This is how it goes, without adornment.
A man in Lusaka drops a line: I have read your book and would like to help you find Jere. I work out here in Zambia and it would mean a lot to me.
Please, I write him. Go. God speed.
Two weeks later he, a friend of his, emails a phone number for a cell phone in Mansa, capital of Luapula province, and a note: he is expecting your call.
For a day and a half I stare at the number. It has a strange number of digits -- twelve -- split in odd groupings -- 3-2-3-4. Where are the parentheses? The dashes? I looked at the number, sometimes through tears. Sometimes it just sat there and laughed dryly, “yes, this is where the road ends. How did you think it would be?”
I didn’t know. A letter, a hug, a drink, a game of chess; not a phone call. I was scared I wouldn’t hear. But so long! I picked up the phone and dialed.
“Is this Mr. Jere?”
“Yahhh, this is Josh?”
"Ah, heh, heh, heh.”
“Heh, heh, heh.” Pause. Is he crying or laughing? "Ah, heh, heh, heh."
"This is Josh."
We talked for fifteen minutes. It was so beautiful but so frustrating! The voice was as I remembered, or more accurately, the voice triggered memories. But even though I could hear it, I could barely make out the words it carried. It was like having a child who thinks “no” is the greatest sound in the world -- we talked, and made headway, but it was a lot of repetition and needless difficulty. I thought, ah, deafness, my old friend, you occasionally stupid fucker. Why now? Why not during a call from my student loan company? Capricious bastard. The conversation became about the distance and not the connection. I could hear Jere’s laugh, but not the things he laughed at. Arrgh.
Once in a mountain village in India, I watched two swallows making love beneath a lemon tree. Two hours of chasing, two-tenths of a second of coupling. Then they disappeared. This is what came to mind. But I could hear his laugh!
I shook my head to clear it.
“You wrote a book, I hear.”
”Yes. You may have a small part in it.”
”You will send me a copy, yes?”
I told him a little about the book and then a little about my life. Bits of it -- where to start? How to start when you can’t hear? I got him to promise to set up an email account.
“Greetings to your brother. And greetings to Ba Rose,” I made out that much.
“Greetings to Palije. And how many children now?”
“There are five. Three boys and two girls.”
“Wow,” I said. “Five.”
You know, I have been waiting many years to hear your voice.
I have never stopped thinking of you.
You will come to see us soon.
After a while, his wife gets on the line; her voice too is familiar and indecipherable. So close and yet so far. But so close! I know she doesn't know any English but just wants to hear my voice. And I realize, good enough -- for her, for me. I repeat the longest Bemba phrase I can remember -- "My friend, I want to drink many beers with you." Yes, sir, she says.
I look up and the faces of those around me are shining. I see the woman I love.
They are alive. That familiar chuckle. I will come to see them soon.