by Pat Murphy


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On a sunny afternoon in spring, just a month after her husband's death, the elderly Mrs. Morris found an extraterrestrial in her azalea bed. She did not recognize it right away, of course. That came later. The last of the snow had melted the week before. Mrs. Morris was taking a stroll, gently exercising her arthritic hip as her doctor had recommended. When she saw a shiny bit of metal sticking up from the muddy ground, she squinted at it, thinking it might be a gardening tool that she had carelessly left out last fall. Using her walking cane for support, she stopped, took hold of the metal, and pulled it from the mud.

It was an odd sort of thing: an irregularly shaped, fist-sized lump from which three rods protruded. She turned it over in her hands, using one finger to knock away the bigger clumps of mud. Each rod was about the length of her index finger. Like her finger, the rods were hinged, so that they bent in two places. She flexed one of the rods, and mud fell away from the metal surface, which seemed remarkably smooth for something that had been out all winter.

The metal felt warm to the touch. Mrs. Morris rather liked the feel of the thing, though she could not puzzle out what it was or who could have left it in her garden. She took it back to the house.

At the kitchen sink she washed the rest of the mud from the metal. The central lump had three more indentations — as if the thing had once had six metal fingers rather than just three.

When the phone rang she went to answer, carrying the scrap of metal to the living room and setting it on the coffee table. Mrs. Morris's daughter was calling to check on her mother, as she did each evening.

"So how are you feeling, mother? Have you had dinner yet?"

Mrs. Morris was tempted to lie. Ever since her father's death, Sylvia had been trying to regulate her mother's life via long-distance phone calls from her Manhattan loft. "Not just yet, dear," Mrs. Morris said. "I have a lovely little casserole that one of the ladies from the church brought over. I ll be heating that up soon."

"I worry about you," Sylvia said. "I don t think you eat enough these days."

"I'm just fine, dear, really I am."

"Have you looked at that brochure I sent you?"

The brochure, an advertisement for a New York State retirement community, lay on the coffee table beside the metal thing. Mrs. Morris had leafed through it, glancing at photos of boxy condominiums, an impossibly blue pool, a complete medical facility. "Yes, dear," Mrs. Morris said mildly. "I really don't like the look of the place."

"I visited there last week," Sylvia went on, as if her mother had not said anything. "They have a wonderful swimming pool with an attached Jacuzzi, complete medical facilities, a centrally located clubhouse where you can get together with your friends. "

"I don't have any friends there," Mrs. Morris interrupted.

"You'll make new friends," Sylvia said. An edge crept into her voice. "You just have to realize that you can't go on living alone forever, Mother. I worry about you."

"When I leave my home, I expect it will be for more than just a heated pool and a clubhouse," Mrs. Morris said, unable to listen to her daughter any longer. "I wish you could understand that."

"I understand," Sylvia said, and then persisted for the next half hour in arguing with Mrs. Morris and demonstrating exactly how little she did understand.

When Mrs. Morris had hung up the phone, she heated a serving of tuna noodle casserole for dinner. Then she sat on the couch and turned the television to the local educational station to watch a National Geographic special on the Kalahari desert. She and her husband had planned to travel in their retirement, but Roger had fallen sick. She did not begrudge the time she had spent nursing him, but now, admiring the unearthly landscape of the Kalahari, she could not help feeling a little sad.


This story copyright © 1989 by Pat Murphy. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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