Parable of the Dishwasher

At sixty-five, Helen found her mind often wandering into episodes of uncertainty, minor incidents to be sure, but still troublesome. Fred seemed charming enough, but that evening in Bible study, the way he looked at her from across the table made her feel uneasy, as though the wrinkles on her face might disgust him. He a widower and she widowed, they both had lived alone for the past three years. A retired accountant, Fred did taxes for elderly people in the church, a service that earned him a good deal of respect. When he smiled, his brown eyes watered, revealing to her an attractive and warm sensitivity, a feature unlike her deceased husband. Helen crossed her ankles, drew her feet under her chair, and straightened her neck, as if her upright posture might overcome the mismatch between her rubber-soled brown shoes and her cheerful flowered dress. Her shoes made her gait solid, and at her age, she thought, she did not need a broken hip, one more difficult thing to manage for a woman alone. She worried briefly that he might think she was too old for him—even though she knew he was sixty-seven—yet right now felt annoyed about the way he interpreted the parable of the workers in the vineyard from Matthew 20, the subject of the evening study. Fred put his fingertips together, moving them like the childhood imitation of a spider doing pushups on a mirror, a favorite joke of her grandson’s.

“Okay,” he said, “so workers toil in the hot sun all day and then someone comes along in the last hour, works for an hour, and gets the same pay. It doesn’t seem fair, but life’s not fair. I think the worker who came late in the day had surprising good fortune. He was able to benefit from all those men who had worked all day. Let’s face it, some men are just lucky.”

“How can you say that?” Helen blurted out. “God sees them all as equal. It doesn’t matter when you come to God. His grace is everywhere. Our job is to respond.”

Fred smiled. “Well, you must admit, the last guy ended up with the same thing the other men worked hard for—they cleared the way for him. I call that lucky, you know, like the fellow at the casino who puts one quarter in the slot machine and wins the jackpot. A lot of folks fed that machine with quarters before he came along.”

He had a point, she mused, but it was not the point of the parable, at least not the right point. It sounded too cavalier, almost selfish.

“It’s not at all about luck,” she said. She pushed her fingers though her gray curly hair, curls relaxed now from a permanent six weeks ago. She worried he might be teasing her, taking a different point of view just for fun, or maybe even flirting with her, checking out her reaction to a playful bantering of ideas. “I think it’s about grace extended to everyone, and people learning how to work together. God is not a slot machine, and He does not dispense luck.”

“I suspect you’re right,” Fred said. “But you must admit it would be a lot more fun to be the last man instead of the first one—you don’t do anywhere near the same amount of work, but you still get the prize—you get paid the same. I’d prefer to be him.”

“But think of what you’d miss,” Helen said.

“What would I miss? I’d get to control when I work, show up in time, and get paid the same as everyone else.”

“You’d miss all those years with the workers, learning how to be with other people, you know, to love them. God’s grace is there for everyone, but it comes with responsibility. Respecting others—that’s the point. You can’t just ignore what other people need.”

“Well, when we all line up to get paid, we all get the same wages, and we’ll all be equal anyway. I’ll still be welcome in God’s Kingdom.”

Other folks around the table chimed in and carried the discussion until the end of the class. Helen felt a little peeved at his stubborn manner, but she also noticed a tantalizing shiver of excitement when Fred smiled. His gray wavy hair made him look healthy and vigorous, and Helen felt grateful she had recently been to the dentist and had her teeth cleaned. As she stood up, Fred walked around the table.

“Would you like to go somewhere for coffee?” he asked.

“Oh, I can’t drink coffee this late,” she said. “I’d never get to sleep.”

“How about some ice cream? We could go to the 31-flavors place.”

Helen picked up her purse and held it close to her. “Well, all right, for a few minutes, but I should get home before it gets too late. I’ll meet you there.”

Fred chose a cup of rocky road and Helen decided on lemon sherbet. They sat by the wall and watched others choosing flavors from the overwhelming array.

“You know, it’s often hard to choose,” Fred said.

“Yes,” she said, “we used to only have chocolate, vanilla, and butterscotch, remember?” She smiled and wiped the corner of her mouth with a napkin stretched over her finger.

