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"The dishwasher thanks you," I said. I noticed Lou Ann whisking a pair out of Dwayne Ray's reach, and could hear the words "put his eyes out" as plainly as if she'd said them aloud. Dwayne Ray started squalling, and Lou Ann excused herself to go put him to bed.

"What is it, eating sticks?" Edna ran her fingers along the thin shafts. "It sounds like a great adventure, but I'll just stick to what I know, if you don't mind. Thank you all the same." I noticed that Edna ate very slowly, with gradual, exact movements of her fork. Mrs. Parsons said she wasn't game for such foolishness either.

"I never said it was foolishness," Edna said.

The rest of us gave it a try, spearing pieces of chicken and looping green-pepper rings and chasing the rice around our plates. Even Esperanza tried. Estevan said we were being too aggressive.

"They are held this way." He demonstrated, holding them like pencils in one hand and clicking the ends together. I loved his way of saying, "It is" and "They are."

Turtle was watching me, imitating. "Don't look at me, I'm not the expert." I pointed at Estevan.

Lou Ann came back to the table. "Where'd you learn how to do that?" she asked Estevan.

"Ah," he said, "this is why I like chopsticks: I work in a Chinese restaurant. I am the dishwasher."

"I didn't know that. How long have you worked there?" I asked, realizing that I had no business thinking I knew everything about Estevan. His whole life, really, was a mystery to me.

"One month," he said. "I work with a very kind family who speak only Chinese. Only the five-year-old daughter speaks English. The father has her explain to me what I must do. Fortunately, she is very patient."

Mrs. Parsons muttered that she thought this was a disgrace. "Before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won't know it's America."

"Virgie, mind your manners," Edna said.

"Well, it's the truth. They ought to stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs."

"Virgie," Edna said.

I felt like I'd sat on a bee. If Mama hadn't brought me up to do better, I think I would have told that old snake to put down her fork and get her backside out the door. I wanted to scream at her: This man you are looking at is an English teacher. He did not come here so he could wash egg foo yung off plates and take orders from a five-year-old.

But Estevan didn't seem perturbed, and I realized he must hear this kind of thing every day of his life. I wondered how he could stay so calm. I would have murdered somebody by now, I thought, would have put a chopstick to one of the many deadly uses that only Lou Ann could imagine for it.

"Can I get anybody anything?" Lou Ann asked.

"We're fine," Edna said, obviously accustomed to being Virgie Mae's public-relations department. "You children have made a delightful meal."

Esperanza pointed at Turtle. It was the first time I ever saw her smile, and I was struck with what a lovely woman she was when you really connected. Then the smile left her again.

Turtle, wielding a chopstick in each hand, had managed to pick up a chunk of pineapple. Little by little she moved it upward toward her wide-open mouth, but the sticks were longer than her arms. The pineapple hung in the air over her head and then fell behind her onto the floor. We laughed and cheered her on, but Turtle was so startled she cried. I picked her up and held her on my lap.

"Tortolita, let me tell you a story," Estevan said. "This is a South American, wild Indian story about heaven and hell." Mrs. Parsons made a prudish face, and Estevan went on. "If you go to visit hell, you will see a room like this kitchen. There is a pot of delicious stew on the table, with the most delicate aroma you can imagine. All around, people sit, like us. Only they are dying of starvation. They are jibbering and jabbering," he looked extra hard at Mrs. Parsons, "but they cannot get a bite of this wonderful stew God has made for them. Now, why is that?"

"Because they're choking? For all eternity?" Lou Ann asked. Hell, for Lou Ann, would naturally be a place filled with sharp objects and small round foods.

"No," he said. "Good guess, but no. They are starving because they only have spoons with very long handles. As long as that." He pointed to the mop, which I had forgotten to put away. "With these ridiculous, terrible spoons, the people in hell can reach into the pot but they cannot put the food in their mouths. Oh, how hungry they are! Oh, how they swear and curse each other!" he said, looking again at Virgie. He was enjoying this.