Frayed Edges, Loose Thread
A Short Story by Amelia M.L. Montes
(originally published in “Saguaro Journal”)
There was diabetes all over my house while I was growing up. There was diabetes in some of the old clothes Mamá wore after my sister Nina died of it. There was diabetes in some of the rags we used to dust the house with because when tío Tan lost his arm, he always gave Mamá the sleeves for us to use on the furniture. There was diabetes in our family photos.
Tía Concha lived by the sea but it wasn’t on the Monterrey coast of California. She lived in Mazatlán, where the trees are long lean palms. Mamá said that she and her cousins would take large palm branches and fan her on hot days. In one of the pictures, Abuela is holding a tray of drinks next to her while Mamá (about 7 years old) and tío Tan have little silk fans, avanicos, in one hand and palm branches in the other. Mamá looks like she’s trying to be a fashion model, her small abanico coyly poised under her chin. Tío Tan looks like a teen-ager in the picture, holding an extra large palm branch above his head and laughing.
In the next picture they look more serious, standing on either side of the chair, fanning tía Concha while she’s holding the rosary, looking up to heaven. Mamá said tía Concha thanked the Virgen very day for her sight, speech and hearing. Mamá told me how she held a prayerbook in front of tía Concha so she could pray:
Dulce Madre, no te alejes
Tu vista de mi no apartes.
Ven conmigo a todas partes
y sola nunca me dejes.
When I was little, this is the prayer Mamá made me say. But I said it differently than tía Concha. She said it with her hands clasped together in front of her face. I’m sure that holding her hands—one right next to the other—was all she could do. I learned from las hermanas Ruiz Esparza that you’re really supposed to hold your right hand up to your face and make three signs of the cross for each sentence of the prayer. “Dulce Madre” starts at the forehead . . . “Tu Vista” is right in front of the eyes . . . and “Ven conmigo” is on the mouth. At first I did it just like las hermanas Ruiz Esparza told me to, but after remembering tía Concha’s pictures, I didn’t follow their instructions either. No matter how hard I tried to make it serious and keep my hands rigid and in place, I couldn’t. I’d wriggle my fingers around—like exercising them. Mamá didn’t like that and las hermanas Ruiz Esparza told me I was being sacrilegious. But I wasn’t. I was only thinking of tía Concha. I was only thinking that if she had exercised her fingers, they wouldn’t have looked like twisted tree trunks. The more I looked at pictures of tía Concha, or saw Mamá dressing in Nina’s oversized blouses, the more I’d want to do everything I could not to get diabetes.
When tío Tan had to go into the hospital, Mamá told me he was worried that he’d be just like his great aunt, tía Concha, “glued to a lounge chair like a statue,” he had said. But around me, he never showed his worries. He always seemed happy. The day he left, I watched him pack two little suitcases. In one, he placed rows and rows of pills on the bottom. Then he put a little plastic shelf on top of them and filled that shelf up with more pills. It was a hard little suitcase like the one Mamá uses for her make-up. Then he took one of his good black pants, folded it twice and laid it inside the other suitcase. He placed it on one side of the suitcase, a white shirt on top of the pants, and black shoes right next to the pants and shirt. I watched everything that he did. He always folded everything but he wasn’t careful about not getting his cigarette ashes in the suitcase.
“Is that what you’ll wear when you get out?” I had asked him, feeling the shirt’s soft fabric and wiping away the tiny gray ash.
“Yes, you like it?”
Then he laughed loudly and placed his left hand under his right underarm. I could hear the sizzle of his cigarette as he breathed it in. Then he took the cigarette out of his mouth with his right hand and smashed it into the ash tray on the dresser by the bed. He kept staring at the open suitcase with the clothes. I watched his forehead gather up into a worried look. Then he took out another cigarette from the pack by the ash tray and lighted it.
“Mijita, I either wear these clothes in this suticase out of the hospital or wear them into my grave.”
“Tío! You scare me,” and I backed away.
He just kept laughing. Before he shut the suitcase with the clothes, he covered the top with a silky brown robe and looked back at me to see if I was looking. He held up part of the robe. “This is just in case I need to escort a nurse down the hall for a drink,” he told me and winked through his square-rimmed glasses.
I didn’t see him after that for a long time until one day Mamá brought him home. The right sleeve where his arm was supposed to be was folded over many times, like when you take toilet paper and wrap it around your hand, over and over. Just like that.
