Can Hermits Fall in Love? by James English
My wife and I were vacuuming cobwebs in the basement when we got into an argument about whether two hermits could fall in love. I started it when I told her about my friend Ralph, who’d become solitary, moved to the basement, and cut off contact with his wife. “I think Ralph’s turned into a hermit,” I said.
“He just needs another woman to snap him out of it,” Connie said. She was holding the flashlight while I vacuumed.
“He’s become a hermit,” I said. “Hermits aren’t looking for someone else.”
“Are you sure?” Connie said. “Maybe Ralph’s a lonesome hermit.” She’s never met Ralph, so I don’t know why she said that.
“Hermits don’t get lonesome,” I said. I turned off the vacuum cleaner, descended the step stool, and moved to a new section. “They aren’t looking for someone else.”
Connie shone her light on the ceiling. We have exposed beams in our basement and they’re full of cobwebs. Some of the webs are stubborn. “You don’t think hermits are capable of falling in love?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I’ll make a bet with you,” she said. “How about we each find a hermit and see if we can get them to fall in love.”
“You’ve got to stop,” I said. “First of all, the doctor said you’ve been doing great, so there’s nothing to worry about. Second, you don’t know Ralph. And third, if the impossible happened and you ever did die, I’d manage.” What a dope! I never should’ve said that.
She shined the flashlight in my face. “No, you won’t!”
I covered my eyes. “Connie, I love you. And you’re going to be fine.”
“I’m worried as much about you as I am about myself! What will you do if I die?”
“You’re not going to die! And I’m not going to turn into a hermit.”
My wife shook her head. She wears tortoise shell eyeglasses, in a small round size, and they make her look like a philosopher. And she had on a flowing blouse and loose slacks to disguise how thin she is. “What’s the harm?” she said. “Two hermits might be grateful for the help.”
My wife shined her light into the rafters. Besides the cobwebs, we have mold by the washing machine and a light that keeps blinking above the furnace. If I were a hermit, I’d never move down here.
Nothing happened for two weeks. My wife was busy with her job. I was busy with my job. We didn’t talk about love or hermits or how few people the real estate agent was bringing to our house. (We were selling the place to pay off my wife’s hospital bills and move to a condo.) But then Connie stumbled upon a hermit. She told me about her that night at dinner.
“I can’t believe you’re still thinking about that,” I said.
“Don’t you ever wonder about hermits? Why they do it? Do they ever get lonesome?”
“Is this about us again?” I said.
“Of course not!” We were eating a salad of chicken, arugula, and pecans, and as she tried to cut a pecan, it broke in half and hopped off her plate. “Do you want to hear about her?”
“Would you like to tell me?”
“If you don’t mind.” Connie said this in the most tender of voices.
And I said in my most patient of voices: “Who is your hermit?”
“You know her.”
“Tell me!” I couldn’t imagine that Connie knew a hermit that I hadn’t thought about.
“She lives at the end of the block. In the little house that looks like a Swiss chalet.”
“The woman whose sidewalk I shoveled last winter? When she was snowed in?”
“That’s the one. Sharon Watson.”
“How do you know she’s a hermit?”
“I have my sources.” Connie smiled at me. “So…any luck with your hermit?”
Part of the problem, I know, is that I have hermit tendencies, and my father did too. After my mother died, my father became solitary. No one in the family ever called him a hermit, but how else would you describe a 67-year-old man who gave up church, dropped his golf buddies, and became an avid stamp collector? And where do you think he worked on the stamps? In the basement! I’m not saying a person has to live in the basement to be a hermit, but you have to admit that there is something about hermits and cellars. Maybe it’s the coolness or the dark. When we moved into this house, one of the first things Connie did was get an estimate on how much it would cost to finish the basement. Already, she’s had the furnace cleaned.
As for me, I do my best to resist my hermit tendencies, but I can’t deny that they’re part of me. I’m lucky to have found Connie, I have a decent job, and I keep up with a few friends, but left to my own devices, I could easily revert to being solitary. On the weekends, if Connie doesn’t have something planned for us, which she usually does, I will disappear to the third floor, get out my crossword book, and then fiddle around with my guitar. (I’m a big fan of Billy Joel and have been playing his songs, especially “Piano Man,” for years.) I think it’s a positive sign that, so far, I’ve chosen the third floor over the cellar for my solitary activities.
But the real issue, and the most important thing in all of this, is that Connie almost died two years ago. She picked up some virus that gave her a prolonged high temperature, caused her heart to become enlarged, and temporarily paralyzed the right side of her body. She was in the hospital for two months, lost her toenails and fingernails, and, at her lowest point, weighed 83 pounds. The doctors never determined the exact nature of the virus, nor how Connie acquired it, and the only thing they could tell us was that the virus had “run its course.” When I asked the head doctor if Connie could have a relapse, he shrugged. “Who knows?”
Still nothing happened. My wife kept working. I kept working. Connie told me that she chatted from time to time with Sharon, the hermit who lived down the block. My wife said she was very respectful. She didn’t ask Sharon any probing questions or try to size her up, re: love prospects. She said Sharon was actually quite pleasant, even if she only told Connie so much about herself and then had to go tend to her bonsai trees, which she kept on her back porch.
But still, my wife kept wondering about hermit love. She kept asking me what would happen to me if she died. One night at dinner, she said: “Do you need any help?”
“Finding a hermit.”
I looked at my wife in worry and exasperation. We were sitting at the kitchen table, finishing up a salad of potato, Italian sausage, and kale. I said: “You’re not going to drop the subject, are you?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help it.”
I brought my plate to the sink, rinsed it off, and stacked it in the dishwasher. “I can find my own hermit.”
“I’m beginning to have doubts about that.”
“If I find a hermit,” I said, “which I’m not sure I can, then what?”
“We introduce them.”
“And then?” I took the sausage pan off the stove, brought it to the sink, and started washing it.
“Wait!” my wife said. “I forgot to mention the guidelines.”
“We have hermit guidelines?”
“Now that I’ve found a hermit, you’ve got to find one who’s within 10 years of my hermit.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” Neither of us had put water in the pan after she’d finished cooking the sausages, and now I rubbed our yellow scrubby hard to get the grease out.
“I didn’t know how old my hermit was going to be,” she said.
“So, assuming I can actually find a hermit, then what?”
“We introduce them.”
I frowned at the pan. “What kind of introduction? Like, at a party, where they exchange a couple of words, or are you going to invite them to dinner so they spend the whole evening together?”
“Well,” she said, “I was hoping we could have them to dinner.”
A few things happened in the next two weeks, such as a couple of new salads, one real estate visitor to our house, and a terrific midnight thunderstorm. Also, I bought Connie a set of long life radial tires for her Camry and a ten-year subscription to Food Network Magazine, which was not easy. (The customer service guy had never had a ten-year request.) A few days later, over a dinner salad of chicken, watercress, pine nuts, and apricots, I said: “I found someone.”
“Who?” My wife looked excited.
“A guy I work with. He drives a tanker truck for the airport. He fuels the airplanes.”
“Is he married?”
“Of course not. As far as I can tell, he’s a hermit.”
“Are you sure?” Connie said.
“I was talking with him at lunch one day. He’s 37, doesn’t have any kids, and lives with his parents. In the basement.”
Connie smiled at me. “That’s important.”
“Living in the basement.” She pushed a few pine nuts and a piece of apricot onto her fork with her thumb. “The next step is to get them to come over here for dinner.”
“How are we going to do that?” I said.
“Let me think.”
“Just dinner, right?” I said. “We’re not expecting them to fall in love.”
It took a while, but we finally managed to get Sharon and Ron to agree to come to our house. Ron cancelled once, and Sharon cancelled once, and then we had Hurricane Humberto, but Connie and I persisted.
It was a pleasant September night, and we sat outside on our patio while I grilled sesame lime chicken breasts, Connie dressed the salad, and then she made us all watermelon mojitos, which she’d told me in advance she was going to mix because rum caused people to feel more gregarious. I must admit, she did an excellent job with the mojitos because of the mint: she clapped her hands together and bruised the mint without shredding it, which is what the experienced bartenders do. Ron raved about his mojito, and after his second one, he told a story about a colleague who almost put the wrong fuel in a turboprop, which was the second most serious mistake a fuelman could make. After her second drink, Sharon told a story about getting a bad performance review at the call center because her “hang time” with customers was too long. “Hang time,” she said, was how long she was supposed to be on the line with a customer, and it couldn’t be more than four minutes. We ate dinner, then dessert, and then Connie asked if they wanted a tour of the house.
When we got to the cellar, Sharon said: “What a nice basement. And your furnace looks so clean!”
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Connie said.
“With a little work, I could live down here,” Ron said.
In bed that night, I said to my wife: “Why did you give them a house tour? The upstairs bathroom was a mess.”
“I thought they might know someone who was looking for a house.”
“Supposedly, they’re hermits,” I said. “Who would they know?”
“They’re hermits with jobs,” she said. “They know people.”
And what happened? A lot of things happened. Sharon sent us a thank you note (nothing from Ron) and said she had a “congenial” evening. A bug went through Connie’s office, seven people called in sick, but my wife didn’t get it. We finally found a buyer who could give us the asking price for our house, we paid off the last of our hospital bills, and we bought a modest condo on the north side of town. It’s right near a causeway that goes over the bay. Every morning, groups of older men in dark sweatshirts lean over the railing, drop in a fishing line, and stare at the water. I can’t tell if they’re single or not, but if I had to guess, I’d say yes. They stand 30 yards apart, like solitary telephone poles, and they never talk with each other. As far as I’m concerned, they look happy.
© James English, 2016
James English has three children, lives in Rhode Island, and teaches at a community college. His recent fiction credits include: Magnolia Review, Hobart, Tishman Review, Riding Light, Liars’ League (London) and The Stockholm Review of Literature.
Can Hermits Fall in Love? was read by Roya Shanks on 6th April 2016 for Mistakes & Missteps