The Old Man and Other Bright and Beautiful Landscapes

Photograph by Jose Padua
I don’t remember if it was last week
or last year, or just some gray day
when I didn’t have the energy to climb
my way up a blue mountain when I
realized that the old man listening
to light music on the way to the store
to buy soft food that wouldn’t hurt
his aching teeth was me. That the stark
landscape of an evening sky hanging
over a slowly moving brown river as
dark birds flashed their wings before
disappearing into the lush mystery
of tall swaying trees was a memory
that came rushing to me from the quiet
solace of an early afternoon’s hour
of delicate half-sleep. Sometimes
I’d leave the city far behind me
whenever I marveled at the flat
air that seemed to hover like a deep
speaking voice on helium over
a freshly mowed and neatly trimmed
lawn. Sometimes I’d walk to the county line
like I was climbing the stairs to sweet heaven.
Last week one of my neighbors banged
on the window of a car driven into a
wall down our street until the glass broke
to reveal a man who’d been driving drunk
wearing nothing but his clean, white briefs.
I think chance is what takes you the farthest
on a long slow road under gloom of night
with the lights off in this damp place
people who aren’t from here call the middle
of nowhere. It’s where I grow old and wise
among both lilacs and weeds, lifting
my feet one at a time, dreaming of nothing
but these bright, bitter and beautiful things.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Where I’m From and the End of these Days of Smooth Skin

Photograph by Jose Padua
When the time is right—which means after
the leaves have begun to sprout into dark
budding leaves and the ocean currents
flow more warmly northward
like perfect storms from southern islands
and all my heart-beating, word-hammering
work is done— bury me in these United States
in a manner I see fit amongst my slightly brown,
light brown, and dark brown brothers and sisters
on solid ground as wide as a city
where there’s so many of us
that the powers that be start to quiver
and shake as if the deep mud upon which they stand
is collapsing with the quaking
of their great white earth.
Roll away the rubbish of stars and bars
on battle flags, their sentimental dreams
of stepping on our backs and spitting in our faces,
and all our years of working for them rather than for us,
and all the yessirs and thankyousirs
that ever passed our thirsty lips,
and every moment our heads were bowed
in prayer or fealty and allegiance
beneath the smooth skin of their hands.
Then rise the way lost land rises high to blue sky,
which bends down with the bursting of clouds
to wet kiss crumbled brick and fallen metal.
Rise with weeds and wild grasses
as if waking from centuries of deep sleep,
rise like voices when questions have been asked
and the answer is a bird with dark feathers
perched upon a statue commemorating
the perpetrators of heinous deeds.
And walk these streets, knowing
that what’s beyond every sharp corner,
behind every wooden door,
and under every leaky roof
is another insane notion
cultivated by the inventors of regret;
walk swiftly as if dancing between bamboo poles
while stringed instruments control the melody;
walk until you reach the smooth curve
and low hills of the highway heading out of town;
walk so that everyone knows where you’ve been
and where you’re going, weathering
both trouble and affection, the gravel roads
turning into dirt.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Days Run Away Like the Great B-Side of a Hit Single by Prince

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was sitting in the car with Julien while Heather went into the grocery store. It had been about a month since Prince had died, and while for the last month I had been playing the music of Prince almost non-stop—he’s one of a small number of people you can do that with and never get tired of it all—that day, I was taking a break. So it was a sunny, spring day with something other than Prince playing on the car stereo. Julien listened for a minute before asking, “Who’s that?”

“It’s Herbie Hancock,” I said. We were a few minutes into the “Chameleon” from the Head Hunters LP.

Julien paused then said, “I don’t like Herbie Hancock. Play Miles Davis.” Miles Davis was Julien’s favorite at the time. I don’t suppose there are too many five year olds whose favorite music is Miles Davis’s music, but there we were. The windows of the car were down, and a cool breeze came inside.

I tried to explain to Julien that Herbie Hancock played with Miles Davis, but he didn’t care and he refused to give Herbie Hancock’s music a chance. To make the wait easier, I went ahead and put on Miles Davis.

Back then, while my daughter Maggie was doing her homework, I’d hear her playing Public Image Limited (PiL) a lot. She had been listening to Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Kleenex/LiliPUT while she was studying, but then she added PiL to the mix. After that I’d always hear the voice of John Lydon going “This is not a love song/ This is not a love song” or “Anger is an energy/ Anger is an energy” as she did her algebra homework or worked on a brief essay she had to write.

