Category Archives: Memoir

No Side to Fall in and Other Distractions Great and Small

Photograph by Jose Padua
That night, after dinner on one of those days when the cold and snow had kept us inside for what seemed too long a time, we found ourselves sitting around the dining room table listening to some old songs. (We were still living in the Shenandoah Valley, then, in our hundred year old house. Maggie, our daughter was only ten; our son Julien, three—Heather and I were a little younger, too, of course.) Normally, my obsessive compulsive mind requires that we clear the table, put the food away, and wash the dishes before we do these things, but there we were with the rice and roast pork, the squash, the pitcher of water, and our plates and silverware all still in front of us, and in the middle of this, the laptop set to YouTube on which we took turns picking songs to play.

Heather had remembered the old Bauhaus song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which Maggie found too spooky (she was beginning to move away from her fascination with ghosts and such and on to other things) But she still hadn’t lost her affection for more dramatic songs, and when it was her turn she chose the Pet Shop Boys—with special guest Dusty Springfield—singing “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” a song I first played for her several years earlier and which Julien had grown to like as well. When it was my turn, I chose the Raincoats’ “No Side to Fall In”—a quick, beautiful song from 1979 that’s part cacophony and part harmony and goes,

I… I hear the music outside
And I am the music inside
Inside… inside… inside

No side to fall in
No fall to live until
My mind… my mind…
Is still… is still…

My mind, my life
My mind…
I don’t mind… today
Today… today… today…

We all listened closely, but Julien was particularly entranced, and as soon as it was over he said, “More Side! More Side!” So, given that it was Julien’s turn to pick a song, we played it again. I imagine that first time I put the Raincoats first album (on which this is the first song) onto the turntable, that I may have done the same thing and immediately played this song again—though with a turntable what I had to do was pick up the tone arm then lower back it down at the outer edge of the LP. Now all we need to do is press replay or rewind, though on occasion, when I’m not in a rush, I’ll pull out the old LP and lay it down on the turntable to get that full recorded sound you can only get from the relatively primitive technology of a needle winding its way through the groove on a vinyl record.

When it was my turn again, I picked “Geno” from Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ wonderful first LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. Whenever I heard something from this record, I couldn’t help seeing in my mind the image that adorns the album’s cover—a photograph of a young Irish Catholic boy carrying his suitcase after being forced to leave his home during the British army’s Operation Demetrius in Northern Ireland. What Maggie thought of when she heard this song was a much happier thing, because this time when I played the song she explained how she remembered the first time I played it for her.

“It was before school one morning,” she said. “You were sitting with Julien at the dining room table. I was sitting on the other side of the table, eating some leftover barbeque chicken tenders, when you put this song on!”

As always, I was amazed by the details Maggie remembered. And though I, too, retain details like this, I don’t think I do it as to the degree she does. Over the years, I know there are so many things I’ve lost—all that science I once knew, the mathematics I once understood, as well all the images and particulars, the names and faces that are now gone.

Still, I remember more than a lot of people. Talking to friends, I’ll sometimes mention people we both knew, and they’ll be completely gone from their memory. I’ll say how we did this or that with them, but they don’t even register as ghosts—which makes these seem like instances of what I sometimes call tiny deaths. That chipping away at our existence, and a continual diminishing of our presence in the world that continues until the big one comes along.

And though I may speak from time to time about the possible existence of the soul or something like it, I’m not at all confident about these things and I’m not about to blindly partake of some religious vision of an afterlife. But neither am I about to completely shut the door as to the possibilities of such things. All of which is to say that this is part of why I am obsessed with telling these stories and putting down as many of the details as I can manage to drag up from the depths of my memory. That I seem to be even more obsessed with memory and the defiance of death right now is because February was once a month I associated only with the ending of things. That changed when, on Valentine’s Day in 1996, Heather and I became a couple. That’s why now, during the month of February, I try to think, as much as I can, about today.

Today…

TODAY.

The photograph above was taken in the late afternoon on Valentine’s day, 2014. We were driving down Route 522 north of Front Royal on a stretch of highway which, depending on where you are, is called either Winchester Road, Front Royal Pike, or Stonewall Jackson Highway. Suddenly, on that drive, Maggie said, “Look at those clouds—they sort of look like UFOs!”

“Where? WHERE?” I asked.

“There,” Maggie answered. Of course, I didn’t know where “there” was, so I just kept looking until I spotted them. Then, to satisfy my obsessions, I had to find a place to stop. Heather and Julien, by now, have learned to make accommodations for them, while Maggie seems to be partaking and, now, even surpassing me in accumulating one obsession after another.

I stepped out of the car, looked over to the west, then took a photograph. And then another and another. Until, finally, I felt that I’d taken enough. That there were plenty of images in my camera and in my mind. Then I got into the car and—with my family beside me—we headed back home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Close Encounter with a Prius Repellent and Other Ways of Living Under the Milky Night of Stars

Larry Yates in April 2017

One way to tell that summer had begun in these parts was by the number of Confederate flags that were out and about again—on pickup trucks, motorcycles, flying from front porches in celebration of the season of warm weather in America. Of course there were some who refrained from displaying the rebel battle flag and for whom the good old stars and stripes was more than enough, such as the SUV we saw one day that proudly bore a bumper sticker with the standard United States flag and the words “Does my American flag offend you? Dial 1-800-LEAVE-USA.” The bumper sticker was new to me, then—four years ago—so the words that went through my head were “What the fuck is this idiotic shit?” Words I might not have been able to refrain from saying out loud had my daughter Maggie–who was twelve at the time—not had her friend Anna with us in our car on the way to Winchester. Words which I did, however, end up saying more and more over the past four and a half years.

That day started pleasantly enough. My wife Heather was using a present from Christmas finally and took herself and Maggie for a pedicure at a local spa. To read during her appointment she brought along Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which she was having another go at. In the middle of her session she looked over to Maggie to see what she was reading and was surprised to see her reading about things like disaster capitalism and the 1974 U.S./Henry Kissinger master-minded coup that put Augusto Pinochet in place in Chile—she was reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

I suppose that with the presidential election upon us—and having heard me speak of my high school classmate whose father was assassinated by Pinochet’s forces right across the street from where my own father worked, and having heard Heather and me discuss how galling it was to hear a supposed progressive politician like Hillary Clinton speak glowingly of the aforementioned war criminal Henry Kissinger—that Maggie might have wanted to get some background information on all of this. She might  not have understood everything in The Shock Doctrine, and it certainly wasn’t “feel-good” reading, but I was more than glad that she’d taken such great interest in learning about the world and how it works.

When we got to Winchester, we went to the downtown walking mall on Loudon Street, which was busy with people out for the holiday weekend. Our son Julien was happy to be running around past the shops and chasing after Anna and his big sister. In one photograph I took that day, though, he was taking a pause from the chase, and giving someone his old side-eye look. It was something he did quite often in our years out there. In Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley there were some nice people—like the writer Joe Bageant, who wrote a lot about inequality and the working poor in America. He went off to the west coast when he was a young man, but later in life returned to Winchester—the “bigoted, murderous redneck town I grew up in”—to kick some ass. We got to meet him a few years a few years before he died, and then some other good folks who lived on and were our friends the entire time we lived out there. But there were always those “bigoted, murderous” types you had to watch out for. And soon after I took that picture, we encountered some of them.

