Kirkendale stands at the back of a church, the grey aisles before him draped in dust and shadow. Tonight he is to speak. Tall side windows frame slats of pallid light. The pews are ancient and smeared, populated raggedly. He sees only the backs of worshipers’ heads; they nod sluggishly, tilting, as if on snapped necks. Their faces are not visible.
Organ music rolls over him, discordant. The organ-player is at the front of the church, seen only dimly. He does not look closer; he refuses to listen to the chords.
Instead, he walks.
The pews pass by, their occupants nodding as if by accident.
The pulpit. It towers over him, its wood dull and thirsty for the grey light. He mounts it with shut eyes and faces the congregation, sensing that they watch him. The organ stops, awaiting his words.
His eyes open.
He faces a congregation of dolls. They are all dolls. Soft-bone faces, the color of old burlap. Steel ball-bearing eyes. As tall as men, wearing human clothes. Grinning with stitched lips, rice-grain teeth.
He looks wildly to the organ-player. Another doll. Cloth hands, thick sewn fingers; thumping the keys like dead things.
The music swells again and breaks over him, breaks over, breaks—
Drowning out the screams of his awakening.
Kirkendale has nothing so tangible as a medallion, nothing passed from hand to hand down the generations; no broken iron pendant with half the etched letters of a foreign name, above them the beginnings of a squarish face or ancestral home. No mysterious missives were appended to his father’s Last Will and Testament, hinting at the secret that followed the Kirkendales from the old country. Nothing so concrete as these.
There is only his dream.
He wonders if his father might have had it. The old man, toward the end of his life, had been nervous and haggard, as if he spent half of his life seeing something scarcely bearable, the other half denying it.
Now Kirkendale feels this way. His wife and children suspect something, he is certain, but he is helpless to reveal the thing to any of them.
At the suggestion of someone he meets at a party, he begins to keep a journal of his dreams. But after the first entry it is pointless. When he can remember his dreams, they are always exactly the same. He burns the journal so that none may find it. He forgets when the dream began: just before his father’s death, or immediately after? The elder Kirkendale had lingered so long in illness that he had been unable to speak or explain at the end. The dream erases the lines of this Kirkendale’s life, makes each night so much the same that the following days are equally similar.
He knows at first that he must speak in the dream, but with time this possibility is frustrated by his mute screams, his consistent terror. Now he walks the aisle to his pulpit, but the words — if he ever truly knew them — are long forgotten.
He tells himself that it is only a dream. He tells himself again.
One occasion stands in Kirkendale’s mind above all others. Like the dream, he cannot forget it — but there are no other subtle or obvious connections.
He is thirty-two at the time, celebrating a friend’s imminent marriage at a rather uninhibited party. Kirkendale, rarely a heavy drinker, has already had more than his fill when darkness falls. The party moves entirely indoors, where to him it becomes a phantasm of loud music, cigarette smoke, seeping faces. The heat grows oppressive. Kirkendale follows a slight breeze away from the cramped, flashing room and finds a lawn chair where he can sit in open air.
Hoping to relieve a slight headache, he closes his eyes.
Something within him shudders. He feels the cocktail glass in his hand: his fingertips numb from the ice, water pooling around his fingers, over his hand, soaking his leather watchband until it constricts his wrist. The plastic of the lawn chair creaks beneath him; the corroded aluminum arm-rests chafe his skin.
The breeze around him dies.
And with it, the party.
Kirkendale, eyes still closed, feels that he is alone — utterly alone. No sound around him, not even a muted blast of cold music at his back. He realizes that he can no longer feel his drinking glass. There is no plastic beneath him, no creaking, no chair, not even a sensation of floating. No rusted metal scraping his forearms. Nothing.
His watch — especially his watch — is gone.
He feels panic, which is in itself unusual. He has been drunk before, has felt his control slipping: always he has accepted it with the alcohol. But this time … it isn’t the same. This seems due to some force beyond that of intoxication; something more personal, more malign. He is abruptly sober.
He tries to kick out, tries to scream.
No limbs. No mouth. Around him still nothing.
Then a sensation—
Hard, small, cold, clicking.
Against his own. A dry mouth kissing, sucking.
The voice is unfamiliar. But something half-tangible is near him, radiant with green fire, ghostly yet more real than himself.
Teeth and voice subside, and Kirkendale is sitting in a lawn chair, the breeze on his face, his glass slipping from his fingers. Suddenly ill, he vomits into the grass and sits breathing, not thinking, for a long while.
