Dear God Tower

Fiction by Kristen Iskandrian
Private Home, by Aurélie Salavert. Copyright the artist. Courtesy MEPAINTSME.

I had no business being at the park, I despised walking and was critical of nature, but my son and I had argued bitterly. I was so angry, and the house was so small.

Turned out it was a dreadful day to leave home in a huff on foot, the only car having been commandeered by my son, who beat me to the hook where the keys hung and ran outside in his slippers, reversing out of the driveway with the driver’s-side door still hanging open. I screamed for several seconds, drawing Mr. Ted to his window, his long nose the only visible feature as he pushed aside the curtain to gape. Nosy, indeed.

So there I was, entering from the south gate, my thoughts a wrathful staccato, desiring, I suppose, on some level, to feel worse. It happened immediately, as the park was glutted with families and people who owned balls of varying size and weight. On the north end, opposite to where I was, were wooded trails, and I thought that if I could just get to them, I might survive my current moment. I had no plans once there, no delusion that being there would make me feel better, feeling better was not the goal. I just needed to not be here. The physics of sorrow is stillness; the physics of anger is propulsion.

Unfortunately things were much worse than I feared. Four men, two of them shirtless, beat bongo drums. Blankets were being unfurled. People were flocking to Dear God Tower in the middle of the green holding rolled-up yoga mats, sign of the devil. Before I could figure out an alternate route I found myself in a crush of bodies, the ketchupy odor of children mingling with sunscreen and also more bass-toned, sinister smells, private and shameful. I found an acid relief in being old and out of shape because of the violence I’d surely be committing if I were able. To be trapped in such a way was the injury; to be mistaken for a willing participant in whatever this was—a festival?—was the insult.

What greater sign of stupidity exists, than the festival. I can think of none. Every horrible human quality boastfully on display. Sheer humiliation for those of us caught unaware, a humiliation of vicarious origin: I must be embarrassed for every single person here who lacks the good sense to be embarrassed (all of them). It might kill me but I would die having done my duty—to feel what others are too witless to feel.

Dear God Tower had once upon a time been a café. Now it was a general-use pavilion. It had never been a tower. The drumming got louder as we approached it and a stout woman with a flowing skirt and exposed belly directed traffic. I scanned desperately for an aperture, some gap through which I could disappear, but the bodies kept multiplying until I could no longer see the woods at the far end of the park, no longer see even the clumps of people I’d noticed upon first entering the gate, throwing their balls, spreading their blankets. Every person had been absorbed by the crowd, and the crowd, like a wave collecting water, kept multiplying. This was my son’s fault, was all I could think, and my fury increased to an almost unbearable degree, until I myself felt like a crowd, foaming with strangers. All around me, people streamed and surged, their exuberance growing with every step, kids on their parents’ shoulders, barely-dressed women with complicated drinking vessels high on false virtue and fermentation. Everywhere, the teeth were blindingly white and supremely straight. I’d never been more of a crone.

Inside the tower, I tried to find some space apart, but there was none. The bare-bellied woman was speaking but I could barely hear her over the drums and general static of so many people. She leaned to one side, reaching over her head with one arm, and all around me, people did the same. I focused on keeping myself straight and still, willing my anger to vaporize me, or at least make me invisible, but without my permission, my body leaned in the same direction as everyone else, and my arm stretched over my head. No, I shouted, but my voice was silent, as the woman’s exhortations floated over the beat, REMEMBER TO BREATHE! My breath changed and became deeper and more regular and I tried panting to assert myself, to literally assert my self onto myself, but every effort I made was caught and reversed. My lungs had a new master, and it was the bare-bellied woman.

SOFT KNEES, FOLD OVER AT THE WAIST, LET YOUR NECK HANG came next and I fought to stay upright even as gravity doubled me over, my sightline now rows of hanging necks, a memory bobbing to the surface but not breaking through, suspended because I was upside-down, of leaning all the way back on a swing swinging high until I was dangling by my knees, but it wasn’t me on the swing, it was someone else, or someone I’d only heard of, a memory of playground lore that ended with paralysis. Every childhood story ended in paralysis, puking, or death, and for a second I missed being a kid with those three specific futures. The way the woman kept clamoring for us to use our bodies made me hyper-aware of having a body, a fact my entire adulthood was designed around forgetting, and I seethed as I stretched and twisted and breathed and bent. My son should be the one doing this, I thought, this was a perfect punishment being doled out to the wrong person. I pictured him zooming down a highway blasting Metallica and gnawing on his cuticles.

It was when we were told to twist to the right that I successfully refused, and a shock of electricity jolted from my feet. I looked down and they were bare, my shoes and socks gone, my terrible feet exposed. The bare-bellied woman caught my eye and smiled. The man in front of me, twisting to an unnatural degree, gave me a hard, accusing look, glancing downward and then back at my face. I was standing just slightly on the edge of his batik blanket. His own feet were gnarled with yellowed toenails but mine were an abomination to him, trespassing as they were on his blanket. I never wanted to belong, and I was being forced to belong, and I was being punished for my spurious belonging. The anger that had always saved me was failing me now.

My son was born feet-first during a power outage. I knew what I was in for from the start.

The rhythm of the drums changed and the movements got looser. The bare-bellied woman was, to my dismay, shimmying. The man in front of me stepped on to the back of the yoga mat in front of him—welcomed there by its owner, a woman wearing what looked like a straw apron—and edged his blanket a few inches forward. I moved accommodatingly, involuntarily, my feet now on the pavilion’s concrete floor, fighting tears that were fizzing against my sinuses, how dare he kick me off, how dare the hypocrisy of this fakefest be visible only to me, the true victim of this day, of this whole idiotic earth. I would take my revenge mercilessly.

But instead I was swaying, I was locating the central nervous system of this undulating horror show and entering it, I was like a platelet being rushed toward a wound. People were touching me on all sides and I was touching back, not wanting to, not knowing how to stop. My body was agile, fluent in movements it had never made. I closed my eyes and saw a vista too beautiful for this planet, like a CGI image of Ireland, lichen-covered cliffs, water no human had ever touched. Imagine the indignity of being made to feel immense awe against your will.

In an effort to return to myself I tried to recall the names of the fifteen children in the O’Doyle family. I could only think of nine. Six whole children, completely erased from memory. When I opened my eyes again I’d moved a great distance, carried, it seemed, by the crowd, and the woods were now just a few yards away, beckoning. The crowd was at my back, but receding, somehow, the drum beats getting fainter. I broke free from the few people still surrounding me and sat beneath a tree. My shoes were back on my feet. In a shocking turn of events I felt not angry but impossibly lonely and a bit concussed, unable to remember what drove me to the park, what words had been said by my son and by me. In the distance I saw people continuing to arrive at Dear God Tower with their rolled-up mats and blankets. I couldn’t imagine getting home the same way I’d gotten here, and not just because my body felt immobilized. I had to remember the names of the six remaining O’Doyle kids. I had to remember how their dad died, and then remember where I was when I first learned that information. I had to, it seemed imperative, remember every single item I’d ever forgotten, which would require me to remember forgetting them in the first place, so that I could begin to create an index in which identifiable holes could be filled. All of this would occur merely by sitting and staring, perhaps reaching back to rub tree bark, which would doubtless occasion another memory or missing memory. This was a fine mess I’d gotten myself into, and yet I accepted it without a fight as a kind of monastic penance. I was a really bad person and I just knew that’s how I got here and for the first time I felt calm about it, ready to do what must be done. My son would find me changed and as a result of being changed I would find him different, too. No happy endings, just the continuous shock of new beginnings that are unrecognizable until they’re over.

Kristen Iskandrian

Kristen Iskandrian is the author of the novel MOTHEREST, named a Best Book of 2017 by Publishers Weekly and long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Other work has been published in places such as The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Short StoriesPloughsharesZYZZYVACrazyhorseMcSweeney’s, and elsewhere. She received her BA from the College of the Holy Cross and her MA and PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Georgia. She has received grants and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, the Alabama Council on the Arts, and Bread Loaf. Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, she lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and two daughters. She is the co-owner of Thank You Books.

Aurélie Salavert

French artist Aurélie Salavert conveys her thoughts, feelings and memories into pictures that feel as if they were buried in our own subconscious. The thruline of her practice is drawing that continuously reinvents itself through her use of different techniques and styles, allowing a figurative abstraction to emerge. Salavert's vast output of intimate pencil drawings, with their gentle washes of watercolor or flat areas of gouache, speak to us in a childlike clarity, but their meaning remains open. As Stéphane Calais states in the text for the exhibition Une expédition at the Fondation Ricard, Paris, "She is looking for something, at times she finds something, and when she doesn't, we're happy being lost with her."

Aurélie Salavert graduated from the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Marseille in 1990. In 1992, she received a grant from the DRAC Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur - Ministry of Culture. Her work was featured in solo exhibitions at the Galerie Athanor in Marseille and The Calvet Museum in Avignon. A selection of her artworks was acquired for the permanent collections of the Fond Régional d'art Contemporain (Paris) and the Fond National d'art Contemporain (France), and individual works reside in numerous private collections throughout Europe and the United States.