Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
In this story, an unnamed narrator wakes up to find his dog vomiting, so he carries the dog outside. His wife, Fanny, is asleep on the couch, as they had a fight last night. The narrator works for a local college, doing maintenance and handling on-campus emergencies and the like; as a member of the staff, he is allowed to take one class per term, and he is currently enrolled in a literature and writing course. His professor is a bit pretentious and offers unsatisfying responses to the narrator’s writing. One night, the narrator has to help his professor when the man’s car has a dead battery, and he can tell that his professor wants him to have a “history,” like being a Vietnam veteran.
On another night, the narrator has to help a student, a young red-haired woman, who is inebriated and appears to be sad about an ex. The narrator hugs her, and she accuses him of sexual harassment. He writes another essay for class, and his professor tries to explain that one should not use profane language in college papers. The narrator continues to feel that his professor expects a wild backstory from him, and he obliges him for a while, later confessing that he made it all up. Still later, he says that he killed people in Vietnam, and his professor seems happy to have been right.
For his next assignment, the narrator has to “write something to influence somebody. [The professor] called it Rhetoric and Persuasion.” The narrator writes a story called “Ralph the Duck” about a duck that has no feathers on his wings. When Ralph gets cold, his mother hugs him tightly, and Ralph falls asleep, warm and happy.
The narrator earns a D, and the professor thinks that he didn’t understand the assignment. As the two are discussing it, the same red-haired student from earlier in the story arrives to see the professor, implying that she and the professor are having an affair.
When the narrator tells Fanny about his story and his grade, it sounds as though “Ralph the Duck” is not new but, rather, something they had come up with before his assignment. We learn, later, that they had a little girl once; we can assume that she died. Perhaps the narrator originally made up the story for her.
One day, the worst winter storm in years hits the college, which closes down. The narrator receives a call about a girl who has gone missing; her friends believe that she went to a local quarry. It’s dangerous driving and unsafe conditions, but he does eventually find her: she is the same red-haired woman from before, high on some kind of pills. She wants to die, but the narrator wraps her in blankets and puts her in his truck. He takes her to the hospital and turns her over to the doctors.
The next day, Fanny asks him about the experience, and he tells her that he “did Rhetoric and Persuasion”—meaning that he told the girl stories. Fanny tells him that he had better arrive at his next class early in order to tell his professor “to jack up [his] grade” since, clearly, he was able to persuade the girl not to remain in the cold and kill herself.