Frederick Busch: “Ralph the Duck” from Absent Friends

Jogen Chowdhury: “Man in Grief” (2006)

My assignment was to write something to influence somebody. He called it Rhetoric and Persuasion…. I wrote “Ralph the Duck.”
Once upon a time, there was a duck named Ralph who didn’t have any feathers on either wing. So when the cold wind blew, Ralph said, Brr, and shivered and shook.
What’s the matter? Ralph’s mommy asked.
I’m cold, Ralph said.
Oh, the mommy said. Here. I’ll keep you warm.
So she spread her big, feathery wings, and hugged Ralph tight, and when the cold wind blew, Ralph was warm and snuggly, and fell fast asleep.

Sometimes a whisper can speak as loudly as a scream, and a mother’s lullaby can outperform a 104-piece orchestra. I’ve been reading a lot of complex symphonies lately; it was nice to be reminded of the power of simplicity. Not that it’s an easy story; it requires close attention, as it’s all carried in a word here, a sentence there.

The narrator is a college security guard who takes a free class every semester. He’s up against an English professor who never quite realizes that, despite his degrees, he’s no match for this guy by any measure. You are not an unintelligent writer, the professor tells him. “You are not an unintelligent driver,” the narrator says later, out of earshot, after fixing his car for him. The professor tries to convince him he can’t say “fuck” in a college essay. The narrator has some fun with this, putting forth a convincing argument, like a child would, until the professor in frustration falls back on the academic version of “Because I said so!” When the narrator turns in the story of Ralph the Duck for the Rhetoric and Persuasion part of the course, the professor gives him a D. “It isn’t unappealing,” the professor tells him; but, of course, it isn’t appropriate for the course. The narrator turns around and shows him just how talented he is at Rhetoric and Persuasion by rescuing a student – a student the professor had an affair with, in fact, how’s that for symmetry and unity – from a suicide attempt.

Simple, right? But that’s just the surface.

I was the oldest college student in America, I thought. But of course I wasn’t. There were always ancient women with parchment for skin who graduated at seventy-nine from places like Barnard and the University of Georgia. I was only forty-two, and I hardly qualified as a student….
I was getting educated, in a kind of slow-motion way – it would have taken me something like fifteen or sixteen years to graduate…

The professor’s addiction to litotes is loaded with meaning. Sure, it’s funny, a way to poke the overblown academic in the eye, but both instances have great significance because he’s stumbled onto a truth he can’t consciously admit. The narrator is one sharp cookie, but the professor can’t quite handle a middle-aged blue-collar part-time undergrad who can fix cars and get to the heart of “A Rose for Emily.” But by using the indirect structure – “not an unintelligent writer” – instead of containing the student’s ability, he’s exaggerating it, misusing a tool from his own workshop. Hoisting himself on his own petard, in fact.

… I could see how disappointed he was. He’d been banking on my having been a murderer. Interesting guy in one of my classes, he must’ve told some terrific woman at an overpriced meal: I just know the guy was a rub out specialist in the Nam, he had to have said. I figured I should come to work wearing my fatigue jacket and a red bandanna tied around my head. Say “Man” to him a couple of times, hang a fist in the air for grief and solidarity, and look terribly worn, exhausted by experiences he was fairly certain that he envied me. His dungarees were ironed, I noticed.

The professor’s also addicted to his own version of truth. He doesn’t want to hear about the guy’s military service spent in Baltimore railroad yards; he wants Vietnam combat, damn it, and he badgers him until he gets it, in a scene that reeks of testosterone – cigars, his own military service, the loose women he’s known, language, this guy is out to prove he’s as much man as his student even if he can’t fix his own car. Even if his dungarees are ironed.

Then there’s the narrator’s daughter.

We never learn the details about the girl – what her name was, how old she was or how long ago it was when she died. For that matter – and this matters – no one ever says directly that she died. It’s strongly implied, and how else would she be gone, but the loss of his child is one of those things the narrator just can’t face head-on; he in fact exaggerates the importance by not facing it, in a kind of psychological version of litotes. He comes very close when he rescues the student suicide, and we get a glimpse into what he faces daily, the heartbreak and guilt he carries around in quiet despair, as his daughter’s death, Vietnam, and the teenager merge into one.

In the end, it’s a story that leaves a lot of questions. It’s usually referred to as a story about a Vietnam vet, but I wonder if maybe the Baltimore story was the accurate one. If he told the professor what he wanted to hear, he knew how happy that made him, that it conformed to his preconceived notions, so he tried the same story on the suicidal teenager. It’s only when that didn’t work too well that he brought out the truth about his daughter. What if the Vietnam dreams he told the teenager were actually the dreams he has of his daughter? If he feels so responsible for her death it’s his own personal Vietnam? I can see this, I can see a father racing to the hospital with his daughter, only to find out he’s too late – so when he brings in the teenager, he says, “She better not die this time.”

So what does this have to do with the Ralph the Duck essay? For me, it formed the turning point of the story – not the essay, but the aftermath. The story starts with dog vomit and his wife sleeping on the couch, apparently a – forgive me – not uncommon event in the household. Things improve domestically over the course of a few days, but there’s a special poignancy when he tells his wife what’s going on in the class.

Fanny said, “Shit! you’re never that laconic unless you feel crazy. What’s wrong? Who’d you punch out at the playground?”
“We had to write a composition,” I said.
“Did he like it?”
“He gave me a D.”
“Well, you’re familiar enough with D’s. I never saw you get this low over a grade.”
“I wrote about Ralph the Duck.”
She said, “You did?” She said, “Honey.” She came over and stood beside the rocker and leaned into me and hugged my head and neck. “Honey,” she said. “Honey.”

This scene accomplishes a lot for me. First, we find out he has a history of “punching out at the playground,” which is what he’s been doing with the professor in a passive-aggressive way. Then we find out he’s a bit wounded over the grade, perhaps angry. But most importantly: Ralph the Duck has an ineffable significance, a significance shared with his wife.

So what’s the story behind the Ralph story? I don’t know. Maybe it was his daughter’s favorite story. Maybe it was the story he told her the night she died. Maybe it was a story he told her when she got scared in the hospital. Maybe it’s the story his wife told her. Whatever it is, it now becomes a story to comfort him, as his wife spreads her feathered wings around his naked, shivering heart.

I decided to read this story, which is from 1989 (it was in BASS) on an impulse. A few weeks ago, Celeste Ng wrote a post about it for the “Stories We Love” column at FWW. I could swear I saw a twitter conversation about it, but it’s not there anymore, so maybe I imagined it. That imagined conversation was so intriguing, though (even though I don’t remember anything about the contents), I went to my library and checked out Frederick Busch’s collection Absent Friends just so I could read it. It must’ve been one helluvan imaginary conversation. That would’ve been fitting, because it’s one helluva story. Even if it is quiet as a whisper.

5 responses to “Frederick Busch: “Ralph the Duck” from Absent Friends

  1. I think ralph the duck persuaded his daughter to be comforted and sleep. I think it has to be seen as “rhetoric and persuasion.” Just sayin.’ Love your review of this brilliant and crushingly beautiful story. It’s one of my favorites ever.

  2. I enjoy your thoughts on Ralph the Duck. My brother, two years my senior at 76, my only sibling, died recently. I had a chance to spend a few days with him at his home, just two brothers sharing a bedroom like it had always been. I read him Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and Salinger’s For Esme, with Love and Squalor. I read him Stephen King’s Batman and Robin Have an Altercation and I read him Ralph the Duck. When you know you are providing someone you love the last things they likely will ever hear, you try to choose carefully. If you choose right, you deserve a higher grade than a D. I especially like your line “his wife spreads her feathered wings around his naked, shivering heart.” If you don’t mind, I’ll use that line in future tellings. C+, bare minimum.

    • Hi Porter – what a gift you gave your brother! And, I suppose, a gift he gave you, the chance to do that. The best gifts are reciprocal. I’m sorry for your loss; I hope you are doing well.

      To be clear, the line about the wings is a quote from the story, not my words.

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