Gas Station

CourtesySunset
When the middle-aged guy
at the next gas pump sees me
cleaning my windshield
and says, “Oh, I should
ask you to clean my own windshield”
I could give him the benefit
of the doubt and take it
as a harmless joke,
but fifty plus years of living
and the way he looks at me like
he’s wearing shades
when he’s not
tells me that he thinks this
is what people who look like me
should all do for a living
and I say,
“You can clean it yourself,”
when I’d rather say
and do something
else but my kids are
in the car and it’s
one of those moments in life
when your heart skips a beat,
the first being when you fall in love,
the second when you’re just
falling.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

Stoned Soul Picnic

John Marshall Highway, photo by Jose Padua
The stoned soul picnic was where
I first held your hand thirty years
before you were born as we watched
a red wine and golden apple colored
sunset that made us shiver slightly
like swimmers rising from warm water
into cool air. I was a sailor of ships,
a flyer of kites, a child of old city
streets on vacation during the summer
of broken windows. I wrote stories
that began with the word how and
ended with the word because,
because I didn’t know how to say it
any other way. And the years were
like dry ice, melting then turning
into mist, into pink fog over the winding
waters we followed as we brought
our covers, our fires and our black
iron pots with cracked edges all covered
with grease and fat. And the mist rose
higher and higher, then rained back
down on us with the fury of fists,
and food grew scarce, and we grew
tired and slow and our thoughts turned
to black and white like old TVs
and old fading photographs, and
I went to the woman with the loudly
beating heart, breathing heavily like her
and asked, Can you show me the way
to Bending Creek the next time it rains frogs
in the afternoon? We’ll be very hungry
by then and their deep fried legs will make
good eating on the red blanket
on the green grass with the music playing
like open-eyed love through a storm.
Why if we had their power to jump,
we could see hazy or even clear
over the mountains, and in the midst
of these strange, unforeseen events when
land starts to shake and skies tremble
and fall we’ll know what to do and how.
We’ll save ourselves, our tribe, our land
which follows us whichever way we go.
Why we might even save the world,
but don’t count on it, motherfucker.

-Jose Padua

A poem from three or four years ago, this is one of many that started coming to me on the drive back to Front Royal from Winchester on Route 522/340. There’s something about having the Blue Ridge Mountains to your left, and the Appalachians on your right—and getting a clear sense that this is indeed a valley we live in—that seems to start that river of words flowing into my head. Or something like that.

The photo of the John Marshall Highway, going into Front Royal and descending into the Shenandoah Valley, was taken earlier this year.

A Bottle of Water for My Daughter

bottleofwater

When I stepped out of the convenience store,
walked up to the driver side door
of the blue mini-van
and saw a pack of cigarettes on the console
between the two front seats,
I had to ask myself,
Do I still smoke?
It was a red and white Marlboro box,
top open, revealing
an almost full pack, and
I sensed the warmth in my lungs,
a mild rush in my veins,
and my knees suddenly felt weak
before I realized I was
standing at the wrong mini-van.
I backed up, slowly,
careful not to make any sudden moves,
looked to my right, then
to my left,
and walked down two parking spaces
to where my wife and kids
were waiting for me, pleased
that I’d quit smoking years ago,
and happy to be alive.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

That Point Where Age and Confusion Approach the Meaning of the Universe

MeaningOfTheUniverse

I wonder, sometimes, what difference it would have made if, in my younger years I had gotten the foundation of my education in the art of film solely by renting movies from a video store, then bringing them home to watch, rather than watching them in a theater. I was a shy kid, and if I had ever been asked to evaluate my overall personality, the last word I would have used to describe myself would be “brave.” Yet my curiosity drove me to go out of the house at every opportunity to see what was out there; and the first thing I remember that really had me hopping on the bus at the corner of Mt. Pleasant and Irving–or else walking down Columbia Road and heading south until I got to the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 21st Street–were the movies. And that corner of DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood was where the Circle Theater stood.

One of the first movies I remember seeing there was Louis Malle’s documentary about India called L’Inde Fantome (1969). I was around twelve or thirteen and, after reading about it in the post, I knew it was something I just had to see. It was there, or at the Inner Circle next door, where I saw my first Ingmar Bergman films–stuff like Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, and Persona (one of the first films I ever saw that really blew me away). It was also here where I saw another of my earliest favorites, Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The Four Hundred Blows). But it wasn’t just foreign, “art” films I saw there. I also watched stuff like Goodbye Columbus, the movie–based on the Philip Roth novella–that made Ali MacGraw a star; Carl Reiner’s farce “Where’s Poppa,” which in one of the Circle’s classic oddball pairings was part of a double feature with Midnight Cowboy; and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Paul Mazursky’s comedy about wife swapping which I liked and remembered mostly because it ended with Jackie DeShannon singing “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” one of my favorite songs from the 60s.

And the thing was, watching a movie there at the Circle, I felt just as safe as I would have were I watching these films at home. Yes, there were often homeless people slumped and napping in their seats–with admission being one dollar during the day, it was a cheap place to get some rest and, in the summer, free air conditioning. For me, though, that was one of the good things about it. Now and then I’d run into some of the homeless people I knew there, and it was a kick to think I might be enjoying the same movies they were.

Although I enjoyed watching films with friends, there was still nothing like watching them by myself in a theater filled with strangers. There was nothing like that sense of mystery. And although I felt comfortable there, I never felt too comfortable, and even if a film was somewhat on the boring side–The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which I actually saw at the Biograph, was, despite the magnificent music of Johann Sebastian Bach, a bit tedious–I never fell asleep. The first time I ever fell asleep at the movies was when I saw the second of the Lord of the Rings movies with Heather. Being with Heather, I was comfortable–too comfortable–and, not caring all that much about the Hobbits and Middle-Earth and all that, I fell asleep. But it was a good sleep, and when I woke up with the movie almost over I felt well rested.

