The first time my dad met Joseph Lucky Gribble, he was fighting some garbage men near the Burger King by my Gramaw’s house in Fairfax. It was the 1960s. Dad and Lucky were fast friends.
My most vivid memory of Lucky is him standing perfectly still for hours, cigarette smoldering between his fingers, his eyes staring out the plate glass window of my dad’s VW repair shop in Fairfax.
I’ve never seen anyone stand so completely still for so long.
For a while Lucky slept in a loft at my dad’s shop, and for years had a plywood shack on the grassy corner by Montgomery Ward in Fairfax, near where Burlington Coat Factory is now. Sometimes he would disappear for days, then return, like nothing had happened. He rode a yellow Harley and drank endless cups of black coffee while smoking cigarette after cigarette.
Sometimes I would work for Dad at his shop in the summers. When I’d get to work, I’d ask where Lucky was, and Dad’s answers would range from “He’s in a mood today,” to “Sleeping in a car,” to “In the bay, working on a car,” to “I don’t know. He disappeared again.”
I always accepted Lucky for what he was. In a bad mood? Don’t talk to him. In a good mood? Brief but interesting conversations, an extremely intelligent man with deep brown eyes that would dart this way and that, like he was expecting something to sneak up on him and hit him with a length of pipe. His eyes would meet mine for a tiny moment then flit away.
One day at the shop, Dad put Lucky and me to work stripping a VW for parts. Lucky asked me about my life, expressing a genuine interest. We had slow conversation most of the day while removing everything we could from the Beetle, his cigarette smoke burning my eyes when it wafted my way. I was fifteen.
Every once in a while, Lucky would bring me little gifts or send things home for me with Dad. Usually it was Harley stuff, and I appreciated the thought behind it. In return I made for him his favorite: Gingerbread. These past few years, when Dad and I would visit him, Lucky would give me Bluegrass CDs, their cases thick with dirt.
One day it occurred to me that while this was normal behavior for Lucky, this was not normal behavior. So I asked.
“Dad, what’s wrong with Lucky?”
“That’s what too many drugs will do to you, Angie.”
My mom always said of Lucky, “He used to be so good-looking, all the girls just loved him. Really intelligent, too.”
At another time, wondering what would leave a person standing and staring for hours, cigarette smoldering down to the butt, I asked my Dad, “What kind of drugs did Lucky do, Dad?”
After being evicted from his squatter’s shack when they built the shopping center where Burlington Coat Factory is, Lucky disappeared for a while. I would ask Dad about him, how he was doing, and sometimes there would be a sighting (7-11 off Jermantown Road, mostly). Occasionally he would help Dad with things like putting new roofing on a building (While they were working, Dad rolled off the roof and landed in the bushes. Lucky laughed until they realized Dad’s wrist was broken). Eventually he moved into a house in the woods off Braddock Road and Dad would visit him there. It was a ramshackle little house and he parked his yellow Harley in his living room, choosing more often to drive the old blue and white Chevy truck my dad sold him for a little bit of nothing.
One day Lucky appeared at my parents’ house, while I was visiting them, to help Dad with something. I hadn’t seen him in years. He looked older but the same, except for a few missing teeth. He was lanky and tall, deeply tanned, black hair combed back, and his brown, bloodshot eyes nervously darted around, still anticipating that length of pipe. I hugged him and he smelled as he always did: Unwashed and smoky. By this time I had Peony; she was still a baby. I proudly showed her to him. He wouldn’t look at her because he said he was afraid if he did, he would “make her retarded.” I told him it would be okay, but he was too uncomfortable and I let it go.
Over the years, my Dad would go by Lucky’s home, where ever he was living at the time, and bring him clothes and food and visit with him. Lucky’s shack on the corner of Jermantown Road, my dad told me, was insulated with clothes hanging on all the walls. A small woodstove helped keep him warm. A couple times after he moved into the house in the woods off Braddock, I went with Dad to visit him, but you never knew when Lucky would be there. He was sort of a nomad, most certainly a loner.
I once told Dad how my friends said if there was an apocalypse, they were all going to find him because he’s so handy with, well, just about everything. Dad said, “Shoot, I’ll be with Lucky. He can live anywhere and survive anything.”
Lucky was a strange bird for sure, but there was something gentle and almost otherworldly about him. He had a temper I’d only heard about, never saw. And while he had no connection to anyone or anything, he had great respect for my Dad, and despite some of the choices Lucky made in his life, my Dad respected him and cared about him. When no one else was there, my Dad was, and he didn’t pass judgment.
Every time after we’d go visit Lucky, I’d think, I really wish we would do that more often. The last time I saw him was when I was pregnant with Cedar, winter of 2010. Dad, Peony, and I stopped by with gift bags full of homemade gingerbread and coffee. Lucky had moved his living space to the basement of the old house in the woods. He had a wood stove in the corner and it was warm, cozy, and smoky. He gave us bottled root beer to drink and when we left, he sent Bluegrass CDs with us.
As we were leaving, I hugged Lucky goodbye and wished him a Merry Christmas. I sent a few things to him once after that, when I knew Dad was going to go by his place: an O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, food, cash. The other times we stopped by together, he wasn’t there. Always a mystery, that Lucky.
Always a mystery.
“Joseph Lucky Gribble, 64, of Fairfax, died on Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Fairfax.
He was born on November 9, 1947, a son of the late Franklin Silvester Gribble and Elsie Gray King Gribble. He was also preceded in death by a brother, Robert Harvey Gribble. Mr. Gribble is survived by a sister, Margaret Octavia Horseman of Ellicott City, Maryland; and a brother, Tennis Silvester Gribble. Funeral services will be held 2 p.m. Thursday, March 29, 2012, at Preddy Funeral Home Chapel in Madison.”