Category Archives: 3. Literature

Great Expectations and the Walkable Universe

Photograph by Jose Padua
When the weather woman says
there’s still wiggle room in this week’s
forecast for snow,
I think about it for a period of time
that’s longer than a moment
but considerably less than forever
and come to the conclusion
that there are few things more comforting
than wiggle room,
a term which to me implies
a measure of freedom you can feel
all the way from the itch
or tingle in your nose
down through the tips of your feet
especially if you’re wearing
a worn-out pair of tennis shoes.
When I walk I like to think
I can wander the entire walkable universe
and end up practically anywhere
if I can just walk long enough
with my shaky knees
and high-strung heart.
When I sleep I hope to sleep
soundly enough to dream,
long enough to rest,
yet short enough
that I don’t miss the sight
of snow in the morning’s first light,
and the pensive flight of souls
as they dissolve in my sleep
during their daily escape from
the insignificance of everything
in the world that merely
exists.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Self-Portrait as a Being of Sound and Motion on the Northern Edge of the Southern States

route522_20161030_182057_edit
Driving to Winchester
the other day
Stravinsky’s Symphonies
of Wind Instruments

comes on the stereo
as we head west
into the sunset
on 66 ready
for the curve at the end
of the highway that
changes our direction
and sends us North.
Yesterday on West Main Street
in Front Royal
heading back to my house
I hear Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s
“Gueule d’amour” and
I roll down the window
an inch to let just
the right amount of cold
inside so I can breathe
and feel the air
move around me like
a spirit drinking whisky
when I haven’t had
a drop to drink.
Today on Route 11 South
of Harrisonburg it’s
Al Green singing
“Loving You”
from The Belle Album
as we ride up and down
the hills in the early winter’s
late afternoon light
past farmland that’s dry
and bare between seasons.
And each time I am
entranced, bedazzled, amazed
by music I’ve heard
hundreds of times,
and comforted
to know that as
we travel through
the various frequencies
of light and dark
there is a pure constant sound
stirring within me
whether I am rising
or falling
heading east or west
and that whether I am
dust or flesh
I will be here
standing on the continents
spinning on this Earth
and moving through the universe
at great speed.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Breathless Like Those Days of Great Laughter

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was one of the last times the Runkle side of Heather’s family was able to have a winter reunion. With Mom-Mom Runkle’s health issues, travel, especially in the cold winter months, was particularly difficult. But it was at one of those last reunions, at Heather’s Uncle Brian and Aunt Rose’s house, that I found myself sitting with Mom-Mom Runkle and looking with her at one of that year’s novelty Christmas gifts, the giving of which has been a tradition in Heather’s family.

This one was an animatronic Country Bears toy—you pressed a button, and the Country Bears figures, which were arranged holding musical instruments, began to move as they played a holiday tune. I pressed the button and held it up for Mom-Mom Runkle to examine. When the Country Bears figures started to move and play their song she said, “Oh my! How do they do that?” I looked her in the eyes and said, “Practice.” Mom-Mom Runkle paused, then let out a joyful laugh that seemed to echo throughout the room.

Now, you can tell a lot about a person by his or her laugh. Some laughs have a tone of derisiveness about them (recall the way Nelson, the classroom bully on the Simpsons, laughs). Other laughs are only for the purpose of saying “I’m smart, I get it” (a laugh I would hear a lot in the audience whenever I saw a Jean-Luc Goddard film at the old Biograph theater in DC). Some laughs are creepy and even frightening (think Ted Cruz). Then there are those who don’t have a laugh. (Has anyone ever seen Donald Trump laugh? He smirks, he grins, he leers, but has he ever let loose with anything resembling a genuine laugh. I’m not the first person to note that laughing might be among the human behaviors he fails to exhibit).

Anyway, Mom-Mom Runkle had a laugh, and her laugh wasn’t anything like that of the aforementioned persons. It was a genuine laugh, without a trace of self-consciousness. Not everyone gets my sense of humor, but Mom-Mom Runkle did, and to hear her laugh in response to my remark was like taking a spur of the moment hit of nitrous from a can of whipped cream.

Mom-Mom Runkle had one of those laughs that you remember. It was a good laugh, a great laugh, the sort of laugh that brings with it a sense of revelation, even, and as such was a true expression of the essence of things, destroying all the bullshit in its way.

Like the rest of us, she wasn’t perfect. But I can only hope that one day, if only once, I might laugh in a way that rings just as true, and that it might echo through whatever room I find myself in. Or, if I’m outside, somewhere in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frighteningly backwards stretch of valley, I’d like to think that my laugh could echo off the mountains on the horizon, then, like a clamorous flock of dark birds, swoon back up toward the sky. And, I’d like to think that soon again, I’ll be able to let loose with a laugh that feels like something more than temporary refuge from a time of fear and apprehension. I’d like to think that, once again, it will feel like a home in which I, my family, my friends, and a lot of other people from all sorts of places who consider themselves Americans might dwell.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

P-Funk Reshapes the Landscape of the Redneck Town I Live In and Other Acts of Reformation and Reconstruction

Photograph by Jose Padua
Behind the wheel listening to P-Funk in my new neighborhood
the blank stare of the shirtless Larry the Cable Guy lookalike sharpens
to crystal clarity as his lazy slouch straightens up into a confident
strut and the words Git-R-Done are banished forever from his lips.

The colors start to run on the confederate flag bumper sticker
on the pickup truck ahead of me, its starry X melting like
the Wicked Witch of the West turning into a smelly puddle of scum.
Having freed my mind from the “Our God is an Awesome God” sounds

that limp through the streets from the doorway of the Heaven Sent Shoppe
downtown until it oozes like toxic waste into the Shenandoah River, having
been lifted from the list of endangered species by a bop gun blast,
I am ready to stand tall in my off-white glory and the knowledge that

God does not appreciate those lame-ass Christian pop songs. I step
out of my minivan, open the back door and take my daughter
by the hand. “Who sang that song?” I ask and right away she
answers “P-Funk” because I’m trying to teach her what’s well

and what’s real and we glance at our house, stop and wave to
our neighbors, then together we turn to walk towards the future.

– Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Sign on a Country Road and Other Failures of the Imagination

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were in Washington County, just a few miles west of the river that keeps Ohio separate from Wild Wonderful West Virginia to the east. It’s a county that’s even less diverse than the one where we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we were on this rural Ohio road a year earlier, the sign at this house said, “Obama Mohammed Camel Dung.” What it said a year ago was “Imagine There’s No Islam.”

Driving past it around ten o’clock that morning on the way to meet family, I held up my middle finger. Passing by it again a couple of hours later, I stopped and rolled down the window. That’s when I took the picture. Right after I took it, I started to hear dogs barking. If it were just me in the car, I would have stayed. I guess it’s sort of like what happens in my poem that goes, “Poetry is giving the finger to the biggest guy in the room just to see what happens.” But since it wasn’t just me in the car, I drove off.

In a couple of minutes, a song by the Syrian musician Omar Souleyman came up in the random mix on the car stereo. If his music had come up just a little bit earlier, while I had the window rolled down, I imagine I wouldn’t have been able to resist turning the volume up to eleven—and waiting to see what happened. What I prefer not to imagine are what someone who would display signs like these would do if he saw me and my family hovering on the side of the road by his house. We weren’t on his property, but people like him tend to blur the line between public and property, with property being anyplace where they think people who are different from them shouldn’t be allowed to set foot.

Another thing that’s not hard to imagine is that today, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States, was a day of celebration for him. I could easily see him and his family among the people who came to DC today wearing their Make America Great Again hats and asking how to get to the mall. And, later, cheering upon hearing Trump declare, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” That is, after all, among the things he imagines, with one problem being that for a lot of folks like him, there is no difference between Islam and “radical Islam.”

This morning I took my daughter to an Occupy rally in Malcolm X Park, just a few blocks down from the neighborhood where I grew up in DC. Although my old neighborhood has gone through a lot of gentrification, there’s still a wide variety of people there. It’s always a nice break, going to a place where I feel welcome simply as another member of the human race. Where I live now isn’t like that and having a person like Donald Trump setting the tone as president sure as hell ain’t going to make things better there. Indeed, this is a presidency for those who want to imagine me and a whole lot of other kinds of people gone.

But tonight, I’m here, in my old family home, where I grew up from about the age of six until I left for New York. It’s a period of time during which I went from knowing little to knowing a few things. And during which I went from wanting simply to fit in to wanting unequivocably to be whatever the hell it is I am.

I’m writing this while sitting at the wobbly dining room table where my family would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My father and my mother are gone now, but one of my brothers still lives here in this house, and my other brother is only about twenty minutes away. I’m listening to an old Taj Mahal record, The Real Thing, that includes this old tune I love called, “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” which feature Taj on his guitar and whistling a tune that definitely isn’t “Dixie.” And as I listen to it I’m doing my best, in the face of coming hard times and whatever variety of obscene obstacles may be in store for us, to imagine better days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua taken in Malcolm X Park on January 20. 2017

The Birthday Party

Photograph by Jose Padua
For my birthday this year I will
walk twenty miles away from the sunset or
until I am too tired to chase the sunlight
any longer, whichever comes first.
I will tell stories to the devil so scary that
he or she will disappear into a cave for a week
and write apologies to everyone he’s harmed
before he comes out again to fuck with us.
I will invent a new word that means
the same as chrysanthemum and will be
just as hard to pronounce when you’re
totally drunk at closing time in a bar
that smells like roasted peanuts
and stale air conditioning. I will
consider the ways I might spread joy
among the astronauts who while traveling
through space have actually come to miss
the effects of gravity when responding
to questions from their fellow astronauts
about what animal they would most like to be
if they had to be an animal instead of human.
On my birthday I will clear a path for world peace
that will cut right through the living room
of a man who has just renovated a house
downtown that he plans to flip despite
the still sluggish real estate market.
I will buy all the corn chips from the shelves
of a convenience store and make corn chip pie
crusts to use for all my upcoming holiday baking
projects. I will wear blue pants, blue shirts,
blue underwear, a blue overcoat, blue gloves,
and a scratchy old blue knit cap so I might
blend in with the sky at the time of day
when it’s at its bluest. And when it’s my birthday
I will carry these young birds that have fallen
from the nest, then climb up the tree in an effort
to convince their mother to take them back,
just in case she wasn’t going to already,
and because I have so much to learn regarding
the behavior of birds and other things that spend
at least some of their time occupying the sky.
I will walk tall among the reeds and wild animals
of both swamp and forest, pushing forth
through the brush back toward the city
singing this—my swirling, dancing, ten-acre
song about clocks pulled up from the rubble
of the distant past, then held up to the light
and smashed. And I will break free from the
old. The out-of-tune pianos that were chained
to my ankles and my wrists by the master of
ceremonies at the moment this party began.
I will shake off the iron links from ripped-apart
chains. They will fall from my hands like candy
at a parade. I will scatter the hammers and strings
of busted pianos by the pavement as I pick up
speed, making my way toward the interstate.
I will find another instrument to play.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Notes on the Distance Between West Virginia and Ohio and Further Meditations on the Movements of Birds

Photograph by Jose PaduaIt was a warm and sunny winter’s day that Sunday, driving back from Heather’s grandmother’s funeral in Belpre, Ohio. The last time we’d driven back from Ohio, two years earlier, it started to snow pretty fiercely as soon as we hit Route 50 east of Parkersburg, West Virginia. When I glanced to the side of the road and saw a wild dog nibbling at a dead bird of prey on the side of the road, I started to feel as if we were caught in the middle of a wintry version of some Mad Max/Road Warrior film. Which is to say that although it was a little bit scary for us, it was also exciting that Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I were out on the road in the middle of a minor adventure. All I had to do was remind myself that as long as we took it calmly and slowly, we’d make it home fine, and we did.

Whenever we visited Heather’s grandmother and the Ohio branch of her family, we always stayed in Parkersburg, which is just across the Ohio River and only a half hour drive to where she and Heather’s aunt and uncle lived; and in Parkersburg, whenever we could manage it, we stayed at the Blennerhassett Hotel. A beautiful Queen Anne style building from the late 1800s, the Blennerhassett is a fancy hotel, and the only reason we could afford staying there on a number of our trips is that it’s in Parkersburg, an economically depressed town as well an area that’s been polluted by the local Dupont chemical plant. It was through the manufacturing of Teflon, that miracle non-stick surface—that the chemical compound C8 made its way into the environment. And now, through the criminal actions of Dupont as well as other companies, most people in the world have some level of C8 in their bodies. This is why, if you can afford to do so, you don’t drink the water in Parkersburg or Belpre—and, of course, in a lot of other places.

As with most small towns, I find that there’s something almost unbearably sad about Parkersburg. But that’s probably because Parkersburg seems like a place that has so many stories to tell. And by stories I don’t mean simple facts and statistics. Too many people think these are the same as stories or else use them as substitutes for stories and go about their lives as if everything in the world has an explanation and reason—as if there’s nothing we can’t grasp with our minds, nothing that doesn’t fall between the cracks. It was in Parkersburg and some of the surrounding area that Aaron Burr, who had been vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, began having discussions with Harman Blennerhassett (who with this wife Margaret were the two people after whom the hotel was named). What he and Blennerhassett discussed were among the things that led to Burr being put on trial for treason. But these are simply the facts, and have nothing to with the story being told here.

The last time we were at the Blennerhassett, whenever we’d see another hotel guest in the hallways, Julien would ask “How long are you staying here?” Usually, the answer would be “Oh, one more night” or “just for the weekend.” Julien would then say, “We’re staying here for thirteen days.” If we could, he wouldn’t have minded staying there for thirteen days. (Yes, like me, he enjoys being away and spending time in hotels.) As for Maggie, between all the family gatherings—or sometimes during them—she spent her time reading Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Heather, of course, had a lot of family she wanted to catch up with, while I spent a lot of time thinking about birds and all the things that are harder to see in the dark.

Heather’s grandmother’s funeral was held in Belpre, Ohio at a funeral home around the corner from what had been the site of The Lee Middleton Doll store and museum. It was maybe fifteen years ago, during a trip to Ohio, that Heather and I visited the doll museum there. It was one of the creepiest places we’d ever been to. There were rows and rows of doll parts—it’s incredible how frightening a row of about twenty or thirty cute doll heads can be—and on top of that an entire nursery filled with dolls representing newborn infants. At the funeral, the minister seemed to spend a lot of time talking about Jesus and Christianity and not so much time talking about Heather’s grandmother, Emma Rae Runkle. That reminded me of my mother’s funeral more than two decades ago, when the priest, during his sermon, said that if my mother were somehow there she would have asked us to take some time to consider our lives as Christians. She wouldn’t have—because although she was a believer, she preferred to keep her thoughts about Jesus to herself—and what she would have said to everyone gathered in the church that day in her honor would have been “Hello” and “How are you today?”

I took this photograph of Route 50 on the Sunday after the funeral as we were leaving Parkersburg. I tend to enjoy leaving a place much more than arriving there, even when it’s somewhere I want to be. There’s something about leaving a place that calms me. And on that Sunday’s drive, I wondered if we’d ever find ourselves in Parkersburg again. With Emma Rae Runkle gone—and only a few of Heather’s family still living in Ohio—the east coast might now be the preferred location for any family gatherings. And although Heather and I do like to take trips with Maggie and Julien—and although there is something fascinating about Parkersburg, I doubt it would be part of our itinerary for any trip out west. Still, I wouldn’t mind, if sometime in the future, I could leave from there again. Take Route 50 out of town and head east. And since I prefer leaving a place as opposed to going there, I wondered as we drove farther and farther away if I might ever be able to leave Parkersburg without having to go there to begin with. And I wondered about all the other places I might leave, without having to go there.

After we got back home that evening, it wasn’t long before Maggie got out her guitar and started to play. Julien then took out a bag of his dinosaur toys and started to play as well. It’s a different kind of music when a child is playing with dinosaurs, but once you learn how to listen to it and hear the subtle delicate notes, it’s quite beautiful. In a little while, Heather began organizing what we’d brought in from the car, putting the medicines we’d brought with us back in a cabinet in the kitchen. I then picked up a couple of our bags, and began walking upstairs with them. That’s when Julien looked up from his dinosaurs, turned to me and said, “See you, Dad.” As if I were going away somewhere, maybe on another long trip. I suppose that sometimes there’s a distance in my eyes that seems to say I’m drifting off toward some unreachable world. Only those closest to me can see this. They also know I have no intention of going there. And that on those occasions when my mind takes me there anyway, that if at all possible, I’ll be coming back.

“See you, Julien,” I said. “I’ll be right back down in a minute.”

“OK,” he answered, then he added, “Don’t jump on the bed.”

“OK,” I said.

And though I love being on the road, sometimes it does feel good simply to be home, which means it was probably good that Julien reminded me not to jump on the bed. Because upstairs, with no one looking, that might be exactly what I’d want to do—jump on the bed. Jump for joy. Jump for all the years condensed into a moment of a million thoughts. Jump for all the distance diminished from hundreds of miles into a simple matter of upstairs and downstairs. I’m pretty sure that jumping would have been a way of saying, “we’re home,” and that being home was a good thing.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Half-Life

Photograph by Jose Padua
This is my autobiography
at mid-life, assuming that
at 51 years of age I will
live another 51 years and
die at 102. That’s not very
likely, but I wasn’t ready
to write this at 30, and
with the way I was living
then I wouldn’t have made it
to 60, meaning that at 30
it was too late to discuss
the middle of my life as
it was happening because
the middle was already
long gone. Somehow
I survived. Now I have
a heart condition that’s
under control, but which
in more severe cases can
kill a man or a woman
as quickly as the villain
in a gory, stupid, horror
film; I also have what’s called
chronic obstructive pulmo-
nary disease, which means
I can’t run a marathon
or hold my breath without
turning purple at least half
a minute before everyone
else. I have Tourette Syn-
drome, which makes it so
people don’t even need to
know me to know that
there’s something wrong
with me, taking away my
ability to make a smooth,
natural progression from
eccentric to weird. Still,
my existence seems to
surprise some people
who would rather not
see me even though
I have been here for
over half a century,
not tall, not very strong,
but with a significance
that refuses to be denied.
Indeed, where would I
be if I couldn’t shock
you into submission?
If I couldn’t gain
strength from your
frailty, your quest for
meaning, addiction,
obligation? So I stand
here now, apart from
most of the world, an
odd, almost alien being.
Who can say with con-
fidence that I, in my
distance, am not
speaking for you?

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. The poem, from about eight years ago, is presented here for the first time. The photograph was taken yesterday.

New Year’s Resolutions Written While Listening to Albert Ayler’s ‘Truth Is Marching In’

Photograph by Jose Padua
This coming year I will try to take everything
personally and to cultivate lengthier states
of hysteria in the course of my day to day living.
I will do everything in my power to gain more
weight, to feel the blood rushing through my veins
upon hearing of the latest absurdity, upon being
at the receiving end of a significant snub or slight,
upon peeing on my shoes when I go to the bathroom
and am in too much of a hurry to watch what
I am doing not that I ever do that anyhow.
I will write a hit song that’s total bullshit.
I will sit on my ass completely still until some-
thing starts to feel sore or I start to bleed inside.
I will learn what it means to be proactive.
I will drive around my small town until I am lost
or am so bored and tired I have no choice but
to park and take a nap, whichever comes first.
I will drown whatever sorrows I may have by
drinking glass after glass of cold water and
pretend that it is fine wine from the south
of France. I will drink fine wine from the south
of France and pretend I am the late Bob Ross,
painting my latest masterpiece that includes
a landscape of green trees, blue birds, and
clouds, so many beautiful clouds. I will walk
along these streets, I will think about the books
that could be filled with stories about the things
that happened here, and I will believe in nothing.
Not the things that happen only on television,
not the useless distractions that take me away
from the history of mountains and trees and
the steady power of slow-moving rivers;
not the world of diamonds and hard gold
because above all else I am a human, walking
on solid ground under multi-colored skies through
an atmosphere riding its planet through space,
born with a powerful yearning to breathe.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

In the Valley of the Bobs

Photograph by Jose Padua
There’s nothing more frightening
than a man named Bob. Not a day
goes by when I don’t think, Bob is
coming to get me
. Not a motion passes
before my tired eyes when I don’t think,
Bob Bob Bob. I hear the sound of Bob’s
footsteps two blocks away, walking
up my street, going up to my front
porch, knowing that when he gets
to my door he won’t bother to knock.
When I was a kid there were menacing
Bobs in my neighborhood, guys who
I knew had knives in their back pockets
or guns in their Bob-sized boots. Bob X.
was not my friend, nor was Bob Y, nor
was Bob Z, and I’m not talking about Bob
Dylan who was always really a Robert
not a Bob. But those Bobs couldn’t get
close to me the way the Bobs can today.
It wasn’t me who ripped Bob off,
but that doesn’t matter to Bob. He
doesn’t care who did what or where
or why because this is Bob’s world now
and the hills are alive with the sound
of Bob’s pissed-offness. I see those hills
bouncing as if they were bulls in the rodeo,
tossing cowboys off their backs. I see them
bobbing for Bob against the bold blue sky
while he eats his morning bacon. It is summer
and the Bobs are taking back the country.
It is summer and the Bobs are just around
the corner, singing their horrible songs,
holding out their hands as I look straight ahead
holding my head up like a statue, walking
a line like a robot watching his step. This is
how I live here in the valley of the shadow,
in the valley of the Bobs, staring at the Bobs
as they look away, as they stop to ask questions,
as the robins stretch their wings, and rise
from the ground like malevolent angels
because everyone and everything is afraid
and the next Bob is around the corner,
counting fingers, eyes, hands, souls.

-Jose Padua

First published at Truck.