here?” Cub said, groaning again.

Tyler said nothing, keeping his eyes focused ahead.

“Come on man, I’m in a bad spot.”

“We both are.”

He drove into Oregon and continued north for four hours until the high clouds grew inky with rain and twilight and his fuel gauge was on empty. Waiting at the pump, suddenly he was ravenoushe hadn’t eaten all dayso he parked behind the market and went in and picked out a big can of domestic beer and one of those greasy, rolling hot dogs, something he’d usually never eat. He heard cursing and saw a trio of guys his age at the front, heavily built, arguing with the clerk. One of them had a hold on the clerk’s collar. The clerk raised his hands, trying to pull away, knocking a few packs of Black & Milds off the rack.

“Next time come out from behind that counter, big man,” one of them boomed as they turned to leave, the door chiming their exit, the dark behind the windows swallowing them.

When Tyler set his beer and hotdog on the counter, the clerk glanced up, trying to seem unfazed, and said, “I.D.” But his hand trembled as he held Tyler’s license. He didn’t hand it back for long seconds, inspecting it carefully, eyeing Tyler. Tyler raised a finger to his face and said, “It’s the eye. It didn’t used to be like this.” But he knew that wasn’t the only difference.

In the back parking lot he leaned against the newly crumpled and paint-streaked fender of his truck, chewing the hot dog and gulping the cold, sudsy beer. Looking around for the first time, he realized he was on the outskirts of Eugene, not too far from the University. Across the lot he saw the trio of guys again, threading among cars and checking door handles, steadily working their way in his direction. He had ample time to get in his truck and drive away, but he didn’t—he just stood eating, feeling an odd sort of elation at their approach. Soon they’d spot him.

A pair of headlights drew up on the frontage road and swept the pump islands out front, giving way to the navy bulk of a police cruiser. The guys saw it and, with practiced casualness, turned and slunk off toward the strip of fast-food restaurants to the west, beyond which a dim, razor-thin line of sky showed through the cloud layers. Watching their retreat, Tyler noticed the fading of some readiness, tinged with disappointment.

When they were gone, he climbed into his truck and sat waiting quietly, as if for some revelation, hearing only the first drops of cold rain beating the roof.


 

Ryan White is a writer and lawyer living in Seattle. He's currently revising his first novel, The Retreat. His work has appeared in Curbed, Seattle Homes & Lifestyles, and Ka Leo. Mostly, he'd rather be surfing.