By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“We bought all her clothes for her, you know,” said Mack, when we were back at the house, standing before the mantel, with its many portraits of Jesica dressed as an angel. “But I would not buy her some of the stuff she wanted, hip-huggers and midriff tops. I told her, that stuff makes you look like a little slut.”
I felt as though I’d been slapped across the face. I turned away from him and knelt in front of a big trunk, which Jesica had spray-painted gold and stuffed with Mardi Gras beads, toy dollar bills, oversized coins, and photos of herself and her siblings. This was Jesica’s hope chest, and before it was a big photo album.
“That’s Jesica’s diary,” said Nita. “She left it here the day of the operation.”
I opened the book. There was no writing in it, only drawings, of a rose being pierced by a knife, Latin girls with boobs bursting out of skimpy tops and boys in muscle cars, temporary tattoos that read “Naughty As I Want To Be” and “Sweet Thing,” and pictures of Shakira and Enrique Iglesias torn from magazines. I knew Jesica had barely gone to school; she was a very sick girl on sudden-death watch who spent her days in bed watching novelas. She’d never kissed a boy; never got her period; never developed breasts. But she yearned like any other teenage girl, and I was holding the record of those yearnings, a secret scrapbook virtually identical to the ones my daughter makes. I knew it would not make the cut in the hagiography Mack was bent on shaping; he’d asked me several times how he could copyright her name and image. And though he was fond of saying, “Jesica was a mess, but she was my mess,” he wanted her known as immaculate, and nodded when Nita asked if I’d consider calling the book Jesica: God’s Angel.
It was becoming clear Mack meant to control Jesica’s legacy as he’d controlled her life. With the exception of her never telling him that Melecio was not her real father (an omission that nagged Mack), he insisted he was her alpha and omega, and not without reason: He’d named his organization for her, and told her he would save her life. He fought for her. He also fought with her: He’d given me a photo of a glowering Jesica at a JHC fund-raiser.
“She’d seen me talking to Sarah,” says Mack, of another JHC child who’d undergone a successful heart-lung transplant. “Jesica could not stand me to pay attention to anyone but her.”
But if Jesica was greedy for Mack’s attention, it is no wonder: Stuck at home all day with Nita (Mack insisted Jesica never wanted to go to her own home); deemed too weak to attend school, first by the Mahoneys, then by the doctors (though she very much wanted to go), and with Mack the only person she saw daily with whom she could converse (Nita speaks no Spanish), why would she not call him 20 times a day? Who else was she going to talk to? And if Mack minded, it was not evident in his stories, including one he told several times.
“We was riding in the car one day, Nita was there, and I said to Jesica, ‘Someday you’re gonna get yourself a hairy-legged boyfriend and fall in love.’ And she was real quiet for a minute, and then she said that she didn’t think that was gonna happen; she said, ‘I could never give my heart to anyone else, Mack, because you bought it for me.’”
Mack literally had; he’d paid for everything for Jesica and her siblings, found Magdalena a job, employed Melecio, rented the family homes; he’d arranged and financed Jesica’s medical care, and yet none of it was enough. “I tried to save a young girl’s life, and I failed,” were among the first words Mack ever said to me. I did not think Mack was used to failure, to having anyone tell him no, to having things taken away, and certainly not with the random brutality with which he lost Jesica. Maybe this was why to me he was becoming not merely overbearing but worrisome.
Nita fixed dinner: dry pork chops, biscuits with margarine, cold red wine. Mack told hours of stories disparaging Melecio, Jesica’s relatives, Duke University. In every tale, he was the hero, fighting for damsel Jesica, who was portrayed as jealous of her best friend Heather, of other JHC kids, of the Mahoneys’ two grown daughters. He and Nita did not seem to find this at all odd. They also did not tire. They told me about taking Jesica to doctors’ appointments, to school when she was able, to the zoo in Charleston . . . the zoo?
“What animals did Jesica like?” I asked.
Mack looked puzzled. “Liked? I don’t know. I think she liked the polar bears.”
“I was constantly telling Duke [after the first transplant], ‘You have a chance here to be a hero; join me . . . get this baby the organs she needs, but don’t waste no more time.’”