“The new me,” he said, slapping his left hand over his chest. Then he took out the right shirt sleeve from his pocket and offered it to me.
I spread it out on the floor, long and flat. It was an untidy cut at the elbow, a crisscrossed cut that left frayed edges, loose thread—tiny pelusa all over the rug.
“We’ll use that for dusting,” Mamá had said. “Just take out the buttons.”
Tío Hector lived in Guadalajara. I knew this because we visited him every summer almost. When we’d go and visit, Tío Hector had a magic party for all of us—my cousins Maricela, Flaco, Refugio, Chata, me, and the neighbor kids Catriona and Luz. He’d come out in a big suit and a “capa” my Mamá called it. It was a black silky material that wrapped all around him. When he stood in front of all of us, he introduced himself as “El Gran Hector” and then he opened the “capa” and a beautiful white bird flew out.
He also made money. He’d make a tight fist and he’d tell me to put his fist in my hand. When I’d do that, he’d slowly open the fist and a big gold peso would drop into my hand every time. At the end of every show, he’d lean down close to us, change his voice low and quiet, and he’d say, “And now for my final trick--I’m going to make you disappear.” Then he’d lift his cape up and yell, “¡Ahora desaparézcanse!” And we’d all get scared and run! He knew how to do it. He could make everything into a different shape or he could make it go away. He’d eat one whole garlic clove a day, he’d tell me, to keep away the heart attack. I thought to myself, when I’m my tío Hector’s age, I’m going to eat a garlic clove every day too. Last summer I asked him, “Tío dime, dime how you make something go away,” and he told me to concentrate real hard. But concentrating on the diabetes to go away was the hardest of all.
When tío Tan came in one day on one crutch, with his black pant leg cut down the middle so I could see every single stitch sewn into his leg to keep the skin together, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do much more to keep it away. He came right in and sat himself down in my chair by the fireplace. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t belong there, that of all the chairs in the house to sit, why did he choose mine. But I knew if I said anything, Mamá would say I was being disrespectful and who knew how long tío Tan would be in this world what with an arm gone and maybe the legs next. He stayed all afternoon, telling us how the operation had lasted six hours and that he had been awake for all of it.
“Why would you want to be awake?” Mamá had asked.
“Why, to flirt with the nurses, Carmen!” he said, laughing real loud.
He told us that they decided to cut from the thigh to just above the ankle because the circulation had stopped and he couldn’t feel it anymore. They had to go in or else the leg would’ve been gone for good.
“Like Concha, Carmen,” he sighed. “Just like la Concha,” and he took out a newly cut sleeve from his pocket and wiped his eyes with it.
After he left, I ran to get a rag to wipe my chair. There were dry flecks of blood on the footstool where he had placed his leg. There were little specks of ash on the arm rest from his smoking. That day, I not only dusted but took out the Lemon Pledge and sprayed down the chair so that the wooden parts shone smooth. I also took the vacuum cleaner, attached the hose to it, and scrunched the nozzle down into every upholstered crevice and corner of the chair.
Well I ended up getting very good at cleaning. When tío Tan had to come and live with us two weeks after his leg operation, that’s when I started cleaning most all the time. Tío Tan’s operation didn’t work after all, and they not only cut the leg off, they also cut off the foot from the other leg. He couldn’t live by himself anymore, so he had to live in the sewing room which was right next to mine.
I made sure his bed was on the opposite wall. I rearranged my room so that my bed was against Mamá’s bedroom wall instead of the sewing room wall where I could easily hear tío Tan snoring at night. I hoped that he would be taken away to die in peace in a hospital. After all, he liked the nurses. He especially liked the one who came to the house once a week to check on him. He’d laugh and tell her jokes in a soft voice so that she had to lean down close to him. I think she liked him too because she would tell Mamá, “That man must’ve been somethin’ awful with the ladies when he was young.” My mother would just nod and smile. Mamá didn’t know English very well so after the nurse left, I’d have to tell my mother what she had said.
Then Mamá would go into tío Tan’s room and tell him to quit flirting with the women. “At your age, Tan. It’s not right.”
“At my age, and in my condition, I can do whatever I damn well please!”
“Ay, Tan!” my mother would sigh.
Tío Tan stopped flirting very soon after that. He wasn’t even moving very much. He just slept a lot. One morning when Mamá walked in the room, she took one look at him and called for me.
“Ya se fue Tan, mijita. He’s gone,” she said and pointed to his half opened mouth, his half-closed eyes magnified under the square-rimmed glasses.
I had heard someone on television once say, “it gives me tingles down my spine.” That’s what I felt when I saw him dead in the sewing room. I had been asleep when it happened—never even had a bad dream or woke up in the middle of the night feeling that anything was different in the house. And Mamá was so calm letting me know that right in the next room, tío Tan had gone, leaving his body here for us. And there the body was, just like if tío Tan was still inside it. Tío Tan lying there in the same position I saw him the night before, his one hand at his side in a little fist.
“He’s not staying overnight like that here, is he?” I asked Mamá.
“No. We’ll have to call the hospital and ask what’s to be done.”
That week I helped Mamá gather the sheets from the sofa bed in the sewing room to be washed in hot, hot water. We took all his clothes and put them in large paper bags to give to the Salvation Army. I also stuffed the bed sheets in the bag when Mamá wasn’t looking.
A few days later, we dressed in black for the funeral. Mamá sewed what looked like old fashioned dresses. I kept telling her the high collars and frilly black lace on the edges of the sleeves and hem were all wrong, but she insisted I wear it because this is what they wore in Mexico. This is what we had to do for Tan, she said. The funeral was a very small one. The parish priest, Father McCormack, said a few words about meeting with the Creator when we die and how there’s no more suffering. Las hermanas Ruiz Esparza recited “Dulce Madre” and the nurse who had come to visit tío Tan took Mamá’s hand and whispered in her ear. I finally told the nurse that Mamá didn’t understand English, but she only patted my shoulder and said, “It’s okay. I’m just whispering soothing words. She knows.”
The only thing Mamá kept after the funeral was tío Tan’s glasses and a picture he had kept in his wallet of tía Concha. It was a picture of tía Concha standing up when she had her two legs, holding the hand of a very young Tan. I watched Mamá place the picture in the green shoebox that she put on the shelf above the hanging clothes in the closet. She stretched her legs and arms, leaning up against the rack of clothes in our little closet. Her leg and arm muscles showed whenever she put something up there. Mamá looked twice as long. She also looked strong. I wondered if I stretched like that, would I be strong, would I look different from tía Concha standing beside tío Tan in the picture? When Mamá finished putting tío Tan’s picture away, I sat next to her on the sofa while she sewed a little red felt case for tío Tan’s glasses.
“Why are you sewing a bag for his glasses? He’s not going to use them anymore.”
“I’m doing it for me,” Mamá said quietly.
I thought about that for a little, but still didn’t understand. Then she said, “I always told Tan. Oyes, you need a case for those glasses. They’ll get scratched.”
“And he didn’t listen to you?”
“No he didn’t,” she took the glasses and showed me one side of them. They were scratched on the very left hand corner.
Mamá sighed and placed her finger over the scratches. “So now I’m going to give them some protection.”
I watched as she carefully sewed little stitches around the red material. When she was done, she put the glasses in the bag, made the sign of the cross over them—“que Dios te bendiga”—and placed them in her drawer by her bed. I never saw or wanted to see the glasses again. Every time I thought about the scratched glasses, I would see tío Tan’s half-closed eyes.
In the kitchen, I noticed the long crack between the kitchen cabinet and the wall. That’s where tío Tan liked to stand and lean. The crack was too narrow for the vacuum nozzle to fit or for my hand to guide a rag at least a few inches inside to clean. And the cabinet wasn’t a cabinet I could push away to clean behind. It was built into the wall. I ran to the bathroom and got a Q-Tip, dipped it in alcohol and ran it down the little crevice. Some of the alcohol dripped down and made a little streak on the yellow paint. One drip ran down to another tiny crevice I hadn’t noticed and another. The little Q-Tip fell from my hands. I sat down on the damp linoleum floor and cried. I cried and cried.
My mother thought I was mourning for tío Tan. Las hermanas Ruiz Esparza told my mother I had loved my uncle more than anyone and that’s why I cried. But no one knew. No one knew I was crying because the diabetes would never go away. It would always be right here, somewhere where I had missed a crevice, where tío Tan had breathed and his breath had decided to float to the ceiling and stay forever. No one knew. No one knew. Something remains, something stays. Dust on furniture, pelusa on the rug.