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1 Burnside Americana- Southern States

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Ava's Man


Ava's Man Cover




From Chapter One:

The beatin of Blackie Lee

The foothills of the Appalachians

the 1930s

Ava met him at a box-lunch auction outside Gadsden, Alabama, when she was barely fifteen, when a skinny boy in freshly washed overalls stepped from the crowd of bidders, pointed to her and said, “I got one dollar, by God.” In the evening they danced in the grass to a fiddler and banjo picker, and Ava told all the other girls she was going to marry that boy someday, and she did. But to remind him that he was still hers, after the cotton rows aged her and the babies came, she had to whip a painted woman named Blackie Lee.

Maybe it isnt quite right to say that she whipped her. To whip somebody, down here, means there was an altercation between two people, and somebody, the one still standing, won. This wasnt that. This was a beatin, and it is not a moment that glimmers in family history. But of all the stories I was told of their lives together, this one proves how Ava loved him, and hated him, and which emotion won out in the end.

Charlie Bundrum was what women here used to call a purty man, a man with thick, sandy hair and blue eyes that looked like something you would see on a rich womans bracelet. His face was as thin and spare as the rest of him, and he had a high-toned, chin-in-the-air presence like he had money, but he never did. His head had never quite caught up with his ears, which were still too big for most human beings, but the women of his time were not particular as to ears, I suppose.

He was also a man who was not averse to stopping off at the beer joint, now and again, and that was where he encountered a traveling woman with crimson lipstick and silk stockings named Blackie Lee. People called her Blackie because of her coal-black hair, and when she told my granddaddy that she surely was parched and tired and sure would preciate a place to wash her clothes and rest a spell before she moved on down the road, he told her she was welcome at his house.

They were living in north Georgia at that time, outside Rome. Ava and the five children—there was only James, William, Edna, Juanita and Margaret then—were a few miles away, working in Newt Morrisons cotton field. Charlie always took in strays—dogs, men and women, who needed a place—but Blackie was a city woman and pretty, too, which set the stage for mayhem.

It all might have gone unnoticed. Blackie Lee mightve washed her clothes, set a spell and then just moved along, if that was all that she was after. But well never know. Well never know because she had the misfortune to hang her stockings on Ava Bundrums clothesline in front of God and everybody.

Miles away from there, Ava was hunched over in the cotton field, dragging a heavy sack, her fingers and thumbs on fire from the needle-sharp stickers on the cotton bolls. Newt Morrisons daughter, Sis, came up alongside of her in the field, one row over, and lit the fuse.

“Ava,” said Sis, who had driven past Ava and Charlies house earlier that day, “did you get you some silk stockings?”

Ava said no she had not, what foolishness, and just picked on.

“Well,” Sis said, “is your sister Grace visitin you?”

No, Ava said, if Grace had come to visit, she would have written or sent word.

“Well,” said Sis, “I drove past yalls place and seen some silk stockings on the line, and I thought they must have been Graces, cause shes the only one I could think of that would have silk stockings.”

Ava said well, maybe it was Grace, and picked on. Grace had wed a rich man and had silk stockings and a good car and may have come by, just on a whim. That must be it. Had to be.

Edna, then only a little girl, said her momma just kept her back bowed and her face down for a few more rows, then jerked bolt upright as if she had been stung by a bee, snatched the cotton sack from her neck and flung it, heavy as it was, across two rows.

Then she just started walking, and the children, puzzled, hurried after her. Even as an old woman Ava could walk most people plumb into the ground, and as a young woman she just lowered her head and swung her arms and kicked up dust as she powered down the dirt road to home.

When she swung into the yard, sometime later, it was almost dark and Blackie Lee was on the porch, cooling herself. Ava stopped and drew a breath and just looked at her for a moment, measuring her for her coffin. Then she stomped over to the woodpile and picked up the ax.

About that time it must have dawned on Blackie Lee who this young woman was, who these big-eyed children were, and she ran inside, put the latch down on the door and began to speak to Jesus.

Ava just stood there, breathing hard, her long hair half in and half out of her dew rag, and announced that the woman could either open the door and take her beatin or take her beatin after Ava hacked down her own door. And “you might not want me to walk in thar, with a ax in my hand.” Blackie Lee, hysterical, unlatched the door and stepped back, and Ava, as she promised, dropped the ax and stepped inside.

She might not have beat the woman quite so bad if it had not been for the dishpan. It had dirty water in it, from that womans clothes. No one, no one, washed their clothes in Avas dishpan.

Edna stood at the door, peeking.

Listen to her:

“Momma beat her all through the house. She beat her out onto the porch, beat her out into the yard and beat her down to the road, beat her so hard that her hands swelled up so big she couldnt fit em in her apron pocket. Then she grabbed aholt of her with one hand and used the other hand to flag down a car that was comin, and she jerked open that car door and flung that woman in and told the man drivin that car to get her ‘on outta here. And that man said, ‘Yes, maam, and drove off with Blackie Lee.”

Charlie was at work when this happened, which was very fortunate, so fortunate that, even now, his children swear that there was Gods hand in it. Even with temptation at his house, he went off to work, and made a living, and it saved him, it saved everything. A weak man would have just laid out that day, and if he had been home Ava would have killed him dead as Julius Caesar.

Ava and the five children went back to Newt Morrisons to spend the night. Newt was distant kin and Ava knew she was welcome there. But first she walked inside her house and threw that dishpan out into the yard as far as she could.

That night, Charlie showed up to take them home. And Ava lit into him so hard and so fast that Charlie lost one of his shoes in the melee and had to fight from an uneven platform, which is bad when you have what seems to be a badger crawling and spittin around your head. They fought, Edna said, all the way down the hall, crashing hard into the wall, making a hellish racket and scaring everybody in there to death. Children screamed and dogs barked and Charlie just kept on hollerin over and over, “Dammit, Ava. Quit.” Finally they crashed onto a bed, and into the room walked the old man, Newt, barefoot, one of his overall galluses on and one off. Newt thought that it was Charlie who was beating his wife to death, instead of the other way around, and all he knew was that this boy, Charlie, kin or not, had invaded his home, rattled the walls and frightened his family.

Newt, stooped and gray and gnarly, was much too old to fistfight a man in his own house. So he reached into his overalls pocket, fished out his pocketknife and flicked out a blade long enough to cut watermelon.

Ava took one look at that knife and flung her body across her husband, to shield him. Then she looked up at Newt, and when she spoke there were spiders and broken glass in her voice.

“Dont you touch him,” she hissed.

* * *

Everybody has a moment like it. If they never did, they never did love nobody, truly. People who have lived a long, long time say it, so it must be so.

* * *

They never spoke about it. They never had another moment like it again. They fought—my Lord, did they fight—for thirty years, until the children were mostly grown and gone. But they stuck. You go through as much as they did, you stick. I have seen old people do it out of spite, as if growing old together was some sweet revenge. Charlie and Ava did not get to grow old together. What they got was life condensed, something richer and sweeter and—yes—more bitter and violent, life with the dull moments just boiled or scorched away.

She never bowed to him, and he never made her, and they lived that way, in the time they had.

Every now and then, they would jab a little. She would stand over her new dishpan and recite a little poem as she gently rinsed her iron skillet and biscuit pans:

Single life is a happy life

Single life is a pleasure

I am single and no mans wife

And no man can control me

He would pretend not to hear. And bide his time, to get even.

“Daddy,” Margaret asked him once, when she was still a little girl, “how come you havent bought us a radio?”

Charlie would just shake his head.

“Hon, we dont need no radio,” he would say, and then he would point one of his long, bony fingers at Ava. “I already got a walkie-talkie.”

And on and on it went, them pretending, maybe out of pride, that they did not love each other, and need each other, as much as they did.

As time dragged on they would break out the banjo—Charlie was hell-hot on a banjo—and the guitar, which Ava played a lifetime. And in the light of an old kerosene lantern, as the children looked on from their beds, they would duel.

Charlie would do “Doin My Time”—his commentary on marriage—and grin while she stared hard at him from behind her spectacles:

On this ol rock pile

With a ball and chain

They call me by a number

Not my name

Gotta do my time

Lord, Lord

Gotta do my time

Then Ava would answer with “Wildwood Flower” or something like it:

Ill sing and Ill dance

And my laugh shall be gay

Ill charm every heart

And the crowd I will sway

Ill live yet to see him

Regret the dark hour

When he won and neglected

This frail wildwood flower

And Charlie would sing back at her with another song, about being on a chain gang, or doing time in a Yankee prison, or “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone”:

I wish to the Lord

Id never been born

Or “Knoxville Girl”:

We went to take an evening walk

About a mile from town

I picked a stick up off the ground

And knocked that fair girl down

But it always ended in dancing, somehow. He would beat those banjo strings and she would buck-dance around the kitchen, her skirts in her hands, her heavy shoes smacking into the boards, and the children would laugh, because it is impossible not to when your momma acts so young.