One October, Kirkendale takes his family for a Sunday drive and picnic in the mountains behind Los Angeles. Sunshine is bright through leaves turning brittle. Seasons in Southern California vacillate between nearly green and almost brown; in the summer, everything is the color of straw.
The cooler and a wicker basket are opened and ransacked in a grove of rustling oaks. Beyond, the woods thicken and rise into dry hills, matted with fallen leaves and acorn husks. The Kirkendales are alone, despite the area’s numerous tables, its convenient restrooms and drinking fountains. The children, once lunch has been devoured, chase each other into the trees, laughing and shouting, their voices dying off one by one.
“Watch for poison oak, Bruce!” calls Kirkendale’s wife, Mary. “He’ll swell up worse than a balloon if he catches it like last year.”
She opens a beer, sits back on the table, and turns to him. Her eyes are weary, perhaps because of the hectic drive, perhaps because of the years that have passed.
“Are you okay?” she asks. “Would you like a beer?”
He shakes his head. “A little hot — dizzy. No thanks.”
“Sit down then, here.” She pats the flaking bench. “It’s nicer than the last time we were here.”
Kirkendale stares at her. “When?”
“We’ve never been here before.”
Mary laughs. “Are you really okay?”
He turns toward the wooded hills. Andrea, his youngest and only true child, flickers between the trees as if she might vanish at any moment, a whirl of colors against the brown and grey of the hills, Bruce and Cynthia had been adopted when Kirkendale learned that his infertility made Andrea an unlikely possibility; but one year later, she had come.
“I think I’ll go for a walk,” he says.
“Bring the kids back with you. We should take off before dusk.”
He makes his way after the children, eventually straying from their clamor and following an arid culvert into the hills. Soon there is no sound other than that of his footsteps in leaves, and he watches the ground to keep from stumbling.
He comes out of the trees into full sunlight. Across a clearing is a building, grey with age, surrounded by a sere and unkempt lawn. After moments of uncertainty, Kirkendale recognizes a church. The cross has evidently been removed or snapped off; a blackened fragment prods the belly of the sky above the battered front door.
He starts toward the building, now striding beneath a blazing sun; it is hotter than it has been all day. Stopping at the edge of the lawn, he surveys the church again. The porch looks unsafe. Stained glass windows, unbroken but blackened with dust, trap struggling figures in webs of lead. While he waits at the fringe of thick grass and foxtails, he grows reluctant to take a step forward. The thought of rattlesnakes worries him.
How did this church come to be here? There must be a road leading up to it — a turnoff he had missed. It is familiar somehow … has he really been here before, as Mary said?
A sound makes him turn.
Andrea is at the top of the culvert, gazing at the church. She has her father’s enormous eyes, which can fill at any moment with anguish, joy, or tears; at six, she possesses an intensity of emotion that sometimes overbalances Kirkendale. He hardly knows how to treat her moods, which seem more mature than many he himself experiences. He hurries toward her, as those eyes begin to widen.
“Andrea, you shouldn’t have come up so far—”
She is looking past him at the church, even as he takes her hand and spins her around. Behind him a sudden creak sounds, loud as a gunshot, as if the rotten porch had been leaped, the ruined doors flung wide. Something must have warped violently in the heat.
He holds Andrea with one hand so that she will not slide on leaves as they head downhill. Bruce, ten, appears hurrying toward them up the gully.
“Dad! Mom says come on!”
Andrea makes no sound. They return to the grove, where Mary has already loaded the remnants of their lunch into the station wagon. She is waiting in the front seat; Cynthia, their oldest daughter, is in back with her comic books.
“You two get in back.” Kirkendale slides in beside his wife, twists the key in the ignition, and pulls out. His back is chill with sweat against the vinyl seat.
“You look flushed,” Mary says.
“Yeah.” He is glad to be away; and here is the highway. “We found an old church up there — above the park.”
“A church? There’s no church back there.”
“Mom, I’m hungry,” says Andrea.
“You just ate.”
“Sure,” says Kirkendale. “It’s ruined. Andrea saw it, too, didn’t you?”
In the rear-view mirror, his daughter’s eyes are fastened on Mary, though she must have heard him.
“Andrea?” he repeats.
“What can I eat?”
“How can you be hungry?” Mary asks. “Have an orange.”
“Bruce saw it, too,” Kirkendale says. “Right where you found us, right, Bruce?”
“I didn’t see any old church, Dad.”
