take me long to learn that "The Little Mermaid"
was the only story in the entire book of fairy tales that
little Anita, whom I soon came to think of as deserving the
name Needles, wanted to have read to her.
"Read it again, Bob," she ordered me after I'd gotten
through it once.
I complied, but when she request a third reading, I resisted.
Or rather I tried to resist.
"But I like it," she said. "Read it again."
"I've read it twice, Anita," I told her, as if that
were something she didn't already know.
Her lower lip began to quiver. "Please!" she said,
looking just slightly teary.
"Oh, all right," I said ungraciously. "But
only one more time."
She smiled sweetly. "Thank you," she said in a voice
that just sparkled with gratitude.
By the time I'd finished the third reading of the story I
was truly sick of it. I closed the book and put it aside.
"What would you like to do now?" I asked her. That
was a mistake.
"I want the story again," she said.
I sighed. "Besides that," I said, firmly I thought.
She looked despondent. "I don't want to do nothing else,"
she mumbled. "'The Little Mermaid' is my favorite story."
"Well, I've read it three times," I said. "That's
She shook her head sadly. "Pretty please," she murmured
with a sigh and then fell silent, looking up at me with a
I looked at my watch. It felt as if I'd been reading that
blasted story for days on end, but actually only a little
over an hour had passed. It was close to five in the afternoon,
and I had no idea how long Anita's visit to the vet would
"Wouldn't you like to eat something?" I asked my
She just shook her head.
"Well, I'm hungry," I announced. "Maybe we
can have some cookies and milk."
"There aren't no cookies," she said. "Mommy
says sugar is bad."
"Well," I temporized, "too much sugar is certainly
unhealthy, it's true.
"Read the story to me one more time?" the child
wheedled. "Then we can make a peanut butter and honey
"We can make peanut butter and honey sandwiches now,"
I corrected her.
"No, we can't," she replied, with just a hint of
triumph in her voice. "Mommy hided the honey."
I stared at her disbelieving. I had no intention of being
manipulated by someone little older than a toddler.
"I'm sure we can find it, I replied, standing up and
walking to the cupboard.
Needles folded her arms and barely suppressed a grin. She
made no move to assist me. "I don't think so."
Twenty-five minutes later I still hadn't discovered the honey
or the peanut butter in the clutter that filled that kitchen.
Or bread that wasn't stale, for that matter. And I hadn't
found anything else worth eating either. There was a lot of
dried cat food, four six-packs of Coors, and several jars
of pickled onions within easy reach.
"Doesn't your mother cook?" I asked Needles.
She shook her head. "Read to me," she demanded.
"What do you eat?" I persisted.
"Take-out or Mrs. Privett's stew," she replied.
"Read to me!"
I'd never heard of Mrs. Privett's stew and assumed it was
canned beef stew or something of that sort.
"Read to me," Needles repeated, looking at me reproachfully.
"No," I said, uncertain whether to be glad or sorry
that Betsy and I had no children. Maintaining discipline in
a high school class was easy compared to dealing with this
stubborn tyke. What if we'd had a family and our kids had
turned out like Needles? I asked myself as I walked out of
the kitchen and rummaged through the rest of the small apartment
opening drawers and looking under piles of newspapers that
obviously hadn't been moved in months. On the other hand,
if I had a child or children, I told myself, I'd probably
have a better idea of what to do in my current situation.
I returned to the kitchen where Needles still sat looking
"Read to me," she begged as I came in. A tear rolled
down each pink, slightly chubby cheek.
"Now stop that, Needles!" I said, unthinking.
Hearing herself called Needles seemed to upset the child even
more, and the tears began to flow freely. "My name isn't
Needles," she howled, "it's NEEdles."
"Oh for heaven's sake!" I growled, picked up the
grimy book, and began to read "The Little Mermaid"
aloud once again.
two more readings, Needles condescended to show me where the
honey and peanut butter were hidden; they were in a brown
bag behind the ratty sofa in the tiny living room. She also
demonstrated her skill at plugging in an old toaster whose
cord was frayed without electrocuting herself. Soon we were
munching away on peanut butter and honey sandwiches on toasted
white bread, not my idea of a nutritious meal, but better
than nothing. Once Needles had finished chewing and swallowing
she began to tell me a long, barely comprehensible story about
Fluffy the cat and someone whose name sounded a lot like Vernon.
She was more than halfway through the story before I realized
that what I had taken for Vernon was really "Varmint,"
the appellation by which Needles' mother referred to the tomcat
who'd sired Fluffy's litter. I was getting more grateful by
the minute that Betsy and I didn't have children and more
eager by the second for Anita's return.
My attention to the story of Fluffy, Varmint, and their brood
apparently endeared me to little Needles, who seemed to have
forgotten about "The Little Mermaid," much to my
"Bob," she asked me, "Do you have a lady?"
I wasn't sure what she meant, but I assumed she was asking
if I was married, so I told her that my wife's name was Betsy.
"My daddy has three ladies," she said. "Mommy
and me and Susie."
"Who's Susie?" I asked, not at all certain I wanted
"Daddy's girlfriend," she replied nonchalantly.
"Mommy doesn't like her one bit even though she never
metted her. Daddy said so."
Now I felt as if I was really getting in over my head. "Well,"
I said, not sure exactly what my reaction ought to be but
sensing that the child expected me to say something, "well
"Daddy says Susie is nice. She sends me presents,"
the child continued. "Mommy doesn't like that."
I felt myself starting to sweat. What was taking Anita so
"Do you want to watch a video, Bob?" Needles asked
sweetly. "Daddy has some locked up in the desk, but I
know where the key is."
"No, thank you, Anita," I replied, fearing that
the videos daddy had locked up in the desk were not fit for
the eyes of a child. "I hope you haven't been unlocking
your daddy's desk without his permission."
She grinned. "Mommy says I can get into anything."
I sighed. "Don't you usually take a nap in the afternoon?"
I asked her, eager to change the subject.
She snorted at me. Yes, that little girl snorted loudly and
derisively. "It's too late for a nap, silly," she
replied. "Naps are in the afternoon, and it's almost
Relieved to have found a harmless topic, I replied, "How
do you know it's almost night? It's not dark outside, is it?"
She snorted again and started to laugh, pointing at the large,
round clock on the wall over the kitchen sink.. "Can't
you tell time? The clock has the big hand on the nine and
the little one almost on the six. That means it's almost night."
I was surprised that she could tell time. Needles was obviously
not stupid. Irritating perhaps, but not stupid. "And
where did you learn how to tell time, young lady?" I
asked her. "Do you go to school?"
She shook her head and smirked at me. "I'm too little
for school. Daddy taught me."
"How old are you Anita?"
She held up four fingers. "I can't make a half."
"I'm four and a half, but I can't make a half."
"So what do you do all day?" I asked her.
She stared at me as if I were crazy. "I help mommy."
"You work in the store?"
She nodded vigorously. "Mommy says I'm a big help."
I was running out of things to discuss with Needles, and I
could see her attention straying to the book of fairy tales
once again, but I had no idea what other questions I could
ask her that wouldn't lead me into a minefield. As I cast
about for a suitable topic of conversation I heard footsteps
outside. At last!
I went to the door leading out of the kitchen into the driveway
behind the house, expecting to see my car. Instead I encountered
a short, fat woman wearing an atrocious blonde wig that was
slightly askew. Her attire consisted of a fluorescent orange
house dress with large mauve flowers on it and a pair of bright
green plastic sandals. Under one plump arm she held a pot
big enough to be a Dutch oven, but shaped more like an old
fashioned pressure cooker. A loaf pan containing what looked
like marble cake rested in the crook of the other arm.
"Who the hell are you?" she squawked at me.
I was so amazed by the apparition before me that I couldn't
speak for a moment.
"Mister, you better tell me who you are, what you're
doing here, and what you've done with Anita?" she bellowed,
taking a step towards me. Her facial expression was absurdly
belligerent, given that her head only came up to the middle
of my chest and that her pitch black eyebrows seemed to have
been pasted on diagonally, due to the crookedness of the blonde
It took me a few moments, but I eventually regained my composure.
"My name is Robert Harmon," I said. "I came
by the store to look at vintage fountain pens and found the
She glared at me suspiciously. "You're not from here."
Her statement wasn't a question, but I treated it as one.
"No, I was driving through."
"Driving, huh?" she retorted immediately. "There's
no car out front."
"My friend took the car on an errand of mercy. One of
the many offspring of Fluffy the cat needed to be rushed to
Dr. Brown's office," I replied, hoping my mentioning
both cat and veterinarian by name would somewhat allay the
"Where is Anita?" she demanded, trying to adjust
the underside of her wig, which had begun to slide down over
her left ear, with her shoulder. The pan bobbled precariously.
"Let me help you with that," I said, reaching for
She pulled back and glared at me even more angrily. "Don't
you grab at me. I want to know what you've done with Anita."
"I have been reading "The Little Mermaid" to
Anita," I replied, "over and over and over again.
The last I saw of her was in the kitchen where she told me
a long, incoherent tale about Fluffy the cat and her mate
The woman snorted, and I realized where Needles had picked
up that obnoxious habit.
"And who," I asked, trying to gain some control
of the situation, "are you?"
She looked at me as if I were from another planet. "I'm
Joanna Privett, the McManuses' next door neighbor, of course.
Ellen called me and told me to feed Anita and take her back
to my house for overnight the way I usually do when Ellen
is in a pinch. Old Mrs. Clegg is failing fast, and Ellen needs
to stay with her."
I was trying to sort out the information I'd been given. Under
normal circumstances I'd have asked a few pertinent questions
to determine if the name of Needles' mother was Ellen McManus
and if old Mrs. Clegg was Needles' grandmother. However, the
circumstances were anything but ordinary, and it was clear
that Joanna Privett thought I was a mad child-molester or
housebreaker from the way she kept glaring at me.
"Well, I'm sure Anita will be very glad to see you,"
I said politely. "She just ate a peanut butter and honey
sandwich though, so she may not have much appetite for dinner."
Mrs. Privett snorted again and pushed past me.
"Anita, honey," she sang out, "I'm here with
some delicious stew for you! And guess what? There's yummy
marble cake for dessert!"
If she expected an enthusiastic response, she was disappointed,
for little Needles, exhausted no doubt from coercing me into
repeated readings of "The Little Mermaid," had climbed
up onto the kitchen table, laid her head on the grimy fairy
tale collection, and fallen sound asleep.