“Charlie and Ava saw each other for the first time, it is believed, at one of those basketball games. But they did not meet, formally, until the box-lunch social in Gadsden some months later.
At the socials, girls of courting age would fix a box lunch and boys of courting age, and sometimes old men who had been widowed, would bid on the food – but of course what they were really buying there was the pleasure of the young woman's company for the time it took to eat.
Ava's box lunch was, it must be said, a little bit of a lie. She was no great cook as a young woman and her sisters had actually done th entire meal, figuring that Ava would never get married if she poisoned a man to death. So they fried some chicken and boiled some eggs and put in a wedge of pound cake, and dressed Ava in a pretty cotton dress with red flowers on it, and a matching bonnet. Then they tucked the box under Ava's arm and eased her onto the stage, where fate and Charlie found her.”
The previous passage comes from another of Rick Bragg's books; this one is titled Ava's Man. With the same emotional generosity and effortlessly compelling storytelling that made All Over But the Shoutin' (reviewed in an earlier edition of this publication) so wonderful to read, Bragg continues his personal history of the Deep South, writing this time about his grandfather Charlie Bundrum.
“He was leaving Georgia, leaving the trouble there, leaving with riches. His children ranged from fix feet three to a foot and a half – from soon-to-be grown men to a baby girl with Shirley Temple curls. Ava and he had stayed together through violence and deprivation, with white-hot words and warm touches, shaken fists and soft forehead kisses. Now, with more than a decade and a half of life lived in small houses, woman and man did not have many secrets left, and what they had discovered in those years was not the love people whisper about over candles, but the kind they need when their baby girl is coughing at three o'clock in the morning. They did not pick and sing as much, now, but when they did, it still rattled the roof.”
Bragg never actually knew his grandfather; Charlie did before the writer was born. Drawing on the memories of those people who had loved him, the author reconstructed the life of an unlettered roofer who somehow kept food on the table through the worst of the Great Depression; a moonshiner who drank a pint for every gallon he sold; an unregenerate brawler who could nevertheless sit for hours with a baby in the crook of his arm.
“The years had scoured him on the inside, but you couldn't see that when you saw him standing on the roofline, his long body framed by the clouds, that ever-present hammer swinging, swinging. Some men act old, as if they are practicing for their last years, practicing for dying. Charlie did not act old.
He was in his forties and already a grandfather, with a telltale scar above his liver. He had shot men – and one large woman – and smacked them with hammers. It routinely took a carload of deputies to put him in chains, and if all else failed, he could pick a fight with Ava.
He never seemed to get, or want, a lull in the adventure of living, as if he knew that old age was something he would never see. It may be why he seldom took a nap.”
As he tells Charlie's story, Bragg conjures up the back-woods hamlets of Alabama and Georgia in the years when the roads were still dirt and real men never cussed in front of ladies. A masterly family chronicle and a human portrait so vivid you can smell the cornbread and whiskey – Ava's Man is unforgettable. Be sure to read all about it.
Copyright © 2005, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.