had told me at the start of my trip that I would be spending
the first night of it on a pull out sofa in the residence
of a woman who'd threatened to have me arrested, I'd have
thought he was crazy. But I did spend the night on the sofa
in the Privett living room, and it was as comfortable as Mrs.
Privett had promised. The only problem was that I didn't get
to go to sleep until well after midnight. First I had to call
Betsy, and then I had to listen to Mr. Privett, Stan, as he
indicated I was to call him, reminisce about his days working
for the phone company.
Believe it or not, I'd almost forgotten about my promise to
phone Betsy every night. I'd gotten so caught up in the excitement
and frustrations of the day. But Anita reminded me just before
we left the McManus' residence for the night. Not for the
first time did I wish I had a cell phone, so I could hide
in the bathroom and make my call in private. But I didn't,
so I told Mrs. Privett that I was going to use the phone and
vigorously waved my phone card in front of her nose. I hadn't
forgotten that she'd called me a thief.
"Oh stop that," she grumbled at me, brushing my
card aside. "Just make your call and get it over with,
so we can go home."
"Is there another phone in the house besides this one?"
I asked, jerking my head at the contraption hanging on the
"In the big bedroom," she replied, pointing.
I disappeared into the bedroom, counting on Anita to keep
Mrs. Privett, whom I took to be nosy and a gossip, from listening
in. Betsy answered on the first ring and greeted me with,
"I was worried about you, Bob. It's late. And Maggie
"Well, things have been kind of chaotic here," I
"Where is here?" Betsy demanded. I could tell that
she was settling in for the story of my day.
"Here? Well, here is a small town in Illinois,"
"In other words, you have no idea where you are. Did
you let that old hag drive the whole time?"
"No, but you know how I get sleepy when I can't talk
or listen to the radio in the car. Now don't interrupt."
I heard her laugh, and it made my heart sing. Since she'd
gotten sick, Betsy's laughter had become a rare and, to me,
"Well, Anita pulled over in front of an antique store
and found a mother cat with a new litter. One of the kittens
was mortally ill, so she decided to take the bunch to the
Betsy groaned in mock dismay. "Oh yes, I know how she
is about cats. All animals actually. Do you remember when
she went up the tree during the Easter Sunday service?"
"Of course," I replied. "It was only three
years ago. I'll never forget the look on everyone's face when
they came out of church and saw her balancing on a limb with
the cat tucked under her arm."
"Well, they couldn't excommunicate her since she doesn't
go to church," Betsy replied. "Though why she happened
to be walking past there right then, I don't know."
"It's located in the middle of the only green space in
town," I replied. "And it was good for Trapper that
she was there to save him when the Rottweiler chased him up
the tree. Trapper is an old cat, and I don't think his system
could have stood much more stress."
"Right," Betsy said dismissively and immediately
switched gears. "So why didn't the owner of the store
take the cats to the vet?"
"She was visiting her mother who has cancer. Her husband
was out hunting down antiques and probably visiting his mistress.
Their only representative was a four and a half year old girl,
"She left a four and half year old alone in a store?"
"Gee, I guess I'm not the only one who finds that strange.
What a relief!"
I told Betsy the rest of the story of Needles, Mrs. Privett,
and 'The Little Mermaid', not leaving out the alarming details
of Needles' parents marital arrangement."
"Well, if she stays with him while he's running around
on her, it's her own fault," Betsy said. "Some women
are just doormats."
Nothing like Betsy for sympathy, I thought, but I said nothing.
Like Ellen McManus, I knew what I was getting when I married
"So you're really staying overnight with that weird woman?"
"She's actually not
Well, I won't say she's not
weird, but at least she's responsible. And a great cook."
Betsy laughed. "Sometimes I think you should have married
"Never!" I replied, and we ended our conversation
with protestations of undying affection and my promise to
phone again the next evening, but at an earlier hour.
