Ella Leffland’s Last Courtesies begins with a comment about the protagonist Lillian. Vladimir, the Russian piano tuner, tells her she is “too polite.” Lillian disagrees. Lillian does not push people in the bus line, but she does “fire off censorious glares.” Thus, according to Lillian, she is far from being too polite. She is merely “civilized.” Only four months have passed since her aunt Bedelia’s death, and Lillian misses her very much. She thinks of her aunt as an elegant woman, who can engage in intellectual discussions about Bach, Russian novelists, her well-kept garden, and topics of nature. Her aunt was also a pianist, and that was how their acquaintance with Vladimir came about. Wearing overalls that make him look like a mechanic, Vladimir has tuned their Steinway grand piano. He used obscenities whenever Bedelia was not present. He spoke his mind and was known to insult his clients for not taking better care of their pianos. Rumor has it that he poured buckets of urine on dog-walkers who allowed their pets to defecate underneath his windows, and it is said that he had several times been institutionalized. But Aunt Bedelia enjoyed him.
One night, Lillian told her aunt that “Vladimir was brilliant but unsound.” Bedelia asked how her niece came to this conclusion. But every detail that Lillian offered, Bedelia turned around to Vladimir’s advantage. That was Bedelia’s manner, to see the best in people. Lillian felt inadequate, as though she lived in Bedelia’s shadow. She felt left out of the friendship between Bedelia and Vladimir, but no matter how long Lillian lives (her aunt has died at age ninety-one), Lillian suspects she will never gain the grace her aunt possessed. Bedelia was the “last survivor of a fair, legendary breed.” Before she died, Aunt Bedelia invited Vladimir over for dinner. She prepared the meal herself, picked flowers from the garden for a centerpiece, and donned jewelry that she usually wore only for special holidays. None of this was wasted on Vladimir. He noted and admired everything. Bedelia and Vladimir spent the evening talking about lofty subjects, covering their travels to exotic places and the finer points of music theory as it related to classical masters. Then Vladimir “flung himself into Bach” on the grand piano. With Bedelia, Vladimir was a cosmopolitan gentleman. But with Lillian alone, he was vulgar, even aggressive.
Although Lillian doubted it, Bedelia thought that Vladimir might be enamored of Lillian. After Bedelia’s death, Vladimir spends a lot of time at the apartment. Lillian consoles him, and Vladimir, in turn, tries to counsel Lillian regarding her future. Vladimir tells Lillian that if the butcher gives her a bad cut of meat, she should “give them the finger.” He also tells her she should get married, not out of desire but rather for protection.
Lillian swears she does not need protection, that she can take care of herself. She uses the example of how she has complained about her new upstairs neighbor. There is a lot of noise all times of the day and night coming from that apartment—everything from music, laughter, and loud shrieks, to squeaky bedsprings in the night. On the front steps one day Lillian happens to bump into the young woman, Jody, and manages to politely request that she turn down her music after 10:00 p.m. It is a rule, Lillian informs her. The girl promises to comply, but she does not really alter her lifestyle. When Vladimir comes to visit, Lillian tells him about her annoyance with Jody. Vladimir begins to curse at the girl upstairs, but Lillian asks him to stop. He is acting too judgmentally, she informs him. His tactics are too brash; Bedelia would never have encouraged him to act in this way, Lillian reminds him. But Vladimir says that he is only doing what everyone does. He suggests that Lillian thinks he is demented. He tells her: “I am one of the many! I am in the swim!” In other words, it is Lillian who is out of sync. He then relates a news story about a woman found murdered and her body cut to bits in an alley not far away, reminding Lillian of dangers that face a woman who lives alone.
Lillian worries about Vladimir. She asks a coworker who knows of him what she thinks. The co-worker believes that Vladimir is on the verge of being committed again. At home, Lillian is frightened, and she misses the comfort of her aunt’s presence. Later Jody phones Lillian to ask her to go upstairs to see if the gas stove is turned off. Lillian sees a mess in Jody’s apartment, but the stove burners are off. Lillian snoops a little through Jody’s apartment, noticing notes left for “Jamie” and is surprised to find books written by “Dostoevsky, Dickens, Balzac, Melville.” Lillian thinks to herself how odd it is “that the girl had this taste in literature, yet could not spell the simplest word and had never heard of a comma.” As Lillian is about to leave, she is caught off guard by the unexpected appearance of the young man, Jamie. He invites Lillian to have a cup of coffee. She refuses. He tries to start a conversation, during which Lillian watches him spear a cockroach and then squash another one with a butter knife.
Lillian gradually loses her civility. She almost walks off her job; on the way home from work, she is tempted to smack an old man for stepping on her foot and to smile at the news of a motorist being killed by a sniper. She takes a hot bath, hoping it will restore her good nature. But she continues to have trouble sleeping because of the noise from Jody’s apartment and is newly troubled when another woman in the neighborhood is gruesomely murdered. Lillian begins taking sleeping pills.
Lillian sometimes watches Jody and Jamie, when they are in the garden, sunning themselves. Sometimes she sees Jamie by himself. She thinks Jamie is in love with Jody and depressed because Jody often leaves him alone.
Vladimir comes over one night and again curses the noisy neighbor; he tells Lillian that he has found her a prospective husband. He says Jody is a prostitute, which Lillian does not believe. She thinks Vladimir is crazy. She tells Vladimir, “You exaggerate everything, I’m afraid.” Vladimir, in turn, believes that Lillian is blind. He is worried for her. But Lillian responds: “To live each moment as if you were in danger—is demeaning.” Vladimir tries to shake Lillian out of what he thinks is blind denial. But in doing so, he frightens her. She screams at him, and he eventually leaves. Lillian locks the door behind him. She goes to the hallway to phone for help, the police, her doctor, a friend, anyone. She then hears a knock on the door. The knocking stops, and Lillian stumbles over Vladimir’s jacket that is lying on the floor. She hears him try to start his car. She feels his wallet in the pocket of his jacket. Then she hears more knocking on her door. She knows that without his wallet he does not have money to call for help, but she cannot manage enough courage to open the door. Then she thinks about the Vladimir that her aunt knew, the gentleman. She thinks about how Vladimir sits in his car outside her apartment, keeping an eye on her. She wonders how he will get home. Then the knocking stops, and she goes to the front window to see him walking away.
She stands there stunned for a long time when she finally realizes that someone is again knocking on the door. She turns on the porch light and unlocks the door. It is Jamie. She begins to panic when she notices Jamie’s unusual stare, but she talks herself out of it, believing that her nerves are just jangled. And in that moment of hesitation, Jamie lunges at her. She feels a “painless blow, followed by dullness, a stillness deep inside her.” And as colors first fill the room and then slowly fade, Jamie wrenches the knife from Lillian’s body.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Ella Leffland, Published by Gale Group, 2006