CONJUNCTIONS:52, Spring 2009

The Stolen Church
Jonathan Carroll



TINA AND STANLEY WYKOFF stood waiting for the elevator to arrive. Both of them were nervous. Both were dressed nicely but still kept checking each other constantly to make sure nothing was wrong—no zipper open, no button undone, no unruly hair sticking out in the wrong direction.
      She looked at her hemline and wondered for the sixth time if her dress wasn’t too short. She’d asked Stan twice and he said no, but still … Hands in his pockets, he fussed again that maybe he should have worn his dark blue suit and not this black one. Wasn’t black too funereal? And what about the red tie? Granted it was dark, almost crimson, but wasn’t red too festive? The tie was Tina’s choice and he was glad she’d been so adamant about it—“Wear your red one. It goes with that suit.” So the decision was out of his hands. But now here he was wearing her decision and what if it had been the wrong one? What if he walked in and they were dismayed by his choice of necktie? What if they were offended? Which reaction would be worse?
      His parents were long dead by the time he met the woman he asked to be his wife. Perhaps unfairly, he waited three years after they were married before he told Tina about this meeting. Naturally she thought it was a joke when he first said it, but even so it was a pretty bizarre joke. Just the way he phrased it was strange: “In two years my parents want to meet you.”
      They were having breakfast on an overcast October morning and things between them were going great. Not one unhappy blip on their screen. Both of them were thrilled about how beautifully they fit together. So now what was this? She didn’t say anything for a while—only stared at him over the rim of her pink coffee cup as if waiting for him to say part two, which would either be a punch line to the joke or the explanation for one pretty weird sentence. When he didn’t say anything else for too long, she felt compelled to prompt him. “I don’t understand—your parents are dead.”
      Stan rubbed a hand across his mouth and the sheepish look in his eyes said he’d rather be anywhere else on earth right now than here telling her this. Finally he took a long, deep breath. After slowly letting it all out he said, “There’s something I didn’t tell you yet about my family.”
      And now here they were in the lobby of a nondescript apartment building waiting for the elevator to take them up to visit his dead parents.
      “Moe and Al, right?”
      He nodded but didn’t say anything.
      “Short for Maureen and Alfons, right?”
      He nodded again and looked at his shoe.
      “You really called them Moe and Al when you were growing up? Not Mom and Dad?”
      “Neither of them liked Mom and Dad. They said those names made them feel old.”
      “But Moe and Al sounds like a comedy team. Like Laurel and Hardy.”
      His eyes jumped up from his shoes to her face, as if she had said something crucial or surprising. But then the pilot light in his glance died and he looked down again. “What can I say? That’s what my parents wanted me to call them. “His voice was low and growly now, as if any moment it might suddenly roar and bite her.
      She turned her back on him and walked away. What was she doing here? She’d obviously married a crazy man and only now was it coming out. That’s what any normal person would think. Darling, you have to meet my parents—they’re dead. The elevator clunked to a stop behind her. She didn’t move.
      “Slushy!”
      “Al!”
      The air filled with the high yips of small dogs barking furiously. Turning around, she saw a short man dressed in full clown makeup and costume—right down to a blue fright wig, big round red nose, and flat yellow shoes the size of tennis rackets. Running around in frantic circles and then jumping on her husband’s legs were two pugs—a black one and a beige one. Stanley was trying to hug the clown and pet the leaping dogs at the same time.
      “Heyyy, Laurel!” he said happily, patting the black pug on its head.
      There was so much going on between the men and dogs that it was quite a while before anyone paid attention to her. Eventually one of the dogs—the black one—detached itself from the scrum at the elevator and came over to sniff her shoes. When she bent down to pet the little animal, it growled and stepped back.
      Her husband saw this and said, “Oh honey, don’t do that. He hates women. Pet him instead.” He pointed at the beige pug. “Pet Hardy. He loves everyone.”
      “So, son, are you going to introduce me to my new daughter-in-law or am I just going to have to do it myself?” The clown clomped over and grabbed her in a tight embrace. He was warm and smelled strongly of cologne: a cologned clown. That’s what she thought while being hugged and tentatively giving some hug back.
      He abruptly pushed her away but then held on to both her arms. “I’m Al and you’re Tina.”
      She nodded stiffly. He pulled her in again, embraced her hard, and then let go for good. She was so thrown off balance by all his pushing and pulling that when he finally let go, she staggered on her high heels.
      “She’s cute, Slushy. You married a very cute girl.”
      Stanley smiled and nodded. Why did his father call him Slushy?
      “Come on, let’s go upstairs and see your mother.” Alfons went back to the elevator and opened the door. The two dogs trotted in first, followed by the clown, then Stan (who was usually very gentlemanly and held all doors for her), and last Tina.
      “How have you been, Al?”
      While the elevator moved slowly upward, they all stood facing forward.
      “Can’t complain. Death’s not so bad. They keep you busy.”
      “And Moe?”
      “Well, you know your mother—give her lobster tails and chocolate mousse every meal and she’ll still find something to complain about. But, hey, that’s why we love her, right?”
      His son chuckled. “It’s so nice to see you. It’s been a long time.”
      “That’s for sure, sonny. Five years.” The clown sighed.
      Tina looked down. Both dogs were sniffing her leg. The elevator suddenly filled with a ferociously bad odor. Her husband whistled. “I see the dogs are still lethal.”
      “Yeah, Laurel’s farts can always melt your eyebrows.”
      She looked at the animals. Both were staring up at her. Which one was Laurel again? The smell made her want to retch.
      “Tina, how did you feel when Stan told you about us?” Instead of answering, she slid a look at her husband. He caught it and shrugged.
      “It took him three years to tell me.”
      Beneath the white makeup Alfons frowned. “Three years? My God, son, that’s not right.”
      “I know, Dad, but you know, it’s not the easiest admission to make.”
      “Your mother and I were married thirty-seven years and we never held anything back from each other.”
      “Nonsense! You lied to each other all the time. Don’t forget I was there; I heard a lot of lies growing up.”
      The clown crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. Her husband grumbled, “Some things never change.” The dogs continued staring at her. Everyone remained silent and tense in the elevator until it stopped with a bounce at the fourth floor. When the doors slid open, the dogs raced out and she followed, glad to escape.
      There was nothing special about where they were. It reminded her of any hall in any middle-class apartment building. Even the surroundings smelled typical—old rugs, stale air, and meat cooking somewhere.
      Alfons walked down the hall toward a door about thirty feet away. He was far enough in front of them so that she was able to quietly ask Stan why his dad was dressed as a clown.
      “I don’t know,” he snapped at her, still angry with his old man.
      She stopped right there and, putting both hands on her hips, said, “All right, that’s it—not another step. I am not going in there. I’ve had enough.”
      The two men stopped too and looked at her.
      “What do you mean?” Stan asked in an annoyed voice.
      “You lied to me for three years about this and now you’re rude? And your dead father’s dressed up as a clown. His hair is blue. Are those enough reasons? Would you like some more?”
      “Come on, honey. Just do it for me.”
      “Why? Can you give me one good reason why I should?”
      Down the hall his father said, “The stolen church.”
      She gasped and moved quickly forward.
     

Her husband looked at her and smiled. “What does it mean?”
      “I don’t know.”
      He shifted the pillow beneath his head. “The stolen church?” He repeated her words slowly, emphasizing each one.
      “That’s right. And as soon as your father said those words, I started walking toward their door. That was all I needed to hear.”
      They were lying in their bed. Bright sunlight shone through the window, welcoming them to a new morning.
      “It’s weird how many things from our real life crossed over to my dream. But what about that clown bit?”
      “I don’t know, Tina, it was your dream. And a strange one it was, I might add,” he said in a bad Scottish accent.
      Stanley’s parents were dead. They’d owned two pugs named Laurel and Hardy. When he was a little boy, Stan’s nickname was Slushy because that was his favorite drink.
      “Did your father ever dress up like a clown for one of your birthday parties?”
      “Nope.”
      She lay on her back and looked up at the ceiling. “I hate dreams. Just when you get right to the edge of some great discovery or insight, it goes bizarre or suddenly ends. All they do is leave you confused or feeling cheated after you wake up.”
      He didn’t say anything. She kept staring at the ceiling, waiting for him to respond. When he didn’t, she turned to him. Stanley’s eyes were fixed on her shoulder.
      “What? What are you staring at?”
      Silently he pointed at the sheet beneath her. She twisted to look but didn’t see anything. “What? What are you pointing at?”
      “Under your shoulder. There are words.”
      Turning completely over, she rose up onto her elbows. Beneath where she’d been lying, words were written on the bed sheet. In black block letters were the words “the stolen church,” “Slushy,” “lobster and chocolate mousse,” and others.
      Both scrambled off the bed to opposite sides. Scrawled across the entire white bottom sheet were many words written in the same rough but distinctive handwriting. “Laurel and Hardy,” “elevator,” and “three years” were some of them. Glancing at each other, Tina and Stanley were too shocked to say anything.
      Long seconds passed before he asked, “Who’s Petra Pagels?”
      Tina didn’t really hear the question because she was seeing words now that she didn’t recognize either. She rushed them through her alarmed mind to see if they had any relevance. When they didn’t, she asked her husband, “Who is Audrey Bremmer?”
      His head snapped up and he looked at her fearfully. She pointed at that name on the sheet.
      “And what’s Mar … mite? What’s Marmite?”
      Once or twice a year Stan still dreamed about Audrey Bremmer. Audrey who had appeared three nights before his wedding and said after so many years of failed pursuit, “Tonight’s your night.” Grinning, she’d added, “It’s my wedding present to you.” Hours after it was over he had walked into her kitchen. She was sitting at the table naked eating Marmite out of the jar. He had never heard of the dark, murky stuff and after one taste, never wanted to hear of it again. Nevertheless that’s what he usually dreamed—some variation of Audrey and her Marmite.
      And who was Petra Pagels? Tina’s sexy one-night stand back in college. She had never told her husband about it because, well, she wasn’t a lesbian or anything like that and, besides, we’ve got to keep some secrets to ourselves, right?
      But their bed disagreed. Scattered across the white bottom sheet were words, names, and phrases that spelled out many things from their lives, among them every one of their biggest secrets. Nothing remained hidden. Some of the words were so cryptic or mysterious that their meaning would remain unknown unless the keeper translated them. Nevertheless they were all there, written large and clear enough for both people to see.
      The more the couple stared and processed the words written on their bed, the more they grew to understand. And with that understanding came the realization that some of the words they didn’t know were likely their partners’ deepest secrets, none of which had ever been divulged.
      Eventually their eyes lifted and they snuck peeks at each other. Who was going to speak first? What could they say? Their nervous eyes were full of suspicion and wonder. Both wanted to talk, to ask each other questions, to discuss this event right now: Perhaps together they could discover why it had happened. But the pair remained silent, equally stunned and too frightened to say anything about this dark miracle.
      Ironically, they had a similar idea at almost the same time—sleep. Did this have anything to do with their sleeping together?
      He thought, when you’re asleep your guard is down completely. Could something like this happen because you’re defenseless and lying next to another person who’s in the same state?
      She thought, nothing’s more intimate than sleeping together—not sex, nothing. You’re completely vulnerable. There’s an extraordinarily special trust and bond in the act of sleeping inches away from another person night after night. Could that bond have caused this?
      Blank-faced he asked, “Is this a good thing? I mean—”
      She knew exactly what he meant. She tossed a hand in the air. “I don’t know. I guess it depends on what we do with it. Do you want to tell me who Audrey Bremmer is?”
      He looked at that radioactive name on the bed sheet and asked his wife, “Do you want to tell me who Petra Pagels is?”
      Tina flashed a weird guilty smile but remained silent.
      Dropping to his knees, Stanley put his chin and both hands on the bed. Sliding his arms forward, he moved them back and forth across the sheet, across the many black words there, across the secrets they had never told each other for so many good and bad reasons. His arms kept moving back and forth, as if they were windshield wipers. “It’s all here, isn’t it? Everything we’ve kept hidden. Everything we don’t know about each other.” His arms stopped and he looked up at her. “If I tell you all my secrets, will you still love me?”
      On the other side of the bed Tina slipped to her knees so that they were now eye to eye across the flat white field between them.
      “Maybe. Maybe if we tell, we’ll love each other more. But maybe not.”
      He had to ask, “Did you do this? I mean—”
      She smirked because moments before she had wondered exactly the same thing about him: Maybe he had powers and made this impossible thing happen.
      But watching Stan’s reaction, she was certain now that neither of them could have done this alone. It was sleeping side by side through a thousand nights of their young marriage that had somehow caused this to happen—caused this binary weapon to fuse and explode. Their two hearts or souls or whatever had combined, met somewhere in the mysterious realm of sleep, and agreed to tell each other everything in the light of day, for better or worse.
      “What if we just wash the sheet? Take it into the kitchen right now and toss it into the machine. Or even just throw it the hell out! We’ll buy a new one. What do you think?”
      But both of them instinctively knew for certain that wouldn’t work. If this had happened to them once, then it was sure to happen again no matter how hard they tried to make it go away. Hidden secrets like Audrey Bremmer and Petra Pagels were concrete proof of that.
      No, there was no avoiding it—from now on, every time the couple slept together, those parts of themselves that wanted their partner to know everything—every secret, every nook and cranny of their souls—would find ways to convey all of the things this husband and wife were too afraid or ashamed to tell each other when they were awake.
      For some reason, love, sleep, and candor had taken them both hostage and would show no mercy.
      Once again her husband extended an arm across the bed. This time it was obvious that he was reaching for her hand. She hesitated but then reached out too. The bed was too wide for them to touch in the middle. His hand went as far as the word “Alfons.” Her hand touched on a man’s name too, a name she hadn’t seen before, but now that she did she moved quickly to cover it with all of her fingers.