Tag Archives: Memoir

No Side to Fall in and Other Distractions Great and Small

Photograph by Jose Padua
That night, after dinner on one of those days when the cold and snow had kept us inside for what seemed too long a time, we found ourselves sitting around the dining room table listening to some old songs. (We were still living in the Shenandoah Valley, then, in our hundred year old house. Maggie, our daughter was only ten; our son Julien, three—Heather and I were a little younger, too, of course.) Normally, my obsessive compulsive mind requires that we clear the table, put the food away, and wash the dishes before we do these things, but there we were with the rice and roast pork, the squash, the pitcher of water, and our plates and silverware all still in front of us, and in the middle of this, the laptop set to YouTube on which we took turns picking songs to play.

Heather had remembered the old Bauhaus song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which Maggie found too spooky (she was beginning to move away from her fascination with ghosts and such and on to other things) But she still hadn’t lost her affection for more dramatic songs, and when it was her turn she chose the Pet Shop Boys—with special guest Dusty Springfield—singing “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” a song I first played for her several years earlier and which Julien had grown to like as well. When it was my turn, I chose the Raincoats’ “No Side to Fall In”—a quick, beautiful song from 1979 that’s part cacophony and part harmony and goes,

I… I hear the music outside
And I am the music inside
Inside… inside… inside

No side to fall in
No fall to live until
My mind… my mind…
Is still… is still…

My mind, my life
My mind…
I don’t mind… today
Today… today… today…

We all listened closely, but Julien was particularly entranced, and as soon as it was over he said, “More Side! More Side!” So, given that it was Julien’s turn to pick a song, we played it again. I imagine that first time I put the Raincoats first album (on which this is the first song) onto the turntable, that I may have done the same thing and immediately played this song again—though with a turntable what I had to do was pick up the tone arm then lower back it down at the outer edge of the LP. Now all we need to do is press replay or rewind, though on occasion, when I’m not in a rush, I’ll pull out the old LP and lay it down on the turntable to get that full recorded sound you can only get from the relatively primitive technology of a needle winding its way through the groove on a vinyl record.

When it was my turn again, I picked “Geno” from Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ wonderful first LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. Whenever I heard something from this record, I couldn’t help seeing in my mind the image that adorns the album’s cover—a photograph of a young Irish Catholic boy carrying his suitcase after being forced to leave his home during the British army’s Operation Demetrius in Northern Ireland. What Maggie thought of when she heard this song was a much happier thing, because this time when I played the song she explained how she remembered the first time I played it for her.

“It was before school one morning,” she said. “You were sitting with Julien at the dining room table. I was sitting on the other side of the table, eating some leftover barbeque chicken tenders, when you put this song on!”

As always, I was amazed by the details Maggie remembered. And though I, too, retain details like this, I don’t think I do it as to the degree she does. Over the years, I know there are so many things I’ve lost—all that science I once knew, the mathematics I once understood, as well all the images and particulars, the names and faces that are now gone.

Still, I remember more than a lot of people. Talking to friends, I’ll sometimes mention people we both knew, and they’ll be completely gone from their memory. I’ll say how we did this or that with them, but they don’t even register as ghosts—which makes these seem like instances of what I sometimes call tiny deaths. That chipping away at our existence, and a continual diminishing of our presence in the world that continues until the big one comes along.

And though I may speak from time to time about the possible existence of the soul or something like it, I’m not at all confident about these things and I’m not about to blindly partake of some religious vision of an afterlife. But neither am I about to completely shut the door as to the possibilities of such things. All of which is to say that this is part of why I am obsessed with telling these stories and putting down as many of the details as I can manage to drag up from the depths of my memory. That I seem to be even more obsessed with memory and the defiance of death right now is because February was once a month I associated only with the ending of things. That changed when, on Valentine’s Day in 1996, Heather and I became a couple. That’s why now, during the month of February, I try to think, as much as I can, about today.

Today…

TODAY.

The photograph above was taken in the late afternoon on Valentine’s day, 2014. We were driving down Route 522 north of Front Royal on a stretch of highway which, depending on where you are, is called either Winchester Road, Front Royal Pike, or Stonewall Jackson Highway. Suddenly, on that drive, Maggie said, “Look at those clouds—they sort of look like UFOs!”

“Where? WHERE?” I asked.

“There,” Maggie answered. Of course, I didn’t know where “there” was, so I just kept looking until I spotted them. Then, to satisfy my obsessions, I had to find a place to stop. Heather and Julien, by now, have learned to make accommodations for them, while Maggie seems to be partaking and, now, even surpassing me in accumulating one obsession after another.

I stepped out of the car, looked over to the west, then took a photograph. And then another and another. Until, finally, I felt that I’d taken enough. That there were plenty of images in my camera and in my mind. Then I got into the car and—with my family beside me—we headed back home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Close Encounter with a Prius Repellent and Other Ways of Living Under the Milky Night of Stars

Larry Yates in April 2017

One way to tell that summer had begun in these parts was by the number of Confederate flags that were out and about again—on pickup trucks, motorcycles, flying from front porches in celebration of the season of warm weather in America. Of course there were some who refrained from displaying the rebel battle flag and for whom the good old stars and stripes was more than enough, such as the SUV we saw one day that proudly bore a bumper sticker with the standard United States flag and the words “Does my American flag offend you? Dial 1-800-LEAVE-USA.” The bumper sticker was new to me, then—four years ago—so the words that went through my head were “What the fuck is this idiotic shit?” Words I might not have been able to refrain from saying out loud had my daughter Maggie–who was twelve at the time—not had her friend Anna with us in our car on the way to Winchester. Words which I did, however, end up saying more and more over the past four and a half years.

That day started pleasantly enough. My wife Heather was using a present from Christmas finally and took herself and Maggie for a pedicure at a local spa. To read during her appointment she brought along Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which she was having another go at. In the middle of her session she looked over to Maggie to see what she was reading and was surprised to see her reading about things like disaster capitalism and the 1974 U.S./Henry Kissinger master-minded coup that put Augusto Pinochet in place in Chile—she was reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

I suppose that with the presidential election upon us—and having heard me speak of my high school classmate whose father was assassinated by Pinochet’s forces right across the street from where my own father worked, and having heard Heather and me discuss how galling it was to hear a supposed progressive politician like Hillary Clinton speak glowingly of the aforementioned war criminal Henry Kissinger—that Maggie might have wanted to get some background information on all of this. She might  not have understood everything in The Shock Doctrine, and it certainly wasn’t “feel-good” reading, but I was more than glad that she’d taken such great interest in learning about the world and how it works.

