Category Archives: Memoir

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

The Light When It Shines Upon the Family Dollar Store as if Making Great Noise or Beautiful Silence

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’d picked up my son Julien from camp that morning, then together he and I went to get his sister Maggie from her art class. When Maggie got in the car, she asked him, “How was camp today?”

Julien, gazing out the window, said, “It was boring work.” It was “boring,” perhaps, because he was still tired from a busy weekend; but it was “work” because that’s what they preferred to call everything—at least at this particular Montessori school. Your daily activities were never called “play”—you had to call them “work.”

Maggie had done splendidly there for 10 years, but after that moved on to one of Front Royal’s public high schools. Julien, on the other hand, was pretty much kicked out of the Montessori school after just a couple of months. He did well at the public school, though, and at the end of the school year the Montessori school let him come back for summer camp. But apparently, even though it was summer camp, everything you did there still had to be called “work.”

During the regular school year, Julien’s teachers at the public elementary school adored him. I didn’t know for sure, but maybe they even adored him when he got mad and said “Jesus Christ!”—which is what he tended to say at that stage in moments of exasperation. Maybe they interpreted it as prayer more than imprecation. Though if he said it the way I say it—which, undoubtedly, was where he first heard the exclamation, most likely in response to one of any number of asshole moves by the Trump administration which at the time had been in power for just six months—it was, unequivocally, imprecation.

Back at the house, Julien had a snack—at his request, Maggie had made him a jelly sandwich. After a bit of a coughing spell, though, he threw it up. Then he had another coughing fit. Soon it was apparent that work at camp wasn’t just boring because he was tired—it was boring because he was sick.

This evening, when Heather was back home from the office, all four of us went to take Julien to the urgent care facility north of town. “No shots! No shots!” Julien kept telling the doctor. They didn’t give him a shot, but they did have to apply the Q-tip to his throat, and when the test came back it was positive for strep. They prescribed an antibiotic and we drove down to the CVS pharmacy in Gateway Plaza back in town. Heather went in while Maggie, Julien, and I waited in the car.

The above photograph shows the late evening sunlight as it illuminated the front of the Family Dollar store across the parking lot from where we waited in Gateway Plaza. On those days when you couldn’t make it out to the mountains—and there were many days when we lived in the valley when there just wasn’t time or energy or impulse to do so—the next most beautiful thing you could behold was the color of the Family Dollar store under deep blue summer skies during the early stages of twilight. Say what you will about the colors of the second and third floors of the Main Street Mill restaurant at about eight o’clock in the evening in late July, or about the grand stone mansion on Virginia Avenue and Academy Drive when the early darkness of dusk made it seem like an ancient edifice built thousands of years ago, nothing compared to the colors of the western facing storefronts of the shops in Gateway Plaza. At any rate, not since they remodeled a couple of years previously.

Back home again, after dinner that evening, Maggie asked me to suggest some new song she might attempt on the piano. She was ready for a break from the Liszt and Chopin she’d been working on, and thought she might try another jazz tune—something other than Thelonious Monk this time.

“What about McCoy Tyner?” I said. “He used to play with John Coltrane, and he has a very distinctive style.” I pulled up a few of McCoy Tyner’s songs on YouTube to play for Maggie. After these, I said, “Also Stanley Cowell. He’s another one of my favorite pianists, though he isn’t nearly as well known as McCoy Tyner.” And I pulled up a few Stanley Cowell tunes for Maggie to hear.

A little while later, I was hearing the opening notes of Stanley Cowell’s tune “Equipoise” coming from the piano in the hallway. I first heard “Equipoise” around forty years ago, when I bought Stanley Cowell’s album Musa: Ancestral Streams at Melody Records in DC back when it was on E Street and the main clerk there was Don, who later on became one of the founders of the avant garde jazz/noise ensemble, Borbetomagus.

I still listen to the mad, intense, incredible noise of bands like Borbetomagus, but not as much as I used to. More frequently what I’ll be listening to are tunes like Stanley Cowell’s “Equipoise”—slower, quieter, and though I’m not going to say it’s more beautiful than the noise, it’s a different kind of beauty. The kind of beauty that has lines of age around its eyes, slight wrinkles around the cheeks, and moves not with that get-out-of-my-way sort of daring but with a subtle kind of boldness that begs you (without even asking) to make room for it, to let it stand in front of you for as long as it can, so it can shine.

And that’s what I heard that night, coming from the hallway where Maggie was playing piano, and that’s what I’ll be listening for next time, when the sun is going down and the season’s air is cooling and it’s time for me to get out of the way again. When it’s time for me to practice making distance, for one reason or another. But for as long as I can, whatever the sound and whatever the speed, I’ll be listening, watching the colors as they move through whatever room I’m in—or whatever street, city, or oddly open space I find myself in. And when the time is right—and only at that time—I’ll close my eyes to see if I can feel the earth spinning.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

These Rhymes Out to All the Nations

Photograph by Jose Padua
My sixteen year-old daughter shouts from downstairs,
“Mom? Mom!” and then again after getting no answer
shouts, “Mom? Mom? Mom!” which is when my nine-year
old son goes to the top of the stairs and shouts back, “She’s
on the phone” and waits a moment before adding, “Shut
the fuck up!” When he hears no further inquiry or attempt
at what he interprets as ill communication on the part of his
sister he says, “Thank you,” which I think goes to show how
sometimes it’s best to stay out of the way of your children’s
business, and that every day we stay alive is a reminder
that the universe is a thing of great natural beauty.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

High

Photograph by Jose Padua
My response to the current plague is to wake up
a little later each morning. The kids are home

from school and don’t need to go anywhere, don’t
need to learn anything, at least not right now.

Because what is there to learn during a crisis
except how to stay alive, keep your heart beating

like a disco song? I remember the 70s, remember
being so impressed by the beautiful color speed

came in. Those beautiful old days when my legs
could still take me to far places. I go to sleep

early now, lie down when I’m tired, don’t stay up late
writing poems and stories listening to Pharoah Sanders,

the New York Dolls, or Disco Tex and the Sexolettes.
Holy Christ was that a song, or was that a sign

that someone was glad to see me since the last manifestation
of apocalyptic ennui? I walk slowly down the stairs now

in deference to my arthritic knees, aware that my sense
of balance is something like a hit of acid, those long-ago

nights when I’d look at people without nodding
even more than when I wasn’t on acid, or mushrooms.

Oh what a feeling that was, oh what a way to feel
the non-ache and flexing muscle around my

Filipino-American or sometimes just American
young bones, and bones seem more important now,

like the bone-in pork at the grocery store, which I go to
wearing a mask, mittens, goggles, and galoshes

because I like that alliterative ambiance. I like the way
a man is a man and a woman is a woman and a they

is a they doing it so gloriously for theyselves
or I mean themselves, or whatever safe space selves.

I eat quickly now like a meal is a moment so easily
stolen from you, watching the evening news

while taking slow gulps from my glass of cold water,
so far from those days when we drank Schlitz

or Michelob and thought Coors was the ultimate beer
when nowadays we say, oh seriously, fuck Coors

and fuck beer. I want craft brew with a hint
of cardamom and orange peel, served in a mug

that bears the logo of my favorite non-profit organization.
Treat me like my name is Bill Murray and my middle name

is Fucking. Believe in me like my name is Don Corleone
and it’s the first half of The Godfather, before he got old. But

my name is Jose Padua and my pronouns are motherfucker,
motherfucker, and motherfucker’s. How did it end up like this

in these horse’s rear-end times? Why do I have to translate
for you my existential bewilderments? Why am I on the

bullet train back from New York when my friends are
riding coach, I guess I’m lucky that way. And I’m amazed

at how my son from such a young age made sure to describe
the precise thing he wanted like ice cold water or a cream

