Saturday, February 25, 2017

Lawyers and Poison Ivy

It was the sweat. The sweat did it. The sweat I couldn't touch with my hands. Little, black midges buzzed in my eyes and ears. The itchy drops rolled down my forehead and hung off my eyebrow. Even with a lot of head shaking, some of them splash onto your eyelid and cheek. So you lift your arm to wipe and scratch with your sleeve. You've forgotten that the poison ivy roots are longer than the rubber gloves, reaching past your elbows, under your arms. You try to gather the handfuls together while following the next root to pull it out of the sandy earth. The trick is to get them as long as possible. The more they break off, the more you have to go back. They break off where another root grows over top of them a few inches under the surface. That top root is bigger than the one you've got, so you mark the spot to save searching for it later or forgetting about it. Meanwhile, you are pulling up this root and its runners. The pain in your back, shoulders and legs increases as you search for the runners which wrap themselves around each other and the roots of other plants. Your itchy eyelid touches your sleeve which has absorbed some of the oil from the roots. You get poison ivy in the eye. The new lot, on the outskirts of the city, is cut out of the forest near the river. The builder bought a lot and built a bungalow on a gravel road. Our neighbours say this lot used to be like a bird sanctuary. A hillside of oak trees, poison ivy and wildflowers where no white man has ever lived. Sand and a few weeds surround the foundation and cover the surface of the front yard where the septic system is buried and the back yard over the well. Around the perimeter of the lot there is poison ivy, three small evergreens, a few poplars and thirty or forty oak trees. Not big old massive oaks but big enough. Forty to fifty feet. I waded into the poison ivy in shorts and sandals, thinking I was immune to it because I was when I was a kid. It turns out, according to the medical books, that you lose your immunity as you grow older. I got it all over my wrists and forearms and legs. I received enough money in an inheritance for a down payment on a mortgage which my wife qualified for because of her job. We had enough for new appliances, furniture and a wood stove to heat the place after we got rid of the agent. The real estate game was a new experience since neither of us had owned a home before. We moved from a two bedroom fifth floor apartment highrise to this ex bird sanctuary after visiting almost every bedroom community outside the city. The agent was a mutual friend, not a close friend, but someone we trusted by default. There was no reason not to. A few weeks into our search with the agent, I read a library book on inspecting your own home. My wife and I argued over our obligations to the agent. Finally, I confronted him on the phone. I was outraged that we had been cutting ourselves off from investigating private deals ("no agents") because we felt guilty about him. His patter remained pretty well the same in each house we visited. The home inspection book detailed everything from the foundation to the chimney which one should inspect and test carefully in estimating the real costs of buying a property. You deduct the cost of repairs or upgrades from the price. In the real estate system, such things as meetings between the buyers and sellers were discouraged. Two hour home inspections, crawling around the house with flashlight, measuring tape and tools were unheard of. There was no legal obligation by the agent to guarantee the quality of the property, nothing in writing which obligated us to use him. We later found out that an agent can only be held responsible for faults in your house if you can prove they had intentionally hidden them from you. The agent pockets a good amount of your money which could be spent on furniture or appliances, but in a year or two, if you run into huge expenses because of a problem with your property, he can drive away in his company car with your money in his pocket. He’s free of all responsibility. If you've taken the precaution of paying a few hundred dollars for a home inspection, that is all you have to fall back on. And we're feeling guilty about him. He didn't say "take it or leave it", but I could tell that's what he was thinking. When we happened onto the property we bought, we were alone. We realized that we could save $7,000 in agents’ fees, so we didn't hesitate. We called a lawyer, took possession and moved in within two months. Dealing with the agent while the O.J. Simpson trial was on CNN daily should have prepared me for the lawyer and the legal system. In one of the endless, microscopic, depressing Larry King explorations of the American legal system some expert said a rule of thumb for lawyers is "Never represent yourself". I did just that. I heard about a procedure in law which enables a private citizen to question a lawyer’s bill and request to have it