The Marginals – J. T. Townley

The Marginals

J. T. Townley

                We found out about it by accident. The movie. It was a big slap in the face. T-Dub hadn’t been around much lately, and we’d been trying hard to ignore all the rumors. Some of us looked into them but found nothing.
                Then, by happenstance, Totebag and Inky Letters, strolling back across the river after a job well done, came upon an unexpected gathering of buffet tables, photography shades, and actors’ trailers. People everywhere, grips and gaffers, cameramen, producers, and actors, smoking cigarettes, nibbling sushi, looking bored in those goofy director’s chairs. It didn’t take long to spot him. Two-Wheeler, our friend and colleague, Defender of Cyclists and Champion of Sustainable Transportation. He sported cobalt blue spandex with a scarlet cape and eye mask. T-Dub! they hollered until he glanced over his shoulder. They said he looked fat and smug.
                We called an emergency meeting.
                Everyone was there, almost. We gathered at Marginalia, where we held our weekly meetings. Pages ran the bookstore upstairs, while Inky had a workshop in the basement where she kept her letterpress. Once strategy sessions for addressing injustices in Bridgetown, over time our meetings had lost their edge. But now we had a situation on our hands. One of our own had gone over. We had our work cut out for us.
                Pages let us in, locking the door behind us. He drew the shades. The place smelled like always: paper, ink, fresh-brewed coffee. We padded among the bookshelves into the café and pulled tables together. Kombucha Kid served the beverage he brewed in his basement.
                We all knew why we were here. We didn’t mince words. Something had to be done.
                We should be bigger than him, we said.
                Let’s not stoop to his level, we said.
                We’ll confront him directly, we said, or we won’t confront him at all.
                The decision was unanimous, for those of us in attendance. Analogue was absent, as was Homebrew. But we let them know what we’d decided, and they were all in. That was a relief. Cohesion and esprit de corps were our watchwords. We preferred to act in unison.

                Easier said than done. For one thing, following that chance encounter, T-Dub stopped attending weekly meetings altogether. For some time his presence had been spotty at best, but we’d usually see him once, maybe twice, a month. In addition to running the bookshop and letterpress, Pages and Inky sourced and roasted their own fair-trade coffee beans, and T-Dub was an absolute fiend for espresso. But that appeared to be over, despite the abundance of dark roast. He was now a permanent no-show, and given the situation, we weren’t exactly surprised.
                Still, we didn’t lose all hope. We’d known Two-Wheeler, one of the original Marginals, as long as we could remember. He was one of us. This situation was temporary, a brief lapse in judgement, a momentary indiscretion. No self-respecting Marginal would ever sell out, or let himself be coopted by the corporate hegemony, or whatever was going on here. Some Hollywood greaseball had preyed upon T-Dub’s vanity and greed: Enough with the anonymous altruism, he said. Get your piece of the pie! How could we blame him? We were all above the fray, or so we told ourselves, but given the same opportunity, would any of us have done any differently?
                Because we’d all considered it—every one of us—at least in the abstract. It wasn’t always easy to labor in the shadows, our names celebrated only by those most directly impacted by our service. When it came down to it, we all deserved recognition for our tireless, if niche, efforts. Maybe we couldn’t turn invisible or run faster than the speed of sound or melt steel with laser-beam eyes, but that didn’t mean we weren’t superheroes.
                So we tried to stay upbeat, a tall order in the face of so much resistance. T-Dub must’ve been busy, because we couldn’t get him to answer our calls. Any of us. We tried and tried, phoning morning, noon, and night, leaving voicemails that ranged from sincere pleas to guilt-laden diatribes. Nothing seemed to work. It was hard not to get discouraged. We were fresh out of super-patience.
                The next time we met as a group, Handmade offered this pearl: Any press is good press! We tried to be positive, but it stuck in our craw. We hated superhero movies! They were melodramatic, poorly acted, and utterly predictable. They were a scourge that bore no relation to the actual lives we led. Anyway, whatever buzz Bikeman: The Movie might create wouldn’t do us any good: T-Dub was looking out for number one. We tried to keep it all in perspective, but we blamed him anyway.

                We called a second emergency meeting, and while most of us showed, there were several conspicuous absences. Analogue phoned in her apologies but offered no reasonable explanation. Seitan and Homebrew were preoccupied with another lovers’ spat. This was no time to start falling apart, so we did our best to be patient and give them the benefit of the doubt. We’d accomplished easier feats, such as liberating the masses from the tyranny of disposable bags (Totebag), defending women and the printed word (Inky Letters), and educating citizens about the life-giving properties of ancient fermented beverages (K-Kid).
                We made a bold decision. It wasn’t one we relished, but desperate times and so on. T-Dub was clearly avoiding us, ignoring our phone calls, turning a deaf ear to our heartfelt pleas. He didn’t want to hear what we had to say. So there was only one thing to do: we’d have to take our dismay to his doorstep. We weren’t thrilled about going anywhere near the Bikeman shoot, for obvious reasons. But if the situation were different, if T-Dub had a gambling problem, drug addiction, or huge, unpayable loan shark debt, would we turn our backs on him? Of course not! We’d show him compassion, stage an intervention, do everything within our means, abilities, and powers to right the situation. This was the same thing—only worse.
                Much worse.

                (When Bikeman: The Movie hits theaters next summer, don’t blame us. It’s not our fault. We did everything we could.)

                We set out the next morning. We were all there, almost. Homebrew and Seitan were back, more lovey-dovey than ever (we tried not to gag), though Analogue didn’t show again, nor did she send her apologies this time. Secondhand Sue was nowhere to be found. Same with Nutmilk, but we heard she picked up a stomach bug.
                None of us had ever been hired as a paid actor, not even as an extra, so we had no insider knowledge, no insight or expertise. We didn’t have the foggiest clue. When we showed up at the Brompton Bridge, on the west side of the river, right where Totebag and Inky had witnessed all the hullabaloo, we discovered nothing but joggers and dog-walkers and cyclists enjoying the early spring sunshine.
                Didn’t you say this was the place? asked Pages.
                It is the place, Inky said.
                Totebag nodded. The whole thing was happening right here.
                Is it over? Needles wondered.
                I doubt it, said Inky. Those things take forever to make.
                They cost enough, said Homebrew.
                How much? Seitan asked.
                Too much, said Totebag.
                You don’t even want to know, said Inky.

                While there was an off-chance the shoot had wrapped, we had our doubts. So we scoured the city. We checked both sides of all the other bridges. We searched all five quadrants, downtown and uptown, east of the river and west, plus north Bridgetown, that diamond in the rough. When we found nothing, we started asking questions.
                Any hubbub in the neighborhood lately? we asked.
                Like a film shoot? we asked.
                Lights, cameras, actors in tights? we asked.
                Bridgetown citizens were patient and gracious, but they didn’t have much to offer. We bit our tongues as long as we could stand it, but soon our frustration boiled over.
                You sure you saw him? asked Pages.
                Seitan sneered. They probably made the whole thing up!
                What do you know? Inky said. You’re hardly ever around anymore, off with Homebrew in your love nest.
                It was all right there, plain as day, said Totebag.
                We were still bickering amongst ourselves, doubt spreading like bird flu, when Pages pointed up and said, Look.
                A helicopter hovered low, just above the Murphy Bridge. Red and blue lights flashed from emergency vehicles on the opposite side of the river, and shouting voices echoed across the water toward us.
                We thought: Bank heist? We thought: Terrorist attack? We thought: Movie shoot?
                Come on! said Inky, and we all followed.
                A man in black tights and cape pedaled away on a sleek, expensive-looking bicycle, while another man in cobalt blue spandex chased after him, scarlet cape flapping in the wind. A cable was lowered from the helicopter, and the black-clad villain grabbed it while still in motion, ascending into the air, bike and all, cackling hysterically. The other guy, who we realized was T-Dub, waved a scarlet-gloved fist in the air and shouted, You’ll never get away with this, Darkside!
                Told you, said Totebag.
                We watched them film that scene over and over again. Seriously, they must’ve done it seventeen times, resetting the actors and extras and cameras. Also, that chopper, whose steady thwack-thwack was becoming familiar as our own heartbeats.
                We glanced around: our numbers had dwindled. Seitan and Homebrew were nowhere to be found. By now, it was to be expected. But someone else was missing besides Analogue, Secondhand Sue, and Nutmilk. Then we realized: K-Kid. Maybe the melodramatic chase scene soured his stomach, to the point he was forced to stagger home and imbibe some of his own life-giving elixir. It was a gut-riling, bilious experience, to be certain.
                But we couldn’t turn back now. We had to see this thing through to the end. We timed it to confront T-Dub, aka Bikeman, out on the bridge, right in the middle of the scene. It would be more dramatic and impactful—and with any luck, convincing. We imagined encircling T-Dub, all of us holding hands, explaining how much we cared about and respected him, telling him he would soon understand that this was for his own good. We had it all planned out. We would bring him with us, even if we had to resort to force. Not that any one of us was very strong, but that was precisely the point: together, we could move mountains.
                We didn’t expect such a robust security detail. We’d barely approached the barriers before they were all over us, grimacing, flexing their jaws, grunting. No access, they said.
                But T-Dub—
                Two-Wheeler! The star?
                —is our friend.
                They glared back at us, thick arms pretzeled across their chests.
                You know, we said, Bikeman?
                Blue tights?
                He’s like a brother to us!
                No can do, they said. Move along.
                No matter how we reasoned, coaxed, or cajoled, they wouldn’t budge. Didn’t even crack a smile when we started in with our antics, juggling and handstands and one-liners. Those brawny men were all business.
                We drifted away, gritting our teeth and muttering under-our-breath curses.

                By the time we regathered at Marginalia, someone else was missing. Who’s not here? we wondered aloud, counting heads, gazing at each other blankly. Our minds were foggy with disappointment. We chewed our fingernails. We listened to the clock tick. We wished K-Kid hadn’t wandered off into the pollen-clouded afternoon, as we could use some of his special brew to help us think.
                Then one of us said, Where’s Needles?
                We gazed torpidly at each other again. Where had she gone? And when? We tried to retrace our steps, to remember when we last saw her. She was there with us as we attempted to cross the barrier and confront T-Dub about his treachery. Then, poof, she wasn’t. She was a solid Marginal, proud, loyal, true. We made excuses for her the best we could.

                We moped around for a few days. Although we responded to emergency calls for reading materials and letterpress printing demands, reusable bags and handcrafted everything, we were just going through the motions. Who could blame us? T-Dub was starring in his own movie. From what we’d learned, he even co-wrote the script! It was only impressive in a crude, corporate way—as in, of all the sellouts, he was the biggest. We vaped too much organic fair-trade cannabis. We drank too much espresso. The whole thing depressed us.
                On the bright side, Nutmilk returned. She got over what she called the flu (had she been testing the limits of her lactose intolerance?) and joined us at Marginalia, where we now gathered, dumbstruck, every evening. K-Kid dropped in, too. He never explained where he’d gone or why, and we didn’t want to press him. We understood how disheartening it was to witness T-Dub whoring himself to the masses. He was a local hero who avenged wronged cyclists, going after reckless drivers, recovering stolen bicycles, and spearheading stings to apprehend and arrest the thieves who took them. No wonder we were all reeling. It was a massive blow to see him prancing around in those brightly colored tights as Bikeman, corporate sellout.
                Most of us wanted to give up, but we knew that was out of the question: there was simply too much at stake. Still, we needed a new plan, and we needed it fast.
                Then Pages said: We should play to our strengths.
                What do you mean? we asked.
                Inky can print flyers. Totebag can print tote bags.
                What are you getting at?
                A guerrilla campaign. To shake T-Dub out of his zombie stupor.
                We tried that already, right? we said. It didn’t work.
                K-Kid can bottle his beverage with special labels. Super Sellout! maybe. Bikeman blows! That kinda thing.
                What good’s that gonna do?
                Maybe Needles can knit us a huge banner to drape from the bridge.
                By now, we were listening. What would it say? we wondered.
                Maybe just The Marginals. With our symbol.
                Our what?
                He thought for a moment, then snapped. A circle-M!
                Only one problem, said Inky, pouring coffee. Needles is still missing.
                Don’t worry, he said. She’ll be back.

                Except Needles didn’t come back. She didn’t pick up her phone or answer our knocks, and she kept clear of Marginalia. Why was she avoiding us? What was she up to? We had no way of knowing. The same way we didn’t understand what had happened to Analogue and Secondhand Sue, Seitan and Homebrew. One day they were here, the next day they were gone. It was baffling.
                But we didn’t let that stop us. We made excuses for them if we could, then carried on. Of course, their suspected defections gave us pause, even if none of us ever admitted as much aloud. We didn’t have to: everything was spelled out clearly in our expressions. But we forged ahead, printing leaflets and binding tomes, bottling fermented tea and silk-screening bags. A few of us formed a knitting circle, trying to pick up Needles’ slack, though we lacked her skills and vision. When Inky saw our finished product, she thought it was the picture of some kind of bird, crow maybe or raven. That settled that. We really missed Needles.

                The day came more quickly than we’d anticipated. The whole process hadn’t even taken us a week. We sent K-Kid out to scout, so we knew T-Dub’s movie shoot was still underway. We all fortified ourselves with a glass of fresh fermented tea, then we donned our best superhero outfits. Forget about capes, masks, and tights. We sported retro t-shirts and cardigan sweaters, skinny jeans and throwback Asics. Totebag wore a homespun sundress. Handmade donned a pearl-snap shirt and vintage Tony Lamas, while Nutmilk sported Daisy Dukes and roller skates. Pages put on a Cowichan sweater despite the springtime sunshine.
                Now we loaded Totebag’s VW bus with supplies: flyers and tote bags and cases of K-Kid’s libation with special labels. We added a few cans of spray paint in various colors, a crowbar, some pepper spray, three dozen eggs, and a box of stink bombs. Then we piled in and made our way, lurching and spluttering, to the esplanade, where T-Dub and his sellout cronies were now shooting.
                Security had the whole area cordoned off, so we couldn’t find a space anywhere close. That was for the best. We drove across the river and left the van at the park, then doubled back. We lugged backpacks and shoulder bags filled with supplies. We wheeled cases of kombucha on dollies. Halfway across the bridge, we stopped to palm eggs and stink bombs. As we approached the security barrier, we hid cans of pepper spray in cardigan pockets.
                The guards were even gruffer than last time. Until, that is, we offered them free beverages. They initially seemed wary, but they bought our explanation: new company, drumming up business, etc. When they noticed the labels—T-Dub on one side, Super Sellout! on the other—it was already too late. Their bewilderment, in part, was an effect of the Rohypnol. They slurred their disapproval for a few moments, then passed out cold.
                It was on.
                We were friendly and courteous at first. We grinned and greeted extras and support staff, passing out our merch. Everyone seemed delighted. Who doesn’t love free drinks and tote bags? By now, we’d worked our way to the edge of the action. We crept through the mob, keeping a low profile, hoping to be mistaken for interns or caterers. In the end, we flanked the director, assistant director, and director of photography, plus a slew of shiny-shoed producers, whose teeth glinted blue. We bided our time, waiting for just the right moment to set our plan in motion.
                All the while, we watched as T-Dub humiliated himself over and over again. As if that outfit wasn’t bad enough, Bikeman’s nemesis, Darkside, was a weasel of a man clad in black rubber, while his love interest, Bubbles, was a platinum blonde with Botox lips and balloon breasts who wore a schoolgirl uniform, plaid miniskirt and everything. It all confirmed our suspicions: Bikeman would be the same old stupid cliché. We couldn’t bear to watch.
                The director yelled, Cut!, then gave the actors notes. When he finished, Pages was waiting.
                A gift, he said, passing the director a hand-bound book.
                Who the fuck are you?
                Custom-made and hot off the press.
                How did you get on my set?
                We’re sure you’ll appreciate it.
                The director looked at the unmarked green hardcover, then opened it, read the title page, and flipped through. Every page said the same thing, over and over: Superhero movies suck! He forced a smile. Real cute, he said. Security!
                We heard the hiss of Pages’ pepper spray and the director’s surprised squeals. That was our cue. We sprang into action, dashing around the set, hollering and ululating and wailing like banshees. Handmade was in charge of the stink bombs, and he tossed them at actors, directors, and producers alike, so a sulfurous cloud soon enveloped the whole area. (We wore gas masks fashioned from bandanas.) Nutmilk filled two spray bottles full of almond-coconut blend, and she zipped on her roller skates among the movie people, some already unconscious, giving them faces full of nondairy goodness. Totebag barraged the set with eggs, while Inky smashed in cameras with a crow bar. Pages was making good use of the pepper spray, hosing down everyone within range. We all had spray paint, and we graffitied every surface in reach with circle-M’s, big and small. We are the Marginals! one or another of us shouted at random moments. It helped us keep tabs on each other in the midst of the chaos.
                Pages had the biggest score to settle, since he and Two-Wheeler had once been best friends. We could just make out his voice over the din of screams, sobs, and shattering camera lenses.
                The chickens have come home to roost! he said.
                What the hell are you doing? T-Dub shrieked.
                Try this on for size, sellout!
                Pages aimed his spray paint. We knew what he was going for: Corporate Stooge, Capitalist Lackey, something like that. But T-Dub was a moving target, since he bolted as soon as Pages got close, his cobalt spandex now accented with wobbly black streaks. Pages was quick, weaving among the vehicles and extras, but he couldn’t keep up when Two-Wheeler jumped on a bike and started pedaling. As he rode away, he shouted: I am Bikeman!
                Talk about a ham.
                By now, we could hear sirens. Aerosol fumes drifted on the sulfur-tinged breeze. We were covered in sweat, egg yolk, and Krylon overspray. But we were dedicated to our project and committed to one other, so when Pages started screaming, Abort! Abort! Abort!, most of us didn’t hear him. Or, even if we did, his words didn’t register. How could they penetrate all that adrenalin coursing through our veins?
                The Bridgetown PD hit the scene, lights flashing. We hadn’t expected the conflict to escalate to this point, and so quickly. We didn’t have an escape plan, assuming we’d simply disappear into the hipster masses when the confrontation had reached its conclusion. It was foolish. Foolhardy. The acme of arrogance. Now we were in a bind, on a bridge, hemmed in from both sides.
                Then K-Kid started hurling kombucha bombs, their fuses tracing orange arcs through the air. They exploded on police-car hoods, engulfing the vehicles in vinegary flames. A couple of officers even caught alight, and we watched in awe as other cops patted out the flames with gloves and jackets. Luckily, no one got hurt. Yet we sensed the narrative had just shifted.
                There was nothing to do but make a run for it. Only how? Police were swarming, and there was no obvious escape route. On her roller skates, Nutmilk slalomed among frenzied policemen, slippery as an eel. Sprinting for the guardrail at full tilt, Inky and Pages knocked down two cops, then dove off headfirst into the water below. Handmade jumped a freight train lumbering across the bridge. We can’t say for certain, but we’re pretty sure they got away.
                The rest of us weren’t so lucky. Those officers had us pinned to the ground in no time, shoving our faces into the asphalt. They trumped up all sorts of charges against us—destruction of property, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, you name it. The producers and directors, cast and crew were determined to see us behind bars, but T-Dub wouldn’t allow it. His old buddies? Not a chance.
                But he had conditions. They caught the whole thing on film, for one thing, and we had to let Two-Wheeler use some of the footage for the eventual trailer. We had to make amends to his colleagues, great and small, with handknit sweaters, fresh-roasted coffee beans, and so on. And worst of all, we had to take minor supporting roles in his trite mainstream superhero movie. We wanted to resist, but T-Dub had us by the short and curlies: accept his offer or face jailtime. We sought another option, a third way, a middle path, but found only T-Dub’s scorn. What else could we do but agree?

J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford.