Story — From the February 2016 issue

The Trusted Traveler

Download Pdf
Read Online

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.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 4

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
’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.

More from Joseph O’Neill:

Story From the July 2017 issue

The Mustache in 2010

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.