I don’t remember if it was last week
or last year, or just some gray day
when I didn’t have the energy to climb
my way up a blue mountain when I
realized that the old man listening
to light music on the way to the store
to buy soft food that wouldn’t hurt
his aching teeth was me. That the stark
landscape of an evening sky hanging
over a slowly moving brown river as
dark birds flashed their wings before
disappearing into the lush mystery
of tall swaying trees was a memory
that came rushing to me from the quiet
solace of an early afternoon’s hour
of delicate half-sleep. Sometimes
I’d leave the city far behind me
whenever I marveled at the flat
air that seemed to hover like a deep
speaking voice on helium over
a freshly mowed and neatly trimmed
lawn. Sometimes I’d walk to the county line
like I was climbing the stairs to sweet heaven.
Last week one of my neighbors banged
on the window of a car driven into a
wall down our street until the glass broke
to reveal a man who’d been driving drunk
wearing nothing but his clean, white briefs.
I think chance is what takes you the farthest
on a long slow road under gloom of night
with the lights off in this damp place
people who aren’t from here call the middle
of nowhere. It’s where I grow old and wise
among both lilacs and weeds, lifting
my feet one at a time, dreaming of nothing
but these bright, bitter and beautiful things.
Photograph by Jose Padua
When the time is right—which means after
the leaves have begun to sprout into dark
budding leaves and the ocean currents
flow more warmly northward
like perfect storms from southern islands
and all my heart-beating, word-hammering
work is done— bury me in these United States
in a manner I see fit amongst my slightly brown,
light brown, and dark brown brothers and sisters
on solid ground as wide as a city
where there’s so many of us
that the powers that be start to quiver
and shake as if the deep mud upon which they stand
is collapsing with the quaking
of their great white earth.
Roll away the rubbish of stars and bars
on battle flags, their sentimental dreams
of stepping on our backs and spitting in our faces,
and all our years of working for them rather than for us,
and all the yessirs and thankyousirs
that ever passed our thirsty lips,
and every moment our heads were bowed
in prayer or fealty and allegiance
beneath the smooth skin of their hands.
Then rise the way lost land rises high to blue sky,
which bends down with the bursting of clouds
to wet kiss crumbled brick and fallen metal.
Rise with weeds and wild grasses
as if waking from centuries of deep sleep,
rise like voices when questions have been asked
and the answer is a bird with dark feathers
perched upon a statue commemorating
the perpetrators of heinous deeds.
And walk these streets, knowing
that what’s beyond every sharp corner,
behind every wooden door,
and under every leaky roof
is another insane notion
cultivated by the inventors of regret;
walk swiftly as if dancing between bamboo poles
while stringed instruments control the melody;
walk until you reach the smooth curve
and low hills of the highway heading out of town;
walk so that everyone knows where you’ve been
and where you’re going, weathering
both trouble and affection, the gravel roads
turning into dirt.
Photograph by Jose Padua
We were heading up Route 11 just north of Winchester—me, my wife and my kids—when we found ourselves crossing into West Virginia. Now, there are places where when you see the sign saying Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful, things look pretty nice. Usually that’s during the day, when the sun highlights all the green that seems to be approaching you from the distance. This time, though, it was nearly dusk, at that point when the only thing you can see clearly is the landscape that’s close to you. It’s also when, for better or worse, that landscape and whatever buildings and signs and moving objects it includes are bathed in a beautiful yet unflattering light.
That’s when we came across Piggy’s Club—a restaurant, bar, and nightclub with a big sign out front to let you know that you could stay or get your “COLD BEER TO GO.” In the bright sunlight it might have seemed like a fair enough place to get something to eat, and in my drinking days it might have even seemed a reasonable enough place to have a few beers. It was, after all, Saturday night—and on a Saturday night, say, thirty years ago, Piggy’s might have even looked like an oasis of sorts. But then again, maybe not.
In my less hopeful moments, my mind tends to be overrun by feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. Other times I feel fully prepared for whatever form of Apocalypse might lie ahead. On this night, I felt somewhere between these two extremes—which meant that although I was a little nervous about where I might be taking us, I continued to take us there. All I knew for sure was that on this night Piggy’s gravel parking lot was a decent enough place for us to pull over.
Driving slowly to avoid potholes and any other hidden booby traps in Piggy’s parking lot, I turned the car back toward the highway. When I saw that the road was clear, I headed back in the other direction, in search of a place where we might want to spend some time. As fog settled over the valley and a slow drizzle started coming down, that’s what we did. And as the skies turned completely dark, what was once unflattered became beautiful once again, and we drove through it until we found a place where we wanted to be.
Photograph by Jose Padua