cheese sandwich, make sure not to cut it in half ‘cause that
sucks; how my daughter paints pictures of things the way

she sees them, stripped of the spectacle of corporate costume,
entrance music, and color scheme; how my wife stands so long

like a walk through a garden when it’s a house we live in and
not the open earth under a starry distant sky between river

and mountain. Right before the plague we packed up that
old house out in small town America. Half our neighbors

were crazed, the other half wholesome as the virgin breath
of infants; they made shelter from an atmosphere of rolling

coal and diesel fuel. I think it was Guy Debord who said
it’s so much easier for mainstream media to cover a brand

than a genuine human being. Either that or me in a dream
where I’m smart and lucid and have read every paragraph

Guy Debord ever wrote in the original French. My name
is Jose Padua, it’s just a name I’m saying again because

this is a time of modern plague and shit. It’s a time of
plague and they’re asking us to choose between

the lesser piece of shit and the worst piece of shit. Then
telling us that if we hold out for something better then

we’re a piece of shit, too. I remember humanity before
it became nothing more than an empty shell; then I remember

that humanity was always an empty shell. Every moment
the memory’s different. So we take the kids out back,

bounce the ball around or throw it in the alley away from
everyone else. Look up at the wires on telephone poles,

the loose strands that keep us connected to other faces
and ways of life. I hear a voice in the distance saying

something I can’t understand. And footsteps which
means to leave them some space, let them go on their

way like disarmed enemies. This is America 2020 and
I feel like I’m back on acid again. Staring at people,

my head still as a traffic signal. Blinking, flashing,
shining color as if to say, yeah, move on, and call me

motherfucker. And up above us it’s a cloudy sky. And
the birds are flying, they’re keeping their distance from

one another, making dark wide circles in the scraping air
as they fly so beautifully high, so beautifully high.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Brief Story About My Head and Other Fragile Sensibilities

Photo by Jose Padua
So I tried jumping up and down, my head tilted to the right. I did it several times, at two in the morning. There was no one awake in the house to see me doing it, though I was careful not to jump too hard—I didn’t want to wake anyone up. Because even if I were to explain it to my wife Heather and to my fourteen year old daughter Maggie and to my seven year old son Julien, there was something about it that felt ridiculous. It would have been like someone coming down the stairs to see me not hard at work writing, but in front of the television watching Little House on the Prairie. Yeah, I love that show.

All right, I’m lying about loving Little House on the Prairie, which isn’t to say that back in the day, in the house I grew up in, I didn’t enjoy having it on in the living room, watching it with my mother. I especially liked Alison Arngrim as the mean and nasty Nellie Oleson. Nellie Oleson had attitude, and from what I remember, she liked to mess with people. Years later, Alison Arngrim would write about her work on the show as well as her real life struggles in Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.

I haven’t read the book, and I hadn’t thought about Alison Arngrim in a long, long time, but somehow I thought about her when my ears started to clear up. When, after jumping up and down a few times, I began to hear something beautiful in my right ear—sound. Sound from the outside world and not that of my heart beating or the blood rushing through my veins. Sound, like water dripping from the faucet. Sound, like the asshole next door with his unmuffled pickup truck, running the noisy engine for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes before finally driving off to who knows where. Sound. It was what the instructions I found somewhere on the internet said I would get. Sound—it’s what I got back in my right ear that Monday night.

Sunday, the day before, my ears had been congested for about a week (they’d been clogged on and off since December of the previous year, when I had pneumonia). With the general fatigue, achiness, and congestion that accompanied pneumonia having come back, it seemed like a good idea to go to a doctor. What’s more, with Maggie feeling like she’d come down with the flu, it seemed like a good idea for her to go as well. And so, as usual, we got in the car—Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I—and headed up to the Front Royal urgent care center, which was the only place open on a Sunday.

We got there at three, and not long after that one of the nurses led us all into one of the examining rooms. She took Maggie’s and my blood pressure, and left. Soon, the doctor opened the door. He looked at us and right away gritted his teeth. The look in his eyes seemed like scorn or disgust.

“OK, what are you here for?”

“Well,” I said. “My head is congested and my ears are all clogged, and I’m also having some chest congestion and trouble breathing.”

“And what do expect me to do about it?” He practically barked his words at me.

Maggie looked over to Heather, surprised at the doctor’s hostile tone. And I raised my voice a bit in response.

“Well, I’d like to know if there’s anything I can do,” I said. “I had pneumonia last month, and I’ve been feeling bad again for a week, so I thought I’d better have it checked out.” It was hard for me not to add, “Do you have a fucking problem with that?”

The doctor lightened his tone slightly—very slightly. “All right, let me put it this way. What are your expectations?”

This time, I had to refrain from saying, “My expectations when I come here are to be seen by a doctor who’s not going to act like a total dickhead.”

When he listened to my lungs, he said, “They’re completely clear.” And then, as I took another deep breath he added, “a little wheezing is normal.” I was ready to smack him. And, as Heather told us later, she was too.

The tension never let up. Even when he examined Maggie, he seemed ready for confrontation. His advice before leaving didn’t go much further than “wait it on out” for Maggie, and “blow your nose” for me. Usually, when we go to the urgent care center, we get a decent doctor. This was not one of those times.

Later that night, I googled the doctor. He lived in one of the towns out here in the valley. Right away, I found, in the opinion section of his town’s little newspaper, an op-ed piece he’d written. The paper titled his piece “Madison County physician decries warming ‘hoax.’” Among the doctor’s opinions was that “global warming/climate change advocates are part of what will undoubtedly be known as the greatest hoax in modern times and Al Gore as the 21st century’s greatest snake oil salesman.” Further searching found a letter-to-the-editor where he decried how “the self-reliant and personally responsible” are “in conflict with the dependent and entitled”—with him, of course, being among what he considers the “the self-reliant and personally responsible.” I wondered if the scorn he showed Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I was in response to his looking at us as part of an “increasingly dependent and entitled segment of the population.” Indeed, I wondered exactly what it was he saw.

The next night, after a day in which I blew my nose and drank plenty of hot drinks—after a day when the clearest sound I could hear was that of me chewing my food when I ate—my ears were still clogged. Then I jumped up and down. And Little House on the Prairie wasn’t the only thing that went through my mind that night. I also thought about House of Pain’s song “Jump Around.” And the Mikey Dread song, “Jumping Master.” And, I thought about the time when I was five, jumping up and down in the apartment in DC where my family lived at the time. Jumping over and over and hearing later, from my mom, that all the plaster in the ceiling of our downstairs neighbor Eleanor’s apartment, came crashing down while I was jumping. Eleanor, who’d had polio when she was a child and had to wear leg braces to walk. Eleanor, who couldn’t jump.

Over five decades later, there in the Shenandoah Valley, taking my kids to school the morning after a night when I jumped up and down, up and down, my ears were clogged again. After dropping them off, I turned up the car stereo so I could hear the music better. The song was Ahmad Jamal’s “ Marseille,” featuring vocals by Abd Al Malik. The vocals were in French, and in English they say something like this:

Marseille, I often walk your streets alone
And then, too often I am gone
Marseille, my lonely heart needs your caress
My life, is full of deep regret
Your sun, is unrelenting till it sets

And even though I have never been to Marseille, and have never even been to France, and even though my French is bad, I am feeling it. Feeling it, even when I’m not hearing it well. Feeling it even, sometimes, when I’m not seeing it. And sometimes, though not as often as I used to, I am walking. To somewhere and from somewhere, with the emphasis sometimes being on the former and sometimes on the latter. Sometimes, too, I will jump. I jump less often than I walk, but I do jump, because it’s my privilege. It’s something I’m entitled to do. And, for now, it’s something I depend on.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua