Category Archives: Shenandoah Valley

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

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

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

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