The Hermits

fiction by Suzanne (Frank) Ruta

          Mado Berlin was twelve years old when her family left a beloved treeless dead-end street in the east Bronx for Runnymede in Queens. Paul knew the architect of Runnymede from the old days, an Anglophile Socialist, whose idea it was to replace the ordinary, undersize back yards behind  long rows of identical brown brick houses,on each block, in favor of a single long unbroken stretch of lawn, known hopefully as The Commons. In love with his conception, he enshrined protection for it in the  covenant. The Commons were  off limits to cyclists, ball players, kite flyers, toddlers, picknickers and dogs on leashes. So much untrodden greensward gave the neighborhood a funereal air. Paul called the Commons Flanders Field.

          "Where poppies grow?" Mado asked.

          "I'm your Poppy," said Paul, who never met a pun he didn't like.

 

          Her first year in Runnymede Mado wrote odes to the two ginkgo trees out back.  By the second year, she was planning her getaway. Runnymede was not a slum, as her aunt Lee insisted.  A slum could never have supported so many hermits. They would have been forced out of their cramped apartments into the open, lured back into the streets, the true paved commons where slumdwellers hung out, as Mado well knew from her twelve years in the Bronx.

          There was a hermit on every block in Runnymede.  Most of them were Mado's age, or slightly older. The hermit of 87th Street came home from Julliard one day, threw her cello in the closet, went to bed and refused to get up. She was still in bed a year later or near it. Sometimes Mado saw her looking out the window, but when she waved, the girl retreated hastily. Mado stood staring at the window pane.   The hermit of 86th Street left architecture school after three months and moved into his parents' basement, where he spent his days among glue pots and bits of balsa wood. They hoped he would snap out of it and graduate to brick and steel again. The hermit of 85th street was a  young chess whiz who for no apparent reason slashed  his arm in several places with a kitchen knife at three o'clock one morning. There was so much blood his parents had to send him to a hospital upstate. After he ran away the second time, his parents kept him home for good. From time to time the front porch posts of his house were strung with yards and yards of taut diagonal lines, like a giant cats cradle, or the nest of some obsessed geometer bird.He must have done the work at night. No one ever saw him at it. And no one ever saw the nests come down. They always did come down,however, usually within a day or two.

          An assistant high school principal lived  next door to the Berlins. A jovial man, he had a blanket explanation for the hermits' odd behavior.

          “Our generation had ambition without means. You kids have the means without ambition,” he told Mado on the street, his yellow leather briefcase nestling at his feet, like a fat puppydog. “We had the Depression, you kids are just plain depressed."         

          “I guess it doesn’t pay to push people,” Mado said.

          “Doesn’t seem to do you any harm.”

           “No one’s pushing me,” she spoke the truth. Her mother dismissed any ambition beyond food and shelter as hubris. Her father was skeptical of worldly achievement. “A snob is someone educated beyond his intelligence,” he reminded her at the start of each school year.

          The assistant principal of the prestigious downtown high school (so prestigious that girls were not admitted) was a decent man. He cocked his head with the effort of honest thought.

          “There’s something going on with you kids. I can’t put my finger on it.” With a friendly shrug he turned and climbed the brick stairway to his narrow front door, painted the same baleful bottle green as every other door on the street.

          Mado would not have made a good hermit; she was too nosy, too much of a gossip, too afraid of missing something. Mado the meddler, they called her in the family and they were right. She wondered why the hermits didn't die of boredom.

          Yet she felt a kinship with them, all of them. (The reluctant cellist was a friend, or had been, before she retreated to her room, the same one as Mado’s, in back, facing the commons.) Mado imagined rescuing them, one by one, or all together, in a parade with banners.  The chess player in particular troubled her. He was not ready to have visitors, his mother said. Yet Mado felt if she got close enough, she could coax him back into the world. She was sure the hermits  shared her dream — to make a quick clean getaway. But something stymied them. A hermit was a runaway who had given up and turned inward.

          The hermit of 84th Street, that year, was Mado's father. She found him making breakfast at four o’clock on a weekday afternoon. A can of baked beans was heating on one  burner of the gas stove. A slice of white bread was charring nicely on the other.

          “How was school?” he asked.

          “Miserable.”

          “School is the last place to get an education. Want a bite to eat?”

She shook her head.

          “You scorn my grub. Poor thing, you’ve never known what hunger is.” It was one of his refrains. She was never sure how to take it. There was courage in the way he turned remembered deprivation into privilege. There was also irritating condescension.

          “Is this what you ate when you were riding the rails?” she asked

          “When I could get it. Some days I made do with considerably less."  

          “That must have been rough.”

          “Hunger's all right, as long as you can see an end to it. The uncertainty’s the bad part, and the isolation. If you have to starve, try to do it in good company,” he said. “Remember that, for later on,” he added.

“No one will ever starve in this house,” Mado pointed out. All this talk of hunger was strictly retrospective. Leg of lamb on Sundays, minestrone with asparagus, steak with a pat of butter on top, salmon croquettes and hot chocolate, his childhood favorite: solid calorie years of good home cooking separated her father from the skinny kid in old snapshots. Sixty pounds overweight, down from eighty before his heart attack. He told the doctor he’d shed the rest after his next coronary.

          The can of beans began to bulge ominously. He lifted it deftly with a towel, and pried it open with a pocket knife. In the old days, on the loose and on his own, he was too poor to buy a can opener. To open a can with a pocket knife was an act of piety toward the man he had once been. A piety she shared, with some reservations.

          “Bon appetit,” she said. He scooped the beans into the bread, an unappealing sandwich. Mado poured herself a glass of milk.

          “Got a little time for your old man?”

          “Of course.”

          “I found something downstairs that might interest you.”

          Paul’s hermit’s cave in the basement housed a veritable archive, a fancy word they never used. They called it, respectfully vague, his collection. It had always been around, and always off limits, like the locked room in Bluebeard’s Castle. His personal chaos of books and papers — six foot shelves, cartons and filing cabinets in ugly army surplus green — organized if at all, according to a system only he possessed.

          He went down ahead of her, like the lead spelunker in a risky expedition. He turned on lights, shoved cartons right and left, then gave the all clear.

          “Watch your step. Don’t knock things over.” She ran the gauntlet of swastikas and sickles, barbed wire and blood splashed along the spines of her father’s favorite books. She’d taught herself to read by puzzling out their unrewarding titles: Counterattack, Midnight Commando, The Tortured Peace. She had never looked inside a single one. Wars, tyrannies, massacres — it was Paul’s subject, his time, not hers. Of course, he kept her up to date on modern history. Some fathers told their children bedtime stories. Paul explained the Ukraine famine or slave labor in Kolyma. Mado listened hard and tried to comprehend. She felt there was something shameful and greedy in her well fed lateborn luck, like asking for a helping of rice pudding, and being offered a whole vat.

          Like a giant crackerjack box, the basement held small treasures, worthless in themselves, precious because freely given. Today’s prize, extracted from a file cabinet while Mado stood at a discreet distance, was a three by five inch brown paper pamphlet, crumbling at the edges. The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Poems of Oscar Wilde.

          “I guess you’re old enough to hear about poor Oscar. He was a brilliant wit and a homosexual. The two often go together. What got him in trouble was, he brought working class boys into fancy London hotels, as his guests. This upset the British who don’t mind how the sexes mix, but like the lower classes to know their place. He was sentenced to,” Paul shut his eyes, pretending to do some complicated bit of arithmetic, “four years in jail.”

Mado was puzzled. Wilde was one of Paul’s heroes. But homosexuality sounded like just another club not open to women. Like major league baseball or hockey. Women couldn’t throw straight. They didn’t chew tobacco. They were expected to be calm and dignified. Men found that boring, and preferred the company of their own kind. It was unfair.

          “Why is gaol spelled that way?” She asked only dumb, safe questions.

           “We’ll get to that. First think of the circumstances. The cleverest man of his day, the best loved playwright. In prison he discovered the full extent of man’s inhumanity to man. What you’ll hear in the poem is innocent astonishment. Remember the Happy Prince? Imagine the Happy Prince waking up in a dungeon.” He nodded, Mado’s cue to hand him back the booklet. She would have liked to read over his shoulder, but he insisted on a respectful distance between performer and audience.

          His quavery tenor rolled in the rhythm of Wilde’s endless quatrains. The moment spun out between them, as fine and brittle as the taffy Paul sometimes concocted of plain sugar and water, another hobo recipe. The brittle strand must not be allowed to break. It took careful attention from them both, a rapt duet of speech and silence. Mado listened so hard the words stopped making sense. One line kept recurring, that cruel refrain,  “All men kill the thing they love.” Was it true? Or just a clever paradox. She would think about it later. Now Paul needed her attention.  While he had it, he could not  be called a hermit.

          “Wake up, little girl,” she heard him say.

          “I wasn’t sleeping. I was concentrating. It’s very sad. But still the Happy Prince, looking out for others, no?”

          Paul handed her the booklet.

          “Where did you get this ?”

          “I met the publisher in Kansas in nineteen twenteeee-three,it must have been, on my first trip west. During the First World War, the troops were starved for lightweight reading matter, in all senses of the word. Mr Haldeman had bright idea of putting out these cheap, portable editions. Another proof that war is the prime impetus to human progress. You’ll note this is the second volume only in the series. There were hundreds.”

           “What was number one, the Bible?”

           “Hardly. Mr Haldeman was a free thinker. More likely a defense of atheism.”

          “Thank you for the gift,” Mado said. She could have added, you don’t have to give me something every time we talk, but that was both ungracious and untrue. An overbearing largesse was part of Paul’s nature. The Devil’s Dictionary, a tattered volume of O’ Henry, an FDR campaign button from 1932, and an ancient Russian dictionary with a cracked leather cover that stained your hands red — represented so many attempts to cement a fragile bond. Yet now he acknowledged her perfunctory gratitude.

          “If it wasn’t for you kids, I’d have cleared out long ago.”

          Another of his refrains. She made light of it.

          “Where would you go?”  Back to the roving life? He still knew the recipes. He might take her with him cross country. For a minute she half believed it. Hallelujah I'm a bum, their theme song.

          “There’s a decent hotel on 13th Street,” he brought her rudely up to date. His travelling days were over.

          “We’d miss you,” Mado said.  Paul in a furnished room, with a  hotplate for his toast and beans, and maybe his own can opener -- the thought of it could kill you with sadness.    “All men kill the thing they love.”  Wilde was talking about her father.

 

           “What was Paul up to today?” Esther asked first thing, when she came in from work. He was upstairs with the evening papers, the Trib, the Post, the Journal, the Telly, the Orb.

          “He gave me this,” Mado showed her mother volume 2 in the Ten Cent Pocket Series.

          “He pays his way,” Esther said drily.

          “He doesn’t have to.”

          “Tell him that. You’ll have a collection of your own, at this rate.”

          “Is that how he got started?” Mado had never wondered till then, about the sources of Paul’s archive. “Did his father give him…?”

          “Oh no, Paul’s father never read a book in his life. No one in that family did. He did it all on his own. Thanks for keeping him entertained,” she added. As if he were a pesky child, instead of a grown man caught between staying and running away.

                 

Suzanne Ruta is an author, translator and literary critic.  Her story collection, Stalin in the Bronx and Other Stories,  published in 1987 was a New York Times notable book of the year.  Her novel To Algeria, with Love, was published in 2011 by Virago Press.