UNITED STATES—Well, I had an English student named Berta in a class I was substituting. She had a motto that she got from her grandfather: Live and learn.
Well Berta was talking about how she already had her five minutes of fame. Somebody with a camera had followed her around for a month in her job and life and made a video of it. It won a prize in a festival. I asked her what her job was.
“I used to work for American Apparel downtown.” I followed my instinct asked her if she knew Julia. American Apparel was a big place, but what the heck. I had to ask.
“What’s Julia’s last name?” Berta asked me.
“Bartolome.” When she heard that, Berta lit up. Julia was her best friend; she was a member of her sewing team, and that even after American Apparel went kaput, Berta talked to Julia every week.
“That’s amazing,” I said all aglow. When the discovery that I and somebody I barely know have mutual friend, it imbues a warm glow. It is really heartwarming to see how small this sprawling metropolis can be. I wanna sing ‘Joy to the World.’
“Small world,” said Berta. “Live and learn.”
“Wow,” I said, “Do you have Julia’s phone number?”
Julia was an old friend going way back. For no reason than losing my phone last year, we had lost contact. So Berta wrote Julia’s phone number out for me on a sheet of school ruled paper.
It felt so good. I had a bounce in my heart, driving home down Sunset Blvd. Next night I made a concerted effort to call the number Berta had scribbled, otherwise these bits of information tended to get lost. I called the number for Julia.
A woman answered. It sounded like Julia, but apprehensive. I said, “Hello, it’s Grady.” Nothing. Some pale words I couldn’t make out, and then a blank. “You know, I’m the dad of Kitty (no recognition). She was with Magalí in preschool. Remember. (nothing)”
It already feels so weird and awkward, I want to cry. Here I am trying to kindle some humanity in the huge, cold metropolis, and this happens. Has this ever happened to you? Where you try to kindle that flicker of recognition, and nothing. It’s a nightmare. I don’t want to sing ‘Joy to the World.’
Then this man gets on the line, he had this sharp edge. Too sharp. It boded no good. Coming off the goodwill of connecting with Julia through the student, this was excruciating. The man keeps asking questions—something not right, almost lurid about it. “Who are you? There is no Julia here,” he says and he keeps asking questions as if matching my answers to a reality he knows, but is concealing from me. Perhaps Julia is scared, in the background, and didn’t want to talk. Maybe she was in some kind of trouble.
I stuck to the facts: Julia was a good family friend. I knew her from my daughter’s preschool. My daughter and hers went to the same preschool. The questions kept coming. Who gave you the phone number? A student named Berta. I sank into a dumbfounded stupor, and the questions kept coming. He asked where Julia lived. I asked:
“Why do you want to know where she lives?”
“To see if it connects with someone I might know.”
I figured I wouldn’t be giving too much away if I said, “Normandie.”
“There is no such person here,” the man said after fifteen minutes. It sure felt like fifteen minutes. After the most insincere thanks I have ever uttered, I hung up and felt heartsick and suspicious. Everything had started out so good, the night before, and now it was awful.
The next day I see Berta. She averts her gaze. “We had a big próblem.” I could see she was suffering as much as I was. “I gave you the number for the wrong Julia. She called me. Her husband is upset because this guy on the phone is looking for Julia. He thinks, Who is this guy? And the husband is very jealous.” Berta says, “I won’t ever give a number out again without asking the person first. You live and learn.”
Grady Miller, is the Wizard of Fiction. His Mexico stories, The Havana Brotherhood is available on Amazon.