“Maybe that’s what happens when you get older,” Fred said. “Our options get limited, and we don’t have as much to choose from.”

Helen shifted in her chair, took one more small bite, and put down her cup. “Perhaps so, but I need to be going now. It’s getting late.”

Fred motioned to her cup, smiling. “You should finish your sherbet,” he said. “Waste not, want not, you know.”

“I don’t want anymore,” she said, standing up. “Please just throw it out.”

Fred stood up, tossed her half-full cup in the trash, took the back of her arm, and ushered her out the door.

“Will I see you next week?” he asked. “Well, I plan on being in the class.” “It certainly has been a pleasure.” Fred smiled. “May I call you?”

Helen felt stunned. “Well, yes, I guess that would be all right.” She smiled, turned, and hurried to her car. Call me? My goodness. Bewildered, she sat quietly in her car for a moment before driving home.

Fred called on Saturday and asked if he could pick her up for church and then go to lunch afterward. Helen accepted his invitation. She felt awkward coming into church with Fred, but she also felt delighted on the arm of an attractive man. They went to a cafeteria for lunch and talked about their children and grandchildren, a total of seven between them, five grandchildren from his two daughters and two from her daughter.

“I see them only for the holidays,” Fred said. “Since my wife died, it hasn’t been the same. There’s a distance between us, and they’re kind of hostile, as if it’s my fault their mother got cancer and died. They never ask me for advice.”

“I know,” Helen said. “Kids get to know you as a couple, as a mother and father, and then when one is gone, they pull away, and nothing seems to fill in the gap. I guess that’s where faith comes in.”

“Faith comes in?”

“Yes, with my faith I can withstand the absence of my husband and still feel like my life means something. I know that God is always nearby.”

“I can agree with you there,” he said. “I have to learn to trust my faith more. I’m often far too lonely, and I have a hard time making friends.”

“My daughter still calls some, and she’s quite blunt,” Helen said. “She tells me I have to trust my gut, and move on, but I tell her I trust my faith. God gives me good direction if I listen.”

***

Helen and Fred spent more and more time together. They got involved in mission work, preparing food at the rescue shelter, feeding homeless people. They went to the Christian bookstore together, shared ideas, walked in the park, and laughed. As Fred dropped Helen at her home, she regularly let him kiss her good night, his mouth tasting like peppermint, his lips lingering longer as their time together increased, now over three months. Lately, she felt stirrings of a long dormant libido, stirrings her doctor told her were rare in post-menopausal women, perhaps indications of a new lease on life.

“Don’t pass this by,” her doctor had said, a woman her same age with an impish grin on her face. “You still have time to be sexually active again, even at sixty-five.”

One Sunday evening, Fred kissed Helen good night, and she asked, “Would you like to come in for tea?”

“Of course,” he said. They sat at the kitchen table, stirring their tea. “You know, Helen,” he said suddenly, “we ought to get married. We get along so well, and you’ve become my best friend.”

“Perhaps we should,” she said, smiling and taking his hand. “We do share the same values.” She felt adored and young.

“We like the same things. We read the same books and like to eat the same food.” Fred smiled, his eyes misting.

Helen felt the stirrings again, little shivers of warmth coming up from below her flat tummy. She felt glad her stomach was flat because she thought Fred might be seeing it soon, although she would keep the light off, and he probably wouldn’t stare anyway.

“Where would we live?”

“Well, I suspect it would be best if I sold my place,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to live there. It’s cold and spare, and the memories haunt me. Your house is bigger. Besides, it’s filled with your family pictures and all your kitchen things.”

“I’d like that,” Helen said. “There’s just one other thing. It’s probably a good idea for us to get to know each other better.”

“Well, if you mean money, I’ll be handling our money, paying bills, taking care of our investments and things. I know how to handle money.”

Helen looked at her teacup. “No, I mean we should know each other, you know, intimately.” Her face began to flush.

“You think we should sleep together?”

“Well, yes, but not tonight, okay? I don’t feel ready.” She smoothed her dress.

“Sure, whatever you think.” He squeezed her hand and kissed her gently.

“Let’s stay apart this week, and you come over on Saturday night for dinner. Then we can go to church in the morning and talk more about our plans.”

That week Helen went to a department store and bought a new frilly nightgown, a long white one with loose shoulders and a silky sash. On Thursday, she had her hair done and bought two new 400-thread percale sheets and pillowcases. She got up early Saturday, went to the grocery store, and bought chicken breasts, fresh vegetables, lettuce, and a red bell pepper for the salad. She also picked up a peach cobbler from the store bakery.

When Fred arrived, she noticed he wore a new maroon shirt, a color that made his brown eyes seem to glisten. He smelled clean, like fresh herbal soap. She had already set the table with her best china and a vase of fresh yellow daisies from her garden.

“This is lovely,” he said, looking at the table. “I’m beginning to feel lucky—I mean blessed,” he said with a grin.

“Now, Fred,” Helen said through a laugh, “don’t start in with your teasing.”

Helen served dinner and Fred poured glasses of Chardonnay from the bottle had had brought. Fred cleared his throat. They bowed their heads and he said grace.

“Thank you for that blessing,” Helen said. “The way you thank God—it shows your strength—I like that.”

He raised his glass. “I can imagine a life together with you,” he said. “I feel very comfortable. I hope you are okay about tonight.”

“I must admit I’m feeling a little excited.” She smiled, reached over, and took his hand. “I don’t want this to be a test or anything like that, but you know it’s important that we feel compatible. Like my daughter says, I should make sure I feel good about everything before I get married again, and so should you, Fred. Otherwise, we should just be friends. But don’t worry; I know it’s going to be just fine.” She smoothed his wavy hair and kissed him.

“You are beautiful tonight, Helen.”

After dinner, Helen cleared the table, scraped off the plates in the sink, and began to load the dishwasher. Fred came up behind her, put his arms around her, and gently cupped her breasts. She leaned back against him, taking a deep breath, and tipping her head back.

“Let me help you with the dishwasher,” he said. Helen turned, kissed his lips, spun around, and took the wineglasses from the table, feeling joyful, like a ballerina. One by one, Fred picked up the dinner plates she had already placed in the rack, turned them around, put them in the rack closer to the edge, in the rack spaces closest to each other, and arranged them straight. Then he took the knives out, turned them over, and pointed them down. He did the same thing with the forks, but kept the spoons with their handles down.

“Fred, what are you doing?”

“I’m helping you load the dishwasher.”

“Those things were already loaded,” she said. “You took them out and rearranged them.”

“Well, yes, Helen, there is a right way to load a dishwasher.”

“A right way?”

“Yes, the plates should be facing the center, next to each other, starting near the edge, to make the most room. The silverware should have all the sharp tips pointing down, and the bowls and glasses go on the top rack pointing down.”

“You don’t understand,” Helen said frowning, running her fingers through her tight curls. “I already had those dishes in there.”

“I’m sorry,” Fred said, backing away. “But for heaven’s sake, Helen, there is a right way to do things.”

“Well, maybe there is a right way, but who appointed you the judge?” Fred snapped his head around. In the shadow of the florescent light, Helen thought his gray hair looked like a stringy mop.

“For heaven’s sake, Helen, I’m not a judge. I just know how to do things correctly, like load a dishwasher, handle money, you know, maintain an orderly life. That’s what I do.”

“Well, maybe I like my orderly life the way it is. Maybe I want to handle my own money. Maybe you could respect what I want, Fred. Have you thought about that?”

Helen turned her back and began crying softly, imagining her new nightgown in the trash.

“Come on, Helen, it’s no big deal.”

“I think you should go home now.”

“My gosh, Helen, just because of a silly dishwasher? I’m sorry. I let this argument go too far.”

“You shouldn’t sell your house, Fred, and I don’t think we should get married.”

“Please, Helen, can’t we just let it go?”

Helen wiped her eyes with a dishtowel and folded her arms on her stomach. “No, Fred, you let it go to where it is, and you can’t even see it.”

“What don’t I see?”

“The point, Fred. You can’t even see the point.”