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Fiction Science Fiction Drama

Marvin stared at the coffee table next to him in his office at his book printing company, processing the words he'd just heard. The icing on the cake that said “After all, tomorrow is another day” – the last line of the novel Gone with the Wind – was melting, the balloons that had been shoved into the back corner with a few champagne bottles looked dusty and half-deflated, and the “Happy Retirement” banner hanging sadly from the ceiling cast a literal and figurative shadow over them. The colorful party supplies that just half an hour ago had represented an exciting new chapter in his life, now seemed like a mockery, grotesque and clichéd like a sad clown.

Marvin pressed his eyes closed and opened them. “Sorry... A shoe store?” he said.

Across the heavy mahogany desk his daughter Kass exchanged looks with her two brothers, sitting on both her sides. They'd come prepared, with their hologram statistics and figures and a see-through 5D prototype of a shoe store now floating in the air ominously like the dark cloud that it was.

And the android. The android amused Marvin, despite the circumstances. What, they'd thought they'd need back-up? Would they have the 5-foot-tall rainbow-colored robot detain him if he didn't abide by their wishes?

Kass cleared her throat. “Well, Dad, me and my brothers...”

“My brothers and I,” Marvin interrupted.

Kass sighed. For a moment it looked like she might try to argue with her old man but then seemed to think better of it. “Okay, Dad,” she said. “My brothers and I. We've been crunching the numbers and as much as all of us would like to continue printing books...” She looked meaningfully around the table at her brothers who were nodding their heads emphatically.

“... we feel like it has, you know, run its course.”

Marvin leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed. He glanced at the cake again. That literary quote written with that blue icing... whose idea had that been?

“Run its course?” he echoed at last.

“Yes,” Kass said. “Sadly,” she added hurriedly, as if that would soften the blow. “There's a reason this is the last book printer in the galaxy, Dad. Books have become obsolete. That's just a fact. Even those pretentious book-sniffers have now moved onto sniffing other things. And the idea of using books as fun gravity weights... well, it never really took off.”

“I see,” Marvin said as calmly as he could. “So, what you're telling me is that you want to turn my printer, my life's work, my parents' and grandparents' legacy, into... a shoe store?”

“Shoes are timeless, Daddy,” Kass said. She always called him “Daddy” when she wanted to get her way and she usually did. “There will never come a time when shoes are obsolete. Not in the near future anyway. And I have statistics to prove that.”

Marvin saw Kass's lips moving but he wasn't listening anymore. Obviously, this wasn't a conversation he had anticipated on having on the day of his retirement, the day before his children were to take over the business. He'd anticipated cake, yes, drinking champagne from plastic mugs, having a laugh with his employees and hugging them goodbye, going home to his wife and sleeping the night like a baby, knowing that his family legacy would be safe with his own flesh and blood. But instead here he sat, listening to his own daughter go on and on about... what? Shoes?

“Interesting,” Marvin managed after Kass had finally finished her shoe-rave, and turned to face the small android standing across from him.

“Hey, Sara?” he addressed the robot that beeped in response. “Can you look up the symptoms of 'going crazy?' Because that seems rampant here right now.”

Kass looked down, embarrassed, as the little android beeped and whirred and started talking with speed. “'Going crazy' also known as 'going mad' or 'losing one's mind' or 'losing one's marbles' is a derogatory term to describe spontaneous insanity-”

“Abort request, Sara,” came a male voice. That was Dex, Marvin's eldest son, sitting on the right side of Kass, staring at Marvin condescendingly. Marvin stared right back. He had no doubt that this was all Dex's idea, for the kids to spring their plans on him today of all days, after his party, after he'd said goodbye to his employees, when it would be harder for him to cancel it all without losing face. It was all so manipulative that Marvin felt sick to his stomach. God knew he loved all his children, but this had Dex's name written all over it.

“That right there just proved our point, Dad,” Dex said and immediately softened his statement with his well-rehearsed smile that was just a little too perfect, a little too reassuring, and lasted just a little too long. Marvin knew that smile well – that was Dex's salesman smile, the one he gave all his clients, the one that made him the best salesman on this planet, probably in the galaxy.

“You know you don't have to ask Sara to define things anymore,” Dex continued. “Now you can just connect Book_smArt straight to your brain stream like the rest of us.” Theatrically, he touched the hairline on his right temple with his immaculately manicured fingernails, extracted the little bullet-shaped device that Marvin so loathed and held it in front of him with both hands like a goddamn holy grail. “And this is why books are obsolete, Dad. Who needs some cumbersome waste-of-trees when you can have a full library in your head at your disposal 24/7?”

Marvin chuckled out of irritation. “I've already tried your device, Dex, and I hated it.”

Something flashed in Dex's eyes – annoyance or impatience maybe – but he covered it up quickly with that infuriating fake smile again. “But you didn't really give it a fair chance, Dad,” he said in slow tones. “Isn't that the truth?”

Marvin leaned forward in his chair. “I didn't give it a fair chance?” he echoed. “Son, do me a favor and save me your sales scripts, eh? Is it that hard to understand that not all of us want our stories condensed, dumbed down, and fact-checked? That we just want to enjoy them, ponder on them, think on our own? I mean, for God's sake, that damn device cut The Old Man and the Sea down to one phrase: 'Man tries to catch fish, man doesn't catch fish.' The end. Oh yeah, and then there was the fact-check bit informing me that there was no historical record of a fisherman called Santiago or his apprentice Manolin ever having lived in Cuba in the 1940's.”

His children exchanged looks again. Lee, the middle child and always the one to voice what all three of the kids were thinking, was the first to speak. “Dad,” he said, disappointed, “Look what you've done! You've now gone and spoiled the ending of The Old Man and the Sea for us. We might as well not even read it anymore.”

Marvin scoffed in his mind. Like you would ever have read it anyway, he thought but out loud he said, “It's not only about the ending, son. There's something to be said about the middle as w-”

“Yeah, yeah, Dad, we know,” Lee blurted, irritated. “It's about the journey, stop and smell the intergalactic roses and yada yada yada.”

Marvin stared at Lee, who stared back defiantly. Who was this man? He certainly wasn't the same little boy Marvin had taken with him to the book print 25-some years ago, the same who'd stared at the noisy machines, completely transfixed, as Marvin had felt pride swell in his chest. That's my boy, he'd thought. Baby-Lee had looked at his father, wide-eyed, and then extended his chubby little index finger toward the machines, as if trying to feel the energy, capture the magic of this place, of the legacy that would one day be his. Whatever had happened to that little boy and how he'd become this grouchy, cynical adult who measured the value of everything by numbers and figures was beyond Marvin.

Lee cleared his throat, probably realizing he'd come across a bit harsh. “The thing is,” he said then, “people don't have time for books anymore. And, yes, I get that they're part of history, but so are dinosaurs. And you wouldn't want dinosaurs back, would you? I mean, look what happened in Dinosaur Park!”

Marvin smiled at Lee's awkward attempt to relate to him using a literary reference. “You mean, Jurassic Park?” he said.

Lee waved his hand dismissively. “Potato, potahto,” he said, drew a breath and continued, “Anyway, Book_smArt gave me this suggestion about a parable from the before-before times that might help better explain our views. You mind if I share it with you?”

Marvin sighed and leaned back in his chair. He knew that this was one of the things the device did – extracted information from people's conversations and made suggestions based on them. Sometimes the suggestions were just phrases, good come-backs, or old sayings that were fitting for the moment, and sometimes they were anecdotes, fables, parables and such. In a condensed form, of course.

He shrugged. “Fine.”

Lee looked surprised, as if he hadn't expected his father to say yes. “Okay, well, since you're not wearing your Book_smArt, I'll send it to Sara. Hold on.” He pushed some buttons on his device and the android beeped and whirred and then, with speed, spoke, “Title: The Cow Story. Condensed version. Parable. Side note: Parables are rarely historically accurate but rather exist to teach a moral or religious idea. Therefore, there remains no evidence of this parable or the moral of it being based on any kind of factual information.”

Marvin couldn't help but laugh. “Loving the preface,” he said and his children shushed him in unison.

Sara beeped and whirred again and then started the story: “There was a poor family that lived off a cow. One day a monk and his disciple came to visit the poor family. The disciple killed the cow. The family had to find other sources of income. [Fast-forward] In the end, the family was better off as the cow no longer held them back. The End. Now 70 percent off on foam fingers at Fran&Frankie's. Fancy a nice burger? Two for one Tuesdays at Jimmy's...”

“Oh, crap,” said Lee, frantically pushing the buttons on his device until Sara stopped talking. “Sorry about the last bit,” he said. “I need to upgrade my subscription to get my Book_smArt ad-free.”

Marvin found this amusing. “Of course you do.”

“What Lee is trying to say, Dad,” chimed in Kass, “is that the book printer is kind of like that cow. You get rid of it, and you'll thrive.”

Marvin held his hand up. “Yeah, I got that, kid. No need to patronize me.” And with that, he suddenly felt exhausted. What was he doing? He was too old for this. This whole thing felt like trying to explain a mathematical equation to an amoeba, and he wasn't sure if the amoeba in this scenario wasn't he himself.

He cleared his throat and got up from his chair. “Listen, kids, it's been a long day. If you don't mind, I would like to be alone now, please.”

“But... the shoe store...” Dex started but then trailed off as he saw from the look on his father's face that he didn't want to hear one more word about the shoe store, not today.

“Kids, I love you,” Marvin said, “You're my whole life. But so is this company. I assure you I've heard all your concerns, but right now I really need to be by myself.”

Kass looked at her brothers. They gave each other an almost indiscernible nod and started getting up. The sound of chairs scraping against the floor ensued.

Dex and Lee came to shake Marvin's hand and Kass gave him a quick, tight hug. “Bye, Dad,” she said gently. “We'll talk more later.” And just when she was about to step out the door, she turned around. “Happy retirement, Daddy!”

Marvin nodded. That was all he managed to do.

He waited until the elevator door had closed behind his children, then grabbed one of the opened champagne bottles, and headed to the printing room, for one last time. The sound of the presses greeted him at the door and, right away, it felt easier to breathe. He sat down on one of the red plastic chairs in the corner, downed big gulps of the warm champagne, and then just sat there and listened to the sound that was not only his and about twenty other people's bread and butter but so much more. The last printing presses in the galaxy. The last survivors.

The kids weren't wrong, of course, Marvin knew that. The business wasn't making money, not as much as it used to anyway, and people's interest in books was waning. Maybe he was holding on too tightly to the past, to the last dinosaur that nobody would miss. Maybe it was time to pull the plug.

“Hey, I didn't realize you were still here,” came a voice from behind him. Marvin spun his head around and saw Samantha's smiling face stick out from the doorway, her long toffee-colored hair hanging over her left shoulder. Samantha had been working for Marvin for only a year, but she was a great employee. Sharp and enthusiastic, with fresh ideas.

Marvin smiled at her. “Having a hard time leaving all of this behind, I guess.”

“I can imagine,” she said, “But don't you worry. Your children are going to take great care of your baby.”

Yeah, if you like shoes, Marvin thought but out loud he said, “Yes, I'm sure you're right.”

Samantha gestured to the seat next to him. “You mind?”

“Not at all.”

With a grin, the young woman sat down next to him on the creaky chair and, for a moment, both of them just stared at the presses, listening to the comforting white noise they made.

“You know,” she said at last, “my grandmother used to have a bookstore in the before-before times.”

Marvin looked up at her, realizing how little he actually knew about her. “Really?”

“Yeah. They were calling books a dying art even then. My mom took over but had to close up soon due to lack of business.”

“Hm.” Marvin looked down. “I can understand that.”

Samantha nodded. “I grew up with books, of course. Reading them, loving them...”

“And what's your favorite?”

“From the modern ones?” she said, casting her eyes up at the ceiling, “Galaxis Now. From the classic-classics, hm, maybe Fahrenheit 451.”

“Really?” Marvin was surprised. He was quite sure his own children had never even heard about that book.

“Yeah, I think so,” Samantha said. “You know how they were burning books in that one, like it was something that might actually happen in the future? That story was set in 1999, can you imagine? Nobody knew that books would make it as long as they have, even after e-books, Book_smArt and all that...” She turned to him and nudged him gently in the shoulder, as if they'd know each other for a long time, as if he weren't her boss, and added, “And that's thanks to you. You and your family. You've just kept going, despite everything.”

Marvin felt his cheeks turn red. “Yeah... I guess.”

Samantha gave him a quick smile and got up. “Well, I should go. I hope you enjoyed the cake?”

He nodded. “That Gone with the Wind quote? Your idea?”

Samantha shrugged. “Maybe,” she said with a grin. “Have a good night. And happy retirement.”

“Yep,” Marvin said. He listened to the sound of Samantha's heels clicking towards the door and then, almost as if witnessing this scene from outside of his body, he spun his head around. “Hey, Samantha?” he heard himself say.

The clicking of the heels stopped. “Yes, Marvin?”

Marvin turned around in his chair, looked at Samantha, and as he did so, some weight that had been there for months, even before he knew his children would turn his legacy into a shoe store, suddenly fell off. He wasn't sure if it was something that Samantha had said, the comforting sound of the printing presses or the warm champagne that was burning in his throat and stomach, but when the words came out, he knew they were the right ones.

“How would you like to take over this business?”

November 28, 2020 01:41

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3 comments

Hope Reynolds
22:59 Dec 02, 2020

Great idea to write from his point-of-view!! Got good dialogue or characterization of the Dad's outward self, too. I might put some punctuation or such in the line about the printing press being the bread and butter of many people. And I might change the following part: "Whatever had happened to that little boy and how he'd become this grouchy, cynical adult who measured the value of everything by numbers and figures was beyond Marvin." I feel it would be better to split it into a question, and then the "how" into a sentence. May...

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Katariina Ruuska
00:08 Dec 03, 2020

Hi, Hope! Thank you so much for your really nice and helpful critique! You're absolutely right about the two lines you pointed out; I do have a tendency to write long and confusing sentences sometimes #Non-NativeEnglishSpeakerProblems ;) Unfortunately, it's a bit too late to make edits to this story, but I'll bear your advice in mind for my next one :) Thank you again!

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Hope Reynolds
05:48 Dec 03, 2020

No problem, and Thank you! Your first language isn't English? You write it amazing!

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