Welcome to the radio broadcast. Tonight we begin with the first episode of “The Book That Sells Itself, a Parable in Four Parts.”
Some books are important because they change the way people think. Those dangerous little books, I like to call them—and indeed they often are slim volumes. These books introduce new ideas, and the world is never the same.
Other books have power because everyone has a copy. Take the dictionary, it provides clarity by setting down the plain meaning of every word.
And then there are the rare books. People covet what they can’t have.
I’m holding one of those right now. I wonder, might it be the last copy left in all the world? It is a book titled, The Fruit With No Stone.
If you’re nodding, stop. This instant.
Let me be clear. You’ve never heard of this book.
If it sounds familiar, that is because of the vague, ambiguous title.
Besides, this is not your story. You know nothing of this world.
Let us begin at an auction held inside a drafty barn on the edge of a small town. Several people sit patiently on empty barrels and bales of hay. They focus their attention on a raised platform where the auctioneer runs the proceedings.
Two young men sit on the front row. They lean forward intently with each new item. The one with the dark hair goes by the name of Alabama. He is an easy-going lad, not much taller than a stump, being how he describes himself. Leighton, thin and fair, is the more thoughtful of the pair. These two have been traveling the dusty roads for years. As salesmen, they offer produce, hardware, clothing, just about anything they can purchase cheap enough to make a profit.
They are low on funds and completely bereft of any wares to peddle—as desperate as they have been in years. They do not bid on the farm implements, as those won’t fit in their little horse cart. For a moment they consider the assortment of antiquated electronic devices that the auctioneer claims to be of a medical nature, but they decide that the yellowed plastic chassises appear brittle, hinting that the internal components have corroded away.
By the time the last lot is brought out, the two salesmen have no choice. Desperation prompts them to bid on a battered wooden box. It is about the size of those chests sailors took to sea in adventure novels. The auctioneer announces that this box is locked. He has neither the key nor the slightest idea what might be inside.
“A pig in a poke,” Alabama whispers to his partner. “Let’s take a leap.”
They are not gambling men, but they need merchandise.
Their winning bid costs them the last of their money. The chest is so heavy it take the both of them to heave it onto their cart. They secure their prize with rope and ride away.
Later they set up camp in a meadow under an enormous oak tree. After the horse is unharnessed and allowed to graze nearby, Alabama uses a rock to smash off the rusty padlock. They peer inside.
Books. Almost a hundred of them. But not a variety. They are identical copies of the same title.
The Fruit With No Stone.
Yes. That book. Now you can nod your head.
Leighton is not in the habit of using profanity, but two, maybe three indelicate words escape his lips.
“Now hold on, there,” Alabama says. “A book isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. Don’t forget, we are professionals. Technique is what makes a man open his purse.”
“Well, sure,” Leighton mutters, unconvinced.
“You’re the brains,” Alabama says. “Read our book while I make supper. Then we can figure out our sales pitch.”
The sun is just setting, so Leighton hangs a lantern from a branch and sits with his back against the tree trunk. He opens up a copy of The Fruit With No Stone.
As Alabama rummages through their scant pantry, he whistles an upbeat tune. He assembles the delicate balance of spices that will elevate a simple turnip and barley stew into something celebratory. He is convinced the crate of books represents an auspicious beginning.
By the time the darkness has grown so that the full vault of the stars flicker above, Alabama places his camp stool in the circle of light from Leighton’s lantern.
“Ragoût de navet,” Alabama says, holding out a steaming bowl.
Leighton puts down the book and takes the offered stew—he sniffs dubiously.
“Stew, is it?”
“My mother always said,” Alabama explains, “food tastes better when you call it by a French name.” He takes his seat and begins to eat.
Once he notices that Leighton is enjoying the stew, Alabama asks what the book is about.
“No story to hold it together,” Leighton says in a dispirited tone. “If I were to put it into a category, I think I would call it an inspirational book.”
“Inspiration,” Alabama says with a grin. “Perfect! People love to have their spirits lifted.”