“Sure — right above the ditch where we were.”
“I don’t want an orange,” says Andrea.
“Andrea, I know you saw it.”
“Honey, who would put a church up there?” Mary hands back an orange.
Kirkendale tightens his grip on the wheel.
“I’m still hungry,” Andrea says.
Kirkendale escapes his dreams through his life. He is a welfare caseworker for the state of California in Los Angeles, a position he has held since his twenty-fifth year. The events of his working day are as similar to one another as his dreams; weeks blur into months, run into years, making a grey wash of his life. When he is on good terms with his occupation, it is a source of endless variety, as people come and go — each with his unique tale to tell, When his mood is less inspired, the characters become caricatures, all alike in their dismay with the persistent disappointments of existence. There are a thousand claims to be processed, a thousand faces to interview.
He sometimes forgets what he looks like — loses himself among the masses. He is always startled when he realizes his age through successive years; thirty is a shock, forty another. He can hardly remember anything of the intervening years.
His children grow, claim independence, move away one by one. Bruce goes to Europe and remains there. Kirkendale never goes farther east than Las Vegas, where he does not gamble, but sits in a hotel bar drinking coffee. He plans to travel after retirement.
He does not pass the time; he merely allows it to pass.
He lives on a comfortable salary, has few problems. He continues his correspondence, writing to several childhood friends and a faceless woman, assistant editor of a state employment journal to which he once contributed an article. There is nothing even obscurely spectral about his correspondence. He once receives a letter postmarked “Deutschland,” but in error. It contains a blank slip of paper with no return address
Habitually, he writes when slightly drunk, and in the mornings finds letters he has written to his correspondents. They are pervaded with oblique threats and riddles, disturbingly malicious and alarmingly misspelled.
He wonders why he misspells things when he is drunk.
Cynthia is to be married. Kirkendale and Mary make the drive up the coast to their daughter’s new home in Oregon, where they arrange to stay in a motel above the sea. He is fifty-two years old.
The wedding goes well. At the reception, the family stands for photographs — save Bruce, who is living in Norway. In blue, grey, and white, the pictures show Mary close to her husband; Cynthia and her husband near them; Andrea to one side, her huge eyes flaming into the camera, caught by the flash.
Kirkendale has drunk champagne all afternoon, and finds himself sitting in a haze at a long table strewn with styrofoam and plastic utensils; his hand is resting in stains.
“That’s the last of them,” says a voice. He expects to see Mary, but Andrea is smiling at him.
“What do you mean?”
“Bruce and now Cynthia — gone. Don’t you think they took the easy way out?”
He says nothing.
Andrea laughs. “It’s nothing, I guess, But where will you get the money for my wedding?”
“You’re not serious?”
“No, father dearest, not I.” She squeezes his wrist. “I’ll stay by you. Keep the family together, right? I was thinking, it’s so expensive living on my own, renting apartments and paying for laundromats, all that. I was thinking that maybe I’d move back in with you and Mom.”
Mary comes up to place her hand on Kirkendale’s shoulder.
“I’m not so sure about that,” he says hastily.
“About what, dear?” Mary asks.
“Nothing, Mother. Father’s had a bit much to drink — you know how he gets,”
Then she has slipped away, back into the crowd. There is a flurry of laughter at another table, the sound of another record flapping onto a turntable, music.
“What is it?” Mary asks, sitting beside him. “Is Andrea all right?”
“Fine. I think I’ll get another glass of this. Excuse me a minute.” He is trembling.
When they return to their motel for the night, Kirkendale cannot sleep. He feels haunted by the past, memories of his daughters as children crowd him, mingled with the simple fear of sleep. His dreams have been more vivid recently, stronger, while the faces of his closest companions have begun to fade, smearing into shadows. Kirkendale feels that his life is nearing its close, though he is still young. Or at any rate, not old. Has he done enough with himself? It seems he always tried to do his best.
Without disturbing Mary he rises, dresses, steps outside. The sky is clear, stars high and bright among tattered strands of clouds. He passes behind the motel, along a wall of windows. Many are open, and through corroded screens he sees row on dingy row of mirrors, throwing him back from vacant rooms as he walks past. Below the edge of the seacliffs, the ocean shifts and tosses. The moon hangs above it, casting a silver trail.
Kirkendale finds the stairs and makes his way down to the beach. He senses the touch of ghosts. Shadows flicker around him, darting close as if for tentative touches. The sand scuffs beneath his feet. Waves rise and fall, rush toward him then slide away. The moon is lower. Shells lie strewn along the waterline, mysterious whorls, sigils in the sand. The ghosts almost speak, and for a moment he feels himself dream, striding down the aisle of his grey church. Touch of a weak wasting hand, whisper of a fading voice. Kirkendale is weeping.
Voices urge him on — now! — but he cannot move.
With one foot he starts to carve a sign in the sand but as it becomes clear he falters, slows, and hesitates. It cannot mean — he cannot be — whose name is this, if it is a name, and why must he call on this thing tonight? He has a wife, children, a job in Los Angeles: these also are things that require his attention!
Then understanding slides away with the retreating tide. The voices and ghosts leap. For an instant, before sand swallows them, the lines glow with their own fluorescence, a color so ineffable and beautiful that he cries out to have seen it even once in his life: mingled joy and pain. Wet sand merges with itself, obliterating apparent runes. The sign dulls and vanishes into mundane hues, aided by his clumsy foot. He weeps harder now, as if he might never stop.
Something has retreated. He should have made some move — what was it? — spoken some word — what might it have been? He has forgotten.
The night falls silent around him, a shroud. Kirkendale turns and looks up at the cliff, then makes his slow way up the stairs and back to bed.
He does not dream that night, nor ever again.
He is sixty. Mary is dead of cancer now. He lives alone, works alone, sleeps alone. He even dreams alone, never having seen the church since that night long before. His last years have been emptier than his first, for with the dream he seems to have lost his name. Before the night on the beach he had thought himself a hollow of flesh in a meaningless life — yet there had always been a hidden quality, the reassuring touch of inexplicable dimensions, something perhaps less mortal than he. But all that is gone now. There are no dreams, no ghosts, no whispers.
He is pulled through life, a marionette of the quiet force of habit. Seeing no end to his existence, he imagines nothing beyond what he can see.
He is struck by a car one afternoon, crossing the street against an unseen red light. Tossed bent and broken into the center of the street, he lies perfectly still, certain that this is the end. Faces like clouds of insects gather overhead. Somewhere is the first trace of a siren.
The faces swim in and out of focus. Some acquire the grayish taint of rotten burlap; lips thicken shut, as if stitched. He senses familiar images, old friends. He tries to call them, welcoming them as they once welcomed him. But he cannot move his mouth. It seems he has forgotten how.
Ambulance drivers clear the crowd for him. The doll faces pass away, though he feels their demands. They require something of hims as darkness claims him, he believes that they merely want his life,
No … consciousness is tenacious. Now he is in an oxygen tent, barely thriving on the support it lends him; the air is as sterile as its smell. White walls. At the margins of his vision, a fringe of bright color: flowers.
“Dad? Can you hear me?”
Andrea’s face shimmers beyond the plastic veil.
“Cynthia is coming down from Oregon, Dad.”
He blinks tears. A blur across his shadowed vision, a brushing of his lips. Then a cold recounting of his name, merciless summary of his life:
Not Dollchurch but “Kirkendale.”
The name is hardly his own.
Numb. His arms feel twisted beneath him, as when he lay on pavement. The ceiling is the hungry sky.
Dim faces drift above his daughter’s, insistent. They have kept him alive this long, feeding him strength that he will never need again.
“I couldn’t get in touch with Bruce. I’ll keep trying. Dad?”
Vapor swirls within the confines of his tent, then seeps and curls out into the room; green light outlines Andrea for an instant, transforming her into something far more real than himself.
“She will dream for us,” says the last voice in his ear. “She will dream and dance as you were never able.”
Andrea’s hand glides gracefully up and out of sight to twist something; he had not noticed the continuous hissing until it is cut off. He would choke, but her smile is comforting, even when oxygen — and his breath — no longer come. He cannot weep. As in a photographic negative, white walls go black,
He has a glimpse of the grey church of dream — just a glimpse, as of a doorway he has been hurried past by unseen escorts. His name echoes and fades: an unfulfilled curse, an idle prophecy, a shattered shell.
His death is meaningless even to him.
But tonight the old dream will be restored, and another Kirkendale may speak forgotten words.
* * *
“Dollchurch” copyright 2016 by Marc Laidlaw. This is its first appearance.
Composed sometime around 1980, this is a cautionary tale about 19 year olds trying to say deep things about life. At this point I find its pretense hilarious. This story went through several versions, and this is one that elicited the kindest rejection letters.