lowered by the court for fifty bucks. It exists, but the public doesn't know about it. They don't advertise it, the lawyers and judges who are former lawyers. They have created a system which is like the real estate system. We can avoid the real estate system and poison ivy, but we can't avoid the legal system. This lawyer became our lawyer by default. My mom's legal affairs had been taken care of by a family friend who used to have his chicken track essays typed for him by my sister. I played football with him in high school. He was good to my mom. He had too big a heart to be a lawyer. Before my mother died, he called to say that he was retiring to take over the family bakery. I assumed then, know now, that he left the lawyer trade in disgust. His boss, a partner in one of the biggest law companies in town, called to get the job when my mother died. I assumed he would treat the administration of the will with the same care as my friend had. The legal process to challenge the lawyer’s fees was in motion at the same time as we bought and moved into the house. The final hearing was scheduled for early August. I came to challenge the bill, not for the money involved, but to protest the treatment of my family by the lawyer. I'm sure that if the equivalent had been done to the family in my father's time, he would have dragged this individual out of his fancy top floor suite of offices by the suit and made him back it up, man to man. People, these days, either kill each other or go to court. Lawyers’ insidious power creeps into every facet of our lives, witness pro sports and our political system. Common sense and honesty seem to be absent in all of the huge systems we have to deal with from day to day. The legal system, like poison ivy, will get you, one way or another, if you get involved with it. My aunt, in her mid eighties, was the executrix of the will. She had only good intentions in that capacity. She was overwhelmed by the mess which was created by this lawyer, preferred just to get it over with as soon as possible. My mom’s short, clear will took over a year to be administered because of the arrogance and ignorance of the lawyer and the behaviour of my sister. She objected to the will, the funeral arrangements, my aunt's executrixship and anything else she could think of. The lawyer, at first taken aback, confided to my aunt that he had met such people before, had one in his own family. He knew how to handle her. Of course, he was putty in the hands of my sister. He was soon bullied or conned into doing nothing. Finally, my aunt and I forced him to act by threatening to take the will to another lawyer. It seems that every family goes through turmoil when death visits. No one is ready for it. How many times does your mother die? I resigned myself to waiting for months to get the matter settled. The extra money the lawyer charged because of the problems which my sister caused was not the main consideration in having his fees assessed. It seemed to be the only way, short of making a splash in the media and risking slander charges, to question his competence and criticize the quality of his work, publicly. Ranting on the phone or through the mail is a waste of time. The assessment is done by a judge in a formal hearing with a bible and a court reporter. It's not much consolation if you lose, but at least you get to look the lawyer in the eye in front of witnesses on public record and tell him what you think of his work. By the time the poison ivy root pile had grown into a three foot by four foot hump at the back of the lot, I had tried every poison ivy cure known to man. From rubbing broken aloe vera leaves on the rash, to experimenting with expensive homeopathic remedies, to good old calamine lotion, I tried everything to control the poison ivy. I was still attacking the last of the big clumps. Nothing worked. I seriously considered taking the advice of friends who recommended a napalm like herbicide which would "kill everything it touches for three years". But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I continued to itch as I tried to write down my thoughts on the lawyer's work. I planned a space close to the basement window for the woodpile. August arrived. The big day approached. This was going to be my third time in this judge’s courtroom. The first two times procedural mistakes exploited by the fast talking lawyer caused delays. We got the call from the wood cutter the night before the court date. He would be arriving the next day with loads of wood, four in all, totalling ten face cords. I killed the tension by pulling roots furiously that hot afternoon. That was probably when I contacted my eye with the poison ivy oil on my sleeve. We drove into town early that August morning and had a greasy breakfast on the way. My anger at the lawyer had driven me to refuse an out of court settlement of $500 off the bill which he had offered by phone a few days before. We smothered our ham and eggs in ketchup. I agonized over whether I should have taken him up on his offer. My wife asked me why I was winking at her. A large tear ran down my cheek. My eye had begun to swell, turn red and itch as much as my ankles and wrists. The intimidating atmosphere of the formal hearing became exaggerated as I sat in suit and tie and studied my twenty pages of notes. They recorded the catalogue of insults the lawyer had heaped upon me and my aunt. Not overt insults, but an endless series of delays, mistakes and inexplicable charges. My eye ran. My voice sounded like a strangled crow as I tried to explained to the judge why I was questioning the lawyer's work. The structure of the proceedings, about which even the greenest cop and file clerk in the building knew more than I, threw me. Statements, questions, cross examinations which were second nature to the lawyer, spoiled the plan I had rehearsed. The judge and lawyer exchanged significant glances. The court reporter turned to examine me curiously while I sputtered and squawked emotionally about the injustice and lack of attention the lawyer had paid to the administration of my mother's will. I made statements when I should have asked questions and fumbled with my notes. The lawyer defended himself. The judge confronted me with a release I had signed in a meeting when my sister finally agreed to have the will administered as it was written. The lawyer simply blamed the delays on my sister and the mistakes on his assistant. He had delegated the details of the settlement to his assistant because it decreased the cost of his services. He charged three hundred dollars per hour for his time, only one hundred per hour for hers. He couldn't explain many of the charges on the bill and after a year of dealing with our family, he hadn't even been able to get my name right on the final papers. It didn't phase the judge. It became obvious that the exercise was carried through because I had paid the fifty bucks. They were humouring me. If I had known the procedure or had been represented by a lawyer who did, I might have had a chance. As it was, with anger and adrenalin tightening my collar, sweat and a steady tear rolling out of one eye, I was disposed of in short order. I was told by the judge that he would allow no further litigation on the matter, that the bill was fair. The consolation of knowing that I had, in three court appearances, wasted at least four hours of the lawyer's $300 an hour time, comforted me on the drive home. The endless technical details and procedures I watched millionaire lawyers manipulate on behalf of a millionaire defendant in the Simpson trial became more meaningful and more depressing. The woodcutter arrived cheerfully with the first load of wood. I struggled to keep up with my wife who had grown up on a farm. She taught me to crosspile the ends of the rows of 16" maple, beech and ironwood logs. We continued until darkness and exhaustion halted our labours. My eye had closed completely. The Arnprior Hospital took care of the poison ivy with a shot of penicillin. Some of the poison ivy still survives beneath the frozen ground of winter. The wood stove gives good heat. We heard later that the same lawyer had been taken to court again for the same reason. My original lawyer, my friend from high school, died of cancer. O.J. got off. We carry on.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power Blues

Steve Coll PRIVATE EMPIRE EXXONMOBIL AND AMERICAN POWER The Penguin Press New York 2012 685 pp. $36 US $38 Canada ISBN 978 1 59420 335 0 “-the corporation does more to shape our energy economy than our democratically elected government-” Steve Coll I didn’t want to read this book and try to understand its meaning because I thought it would be too depressing but like SELF SERVE: HOW PETROCANADA DRAINED CANADIANS DRY by Peter Foster and SEVERE CONDITIONS: BIG OIL AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF ALASKA by John Strohmeyer, it’s irresistIble to me. I’m interested in the oil business because I worked in the upstream (the exploration and production of raw oil) as a roughneck in Alberta and on the North Sea and in the downstream of the business (the manufacturing and selling of oil and gas on the wholesale and retail markets) as a yardman in the pipeline terminals of Esso (Exxon through Imperial Oil) and PetroCanada in Ottawa. Steve Coll wrote the Pulitzer prize winning GHOST WARS, an account of the CIA’s activities in pre2001 Afghanistan. He has written six others including one called, THE BIN LADENS. He is a serious writer with a talent for telling a story from facts and events stretching over many years. He has written about important historical events in present day America. When you read this book, you realize that he’s doing it again by documenting history as we live it. In 1904 Ida Tarbell published The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was one of the first pieces of investigative journalism and described the ruthlessness of John D Rockefeller’s monopoly. It eventually led to the trust busting laws of 1911 which broke up Standard Oil. One of the pieces of the Standard Oil breakup was Exxon. In PRIVATE EMPIRE Steve Coll has written a meticulously researched book of investigative journalism about it. Exxon had always been shrouded in secrecy but, bit by bit, through the use of over four hundred interviews, more than one thousand pages of previously classified US documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unexamined court records, the curtain is pulled back by Coll. Exxon and Mobil were both originally parts of Standard Oil. They completed their merger in 2000. Canada’s taken for granted. That was the feeling I got when I read the book. A kind of impotent outrage at being snubbed and the old realization that we in Canada aren’t that important even though Canada is by far the single biggest supplier of imported oil to the US, 1.9 million barrels per day in 2008. It’s pretty clear that if the CEO of ExxonMobil can ignore, consult with or demand attention from the US government at any time, he isn’t too worried about what Canada’s government thinks. PRIVATE EMPIRE is a book of 624 pages, with 61 pages of acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography,a complete Index and a Table of Contents into which the twenty eight chapters are divided into Part One: The End of Easy Oil and Part Two: The Risk Cycle. There are maps of Exxon’s and Mobil’s upstream investments before the merger, of the countries of Indonesia, Equatorial Guineau, Chad, and Venezuela and of the Exxon spill in Jacksonville, Maryland, where a gas station leaked 25,000 gallons of gasoline into a community’s water supply. It also contains a Cast of Characters listed by country; dictators, despots and enemies of the American government among them. Canada and Alberta are dealt with in four pages. As Coll puts it, “Canada’s politics concerning the oil sands were complicated, but as a practical matter, there was virtually no chance that Alberta’s provincial politicians or the country’s national leaders in Ottawa would seriously limit Canada’s production in the years ahead.” At the time of the writing and publishing of this book, ExxonMobil was trading places with Walmart as the biggest company in the US and with PetroChina as the company which was most valuable in the stock market. It was the most profitable corporation headquartered in the US. The corporation’s K Street lobbyists in Washington DC spent more millions than everyone else except GE and Pactfic Gas and Electric shaping, influencing, and stalling regulatory legislation after 1998. ExxonMobil, whose income dwarfed that of most countries, used the USA’s military and diplomatic channels to ensure smooth operations and ignored the politicians when they they wanted to. Rex Tillerson, who replaced Lee Raymond as the Chairman and Chief Executive of ExxonMobil in 2005, told the State Department, ” I had to do what was best for my shareholders.” after a $3.1 billion deal was announced between Vladimir Putin and ExxonMobil to develop oil beneath the Kara Sea in Russia. The deal could grow to $500 billion. The State Department was usually told first. Steve Coll catalogues, in exhaustive detail , ExxonMobil’s refusal to take responsibility for the social and physical damage it caused in places like Aceh, Indonesia, the Niger Delta and Nigeria, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea. Places far away and unlikely to interest the American population. But, to be fair, as Coll is ,painstakingly, through this book, they were the only places on earth where the oil and gas supply was vast and available. Lee Raymond, the CEO of ExxonMobil until he retired on January 1, 2006 with a four hundred milllion dollar package, was a midwest product, an engineer for 30 years at Exxon, an old time oil man. He was Machiavellian in that he didn’t hesitate to manipulate governments, politicians and their military power, regulators and environmentalists to his advantage. He was stubborn and short sighted in that he never believed in the science which claimed that climate change was due to the burning of fossil fuels. He employed many ethical scientists whose non disclosure contracts were tied up with pensions and retirement bonuses. No one really questions the character of the scientists but Coll and others point out that the management of the science is dubious. Raymond’s tough style kicked in with the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 when the company’s reputation was in shreds and the regime of safety he instituted included how employees parked and required reporting of paper cuts. He personified the arrogance of ExxonMobil and was disliked by many but was an undeniable success in the business world. ExxonMobil, extracting oil from tar sands in Alberta at Syncrude since 1978 through its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil,has Canadian contracts there reaching into 2035 and other interests in the tar sands. ExxonMobil would never use the American miiItary, the consular services or the Washington lobbyists to force Canada to be the oil spigot for the American consumer, would it? It’s a question that needs to be asked. As unlikely as it seems, history shows otherwise. The author is scrupulous in presenting both sides of the arguments, explaining ExxonMobil’s activities, good or bad, from their point of view, through their eyes. Coll says, “Oil from Alberta, barrel for barrel, contributed one of the highest gas emissions of any source in the world” but the message Canada was getting from the American government under Bush was “ Produce as much of this oil as you can-we’ll buy all of it” There was never a problem with the environment and global warming when Bush and Cheney were in power. Cheney and Lee Raymond were close personal friends, both, like Bush, from an oil background, who met frequently in Cheney’s office. When Obama took over, the oil industry was angry with his attitude and at the new California emission standards. They rallied some of the population with patriotic fervour, saying that if Canadian oil wasn’t sold to the US, it would be sold to the latest threat, China. ExxonMobil was so confident in Canada as a friend and risk free oil source that it thought the many efforts of oil company lobbyists when Obama returned to Washington from his traditional first visit to Ottawa were a waste of time and money. Their attitude was that if the US government cut itself off from Canadian oil, they would sell it elsewhere. The problem is that exploiting the tar sands is more like strip mining than drilling with even higher costs to the environment and local people. The time horizons of ExxonMobil’s investments far outlive the politicians who hold power for a few years and are gone. In some countries there might be war for years and changes of unstable governments or no governments at all. It is no wonder that ExxonMobil had more influence in Chad than the US government. Where the American government gave $3 million to the country, ExxonMobil invested $4.1 billion. ExxonMobil has been compared to the East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company who set out four centuries ago to colonize the New World. The irony is that four hundred years later, these gigantic multinational oil companies may be responsible for raising the very seas upon which the early explorers sailed, through global warming. The corporation is compared to a Frankenstein monster in the statesman.com where Bruce Watson states, “Nowhere has ExxonMobil bullied the world more than in the global warming debate” The Exxon Valdez disaster happened in 1989 and dumped 257,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound, more than had ever been spilled in American waters before. Lee Raymond instituted reform and Exxon produced an admirable safety record and record profits. One would think a huge company investing gigantic sums in oil and gas plays all around the world would be vulnerable to the resource nationalism, partisan movements and blackmail which is commonplace in many countries but through an uncompromising array of legal action, shifting responsibility for human rights violations to militaries or to the World Bank and outright influence peddling, ExxonMobil has managed to avoid any Exxon Valdez type disasters so far. In 2005 Dick Cheney personally called the UAE government to enable ExxonMobil to win a contract to develop a field which held ten percent of the world’s oil and the fifth largest gas reserve. Whether using the Indonesian military in Aceh (whose methods included torture, summary executions and burying insurgents’ bodies in mass graves with company equipment),the military torture chambers of Equatorial Guinea or the security forces in the craziness and piracy of the Niger Delta, ExxonMobil built its own foreign policy without the US government’s concern for human rights. It was there on the surface, they said all the right things and did their best to protect the corporation legally, but they knew about the human rights abuses and, for the most part, carried on anyway. ExxonMobil Chemical is also dealt with in PRIVATE EMPIRE. About a quarter of American oil imports are used to manufacture commercial chemicals annually. A chapter of this book outlines the fight ExxonMobil and their spokesman-congressman, Joe Barton from Texas, waged to avoid having DINP (phthalates- See Ottawa Sun Aug 27, 2012 page 8) banned from children’s toys. It is a softener which makes vinyl more pliable but is suspected of being carcinogenic. Consumer advocates got some DINP banned but not all thanks to ExxonMobil’s lawyers and politicians. The premise of it all, of course, is George Bush’s long awaited pronouncement that the US was “addicted” to oil. There has been no doubt about that for a long time and as unpalatable as it is to the oil industry to hear put that way, they can rest assured that they are safe in the short term and, judging from the performances of the governments of North America, equally unthreatened by long term solutions. To understand the power of ExxonMobil, another George Bush quote is helpful. When the Indian prime minister asked why he didn’t just tell ExxonMobil to buy into an oil play in India, Bush replied, “Nobody tells those guys what to do.” The debate about climate change is something which Tillerson mulled over and investigated through ExxonMobil’s specially hired astrophysicists for three years. ExxonMobil finally admitted that global warming, at least in part, was caused by human activity, probably the burning of fossil fuels, when, for the first time in the company’s hundred year history, Tillerson supported a carbon tax in 2009. When the Deepwater Horizon blowout happened to competitor, British Petroleum, in 2010, it was estimated that five million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico. Rex Tillerson commented, with a typical ExxonMobil attitude, “We would not have drilled the well the way they did” The “energy independence” drum is being beaten as it is in every election and the “Drill, baby, drill” proponents are searching for a congressman or senator like Joe Barton. ExxonMobil has unprecedented power in governments world wide. Canadians who are happy that we’re in such a helpless position, can take comfort in knowing that ExxonMobil is in our oilpatch. They were ten, if not twenty years ahead of PetroCanada in the Ottawa pipeline terminals when I was there in 2000. It means that we have someone technologically brilliant and wildly successful businesswise, exporting our oil. On the other hand, it is depressing.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Bingo

We didn’t see it as a line drawn in the sand at first. Roy hired Eldon, Ruth’s nephew, just before the bingo started. Aunt Ruth saved him from returning to a life of petty crime and jail with a kitchen helper job. If Roy hadn’t fought with Ruth, his wife, who worked at his diner that night, things might have stayed quiet for a while longer. It was bound to explode, but maybe it could have been a little less volatile. And deadly. No one could ever figure out why Roy and Ruth were together. It wasn’t physical attraction. They fought constantly and enjoyed showing the other up in front of everyone. None of us at the counter could imagine them making love without grimacing. Roy had let himself go, sampled too many fries, drank too much beer. The diner had taken over his life. He even smelled greasy outside of the diner. Ruth was putting on the beef as well. She had a shrill voice that grated on everyone’s nerves. We only heard it peak when they were busy. Eldon hung around the back, chain smoking, when he wasn’t scurrying around the kitchen following orders. He had a shaved head and some jailhouse tattoos on skinny, big veined arms. Geordie and I sat at the counter one morning and witnessed the birth of the bingo. We were waiting for Ruth to check the last of her lottery tickets. When she had counted up her losses, to hear her tell it, she served us our second coffees. There was a gathering of women at the table in the corner. It was unusual to see the female diner regulars sitting anywhere but at the counter next to us. They talked to each other and ignored us. It was the first meeting of their bingo committee. The women must have talked about it before, somewhere else. Roy brought the morning paper to the counter open at the picture of that day’s beauty. She was beautiful all right. Not wearing much either. Neither Geordie nor I had attempted relations with a woman for so long, it was as if we’d forgotten about sex. Roy had a way of leering at the pictures, every morning, which was probably similar to ours in our younger days. These days, when he did his little act, it was hard for us to watch. We didn’t think he was so attracted to the pictures, he was just doing it to get under Ruth’s skin. Geordie rolled his eyes at me and smiled at Roy. The licking of his chops and the quick glance down at his greasy apron were too much for customers who didn’t know Roy. One man, standing at the cash to pay, watched Roy ogle the picture and dirty dance to the kitchen, his big, old belly undulating beneath his apron. The man observed him as if he was watching a lunatic. He was wondering if Roy had cooked his ham and eggs. Gladys, Caroline and Linda were the three regulars sitting at the table. They had a pile of papers and looked like they knew what they were doing. Linda had already done most of the paperwork about licences and permits. Gladys was an old farm wife with a brood of kids, grown up and settled elsewhere. We heard one got into trouble and ended up in jail, but we kept our noses out of other peoples’ business. Gladys’ husband, Hubert, died a few years ago. She figured she did her part, putting up with him and his farmer ways and the kids were on their own. She was enjoying her freedom, doing her thing. Caroline’s driven the school bus ever since her husband died. She sounded like a rough, old trucker and drank everyone under the table on special occasions at the Legion. We suspected that there was a female part to her, aside from the obvious ones. She hadn’t lost a kid from the bus yet though. Geordie’s son, Cliff, a cop, told us that she was really a sweet old thing. He said the kids trusted her more than their parents and teachers. Linda had retired and moved here from out west. Nobody knew much about her. We couldn’t figure out her age. Roy took a long look at her rear end and legs when she wore shorts in the summer, licked his lips, rolled his eyes and attempted some pelvic thrusts beneath his big, round apron. We saw Ruth catch Roy in his act. She got that angry glare on her face and wouldn’t speak to him for the rest of the morning. It wasn’t as if Ruth was jealous, every sign pointed to her not caring what Roy did. She laughed at him when he made a mistake with the orders and enjoyed telling everyone at the counter, especially Linda, about her husband’s latest screw up. It was more like she didn’t want competition from Linda. If she only knew: there was no competition, Linda was much better looking and younger. Some mornings, Linda watched, with a steady stare, Roy do his act with the morning paper. While Geordie and I were cringing with embarrassment, Gladys and Caroline chatted. They had seen Roy do his thing so often, they didn’t even notice. Roy took Linda’s stare as a sign of interest. Ruth saw how foolish Roy looked. Linda, Gladys and Caroline were like peas in a pod when you gave them a coffee and a place to sit. The bingo really fired them up. They were gung ho to get started. Ruth got involved in the bingo, too. Anything Linda did, she criticized or tried to do one better. Even though the others had done all the work, she insisted on being consulted about everything. Ruth had been at the diner for years and here was this newcomer organizing a bingo. Everyone knew bingos didn’t work around here, there was no support. Ruth figured that everyone around her was poor. But she had no trouble sleeping at night when she took their tips. She thought that the world was doomed. We couldn’t argue with her, there, but she didn’t have to be so gloomy about everything, every time she opened her mouth. We had to survive, somehow. Laughter seemed better than complaints nobody listened to. The regulars at the diner found Linda to be someone new and interesting. She had strong opinions but she was happy just to fit in with the others. Ruth knew that she, herself, wasn’t interesting enough to hold the attention of the regulars without the coffee pot in her hand. She repeated each new piece of gossip so that it was old by the end of the day. It drove Roy and the regulars crazy. Geordie and I sensed Ruth’s smouldering jealousy over Linda’s popularity, but it was none of our business. We played cards, euchre, on Tuesday nights, at the Legion. There were four tables of four, sometimes five. It was an excuse to drink while we played. They showed up on a Tuesday night when we were just getting started. Linda led them straight into the Legion with the bingo machine, sheets of cards, change box and everything. Geordie and I were about to protest, when Jack appeared. Jack Lawson was the president of the Legion. He approved of the bingo, a potential money maker and told us so. We had to move our card game to the other room. We were upset by this interruption of our routine and did our share of grousing when we went to pick up our next rounds at the bar. The euchre games lost a little charm when speakers droned, “Under the B, fifteen” or “under the N, thirty five”, in the background. At first, there were a lot of sudden attacks of deafness at our tables. The players raised their voices to speak over the bingo noise. Gradually, it calmed down. There was less interference once we got used to it. Jack came to sit down at our table later. He told us that he had refused to cover the bingo losses if they didn’t have a good turnout. He’d back them, once they showed a profit. It was business, pure and simple. We realized, after talking with Jack, that having a money maker around was a good thing. Ruth was there from the start. From the sound of it, the next morning at the diner, she did everything she could to disrupt the proceedings. Relations were frosty between Ruth and Linda. The bingo had been a modest success in spite of Ruth’s interference. She was mad, Linda quietly triumphant. Roy loved it. Geordie and I ate our usual breakfasts listening to the women at the counter. They were attacking Ruth that day. She had crossed the line at the bingo. We had an extra cup of coffee and read the paper twice so we could listen to them tear down Ruth. I don’t think that there’s much doubt anymore, about the notion that women are more vicious than men. After we heard what they had to say about Ruth, there was no doubt for us. They’d smile and change the subject when Ruth approached with the coffee pot. They made small talk with her while she topped up their cups. When she was out of earshot, they resumed the attack. Sounded to us like Ruth had ruffled a few feathers by being a little too bossy at the bingo. It was the second Tuesday night bingo at the Legion. There were five tables for our euchre game. The bingo organizers, led by Linda, all carrying sheets of cards, got there early. Ruth was still working with Roy back at the diner. The games went well for us. Geordie and I were cleaning up. There was a good crowd for the bingo in the other room. The buzz of their chatter subsided as Linda, the caller, started each new game. When there was a winner, Gladys called back the numbers to Linda and Caroline paid. We heard the first disturbance after a lot of cheering from the bingo side, figured somebody had won the jackpot. Geordie was returning to our table with the quarts when a loud bang froze everyone. It was the sound of a gun. The Legion is full of old soldiers and hunters. The old soldiers hit the deck, the hunters jumped to see what was going on. “Hey, stop right there” We heard the female voice clearly. I peeked around Geordie, who was also hiding under the table soaked in beer and saw Linda fire the gun. We heard the body drop and screams. I saw Linda stand up, put the revolver down on the table and walk toward the body. Silence at the euchre tables broke into excited whispers. “Holdup. Robbery” The words bounced around the room. “Mask” Ruth arrived at this point, glanced at us rising from the wet floor and kept going into the bingo room, a worried expression on her face. There were more than a few legionnaires regurgitating their beer when they saw the mess that Linda had made. She must have hit a blood vessel when she shot him. There was blood on the hysterical women sitting at the table beside the body, a mess on the floor. The guy was still masked. Jack Lawson pulled the sticky balaclava up far enough on the guy’s head to reveal Eldon’s face. There was no breath left in him. They tried to revive him while we waited for the ambulance but there was no hope. Eldon had tried to rob the bingo at gun point. He fired his weapon once into the air. He was leaving with the cash when Linda stood up and told him to stop. She pointed her gun at him, he pointed his at her, and that was it, she fired. It didn’t make Linda feel any better when it was discovered that he was using a harmless starter pistol. It looked real enough, one cop who knew Geordie confided. Ruth blanched when she saw Eldon’s face. She stared at Linda, looked at the body on the floor and sat down. The next morning, the diner was buzzing about the happenings at the Legion. Linda arrived late. She had been talking to police, reporters and her lawyer. There would be an autopsy and a trial. With so many witnesses to the attempted robbery, she would be cleared of the charges. Linda entered the diner like a conquering hero. We applauded her. Eldon didn’t have any family, except for Ruth, in the east. She shipped the body to Vancouver. It only took a day of her time. She was back at work that week. It came out later, through the press, that Linda was a retired cop. She had worked undercover for years and carried a licenced weapon all the time. Nobody knew it, but she went to target practice at the shooting range on the weekends. She had seen all of their hard work go for naught when that boy scooped up their bingo money. When he pointed his gun at her, it was instinctive to shoot. She didn’t think about killing him. It was cut and dried with Linda. She regretted Eldon’s death, but he was the bad guy. Geordie and I were treated to a visit, by Cliff, one night at the Legion. He let it slip, as we watched the hockey game, that Ruth was being investigated. None of the cops thought that even Eldon was dumb enough to risk everything for the small amount of money at the bingo. They figured he was put up to it by his aunt. They didn’t know why, what her motivation was, but they thought she was behind it. One thing for sure, Cliff told us, without Ruth’s confession, they couldn’t prove it. Ruth paid particular attention to Linda after that bingo. She served her first among the counter people, her coffee cup was always full. It was impossible for Linda not to know that Ruth was suspected by the cops. Roy wore a hunted look, like he was confused, not sure where he stood. He checked out the morning paper in the kitchen. We heard that Ruth had left the diner on the night of the bingo, in a huff, after a big fight with Roy. Maybe it was enough to push her over the line. Maybe her jealousy and anger caused her to put the kid up to it, to make Linda look bad. Unfortunate for young Eldon, her dead nephew. Geordie and I watched and listened. We knew that Ruth knew that Linda knew. Ruth attended the bingos but she didn’t boss anyone around any more. Linda watched Ruth fill our cups at the counter and listened to her repeat tidbits of gossip. We saw their eyes, Linda’s steady gaze, Ruth’s furtive glances, meet. That was when we saw it as a line drawn in the sand.