“He was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream–clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls.”
In the January 31, 1953 edition of The New Yorker this sentence concludes a short story about a precocious and insightful boy on a ship who had just finished a conversation with a fellow traveler named Bob Nicholson. In that conversation, the two discuss and exchange opinions on a variety of academic subjects, from poetry to philosophy, reincarnation and multidimensional realities. The young boy is a mere ten years old and his student is Bob, a graduate student. The boy is the teacher and the graduate student is…well, he is a graduate student.
The story starts out with the boy musing out of a porthole, observing discarded orange peels floating and then disappearing beneath the waves. His father is a Philistine, upset that his son is standing on his bag to look out the porthole; and we can infer that his mother is no better. His comment about the orange peel is Buddhist doctrine light:
“It’s interesting that I know about them being there. If I hadn’t seen them, then I wouldn’t know they were there, and if I didn’t know they were there, I wouldn’t be able to say that they even exist.”
It is one of many piquant and astute comments from the little man in need of a haircut. He is an annoyance in everybody’s adult reality except Bob’s. He has a sister named Booper. He predicts: “It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even.”
That ‘it’ is his death and he suggests that his sister “might come up and sort of push me in. I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously.” He excuses himself, leaves Bob, to attend a swimming lesson.
His name is Teddy. The story, the last in the set, is “Teddy” and it appeared in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories after it ran in The New Yorker.
Quirky. Weird. Esoteric.
But what really happened to Teddy? Passionate interpretations since 1953 rival most conspiracy theories.
SHORT-LIST OF INTERPRETATIONS:
Argument: Teddy dies. His sister did him in.
Evidence: It is in the text. Or is it?
Teddy gets back at the insensitive louts he has for parents. Never mind that suicide defeats Buddhist detachment and Buddhist demons and that hungry ghosts are a real buzz-kill compared to Nirvana.
Argument: Teddy committed suicide because he names the date.
Evidence: All that talk with Bob about death is foreshadowing. Teddy has a death wish. He isn’t a teen yet and this is decades before “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Prodigy Ted quotes two haikus: “‘Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die’” and “‘Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve.’”
Haiku before Death
Death is a Haiku.
Argument: Everybody is wrong. Teddy pushes her into the pool. She screams.
Evidence: The sound experts say that ‘highly acoustical’ and ‘four-tiled walls’ are possible only in a pool full of water.
But wait! There was no splash. Solid pavement is needed to crack the noggin, right? Was the pool empty or full? The text mentions a swimming lesson and a regular schedule.
I give up. J.D. wins. You can read another interpretation here.
The last sentence rivals Orwell’s famous ending to Nineteen Eighty-Four: “He loved Big Brother.”
Damn good story that still leaves everyone guessing a half century later. That’s good writing.