that Mrs. Privett and I didn't exactly hit it off would be
something of an understatement. If I'd expected her antagonism
to lessen when she found Needles unharmed and asleep on the
kitchen table, I'd have been sorely disappointed. She glanced
at the sleeping child, then glared at me and hissed, "Look
what you've done. You've worn the poor baby out."
"I did no such thing," I growled back.
"Keep your voice down. She's sleeping," the woman
hissed again, leaning over and gathering the child into her
arms, once she'd deposited the stew pot and cake pan on the
table by Needles' sleeping head. "It's time for me to
take her to my house. You'll have to leave now."
"No," I replied in a low grumble. "I'm waiting
for my traveling companion. She has my car, and there is absolutely
no way for me to leave without it."
She glared at me. "Oh, your friend is a woman? Well,
I should have known."
"What do you mean by that?" I demanded.
She hushed me again but ignored my question. "Well, if
you can't leave, you can wait outside. The store is closed,
and you have no business in here."
I rolled my eyes, but Mrs. Privett ignored that and bustled
around, Needles slung over her shoulder. She picked up the
story book that had so recently served as Needles' pillow
and disappeared into the living room. I had no desire to follow
her and continue our pointless argument, so I sat down at
the kitchen table, wondering what was taking Anita so long.
After a few minutes Mrs. Privett came back, Needles still
hanging over her shoulder. She had a pair of bright red, child-sized
pajamas tucked under her other arm.
"You still here?" "she mumbled. "I thought
I told you to beat it."
"You did," I said, trying to sound less irritated
than I felt. "But I thought you might have thought better
about sending a stranger out on a rainy night."
"It's not that rainy," she replied. "And it's
because you're a stranger that you have to leave. I can't
have you stealing and vandalizing this place once you're alone
"I've been here much of the afternoon with only little
Needles to stop me from stealing and vandalizing," I
"What did you call her?" Mrs. Privett demanded.
"Sorry, I meant little Anita. It's just that when she
says her name, it sounds like Needles."
I thought I saw the ghost of a smile pass across the woman's
face, but maybe she was just grimacing because her dentures
"I'm responsible here," she said, "and I say
you've got to go. If you don't I'll call the police and have
you arrested for trespassing."
I sighed. "Why don't you call Dr. Brown's office first
and see if I've told you the truth," I suggested.
"He's closed," she replied firmly. "It's after
eight. Now are you going to leave, or do I have to call the
I stood up, and she backed away.
"Listen," she hissed in a threatening tone, "I
don't want any trouble from you. Just go, and I won't cause
you any trouble either."
"I have nowhere to go," I explained. "I have
to wait her for Anita to get back from the vet."
She looked at me with fear in her eyes. "What are you
talking about?" she whispered. "Anita is right here."
She patted the child softly. "Are you crazy?"
"No, not that Anita," I snarled. "My friend
Anita, the person I'm travelling with. Do you think there's
only one Anita in the entire world?"
I could feel my patience crack. "You come down here and
tell me to leave as if I could just walk out and go somewhere.
Don't you think," I snarled, "that I'd love to get
away from this filthy place where parents leave their four
year old alone all day and she tells me about her daddy's
girlfriend? Do you, perchance, think I was entertained by
reading 'The Little Mermaid' over and over and over again?
Well, I wasn't. I did it because I felt sorry for the child.
And because my friend Miss Carswell was moved by her love
of animals to take a mother cat and a litter of kittens to
the vet when she found one kitten on the point of death because
the people who owned it couldn't be bothered to take proper
care of it."
"Shhh," she warned me. "You'll wake Anita."
I snorted. "Did you hear a word I said?" I whispered.
She nodded. "You've got no right to judge these people,"
she said. "Judge not is what the good book tells us."
I shook my head in exasperation. "Well, weren't you judging
me by assuming I'd harmed Needles, er, Anita, and by expecting
me to steal or vandalize this place if left here alone?"
"That's different," she replied stubbornly. "Now
will you leave, or do I have to call the police?"
"That really won't be necessary," I heard the familiar
low voice of Anita Carswell reply.
I looked up, ready to berate her for her lateness, but what
I saw was an exhausted, old woman, holding a wire cage with
a sleeping cat and two kittens. She was standing in the doorway
with a sad look on her face.
"Dr. Brown couldn't save the really sick one," she
said sadly. "And the other two have respiratory infections,
so he's keeping them for a day or two to be sure they get
their antibiotics. But mama and these two are fine. Only they
need to be kept warm tonight. That drizzle out there is turning
into a downpour."
She walked slowly to the table and placed the cage on it.
"Dr. Brown lent me the carrier. It has to go back to
him tomorrow. Maybe we can drop it off on our way out of town."
She turned to greet Mrs. Privett, hand extended. "You
must be Joanna," she said. "I spoke with Ellen earlier
this evening, and she told me I would find you here."
Mrs. Privett shook her hand. "Well," she said, "well
I watched her face for traces of the antipathy that most of
the middle-aged and older women in our town felt towards Anita,
but I saw no sign of it. If anything, she looked a little
overawed. Finally she pulled herself together enough to say,
"So you spoke with Ellen. How is old Mrs. Clegg?"
Anita shook her head. "No better I'm afraid."
Mrs. Privett shook her head. "Well, I suppose that was
to be expected." She sighed and looked hard at Anita.
"You look exhausted. Have you eaten?"
Anita shook her head.
"Well, let me put this little girl to bed in her room
and I'll warm up the stew I brought over." Mrs. Privett
bustled out of the kitchen, and I stared at Anita in astonishment,
who grinned back at me.
"What took you so long?" I asked in a conversational
tone of voice.
"The vet wouldn't do a thing without Mrs. McManus' permission,
even though the cat was a stray until two weeks ago. Mrs.
McManus is very talkative and very, very indecisive and couldn't
make up her mind." Anita shook her head in exasperation.
"I don't think the Dr. Brown could have saved the kitten
even if Ellen, Mrs. McManus, had given him permission right
away, but let me tell you, when I need emergency medical treatment,
I hope no one dithers the way she did."
"But she finally said it was all right?" I inquired.
Anita chuckled briefly. "Actually her mother, Mrs. Clegg,
did. 'Old Mrs. Clegg' is what everyone around here calls her,
and old she may be and dying of cancer, but she has enough
gumption for the whole family. I think little Anita inherited
I grunted in response to that, and when Anita raised her eyebrows
I observed, "Little Anita is a tyrant-in-training, and
if that's what you mean by gumption, well, you can just keep
This time Anita laughed out loud. "She really had you
going, didn't she?"
I snorted. "If I never read 'The Little Mermaid' again,
it will be too soon. But I am concerned about the environment
in which the little girl is growing up. She asked me if I
'had a woman', and when I replied in the affirmative, she
told me that her daddy had three, her mommy, herself, and
his girlfriend Susie." I shook my head, dismayed at the
memory of that part of my interaction with Needles. "That
sort of thing can't be good for her, can it?"
Anita sighed. "I heard about Mr. McManus from his mother-in-law.
She said that if he was her husband she'd have castrated him
long ago, 'turned him into a gelding' was how she put it.
I think she grew up around horses."
"Now, now," I heard the too familiar voice of Mrs.
Privett interject. She'd come back into the kitchen and was
fussing at the stove, trying to reheat her stew. "Kevin
McManus isn't so bad. You know what the good book says about
judging, after all."
"Well, it says something about adultery as well,"
I replied, tired of that particular platitude.
Anita pinched my arm and shook her head. "We're hardly
in a position to judge Mr. McManus, but we are concerned about
the effect his behavior may have on his daughter," she
Mrs. Privett nodded. "I've worried about that myself,
especially since he insisted on telling Anita about the other
lady in his life."
"Susie," I said. "Needles said her name is
Susie and that Susie sends her gifts."
Mrs. Privett stared at me as if I were a beached starfish.
"So what if she does? It's nice of her to think of the
I shook my head in disgust and glanced at Anita, who seemed
more amused than appalled. Not to be deterred, however, I
decided to question Mrs. Privett.
"It must be very hard for Mrs. McManus," I said.
"Don't you feel for her at all?"
Mrs. Privett snorted. "Feel for her? Sure I feel for
her. But she knew what she was getting when she went after
Kevin McManus. It's not as if no one warned her." She
shook her head emphatically. "No, her own mother told
her that it made no sense to go after a womanizer unless you
wanted to be just one woman among many. But Ellen didn't listen.
She'd had her cap set on Kevin McManus since sixth grade,
and she was not about to change her mind."
"Do you think she was rebelling against her domineering
mother?" I asked.
Mrs. Privett's eyes widened. "Who said anything about
a domineering mother?" she demanded. "Mrs. Clegg
is just a solid, sensible woman. At least she was until the
cancer got her. Anyway, I don't think poor Ellen ever had
the guts to rebel against a flea. She just had stars in her
eyes. I think it was all those romances she read. I never
saw a child for reading the way she did. Except little Anita."
Mentioning her charge by name reminded Mrs. Privett that she
was supposed to be taking the child to her house. But first
she had stew and cake to feed to us us.
Although I didn't think I was hungry, I ate two bowls of stew
and three pieces of cake. Even though Mrs. Privett looked
like a lunatic, her cooking was wonderful. During the meal
she regaled us with her own family history, telling us about
her husband Stanley, a retired telephone repairman, their
two sons, Andrew and John, now gone off to the big city to
work, and her various maladies and other physical problems,
including varicose veins, constipation and hair loss. The
conversation wasn't exactly appetizing by the time she got
around to listing her many and varied indispositions, but
the cake was delicious.
It was nearly ten when we finished eating. Anita and I did
the dishes, including the many piled up in the sink from before
our meal. Mrs. Privett, who seemed to have some understanding
of the organization of the kitchen, which was a mystery to
me, put them away.
"You know," she said, when we were drying the last
pots, "it's too late for your folks to be driving off
and looking for a place to stay tonight. Why don't you stay
over at our house? You wanted to look at pens in the store
anyway, and you didn't get a chance to, what with the cat
and all. You could do that tomorrow morning and then be on
"Why don't we just stay here?" I asked.
She shook her head. "You wouldn't want to sleep in their
beds. There's only the queen-sized one Kevin and Ellen sleep
in and Anita's little cot. And the sofa isn't comfortable.
But we have Andrew and John's bed and a really nice pull-out
sofa in the living room. We just bought it three months ago
for when Stanley's sister and her family come to visit."
I looked at Anita who seemed touched by the offer of hospitality.
"Only if it wouldn't put you out," she said.
"Put us out? Not at all," Mrs. Privett replied.
"Usually Anita stays in John's bed, and I think it would
be good for her to sleep there tonight as well, just so she
didn't get disorientated if she woke up and had to go to the
I winced at "disorientated" but kept my mouth shut.
"You, Bob, could sleep on the sofa and Miss Carswell
could sleep in Andrew's bed. That way she could keep an eye
on little Anita. You know, just in case she had a bad dream."
"Does she usually have bad dreams?" I asked.
The woman shook her head vigorously, causing her wig to tilt
to the side even more than it had when I first saw her. "Not
especially often. But you know how children are."
I didn't know how children were, but I thought it best not
to tell that to Mrs. Privett. I wasn't sure how I felt about
staying at the Privett's residence, but I didn't seem to have
all that much of a choice.