“Not so smart,” I said. “He came back home, didn’t he?”
“West St. Paul is home. Compared to this place, Lake Minnetonka is some mythical kingdom beyond the sea.”
“I’m just saying it’s pure dumb luck that he bought into the same restaurant where Cesar Nunez’s little sister worked. I mean, what are the odds?”
“They would have been a lot better if he had stayed away.”
“Like I said, Abana’s smart. If he came back, there’s a reason.”
“Does he have family here?”
“A mother. A sister.”
“Think he might have been in contact with them?”
“Now that wouldn’t have been very smart at all, would it?”
I found Delfina Abana sitting on the top of three concrete steps that had sunk several inches below their original forms, her back to the screen door of her small house. The steps ended at a chipped sidewalk that divided her spotty front lawn in half, a lawn about the size of the paper napkins you find in fast-food joints. Her sidewalk intersected the city’s sidewalk, although the way the concrete slabs rose, fell, and tilted this way and that, I didn’t think West St. Paul took much pride in it. The kids playing up and down the street didn’t seem to notice, though. They just went about their business as if everything was exactly as it should be.
You don’t see that much anymore, I told myself—kids running around a neighborhood on an early Saturday afternoon as if they owned the place. These days you’re considered a poor parent if you allow your children freedom of movement, if you don’t carefully arrange their playdates and chaperone every outdoor excursion. Which was unfortunate. I thought about how I had been raised, how Bobby Dunston and I spent our days roaming hither and yon without a care in the world and without adult supervision. Kids today are missing out on a lot, I told myself.
I found a place to park and locked the SUV, thankful that I hadn’t embarrassed the neighborhood by driving my Audi into it. Delfina watched every movement intently from her stoop, and it occurred to me as I crossed the street that I had been mistaken. The kids were being supervised, not by their parents perhaps, but by people like her who watched out for people like me. They just didn’t know it.
“Who you?” she asked.
I stopped on the boulevard, a three-foot-wide strip of packed dirt between the sidewalk and the broken asphalt street, and introduced myself.
“You police? I got nothing to say to police.”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m not the police.”
She waved me forward. At the same time she glanced up and down the street as if she were concerned that someone might be watching. I had no doubt that someone was. The houses were set only a few feet apart. Residents standing at their windows could look through their neighbor’s window and read the label on the jar of pasta sauce Mom was pouring over the spaghetti. There were few secrets in a neighborhood like that.
I stopped at the foot of the steps.
“What you want?” she asked.
“I’m looking for Jax.”
“You said you weren’t police.”
“Why you asking questions ’bout Jax, then, if you ain’t police? Jax gone a long time now.”
“Have you heard from him?”
“Haven’t spoken to my Jax since he was forced to run away. Why you come here talking about my baby I ain’t seen for so long? You go ’way.”
I pulled my cell from my pocket and called up Abana’s photograph, the one where he was pretending to be Juan Carlos Navarre. I held it up for Delfina to see.
“Is this Jax?” I asked.
She stared at the pic, blinking several times as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She stood slowly and extended her hands. I climbed a step so she could reach the cell easily. She took it in both hands, caressing it the way a fortune-teller might caress a crystal ball. Her head came up. Instead of the joy I had expected to see in her eyes, there was fear.
“You come inside,” Delfina said. “Come inside now.”
She stood and opened the screen door. I stepped into her living room and she followed, closing first the screen and then the interior door. The living room was awash in blue except for a broad water stain on the wall behind the couch that was gray. Forest green drapes that were fading to a color that matched the stain framed the windows. She waved the cell at me.
“Where is my baby? Where is Jax?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I came to see you.”
Delfina shook her head as if she were having trouble comprehending what I was telling her.
“He is here?” she asked. “In the Cities? He’s not in West St. Paul. If he was in West St. Paul people would know. People would tell me.”
“He was,” I said. “In the Cities, I mean. I don’t know where he is now.”
“He is okay? My Jax is okay?”
“I don’t know.”