In the memorial garden, my colleague Michael Heffernan bends to tend some short, once-green plants that, to my untrained eyes, remain mysterious. He is quiet and pours the water with care. He is so quiet. In this, the first week of classes, my first on this campus, I don’t yet know Michael well, but already I know quiet to be, for him, the most unnatural of states.

The moment before, I was sitting in my office near his in our building, Kimpel Hall, and he was trying to exit the door next to my office, his hands filled with water glasses. I said, “Thirsty?” And he said, “Do you know about the garden?”

When I shook my head, he nodded toward the window, to a grassy patch, and I had work to do, new names to memorize, grading to finish already. Another colleague had just been in my office too, talking about a female graduate student, describing her as “a bag of snakes.” At first, I’d misunderstood. “She has a bag of snakes?” I said. “In the building?”

On the topic of snakes, I’m surprisingly neutral. But if this student kept her snakes, say, in her office down the hall, I felt I perhaps should be prepared.