by Christine Otis
She surveyed me from multiple angles as she played on the monkey bars, as she ran by, while she wove in and out between the kids, as she pretended to talk to other kids and as she stood near a tree. It was like she had one of those little cameras, taking these quick candid snapshots, but it was for her own personal memory bank. She was summing me up, taking everything in that I had and who was with me. I didn’t know who she was at that precise moment, although I recognized her awareness of me.
As I was watching my niece and two nephews play with the other kids, she saw me as a lone adult that didn’t belong to any of the children there. She was trying hard to match me up with children that were supposed to look like me. The only problem was that none of the children there looked like me, so she couldn’t play the match game that children thoroughly enjoy. In the match game, you match a chicken with a chicken, a cat with a cat. My nieces and nephews are Korean American, so they look very Korean. I am Caucasian. As she placed each child with a parent of the same ethnicity, she was stumped trying to figure the match. Who were my children?
While my eyes were covered and hidden behind tinted glass, I finally caught her eyes looking at me. I stared back. She knew her cover was blown. She slipped away for a moment and disappeared. I couldn’t find her and thought that she left with a parent who had told her it was time to go home. A little while later she was back. Her uncertainty was obvious, but her boldness to get a closer inspection made me really wonder what she wanted. She came nearer to me with each run like a small animal making certain of its safe passage by a human. And with each close encounter I gained her trust, but I had no intention of gaining this child’s trust. Her curiosity and growing interest about me had my concern. Then I started to play the match game.
She pretended to talk to other children and tried to interact with them, but they ignored her and played with those that they knew. She never went up to another adult, although she’d come in close range to the other adults there, acting like she belonged to them. While both of us were playing this match game, we couldn’t find the match. It perplexed us as we kept watching the other. I concluded she was alone. When my niece and two nephews ran up to me, I saw the surprise on her face.
Aunt Pluckee’s niece, as I came to know her, was quite confused to see these children come up to me. She looked at me quizzically. She realized I wasn’t an lone adult, but her confusion over the ethnicity difference created questions she wanted answered. She was making calculations as she came closer to me yielding caution and apprehension. I knew she was perplexed, because in the match game, there are no curve balls. Everything always matches unless you lose a piece. I knew this mismatch was a curious thing and as she got closer, she moved around me like an anxiety attack on wheels–very fast to make a quick escape–yet asking me her prepared questions:
“Are those your kids?” began her inquisition.
“No. I’m their aunt,” I replied.
“Yes, I am.”
She was trying to believe me as she looked me hard in the eyes and then darted off. Although I was in a stationary position and hers was one in constant motion, she kept her eyes on me. When she returned, her inquisition began again:
“What’s in the bag?”
“Can I see?”
I knew she must have been starving seeing how thin she was.
“A tunafish sandwich.”
“Mmm. And that?”
She ran off thinking about the food in the bag. Then I understood what she wanted. I had already asked my niece and nephews if they wanted the sandwich and they said no. I was thinking of giving her the sandwich, but I had my concerns about giving her food. I knew she was a lone child playing in the park by herself, much too young to be without adult supervision, but I continued looking for an adult wanting to make certain I wasn’t going to overstep my bounds by offering her food. There wasn’t one to ask. When she went by again, her eyes kept looking at the blue bag where the food was kept, so I took a chance and asked her:
“Would you like the sandwich? You look hungry.”
“No.” She darted off like a scared jack rabbit.
I continued watching my niece and nephews. I wondered when was the last time she had eaten. When she returned again, she quickly asked:
“Do you still have the sandwich?”
“Yes. Would you like it?”
She finally gave into her growling stomach pain, because although she was hesitant, she accepted the offer. She nodded as I took it out of the bag. It was like watching a hungry animal salivate for a treat. It was upsetting to see. I felt good knowing that I was alleviating some of those hunger pains. As she gobbled it down, she asked:
“You’re their aunt?”
“But they don’t look like you.”
“You don’t always look like your aunt.”
She thought about this, but didn’t give an immediate answer. As the wheels of her anxiety slowed and her eyes carefully looked at me, she stated:
“I have an aunt. Do you know what we call her?”
“Do you look like her?”
She thought as she continued biting, chewing and swallowing. Obviously, she hadn’t eaten in a while and I wished I had more food with me. I gave her the nuts as well.
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you wanna know why?”
“Why you don’t look like her?”
“No. Why we call her Aunt Pluckee.”
“Because when she’s around, she plucks.”
I was intently listening, but wasn’t following what she meant. As she swallowed her last bite, with my face showing interest, she explained with arms in fast motion. “You know she plucks like this-” Her fingers were straight with the thumbs below them but separated like a duck’s bill. “Pluck, pluck, pluck, pluck. Things disappear and we never see them again. We don’t like it when Aunt Pluckee comes.” She adds in an exasperated tone: “Do you have an Aunt Pluckee?”
I shook my head no.
“You’re lucky. I wish I didn’t have an Aunt Pluckee. She makes a mess for us.”
“She took my Mom’s car one time. We thought we wouldn’t see it again. Two weeks later she showed up, but the car no longer worked. We didn’t see Aunt Pluckee for a long time after that and all of us were so glad. We thought we were rid of her for sure but she appeared again a few days ago–and–pluck, pluck, pluck, pluck. Like that. Fast. No one’s faster than Aunt Pluckee. We don’t have to worry about the thieves in our neighborhood. We worry about when Aunt Pluckee shows up.”
I thought about what the child was telling me and I made a mental note: what is it like for Aunt Pluckee? Just like in the match game, the matched pair isn’t necessarily the one you want, but it’s your matched pair.
“You really don’t have an Aunt Pluckee?”
“Does anyone take your things?”
“Not without asking.”
“Why don’t they just take it?”
“Out of respect. You don’t take something that isn’t yours.”
“Well, Aunt Pluckee never asks and she’s always taking things that don’t belong to her.”
She stares off into the distance.
“Does Aunt Pluckee ever visit without plucking?”
“No.” The undercurrent of her tone rises to the surface in her stilled brown eyes.
“You don’t have a pluckee?” she asks one last time.
“Can I come home with you?”