That morning, right before we headed out to take them all to school, Maggie looked something up on her phone then she said, “I have the same birthday as the guitarist for PiL!”

“You mean Keith Levene?”

“Yes,” she said. “We have the same birthday!”

“Wow,” I said. And I remembered that she also shares a birthday with Hunter S. Thompson, but I didn’t mention it because I think it’s still a few years before she’s ready to read about things like the massive drug run that begins Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also didn’t mention that I share a birthday with Jean Genet, because I didn’t think she was quite ready to read a book like Our Lady of the Flowers yet either. But, when she’s old enough, these great books will be among my recommended reading and can be added to the volumes of Baudelaire, Lucille Clifton, and Junot Diaz that she was already carrying around with her all the time.

For a couple of weeks, the question Julien had been asking most frequently was, “Who’s bad?”—with it being election season and with the death of Prince there were a lot of bad things in the air, making it a time for questions. (But then, when is it not a time for questions?) In the second of those two weeks, Julien began answering his own question. And when we all said, “I don’t know. Who’s bad?” Julien would then say, without the slightest pause of doubt, “Donald Trump’s bad.”

“Yes, he is bad,” we’d say.

A couple of days later, while we were having lunch at Blue Wing Frog over on Chester Street, Julien answered his own question about who was bad and added, “Donald Trump is a poopy head!” Then he stopped to think about it for a moment before asking, “Does he poop with his head?”

“Well, in a way he does,” we all said. Or words to that effect.

And later that day, it rained. Like on the B-side of an old Prince song—it rained and kept on raining. After having spent a few days not listening to Prince that week, he was back on the soundtrack, and  I was listening closely, hoping for more answers.

I took this photograph of Union Hall, which was part of a joint called Victoria’s Restaurant, when we left Blue Wing Frog that day. Union Hall and Victoria’s restaurant have been closed since February 2009, when it was discovered that its owner was a fugitive wanted on drug charges in Massachusetts. Union Hall had been one of the few places in Front Royal where you had music and dancing. The owner had been here, in our small Virginia town, for nearly two decades. He raised his kids here, had grandkids, and ran his restaurant and club for as long as he could. And then they took him away.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Walking to Prospect Hill and Back on These Still Slow Days of Spring

Photograph by Jose Padua
Although my wife takes her walks
up the road to Prospect Hill Cemetery
I stay down on the straight and flat
gray sidewalk of Main Street. There’s
something about the steep hill that’s
too formidable, reminds me of long
lasting pain, and the green and stone
of the graves and the grief that surrounds
every plot and space fills me more with
sadness than peace on early mornings
when my blood has yet to waken me.
She heads up the hill while I ease up
like a slow day off from work and turn
the corner on High Street back toward
our house, then sit on the front porch
to wait. I’m two decades past those
days when I could walk for hours and
hours and hardly feel an ache or trace
of sweat on my brow under cool spring
skies, but what’s astonishing is this:
the way young birds emerge from
oddly speckled eggs, how stars appear
where there once was only mist and
heavy space, and the disappearance
of time during what’s now the light labor
of waiting for my wife to come down
from the hill and the Earth to spin,
our days growing warmer, our nights
shorter as we cross paths with every-
thing that lives and breathes or flies.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections Inspired by the Space Between the Lowe’s Home Improvement Store and the Walmart Supercenter and by the Sky That Rises High Above Us All

Photograph by Jose Padua
On that Saturday night I accidentally took a double dose of my medications. I was sitting at my computer, ready to do some work, and as I usually do, I stopped to take my pills. This time, though, I immediately forgot that I had done so (I do, from time to time, have short term memory issues that have nothing to do with my occasional bouts of transient global amnesia) and one minute later I took them again. When it happened, I wasn’t sure, and I thought, “Wait, did I already take these a minute ago?” It wasn’t until a few hours later when—unable to decide whether I was wide awake and wired or incredibly drowsy and ready to collapse—that I figured out for sure that I had taken a double dose.

I went upstairs and sat in bed, waiting to see if I started to feel really bad and ready to wake up Heather if I did. After a while, the more tense feeling started to subside, and I began to simply feel sleepy. As I considered how perhaps it’s time for me to get one of those pill boxes with which I can sort my medications by the day of the week, I fell asleep. Waking up late in the morning, I felt a little shaky and a little bit out-of-it. It reminded me of the way I’d feel back in my drinking days when I’d wake up on a Sunday afternoon with a bad hangover.

Sometimes that hangover would last for days. I remember one time in New York, after a massive drinking session, running into Mike Buscemi somewhere on Avenue A. Mike had been around at one point during my drinking session, and now, two days later, was kind of surprised to see me up and about. I gather that he thought I was in such bad shape the last time he saw me that it might be a long time before I was out in public again, but there I was.

“Are you OK?” he asked. My head still felt like a cumulus cloud—slow, puffy, and out of reach. But it was nice to be out on the streets of the city, talking to someone.

“I’m still a little out of it,” I said. “But I think I’m starting to get back to normal.” And he gave me that well, hang in there look, which was exactly what I needed so I could enter the real world again.

When I went downstairs the morning after my overdose, I saw that Heather, Maggie, and Julien were out in the back yard. I told Heather what I’d done with my meds the previous night, then sat down as they kicked a soccer ball around. I had that cloudy feeling, and sitting down while watching them move around was exactly what I needed to get my mind, and then my body, moving again.

Later that day, we all made our way out of the house. There was something we needed at the Target store up in Crooked Run just north of town. Afterwards, since it was late and we were all tired, we went to the Cracker Barrel across the road. The hostess sat us at a table by the window. We rarely ever get seated by the window, so it felt like a treat to me, sitting there in the early evening at that point when the descending sun is beginning to turn the clouds yellow and orange. All through dinner, I probably looked at the sky more than I looked at my food. And though I was distracted from the pleasures of my meal—I was quite hungry by then—I didn’t mind it at all.

When we were done, we drove off from the Cracker Barrel to see the sky hovering over the slender road between the Lowe’s Home Improvement store and the Walmart Supercenter. I had to stop and gaze at it for a few moments. Then we drove on—away from Lowe’s, away from Walmart—as I started to feel less and less like a cloud, and more like something that can never be called normal but which nevertheless feels quite fine.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Days of Being Wild

Photograph by Jose Padua
Grade school was one
humiliation after another.
Shitting my pants in first grade
because asking permission
to go to the bathroom
was petrifying horror.
Kids calling me
“Chinese Checkers” in fourth grade
because they didn’t know
any slurs for Filipinos like me,
pushing me to the playground pavement,
then laughing at my Tourette’s tics,
telling me that at the end of eighth grade
I’ll be screaming for my diploma
like a freaking baby.
Now I’m this badass poet.
Say the wrong thing to me
and I’ll fuck up your syntax
with a stray adverb,
write a metaphor that makes
you shit your own pants
like you’re a freaking baby–
yes I used that phrase again
because badass poets
can do that shit.
Because even on the page
revenge is sweet, sweet victory,
and in the late middle
of my mortal days on earth
I am still wild in the heart
as my imperfections lead me ever boldly
up this beautiful, steep hill.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Directions in Music and Other Ways of Approaching the Day

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I pick my five-year-old
son up from school
then stop at the grocery store
to get milk instead
of going straight home
he says “I’ll just stay here
in the car
and listen to Miles Davis”
because right then “Spanish Key”
from Bitches Brew
is playing on
the car stereo and
since it’s a warm spring
day here in the valley
and what he wants to do
sounds better than
what I want to do
we sit in the car
and listen
until the song is over
and we’re thirsty for something other
than sound.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On Remembering the Times and Forgetting the Burden of Days

Photo by Jose Padua
No one ever remembers the times you put the toilet seat down
after using the bathroom, those days when the weatherman
predicted to the exact inch the amount of snow that was going
to fall in the next day’s winter storm. They’ll remember if you
told them an upcoming movie was going to suck but only
if you remind them that back in 1948 you said, “No Orchids
for Miss Blandish
is going to suck, big time” or that in 1990
you said, “Let’s go see GoodFellas instead of Look Who’s
Talking Too
,” but you went ahead and saw Look Who’s Talking
Too
, which pretty much put an end to your forty-two year
relationship. I remember warm spring mornings when I stepped
outside and the world felt blue and green and yellow and I felt
as if I could run a marathon but didn’t because I knew all the
beautiful blooming flowers would eventually make me sneeze
and make my eyes water so that at the end of the run I’d be sobbing
like a baby not because of the thrill of my accomplishments but
because of my stupid allergies. I remember being a boy and
seeing “FUK” spray painted on the wall of the bridge we were
driving over and laughing out loud when my Mom looked at me
and said “Oh, you’re laughing at that” and me not being able
to say it was the misspelling of the word Fuck and not the
word itself I was laughing at, even though the idea of someone,
especially my mother, thinking I was laughing at the word Fuck
was horrifying to me. And over the years I remember the people
who have lent me money or simply given generously to me with
alacrity their time and energy and support and the other varieties
of abstract assistance that keep one going during difficult times,
and although I have rarely ever been able to repay them with
anything in return, much less respond with humility and grace,
I have been able to tell them a funny story or two or lent pause
to days that needed pausing, and in those instances when my
story fails to make them laugh and the hiatuses I create are so
negligible in the space they make between then and now that
they neglect to forget what a bad friend and horrible deadbeat
I am, I offer to tickle them, which except on rare occasions is ample
distraction, and usually enough to get them to change the subject.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua.

Reflections on Shade and Tone as Day Turns to Night in the Valley

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were heading up Route 11 just north of Winchester—me, my wife and my kids—when we found ourselves crossing into West Virginia. Now, there are places where when you see the sign saying Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful, things look pretty nice. Usually that’s during the day, when the sun highlights all the green that seems to be approaching you from the distance. This time, though, it was nearly dusk, at that point when the only thing you can see clearly is the landscape that’s close to you. It’s also when, for better or worse, that landscape and whatever buildings and signs and moving objects it includes are bathed in a beautiful yet unflattering light.

That’s when we came across Piggy’s Club—a restaurant, bar, and nightclub with a big sign out front to let you know that you could stay or get your “COLD BEER TO GO.” In the bright sunlight it might have seemed like a fair enough place to get something to eat, and in my drinking days it might have even seemed a reasonable enough place to have a few beers. It was, after all, Saturday night—and on a Saturday night, say, thirty years ago, Piggy’s might have even looked like an oasis of sorts. But then again, maybe not.

In my less hopeful moments, my mind tends to be overrun by feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. Other times I feel fully prepared for whatever form of Apocalypse might lie ahead. On this night, I felt somewhere between these two extremes—which meant that although I was a little nervous about where I might be taking us, I continued to take us there. All I knew for sure was that on this night Piggy’s gravel parking lot was a decent enough place for us to pull over.

Driving slowly to avoid potholes and any other hidden booby traps in Piggy’s parking lot, I turned the car back toward the highway. When I saw that the road was clear, I headed back in the other direction, in search of a place where we might want to spend some time. As fog settled over the valley and a slow drizzle started coming down, that’s what we did. And as the skies turned completely dark, what was once unflattered became beautiful once again, and we drove through it until we found a place where we wanted to be.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Baudelaire

Photograph by Jose Padua
Was it poetry that ate my desire to succeed
and through failure that I succeeded
in thinking only horrible things,
things so horrible poetry could never grasp,
much less control them,
and out of chaos still leave nothing but chaos,
measured accidentally in words?
These nights are like Antarctic nights in short sleeves,
the sound is nice but there is no aroma,
no touch before throwing down the dice
while tangled pieces of string dangle
from my fingers like theories
that cloud one’s mind on sleepless nights.
No poetry can lay its hands on this to heal it,
my lack of tone and the muscle that’s required
to lift dark stones from the bottom of a running river;
this is the task of mud,
this is the sealed entrance,
the leftover shell and mirror.
Before my life of horrible things,
desire, to me, was a hyena
that stays just out of reach
of the lion’s teeth;
it made me take big steps ahead.
I left jackals and wild dogs behind me,
any animal who could not understand me.
My bags were packed before I even knew I was moving;
the words I used led me to construe
that the animals and I are alive,
living in separate worlds when I am high,
feeling my veins as gusts of wind
and my mind like snow on top of a mountain.
Before the horrible things there was desire,
the ambition to move about the stage,
stepping softly with silver clipped wings
to keep me calm;
before desire there was rage every goddamn day,
the flowers falling from my hands,
the smoke rising like a season.
And as the days grew longer or shorter,
depending on whether or not the petals
came apart upon their falling,
and as the continents drifted apart
and the animals evolved into the separate
species of predator and prey,
was when I began to want,
and so learned for the first time
about sorrow.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. An earlier version of this was published at On Barcelona.