Nowadays, though–after spending my younger years immersed in film–I have almost no idea of what going on in the world of cinema. After Maggie was born, and then Julien, the opportunity to see anything other than children’s films (even at home) nearly vanished. The last grown-up film Heather and I got to see in a theater, if I remember correctly, was Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth. As for watching a grown-up film at home, we don’t get to do that very often either, the last one I remember watching being Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. (a production of McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the way, is the last grown-up play I remember seeing). Still, here and there, I get to do both; and that night a couple of years ago when I happened upon Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows on some cable film channel and found myself watching the entire film with Maggie–who, to my surprise was totally entranced by it–was, for me, one of those beautiful parental moments. My youth–which each day seems to recede further and further into some soon-to-be-forgotten past–somehow crossed paths with Maggie’s as together we watched this Truffaut film that moved me so many years ago. And, from her reaction to it, it looked like Maggie was just as moved as I was.

This isn’t to say there aren’t days when it all seems so hard. When I think about Dennis Hopper as Ripley in Wim Wender’s Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend) saying, “A little older, a little more confused.” That’s another film I saw by myself, at the Inner Circle. It’s a film which one day, when she’s old enough, I’d like to watch with Maggie. As for that confusion, well, sometimes I think that confusion is just wisdom in its rawest form. Confusion is like that gas out of which stars are born. So often it’s the people who are totally convinced they know what’s going on who are truly clueless.

This is a photograph taken at the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm in Paradise Township, just outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I were on our way to the exit, after having spent the better part of an afternoon there, when I spotted this man taking a picture of his wife (or girlfriend) as she balanced on top of one of the rails of the Strasburg railroad. But more than taking a photograph, he seems to simply be admiring her and meditating upon the angle and good fortune of his connection to her. And, perhaps–as all decent men and women do from time to time–contemplating the meaning of the universe.

-Jose Padua

The Long Departed Language of the Road into Town

JohnMarshallHighway_Language

On some days the road
into town is
in black and white
and filled with
shadows that form
the shape of every
word left unspoken
by one stranger to
another but they’re written
in a language that
no one still
alive speaks or
understands which is
why we step on
the gas and
keep driving.

-Jose Padua

A poem for today. The photograph of John Marshall Highway going into Front Royal was taken earlier this week.

I’m Alive and Life Sounds Like This Sometimes

Image

Almost six years ago, the man with the short white hair in the portable folding chair in the foreground of this photograph—the one turning to his right perhaps to discuss with his friend some matter regarding the monster truck Nite Stalker—installed the security system in our house here in Front Royal. Three years before that, in 2004, he also installed the security system in our house in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County, Virginia, back when I thought we couldn’t move any farther from the city. Back when we still had to travel some distance to partake of the dust, roar, and fumes of a monster truck competition.

I remember on that day in 2004 I was waiting at our new house for the technician from Brinks Security Systems to come, and I looked out the window. Already parked in our driveway, to my surprise, was a big pickup truck from Brinks, and inside was the guy in the photograph here, his mouth wide open and about to take a bite out of his sandwich. When he saw me he paused—he was startled and surprised to be caught mid-bite—then proceeded to finish chomping down on his sandwich. He looked like the sort of kid you’d see sitting in the back of the classroom back in when you were a freshman in high school—the skinny little kid who never talked but had just seen Clint Eastwood in something like Outlaw Josey Wales and now had a face to go along with his dreams of one day being some kind of badass. But instead of becoming a badass he grew up to be a technician installing security systems. It wasn’t bad, no, but it sure as hell wasn’t the same as being someone Clint Eastwood would play.

It had turned out that Clint/Josey/The Brinks Guy had gotten to our house early, and so decided to have his lunch in our driveway. I watched a few moments more as he kept on eating, chewing down on his sandwich and looking at me and looking all around himself as if at any moment he might have to defend his possession of that sandwich. I couldn’t quite relate to that shit, and that he was looking at me like I was a sandwich thief, but I backed off anyway.

When he finally got out of the truck and walked toward our house, I could tell he wasn’t a city person. I could also tell he was still damn angry about being caught mid-lunch, mid-bite. Maybe in addition to the possibility that I might steal his sandwich, he also thought that whatever impression as a professional he was trying to make was obliterated by being caught in the act of eating, and the only thing worse he could have imagined would have been to be caught picking his nose. Well, maybe there were worse things, but I wasn’t going there, because people like him, I thought, were likely to talk about all the craziest shit—the shit I just didn’t want to hear about when all I wanted was to get our security system installed.

It was a while before the scowl came off of his face, but finally it did. Eventually, he talked, and he talked about how long it took him to become a master technician. I was genuinely impressed—the job he was doing was one I would be sure to fuck up big time (I can’t put together a simple bookcase from fucking Ikea without screaming at some point how pain-in-the-ass difficult it is).

Three years later, when I got laid off from my job, we left that house and moved to this one out in the land of monster trucks where life, we thought, might be cheap. Our first night in this house, we slept on blankets we’d laid down on the floor. The next day was when the movers came with our furniture, and the guy from the cable company came to set up our television and internet connections, and then the guy from Brinks security came back to set up the security system in our new house that was away from the big city and actually near his neck of the woods.

As soon as he stepped in the door I recognized him, but he didn’t remember me at all. When I told him that he’d installed our security system back when we lived close to the city, he had to jog his memory to recall that, “Oh yeah, I used to work closer to DC.” It was a busy day, and the only other words I remember from that day were spoken by Clint/Josey/The Brinks Guy who said, in response to something I asked or maybe Heather asked, “I live on the side of a mountain.” He said it somewhat defiantly and putting proud emphasis on the word ‘mountain’—as if, if he weren’t in polite company and on the job, he’d follow those words with “you got a fuckin’ problem with that?”

For some reason I remember shit like this. Just like I remember the salesman named Irving Berlin from back in the 60s. And a sales clerk named Kirsten Mortimer who sold me some socks at Hecht Co. in 1983. And Dave Grohl, before he became famous, being a snotty clerk when I bought a couple of LPs at Tower Records one afternoon also in the 80s. There are some memories from the 90s and when I lived in New York—when I did my heaviest, most heroic drinking—that are gone. Still, I’m surprised by how much I can remember and how much other people can forget.

I see the Brinks Guy around from time to time. Of course, Brinks, which became Broadview Security, has now been taken over by the ADT corporation. Which means the Brinks name doesn’t work for him anymore—so maybe I’ll just call him Outlaw Josey Wales. Anyway, Outlaw Josey Wales doesn’t remember me or recognize me. One time I saw him on Main Street here in Front Royal and I nodded at him, and he just shot back this look of bewilderment, as if he were thinking, ‘Why the hell is this weird motherfucker looking at me?’ So now, when I see him, I don’t nod and I don’t try to say “Hi” and I know for sure that if I see him in the window of a restaurant, and he’s eating, that I’d better look the hell away.

This morning, for this first time in over twenty years, I listened to Vin Scelsa’s radio show. I used to listen to him on Sunday Nights on WXRK, sitting alone in my apartment when I lived on Avenue B in New York, and so often his show would introduce me to some song or some singer or some band I’d never listened to before and would end up loving. He’d also play a lot of stuff where my reaction would be ‘what is this shit’ and I’d end up changing the station back to WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station which played mostly jazz—jazz was something which, in New York, I could always rely on.

Today, when I found out Vin Scelsa was still doing his show, and that I could get it on WFUV’s website, I went to my computer and pulled up the latest show. He started out with a fabulously happy song by Michael Franti & Spearhead called “I’m Alive (And Life Sounds Like).” It was a new song, and I’d never heard it before—a song I’ll remember to play for Maggie and Julien and Heather. After half an hour, though, he began playing some stuff that sounded like total crap to me, and I turned it off. Tomorrow, though, is another day, and because of the songs I end up loving—and all the songs I never knew before and all the things I need to remember—I’ll keep listening.

-Jose Padua

The Search for My Name As Told in a Story That Begins and Ends with the Taste of Metal

Julien_SearchName_1_page

I don’t remember the last time, while eating, that I left the spoon or fork in my mouth just a little too long so that I got that metallic taste on my tongue, that odd sensation that seems to automatically negate the pleasant sensation of whatever it was you were eating and replace it with something I imagine feels similar to what you’d feel if you were to dump half a cup of salt on your tongue, then close your mouth and attempt to smile. It would be a salty smile, of course, amusing to watch but not so pleasant to make.

Though I suppose there are stages in one’s life when one might actually enjoy that taste and others on the more extreme side. My two year old son, Julien, for instance, would, if we let him, eat butter straight from the its container, digging in with his fingers and happily shoving it into his mouth. He’s tried this a number of times, and to stop him in the middle of this act is the sort of thing that makes him incredibly unhappy. It’s at moments like these when I try to distract him with music, and the other night the song I distracted him with a song called “Point of View” by a group called DB Boulevard.

I first heard this song in 2002, the year it came out, while watching television with Heather at my brother-in-law’s apartment in State College, Pennsylvania. As it was, he wasn’t in his apartment at the time–he was, rather, in the hospital, suffering from a serious flare up of a chronic intestinal condition. His hospital stay was what brought us there to visit, and it was on the way while toward State College that my brother Tony called my cell phone to say that our Dad had just had a colonoscopy during which they found some serious, blockage in his intestine, so much so that they were unable to perform a complete colonoscopy.

I am, at times, astounded by the connections between the most insignificant details. In this instance, however, I was too distressed by the news to note the coincidence of my brother-in-law and my father undergoing comparable medicals issues at the same time; and the obsessive tendency of my mind to take almost any situation and imagine it through to its most horrible conclusion led me to think immediately–even though we didn’t know for sure if cancerous growths or something less serious was causing the blockage–that my father was now in the process of dying. All of which seems to show that, for me, pessimism trumps any pleasure I may get in trying to connect the dots and surmising the relationship between things, and that when given the opportunity to make a shrewd observation or dive headfirst into despair, my mind–gladly, if you will–chooses to do the latter.

Much of that trip to State College, then, was spent worrying about my dad, as well as my brother-in-law. Plus, on top of that, I started worrying about the possibility–though at the time my mind considered it more a likelihood than simple possibility–that my father would never get to meet his grandchildren.

That night, after getting that call on the way into town, we went to the hospital to visit Heather’s brother, then, after stopping at some dreary restaurant to eat, went to his apartment which was where we would be staying while we were there. We turned on the television, and after flipping through the stations, we settled on some station that was showing videos. That was when I saw, for the first time, the video for Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”–a song which I rather enjoy even though I always associate it with sickness. And it was after the Kylie Minogue song that I saw the video for the DB Boulevard song, in which we see a cardboard figure of a young woman driving about some modern city, which is also constructed with cardboard. Heather and I immediately liked the song and the video. Then, one evening, some ten years later while I was looking for something to calm Julien down from some tantrum and–wanting to try something other than the usual sure-fire calming songs, like Sade’s “Your Love Is King” and The Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town”–I remembered DB Boulevard’s “Point of View.” I looked it up on YouTube, put it on for Julien, and it immediately caught his attention.

Right away, I added “Point of View” to the list of songs I could use to sooth Julien whenever something in the real world annoyed him to the point of him having a meltdown. Then, one night, since I knew nothing about DB Boulevard, I looked them up and found out, to my surprise, that they were a pop band that was formed in Padua, Italy. Yes, Padua–just like my last name.

I don’t come upon the name Padua very often. I only have a handful of relatives here in the United States, with the majority of those who actually share the last name of Padua with me being in the Philippines, where the name is fairly common. It’s certainly a different situation from Heather’s–having the rather common surname of Davis, running into another Davis isn’t something she would consider all that worthy of note. For me, on the other hand, it’s always a surprise when I come upon the name Padua during the course of a day.

I remember one time when we were kids, my brother Tony and I looked through the DC phone book and found one other Padua listed–a certain gentleman by the name of Napoleon Padua. He wasn’t anyone we knew, much less were related to. Still, Napoleon Padua was, to us, a sign that there could be more of us out there–a sign which, if we ever got close enough, could also be totally wrong.

As it was, what I came across the name Padua it almost never had anything to do with the Philippines, the country my mother and father left in the early 1950s, but rather with Padua, the city in Italy. For me, that had to do. But even then, it doesn’t happen that often, and prior to finding out that DB Boulevard came from Padua, Italy, I discovered that about twenty miles south of our home here in Front Royal, there’s a small stretch of road in Sperryville, Virginia that goes by the name of Padua Lane.

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And before that, the last time I came across the name in the course of a day–other than the occasional crossing of paths with a reference to Saint Anthony of Padua–was almost twenty-five years ago at the Horseshoe Bar (aka Vazac’s) on Tompkin’s Square Park in Manhattan. I was there with my friend Michael Randall, a few years before I moved to New York, and at some point in the evening we ended up talking with a young woman who was standing near us at the bar. She had some kind of accent and way of gazing about her which showed that she was a person in transit. Soon, we found out that she was working for the time being as an aupair uptown, that her name was Vanna, and that she was from Italy–Padua, Italy.

About a month later, when I was back in DC, I got a call from Vanna saying she was in town. I met her downtown and had lunch with her, then showed her around. I took her to the East Wing of the National Gallery, then moved on to the West Building before making our way to the Museum of Natural History. It was an enjoyable day, although there was no great connection–and that’s what I was looking for, here, some connection whether it was romantic or not. Some strong, or perhaps even profound connection with that name, Padua. Because even though it’s my family name, there was always something about it that name that just made me feel lost. Because to me it was a name that seemed to exist in some kind of limbo. It wasn’t an American name, so it didn’t make me feel more connected to the country where I was born and grew up. What’s more, to me it didn’t sound like a Filipino name either, so it didn’t seem to connect me with the Philippines, the country where my parents came from but which I’d never visited. Still, it was my name, and the name of a small number of us living in Washington, DC. But the thing was, I wanted to feel it was mine–feel that in that name, that word, was a key to my identity. And the thing was, I didn’t really feel that way, and never had.

Vanna didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to stay in the U.S. Her father had been sick, she said, and she thought that at the very latest she’d be going back by the end of summer–to Padua, Italy. And I remember how she looked down, and–in some sort of sad but still hopeful Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz moment–seemed to imagine that she was already there. Back in her version of Kansas.

At the end of the evening, Vanna had me take a picture of her with her camera. We were somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown, and she stood with her back to the street as the lights from the cars and buses flashed behind her; suddenly, she raised her right arm in a gesture of triumph, then smiled as she looked up to the nighttime sky. I pressed the button on the camera, the flash went on, and I heard the shutter open and close. That was the last time I ever saw her.

And so the years went on, with my name in some existential limbo–a limbo that was of my own making, I suppose. A limbo that was the result of the many things I didn’t and, perhaps, could never know.

As for my father, he lived on. Although my mother did not, and it was ultimately her illness that brought me back to DC after I’d moved up to New York, a city that had come to feel more like a real home to me than DC, the city where I grew up. After my mother died, I toyed with the idea of going back to New York, but I never did. With my father and brothers there, DC, much more than before I left for New York, felt like the place I needed to be.

And it was after that trip to State College, and after my father had survived having a good portion of his intestines removed as well a diagnosis of cancer–for which he declined chemotherapy and subsequently went on to live another ten years–I ended up with a steady job at the office where Heather had been working for a couple of years. Then one morning in early November, while I was sitting at a computer with another person on the staff going over some spreadsheets, Heather peeked in and asked if I wanted to slip out and get lunch in a little bit.

It was at lunch that I learned about that taste you sometimes get in your mouth. Heather had been getting it these last couple of days–that distinctly metallic taste women often get when they’re pregnant. And just that morning, Heather had taken a pregnancy test–and she had looked at it closely to make sure she was seeing it correctly–and the test read positive. Which meant we were about to become parents.

And it was sometime around when Margarita Mei Padua, my daughter was born, that the feeling I had about the name “Padua” being in some kind of limbo began to vanish. I don’t know if it was overnight–maybe it was–but the lack of connection with my own family name was gone. Margarita–named after my later mother–and Padua, the name my father brought here with him from the Philippines. And then when my son, Julien Tuazon was born–with Tuazon, being my father’s middle name–that limbo I lived with for so long now seemed so far in the past.

And it was somewhere around then that I remembered, how when I was young, I was astounded by how little I knew about life. And by the feeling I had deep in my bones that there was still so much more I wanted to know. It’s a feeling I hope I never lose.

-Jose Padua

Going Up the Country

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Standing outside the church in Orange, Virginia, where the funeral for his first wife was just held, my godfather advised me that, “Life. You can never be sure about life. But death. You can be sure about death.” Even though I was only about twelve years old at the time—and even though he spoke them in the most solemn tones imaginable, pausing at all the right places for maximum dramatic effect—I knew that these words of his were far from the most profound I’d ever hear in my life. In fact, I knew that what he’d just said was as useless as a pile of horseshit to a city boy.

Which was what I was, a city boy. A city boy, who for the first time had gone out to where his friends would go whenever they said they were going “to the country” for the weekend. That “the country” had an actual name—Orange, Virginia—I didn’t know until that day. But what I did already know, or at any rate what I felt, was that my godfather, even though he was some sort of respected figure in our corner of the Philippine community in DC, was as far as I could tell something of a flake, at best. And at worst, maybe even a phony.

What did I know? I was twelve years old. But what I saw didn’t impress me. He was maybe sixty years old, a Filipino man in possession of a certain measure of elegance, a man whose attention to each detail of his movements seemed to clash with the rough demeanor of his white, American wife. She was loud, he was soft-spoken. She was fat, he was thin. She was from the country, he was from another country. All that was beside the point, because what I noticed above all and what bothered me was his apparent lack of affection for her.

She was a drunk. I’d hear stories from my parents about how she’d be gone at night for hours, then would come back beaten and bruised from wherever it was she went. It was after one of these episodes when she came home and passed out, and by the time my godfather finally checked on her she was cold and still. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended. Hers was the first dead body I ever saw. And going out to Orange, Virginia for the funeral with my Dad was the first time I ever went out into the country—or at least it the first time I remember going out like that, far from the big city, to the sort of place where, forty years later, I’m now living.

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And the thing was, I kind of liked her. Her name was Tammie. She was a coarse, unrefined, double-wide sort of woman with a big raspy laugh who never failed to look you in the eyes, while my godfather always seemed to be looking somewhere else and wishing he were somewhere else and with someone else. I certainly liked Tammie more than I liked my godfather, who was never the sort of person I’d turn to for advice, guidance, and all those other tools for living a godfather was supposed to be able to provide. And even though Tammie was no beauty at that point, I could tell by her eyes, by her cheeks, and by those stray moments when she’d hold her chin up high as if everyone looked like shit next to her, that she was once stunning.

And I could tell because the daughter Tammie and my godfather had, the daughter who was the mother of the earliest friends I remember, had the most beautiful eyes. Small, shy, and quiet, she was framed more like her father than her mother, but one thing she got from Tammie were those eyes, eyes that even when they were looking off into the distance made you think she was actually looking at you. That daughter’s marriage also broke up, and I wondered if the fifties, when my friends and I were born, was just some hot and heavy time when everything was loose up until that moment when someone got pregnant, after which it was time to get down to the business of raising the child. A business some of them weren’t prepared or were reluctant to get into. Of course, then, their choices were more limited, in a lot of ways. Or at any rate, a choice was a lot harder to come by.

Then, one night last summer, as Heather, Maggie, Julien and I were heading down to Main Street where Maggie’s voice and piano teacher would be performing outdoors at the Gazebo, Maggie noticed something on the side of the front porch steps. And what she saw were two big leopard slugs, and the leopard slugs were doing it. Seeing two creatures in the act isn’t all that unusual a thing, but leopard slugs are a different matter altogether. These slugs are all hermaphrodites, and when two slugs get together they lick each other for awhile, after which these two long and slimy white penises emerge from each slug and begin to intertwine; after sperm is exchanged, each slug can go off and lay its eggs. That’s when things are going nicely. Sometimes, though, they have difficulty separating. That’s when one or sometimes both slugs will chew off the other’s penis.

As Heather, Maggie, and I were watching this take place of the side of our front steps, Maggie kept saying, “Oh my God!” She was grossed out and didn’t understand what the slugs were doing, but at the same time she couldn’t stop watching them.

When the slugs were done, we finally started moving down the sidewalk. Maggie kept asking, “What were they doing? What were they doing?”

I briefly considered saying, “Life. You can never be sure about life…,” except I’d adapt it to the situation at hand: “But making babies. You can be sure about making babies.” That, I realized almost immediately, would be just as lame as what I’d been told forty years earlier. Because after a life lived together, even if it didn’t turn out the way he’d wanted it to, there had to be something better to say. Something to say to me, his godchild. Something to pass on to the younger generation.

As it was, neither Heather nor I were quite ready to explain to Maggie what the slugs were doing. To say that sometimes, whether it’s people or animals, things get kind of weird and messy and unpleasant. “It’s kind of a grown up thing,” Heather finally explained. Then we continued walking down the street.

As we got closer, we wondered why we still couldn’t hear the music from the Gazebo, then wondered if the show had been cancelled, or brought indoors because of the possibility of thunderstorms. But we kept on walking.

This photograph shows Maggie, in silhouette, standing on the corner at the point where we started to hear the music.

-Jose Padua

Brief Moments at the Oasis

DeweyBeach

On the way to pick Maggie up from her weaving class, I slowed down on Chester St as the car ahead of me suddenly slowed down as if the driver were about to turn—though he didn’t use his signal—onto the parking lot behind the Gazebo. But instead of turning he drove past the entrance to the parking lot and toward the curb. Thinking he was just going to double park, I started moving around him when he suddenly started pulling out into the middle of the street. Again, I stopped my car. When, after a moment, he didn’t move, I started moving ahead. That was when he suddenly started backing up into the entrance to the parking lot, then stopped again. I drove all the way to the left to get around him and looked out the passenger side window. He was this grimy, forty or so year old guy with a bushy moustache who to me looked like a strung-out, small town version of Freebo, the bushy haired, bushy mustached session musician who played bass for Bonnie Raitt for much of the 70s.

I’d always thought Freebo was cool. He looked like the fun guy in the band, the guy who knew how to party and get wild without being scary. That he was also one of the musicians in the band during the “Black Death” skit Richard Pryor did during the brief run of his 1977 TV show made Freebo seem even cooler to me. This was the skit where Pryor, dressed in a P-Funk inspired costume, fronts a heavy metal band which brings the crowd to a frenzy before actually gunning them down. It was the skit that I watched with my mother who, when it was over, said approvingly that it “was far out.” It was also a skit that would be hard to pull off nowadays.

As for the small town Freebo I encountered, he wasn’t cool. I don’t know if he was drunk or just inconsiderate, but when I looked over to him he didn’t say something like “Sorry, couldn’t make up my mind where I wanted to go” or even “Go ahead around me.” No, what he said, drawn out by his pancake-tongued, southern drawl, was “Fuuuuuuckkkk Yooooooouuuuu.”

That wasn’t surprising. Small towns do have a lot of warm, pleasant people, but they’ve also got more than their share of people who, whether they’re racists or just small-minded clowns who think they’re protecting their small town turf by being belligerent to anyone they think is an “outsider,” are total assholes. Anyone painting some pleasant picture of small town America as some quaint, beautiful, totally welcoming world is tripping like the Summer of Love never ended.

But what was surprising was what I did after my small town Freebo said, “Fuck you” to me. Or rather, what was surprising was what I didn’t do. And what I didn’t do was answer him with my own barrage of Fuck Yous or Go To Hells. No, I didn’t reply at all—I just looked at him the way I’d look at something that was far in the distance even though his car was just a foot away from mine. I just looked at him and drove off.

Now, it wasn’t because I had Julien in his car seat behind me that kept me quiet. Time after time on the road, I’ve let loose with fabulous angry curses, even with Maggie and Julien in the car, and just a couple of weeks ago, I remember, I was freaking out about nearly everything. And the fact is, I don’t really know what kept me calm. But what I began to wonder was that if somehow a sense of contentment was something that could blindside you just like all the bad things. That a sense of distance from whatever disturbs you can sneak up on you like a breeze from off the ocean, and that wisdom and the sense of perspective it brings move toward you in subtle, and beautiful ways.

Or maybe I just wasn’t fucking awake enough to yell back at that country motherfucker. I’d woken up half an hour earlier from taking a nap with Julien (my insomnia the previous night had allowed only about two hours of sleep) and I was still moving kind of slow. My brain was probably moving pretty damn slow, too.

This photograph of Maggie and Heather was taken a few years ago on the sand outside the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach, Delaware. This spot, distant enough from the noise coming from the bar and back deck of the Rusty Rudder, always seems to fill me with a sense of contentment. And it fills me with this in ways that are subtle and beautiful.

-Jose Padua

History as Written on a Dining Room Wall, or Notes on an Old Photograph from Home

A group of about 30 people, ranging in age from very young to very old, pose outside a church behind a casket adorned with wreaths and candles. Inside the casket lies the recently deceased, an old man. It’s probably right before the funeral, though it’s hard to say—in those days the period of mourning could last a long time, with family and friends gathered for days and days at the home of the deceased. I imagine that back then time probably stood still with a little more frequency than today, and that when it was time to pose for the photograph, the silence was welcome: it gave you the opportunity to pause, to catch your breath. To turn away from other faces with all their words and worries and just look through the comfort of stillness at the cool, clear lens of a camera.

This photo of a gathering of mourners was sent from the Philippines to my father in Washington, DC nearly sixty years ago—several years before I was born here in the states. Written on the back in blue fountain pen ink are the words, “This photo was taken during the funeral of our grandfather Enoy in front of the Agat Church last Jan. 23, 1953, with the family.” Enoy, dressed in white with what was probably his favorite hat lying at his feet, is not one of my relatives as far as I know. But the man to the right of the coffin—crouched down, his hair combed back, and looking away from the camera—is one of my father’s brothers, my uncle.

Right away I can see the family resemblance—the high forehead, like my father and I have; the high cheeks; the straight, half plaintive, half stoic line of the mouth. Or is it a mouth that’s about to break out into the festive sneer of some island version of Elvis Presley? I have scores and scores of relatives in the Philippines whom I’ve never met—or even more, what I imagine to be a baseball field full of uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, and nieces.

Here in the states the only people I ever called “Uncle” or “Aunt,” and whom I saw regularly and who knew us well enough to come to our door anytime unannounced, were actually only cousins—cousins once or twice removed (and here I must say that the whole system of designating cousins as first or second, or once or twice removed, etc., etc, baffles me like the higher forms of mathematics I used to understand in my younger years). Cousin—the word even by itself, without all the modifiers, never fails to bring a confused expression to my face. It may as well be a word in Tagalog or any of the other languages of the Philippines that I never got around to learning when I was growing up. Indeed, it’s one of those words that gives me the feeling of being lost.

In the photo, the expression on my uncle’s face speaks of sadness, certainly, but the far away look in his eyes seems to indicate something other than grief. Others in the photo look like they’re trying to hold their heads high in an admirable show of strength; they’re not afraid of the reality of a deceased loved one lying so close to them that all they have to do is lift an arm and extend a finger to touch his cold, stiff body. Unabashed grief I see clearly only in a few of those in the photo, such as the woman in the center, behind the coffin, whose eyes look at the camera with something approaching abandonment. Fear I see in the young girl standing behind the coffin to the right. It’s a look of a child understanding for the first time that thing she doesn’t want to understand.

All this, of course, is simply my interpretation. I could be way off. The little girl may simply have a stomach ache, while those who are standing strong and tall may be the ones most filled with fear. My uncle may be the one most overcome by grief for his older friend, or he may be looking away simply because he needs to catch his breath on a hot day in this tropical country. It could be this or it could be that, and it sometimes occurs to me that the interpretation of the past is something akin to the interpretation of dreams—which is to say that despite whatever facts one may have, one’s past can only be recalled through the subjective filter of years and distance.

My  96 year old father, recently interviewed by my 8-year old daughter Maggie for a school project, remembers that back in the barrio of San Carlos, Pangasinan Province, The Philippines, “life was good. We had plenty to eat—fish, rice, fruits. We had lots of friends—everyone in the barrio was your friend. We played baseball.” I imagine that in the photograph are a number of those my father counts among his friends from those days. And even though I’ve never met a single person in the photo, I feel that somehow I’m connected to it.

Yes, connected rather than lost in face of it; and even though each is a complete stranger to me, they are my people. People: family and friends who shared simple meals along with big feasts and a love of baseball, the bats swung and bases run during what I imagine were warm, humid days. Playing until the tropical day turned dark in a remote part of my past. All this in a photo taken so many decades ago, in a country I’ve never visited. Such is the connection that comes from our common bloodlines.

But the funny thing is, if I were suddenly transported to the Philippines right now through some science fiction portal, or swept away by a great wind like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to the Never Never Land of the Philippines, I would have no idea where to go, no idea who I should contact, and, above all, no idea how to survive.

Although I often feel like some sort of alien being here, in the Shenandoah Valley, beamed down from the mothership—or was I kicked off of the mothership for my bad attitude or just for drawing the short stick?—to a part of the country that will always feel a little strange to me, I have to say that I know more about surviving here than I do about surviving in the land of my ancestors. And ancestry and origin and blood connection be damned, I’ll never know more about there than I do about here. Any romantic notion about being able to go back to the homeland, to my roots—well, that’s all it is, a notion dreamt up by some out-of-touch inner travel agent who in truth has no idea how to be anyplace other than America. Because if I ever go there, I’ll be going as a tourist, and, like it or not, that’s really all I can ever be there (or at least for a very, very long time).

A week ago, at the Martin’s grocery store on Rte. 55, in town, where the John Marshall Highway becomes South Street, I saw a group of about eight or nine Filipino men and women, wearing ATF caps and shirts, who were speaking Tagalog as they walked up and down the aisles. They didn’t, however, appear to be ATF agents, and were probably people whose duties were administrative. Or at any rate, they lacked that slow, deliberate strut you often see from various paramilitary types,who, aside from being utterly humorless, also look like they’re just itching for someone to make a false move so they have the excuse to fuck someone up. No, this group seemed relaxed, casual. And, by no means is this meant as an insult, normal. But again, I could be wrong, and maybe any one of them could have seen me display one of my weirder Tourette’s tics, gotten alarmed, and had me face down on the ground in a full nelson in two seconds.

Still, whenever I can, if I see people in these parts whose blood origins are close to mine, I try to acknowledge them somehow. I try to at least welcome them to this place with a nod and a grin of recognition—it feels like something I’m obliged to do. I want to tell them that yes, even though we’re vastly outnumbered, there are people like them who live here. And, I want to show solidarity with them against the people here in the valley who see people like us and immediately wonder if we’re illegal aliens or if we’re taking jobs away from them or if we’re primitive brutes.

When I went to the checkout to pay for my groceries, I found myself in line right behind them. I smiled and nodded to a few of them, and they smiled and nodded back, but I didn’t try to talk to them. Even though they likely would have understood and spoken English very well, it seems so lame that that’s the only language I have in common with them. So I just flashed a smile and gave them a swift nod of recognition so as not to reveal that any sense of affinity I have with them is perhaps superficial at best—and, at worst, imaginary.

My grandfather was a farmer of sugar cane, rice, and peanuts. My father and his brothers helped him cut the sugar cane, and they plowed the fields using two carabaos. Carabaos are a kind of water buffalo that are crucial to farming in the Philippines and are considered one of the country’s national symbols. Me, I’ve never seen a live carabao—my acquaintance with them is only through the wood carvings of them we had around the house when I was growing up. Carabaos are all part of a world far removed from anything I’ve experienced myself. A world I easily recognize but have never been a part of.

Here, in the Shenandoah valley, it’s nearly summer—that is, if you’re old school like me and mark the beginning of the season with the summer solstice. But  it’s been feeling like summer for nearly a month now. Out here I often find myself on roads with names like the John Marshall Highway, the Zachary Taylor Highway, and Jubal Early Drive. A few days ago I was on Lee Highway,  just outside of Washington, Virginia in Rappahannock County. I find myself in Rappahannock County pretty frequently nowadays, and sometimes in Page and Clarke Counties. Most often I’m in Warren County, where I live. These were counties I used to hear about on the weather report when they’d talk about a storm making its way to DC, areas that were so far away that sometimes a storm would dissipate before it got to DC, places that as far as I was concerned might as well be as distant as the Philippines.

And maybe that’s why, despite Tagalog being spoken in my home when I was a child, that I never learned the language. The way I saw it back then, the Philippines was a storm that might not make its way to me and maybe I was betting that it wouldn’t—that when I became an adult I would somehow not be a Filipino (or an Asian-American as we were eventually called) but simply an American. Because even when I was a small child living in a fairly diverse city, one thing I understood was that looking like the people who were in the majority would be so much easier. So much easier than being the kid a lot of adults described as a “foreigner” or as an “oriental.” So much easier than being asked “Where are you from?” so often that my answer to that question became angrier and angrier. And of course it would be so much easier if people looked at me, wherever I was in America, and immediately assumed that I belonged. And that, no I’m not lost. I’m home.

As it was, my youthful reluctance to embrace my heritage left me ill-prepared to embrace it as an adult. And even though I embrace it now, there’s still a part of me that like a frightened child wonders what would it have been like to disappear into the majority. To live in the less cosmopolitan, less diverse part of the country I live in now and still at least look like I could belong.

Yesterday heavy rains brought flooding from here, the northern Shenandoah Valley, all the way to east of DC. On the television Jim Vance, from DC’s Channel 4, saw the name Happy Creek on the far western edge of the weather map, and said something like, “Happy Creek? Where’s Happy Creek. I want to go there!”

Me, I can walk out of the house, go maybe two hundred yards, and I’m there at Happy Creek. I used to be like Jim Vance—the man who has anchored the newscast I’ve watched for most of the last forty years—seeing these names on the far edges of the weather map and being intrigued. All sorts of odd things would go through my head. I’d wonder what I’d see, who I’d see. I’d wonder what life was like and what possibilities were created by the state of being “out there”—at the edge of the map.

And now I’m living those possibilities, driving down that part of the map, going down Rte. 522 in the late evening when the sun approaches the horizon. It’s a time when I seem to be more aware of how we live in an actual valley. That time when the dimming light makes the mountains surrounding us seem more solid, and less distant, against the Shenandoah sky. It’s during moments like these when I feel less like an unwanted tourist and more like someone who, though he may not exactly belong here, has somehow found a home here.

Earlier tonight I dropped off Heather and Maggie at Dancin’ Downtown, the Front Royal event where they close the intersection of Main and Chester streets on a Saturday night and have a band play for several hours. We could have all gone, but Julien had been recovering from an ear infection, so we thought it best not to keep him out too late.

When we got there we saw that they hadn’t closed down the intersection after all, and that the event was a lot smaller than in past years. Maggie looked at the crowd and was incredibly disappointed.

“Look at them, they’re just standing there,” she cried. “Nobody’s dancing!”

Still, she wanted to go, and we assured her that even though it was a much smaller event this year, things would get a little more lively later in the evening.

After I dropped them off I made a quick stop with Julien at the Martin’s for milk and diapers. Inside, I ran into George, the man who lived across the street from us for a year and who thirty or so years ago lived in the house we live in now. In fact, he was the person who built the back porch and kitchen for our house. The first time I saw him he looked, to me, like a country version of film director Nicholas Ray—especially the way Ray looked when he played a cameo in Wim Wenders’s film, The American Friend. George was shopping with an elderly woman I’ve never seen before and introduced me to her by saying I was one of people now living in house they used to live in.

“Oh, I love that house,” she said. “I wish I were still there.” George nodded in agreement.

“I live up the hill by the hospital, now,” he said. “I hate it there.”

I asked why he had to move from across the street, and he explained how the woman who owns the house wanted to move her daughter into it. I then told him how the daughter and her boyfriend are pretty nasty people and how they bombard the neighborhood with noise from their home stereo and their car stereos, and are always blocking other people’s driveways with the five different cars they seem to own.

“Oh yeah,” George said, “She’s a nasty one. But she ain’t worth a hill of cotton.”

Then he laughed and patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, even though I was the person living in the house where he used to live—the house which, if things had gone differently for him, would still be his.

When we moved to this small town and bought this house nearly five years ago, we had no idea that we’d regularly be running into people who were part of its history. Any other place I’ve lived, the only sign of the people who used to live there would come in the form of mail—those envelopes on which I’d write “No longer at this address” and leave for the postman to pick up again. Now, in this small town, I’ve found that history could be right across the street, or at the grocery store, or even closer: George’s family name is painted on one of the walls in the basement, while a wall in one of the closets upstairs has a message—from one of George’s young daughters, now grown up, of course—that’s addressed to whomever may live in the house in the future. The message: Greetings.

Maggie, too, has written quite a bit—not in one of the closets, however, but on the dining room wall. There, underneath the penciled in lines showing how much she’s grown, is the brief story of how we came here when she was four, nearly five years ago. It’s a story about this house, about what she does here, about the friends she’s made here. It’s a story that’s intended for future residents of this house. And she’s determined that the future residents of this house will be her own children or grandchildren.

Maggie doesn’t remember much of the other places we used to live. Indeed, the most vivid memories of her childhood, the ones that she’s most likely to take into adulthood, will be from here. And even on bad days—days of heavy rains, days of horrible noise, days when there’s no dancing—Maggie feels it. And whenever we ask her, she says she never wants to move away from here.

Because even though I don’t always feel it, this town feels like home to her.

-Jose Padua

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Title  photo courtesy of Pat Padua.