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

Feasts, Reincarnations, and Other Elegies for Days Gone By (Part Three of Ten Sonnets for Electric Motherfuckers)

Photo of Jose Padua
Feliciano Balastiqui Remembers the Days of Milk and Roses While Listening to an Old John Fahey Tune

When I was a child and liked to eat sardines my
mother would fry them up in a pan for lunch or
dinner, add garlic, onions, maybe a bay leaf and
some vinegar and we’d eat them in the kitchen
with blissful interest as if I were watching
cartoons and she her soap operas even though
there was no TV in the kitchen, just a view of
trees stretching up to the second floor window
of our apartment. Now whenever I eat sardines
I am disappointed. The fish is tasteless, dense
like slow traffic on a bridge over a river where
no one ever fishes, and its bones don’t break apart
like dandelions against my breath and summer days
are hot and the city that surrounds us feels like fire.

Fruit of the Loom Billy Contemplates a Glorious Summertime

In the 90s I began marketing my Kafka mattress—sleep
on it a few nights, and one morning you wake up transformed
into a giant cockroach (or vermin, depending on what translation
you read when you were in school and studying German
language literature). It was a hit, and man was I living, all
the babes and booze, and I no longer had to share my time share
in Myrtle Beach. It was all mine. Once in a while I’d pass
a giant insect on the sand and he’d wave his antennae at me,
or nudge me with the edge of his compound eye. But now
they want to tax me to death, transform my wealth into the size
of a squashed fly. That ain’t the America I know, where obscene
profit and the skill to turn existential dread into reality made
it the greatest nation on Earth. Oh well. Time to move my
corporate headquarters to Luxembourg. Or at least Delaware.

A Song by Sweet Jane and the pre-Raphaelites

Because we have reached the era of commemoration and
tribute; because now is the time for staying in our lanes,
accumulating expendable income, dumping plastic in the
ocean and sending probes into space to create massive celestial
seas of useless space junk. I look up to the sky and go whoa,
a piece of old satellite plunging to my green, green valley;
wow, rocket parts falling down to Godzilla’s beach; ha,
whatchoo gonna do now, Godzilla? Me, I’m in a rock ‘n’
roll band. I’m going the wrong way down your one way street,
and my pants are down and I’m singing, “Geometry’s bunk and
Euclid was an asshole, just gimmie your junk, and I’ll sell it
at the Brooklyn flea market along with my copy of the Stones’
Beggars Banquet with the original artwork, and, if it’s a nice day
in New York, I should be able to make a decent amount of cash.”

A poem written while waiting for Godzilla on the corner of North Capitol and K Street

Sometimes I wonder what names my poet friends would have
if they weren’t poets but were professional wrestlers instead.
Brian Gilmore would be The Michigan Stomper because he lives
in Michigan now and his poetry stomps out all the bullshit. I could
go on with more names but then the poets I leave out would ask
“Why weren’t I included?” This way the only question is Brian
Gilmore’s who’ll ask, “Why the hell did you put me in your poem?”
I don’t know. It happened while I was doing the dishes. It was a Monday,
and I only got around to writing it down now. Meanwhile, wrestling
goes on during this pandemic to empty seats, much like a lot of poetry
readings. A massive pile driver, with no one in the stands to watch, or
a beautiful metaphor with no one in the library conference room to
catch its subtlety, laugh a little too politely, and applaud me, the poet,
who if he were a wrestler would call himself The Electric Motherfucker.

Memo from Turner, pt. 2

Oh wretched stretch of madness, take me like
a stone tumbling down a mountain of avarice.
The centuries have not been kind to gentle souls,
only beings of timid charity and bold negligence.
Take me toward the vile light, snatch me from
the grip of beautiful darkness, consume my labor
to build lavatories made of gold where withering
demons with bitter, graceless tongues offer their
shit as sustenance, their secretions as inspiration
for our faith. So if you will, plant flowers for my
fall, and preserve my lovely flesh paintings in a
room with black marble walls and the climate of
a breeze in Greece. I am you and you are me and we
are all gathering moss on our slow journey to the sea.

An Elegy from Godzilla as the Reincarnation of Basho

Out here on the ocean I long for the ocean; passing
by a swart ship with sheep aboard it, I long for a
swart ship with sheep aboard it, no matter how difficult
it is to speak of my desires. Decades have passed since
I’ve had a good eight hours sleep, centuries have passed
since the great paintings, sculptures, and literature of
the renaissance. The drama of the skies above me are
from out of El Greco, the swirling of these waves like
a buoyant line from Marlowe; if you aim to shoot me
out of fear remember it was you who shot first, you
who dropped the bombs that made me. The concept
of saving me is as foreign to you as a moment shaped
like a plum the color of the ocean, or the soothing balm
for which I long these dreary nights I find myself in need.

A Letter to Godzilla from the Princess in Puccini’s Turandot as Interpreted by a Reincarnated Malcolm McLaren

Dear Godzilla, I am your biggest fan. I know you must
have so many, young and old, who see you as the symbol
of what lies ahead for us if we continue on the path of
predatory capitalism and unchecked corporate greed. I know
you’re the monster who has the power to destroy the oligarchs,
lay waste to the excesses of the bourgeoisie, and knock an
F-22 Raptor out of opalescent skies with a swift swipe of
your tail; but I wonder, too, if you’ve ever fallen in love. Perhaps
you’re gender fluid, maybe you seek sinewy boy demons, curvy
girl monsters, or something akin to a third sex like in some
Samuel R. Delany book. Me I’m so young and romance seems as
messy as smashed honeydew melons, but I hope when all is done
and obscene wealth and the patriarchy are destroyed, you find some-
one to love and relish and liberate, and I hope that person is me.

Feliciano Balastiqui’s Masterclass on Labor and Logistics

While I was a gatherer of sad, drunken days in New York, I wasn’t
drunk at all on one of my saddest. My mother in DC had made me some
Filipino marinated pork, one of my favorite dishes since I was a child—
comfort food you call it now. Packed with dry ice and sent express mail
to my apartment on Avenue B, it got ‘lost’ somewhere along the long,
lonesome way. I don’t think it went to Philadelphia or Baltimore,
Wilmington or Newark, though maybe it was taken to the Bronx or
Brooklyn where someone thinking he might find a pound of pot or some-
thing even better in a plain brown package instead found marinated pork.
What made me sad wasn’t the lost food so much as her lost labor, the effort
to feed me that failed, because for those of us who are lucky a parent doesn’t
begin to fail until a parent is old, and this meant she was old, that from here
on out I would be living on luck. Mother, Father: let no bad day erase us
from the memory of our labors. Mother, father, let us age gracefully.

For Lovers and Other Refugees of the Fascist State

Love is like an element in its place on the
periodic table, its properties made clear
through comparison to all other elements:
how easily love turns to liquid; the energy assumed
in maintaining a gaseous state; the cold it takes
to create a dense and fearsome mass. When solid,
love is where we live, for there is nothing we can
carry from it in this form. When it’s liquid we
travel to and from love the way one rambles
west in one’s youth to find fame, then east to find
fortune. Now we live in the age of vapors, gasping
for breath, running for the exits. In the middle of
dim rough days and cruel centuries, let our love
be electric, and our home a movable foundation.

Why I Am Not a Chieftain

A peculiar fact: if you lend me a book you will never get it back. My
neighbor Kevin in Alexandria, Virginia lent me Bob Dylan’s Chronicles:
Volume 1
. I still have it. Conrad, my friend Casey’s boyfriend when
she lived in New York, lent me the two books Oscar Acosta wrote. I still
have them. My friend the writer Liz Hand lent me Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow
of the Torturer
and I never returned it. And I never read it. What the fuck
is with me? Why do people trust me with their favorite books? Pangil
was the legendary chieftain of the land that became Laguna, the Philippine
province from whence my mother came. When you came into my mother’s house,
she offered you delicious food to eat. When you come into my house, I say “hello,”
then sit and stare at the wall. I am not a chieftain, I am a poet. I am the author
of these verses and this is the continuing story of my life here in America and
of all the precious things belonging to others that I have taken as my own.
This is the story of how America began, not a fairytale about a nation’s birth.

