Category Archives: Shenandoah Valley

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

Bright Moments and Other Entries in the Discography of the Sky

Photograph by Jose Padua
Before we left the old family house in DC, where we spent that weekend, my seven-year old son Julien said, “Wait, I need my Rahsaan Roland Kirk CD.” Searching with Julien the day before, I’d found a few Rahsaan Roland Kirk CDs in the vast collection of LPs and CDs in the basement, and he didn’t want to go back to Front Royal without borrowing at least one of them.

Of the three I’d found—Rip, Rig and Panic; Simmer, Reduce, Garnish & Serve; and Bright Moments—Julien chose the last to borrow. As soon as we got in the car, he asked me to slip Bright Moments into the car stereo, and I did. Meanwhile, he called out the window to my brother Tony who was standing outside our car, “Make sure you have some Ornette Coleman records.” Which meant, I suppose, that he wanted to borrow some Ornette Coleman CDs next time we were in DC. And then we drove home, west on 66, listening to Bright Moments.

Earlier that weekend Julien was watching one of the Spiderman movies when his big sister Maggie switched the station to see what was going on with the Grammy Awards. Onstage at the time was Ed Sheeran singing that “I’m in love your body” song, and Julien immediately said, “I don’t like this stupid guy!”

Around that time, Maggie had been working on learning to play one of my favorite Ryuichi Sakamoto songs, “Bibo no Aozora” (Beauty of a Blue Sky). Sometimes, when Julien was with her in the hall where our piano was in our Front Royal house, she’d try to teach him the opening notes to Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.” He wouldn’t get very far, but whenever he sat there with her at the piano, even if it was only for half a minute, he seemed intrigued by the possibilities.

The next day it was Valentine’s Day. On that day, twenty-one years earlier, Heather and I had gone to Planet Fred near Dupont Circle in DC. They had a martini special going on that night and a DJ was playing a mix that included things like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and, I think, Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” I don’t remember for sure if “Moonlight Serenade” was playing, but that’s what it felt like. Ever since that night we’ve been together, with the years going by fast like blue skies and each day opening up like the album cover of a double LP. Which was what Bright Moments was—a double LP. You opened up the cover and on each side was a sleeve with a separate LP. We’d only borrowed the CD, although the double LP was also at the house. That, we couldn’t play in the car, though. And today, Heather and I are celebrating twenty-four years together.

This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken earlier that month in 2017 in Clearbrook Park, north of Winchester, Virginia. It was one of many days when we went out without any real plan and no idea of what we were going to do. It was one of those blue sky days. It was a sane day in the middle of an insane age. All we knew was that as soon as we were finished doing one thing, we’d move on to do whatever we had to do next.

-Jose Padua

It Happened One Night

Photograph by Jose Padua
Not a day or week goes by
working late at night
downstairs in the dining room
of our hundred year
old house when I don’t
imagine that when I stand up
and go to the kitchen
for a glass of water
or after midnight snack
or into the living room
for the cushioned splendor
of our beat-up old sofa
to give my back a break from
the stiff wooden chair
I sit on when I write
that I’ll look up
and suddenly see
a ghost, a spirit, a misty
entity that will make me
gasp, then yell or shout,
waking up everyone
in the house,
and they’ll come down
the stairs to see me,
the color gone
from my cheeks,
my knees a little weak,
my hands trembling slightly
as if I’d just crossed paths
with the infinite,
or put too much jelly
on my toast.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Days of Cinnamon and Other Kinds of Sound and Ache

Photo by Jose Padua
That morning, at the grocery store we always went to in Front Royal, I saw one of the cashiers I hadn’t seen in a while. A tall woman about my age or maybe slightly older, she was standing in her aisle, supporting herself with a cane. I nodded and said hello as I walked by on the way to the produce section where I got garlic, an onion, four tomatoes, and two potatoes then turned left. I picked up a cheap jar of olives, then headed back down to the meat and poultry aisle to get ground turkey and some chorizo sausage. Circling around to the other side of the store, I picked up more milk and some creamer before turning up the aisle back toward the checkout lanes.

When I got back to the front of the store, the woman was still there, standing on the aisle down from her cash register. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“All right, I got you.”

As I put my groceries on conveyor belt, I noticed that it hurt for her just to move down the aisle to her register. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “It’s just my second day back. You haven’t seen me around because I’ve been out since January when I had surgery on both my knees.”

“Oh my,” I said. “And now you have to stand all day again.”

“Yeah, it’s back to doing this.”

“Do you get a decent break where you can rest your knees?”

“Well, not really,” she said, and she went on to explain how after they did the surgery on her knees at Warren County Memorial Hospital in town she developed a blood clot that went up to her lungs. For that she had to go to INOVA Fairfax hospital, where she had to stay for a while, away from home and away from her husband who can’t drive.

“Oh no, that’s rough,” I said, knowing how depressed I would get if I had to spend so much time away from my wife Heather and my kids Maggie and Julien.

“Then, when I was back home after the clot, I was doing errands. Coming here for groceries as a matter of fact, when I fell coming out of the cab I took to get me here. I hit my head and had a concussion and hurt one of my knees again, which put me back in the hospital again.”

“Oh wow,” I said. “One thing after another. I hope things get a little easier from here on out.”

“Well, it is good that I’m back working, because now my husband can’t.” And she explained how her husband was working at a juice factory, but because he has COPD and because of whatever gets into the air at the juice factory he can’t work there anymore.

We talked for a while after she’d finished ringing up my groceries. I wished her luck, an easier time, disability benefits, a winning lottery ticket, and about a dozen other things before I went back to my car.

It was a beautiful spring morning. I had the windows rolled down and Miles Davis’s “Spanish Key” playing on the car stereo. It’s the sort of music that’s probably better suited for night time, driving through some busy part of a big city or else driving fast down some highway at three in the morning, but I turned it up anyway.

Back at our house in Front Royal, I brought the groceries in, then put the deep skillet on the front burner of the stove, added some cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, and a couple of cloves, and turned it up to medium. On another skillet I added some olive oil, and put the chorizos on low. I sat down at the kitchen table, where I pulled apart a bulb of garlic, peeled it, and chopped it all up, then did the same thing to with an onion. When the aroma of the spices in the deep skillet began to waft through the kitchen air, I added olive oil, and threw in the garlic and onion and stirred it for a couple minutes. Then I took the ground turkey and stirred it in before taking the chorizos out of the other skillet and bringing them to the table and cutting them up. After adding those to the mix, I peeled the two potatoes, diced them, threw them into the skillet, then diced the tomatoes and threw them in, too. Last were the olives, two bay leaves, and a little more cinnamon. Then I covered the skillet, turned the heat down to low, and sat down at the computer to do some of the work I get paid for.

I knew that because Julien had his swimming lessons that evening, I wouldn’t get a chance to make this dish, picadillo, later in the day, which was why I cooked it in the morning. When Heather got home from her office in Rosslyn that afternoon, she and I could take Julien to his swimming lesson uptown. Maggie could stay at home and relax for a while and then just have dinner heated up for us when we returned.

When Heather, Julien, and I got back, the dining room table was set and the picadillo was heated up along with some rice I’d cooked right before we left for swimming. We ate dinner, then Heather helped Julien with his homework while Maggie went off to talk to one of her friends on the phone. I walked down the hall and into the parlor, which was where my old stereo with the turntable was set up, and saw that Maggie had two albums out that she was listening to while we were at Julien’s swimming lesson.

The first was Neil Young’s 1972 album Harvest. It’s not my favorite Neil Young record, but somehow it was the only one I had on vinyl there. The other record Maggie had out was the pianist Stanley Cowell’s 1974 solo record Musa: Ancestral Streams. This is one of those records that has followed me wherever I go. Many times “Abscretions,” Equipoise,” “Travellin’ Man” or some other tune from the album will start playing in my head. After hearing it there, I usually like to hear it for real, in the air, filling up a room with its intricate motions and delicate gestures. It’s why, if it’s at all possible, I don’t like to be very far from this record. There is, within its tones and melodies, a kind of magic—magic being something I’ve actually always depended upon. Because despite the often desperate climate of these times here in America—as well as so many instances in the past when I could have easily ceased to have faith in these things—I continue to believe that magic is the adjunct effect of action, and that the power or even the simple possibility of each of these must never be underestimated. In other words, despite the awfulness of any situation, I still believe that good things can be made to happen, and that pure pessimism is for assholes. At any rate, that’s what I always try to tell myself.

The next day, the cashier at the grocery store would again be on her feet all day. I’d be doing my easy work, taking breaks when I want and sitting down, eating well, hearing music in my head, driving, and sometimes panicking, worrying, despairing over all the things that will never get done. It’s not fair, it’s not equal, and I am never doing enough to remedy these situations and predicaments and I am always at a loss as to what I should do next. So I write another poem, another essay, another fragmented bit of remembrance. I keep on going even though my audience is small, I keep thinking even though my thoughts often go in circles, I keep breathing even though the spring air makes me sneeze and always reminds me that, for most people, living is something that is never fully comfortable. I’m good with that and with all the things that are beyond me. And sometimes, even though I am often reluctant to do so, I am happy just to speak to people.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

I Am a Small Guitar

Photograph by Jose Padua
I am a small guitar in a large room on a Saturday
sometime after four when the last lunch guest
has driven home, beating the rain, beating the
worst of the traffic, beating the rest of the weekend
in coming to a conclusion. I am a gravestone in
a beautiful cemetery, set firmly in the ground
two centuries ago and long before everyone who
is alive today was born, was lost, was estranged,
was made to remember mistakes and misjudgments
while trying to recall a cool morning’s warm colors
and the shade of damp leaves drying under an
early evening’s angle of light. I am three hundred
men and three hundred women or three million men
and three million women or one man and one woman
or no man and no woman and no thing and no thought
and no long or short way of getting from there to here,
just a path marked with stone or cleared of brush
that everyone has to take. I am a large country on
a small planet or a small ocean between large drifting
continents because the world is moving from then
to now and we are a gift that must always remember
to act like a gift, expecting night to follow day and
small rivers to run and swell their banks too many times
for anyone to count, too swiftly to never feel the
beautiful sorrow of dangerous hours. And I weep
and I work, I diminish and grow like muscle and bone
because I am a guitar, made of wood, metal, and wire,
and I shine even when I am still, even when I am cold.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Half Dreams of the River and Everything It Gives Us and Everything It Takes Away


That Monday, as usual, I picked up my daughter Maggie from school, then drove over to my son Julien’s school, where she and I waited for him in the queue of cars. When the queue started to move and we picked Julien up, he sat in the back, buckled his seat belt, and asked Maggie, “How was your day?”

“Ah, it was good,” Maggie said.

“Did you make any bad choices?” Julien asked.

“Er, no,” Maggie said.

“Are you sure?” Julien asked.

“I’m sure,” she said.

When Maggie and I asked Julien if he made any bad choices in school that day, he just laughed, which means that although he doesn’t know how to say something that sounds like an answer without actually being an answer, he does know how to act as if none of this is important. With the school year soon coming to a close, the questions, of course, have changed. Me, I always feel a sense of relief at the end of the school day, and even more so at the end of the school year. And I wonder how much less I’d know, even at my age, if I’d never made at least a few bad choices.

The next day, when Julien got in the car, he asked, referring to the music that was playing, “What is this?”

“You know what this is,” I said. “You know who’s playing.”

“Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” he then said, meaning that although he may forget the sources of inconsequential information, he doesn’t forget what’s worth remembering. So, even though he may not request the music of Miles Davis, Oliver Nelson, Serge Gainsbourg, and Lizzy Mercier Descloux as much as he used to, he still remembers their names and the sounds they made and the notes they hit with elegance and skill.

Last week, Heather heard that a good number of people driving by the weekly Vigil for Democracy/Anti-Trump demonstration at the gazebo here in Front Royal were giving our side the finger. Sometimes it’s a young mother or father with kids in the car, driving by and seeing signs that say something like “Trumpistan: Government by Billionaires for Billionaires” or “Trump’s Agenda Is Toxic,” then flipping off whoever is holding that sign. We’re also seeing more and more pickup trucks bearing Confederate flags around town, which means that spring is slowly making way for summer here in the valley. We’d taken a break from the demonstrations since the big one Heather helped organize in March. “But yeah,” she said. “We need to start going again. While we’re still here.” And, it’s also something to come back for from time to time.

Last week, it rained most of the time. Last week, on the way to a doctor’s appointment in Winchester, we took Gun Barrel Road again, but parts of it were so flooded we almost had to turn around. Last week, I could hear our neighbor yelling at someone in the rain. Last week, I heard the sound of rain on the tin roof at night or in the afternoon or in the morning and the rest of the time, when I didn’t hear it, I was waiting for it. Last week I didn’t feel well for a few days. Last week the world seemed to smell sour and dank without interruption. Last week even laughter felt heavy. Last week was like that.

Later in the week, though, Maggie hooked her phone up to the car stereo. While we waited for Julien to get out of school she played East River Pipe’s “Life Is a Landfill” and Stereolab’s “Come Play in the Milky Night.” They were songs I would have played, too, but because she was playing them she was OK with them being played loud, so she played them loud and I was OK with that. I listened to the words, “Life is a landfill, baby/ All this garbage piled high/ Black dove filled memories/ Secret wishes to the sky.” They’re sad words, yes, and the music is sad, too, but it all adds up to something beautiful. “Come Play in the Milky Night” is a much more upbeat song, but it has no words. We listened as we watched the monster truck in line ahead of us.

“Don’t you wish I could pick you up from school driving a monster truck?” I asked Maggie.

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

“You’d be proud,” I said, and we kept on listening to the music. When the queue started moving, we pulled up to see Julien giving us that look that says the distance from wherever we are to home is decreasing. It’s a relaxing of the brow, that rapid eye movement from squint to revelation. It’s a smell of roses that somehow don’t make you sneeze.

On Friday, Heather worked from home. I took a break from work in the morning and sat down on the sofa right before Heather went out to do an errand. Pretty soon I was asleep. About an hour later I woke up to see some tiny girl walking in the door. I didn’t know who she was. She was as small as a baby, but she walked straight and smoothly like a girl on a box of salt, waiting for all that white stuff to dissolve. I started to get scared, though, wondering what this little girl was doing in our house. That’s when Heather walked in the door, and the odd little girl was gone. I figured that I must have been dreaming. Dreaming because we are animals. Dreaming because every story we tell is a story about ourselves, full of details we’re surprised we remember, details we know and details we don’t know. Dreaming because having a story to tell is like having sharp claws, and a quick swipe of language can draw blood. Sometimes I feel like I need a bandage all around me. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve just seen a ghost.

On Saturday, we found ourselves in Paris for a performance of selections from La Boheme. What was surprising about this was not that we were seeing opera out here, but that after living in the Shenandoah valley for ten years, this was the first time we had ever been to Paris. We hadn’t planned on it. We’d only heard about this performance an hour before it was set to begin. Maggie had spent the day with some of her friends from her old Montessori school. They were about to drive off from our house when one of them said, “Oh, do you want to go to Paris to see these opera singers?” A few minutes later, that’s where we were headed—east on John Marshall Highway, a left on Pleasant Vale Road after passing through Markham, then north on Winchester Road to Paris, Virginia. And though in Front Royal the rain had cleared, in going to Paris we were heading right back into it. But because we were going to the opera we were OK with that.

In Paris I took a photograph of Julien listening to opera for the first time. He was suspicious at first. It was like riding a two-wheeler for the first time—you’re not sure if you can do it. During intermission we all went next door to the Paris Apothecary. It’s run by our friend Susan, and she sells herbs, spices, tea, coffee, shrubs, wine, elixirs. It was a good place to take shelter from the week. When one of the opera singers came in and walked by we said hello. When she was gone, Julien asked, “Is she famous?”

“No,” I said. “But she should be famous.”

Heather and I shared a glass of wine and Maggie ate a banana nut muffin, but all Julien wanted was water. Like a river. Like the light rain that was still falling outside. All he wanted was water, and as he drank it he had a look in his eyes that seemed to say that the distance between here and home was diminishing with each sip.

-Jose Padua

Photograph (of the mist in Paris, Virginia) by Jose Padua

North Richmond Street, Being Blind

Photograph by Jose Padua
My eight-year old son Julien is singing
an East River Pipe song, going “I don’t care
about your blue wings, I don’t care about your
blue wings, baby” and my fifteen year old
daughter Maggie reads The Girl With Curious
Hair
while my wife and I drink beer at the pub
on Main Street (Julien and Maggie, iced tea
and a coke) before we all go back to our old,
dirty, small-town house. This place used to be
called Helltown and some people still call it
that, except at that precise hour when the sky
over the mountains is a perfect flinty lapis lazuli
blue, and the river is a woman named Edna with
the most joyous laugh, or a man named John,
his kidney stone like a 12 gauge shotgun shell.
He hopes to pass it before his Monday night
factory shift, the roughest in all the valley.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Home, Sorrow, and the Million Ways We Make It Through the World

Photograph by Jose Padua
That weekend was one of those that reminded us of what we love about living in the northern Shenandoah Valley—namely, events like the performance in Castleton, Virginia, some twenty-five miles south of Front Royal, by the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater. An event that brought together some of the eccentric and creative persons who live out here, and placed them prominently on the landscape of open green spaces that lay in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The following Monday, though, brought us back to the other side of life here when, on returning to her car in the Front Royal park-and-ride lot after spending the day at her office in Arlington, my wife Heather found a flyer underneath her windshield wipers bearing the heading “Join the Ku Klux Klan.”

The “klan,” the flyer noted, was an organization that was, among other things, “standing up for whites,” “upholding the 2nd amendment of the constitution,” “was Christian based and upholds the bible.” It ended with the line “Please join before it’s too late.” At the bottom of the flyer was a phone number and addresses for two different websites, as well as an illustration of a hooded klan figure surrounded by the words “The KKK wants you!”

Seeing this flyer here wasn’t exactly surprising. Time and again people had told us how Front Royal is one of the more backwards towns in the Shenandoah Valley. Not that we don’t have any of the sort of people who participated in the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater living here, as well as others who may not be eccentric but who are simply “woke” to one degree or another. Still, any real sort of power, here, is held by folks who are definitely on the other side of “woke.”

One case in point is the lawsuit a man in our neighborhood was involved in a number of years ago. Sam, one of two African-Americans employed by the Front Royal Department of Public Works, was continually passed over for promotions to positions he was well qualified for. What’s more, Sam was also subjected to verbal abuse from his bosses, who had no reservations about using the “N” word in reference to him and other African-Americans. Sam, in his lawsuit, contended that his immediate boss claimed to be a member of the KKK and that the director of the Front Royal office of Public Works was, in fact, the local head of the KKK.

In 2001, the Town of Front Royal reached a settlement with Sam and the other plaintiff, with the town having to pay their legal fees, provide compensation, and issue a formal apology. As for the director of the town Department of Public Works, he retired from that position, after which he was elected mayor of Front Royal. He’d already been on the town council for several terms and the lawsuit, apparently, did little to damage him politically.

A few years ago, Sam was able to retire from his position with the town. He’s one of the nicest, friendliest people in my neighborhood. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to work with the people he had to work with. Of course he had no choice—you make a living however you can. I also can’t imagine how he manages to keep up that smile after all the shit he had to deal with, but he does it, and Sam, to me, is one of the heroes in this town.

The day after Heather found the KKK flyer on her car, Johnny came over to the house. Johnny runs a lawn service in town, and he did our lawn that day. He’d just started working on our yard when our neighbor came over to yell at him. She was furious. Johnny, she said, had sent some grass clippings flying from our yard over into hers. I was out picking up Maggie and Julien from school, but Heather was home and phoned me to tell me what was going on. Our neighbor, Heather said, then started calling Johnny the “N” word over and over. Then our neighbor said, “I’m gonna call the KKK on you” and used the “N” word several more times. Heather tried to calm our neighbor down, but our neighbor kept on yelling. After a while, though, Johnny started working on our lawn again, and our neighbor went back into her house, slamming the door behind her.

Heather had to go out on an errand, and when I got home with Maggie and Julien, Johnny had just finished doing the lawn. I told him sorry. What could I tell him that he didn’t already know? I certainly wasn’t going to tell him how I, as an Asian-American or whatever the racist goons here think I am, experience some of this shit, too. Not to the degree he does, of course, and not in the same way, but I do. I could try to tell him what helps me deal with it, but what may diminish the sadness and rage for me won’t necessarily diminish it for him. It’s one of those things—you experience being the object of hate in your own way and the sadness and rage that goes with it is all yours. Like Sam and Johnny, you learn to live with it, and you learn to survive. And no matter where you are or who’s with you, you basically have to learn it on your own.

So that’s what I said to Johnny—“sorry”—and I looked him in the eyes as well and as real as I could and shook his hand. “Sorry.” It’s better than so much of the other shit that gets said at times like this. It’s like sorry, there’s love in the world, but there’s this too. The hate, it seems, isn’t going anywhere, and sometimes neither are we. So I went inside our house with Maggie and Julien, my legs slightly unsteady, and waited for Heather to come home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson and Other Intervals Between Two Points in Time

Photograph by Jose Padua
Looking out
the kitchen
window in the
dim early evening
light I’m waiting
for the stray cat
in the back
yard to move
just scratch its
nose with its
paw or else
dash out between
gaps in the
run-down picket
fence when I
realize it’s not
a stray cat
I’m looking at
but a black flower
pot knocked over
on its side and
in that instant
I remember all
those years I lost
being obsessed
searching for meaning
in places where
there was none.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua