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[Story]

The Trusted Traveler

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For almost a decade, Chris and I have received an annual visit from one of my former students, Jack Bail. This year is different. When, as usual, he emails to invite himself over, I reply that “our traditional dinner” can “alas” no longer take place: six months ago, Christine and I moved to Nova Scotia.

Jack Bail writes back:

Nova Scotia? Canada’s Ocean Playground? I’m there, Doc. Just say when and where.

“Oh no,” Chris says. “I’m so sorry, love.”

Illustrations by Leigh Wells

Illustrations by Leigh Wells

It’s I who should say sorry to Chris. Not only will she have to cook for Jack Bail but she will also have to manage Jack Bail, because, even though I’m supposedly the one who’s Jack Bail’s friend, it’s Chris who remembers the details of Jack Bail’s life story and the details of what transpired in the course of our meals with him, and who is able to follow what Jack Bail is saying or feeling. For some reason, almost anything that has to do with Jack Bail is beyond my grasp. I can’t even remember having taught anybody named Jack Bail.

“And I guess Chris will be coming,” Chris says, confusingly. “His wife,” Chris says.

Of course — Jack Bail’s wife, like my Chris, is a Chris by way of Christine. Which is irritating and, I want to say, a little eerie.

I say, “You never know. Maybe he won’t be able to make it.”

Chris laughs, as well she might. Jack Bail always turns up. Without fail he marks the end of tax season by eating at our table. It is always a strangely fictional few hours. Only after he has left does our life again feel factual.

Chris’s long-standing opinion on the Jack Bail situation is that I should effectively communicate to him that I don’t wish to see him. It’s not her suggestion that I socially fire him in writing — as she acknowledges, “That’s pretty much psychologically impossible” — but that I make use of the well-understood convention of email silence.

I’ve tried it. Email silence only prompts Jack Bail to switch to pushy text messages, for example:

Hi about this dinner thing. Let me know details as soon as you have them, no rush.

This obdurate memorandum and others like it —

Dinner this month? Next month? All good 🙂

 — weigh on me so heavily that in the end it’s just easier to spend an evening with the guy. The truth isn’t so much that Jack Bail is a terrible or unbearable fellow but that Jack Bail falls squarely into the category of people whom Chris and I really don’t want to see anymore as we hit our mid-sixties and apprehend the finitude and irreversibility of human time as an all-too-vivid personal actuality and not just a literary theme to be discussed in high-school classes devoted to The Count of Monte Cristo or The Old Man and the Sea. And, indeed, a central purpose of relocating to this Canadian coastal hilltop has been to shed our skins as New Yorkers and finally rid ourselves of the burrs and barnacles of association that, it seemed to me especially, had crowded our day-to-day existences, which, even discounting work, apparently amounted to one interaction after another with individuals who demanded that we transfer our time to them, sometimes for no better reason than that our paths had once crossed or, would you believe it, that their very demand for our time constituted such a crossing of paths.

(Illustration: A, whom I’ve never met, informs me by email that he’s thinking of applying for a job at the school where we teach. Could he pick my brain over coffee? Further illustration: B writes to Chris to say that her child once attended the school. Could Chris assist B in relation to an overseas research fellowship in which she, B, is interested? Exercising what is, I believe, a universally accepted right to reasonable personal autonomy, we choose not to answer these approaches; whereupon, we find out, both A and B go around telling people that we’re rude, selfish, full of ourselves, etc. In A and B’s minds, making unilateral electronic contact means that we, the contactees, are somehow in their debt. The difference between Chris and me is that she doesn’t let this stuff get to her, whereas I stupidly waste a lot of time and emotion being bothered by the ridiculous injustice and hostility of it all.)

I won’t even begin to describe how many hours and years we devoted to the parental body — the Hydra, as Chris named it. You cannot defeat the Hydra. You can only flee it. None of this is to say that we’re refugees; but it can’t be denied that we’ve retired, and that to retire means to pull back, as if from battle.

The good news is that Jack and Chris Bail will not be sleeping over. My Chris took it upon herself to warn Jack Bail and his Chris that there was no room at our inn, so to speak, to which Jack Bail responded, No worries. We’ll take him at his word. The other good news is that Ed and Fran Joyce, new Nova Scotia acquaintances, will join us for the dinner in order to absorb the Bails, although of course the Joyces aren’t aware that this is part of their function. We don’t know the Joyces at all well, but they strike us as good sports. Also, they hosted a kind of welcome event for us, and so we owe them dinner, arguably: one day soon after we arrived, a basket filled with good things was left at our front door, together with an invitation to join members of “the community” for drinks and nibbles. We accepted the invitation — we hadn’t come here to be recluses, after all — and enjoyed the occasion, although we were, and still are, a little wary of and astonished by and ironical about the prospect of joining a retiree crowd. Our plan is to have a year of contemplative idleness, after which we’ll have a better idea of what to next get up to. We’re far from elderly, after all. Time is not yet a victorious enemy.

Illustrations by Leigh Wells

Illustrations by Leigh Wells

Shortly before everyone is due to turn up, Chris and I take to the deck and get a head start on the wine, which is white and cold. “I wonder what Jack will have to say about this place,” Chris says. “Yes,” I say. “That’s something to look forward to.” She has reminded me of Jack Bail’s chronic amazement at our old apartment in Hudson Heights. Every time he came over, from Brooklyn, he would say something like, Hudson Heights? Who knew this neighborhood even existed? Who lives up here? Oboe players? It’s like we’re in Bucharest or something. How come nobody knows about this place? Should I buy here?

This kind of thing is all fine, needless to say, and absolutely within my tolerance levels in relation to schoolchildren, although of course Jack Bail, who must be in his late thirties, and if memory serves is balding, is no longer a schoolboy. But this question of his personal qualities is beside the point. The point is that Jack Bail is uncalled-for.

It’s a mild, semi-sunny, slightly windy June evening. “Just look at that,” I declare for about the millionth time since we moved into our cottage, which offers a panorama of a pond, green seaside hills, a semicircular bay, and a sandbar — or spit, perhaps. To the south, there’s a wooded headland that may or may not be a tombolo. It’s my intention to investigate this vista systematically, since it feels strange to look out the window every day and basically not understand what I’m looking at. Right now, for example, I’m observing an extraordinary horizontal triplex: in the offing, a distinctly ultramarine strip of ocean water is topped by a dull-blue band of unclassifiable vapor, itself topped by a purely white stratum of cloud. Then comes sky-blue air and, almost on top of our own hill, an enormous hovering gray cloud. This outlandish hydroatmospheric pileup, which is surely not unknown to science, leaves me at a terminological and informational loss that’s only intensified when I look at the bay itself, where the migrant and moody skylight, together with the action of the wind and current, I suppose, and maybe differences in the water’s depth and salinity, constantly patterns and textures and streaks the surface. It’s unpredictable and beautiful. Sometimes the bay, usually blue or gray, is thoroughly brown, other times it features Caribbean swirls of aquamarine or is colorlessly pale, and invariably there are areas where the water is ruffled, and there are smooth or smoother areas of water, and areas that are relatively dark and light, and dull and brilliant, and so forth, ever more complexly. There must be some field of learning that can help me to appreciate these phenomena more fully.

The Salty Rose,” Chris says. “For the Lunenburg whaling episode.”

“Not bad at all,” I say. She’s running with her joke about the memoir that I am not writing of the lives that we have not led. In this subjunctive world we are adventurers, spies, honorary consuls, nomads. For example, Chris has proposed The Hammocks of Chilmark, about our fictitious summers on Martha’s Vineyard, and our nonexistent Corfu years will be the subject of a trilogy: The Owl in the Jasmine, Who Will Water the Bougainvillea?, and A Pamplemousse for the Captain. Other than a four-year stint in Athens, Ohio, our thirty-one-year-old marriage and thirty-two-year teaching careers and almost all of our vacations have unfolded in and around the schools and streets of New York, New York. Jack Bail claims to have been in my class at Athens High, which is confounding. I have a pretty good recall of those Athens kids.

“Goddamn it.”

Chris: “Leg-bug?”

I pick it off my ankle and, because these lentil-size spiderlike little fuckers are tough, I crush and re-crush it between the bottom of my glass and my armrest. I call them leg-bugs because these past couple of weeks every time I’ve set foot outdoors I’ve caught them crawling up my legs — to what end, I don’t know; they’re up to no good, you can bet — and because I can’t zoologically identify them. They’re certainly maddening. Often my shin prickles when there’s nothing there.

“Here they are,” Chris says.

Our guests have arrived simultaneously, in two cars. Fran and Ed get out of their red pickup and Jack Bail gets out of his rented Hyundai. There’s no sign of his Chris.

Dispensing with the steps, Jack Bail strides directly onto the deck. He’s extraordinarily tall, maybe six foot six. Has he grown?

“Adirondack chairs,” Jack Bail says. “Of course.”

As the young visitor who has gone to great lengths, Jack Bail is the object of solicitousness. There’s no way around this: once Jack Bail has traveled all the way from New York, he must be received with proportionate hospitality. “Jack first,” Fran says, when I try to pour her a glass of wine. “He deserves it, after his voyage.”

“The flight was great,” Jack Bail tells us. “Newark airport — not so much.” Ed says, “You might want to think about the Trusted Traveler program. Might speed things along.” “I am a Trusted Traveler,” Jack Bail says. “It did me no good. Not at Newark.” “What happens if you’re a Trusted Traveler?” Chris says. Ed says, “You don’t have to take your shoes off.” We all laugh. Jack Bail exclaims, “They gave me a piece of paper saying that I didn’t have to take my shoes off! Then they still made me take my shoes off!” We all laugh again. Ed asks Jack Bail, “Which program you with? NEXUS?” “Global Entry,” Jack Bail says. Looking at Fran, Ed says, “That’s what I’m all about. Global entry.” That gets the biggest, or the politest, laugh of all.

Soon we’re eating grilled haddock, asparagus, and field greens. “Delicious,” Jack Bail is the first to say. “Thank you, Jack,” Chris says, with what seems like real gratitude. Jack Bail inspects the ocean, parts of which are ruddy and other parts dark blue. “That’s some view, Doc,” Jack Bail says. “Well, it’s not Hudson Heights,” I say. “I thought you lived in Manhattan?” Fran says. I say, “Hudson Heights is in Manhattan.” Ed says, “ ‘Doc,’ eh? You’re a dark horse.” “That’s what they called me,” I declare, very heartily. I didn’t invent the custom of recognizing a teacher’s academic title. Ed continues, “How about you, Jack? You a doc too?” Jack laughs. “No way, man. I’m just a C.P.A.” “Just?” Fran says, as if scandalized. She tells me, “You must be very proud of this young man,” and this is a tiny bit infuriating, because I don’t like to receive instruction on how I ought to feel. How proud I am or am not of Jack Bail is for me to decide. “Certainly,” I say, Mr. Very Hearty all over again. Fran says, “How was he in the classroom? A rascal, I’ll bet.” I make a sort of ho-ho-ho, and Jack Bail says to Fran, “Hey, don’t blow my cover!” He adds, “Doc was a great teacher.” I say, “Well, we’ve come a long way from Ohio,” and Ed says, “We’ve all come a long way, eh?” and he tells Jack Bail that he’s from B.C. but that Fran is a Maritimer and Maritimer women always want to return home eventually and you’d have to be crazy to stand in the way of a Maritimer woman.

Fran says very attentively, “Your wife can’t be with us, Jack?”

“No, Chris is not able to come,” Jack Bail says.

“Maybe next time,” Fran says. Chris somehow catches my eye without looking at me and somehow rolls her eyes without rolling them. Or so I imagine.

“Unfortunately we’re currently separated,” Jack Bail says.

This gives everyone pause. “I’m sorry to hear that,” Ed says. Jack Bail says, “Yep, it’s not an ideal situation.”

Now Chris gets up and says, “We have assorted berries, and we have — chocolate cake. Jack’s favorite.”

“Do you have children, Jack?” Fran asks, which is surely a question whose answer she can figure out by herself. “We don’t,” Jack Bail says. “A couple of years back, we tried. You know, the I.V.F. thing. Didn’t work out.” I’m refreshing the tableware at this point. Jack Bail says, “As a matter of fact, I just got this letter from the clinic demanding nine hundred dollars for my sperm.”

This silences even the Joyces.

Jack Bail continues, “So three years ago, as part of that whole process, we froze sperm. Yeah, so anyway, we go through the whole thing, an ordeal I guess you could call it, and this and that happens, and we forget all about the frozen sperm. Now here’s this invoice for nine hundred bucks because they’ve stored it all this time — they claim. I call them up. I speak to a lady. The lady says they’ve sent letters every year informing me that they’re holding my sample. Letters? I don’t remember getting any letters. But first things first, right? Destroy it, I tell her. Get rid of it right away. She tells me that they can’t do that — they need a notarized semen-disposition statement.”

“Okay, here we go,” Chris says. “Jack’s cake. And berries for anyone who might be interested.”

“Now, I know their game,” Jack Bail says. “I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to mail them the notarized statement and they’re going to say they never got it. And they’re going to make me go to a notary all over again and they’re going to make me mail them another statement and they’re going to drag this thing out. And every extra day they store it, they charge more, pro rata. See? They’re literally holding my sperm hostage.”

“Corporations,” Ed says. “Remember, Fran, that time —”

“Exactly,” Jack Bail says. “It’s not that the employees are evildoers. It’s the corporate systems. When it comes to getting mail they don’t want to get, mail that reduces their profits, their systems are chaotic. When it comes to billing you, their systems are never chaotic. And I mean: retaining my genetic material without my consent? It’s insanely wrong. So — do you ever do this? — I tell the lady I’m an attorney and that I’ve got assistants who’ll be all over this shakedown like a pack of wolves.”

Ed says, “That would blow up in your face in Canada. We’re —”

“In the U.S. it’s different. In the U.S., you don’t register on their systems unless you threaten a lawsuit. That’s how they operate. Human reasonableness is just seen as an opening to make more money. So I say to Chris, Do you recall us ever getting a letter about a frozen sperm sample? She’s like, I don’t know, all those letters look the same. I’m like, Wait a minute, this is important, I want you to think hard. She’s like, I can’t do this, I’ve got to keep my eye on the ball. I’m like, What ball? This is the ball. I mean, think about it. My genes are in the hands of strangers. Never mind the nine hundred bucks. We’re talking about my seed. For all I know, I could have children out there in the world right now. Offspring. It’s far from impossible, right? Mistakes happen all the time. And foul play. People think that foul play doesn’t really exist. They’re wrong. Foul play is a very real thing, especially when there’s money to be made. Believe me, I know.”

Nobody has made a start on the cake or the assorted berries. I say to Jack Bail, “You’re right to be concerned. You have to take care of this.”

“That’s what I did, Doc. Cut a long story short, I caved on the nine hundred bucks and I went to the clinic personally with the documentation. I made sure to get a receipt.”

“That was smart,” Chris says.

Jack Bail says, “I had no option: I got a letter from a debt-collection agency. I had to cave. What was I going to do, risk my credit over nine hundred bucks? No, I had to cave. And I don’t even know if they’ve actually disposed of the semen. I’ve got to assume they have. But I’ll never know for sure, will I?”

Jack Bail spends the night on our sofa. In the morning, when Chris and I go down, there is a thank-you note.

Then a year passes and with it a tax season, and we are walking on the beach, and I stop and I say to Chris, “You know what? We haven’t heard from Jack Bail.”

Our beach is a sand and shingle beach. The sand is a common blend of quartz and feldspar. The sand emerges from the ocean, so to speak, and continues inland until quite suddenly shingle replaces it. The shingle, or gravel, consists at first of pebbles, next of a mixture of pebbles and cobbles, and finally almost only of cobbles. This progressive distribution of the beach stones, apparently methodical, is in fact natural: a storm’s waves will force rocks small and large landward, but retreating waves have less power and will move only smaller rocks seaward. The result is a graduated stranding of the rocks, which amass in a succession of steep slopes and berms. Our beach walk begins when we scramble down one berm and then a second, and I always take care to hold Chris’s hand as we go down. Countless large spiders somehow make a life among the cobbles, and my job is to help Chris to put them out of her mind. Out of my mind, too. There are no leg-bugs out here. Leg-bugs are deer ticks. Every evening from May through November, Chris and I must examine each other for ticks. Sometimes we find one.

From the sand beach, the brown drumlin cliffs are exposed to our contemplation. The drumlins have been here since the Wisconsin glaciation. Their crosscut formation is the result of erosion by the ocean and the wind and the rain, a battering that is ongoing, I can testify after two winters here. As the hills retreat, they leave behind rock fragments that will, in due course, form part of the beach. This sort of fact is difficult for me to really understand; it must be said that much of my newly acquired geologic knowledge is basically vocabularistic. I can’t recognize feldspar, for example, or a granitic boulder. The Wisconsin glaciation isn’t something I’m really on top of.

Chris and I scan the water, instinctively, I suppose. Sometimes we see a seal’s head. It disappears for a while, then surfaces once more. They have large, cheerful, doglike heads, these seals. It would feel good to see our warm-blooded kin out there today: this is one of those strolls when the up-close ocean daunts me more than a little and, as we skirt dainty rushes of water, I sense myself situated at the edge of an infinite and relentless eraser. I’m not sure that there’s much to be done about this: awe, dread, wonder, and feelings of asymmetry come with the terrain. There must be something appealing about it, though, or we’d be elsewhere. The question is, where? It’s places that are going places. This part of Nova Scotia, the paleogeographers tell us, was once attached to Morocco.

“I hope he’s okay,” I say to Chris.

“I imagine he is,” she says. She says, “You could always call him.”

Yes, I could call him. But where would it end? I have taught, I once calculated, almost two thousand children.

No seal today. We keep walking.

Chris says, “The Last Fez.

I say, “About the Constantinople mission? We were sworn to silence about that.”

Chris says, “Remember that night we crossed the Bosporus? With that surly boatman?”

“Ali?” I say. “How could I forget?”

’s novels include Netherland and The Dog, which was published in 2014 by Pantheon. His story “The World of Cheese” appeared in the February 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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February 2016