* * *

Much, much later, when she had passed seventy, she still played and she still sang but she could not really see how to tune her guitar, and her hand shook too much to do it right, anyway. She would miss a lick now and then, and she would always frown at what time had done to her. But she never forgot the words to “Wildwood Flower.”

Ill think of him never

Ill be wild and gay

Ill cease this wild weeping,

Drive sorrow away

But I wake from my dreaming

My idol was clay

My visions of love

Have all vanished away

* * *

It didnt all start there, of course, with the beating of that unfortunate woman. The beginning of their story goes way, way back, beyond them, even beyond the first Bundrum to drift here, to these green foothills that straddle the Alabama-Georgia border. In it, I found not only the beginnings of a family history but a clue to our character.

All my life, I have heard the people of the foothills described as poor, humble people, and I knew that was dead wrong. My people were, surely, poor, but they were seldom humble. Charlie sure wasnt, and his daddy wasnt, and I suspect that his daddys daddy wasnt humble a bit. And Ava, who married into that family, was no wilting flower, either. A little humility, a little meekness of spirit, might have spared us some pain, over the years, but the sad truth is, its just not in us. With the exception of my own mother, maybe, it never was.

For a family so often poor, we have, for a hundred years or more, refused to adapt our character very much. But then, if we had been willing to change just a little bit, we never would have gotten here in the first place.

We are here because our ancestors were too damn hardheaded to adapt, to assimilate. We are here because someone with a name very much like Bundrum picked a fight with the King of France, and the Church of Rome.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Bragg, Rick
Social life and customs
Regional Subjects - South
Family/Interpersonal Memoir
United States - 20th Century/Depression
Personal Memoirs
Southern states
Southern States Social life and customs.
General Biography
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.52x6.48x1.08 in. 1.26 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Biography » General
History and Social Science » Americana » Southern States
History and Social Science » Journalism » Journalists

Ava's Man Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$6.95 In Stock
Product details 272 pages Alfred A. Knopf - English 9780375410628 Reviews:
"Review" by , ?A lovely book, with a certain gritty grandeur...This is a worthy successor to All Over but the Shoutin?.?
"Review" by , ?Rick Bragg has written a powerful and poignant book about his kin, the kind of people we hear about too seldom...At the end I shared Rick?s pride and awe of what his family had endured.?
"Review" by , "Bragg delivers, with deep affection, fierce familial pride, and keen, vivid prose that's as sharp and bone-bright as a butcher knife."
"Review" by , "In creating an indelible portrait of his grandfather, Bragg also brings alive a particular time and place, showing us just how much we've lost even as we've made 'progress.'"
"Review" by , "No one writes about the South like Bragg. He reminds readers that the fabled agrarians weren't the only Southerners, as he refuses to whitewash the bootleggers, violence, and poverty of the Depression-era rural South. Bragg's empathy and humanity shine throughout."
"Synopsis" by , The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All Over but the Shoutin continues his personal history of the Deep South with an evocation of his mothers childhood in the Appalachian foothills during the Great Depression, and the magnificent story of the man who raised her.

Charlie Bundrum was a roofer, a carpenter, a whiskey-maker, a fisherman who knew every inch of the Coosa River, made boats out of car hoods and knew how to pack a wound with brown sugar to stop the blood. He could not read, but he asked his wife, Ava, to read him the paper every day so he would not be ignorant. He was a man who took giant steps

in rundown boots, a true hero whom history would otherwise have overlooked.

In the decade of the Great Depression, Charlie moved his family twenty-one times, keeping seven children one step ahead of the poverty and starvation that threatened them from every side. He worked at the steel mill when the steel was rolling, or for a side of bacon or a bushel of peaches when it wasnt. He paid the doctor who delivered his fourth daughter, MargaretBraggs motherwith a jar of whiskey. He understood the finer points of the law as it applied to poor people and drinking men; he was a banjo player and a buck dancer who worked off fines when life got a little sideways, and he sang when he was drunk, where other men fought or cussed. He had a talent for living.

His children revered him. When he died, cars lined the blacktop for more than a mile.

Rick Bragg has built a soaring monument to the grandfather he never knewa father who stood by his family in hard times and left a backwoods legend behindin a book that blazes with his love for his family, and for a particular stretch of dirt road along the Alabama-Georgia border. A powerfully intimate piece of American history as it was experienced by the working people of the Deep South, a glorious record of a life of character, tenacity and indomitable joy and an unforgettable tribute to a vanishing culture, Avas Man is Rick Bragg at his stunning best.

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