By Stephen James,
“Write me a story in the style of Hemingway.”
I watch the middle-aged man in the tailored suit with disdain as he states commands to the soulless, unblinking Ernest.
“And don’t make it too long. Novella length is acceptable, but no more than two-hundred pages. Oh, and the setting needs to be in outer space. No stories about fishing or fighting bulls or any of that crap.”
A series of beeps and boops emanate from the hollowed marble white mannequin before it mechanically speaks. “Your story is complete and is now printing. Please go to the register for payment processing.”
“Thanks Ernest, old buddy,” says the man as he pats the statue on the shoulder. “Can’t wait to read what you’ve come up with.”
The man walks towards me past all the other soulless greats occupying my store: Joyce, Vonnegut, Atwood, King, Woolf, Munro, Faulkner, O’Connor, Steinbeck. He pauses in front of the one that looks like George R. R. Martin and stares as if he’s thought of another brilliant story concept. I’m relieved when he walks away. I should have never put up those damn statues.
The man approaches the register and for a moment, there is a flutter in my belly. Maybe he will stop and browse my collection of legacy books that line the few shelves in the store. Instead, he saunters past them and another little piece of me dies.
“Hell of a shop you got here. A buddy of mine told me about this place. Said you had something real special going on here. I thought all bookstores went the way of the dodo.”
“Yes, well, in an ever changing market, one has to be flexible and adapt in order to survive.” Sometimes I can’t stand the tripe that comes out of my mouth.
“Well, let me tell you, it’s brilliant. There’s nothing like the feeling of an actual book. Holding it in your hands, feeling its weight. The smell of pressed ink on uncoated paper. You’ve created a genuine experience here. How much extra for the leather binding?”
“Five-hundred, bringing the total to one-thousand and fifty-two credits.”
The man taps his wrist wallet on the RFID scanner next to my antique register and I verify the credit transfer to the store’s account.
“How long have you been in business?” The man asks without looking at me. He’s too busy inspecting the rest of the store.
“Forever,” I tell him as I carefully place the pages of his novella in the binding machine with the leather cover. “This store belonged to my grandparents, then to my parents, and now to me. I’ve been running it for the last fifty-years.”
“So, who’s going to take it over from you?”
“Haven’t figured that out yet.”
The man snorts with laughter for the obvious reasons. I know I’m too old to be thinking about children. The only thing in my life I have time for, that I ever had time for, is my store.
“If you like the real thing, we have a few legacy books. I even have a fourth edition print of The Old Man And The Sea.”
This time, the man cackles. “You remind me of my grandpa. He used to keep proper books around. Had an enormous collection. It’s thanks to him I actually know who most of these ol’timers are.” He gestures back to the statues.
“Is that right?” It hurts to sound this pleasant.
“Yep, but then he died when I was about thirteen. My Dad packed up the whole darn house, books and all and hauled it to the waste destruction facility.”
“He didn’t let you keep any of the books?”
“Hell no. Said they were a waste of space. What with everyone having their own Access Display Device. And fAIction can create better stories than any of these fossils ever could, all with a simple prompt. What’s the point of old books he would say.”
Now he’s holding my gaze while the silence hangs between us.
“If they don’t matter, why did you come in here and ask for a story in the style of Hemingway? Why didn’t you come in here like every other rube with the most brilliant idea on the earth and ask for an erotic zombie thriller or a samurai space drama?”
The man smiles like he’s trapped me in a checkmate. “Look, I’m just a man who appreciates the past. And by looking at your sales records recently, I’m not the only one. Everything is cyclical. What’s old becomes new again. And despite your advanced years, you’re selling the shiniest new thing. But let’s be honest, you’re not a bookstore. You’re a printing press. There are no authors anymore. There hasn’t been for decades.”
“That doesn’t mean they weren’t important. That their stories weren’t important. The machines would have never learned if it wasn’t for their stories feeding them. If it wasn’t for people.” My chest is getting heavy.
“You know, I didn’t come here to get into a philosophical debate with you. I came to make you an offer.”
The man reaches at the inside of his Italian wool suit jacket and pulls out his ADD. He taps the screen with quick successive movements of his index finger before revealing the display. I’ve never seen so many credits in my life.
“I want your business,” he says. “All of it.”
“Why do you want to take my store from me?”
“Why do you want to keep it?” he snaps back. “In the vain hope you’ll start selling legacy books again? That keeping up these pathetic statues will remind people where stories came from? Nobody cares.”
The weight on my chest is too unbearable now. “But I care. I care. Now get the hell out of my store.” I pull his Hemingway style book from the binding machine and throw it at him. “Leave now.”
The man bends down and picks up the book from the dusty wooden floor. In its place, he leaves a business card. “We’ll chat again,” he says before walking out the door.
When he’s gone, I rush to lock the door. I pick up the business card and rip it into tiny pieces, tossing them about like snowflakes. I can’t calm down. I walk to the storage closet and pull the old crow bar my dad had me use to open up the crates of books that were shipped here. It’s familiar cold makes me think of him, my mom, my grandparents, all that we did to pass on the wonder of the written word.
I take the crowbar to the front room and let hell rain down on Hemingway. With one swing, I send King’s head flying. In unbridled fury, I tear Faulkner’s limbs out. O’Connor, Munro, and Vonnegut crumble beneath cold, hard steel. I destroy them all, and every fAIction machine connected to them.
After it’s all over, I slump to the ground in exhaustion. Sitting among the rubble, and destroyed machinery, the weight from my chest eases, like some unknown force is lifting it away. I lean to the shelf with my legacy books and pull out The Old Man And The Sea and read; He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
Stephen James is an emerging author and Civil Engineer living in Calgary, Alberta. He plays guitar, and writes songs with his wife when they’re not chasing around their two young boys.