The Island of Only One Story by John Fischer
A writer goes to an island. He is writing a story and wants to be alone.
He takes a long ferry-ride to get there. It is winter and the water is choppy, knocking the boat back and forth as it clips through the waves.
“Good,” the writer thinks. He believes the violence of the ocean is a sign of how far he is traveling, and how productive he will be when he gets there. He has all of his things in a duffle bag; leather, worn, smelling like the bottom of his father’s closet.
The island’s one town has cobblestone streets and shops that are all closed for the season. There is an empty supermarket with expired produce and meat that has gone gray.
“Good,” the writer thinks. He believes the poor selection means he is among ordinary people. People small enough to be contained in the bounds of his writing.
He sets to work early, filtering his coffee through a paper towel. He sleeps with his socks on, listening to the windows complain of the wind. In the afternoons he takes walks down onto the beach, his eyes stinging from the sand and the distance of the horizon, which is approximately forever.
He makes progress. The words come easily. He reads them aloud to himself, enjoying the shape they take in his mouth, and that there is no one around to hear.
Several weeks pass while the writer writes in solitude. He loses track of the date and the time. His watch, a self-winding thing, comes to a stop. As far as the writer knows, it is always 6:16. Aside from the tired-eyed cashiers at the market and the hooded laborers re-shingling houses, he does not see another soul. That is, until one morning, when the writer goes out for a walk.
Outside of his cabin and down a winding street, the writer can see a figure he has never seen before. He looks closer. It is a man. A man with a beard, like the writer’s beard. And glasses of a similar shape. And though the man is far away, the writer guesses that they are about the same age. The writer runs, jogs really, over to catch this man before he disappears.
“Excuse me,” the writer says. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” the man says.
“Oh, well I’m sorry to be rude,” the writer says. “I’ve just never seen you around.”
“That’s okay,” the man says, “It’s because you’re new.
“Not that new,” the writer says.
“New enough,” the man says. “Tell me, do you have plans for dinner this Thursday?”
The writer shakes his head, but then the writer is not sure when Thursday is anymore.
“Perfect,” the man says. “I believe I know some people you’ll want to meet.”
Then the man goes on his way, whistling a little.
The writer returns to his cabin to write. But every time he attempts to, he finds that the words won’t come. They no longer flow but tumble like rocks from a sack. They bang up against one another and make the sounds of children arguing.
The writer is, of course, frustrated. He has come to this island to write and now the one thing he has set to accomplish has become difficult. He tries taking a walk to the beach, to watch the gulls float in the coastal wind. He tries napping in the day and waking in the middle of the night, to trick the part of his brain that writes. But his brain refuses to be tricked.
After a time he realizes that his meeting with the man on the street is to blame. Something about it has crawled up under his skin and does not wish to be dislodged. He realizes, sipping his coffee with a mixture of satisfaction and annoyance, that until he resolves this mystery, his writing will not operate the way it had.
So the writer goes out in search of the man.
The winter has sunk its teeth into the island’s air, and the writer’s nose and fingertips go numb with an alarming speed. His breath puffs like an old steam engine as he walks briskly into town, looking for the man. He nearly turns his ankle on a cobblestone and yelps with pain.
Which is when he sees the other people.
The writer isn’t sure how he’d ever missed them, because they’re everywhere he looks. Men and women with frayed jeans and fingerless gloves, backpacks and preoccupied expressions. One has groceries, another carries a dog-eared notebook, a third is humming a four-bar refrain over and over. None of them seems to be in any particular hurry, some seem not to have any destination at all. They wander, first phantoms, now figures.
“What is this?” the writer asks himself. “I came here to be alone.”
Because he doesn’t see the man from the other day, and because now the writer is understandably curious, he approaches one of the newly-noticed people – a woman with a tangle of mousey brown hair and eyebrows that have not been plucked in some time. Half an answer will be better than no answer, the writer thinks.
“Excuse me,” the writer says. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” the woman says.
“Then how come I’ve never seen you around before?”
“Because you’re new here,” the woman laughs.
The writer is prepared for this.
“Okay then,” the writer says, “what do you do here?”
“I’m a writer,” the woman says. “I came here to be alone.”
This makes the writer nearly flinch. He is a writer. He came here to be alone. How could this woman have the same intention? Suddenly he is angry. How dare she? And moreover, her writing probably isn’t even very good.
“I see,” the writer says, forcing a smile. “And what are you writing about.”
“Same thing as you,” the woman says.
To this, the writer has no response.
“You’ll have to excuse me because I need to get going,” the woman says. “But I’ll see you at dinner on Thursday.”
She says this as a statement, not a question. So there is nothing for the writer to add when she nods goodbye and walks off.
By the time Thursday arrives, the writer has ceased writing entirely. How could he continue? If that woman is telling the truth, that she is writing about the same thing as he, well then he can’t very well continue writing about it. He would run the risk of duplicating someone else, someone who—he admits—might be better than him at depicting the exact emotions and scenes and language that he intends. That would be the height of ignorance. If the writer takes it as axiomatic that he has come to this island to write and to be alone while doing so, then he would be irresponsible to continue on in that vein until he gets to the very bottom of whatever is up with that woman, that man, those people who all look very much like him.
He is surprised waking Thursday morning to find that an invitation has been slipped in his cabin door, between the worn lip and the rough-hewn frame. It’s not much of an invitation, just a few lines of ballpoint on a scrap of heavy paper with an address and an entreaty to “please grace us with your attendance. Sincerely, Marco.”
Because Marco is a man’s name, the writer assumes that this is the man he met on the street.
“Good,” the writer thinks. Progress. Now he has a name to the face. Now he is that much closer to resolution, so he can return to his work.
The address takes the writer to the edge of the cobblestone section of town, up a gentle hill and past an oak-tree that has broken the sidewalk with its ancient roots. It is nighttime when the writer heads out, and he has to stop frequently, checking the weathered street-signs and avoiding curbs and patches of ice made treacherous by the late-season darkness. He considers bringing a bottle of wine but decides against it. He doesn’t know these people. He just wants answers.
The street on which Marco’s cabin is evidently situated is otherwise dark, save for one large wainscoted and shingled house with a turret and a wraparound porch. The windows glow with soft yellow light and as the writer gets closer, he can hear the sound of voices inside.
When he knocks, the man from the street, Marco, opens the door.
“Welcome,” Marco says. “So glad you could join us.”
The interior of the house is warm and beautifully appointed, such that the writer becomes instantly jealous. The chairs are tall upholstered wingbacks. The fireplace crackles with a fire. Wooden bookshelves are built into the walls, lined with great contiguous volumes. Chatter swells from the next room.
Marco puts a hand on the writer’s shoulder and, smiling, leads him into an enormous dining room. Arranged around a long table are perhaps thirty people, laughing, drinking, passing plates back and forth. One is smoking a pipe, another is spilling wine on the tablecloth. The writer recognizes nearly all of them as the figures from his journey into town earlier in the week. In fact, at the far end of the table is the woman to whom he spoke. She looks up and waves; not unhappily, but as though unsurprised by his arrival. Immediately, Marco begins rapping his knuckles against the wall until the room has fallen into the grip of his attention.
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet—well I haven’t even asked you your name.”
“Never mind,” the writer says, “who are you?”
If the writer’s recalcitrance upsets Marco, he doesn’t show it. He only motions around the room.
“Please meet Katherine and Anna, and over there is Oliver and Charles fighting over the cheese plate, and David and Paulette, and Arthur on the far side, and well, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember all of their names anyway. It doesn’t matter. They’re all writers. Like me. Like you, too.”
“That one over there,” the writer points to the woman with the mousey hair, “she told me she was writing the same thing as me.”
Now the writer and Marco have the room’s undivided attention. They are all watching expectantly. Except for Charles, who is still attacking the cheese plate.
“Heather?” Marco nods to her. “Would you like to tell our guest what you write about?”
Heather stands up, pushing her chair back from the table.
“I’m writing a story about a woman who meets a man who comes to an island so he can be alone.”
Then David stands as well.
“I’m writing about a man who meets a man who speaks to a woman who is writing a story about a man who comes to an island so he can be alone.”
And another: “I’m writing about several people who wish to be alone until they meet several other people who wish to be alone writing about the act of writing about wishing to be alone, while alone.”
And then Charles, knocking aside the brie: “I’m writing about the sincere internal qualitative experience of trying to be alone while considering what it is like to be alone after meeting several people who wish to be alone while writing about writing about wanting to be alone.”
This goes on for some time, the writer having ample opportunity to go through several reactions – surprise, frustration, horror, boredom, back to surprise.
When each of the assembled has concluded his or her announcement, they return collectively to their seats. Marco again puts a hand on the writer’s shoulder.
“I would ask the same of you, but I assure you, we don’t need to know. Truthfully, we don’t care. We trust. The same way that we trust you’ll fit in just fine here. Because, really, how many endings are there? After a while, you can kind of see them all coming.”
The writer thinks on this for a minute.
“But I came here to be alone,” he says, pleading. “That was the whole point.”
“Well, you are alone,” Marco says. “We all are. Maybe if you were an accountant or a banker, you wouldn’t be. But really, there’s no place more alone than knowing that you’re not alone when you want to be. Try telling that story,” Marco laughs. “You’ll be alone in no time at all.”
The writer is having trouble keeping this information straight in his head. It makes sense and it doesn’t. It’s slippery. Just when he thinks he’s got it, it wriggles from his hands. So he’s in no state to protest when Marco leads him to an empty seat at the table – next to the mousey haired girl, actually – and fills his wineglass.
The writer gets drunk. He possibly also eats dinner. The night is too much of a blur to be sure.
The writer emerges the next day in his own cabin, his head pounding and the shutters open to the blinding sun. Following a long bout of nausea and several cups of coffee strained through paper towels, the writer manages to recover his bearings.
He went to a party last night—a very strange party, it seems now. He wonders if perhaps the night’s strangeness was a product of his inebriated mind, retroactively transposed on a perfectly ordinary dinner. Hopefully he didn’t embarrass himself in front of his new acquaintances, who were kind enough to take him home.
The heat in the house comes up. The writer situates himself with a blanket on the couch. He finds the effect very cozy. Cozy enough that he can see himself staying here for quite some time. Cozy enough that he feels nearly back to normal. He retrieves his things and sets down to write. He finds a blank page to begin a new story. The words once again flow effortlessly.
The writer writes of a writer who goes to an island. A writer who wants to be alone.
© John Fischer, 2012
John Fischer is a Brooklyn-based writer and marketing consultant. A 2004 graduate of Vassar College with a BA in music composition, he has since commuted to Disney World, attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and toured the various convenience-store chains of the Tri-State area on thin professional pretenses. His work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Palooka Journal, the New York Observer, and the Random House Anthology “Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers.”
The Island of Only One Story was read by Don Carter on 2nd May 2012