Helltown

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back in the familiar wilderness
of tattoo parlors and auto parts
stores, the cheap motels where
there’s always a vacancy, the streets
so dry and sunny you can almost feel
the dirt and grime with your eyes
when you blink, and the teenagers
with their stained shirts and the random
fucks and shits and blow jobs that spill
from their mouths as a substitute for
speech. It’s the quiet boredom of the
normal, non-existential, nothingness
that kills them, that kills me. The boy
who’s the scared misfit with a lisp
and gawking eyes when he talks to us,
when he asks us questions, turns down
the corners of his mouth, squints his eyes
even in the shade and says nothing as he
looks to the ground in an effort to fit in
with the fucks and shits and blow jobs.
This is not bravery nor is it cowardice,
this is neither infamy nor avarice, but
might there be a word for it other than
survival? A sense of accomplishment,
more and other, than that of being alive?
So I look at them looking at me, wide-eyed
like first rides on a roller coaster, thirsty
like summer afternoons with no prospects,
their arms by their sides, their hands empty;
because what tears us down creates us,
and what we tear down creates the stones
we throw, each morning, into the dirty
winding river, ready to shine, ready
to walk the jagged, gravel road home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Black

Photograph by Jose Padua
I don’t like to wear hats, but sometimes,
when I lived in New York, and it was cold
enough, I’d wear a beret. It was black, of course,

because if it isn’t black it isn’t really a beret.
Most of the clothes I wore in New York were
black, though it was hard to tell because that

rich deep shade was usually faded from being
washed and worn too many times—I didn’t know
the art of wearing one’s clothes gently, I never

mastered that because usually I was the one being
mastered. Mastered by some woman who wore
black better than me, mastered by my inability

to find just the right amount of work, mastered
by the middle class and those things you need
to buy, mastered by my apartment when the

bathtub backed up and the water that rose
from the drain was black. One time I sat
in my apartment listening to the stereo and

imagining that when Nina Simone sang
“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”
that she was singing it for me. Or that when

Rahsaan Roland Kirk played “Never Can Say
Goodbye” from his album Blacknuss I wasn’t
in my apartment but in the audience, watching,

listening, traveling the lost years through time.
And when I stepped outside with that music
in my head, I put on my beret hoping it would keep

the music there longer. As if music were the key
to everything from the color of clouds to the
brightness of the early morning’s light. As if

on a dark winter night all the shelter I’d need
to keep my significant sound and light secure in
the cold winter air was the power of the color black.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Signs of Life

Photograph by Jose Padua
The Biograph Theater in DC, where I first saw
Casablanca on something other than a TV screen;
Joe Cocker and Leon Russell in Mad Dogs & Englishman,
a rock documentary I saw when I was still too young
to attend a live show what with all the pot smoking
and hippie kids dancing without their shirts; and
Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary while the outraged devout
camped outside the lobby, protesting the film’s supposed
blasphemy, has been a CVS drugstore for over two decades
now, a place where you can buy shaving cream, Slim Jims,
toilet paper, ibuprofen, and all the other tools, necessary or
optional, for living in the 21st Century. But where are those
images, the words, sounds and songs that I also need?
The airplane in black and white and mist that’s about
to lift Ingrid Bergman up and off to a safer place;
Joe Cocker singing and Leon Russell playing “Delta Lady”
with English accent and Oklahoma twang; the irreverent
challenge of taking the divine back down to earth with
allegory. There is a way of living, here, in that moment
that takes you away from whatever commerce brought us
together. That allows you to forget the body while being
of the body, seated, your eyes open, glancing away from
the screen and across the dark auditorium to catch, partly
by accident and partly by intent, the unforgettable sight of
a face, in the crowd, illuminated as much by sound as by light.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Slow Decline of the Ugly

Photograph by Jose Padua
We called them ugly stickers.
Like baseball cards or football cards,
they came in packs of bubblegum
except for me they were
a lot more interesting—
no batting averages for
the last four seasons, no total
touchdowns or yards per carry,
just an illustration
of an ugly monster of a creature
with a name like Bob, George, or Jill.
Joe, which was my nickname at home
was the closest the ugly stickers got
to my actual name, Jose,
and was a big green blob with
lopsided eyes, hideous lizard skin
and I think one leg
sticking out of its side—
I liked it a lot, and I liked it when
I was young and quiet
long before I learned
to like my real name,
because in America
you sometimes had to face
all the ugliness outside of you
before you could appreciate
the sort of off-center, off-color
full-of-blood beauty
that stands on its feet
or foot or whatever
it was born with
and demands its
moments of clarity.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On This Day in the Summer of 2014 When The Ohio Players Reunite to Play Several Songs in My Car and in My Head

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back in the summer
of 1975
the thought never
occurred to me
that one day
I’d be dropping off
my kids at camp
for the day
while listening
to The Ohio Players’
“Sweet Sticky Thing.”
As I was just seventeen
that summer and
had just graduated
from high school
there were innumerable
essential ideas
and concepts that
had never crossed
my mind at that point,
but for some reason
on this summer morning
nearly four decades later
this seems the most
significant of them all.
And because it’s
my first real observation
for the day,
that means that
like a great bass line,
it’s laying the
foundation for
everything else that
may come to mind
in the hours, weeks,
days, and years
that lie ahead,
until that slow
quiet moment
when the radio station
in my head
signs off for a billion
or more nights.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua, Self-Portrait as Shadow on an Empty Space at the Grocery Store Parking Lot.

In That Spring When Stars Are Made

Photograph by Jose Padua
Though we don’t turn them on at night,
the strings of Christmas lights are still up,
hanging in a line from the porch roof.
The red and white candy cane lights, pulled up from the ground,
lie at the top of the front steps
next to the all-season Dutch gnome.
Plastic Santa we managed to take to the back porch;
we’ll eventually carry him to the garage
where he will stand in silence
like a bored security guard
until next year. So go
the small things
we never have time to do,
the arbitrary ordering of our lives and times
into four seasons and various rooms
and days that pass so swiftly,
so invisibly
when nothing that’s considered
productive is being done.
But oh, all the tiny victories
not worth mentioning,
I will mention them anyway:
sitting on a rocking chair
when it’s warm and
I am in a blue-green, almost noisy funk,
talking about what was once the recent past;
an evening when dark objects in the sky
collide and fall to earth
as brilliant points of light.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Great Expectations and the Walkable Universe

Photograph by Jose Padua
When the weather woman says
there’s still wiggle room in this week’s
forecast for snow,
I think about it for a period of time
that’s longer than a moment
but considerably less than forever
and come to the conclusion
that there are few things more comforting
than wiggle room,
a term which to me implies
a measure of freedom you can feel
all the way from the itch
or tingle in your nose
down through the tips of your feet
especially if you’re wearing
a worn-out pair of tennis shoes.
When I walk I like to think
I can wander the entire walkable universe
and end up practically anywhere
if I can just walk long enough
with my shaky knees
and high-strung heart.
When I sleep I hope to sleep
soundly enough to dream,
long enough to rest,
yet short enough
that I don’t miss the sight
of snow in the morning’s first light,
and the pensive flight of souls
as they dissolve in my sleep
during their daily escape from
the insignificance of everything
in the world that merely
exists.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Self-Portrait as a Being of Sound and Motion on the Northern Edge of the Southern States

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Driving to Winchester
the other day
Stravinsky’s Symphonies
of Wind Instruments

comes on the stereo
as we head west
into the sunset
on 66 ready
for the curve at the end
of the highway that
changes our direction
and sends us North.
Yesterday on West Main Street
in Front Royal
heading back to my house
I hear Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s
“Gueule d’amour” and
I roll down the window
an inch to let just
the right amount of cold
inside so I can breathe
and feel the air
move around me like
a spirit drinking whisky
when I haven’t had
a drop to drink.
Today on Route 11 South
of Harrisonburg it’s
Al Green singing
“Loving You”
from The Belle Album
as we ride up and down
the hills in the early winter’s
late afternoon light
past farmland that’s dry
and bare between seasons.
And each time I am
entranced, bedazzled, amazed
by music I’ve heard
hundreds of times,
and comforted
to know that as
we travel through
the various frequencies
of light and dark
there is a pure constant sound
stirring within me
whether I am rising
or falling
heading east or west
and that whether I am
dust or flesh
I will be here
standing on the continents
spinning on this Earth
and moving through the universe
at great speed.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Breathless Like Those Days of Great Laughter

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was one of the last times the Runkle side of Heather’s family was able to have a winter reunion. With Mom-Mom Runkle’s health issues, travel, especially in the cold winter months, was particularly difficult. But it was at one of those last reunions, at Heather’s Uncle Brian and Aunt Rose’s house, that I found myself sitting with Mom-Mom Runkle and looking with her at one of that year’s novelty Christmas gifts, the giving of which has been a tradition in Heather’s family.

This one was an animatronic Country Bears toy—you pressed a button, and the Country Bears figures, which were arranged holding musical instruments, began to move as they played a holiday tune. I pressed the button and held it up for Mom-Mom Runkle to examine. When the Country Bears figures started to move and play their song she said, “Oh my! How do they do that?” I looked her in the eyes and said, “Practice.” Mom-Mom Runkle paused, then let out a joyful laugh that seemed to echo throughout the room.

Now, you can tell a lot about a person by his or her laugh. Some laughs have a tone of derisiveness about them (recall the way Nelson, the classroom bully on the Simpsons, laughs). Other laughs are only for the purpose of saying “I’m smart, I get it” (a laugh I would hear a lot in the audience whenever I saw a Jean-Luc Goddard film at the old Biograph theater in DC). Some laughs are creepy and even frightening (think Ted Cruz). Then there are those who don’t have a laugh. (Has anyone ever seen Donald Trump laugh? He smirks, he grins, he leers, but has he ever let loose with anything resembling a genuine laugh. I’m not the first person to note that laughing might be among the human behaviors he fails to exhibit).

Anyway, Mom-Mom Runkle had a laugh, and her laugh wasn’t anything like that of the aforementioned persons. It was a genuine laugh, without a trace of self-consciousness. Not everyone gets my sense of humor, but Mom-Mom Runkle did, and to hear her laugh in response to my remark was like taking a spur of the moment hit of nitrous from a can of whipped cream.

Mom-Mom Runkle had one of those laughs that you remember. It was a good laugh, a great laugh, the sort of laugh that brings with it a sense of revelation, even, and as such was a true expression of the essence of things, destroying all the bullshit in its way.

Like the rest of us, she wasn’t perfect. But I can only hope that one day, if only once, I might laugh in a way that rings just as true, and that it might echo through whatever room I find myself in. Or, if I’m outside, somewhere in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frighteningly backwards stretch of valley, I’d like to think that my laugh could echo off the mountains on the horizon, then, like a clamorous flock of dark birds, swoon back up toward the sky. And, I’d like to think that soon again, I’ll be able to let loose with a laugh that feels like something more than temporary refuge from a time of fear and apprehension. I’d like to think that, once again, it will feel like a home in which I, my family, my friends, and a lot of other people from all sorts of places who consider themselves Americans might dwell.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

P-Funk Reshapes the Landscape of the Redneck Town I Live In and Other Acts of Reformation and Reconstruction

Photograph by Jose Padua
Behind the wheel listening to P-Funk in my new neighborhood
the blank stare of the shirtless Larry the Cable Guy lookalike sharpens
to crystal clarity as his lazy slouch straightens up into a confident
strut and the words Git-R-Done are banished forever from his lips.

The colors start to run on the confederate flag bumper sticker
on the pickup truck ahead of me, its starry X melting like
the Wicked Witch of the West turning into a smelly puddle of scum.
Having freed my mind from the “Our God is an Awesome God” sounds

that limp through the streets from the doorway of the Heaven Sent Shoppe
downtown until it oozes like toxic waste into the Shenandoah River, having
been lifted from the list of endangered species by a bop gun blast,
I am ready to stand tall in my off-white glory and the knowledge that

God does not appreciate those lame-ass Christian pop songs. I step
out of my minivan, open the back door and take my daughter
by the hand. “Who sang that song?” I ask and right away she
answers “P-Funk” because I’m trying to teach her what’s well

and what’s real and we glance at our house, stop and wave to
our neighbors, then together we turn to walk towards the future.

– Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua