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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

They were waiting on the porch. The kids were bundled up in heavy winter coats, hats and gloves, and they both had big backpacks. Sylvia Lopez wore a light but stylish cloth coat.

The kids jumped in the back and Sylvia went in behind them. She buckled their seat belts and got them settled in with books and homework. The girl flashed me a dark look. The boy was all smiles.

Sylvia spoke in rapid fire Spanish, then climbed in beside me. "Miss Shelly, she said you would explain," she said, as I pulled away.

"We're looking for Mr. Morales. You know who he is?"

She nodded. "The man who hire my husband."

"Right. The owner of the truck. Now your husband said he thinks Morales also owns a grocery store. At least, that's what Rudy told him."

"Yes. I understand."

"We're gonna try to find it. We'll go store to store. And you go in and ask for Mr. Morales."

"Señor Morales," she said.

"Perfect. And if they say they don't know him, you say, well, maybe this is the wrong store, do they know a store owned by a Morales. And if they say yes, find out where."

She turned to the back and spoke in Spanish.

Her daughter leaned forward. "My mother says she would understand you better if you would please talk a little bit slower."

"Okay," I said, and I said it all over again.

"And if Señor Morales is present?"

"You ask to speak to him. We want to make sure it's the right Morales. The man we want is older, sixty, sixty-five. Very distinguished looking, well-dressed, wears lots of jewelry, and -- here's the easy one - he's got silver hair."

The daughter translated. "Yes, I understand," Sylvia said.

"Whoever comes out, you make up some story, you want to complain because you got some bad soup or a clerk was rude, anything." The daughter translated. "If you do find Morales be careful. Remember he's a crook. A big crook. So if you get in any kind of trouble, tell him exactly who you are. You're Jesse's wife and you need help. You can't afford to pay the lawyers. You need money."

"Because you cost too much," the daughter said, then switched to Spanish.

"Worse comes to worse," I said. "Give him my card, and tell him I'm waiting outside." The daughter translated. I handed Sylvia a business card.

We spent hours driving up and down the streets of Little Village. I'd been hoping to use the Yellow Pages as a guide but it soon became apparent that many of the small street-corner stores were not listed.

About six we took a break at a McDonald's on Kedzie Avenue. It was the kid's choice, of course, and they gulped their hamburgers and ran off to the playroom which was full of other kids. They all looked Mexican, but they sure sounded American.

I sat sipping coffee, popping chocolate chip cookies, watching Sylvia nibble her daughter's left-over french fries. She was a good looking woman, sexy in a very reserved way. She wore a simple print dress and sat very straight with her legs crossed, her coat draped over her knees. The lining was bright red and quilted.

She glanced up and caught me watching -- caught my thoughts maybe, which were not about her coat at all -- and quickly went back to the french fries.

"Your coat is beautiful," I said.

She looked up with a smile. "Thank you," she said. "It is from home."

"From Mexico?"

"No. No. No." She shook her head. "I... I..." She made a small circular motion, one hand against the other.

She was sewing, I realized and I remembered that Shelly had told me she was a seamstress.

"You make all the clothes. That's great."

She shook her head and shrugged. "The children, they like from the store. They don't know cheap from good. But now they have no... No more from store. No money for store."

"They're better off."

"No. They want their father."

"I didn't mean like that," I said.

"You know, he did not do this thing they say."

I nodded.

"It is important that you believe."

"What's important is that the jury believes."

The kids were suddenly at their mother's side. "My father, he would never stoop so low," the daughter said.

"Never!" The son agreed.

A few minutes later, we were on Blue Island heading for Pilsen when the son, Jesse Jr., said, "There's one!"

"Where?"

"Up that small street," Maria said. "I saw it too."

"I saw it first!" Jesse shouted.

Sylvia silenced them with Spanish. I went around the block and parked a bit north of the small corner store.

"I'll be sitting right here," I said. "Remember."

"Si," she said. "I understand." She was getting tired.

This must have been our 50th store.

She walked across the street, down the block and into the store. In the store windows, red letter moved against a black background: BUY LOTTO. BE A MILLIONAIRE.

Blue Island Avenue was about a quarter block south of the store. The currency exchange where I'd stopped this morning was just around the corner.

I didn't think anything of that until Sylvia came out, just moments after she'd gone in, and started walking that way at a very brisk clip.

"Mama!" Jesse shouted. "You're going the wrong way!"

"Shhhh," I said. "Let's give her a minute."

But no more than a few seconds passed before the door to the grocery opened and two men stepped out. "Señorita! Señorita!" I heard them call as they started after Sylvia.

"Mama!" Jesse shouted. She was almost to Blue Island.

The men weren't quite running. But they were beginning to think about it.

I put the Olds in gear, jumped on the gas, and the engine roared. The two men dove off the sidewalk as I came down the block without headlights. One rolled under the steps of a house. They both looked like they were waiting for bullets to start flying.

I laid on the brakes. "Open that back door," I shouted.

Sylvia turned our way, but stood frozen on the sidewalk.

"In the back," I shouted and Jesse opened the door and called, "Mama!"

She waited another long moment then hurried into the street. I watched her feet disappear in the side view mirror and stepped on the gas and jerked the wheel hard right. I heard the door close behind me and checked the rear-view.

Both men were up in the middle of the street. One of them had his arms out in a shooting stance but I didn't see a gun and I never heard a shot.

Behind them, the door to the grocery stood open. People were filing out to the street.

I did about 60 down Blue Island and nobody followed. I made the light at Western, cruised down 26th Street to California Boulevard, and then headed north to the curving lanes of Douglas Park, where I finally remembered to turn on my headlights. Behind me, they were all talking in Spanish.

"You okay?" I asked.

"I am fine," she said. "I am fine." She did not sound fine.

"Let me know when you're ready to get in front," I said.

They talked in Spanish for a few more minutes, then she said, "I am ready."

I pulled over just north of Roosevelt Road. "Wait'll we get on the highway," I said, after she slid in next to me. A few blocks up, I turned right and we headed east on the Eisenhower expressway.

"I am still..." She tapped her chest a few times.

"Take your time," I said.

When we got close to the Loop, the kids got excited.

Jesse kept trying to spot the top of the Sears Tower, which was hidden by clouds. Maria asked if we could go down lower Wacker Drive.

I took the curving exit, and then dropped down to the bottom of the two-level street. It was nothing but loading docks and pockets of homeless but the kids loved it. Kids had always loved it. But the green lighting of my youth was now gone. Emerald City, we'd called it.

After a while, we slipped upstairs. I took Michigan over the river, and joined the tourists creeping along.

"How do you feel?" I asked.

"Better," she said.

"So what happened?"

"When I say his name, they all stop talking."

"Who?"

"All the peoples in the store. They are all talking, five, six people, and I ask for Señor Morales and how you say in English?" She spoke in Spanish for a second.

"You could hear a pin drop," her daughter said.

"They all look to me and the woman she say no, no Señor Morales. I say thank you. I don't ask if they know any other store. I say thank you, and I open the door and I look and there he is. Señor Morales."

"Where?"

"Up in the air," she said. "A veranda." She switched to Spanish.

Maria translated. "Señor Morales was sitting at a desk in a little office that's above the shelves next to the door."

"You sure it was him?"

"Oh, yes, exactly as you say."

"Did he see you?"

"Si," she said, and she continued in Spanish.

"The desk goes the other way," Maria translated, "but he had turned the chair so he could see her. And he smiled at her and he waved."

"Like this," Sylvia said, and she did a small, come-here, wave, using just two fingers. She switched to Spanish again.

"When she was a young girl in Mexico," Maria translated, "even younger than I am today, there was an old man in her town who used to smile and wave to the children. And it was the same wave and the same smile that she saw today. But this old man was not a good man and one day a young boy's father killed the man and nobody complained and nobody in town would talk to the police when they came."

They spoke in Spanish for a while, then Maria switched back to English. "But she will not tell me why no one liked this man."

"One day you will know, Maria," Sylvia said. "One day you will understand."

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