The Shape I’m In

I have never had what anyone in his
or her right mind would call a bitchin’ bod.
I have never been what anyone who wasn’t incredibly drunk
would refer to as a hunk or grand specimen of American manhood,
because like the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow
my status as simply specimen is rarely debated in the country
of my birth. Though I have consumed many a six pack over the years,
I have never had six pack abs, and of course the reason for that
may have something to do with all the six packs I drank
and is, I think, the subject of several other poems—no,
not this one. The only time I ever had sexy buns was for eight hours
one Saturday night when I lived in New York and had purchased
pork buns from Chinatown, but somehow wasn’t hungry
by the time I got them home. I was asleep for most of those hours,
and it was the middle of a Lower East Side winter and the heat
in my apartment that night was up so high, after being completely out
for a week, that I couldn’t help but feel sexy, knowing I had pork buns
in my tiny fridge. But like a tree falling in the forest when there’s
no one there to hear it, there was no one for me to talk to,
no one to see my chest, expanding and contracting, breathing in warm
Manhattan air, then breathing it out—no landlord, who went home after getting
the heat fixed, gathering his rent checks like drug money;
no drunks drinking next to me; no addicts shooting up in the hallway;
no partyers partying anywhere near me, not even at Save the Robots,
the afterhours joint down the street from me; indeed,
with everyone in the universe but my landlord seemingly
unaware of my warmth, can that really be called sexy?
I had a dream that night, which I’ve long since forgotten,
and a job, from which I was laid off the following spring;
yet I was alive, in love with the world, and making incredible
sound.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua


Guns and Cleavage

Photo by Jose PaduaThese past two weeks whenever I walk by the magazine rack
at the supermarket down the street I’ve noticed that there’s always
a magazine that’s been flipped over so the ad on the back is displayed
and not the cover on which, when I first turned it around, was a photograph
of model Kate Upton revealing a generous amount of cleavage on the cover
of what turned out to be the October issue of Vanity Fair and I gathered
that the person or persons who keep turning the magazine over face down
are one of the many folks in this small conservative town who are probably
scandalized, outraged, offended by so much exposed flesh. Me, I’m not bothered
by it at all, because to me flesh is something divine and mystical and whatever
reminds me of this is never offensive and never indecent, and even if you
think it immodest I find other things much more disturbing in the grand scheme
of living in cities or villages, towns or country roads, or hidden clearings
in unmapped and unknown forests on a planet with over seven billion
other human beings, so last night, after turning the magazine over, cleavage side up,
I walked down to the next rack of magazines to where a stack of Guns & Ammo:
“The World’s Most Widely Read Firearms Magazine” was displayed, and I turned
the magazine over only to find that on the back cover, unlike Vanity Fair—where
there was an ad for perfume—was an ad featuring more pictures of guns and rifles
and automatic weapons, so I found a nearby copy of Field and Stream, which just had
a picture of a moose on the cover, and I put that on top of the pile of Guns & Ammo
only to see that next to it was a stack of Guns magazine (just guns, no ammo), and
next to that a stack of Handguns magazine, and figuring that the moose on the cover
of Field & Stream probably got shot right after the photo was taken, I decided to just
give up on this sad protest, and I got in line to pay for my baby wipes and brown rice
and yogurt in a world where too many people believe in the divinity of guns and
the indignity of cleavage and breasts and flesh and goddamn true love and all the
other things that keep us alive without killing something else first.

-Jose Padua

A poem first written about six years ago.

Still Life with Uranus in the Chapel of Love

Be still like a knife on the table after late
dinner with rice and lamb and grapes. The
curtains are not yet drawn over the breezy
spring windows and lamplight from the
street illuminates dimly the faint yellow
of the stucco walls. Listen: the star tango’s
accordion vibrates through blue smoke. We
breathe in the smoke and sound until our
lungs hurt, until when the storm covers the
city center with rain and electricity, and our
arms tighten as if struck, and our backs bend
as if breaking, and our mouths are pried open
with indelicacy and the neighbors pound
on the walls with their hands as we sing.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua. Originally published in Pea River Journal.

Further Notes on the Visible Distance in Memory of Suzanne Davis

The first night Heather and I spent together, she slept in her upstairs room in the group house she lived in while I slept downstairs on the living room sofa. It was winter. We weren’t quite a couple yet, but I knew something was there. So, even though she was upstairs sleeping and I was downstairs, it already felt as if we were together. In the morning, I walked her to the bus stop on 16th street and waited with her for the city bus downtown, where she would catch another bus taking her to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a party celebrating her mother’s 50th birthday. Although Heather had talked about her mother before, I’m pretty sure that was when I found out her name was Suzanne.

Later that year, in the spring, Heather and I rented a car and drove up to Pennsylvania for a wedding and to visit with her family. The Davises were living at an old farmhouse by a two-lane highway back then. There was a dilapidated swimming pool covered with an orange tarp—or maybe it was some kind of faded green. From what I understood, it hadn’t been used in a long time, but there was a long front porch, and I immediately thought that if I had grown up there I would have spent a lot of time on that porch, watching the traffic go by during the day, and listening to the crickets and owls or whatever creatures might have been spending their nights sleepless like me.

Walking into the house with Heather, we headed straight for the kitchen. Suzanne was sitting at an oval, wooden table, with children coming in and out. Heather’s brother Brent was eight; her brother Tim, six. Her six foot five brother Bryan was 25, I think. After that I lost track of the ages. Also in the house were sisters Kara, and Sarah, and Kara’s infant son, Ethan. Not at the house were Heather’s brother Jeff, and sister Jenni, but from what I saw at the farmhouse was evidence that Heather did, indeed, come from a big family. My own mother had died two years earlier—Heather never got to meet her—but with Suzanne, I once again had a mother in my life.

She was a good, kind person and all that, of course, which wasn’t surprising. But what was interesting was that despite her not being one to seek any kind of spotlight, her presence in any room was deeply felt. You might not have been paying attention to her the entire time you were a room with her, but as soon as she spoke or just moved, that’s where everyone’s attention would be—as if you all you were doing and your great purpose for the moment was to wait for what Suzanne would say or do next.

Suzanne was also someone you felt safe with. I remember one time, riding in the family van with Heather, and her brothers Brent and Tim (when they were still just kids), we somehow got into a discussion of who loved whom.

“Do you love Heather?” Brent asked Suzanne.

“Of course,” she answered.

“Do you love Tim?”

“Yes.”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes.”

“Do love Jose?”

“Yes, Jose too.”

At that point, some car ran a stop sign in front of us, but Suzanne managed to brake and avoid hitting the reckless driver.

“Did you see that?” Brent said. “We almost got killed while we were busy lovin’ each other!”

“Yes, but we’re fine,” Suzanne said. And we were and we felt safe. All of us.

In more recent times Suzanne, even though she was more on the conservative side and religious, would often express her utter dislike of Donald Trump. She wasn’t one to fall for all the bullshit a lot of other people did. I know, you’re not supposed to get political in times like this, but the political is the way forward. Our politics speak of the way we conduct ourselves and plan for the future and future generations. Indeed, there is no future without political efforts. Suzanne’s politics were, ultimately, about sharing (though that didn’t mean you could take the last slice of pie or whatever it was she was saving for herself in the fridge).

Unlike a lot of so-called Christians today, she was not as concerned about someone getting something they didn’t earn as she was about someone not getting what they needed. I’m pretty sure she also understood that there were a lot more people not getting what they needed than there were people who got things they didn’t work for. I know, some people might say I’m turning her into a radical socialist like me now that she’s gone. But the truth is that as she got older, she woke up more and more to the times.

This isn’t to say that she became something of a liberal craft-making hippie woman in these last years. It wasn’t that long ago that I remember her asking me, “Are you still writing those things?”—meaning was I still writing poetry. As she said “things” I could almost sense her catching an uncomfortable chill from the word she didn’t want to say.

“Yes,” I answered. “I’m still writing them. I’m writing a lot of them. Haven’t you ever read any poetry you liked?”

“Well, maybe a few that Gary wrote for me,” she said—Gary being her husband/Heather’s dad.

“Well, maybe give some others a try,” I said. Of course I knew that my own book, with its gritty poems about my drunken days, was the sort of poetry she wouldn’t like. But I was fine with that.

And I loved the way she avoided saying the word “poem” as if it were the smelliest shit in the universe. That, although she didn’t realize it at the time, was in itself poetic. And, although the thought and possibility probably never occurred to her, she leaves behind an almost immeasurable amount of poetry that lives on and on. Because poetry isn’t just words, it’s more like a state of grace, an interruption in the basic structure of subject and predicate that moves you into spaces you didn’t know existed. I will feel that poetry in my bones for a long time to come, just as those who’ve come after Heather and me—our daughter, our son—carry it off toward some gloaming light in the faintly visible distance.

-Jose Padua

Gibberish, Hallucination, Paranoia, and the Long Way Out of Town

Photograph by Jose Padua

from June 9, 2012

I can’t remember the quick way out of town anymore, and while we were stuck in traffic on North Capitol Street this morning, we saw this man standing at the entrance to this building, which is listed as the address of the Ida Mae Campbell Wellness & Resource Center. From behind the man looked like he was perhaps a businessman or even a doctor, but as we waited in traffic he remained at the door, and after a moment I could see that he was staring at a sign above the doorknob. When he turned around briefly, I could see he had a totally blank expression on his face, the look of someone who is far beyond just being lost. Then he turned back around to stare at the sign.

The DC Department of Mental Health lists The Ida Mae Campbell center as a resource, but this building has also recently been listed as on the market, so it may be that the wellness center no longer operates in this building. This reminds me of when I was in high school and worked in a church rectory which in the evening was a place where homeless men and women could see a social worker from the local St. Vincent dePaul Society. On occasion the social worker wouldn’t show up, and I’d have a waiting room full of homeless and mostly mentally ill people needing assistance. Since the priests weren’t to be bothered with this task, I had to talk to them and tell them there was no one there to help. I didn’t like having to tell them there was no one there to help, but as for time I spent talking to them, that was one of greatest educational experiences of my life. Because it was then that I realized that, hidden within the gibberish, the hallucinations, the paranoia, and all the other things so far removed from reality were some great truths and observations about the world.

This is not, mind you, that romantic view of madness as a thing that frees the mind to see things that the sane mind neglects. What’s often missed with this view is that madness takes a lot of work. These men and women had no homes and no jobs, but no one can tell me they weren’t working. With all the things they had going through their minds—the enormity of which I got a sense of from talking to them and which I know of somewhat through my own relatively minor issues—no one can tell me that what they go through isn’t hard labor.

