Short Stories

Parable of the Dishwasher

By Mark Conkling

Published in the Diverse Voices Quarterly

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.

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The Last Stop

By Mark Conkling

Published in the Minnetonka Review

Never trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you. That’s what my dad always said. He’s dead now and here I am with a weird dog named Kriss and wondering why I can’t sleep. I say “wondering,” but I’m pretty sure it’s about Dawn and a part of this world I still don’t understand. Now I’m sure I canunderstand, but I just haven’t yet. It’s been two months since I brought Kriss home, and we’ve formed a strange bond, probably because we both knew Dawn. She seemed like loads of trouble, but now I feel like maybe I’ve missed something.

I remember Dawn waiting. She sat quietly, wrapped in a towel, legs folded under her, paging through a Cosmopolitan magazine. She would often look up to see if I was finished working. She had a soft smile with full lips and fine, high cheekbones. She painted her fingernails and toenails light pink, tied back her dusty blond hair with a green velvet ribbon, and opened her gray-blue eyes wide, watching and waiting, like a rabbit. Often, she gave the impression she was about to cry. Whenever I was nearby, she would touch me, and her hand would linger until I moved. She would kiss me with wet, squishy lips that felt like raw oysters and feel with her tongue to see if I would come closer. Her skin seemed too warm, and she smelled like heated almonds.

 

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It’s Over When It’s Over

by Mark Conkling

Forthcoming in The Monarch Review

 

“I bathed him, picked him up, and he slipped right through my arms, head first,” Ruth whispered. “The thump sounded like a cantaloupe hitting the floor.”

I was at Ruth’s house in La Barbaria Canyon near Santa Fe, two days after my law partners confronted me about my poor attitude. We had just finished dinner, the rain had stopped, and her 28-year-old son Billy had gone out to her Mercedes to get the groceries and the half-gallon of hearty Burgundy. As a new lawyer, I had handled her divorce two years ago, and we were friends, but her intensity and our 15-year age difference made me wary of anything more intimate; still, being single and carefree, the thought had crossed my mind.

“I can’t describe the horror of Billy’s glazed eyes looking up at me,” Ruth said. “He didn’t move or even cry. I was afraid to touch him, so I called an ambulance. The paramedic said it looked like a mild concussion; the X-ray at the hospital showed nothing, but Billy still has a flat place on the back of his head.”

 

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Tom’s Guardian Angel

by Mark Conkling

Forthcoming in The Legend

 

Tom opened the back door of his church office and stepped outside into cold wind and blinding snow. His foot slipped on the dark ice, and he pitched forward just as someone with two strong arms caught him. He turned his face into an unbuttoned coat, a silk blouse, and two spongy breasts that smelled like fabric softener and gardenias. He rocked back, focusing on bright-green eyes and a big, cheerful smile. She licked snow from her lips.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Karen. You almost had a nasty fall.”

“Yes, hello. I’m Tom Rusken, pastor here at St. Peter’s of Santa Fe,” he said, looking behind her. Through the snow the moon splashed light on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains high in the distance. A quick glance revealed no sign in the snow—no car, no footprints. It was as if she had appeared out of nowhere.

Karen Collins was a thick, strong, blond woman with round shoulders, a stockbroker who lived alone and wore business suits and beige silk blouses. She carried her 155 pounds with poise, and her gray-blond hair bounced when she turned her head. She managed $50 million in brokerage accounts, read the Wall Street Journal every day, and claimed a weakness for cognac and expensive lingerie. Her eyes were set wide apart, and her pink face featured an alluring smile. At age 44, she had been married once to a patent attorney in Philadelphia, but she had not heard from him since she moved to Albuquerque eight years ago. She felt relieved there were no children.

“I’m an account executive with Smith Barney in Albuquerque, and I’m here to meet with the Investment Committee. Could you direct me to the meeting?” She smiled and stepped toward him.

Tom looked at her again and studied her high cheekbones, turned-up nose, and square chin. She and Tom were the same height.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll walk you to the parlor.”

Tom introduced her and sat down to hear her presentation. As she spoke she often stared directly at Tom. He shifted back and forth on his chair, strangely fascinated by a shadowy memory of someone like her, perhaps a woman from his distant past.

“Treasury bonds are the safest,” she said, “and they are guaranteed by the government.” She smiled and looked over her small reading glasses. “Corporate bonds have a higher yield, but they are more volatile and not guaranteed.”

Tom leaned forward.

“It all depends on what you want,” she said. “If you want safety and predictable earnings, you choose treasury bonds. If you want higher earnings and can sacrifice a little safety, then choose a mix of corporate bonds. The question is what you are willing to risk for what you can get.” She smiled again at Tom.

After a few questions Karen ended the meeting, and the others left.

“Can I show you to the front door?” Tom asked.

Karen walked with him, and they stood for a moment in the dark alcove by the door. She touched his arm and moved her face close to his.

“Pastor, I have a problem, and sometimes I can’t help myself,” Karen said.

“What kind of problem? Can I help?” Tom asked as he stepped back and opened his hands. He looked gently into her eyes.

“I’m sure you can, but I don’t know if you will.”

“Well, give me a try,” he said. “I’m a good listener.”

“Okay.” She spoke slowly. “Tom Rusken, you are…

 

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