We were somewhere around Frederick, Maryland when Abdullah Ibrahim’s “African Sun” came on the car stereo. It had been raining mightily since we left Front Royal, and now, near Frederick, it was raining so heavily that if I were so inclined I might say it was raining in biblical proportions. But, as I am not so inclined, I prefer to say that it was raining like a motherfucker. And that the song “African Sun” then started playing on the stereo.
Whenever I hear “African Sun” and the rolling notes of Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano, I swear I can see the sun coming up, swear that my skin is warming from the arrival of the sun’s bright heat. Abdullah Ibrahim’s “African Sun,” I thought, was going to clear out the rain. Was going to make the sun shine. I sped up slightly, certain that in another minute we’d be under clear blue skies and the soothing yellow of late-in-the-day sunlight. I turned the music up a notch. Sat up a little taller in my seat, the better to see the light. I waited, and I waited.
And it kept fucking raining. Kept raining on into the early dark of night. Raining and I was getting tired of driving, tired of the rain, and most of all, tired of driving in the fucking rain.
So I tried to think of the sort of things that would give me energy. I thought about when we left Front Royal, and my wife Heather was in the convenience store getting coffees for us. Thought about earlier in the afternoon when our daughter Maggie announced that she wanted to learn French, the reason being that she had just watched Truffaut’s The 400 Blows again.
I first saw Truffaut’s The 400 Blows when I was around fourteen, and it changed the way I looked at the world, changed the way I thought about film and art in general. I’d first shown Maggie this classic film of the French Nouvelle Vague about five years earlier. Back then, she liked it, but this time, she said, she absolutely loved it, and, what’s more, because of it, she now wanted to learn French. That, as far as I was concerned, was a big deal, and gave me a big lift for the start of this trip. But then there was this rain.
Still, it was beautiful going through Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia—we always take this longer but slower route whenever we go to see Heather’s family in central Pennsylvania for the holidays. That late afternoon/early evening, the whole town and the entire river there was covered in a thick white mist. It didn’t feel like Virginia or West Virginia or anything so every-day for us, and it didn’t feel like winter turned either miraculously or horribly into spring anymore, it felt like… I don’t know, but it felt like something—something I couldn’t quite name.
Just when we’d left our house that day, our neighbor Mary brought over some presents for Maggie and our son Julien. For Maggie, it was a nice angel doll (Maggie wasn’t so much in to dolls anymore and she’d never been into angels, but she liked it anyway), and for Julien she got a little brown teddy bear, and he liked his bears back then. Mary looked at Julien, saw how he was smiling as he looked at the brown teddy bear and asked him, “What are you going to name him?” That’s when silence fell upon us all. Fell upon us like… something.
Julien looked at the teddy bear for a moment, then said, “Nobody.”
“Oh?” Mary said.
“Yes,” Julien said again, “Nobody”—the name of his new brown teddy bear was Nobody. It wasn’t what Mary was expecting, but she thought it was cool anyway. As for Heather, Maggie, and I, we remembered back when Maggie was around three and declined to give her big rag doll a name. This led to the big rag doll’s being called The Doll Who Cannot Be Named. That Julien called his new bear “Nobody” warmed Heather’s and Maggie’s and my own heart. I mean, even now, a couple of years later, when I’m thinking of the word nobody I’m thinking of something that warms my heart, thinking of something that fills my sometimes congested lungs with crisp, fresh air. It doesn’t work for everyone, I know, but for us it’s a word that helps make us feel even more like family.
When we finally made it through the dark and the rain to our hotel in Central Pennsylvania, Maggie got out of the car and asked me, “Did you remember to bring my black Punk bag?” Maggie has a shiny black bag that says PUNK on one side and nothing, I think, on the other side (though maybe it says PUNK on the other side as well, I’ll have to check.)
“What?” I asked, and I remembered that I hadn’t remembered, which led me to ask once again, “What?”—with the word what meaning that Maggie had no clothes for the trip, other than what she was wearing.
So, first we ate dinner at the Hotel Hershey. I had the Chianti Braised Oxtail with Spinach and Crispy Carrots—I probably hadn’t eaten oxtail since the last time some thirty or so years ago when my Mom made the Filipino dish kare-kare. And after dinner we found a K-Mart on Jonestown Road (“Take a left on Kool-Aid Lane,” I said, and nobody laughed, except for me, which more often than not is enough. I’m happy even when I’m the only one who likes my bad joke.)
While Heather and Maggie were inside the K-Mart looking for clothes, I took a photograph of Julien as he and I waited outside the K-Mart. Of course, it wasn’t long before he wanted to go in as well. We hadn’t been in a K-Mart in a long time—not since the one we had in Front Royal closed down several years ago. This photograph of me was taken two years later. I was trying to take a photograph of the road outside the hotel where we’re staying this year, but there was an extra layer of plexiglass covering the window for some reason, and this layer of plexiglass picked up my reflection, making this photograph a self-portrait.
This year, the big song was Doug Hream Blunt’s “Fly Guy.” Julien kept insisted we play it again and again and again. And we did, quite a few times. The landscape we were driving past—the river at Harper’s Ferry, the hills that hide the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg from view on the highway—went by more swiftly listening to Doug Hream Blunt. And they went by even more swiftly when my friend Casey Scott’s song “True North” rose up from the random mix on the car stereo. Maybe it’s because we were travelling north. Or maybe it’s because it’s such a beautiful song. Or maybe it’s because the world is moving in ways we ultimately fail to understand until we see it through our art, because in addition to the facts there is an essence that requires we approach it in order to truly live.
Two years ago, as Julien and I walked through the aisles of the K-Mart, I thought how there are, in the world, people who—though they be few in number—envy us our style and taste in clothing. People, even fewer still, who begrudge us our advantage in perspicacity as well as our precision and skill in sometimes employing metaphor to sometimes great effect. Which is to say, sometimes we get there and sometimes we don’t. Or maybe I’m just speaking of myself.
Walking through the aisles with Julien, I saw that they had their Adam Levine line of cool, sophisticated men’s clothes, and a Nicki Minaj collection of hot styles for women, and this collection, and that collection. It all looked so strange and horrible to me.
When Julien and I found where Heather and Maggie were, I said to Heather, “I don’t want any names on my clothes. Hell, I don’t even like wearing things with words like Fruit of the Loom on them. If I wanted there to be words on my clothes, I’d use my words. My Words.” And Heather nodded, meaning that she understood. Meaning that, yes, this is why we are who we are. This is why we are family.
Photograph by Jose Padua