We were leaving the walking mall—crossing Piccadilly Street with Maggie, Anna, and Julien holding hands as they walked—when we passed by one of those pickup trucks equipped with smoke stacks waiting to turn onto Piccadilly. Sometimes called “Prius Repellents,” these trucks can let loose with clouds of noxious black smoke that for the asshole occupants of these vehicles are a protest statement against liberals, tree-huggers, Obama, etc., and as we walked past them they started jeering at us. Heather and I figured out that seeing Maggie and Anna holding hands as they walked past must have looked “gay” to them. And then, with me looking like some illegal alien, and Heather and me together being one of those horrible mixed-race couples, and Maggie and Julien our half-breed children, there was just so much to offend their delicate sensibilities. So when they turned, they let loose with the black smoke—“rolling coal” the act is sometimes called—which engulfed all of us. In other words, they had no reservations about letting the noxious fumes loose on two twelve year old girls, a five year old boy, and a middle-aged couple minding their own business, before roaring off to wherever it is dickheads like them like to spend their Saturday nights.

At the time, I’d never had a close encounter with the smoke from a Prius Repellent, and because I have respiratory issues, I had trouble breathing for few minutes. Julien, aware that something had just happened, asked, “Are those bad guys?”

“Yes,” we answered, aware that he now had a few new faces besides Donald Trump’s to add to the gallery of bad guys.

Luckily, we were just down the block from the Hideaway Café, which was where we going to see a drag show benefitting the theater where Maggie had been taking acting classes. The Hideaway calls itself “a safe space for all our guests, regardless of race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, etc.” and that night, for us, it was precisely that and provided a welcome antidote to the smoke stack pickup truck goons.

It took me a little while to get back in a decent mood, but I did. The drag show helped in that regard, as did Victoria, the woman who runs the Hideaway. What helped even more was running into our friend Larry Yates there. Larry was about ten years older than me, and had been an activist most of his life. He’d even lived in Washington DC for a few years, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I must have crossed paths with him at some point. Maybe at 18th and Columbia Road, back when the neighborhood was scary for all those people from the suburbs. Maybe even at something like the Rock Against Reagan concert at the mall in ’83 when the Dead Kennedys played.

Decades later, in Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley, hanging out with Larry was like having Noam Chomsky to bounce questions off of and learn from (Larry wasn’t a linguist himself, like Chomsky, but his father was). He helped keep our spirits going for the ten years we lived in Front Royal—that scarily conservative town a little bit south of Winchester. It was the sort of place where, when progressive people we met in Winchester found out we lived there would go, “You live in Front Royal? Oh my god!”

When Larry tried to run for the 29th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2013, he was clobbered by the conservative Republican candidate. We all knew that taking down a Republican in the Shenandoah Valley was longshot, but with Larry, you always had hope. He made you believe you could change the backwardness of this this town, this place, this country. I think that’s why news of his death this week from an apparent heart attack hit those of us who knew him so hard. Somehow, we didn’t think anything could stop him. Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, the United States, the world, the universe—none of it’s going to be the same now. There’s always going to be that piece missing—the piece he brought along with him whether he was grumpy, laughing, talking obscure concepts or real life actions. The piece, now gone all loose and lost in the fading of stars in a distance we can’t see.

That night in Winchester, after we left the drag show, we went with Larry back to the walking mall to eat dinner at El Centro, a Mexican restaurant on Boscawen Street. It was a nice, easy-going spot, where we could dine under the early summer skies and we figured we weren’t likely to run into the goons there. It would just be us, feeling like we belonged there.

When we were done, we said goodbye to Larry. We’d been meaning to get together with him like that for some time, but things were always so busy, so hectic, and sometimes so strange and so sad. Sometimes  the hardest thing to do is to find the time and space for an old friend, to just spend an evening talking about the world and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. That night, though, we managed to do that, despite the bad guys that were out there and despite their stupid machines. Then we headed home, down the highway between the slumbering mountains under a milky night of stars, as I slowly—very slowly—began to think of more beautiful things.

-Jose Padua

For the Sun, the Moon, and Everyone, and Everything

Photograph by Jose Padua
Those days when I was socially awkward weren’t
that long ago. After reading James Joyce’s “The Dead”
on my own in high school and feeling illuminated,
lifted, and sad all at once, there was nothing like
asking a girl to the prom for making me feel like
another ordinary asshole or some such shit. I would
have preferred to write a poem and have the girl
accept me or reject me on literary grounds rather
than on my personality or lack thereof; rather than
on my looks or my poor sense of style, but as I would
say years later when I was more likely to say these
things, oh what the fuck? Nowadays, because I’m
a poet I’m expected to be a little odd in some respects.
If I don’t at least twitch a little bit when I’m giving
a reading, or stare at someone as if I’m beholding the
entrance to oblivion, people start to feel a little ripped
off. Nowadays if I write someone a poem it’s flattering
rather than creepy, because poetry is my art and my art
is what’s expected of me, most of the time. So I dedicate
this poem to everyone in the world—to the sun and the
moon and everyone and everything. This doesn’t mean
I am asking anyone to dance, or for anyone’s phone
number or whatever it is people ask for these days. And
this doesn’t mean my feelings have changed, or that my
view of human existence is any more or any less cynical.
But the earth is spinning at around a thousand miles per
hour, and the universe, after how many billions of years,
is still expanding, and this morning I am drinking coffee,
tasting what to me seems the perfect combination of bitter
and sweet, earth and sky. I am astounded once again, by
the beauty of it all, and stirred to the point of giddiness
by that which is both lovely and strange.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Free Bird and a Hundred Other Supposedly Fun Things


That weekend a couple of years ago, the Shenandoah River swelled its banks. Eastham Park, on the west side of town right by the river, was almost completely submerged. Happy Creek, the Shenandoah tributary that runs through the east side of town, was running furiously. It wasn’t quite as imposing as the sight of the Shenandoah expanded to about twice its usual width, but there was something about seeing what’s usually a quiet, almost stagnant body of water raging like a good ole boy drunk on moonshine that made it nearly as fearsome as the river. That weekend wasn’t an occasion to venture getting close to any of this, and distance—either out of respect or fear or practical caution—was the best means of achieving comfort through the storm. That and staying still.

We were on the way back to Front Royal from DC on a Friday evening when it started. We saw this darkness ahead of us on I-66. The kind of darkness that makes calm people say, “It looks like it’s raining cats and dogs up ahead” while the rest of us go, “What the fuck is this shit?” We drove into the storm for a while, but when the rain started coming down so hard we couldn’t see more than a five or ten feet in front of us, it seemed like a good time to look for a way off the interstate. Luckily, we were close to the exit to Marshall, so I took it. Just driving down Main Street in Marshall at ten miles per hour was hard enough, but we made our way through town and found what looked like a safe spot to park at a McDonald’s. Although we were now parked, there was still thunder and lightning all around us. Julien, my eight-year old son, was scared and asked, “Are we going to die?”

“No, no,” my wife Heather and I both said, as did Maggie, our fifteen-year old daughter—which isn’t to say we weren’t scared, too.

As we waited in the midst of all that rain and lightning and thunder, I remembered how my Auntie Lucilla, in the last years of her life—her sight, hearing, and mental faculties failing—would repeatedly ask, “Is it raining?” That, out of everything else, was what persisted in her mind—the thought of rain. If she were still alive and happened to be with us that night in the parking lot in Marshall, I don’t think Auntie Lucilla would have had to ask. But somehow I don’t think she would have been scared.

I also remembered a time about ten years earlier, during a trip to Gettysburg, when Maggie came down with a bad fever. We’d been visiting friends but left early to take her to the emergency room. She was four years old at the time and this, apparently, was the worst she’d ever felt. Lying on the table in the examination room, Maggie asked, “Am I going to die?”

“No, no,” we said, just as we’d say ten years later during the thunderstorm. Nevertheless, there was, for me, something indescribably sad about witnessing what may have been Maggie’s and Julien’s first realization that mortality was something that could affect them. At the same time, there was something beautiful about being able to reassure them—to say that, despite their fears, we were going to make it. I don’t think I felt that I was completely a parent until I’d helped talk my children down from some horrible fear—and, subsequently, gotten them to continue using the necessary energy for experiencing true joy and delight.

That night, shortly after we walked into our house, Julien gave both Heather and me a hug for getting him and Maggie home. It was still raining heavily, and after everyone was asleep, I listened to it for a while. Inevitably, I remembered the closing lines from Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” Except that it was midnight, and it was raining, and it would keep on raining for a long time.

The next day we ate lunch at Soul Mountain. Soul Mountain is the restaurant on Main Street in Front Royal without which we probably never would have moved there. The first time we ate there, thirteen years ago, it felt like home. Decorated with things like a painting of Bob Marley, a Buddha statue, and a Lauren Hill poster, Soul Mountain felt safe. We knew that Front Royal was in rural Virginia—well past even the nearby suburbs that are extensions of DC—but with a place like Soul Mountain just a few blocks away from the house we were buying, how bad could Front Royal be? Or, to put it more bluntly, how redneck could it be?

Soul Mountain was busy that day. Several families were celebrating their children’s graduation from high school. Although Maggie and Julien weren’t graduating from their schools, they were still leaving them—and we were all leaving town. Maggie would be going from Warren County High School in Front Royal to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC, while Julien would be leaving Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School to attend Harriet Tubman Elementary School in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

There had been some good teachers and even some inspiring teachers at the various schools Maggie and Julien attended in Front Royal. There had also been some who were rather less than inspiring, but that could happen anywhere. Still, one thing I knew I wouldn’t miss were those school events where at least half of the other parents there refused to look at you. Then, when they did look at you it was that what-are-you-doing-here?/you-don’t-belong-here kind of look. That wasn’t the case so much when Maggie and Julien attended the Montessori school there, where we met a lot of people whom we became friends with. At the public schools, though, it was a different story.

The week before the storm was Maggie and Julien’s first full week off from school for the summer. It was normally the week we’d spend at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, but with our upcoming move to DC as well as our uncertain employment situation, a full vacation was not doable that year. Still, I was able to take one day off entirely and—with Heather in the office in Rosslyn—I took Maggie and Julien to Winchester for the day.

Our first stop was the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Although there were many places in the valley that we liked precisely for what they were, this was one of those places we liked for the specific reason that when we were there, we didn’t feel like we were in the valley anymore. I doubt that was the intention of Julian Wood Glass Jr. and R. Lee Taylor, the gay couple who in the late 50s took property that had been passed down from Glass’s descendants and turned the main building on the estate into a showcase for their art collection, and then surrounded it with formal gardens.

On this occasion, we stayed in the gardens. There was an exhibit of Lego sculptures, featuring giant spiders, turtles, peacocks, and other animals made out of Legos. It was okay. Julien wasn’t all that impressed. I imagined that a representation of Miles Davis—or even Taylor Swift (at the time he was obsessed with one of her songs)—might have been a little more thrilling for him. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day to be out in the gardens. We spent more time just contemplating the natural blue and green of our surroundings and pausing to feel the breeze coming over the hills west of the museum than looking at Lego sculptures—and that was fine with us.

Before leaving, we stopped in the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery, which is part of the museum’s gardens. Somehow, our vacation days tend to include a visit to a cemetery. Earlier that year, we visited the Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton, Virginia. Then, the previous year, right before we went to the beach—where we stopped at the cemetery at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, Delaware—we wandered through Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. While the cemeteries in Staunton and Richmond each lay on a very large plot of land, the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery was just a small, walled-in section of the museum’s gardens. It apparently wasn’t enough for Julien, who as we left said, “Let’s go to another cemetery!”

“We’ll go another day,” I said, as we drove to downtown Winchester, where Maggie wanted to stop at a thrift shop. Maggie went into the store while Julien and I waited outside in the car. Soon after Maggie went into the store, Julien said, “I wish there was no money in the whole world and everything was free.”

“Well, that would be good,” I said.

A moment later, Julien added, “”I think I want to be bald someday.”

“Well, maybe,” I said. “It could happen.”

Then Julien said, “Sometimes I scream when I say ‘Ulysses S. Grant.’ Sometimes. I don’t know why.”

Maggie came out of the thrift shop with a long, light-blue dress.

“It was two dollars!” she said.

“Wow!”

At this point, Julien said he was hungry—very hungry—and wanted to eat immediately. It’s moments like these when we’ll indulge his requests to get a McDonald’s happy meal. We drove down to the McDonald’s on Jubal Early Drive and went to the drive-thru lane. After ordering and paying at the first window, we moved up to the pickup window. Julien’s happy meal wasn’t ready yet, and the young man stationed there looked over to Maggie, who was sitting next to me on the front seat, and noticed she was reading a book.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

Maggie paused, then mumbled, “David Foster Wallace.”

“What’s that again?”

“David Foster Wallace,” I said.

“What’s it about?”

“Ah, it’s a collection of his essays,” Maggie said, holding up the book, which features an illustration of a boy sticking his tongue out while steam blows out of his ears.

“What’s it called?” the man asked, squinting his eyes at the cover.

“It’s called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,’” Maggie said.

He looked a little more closely at the cover and said, “Oh. I never heard of him.”

“He’s a highly-regarded writer,” I said. I didn’t mention that he wasn’t always the best person he could have been, or that he committed suicide about ten years ago. The man looked at Maggie and me and nodded as if to say, “Er, okay. I believe you.” And while the man at the window may never have heard of him, I must say neither Heather or I have managed to finish reading his magnum opus, Infinite Jest—and that in our family, only Maggie had read a complete work of his, having previously finished his first novel, The Broom of the System.

When Julien’s happy meal was ready, the man handed it to us, saying, “Well, have a good day!”

We pulled over to a parking spot so Julien could eat. When he was done, we drove down to the Books-A-Million store on Pleasant Valley Road, where we sat at the café so I could relax for a little while and have a cup of coffee. I also took a few minutes to browse there in case they had anything good, and I found Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, a book a friend of mine from New York had co-authored about twenty years ago. Somehow, after all these years, I’d never picked it up; but now, with the 20th anniversary edition just out, I had it. I imagined that I might finish reading Please Kill Me before I ever finish reading all of Infinite Jest, but who knows? And who knows, I may finish reading Infinite Jest before I finish writing either of the two novels I’ve started but have yet to finish. It’s not that that I’ve written myself into a hole with either of them, but somehow I get distracted from these things. Sometimes, writing those ongoing pieces makes me sad after the initial joy of having completed a few solid pages, or even just a few solid paragraphs. Or maybe I just don’t want these long stories I have floating around in my head to end. And, despite all the real events I deal with everyday in my poems and essays, maybe it’s the insane things in my fictional work that I just don’t want to tell.

Saturday of that weekend, the opening reception for The Bridge Project—the community art project Heather and our friends Tammy, Mark, and Beth had been working on for months—was held at the new Selah Theatre. On the west side of town on Kendrick Lane, this new space for the theater was in one of the administrative buildings of the old Avtex plant, which for nearly fifty years produced rayon and which, for those fifty years, let loose numerous poisonous substances into the land, air, and water of the upper Shenandoah Valley. After a cleanup that took nearly a quarter century, the Selah Theatre, which used to be on the east side of town, was one of the first tenants to move in.

As Heather got some of her materials ready to take to the theatre, we noticed that there were several police cars outside—right across the street at our neighbor Connie’s house. Connie had been on the wagon for a while, and in jail and out of jail for various drunken rages, and it looked like she’d started drinking again. It was a little after one in the afternoon, that day, and she was angry. Real angry. The cops were pleading with her, but she kept on saying shit to them. Still, they didn’t lose their patience. That, of course, isn’t the way it works for everyone. That Saturday, Connie, a white woman in her fifties, screamed and cursed at the cops for at least half an hour, then walked back into her house as the cops drove off.

Heather drove ahead to the theatre to start getting things set up. Later in the evening I drove over with Maggie, Julien, and Maggie’s friend Lillie, who had been spending the day with us. Shortly after we got to Selah, the skies started turning dark. Pretty soon a fierce thunderstorm was upon us, with hail, loud thunder, and immense flashes of lightning. We worried that it might keep people away from the event, and for a little while it did. But the storm moved off just as quickly as it came in, and out toward the south a double rainbow appeared in the sky.

Then people started to walk in the door. The looked at The Bridge, which was a display of about a hundred different small works of art from people in the community. The reception began with African drumming, followed by a representative from the local Islamic Center. Then there were opera singers, folk singers, poets, and a band. Noah, the singer of the band, noted that when he was a kid, he used to come up to Front Royal from Rappahannock County. Once he and his family got over the mountains into town there was this smell—the smell that was coming from everything the Avtex Plant was putting into the air and land and water.

“But look at this,” Noah said. “Now we’re in this space, where that stench was coming from. And we’re making music. We’re making art.” Then he and his bandmates Mike and Rafe, started the next song.

That night, as we were on the way home from the event, Heather was looking at her phone when she saw a joke someone had posted online. “Julien,” she said.

“What?” he answered from the back seat.

“If Ice-T teamed up with the Lemonheads, what would be the name of the supergroup.”

Julien thought about it for a second, then said, “The Dorito Butts?”

It wasn’t the right answer to the joke, but there was a truth to it that couldn’t be denied.

When we got home, everyone was tired. Heather, Maggie, and Julien went to bed, but I stayed up a little longer to do some work. Writing on my computer, I was listening to the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop—some of the classic punk music that Anthony Bourdain loved. Bourdain had just killed himself the day before, which for me—and, I imagine, a good number of other people—made it seem like a day when so many possibilities had diminished and gone blank. “Death Trip” from Iggy’s Raw Power album was playing when I heard some thumping sounds outside and the slamming of car doors. That’s when I peeked outside to see our next door neighbor, Linda, on her front porch, screaming at her scrawny but scary boyfriend. That would happen pretty regularly, usually at about two or three in the morning, and that’s about the time it was that day.

As usual, there was the opening and closing of front doors and car doors and pickup truck doors, odd pounding noises of undetermined origin, along with alternating angry male and female voices, all of which eventually merged into the strange harmony of small town, southern furiosity. I’d often imagine Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” as the soundtrack to these arguments, and as soon as their screaming began outside, I’d hear, in my mind, the voice of lead singer, the late Ronnie Van Zant, going,

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see…

But then, this time, there was a moment of silence. I peeked out from behind the blinds of our living room window, thinking that maybe the argument came to an out-of-the-ordinary peaceful solution. Then I saw the door of the boyfriend’s pickup truck open. That’s when it became real. Blasting out of the fuzzy speakers of the boyfriend’s old pickup truck was “Free Bird.” It wasn’t just in my head:

But, if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change…

Linda had worked as a stripper in DC back in the day. She’d partied a lot, hung out with bikers and been arrested here and there. As “Free Bird” continued to play, I wondered if she’d ever danced to it. And, what effect it might have on the fight they were now having. Over the sound of Free Bird, her boyfriend’s voice ascended, saying “Don’t you ever…” Then descended back down, drowned out by the notes of the guitar solo that takes over in the middle of the song. Or maybe by the sound of his unmuffled pickup truck as he revved the engine, ready to go. Ready to not change.

Finally, he slammed the door of his pickup truck shut. He slammed it good and hard to make sure nothing could get in and nothing could get out. Then he stepped on the gas, and with a roar like a mighty storm coming across the sky, he drove off into the night.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Feasts, Reincarnations, and Other Elegies for Days Gone By (Part Three of Ten Sonnets for Electric Motherfuckers)

Photo of Jose Padua
Feliciano Balastiqui Remembers the Days of Milk and Roses While Listening to an Old John Fahey Tune

When I was a child and liked to eat sardines my
mother would fry them up in a pan for lunch or
dinner, add garlic, onions, maybe a bay leaf and
some vinegar and we’d eat them in the kitchen
with blissful interest as if I were watching
cartoons and she her soap operas even though
there was no TV in the kitchen, just a view of
trees stretching up to the second floor window
of our apartment. Now whenever I eat sardines
I am disappointed. The fish is tasteless, dense
like slow traffic on a bridge over a river where
no one ever fishes, and its bones don’t break apart
like dandelions against my breath and summer days
are hot and the city that surrounds us feels like fire.

Fruit of the Loom Billy Contemplates a Glorious Summertime

In the 90s I began marketing my Kafka mattress—sleep
on it a few nights, and one morning you wake up transformed
into a giant cockroach (or vermin, depending on what translation
you read when you were in school and studying German
language literature). It was a hit, and man was I living, all
the babes and booze, and I no longer had to share my time share
in Myrtle Beach. It was all mine. Once in a while I’d pass
a giant insect on the sand and he’d wave his antennae at me,
or nudge me with the edge of his compound eye. But now
they want to tax me to death, transform my wealth into the size
of a squashed fly. That ain’t the America I know, where obscene
profit and the skill to turn existential dread into reality made
it the greatest nation on Earth. Oh well. Time to move my
corporate headquarters to Luxembourg. Or at least Delaware.

A Song by Sweet Jane and the pre-Raphaelites

Because we have reached the era of commemoration and
tribute; because now is the time for staying in our lanes,
accumulating expendable income, dumping plastic in the
ocean and sending probes into space to create massive celestial
seas of useless space junk. I look up to the sky and go whoa,
a piece of old satellite plunging to my green, green valley;
wow, rocket parts falling down to Godzilla’s beach; ha,
whatchoo gonna do now, Godzilla? Me, I’m in a rock ‘n’
roll band. I’m going the wrong way down your one way street,
and my pants are down and I’m singing, “Geometry’s bunk and
Euclid was an asshole, just gimmie your junk, and I’ll sell it
at the Brooklyn flea market along with my copy of the Stones’
Beggars Banquet with the original artwork, and, if it’s a nice day
in New York, I should be able to make a decent amount of cash.”

A poem written while waiting for Godzilla on the corner of North Capitol and K Street

Sometimes I wonder what names my poet friends would have
if they weren’t poets but were professional wrestlers instead.
Brian Gilmore would be The Michigan Stomper because he lives
in Michigan now and his poetry stomps out all the bullshit. I could
go on with more names but then the poets I leave out would ask
“Why weren’t I included?” This way the only question is Brian
Gilmore’s who’ll ask, “Why the hell did you put me in your poem?”
I don’t know. It happened while I was doing the dishes. It was a Monday,
and I only got around to writing it down now. Meanwhile, wrestling
goes on during this pandemic to empty seats, much like a lot of poetry
readings. A massive pile driver, with no one in the stands to watch, or
a beautiful metaphor with no one in the library conference room to
catch its subtlety, laugh a little too politely, and applaud me, the poet,
who if he were a wrestler would call himself The Electric Motherfucker.

Memo from Turner, pt. 2

Oh wretched stretch of madness, take me like
a stone tumbling down a mountain of avarice.
The centuries have not been kind to gentle souls,
only beings of timid charity and bold negligence.
Take me toward the vile light, snatch me from
the grip of beautiful darkness, consume my labor
to build lavatories made of gold where withering
demons with bitter, graceless tongues offer their
shit as sustenance, their secretions as inspiration
for our faith. So if you will, plant flowers for my
fall, and preserve my lovely flesh paintings in a
room with black marble walls and the climate of
a breeze in Greece. I am you and you are me and we
are all gathering moss on our slow journey to the sea.

An Elegy from Godzilla as the Reincarnation of Basho

Out here on the ocean I long for the ocean; passing
by a swart ship with sheep aboard it, I long for a
swart ship with sheep aboard it, no matter how difficult
it is to speak of my desires. Decades have passed since
I’ve had a good eight hours sleep, centuries have passed
since the great paintings, sculptures, and literature of
the renaissance. The drama of the skies above me are
from out of El Greco, the swirling of these waves like
a buoyant line from Marlowe; if you aim to shoot me
out of fear remember it was you who shot first, you
who dropped the bombs that made me. The concept
of saving me is as foreign to you as a moment shaped
like a plum the color of the ocean, or the soothing balm
for which I long these dreary nights I find myself in need.

A Letter to Godzilla from the Princess in Puccini’s Turandot as Interpreted by a Reincarnated Malcolm McLaren

Dear Godzilla, I am your biggest fan. I know you must
have so many, young and old, who see you as the symbol
of what lies ahead for us if we continue on the path of
predatory capitalism and unchecked corporate greed. I know
you’re the monster who has the power to destroy the oligarchs,
lay waste to the excesses of the bourgeoisie, and knock an
F-22 Raptor out of opalescent skies with a swift swipe of
your tail; but I wonder, too, if you’ve ever fallen in love. Perhaps
you’re gender fluid, maybe you seek sinewy boy demons, curvy
girl monsters, or something akin to a third sex like in some
Samuel R. Delany book. Me I’m so young and romance seems as
messy as smashed honeydew melons, but I hope when all is done
and obscene wealth and the patriarchy are destroyed, you find some-
one to love and relish and liberate, and I hope that person is me.

Feliciano Balastiqui’s Masterclass on Labor and Logistics

While I was a gatherer of sad, drunken days in New York, I wasn’t
drunk at all on one of my saddest. My mother in DC had made me some
Filipino marinated pork, one of my favorite dishes since I was a child—
comfort food you call it now. Packed with dry ice and sent express mail
to my apartment on Avenue B, it got ‘lost’ somewhere along the long,
lonesome way. I don’t think it went to Philadelphia or Baltimore,
Wilmington or Newark, though maybe it was taken to the Bronx or
Brooklyn where someone thinking he might find a pound of pot or some-
thing even better in a plain brown package instead found marinated pork.
What made me sad wasn’t the lost food so much as her lost labor, the effort
to feed me that failed, because for those of us who are lucky a parent doesn’t
begin to fail until a parent is old, and this meant she was old, that from here
on out I would be living on luck. Mother, Father: let no bad day erase us
from the memory of our labors. Mother, father, let us age gracefully.

For Lovers and Other Refugees of the Fascist State

Love is like an element in its place on the
periodic table, its properties made clear
through comparison to all other elements:
how easily love turns to liquid; the energy assumed
in maintaining a gaseous state; the cold it takes
to create a dense and fearsome mass. When solid,
love is where we live, for there is nothing we can
carry from it in this form. When it’s liquid we
travel to and from love the way one rambles
west in one’s youth to find fame, then east to find
fortune. Now we live in the age of vapors, gasping
for breath, running for the exits. In the middle of
dim rough days and cruel centuries, let our love
be electric, and our home a movable foundation.

Why I Am Not a Chieftain

A peculiar fact: if you lend me a book you will never get it back. My
neighbor Kevin in Alexandria, Virginia lent me Bob Dylan’s Chronicles:
Volume 1
. I still have it. Conrad, my friend Casey’s boyfriend when
she lived in New York, lent me the two books Oscar Acosta wrote. I still
have them. My friend the writer Liz Hand lent me Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow
of the Torturer
and I never returned it. And I never read it. What the fuck
is with me? Why do people trust me with their favorite books? Pangil
was the legendary chieftain of the land that became Laguna, the Philippine
province from whence my mother came. When you came into my mother’s house,
she offered you delicious food to eat. When you come into my house, I say “hello,”
then sit and stare at the wall. I am not a chieftain, I am a poet. I am the author
of these verses and this is the continuing story of my life here in America and
of all the precious things belonging to others that I have taken as my own.
This is the story of how America began, not a fairytale about a nation’s birth.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Paradise As the Confluence of Uniontown, Pennsylvania and the Ramayana Monkey Chant

Photograph by Jose Padua
That evening, after dinner, we were listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant. Performed out in the open on the island of Bali by several dancers and about hundred shirtless men chanting “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak,” it’s more properly called tari kecak. Although it’s been repurposed, reproduced, decontextualized, made a tourist attraction. and on and on by the west, it is still a powerful piece of music. My daughter Maggie, who was nine at the time, was dancing to it while my son Julien, who was two and still yet to talk, waved his arms. My wife Heather and I swayed to a beat created solely by human voices as we stood by the dining room table at our house in Front Royal, Virginia. The tari kecak, of course, was my choice for after dinner music because it takes not just me but all of us far, far away.

