Category Archives: 3. Literature

Guns and Cleavage

Photo by Jose Padua
These past two weeks
whenever I walk by the magazine rack
at the supermarket
down the street
I’ve noticed that
there’s always a magazine
that’s been flipped over
so the ad on the back
is displayed
and not the cover
on which when
I first turned it around
was a photograph
of model Kate Upton
revealing a generous amount of cleavage
on the cover of the October issue
of Vanity Fair
and I gathered that the person
or persons
who keep turning the magazine
over face down
are one of the many folks
in this small
conservative town
who are probably scandalized
by so much exposed flesh.
Me, I’m not bothered
by it at all,
because to me
flesh is something divine
and mystical and
whatever reminds me
of this is never offensive
and never indecent,
and even if you think it immodest
I find other things
much more disturbing
in the grand scheme
of living in cities or villages,
towns or country roads
or hidden clearings
in unmapped and unknown forests
on a planet
with over seven billion
other human beings,
so last night,
after turning the magazine over,
cleavage side up,
I walked down to the next
rack of magazines to
where the stack
of Guns & Ammo
“The World’s Most Widely Read Firearms Magazine”
was displayed,
and I turned the magazine over
only to find that on the back cover,
unlike Vanity Fair
where there was an ad for perfume,
was an ad featuring
more pictures of guns and rifles
and automatic weapons,
so I found a nearby copy
of Field and Stream,
which just had a picture
of a moose on the cover,
and I put that on top
of the pile of Guns & Ammo
only to see that next to it
was a stack of Guns magazine
(just guns, no ammo),
and next to that a stack
of Handguns magazine,
and figuring that the moose
on the cover of Field & Stream
probably got shot
right after the photo was taken,
I decided to just
give up on this sad protest,
and I got in line
to pay for my baby wipes
and brown rice
and yogurt
in a world where
too many people believe
in the divinity of guns
and the indignity of cleavage
and breasts and flesh
and goddamn true love
and all the other things
that keep us alive
without killing
something else first.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

An Existential Traffic Update for the I-81 Corridor, June 22, 2016

RoadSign_20160520_200403_EditTwo
The Burger King down the block
is open during renovations
and the man who
got shot several times
at his house a few streets away
on Saturday night
survived
and is in stable
condition at a hospital
in the next town north
of here,
all of which is
a sign that business
is as usual
and the only
delays you will
experience will be
unexpected ones
which will be dealt with
on a case by case
basis.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Restraint

Photograph by Jose Padua
It takes great effort
on my part,
walking the colorful,
tree-lined streets
on these fresh
and beautiful
new spring days,
not to turn to
the next person
coming my way,
or crossing my path
without saying,
“What if we’re
all screwed?”

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Where I’m From and Where I’ll Wander to Until the End of Time and Space

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 and 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 because
this is where I’m from; this is how we wander.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Brief History from the Point of View of Our Captors

Photograph by Jose Padua
When they were savages
they had minds
full of rivers and mountains
that could plant bold ideas
like seeds and speech.
We, in the meantime,
hunted for heads down by the river,
wearing our enemy’s bones
like good luck charms in our pockets.
We were once savages, too,
but when we were savages
we were the chosen savages.
Savages with a mission
who created clean, beautiful histories
and elegant architecture.
Savages with wealth and philosophy
and a slow but practical process.
Which is why we say it’s time.
Eat with us or be eaten.
And rejoice for the bright, shining
days ahead.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Shape of Change to Come

Julien_20160301_163828_BW_Edit
When my five year old son
painting with water colors
on the scratched-up table
in the kitchen of our
hundred year old house
suddenly takes his
brush over to the stove
and explains that
he’s painting over
an old picture because
“it’s too white”
is when I realize
that at this
young age he
already understands
when and where
to make
change.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Walking the Bridge with My Young Daughter in the Late American Spring

Photograph by Jose Padua
If we were walking over the Brooklyn Bridge,
the voice I’d be hearing might be Lena Horne’s,
but we’re walking over the Key Bridge
from Virginia into DC so the voice is probably
Marvin Gaye’s and the song “What’s Going On,”
and with the water below us and boats floating
like slow footsteps toward the distance,
I’m thinking about motion and flight,
and though we aren’t flying we’re high,
and we’re not really walking over the bridge
as I told my daughter we’re walking on the bridge
because if we could walk through the bridge
as she mentioned we’d be able to walk
through traffic, too, and save time and be
fine and be fast and be pretty much invincible,
but we can’t and we aren’t, so we’re on the
bridge and walking to the other side and I’m
holding my daughter’s hand all the way
hearing one song or another over the sound
of traffic, the clamor of cities, and other conflicts
and we’re stepping lightly, interrupting the noise
and pledging our allegiance to nothing but the
warm air until our feet are on solid ground again.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Slightly Uncomfortable Seat at the Edge of the World

RoyalCinemas

I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies alone. This, I suppose, is a sign of how normal my life is now. Indeed, if you were to see a man my age at the movies by himself, you might wonder What is the deal with that guy? Because going to the movies, especially in a small town like Front Royal, is usually considered something of a social event; and to go to the movies alone begs the question, What, exactly, is wrong with you? Or Are you violating your parole by being here?

Since I was around fourteen years old, going to the movies by myself was a regular and quite normal thing—for me, unlike a lot of other teenagers, going to the movies was not a social event. Or at least I didn’t see any need for it to be one. It wasn’t that I never went to movies with my friends. But, more often than not, I went alone, because if there was a film I really wanted to see back then, I knew that among my friends there wouldn’t be a single one who’d want to see it too. After all, when you’re a freshman in high school, how do you get someone to go the theater with you to watch all 363 minutes of Louis Malle’s documentary, L’ Inde fantome (Phantom India). Or attend a showing of Joseph Strick’s film of James Joyce’s Ulysses to see how it compares with the book? Well, I guess there are other misfits out there who, at that age, had friends they could connect with that way, but I wasn’t so fortunate.

Still, I never felt that I was missing out on anything. It was with friends that I’d see things like The Exorcist or American Graffiti, films that were entertaining but didn’t exactly move me. But it was when I was by myself that I saw what I really wanted to see. And, sitting alone in the old Circle Theater in Washington DC—a theater notorious for its stiff, uncomfortable seats—seeing for the first time the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, or Robert Downey Sr. (a prince), I was having a great time. Alone with my thoughts and a cinematic masterpiece or two at a bargain price (admittance during the day was only a dollar), there really wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. Or, anyone I wanted to be with.

The first time I set foot in the Royal Cinemas on Main Street in Front Royal brought back that feeling of going to the movies alone—even though I was with Heather and Maggie. Because even though I wasn’t alone, we were alone. It happens from time to time that when we go there to see a movie at the Royal Cinemas—a new movie—we find that we’re the only ones in the theater.

KingsOfTheRoad

Call me anti-social, but I like it when we’re the only ones there. Plus, I like going to the movies at the Royal Cinemas anyway, because when you’re there you’re not at one of those slick, new multiplexes with stadium seating and a concession stand that sells cappuccino, flavored water, and appetizers like bruschetta with cherry tomato and avocado. No, the Royal Cinemas is one of those older, slightly decaying movie houses. Yes, the smell of fresh popcorn is in the air, but so is the smell of popcorn from several years ago. And, at the end of a movie, you’re more than happy to be getting up from your rock hard seat.

Every time we go there to see some popular film (and that’s all they show there—this is certainly not an “art house” theater), I’m reminded of what is probably my favorite film of all time, Kings of the Road. A film Wim Wenders made in 1974—its German title, Im Lauf der Zeit, translates as “In the Course of Time”—Kings of the Road is one of those films that a lot of people find unbearably boring, and when I first saw it at an afternoon showing at the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, less than half the audience that was there at the beginning of the film remained at the completion of its three hour running time. But for me, it was the most compelling film I’d seen since Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (yeah, another film that leaves a lot of people utterly bored or baffled) and it accomplished this without any special effects. And without much action or even plot.

Maybe that’s precisely why I find it so engrossing. Me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what effects CGI or Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar can produce—the cinematic spectacles so many people rave about (e.g., The Lord of the Rings trilogy) put me to sleep. And so what I remember about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that I slept through about a third of Fellowship of the Ring, over half of The Two Towers, and by the time The Return of the King came out Heather figured that maybe I should just take my nap at home while she went with her brother to see it.

Because, and I guess here I am going against the grain again, I don’t go to the movies to escape the real world or even to see the real world disguised to look like some happy acid trip. I actually hate that shit. As for Kings of the Road, this is the kind of trip I like. On the surface it may look like there’s little going on: Bruno, whose job maintaining and repairing film projectors takes him to run-down movie theaters in West Germany, close to the East-German border, travels for a while with Robert, a man who has just split up with his wife—and then they go their separate ways again. But the revelation comes from seeing how they interact with each other, with the people they meet during their travels, and with the sometimes beautiful, sometimes desolate landscape through which they move. It’s a landscape and a speed of life (or, rather, a lack of speed) that reminds me a lot of Front Royal. And the Royal Cinemas feels exactly like the sort of theater where Bruno would work on a projector.

Since the first time I saw it, Kings of the Road has always been at least somewhere close to the back of my mind. So it’s not surprising that, soon after Heather and I first got together in the mid 90s, I felt compelled to show this film to her. I found it on a VHS double cassette (Kings of the Road still hadn’t come out on DVD in the U.S.) at Potomac Video on Connecticut Avenue in DC, a store that, like all the other video stores, has since gone out of business.

Showing her the film wasn’t quite a litmus test for seeing how compatible we were, but seeing that she appreciated the film was, for me, a very good thing. We watched it in our apartment across from the Zoo. And although it was as compelling as ever for me, watching it at home on a television, I now realize that the perfect place to see this film would be the Royal Cinemas on Main Street. That, of course, will never happen. But just as seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at the decaying Foxchase theater in Alexandria back in the early summer of 2001 added to our experience of that film—a triplex, the Foxchase showed mainstream and indie films in two theaters and porn in the third—seeing Im Lauf der Zeit at the Royal Cinemas would add immeasurably to our experience of this film.

Landscape

Because there’s something about the Royal Cinemas, and Front Royal as a whole, that makes me feel like I’m actually living in an early Wim Wenders film. The wide open landscape, the silence, the way everything one does here feels like it’s taking place at the edge of the known world: it’s like if you take one more step—or perhaps the wrong step—you’ll be leaving the civilized world completely and be entering into Lord of the Flies territory.

Oddly enough, this is something I actually like about Front Royal. I like that living here feels like we’re living in some sort of limbo, that—especially in the dead of winter when all the bright fall colors are gone and all the tourists are safely back in civilization—it feels like a bit of a ghost town. Or a place where they forgot to tell the residents that, “Oh, by the way, the world has ended.”

If anything, Front Royal is a place on the edge of something. To simply call it a small, conservative, and rather backward town is to miss the point—even though Front Royal is, without a doubt, all of those things—and what it’s on the edge of, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I think it may be taking a turn for the better, even though most of the time I’m prepared for it to do the opposite.

All I know for sure is that feeling I get from being here. That feeling I got the first time we drove on one of those low-water bridges that cross the Shenandoah. Looking at it, this rough concrete strip that’s barely above the water, we weren’t sure that it was actually passable. We stopped to think about it for a while. We waited, hoping the answer would come to us like some strange revelation from the woods. Finally, we went ahead, slowly, over the muddy brown water of the Shenandoah River. Then, when we got to the other side, it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere—the trees on both sides of the road bore signs saying POSTED. NO TRESPASSING.

It was hard to tell where we were—were we on someone’s private property now? Someone who believes in shooting first and asking questions later? And had we, in fact, gone past the city limits? Sometimes I get the feeling that Front Royal never ends, that it continues simply because it doesn’t know how to go forward to some sort of conclusion.

We turned around and went back over the low-water bridge. We kept going—quietly, as if we were being followed— until we reached a place where we recognized our surroundings. We kept going, away from the river which, as it winds through the valley, always looks like it’s chasing us. Away from the low-water bridge, which always looks like it could collapse at any moment.

Yes, we kept going, as one must do in these parts, until we were sure, once again, that we weren’t about to fall off the edge of the world.

-Jose Padua

Real Words and Other Journeys Under the Splendid Sky

Photograph by Jose Padua
Earlier that evening, the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie came on the car stereo as I took Maggie to her theater class. Over the years, The Thieving Magpie has brought different things to mind, not all them pleasant or comforting, but as of late I’d found listening to it exhilarating. That it can have this effect on me much of the time was why, about a year ago, I put it in the mix of jazz, classical, and pop music I have on the mp3 player I use in the car. (How much music I have on it I’m not sure—just that morning Maggie asked me how many songs I had on it, and I had no idea).

Usually when The Thieving Magpie starts playing out of the random mix, I’ll turn up the volume, because listening to it feels like several shots of good bourbon—except unlike the alcohol, it doesn’t impair my driving skills. But that night, when it came on, I felt a certain amount of trepidation.

Although I had come to think of the more whimsical aspects of Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle whenever I heard it—The Thieving Magpie is what the novel’s protagonist Toru Okada is listening to when the novel begins—this time I began to think of some of the more distressing aspects of Murakami’s book. Namely, the isolation and confusion that are a big part of the journey Okada experiences in the course of the novel. And although I recognized that what I was feeling as I drove was simply another manifestation of my obsessive-compulsive fears, I felt quite tense all the same. Adding to that feeling was that, after dropping Maggie off at her class, I was going to meet Heather and Julien at the new ice cream shop that had opened on Main Street.

Normally, going to an ice cream shop shouldn’t be a source of stress, but I still remember the one time I went with Maggie to the one that used to be on Chester just off of Main. They were, to say the least, less than welcoming, and when Heather and I noticed that a new shop was opening, I said to her, “I hope it’s not another Confederate Creamery.” And it wasn’t—which isn’t to say it wasn’t still a little strange.

I parked the car at the gazebo on Main Street, where I met Heather and Julien, then together we walked across the street and into the ice cream shop. The owner was friendly, greeting us and shaking our hands. He was a skinny guy, somewhere in his early 40s with a bad eye, and with his good eye he looked me in the eyes. “Let me see,” he said, “where are you fr…” and he didn’t quite say it, but he was about to: “where are you from?” Instead he said, “I know what flavor you want. Pineapple, right?”

“Er, no,” I said. “Actually I’d like to try the salt caramel.”

After we’d gotten our ice cream, we sat down, and the owner and a woman who worked there immediately went outside for a smoke. It felt a little awkward, but the thing was, the ice cream, which he makes himself right there, was really good. When he was done smoking, he came back in. As Heather, Julien, and I were finishing up, he said, “I had a vision this morning when I was on the way in.” He looked up toward the ceiling. “And what I saw was cucumber, ginger and lime…” It sounded pretty good to us.

Heather and Julien started walking back toward our house, and, since I still had the car after having taken Maggie to her class, I drove. We met back home, and after a while, it was time to pick Maggie up.

“Did you go to the new ice cream shop?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Was it good?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I want ice cream too.”

We didn’t think the new shop would still be open, so we went to the 7-11 on Royal. Maggie took a long time trying to decide what she wanted, and I was starting to feel that fear again.

“Come on, we need to hurry,” I told her. I didn’t tell her why. She still took a few more minutes to decide, but we finally got out of there. By this time the car stereo was playing something completely different, Scritti Politti’s “The Word Girl” and its chorus that goes:

The first time baby that I came to you
I’d do things that you want me to
The second time baby that I came to you
Oh you found my love for you
The third time baby that I came to you
Oh oh oh I knew
The last time baby that I came to you
Oh how your flesh and blood became the word…

And I considered how sometimes I feel like I’m just sitting still and going nowhere and that I’ll continue to go nowhere for the rest of my years, while other times I feel like I’m going places, mastering the process with which my mind can create ideas and make progress. Where I end up once all these journeys and non-journeys are gathered together remains to be seen.

This photograph of Julien was taken after his soccer workshop later that week. Sometimes, here in our town, I have a feeling of exhilaration on the grass, under the clouds and beneath the blue sky as it creates what looks like an infinite edge over the mountains.

Sometimes it’s just Maggie and Julien feeling the exhilaration. Other times it’s just Heather and I. But somehow, much of the time, when we feel it, we feel it together. Those, of course, are the days I love best.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The River Merchant’s Response to His Wife After Traveling Centuries Through Time to the Present Day

Photograph by Jose Padua
I imagine the gardens overgrown with mosses
and the once brightly colored butterflies now
drab as the dirty air and drone of traffic idling
on massive highways and never moving
and never making decisions worth making.

I sail slowly now, my fingers feeling
brittle like dry bamboo,
and lower my eyes to the boat’s deck
because the river is overrun with a kind of dying.

But I remember your hair with its beautiful
shade of evening, its scent as if you’d washed it
in the juice of ripe plums and how you never laughed
until we were mingled like the sound of the monkeys
that climbed from tree to tree, then tired
and limped to the ground to feed and rest.

If I could make it through the old water narrows
to meet you at Cho-fo-Sa,
I would,
but I am being called away again
to the factory outside the city,
and you are long gone,
and every day feels like winter
even though I never seem to grow old and
never lose my appetite for Xinjiang wine.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua
Originally published at Vox Populi