Leighton has no desire to argue the matter, however his spirits certainly aren’t elevated. The words he had just read were vague and they meandered, never congealing into anything that made sense. But isn’t that the nature of those sorts of books? Harmless platitudes that convey the illusions of profundity?
Alabama has been watching Leighton. He suddenly laughs.
“Let me take a crack at it.”
He tips up his bowl to slurp the last of his stew, and then he leans forward to take the book from Leighton’s hands. He flips to the beginning.
After only a few seconds, Alabama stiffens.
“Gramma’s great yodeling toads!” he gasps.
Leighton leans over to look.
The first page of the book is blank.
“But there were….” Leighton looks from the book to Alabama. “What happened to the words?”
Both men now know that this is a book unlike any they have ever encountered.
“They were there,” Alabama says, running a finger over the clean white page. “And then they weren’t.” He turns the page and, seeing words again, he continues to read. Alabama finds that these printed words have an unsettling quality—almost tactile—so that once they find their way into his head it feels as though they are dressed in silk gowns that brush against the inside of his skull. He realizes that, on the page, each word evaporates the moment his eyes pass over, but he is so intent moving on to the next that he doesn’t pause to marvel.
Leighton watches in amazement. He loudly proclaims that the book did not behave in such a manner when he read it. Leighton’s words, however, do not register in Alabama’s mind.
But what of the book? How do those words register in Alabama’s mind?
The odd fact is, The Fruit With No Stone doesn’t tell Alabama anything. The words can’t settle. Well, not at first. They don’t coalesce into meaningful ideas or musical poetry. They tease and tickle like the delicate paws of a tiny fox moving things around inside him. An indecisive rearranging of furniture, at first. But soon, major renovations are under way—walls knocked through, stairwells where closets used to be, everywhere plaster pulled down and swept away.
Time is also swept away, and it doesn’t return until Alabama has read every word out of the book. He closes it. The lantern flickers, almost out of oil. He looks up at the moon. He can feel it—that glowing orb so ancient and so lonely that a deep sadness spreads across Alabama’s chest. Then his attention is caught up by the broad and joyful choir of the crickets. Just underneath their song he detects the hollow snores of Leighton. At that moment it is so obvious that Leighton, the crickets, the grass bent beneath the horses’ hooves, the towering oak tree spreading its canopy above, are all the same. The same life, the same soul. Add the moon to that list…and all of the stars out to the end of the universe. Alabama’s mind reels.
He sits there, on his camp stool, trying to make sense of what the book has done to him.
By the time the sun clears the eastern horizon, he knows what he must do. He begins to fill a canvas backpack with some food and clothing.
“You’re leaving?” Leighton nervously asks as he sits up. The book is beside him on the bedroll, placed there by Alabama. Leighton fans the pages, but it is as he knew it would be. The pages are all blank. All but for the title page which has retained the bold print of The Fruit With No Stone. A mockery, one might say. This now being a book with no words.
A panic settles over Leighton. He can’t imagine continuing on alone. Alabama is the salesman, not Leighton.
When Alabama turns to look at him—his excited eyes wide with clarity—Leighton’s heart sinks. This is not the face of a salesman, not anymore.
“I read it through to the end,” Alabama says. “And I spent the night thinking how I am to live now with what those pages taught me. I have an obligation. I must go forth and spread the good word.” Alabama furrows his brow, looking at Leighton with deep pity. “Try reading one of them again.” He points to the wooden chest of books. “Try, really try.”
He shoulders his pack and walks towards the rising sun.
“But, Alabama,” Leighton croaks, his voice too soft for the other man to hear, “you’re the one with the salesman’s technique. Not me.”
Leighton keeps watching until his friend disappears behind a juniper bush.
But we won’t bother following. This is not the story of a man named Alabama Brocade.
Join us next week, when we continue our tale of this unusual book.
Erik Bosse is a New Orleans-based writer, filmmaker, and creative collaborator. His short stories have appeared in many literary journals. In the summer of 2023 his novel, Tales of Lost Southtown, will be published by FlowerSong Press. Much of Erik’s work can be seen on his website, www.erikbosse.com. Erik recommends URBAN-15.