Somehow or someway, everyone knew about Aunt Nancy. She wasn’t my aunt or anyone else’s that we knew of. But that was what we had called her since day one, back when she first came rolling in as a tiny girl with her long copper hair in braids brushing her elbows. That must have been ten years ago, at least. The way she had walked down the town’s streets with her tortoiseshell eyes gleaming, looking for something no one quite knew, a child who thought the world was her playground and those in it her sandbox pals. She never exactly said where she came from. One rumor was that she’d hopped off of a train two towns over and followed a fox till she hit the Pike. Another claimed she’d been raised in the hilly mountains by the Fay. No one knew how she came to town all those years ago alone at such a young age. But she was there, and that much everyone knew.
And if there was one thing everyone knew about Aunt Nancy, besides that she was there, it was that she had a knack for mischief. She could fool the school teacher as to how a toad snuck into her lunch sack. She could con the grannies of town to believe Easter came on the first Sunday of April and not the second (Aunt Nancy had never been a patient girl, after all). She could even dupe the mayor to issue a town celebration in her honor – how, though, the mayor won’t admit, and Aunt Nancy knows better than to give away her secrets. One of Aunt Nancy’s best tricks is still under scrutiny. Word has it she hoodwinked death itself.
It was safe to say that the town knew Aunt Nancy was capable of a lot of things. We all knew that when she came around the corner in the late afternoons with her football jersey slung over her shoulder, bangs stuck to her forehead from sweat, and eyes shiny with life that it was in your best interest not to catch her sight. Not because she was a rotten apple of a kid. We knew she could be as sweet as caramel when she wanted to be. But while her tricks were fine and funny now, we all had the same inkling suspicion that if rallied up the wrong way, the fires of hell wouldn’t compare to her unruly spirit. Those jokes could turn a world upside down. And for our own sakes, we took care to be careful around Aunt Nancy.
One hot June day, though, all of our tip-toeing proved to be for nothing. Like Aunt Nancy had done so many years ago as a little girl, a young man came strolling up the center of the town’s main road. The sun was high overhead, and try as hard as anyone who saw him might, they couldn’t make out a clear face. They could only see his dark skin glistening like a cooking pot with summer sweat, his head shaved of hair, and a leather jacket slung over his shoulder. He walked with a swagger, as if he owned whatever land he stepped on. He gazed at the buildings as if he could enter whichever one he pleased without permission. And when we realized who he reminded us of, it was too late to stop him. He found Mike’s Hub Pub easily enough, drawn in by the jukebox’s tunes playing through the open windows. With his self-assured swagger he came right up to the bar, laid down his leather, and ordered something tall and strong.
Now, it’s not every day we see someone new. And we’ve come to expect only one Aunt Nancy for our lifetimes; she was more than interesting enough, after all. But when he came waltzing in oozing some indefinable prowess, well, we held our breath. Two slippery customers with that kind of attitude were bound to burn the town down.
Just like everyone else in Mike’s that afternoon, she spotted him the moment he came in. Crowded around the pool table, some of the football boys and Aunt Nancy were shooting balls and sipping on Cokes. The other girls hovered close to the fan, hoping to break the heat, if only for a minute. When they saw the newcomer leaning casually with his elbows on the counter top, watching Mike break open a beer, the girls simultaneously let loose a long slow sigh; they had something else hot on their hands. The boys nodded to one another, thinking about asking him to join their game, yet no one verbalized the offer.
Well, Aunt Nancy had never been one to sit and wait. She had always been a go-getter of a girl, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise when she hollered over the jukebox. “Hey, you! Come play.”
After a minute the boy turned to face her, making sure it was him she’d been talking to. Looking at her over the rounded amber rim of his bottle, he took a gulp of beer and approached the table. With only half of his face, he smiled in a crooked sort of way, his teeth made whiter by the contrast of his skin. And when Aunt Nancy could see the whites of his eyes, those brown irises seemed to glitter with some bright blaze inside his spirit.
“You wanna play with me, baby girl?” he said. His voice was as smooth as velvet.
She eyed him with restrained resentment, raising her brow. “I ain’t anybody’s ‘baby’ and I’m not just a ‘girl.’ Now either put up a good game or get gone.” Emphasizing her challenge she tossed him her own pool stick over the table in one swift move. He caught it with his free hand, grinning like a cat with a bird between its teeth.
“What should I call you then?” he asked.
Jutting out her jaw proudly, she answered. “They call me Aunt Nancy.” And to settle her nosy nature and calm her arrogance, she asked who he was.
“Anansi,” was his reply with a twinkly brown eye.
Taking one of the other boy’s sticks for herself, Aunt Nancy gestured to the table. “Then let’s see what you can do, Anansi.”
By this time everyone in Mike’s was watching Aunt Nancy and Anansi. The girls had moved the fan as close to the table as the cord would reach and the boys stood against the back wall. Before joining the others, one of the boys reset the table. When the game was ready to begin, Anansi half bowed to Aunt Nancy, saying that a lady should go first.
“I ain’t no ‘lady,’ either. But I’ll break just the same,” she said, angling her stick at the triangle of balls’ focal point. Without looking back at him, she said over her shoulder, “Let’s say we make this interesting. You lose and you skip town.”
Holding his stick across his broad shoulders, he countered, “You lose and you do something for me.”
And while anyone else would have asked what that ‘something’ was, Aunt Nancy just laughed and got the balls rolling. Since more stripes fell into the pockets, she let him be the whole-colored balls. In turn he chuckled, tickled that he would have done the same, and followed up by offering her a sip of his beer. By the time a half hour passed, their game was getting down and dirty. Neither let on their determination to win, but each made sure to shoot straighter than ever before. But just as Anansi sunk another ball, one too many for Aunt Nancy’s tastes, it seemed he might beat the town charlatan. The fan-blown girls watched on the edge of their seats while the boys placed bets on who’d beat who.
“Hey, Tommy,” Aunt Nancy said at one point, after hearing Anansi had more bets in his favor. “I wouldn’t place my money on him. Not with the trick I’ve got up my sleeve.”
Anansi smiled sheepishly as he traced the tattered edge of her sleeveless shirt. “What sleeve would that be?”
Between the two, no one quite knew who to gamble on. Everyone knew that Aunt Nancy would use any trick in her unwritten book to get what she wanted, as history had long ago proven. But that black young man had a twinkle in his eye we all knew not to underestimate. It was the same kind of shine Aunt Nancy’s eyes had when she was challenged.
In the way stories like this twist with time, how it’ll be one way today and another by tomorrow, so goes what happened next. Some of the sweaty girls say they saw Anansi looking hocus-pocus style at table. The remaining boys say they heard Aunt Nancy whisper as she leaned in close to the young man. Mike the bartender swears on his grandmother’s grave that both Anansi and Aunt Nancy were up to some kind of wily game other than pool, though he couldn’t guess exactly what. But fact is that when Aunt Nancy took a step back, the crack of a final ball into a pocket still sharp, the matter was decided. Off to the side, Aunt Nancy and Anansi leaned against the back wall, turning their polished sticks to catch the light.
So when Aunt Nancy told him to get gone, Anansi laid out the fine print of their wager. “I’ll hit the road again.” he promised. “So long as you come with me.”
Not one to turn down an experience, Aunt Nancy didn’t blink twice before agreeing. She didn’t say goodbye to anyone or take anything with her when she left. Instead, she finished her coke and Anansi drained his beer before leaving the cool shade and living under the sun. By the time anyone noticed the couple was gone, the crickets had begun to play their nighttime ballad leaving the town to question if they’d ever see that copper-haired girl again.
Everyone in town suspected that someday Aunt Nancy would leave just as strangely as she had come. But in the wake of her tomfoolery, when we each tittle-tattled on her, we wondered where she was this week? Who had she swindled for her evening meal? What kind of adventures was she having with that dark-skinned boy so much like herself? Because somehow or some way, even when she was long gone, everyone knew something about the trickster of a girl called Aunt Nancy.