When we got to Winchester, we went to the downtown walking mall on Loudon Street, which was busy with people out for the holiday weekend. Our son Julien was happy to be running around past the shops and chasing after Anna and his big sister. In one photograph I took that day, though, he was taking a pause from the chase, and giving someone his old side-eye look. It was something he did quite often in our years out there. In Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley there were some nice people—like the writer Joe Bageant, who wrote a lot about inequality and the working poor in America. He went off to the west coast when he was a young man, but later in life returned to Winchester—the “bigoted, murderous redneck town I grew up in”—to kick some ass. We got to meet him a few years a few years before he died, and then some other good folks who lived on and were our friends the entire time we lived out there. But there were always those “bigoted, murderous” types you had to watch out for. And soon after I took that picture, we encountered some of them.

We were leaving the walking mall—crossing Piccadilly Street with Maggie, Anna, and Julien holding hands as they walked—when we passed by one of those pickup trucks equipped with smoke stacks waiting to turn onto Piccadilly. Sometimes called “Prius Repellents,” these trucks can let loose with clouds of noxious black smoke that for the asshole occupants of these vehicles are a protest statement against liberals, tree-huggers, Obama, etc., and as we walked past them they started jeering at us. Heather and I figured out that seeing Maggie and Anna holding hands as they walked past must have looked “gay” to them. And then, with me looking like some illegal alien, and Heather and me together being one of those horrible mixed-race couples, and Maggie and Julien our half-breed children, there was just so much to offend their delicate sensibilities. So when they turned, they let loose with the black smoke—“rolling coal” the act is sometimes called—which engulfed all of us. In other words, they had no reservations about letting the noxious fumes loose on two twelve year old girls, a five year old boy, and a middle-aged couple minding their own business, before roaring off to wherever it is dickheads like them like to spend their Saturday nights.

At the time, I’d never had a close encounter with the smoke from a Prius Repellent, and because I have respiratory issues, I had trouble breathing for few minutes. Julien, aware that something had just happened, asked, “Are those bad guys?”

“Yes,” we answered, aware that he now had a few new faces besides Donald Trump’s to add to the gallery of bad guys.

Luckily, we were just down the block from the Hideaway Café, which was where we going to see a drag show benefitting the theater where Maggie had been taking acting classes. The Hideaway calls itself “a safe space for all our guests, regardless of race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, etc.” and that night, for us, it was precisely that and provided a welcome antidote to the smoke stack pickup truck goons.

It took me a little while to get back in a decent mood, but I did. The drag show helped in that regard, as did Victoria, the woman who runs the Hideaway. What helped even more was running into our friend Larry Yates there. Larry was about ten years older than me, and had been an activist most of his life. He’d even lived in Washington DC for a few years, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I must have crossed paths with him at some point. Maybe at 18th and Columbia Road, back when the neighborhood was scary for all those people from the suburbs. Maybe even at something like the Rock Against Reagan concert at the mall in ’83 when the Dead Kennedys played.

Decades later, in Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley, hanging out with Larry was like having Noam Chomsky to bounce questions off of and learn from (Larry wasn’t a linguist himself, like Chomsky, but his father was). He helped keep our spirits going for the ten years we lived in Front Royal—that scarily conservative town a little bit south of Winchester. It was the sort of place where, when progressive people we met in Winchester found out we lived there would go, “You live in Front Royal? Oh my god!”

When Larry tried to run for the 29th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2013, he was clobbered by the conservative Republican candidate. We all knew that taking down a Republican in the Shenandoah Valley was longshot, but with Larry, you always had hope. He made you believe you could change the backwardness of this this town, this place, this country. I think that’s why news of his death this week from an apparent heart attack hit those of us who knew him so hard. Somehow, we didn’t think anything could stop him. Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, the United States, the world, the universe—none of it’s going to be the same now. There’s always going to be that piece missing—the piece he brought along with him whether he was grumpy, laughing, talking obscure concepts or real life actions. The piece, now gone all loose and lost in the fading of stars in a distance we can’t see.

That night in Winchester, after we left the drag show, we went with Larry back to the walking mall to eat dinner at El Centro, a Mexican restaurant on Boscawen Street. It was a nice, easy-going spot, where we could dine under the early summer skies and we figured we weren’t likely to run into the goons there. It would just be us, feeling like we belonged there.

When we were done, we said goodbye to Larry. We’d been meaning to get together with him like that for some time, but things were always so busy, so hectic, and sometimes so strange and so sad. Sometimes  the hardest thing to do is to find the time and space for an old friend, to just spend an evening talking about the world and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. That night, though, we managed to do that, despite the bad guys that were out there and despite their stupid machines. Then we headed home, down the highway between the slumbering mountains under a milky night of stars, as I slowly—very slowly—began to think of more beautiful things.

-Jose Padua

Free Bird and a Hundred Other Supposedly Fun Things


That weekend a couple of years ago, the Shenandoah River swelled its banks. Eastham Park, on the west side of town right by the river, was almost completely submerged. Happy Creek, the Shenandoah tributary that runs through the east side of town, was running furiously. It wasn’t quite as imposing as the sight of the Shenandoah expanded to about twice its usual width, but there was something about seeing what’s usually a quiet, almost stagnant body of water raging like a good ole boy drunk on moonshine that made it nearly as fearsome as the river. That weekend wasn’t an occasion to venture getting close to any of this, and distance—either out of respect or fear or practical caution—was the best means of achieving comfort through the storm. That and staying still.

We were on the way back to Front Royal from DC on a Friday evening when it started. We saw this darkness ahead of us on I-66. The kind of darkness that makes calm people say, “It looks like it’s raining cats and dogs up ahead” while the rest of us go, “What the fuck is this shit?” We drove into the storm for a while, but when the rain started coming down so hard we couldn’t see more than a five or ten feet in front of us, it seemed like a good time to look for a way off the interstate. Luckily, we were close to the exit to Marshall, so I took it. Just driving down Main Street in Marshall at ten miles per hour was hard enough, but we made our way through town and found what looked like a safe spot to park at a McDonald’s. Although we were now parked, there was still thunder and lightning all around us. Julien, my eight-year old son, was scared and asked, “Are we going to die?”

“No, no,” my wife Heather and I both said, as did Maggie, our fifteen-year old daughter—which isn’t to say we weren’t scared, too.

As we waited in the midst of all that rain and lightning and thunder, I remembered how my Auntie Lucilla, in the last years of her life—her sight, hearing, and mental faculties failing—would repeatedly ask, “Is it raining?” That, out of everything else, was what persisted in her mind—the thought of rain. If she were still alive and happened to be with us that night in the parking lot in Marshall, I don’t think Auntie Lucilla would have had to ask. But somehow I don’t think she would have been scared.

I also remembered a time about ten years earlier, during a trip to Gettysburg, when Maggie came down with a bad fever. We’d been visiting friends but left early to take her to the emergency room. She was four years old at the time and this, apparently, was the worst she’d ever felt. Lying on the table in the examination room, Maggie asked, “Am I going to die?”

“No, no,” we said, just as we’d say ten years later during the thunderstorm. Nevertheless, there was, for me, something indescribably sad about witnessing what may have been Maggie’s and Julien’s first realization that mortality was something that could affect them. At the same time, there was something beautiful about being able to reassure them—to say that, despite their fears, we were going to make it. I don’t think I felt that I was completely a parent until I’d helped talk my children down from some horrible fear—and, subsequently, gotten them to continue using the necessary energy for experiencing true joy and delight.

That night, shortly after we walked into our house, Julien gave both Heather and me a hug for getting him and Maggie home. It was still raining heavily, and after everyone was asleep, I listened to it for a while. Inevitably, I remembered the closing lines from Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” Except that it was midnight, and it was raining, and it would keep on raining for a long time.

The next day we ate lunch at Soul Mountain. Soul Mountain is the restaurant on Main Street in Front Royal without which we probably never would have moved there. The first time we ate there, thirteen years ago, it felt like home. Decorated with things like a painting of Bob Marley, a Buddha statue, and a Lauren Hill poster, Soul Mountain felt safe. We knew that Front Royal was in rural Virginia—well past even the nearby suburbs that are extensions of DC—but with a place like Soul Mountain just a few blocks away from the house we were buying, how bad could Front Royal be? Or, to put it more bluntly, how redneck could it be?

Soul Mountain was busy that day. Several families were celebrating their children’s graduation from high school. Although Maggie and Julien weren’t graduating from their schools, they were still leaving them—and we were all leaving town. Maggie would be going from Warren County High School in Front Royal to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC, while Julien would be leaving Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School to attend Harriet Tubman Elementary School in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

There had been some good teachers and even some inspiring teachers at the various schools Maggie and Julien attended in Front Royal. There had also been some who were rather less than inspiring, but that could happen anywhere. Still, one thing I knew I wouldn’t miss were those school events where at least half of the other parents there refused to look at you. Then, when they did look at you it was that what-are-you-doing-here?/you-don’t-belong-here kind of look. That wasn’t the case so much when Maggie and Julien attended the Montessori school there, where we met a lot of people whom we became friends with. At the public schools, though, it was a different story.

The week before the storm was Maggie and Julien’s first full week off from school for the summer. It was normally the week we’d spend at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, but with our upcoming move to DC as well as our uncertain employment situation, a full vacation was not doable that year. Still, I was able to take one day off entirely and—with Heather in the office in Rosslyn—I took Maggie and Julien to Winchester for the day.

Our first stop was the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Although there were many places in the valley that we liked precisely for what they were, this was one of those places we liked for the specific reason that when we were there, we didn’t feel like we were in the valley anymore. I doubt that was the intention of Julian Wood Glass Jr. and R. Lee Taylor, the gay couple who in the late 50s took property that had been passed down from Glass’s descendants and turned the main building on the estate into a showcase for their art collection, and then surrounded it with formal gardens.

On this occasion, we stayed in the gardens. There was an exhibit of Lego sculptures, featuring giant spiders, turtles, peacocks, and other animals made out of Legos. It was okay. Julien wasn’t all that impressed. I imagined that a representation of Miles Davis—or even Taylor Swift (at the time he was obsessed with one of her songs)—might have been a little more thrilling for him. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day to be out in the gardens. We spent more time just contemplating the natural blue and green of our surroundings and pausing to feel the breeze coming over the hills west of the museum than looking at Lego sculptures—and that was fine with us.

Before leaving, we stopped in the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery, which is part of the museum’s gardens. Somehow, our vacation days tend to include a visit to a cemetery. Earlier that year, we visited the Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton, Virginia. Then, the previous year, right before we went to the beach—where we stopped at the cemetery at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, Delaware—we wandered through Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. While the cemeteries in Staunton and Richmond each lay on a very large plot of land, the Wood and Glass Family Cemetery was just a small, walled-in section of the museum’s gardens. It apparently wasn’t enough for Julien, who as we left said, “Let’s go to another cemetery!”

“We’ll go another day,” I said, as we drove to downtown Winchester, where Maggie wanted to stop at a thrift shop. Maggie went into the store while Julien and I waited outside in the car. Soon after Maggie went into the store, Julien said, “I wish there was no money in the whole world and everything was free.”

“Well, that would be good,” I said.

A moment later, Julien added, “”I think I want to be bald someday.”

“Well, maybe,” I said. “It could happen.”

Then Julien said, “Sometimes I scream when I say ‘Ulysses S. Grant.’ Sometimes. I don’t know why.”

Maggie came out of the thrift shop with a long, light-blue dress.

“It was two dollars!” she said.

“Wow!”

At this point, Julien said he was hungry—very hungry—and wanted to eat immediately. It’s moments like these when we’ll indulge his requests to get a McDonald’s happy meal. We drove down to the McDonald’s on Jubal Early Drive and went to the drive-thru lane. After ordering and paying at the first window, we moved up to the pickup window. Julien’s happy meal wasn’t ready yet, and the young man stationed there looked over to Maggie, who was sitting next to me on the front seat, and noticed she was reading a book.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

Maggie paused, then mumbled, “David Foster Wallace.”

“What’s that again?”

“David Foster Wallace,” I said.

“What’s it about?”

“Ah, it’s a collection of his essays,” Maggie said, holding up the book, which features an illustration of a boy sticking his tongue out while steam blows out of his ears.

“What’s it called?” the man asked, squinting his eyes at the cover.

“It’s called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,’” Maggie said.

He looked a little more closely at the cover and said, “Oh. I never heard of him.”

“He’s a highly-regarded writer,” I said. I didn’t mention that he wasn’t always the best person he could have been, or that he committed suicide about ten years ago. The man looked at Maggie and me and nodded as if to say, “Er, okay. I believe you.” And while the man at the window may never have heard of him, I must say neither Heather or I have managed to finish reading his magnum opus, Infinite Jest—and that in our family, only Maggie had read a complete work of his, having previously finished his first novel, The Broom of the System.

When Julien’s happy meal was ready, the man handed it to us, saying, “Well, have a good day!”

We pulled over to a parking spot so Julien could eat. When he was done, we drove down to the Books-A-Million store on Pleasant Valley Road, where we sat at the café so I could relax for a little while and have a cup of coffee. I also took a few minutes to browse there in case they had anything good, and I found Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, a book a friend of mine from New York had co-authored about twenty years ago. Somehow, after all these years, I’d never picked it up; but now, with the 20th anniversary edition just out, I had it. I imagined that I might finish reading Please Kill Me before I ever finish reading all of Infinite Jest, but who knows? And who knows, I may finish reading Infinite Jest before I finish writing either of the two novels I’ve started but have yet to finish. It’s not that that I’ve written myself into a hole with either of them, but somehow I get distracted from these things. Sometimes, writing those ongoing pieces makes me sad after the initial joy of having completed a few solid pages, or even just a few solid paragraphs. Or maybe I just don’t want these long stories I have floating around in my head to end. And, despite all the real events I deal with everyday in my poems and essays, maybe it’s the insane things in my fictional work that I just don’t want to tell.

Saturday of that weekend, the opening reception for The Bridge Project—the community art project Heather and our friends Tammy, Mark, and Beth had been working on for months—was held at the new Selah Theatre. On the west side of town on Kendrick Lane, this new space for the theater was in one of the administrative buildings of the old Avtex plant, which for nearly fifty years produced rayon and which, for those fifty years, let loose numerous poisonous substances into the land, air, and water of the upper Shenandoah Valley. After a cleanup that took nearly a quarter century, the Selah Theatre, which used to be on the east side of town, was one of the first tenants to move in.

As Heather got some of her materials ready to take to the theatre, we noticed that there were several police cars outside—right across the street at our neighbor Connie’s house. Connie had been on the wagon for a while, and in jail and out of jail for various drunken rages, and it looked like she’d started drinking again. It was a little after one in the afternoon, that day, and she was angry. Real angry. The cops were pleading with her, but she kept on saying shit to them. Still, they didn’t lose their patience. That, of course, isn’t the way it works for everyone. That Saturday, Connie, a white woman in her fifties, screamed and cursed at the cops for at least half an hour, then walked back into her house as the cops drove off.

Heather drove ahead to the theatre to start getting things set up. Later in the evening I drove over with Maggie, Julien, and Maggie’s friend Lillie, who had been spending the day with us. Shortly after we got to Selah, the skies started turning dark. Pretty soon a fierce thunderstorm was upon us, with hail, loud thunder, and immense flashes of lightning. We worried that it might keep people away from the event, and for a little while it did. But the storm moved off just as quickly as it came in, and out toward the south a double rainbow appeared in the sky.

Then people started to walk in the door. The looked at The Bridge, which was a display of about a hundred different small works of art from people in the community. The reception began with African drumming, followed by a representative from the local Islamic Center. Then there were opera singers, folk singers, poets, and a band. Noah, the singer of the band, noted that when he was a kid, he used to come up to Front Royal from Rappahannock County. Once he and his family got over the mountains into town there was this smell—the smell that was coming from everything the Avtex Plant was putting into the air and land and water.

“But look at this,” Noah said. “Now we’re in this space, where that stench was coming from. And we’re making music. We’re making art.” Then he and his bandmates Mike and Rafe, started the next song.

That night, as we were on the way home from the event, Heather was looking at her phone when she saw a joke someone had posted online. “Julien,” she said.

“What?” he answered from the back seat.

“If Ice-T teamed up with the Lemonheads, what would be the name of the supergroup.”

Julien thought about it for a second, then said, “The Dorito Butts?”

It wasn’t the right answer to the joke, but there was a truth to it that couldn’t be denied.

When we got home, everyone was tired. Heather, Maggie, and Julien went to bed, but I stayed up a little longer to do some work. Writing on my computer, I was listening to the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop—some of the classic punk music that Anthony Bourdain loved. Bourdain had just killed himself the day before, which for me—and, I imagine, a good number of other people—made it seem like a day when so many possibilities had diminished and gone blank. “Death Trip” from Iggy’s Raw Power album was playing when I heard some thumping sounds outside and the slamming of car doors. That’s when I peeked outside to see our next door neighbor, Linda, on her front porch, screaming at her scrawny but scary boyfriend. That would happen pretty regularly, usually at about two or three in the morning, and that’s about the time it was that day.

As usual, there was the opening and closing of front doors and car doors and pickup truck doors, odd pounding noises of undetermined origin, along with alternating angry male and female voices, all of which eventually merged into the strange harmony of small town, southern furiosity. I’d often imagine Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” as the soundtrack to these arguments, and as soon as their screaming began outside, I’d hear, in my mind, the voice of lead singer, the late Ronnie Van Zant, going,

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see…

But then, this time, there was a moment of silence. I peeked out from behind the blinds of our living room window, thinking that maybe the argument came to an out-of-the-ordinary peaceful solution. Then I saw the door of the boyfriend’s pickup truck open. That’s when it became real. Blasting out of the fuzzy speakers of the boyfriend’s old pickup truck was “Free Bird.” It wasn’t just in my head:

But, if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change…

Linda had worked as a stripper in DC back in the day. She’d partied a lot, hung out with bikers and been arrested here and there. As “Free Bird” continued to play, I wondered if she’d ever danced to it. And, what effect it might have on the fight they were now having. Over the sound of Free Bird, her boyfriend’s voice ascended, saying “Don’t you ever…” Then descended back down, drowned out by the notes of the guitar solo that takes over in the middle of the song. Or maybe by the sound of his unmuffled pickup truck as he revved the engine, ready to go. Ready to not change.

Finally, he slammed the door of his pickup truck shut. He slammed it good and hard to make sure nothing could get in and nothing could get out. Then he stepped on the gas, and with a roar like a mighty storm coming across the sky, he drove off into the night.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Puñeta

Margarita Padua, circa 1960
Mother, you were the history
that never made the books,
the woman who fed us
chicken flavored with garlic
and ginger, sweet pork with
soy sauce and rice on
a plain white dinner plate,
the woman who dressed us
to smile, to praise, give thanks
like every day was church,
but only so long as
we were allowed
to stand tall and look
these motherfuckers
in the face,
which years later I learned
is how you translate
the word
puñeta
into English
for a clown.

-Jose Padua

Photograph of Margarita Padua, circa 1960

Because the Processes of Both Art and Living Are Filled with a Multitude of Disturbances and Other Possibilities

Photograph by Jose Padua
Sometimes, like during the past few months when I’ve had plenty of paying work, I wonder how things would be if I just focused on that. If I tried to take on as much of the web work and editing as I can, and stopped writing all these poems, essays, and stories that don’t pay right away and much of time don’t ever pay anything, at least as far as money goes.

Soon after we moved to Front Royal, I began doing at least several hours of my own work every day. That doesn’t mean I’m at my desk or on the computer the entire time. Doing my own writing involves getting up to make a snack, going to the grocery store, taking the kids to school, picking them up from school, listening to my daughter Maggie play a Thelonious Monk song on the piano, building some Frank Lloyd Wright style house with my son Julien using stray Lego blocks, watching the evening news with my wife Heather when she gets home from the office. It’s a process that’s full of interruptions and for me, without the interruptions, there would be no process.

I recently read an essay by the poet Mary Oliver in which she maintained that she is “heedless of social obligations” and that her “loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.” That’s all fine, I suppose. I’m oblivious in my own ways, too, socially awkward in even more ways, and unable to focus on things and people who don’t intrigue me. Again, that’s all fine but then she says, “There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.” To which my reaction is a big Fuck You.

Frankly, any artist who tells you there’s only one way to make art is an asshole. This isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of great artists who are assholes—as well as some lesser ones. I know that I’m an asshole in my own way, just not that way. If your way of making art requires you shut out the world, fine. If going off to a writers colony will help you get that novel or book of poems done, fine. Me, I’d go crazy being in a place surrounded by nothing but other dedicated writers and artists. But that’s just my process. That’s why I’ve never considered going to a writers colony or retreat to get more work done, because I know that my process would mess with other people’s processes. And that peace and quiet would be no help whatsoever in getting my work done.

I’ve been keeping up this process of interruptions for nearly ten years now. Before this period though, the interruption went on for a rather long time, because in the eight years before we moved to Front Royal I didn’t write much of anything. Lately, too, there have been days when I haven’t written a damn thing—and, as with those eight years—I felt fine. Which had me wondering.

Then today, with Maggie and Julien back home after school, Julien was playing in the living room when he noticed a book on the table next to the sofa. “Can I look at this?” he asked.

“Sure,” I told him, and he picked it up. What he was now holding was Puñeta: Political Pilipinx Poetry, a small anthology edited by the formidable poet Eileen Tabios that included two of my poems, “Headhunters” and “Seven and Seven Is.”

Julien looked at it for a minute, then looked at me and said, “Great writing, Dad!” He hadn’t really read the poems, of course, but even so, it was the best compliment of the day. And, somehow, he remembered that I was in it—or at any rate, what he was able to read was my name on the cover and inside the book.

“Thanks, Julien!” I said. That’s when I remembered that we are kickers of stupid things, which comes from the punk song Julien improvised on New Year’s Eve last year. It goes, “I’m the kicker of stupid things, I’m the kicker of stupid things…” And on and on like that. It’s plain, simple, and to the point—and what it means is that he, Heather, Maggie, and I do not quit. It means Heather will keep working on her next book while attempting to make change in the physical world, Maggie will learn to play Chopin like Yuja Wang or to paint like Frida Kahlo before moving on to do work that is entirely her own, Julien will continue to be a creator of fierce ideas and wild progressions, and I will continue with my process, welcoming all interruptions, whether long, short, or somewhere in-between.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Days Run Away Like the Great B-Side of a Hit Single by Prince

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was sitting in the car with Julien while Heather went into the grocery store. It had been about a month since Prince had died, and while for the last month I had been playing the music of Prince almost non-stop—he’s one of a small number of people you can do that with and never get tired of it all—that day, I was taking a break. So it was a sunny, spring day with something other than Prince playing on the car stereo. Julien listened for a minute before asking, “Who’s that?”

“It’s Herbie Hancock,” I said. We were a few minutes into the “Chameleon” from the Head Hunters LP.

Julien paused then said, “I don’t like Herbie Hancock. Play Miles Davis.” Miles Davis was Julien’s favorite at the time. I don’t suppose there are too many five year olds whose favorite music is Miles Davis’s music, but there we were. The windows of the car were down, and a cool breeze came inside.

I tried to explain to Julien that Herbie Hancock played with Miles Davis, but he didn’t care and he refused to give Herbie Hancock’s music a chance. To make the wait easier, I went ahead and put on Miles Davis.

Back then, while my daughter Maggie was doing her homework, I’d hear her playing Public Image Limited (PiL) a lot. She had been listening to Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Kleenex/LiliPUT while she was studying, but then she added PiL to the mix. After that I’d always hear the voice of John Lydon going “This is not a love song/ This is not a love song” or “Anger is an energy/ Anger is an energy” as she did her algebra homework or worked on a brief essay she had to write.

That morning, right before we headed out to take them all to school, Maggie looked something up on her phone then she said, “I have the same birthday as the guitarist for PiL!”

“You mean Keith Levene?”

“Yes,” she said. “We have the same birthday!”

“Wow,” I said. And I remembered that she also shares a birthday with Hunter S. Thompson, but I didn’t mention it because I think it’s still a few years before she’s ready to read about things like the massive drug run that begins Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also didn’t mention that I share a birthday with Jean Genet, because I didn’t think she was quite ready to read a book like Our Lady of the Flowers yet either. But, when she’s old enough, these great books will be among my recommended reading and can be added to the volumes of Baudelaire, Lucille Clifton, and Junot Diaz that she was already carrying around with her all the time.

For a couple of weeks, the question Julien had been asking most frequently was, “Who’s bad?”—with it being election season and with the death of Prince there were a lot of bad things in the air, making it a time for questions. (But then, when is it not a time for questions?) In the second of those two weeks, Julien began answering his own question. And when we all said, “I don’t know. Who’s bad?” Julien would then say, without the slightest pause of doubt, “Donald Trump’s bad.”

“Yes, he is bad,” we’d say.

A couple of days later, while we were having lunch at Blue Wing Frog over on Chester Street, Julien answered his own question about who was bad and added, “Donald Trump is a poopy head!” Then he stopped to think about it for a moment before asking, “Does he poop with his head?”

“Well, in a way he does,” we all said. Or words to that effect.

And later that day, it rained. Like on the B-side of an old Prince song—it rained and kept on raining. After having spent a few days not listening to Prince that week, he was back on the soundtrack, and  I was listening closely, hoping for more answers.

I took this photograph of Union Hall, which was part of a joint called Victoria’s Restaurant, when we left Blue Wing Frog that day. Union Hall and Victoria’s restaurant have been closed since February 2009, when it was discovered that its owner was a fugitive wanted on drug charges in Massachusetts. Union Hall had been one of the few places in Front Royal where you had music and dancing. The owner had been here, in our small Virginia town, for nearly two decades. He raised his kids here, had grandkids, and ran his restaurant and club for as long as he could. And then they took him away.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Notes on the Distance Between West Virginia and Ohio and Further Meditations on the Movements of Birds

Photograph by Jose PaduaIt was a warm and sunny winter’s day that Sunday, driving back from Heather’s grandmother’s funeral in Belpre, Ohio. The last time we’d driven back from Ohio, two years earlier, it started to snow pretty fiercely as soon as we hit Route 50 east of Parkersburg, West Virginia. When I glanced to the side of the road and saw a wild dog nibbling at a dead bird of prey on the side of the road, I started to feel as if we were caught in the middle of a wintry version of some Mad Max/Road Warrior film. Which is to say that although it was a little bit scary for us, it was also exciting that Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I were out on the road in the middle of a minor adventure. All I had to do was remind myself that as long as we took it calmly and slowly, we’d make it home fine, and we did.

