"Don't 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 man's 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 haven't bought us a radio?"
Charlie would just shake his head.
"Hon, we don't 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
Gotta do my time
Then Ava would answer with "Wildwood Flower" or something like it:
I'll sing and I'll dance
And my laugh shall be gay
I'll charm every heart
And the crowd I will sway
I'll 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
I'd 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."
I'll think of him never
I'll be wild and gay
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.
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