-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

Ten Sonnets for Electric Motherfuckers: The Second Decad (Prelude to Acid Motherfuckers United until the End of Time)

Photograph by Jose Padua
These Boots Were Made for Acid

Some velvet morning when I’m an electric motherfucker.
Some velvet morning when I’ve spent my whole life without
ever having watched ET. Some velvet morning when I’ve
spoiled the tailgate party by being so high on antidepressants
that I don’t give a fuck about who wins or loses but how
enormously I’ve killed everyone else’s enormous high.
Some velvet morning when my brain is filled with visions
of roadkill and dark swamps at midnight when it’s daylight
savings time. And I am the apparition of America made great
more than four hundred years ago. I am fetal acid syndrome
in the downward facing dog position. Some call me Feliciano
Balastiqui, some call me Bobbie Gentry when I am really Nancy
Sinatra. Flowers growing on a hill, dragonflies, daffodils, and
dumbass turds, all because of the virus that was going round.

What Thou Lovest Well Remains High

You must remember Nancy Ly, the loveliest girl in seventh grade?
When she smiled the sixties melted away into seventies dominoes,
toppling over into communism, threatening coach, corner store,
Karen from corporate, because what thou lovest well remains, the
rest is napalm: there’s nothing more American than having the
chance to kill and taking it, nothing more dead than someone made
dead by America (unzip your pants and whip out your freedom);
when you piss in the wind you’re the greatest pisser in the history
of the world (when you piss, all other countries hold out their
hands). And the war in Vietnam ended and another war began:
war is in the heart, piss is in your veins, the scent of burning meat
wafts through the air like glory, morning glory, and the widows
are so young and beautiful, and the widowers rub their hands
together as if cold, their hearing diminished, the memories fading.

Introducing Lucille Alvarado Paquin

I missed so many parties in the 80s being so straight laced, you know.
Lots of coke and shit and disco on the sound system all night. I had
a boyfriend then, his name was Vince, I’d say Vince let’s do something
and he’d say I know what you wanna do, Baby. He was wrong, like
predatory lending. I had a car, it was brown, I had a scar, it was pink.
I got this tattoo in ’91 in San Francisco. I was a divorcée, hanging out
with Ted from Flipper. He was cool but too intense so you knew better
than to ever think of marrying him. I got a job. Moved up the corporate
ladder. Bought a condo in the Mission. You know the deal. Life. It’s the
only thing worth living for. I got a bigger place now, with a parking space
that’s just for me. I go to the gym, work out like a fucking hurricane
that’s been downsized to a tropical storm. Then I get back to work. You
know what it’s like. You’re my friend. I feel like I’ve known you all my life.
And that one day, like Aeneas said, it will please us to remember even this.

Introducing Fruit of the Loom Billy

When I was a boombox blasting tunes at the gazebo and
you were a package of frozen Jimmy Dean sausages, I’d wait
until the last Merle Haggard tune I had on cassette finished
playing, until you were all soft and defrosted and started
smelling less like ice and more like ground pork to take you
home, put the frying pan on the gas flame stove, then dropping
you in there, sizzling out that sweet burnt meat smoke, making
my lips quiver, my tongue moisten like my long gone old lady.
She was never fond of Ray Bolger, never learned to wait out
a traffic jam with cigarettes and southern junkyard style, but
man could she put those sausages away, crack eggs until all
hostilities ceased. We lived our lives out, there in Florida, improving
as well as we could, loving up every last link, using up the oil,
frying on up to the day our frozen faces turned to soft frowns.

Poetry Is Metaphor for the Whole World, Motherfucker

Poetry is the diaspora of the soul’s elements, set adrift
by empire and exploitation, capitalism’s gravity, oppression’s
guardian angels, its memes and its tropes drifting from flower
and tree like pollen and weed, covering poetry with layers
of allergen, making us sneeze or even shit the moment
a beautiful truth takes aim for frontal lobes, turning memory
into a warehouse of logo and product placement. The poet
gives sanctuary to the refugees, gives them shelter until
they’re ready to go out into the world again as poems, until
some reader for some establishment lit mag throws them in the trash
or clicks delete with a smirk and sends the poet an email saying,
“we are honored you sent your poems to us,” or some bullshit line
like that, “although we won’t be using any of them, we hope you find
a place for them elsewhere, motherfucker”—or words to that effect.

Feliciano Balastiqui in Apocalypse for Upper Class Concepts of Time

And in 1982 I was punk rock Stephen Dedalus
or was I punk rock Leopold Bloom, either plump
everyman or hard core artist with involuntary grunts
and twitches, a wannabe funk pioneer playing bass
like Bootsy or a government worker for the department
of one way streets. No, this is neither celebratory poem
nor congratulatory panegyric full of happy cultural
references to people who inspire you, or simple good
examples; I am neither cheerleader nor prophet of doom
and lost elections, but a reminder to fight fire with shit,
which fuels the fire and makes the flames go higher
burning up the institution, filling up a fascist’s nose with
a big fat stink. Do you smell that? I love the smell of shit
in the morning. It smells like [shrug] revolution, motherfucker.

Introducing Bob Dobalina, Karen from Corporate’s Husband

Karen call the cops, there’s a man blasting Wu Tang Clan from
his mini-van, his kids look like two junior socialists and his white
wife has obviously been indoctrinated by liberal professors and
doesn’t know the danger she’s in and how good Americans will start
to suffer even more. Karen, call the cops, he’s waiting by the curb
reading Colson Whitehead’s least popular book, I can smell him from
here, he’s wearing Pakistani musk, furrowing his frou frou eyebrows
as he finishes the second chapter like a dude who’s never watched
Fox News. Oh Karen my Karen, the way you move reminds me of the
dancers at Hanna’s on Savannah, makes me think dirty words like carburetor
and diesel fumes, or Harry Crews around the time of Feast of Snakes,
so come on hop on my choo choo, ride my great big straight to the lower
peninsula. We’ll drop a bomb on the commies, we’ll host a massive
tailgate tequila party, so wake up, Karen, wake up or we’re all through.

A Mild Philippic Delivered by Godzilla on the Occasion of America’s Pandemic

For I have forsaken all boats and sailing ships, persisted in my
efforts to walk treacherous paths toward America in this its summer
of sustained disease, for I am devoted among all monsters in my
distaste for the lumpen bourgeoisie, their wicker chairs and their
sentimental black velvet portraits displayed on living room walls.
For I appear upon the horizon amidst furious storms, full of fury
and indiscretion in my actions against the agency of colonizers
and other usurpers of nature’s crown, power passed on from one
generation to the next through primogeniture. So, cease ye your
jollifications, I am here, with my fire and big teeth. Take me to your
leader. Take me to your knowledge management specialist so I
might know all your history and understand mine even more. Then
bring me, in all its disgusting privilege and heretofore untempered
glory, like a burger on a paper plate, bring me the head of Bob Dobalina.

A Minimalist Wind for a Minimalist Sailboat

What difference would it have made if the seventy-six hundred island
kingdom were named after Philip II of Macedon, instead of Philip II
of Spain. Would indigenous people have escaped slaughter, would there
be no Rodrigo Roa Duterte death squads today hunting down suspected
drug dealers and other manufactured bad guys, and would my people be
allowed to get high in peace? Would a philippic would still be a philippic,
Philip Seymour Hoffman dead, and Philip Glass’s magnum opus Godzilla
on the Beach
begin “One, two, three, four, five, Godzilla arrived on the
beach holding his giant boombox playing Steely Dan’s ‘Hey Nineteen,’
twenty, twenty-one” and all the way up to seven thousand six hundred
something? When I lost my job we moved out to the country where a
woman smiled at me because she thought I looked like Cheech Marin
in his younger years and I thought, Man, she must be fucking high.

Like Caine in Kung Fu

Wednesday morning in our rented house, with my wife and daughter
out for a bike ride, my nine-year old son in the living room, I’m in
the shower with the door open when I hear a voice from down the hall
saying “Dad?” and I say, “Yes, I’ll be out in a minute,” because sometimes
he needs assurance that someone is there just as I treasure the comfort
of knowing I am here, still, in this world, where in a movie Val Kilmer
played Philip II who ruled over Macedon until his assassination in 336 BC,
and Samuel L. Jackson played hitman Jules Winnfield in the 1994 film
Pulp Fiction. When I finish my shower and get dressed, I join my son
in the living room, happy that I am neither king nor hired gun, but am simply
a father and husband, walking the earth, living for a time in rented rooms
under a sky that sometimes storms and sometimes shines over lovers and
thieves, murderers and learners, and the trees, mountains, and rivers that
flow everyday and endlessly, giving back what they owe to the sea.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Ten Sonnets for Electric Motherfuckers

Photograph by Jose Padua
1982

Everything in the world that’s electric
eventually dies. Jimi Hendrix, Frida Kahlo,
Isadora Duncan, Federico García Lorca—
all eventually died, killed by vomit, fever,
suicide, accident, assassination—all killed
eventually, as in a great heavy metal song,
by death. And those lesser known as well, all
sooner rather later, beforehand not afterwards,
and sometimes even now. Is it any wonder that
when the power goes down we call it a black-
out? Is the irony lost on us that an early way to
cover up one’s stupid mistakes was to use
Wite-Out? Prince Rogers Nelson recorded 1999
in 1982. What the hell did you do, in 1982,

master class

motherfucker, and don’t tell me all about Anna Livia
Plurabelle. Was that some porn star you had the hots
and VHS tapes for, and when the technology went to
DVD to Blu Ray to streaming nasty adult channels
24/7 you said fuck it, I ‘ll write a book? James Joyce
had balls, James Baldwin had balls and Gwendolyn Brooks
would have cut both these dudes, she was cool like that.
This is my master class, your check was supposed
to be in the mail to me yesterday; I don’t take PayPal
and I have trust as well as anger issues, just ask my mom,
but wait, you can’t, she’s gone, because she was electric,
too. And bless these tasty vittles upon my table, Werner
Herzog, pull these statues down from the mountain like
it’s 1982. Let’s hypnotize the ruling class this time.

Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now

Hang it all, Steven Patrick Morrissey, you’re like
a girlfriend in a coma who won’t stop talking. There
can be but one Electric Warrior and you didn’t make it
because you couldn’t make it and you definitely weren’t
it. Now your country is full of people who are darker than
you, but then pretty much everyone is darker than you
because you’re one pale ass motherfucker. When you
were electric your lights never went out, and now that the
lights are off you’re always home. And I love the chiaroscuro
you walked upon, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; though
I never killed anyone I did, once, when I was young steal
an extra large bottle of Tylenol for my mother. This was before
the Chicago Tylenol murders in 1982 and I figured that until
I learned how to tear bad shit down I’d better learn to steal.

You Don’t Know What Love Is

Let us take a moment to consider the glory of the
suburbs, the vast expanses of neatly trimmed lawns,
the loving six- or eight-laned avenues of strip malls
anchored to big box stores, and the banks who keep
our finances and keep them healthy and the tasty
splendor of one thousand restaurant chains we love
to frequent with alacrity and the enthusiasm with which
we sit at multiplex theaters watching Lego versions of
all the classics from Lego Moby Dick to Disney Presents
The Wretched of the Earth in 3D
with Dolby What the Fuck
Is This a Rocket Attack Sound. And I am a lover of all
the art from which I may not recover: Eric Dolphy playing
flute at his last recorded concert; a yellow rose when
it’s laid just so on black marble in the early evening light.

Canto LXXXI

What thou lovest well remains electric like the ocean’s
breaking waves; what you break turns dialectic like
a brick thrown through the window of an oligarch’s
flagship store. This is the language they understand,
this is the beauty that moistens their flesh, this is
the alpha and omega of surge protection for those
with too much buzz. Just as book creates meaning and
meaning creates life, it’s the cop who spawns the uprising,
the insurrection that makes the change. I am rewriting
the Book of the Dead to incorporate changes for old
institutions that refuse to die. I was somewhere around
the springtime of my life, wandering the city streets at night,
my head full of rum and longing, my chest full of smoke
and dreams, when I saw, in the cat’s mouth: the brick.

Lestrygonians

To whom it may concern. Although I still express myself
through the written word I am rebranding my activities.
Henceforth, refer to me as lifestyle model. Entrepreneur.
Writer is such a boring label. Sitting at my desk, writing.
Going down the long treacherous American road, words
in my head. Now I sit in my studio, creating lifestyles.
Creating capital where there once was art. Selling poetry
snowglobes that you shake to create a new poem. Because
in America we are a people of leisure: verbal affluence;
prosperity diction; luxury grammar with deep pockets. It’s
all in my annual report. So look back in anger all ye popstars,
business gurus, and influencers of the corporate daisy chain.
I’ve learned the art of your deal. My windows are already
broken, wild beasts know my name. I am your competition.

Rubber Bullets and Electric

This is an elegy for those who couldn’t be stopped by rubber bullets,
who cried through tear gas attacks but kept striding forward,
who marched in love all day in sweaty, dirty clothes like drifters
in search of a cool breeze. This is for those who were dragged into
cellars or thrown into the river, the children put in cages and made
orphans, laughs turned into endless lamentation, curable diseases trans-
formed into death sentences. But this is also for those who took hard drugs
for the singular tone of contentment they provided, no matter how long or
how short, who tripped their brains toward infinity like noonday surfers
on speed. The summer sun sets as always in the west, over mountains of
angst and imbecility, the grey-green sea churning like industrial waste,
swelling the canal’s banks, yellow sky brightening even the insides of dank
caves on black Fridays. This is for everyone who had to be taken away,
everyone who walked that long hard walk because they were electric.

Head

With antifa hath no xenophobic, homophobic sons of bitches a
comfortable sports bar for drinking domestic brew and eating greasy,
fatty snacks; with antifa seeth no woman named Karen an unblemished
memorial to Stonewall Jackson teaching her heritage and history and
her right to take dominion over all other heritage and history; with antifa
selleth no Thomas Kinkade on QVC, his paintings and memorial shot glasses;
with antifa sniffeth no drug-sniffing dogs on the border of Mexico and Texas,
no notched-belt sheriff with an itchy trigger finger and a pink poodle named
Maurice on the Rio Grande River; with antifa no hawk in sheep’s wool
dyed blue in elected office, his fingers holding a blunt, his lips giving orders
to kill. The drone misses its target between bride and bridegroom on their
wedding day; Lee Greenwood sings “at least I know how much I suck” at
the county fair. With antifa Mr. Bob Dobalina can’t shut the gate to his
gated community. With antifa a man without a face mask gets fucked.

Melquíades, He Sees Everything Like This

When I was freaked with acid one Fourth of July the
world seemed to emerge as if from some southern gothic
film. I stared at friends and neighbors as they told stories
then shut squeaky windows in response to my silence,
which made me laugh. City traffic moved like fast highways,
but on looking over to the next lane I’d smile, thinking: oh,
they’re tripping too
or oh the basilisk is getting too close and
I’d look far far away. Superstars with big hits and fancy cars
ceased to exist because we were all big hits, climbing the
pop charts like sweltering heat up glass tubes as the changing
light changed into something that wasn’t light, feeling that
nothing in this world would ever crush me again. Later that
year I read, for the first time, One Hundred Years of Solitude,
and started, finally, to leave all my busy old friends behind.

Introducing Feliciano Balastiqui

And so there were ghosts in the house that papa built four hundred
years ago, restless witches and tidy men and vice versa. Several lives
later Thatcher made war in the Falklands and Reagan made love to
an image of America corrupt as the villain on a nighttime soap opera.
I remembered Lightin’ Hopkins and Lester Bangs who left the planet
that year, when I’d been alive for a quarter century like one of several
coins you’d drop in a cigarette machine. I tried to be swank and cool with
ostentation but I always ended up being subtle and shit when I wanted
to be blunt and bold and full of pulchritude. And it was four and a half
noisy centuries earlier when Ruy López de Villalobos named the Islas del
Poniente for King Philip II of Spain, who’d attempted to make the Inquisition
more electric. If only I could scratch it from today like a particle from the
future in quantum physics, changing a particle from far far in the past.
If only I could gather all my spare parts and shine the rest of my days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Jose Padua to Guest at Spoken World Online June 15th–Monday’s Theme: Growing Pains

SpokenWord Paris

JP_Self-Portrait_IMG_20190726_152900_658Jose Padua’s first full length book, A Short History of Monsters, was chosen by former poet laureate Billy Collins as the winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and is now out from the University of Arkansas Press. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in publications such as BombSalon.comBeloit Poetry JournalExquisite CorpseAnother Chicago MagazineUnbearablesCrimes of the Beats, Up is Up, but So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, and others. He has written features and reviews for SalonThe WeeklingsNYPress, Washington City Paper, the Brooklyn Rail, and the New York Times, and has read his work at Lollapalooza, CBGBs, the Knitting Factory, the Public Theater, the Living Theater, the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and many other venues. He was a…

View original post 105 more words

In the Season of Blue Afternoons and Starry Starry Nights

Photograph by Jose Padua
It’s 1979 and I’m just out of college
and loving the landscape doing the
only kind of traveling I can afford
when the Greyhound bus stops along
the highway in Arizona and the man
with the uniform and gun walks down
the aisle, looks at my face, then asks
in that serious monotone voice that I
can hardly believe isn’t coming out
of the mouth of some science fiction
robot, “Do you have your papers?”
And I pause, because I’m wondering
if the rich kids went through something
similar when they did spring break in
Cancun, Jamaica, the Bahamas. Then
I look him in the eyes and say with
a slow, clear voice in an attempt
to demonstrate that I speak English
very well, “No, I don’t have any
papers, I’m an American citizen,”
and it’s then that I finally realize
that before a time of healing there
must come a time of great strife,
a period of tremendous noise and
the unceremonious toppling of
comfortable institutions, and that
for me—unlike the rich kids, the
other kids, the kids who had it
the easy way, the American way—
love and travel would always be
acts of revolution.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Million Steps for Gone Mothers

Photograph by Jose Padua
To all the mothers long gone, recently gone, or
taken in the last hours or minutes by greed,
tyrannical governments, bad luck, poverty,
sickness, and all manner of disadvantaged
circumstances and the deprivation of rights
and liberties and the agency of time, we say
stand up, rise up like heat seeking flowers,
piss on the walls, pull down the fences until
your oppressors start fleeing in disbelief and
with utter rancor. You who have given birth
to the best of us will watch whilst shouting
joyous imprecations. You who have been
looked over, glossed over, and otherwise
pushed aside are now treading the streets
with whatever footwear you feel like wearing.
These carnations are planted in your memory.
Their colors catch the light as if never letting go.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Memo in the Form of a Sonnet to the White Supremacist Who Referred to My Wife as a Breeding Vessel for the Hispanic Invasion

Photograph by Heather Davis and Jose Padua
Despite my name being Jose I am
not Hispanic but Filipino, which means
that as far as you’re concerned my white wife
is not a breeding vessel for the Hispanic
invasion, but for the Asian invasion. Please
take note of this. Because the Asian invasion,
and all the other invasions you fear, are gaining
strength like tropical depressions, and as the days
go by your vessel will lose more and more
of its buoyancy, more of its ability
to breed. Which means, as far as my wife and I
are concerned, that there’s still hard, hard work
to be done. That, like a sturdy vessel riding
high upon the waves, we we will continue to float.

-Jose Padua

First published, in a slightly different version, at Vox Populi.

Sometimes When We Touch or Reflections Regarding the Ongoing Crisis

Photograph by Jose Padua
In this time of plague let us remember
that we’re all in this together.

That what unites us is stronger than what
divides us.

That we’ll make our way out of this in one piece,
stronger than before, wiser than we ever thought
possible.

Remember, anything that feels good
is trite, has been done, has been seen,
has been composed a billion times before.

There is no pleasure that doesn’t increase
the risk of disease.

There is no disease to which you’ll say no
because of the price.

If it feels good, you will pay for it.

This message has been brought to you
by your friends at Fill In the Blank.

We’re all bad.

We’re holding your mother
hostage in the basement.

Buy our useless and/or
dangerous product
or she gets it.

Thank you.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua