A duck bit it off

WRITTEN BY AARON GILBREATH
Aaron Gilbreath is a nonfiction writer whose stories have appeared in Harper's, Kenyon Review, Lucky Peach, The New York Times, and Paris Review. An editor at Longreads, his books include the personal essay collection Everything We Don't Know and This Is: Essays on Jazz. He's working on a book about California's San Joaquin Valley and one about traveling in Japan. You can find him on Twitter @AaronGilbreath or his website at http://aarongilbreath.tumblr.com/.
Paintings By Rumi Hara
I am an illustrator and comic artist working in New York City. I was born in Kyoto, Japan and studied illustration at Savannah College of Art and Design.

Photo by Yoshiki Nakano
A Duck Bit It Off

In his 1957 cover of the blues standard “Trouble in Mind,” Arkansas guitarist Big Bill Broonzy sings, “When you see me laughing, I'm laughing just to keep from crying.” Jazz pianist Richard M. Jones wrote the song, and singer Thelma La Vizzo made the first known recording in 1924. Since then, countless musicians have covered it, from Johnny Cash to Nina Simone. The chorus mostly stayed the same: “Trouble in mind, I’m blue/But I won't be blue always/’Cause the sun’s gonna shine/In my backdoor someday.”

Different singers added different lyrics. Some go down a river. Others get their hearts broken by cold men and hard-hearted women and consider relieving their misery by laying their heads on the railroad tracks. Rooted in the blues tradition, Broonzy pulls from the genre’s shared pool of motifs and lines, including allusions to lamp lights, rocking chairs, and that lonesome whistle that blows in so many itinerant workers’ songs of solitude and rootlessness. Whether the singers keep their head on the tracks or wait until the last minute to pull their heads back, the songs are about sadness and endurance, struggle and hope, and the complexity of appearances. Broonzy uses laughter to get by. When I'm down, he’s saying, I try to power on because things will get better. But sometimes that cheer is a facade.

WHEN YOU SEE ME LAUGHING, I’M
LAUGHING JUST TO KEEP FROM CRYING.

When you ask my seventy-seven-year-old dad how he’s doing, he'll sometimes tell you, “Well, I'm on the right side of the dirt.” He smiles when he says it, but he’s serious. Life gets dark. My family’s tendency is to lighten it with laughter.

I come from a family of jokers. We’re not practical jokers who set whoopee cushions on your seat; we're people who like to elevate rather than linger on the sad stuff. My dad and his four brothers tell stories. They razz you about your bald spot and memorize jokes that they slip into conversation so you don’t see the punch line coming. Dad’s youngest brother, Mike, once mailed us a “chorizo bomb” that he had built with wires and a ticking timer strapped to three logs of chorizo. When they were kids in Scottsdale, Arizona, back in the 1960s, Dad was driving his Plymouth convertible with his brothers Jerry and Mike, and they stopped to get a soda at a little fruit stand. Soda had just come out in cans, and the older brothers told Mike that if the cops saw him drinking his can, they’d think it was beer and arrest him. Mike sat in the backseat of the car the whole time, crouched down, hiding his root beer. Dad laughed when he told me this. “We had him convinced.”

Now Uncle Mike is worrying about his memory, Jerry had a cancer scare, and my dad walks with a cane. One doctor told Dad that he has early stage dementia. Another thinks he might have Parkinson's. He doesn’t know what he has except trouble standing, trouble balancing, trouble remembering, and intense lower back pain. He used to fall once or twice a month. Now he falls weekly. “It's called getting old,” he told me recently. In his words, he’s “older than dirt.” In my wedding photos, his cane pokes up into the frame, the black foam handle showing between our arms. It’s a painful sight. He was always so freewheeling and strong.

“You know the worst thing about aging?” he said with a grin.

“Every year I get older, the more I look like my testicles.”

“I'm bald,” I said. “I know the feeling.”

I come from a family of jokers. We’re not
practical jokers who set whoopee cushions on your seat; we're people who like to elevate
rather than linger on the sad stuff.

In June 2003, one of my favorite places on earth burned: a fragrant shady forest of pine, oak, and fir in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson. I went to college in Tucson and spent a lot of my free time exploring these mountains. This particular wildfire, called the Aspen Fire, burned 84,750 acres of land, some 132 square miles, and destroyed 340 homes and businesses in the tiny mountaintop town of Summerhaven. The fire burned for a month. My favorite place in these mountains was a moist, secluded cove containing an old-growth forest, which is rare in Arizona. Not because forests are rare—Arizona has a lot of forest—but because most of the state’s forests were logged during and after WWII. This one was not. It survived half a century of logging. It survived decades of residential development and previous fires. Because it sat at the end of a dead-end road, it offered a deep, quiet escape for those of us who needed it. The ancient trees were huge. Massive ponderosas had thick yellowing bark. Iridescent moss grew on the towering firs’ deeply furrowed trunks, and wild roses bloomed among the old crooked oaks. In one sheltered area filled with knee-high ferns, I hung a hammock between two aspens and had a hummingbird drop down and hover an inch from my nose, drawn to the sight of my yellow beanie. I dreamed about this forest. I told everyone about it for years after moving. Then it burned. I didn’t want to visit. I couldn’t stand the idea of it in that denuded state. When I finally gathered the courage, the sight of it stung. Sections were charred. Light flooded the shady glens. Tree trunks were black, and the spongy topsoil had turned to ash. One consolation: the huge old sugar pine by the parking lot still stood, somehow unaffected. Much of it was a graveyard I wanted to bury myself in. I should have stayed away. I’ve never gone back.

At age 40, you look back and wonder what you could have done differently. The regrets can haunt you: Would my salary be higher if I’d gone to Harvard instead of my state school? Would my career be further along had I chosen New York over Oregon? It’s a wasted exercise, but an inevitable one, and the maps of unrealized possibility feel lined with barbs instead of accomplishments. Mid-life is admitting, “This is what I am” and recognizing the fact that time has now limited what else you can be. Sometimes I get so down I fail to see all the good things I’ve become.

A few of the things that take the sting out are friends, family, music, tea, and laughter. When Broonzy sings about laughing, I often sing along.

Lyrics and sayings about laughter abound:

Laughter is the best medicine.

Laughter is the best defense.

You have to laugh about it.

A laugh for the way my life has gone

A laugh for the love of a friend

A laugh for the fools in the eyes of the world

The love that will never end.

Our friend Emma has breast cancer. She’s 36 years old. She was diagnosed with Lupus as a kid and never thought she'd live to 35. Now she has cleared that medical hurdle only to face another.

She and my wife and I went to dinner after Emma’s lumpectomy. I told her, “You're really using this cancer thing to make it all about yourself.” We laughed. Two days later at breakfast, I was sitting next to her in a booth, teary. I’d been crying inside the whole time.

Sometimes I get so down I fail to see
all the good things I’ve become.

Nearly fifty years after he left it, my dad went back to his childhood home of Boswell, Oklahoma. It’s a tiny town in the southeast corner of the state. With everyone getting older, he, Mike, and Jerry wanted to travel and visit extended family while they could. Family members threw them a big welcome home celebration, hosting it at the Methodist Church with lots of casseroles, potato salad, and fried chicken. A few weeks after their visit, a couple of the Gilbreaths died. Dad’s town already had. “It wasn't like I remembered it," he told me. "I shouldn’t have gone back.”

Historic Main Street had been taken apart brick by brick. The bricks were made of red clay from the nearby Boggy River. When people realized they could sell them, property owners dismantled their buildings and shipped the bricks off by train to feed the 1960s Texas housing boom, where the bricks were hugely popular for fascias and facades. Then, in their place, owners put up newer, uglier buildings, often tin—“The kind that go up overnight,” Dad said—because they’re cheap. “Another Okie town torn down and shipped off, all its greatness went with it,” he said. “There aren’t many towns like that left in that part of Oklahoma,” he said. “Maybe in northern Texas. They’re like wind tunnels, mostly.”

No pool hall, no pedestrians, no Andersons General Store—Boswell, the lively town of wandering bluesmen, blacksmiths, and his uncle the moonshiner, was gone. Though Dad hadn’t expected things to still be as they once had been, it was painful seeing the hole that stood in their place. It’s why when a song comes on the radio that reminds him of his old days, he sometimes turns the dial. “It brings up too many feelings,” he says, “emotions, guilt. Who wants to feel that?”