And just as great wisdom can be found in a book five hundred pages long, you can also find it in that brief snippet of clarity from a man who’s so far gone he can barely stand still without his eyes going wild over everything that surrounds him, from a woman who can say everything that needs to be said in response to the question “How are you?” with a simple “I sell flowers on the street.” Just like the five hundred page book, it took a lot of work and a lot of years to be able to say “I sell flowers on the street.”

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

No Side to Fall in and Other Distractions Great and Small

Photograph by Jose Padua
That night, after dinner on one of those days when the cold and snow had kept us inside for what seemed too long a time, we found ourselves sitting around the dining room table listening to some old songs. (We were still living in the Shenandoah Valley, then, in our hundred year old house. Maggie, our daughter was only ten; our son Julien, three—Heather and I were a little younger, too, of course.) Normally, my obsessive compulsive mind requires that we clear the table, put the food away, and wash the dishes before we do these things, but there we were with the rice and roast pork, the squash, the pitcher of water, and our plates and silverware all still in front of us, and in the middle of this, the laptop set to YouTube on which we took turns picking songs to play.

Heather had remembered the old Bauhaus song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which Maggie found too spooky (she was beginning to move away from her fascination with ghosts and such and on to other things) But she still hadn’t lost her affection for more dramatic songs, and when it was her turn she chose the Pet Shop Boys—with special guest Dusty Springfield—singing “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” a song I first played for her several years earlier and which Julien had grown to like as well. When it was my turn, I chose the Raincoats’ “No Side to Fall In”—a quick, beautiful song from 1979 that’s part cacophony and part harmony and goes,

I… I hear the music outside
And I am the music inside
Inside… inside… inside

No side to fall in
No fall to live until
My mind… my mind…
Is still… is still…

My mind, my life
My mind…
I don’t mind… today
Today… today… today…

We all listened closely, but Julien was particularly entranced, and as soon as it was over he said, “More Side! More Side!” So, given that it was Julien’s turn to pick a song, we played it again. I imagine that first time I put the Raincoats first album (on which this is the first song) onto the turntable, that I may have done the same thing and immediately played this song again—though with a turntable what I had to do was pick up the tone arm then lower back it down at the outer edge of the LP. Now all we need to do is press replay or rewind, though on occasion, when I’m not in a rush, I’ll pull out the old LP and lay it down on the turntable to get that full recorded sound you can only get from the relatively primitive technology of a needle winding its way through the groove on a vinyl record.

When it was my turn again, I picked “Geno” from Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ wonderful first LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. Whenever I heard something from this record, I couldn’t help seeing in my mind the image that adorns the album’s cover—a photograph of a young Irish Catholic boy carrying his suitcase after being forced to leave his home during the British army’s Operation Demetrius in Northern Ireland. What Maggie thought of when she heard this song was a much happier thing, because this time when I played the song she explained how she remembered the first time I played it for her.

“It was before school one morning,” she said. “You were sitting with Julien at the dining room table. I was sitting on the other side of the table, eating some leftover barbeque chicken tenders, when you put this song on!”

As always, I was amazed by the details Maggie remembered. And though I, too, retain details like this, I don’t think I do it as to the degree she does. Over the years, I know there are so many things I’ve lost—all that science I once knew, the mathematics I once understood, as well all the images and particulars, the names and faces that are now gone.

Still, I remember more than a lot of people. Talking to friends, I’ll sometimes mention people we both knew, and they’ll be completely gone from their memory. I’ll say how we did this or that with them, but they don’t even register as ghosts—which makes these seem like instances of what I sometimes call tiny deaths. That chipping away at our existence, and a continual diminishing of our presence in the world that continues until the big one comes along.

And though I may speak from time to time about the possible existence of the soul or something like it, I’m not at all confident about these things and I’m not about to blindly partake of some religious vision of an afterlife. But neither am I about to completely shut the door as to the possibilities of such things. All of which is to say that this is part of why I am obsessed with telling these stories and putting down as many of the details as I can manage to drag up from the depths of my memory. That I seem to be even more obsessed with memory and the defiance of death right now is because February was once a month I associated only with the ending of things. That changed when, on Valentine’s Day in 1996, Heather and I became a couple. That’s why now, during the month of February, I try to think, as much as I can, about today.

Today…

TODAY.

The photograph above was taken in the late afternoon on Valentine’s day, 2014. We were driving down Route 522 north of Front Royal on a stretch of highway which, depending on where you are, is called either Winchester Road, Front Royal Pike, or Stonewall Jackson Highway. Suddenly, on that drive, Maggie said, “Look at those clouds—they sort of look like UFOs!”

“Where? WHERE?” I asked.

“There,” Maggie answered. Of course, I didn’t know where “there” was, so I just kept looking until I spotted them. Then, to satisfy my obsessions, I had to find a place to stop. Heather and Julien, by now, have learned to make accommodations for them, while Maggie seems to be partaking and, now, even surpassing me in accumulating one obsession after another.

I stepped out of the car, looked over to the west, then took a photograph. And then another and another. Until, finally, I felt that I’d taken enough. That there were plenty of images in my camera and in my mind. Then I got into the car and—with my family beside me—we headed back home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Close Encounter with a Prius Repellent and Other Ways of Living Under the Milky Night of Stars

Larry Yates in April 2017

One way to tell that summer had begun in these parts was by the number of Confederate flags that were out and about again—on pickup trucks, motorcycles, flying from front porches in celebration of the season of warm weather in America. Of course there were some who refrained from displaying the rebel battle flag and for whom the good old stars and stripes was more than enough, such as the SUV we saw one day that proudly bore a bumper sticker with the standard United States flag and the words “Does my American flag offend you? Dial 1-800-LEAVE-USA.” The bumper sticker was new to me, then—four years ago—so the words that went through my head were “What the fuck is this idiotic shit?” Words I might not have been able to refrain from saying out loud had my daughter Maggie–who was twelve at the time—not had her friend Anna with us in our car on the way to Winchester. Words which I did, however, end up saying more and more over the past four and a half years.

That day started pleasantly enough. My wife Heather was using a present from Christmas finally and took herself and Maggie for a pedicure at a local spa. To read during her appointment she brought along Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which she was having another go at. In the middle of her session she looked over to Maggie to see what she was reading and was surprised to see her reading about things like disaster capitalism and the 1974 U.S./Henry Kissinger master-minded coup that put Augusto Pinochet in place in Chile—she was reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

I suppose that with the presidential election upon us—and having heard me speak of my high school classmate whose father was assassinated by Pinochet’s forces right across the street from where my own father worked, and having heard Heather and me discuss how galling it was to hear a supposed progressive politician like Hillary Clinton speak glowingly of the aforementioned war criminal Henry Kissinger—that Maggie might have wanted to get some background information on all of this. She might  not have understood everything in The Shock Doctrine, and it certainly wasn’t “feel-good” reading, but I was more than glad that she’d taken such great interest in learning about the world and how it works.

When we got to Winchester, we went to the downtown walking mall on Loudon Street, which was busy with people out for the holiday weekend. Our son Julien was happy to be running around past the shops and chasing after Anna and his big sister. In one photograph I took that day, though, he was taking a pause from the chase, and giving someone his old side-eye look. It was something he did quite often in our years out there. In Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley there were some nice people—like the writer Joe Bageant, who wrote a lot about inequality and the working poor in America. He went off to the west coast when he was a young man, but later in life returned to Winchester—the “bigoted, murderous redneck town I grew up in”—to kick some ass. We got to meet him a few years a few years before he died, and then some other good folks who lived on and were our friends the entire time we lived out there. But there were always those “bigoted, murderous” types you had to watch out for. And soon after I took that picture, we encountered some of them.

We were leaving the walking mall—crossing Piccadilly Street with Maggie, Anna, and Julien holding hands as they walked—when we passed by one of those pickup trucks equipped with smoke stacks waiting to turn onto Piccadilly. Sometimes called “Prius Repellents,” these trucks can let loose with clouds of noxious black smoke that for the asshole occupants of these vehicles are a protest statement against liberals, tree-huggers, Obama, etc., and as we walked past them they started jeering at us. Heather and I figured out that seeing Maggie and Anna holding hands as they walked past must have looked “gay” to them. And then, with me looking like some illegal alien, and Heather and me together being one of those horrible mixed-race couples, and Maggie and Julien our half-breed children, there was just so much to offend their delicate sensibilities. So when they turned, they let loose with the black smoke—“rolling coal” the act is sometimes called—which engulfed all of us. In other words, they had no reservations about letting the noxious fumes loose on two twelve year old girls, a five year old boy, and a middle-aged couple minding their own business, before roaring off to wherever it is dickheads like them like to spend their Saturday nights.

At the time, I’d never had a close encounter with the smoke from a Prius Repellent, and because I have respiratory issues, I had trouble breathing for few minutes. Julien, aware that something had just happened, asked, “Are those bad guys?”

“Yes,” we answered, aware that he now had a few new faces besides Donald Trump’s to add to the gallery of bad guys.

Luckily, we were just down the block from the Hideaway Café, which was where we going to see a drag show benefitting the theater where Maggie had been taking acting classes. The Hideaway calls itself “a safe space for all our guests, regardless of race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, etc.” and that night, for us, it was precisely that and provided a welcome antidote to the smoke stack pickup truck goons.

It took me a little while to get back in a decent mood, but I did. The drag show helped in that regard, as did Victoria, the woman who runs the Hideaway. What helped even more was running into our friend Larry Yates there. Larry was about ten years older than me, and had been an activist most of his life. He’d even lived in Washington DC for a few years, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I must have crossed paths with him at some point. Maybe at 18th and Columbia Road, back when the neighborhood was scary for all those people from the suburbs. Maybe even at something like the Rock Against Reagan concert at the mall in ’83 when the Dead Kennedys played.

Decades later, in Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley, hanging out with Larry was like having Noam Chomsky to bounce questions off of and learn from (Larry wasn’t a linguist himself, like Chomsky, but his father was). He helped keep our spirits going for the ten years we lived in Front Royal—that scarily conservative town a little bit south of Winchester. It was the sort of place where, when progressive people we met in Winchester found out we lived there would go, “You live in Front Royal? Oh my god!”

When Larry tried to run for the 29th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2013, he was clobbered by the conservative Republican candidate. We all knew that taking down a Republican in the Shenandoah Valley was longshot, but with Larry, you always had hope. He made you believe you could change the backwardness of this this town, this place, this country. I think that’s why news of his death this week from an apparent heart attack hit those of us who knew him so hard. Somehow, we didn’t think anything could stop him. Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, the United States, the world, the universe—none of it’s going to be the same now. There’s always going to be that piece missing—the piece he brought along with him whether he was grumpy, laughing, talking obscure concepts or real life actions. The piece, now gone all loose and lost in the fading of stars in a distance we can’t see.

That night in Winchester, after we left the drag show, we went with Larry back to the walking mall to eat dinner at El Centro, a Mexican restaurant on Boscawen Street. It was a nice, easy-going spot, where we could dine under the early summer skies and we figured we weren’t likely to run into the goons there. It would just be us, feeling like we belonged there.

When we were done, we said goodbye to Larry. We’d been meaning to get together with him like that for some time, but things were always so busy, so hectic, and sometimes so strange and so sad. Sometimes  the hardest thing to do is to find the time and space for an old friend, to just spend an evening talking about the world and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. That night, though, we managed to do that, despite the bad guys that were out there and despite their stupid machines. Then we headed home, down the highway between the slumbering mountains under a milky night of stars, as I slowly—very slowly—began to think of more beautiful things.

-Jose Padua

For the Sun, the Moon, and Everyone, and Everything

Photograph by Jose Padua
Those days when I was socially awkward weren’t
that long ago. After reading James Joyce’s “The Dead”
on my own in high school and feeling illuminated,
lifted, and sad all at once, there was nothing like
asking a girl to the prom for making me feel like
another ordinary asshole or some such shit. I would
have preferred to write a poem and have the girl
accept me or reject me on literary grounds rather
than on my personality or lack thereof; rather than
on my looks or my poor sense of style, but as I would
say years later when I was more likely to say these
things, oh what the fuck? Nowadays, because I’m
a poet I’m expected to be a little odd in some respects.
If I don’t at least twitch a little bit when I’m giving
a reading, or stare at someone as if I’m beholding the
entrance to oblivion, people start to feel a little ripped
off. Nowadays if I write someone a poem it’s flattering
rather than creepy, because poetry is my art and my art
is what’s expected of me, most of the time. So I dedicate
this poem to everyone in the world—to the sun and the
moon and everyone and everything. This doesn’t mean
I am asking anyone to dance, or for anyone’s phone
number or whatever it is people ask for these days. And
this doesn’t mean my feelings have changed, or that my
view of human existence is any more or any less cynical.
But the earth is spinning at around a thousand miles per
hour, and the universe, after how many billions of years,
is still expanding, and this morning I am drinking coffee,
tasting what to me seems the perfect combination of bitter
and sweet, earth and sky. I am astounded once again, by
the beauty of it all, and stirred to the point of giddiness
by that which is both lovely and strange.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Free Bird and a Hundred Other Supposedly Fun Things


That weekend a couple of years ago, the Shenandoah River swelled its banks. Eastham Park, on the west side of town right by the river, was almost completely submerged. Happy Creek, the Shenandoah tributary that runs through the east side of town, was running furiously. It wasn’t quite as imposing as the sight of the Shenandoah expanded to about twice its usual width, but there was something about seeing what’s usually a quiet, almost stagnant body of water raging like a good ole boy drunk on moonshine that made it nearly as fearsome as the river. That weekend wasn’t an occasion to venture getting close to any of this, and distance—either out of respect or fear or practical caution—was the best means of achieving comfort through the storm. That and staying still.

We were on the way back to Front Royal from DC on a Friday evening when it started. We saw this darkness ahead of us on I-66. The kind of darkness that makes calm people say, “It looks like it’s raining cats and dogs up ahead” while the rest of us go, “What the fuck is this shit?” We drove into the storm for a while, but when the rain started coming down so hard we couldn’t see more than a five or ten feet in front of us, it seemed like a good time to look for a way off the interstate. Luckily, we were close to the exit to Marshall, so I took it. Just driving down Main Street in Marshall at ten miles per hour was hard enough, but we made our way through town and found what looked like a safe spot to park at a McDonald’s. Although we were now parked, there was still thunder and lightning all around us. Julien, my eight-year old son, was scared and asked, “Are we going to die?”

“No, no,” my wife Heather and I both said, as did Maggie, our fifteen-year old daughter—which isn’t to say we weren’t scared, too.

As we waited in the midst of all that rain and lightning and thunder, I remembered how my Auntie Lucilla, in the last years of her life—her sight, hearing, and mental faculties failing—would repeatedly ask, “Is it raining?” That, out of everything else, was what persisted in her mind—the thought of rain. If she were still alive and happened to be with us that night in the parking lot in Marshall, I don’t think Auntie Lucilla would have had to ask. But somehow I don’t think she would have been scared.

I also remembered a time about ten years earlier, during a trip to Gettysburg, when Maggie came down with a bad fever. We’d been visiting friends but left early to take her to the emergency room. She was four years old at the time and this, apparently, was the worst she’d ever felt. Lying on the table in the examination room, Maggie asked, “Am I going to die?”

“No, no,” we said, just as we’d say ten years later during the thunderstorm. Nevertheless, there was, for me, something indescribably sad about witnessing what may have been Maggie’s and Julien’s first realization that mortality was something that could affect them. At the same time, there was something beautiful about being able to reassure them—to say that, despite their fears, we were going to make it. I don’t think I felt that I was completely a parent until I’d helped talk my children down from some horrible fear—and, subsequently, gotten them to continue using the necessary energy for experiencing true joy and delight.

That night, shortly after we walked into our house, Julien gave both Heather and me a hug for getting him and Maggie home. It was still raining heavily, and after everyone was asleep, I listened to it for a while. Inevitably, I remembered the closing lines from Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” Except that it was midnight, and it was raining, and it would keep on raining for a long time.

The next day we ate lunch at Soul Mountain. Soul Mountain is the restaurant on Main Street in Front Royal without which we probably never would have moved there. The first time we ate there, thirteen years ago, it felt like home. Decorated with things like a painting of Bob Marley, a Buddha statue, and a Lauren Hill poster, Soul Mountain felt safe. We knew that Front Royal was in rural Virginia—well past even the nearby suburbs that are extensions of DC—but with a place like Soul Mountain just a few blocks away from the house we were buying, how bad could Front Royal be? Or, to put it more bluntly, how redneck could it be?

Soul Mountain was busy that day. Several families were celebrating their children’s graduation from high school. Although Maggie and Julien weren’t graduating from their schools, they were still leaving them—and we were all leaving town. Maggie would be going from Warren County High School in Front Royal to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC, while Julien would be leaving Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School to attend Harriet Tubman Elementary School in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

There had been some good teachers and even some inspiring teachers at the various schools Maggie and Julien attended in Front Royal. There had also been some who were rather less than inspiring, but that could happen anywhere. Still, one thing I knew I wouldn’t miss were those school events where at least half of the other parents there refused to look at you. Then, when they did look at you it was that what-are-you-doing-here?/you-don’t-belong-here kind of look. That wasn’t the case so much when Maggie and Julien attended the Montessori school there, where we met a lot of people whom we became friends with. At the public schools, though, it was a different story.

The week before the storm was Maggie and Julien’s first full week off from school for the summer. It was normally the week we’d spend at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, but with our upcoming move to DC as well as our uncertain employment situation, a full vacation was not doable that year. Still, I was able to take one day off entirely and—with Heather in the office in Rosslyn—I took Maggie and Julien to Winchester for the day.

Our first stop was the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Although there were many places in the valley that we liked precisely for what they were, this was one of those places we liked for the specific reason that when we were there, we didn’t feel like we were in the valley anymore. I doubt that was the intention of Julian Wood Glass Jr. and R. Lee Taylor, the gay couple who in the late 50s took property that had been passed down from Glass’s descendants and turned the main building on the estate into a showcase for their art collection, and then surrounded it with formal gardens.

On this occasion, we stayed in the gardens. There was an exhibit of Lego sculptures, featuring giant spiders, turtles, peacocks, and other animals made out of Legos. It was okay. Julien wasn’t all that impressed. I imagined that a representation of Miles Davis—or even Taylor Swift (at the time he was obsessed with one of her songs)—might have been a little more thrilling for him. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day to be out in the gardens. We spent more time just contemplating the natural blue and green of our surroundings and pausing to feel the breeze coming over the hills west of the museum than looking at Lego sculptures—and that was fine with us.

Before leaving, we stopped in the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery, which is part of the museum’s gardens. Somehow, our vacation days tend to include a visit to a cemetery. Earlier that year, we visited the Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton, Virginia. Then, the previous year, right before we went to the beach—where we stopped at the cemetery at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, Delaware—we wandered through Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. While the cemeteries in Staunton and Richmond each lay on a very large plot of land, the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery was just a small, walled-in section of the museum’s gardens. It apparently wasn’t enough for Julien, who as we left said, “Let’s go to another cemetery!”

“We’ll go another day,” I said, as we drove to downtown Winchester, where Maggie wanted to stop at a thrift shop. Maggie went into the store while Julien and I waited outside in the car. Soon after Maggie went into the store, Julien said, “I wish there was no money in the whole world and everything was free.”

“Well, that would be good,” I said.

A moment later, Julien added, “”I think I want to be bald someday.”

“Well, maybe,” I said. “It could happen.”

Then Julien said, “Sometimes I scream when I say ‘Ulysses S. Grant.’ Sometimes. I don’t know why.”

Maggie came out of the thrift shop with a long, light-blue dress.

“It was two dollars!” she said.

“Wow!”

At this point, Julien said he was hungry—very hungry—and wanted to eat immediately. It’s moments like these when we’ll indulge his requests to get a McDonald’s happy meal. We drove down to the McDonald’s on Jubal Early Drive and went to the drive-thru lane. After ordering and paying at the first window, we moved up to the pickup window. Julien’s happy meal wasn’t ready yet, and the young man stationed there looked over to Maggie, who was sitting next to me on the front seat, and noticed she was reading a book.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

Maggie paused, then mumbled, “David Foster Wallace.”

“What’s that again?”

“David Foster Wallace,” I said.

“What’s it about?”

“Ah, it’s a collection of his essays,” Maggie said, holding up the book, which features an illustration of a boy sticking his tongue out while steam blows out of his ears.

“What’s it called?” the man asked, squinting his eyes at the cover.

“It’s called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,’” Maggie said.

He looked a little more closely at the cover and said, “Oh. I never heard of him.”

“He’s a highly-regarded writer,” I said. I didn’t mention that he wasn’t always the best person he could have been, or that he committed suicide about ten years ago. The man looked at Maggie and me and nodded as if to say, “Er, okay. I believe you.” And while the man at the window may never have heard of him, I must say neither Heather or I have managed to finish reading his magnum opus, Infinite Jest—and that in our family, only Maggie had read a complete work of his, having previously finished his first novel, The Broom of the System.

When Julien’s happy meal was ready, the man handed it to us, saying, “Well, have a good day!”

We pulled over to a parking spot so Julien could eat. When he was done, we drove down to the Books-A-Million store on Pleasant Valley Road, where we sat at the café so I could relax for a little while and have a cup of coffee. I also took a few minutes to browse there in case they had anything good, and I found Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, a book a friend of mine from New York had co-authored about twenty years ago. Somehow, after all these years, I’d never picked it up; but now, with the 20th anniversary edition just out, I had it. I imagined that I might finish reading Please Kill Me before I ever finish reading all of Infinite Jest, but who knows? And who knows, I may finish reading Infinite Jest before I finish writing either of the two novels I’ve started but have yet to finish. It’s not that that I’ve written myself into a hole with either of them, but somehow I get distracted from these things. Sometimes, writing those ongoing pieces makes me sad after the initial joy of having completed a few solid pages, or even just a few solid paragraphs. Or maybe I just don’t want these long stories I have floating around in my head to end. And, despite all the real events I deal with everyday in my poems and essays, maybe it’s the insane things in my fictional work that I just don’t want to tell.

Saturday of that weekend, the opening reception for The Bridge Project—the community art project Heather and our friends Tammy, Mark, and Beth had been working on for months—was held at the new Selah Theatre. On the west side of town on Kendrick Lane, this new space for the theater was in one of the administrative buildings of the old Avtex plant, which for nearly fifty years produced rayon and which, for those fifty years, let loose numerous poisonous substances into the land, air, and water of the upper Shenandoah Valley. After a cleanup that took nearly a quarter century, the Selah Theatre, which used to be on the east side of town, was one of the first tenants to move in.

As Heather got some of her materials ready to take to the theatre, we noticed that there were several police cars outside—right across the street at our neighbor Connie’s house. Connie had been on the wagon for a while, and in jail and out of jail for various drunken rages, and it looked like she’d started drinking again. It was a little after one in the afternoon, that day, and she was angry. Real angry. The cops were pleading with her, but she kept on saying shit to them. Still, they didn’t lose their patience. That, of course, isn’t the way it works for everyone. That Saturday, Connie, a white woman in her fifties, screamed and cursed at the cops for at least half an hour, then walked back into her house as the cops drove off.

Heather drove ahead to the theatre to start getting things set up. Later in the evening I drove over with Maggie, Julien, and Maggie’s friend Lillie, who had been spending the day with us. Shortly after we got to Selah, the skies started turning dark. Pretty soon a fierce thunderstorm was upon us, with hail, loud thunder, and immense flashes of lightning. We worried that it might keep people away from the event, and for a little while it did. But the storm moved off just as quickly as it came in, and out toward the south a double rainbow appeared in the sky.

Then people started to walk in the door. The looked at The Bridge, which was a display of about a hundred different small works of art from people in the community. The reception began with African drumming, followed by a representative from the local Islamic Center. Then there were opera singers, folk singers, poets, and a band. Noah, the singer of the band, noted that when he was a kid, he used to come up to Front Royal from Rappahannock County. Once he and his family got over the mountains into town there was this smell—the smell that was coming from everything the Avtex Plant was putting into the air and land and water.

“But look at this,” Noah said. “Now we’re in this space, where that stench was coming from. And we’re making music. We’re making art.” Then he and his bandmates Mike and Rafe, started the next song.

That night, as we were on the way home from the event, Heather was looking at her phone when she saw a joke someone had posted online. “Julien,” she said.

“What?” he answered from the back seat.

“If Ice-T teamed up with the Lemonheads, what would be the name of the supergroup.”

Julien thought about it for a second, then said, “The Dorito Butts?”

It wasn’t the right answer to the joke, but there was a truth to it that couldn’t be denied.

When we got home, everyone was tired. Heather, Maggie, and Julien went to bed, but I stayed up a little longer to do some work. Writing on my computer, I was listening to the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop—some of the classic punk music that Anthony Bourdain loved. Bourdain had just killed himself the day before, which for me—and, I imagine, a good number of other people—made it seem like a day when so many possibilities had diminished and gone blank. “Death Trip” from Iggy’s Raw Power album was playing when I heard some thumping sounds outside and the slamming of car doors. That’s when I peeked outside to see our next door neighbor, Linda, on her front porch, screaming at her scrawny but scary boyfriend. That would happen pretty regularly, usually at about two or three in the morning, and that’s about the time it was that day.

As usual, there was the opening and closing of front doors and car doors and pickup truck doors, odd pounding noises of undetermined origin, along with alternating angry male and female voices, all of which eventually merged into the strange harmony of small town, southern furiosity. I’d often imagine Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” as the soundtrack to these arguments, and as soon as their screaming began outside, I’d hear, in my mind, the voice of lead singer, the late Ronnie Van Zant, going,

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see…

But then, this time, there was a moment of silence. I peeked out from behind the blinds of our living room window, thinking that maybe the argument came to an out-of-the-ordinary peaceful solution. Then I saw the door of the boyfriend’s pickup truck open. That’s when it became real. Blasting out of the fuzzy speakers of the boyfriend’s old pickup truck was “Free Bird.” It wasn’t just in my head:

But, if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change…

Linda had worked as a stripper in DC back in the day. She’d partied a lot, hung out with bikers and been arrested here and there. As “Free Bird” continued to play, I wondered if she’d ever danced to it. And, what effect it might have on the fight they were now having. Over the sound of Free Bird, her boyfriend’s voice ascended, saying “Don’t you ever…” Then descended back down, drowned out by the notes of the guitar solo that takes over in the middle of the song. Or maybe by the sound of his unmuffled pickup truck as he revved the engine, ready to go. Ready to not change.

Finally, he slammed the door of his pickup truck shut. He slammed it good and hard to make sure nothing could get in and nothing could get out. Then he stepped on the gas, and with a roar like a mighty storm coming across the sky, he drove off into the night.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Paradise As the Confluence of Uniontown, Pennsylvania and the Ramayana Monkey Chant

Photograph by Jose Padua
That evening, after dinner, we were listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant. Performed out in the open on the island of Bali by several dancers and about hundred shirtless men chanting “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak,” it’s more properly called tari kecak. Although it’s been repurposed, reproduced, decontextualized, made a tourist attraction. and on and on by the west, it is still a powerful piece of music. My daughter Maggie, who was nine at the time, was dancing to it while my son Julien, who was two and still yet to talk, waved his arms. My wife Heather and I swayed to a beat created solely by human voices as we stood by the dining room table at our house in Front Royal, Virginia. The tari kecak, of course, was my choice for after dinner music because it takes not just me but all of us far, far away.

Maggie and Julien, on hearing it for the first time that night, were hooked. Heather, being married to me, first heard it a long time ago. It was one those things I had have her listen to soon after we got together sixteen years earlier. Just as I had to have her watch Im Lauf der Zeit (aka Kings of the Road), Wim Wenders’s beautiful, plotless three hour film. And then had to have her read Harry Crews’s Feast of Snakes. These are, yes, some of the more pleasant things I’ve put her through.

In this photograph, Maggie, after listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant, has cloaked herself with a blanket as a way of concluding her own Monkey Chant dance, while Julien’s eyes are focused on the men performing the music. Behind them, only partially visible, is our framed print of the Remedios Varo painting titled “Exploración de las Fuentes del Río Orinoco,” which translates as “Exploring the Springs of the Orinoco River.” Remedios Varo, at least to my eyes, looked a little like the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, though perhaps it’s only a similarity in attitude and not a physical resemblance. Me, I’ve been told I bear a resemblance to Mexican painter Diego Rivera, though perhaps this is more a physical likeness, since he was rather portly and, although not balding, had an almost freakishly high forehead—like me.

The next day, after dinner, we were driving on Route 40 west, the gas gauge of our car slightly below empty, trying to get to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where we hoped there would be a gas station. Suddenly we were going uphill, and the sign above the dark road said, “Steep Grade Next Three Miles” and “Hazardous Mountain Road.”

We’d just left after the first evening of Heather’s family reunion, which that year was in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Family reunions are one of the first things Heather had me experience soon after we got together. It was, for me, something completely new. Heather’s family reunions bring together a group of around forty to fifty people (Heather’s immediate family alone includes a group of eight brothers and sisters). With most of my relatives being in the Philippines or far on the west coast, I had never experienced a family event of this size. I got used to them, though. And just like Heather, Maggie, and Julien had no choice but to learn to appreciate my musical, cinematic, and literary tastes, I had no choice but to learn to appreciate massive family get-togethers.

At the reunion, I’d spent most of the day running after Julien—since family reunions are rarely ever baby proofed—and eating. There is, in Heather’s family, a wide range of political views. Still, I was pretty sure that I was usually the only wild-eyed socialist in the room, which meant that most of the time I’d try to stay calm and silent. Back then, anyway. Nowadays, I don’t think I’d be able to stay at all quiet, but then it’s been years since Heather’s family has had a big reunion.

When I saw the sign above the road warning of the upcoming steep mountain road, I looked at the empty gas gauge and yelled… well, one can imagine the words I screamed, though Heather, Maggie, and Julien didn’t have to. At any rate, we were leaving the realm of surrealism and ascending towards the heights of its real world opposite, whatever that was. We climbed and climbed as the gas gauge seemed to sink even lower, but somehow we made it to the top. Then, just as quickly, we were going downhill, and I put the car in neutral, hoping that might save a little gas. At the bottom of the hill, we saw an exit for Uniontown’s business district. When we got there, everything was closed. One gas station, then the next: closed.

Finally, I pulled over so we didn’t end up stuck in the middle of one of downtown Uniontown’s streets (not that there was anyone driving by). We called AAA to see if they could get us some gas, but we couldn’t explain exactly where we were. We were on some road in Uniontown, but there was no sign. We gave them the name of a nearby landmark—we were down the block from a church–but they couldn’t locate it.

At last I saw, appearing out of the dark, a woman walking down the road towards us. I thought, what the hell, let’s ask her. Maybe there’s a gas station nearby that she’s knows about that’s open. Heather opened the back door and called out to her.

“Oh yeah,” the woman said. “Just go down to that light, take a right, and it will be on your left.”

“Is it within a couple of miles?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “it’s just around the corner.” Then she added, “It’s a bad neighborhood, though. You should just get your gas and go.”

Bad neighborhoods, however, were the least of my worries. I’d lived in places people thought were bad neighborhoods. I just wanted to get back to our motel and rest. I thought she might then ask us for a ride, but she started moving on. We thanked her, then drove down the road. The open gas station was right where she said it would be. When I got out of the car, I started hearing the music again, in my head. The Ramayana Monkey Chant. Tari kecak: “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak, “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak…” It was a beautiful night again.

I filled the tank, got some milk for Julien (that was why we were driving around to begin with), then went back to our motel, The Lodge at Chalk Hill. Old, out of date, and desolate, it was the cheapest motel we could find when we looked on the internet. One comment we saw about the place on some hotel search website sealed the deal for us: “It’s owned by foreigners, but they were nice.”

So we decided that yes, we would stay here. And let the owners know that we don’t think they’re foreigners. We think they’re Americans. And we don’t care if they’re nice.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua