We're up north, several hours from San Francisco, when we pull off the freeway in the middle of buttfuck nowhere. Nothing but a single-lane road surrounded by hills browned by the August sun. It's early Sunday. Nelson pulls up to a locked steel gate and puts the car in park. There are a half-dozen or so no trespassing and private property signs, a beat-to-hell American flag, and next to it a fading POW one. I ask Nelson if this guy's a vet, like me. He says no, but the farm's previous owner was. The new guy just leaves the flags up, “so people don't fuck with him."
I nod, but I'm not sure why. I see the form of a man exit a small one-story house about 300 feet away. Throughout the drive up, Nelson warned me about Eric. “Just understand that you're signing on to a dude who likes to go apeshit," Nelson said. “Most stoners and hippies can't really deal with a person like that, you know?"
Nelson says that Eric recently blew up at all his employees, threatening to kill every one of them. They all left after that, and now he has no one to work the farm.
“But," Nelson adds, “he has a good work ethic, you know?"
Nelson told him I am a writer looking for work between assignments, to keep up with child support. He also told him that I'm an Iraq War veteran. That got Eric's attention.
What Nelson left out is that I had also been married — twice — so I'm pretty sure that whatever fresh hell this guy throws at me will pale in comparison to any hell I've already experienced.
I went from being a machine gunner in the infantry to getting a master's degree to working on a weed farm. Where did I go wrong?
“All right," Nelson says, “but don't say I didn't warn you."
Eric slowly walks up to us, wearing cargo shorts and running shoes. He could be in his forties, unremarkable height, and seems mostly harmless, friendly even, as he throws us a wave and a smile.
Once Eric gets into better focus, I see he has more or less zero percent body fat, with veins on his stomach and Christlike abs. “See, I told you," Nelson says. “He doesn't look good. He's way too thin right now." Nelson thinks Eric's working himself to death, overstressed by going far too big on this harvest.
Eric unlocks the gate, and Nelson slowly cruises while Eric walks in front. In Iraq we called them ground guides, and every time a vehicle returned to our Forward Operating Base in Mosul, we needed one. But Eric's no soldier, and this is no war zone.
This is a marijuana farm, one of many thousands in California, many of which are legal, others sort of legal, and some totally fucking illegal.
This one is all of the above.
It's a few months away from the election, and while the rest of the country is absorbed in choosing between “I'm With Her" and “Make America Great Again," California growers are keeping a close eye on Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which could be a game changer for people like Eric.
With Proposition 64, weed will become legal for recreational, and not just medicinal, use — and the fear among growers is that once it becomes legal for recreational, only the big boys with the big money will be able to turn a profit. They're afraid that one day you'll be able to buy grams of weed at a fucking Walmart, maybe with a product of china sticker.
So this is probably going to be Eric's last harvest, and he's going big.
Legally, Eric is allowed to grow a certain amount of medicinal marijuana, but his operation seems bigger than any allowable amount could possibly require. The garden is about half the size of a football field, and there are several greenhouses, too, all fenced inside the 150-acre property. The grow space is packed with a dozen strains with names like O.G. Kush, Girl Scout Cookies, and so on. Some of them help people suffering with depression, ADD/ADHD, or sleeping, eating, and stress disorders. Some act as aphrodisiacs for women, others help with arthritis pain, and some straight up put you in a coma and/or have you seeing God.
All of which is legal, but not entirely, which is probably why, posted inside the garden fence and on the message board in the main house is the name and number of a lawyer we should call if shit goes down. Better call Saul. We even have an escape route, a trail behind the house that leads to a patch of ground where $50,000 in bail money is buried. Just in case.
Nothing is regulated here. No one is stopping by for a surprise inspection. There's no OSHA, no HR, no background checks, no PowerPoint presentations, no casual Fridays or group scavenger hunts to boost morale. But there are guns, shovels, money counters, samurai swords, bows and arrows, body bag–size duffels, scales, and a chicken coop to provide us with free-range eggs for breakfast each morning. It's all grunt work. Employees are paid in cash, sometimes at the end of the workday or the workweek, or whenever Eric gets around to driving out and digging it up from his underground savings account.
Before I started as Eric's full-time employee, I thought a weed farm was kind of like a Christmas tree farm. You plant seeds, water them, let nature do its thing, and when it's time and they're big enough, you chop them down and sell them, make your money, and everyone has a merry Christmas. The end.
I shake my head and tell Eric he doesn't need a gun. “I mean, what are you going to do? Shoot and kill somebody over weed?" He just looks at me.
It's not. “All it takes is one bad run," Nelson says, “and you lose your entire ass in this game." There's an endless list of things that can go wrong. The wind can wipe out your crop; the plants can all stress out and hermaphrodite on you; you can lose them to gophers, deer, caterpillars, spider mites, broad mites, bud rot, mold, powdery mildew, thieves, or a bad crew; if it's too dark in the greenhouses, you can end up with larfy-ass buds, which means they're too fluffy; and you can overfertilize and burn your plants chemically. Eric says his crop is totally organic, but he guesses that most growers use chemicals on their plants at least once during the grow.
Nelson inspects the plants by feeling them with his hands. He says he can tell they're “happy."
“They're perky," he says. “See how they're lush and green and full of moisture? They're not distressed. If they're sad, they're droopy. Probably dehydrated. If they're unhappy, they don't smell like anything and start to rot."
Nelson grabs a bud from another plant and has me take a whiff. It smells like weed. They all do. I can't really tell if they're happy or not, but they look and smell night-and-day different from the weed we smoked in high school. That shit was brown and full of seeds, and it was sold out of plastic Baggies, usually by a classmate who went to school primarily to sell weed.
Nelson pulls out his phone and says we should document our working together on the farm. “Something to show the kids someday," he says.
He sends it to me, but I'm not allowed to post it anywhere that could tag the location. “Once you start bragging and showing the world your shit," he says, “that's how you get jacked."
The plants exceed the height of the fence, so they're visible to anyone driving along the road a couple of hundred yards away. The first day of work, Nelson and I use plastic zip ties to attach bamboo extensions to the fence. They're the same type of plastic zip ties we used in Iraq as handcuffs, and the green plastic netting over the chain-link fence looks to be of the same material as the sandbags we used to cover the heads of the handcuffed prisoners.
It's odd to think that I went from being a machine gunner in the infantry to getting a master's degree to working on a weed farm. But I have child support and a seven-year-old I have custody of every weekend. I've just turned 40. Where did I go wrong? My ex-wives probably have their theories, but I don't know.
There is another worker with us in the garden. Alicia is a Latina from Southern California. She wears running shorts and headphones and walks around with a stopwatch, watering all the plants. Nelson flirts with her constantly, calling her “Beautiful," “Sweetie," telling her how extremely good she looks. “So when are we going to hook up?" he asks her.
“Sorry, Nelson, I'm not into Mexi-can'ts."
Inside are a few trimmers who manicure the buds with pruning snips: a couple of guys, sporting sandals and man buns, and a slender girl in short shorts, with a blonde bob, who has that slight stony thing about her — Nelson noticed her when we first pulled up to the house. “I love her," Nelson said, which is exactly what he says about every woman. Whenever Nelson gets bored with hitting on Alicia, he goes inside to flirt with the blonde. All day we work while Nelson goes from one girl to another.
Do you know how much I spent on soil alone? I spent $70,000! For dirt! That's more than what most Americans make in a year!
At one point it's just me and Eric in the garden. With his hands folded across his chest, he asks my advice.
“You think I should get a shotgun or an assault rifle?"
Eric tried to buy a gun recently but failed the background check. Nelson told me that Eric had attacked one of his employees with his bare hands. The two went to a bar, and the guy started bragging to the female bartender about how much weed they were growing. Eric told him to shut the fuck up, but the guy just continued and bam. Eric beat the fuck out of him and got arrested, but the charges were dropped.
I shake my head and tell Eric he doesn't need a gun. “I mean, what are you going to do? Shoot and kill somebody over weed?"
He just looks at me.
My first week of work, Nelson goes back to the city, and Eric gives me a little tour of his “nest egg." All these plants are his eggs, and they're all in one basket. “Once Prop 64 passes," he says, “everything is going to be regulated and no one will be able to afford to grow. None of this is going to be profitable. That's why I'm cashing out. This is my last harvest. After this I'm done."
His plan is to travel, maybe get a house in the mountains, and bury whatever is left. He points out a trailer from the '70s parked next to the house. Several years ago he gave up his job, bought the trailer, lived in the woods, and grew weed. Just him and his mutt. He invested all his money into that grow, and every year since, he's expanded until he has what he has now, a basket with all his nest eggs. The three main things he's worried about are being robbed, broad mites, and some freak-of-nature storm coming through.
He boasts that his weed sells for $1,400 a pound — bare minimum — and with some strains he can pull in as much as $2,300. The first year he grew, weed was selling for $4,200 a pound. Every year the price drops while operational costs for growing that same pound remain the same or increase slightly. Some predict that once Prop 64 passes, the price will drop dramatically.
“For the independent grower, the end is here and now."
“You don't talk much, do you?" Eric asks me while we walk through his garden.
“Not really," I say. “I just follow orders, I guess. Keep my mouth shut."
He says he likes that about me. Eric instructs me on how to water his plants properly with nutrients. I'm supposed to use the stopwatch to make sure that each and every plant gets two and a half minutes of feed. It's OK to go a little over, but just a little, because I'd be wasting hundreds of gallons of nutrients that Eric paid for.
As we drive to the dump, Eric is extolling the virtues of a gluten-free diet when he suddenly asks if I ever get thoughts in my head of killing people.
Later, when he comes back to check up on me, I tell him everything's going well, but that's a lie. In truth, I get a little lost in the garden because the plants all look the same. Or I forget to press the stopwatch, and I might have even watered a couple of plants twice or three times, but I couldn't tell because the heat instantly dried the soil. But I tell him that things are going great, how I got this.
Eric doesn't like to hire potheads or commune types. They're the last kinds of workers he wants. He can see them doing the math in their heads when they look at his crop. They'll think he's loaded and will want a piece of it.
“I don't get it," he says. “You go down to Walmart, and they have millions of dollars of inventory. They pay their employees shit and they're all happy! They don't look around and say, 'Hey, wait a minute here, they're making millions. I should be getting paid a hell of a lot more!' But these fuckers, these stoners and hippies, they come here, they see my shit, and they're like, 'Oh, I deserve more of this,' and it's like, 'Fuck you!' What they don't see are the years of fucking bullshit I had to go through to get here, all the thousands and thousands of dollars I have to spend! Do you know how much I spent on soil alone? I spent $70,000! For dirt! That's more than what most Americans make in a year! And I pay that! See all the bamboo sticks? How many do you think I have? Thousands. And guess what. Those are several dollars a pop."
And unlike Walmart, which has hundreds of employees per store, here it's mostly just him. He's in charge of opening up shop and making sure the lights are on, the employees are doing their jobs, and the plants are watered correctly. “I'm in charge of everything, all the way down to how many coffee filters I need to order. I'm in charge of all of it! Me!"
My first week is easy. Every night I pass out in the trailer and wake up at around 8 am. A breakfast of organic eggs, sausage, and Tater Tots is made, along with a pot of coffee. In the living room hangs a whiteboard with a list of tasks for the day. On some days, Eric writes messages commending employees for their hard work, or some motivational quote. Other days, he writes angry messages: “Don't fucking wake me up!!!" Over breakfast, Eric typically briefs Alicia and me on what needs to be done that day, and then we execute the orders. One morning before breakfast, I head into the garden. Which is where I notice something alarming about Eric.
He talks to himself.
I'll be working when I hear Eric's voice coming from somewhere. “Two thousand, 4,000, fuck . . . one, two, 55, 13, goddammit, and three dozen fucking 40 . . . I need 12 more, three of those and nine of . . . Shit! Shit! Shit! Fucking! Fuck!"
And then there's the murder talk.
“I swear to God I'll kill their whole fucking family!!! Each and every fucking one of them! Stab them, rip their fucking hearts out, and bury them!!!"
One morning, as we drive to the dump, Eric is extolling the virtues of a gluten-free diet when he suddenly asks if I ever get thoughts in my head of killing people.
“Um . . . no, not really."
A part of me wants to fuck with him and say, 'Well, yeah, but only when I'm wasted,' just to see where it'll go, but I tell him no. Never. Ever.
“Not even in Iraq?"
“Well, yeah, I did over there, but that's different. Nobody's trying to kill me here." He seems kind of shocked, maybe a little disappointed.
I ask Alicia about the murder talk, and she advises me to just tune him out. By the end of the week, I've got it down: Whenever he goes off on one of his tantrums, it becomes background noise.
Alicia has more Eric to tune out than I do. She's been on the farm since May and has a room in the house where Eric lives. They used to party together once in a while.
“He was a good guy," she says. “Nothing like how he is now. Back then I never saw him get upset."
Her goal is to keep Eric tuned out long enough to make it through the end of the harvest, so she can get paid and head to the mountains for the winter. She earns a weekly salary, like me, but once all the plants are cut down, she'll be paid to trim at $150 a pound. If she trims three pounds a day for a month, that's a lot of bread. And if she sticks it out, she and the other trimmers will get a fat bonus, so everyone walks away happy and willing to work the next harvest.
She likes the money and the winters off, but she also likes the illicit element: “If you think about it, what we're doing is kind of outlaw. We're not working conventional, boring, 9-to-5 jobs. There's still a stigma attached to this."
Alicia can't decide between working on another grow or going back to teaching. If she chooses teaching, she can't snowboard for months on end like she can now. If she works another harvest, she won't find a boyfriend, because she'll be out on some weed farm in the middle of nowhere seven months of the year.
I ask Alicia what her mother thinks of her doing this. “She doesn't," Alicia tells me. “She still thinks I'm a teacher."
That Saturday morning I call Nelson from the car.
“Yo!" I yell at him. “Your fucking boy, man, he's fucking cray-cray! Yeah, homie's fucking nuts! He's hearing shit, man! And he talks to himself all the fucking time! Talking about killing fools! Yeah, we're all out in the garden, and he's telling me he can hear people, how they're talking shit, and how he's going to fucking kill them!
“And check this out: I work for him all week, right? Bust my ass sunup till way past sundown, and he's supposed to pay me on Friday, right? Guess what he did. He tells me he can't, how the money is buried and he didn't have time to dig it up. . . . Yo, I needs to get paid! You don't see me telling him I'm too busy to water his fuckin' plants. . . . You sure this guy's not a cokehead? Yeah, I'm going to show up on Monday, fuck it. I need the money."
Nelson asks how Alicia's looking, and I can hear him wet his lips when I tell him she's looking good. Finally he asks what I'm up to. I say I've got my son and we're driving to the library to check out some books, then we're going to a movie.
“Where's he at now?"
“With me. He's in the backseat."
I see my son all wide-eyed in the rearview mirror. “I'm telling Mommy you said the F-word," he says.
When I show up to work that Monday, I'm handed a fat stack of $20s, all crisp and new. “Congratulations," Eric tells me. “You now make more than a college professor." I just got my master's degree in creative writing and have applied for every teaching position I could find, precisely so that I wouldn't have to do this kind of shit. They say that those who can't, teach, but what about those who can't even do that?
But it's Monday morning and it's good to be back at work. Things could be worse: I work outdoors and am less depressed than I've been in a while. Maybe it's because cell reception is spotty, so I can't see how great everybody else's lives are on social media. I pause on my way to the garden to savor the warmth of the sun on my skin.
That's when I hear the thrashing. It sounds a lot like somebody getting his ass beaten. Alicia is standing next to the water containers, unsure of what to do.
“I'm such a fucking idiot!" Eric screams. “I should have been fucking flipping kilos instead of growing this shit!" Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! He's clobbering himself full force in the face. I've seen my son throw temper tantrums when we pass McDonald's or the toy aisles at Walmart, but this guy is taking it to a whole other level.
This morning Eric discovered broad mites in a couple of the plants, and he could lose his “investment." I just stand there next to Alicia, drinking coffee and watching a grown man lose it. This goes on for a good 15 minutes, him screaming and cursing and, at one point, going full MMA on the water containers. After that, he resumes punching his own face. Then he notices a thornbush and does a banzai attack on that as well. Finally, he collapses to the ground, angry, bloody, and on the verge of tears. In a low voice, Alicia suggests we go to the garden and deleaf for a bit.
She tells me that she refuses to cry in front of Eric, no matter how batshit he goes. She just walks to the garden by herself and cries.
Not all grows are like this, she says. “They're usually fun, communal, everyone working together and just having fun. This grow isn't like that. Eric runs it way too much as a business."
To spray or not to spray? Poison your crop or risk losing your investment? That isn't even a question on this farm. Now that Eric has broad mites, it's full chemical warfare. Spray, baby, spray!
Eric doesn't tell us which chemicals he's using, but he's made no secret that they are highly toxic. He gives us disposable white coveralls, orange dishwashing gloves, the kind of safety goggles you wore in high school woodshop, and cheap spray-paint respirators that make you feel like a storm trooper. Eric just wears a Chewbacca costume he had for some reason.
“This is why I only buy organic," Alicia says. She's heard that some of the chemicals cause birth defects. Eric's pissed that his garden is no longer “organic," but what really pisses him off is the cost of spraying. Between the chemicals and labor, it's going to run an extra two grand or more a week.
We spray several times a week for six weeks, and the broad mites finally go away, but the spraying stunts the plants' growth. The buds are now golfball-size when they should be football-size. But at least Eric doesn't lose the entire crop, and he's stopped talking about murdering all the time. He seems numb, distant. I ask Alicia what's up, and she tells me she bought some Xanax, which she's been feeding Eric steadily.
I tell her she is a goddamn genius.
It's mid-October, a month till harvest, and our office attire goes from shorts and optional T-shirt to flannels, hoodies, and beanies. One afternoon we spot ominous clouds gathering to the west. The weather service confirms the worst: an early season storm, “fueled in part by a typhoon . . . with heavy rain and gusts up to 70 miles per hour." Eric smokes and paces constantly. He has to make a decision: cut his inventory down, which is a bit premature, or keep it up and risk losing it all to the storm. “Fuck it," he says, flicking his smoke. “We're taking them down." Rain can bring mold, which could destroy everything.
We're understaffed and the storm is moving fast. We have a crazy amount of weed to take down, hundreds of huge plants, and less than 48 hours to do it. Every plant needs to come down and be hung to dry in the indoor shelters.
Eric, Alicia, and I start working at 8 am, cutting and hanging and cutting and hanging. At midnight Alicia finally passes out, and at 5 am it's just Eric and me hanging weed on strings. Eric keeps asking me the same question over and over again: “Can you keep on going?"
And every time I tell him yes.
By sunrise we're so spent that we're wobbling and struggling to see straight, periodically losing it and falling to the ground. I hear Eric try to formulate a sentence. “I know you've heard this a hundred times, and it probably means nothing to you by now, but I just want to tell you thank you. Thank you for doing this for me."
The next day we're all still functioning, though I haven't been this sleep-deprived since Iraq. Eric and I run around, chopping down plants, hanging them to dry, labeling by strain, and building greenhouses to hang the weed in. Meanwhile a half-dozen trimmers are trimming away inside the house.
At 6 o'clock that night, Eric still hasn't slept, so he goes down, telling us he'll wake up in two hours to keep working. He tells us not to do a damn thing without him.
The storm is set to hit around 2 am, and soon we're all sitting around in the living room, fiddling with our cell phones and listening to Eric sleep through his alarm. By now it's 9:30, and we need to wake him already. That would be like waking up a tiger — a stressed-out, sleep-deprived tiger who's prone to episodes of rage and paranoia. I've seen him yell at Alicia for waking him up, even when he specifically asked her to. But the storm is a few hours away and Eric is still dead to the world.
Alicia's pacing; fretting about what to do. She walks over to the fridge, grabs one of my beers, and cracks it open. “We're going to go ahead and cut down all the plants without Eric."
I usually keep my mouth shut and do as I'm told, like I've been trained to do. But if we fuck this up and don't properly cut down and hang the last of the weed? Then all the blame will be on Alicia, and who knows what might happen.
“Are you sure?" I ask her.
“Fuck it," she says. “I don't care if I get yelled at anymore. We're doing it."
I think I now have a crush on Alicia. She's more squared away, more reliable, than just about anyone I served with in Iraq. The two of us go out, cut down the last of the plants, wheelbarrow them over to a greenhouse, cut the stems, and start hanging them there, the garage, anywhere we can find space. We know Eric's system and make sure everything is organized to a T.
We're in the garage, hanging weed and talking — mostly about whether Eric will kill us — when the storm hits, and it's hellish. At around 4 am, Eric finally wakes up and wanders into the garage, where we're hanging the very last of his crop. He inspects it, glowing like a child on Christmas morning.
Eric puts his hand up to high-five me. “Good job," he says. But I don't high-five him back. I just point to Alicia and tell him she's the one to high-five, that I had nothing to do with this. The next morning Eric's written a message on the board in the kitchen. It reads, “Good job, Alicia! You're a hero!"
The night before the election, I can't sleep. I stay up thinking the world will change, but I don't know how. The next morning I wake to a frantic knock on my bedroom door.
I can tell just by looking at him that something's not right, that whatever deal he had in mind didn't go down the way he wanted.
He says he's been crunching the numbers, and with trimming costs coming in around $60,000, there's no way he's going to make enough on this harvest to ski in Japan or hang out in Puerto Rico. He needs to get trimming costs down to $12,000, an unrealistic sum considering how much there is to trim. So he's meeting with a guy who will take the buds untrimmed. It means all the trimmers will get fired. All of them.
“But what about Alicia?"
“Fuck her," he says.
I go back to the house, where the trimmers are working and watching football highlights on ESPN. I pour myself some coffee and change the channel to MSNBC.
One of the trimmers looks up and asks, “Is today the election?"
“Wow," I think. “Maybe the rich guy does have a chance."
While the news anchors talk about the presidential race, the topic being discussed in the living room I am in is Proposition 64, the legalization of recreational marijuana. Nearly everyone who works in the weed business plans to vote against it. When I step outside to find Eric, he's on the phone trying to track down his polling place. Eric asks the trimmers if they want to vote. They all say no.
“I don't get it. Their livelihoods are on the line here and they don't fuckin' vote?"
It's no secret that Prop 64 is going to pass and big business is going to step in, but Eric might keep growing weed anyway. He's not so sure the big boys will be able to produce the high-quality weed that he grows. It'll be like craft beer or fine wine. Californians will always pay extra for better product, and there might be a market for him to tap into. He asks me if I would be part of his crew for that.
“Maybe," I tell him.
On the drive back from voting, Eric explains just how fucked he is. None of his various plans — like the one to sell his entire crop untrimmed or the one in which a trimming machine does the work of a dozen trimmers — are panning out. He says he's going to go around to all the Mexican restaurants to find people who want to trim for him for $15 an hour. This is the only way he sees making a profit this harvest.
Later that night there's the usual smell of weed smoke in the air in the living room, along with a chant from the TV set. “U-S-A.
U-S-A. U-S-A . . ." Every jaw in the room drops. The trimmers stop trimming. One of them speaks.
Another adds, “What. The. Fuck."
For several days after the election, I am stunned and confused. I'm not stoned, but I am paranoid that everyone else is. Prop 64 passes with 57 percent. Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and California all vote to legalize recreational marijuana.
I spend the weekend before my last week of work with my son. On the drive back to the farm I listen to public radio, a news story about a crime at a marijuana farm in Mendocino County. In the middle of the night, a bunch of trimmers got together and allegedly murdered the grower they worked for and then stole a hundred pounds of weed.
And they say weed doesn't kill.
Alicia is gone when I get to the farm, and thank God, because Eric is ranting and raging again. From what I can piece together, the two got into an argument, so she booked a last-minute hair appointment in the city, for what most jobs call a mental-health day.
The weed hanging in the shelters needs to come down, so Eric and I get to work. He asks me where the labels are that indicate what strain is what. I point to the labels attached to each string. “Alicia labeled them all," I tell him, but he's not really listening. He just starts punching the ground. “This is why I have to do goddamn every fucking thing myself! Because motherfuckers can't!"
I pop half a Xanax and try to tune him out.
Then he really gets into it.
“O.G. Kush sells for $2,300 a pound; Girl Scout Cookies, $1,400. Thanks to Alicia, who fucked it all up, now they're all mixed up, and God fucking damn it!"
He tries to pick up a lawn mower — the kind you ride on — to toss it, but he fails and goes back to cussing and yelling. He thinks that a bunch of the weed is mislabeled and the two strains are mixed together. According to his calculations, he will lose $9,000 because Alicia didn't wake him up that night.
I'm trying to be a good soldier here, to keep my head down and stick to the task at hand, but I decide to speak up. “Look, she tried to wake you up and you wouldn't. A storm was on its way — if Alicia had done nothing, you would have lost all those plants to the storm and . . ."
And I can tell by the way his face is turning bright red and how his head is cocked that he wants to kill me, so I just tune him out again. I'm uncomfortable, but I'm not intimidated. I am on Xanax. And since I'm kind of on a roll, I add, “Honestly I don't know how she puts up with this. Most wouldn't have ."
I'm curious to see if he'll throw a punch, but he backs down again.
He sends Alicia a text message saying, “Good job hanging up the last of the weed. Why don't you take another day off." Alicia responds with a “Thank you!" and a smiley face. Eric slams his phone on the ground and storms into the house. I go back to work while Eric thrashes around the house, a brontosaurus uncaged, beating on the locked metal door to Alicia's bedroom.
It's Friday. My last day at the farm. It's also payday, but Eric has to sell some weed before we can get paid. Alicia comes over, and she's in tears. I've never seen her cry before.
“I told him I quit."
“Yeah, fuck this. There's no way. You're leaving tonight to go be with your son, none of the other trimmers are going to be here, and I don't trust being here all by myself with that psycho. After what he did to my door? That's just totally uncool."
I work up the nerve to tell Alicia I'm completely over it, that I'm leaving as soon as I get my two weeks' pay. I feel bad because I know she's owed a lot more and probably won't get a penny of it. The two of them had some kind of agreement that she'd get thousands at the end of the harvest, and I would bet big money that he picked a fight with her so she'd quit sooner and not collect.
“Do you think he'd kill me?" she asks.
“No," I finally tell her. “But if the cops ever knock on my door, I'll be like, 'Yeah, he killed her.' "
We both know that if we're going to get paid, I will be paid first. We agree that if I don't hear from her within an hour after I leave, I'll call the police.
Eric doesn't get back till midnight. He walks in the front door calmly, as if everything is cool, which means he is fucking livid. He pays me for the week and throws in an extra hundred as a bonus. I ask if this amount is for both this week and last, because I wasn't paid last week. He tells me that he did pay. I assure him that he didn't.
I follow him to his bedroom. I have no idea where he keeps his pistol, but there's a rifle by the side of the bed and some swords on the dresser. He flips through his receipt book to prove me wrong but can't find the information. He gives up and says, “Fuck it." I can see he's starting to snap.
He shoves the money at me. “Just take it."
I want to make eye contact with Alicia, who's in the living room — to say goodbye, to make sure she's all right, to get some sense that she can handle this — but Eric positions himself so I can't, standing inches from me as we walk past the living room.
All I can do is catch a glimpse of Alicia from the corner of my eye as she works up the nerve to confront him next, to get what she's owed and get the hell out.
He walks me to my car so that I can finally leave this place, and the whole time he cusses his usual rant, that all he does is pay people and nobody ever pays him. He pulls his pants pockets inside out to illustrate the point. “At the end of the day," he says, “it's me who always gets fucked."
When Eric reaches the main gate to unlock it, I put the car in park. My window is down, and I want to tell him something. Maybe tell him to relax, take a break, maybe try and think of something else. But I don't. All I can say is how I don't want it to end like this, and I put out my hand for him to shake. He does. He might even be saying “sorry," I'm not sure. All I can think about is Alicia and whether she'll be OK.
Once I'm off his property, I look in my rearview and watch him, under the night sky, close and lock the steel gate, turn around, and slowly walk back to the house with his head down.
From there I leave and never look back.
In the end Alicia did get ripped off, but she's moved on. She still checks on me every now and then to see how I'm doing and to let me know of trim camps in Humboldt, where I can work if I'm interested. She asks how my Thanksgiving went, and I tell her it was great, I spent it with my son. Couldn't wish for anything more. I ask about hers and she tells me she worked a couple of days at a camp where they paid their trimmers $200 a pound and brought in dozens of lobsters and bottles of expensive tequila for everyone.
“It was just fun, and everyone had a good time."
The way it's supposed to be.
Colby Buzzell is the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq.