His Heroic Courtesies

by Joyce Goldenstern

Honorable Mention, 2021 Fiction Collections
Nominated for a 2023 Pushcart Prize

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“You won’t believe this,” Laura said on the telephone, her voice rising to a hysterical pitch. Benjie could only think that the call had something to do with his brother Leo — he was drunk again; he had lost his temper. Once before when Laura had called, Leo had wrestled out a torn screen from the kitchen window and was storming through the house chasing mosquitoes with it. Once he had boxed the ears of Jinx the cat. Leo had an alcohol problem, ever since he finished serving in the army, his term in Vietnam. Maybe even before then. Once when his skin had turned orange, their mother had insisted it was because he drank too much, but Leo said he had a craving for carrots and Laura had confirmed this, for at that early time in their marriage she was still on his side.

“There’s a huge snake in the middle of the living room, and I don’t know what to do,” Laura continued. “I was upstairs cleaning and then walked halfway down the stairs when I saw it there, all curled up. Coiled up. It’s huge.” Evidently Ben had now become her ally of first resort, as he was often his mother Lena’s, as he was sometimes even his brother Leo’s. Did he invite such dependencies? Did he invite such loyal followings? Evidently, he did. Laura wasn’t the first married woman who had called on him to rescue her from abuse or neglect or indifference or infidelity or a tricky household task. She was, however, the first who had called on him to rescue her from a snake. His other brother Randal, who was an “artist” in New York, had told him that he needed to get over his hero complex. Benjie had shrugged: he often thought Randall might just as well have stayed in Sandy Hollow to paint split-rail fences and apples in a bowl, the two motifs of his oeuvre.

“Listen,” he said. “Listen, the cat probably brought it in. Did you leave any windows open? “That’s not the issue,” Laura insisted. “I need to get it out. I really don’t care how it got in. I can figure that out later.”

“How big is it?” Benjie asked.

“It’s huge,” Laura repeated.

“It’s probably just a garter snake. It’s probably harmless. Could you cover it with a towel and throw it outside?”

“I could never touch it, I just couldn’t, not even through a towel,” Laura insisted.

“I can’t leave right now,” Benjie said. He was fitting pipes in a nuclear plant being built outside of Sandy Hollow. “I’m right in the middle of a flare connection. I can stop by in a couple of hours.”

“I’ll stay upstairs,” Laura said. “I’ll just pray the serpent can find its way out. I’ll just pray the serpent can’t climb stairs.”

When Benjie arrived, the snake was no longer in the living room. They searched the house and eventually found it in the hallway off the kitchen, slithering its way down some stairs toward the backdoor. Ben picked it up with a broom handle and threw it out on the patio where it slowly humped its way toward some hastas — a bit worse for wear. Jinx sat nearby pretending innocence and indifference.

“Thank, God!” Laura said. “I don’t know what I would’ve done or would ever do without you, Benji. Leo is never home, though not because he works late or a lot. He’s been hanging out at the bar with his antiquing buddies. The kids haven’t seen him in weeks. Speaking of which, Leo, Jr. was thrilled that you showed up for his softball game. You don’t know what that means to him.”

Benjie knew the dance that Laura was starting to lead better than she herself knew or would admit: the steps of troubled women blues — complaints¸ unhappiness, gratitude, flattering comparisons. He was glad to be of help, to make the courteous gesture, but best be on his way now. Thanks for the invitation, but for now Benjie would skadoodle.



Hero complex? Ben considered and reconsidered the accusation, the assessment. He would have to admit that Laura’s telephone calls did not annoy him. He would have to admit that helping women made him feel desirable — more than that — manly and all the more so if his help presented itself in conjunction with another man’s failing: Leo’s drunkenness, Randal’s flight to New York, and all the careless, uncaring husbands whose wives he had known and comforted: credit without commitment, courteous gesture without real responsibility; the intimacy of the peeping tom, second-hand intimacy.

And so Benjie lived alone with a house, a car, a yard, a garden, an orchard, even a swing set, but no family and at the same time too much family.

Benjie tended his garden which included a fruit orchard, beneath whose apricot trees and grape arbors, a future wife would someday find shade and comfort, though as Benjie tended his plants one late summer morning shortly after the snake incident, marriage seemed impossible — How did one do it? How did one go about it? Rustlings in the garden might be clues to answer those questions, but Benjie could not quite interpret them. He could not discern the secrets of stirring vegetables, his ears being as deaf as the ears of corn.

Benjie raised earth worms in his basement in bins with shredded newspaper bedding or coconut fiber bedding, which was considered more ecologically sustainable than peat or sphagnum moss bedding. At first, he raised night crawlers for fishing bait and used the castings as fertilizer for his garden. Later, as he thought about the earth’s problems and its overpopulation, he considered the use of earth worms as a source for human food. The main trick was to boil the worms three times — purge them — to rid them of their slime, then chop them up and bake them at 350 degrees. They tasted like clams or, if boiled in chicken broth, like chicken. It was worth noting that people in over 90 of the world’s cultures ate insects and worms for protein to good effect. “Probably because they have no choice,” his friend Joel said when Benjie confessed his new passion once when they were camping. Joel had said it as a joke. Joel could be funny. He could also be thoughtless. Years later, after they became estranged, Benjie would sometimes think of his friend’s humor and his friend’s need always to confide in him, to seek his support, and Benjie would feel a tinge of regret regarding their complicated falling out. They had known each other since before kindergarten. Benjie was best man at Joel’s wedding.

Benjie would continue to garden long after he lost the friendship of Joel and long after his brother Leo died and long after his worms escaped from the bins in his basement and invaded his kitchen sink and bathtub, and after he, with the diligent help of exterminators, rid himself of the escaped worms and ceased raising them forever. Benjie and his future wife would start a hasta business instead.


A month or so after the snake rescue, Benjie is driving to Mineral Point to visit his friend Joel and Joel’s wife Nelly. He does this almost every autumn because although he has a fruit orchard, he has not had good luck raising apple trees. In southeast Wisconsin, around Mineral Point, apple orchards dot the rolling hills. Almost any variety of apple you could ask for is grown and sold there. He prefers sweet apples: jonagold and honeycrisp.

Joel and Nelly are his good friends, and Benjie looks forward to seeing them. Joel can be quite humorous and has lots of interests. In spite of his former incredulousness regarding the earthworms, Joel has come around. Joel returned to school in his 40s and studies geography at the university in Platteville. He is learning about the surface of the earth and its needs. When they were in high school together, they were not serious students. They drank a lot. They took drugs. They skipped classes. Joel quit high school when he was sixteen; Benji barely got through but persisted due to his mother nagging and her forever dropping dimes about his drug use. Benjie had actually dated Nelly before Joel had. Well, “dating” might be overstating it. They had gone out once, drove around in Benjie’s car until, owing to his mother’s prying, the police stopped him and searched his car for drugs. He liked Nelly but had been shy and awkward around girls in high school. It amazed him how relaxed he felt around her now. They talked and laughed without effort. She seemed interested in everything he had to say. She seemed impressed when he told her he had laid the flag stones around his flowerbeds, perfectly flat with the ground, making it easy to mow.

When Joel and Nelly take Benjie to Hesperides Orchard, an orchard that he has never been to before, it is already early evening. They had whittled away hours talking in the backyard, admiring Nelly’s garden and crafts, discussing Joel’s geography classes, speculating on Benjie’s earthworm enterprise. Hesperides Orchard has twelve varieties of apples — all displayed in bins or (if one preferred a walk around) on the trees. Benjie fills one bushel basket with honeycrisp and one with jonagold. Nelly reminds them that the name Hesperides comes from the labors of Hercules, but she cannot remember why obtaining a Hesperian apple proved to be such a challenge. She is laughing, her teeth and freckles repeating themselves in a beautiful, benevolent way, even more beautiful and benevolent because her face is starting to show soft, friendly lines of age. The sun is setting on an idyllic evening. Nymph of the Evening, Evening Nymph, Benjie muses, inspired, perhaps, by Nelly’s allusion to Greek mythology or by the bounty of Hesperides Orchard, or by the generosity of Nelly’s kind heart or by the stars in the sky. As he drives back home to Sandy Hollow in the dark, the sweet smell of apples wafts to the front seat from the backseat. Part of the reason that Joel and Benjie will have a falling out will be because Joel will be unfaithful to Nelly with a divorced, older woman named Barbara who lives in Platteville and to whom Joel will introduce Benjie, hoping for his support — and Benjie will find this behavior not so much unacceptable as incomprehensible on the part of anyone lucky enough to be married to Nelly, and part of the reason that Joel and Benjie will have a falling out will be because Benjie will seize an opportunity (even before Joel makes a decision that would truly allow that opportunity) and will court and marry Nelly.

But that is far into the future. As he drives home from Mineral Point, he is not thinking of Nelly, but of Laura. He thinks of the day he saved her from the snake and wonders if she would like some apples.


Apple Pie

Nymph of Evening, Nymph of Afternoon. Is it the snake or the apple that brings Benjie here this afternoon? Or perhaps, just the delay at the nuclear plant construction site that means he has a day off? Benjie and Laura are sitting at the kitchen table peeling apples for an apple pie. He has brought over a half bushel of honeycrisps and a half bushel of jonagolds. Laura looks forlorn. Her marriage is ending. Her children are having problems in calculation and comportment at school. Benjie thinks, “Laura is someone who is perhaps more lonely, lonelier, than I am.” There is a delicacy to compassion that Benjie knows well and a power and — when one is young, not necessarily very young, but young enough, even middle aged — a tinge of the erotic, all mingled and muddled with heroic courtesy. One might — might not one? — dare to be careless when the afternoon light, burnishing the skins of apples in a bowl, burnishing the gold in Laura’s hair, promises such sweetness.

Laura and Leo will divorce. Laura will get custody of their children and of Jinx the cat. When the time comes for her daughter Polly to marry, Laura will urge her not to have her father walk her down the aisle, but to have her stepfather — a burly man named Ralph — do so. Polly and Laura will not even invite Leo to the wedding. The divorce will shake Leo to his core, and when he eventually remarries, he will be less hot tempered, though he will continue to drink and go antiquing. In time, his skin will turn orange again and he will die at the age of 58 before the death of his mother, which will, of course, cause her great and abiding sorrow and will reopen a wound. At the time of Leo’s death, Benjie and Leo will have reconciled only imperfectly (for Leo inevitably will find out about the apple pie and its month-long aftermath, as will his mother Lena and his brothers and sisters) and even the limited forgiveness that the brothers Benjie and Leo achieve will take several years and several failed attempts.

But that is the future and a future regret, and Ben does not know anything about the future this forgetful and timeless afternoon: not in regard to Leo, not in regard to Joel, not in regard to Nelly.

For on this afternoon of soft light and melancholy and the making of apple pie, anything unpleasant seems distant and avertable. Laura adds brown sugar and pats of butter to the bowl of peeled and sliced apples. Rolling out the dough shows her bare arms to their best advantage. Benjie and Laura have not kissed yet. The kiss still hangs in the air, only a possibility. But doubt has taken its formal hat and polished cane from a hook by the kitchen door and has left for an afternoon walk. Nothing in life is as poignant as this anticipation. Oh, apple of discord, sweet, sweet apple of delight.

end of story

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