From Chapter One:
The Beatin' of Blackie Lee
The foothills of the Appalachians
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 isn't 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 wasn't 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 woman's 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 Morrison's 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 might've washed her clothes, set a spell and then just moved along, if that was all that she was after. But we'll never know. We'll never know because she had the misfortune to hang her stockings on Ava Bundrum's 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 Morrison's 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 Charlie's 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 y'all's place and seen some silk stockings on the line, and I thought they must have been Grace's, 'cause she's 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.
Excerpted from Ava's Man by Rick Bragg Copyright 2001 by Rick Bragg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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