The signature ink was barely dry on my Ph.D. when the Community College of Baltimore gave me my first teaching job in 1976. I remember how I stood at the Harbor Campus that September morning (I would be the professor at last—today), the seagulls shrieking all around me, my fingers gripped bloodless on my new briefcase. I’d spent about 15 years preparing for this.
Last week, the Department Chairman—Dr. Knott—called me into his office about my syllabus.
“Number one. No Benito Cereno, no “In the Penal Colony,” and don’t even think of Malone Dies.”
“Because they can’t understand the words.”
“But surely that’s my job. Isn’t it?”
“Look. I never met a new Ph.D. who wanted to teach subject-verb agreement, including me—several light years ago. But you will find that most are illiterate, and some are irredeemably so. Just resign yourself to that and leave the literature at home.”
“But don’t you think they’d be fascinated with Kafka?”
“That’s what all new Ph.D.’s think. The answer is no, no they won’t, and no you may not teach Kafka. Teach them this.”
And he handed me a bright orange and gold Grammar and You. With a type-face for first graders and lots of one-syllable words.
“And don’t be upset when half of them drop your class.”
“Because they love this book so much?”
“No,” he frowned. “They will drop out because they lack motivation. Or they get arrested. Try to come down to earth—you’re not at Bennington anymore.”
“So, I would think, all the more need for idealism.”
“You will quickly forget all that once these students do their number on you, and do not doubt that they will. Be really tough with them, and I mean every minute in there, or you’ll be sorry.”
And I wondered if that lesson was what turned him white 30 years too soon.
“Take attendance religiously, don’t allow any deviance from your authority, and don’t ever turn your back.” He peered at me from beneath his white mop. “You will eventually understand that teaching is no sacrosanct mission, but just another job.”
This was intolerable; I stood up.
“So I am just the next Ph. D. with the grammar book.”
Never mind, never mind, I thought. I am going to teach this class my own way.
And that moment was suddenly now. I walked into my classroom at the bell, trying to conceal my shaking, and put my new briefcase on the desk—the teacher’s desk! Then I looked at them. Four rows of stony, blank faces and, in the back row, two in striped convict uniforms. Convicts! One, as big as a noseguard for the Colts, had red hair. Like mine. And the other had a delicate, sensitive face all criss-crossed with knife scars. And worse around his mouth. A tug at my sleeve: a girl with extraordinary yellow eyes—just like my cat’s— asked me if I would shove a belt between her teeth if she had one of her fits. The class silent, measuring me. I took off my belt and dropped it on my desk.
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering how badly I’m going to bore you. But this course—”and I heard my voice break—”is going to be different. I hate grammar rules. All that ho hum who/whom stuff.” And surprised laughter rippled across the room like the sudden gurgle of a stream. “I am going to teach you some of the greatest literary works—about madness, and love and sex and death—”
And from the back row, that scarred convict gave me the thumb’s up. Which was everything I needed.
“But first, my boss told me I have to get a writing sample from you, which sounds like something from a pathology lab. In case anybody here is under or over-qualified for this course level, whatever that means. And I’d much rather tell you about a million other things, but we have to do this thing first. So, for the rest of our time, write an essay about an experience you will never forget, no matter what, and make it as good as you can. And don’t make any grammatical errors, so we can get on with it and have some fun.”
I pretended to look out the window—a multi-million dollar view of Baltimore Harbor. The sounds of scratching pens and growling stomachs. The worst growl came from a small boy in the front row with a black knitted cap covering his hair. Beyond him, several very pretty girls; the epileptic biting her pencil as if in preparation for my belt; and, in the back row, that big, red-haired convict stared straight at me, his pencil on his desk. And when our eyes met he ground out his cigarette on the wall.
After class, I ran to my office to read their papers, and I do not think that had I just discovered an unpublished novel by Jane Austen, that I could have read those pages with more fascination.
Arabella, 18, unwed mother of three, writes how her baby died in her arms as she sat waiting in the emergency ward. Ruby, the epileptic, was raped inside a telephone booth on Chesapeake Avenue, and then her attacker set her clothes on fire. Someone named Roach says he wants to be a bus driver. But he has flunked the driving test three times. His essay, written in kindergarden English, makes me wonder if poor Roach can grasp the concept of a red light. He lives in an unheated basement room with his cat and his hot plate. He almost froze to death last winter. I light a cigarette.
Then there is somebody named Friday who writes 15 pages about how, in front of the Greyhound Terminal, he was kidnapped by thugs in a green limousine. Blindfolded, he was driven to a peach farm in Georgia, where they forced him into slave labor. (Slave labor?) The story of his miraculous escape. Then a Green Beret writes about being ambushed by snipers in Viet Nam and how, in the fray, he killed his best friend by mistake. And got court-martialed for it. Duds identified his father’s body in the city morgue; Melva tells me, in a meticulous hand almost too small to read, all about her abortion; Webster writes about the night his cell-mate knifed him and the guards let him bleed. Another describes his D.T.’s so vividly I think of the screeching demons in Dante’s Inferno. And, without a name, a totally incoherent, almost hysterical paragraph about a little white duck or something.
A for content and F for English usage. All the editions of the grammar book had taught them nothing. The past and future tenses completely mutilated: the massive negative present moment was, I saw, the omnipresent reality that engulfed them. There was no sense of the past or glimmering that a future could be different. A ghetto mentality, I could hear Dr. Knott say. So what did you expect? And how could I give them a new concept of time itself when I was limited to a grammar book?
Then, the twisted logic. Nobody went from point A to B. Their sentence structure was so tangled, so double-knotted, that I wondered how they could think. And these twisting sentences wouldn’t stop: the ubiquitous run-on sentence ran on and on and on. For a second I saw my students themselves as botched sentences, wandering in airless circles, stuck. A habit of mind that would get them nowhere. The content perfectly mirrored the style: they were hung up in terrible syndromes that ran on and on, and worse and worse. What a task! And where to begin? Nothing in all my studies had prepared me for this.
The next morning, at my classroom door, a student with heroin eyes and Borneo hair stands waiting for me. Is he 50 or 15?
“My name Friday,” he says.
“My old lady name me after some dude in a novel,” he grins.
I pull his paper our of my briefcase. “It is hard for me to believe that a couple of perverts kidnapped you in public and made you into a slave. Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“Oh Jesus, them c___’ guards had dobermans and whips and—”
An awful, racking cough shakes him. Before the cough is done, another cough interrupts the cough. And when it’s done, my heart catches when Friday wipes blood from his mouth.
“They release me from that prison s___house, see, and give me a bus ticket and them bastards in a green limousine grab me right there—them friends of them mother. ___’ prison guards—guards is guards, they is born guards, raised guards and guards they is till their f___’ graves—I swear, Miz Sal, that’s nothin’ to the rest of it—I goin’ to write a book—”
The bell rings.
“Okay. Rewrite it!”
“Listen, Friday. If you want to write a book you’d better learn to revise. Not to mention getting an A in this course first. And go see a doctor.”
I walk in and yell “Wake up!”
And they laugh. Several smiling faces, now. Everyone curious. I hurl my bulging briefcase on my desk and grab into it.
“Today we are going to read two run-on sentences. One is by James Joyce. I’ll tell you about that later. And we also have a long sentence one of us wrote—he’s a former Green Beret.”
And then a voice says: “Where’s the gramma book?”
“Uh. I lost it.” I laugh.
And they look at me as if I’d burnt the Bible.
Then, “Rigggggggght on!” reverberates across the room. A couple of shrieks and stomping feet.
“Soldier, will you read your essay out loud so everybody can hear it?”
As I pass out the copies, that beautiful girl wraps her legs into a pretzel, and scarred Webster puts on his glasses, and the boy with the knitted cap in the front row clasps his hands on his desk. But that big, red-headed convict is reading Playboy, its cover up so I can’t miss it. And he’s wearing headphones.
“BIG RED! TURN OFF THE MUSIC! YOU’RE INSULTING A CLASSMATE WHEN YOU IGNORE HIS PAPER. NOT TO MENTION HOW I FEEL. AND YOU’RE HOLDING US UP!”
Everyone turns and looks at him, some clearly irritated. Down goes Playboy. And with a completely blank expression, as if he hadn’t even heard me, he picks up the soldier’s paper.
And when the soldier finishes reading, Webster says: “That was one f___’ good story, man, but how come you don’t use no periods or nothin’?”
And the soldier looks down at his essay as if he just found a sniper in it.
“Where would you put the first one?” I ask him.
Several hands shoot up. And we’re off.
In the weeks that followed, the class in abstract turned into a group of individuals, all with faces and idiosyncracies. The only thing they shared was their experience of racism, police brutality, and jail. They were little criminals. (The phrase is Randy Newman’s.) On probation for breaking and entering (Friday), shoplifting (Melva), prostitution (Arabella), or drug-dealing (about half the class), whether innocent or guilty, they all knew more about life than I did.
Webster, convicted of bank robbery, knew the answer to every single question, no matter what I asked, all year long. They called him Scarmouth. But his friend, Big Red, always sat there with a completely blank expression, never laughing or talking with the others, and I would have thought he was retarded except for the blazing intelligence in his eyes. When I found out he was convicted of rape and first-degree murder, I almost had a heart attack. Then there was Duds, an unfortunately accurate nickname. I think Duds had some rare eye disease: his eyes looked like ping pong balls popping out of his face in opposite directions. And he was wall-eyed, too: each eyeball staring at its outtermost limits as if in permanent horror, I always thought, at identifying his father’s body in the morgue. And Melva, beautiful as a cover girl for Vogue, shared her short stories with me. The best writer in the class. I saw that I should help her transfer to the University of Maryland. (There was only one student I never knew, and that’s because he was always dead asleep. At first, I thought he was a narcoleptic. But I found out he had a job driving a hearse all night long, picking up dead bodies and delivering them to funeral homes. I always thought of him as the corpse in the back row.)
And, always in his place in the front row, never speaking (he is a deaf mute—I watch him read my lips), his knitted cap hiding his hair, his stomach always growling—Little Duck. I call him that because regardless of what I assign, he always writes about a little white duck that had been his beloved pet. He would work that duck in, it would waddle through, no matter what. “I Remember Little Duckling”—a description of those webbed feet, those perfect feathers, and the precise timbre of the quack-quack. (Thank you—I have never seen a duck in such detail. But you’re forgetting your end punctuation marks again. C—.) This spurred a sudden flurry of verbosity from my mute student in the front row. “How to Feed Your Duck”: 15 pages more than I ever wanted to know on this subject, including how to get the lettuce from the trash bin at A&P. (Punctuation much improved! Now, I want paragraphs. Come see me. C +.) Then, “Duck Rescued!”— the harrowing tale of the night the father tripped on the duck and swore he’d kill the damned thing. A crisis. Screams and curses reported for 40 pages. (Ah, much better. But your tenses are all mixed up again. Revise. B —.) Then, “Duck Dreams”—a virtual thesis on the sleeping habits of a duck. The question answered: Do ducks snore? His bill under his wing, or not, and why, why, why. (B to you! Good job and good night!) But the hysteria was still there, bubbling beneath the surface and I wondered what was wrong with him.
Fall turned to winter when I wasn’t looking. I hadn’t noticed because I was busy. Grade that stack of essays. Extend your office hours. Call day care about this. Buy cat food. Call Ruby—this is the third time! Write that recommendation for Melva. Tell Roach of course he can bring his aunt to class. How to teach them a compound-complex sentence, no knots? How to untangle Dr. Knott? At 4 A.M., I wake up with an idea: let’s analyze Kafka’s paragraph structure! A great excuse to read “In the Penal Colony.” And why not “Pied Beauty”? What sentence structure, and such a lovely poem. We can talk about ideas of God. On goes the light; I wake up my husband, the dog, the cat, and my three-year-old daughter. (“MOMMY?” Leslie cries.) And just as we are about to fall asleep again, at last, I wonder what happened to that little white duck.
I tell my students they can’t come to class late because it is inconsiderate and mean-spirited. I even work punctuality into the past and future tenses I am trying to teach them. And I make a big deal about this. Then, one day, I am late.
“WAKE UP EVERYBODY!!” I hurl my briefcase on my desk. “I’m late because my cat vomited all over my car seat.” The class bursts into laughter. “And I will kill anybody who gives me a hard time today. And when I get home tonight, I am throwing that cat into the neighbor’s dog pen. But let’s get going.” I grit my teeth.
“Miz Sal,” Melva giggles, “There is somethin’ orange leakin’ outta yer briefcase.”
I look down as if an alien had landed there. All my papers and books soaked Minute Maid-orange. And there is Leslie’s thermos, now empty.
“Tell us a story.”
“Ah s___,” echoes all over the room.
Then, as I try to pull down the projection screen, the entire roll unwinds like a paper towel and crashes on my foot. Now, I am furious. Then Big Red stands up, all seven feet of him, and walks toward me with a switchblade. A long, gleaming switchblade. And I am certain he is going to slit my throat, just as I had dreamt, (and also because I gave him an F on his last essay—lifted word for word from Tom Wolfe). But instead, he picks up the projection screen, shoves it back into its brackets, and jabs his switchblade into the roller pin. Then he pulls it down for me very neatly.
And he nods at me in recognition for the first time.
So after all these crises I finally get the poem projected.
“The words before you are immortal. First we are going to figure out what those words mean, and then we’ll uncover the art of it, starting with the sentence structure. Webster—will you read it out loud?”
He puts on his glasses. And he reads as raptly as if his ear were to a safe he was cracking, listening for the tiny clicks within the mechanism.
By Gerar Manly Hopkin
Glor be to God for dapple thin—
For sky couple-colour as a brind cow;
For rose-mole all in stipple pon trout dat swims;
Fresh firecoals chesnuts falls; finches’ wins;
Lanscape plot an piece—fold, fallow, an plough;
An all trades, theys gear an tackle an trims.
All thins counter, orignal, spares strange;
Whatever fickle, freckle (who know how?)
Wit swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fadders forth whose beauty pass change:
“I don git none of this s___. Dis dude a faggot?” asks Duds, his eyes ping-ponging at this poem.
I light a cigarette. “What does “couple-colour” mean?”
“A white dude wit a black fox,” Arabella says firmly.
“Naw. It mean dis nigger’s old man was a white p___,” says Melva.
Four or five hands, now, straight up.
But he is seized by his violent cough. And I see his terrible frustration as he tries to speak right through it.
“”Couple-colour” mean,” Webster is saying, “How the sunset look wit two colors, like on a cow, not blended up.”
“Good! How about “rose-moles all in a stipple”?”
“He bitten by dem jungle ants,” announces the Green Beret.
“Naw! Skin cancer!”
“It just how a trout skin look—them moles rosy rather than brown,” Melva says.
“I know what “plot an piece” mean!” Duds breaks in, triumphant. “It mean the poet knife to death.”
“NO, you ass___!” Friday yells across the room. “He mean the way the land look from a jet—like a patchwork quilt!”
“Right! Now what about “tackle and trim”?”
“He goin’ fishin’,” Roach nods, “For dat dere trout he jus’ see. Dat poet dude hungry.”
“No. Look. Let’s go at this backwards for a minute. Who is “Him”?”
“The D. A. ?”
“Dis faggot’s lover?”
“NO! “Him” mean GOD!” screams Little Duck.
And we all stare at him. I walk over and put my hand on his shoulder.
“That is very, very good. You are absolutely right.”
Duds’ eyes popping again. “He don’ say God nowhere! Or man, I ain’t got no eyes.”
Then Webster says: “Dis poem, nigger, mean dat God love everbody, even if dey ugly as you is. Dis poem a f____’ prayer.”
“That’s right! That’s right!” I jump up and down. “I mean, not that you’re ugly, Duds, haha, but Webster is right about the rest. And so is Little Duck! So what does “He fathers forth whose beauty past change” mean?”
“It mean everthin’ on earth get ugly and die, but God hisself above all this s____,” Melva says, staring at her perfect knees.
“Where the f___ he say dat?” Duds pivots on his seat toward her.
I sigh. “She’s right. His “beauty past change” means that His beauty can’t change. See?” And with all my heart, I want him to see it.
“Den if dat what dis faggot tryin’ to say, why don’ he say it like dat!” Duds is furious at me.
I look out the window. Seagulls like handkerchieves in the wind, the ocean black and tangled. This is really hard.
“Miz Sal, tell us dat story ‘bout dat Minotaur thin’ again,” Roach pleads.
I turn on my heel. “Listen up, Duds! Dis Hopkins dude no faggot! And it don’t matter none if he is or he ain’t! ‘Cause dese is two of the most beautiful sentences ever written and no s____!”
And behind me, I hear Dr. Knott clear his throat. “After class, I want to see you in my office right away.” Down below, a shrill police siren.
And so later: “What happened to our grammar book?” Dr. Knott taps his pencil on his desk.
“I lost it somewhere. So I used Hopkins’ sentence structure instead!”
“Why that’s very good, very clever. That would be a very effective teaching device—at Harvard or Johns Hopkins.”
I hate sarcasm.
“You are deliberately violating department policy.”
“I can’t help it. It’s a dumb book.”
“You’re right. It is a very dumb book. Selected by people more experienced than you. But let us go on to the next problem. Is it also too much to ask you to speak correct English in the classroom?”
“I was trying to communicate something important, in words they would readily understand.”
“I’m sure that’s true. But Hopkins would turn over in his grave. You do no service to that great poet or to your students by lowering yourself to their level. And you are not handing in your attendance sheets.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But it seems everybody is always there, and more and more of them, all the time. Nobody’s dropped yet.”
“No. Because as soon as they have to think or work, they’ll quit.”
We glare . at each other.
“I bet you lunch at the Pimlico that they don’t.”
“You can’t afford that on your salary, but you’re on.”
A bad day. It takes me forever to drive home through a blizzard, and when I finally get there, my keys are gone. In the cat-puke crisis this morning, I’d locked myself out of the house. My husband in San Francisco; my hungry, cold daughter starting to sob, an icy winter night. That god-damned cat rubbing itself against my leg. If it weren’t so cold, I’d break a window.
I use a neighbor’s phone. Friday says he’ll be right there. And, incredibly, he is, with an unusual set of tools in a plastic briefcase. Three second later, the door magically swings open.
I make us both a double.
“My parole man tole me to get my ass off the street, or else.”
“Good. Now you’ll have time to revise all those essays.”
“More dan dat. I goin’ to be one of them writers they calls muckfuckers.”
“You mean muckraker?”
He looks at me somberly. “Muckwritin’ goin’ to be my life.”
“Fantastic, Friday. Read this.” I hand him my copy of Malcolm X’s Autobiography. “And from now on, I want twice as many pages from you as I assign the others. And I want all of those revisions on my desk next week. And I want a report on this book by Friday, Friday.”
A coughing fit. “Miz Sal, like dey says, you is sure somethin’ else.”
“All right. That was very good. Now I want to see these semicolons, in the right places, in your next paper. Which is this: write about a loving relationship of yours—especially its past and its future. One entire letter grade off for each tense error.”
“Ah Christ,” Roach says.
“And if you make five tense errors you get no credit and have to start all over again.”
“But Miz Sal!” Hands up all over the room.
“I ain’t got no lovin’ relationships!”
“I don’ want to know nobody I know!”
Only two students seem happy with this. Little Duck is already writing in his notebook (“Why a Duck is a Better Pet Than a Dog: “Past! Present! Future!”). And Webster is grinning at me, because he never makes any tense-errors.
“Come see me after class, Webster. I have a special assignment for you.”
And he gives me the thumbs up. What a student! Could I get him into Hopkins? Dear Dean, I have a rather unusual student to recommend to you . . . .
“Tell us a story, Miz Sal. You promise.”
“Okay. You got it.”
The class instantly silent. Friday takes out a box of tissues, Melva wraps her legs into a pretzel, Webster puts on his glasses, and Little Duck clasps his hands on his desk. He is alone in the front row, now. Everybody else moved back a row because, in my excitement, I spit. But there Little Duck sits, all rapt attention, unperturbed that I am certainly going to spit all over him. This wordless student flatters me more than anyone I have ever known.
I close the door. “Today I have a story about kidnapping and mother love, an ancient explanation for the change of seasons. “Demeter and Persephone,” it’s called. And this will lead me to other stories, about corn, and sacrifices, and fertility rituals. And if I have time, I’ll explain how Jesus Christ fits into all of this. First, who knows what this is?” I pull a pomegranate out of my briefcase.
Up goes Webster’s hand.
When the bell rings, nobody moves. They sit there transfixed as a photograph. I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this. Then they pour up to my desk, asking me a hundred things at once, interrupting each other’s questions.
Spring. Everything growing, including my class. I took everybody in, with delight I couldn’t conceal, including visitors, students’ friends, and one day, Roach’s cat who almost froze to death. And sometimes our voices ringing down the hall would bring other students to my door, where they peered in. Dr. Knott’s secretary arranged for her son, Benny, to transfer into my class. Benny, who would tell his mother, who would tell Dr. Knott about my each and every violation of sacred policy.
“I’d love to have your son,” I clench my briefcase. “But really I can’t take anybody else. I’m out of chairs.”
“No problem. I’ll just give you a bigger classroom. Want a lecture hall?”
Welcome to my class, Benny. But Benny just sits there smiling at the light fixture, no matter what. He is always stoned.
Soon, Dr. Knott sends me a new student with a note: “He is somewhat of a problem for everybody else here. See what you can do with him. And lunch at the Pimlico, on me.”
And shortly after that very gratifying lunch, it is time for my students to evaluate me. These anonymous written evaluations, says Dr. Knott, can make you turn to real estate, which pays better anyway. I ponder that as Benny’s mother comes in and hands out the forms, smiling at her son, who is smiling at the light fixture. The same exact smile, except the mother’s focuses. And hers can even stop, I see, as she explains how important these forms are, and how everybody should tell the absolute truth about me, no matter what. It reminds me of an FBI investigation in a movie I once saw.
And that afternoon Dr. Knott calls me into his office again.
“In 25 years I have never seen such unanimous, hyperbolic praise. But you do not deserve it. Because, in an entire academic year, you haven’t even taught them to write a simple sentence. See for yourself.” And he pushes the stack toward me.
I flip through them, wincing at the pronoun errors, the subjects and verbs in disagreement. Not a semicolon in sight. But the past and future tenses are there, at last, and furthermore, they are right.
“But look at the improvement!”
He frowns. “Benny told me that your class is incredibly good. So good he can hardly stand it. But when I asked him what you taught him, he couldn’t remember. Only that he had lots of fun.”
“But you must know that Benny is an addict!”
“I know you have a waiting list for next fall with 150 names on it. But I want to know what you’re doing in there.”
“I’m doing the best I can.” I study the orange stitches popping out of my briefcase. “But I have to quit, anyway.”
He shoves aside the stack of evaluations and rubs his forehead.
“No, no, no. You have not understood at all.”
“My husband has been transferred to San Francisco.”
“Ah. San Francisco. A very odd place. Weird weather, basket weavers, and even more drug abusers than we have here. Not a good choice.”
“And it’s full of taxi drivers with Ph.D.’s,” I hint.
“A shame, a shame.” He takes off his glasses. “Why not write you a recommendation?”
“Will you tell them I lost your grammar book?”
“No. And not that you taught Kafka instead. No, I will tell them that you are a stubborn, rebellious, infuriating, but very gifted young woman. Enormously talented. I have never seen anything like it. And I will tell them that your students gave you the finest evaluations I have ever seen. I will get you a job.”
And he did. I didn’t have to be a taxi driver after all.
But I didn’t know that yet. Not that night, as I pulled their last set of essays out of my broken briefcase. And so I read Little Duck’s final chapter. His whole family was starving, and they had been hungry forever. His baby sister cried all the time. And one night, his father—in a rage of frustration and awful practicality—butchered that duck for dinner.
And made his son eat his pet.
A blaxing June morning, our last class. I am wearing sunglasses so they won’t know I’ve been up all night wondering how I am going to get through this.
I throw my briefcase on my desk. Big Red stands up holding a Woolworth’s box with a bow on it.
“Everybody chip in.” And he puts it on my desk.
I read the card out loud: “Good luck in California. We miss you. Don’t never forget “His Beauty Past Change.”” I put this in my pocket. I am crying so much I can hardly see.
Then, I open the box. They have given me a green plastic waterfall. I hold it high and turn it around. It is the most waterfallish waterfall I’ve ever seen. A sort of Platonic waterfall, very green green. It evokes chirping birds and sparkling water and light splintered between palm leaves. But blink, and it becomes an insane piece of plastic. Blink again, and we’re back in Jamaica.
And I will always wonder if they knew that, and that double vision was the whole point of the gift. But I have never been able to figure it out. Tantalizing me, it sits on my desk right now.
“I’m going to keep this waterfall forever.” Then I take off my sunglasses even though my face is waterfalled with mascara. “I have to tell you the most important thing.”
Webster puts on his glasses, Melva wraps her legs in a pretzel, Little Duck clasps his hands—and Big Red grins at me for the first time.