I watched my grandma sleep once. Her head held up high by two overstuffed pillows. She slept with a long green nightgown and kept her house shoes on even under the covers. She breathed long and deep as she slept. Her shell of a chest collapsing and emerging with each fat gorgeous breath she took. She never moved the whole time I watched her. Simply laid flat on her back with her thin neck twisted like she was holding up a hair do, a bun or perhaps, a French twist that began at the nape of her neck. Not wanting to ruin it by turning her head to the side. The only light in the room was the fuzzy shade of yellow seeping through the bed sheets she used as curtains. There was three sheets layered one on top of the other, a thick curtain used to keep the sun out, each one dusty from years of one sole occupation. Never used to warm the crevices of a cold tired body, only tacked on a wall to help separate her from the light. I was passing by on my way to the bathroom and I knew if I stayed too long she would sense someone watching her and wake up. It was early in the morning this particular day I found myself tip toeing through, trying my best not to wake her, but getting caught up in the mysteries of old age at rest. She kept her purse sitting beside her on the bed, tucked neatly underneath the top sheet, close at hand to keep an eye on even with her eyes closed.
A one hour drive from El Paso followed a packing session I held from deep inside my closet after my mom got home from work that Friday afternoon and told me of the plan she had set up for me. My arms likes blades of a fan tossing out favorite toys like jump rope and jacks, thinking they would be more useful than a change of clothes in a town of rocks and dirt, wild chickens and unsociable dogs. I was six the first time I visited Ft. Hancock. We were visiting my grandpa's grave on the Day of the Dead. My grandma sat alone by the window as we drove up to the house, rocking back and forth with a ball of yarn in her hand, knitting a mantel she would lay on his grave. We picked her up and drove to the cemetery. With flowers in hand I hung my head out the window and watched the dust trail behind the car as we drove down the dirt road that led to the iron gates. I was stung by ants on that visit. They had built their hill in the ground where my grandpa rest and we were busy arranging orange flowers that smelled of rough cologne and of the stale water that lingers behind in a vase, a smell that tingles the hair in your nose. No one noticed until my mom flicked a tiny ant crawling on my shirt. We all looked down together and realized my foot was covered in a heaving black shine. My leg stayed swollen for days.
A few weeks in Ft. Hancock was the solution for a skinny bored kid whose single parent home was lonely during the summer with a nine to five that occupied Monday through Friday. Sitting in front of the television for hours was the only babysitter we could afford then, my brother too young to properly watch over me, he set my hair on fire once, well just the tips, but still too young to watch over me. He spent his summer days at a basketball camp for his junior varsity team. Whenever he wasn't there, he was at a friend's house sitting in a room playing video games and smoking cigarettes until five o'clock. I could smell them on his clothes before he changed out of them so my mom wouldn't know.
Our car turned into the familiar gravel driveway that curved around the old white house. Pebbles kicking up and banging on glass announcing our arrival. We spilled out of the car with sweaty backs and sticky legs, moans from the heat and sighs of relief to be out of the car. Our air conditioner gave out in Van Horn and we were forced to ride with the steady buzz of hot eighty mile an hour air hitting our ears and rubbing our necks. My grandma stood in the kitchen finishing tortillas she was making for my mom to take home with her. The kitchen smelled warm and sweet, bags of flour and rolling pins of different sizes sat all over the counters. Coffee was brewing and I wondered how anyone could enjoy a thick cup in the midday desert heat.
"Sit down, come in."
"Gracias ama, como esta?”
"Pues, ya sabes, todo bien."
"Grandma, can I watch TV in the living room?"
The television set at my grandma's house didn't work properly and was never used. It served as a stand for old magazines and plastic flowers and the question had been asked so many times on so many trips out here that my brother knew the answer, he was just being polite. The sound was off, too loud at times and then too quiet at others and the reception was bad. The wind in Ft. Hancock determined the change of sands, the destination of wild seeds, and the reception on my grandma's cherry wood two hundred pound television set with the built in record player. My mom and brother didn't stay very long. She and my grandma sat in the kitchen, drank their coffee, crossed and uncrossed their legs and finally packed up the tortillas in plastic grocery bags. Goodbyes like "see you in a couple weeks" and "don't give your abuela any trouble" and "stay out of my room" followed. My grandma stayed sitting at the kitchen table while I watched the car drive down the road, drinking her coffee legs crossed with dress pulled safely down below the knee.
My brother came along to see me off, recounting stories of a time before I can remember. Once, he said, as my mom laughed wildly and banged on the steering wheel for support, he placed a stuffed gray mouse on my grandma's lap and watched the panic rise from the bottoms of her feet to the whites of her eyes and out the top of her head when she looked down and saw the furry gray sitting on her. All this from behind the sofa he was hidden, concealed in a corner, small as a mouse himself. And once, he proclaimed, he offered my grandma popping candy that pricks your tongue like tiny sprays of electricity and watched as the hot pink candy touched her tongue and the fireworks began from inside her mouth. My brother and mom loved to tell stories about the many times they tricked my grandma, a generational hand me down, first my mom then my brother's turn. My mom poked fun at her broken English and of her inability to say words like "pizza" or "fish" without inserting an invisible "t" in the middle. I never joined in. Broken bits of Spanish I picked up off the floor kept me away from that discussion. I was too insecure about the punctured and bruised words I used to form a sentence when asking my grandma for a sandwich. Spanish is a language as slow as honey dripping, drip, drip, drip from the mouths of my elders, but never as sweet when dripping from mine. Only when occurring naturally and from the heart, but I tried.
Watching paper skin hands gather and release gather and release strings of yarn to form a pattern filled our afternoons. My grandma decided she was going to teach me to knit before I went back home. This would keep me occupied and indoors, away from the hot white sun and trouble makers who could burn me just the same.
"Let's make a pillow case, something small, something easy."
A stale smell of coffee on her breath filled my nose as she leaned in close with each stroke of the needle. Her hands working the yarn into something real, like magic only older. I only held the ball of yarn at first, letting inch by inch ease through my hands and flow into the fabric that was being formed beneath her breath. She'd smack her lips whenever my eyes wandered outside through the living room window. The clouds seemed whiter out here, above dry earth. Thin as shredded cotton, random dotting of the sky, they moved in the wind and took my eyes with them. Outside was the faint whistle of the wind through cactus and thorny tumbleweeds, a church bell reminding the town of the hour that was beginning again, the sound of wet clothes dripping dry in the sun, the smack of her lips at my left ear.
"I'm watching grandma, I know when to let go."
"No you don't, you can't even sit still long enough to make it through the first stitch."
She was right, I was eight.
The pillow case was the first thing we completed. It was crooked on one side and had stitches that began tight and uniform and ended loose and uneven. It was my impatience, she said, that had destroyed the pillow case. It was the sweat behind my knees that I kept wiping away, the long drawn out breaths I took to remind myself I was still awake, the bathroom breaks I took every fifteen minutes, even if I didn't need to go, that had destroyed the pillow case. She had tried to teach me through rough English and sighs of frustration, but I would not sit still. We would pick it up tomorrow and begin again.
The next morning I awoke to the loud noises of breakfast preparation in the kitchen. The heat from outside was beginning to permeate the cement walls even at this early morning hour and the frying of eggs could be heard through crackles of grease dancing in the frying pan. The smell of ham, sweet and buttery, filled the room and brought me back from sleep. I got out of bed and headed to the kitchen. After my breakfast and my grandma's third cup of coffee, she brought out a book of patterns that we would work on.
"Algo que te puedes llevar para tus munecas."
I didn't really play with dolls, but I didn't want to tell her that. My neighbor, Lillian, had stolen all four Barbie dolls I owned and I always broke the kind that close their eyes when you lay them down. Limbs too easily removed and used as mini shovels or plastic missiles shot from tree branches overhead, never been much of the maternal type, but I stayed quiet. Today's ball of yarn flowed easily though. I held it loosely in my hand and watched as my grandma formed a pattern with quick in and out up and down sweeps of the needle. The mess of yarn was beginning to look like the tiny sweater pattern she book marked on page seven in her Knitting World pattern book. It was blue and looked like it would fit a doll quite nicely. Now, I would just have to find a doll to put it on, maybe steal one back from Lillian's collection, make things fair.
Warm sleep usually followed our daily knitting lessons. The heat felt fuller in Ft Hancock. Stuffy and dry. Omnipotent and unrelenting. It crept into every part of my body and kept creeping, inching hotter and hotter, deeper and deeper until the dark hollow of sleep seemed to be the only thing that could cool me off. I'd curl up on the fuzzy couch with the brown corduroy throw pillows, drool stains on all four, and close my eyes to the quiet heat that filled a room where more aging than living took place. My naps usually lasted into the darkness after the sun had set. I'd wake up each afternoon and walk outside where I knew my grandma would be, sitting in the middle of the backyard on a giant stone that was smooth enough to allow her bony frame to rest. She'd sit out there watching the sky and talking to herself. I had to be quiet so that she could carry on the conversation that flowed from inside her head to the tip of her tongue. Words that rested on her lips and escaped as mumbles in Spanish that I couldn't understand. I asked her who she was talking to and she gently put her finger up to her lips and pointed to the sky. I watched her and imagined my grandpa sitting on the rooftop whispering soft words that only they two could hear. We'd sit until the desert breeze kicked up and made it too hard for my grandma to catch the words that were being thrown around.
The sweater was set aside in a pile that would eventually consist of one pair of socks for my brother, one pair of mittens for Lillian, and a mantel I made for my mom's dining room table. It was a box that held all the completed items my grandma and I made. I brought them back home and distributed them as soon as I could, loudly calling each name and holding them out, proud smile from ear to ear. My mom loved the green mantel I made for her. She immediately moved the salt and pepper shakers she bought downtown at a store with a giant escalator and women who follow me around to make sure I'm not stealing anything and laid it out on the table and told my brother not to leave any sodas lying around that could spill and ruin my creation. Lillian's mittens didn't fit her and when she tried them on, she tore a hole in the pinkie finger. They were an ugly shade of yellow she said, that didn't match her eyes, brown eyes with a rim of green that could only be seen in the sun, so she left them lying on my bedroom floor when she went home. My brother's socks fit better on his hands. The left foot was uneven and the blue yarn began to unravel as soon as he put them on and pretended to use them as oven mitts, opening the oven door and taking out an imaginary cake while my mom and I laughed.
My grandma stayed behind in the white concrete house that sat in the middle of the desert an hour away from where my family and I lived, telling stories about knitting and laughing at my brother's antics. She blessed me before I left, holding out her hand and forming the sign of the cross on my face. She gave me the extra yarn she had leftover from our sessions and asked me to practice once a day so I wouldn't forget how to stitch, wouldn't forget how to create something from nothing, a ball of string that could make something warm and comfortable, wouldn't forget her.
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Jessica Castro is originally from El Paso, and is a 2005 graduate of UTEP with a degree in creative writing and film. She currently lives in Austin.