Whenever we visited Heather’s grandmother and the Ohio branch of her family, we always stayed in Parkersburg, which is just across the Ohio River and only a half hour drive to where she and Heather’s aunt and uncle lived; and in Parkersburg, whenever we could manage it, we stayed at the Blennerhassett Hotel. A beautiful Queen Anne style building from the late 1800s, the Blennerhassett is a fancy hotel, and the only reason we could afford staying there on a number of our trips is that it’s in Parkersburg, an economically depressed town as well an area that’s been polluted by the local Dupont chemical plant. It was through the manufacturing of Teflon, that miracle non-stick surface—that the chemical compound C8 made its way into the environment. And now, through the criminal actions of Dupont as well as other companies, most people in the world have some level of C8 in their bodies. This is why, if you can afford to do so, you don’t drink the water in Parkersburg or Belpre—and, of course, in a lot of other places.

As with most small towns, I find that there’s something almost unbearably sad about Parkersburg. But that’s probably because Parkersburg seems like a place that has so many stories to tell. And by stories I don’t mean simple facts and statistics. Too many people think these are the same as stories or else use them as substitutes for stories and go about their lives as if everything in the world has an explanation and reason—as if there’s nothing we can’t grasp with our minds, nothing that doesn’t fall between the cracks. It was in Parkersburg and some of the surrounding area that Aaron Burr, who had been vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, began having discussions with Harman Blennerhassett (who with this wife Margaret were the two people after whom the hotel was named). What he and Blennerhassett discussed were among the things that led to Burr being put on trial for treason. But these are simply the facts, and have nothing to with the story being told here.

The last time we were at the Blennerhassett, whenever we’d see another hotel guest in the hallways, Julien would ask “How long are you staying here?” Usually, the answer would be “Oh, one more night” or “just for the weekend.” Julien would then say, “We’re staying here for thirteen days.” If we could, he wouldn’t have minded staying there for thirteen days. (Yes, like me, he enjoys being away and spending time in hotels.) As for Maggie, between all the family gatherings—or sometimes during them—she spent her time reading Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Heather, of course, had a lot of family she wanted to catch up with, while I spent a lot of time thinking about birds and all the things that are harder to see in the dark.

Heather’s grandmother’s funeral was held in Belpre, Ohio at a funeral home around the corner from what had been the site of The Lee Middleton Doll store and museum. It was maybe fifteen years ago, during a trip to Ohio, that Heather and I visited the doll museum there. It was one of the creepiest places we’d ever been to. There were rows and rows of doll parts—it’s incredible how frightening a row of about twenty or thirty cute doll heads can be—and on top of that an entire nursery filled with dolls representing newborn infants. At the funeral, the minister seemed to spend a lot of time talking about Jesus and Christianity and not so much time talking about Heather’s grandmother, Emma Rae Runkle. That reminded me of my mother’s funeral more than two decades ago, when the priest, during his sermon, said that if my mother were somehow there she would have asked us to take some time to consider our lives as Christians. She wouldn’t have—because although she was a believer, she preferred to keep her thoughts about Jesus to herself—and what she would have said to everyone gathered in the church that day in her honor would have been “Hello” and “How are you today?”

I took this photograph of Route 50 on the Sunday after the funeral as we were leaving Parkersburg. I tend to enjoy leaving a place much more than arriving there, even when it’s somewhere I want to be. There’s something about leaving a place that calms me. And on that Sunday’s drive, I wondered if we’d ever find ourselves in Parkersburg again. With Emma Rae Runkle gone—and only a few of Heather’s family still living in Ohio—the east coast might now be the preferred location for any family gatherings. And although Heather and I do like to take trips with Maggie and Julien—and although there is something fascinating about Parkersburg, I doubt it would be part of our itinerary for any trip out west. Still, I wouldn’t mind, if sometime in the future, I could leave from there again. Take Route 50 out of town and head east. And since I prefer leaving a place as opposed to going there, I wondered as we drove farther and farther away if I might ever be able to leave Parkersburg without having to go there to begin with. And I wondered about all the other places I might leave, without having to go there.

After we got back home that evening, it wasn’t long before Maggie got out her guitar and started to play. Julien then took out a bag of his dinosaur toys and started to play as well. It’s a different kind of music when a child is playing with dinosaurs, but once you learn how to listen to it and hear the subtle delicate notes, it’s quite beautiful. In a little while, Heather began organizing what we’d brought in from the car, putting the medicines we’d brought with us back in a cabinet in the kitchen. I then picked up a couple of our bags, and began walking upstairs with them. That’s when Julien looked up from his dinosaurs, turned to me and said, “See you, Dad.” As if I were going away somewhere, maybe on another long trip. I suppose that sometimes there’s a distance in my eyes that seems to say I’m drifting off toward some unreachable world. Only those closest to me can see this. They also know I have no intention of going there. And that on those occasions when my mind takes me there anyway, that if at all possible, I’ll be coming back.

“See you, Julien,” I said. “I’ll be right back down in a minute.”

“OK,” he answered, then he added, “Don’t jump on the bed.”

“OK,” I said.

And though I love being on the road, sometimes it does feel good simply to be home, which means it was probably good that Julien reminded me not to jump on the bed. Because upstairs, with no one looking, that might be exactly what I’d want to do—jump on the bed. Jump for joy. Jump for all the years condensed into a moment of a million thoughts. Jump for all the distance diminished from hundreds of miles into a simple matter of upstairs and downstairs. I’m pretty sure that jumping would have been a way of saying, “we’re home,” and that being home was a good thing.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

And Sunbeams Fell Lightly Upon the Edge of the Grocery Store Parking Lot

Photograph by Jose Padua
Yesterday on the parking lot of the Martin’s grocery store here in Front Royal a woman nearly ran me over after I dropped off my shopping cart in the corral. I can’t say for sure, but I gathered that she was one of those people who like to pretend folks like me aren’t here. I yelled, she ignored it, then got out of her car and headed straight to the store entrance, her headed tilted upward as if she were praying for me to disappear.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had trouble in this parking lot. There was that one time a group of good ole boys in their jacked up pickup truck started revving their engine when I was about to go onto the crosswalk in front of them. After they’d revved the engine, I wasn’t about to take a chance crossing in front of them, so I waited for them to move on and they laughed and jeered at me as they drove off.

Then there was that other time when I was in my car, stopped at the cross walk to let a woman go by when another woman who was talking to a policeman then alerted the policeman that I had just nearly hit someone with my car. The policeman came up to me and told me to pull over. He advised me to slow down and even though I wasn’t speeding through the parking lot, I said “OK, sorry officer. I’ll be careful” because a lot of times it doesn’t help your case when you say what really happened.

Sometimes I feel so ill-equipped for life here. Sometimes I feel so ill-prepared. I remember one time at a reading close to DC, in Arlington, I’d read one or two poems that mentioned having Tourette’s Syndrome and probably OCD too, and afterwards these two people in the audience started asking if I’d tried this therapy or that and asking as if these were things I’d ever heard of. They were asking me questions based on the assumption that I wanted to change—that I wanted to fix myself. But the thing is, I’m not trying to change. And even though I may be poorly equipped to deal with certain things—with a lot of things, actually—I’m not trying to fix myself. For me that would be a giving up, and whatever remedies are out there would bore me to death, because what I’m trying to do is survive and remain exactly what I am. That’s what’s interesting for me. That’s the challenge.

Sometimes I think that anything else wouldn’t really be survival, but merely a slowing down of the blood inside of me. Me, I want my blood to move. I want it, at least some of the time, to feel like fire.

Earlier this evening, I had to go back to the grocery store. This time everything went pretty smoothly, until I was done and got back to my car. That’s when I saw one of those pickup trucks with two big Confederate flags hanging on flag poles in the back. It was parked right next to my car, and there was nobody in it. And nobody around. I wanted to spit on it, but again, there was nobody around. Who would I be sending a message to but myself? And there was always the possibility that someone was watching, and I just didn’t see them.

So I stayed calm, got in my car, and took a picture of it. That’s one obsession I’m always going to give in to. My obsession with documenting as much as I can. The obsession that requires me to complete whatever formulas are in my head. But I’m not going to post the picture I took. Not this time, anyway.

Instead, here’s a photograph of part of the valley taken from the stretch of Route 522 that lies between the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge and the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge. Whenever I take the time to look up at the mountains or down to the river here, I feel as if the strength inside of me is constant. I feel the strength when I hear my twelve year old daughter playing guitar or piano. Lately, the song I’ve been hearing her play on guitar is the Vaselines’ revamping of an old hymn, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” and on piano, it’s one of Chopin’s waltzes. I feel the strength whenever my five year old son asks me to play Miles Davis in the car after I pick him up from school. Or when he hears the name Donald Trump mentioned if the news is on and says, “Donald Trump. No.” I feel it when my wife wakes up early in the morning, on a weekend after another busy week to work on her own book and write. And it’s in these moments that I go on being myself. And, because it’s the only way I know how, I go on surviving.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

In Homage to All These Beautiful Years and Delicate Hours

Photograph by Jose Padua
About a year ago was the first time in forty or so years that I didn’t watch even a single minute of the Super Bowl. Since it had been around fifteen years since I stopped paying close attention to football, it wasn’t all that difficult. Still, every year come Super Sunday, I always turned on the television in time to see what was going on with the halftime show and then to watch the second half of the game. And, if it was a good game, I’d get into it.

Last year, with the halftime entertainment being Katy Perry (whose music and performances I consider an example of the sort of fine-tuned professionalism that’s totally vapid and completely uncompelling) I wasn’t driven to turn on the Super Bowl even midway through the game. In addition to that, we only have one working television in the house—which is fine with me because I find televisions to be one of the ugliest appliances imaginable—and on that television my young son Julien was watching a DVD of the show Arthur. You know, Arthur. The cartoon where the main character is from a family of aardvarks (of course you have to look that up because the first time you see the show you have no idea what sort of animal Arthur is supposed to be). Rounding out the remaining cast of characters are rabbits, monkeys, cats, and so on.

I like Arthur. It’s a sweet show, and the theme song—which goes, “And I say HEY! (HEY!)/ What a wonderful kind of day. / If you can learn to work and play/ And get along with each other”—is catchier than anything I’ve ever heard coming from the mouth of Katy Perry. Apparently, Julien likes it too, and while it’s playing, he always sings along with that exclamatory “HEY!” And, I must say that, right now, Arthur and his cast of anthropomorphic animals still makes me happier than football does.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate football at all, because back in the day, I watched it enthusiastically. I have fond memories of watching football games. Back in the 60s and 70s, a smooth spiraling pass from Sonny Jurgensen (or even a wobbly one from Billy Kilmer) to Charley Taylor were amazing things to behold. And then Charley Taylor, standing in the end zone, would raise his arms up in a way that seemed to say that he got the score and there was nothing you or anyone else could do to change that. I always thought that Charley Taylor’s victory pose may have even signified other things, too—things beyond the football field, and pointed toward other sorts of victories yet to be achieved. But whatever it was that went on in Charley Taylor’s mind, it was always a beautiful sight, and the image of him with his arms raised is an image that stays with me and inspires me even.

As the years went on, though, football became something along the lines of sleep, with sleep becoming more and more a thing I did without so I could spend a decent amount of my time writing (and writing being the work I did that so far didn’t pay much but which moved me in profound ways). But perhaps even more than that, football was like some girl I had a crush on when I was a teenager. Someone I thought was cool and interesting and fun and all that, before I moved on to other things. Things that got to me all the way down to a core I didn’t know I had. Things like the ordinary occurrences and activities of everyday life.

I can’t say exactly when it happened. Certainly it had begun before we moved out to Front Royal, but it probably wasn’t until then that I really began to focus on the moment. And though, because of my OCD, the moment might end up being terrifying whenever bad thoughts entered my head, it could also (again, because of my OCD) have this intense and beautiful depth to it.

And so, on the day after the Super Bowl I didn’t watch last year, my then four-year old son Julien was sitting at the dining room table when he said, “I want my leftover pizza. I love pizza.” Now, I like a lot of different kinds of food, but when Julien said “I love pizza,” pizza suddenly became the most important food of all for me. Then, on the day after that, Julien was again sitting at the table when he said, “I want my paints. I love to paint.” And for the moment, for me, there was no artistic endeavor in the world more important that painting, and no greater painter I could think of than Kandinsky or maybe it was Frida Kahlo or Romare Bearden whose works were suddenly filling my mind. Later that night, right before dinner, my daughter Maggie was in the hall playing this incredible tune on the piano.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s some old Russian folk song,” she answered nonchalantly.

“That was really good!”

“Okay,” Maggie said. Then after a second added, “Weirdo.” With ‘weirdo’ being her favorite all-purpose word at the time serving as an expression of thanks, a term of endearment, and a morning, afternoon, and evening greeting. And in that moment, I loved being a weirdo.

Then it was dinner time. Heather heated up leftovers from the previous night. We ate, I washed the dishes, and Heather reminded Maggie a few times that she’d better start on her homework. Soon, it was time for Heather to take Julien up to bed, but it took a while for him to fall asleep that night, and it took her a long time as well, and it was late before Maggie finally went upstairs. Then, when I finally went up to bed, I saw that Maggie was awake again, sitting up in bed. Like everything else, losing sleep is something we usually do together.

The following morning, with Heather already having been at the office in Arlington for a few hours, I was on the way back home from dropping Maggie and Julien off at school when the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” came on the car stereo followed by Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Let Go”–two songs that that put me in two different sorts of mood, each mood beautiful in its own way. As the songs played, I looked down John Marshall Highway to watch the mountains in the distance, towering green and white over town under a lush purple sky. At any rate, I thought it was a purple sky I was seeing–I’m never all that sure when it comes to the colors I’m seeing. Then, remembering again the Super Bowl that I missed in its entirety, it occurred to me that no matter what these actual colors were, the comfort I got from those images and from the music that accompanied them, was–at least at that point in my life–far greater than whatever comfort or diversion or whatever it was that I got out of watching any game.

And the thing is that I’d rather take my time examining and contemplating these moments– wondering what song is going to play next, or what color the mountains are going to take on–than anticipating whether the next play will be a run, or a short pass, or a bomb. It’s not that I couldn’t have enjoyed the game, because I could have, if I’d taken the time to watch it. But I’m at an age where time seems like such a delicate thing. The apparent abundance of it that was there forty years ago, when I was just a teenager, has dissipated like a rain puddle in the summer’s heat.

And more and more, games are something for me to play with my kids. They’re not so much for my own enjoyment, but for them, so that while they’re young they may know abundance. Not the abundance that comes from money or objects or from the winning of competitions of any sort. But that which comes from being here, now, in these sometimes tired but always beautiful hours of wakefulness.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

For These Rainy Days on the Road at Christmas and Other Hours Lost and Found

MomDadAuntie_NoveltyPhotos_GlennEcho
The first song that got me teary eyed during the drive to Pennsylvania that December was Bonnie Raitt’s take on Joel Zoss’s “Too Long at the Fair.” It was probably the line that goes, “You can give my soul to Abraham, give my soul to Saul, and give my bones to Canada…” that got me when the traffic, after the quieter country roads, picked up in Frederick. We were somewhere around Dilsberg, PA when Stevie Wonder’s “Please Don’t Go,” the final cut from Fulfillingness’ First Finale, came on, and I was like, Christ, this is pathetic. I’m like that sad drunk at closing time who started weeping when the song order on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers was reversed and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was followed by “Wild Horses.” Yeah, it must have been a shock to the system, but that hipster must have had a full evening’s worth of whiskeys. Me, I was stone cold sober, getting over the flu, and the only even slightly intoxicating beverage I’d had in weeks was nighttime cold medicine.

But it was all OK. It was those fuckers who never cry who pissed me off, those assholes who are only half living their lives. If Bonnie could set me off, so be it. Stevie, Mick Jagger. Sometimes it was Al Green, Alex Chilton, Aretha, Dusty. It was a long list. Sometimes it was my own words, while I was writing at night, high from a lack of sleep or an inability to sleep, or from a train of thought that wouldn’t stop until I let it go wherever it wanted to take me, those times when I was possessed by a consciousness whose source never ran out as long as it was dark outside. And, sometimes, that sleeplessness was what I needed.

As a friend had recently noted, it was the death of a parent that made her feel more strongly her sense of being dependent. I was feeling that strongly then, myself, especially now that both my Mom and Dad were gone now. I was, in that way, completely on my own–and yes, it only served to heighten that feeling of dependency.

Lately, I seemed to be finding so many of the things I needed in the car, in the chaotic mess of clothes, books, and papers that got left behind there. They weren’t practical things like house keys, bank cards, or things of that nature. They were things I needed for my recovery from this period of mourning. Which isn’t to say that that recovery itself wasn’t a practical thing. But the things that keep you alive aren’t just the things that keep you breathing.

Earlier that week I found the November 19, 2012 issue of the New Yorker in the car. It was something I’d brought along to read while waiting for Maggie to get out from school. This issue I’d never gotten around to opening—maybe Maggie had gotten out from school early on those days, or maybe I was running late and didn’t have the extra time I usually had when I picked her up. But that Monday, when I took the car to the mechanic, I noticed this issue lying in a pile on the floor of the car and brought it in with me to read while the car was being worked on.

What I saw in there was an article by Roger Angell titled “Over the Wall.” A reflection on death, it was prompted by the passing of Angell’s wife in April of that year, and he began it by detailing all the recent history his wife never got to know: Hurricane Sandy, Obama’s re-election, her grand-daughter’s attending nursery school.

I needed to read this, because this was something that had always obsessed me as well—the news, the stories, the information the dead will never get to know. Whether it was good or bad, the many things one will never get to know always seemed like the most horrible part about dying. For me, it wasn’t the trips to the beach, the good meals, or even being with friends and loved ones that mattered most. It was the knowledge I’d never have, including the knowledge that my friends and loved ones, whether I was there or not, were breathing. And alive.

My mother never got to know about things like the collapse of the World Trade Center and all the other horror that happened on September 11, 2001. She never knew about the space shuttle Columbia’s falling apart on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003. She also never got to know my wife Heather, or experience the coming into this world of her grandchildren, Maggie and Julien. And then, eighteen years after my Mom’s death, I was wondering what the things were that my Dad would never know.

And so, much of the time, what I seemed to obsess on were all the bad things they’d never get to know about, the tragedies, the things that were frightening. Because there was always something about my parents knowing things—no matter what they were—that made me feel safer.

I began to understand that you’re never really grown up until you recognize that there will always be a part of you that remains a child, remains dependent. That you’re never really an adult until you realize that dependency is a fact of life, and that to deny your dependency is to deny your humanity.

And also, I began to wonder if all this was just an act of vanity. If each word I wrote was simply part of preparing for death, for that time, whenever it is, when I’ll no longer be here. If all I was doing was keeping a chronicle, a history, a monument marking my time here on earth. Words which, whether poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, would prove that I was here, speaking to the people I knew as well as those I didn’t, the people who in the future would pass through the spaces I once passed through, when I was flesh and blood solid, breathing, and known for what I created rather that what I destroyed. A person who, in his better moments, perhaps even possessed an unmistakable glow.

I wondered, too, if when I’m gone, people will still be reading my poems. If one late night, in a bar—after they’ve shut down the juke box, and there’s no music, just the hum from the refrigerator—if some drunk will remember some line of mine, maybe even an entire poem, before going outside, catching a cab, and going home, alone.

Or maybe not alone.

These two pictures were taken around 1952 at a novelty photo booth in Glen Echo, Maryland, where there was an amusement park up until 1968. The prisoner on the far left is my Auntie Lucilla, who died in 2008. The prisoner to the right of her is my Mom, who died in 1994. The intoxicated man on the right, holding onto the lamp post, is my Dad, who died in 2012. There are so many things they’ll never know about. But then again, there are so many things they lived through that I didn’t, in that long slow time I took being born.

-Jose Padua