The Distance Between Ground and Sky as Measured in Units of Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
When we were dropping our son Julien off at school earlier that week, he looked at the boy who was getting out from the car ahead of us. I opened the side door to let Julien out and he yelled, “Shavon!” Julien ran toward the school door and yelled, “Hey, Shavon, Baby!” Shavon, the boy who was in the car ahead of us, turned around and waited for Julien. They walked in together.

I never say “Baby” that way. Nor do I use the variant “Babe.” And as far as I can remember, the only person to regularly call me “Baby” was my landlord in New York. “Jose Baby,” he’d say. It was, I imagine, his way of acknowledging that I was all right. I wasn’t one of the junkies or crackheads in his building (my next door neighbor Anna would often complain about “those junkie people”). And I paid my rent more or less on time—or at least until toward the end of my stay in New York. It made me all right in my landlord’s eyes. It made me “Jose Baby.”

At home with my family, in the small town we live in now, I’m the sort of person who often uses the term “Honey.” I rarely ever call my wife Heather by her name—I always say “Honey.” If I do somehow say “Heather” it’s reason for us to look at each other and pause, as if we’d suddenly been transported to some odd parallel universe where I say “Heather” instead of “Honey.” I also call the kids “Honey” at times, the way my mother would use the work “Anak” with me and my brothers—“Anak” being a Tagalog word for “son”/”daughter” or, simply “child.” It was the sort of term I’d hear if I was coming down with a cold and my mother had just felt my forehead to discover I had a fever. “Anak,” she’d say, out of concern. As such, it was a word that comforted me. It meant that she knew what was wrong, and was taking care of things.

A couple of days earlier, we were a little late dropping our daughter Maggie off at school in the morning. That meant that by the time I got to the drop-off line for Julien’s school, I was a little further back than usual. I was tired and wished I could just close my eyes until the doors for Julien’s school opened, but then I looked out into the distance. Because of where we were in line—right where there’s a break in the woods that surround Julien’s school—I could see clear through to the sky above the tree line where the land slopes down to Leach Run, the stream that lies about a mile east of town. The way the colors were blending made it hard to distinguish between earth and sky, horizon and cloud, near and far. Or maybe it was just my aging eyes. Either way, I liked what I saw, so I took a photograph. Then I had a coughing fit.

I’d been under the weather since the past weekend when Maggie and I saw Yuja Wang perform at the Kennedy Center in DC. I was a running a bit of a fever and was hoping that seeing Yuja Wang might do the same thing Sun Ra did about a quarter century ago when I saw him at a performance at the Bottom Line in New York. That night I was in the middle of a horrible sore throat/flu and I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to attempt to make it out to the Bottom Line. But, because it was Sun Ra, I made the effort. I dragged myself out of my apartment.

That night, I left the Bottom Line after some two or so hours of Sun Ra’s performing (usually he’d play even longer, but this was after he’d had a stroke). And I felt fine. My lungs were clear. I could smoke a cigarette without feeling like I was breathing in fumes from the back of a bus (yes, I was a hard-core smoker back then). And, I could have another Jack Daniel’s on the rocks with my friends and have it slide down my throat as smooth as the overnight DJ on WBAI. I was, in other words, all right. I was, once again, Jose Baby.

Seeing Yuja Wang perform that weekend didn’t quite do it. Unlike after seeing Sun Ra, I still had my flu and my fever. I still needed that ibuprofen a few times a day to feel at least marginally human. But then, Yuja Wang is only thirty years old. I think that in a few years the power to heal will come along on top of the ability to play a sick-as-fuck encore off the top of her head.

After I’d dropped off Julien, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some soup, orange juice, and ibuprofen. That’s what I figured I’d need to make it through the rest of the day until it was time to pick up Maggie and Julien from school. As I passed by the magazine rack, I saw something horrible. Wrapped in plastic, it was labeled the “Trump Anniversary Collection,” and beneath those words, peering out into a distance populated solely by wealthy, racist assholes, were the eyes of Donald Trump. At the bottom of the package, underneath Trump’s orange chin, was further explanation that this was a “Patriot’s Kit” and included bumper stickers, a “’Promises Kept’ magazine,” and a “Ready-to-Frame Portrait.” The scream I made in my head was so loud I swore everyone in the store could hear it.

I laid a few copies of Field & Stream on top of the stack of Patriot’s Kits, then walked to the back of the store. There I grabbed a quart of Tropicana 50% Less Sugar/Some Pulp orange juice. I took that, a double pack of the store brand ibuprofen, and two cans of chicken soup and went up to the register. As I drove home, I thought about how the sky by the elementary school, in the clearing between the trees, looked something like a Mark Rothko painting. And I thought about my wife and my children, my mother and father, and all the days of winter we had ahead of us and all the work we had to do.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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2 responses to “The Distance Between Ground and Sky as Measured in Units of Work

  1. Have you considered that it wasn’t the Sun Ra but the whiskey and the butts that straightened you out? I think you missed the mark with OJ and ibuprofen.

    • shenandoahbreakdown

      ha–no, I’m a believer in the power of Sun Ra (which isn’t to say whiskey and cigs don’t have power too!)

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