A Good Samaritan and a Giant Meet on the Beach
"The First Day of What Remained for Tedman Ward" by Nell Hanley, about a moment of reprieve for two lonely middle-aged men
INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Our man, Tedman, is a lonely guy. Divorced, alone on the 4th of July, boating by the party his ex-wife hosts with her soon-to-be husband. He may have lost his marriage, but he hasn’t lost his sense of propriety. So when he encounters a very large man (“Not so exceptionally fat, but oversized almost like an actual giant”) flat back, marooned on the beach, Tedman does not hesitate to play the good samaritan.
Nell Hanley’s “The First Day of What Remained for Tedman Ward” is a delicious comedy of manners—sharp witted, precise, and subtly cutting. (A heel is “grapefruit-sized,” the water is “gin-clear.”) As Tedman struggles to help the stranded man, whose name is Woody, sit up, they are unfailingly congenial with one another. There is small talk. There is please and thank you. There is borrowing Tedman’s hat.
Anyone who has ever engaged in small talk knows that it can be both perfectly pleasant and soul deadening, with uncomfortable truths lurking beneath the surface. Occasionally those truths break through, with the casual tenor of chit-chat. “I used to think about killing myself,” Woody says. “But then it just seemed illogical. Like it’s all over and done with soon enough, and for all you know there might be something good around the next corner.” “If wishes were horses,” Tedman responds, and it’s unclear if the wish is for good things around the bend or the swift arrival of the end. After all, a well-mannered person can be polite without actually being kind.
As readers, we begin to wonder, what kind of man is Tedman? Is he an all around decent guy, or is he only decent with strangers? As such, this absurd, delightful story has a melancholic underbelly. We chuckle at Woody and Tedman’s antics. We marvel at Tedman’s immediate and unquestioned commitment to the cause, we recognize the kind of easy, handshake relationship these two men, the kind who are comfortable in khakis and a polo shirt, share with each other. In Hanley’s expertly crafted comedy of manners, Tedman is the good samaritan and we are the bystanders, pleased that someone else is handling an awkward situation, and, instead of stepping in, we get to watch at a safe distance.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
A Good Samaritan and a Giant Meet on the Beach
“The First Day of What Remained for Tedman Ward”
by Nell Hanley
As soon as he got clear of the jetty at the mouth of the harbor, there giving an amiable wave to the helmsman of an incoming fishing charter, Tedman put the Bowrider hard westward at a fair clip. She wasn’t much to look at, just an old sixteen-foot runabout, but the Evinrude outboard that came with her was a beast.
As a rule, Tedman never went out on the water alone. There were any number of disasters that could happen, friendly bay or no, and he’d never been a strong swimmer. About that his ex-wife used to say once upon a time with affection and once upon a later-time with disdain, “You swim like a tin man, Teddy. I swear.” But today he’d decided on the spur of the moment to toss his buddy-boating-only stricture and damn the torpedoes.
Dominating the bluff on the port-side stretch of shore was a new trophy home with a fifty-foot flagpole and a life-sized bronze sculpture of a breaching whale. The place belonged to Gart Mulligan, real estate pig and soon-to-be step-father to Tedman’s son and daughter, who were there now and would be there later this afternoon at their mother’s insistence for her much-fussed-over Fourth of July bash. His daughter would be lounging all day by the pool reading a book, and his son, who was a person of mood, would be holed up in his room with his guitar and downloading tablature from his computer until his mother made him come out and be sociable.
A righteous anger rose up in Tedman, and he let it. It lay dormant more and more often and for longer periods of time, now, two years since the shit hit the fan, and when it did come over him it lacked the tooth and vigor it once had, the fervid rage. He raised his arm in salute towards the house, with his middle finger extended, and leaned on the throttle. The Evinrude kicked up the water astern and threw the boat forward. Tedman had to grip the wheel with both hands.
The Evinrude groaned and the gull-wing hull thwacked into the chop. He took off his hat, lest he lose it to the wind, and tucked it into the waistband of his shorts. In the distance on his starboard side a sailboat race was in progress, colorless triangles of sail in shifting patterns, and beyond that the shapes of the lighthouse and monument across the bay at Provincetown. The sky was cloudless but for a few far off brush strokes that might just have been dissipating jet streams.
He made it to Sandy Neck around one and cruised the shore past a dozen or so leisure boats anchored in the shallows and went on to an unclaimed stretch of beach, where he steered the Bowrider into the gin-clear shallows, set anchor, cut the motor, and humped his beach chair and cooler well up the beach to allow for the turn of the tide. It came in fast out here.
Despite his late breakfast, he was hungry for lunch and went ahead and ate his Italian sub and a bag of potato chips. He’d always been able to eat anything without putting on weight. It was one of the things about him his ex-wife had come to despise. In the end, she couldn’t even be in the same room with him while he ate.
He washed it down with a couple of Narragansetts and surrendered himself to an hour’s digestive slumber in the sun, after which he took a dunk to rid himself of the stupor he felt from sleeping in the heat of the day, and then he set off to have a walk.
He’d gone maybe half a mile when a figure appeared in the distance along the shoreline. It wasn’t an upright, limbed figure. That was clear. It was something supine and amorphous. It might have been a rock or something maybe washed ashore—after the last spill, dolphins were landing blackened by oil all up and down the coastline, disemboweled and eyes plucked out. In any case it was hard to judge its distance with nothing to give it scale, like a long shot of a Bedouin in the desert, a flicker and wavering in the heat and the light. Like something out of Lawrence of Arabia, which he’d stayed up late watching the night before while drinking quantities of red wine.
He kept on, and before long and to his surprise he made the figure out to be a person flat out at the edge of the water, and when he drew closer still, he could see it was an enormous man wearing green bathing trunks and a royal blue t-shirt. The man was not in an attitude of leisure. There was something strange and too still about him, and Tedman was afraid that he might be happening upon a dead body, which would be horrible for a host of reasons, but then the man turned his head in Tedman’s direction. It was only for a glancing moment. When Tedman approached to within a few yards, the man looked at him again, yet without allowing any eye contact, and then looked away and up at the sky.
He was the most enormous man Tedman had ever seen. Not so exceptionally fat, but oversized almost like an actual giant. Gargantuan, really.
Remarkable, too, was that the man’s rather pale skin was entirely covered with freckles. They were light orange and made Tedman think of the orange and white of tabby cats and Creamsicles, and a girl named Shannon who he’d kissed once in the sixth grade in the eraser room at school. The broad and rather flat plane of his face was also densely freckled, even his eyelids, and his lips were much the same color as the freckles. As was his hair, a fine, curly cap of it.
“Hey mister,” Tedman said. The man looked to be in his thirties, anyway. He wasn’t any kid. “You all right?” And the man just shook his head and closed his eyes against the sun, with the water lapping at the back of his knees. His grapefruit-sized heels were settled in shallow depressions caused by the water licking away at the sand around them. The tide had made its turn in.
Tedman stepped still closer, so he was practically right over the man, and said, “You need a hand? Did you fall down?”
“Yes,” the man said. His voice was thick and in the back of his throat. The t-shirt he had on was emblazoned with a restaurant logo and a cartoon lobster wearing a bib, on which was a cartoon of a smiling clam. It was from a well-known seafood joint out in P-town. Tedman and his ex-wife and the kids always went out there at least once every summer, made a day of it at the ocean with beach chairs and umbrellas and shovels and buckets, the works, and then into town for fried clams or lobster rolls and a stroll up and down Commercial Street, popping into gift shops and antique stores at will.
“Here,” Tedman said, and offered his hands to the man.
The man held out his right arm and Tedman took his wrist in both hands. It was nearly the size of Tedman’s upper arm. The man wrapped his hand easily around the entirety of Tedman’s forearm. His hands were of remarkable size, and, too, awash in freckles and a spray of orange hair. The flesh of his palm was uncalloused and cool.
“Can you bend your legs?” Tedman said. “If you can bend your legs—”
The man bent his legs with some effort and set his feet as though he were going to attempt a series of sit ups. Tedman stepped his right leg back and dug in. He put his weight on the forward leg, having to lean in somewhat to grip the man’s arm, and pulled. The man put in his effort to sit up, but it was clear that he wasn’t giving it a wholehearted try. It seemed strangely as though there was an acute self-consciousness in the man that was holding him back.
The man smelled strongly of coconut scented suntan lotion, and Tedman had no defense against the attending evocation of his ex-wife’s summertime skin. She was always slathering suntan lotion on herself, even when she wasn’t basking in the sun. “Just because I have Mediterranean skin doesn’t mean I don’t need sun protection,” she would say. “Skin cancer is a thing, Teddy.” She was relentless about it with the kids, especially their daughter, who had Tedman’s fair complexion.
“Wait a minute,” Tedman said. “I’m losing my grip.” He let go of the man and leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “Jesus,” he said. He was ankle deep in the water, which spread out behind him as far as the eye could see.
He stood up and said, “I wish we had a rope. It would give me some leverage.” Then he took off his t-shirt, exposing the pallor of his narrow chest, the fine coat of graying hair across his pectorals, and handed one end of it to the man. “Hold onto this,” he said. “It’ll have to do.” They took their grips, and Tedman said, “You ready?”
“Okay,” the man said.
“All right. Now, you’ve got to help me out,” Tedman said. “On the count of three.” He got into position and confirmed his grip on the shirt. “Now don’t let go,” he said. “Or I’ll be on my ass.”
On three they went at it. Tedman leaned back with all his negligible weight and pulled with everything he had until the man was in an almost sitting position, at which point, both their faces red and the tendons in Tedman’s neck risen hard from the strain, they hit an impasse.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” the man said when he was flat out again. There was a patch of fine sand stuck to the right side of his face and a wave of dried salt along his hairline.
Tedman shook his head in agreement, too much out of breath to speak. He sat down next to the man, a few feet away, took off his hat and fanned himself with it. He was terribly thirsty. The sight of all that seawater only made it worse. He wished more than anything he’d brought a beer along with him.
After a bit he said, “I’m Ted, by the way. Ted Ward.”
“My name’s Woody,” the man said, and lifted his hand from the spread of his stomach in a brief, ironic wave. He had closed his eyes.
“You from around here, Woody?”
Woody shook his head no. “I live in Chicago,” he said.
“Huh,” Teman said. “I’ve never been, but I hear it’s a good time.”
“Yes,” Woody said. “It can be.” He licked the sweat from his upper lip and laid an arm across his face.
Tedman really couldn’t get over Woody’s size. His head and his hands and his feet were proportionately overlarge, unlike the way regular fat people can outgrow their extremities. But it was hard to judge his height from that angle, and he thought if he could lay out next to him he might gauge it pretty well by comparison to himself. He had to be well over seven feet, anyway.
“Say,” Woody said. He let his arm fall to his side and opened his eyes. “Do you think we could try again?”
“Sure,” Tedman said. “But we’ll have to try another tack.”
“Thanks,” Woody said. “I don’t do so well on my back for very long.”
Tedman had an all too vivid image of Woody’s lungs and heart, the actual lobes and chambers working in the amplitudinous cavity of his chest.
“If I could manage to get you over onto your stomach,” he said, “would you be able to get onto all fours?”
“Probably not,” Woody said.
Then Tedman figured that if he could just get Woody sitting up long enough, so that he could get down on his haunches behind him, he could get some leverage with his legs and push him forward onto his hands and knees, from where he might be able to get up.
He explained this to Woody and said, “Let’s try that. It’s worth a shot.”
“Yes,” Woody said. “Okay.”
They each took up an end of the shirt again. Tedman took an extreme stance like he was anchor in a game of tug of war, took a deep breath, and bore down so hard he feared some sort of bodily rupture. At last they managed to get Woody within reach of his knees, which he hung on to at Tedman’s urging.
“Just hold the hell on,” Tedman said.
He leapt into a squat behind Woody, pressed his back up against the spread of his, dug his heels deep into the sand and anchored his hands beside his hips. They sat like that together, catching their breaths.
“Okay, now,” Tedman said. “Let’s give it a heave ho.”
He counted off three and gave it all he had, pressing his back up against Woody’s back. He even went so far as to grab Woody by his shorts, without making apology or receiving protest, in the effort to get him off the ground. But it was a deadlock, and it wasn’t long before they gave out and their backs were heaving against each other.
Woody’s t-shirt was wet and covered with sand, and Tedman wished he’d been able to put his shirt back on.
“This is nuts,” he said. “I mean, no offense, Woody, but you really shouldn’t be out here alone. You’re lucky I came along.”
“I know,” Woody said. “I feel ridiculous.”
“Hell,” Tedman said. “Join the club.”
He looked up and down the beach, without expectation of finding any help. It was only an outward expression of his inner search for a solution. To the east he saw a smattering of color among the distant anchored boats and people on the beach, and to the west nothing but the stretch of coastline.
“What we need is a third, to pull you forward while I push,” he said.
“We might have to just wait for the tide,” Woody said.
Tedman could feel the reverberations of Woody’s voice against his back.
“I hate to say it,” Tedman said, “but that might be the only way.”
“I do feel better sitting up like this,” Woody said. “If you could stay where you are.”
Okay,” Tedman said. “But you’ve gotta do your part and lean forward as much as you can. Keep a hold of your knees and take some weight off me.”
“I’ll try,” Woody said.
“Won’t be too long,” Tedman said. The water was lapping at his buttocks. “The tide comes in out here like a mother.”
“Say—” Woody said after a minute. His voice was full of air, but then he cleared his throat and went on. “Would you mind if I borrowed your hat? I hate to ask, but the sun is getting to me. I’ve been out here a while.”
“No problem,” Tedman said. He handed the hat over his shoulder to him and said, “Might be a bit small.”
“Thank you so much,” Woody said. “It’ll do just fine.”
“No sweat,” Tedman said. He didn’t really want Woody to wear his hat, but under the circumstances he could hardly refuse. He wished he could retrieve his shirt and at least drape it over his shoulders, which would surely burn, but it was just out of reach beside them, bunched up in the water.
“So,” Tedman said, figuring that the best thing to do under the circumstances was make small talk. “What do you do in Chicago, Woody?”
“Oh I’m in computer programming,” Woody said.
“I tried to get into that once,” Tedman said. “But I don’t have the head for it.”
“Do what you’re good at,” Woody said. “That’s how I was raised. What about you, Ted? What do you do now?”
“I’m in the furniture business,” Tedman said. “You know Ward’s in Dennisport? Used to be Baxter Home Furnishings?”
“No,” Woody said. “I’m just here on vacation.”
“Right. You and the rest of the world,” Tedman said. “No offense. Anyway, it’s nothing to brag about, but it’s good to be my own boss. I used to be in advertising, back in the day. Now that I was good at.”
“Why’d you get out of it?” Woody said.
“Oh you know.” Tedman said. “The agency went under with everything else, and my wife wanted to live near the water. Ex-wife, that is. Biggest mistake I probably ever made, moving here.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” Woody said.
“Yeah,” Tedman said. “But what am I gonna do—tie a concrete block to my leg and throw myself in to drown?”
“I should hope not,” Woody said.
“Nah, not my style,” Tedman said. “Enjoy life is what I say, no matter what. That’s what I tell my kids. Because you can never tell what’ll happen. But shit will. You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” Woody said, “I do.”
“Say,” Woody said. “You weren’t kidding about the tide.”
“I know,” Tedman said. The water was already up to his waist. He had to wonder what someone who happened by might make of the two of them planted there like that with the tide pouring in around them.
“Heavens,” Woody said.
“Water water everywhere,” Tedman said, “and not a drop to drink.”
His thirst had become a pressing discomfort and his thighs burned from the effort of resisting Woody’s weight. He adjusted his position as best he could, digging into the sand more with his hands to take the pressure off his legs.
Shortly there came the nasal drone of a small plane approaching. Tedman squinted at the sky and spotted it just inland, a single engine high-wing heading seaward. The the tightness of the engine’s sound loosening the closer it got. He made it out to be a Cessna, a pretty little taildragger, white with blue side stripes.
“On his way to P-town,” Tedman said.
He kept his eye on it until it became small again and the tremors it made in the air had died down and it was no longer a physical sensation, that sound, but only a noise in the distance again. It occurred to him he might try and take his son out there soon, to the airport, to watch the planes take off and land.
“Listen,” Tedman said, “this water gets much higher and I won’t be able to stick here. I’m starting to feel like a cork.” It was up to his chest, now, and he was having to fight to keep his weight against Woody’s back.
“Just a smidge more,” Woody said. “If you can.”
“Okay,” Tedman said. “But I’ve got to get reset.” He dug deep with his heels, straightened his legs to lift his hips off the ground, and pressed his palms against Woody’s back.
“Are you alright?” Woody said.
“I think so,” Tedman said. It was good to shift his weight, but the sand between their backs ground into his bare skin just that much more. He was glad at least that Woody was wearing a shirt.
“I used to think about killing myself,” Woody said. “Since you mentioned it — suicide. But then it just seemed illogical. Like it’s all over and done with soon enough, and for all you know there might be something good around the next corner.”
“If wishes were horses,” Tedman said.
The sun went behind a stroke of cloud, then, which was a relief, but passed shortly by and out over the water, casting its shadow there. There was an absence in the sky just then of gulls. Only a couple of them high and quiet.
Woody took a deep breath, then, held it a moment, let out a sharp sigh, and said, “I think if you let me lie back you’ll find I can float, now.”
“Okay,” Tedman said, but he wasn’t exactly sure how to go about it. He bent his legs and let go the pressure against Woody’s back, but as soon as he did so he was tossed off balance and went under. There was the sound of water all around him. It was good and cold on his head. When he got to his feet he wiped his eyes and saw that Woody was afloat on his back, holding Tedman’s hat up in the air.
“Your hat,” Woody said, and held it out for Tedman to take. “I don’t think it got too wet.”
Tedman took the hat and said, “Are you okay?”
“Wait,” Woody said, and he made his way out to deeper water with an unhurried, metronomic scissoring of his legs. His arms were buoyant and casual at his sides. He rode out the momentum of one final stroke of his legs, and then he shifted his weight forward in a rolling motion. He stood, bent at the waist and leaned forward for balance. Then in one slow but clean motion he straightened and stood up to his full height, belly-deep in the water, and turned to face the shore. He stood there as though to compose himself, with his head down and his hands just under the water on the spread of hips.
“Are you alright?” Tedman said, nearly shouted, loud enough to cover the distance between them. He dunked his hat and put it on as he walked out into the water until it came up to his chest.
When Woody looked up he was smiling. He came forward with labored strides, displacing the water in foaming waves around his legs, until he was towering over Tedman. The water had brought out his color. His hair, now a darker red, clung to the sides of his face, and his freckles had taken on a deeper shade, the way cedar shingles will after a rain.
“Not to worry, he said.”
His lower jaw was the sort that jutted somewhat forward so that it looked like he would have a lisp, but he didn’t. Tedman hadn’t noticed that before.
“Well, then,” Tedman said.
Woody nodded his spectacular head. “Yes,” he said.
It was obvious that neither one of them knew how to end it.
“My way is that way,” Tedman said, pointing eastward in the direction from which he’d come. “Can I give you a lift anyplace or anything?”
“No need,” Woody said. “You’ve done so much already.”
“It’s no problem,” Tedman said. “My boat’s just down the beach.”
“Honestly,” Woody said. “I prefer to swim. What about you, though? Will you be all right?”
“Hell,” Tedman said, “I’m fine.”
“Okay then,” Woody said. He bent down and took Tedman’s hand that lay buoyed in the water. He took it between his great palms and submerged their joint fist, thus allowing Tedman’s arm to be angled in a more natural handshake position rather than having to be held uncomfortably up out of the water to accommodate Woody’s height. “Thank you,” he said.
“Wasn’t anything the next guy wouldn’t do,” Tedman said.
“That’s not true,” Woody said. “Not true at all.” Woody gave Tedman’s hand a final shake, let it go, and stood up again to his full height. “I should be going,” he said.
“Right,” Tedman said.
It was a moment before Woody said, “Bye, Ted.”
“So long, Woody,” Tedman said.
Woody turned and lumbered away seaward. He looked once over his shoulder and gave Tedman a broad wave, as though from the railing of an ocean liner bidding farewell to an off-seer on the dock. Then Woody turned again seaward and laid himself into the water. He took a few breast strokes that seemed to Tedman luxuriant, the way he allowed his head to slip all the way under with each stroke, and then he set his face in the water and swam away westward at a steady crawl.
By the time Tedman made it back to his spread, his thirst had become awful. He couldn’t remember having ever been so thirsty. It was like being deprived of air. He fell upon his cooler and rejoiced to find the beer inside still cold. He downed one on the spot with a single pause to gasp and exclaim the ecstasy of his satisfaction.
Back on the Bowrider, Tedman pulled up anchor and got underway without ceremony and with thoughts of getting home to a shower and a rum and ginger ale, and grilled kebobs on the patio, and a decent bottle of red, with the particular pleasurable feeling there was to the far side of a beach day, when there was the sensation of being both spent and at the same time renewed, even after the most ordinary day when nothing at all remarkable had happened on which to dwell.
There wasn’t much chop, and the Bowrider cut a clean incision across the bay, water tossed away and falling back from her stern. When Grant Mulligan’s place came up on the starboard side, where the big bash was in full swing, Tedman drew the throttle down, came to a drifting halt, and cut the engine. There were a couple of dozen people on the beach, and a small throng on the bluff, gathered loosely around the bar set up at the base of the bronze whale, which now burned pale orange in the deepening afternoon light. It was pleasant there with the boat adrift—the easy clap of water against the hull, and the way the smell of fuel from the Evinrude hung in the air. He liked that smell in the same way he did the smell of fresh laid tar and new carpet. They were acrid and remotely reminiscent.
He was trying to spot his kids in the crowd when a heavyset woman dressed entirely in white came away from the house and strode towards a clutch of people by the bar. He couldn’t make out her face, but he knew her by the way she walked, and she was making an expansive gesture that Tedman had seen many times before. She was unmistakable, yet he could hardly put her together with the woman who’d said to him by the moonlight pouring through the windows of their honeymoon suite in Aruba, “Your eyes are all the world, Teddy. I swear,” and they had their whole lives ahead of them, then.