On the bookshelf in his office, he keeps a photo of his childhood home. It’s the Oklahoma house he was born in. One time he tried to give it to me, but I insisted he keep it. There is value in forgetting, but certain memories you have to hang on to.

Dad likes to tell this one story about his father. During World War II, someone they knew left Boswell and found work in Tulsa. Word reached home, and the next thing you know, Granddad landed a job in Tulsa, testing machine guns on big bombers for Douglas Aircraft. That was 1943 and '44, right in the heart of the war. Everything was rationed: cheese, butter, flour, lard, and meat. Everyone had a little ration book in which to check off items each month. To compensate, people raised fruit and vegetables on any inch of ground they had, including front yards. “So in Tulsa we had this dog,” Dad said, “and every now and then, he would come home with a live chicken in his mouth. Mind you, you couldn’t get chicken in Tulsa during the war. White rabbit was all you ate; it’s all they’d sell. So one night I go out in front of our house, and there’s Granddad kneeling down next to this dog, trying to pry his mouth open to get this chicken out. Granddad’s kneeling down, and he looks up at me—his eyes really wide, smiling—and says, ‘You know, Joe, as soon as this war is over, I’m going to break this dog of this habit.” He laughs when he tells this. “If Dad knew where this dog was getting these chickens, he never said so.”

This is one of countless granddad stories. Like the rest of us, Granddad told many stories, and my dad learned to do the same. Dad tells stories about Granddad’s brother, Jack, too.

Uncle Jack had lost his arm in a car accident. He was driving a narrow rural road with his arm resting on his open truck window, and a passing car passed too closely and knocked it off. For the rest of his life, Jack pinned his shirtsleeve. He ran a lumberyard with one arm and fished most days before or after work. Everyone in Boswell knew him. They would see him walking with his pole and say, "Hey Jack, catch any fish?" and he’d hold out one arm and say, “Yeah, about this big!” Sometimes kids would stare. Some kids asked, “What happened to your arm, mister?” He would tell them lies: “I was picking my nose,” or "A duck bit it off.” When my brother Mark was a little kid, Uncle Jack showed him how to make a whistle out of a blade of grass. "You take a piece of long-stemmed grass,” Jack said, “and put it between your thumbs like this.” He kneeled beside Mark to show him, pressing his thumbs together side by side. “But you don’t want to blow too hard. Your might blow your arm off.”

You shouldn't avoid thinking about life’s
difficulties and losses, and you shouldn’t
avoid feeling the pain and talking through it.
Cry if you need to.

These are a few of countless Gilbreath tales that now compose the heart of our family lore. They make my dad laugh, and the memories help dull the pain of time’s passage.

The last time I went home to Phoenix to visit my family, Dad had fallen a week before and couldn’t get up for nearly 30 minutes. His condition has deteriorated quickly. It'll keep getting worse, but he won’t accept certain help Mom and I offer. Not surprisingly, his sense of humor remains intact.

At dinner on our last night in town, Dad told a story. “Granddad always told this story,” he said. “One time we all went to Los Olivos for dinner. When the waitress came by to take our order and asked what he was having, he said, ‘Oh, I think I'll have a bowl of your green chile.’ The waitress looked confused. ‘Green chile? Oh, I don't know if we have that. I'll need to check.’ She then went in back and asked the cook. She came back out and told Dad, ‘I'm sorry; we only have the chile verde.’ Dad got a kick out of that.” And I get a kick out of him—of his constant humor and warmth. I never tire of it, just as he never tires of trying to enjoy what he can while he can, rather than lingering on the sore spots. “Life’s a gas,” sang T. Rex. He was being sarcastic.

When you see Big Bill laughing, it’s only to keep from surrendering to the dark. You shouldn't avoid thinking about life’s difficulties and losses, and you shouldn’t avoid feeling the pain and talking through it. Cry if you need to. One of the dangers of humor is using it not to cope but to avoid. But the earth keeps spinning, and you can either spin with it or get thrown off. Sometimes the only thing to do is to laugh at the craziness of it all. It’s how some of us endure.

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