• Jason Parrish

Wordslinger and Remix. The Sad Tale of Marvin Blick.

WORDSLINGER


Marvin Blick never knew about the tumor that didn’t kill him. Only two more months until the nasty little trespasser fingered its way to the base of his skull and flicked the right cell, shutting Mr. Blick’s lights off permanently. No need for the drama though, Marv handled the final chapter himself. Signed off with his last scrip. As summer slid into fall, he chalked the nightly headaches up to stress and blamed the hallucinations on sleep deprivation. Even in his last moments, when he had a change of heart, he doubted what he saw and heard. He dreamed of writing a best-selling western novel and poured himself into The Slinger’s Revenge, his one shot at infamy. Yes, Marv the middle-age middle-child. Filled with anger and mild with rage but can’t fight or write a readable page. Middle Marv this, middle Marv that, Middle Marv the Wordslinger. Marvin Blick got the middle finger. His attention span also shortened as the cancer that would have killed him slunk towards the switch at the base of his brain…


“Marvin? Marvin! Do you understand? Three months! That’s all you got to prove you’re worth what we pay you.” Stanley Newton leaned across his solid oak desk and beckoned Marv close. “Off the record, here’s where I am. I want you gone. HR says I have to follow protocol; verbal warnings, written warnings, reviews.” The plush leather chair took it without complaint as all three-hundred pounds of Newton Steel’s VP of Manufacturing plopped back. “You bring absolutely no value. None.” Stanley cracked the top on a diet soda and sipped. “Have you ever heard of an Oxpecker?”


Marvin Blick did not like Stanley Bear Newton, and he’d never heard of an Oxpecker. Marv grew up poor and knew it. Kids like Stanley reminded him every day. For three years at Longview High, Bear reminded. Sophomore year...“Marvin, do you know what a wedgie is?” Junior year…

“Hey Marvin, why do you smell like cat piss?” Senior year…


“Marvin! Look at me! Oxpecker?”


“No, I’ve never heard of it.”


“I’ll tell you. It’s a bird that lives in a beautiful symbiotic relationship with some animals,” he paused, “like the Black Rhinoceros. Do you know what that means?” Stanley slowed and hit all four syllables, “Sym-bi-o-tic?”


Marvin knew. Not because of the science, but the language. The interaction between two different organisms. Symbiotic. A bird and rhino, fungi and roots, writer and reader.


“Do you know, Marvin?”


Marvin nodded, but Stanley regurgitated the definition. “Which are you Marv?”


“I assume I’m the bird.”


“You assume wrong. You are neither to me. I am the rhino, but you provide no real value to this company, my love life, my business life…hell Marvin, you’re not even the bird. You are the tick that the Oxpecker eats off the rhinoceros to fulfill its part of the deal. The ticks irritate the rhino, but Oxpeckers like to eat little parasites. The only loser is the tick, and that’s you Marvin.” He took another sip, “a loser.”


Stanley finished his drink and trashed it. He stood and four strides later reached the far wall. A large, oak-framed aerial view picture of the factory grounds hid Bear’s safe. The forty-two-year-old accounts payable clerk wanted to vomit. Stanley’s motivational management speech. Three medals hung from Bear’s paws, all with the same style ribbon, same shade of gold. Not Olympic but still impressive. Three medals he’d won twenty years ago for Longview High’s track team. State? Regionals? Marvin couldn’t remember and didn’t care. Bear didn’t always use them as props, but the talk stayed consistent over the years. Problems at home? Suck it up. Be a man. Bear threw a discus over two-hundred and two feet with a broken finger. Having trouble keeping up with those young bucks, Marv? That bald-spot got you feeling impotent? Bear chucked a shot put sixty feet after a dozen bad egg rolls and still won this baby. Overcome, Marvin.


“At least pretend to be a man.” Stanley dangled the medals inches from Marvin’s nose, “or you will never have anything.” He swatted at the door before dropping the gold onto his desk. “Get out of my office.”


Freedom…almost.


“One more thing, Blick. The Christmas party this year is plus one. Good profit last quarter so we’re renting the back room at Ruby’s Smokehouse out on twenty-seven. Bring Jill. Can’t wait to finally meet her.” Stanley shooed him away and buried his face in a file.


Marvin fled to the hall without looking back. He would never let Jill meet an animal like Stanley. Al the janitor met Marvin outside his office. Of the sixty-seven full-time employees at Newton Steel, Al was Marv’s favorite. If he was honest with himself, he was the only person in his life that made sense.


“Get another pep talk?” Al blocked Marv’s path. “If I was thirty years younger,” the old man’s eyes disappeared into a wrinkle line, “you know what I’d do with those medals?”


“He’s in a bad mood today.”


Al nodded. “How’s the book coming?”


The Slinger’s Revenge, Marvin Blick’s first serious attempt at a novel. “Have a couple of changes to work through but I’m almost there. This might be the one.”


Al smacked Marvin in the jaw. Smacked. Open palm. Stiff finger. The younger man froze, and the janitor came across again. “You’re an idiot.”


The fight instinct existed only in Marvin Blick’s alter ego from The Slinger’s Revenge, Roland Slick; a rugged cowboy, con-man, gambler (the emphasis of each changed through various rewrites) in 1870’s Kansas. The Marv Blick in 21st century Georgia always opted for flight, and without a word slipped past Al into his office.


The janitor followed and plopped into the padded chair across the desk from Marv. “You’ll thank me later.”


Marvin jiggled his mouse, chasing Jill’s picture from the screen. His face stung. Not bad, but enough for a single tear to slip, hopefully unseen, out of the corner of his eye.


“Aren’t you going to call me a summabitch or something like that?” Al’s playful tone masked a dark side Marv knew well, “at least give me the finger. You know, flick me the bird.” Al shoved his middle finger across the desk at Marv’s face.


Marvin pushed it away. “I’m not in the mood today.” The headache that pecked at his crown in Stan’s office now snaked its way down his neck.


Al nodded and relaxed back into his chair. “You angry with me?”


“What?”


“Are you mad? Are you filled with rage? Do you wish violence on me or someone else? Answer the question Marv!”


Marvin flung the mouse. “Why did you hit me?” His outburst fizzled when its cord caught the tower and smacked the vinyl baseboard.


Al smiled. “Father smacked me three or four times a week when I really needed to listen.” The smile disappeared. “Strike a match to the hate and watch it burn. Fuel your anger. Go home and write. Use it to bring paper to life.” Al cackled and moved towards the door. “Your book is not going well. Seven, yes count them young Marvin, seven complete rewrites, no character arcs, multiple continuity poo poo’s from the rewrites, but here’s the best part Marv, all by hand. Computers can’t be that expensive.”


Marvin tried to think of a clever reply and when he couldn’t, leaned down to retrieve his mouse off the floor. Still, nothing came, so he lingered an extra couple of seconds before peeking over his shoulder. Al was gone. Marv rubbed his jaw and remembered the old man’s wisdom came with a price.


***


Marv flicked the light of his one-bedroom apartment and passed the window that looked out over Phil’s Primetime Pizza. In a couple of weeks, he’d take the twenty dollars he put aside every other paycheck and head across the street for an evening out. A once a month treat, or feast if he went all in with a calzone. A quick pass through the fridge, another through the pantry, and Marvin had his night’s writing fuel. Two slices of thick cut bologna (the kind with fancy red paper around the edge), eight fresh saltines, and a bottle of regular yellow mustard. Background bar fights from Channel 7’s twenty-four-hour Eastwood marathon would help quiet any lingering echoes of the day’s meeting with Bear. The scripted chaos calmed him. Clint’s voice guided him through a tough scene edit just last week. Four hours of reading, scratching out, scribbling, re-reading, more scratching. Exhausting work, but he didn’t mind.


Jill strolled into the kitchen and made a beeline to her bowl by the closet door.


“Hungry, girl?” Marv unloaded his supper onto the table and grabbed a fresh can of tuna from Jill’s cabinet. He butt-bumped the fridge door, popped the can, and sat the fish on the floor. The three-year-old tortoiseshell sashayed to the smell, chirped her disdain, and flicked her tail. Marv used a fork to cut his lunchmeat into cracker sized squares and lined each with three yellow squirts. He grabbed a bottle of warm water from the pantry and set up camp in front of the TV. Twenty-minutes. No more. Enough time to eat and take in some good lines. Maybe something he could use…not copy…an idea. That’s all he needed. An idea. Jill swatted the half-empty can, watched it clink across the checkered linoleum floor, then vanished after it into the living room. Not to eat. She hadn’t finished a full can of tuna in months. Months of worry, vet visits, and tests. Dr. Murray still hadn’t called with the latest round of lab results. Blood work this time. X-Rays last month. Pills, shots, special food...the kind you can’t find on aisle 11.


He refocused on Clint’s voice. The cadence soothed him. He listened and learned. Thirty minutes later, Marvin moved to the kitchen and deposited his empty plate into the sink. Time to write. He massaged the bruise under his left eye. Al was right. Maybe what he felt wasn’t rage, but something deep within him stirred in Bear’s office that morning.


At 8 PM Marvin Blick’s little apartment went dark, and he remembered the power bill. In shadows cast by small town streetlights, Marv didn’t stop writing. The something that had stirred opened its eyes, and Marv wrote well in the darkness.


***


“I told you.” Al kicked back in the little padded chair across from Marvin. “Best writing you’ve ever slung, right?”


Right. Words flew into beautiful lines of prose. Sentences lined up into solid paragraphs, which in turn, formed fertile plots of story. If Roland Slick didn’t need electricity, neither did Marvin Blick.


“Marv! Pay attention.” The chair’s front two legs slammed down onto the concrete floor. “Tell me about it.”


Marvin's email dinged. Bear’s secretary. He fought the urge to open it. “I don’t know. It just felt good. I finished the scene.”


Al scooted a few inches closer to Marvin’s desk. Metal on concrete. Not a pleasant sound for someone with headaches like Marv. “No, no, no.” The old man’s eyes twinkled. “What did you write? Details my friend.”


Another email, this one from Emily, Human Resources Manager.


“Marvin!” Al smacked the top of the desk. “Tell me about the scene.”


“The scene. It was great. Buck,” he paused. “You remember him?” Buck Anderson, Roland’s latest antagonist, one of many depending on the draft, living their fifteen minutes of fame through Marvin’s head, all rolling through the same plot.


Al twirled his finger. “Get going.”


“Anyway, Roland figured it out. He could never beat him, right?” Marv’s tempo picked up a beat. “In poker I mean. Roland could never take Buck over enough hands. Once I figured that out, it was easy. Roland used a hooker to distract Buck and take his gold. Left him candy in its place. You see, Roland was never meant to play cards for a living. He was a con, and cons don’t come in just one shape and size, do they?” Marvin didn’t wait for a response. “Anyway, Ro-”


The phone interrupted. He reached, pulled back, then jerked the receiver to his ear. “Blick.”


“My office.” No roar. No growl.


***


“What the hell is this?” Gooey brown chunks oozed through Bear’s considerable clinched fists. “Just what the hell is this?”


“Stanley.” Emily’s voice floated from the corner. “Have a seat please.” Her posture relaxed once Bear settled into his chair. “Marvin, Stanley has accused you of stealing his medals and replacing them with chocolate replicas.”


“What!?”


“She said-” Bear started to stand, but Emily waved him down.


“Marvin,” a controlled, formal kindness in her voice, “someone broke into Stanley’s safe and replaced his gold medals with chocolates wrapped in gold colored foil. Halloween candy.”


“Not someone!” Bear rose out of his chair.


“Stanley, do I need to remind you that I report to the Board of Directors, not you?” Emily’s question dropped him. She pivoted to Marvin. “Stanley believes it’s you, so I have to ask. If it was, tell us now, give the medals back, and it’s forgiven. Our families go back a long way.” She shifted her attention to Bear. “Forgiven. Isn’t that right Stan?” Bear grunted his agreement. “Did you take them?”


“Of course not. I went home yesterday, watched T.V., and wrote. That’s it. Wrote until I passed out.”


“Wrote? What do you write? .”


“Westerns.” Chocolates. Candy. The moisture in Marv’s mouth thickened. “I write western novels.” Sugar for gold. Not a perfect copy, more of an old sepia tone photo of the digital original. The details look a tad different, but you get the picture.


Deep inside Marvin’s dying brain he wanted to laugh, and for the first time in months he almost did. Instead, he opened his mouth and a partially digested, though hefty portion of fancy bologna escaped onto Bear’s desk...mostly. Emily, an innocent bystander, took a few small chunks to the arm and cheek.


Go home. Rest. Talk about medals tomorrow. Worried about driving. Doctor. Bits of phrases he heard but didn’t comprehend or retain.


***


“Do you think it was him?” Jill rubbed Marv’s calf as she slithered through his legs. He’d napped several hours, an unfruitful exercise considering the dull ache at the back of his neck and throb behind his eyes. Al had access to every office, closet, and bathroom in the building. How he cracked the safe’s code was a mystery, but who knew what Newton family secrets the old janitor uncovered in the company trash? Jill slid another round through Marv’s calves and purred. “Yep, it had to be Al.” She chirped in agreement, hopped unto the counter, and sat. “But I didn’t tell him about the scene, did I?” Jill licked her paw without answering. After four scene rewrites, Marvin had not crafted a plausible scenario in which Roland beat Buck at the card table. Nothing worked…until he realized the goal was simply to take the gold. His hero, Roland Slick, could do it any way he pleased. A con was a con whether at the card table, in the boardroom, backroom, or bedroom. Roland opted for the bedroom and hired the hooker to help pull it off. Miss Samantha kept Buck occupied while Roland made the switch. A pile of yellow penny candy for Buck’s gold. Not chocolates but close enough to give Marvin goosebumps.


Jill broke his daze with a short cry for attention. Marv grabbed her bowl and held it under the faucet. Nothing. He’d pay Longview Sewer and Water after the power company got theirs. “We’ll figure it out girl. There’s water in the toilet for now.”


Jill hopped from the counter and vanished down the hall. Seconds later, a high-pitched meow wormed its way through his ear canal and married itself to the now never-ending throb living in the base of his skull. Jill called out again, this time a deep long plea. The toilet lid. Marvin grabbed a handful of candles and a box of matches. Tonight’s scene should come easy, but first, water the cat.


***


Stanley pounced as Marv walked into an unusually quiet morning lobby. Arms crossed, feet squared, Bear blocked the door to the factory floor and Marvin’s coffice eighty-one steps and three turns away. “Follow-me.”


Marvin lagged several paces behind as they walked in silence down the hall. The deep thud of Stanley’s boot-heals echoed off each closed door they passed. “They’re on the plant floor for a surprise safety meeting,” Stanley spoke without breaking stride.


Marvin wanted to run. Drop the brown bag with left-over tuna and run to freedom. He knew Bear was not going to kill him, but the urge to flee only grew as they passed the copy room down the hall from Stanley’s den. Something stunk. Bad. The smell reminded Marvin of a dead dog. Not the whole odor palate, only the spectrum that deals with shit. Marv had no other word. The kind that ER doctor’s or coroner's can best tell you about. A nice bit of trivia he learned at sixteen when he found a neighbor, Mrs. Carlock, properly deceased for at least twelve hours sprawled out on her kitchen floor. Nightgown cocked up her veiny thigh, the stale smell of Sunday morning’s left-over eggs had no chance against Betty Carlock’s eighty-year-old guts when they let go and showed the world their true colors.


Bear opened the door to the source of the smell. “After you.”


Three larger-than-life, hand patted, fecal replicas of Stanley’s medals rested on the center of his desk. Each sparkled from a heavy peppering of gold glitter. Marvin stepped through the door, stumbled to the chair, and sank down. Closer to ground zero but it was either the chair or floor. The door closed then clicked locked. Bear’s heavy steps crept from behind and passed.


Stanley leaned with his butt on the desk, arms crossed, face flat. “Marvin, Marvin, Marvin. I had no idea what a nut job you are.” The putrid smell of patted intestinal leftovers four feet away intensified when Bear pulled a latex glove from his jacket pocket and slid it over his right hand.


“I-”


“Shut your mouth,” and Marv did. “Keep it closed until I say open.” Bear paused, “I want them back.” Stanley resumed his resting position against the desk. “I always knew you were a nobody Marvin. No more than a little tick gorging yourself on everyone around you.” Bear slid his gloved middle finger through the middle medal and held it up to Marvin. “What I didn’t know was that you’re insane.” He eased the glittery nugget under Marv’s nose a moment before taking a better look himself. “I mean Marvin, come on. You have some serious mental health deficiencies. That’s why I’m not calling Baxter to come lock you up. You’d probably get off clean and end up living off Uncle Sam. No, no, no, Marvin. We’ve known each other for a long time, so we’re going to handle this ourselves.”


Marvin wanted to scream but couldn’t catch his breath.


Bear, middle finger standing in salute, wagged it. “Not until I say.” Stanley eased the finger down, careful to keep the clump intact. “You see Marv, you’ve had me all wrong. I’m not a bad guy, but I could care less about you.” He eased off the desk toward Marv. “I do however, care about my medals.” Bear moved directly behind. The big man’s hot breath warmed Marv’s bald-spot despite the distance. “Look at me Marvin.”


Marvin leaned back his head to reveal an upside-down Bear towering over him. Stanley’s soiled middle finger hovered a foot above his nose.


“Open.” Bear’s clean hand clamped down on Marv’s cheeks. His jaw muscles, no match against Stanley’s huge fingers, lost a quick fight and Marvin’s mouth opened. Stanley slid his shitty finger inside and brushed.


***


Marv came to, slumped against a toilet, in one of the seldom used bathrooms closer to his own office. Al leaned on a mop outside the open stall door. “You look like shit,” he cocked his nose to the ceiling, “smell like it too.” Marv tried to flip him off but couldn’t muster the strength and flashed him an awkward peace sign. Al squatted close. “Are you ready to write like a real Wordslinger?” Marv nodded, leaned over the toilet, retched, nodded again. “Good, I think you are. Get yourself cleaned up and ready to go. I’m going to take care of your mess then take you home.”


Outside, a train warned any would be crossers not to try. Inside, Marvin spit a bit of nastiness into the toilet. “What time is it?”


“Like you my good friend, I don’t carry a watch, but by the sound of that train, I’d say 6:30 is about right.” Al side-stepped a puddle of puke as he eased out of the stall. “Time to go. You’ve got a busy night. Lots of ideas the world needs to see, and you get to show them Marvin. Show them who you really are.”


***


Jill didn’t greet him in the kitchen as usual. He called but his heart wasn’t in it. He had Roland all wrong. He wasn’t a con or a man of cards. Roland Slick was a gunslinger, and gunslingers don’t chase gold. They deal justice. By seven-thirty, Marvin had four-hundred new words in his steno. Jill passed through around eight, sniffed under the table and left. At nine, Dr. Murray called with a message. Three-hundred sixty dollars for Jill’s next round of tests. Lab costs bill separate. No more special nights dining on the town.


Marv wrote harder.


At ten o’clock he filled his last steno book and panicked. He should have restocked writing supplies instead of buying Jill a toy. She played with it five minutes before a stupid bottle-cap grabbed her attention. Selfish, self-absorbed Jill. Always about her. He flung the pantry door open and scanned the shelf. There, on the floor, spare toilet paper. He grabbed a roll, yanked a fistful off, and scribbled a note. No idea what he wrote, but he knew it was good because it came from rage. Rage at her. Rage at him. An ancient hatred once locked away...all it needed was a prick to release the venom festering within. Marvin slammed his pencil onto the table and screamed. By midnight he filled two more rolls. Roland’s mission became simple. Find Buck and shove the gold down his damn throat. He was tired of his antagonist out-smarting him, out-playing him, and out-matching him. Marv’s lead flew with power. Every word hit its target. The slinger knew it and laughed while he wrote. Around two, toilet paper supply exhausted, Marv’s concept of time clocked out. His panic over the paper outage might have lasted a paragraph or an entire library of works. Waves of anxiety pounded his heart and poured from his skin as words piled up in his mind. A frantic search for something new to write on yielded something new to write with. His thumb slammed into a black marker stashed in the back of his kitchen junk drawer. He started the next sentence right there, high on the patch of empty wall beside the fridge. He paused a moment to wonder why he’d never thought of it before.


Then his hand came alive and danced with the permanent marker in every room. He’d never felt closer to his writing, to his characters, to Roland.


***


Hundreds of words peered from above when Marvin Blick opened his eyes. His final draft of The Slinger’s Revenge. More scenes greeted him from once barren walls. No page numbers or chapter breaks, Marvin needed neither. He knew his story by heart and now so would the world. Instead of a shower Marv opted for a hand-towel and strategic scrubbing. He pocketed his keys and headed to the office with a smile. His morning commute didn’t change, same sharp curve on Forrest Street, same pothole on 3rd., but Marvin knew he had changed. Finally, a Wordslinger whose lead mattered.


He remembered the note about Jill when he turned onto Industrial Blvd. The one he wrote on toilet paper. It seemed important then, a matter of life, even death. Not so much now. Marvin understood his part was over. The Slinger’s Revenge was complete. He could move from writer to reader and enjoy. Buck got what he deserved. Flashing lights, emergency vehicles, and caution tape didn’t take him by surprise as he pulled into the employee parking lot. The chaotic scene needed no introduction. He parked in his normal spot and headed toward the lobby doors.


A group of guys, none of which he recognized, lingered outside the caution tape and beside the front parking-lot dumpster. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”


The group of three looked up in tandem but only for a moment. Their hushed conversation continued without him.


“Anybody else hurt? Emily from HR?” Marvin remembered her kindness. “She okay?”


A big guy, whose shirt called him Jim, offered a smoke. “I’m sure she’s with the family. Baby sister’s gotta step it up now. Or with Sheriff Baxter.”


Marvin waved the cigarette away. “Baby sister?”


“You alright Marvin?” This from another big guy whose blue denim shirt didn’t have a name. “Stanley’s little sister. Emily Newton, class of 95’. Couple years behind us.” The big unnamed man shot a look at Big Jim. “Married Scott Williams. You sure you’re okay man?”


Marvin had no idea what No Name and Big Jim were talking about. “Yeah, just...”


A younger man, also nameless but a lover of bluegrass according to his t-shirt, spoke up. “I know, crazy. Those medals shoved down his throat like that. I heard there was nothing left of his mouth but a damn hole...like a cave with those jagged things coming down from the ceiling except with blood and pieces of bone and teeth. Said it looked like an animal had been slaughtered in there.” The pitch of his voice dropped with his chin. “Anyway, that’s what I heard.”


No Name fished a can of snuff from his back pocket and plopped a couple of pouches inside his cheek. “Emily found him at his desk this morning. I heard Vickie from sales found her passed out.”


Big Jim aimed his unlit cig at Marvin. “Hey man, we’re all supposed to stick around and talk to the police. Give a statement or whatever.”


Marvin turned to leave before Big Jim finished his sentence. He didn’t need to hear more. He had read the gruesome details on his way out the door less than an hour ago. It’s what he came to see, the climax of the final draft of his best work. Writer turned reader. A trick he enjoyed but didn’t understand. Marvin sidestepped an overturned mop-bucket and paused. “Any of you guys seen Al?”


“Alvin Oliver? Pack Line Supervisor?”


Marvin knew the name but not the man. “No. Al the janitor. Old guy, cleans our crap, worked here...well forever.” Marvin turned to three concerned faces. Big Jim leaned on his janitor cart. No Name and Bluegrass squatted beside theirs.


Bluegrass eased into the obvious. “You sure you’re okay, Marvin? You’re looking at the only cleaning crew we’ve had the past two years. That right Bo, two years?”


No Name nodded, “Yeah, that’s about right.” He stood and reached out to Marvin. “Dude, you don’t look good. You want a water? Couple of us are riding down to that church on the corner, the white one with the big cross by the road. They’re cooking and everything, you know, because…” a stream of tobacco-spit shot from his pinched lips. “Well, I heard Emily goes there.”


“No thanks.” Marv didn’t want any Jesus talk today. “I need to get home.”


Big Jim called after him. “What do you want us to tell the police?”