When I returned to the kitchen, Anita, apparently under the
expert supervision of Mrs. Privett, who hadn't moved an inch
since I left to phone Betsy but was loudly offering suggestions,
was setting up a warm box for Fluffy and her offspring near
"Ah, there you are, Bob," Anita said, straightening
up from her task. "Mrs. Privett told me that there is
a young lady named Teresa who usually does some light housecleaning
in here and looks after Anita when Ellen has to be out. Teresa
was not feeling well today but expects to be back tomorrow.
She'll return the cat carrier to Dr. Brown, so we can be on
our way at a decent hour."
I nodded, wondering what Mrs. Privett herself did all day
that made her too busy to run such an errand. "Well,
Betsy is awake, but Maggie is asleep, and I have to remember
to phone earlier tomorrow night," I announced. "We
can go now."
Mrs. Privett grumbled something like, "Look who's giving
orders," but she handed me the empty stew pot and the
cake pan, gave Anita little Needles' pajamas, teddy bear,
and toothbrush, and led the way out the door with keys in
hand and the child draped over her shoulder.
was finally allowed to go to sleep, I slept like the proverbial
log, awakening only once, just as the sun was rising. I'm
not sure I really did wake up. Perhaps what I experienced
was a dream, and I only thought I was awakened by a thump
on the sofa and a tugging on my blanket. I grunted and tried
to turn over, but whoever or whatever it was had settled next
to my shoulder, and I couldn't move. I felt another tug, then
another, then thought or dreamed that I heard a child's voice
murmuring, "Read to me! Read to me! Read to me!"
I did not open my eyes. I just took a deep breath and began
to produce snoring sounds, in the hopes of convincing my tormentor,
if indeed there was one, that I was asleep. I heard a giggle,
felt a few more tugs, and then heard the pattering of small
feet. After than came silence.
It was nearly eight when I was awakened by the sound of the
telephone and the smell of fresh coffee. I stretched, scratched,
and stretched again, then stood up and wandered into the kitchen.
Mrs. Privett was standing at the stove, wigless, and in a
very tame pair of black pants and a light blue short-sleeved
sweater. Her hair was very short but not at all grey. It was
actually a natural, or at least very natural looking blonde.
Her portable phone, however, was anything but tame. It was
a hot pink plastic hippopotamus. I did a double take since
I'd never seen anything like it. When I was finally able to
tear my eyes away from the phone, I saw that Mrs. Privett's
expression was very serious. She said, "Yes, I see,"
into the phone several times and then hung up.
"Coffee?" she asked, handing me a mug. "Help
yourself. I'm cooking up some pancakes. Your friend is in
there with Anita. The child doesn't feel well this morning.
Too much excitement yesterday, no doubt," she add, looking
at me accusingly.
I went over to the coffee-maker and poured myself a full mug.
"Milk's in the fridge and sugar's on the table,"
she said absentmindedly.
"Is Mr. Privett out this morning?" I asked, trying
to make polite conversation.
"At the drugstore," she said shortly. "He needs
to get his blood pressure medicine refilled. He'll be home
I nodded. "What's the matter with Needles, uh, I mean,
Anita?" I said after my first sip of coffee.
"I'm not sure, but if it's what I think it is, we're
in for trouble."
I stared blankly at her.
"The child said she had a sore throat and felt hot. She
was running a fever. Then Teresa phoned this morning and said
she wouldn't be in today. She's been diagnosed with measles."
Mrs. Privett snorted. "I'll just bet she gave them to
Mrs. Privett nodded and handed me a plate of pancakes. "
Butter and syrup are on the table. I hope you had them as
a child because they're hell for adults."
For a moment I thought she was asking if I'd had butter and
syrup as a child, but the rest of the sentence didn't make
sense, so I decided she was talking about measles. I'd had
a whole array of childhood diseases, but I wasn't sure measles
was one of them. I sat down at the table and shrugged. "No
reason to assume that even if Needles catches it, I will too."
Mrs. Privett just laughed at me. "Anita," she said,
pronouncing the name distinctly, "drools on that book.
She falls asleep with it on her face. She looks at the pictures
in it while sitting on the toilet. You spent the whole afternoon
with that book in your hands, Mister. If she's got measles,
you've certainly been exposed." She smirked at me. "You
don't know if you had them as a child, do you?"
I smiled as I ate my pancakes. "I had most of the childhood
"I'm not talking about most; I'm talking about measles,"
she said emphatically. "M-E-A-S-L-E-S."
"I really don't need a spelling lesson," I replied,
wishing that the adult Anita would come into the kitchen and
"No, but you might just need a lesson in common sense,"
Mrs. Privett barked at me. "You're going to visit a friend,
Miss Carswell told me. Do you know or even care if he's had
the measles? And then you're off to a pen show where hundreds
and maybe thousands of people will be exposed to any infectious
diseases you carry. Mister, that is neither responsible not
I rolled my eyes, wishing she's stop addressing me as "mister,",
and for once all my wishes came true. Anita walked into the
room, and Mrs. Privett stopped talking.
"She's sleeping," Anita said. "I think we should
take her to the doctor."
Mrs. Privett nodded. "I agree."
Anita looked over at me. "Why don't you call Stew and
ask him if he's had the measles?"
I rolled my eyes again. "We don't know that the child
has measles," I protested. "Does she have spots?"
Anita smiled sadly. "No, we're not positive yet, but
she won't break out in a rash for about three days after the
first symptoms. Still, I'd say the chances are pretty good."
"Jesus H. Christ!" I bellowed, heartily wishing
I had something to kick. I ignored Mrs. Privett's appalled
expression and continued to blaspheme, rather amusingly, I
thought, though neither woman appeared at all amused. "Christ
in a shitty pigsty! Can't anything ever be simple? You had
to take the goddamned cats to the vet and leave me with that
of a child," I ranted. "And now we may not get to
see Stew, and this creature is telling me that going to the
pen show wouldn't be responsible or ethical." I took
a deep breath and was about to continue, but Anita reached
out at put her hand on my arm.
"You've said enough, Bob," she reprimanded me. "Mrs.
Privett has been very hospitable. There's no need to be rude."
I glared at Anita for a minute and then looked away. She was
always able to stare me down.
"I'll get Stew's number," I mumbled and slunk out
into the living room.
returned to the kitchen Mrs. Privett had gone. "I don't
want to use this ridiculous pink hippo!" I snarled at
"Use the one in the bedroom then, Bob," she replied
calmly enough, but I could tell she thought I was overreacting.
"I'm not overreacting," I snarled at her. "This
was supposed to be a nice, relaxing break for me. Instead
I'm taking a kid with measles to the doctor."
Anita sighed. "It will be a new experience for you, Bob."
"And for you?" I challenged her.
She smiled. "I have, as you know, two nieces and I nursed
them both through chicken pox and measles. Dora's brothers
sent their kids to us when they had mumps, measles, German
measles, and chicken pox. I've done my share of taking care
of sick children. Among the four of them they had ten kids,
and all of the kids had most of the childhood diseases. Fortunately
the grandchildren were all immunized. I'm surprised,"
she continued, "that Anita wasn't."
"So you've been exposed to them before," I stated,
though I really meant to ask.
"Yes," she replied. "But I'd had all of them
as a child. Except for mumps. For some reason I never caught
I shuddered. "I don't remember what I had as a child,"
I admitted. "To be honest, my biggest worry is the chance
of bringing some disease back to Betsy. That's all she'd need."
"Well," Anita said quietly, "one of the reasons
I offered to take our little friend to the doctor is so that
I could ask a few questions about the length of time one has
to wait after exposure to know if one will or will not come
down with measles. I seem to remember that it was slightly
over a week, but I'm not certain."
I nodded. "Okay," I said. "I'm sorry I'm being
such a pain. It's just that Mrs. P. really rubs me the wrong
Anita laughed. "But, Bob," she teased, "don't
you just love the wig and that exquisite telephone?
I shook my head and headed over to the hippo as she left to
get Needles ready to go out, laughing all the while.