by Leslie Burton-López
At four p.m., a month after Mom died, Aunt Peggy first came to my doorstep with her black bag. She looked so like my mom. Her dark brown hair was longer though, and her eyes were different somehow... but still! She held her hand out to me and said, “Hello, Maggie, I’m your Aunt Peggy.” I was five.
“What’s in the bag, Aunt Peggy?” I reached out a hand to touch it.
She turned sideways, the bag swooping away from me with her movement. “Nada, nada, limonada,” she sang. “Nothing in here for you.” She smiled. “Yet.”
That was Aunt Peggy’s only rule. I would scamper to grab the black mystery bag, but it was always within her reach, preventing me from seeing inside its mysterious depths. It became a little game for us. “Margaret Elizabeth Yu.” Her mouth would be stern as she used my full name. “You know better.”
She continued to arrive at exactly four every fourth Friday, neatly coinciding with Dad’s monthly bowling night. With punctuality like Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins — only without the cannon — she would appear at the front door, just as the second hand ticked to the twelve. I always knew it was time to change the batteries in the clock when the timing of her arrival didn’t match that thin line of red plastic. If they didn’t sync, it was time that was wrong, never her. And like the magic in my favorite movie, I somehow knew that adults would not believe in her. So her visits remained our little secret.
Aunt Peggy called it “playing $kittles.” “So,” Aunt Peggy began, “you borrow ten purple $kittles from me because you want to buy a lifetime supply of burritos, but you’ll owe me one extra purple every week until you pay me back. That’s called ‘interest’. If it takes you a month to pay me back, how many purples will you give me at the end of one month?”
We had a $kittle Bank building that we had made from cardboard on my sixth birthday, with little doors and columns drawn in black crayon. We even made a sign for the front that showed the name of the bank. It had a little M&M piggy bank inside it that we pretended was a rare brown $kittle.
I sat cross-legged on the floor with Aunt Peggy in front of me. She very seriously acted as bank teller, counting out my $kittle loan, interrupting her important task with huge, gulpy pulls of grape soda.
I had trouble with geography, but $kittles I could handle. I imagined all of those delicious microwave burritos, and concentrated hard on how I would pay for them. I counted, then recounted, and felt the candy run through my fingers as I made the deposit in front of our cardboard bank. “There! All paid off. I’m going to eat them all at once!” I giggled at the thought of climbing a mountain of burritos and nibbling my way down to the ground.
Aunt Peggy tucked her long brown hair behind the big ears that I also suffered from, to get a better look at my little candy payment and said, “Yes! Well done, Magpie!” I beamed at her, then stuck my purple-stained tongue out. She continued, “So what happens if you pay off your burrito loan sooner than one month?”
At six years old I already had great credit at the First National $kittle Bank.
“I once knew someone who moved all of their stuff into an apartment in the City,” she began one night just after my seventh birthday.
“Who was it?” I jumped in.
“Just a friend I know.”
“What was her name?” I interrupted again.
“Let’s call her Marnie, okay?” This time, she continued without a pause to keep me on track. “So Marnie moved all of her stuff to the City. I’m talking all of the cool posters in her room, her favorite hat, her $kittle Bank, everything.” Aunt Peggy leaned closer to me as she spoke, her long brown hair brushing my arm, and her dark eyes reflected my own.
The emphasis on the word “everything” gave me the feeling that I was going to end up very sorry for Marnie at the end of this story. The “everything” made me think of my prized possession, a battered and dirty canvas safari hat that went with me everywhere, even when Dad said I couldn’t wear it. I would ball it up and stick it in my back pocket.
“So Marnie set everything up in her new place, put up all her posters, hung her favorite hat in the closet, and found a hiding spot behind her bed for her bank. After doing all that, she got super hungry, so she left to go buy some grape soda and corn chips at the store downstairs.”
“Ooooooh, grape soda. She liked our soda, Aunt Peggy!” Sometimes she would bring some, and we would sit and look out the kitchen window sighing happily over our fizzy, purple-y drinks.
“That’s right, she did!” She smiled at me, but then her mouth got serious again, the corners tilting down.
“So she went downstairs to get her snacks, but when she came back up, everything was gone! I’m talking everything.”
I gasped. “Someone stole all her stuff?”
“Yeah, it was awful. The only things she had left were her black bag and her snacks.” There was an odd pause as Peggy’s eyes unfocused for a second. Her voice sounded like it was coming through a tin-can phone when she continued, “I was so sad.”
I tilted my head to peer at her through her curtain of hair. My movement snapped her out of her reverie.
“I mean, I was so sad for her. Doesn’t that sound awful?” She straightened back up, tucked my own long hair behind my ear, and smiled. “You know what though? Marnie was sad, but she learned that if she had changed the locks on her door right when she moved in, the robbers wouldn’t have been able to use the old key.”
“Really?” I said. “So Marnie could have saved everything?”
“Yup! Everything.” Aunt Peggy hopped off the couch and pulled me up with her to grab two grape sodas from the fridge.
When I heard the front door open at four p.m. on a sunny fourth Friday, I grabbed my geography test and ran to the door waving it. I squealed, “Look what I did!” as I jumped to hug her. Aunt Peggy’s chin peeked out from under the hood of her rain jacket, and I could see the roof of her mouth as she smiled when she saw the big “A+” at the top of the page.
“Holy moly, Maggie, you did it! I’ve never been good at geography.” She set her bag down next to the door, then dug her toes into the heels of her heavy boots to pry them off her feet, even as I continued to cling to her. “I’m so proud of you, little magpie.” She was gentle as she unpeeled me from the hug. She smelled like gardenias and cigarette smoke.
As we parted, I frowned at my damp shirt.
“Why are you all wet, Auntie?”
“What? Oh... I got hit with some sprinklers down the street. Yeah, one of them was turned the wrong way.” She smiled at me, flashing her dimples, as she pulled off her coat. “Bummer, huh?”
“Good thing you were wearing a raincoat, then.” I flashed her my own dimples.
“Totally a good thing.” She stooped to pick up her bag by the handle, carefully cradling it to herself. “So what else is new, besides that you’re the smartest third-grader ever?”
“Nada, nada, limonada,” I sang over my shoulder as I skipped back to the kitchen table. The sun poured in through the windows as Aunt Peggy followed. She sat next to me, carefully setting her bag on the bench seat next to her. She pulled out a set of keys from her bag, deftly diverting my attention. “Okay, now check this out.”
Whenever the bag produced something, I was all in.
“Hold them like this.” She took my hand and put a key between each of my fingers. The keys sticking out looked like claws.
I giggled. “I’m Wolverine!”
“Yes, you are!” she giggled the same giggle back at me. “Now sit down and show me how Wolverine uses his claws.”
I wondered why Wolverine had to sit, but I plunked into a kitchen chair and slashed at the air.
“Very good!” Aunt Peggy encouraged. “Now aim higher.”
We were curled up reading “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to each other. When we got to the part where Gretchen gets her period, Aunt Peggy stopped reading and looked at me. “You’ll get your period soon. I brought you some pads so you’re ready.”
I squirmed on my couch cushion and rolled my eyes. “Um, okay, thanks?” I twirled a chunk of dark hair with my fingers and stared at it. “But I’m only nine!”
“It never hurts to be ready, Mags. Keep one in your backpack, okay?” She looked at me with her serious mouth on. “When I was little, there was a girl who got her period for the first time at school. She was the first one in her class that it happened to, and she was nine, too. She didn’t come out of the bathroom for two hours, and by then everyone knew what had happened.” Aunt Peggy had her sad mouth on now. “They called her Bloody Mary for years.”
After Aunt Peggy left that night, I looked at the box of pads she had pulled out of her black bag and put on the bathroom counter for me. I looked at myself in the mirror and bit my lip. My stomach cramped with nervousness.
Ugh, fine. I ripped open the top flap of the box, pulled out a pink-wrapped plasticky pad, unzipped the outer pocket of my backpack and slid it into the hidden pocket inside. I double-checked the Velcro security. It looked totally hidden among my keychains and pogs, but knowing it was there made me feel kind of grown-up.
Copyright © 2018 by Leslie Burton-López