Intro The most recent national poll, this one by Angus Reid, to find that Canadian provinces no longer have much in common can surprise no one. Growing up in Western Canada, you hear bile directed towards Quebec and Ontario from all the responsible adults in your life pretty much from the time you start walking. Even still, I did not expect the intensity, the openness of anti-Albertanism, which I encountered upon moving to the Okanagan. Nor did I expect to feel such sentiments myself--I lived a good 12 years of my life in Calgary, and that city always treated me well; but in the summertime, holy man, there's a kind of Albertan so thoughtless I keep hoping the ghost of Peter Lougheed will intervene, rain down some righteous wild rose wrath upon his wayward descendants.
This short story, which I wrote in 2016, I don't recall flogging much at all. The editors of one journal thought the voice of the narrator and supporting cast wonderful; they found them impressively Canadian. Just before writing this I had published another first-person narrator, like this one, only in a Texan voice. I grew up around that accent way more than I did a Canadian one. I wrote this story mostly to see if I could write Western-Canadian. I can't talk it. My accent is permanently muddled and it sounds like I'm imitating people whenever I try to talk Canadian. So, I was super happy with that feedback.
Regrettably, it turns out I spent too much time thinking about the voice, and not enough time on anything else. The action, the editors felt, was very slow to arrive, so too any meaningful character development and so on. I'm sure they're right. But I didn't ever do a re-write. Anyway, yeah, confederation is fractured as fuck. I can't see this country lasting another 150 years, not the way we're headed.
A piss-off, for sure, but whatever, if you want to be honest; I'd been there for only three years and it's not like I have any kids, don't even have a mortgage, not like a lot of the others, but, from the other perspective, holy fuck: I mean, man, did it hit them hard? What do you think, did it hit them hard? You take a village like Lavington – population no one really knows, on account of it's not even incorporated – and one day there's a glass plant employing 300 men and women full time, and the next day there's a plant surrounded by an eight-feet high fence, with barbed wire at the top, employing one security guard in a hut. How do you think that's going to play out?
Consumers Glass had been the only game in Lavington since 1969, and when Owens-Illinois Inc. pulled out, they pulled out like pussies. "'This closing was driven by our ongoing global asset utilization process which identified the opportunity to shift our production to other O-I North American facilities, resulting in lower energy consumption and production costs while still meeting current and anticipated market needs,' said Scott Murchison, president of the 24,000-employee company's North America glass container division."
That's the piss-off sentence, right there, the words still caught in the throats of entire communities, each one of which it helped make a little smaller. The Coldstream News, the Lumby Valley Times, the Vernon Morning Star, the Cherryville Cherryvillian; even Kelowna's Daily Courier ran the story, all with that bullshit doublespeak forked-tongue sentence running unchallenged, and, for an afternoon, the swells in the big town with the mall remembered about the little folk up north, all of us they're trying to erase (my God have you ever seen such a city of wannabes before?). I personally saw six grown men punch that same section of the same newspaper when they read it, and sure, everyone knows you can't punch air, but what else were we supposed to do? The O-I electronic machine, the one that made all those glass bottles people drink their pops out of, was a wonder to behold. You could get sick of it, sure, but the Owens machine, was one of the most significant inventions, when it comes to glass and bottles anyway, in 2,000 years. Fully automated, pretty much fool-proof and able to operate continuously, it came from an era that, I don't know if you've been paying attention, but days like that are gone, pretty much well and truly done for, and it's not like when I turn on the TV and sit myself down for another four back-to-backs of Storage Wars and rye, it's not like I see a whole lot of hope shooting down the pipe. I mean, there was nothing wrong with the machine. There wasn't some better model out there; it wasn't about to fall apart. We kept our Owens humming, that was our baby, and now it sits there rusting, the victim of someone's "ongoing global asset utilization process"; like, you have to expect the suit who wrote that beauty got a raise: it's got to take advanced degrees to learn to lie like that.
Lavington had no city hall to sack. Coldstream, which didn't lift one small finger to save us – pretty much just bent its family-values ass over and let Owens-Illinois ream them, not just with a bottle, but with an entire bottle machine – just seemed too piss-ant to get really angry with. I mean, it's like we all said, you're phoning up O-I headquarters in Perrysburg, Ohio and you're putting on your best big-boy-pants voice: "Yes, this is the Mayor of Coldstream..." and you're getting, what? at best stunned silence, then placed on hold while someone on the other end has a good laugh; no, O-I destroys towns twice the size of Coldstream couple times a day just for practice; if they've got a slogan I bet it's, "free trade: how do you like it now?"
And that was the problem right there. Three hundred union boys and girls, a lot of them, even most of them, as rough as you like (We had three employees suit up for the Lumby Fighting Saints of the now defunct WHA Junior Hockey League – "now defunct": if Lavington ever needs a new slogan...); and all of them were in line to throw fists of rage at Scott Murchison; but who the fuck was Scott Murchison? We'd never seen him. And, as far as I know, not one of us had ever been to Ohio except Gareth, (spitting image of Geezer Butler) who flew down to Cleveland in 2006, to see Sabbath get inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, although Skynyrd, he said, rocked the hardest on the night – fucking Ozzy; guy gets his own TV show and turns into Brett Michaels, sacks of shit, both of them.
But, even with Gareth as our guide – how the fuck were 300 unemployed glass factory workers from the Monashees going to find our way down to fucking Perrysburg? Even if we got there, then what? Couple of us get thrown in jail by burly security guards? The local news makes us look like a bunch of hick lumberjacks, while some slick in a Hickey Freeman suit, backgrounded by mahogany, gets loved by the camera as he reminds viewers how fair O-I is with all its employees – "Jill, I'm sure I don't need to remind your viewers that O-I prides itself on its excellent track record..." –how generous our severance packages, how serious the company remains about helping each and every one of us retrain. We're factory workers, ok? We're not morons: it's not like we don't know that in every single labour struggle, every single local news affiliate, all across this crooked continent, will side with the bosses. They pretty much have to: just a few corporate divisions removed is all.
I wish I could tell you how we all pitched in and rented a yellow school bus, and picked up momentum and sympathy along the way, but this isn't Disney, is it? I can't even tell you how one of the fucking 20-odd NHLers, or Elton John, who have built McMansions between Lumby and Armstrong, read about our plight, and felt something (the memory of their hardworking, chain-smoking Dad waking up at three just to give his boys a shot at the big leagues, before starting their 12-hour shift down some hardscrabble canning factory, although I suppose this scenario may apply less so, just as a guess, to Elton John) and created a fund to help us out. Too bad, so sad – life isn't some fucking Tim Horton's commercial (could anyone's face, medically, really stand up to so much smiling?). No, what happened is what always happens. The poor started drinking too much. Without work in common a lot of us starting remembering we didn't actually like each other, couldn't stand the sight of one another when it came right down to it; and, sure enough, all that energy, all that futile rage turned inwards and dammit if we didn't end most nights whaling the tar out of each other in the parking lot of Lumby's Blue Ox pub, which is where most of us did most of our serious drinking. "I never liked you, Ed!" "Fuck you, you lazy fuck!" "Wasn't for your Dad, you'd a got fired ten years ago, Richie." "Oh, yeah? At least I don't have to use a mirror to see my Johnson. You couldn't find your own dinky with GPS, Freddie, I mean, you need Jenny Craig, my friend – you are literally a tub of lard, no shit, I want to use you to bake cookies." "Ask your wife where she's been every Tuesday night for the past two years – oh she was curling all right, curling up in my arms yelling, 'Hurry! Hurry hard!' 'till she was blue – or was it white? -- in the face."
I guess if that's all it had been, we'd have got past it. That kind of steam runs out eventually. Which is kind of sad. Factory gets shut down, basically destroying the economy of three towns been going at it for a hundred years, and that's just par for the course, no one even cares. No, it takes a lot more than that to get people's attention nowadays, and I'm not saying Morgan Guenterson did right, and I'm not sitting here making excuses for him, I'm just providing a little bit of the context I didn't see anywhere – not a bit of it – after he got caught, him and the two brothers.
Lumby, first of all, is a gem. It's just that most of us, who have been here for a few years, sometimes forget to look up, at that mountain, black, like a shard of an ancient God's goblet, in whose shadow we go about our daily business. Or what's left of our daily business; because it takes money to get out to those lakes for fishing, and these days there's a lot of men standing around town gasping, but it's not because the air is so pure, the view towards Cherryville like living in an adventure map; it's because our pockets are so empty that even when we cut down all the trees that provide all the oohs and ahs to the tourists – who, mostly don't bother with Lumby anyway; it doesn't matter what we try, most people want to eat salmon, they don't really want to look at the streams they come out of – it's still not enough to make what most of us would consider a living. Lumbnuts, you hear it called that. Lumbo. Bumby. When people around here say where they're from they don't wait for some fake 'n' bake from Ktown to reply; in the same breath they say, "I know, I know, but's it not so bad, really, it's not. We've got a great bakery."
I got interviewed as much as anyone else, but it's like I told them, if you're going to arrest everyone in B .C. doesn't look too fondly on Albertans, you're going to need to build a whole new handcuff factory – beg Vic Toews for a good half dozen new superMax prisons, although that doesn't seem all that hard, the boy seems eager – and then hire a whole new rack of police, and prison guards, because I know some R.C.M.P. – I still drink regularly at the Blue Ox with the officer who interviewed me, guy is pure quality – and, if there's one thing more irritating than the congested summer highways, the completely insane fucking Wildrose-plate-driving-with-MadMax-abandon-four-months-out-of-every-year, it's having to earn your living handing out tickets to rich fucks from the Okotoks who don't care, who seem to wear the ticket with pride. I shit you not: I sympathize withevery law enforcement official ever has worked, ever will work, in B.C. on this one, and believe you me, they think the same as you and me, only a little bit more so.
Like a lot of us out here, I put my time in up in Fort McMoney, and after that I even tried to make a go of it in Calgary. The truth is I came to Lumby off the profit I made selling my townhouse in Capitol Hill, but I moved to that province for one reason and one reason only, and after I'd made some dough – not the pile I'd been hoping for, but I couldn't have stood it there, not for another six months – I wasn't picky. I was born in Vancouver, but I'd have taken a job in Prince George, I was applying for government jobs in Esquimalt, came close to going in on a tour-boat operation out of New Denver; I did not give a fuck, just get me out of this place, and, no, I can't say I ever remember hearing of Lumby before I landed here, but I loved it straight away. Every morning I look at that black, craggy mountain and then I think of that cesspool of Hell in Fort McMurray, and then I'm grateful, and I'm furious. Every morning: grateful and furious.
Seriously, thirty days after Consumers shut down, about half the laid-off workers had shoved off for Alberta. We bid them farewell from the Blue Ox, but after the ninth, the tenth bon voyage party, the grumbling started and, according to some, it was me what fanned the flames. All I said was – I have nothing to hide here – why should we have to leave our families, our homes, to go there, when they come here, loaded down with their own families – R.V.s, every one of which could fit half the population of Lavington? They show no concern for the small communities through which they scream like their brakes are broken, and are seemingly so horny to spend money, it's like they get ribbed when they get back to Wildrose country they haven't got one, two, half dozen tickets while they're here. They're giving us money to go there; they're giving us money when they come here – why not take a whack more of it here than there, save ourselves the grief? It'll all even out in the end, won't it?
Listen, we were a gang of unemployed workers in a small town, population less than 2,000: my idea was no crazier than the ideas popped up all around it, and you're giving it too much glory even calling it an idea. Like I said, I drink some rye, and, if you're buying, I wasn't raised to turn away any sort of hospitality; I was just taking my turn in a conversation, that's all it was. The Blue Ox is a regular Canucks central and, it's like I told everyone who asked, so I cheer for the home team, so what – you telling me you don't? Morgan was smart. Didn't say a word sitting there at the table. Sure, he was a quiet guy, but that wasn't anything unusual: the repetitive nature of Consumers was ideally suited for dreamers, guys who didn't start losing their marbles performing the same motion over and over again, but who liked having all that free mental space to think about the big questions. Honestly, before the pub, I had no opinion one way or the other about Morgan: I don't think he kept to himself more than most of us do; I mean, we live in the mountains, the real mountains, and, up here, it's the odd man not bent somewhat towards the recluse. But Morgan? Buddy could take care of himself; if you tried to take the piss he was quick, the comeback was always there, and so, after awhile, he won his space. Guy was always there for a round or two on a Friday, he just wasn't one to linger.
The bank foreclosed on Morgan's home, but the town was full up with foreclosures after Consumers. Sure, it might be nice to have some company when your life is spiralling out of control, but it seems to me each of those poor bastards got a whole lot less sympathy than they might have otherwise – if each family's disaster had happened on its own. There's only so much a town so small has to share, and it's not like we didn't care – we did, I did – but what were we supposed to do? The real estate market was already in the tank, and I don't care who you've got down there at the Chamber of Commerce, no one is that good; how you going to go about getting a whole bunch of new blood into a town bled so dry that, after a few months of watching families pick up and leave, there weren't even any tears left to cry? It got so bad, grown men, who had had serious seniority, were taking fast food jobs in Vernon. If he'd picked better confederates, who knows? He might still be going strong. But Hans and Jens, what can you say that's nicer than fuckwads? Nothing honestly, that's for sure. They were trouble, and I get that that's what drew Morgan to them in the first place, but guys like that, they're wrenches waiting for works to get into and I guess that's the one thing loners sometimes get wrong. Having no use for people themselves, they lose the faculties necessary to make basic social judgements.
Hans and Jens were brothers, a year apart. They'd worked with us at Consumers for a year or two, but neither one of them could have been more than three, four years out of high school, and if we hadn't all got laid off, they'd of got themselves fired in a few months, that's a guarantee. They were lazy, they were loud, they had no lives and neither one of them had been further than Kelowna and then only to get themselves laid at the Garden of Eden. That's the class I'm talking about: ignorant, prostitute-visiting loudmouths. If it wasn't for their dad, who'd retired before the closure, and had been a Consumers lifer, no chance they'd ever have been hired. They were punks, pure and simple, and that's why I knew straightaway when, out of the blue, they show up at The Blue Ox and start splashing the cash. "Get the prime rib," Jens says to Freddie, "It's on me." "You want another?" Hans says to me at the bar, "I'm buying." They said they'd been working up north, but I've worked up north and I know what happens to guys like them, guys who can't put in a decent day's work, and besides, both of them were runts. If you've got heart, you can rig pig as a small man, but not when you're a shiftless small man keeps looking for shortcuts you can't.
I kept my eye on them for a while, and I kept the other one in the newspaper on account I needed to catch on somewhere soon enough myself. The classifieds told me nothing I didn't already know. Unless you knew someone at Tolko, or had a trade, things were so dire that all of the worst tragedies in the world seemed to me, by comparison, cheerful news. As I was reading in my MorningStar about a rash of local armed robberies – all victims the same: RVing tourists – I said out loud over my pint "Holy shit" because I knew, as clear as if I'd known it all along, that Hans and Jens were involved. And also, that I was involved. Because what I was reading was simply the perfect execution of an idea I don't want to claim, but I have to claim if I'm being honest: I'm not bragging, I'm just owning up the way a man ought to.
It was pretty simple. First thing I said was, if there's one thing Consumers Glass has shown us is that no one thinks of Lumby or Lavington. Keep it that way, I said: don't do anything you're going to do anywhere near here, and no one will ever think to look. The second thing I said is that you hit them on their way into the Okanagan – before Kelowna, which is where they all aim to spend most of their money – not on their way out. One thing you know is that any family can afford an RV, and is just starting a vacation, is coming here loaded for bear. Third thing: rob only RVs with Alberta plates. Best way to make sure you get a half-assed investigation in this province is to victimize citizens of the other province, the one which has been victimizing all of us with their oil and their arrogance and their money for the past fifty years. Count on it, I said: even the most honest R.C.M.P. there is, is going to feel a little schadenfreude (and I'm not sure where I picked that word up, but the truth is half the guys I worked with at Consumers got raised by some German parent or grandparents, and the only grumbling was at my pronunciation – apparently, I murdered the word). That's as far as I took it. Just some guy flapping his jaw from a bar stool.
The paper carried a statement by the R.C.M.P. asking the public for tips identifying three men. It said they laid in wait at popular rest stops and tourist attractions between Sicamous and Armstrong. When the driver, or one of the passengers, opened a door to leave the vehicle, one, or more, of them (presumably Jens and Hans; clearly they'd been brought on as muscle) jumped in, pulling whoever was trying to leave back inside with them. The paper said there'd been three robberies so far, which they were also considering as assaults on account of, it said, the men brandished knives and also uttered death threats.
Once inside, they took money and valuables, confiscated cellphones, and then did a little all-purpose ransacking. I guess they figured, though, that people don't travel with a whole lot of ready cash these days. That's where the third man came in – the man we now know was Morgan.
So Morgan, who scrubs up a whole lot better than these other two ass-clowns, comes over and gets the credit and debit cards of everyone in the vehicle, which Jens and Hans have collected. They've got the passwords too, and, according to the article, they weren't afraid to rough up whichever Albertan needed a little extra encouragement. Hans and Jens stay in the RV watching to make sure nobody does anything stupid – and yes, I agree, you could argue that, mostly, this means they should have been watching themselves five minutes ago – while Morgan finds the nearest ATM and starts taking out as many Daily Limits as he can without raising suspicion. The police have video footage, but mostly it's all hoodie and beard – in other words, the way 9 out of 10 men around here look at all times. There's even a police artist's rendering of who I guess is supposed to be Jens and Hans, but terrified Albertans don't seem to pay a lot of attention to detail, because it wasn't even close. Still, how would I describe them? I don't even know. I can't think of anything distinctive about either one of their dull and mean faces. And I know them. And I'm trying.
I sat at the Blue Ox until closing, just waiting for them to come in so I could confront them, but they didn't, not that day and not the next. I wish they would have because I've got a knack of talking sense into some people, and if I'd had a chance then I believe I could have prevented what happened next.
In an event outside a fish 'n' chip shop in Enderby, two of the thieves (had to be Jens and Hans) had, it was alleged, interfered, at knife point, with a 16-year-old girl, in the back of an RV. When I read that, I slammed my pint down on the bar and got Freddie and the boys together – there was only about four, five of us left by then – and started sharing my theories, asking who'd seen who, and saying shouldn't we maybe turn this over to the police.
As it turns out, I didn't have to. The police matched DNA from Jens to an earlier assault against a sex worker from the Garden of Eden. Nothing could have surprised me less. Next thing you know, Jens and Hans Ponczek have their names and faces all over the national news and so did Lumby, and, to a man, we were all like: "Yes! That is exactly what this town needs right now!" Poor old Lumby: already staggering – perfect time to take a swift kick to the nuts.
Guys like that are always tough, until it's time to squeal. The police showed up at my house asking me just how much I was in on this – Jens and Hans had said all the way – and I just laughed, and said "search me." Which they did.
They went over my place for days, and kept me in custody while they figured out if I knew where Morgan Guenterson was. I told them the truth: I didn't know. They asked me if I'd tell them if I did know. I told them the truth: I didn't know.
Morgan remained at large.
I got used to seeing his face on the TV, but I never got used to how quickly everyone in Toronto and Vancouver turned him into a monster. The hard-on these broadcasters had for lurid crime – where were they when Consumers shut down? Where was anybody? It came to seem to me that what the news did was worse than what Morgan did, because what Jens and Hans did was evil, but how is making money getting giddy over a sex crime noble and just? Just once I'd like to see these blowdried desk jockeys, these terrible blondes in pant suits, lose all their money, all their hope of getting money, and all their hope generally. And then still have 40-odd years to live. I don't even know if I'd want to see it: knowing it was happening, that would probably do the trick.
After two days of it, I was done. I got so angry at my TV, I couldn't stay home and I couldn't drink at the Blue Ox. The news was always on; and everyone in town, it was all they could talk about. I got in my truck and I just started to drive.
I didn't know it at first, but I guess I was looking for Morgan. I spent a lot of time wondering what I'd do if it'd been me. Which, you know, except for the grace of God, and the nest egg I'd made in Alberta...
It's lonely around Lumby. Seems like there's more cabins and farmhouses, dilapidated from 100 years ago, than new construction. More faded brown boards than paint. The stupidest place for Morgan to be was back in Lumby. But the more I thought about it, the more I figured that that's the way the police would figure it too. And Morgan was smart, like I've said, and if I was betting on a public, frenzied by the bloodlust of talking heads on TV, or Morgan, I knew that Morgan was the boy could outfox them all.
There was a police cruiser kept driving past Morgan's old house. But that seemed to be their only idea. At night, I started scouring the country towards Cherryville, taking the roads I knew, old trails that went to places no one had lived for a century. Weird to think about people out here with no electricity, no engines: not much of a picnic I'd venture. I'd get myself in the mood – just sit there in the cabin of my truck, nothing running except the night. You could hear the cows lowing; the wind through the trees, the crickets – sometimes a coyote would stir up a dog or two. It was the tenth night of this, and I was sitting at the end of an overgrown gravel road underneath a thicket. It was starry out, but the stars wanted nothing to do with the place I was in.
The light came on about 30 yards in front of me, and it flashed up and down an old, wooden wall. I saw enough, caught the silhouette of a man inside a derelict, wooden bungalow. Sure, anyone could be there exploring, except why would you want to? The past has nothing to say to us, as far as I can tell, except: see you soon, suckers. My window was open and the night was calm. My voice carried, no problem: "Morgan? That you, Morgan?"
The silence that engulfed my voice was thicker than darkness.
And then: "Dave?"
The flashlight came back on, and as I heard a door open and close, I saw the light play along the brush that separated us. "What the hell you doing out here, Dave?"
"You didn't order Chinese?" I said.
"I could eat a horse," Morgan said.
I told him that was racist.
He'd done alright: water from a creek, but he hadn't eaten much and his clothes were loose on his body. We had a big old hug and, I'm sorry, but my nose got right up in it: a powerful pioneer outhouse stench all over him.
"I had nothing to do with what happened to that girl," he said.
"You think I don't know that?" I said.
I turned him in myself that night. The truth is he was relieved.
The trial was a gong show; but the name "Mastermind Morgan" stuck, and I have to think, even in prison, he came to appreciate the infamy that came from being known as the man who robbed Albertans. I got so used to saying on camera, and under oath, that Morgan never said a word to me about where he'd stashed the money that after a while I came to believe it myself.