By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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He then told a derogatory story, involving too much drinking and possible spousal abuse, about Melecio Huerta, who the world knew as Jesica’s dad, but who Mack told me was not her dad, nor was he married to Magdalena, but another woman, in Mexico. The story included how he, Mack, had called the local sheriff and gotten him to agree not to disclose to the newspapers that Melecio had been arrested, as well as how he’d parried with a social-services woman who wanted Magdalena to press charges.
“She said, ‘Mr. Mahoney, I don’t know what kind of control you have over this family, but this is none of your business,’” said Mack, his voice high as he parroted the woman. “I told her, we’re going to get these charges dropped. Then, I called the D.A.’s Office . . . I said, if this thing comes up in court, it’s gonna be a big problem for me, and it’s gonna be a problem for Franklin County, because everyone’s gonna start digging into your affairs, and I said, I am going to tell you right now, you can’t afford that. And he took that offensively!” Charges were eventually dropped.
Mack wanted me to laugh along; I did. Then he said he was going to make Melecio get a divorce and marry Magdalena, to sluice the immigration process. “And if she doesn’t want to marry him, I can marry her to someone else,” he said.
When I asked if Magdalena wanted to get married, Mack gave me a look that said I was naive.
“It don’t matter what she wants,” he said. “These people essentially have a sixth-grade education; where they come from there aren’t even roads. They’ll do what I tell them to do.”
Mack took me to what he called “Jessie’s favorite place in the world,” a comfy downstairs den that had a singing bass on the wall and smelled of cinnamon carpet deodorizer. He had a Corona as we watched war coverage on the big screen; he told me he was a Vietnam vet and wanted this war “over quickly.”
Nita set down a plate of Hot Pockets. “Magdalena and them’s coming over.”
My heart was in my throat again. I was about to meet the woman I’d empathized with every hour for the past month, a mother who’d actually lost her child, as opposed to me, who’d appropriated grief. What right did I have? I desperately did not want to impose on Magdalena, I wanted to be invisible, and then she was walking past me, a small woman in shorts who gave me a weary glance before sitting in a loveseat opposite me. Mack told her in Spanish that I’d be writing a book about Jesica. She did not seem particularly interested, or maybe was just too polite or exhausted to ask, who the hell are you? “Let’s all go out to dinner,” said Nita. Magdalena would meet us there. I drove with Mack in his Expedition.
“You’re sitting in the seat she used to sit in,” he said, and slid in what he said was Jesica’s favorite CD, Mexican pop music as sweet and bubbly as pink soda. Nita clapped, and I hung my head out the window, and felt amazed: I had wanted so much to be here, and here I was.
We climbed the porch of a small Mexican restaurant that appeared so low-key as to be closed. Magdalena, Melecio — a heavyset man with a teardrop-shaped face — and their 6-year-old daughter Dulce and 8-year-old son Ulises were already at a table. I sat across from Magdalena. She has a spray of dark discolorations on her cheeks, thick eyebrows, and small, girlish hands. She looked not on the edge of grief, but sleepwalking, and when spoken to softly said, “Mmm hmm.” When the food came, she picked a gordita off her plate and held it to me, and watched me eat it. I gave her some shrimp cocktail, which she said was Jesica’s favorite dish.
While Nita made the kids wash up, Melecio, Magdalena, Mack and I stood on the porch. Magdalena felt strongly the book should also be published in Spanish; I agreed. Melecio then said something in Spanish that made Magdalena laugh, and when she did, I felt as though I fully exhaled for the first time in a month.
“Mack likes you,” Nita confided the next day. “He wants you to write the book.”
“You can stay here this week,” said Mack, and then drove me to see Jesica, whose mausoleum is on a hill in a new graveyard.
“She was a pretty famous girl in Louisburg. I made her famous,” said Mack, as he righted a large heart-shaped ‰ wreath that had blown over.
I’d wanted to come here since the day she was interred, had imagined many times being able to tell Jesica how sorry I was, to mourn in her presence. Mack had other ideas, and as I pressed my hand to the cool marble crypt, he recited the presidents-and-monarchs story again.