The top half of the kitchen door consisted almost entirely of a single, four-paned window, which rattled slightly as I knocked. As I stood there, I couldn’t help recognizing the interior of the house through the frilly pink curtains. They weren’t substantial enough to block the view and probably weren’t intended for that purpose anyway. I breathed a small sigh of relief. Any doubt that I had the right house was eliminated, but I was beginning to fear that she wasn’t home.
Just as I was starting to give up, I saw her crossing the living room from the hallway to answer the door, drying her hands on a towel. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed at the interruption or delighted at the prospect of visitors. The doorknob rattled as she unlocked it. At first I gasped at how much she had aged since I last saw her, but then the spark of recognition softened her face, and she looked exactly as I had remembered her.
“Bobo!” she exclaimed as she opened the door. “What a delight to see you again! I haven’t seen you since Melissa and Harshan came to visit and Darryl hurt his head!” Then her face stiffened, “I hope you didn’t bring me any bad news about my daughter or her family!”
“Oh no,” I assured her as I stepped across the threshold, “Everything is just fine for them back in the Imperial Duchy of Thorgelfayne on planet Homeland.”
Mrs. Franklin motioned for me to sit at the kitchen table and then busied herself with the coffee machine. “I must apologize for my appearance,” she said over her shoulder, “I’ve been washing the windows in the back bedrooms today.”
“Now I don’t want to impose…” I began.
“Nonsense!” she chuckled, “I’ve been hoping for an excuse for a break, and you gave it to me.” She filled the coffee machine with coffee and water and flipped it on. “I’m glad to see you’re still on Earth, but what brings you to this part of the woods? Did they change your territory?”
“No, I’m still in Washington, DC,” I said as I watched her put the sugar bowl and creamer on the table in front of me.
“So Melissa and her little family are fine, then,” she said, as if drawing out a secret.
“Oh yes, they are fine. Darryl is doing very well in school; Harshan was recently promoted; Melissa has a job at Hapdorn University assisting John Anderson, and everything is going along smoothly.” Mrs. Franklin set cups and saucers on the table and then continued rummaging around in the kitchen cabinets. “And they bought a new house, I forgot to tell you that,” I added. “Won’t you sit down? It’s quite distracting to have you buzz around like that.”
“I guess you’re right,” she laughed, seating herself, “It’s amazing how one’s best efforts can defeat themselves. I get so involved trying to be a good hostess that I neglect my guests and end up a bad hostess in spite of myself!” She paused for a moment to stare at the refrigerator, apparently taking mental inventory of its contents to see if there was anything she could serve. “Well, you haven’t told me anything I haven’t found out from Melissa’s letters. So what’s up?” Just then the coffee machine gurgled to a finish. Mrs. Franklin jumped up to serve the coffee.
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “I don’t think there is any delicate way of putting this, so I won’t try,” I said. “Melissa is concerned about you. She thinks that you might be lonely and—well, to be blunt, she wants you to come live with them.”
“I couldn’t do that,” Mrs. Franklin protested, with an undertone of ‘please convince me.’ “I’m sure they don’t have the room.”
“They do now,” I assured her as I sipped my coffee. “Their new house is much larger than their old apartment was, and even though they are no longer in downtown Hapdorn, there is excellent public transportation into the city from where they live. So you wouldn’t be house-bound or dependent on other people at all.”
“It’s a nice thought,” she conceded, “but I couldn’t do that. I’m much to old to move to a new climate, let alone a whole new country, not to mention a whole new planet. Why I don’t even speak Thorgelfaynese!”
“That can be fixed,” I assured her, “we have very effective language teaching methods.”
“Well, I don’t know. Melissa keeps complaining about how hard it is for her to get rid of her accent,” she countered.
“Now you listen to me,” I said gently, “Melissa’s Thorgelfaynese is excellent; in fact, she speaks it like a native. She just thinks she has an accent because people recognize right off that she’s not Thorgelfaynese, but it’s not because of the way she talks.”
“You do have a point there,” Mrs. Franklin said wistfully, “After all, she does have her skin color hanging out all the time to give her away.”
There was an uneasy silence as Mrs. Franklin turned the idea over in her mind. “But what will I do with all my stuff?” she asked, waving her hand dramatically at the living room. “I certainly can’t take all this as baggage on a spaceliner!”
“No, you can’t,” I admitted, “but most of it you wouldn’t be able to use anyway. What’s more important, an old sofa, or your daughter?”
“You’re right of course. But there’s no point in selling it all,” Mrs. Franklin mused, “because the currency isn’t convertible.”
“That’s right,” I confirmed, “Earth isn’t a member of the Interstellar Monetary Fund. But you could donate it to charity.”
“There is that possibility,” she said, “but there’s no tax write-off.”
“There’s more to charity than just tax write-offs,” I protested as gently as I could, “the benefit to the soul is far greater.”
“I know that,” she said idly, “I was just thinking things through. I’m trying to figure out how much stuff I have that is of irreplaceable sentimental value and whether or not I could take it all… but no,” she said, snapping out of her reverie, “I just couldn’t go. Why, I would have to leave behind all my friends!”
“I didn’t want to get too deeply into that topic,” I said, “but Melissa informs me that you don’t have many friends left in the neighborhood.”
“Oh yes I do!” Mrs. Franklin protested, “Of course, Edna had a stroke and has been living with her daughter ever since her husband Joe died. Then the Clarks haven’t been able to face me ever since they saw Melissa, Harshan, and Darryl leave in that ‘flying saucer.’” She giggled as she recalled the incident. ” I’ll never forget that. Darryl had told there little daughter Sarah that he was visiting from another planet, and she believed him. The Clarks wanted to accompany them to the airport when they left, so that Sarah could see that they were leaving on a normal, ordinary airplane and not a UFO. So then Melissa dreamed up that hare-brained scheme to fake an airport departure for the Clarks.” We both laughed until tears ran down our cheeks.
“It almost worked,” I offered in Melissa’s defense.
“Yes, it almost did,” she chuckled in glee, “I remember, because I was driving the get-away car. We left the airport for the big tree in Lakeforest where the shuttle from Earth Watch Base was going to pick them up, and then at the last minute it turned out that sleepy little Sarah had climbed into our car by mistake! The Clarks had followed us all the way!”
“I wish I had been there,” I said, relishing the situation, “I’ll bet their reaction was precious.”
“It was!” she shrieked with laughter, “I remember what she said. She said, ‘What are you doing here? I thought we saw you off at the airport!’ The shuttle was coming in for a landing. Harshan had no time to invent another lie, so he told the truth. ‘That was to convince little Sarah that Darryl was not leaving by spaceship,’ he said. So she asked ‘So what is going on now?’ and Harshan replied, ‘We’re leaving by spaceship!’ And then they did precisely that, right before their very eyes!”
“Did little Sarah see it?” I asked.
“No! That’s the best part! Sarah slept right through it all! To this day she thinks Darryl left on an airplane.” She sipped at her coffee. “The Clarks haven’t been able to face me since, because I refuse to admit that anything unusual had happened.”
There was an awkward pause, and the mood became more serious. Suddenly she asked, “Why didn’t Melissa just write me a letter and invite me? I don’t see why she had to put you out of your way like this.”
“She was afraid that your first reaction would be to reject her offer out of politeness,” I explained, “so she wanted me to ask you in person, so you’d have a chance to talk it over. Anyway, before your immigration can be approved, a field investigation has to be done, and since I am already familiar with you, I’d be the one to do it. So we decided to kill two birds with one stone.”
“Melissa’s right,” she said quietly, “I don’t have any friends around here. They’ve all died or moved away or something has happened. The whole neighborhood has changed! I don’t even like it here any more.” She walked over to the kitchen window and looked out at the tree that Darryl had climbed on his last visit. “And now my daughter lives on an alien planet twelve light years away.” She sighed.
“Does that mean you will go live with Melissa?” I asked hopefully.
“I’ll give you a definite ‘maybe’,” she said, still staring out the window. “As lonely as it is around here, I’ve still got a lot of things to think about.”