The Last Days of the Neighborhood Hermit

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For days the Hermit was in a state of unusual agitation. He drove back and forth along the road a dozen times a day, helter-skelter, at all hours, pluming dust. Did he anticipate his death? Was he preparing for it?

Last week a flatbed truck came and hauled away one of the junked cars from in front of the Hermit's one-story cinderblock house, half a mile down the road. Two junked cars remained, resting on blocks in the yard under raggedy trees. The Hermit drove a Ford Falcon station wagon, built about the time that Saigon fell. All the junked cars were Ford Falcons of the same vintage. He cannibalized the junkers when he needed spare parts.

No one talked to the Hermit. No one knew who he was. I learned his name only from a piece of mail misdelivered to our house. A letter from...his bank. We were all a little afraid of him, of his silence, his secret. A woman on a farm down the road called him "the Unabomber." The oldest woman in the valley, a woman in her eighties, said he had lived in the cinderblock house for forty years, on a shaggy stretch of uninhabited road beside the old gravel pit, which was filled in and covered up a year or two ago and already has vanished undetectably beneath a carpet of new pasture grass.

The Hermit was a large enough man of indecipherable age, with short-cropped, spikey hair that he may well have cut himself. When he passed in his speeding car, he held his hand to the side of his face, the way that mobsters use their hats when coming down the courthouse steps after being indicted. I rarely saw his face.

But it was a strange face, masklike, hard, and waxen — expressionless. I do not remember seeing his eyes. His countenance was armored, like that of a medieval knight. It had no motion in it, no light of life. When the Hermit drove along the dirt road, he went exactly forty miles an hour, the legal speed limit, and never looked to one side or the other; his eyes were locked on the road ahead. I never knew him to look at anyone.

The other day, walking on the road, I noticed that another car had taken up residence in the Hermit's driveway, newer than the Falcon — a Ford sedan, maybe 20 years old, of an indeterminate orange-beige-bronze color that rental car companies used to buy by the thousands long ago. The Hermit has a companion, I decided, jokingly. He has a lover!

I imagined I had looked inside his fortress for an instant. I decided the Hermit was a sly old dog, and I was touched. Then I accused myself of having a small-town busybody's mind that makes up cheap unfounded stories that cause trouble.

But another mysterious piece of evidence turned up: a large plastic trash bag dumped by the front door of the house, its contents spilled. Both cars were in the driveway. Next day, I noticed that animals — raccoons and possums — had gotten into the trash and scattered it.

This squalor was unlike the Hermit. Aside from the junked cars, he seemed to be an orderly man. If he was crazy — which I doubt — his insanity did not express itself in disorder but rather in the reverse, in a rigorous private tidiness of habit. He was not a man to allow something as intimate as his trash to be on view to passing strangers. What was the meaning of the mess in the drive?

I thought I was an observant man. Evidently not. Someone else, passing the Hermit's house a few days ago, looked into his "new" car — the one I took to be his lover's car — and saw the Hermit's body slumped over the steering wheel. He had been dead for several days.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? It is said, oddly enough, that he liked to play golf. A neighbor saw him from time to time on a public course here in the county. The Hermit played alone.

The "new" car, it turns out, was one he normally kept out of sight, in the little garage of his blockhouse. As death approached, he took to leaving it outside with the junkers. Always use your best car for the getaway.

Once or twice last winter, I passed the Hermit's house and saw him rolling on his back in the snow. The first time, I thought he was having a seizure. But it wasn't that. As I was about to run to his aid, I saw he was having a private frisk, as if he were trying to remember how to make snow angels.