Tag Archives: North Carolina

A City Named Elizabeth and a Million Other Ways of Resisting the Dream

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was getting tired and was annoyed with all the traffic after hitting the outskirts of Richmond right around rush hour. I also had to keep reminding myself this was Wednesday not Saturday—and that even though we were heading out on the road it was not the weekend.

We’d left Front Royal at around two and took, as usual, the slow way. Route 522 going south seemed like the way to go, but that day, as it wound around Lake Anna in Louisa and Spotsylvania counties, I started to feel this sadness. My American sadness.

Lake Anna. It’s a man-made lake, formed in the early 70s to provide a source of water for the purpose of cooling the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station. Since then it’s become a popular vacation destination in Virginia, and every summer it fills with people swimming, boating, fishing. Maybe not everyone feels this way, but I find the idea of frolicking on a lake that was created to cool a nuclear power plant rather depressing. Of course, with my obsessive-compulsive mind, there are so many things that can send my thoughts veering off in some unpleasant or frightening direction.

When we got off of the slow, winding dreariness of Route 522 and onto the fast-paced madness of Interestate-64 at rush hour, I was pissed. Right away Heather picked up her phone in search of an alternate route, and she found one. All we had to do was go south of Richmond on 295 and we’d hit Route 460.

It was a slower road, going through these small run-down and run-over towns with vaguely British sounding names like Waverly, Wakefield, and Windsor as well as more intriguing names like New Bohemia and Disputanta. As is often the case when we’re on the road, there were numerous places where I wanted to stop the car, though not necessarily get out. This was, after all rural Virginia, and as fascinating and oddly beautiful as it can be, it’s not always the most welcoming of places. So we drove on, passing by gun shops and ammo shops and sometimes gun and ammo shops; seeing home-made signs along the road blaming Obama for everything imaginable, including one sign that urged people to fight Obamacare using the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Thinking that this quote would be more applicable commentary regarding Obama’s drone war, for instance, or for the record number of people his administration has deported, I had to give this sign the finger.

We drove on and on down 460, and then we got to Suffolk, Virginia. This was one town I was especially glad to go through, because according to what I’ve read, this is the town where one of my favorite musicians and songwriters, Fred Cornog (who records under the name “East River Pipe”) was born. I would have stopped, but we were already running late.

Suffolk was also where we saw, for the first time that day, a Confederate Flag flying from the back of some dickhead’s pickup truck. Well, there were most likely others, but that was the first one we noticed. But it was in Suffolk when Miles Davis’s “Right Off” from A Tribute to Jack Johnson came out of the random mix on the car stereo. It’s a piece of music that always lifts me up, always give me strength, and, looking back, I wonder if this was when the music of Miles Davis first clicked with Julien, who at the time was just four. Now, yearly a year later, Miles Davis is the music he always asks to hear, and it’s not unlikely that his appreciation of this music is a revelation that occurred on the road. I know that for me, the road is where a lot of revelations ascend as well as a determination to get where I want to be (and by getting where I want to be I’m not necessarily talking about an actual place so much as a place where I want my mind to dwell).

After we’d crossed the state line into North Carolina and were driving along the southern end of the Great Dismal Swamp, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major came on. Listening to it, with the swamp on the left, Heather to my right, and Maggie and Julien in the seats behind us, I got that pleasant sensation that happens every now and then when I feel as if I’m riding slightly off the ground. Flying, as it were, but at the sort of low and comfortable altitude I prefer. And moving forward in such a way that wherever we were, the ground beneath us felt like a home of sorts, a shelter—if only temporarily so—from all the vicious American dreams that clash with our own more peaceful ones.

Then we hit a clearing. That’s what you see in this photograph—the flat of the land of North Carolina as you get closer and closer to the shore. In a little while, we were in Elizabeth City, which was where we were stopping for the night. As we drove up to our hotel I saw, standing around the entrance, about a dozen or so good-ole-boy types. As I let Heather out the door so she could pick up the keys to our room, they all stared at me. It was that blank look of barely restrained disapproval—a look that sometimes disintegrates into something worse. A look that can say, as looks often do, a whole lot of different things—none of which were “Welcome to North Carolina.”

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

I Placed a Jar in North Carolina and Round It Was Upon a Hill

Photograph by Jose Padua
On a near ninety degree day last June on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, I sat in our car reading the opening pages of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle while Julien slept in the back seat. We were parked in the lot by one of the beaches halfway up the island with the car running and the air conditioner on, and at that very moment Heather’s youngest sister, Sarah, was over on the beach getting married to her boyfriend Ryan. That’s where Heather and Maggie were, with Heather in the wedding and Maggie watching the proceedings.

Julien and I were in the car because we all knew that as soon as Julien saw Heather walking up the ramp to the beach in her bridesmaid’s dress, Julien would run right over to her and never let go and not care one bit that he was disrupting the ceremony. Young children are like that sometimes and, when you think of it, it’s a beautiful thing—to not care about propriety, ritual, and whatever specific reason led to this ceremony and the gathering that surrounds it. (Certainly, I’d welcome this sort of interruption more than the horrible noise of the fighter jets that sometimes appear in the sky over Ocracoke, performing some sort of exercise and disturbing the natural beauty of the place.)

On the other hand, ceremony has its own beauty as well, and this was an occasion where the beauty of the wedding had priority over the beauty of Julien’s impulsiveness. This was why as Sarah and Ryan were exchanging their vows, I was reading the reflection on death with which Knausgaard begins his epic, autobiographical novel. For some people—indeed, for a lot of people—if given the choice, this would be the last thing they’d choose.

Me, I can’t say that if we were sure Julien could be well behaved at the wedding that I wouldn’t still choose to stay in the car reading Knausgaard obsessing on death. Not that I didn’t want to see Sarah and Ryan’s wedding on the beach, which by all accounts was a tremendously beautiful ceremony, because I did. And it’s not that Knausgaard’s epic is an unequivocally great work—many friends whose opinion I respect find his books incredibly tedious and pretentious. But so much of the time the thing I most want to do is think about things, and to read about death and then reflect on the many subjects that it brings to mind is, for me, an effective way of dealing with the problem of time.

And, as soon as Julien fell asleep, that’s what I did. I read about death—about the heart, and how it stops, and how the blood stops flowing. How consciousness—at least as we know and understand it, ends. As sometimes happens when I think about these things, my mood becomes apologetic. I think about loose ends, all those stories and novels I never kept working on, all those people I never got back in touch with, as well as all those people I should have left behind much sooner. And when Maggie came back to the car because it was getting too hot for her standing outside in the sun during the wedding ceremony, I began to apologize to her.

“Maggie,” I said, “I’m sorry for all those times I’ve gotten mad.”

Because I do get mad regularly, and although I always apologize immediately afterwards, it never seems like I’ve apologized enough to make up for getting angry in the first place. Then I went on to apologize for anything else I thought I needed to apologize for.

“Maggie,” I said. “I’m sorry I fart so much.” Because I do fart a lot.

As always, Maggie said, “It’s fine, it’s fine!” and shook her head.

She is, I’m pretty sure, old enough to appreciate having a weird, older dad like me. Then she looked at the book I was reading and asked, “What’s it about?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s an autobiographical novel. And it goes on for several more books.”

“What’s interesting about it?” As is often the case whenever someone asks whether or not something is interesting, my answer was Proust. I told Maggie about that other autobiographical epic, Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past, even though I’ve never finished reading it. I’d told her about Proust before, and she’d even read little excerpts from his work in response to my giving Proust as the answer to all sorts of questions.

“This,” I explained, “is something like Proust. Except that Knausgaard is still alive. In fact, you can go meet him at a book signing. He always begins the little talk he gives by saying, ‘This book. Which is mine.’”

At this point Maggie knew I was just making things up again, and I also think that she’s at the age where she’s starting to appreciate the odd stories I tell off the top of my head sometimes, or the strange details and “facts” I present to her. Julien is far from this point, but I have reason to believe he’ll be there soon.

Just earlier that day, when I took him to the rest room while we were having lunch with Heather’s brother Jeff and his wife Laura, Julien looked to the wall and said “Dogfish.” He doesn’t read yet, but he saw the logo for Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware adorning the wall of the rest room, and he knew what it was. This, I thought, was a good thing—that he knows Dogfish Head but doesn’t know Budweiser or Dos Equis from a black hole in outer space. That, and that he recognizes the face of Sun Ra and advises me each night before going to sleep “to write some poems” are all signs that he’s finding his way to the truth.

This photograph of Julien with Heather was taken later that day during the reception of Sarah and Ryan’s wedding. That’s where we went after the ceremony on the beach, when Heather met us back at the car and we drove to the other end of the island. Julien danced to a lot of the songs they played, but he danced the most to P-Funk’s “Flashlight,” which was one of the songs Heather got to pick as a part of the wedding party.

Me, if I’d had a pick, I would have chosen, in addition to “Flashlight,” Sun Ra’s “Magic City.” There probably wouldn’t be anyone but me dancing to it (and maybe Julien), but toward the end of the song, when the last notes of Sun Ra’s clavioline start to fade, we’d all start to glow. And rise, over the sands of this little island, taking flight without the aid of the horrible machines and dead-end dreams of those men and women who don’t write about death but, rather, seek to create it.

As their faces and figures grow smaller and smaller as we rise higher and higher in the sky, our parting words to them will be something like, “Sorry, but this is how it’s going to be from now on.” And as we take off for other worlds, we won’t feel the least bit sad that we neglected to apologize to them for farting so much. Well, maybe a little.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua