A ten year-old boy in need of a haircut is standing atop his parents’ bag and poking his head out of the window of an ocean liner. His name is Teddy, and we can sense early on that he is unnaturally bright and precocious. “I’ll exquisite day you, buddy, if you don’t get down off that bag this minute,” his father Mr. McArdle, a daytime radio serial actor, shouts. The mother, for her part, advises Teddy to stay exactly where he is – primarily to spite the father, it seems.
While husband and wife bicker, Teddy spots a can of orange peels that has just been dumped into the ocean. Several of the peels are floating by. “They float very nicely,” Teddy muses. “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.”
He asks his mother about the man who sits right next to them “in the dining room.” He explains that he was in the boat’s gym and, while “Sven” – who he and his parents already know – was in the process of weighing him, the man came up and began talking to him. “He heard the last tape I made,” Teddy says. “He was at a party in Boston just before he went to Europe, and somebody at the party knew somebody in the Leidekker examining group – he didn’t say who – and they borrowed that last tape I made and played it at the party.”
The father will have none of the chit-chat, and keeps demanding that Teddy get off his bag. He then asks where his camera is, and is mortified to learn that Teddy gave it to “Booper,” the younger sister. Teddy is sent off to go find Booper, retrieve the camera, and remind the girl of her and Teddy’s scheduled swim lesson at ten-thirty.
When Teddy finds Booper, she is on the Sports Deck, “piling twelve or fourteen shuffleboard discs into two tangent stacks, one for the black discs, one for the red.” She shows off her accomplishment to her brother, while taunting a boy named Myron about his father, who was killed in Korea. “Now if his mother dies, he’ll be an orphan,” she loudly declares.
Teddy grabs the camera, tells Booper their mother wants to see her right away, and reminds her of the swim lesson. Then he strolls down the Sun Deck, finds the four McArdle deck chairs, sits down in one of them and takes out his notebook. He begins to turn the pages with fierce concentration, “as if only he and the notebook existed – no sunshine, no fellow passengers, no ship.” The entries refer to professors by the names of Peet and Walton, indicate words and expressions to look up in the library, and recount a story told in a book of poetry a certain Professor Mandell has sent Teddy to read:
“A man walks along the beach and unfortunately gets hit in the head by a coconut. His head unfortunately cracks open in two halves. Then his wife comes along the beach singing a song and sees the 2 halves and recognizes them and picks them up. She gets very sad of course and cries heart breakingly. That is exactly where I am tired of poetry. Supposing the lady just picks up the 2 halves and shouts into them very angrily ‘Stop that!’”
Teddy then jots down some new entries, finishing with the following words:
“It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even.”
Then a young man of about thirty approaches him. He is a grad student by the name of Bob Nicholson. He explains that he was watching Teddy write, and we learn later that he and Teddy know each other from the gym. Nicholson appears to be the man to whom Teddy was referring in his parents’ cabin.
Nicholson asks Teddy how his trip to Europe was; Teddy notes that he and his mother were in Edinburgh and Oxford for the most part for interviews. The conversation shifts to the subject of Western poetry, which Teddy finds overly emotional. By point of comparison, Teddy recites two Japanese poems: “‘Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die.’ […] ‘Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve.’” Not much “emotional stuff” in those, Teddy explains.
Nicholson asks Teddy about the things he said to the professors in Boston. “From what I gather,” he says, “you made some little predictions that disturbed the boys no end. Is that right?” Teddy replies by saying: “I wish I knew why people think it’s so important to be emotional. […] My father […] thinks I’m inhuman.”
“I take it you have no emotions?” Nicholson asks. “If I do, I don’t remember when I ever used them,” Teddy replies. “I don’t see what they’re good for.” He goes on to explain that he loves God, but not “sentimentally,” and that his parents may love him, but “love their reasons for loving [him] almost as much as they love [him], and most of the time more.”
Nicholson presses on with further questions. He has heard Teddy say that, through meditation, he has ascertained that in all likelihood he was “a holy man in India” in his “last incarnation.” “I wasn’t a holy man,” Teddy counters. “I was just a person making very nice spiritual advancement.” This earlier incarnation, apparently, met a lady, stopped meditating, and thereby fell from Grace. For that reason, Teddy was reincarnated as an American. “I mean it’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America,” he says.
We learn that Teddy had his first “mystical experience” at the age of six, that he could already “get out of the finite dimensions” when he was four (he argues that a block of wood does not just stop at its physical dimensions), and that he informed “the whole Leidekker examining bunch” when and where they might die – or at least “places, and times, when they should be very, very careful.” Teddy remarks that all death is is leaving the body: “everybody’s done it thousands and thousands of times.” He then notes that he has a swimming lesson in five minutes, and that perhaps the pool will be empty for water-changing, and his sister will playfully push him in, and he will fracture his skull. “That could happen,” he says.
A few moments later, he parts ways with Nicholson and goes off to his lesson. Nicholson waits around, then strolls down toward the pool himself. Once almost there, he hears “an all-piercing, sustained scream – clearly coming from a small, female child.”
The ending of “Teddy” is one of the most chilling in Salinger’s oeuvre. The sudden denouement echoes that of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and the two tales thus book-end Nine Stories with reminders of mortality and the fragility of human life. The stories’ similarities do not stop there, however. Both revolve around precocious protagonists who see the world differently from others; both take place in more or less real-time, with the occasional ellipsis (usually jumping only a matter of minutes); both unspool in a vacation setting, amidst sunbathing crowds whipped by ocean spray; and both seem to wield metaphors as a way of describing humanity.
Teddy’s orange peels or cicada voices recall Seymour Glass’s bananafish; though not woven into complete analogies or allegories, these everyday things (or, in Glass’s case, imaginary things) seem to suggest an invisible tension within the physical world. An orange peel floating on the water points, albeit subtly, to some kind of inner life, an intangible fabric that binds people to places and objects to lives. The resulting vision is a deeply spiritual one, reminiscent of Eastern traditions, particularly Buddhism.
It is helpful to recall that Salinger was himself a devoted student of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, a work of Hindu mysticism, and leaned heavily, especially later in his career, on Hindu-Buddhist tendencies and beliefs. This perhaps helps explain the prevalence of preternaturally wise or visionary youths in his works. Seymour and Teddy echo each other, Teddy perhaps representing a younger version of Seymour, both exhibiting behavior that walks the line between genius and madness, and harboring what seems to be a death wish. In Teddy’s case, however, the war can’t be blamed. Teddy appears to have everything going for him: a pair of wealthy and essentially well-intentioned (if a bit bumbling) parents who take him around Europe, a vivacious sister, and a curious and inquisitive mind, full of knowledge and hungry for more. His despair – if he does indeed feel any despair – cannot be as easily explained away as Seymour’s.
And yet, Teddy is morbidly fascinated with death – especially his own. He writes in his notebook that “It will either happen today or February 14, 1958,” referring, we can later presume, to his demise; he cites a Japanese poem about cicadas dying; he speaks with Nicholson about his premonitions regarding the Leidekker examining group; he argues that death is not that big of a deal, that everybody changes bodies thousands of times, and that it is all part of a cycle (drawing quite explicitly, in this case, on Buddhist beliefs). Even the beginning of the story seems tainted in retrospect, with Teddy leaning out and poking through the window, staring intently at orange peels, the remnants of what was once a living fruit, now floating decrepit and lifeless on the dark water.
Of course, it must be noted that nothing in the story tells us without doubt that Teddy dies. Salinger lets the last sentences linger in our mind – as he did in “Bananafish” – but he does not provide concrete proof of a death. Seymour shoots himself before our eyes, in a manner of speaking, but Teddy’s “death” occurs outside our realm of sight – as we have by then allied ourselves with the perspective of Nicholson. All Salinger writes is that a young girl’s scream was heard. The girl may or may not be Booper; the scream may or may not be a typical child’s temper tantrum. Salinger leaves us guessing – knowing full well that a reader will readily jump to the most terrible conclusion, whether or not that conclusion is in fact justified.