Maggie and Julien, on hearing it for the first time that night, were hooked. Heather, being married to me, first heard it a long time ago. It was one those things I had have her listen to soon after we got together sixteen years earlier. Just as I had to have her watch Im Lauf der Zeit (aka Kings of the Road), Wim Wenders’s beautiful, plotless three hour film. And then had to have her read Harry Crews’s Feast of Snakes. These are, yes, some of the more pleasant things I’ve put her through.

In this photograph, Maggie, after listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant, has cloaked herself with a blanket as a way of concluding her own Monkey Chant dance, while Julien’s eyes are focused on the men performing the music. Behind them, only partially visible, is our framed print of the Remedios Varo painting titled “Exploración de las Fuentes del Río Orinoco,” which translates as “Exploring the Springs of the Orinoco River.” Remedios Varo, at least to my eyes, looked a little like the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, though perhaps it’s only a similarity in attitude and not a physical resemblance. Me, I’ve been told I bear a resemblance to Mexican painter Diego Rivera, though perhaps this is more a physical likeness, since he was rather portly and, although not balding, had an almost freakishly high forehead—like me.

The next day, after dinner, we were driving on Route 40 west, the gas gauge of our car slightly below empty, trying to get to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where we hoped there would be a gas station. Suddenly we were going uphill, and the sign above the dark road said, “Steep Grade Next Three Miles” and “Hazardous Mountain Road.”

We’d just left after the first evening of Heather’s family reunion, which that year was in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Family reunions are one of the first things Heather had me experience soon after we got together. It was, for me, something completely new. Heather’s family reunions bring together a group of around forty to fifty people (Heather’s immediate family alone includes a group of eight brothers and sisters). With most of my relatives being in the Philippines or far on the west coast, I had never experienced a family event of this size. I got used to them, though. And just like Heather, Maggie, and Julien had no choice but to learn to appreciate my musical, cinematic, and literary tastes, I had no choice but to learn to appreciate massive family get-togethers.

At the reunion, I’d spent most of the day running after Julien—since family reunions are rarely ever baby proofed—and eating. There is, in Heather’s family, a wide range of political views. Still, I was pretty sure that I was usually the only wild-eyed socialist in the room, which meant that most of the time I’d try to stay calm and silent. Back then, anyway. Nowadays, I don’t think I’d be able to stay at all quiet, but then it’s been years since Heather’s family has had a big reunion.

When I saw the sign above the road warning of the upcoming steep mountain road, I looked at the empty gas gauge and yelled… well, one can imagine the words I screamed, though Heather, Maggie, and Julien didn’t have to. At any rate, we were leaving the realm of surrealism and ascending towards the heights of its real world opposite, whatever that was. We climbed and climbed as the gas gauge seemed to sink even lower, but somehow we made it to the top. Then, just as quickly, we were going downhill, and I put the car in neutral, hoping that might save a little gas. At the bottom of the hill, we saw an exit for Uniontown’s business district. When we got there, everything was closed. One gas station, then the next: closed.

Finally, I pulled over so we didn’t end up stuck in the middle of one of downtown Uniontown’s streets (not that there was anyone driving by). We called AAA to see if they could get us some gas, but we couldn’t explain exactly where we were. We were on some road in Uniontown, but there was no sign. We gave them the name of a nearby landmark—we were down the block from a church–but they couldn’t locate it.

At last I saw, appearing out of the dark, a woman walking down the road towards us. I thought, what the hell, let’s ask her. Maybe there’s a gas station nearby that she’s knows about that’s open. Heather opened the back door and called out to her.

“Oh yeah,” the woman said. “Just go down to that light, take a right, and it will be on your left.”

“Is it within a couple of miles?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “it’s just around the corner.” Then she added, “It’s a bad neighborhood, though. You should just get your gas and go.”

Bad neighborhoods, however, were the least of my worries. I’d lived in places people thought were bad neighborhoods. I just wanted to get back to our motel and rest. I thought she might then ask us for a ride, but she started moving on. We thanked her, then drove down the road. The open gas station was right where she said it would be. When I got out of the car, I started hearing the music again, in my head. The Ramayana Monkey Chant. Tari kecak: “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak, “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak…” It was a beautiful night again.

I filled the tank, got some milk for Julien (that was why we were driving around to begin with), then went back to our motel, The Lodge at Chalk Hill. Old, out of date, and desolate, it was the cheapest motel we could find when we looked on the internet. One comment we saw about the place on some hotel search website sealed the deal for us: “It’s owned by foreigners, but they were nice.”

So we decided that yes, we would stay here. And let the owners know that we don’t think they’re foreigners. We think they’re Americans. And we don’t care if they’re nice.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Ten Sonnets for Electric Motherfuckers

Photograph by Jose Padua
1982

Everything in the world that’s electric
eventually dies. Jimi Hendrix, Frida Kahlo,
Isadora Duncan, Federico García Lorca—
all eventually died, killed by vomit, fever,
suicide, accident, assassination—all killed
eventually, as in a great heavy metal song,
by death. And those lesser known as well, all
sooner rather later, beforehand not afterwards,
and sometimes even now. Is it any wonder that
when the power goes down we call it a black-
out? Is the irony lost on us that an early way to
cover up one’s stupid mistakes was to use
Wite-Out? Prince Rogers Nelson recorded 1999
in 1982. What the hell did you do, in 1982,

master class

motherfucker, and don’t tell me all about Anna Livia
Plurabelle. Was that some porn star you had the hots
and VHS tapes for, and when the technology went to
DVD to Blu Ray to streaming nasty adult channels
24/7 you said fuck it, I ‘ll write a book? James Joyce
had balls, James Baldwin had balls and Gwendolyn Brooks
would have cut both these dudes, she was cool like that.
This is my master class, your check was supposed
to be in the mail to me yesterday; I don’t take PayPal
and I have trust as well as anger issues, just ask my mom,
but wait, you can’t, she’s gone, because she was electric,
too. And bless these tasty vittles upon my table, Werner
Herzog, pull these statues down from the mountain like
it’s 1982. Let’s hypnotize the ruling class this time.

Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now

Hang it all, Steven Patrick Morrissey, you’re like
a girlfriend in a coma who won’t stop talking. There
can be but one Electric Warrior and you didn’t make it
because you couldn’t make it and you definitely weren’t
it. Now your country is full of people who are darker than
you, but then pretty much everyone is darker than you
because you’re one pale ass motherfucker. When you
were electric your lights never went out, and now that the
lights are off you’re always home. And I love the chiaroscuro
you walked upon, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; though
I never killed anyone I did, once, when I was young steal
an extra large bottle of Tylenol for my mother. This was before
the Chicago Tylenol murders in 1982 and I figured that until
I learned how to tear bad shit down I’d better learn to steal.

You Don’t Know What Love Is

Let us take a moment to consider the glory of the
suburbs, the vast expanses of neatly trimmed lawns,
the loving six- or eight-laned avenues of strip malls
anchored to big box stores, and the banks who keep
our finances and keep them healthy and the tasty
splendor of one thousand restaurant chains we love
to frequent with alacrity and the enthusiasm with which
we sit at multiplex theaters watching Lego versions of
all the classics from Lego Moby Dick to Disney Presents
The Wretched of the Earth in 3D
with Dolby What the Fuck
Is This a Rocket Attack Sound. And I am a lover of all
the art from which I may not recover: Eric Dolphy playing
flute at his last recorded concert; a yellow rose when
it’s laid just so on black marble in the early evening light.

Canto LXXXI

What thou lovest well remains electric like the ocean’s
breaking waves; what you break turns dialectic like
a brick thrown through the window of an oligarch’s
flagship store. This is the language they understand,
this is the beauty that moistens their flesh, this is
the alpha and omega of surge protection for those
with too much buzz. Just as book creates meaning and
meaning creates life, it’s the cop who spawns the uprising,
the insurrection that makes the change. I am rewriting
the Book of the Dead to incorporate changes for old
institutions that refuse to die. I was somewhere around
the springtime of my life, wandering the city streets at night,
my head full of rum and longing, my chest full of smoke
and dreams, when I saw, in the cat’s mouth: the brick.

Lestrygonians

To whom it may concern. Although I still express myself
through the written word I am rebranding my activities.
Henceforth, refer to me as lifestyle model. Entrepreneur.
Writer is such a boring label. Sitting at my desk, writing.
Going down the long treacherous American road, words
in my head. Now I sit in my studio, creating lifestyles.
Creating capital where there once was art. Selling poetry
snowglobes that you shake to create a new poem. Because
in America we are a people of leisure: verbal affluence;
prosperity diction; luxury grammar with deep pockets. It’s
all in my annual report. So look back in anger all ye popstars,
business gurus, and influencers of the corporate daisy chain.
I’ve learned the art of your deal. My windows are already
broken, wild beasts know my name. I am your competition.

Rubber Bullets and Electric

This is an elegy for those who couldn’t be stopped by rubber bullets,
who cried through tear gas attacks but kept striding forward,
who marched in love all day in sweaty, dirty clothes like drifters
in search of a cool breeze. This is for those who were dragged into
cellars or thrown into the river, the children put in cages and made
orphans, laughs turned into endless lamentation, curable diseases trans-
formed into death sentences. But this is also for those who took hard drugs
for the singular tone of contentment they provided, no matter how long or
how short, who tripped their brains toward infinity like noonday surfers
on speed. The summer sun sets as always in the west, over mountains of
angst and imbecility, the grey-green sea churning like industrial waste,
swelling the canal’s banks, yellow sky brightening even the insides of dank
caves on black Fridays. This is for everyone who had to be taken away,
everyone who walked that long hard walk because they were electric.

Head

With antifa hath no xenophobic, homophobic sons of bitches a
comfortable sports bar for drinking domestic brew and eating greasy,
fatty snacks; with antifa seeth no woman named Karen an unblemished
memorial to Stonewall Jackson teaching her heritage and history and
her right to take dominion over all other heritage and history; with antifa
selleth no Thomas Kinkade on QVC, his paintings and memorial shot glasses;
with antifa sniffeth no drug-sniffing dogs on the border of Mexico and Texas,
no notched-belt sheriff with an itchy trigger finger and a pink poodle named
Maurice on the Rio Grande River; with antifa no hawk in sheep’s wool
dyed blue in elected office, his fingers holding a blunt, his lips giving orders
to kill. The drone misses its target between bride and bridegroom on their
wedding day; Lee Greenwood sings “at least I know how much I suck” at
the county fair. With antifa Mr. Bob Dobalina can’t shut the gate to his
gated community. With antifa a man without a face mask gets fucked.

Melquíades, He Sees Everything Like This

When I was freaked with acid one Fourth of July the
world seemed to emerge as if from some southern gothic
film. I stared at friends and neighbors as they told stories
then shut squeaky windows in response to my silence,
which made me laugh. City traffic moved like fast highways,
but on looking over to the next lane I’d smile, thinking: oh,
they’re tripping too
or oh the basilisk is getting too close and
I’d look far far away. Superstars with big hits and fancy cars
ceased to exist because we were all big hits, climbing the
pop charts like sweltering heat up glass tubes as the changing
light changed into something that wasn’t light, feeling that
nothing in this world would ever crush me again. Later that
year I read, for the first time, One Hundred Years of Solitude,
and started, finally, to leave all my busy old friends behind.

Introducing Feliciano Balastiqui

And so there were ghosts in the house that papa built four hundred
years ago, restless witches and tidy men and vice versa. Several lives
later Thatcher made war in the Falklands and Reagan made love to
an image of America corrupt as the villain on a nighttime soap opera.
I remembered Lightin’ Hopkins and Lester Bangs who left the planet
that year, when I’d been alive for a quarter century like one of several
coins you’d drop in a cigarette machine. I tried to be swank and cool with
ostentation but I always ended up being subtle and shit when I wanted
to be blunt and bold and full of pulchritude. And it was four and a half
noisy centuries earlier when Ruy López de Villalobos named the Islas del
Poniente for King Philip II of Spain, who’d attempted to make the Inquisition
more electric. If only I could scratch it from today like a particle from the
future in quantum physics, changing a particle from far far in the past.
If only I could gather all my spare parts and shine the rest of my days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Memo in the Form of a Sonnet to the White Supremacist Who Referred to My Wife as a Breeding Vessel for the Hispanic Invasion

Photograph by Heather Davis and Jose Padua
Despite my name being Jose I am
not Hispanic but Filipino, which means
that as far as you’re concerned my white wife
is not a breeding vessel for the Hispanic
invasion, but for the Asian invasion. Please
take note of this. Because the Asian invasion,
and all the other invasions you fear, are gaining
strength like tropical depressions, and as the days
go by your vessel will lose more and more
of its buoyancy, more of its ability
to breed. Which means, as far as my wife and I
are concerned, that there’s still hard, hard work
to be done. That, like a sturdy vessel riding
high upon the waves, we we will continue to float.

-Jose Padua

First published, in a slightly different version, at Vox Populi.

The Writer at Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
Picking up a book to read in bed one night
when I couldn’t sleep I discovered that
Roland Barthes’ Mythologies kept me awake
even more than lying on my back staring
at the ceiling as flat as a fried plantain,
and when I put that down and picked up a book
of poetry by Billy Collins I found
that what woke me up the most was a line
in a poem called Invective that ends “I will
stare into the cold, unblinking eyes of cows,”
the significance of which was not lost on me
as I went farther and farther down the path
of the ravenous who never sleep, yet look
their prey straight in the eyes without cursing.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Notes on Song and Landscape and the Inner Workings of the Heart

Photograph by Jose Padua
My son Julien’s new favorite song at the time was Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” It happened during a trip to Baltimore for my semi-annual visit with my cardiologist at Johns Hopkins. “Play the ‘Passenger’ song again,” Julien said, though he didn’t quite demand it the way he had with Ryuichi Sakamoto whose “Mill Theme (Robotaki Remix)” had been his previous favorite. Still, Julien (who was six at the time) made it clear it “The Passenger” was essential listening for the day.

“Who does that song?” he asked

“Iggy Pop,” I said. “Ig-gy POP.”

“Did he get sick?”

“No, he’s been healthy for a while now.”

“He even does tai chi,” Heather added.

“Me and Maggie saw him play last spring when we all went to Philadelphia,” I said.

“Did I see him too?” Julien asked.

“Er, no.”

“I want to see him next time.”

As usual, even though we always tried to leave early from Front Royal, we got to Baltimore just in time for my appointment. I checked in, and went straight to get my echocardiogram while Heather, Maggie, and Julien stayed in the waiting room. I lay down, and the technician attached the electrode patches to my chest, then turned down the lights. She put the transducer, a wand-like instrument, a little to the left of my sternum. That’s when I saw it on the monitor in black and white: my heart, beating, its valves opening and closing, its walls expanding and contracting. I am always amazed when I see my heart in motion; amazed to see it at work, pumping my blood; amazed and joyful that, despite everything from minor pain to episodes of grief and anguish, and despite the continuing absurdity, folly, and obscenity that inhabits the world, I am alive. Not everyone can feel that joy–the joy which, despite these more difficult times, is still my privilege.

When I was done with my echocardiogram, Heather, Maggie, and Julien joined me in the examining room where my doctor would meet us. When he came in he greeted us all warmly (he’s been my cardiologist for close to a decade and a half now). Heather, Maggie, and Julien all greeted him warmly in return, then Julien asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name? I’m Doctor Elmer Fudd,” he said. Julien sensed that he was kidding, and looked at him sideways. “OK, I’m actually Dr. K____.” But Julien didn’t believe him when he said his real name either.

Dr. K____ went on to tell me that my tests looked fine, that although there was the issue of the thickened heart wall, it wasn’t worsening—the possibility of which was why he continued to see me every six months. He took my blood pressure, checked several other vital signs for confirmation that my heart was still healthy, and we were done. Before we left, he mentioned that if we were going home right away we may want to check if there any protests going on, because that could make it difficult to get out of town. It was just a couple of days after Donald Trump had won the election—or rather, had won the electoral college—which meant that in a couple of months he was going to be president. “If there are, we’ll want to join them,” I said.

“Well,” Dr. K____ said, nodding .“If there is a protest, you’ll see me there, too.”

We’d take Maggie and Julien out of school for the day whenever we went to Baltimore from Front Royal. Being in a real city was always a nice break from our small town. Still, we didn’t want to get back so late that they weren’t ready for school the next day. A while back, Dr. K____ had recommended the Ivy Bookshop, but that was far uptown from Johns Hopkins, so as usual we drove to the Inner Harbor, which was right on our way out of town. In just about ten minutes we were going up the escalator to the second floor of the Barnes and Noble at the old power plant building, soaring high above the magazine racks and display tables piled high with best sellers. It’s the sort of height that usually makes me a little nervous, but we’d been to this store so many times that it didn’t bother me anymore. When we reached the top, I headed toward the part of the store that carries some of its less popular items—i.e., the poetry section—while Heather went to the café for a cup of coffee and Maggie led Julien to the children’s books.

Usually I find a few things right away, but that day I wasn’t finding anything I wanted. That’s when a guy who was sitting in the aisle there asked me, “Can you recommend any poetry?” There are always people sitting—and sometimes even lying down—in the poetry and fiction sections, reading books they’ve pulled from the shelves, or sometimes just sitting, listening to music through their earbuds. This guy looked to be somewhere in his twenties and had that look in his eyes that said he was lost or else was about to get lost. “I only know Langston Hughes,” he said.

I thought about what was going on and what was going to get even worse; and I thought about the tasks that lie ahead, wondering who might be a good poet to read for what I hoped would be a revolution of sorts. “Amiri Baraka,” I said. “He died a couple of years ago. His work is wild and straight from the heart.”

“I never heard of him,” the guy said. I was surprised. I thought that if he’d heard about Langston Hughes that he would have heard about Amiri Baraka—and just needed to be reminded of him. But then maybe that was just a ridiculous idea on my part. None of us are immune to ridiculous ideas from time to time. And every ridiculous idea is different from the next one. Yes, it’s also ridiculous to say so. I thought of what else I could say to this guy.

“Check him out,” I said finally, then added poets like Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton. Somehow I neglected to mentioned any of the poets I knew, as well as any poets who were still alive, which I then hoped didn’t give him the impression that poetry was a dead art. I looked through the poetry shelves again to see if there was something I could show him, but none of the poets I’d mentioned were in stock that day. I moved on—to the fiction section, looking for Paul Beatty’s new novel, but I couldn’t find that there either. As I browsed, the guy looking for poetry suggestions walked by. He saw me and asked, “What was the name of that poet again? Amira…”

“Amiri Baraka,” I said. “Amiri Baraka.” His name itself was a poem.

“Thanks,” he said, “thanks.” I wasn’t sure, but I think he then said, “Bless you,” before walking off.

From the Barnes and Noble, we went to dinner at the Hard Rock Café. This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken there. The Hard Rock Café is a chain with average food, overpriced, but it’s right next door to the Barnes and Noble, and going there with our weirdness and oddity was all the energy we could spare that night before our long drive home back to Front Royal. And, somehow, they played “The Passenger” while we were there. “Julien, listen,” Maggie said. “Your song. ‘The Passenger.’”

We didn’t run into any protests blocking the road on the way home, so we didn’t run into Dr. K___ again that night. On Route I-70 West, we listened to “The Passenger” a few more times, and we also to Joni Mitchell’s “In France They Kiss on Main Street” as we took the exit for Route 15 West, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “I Say a Little Prayer” after taking the ramp on 340 South in Charlestown, West Virginia. Even though it was a quick trip, it was good to get away from the landscape of Trump signs where we lived. When we got close to town, after nine in the evening, it was too dark to see the signs, allowing the landscape of river winding through valley to take precedence. Of course, in the morning, the signs would be there again; and, even though with that election being over, those signs would soon come down, there would be new signs to replace them. Many of them expressing support of the same old shit.

We were about half an hour from home when Julien said he had to use the bathroom. We were right outside of Berryville, Virginia, so we stopped at the convenience store at the corner of Lord Fairfax Highway and Main Street, right in town. When I took Julien inside, we saw that there was an older woman using a walker ahead of us. A young man who was probably her son was helping her pull away from her walker, which wouldn’t fit in the door of the rest room, and make her way to the toilet.

“I have to go! I have to go!” Julien said frantically.

“You’re all right. You’re all right,” I said. “You can hold it.” The young man turned to us with a worried look as if to say sorry. And I remembered over two decades earlier when, during the last months before she died, my mother also needed help making her way to the bathroom. “It’s okay,” I said to him, nodding as I put my hand on Julien’s shoulder. Somehow, it didn’t seem to take that long.

When we got back in the car, I looked at my phone and saw a news report saying that Leonard Cohen had died. It had happened a few days earlier, before the election, but his family only announced it that day—the day of his funeral. That’s when I remembered a night right before I left New York to move back to DC (I was moving back to be near to my mother, who’d just had a heart attack and a stroke). It was one of my last nights out in New York, and a woman I’d just met who was a friend of a friend handed me a tape of Leonard Cohen’s music. I didn’t know his music that well at the time, and I guess she thought it might serve me well in the days that lie ahead. If I remember correctly, her name was Candy. And I said to Candy, “thank you.” I don’t think I ever got around to saying, “bless you,” much less, “let’s celebrate the privilege of being alive.” Though sometimes it feels as if I’ve missed out on something important when I don’t say these words, or at least think about them. Sometimes, even during days like this, I feel that the time to celebrate is now.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua