Ifyou’re from around here, chances are you know who Rick Bragg is, and likely have seen him, even if you haven’t read any of his books. When he’s not visiting his mom in Calhoun County or teaching his trade in Tuscaloosa, Bragg lives in an old cypress-wood fixer-upper on the east side of Fairhope. He frequents the Page & Palette bookstore, and it’s not unusual to spot him taking a late breakfast at Julwin’s, savoring a rib plate in Ben’s Jr. Bar-B-Que, or a meat-and-three at Saraceno’s. To many on the Eastern Shore, Rick Bragg is a sort of adopted favorite son.
Though I’ve read nearly everything he’s written, admire his raw, yet lyrical storytelling, have heard him speak at literary gatherings and met him briefly a couple times, I confess even I have on occasion suspected his charming, homespun demeanor might have become just a carefully crafted persona. After all, a year at Harvard (filling their “white trash quota,” he says), nearly a decade at The New York Times, a Pulitzer, more time living in Atlanta, Miami, and New Orleans, and traveling the world – all that has got to change a fella, even (or especially) one from Possum Trot, Ala., right?
About Bragg there’s at least one thing beyond dispute: his appetite. The man loves to eat, and to linger over a meal telling stories. So naturally a visit to his hometown begins over lunch at Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack, in a singularly outré location directly across County Road 204 from Jacksonville’s water treatment plant.
What drew him to Fairhope?
“Within the five-square-mile city limits, six places serve a good cup of gumbo! Plus you got your biscuits and gravy,” he says, visibly delighted. Then, suddenly crestfallen, he adds, “But I hate that Buck’s Diner closed.”
It comes as no surprise to Bragg aficionados that the title of his latest book (which he refers to as a “food memoir”) is The Best Cook in the World. It’s a bunch of stories related to food, with recipes at the end of each chapter.
Fairhope’s other appeal to Bragg is less tangible. “The light in Fairhope is special. It has a golden hue, especially on the wide, flat farmland to the east. You don’t see it so much on the water, where it’s dramatic, but the light out in the fields has a gentle, golden hue. It’s easy. It’s the only place in this world where I can draw an easy breath, in that golden light, where I can think about the losses, the fistfights, the grief and the ghosts of home, from a distance. I have too much history in Calhoun County, but none in Fairhope, where the horizon’s as far as you can chuck a rock.”
Family, loyalty, and the perseverance of the South’s hardscrabble working class have long been themes in his stories. “People’ve told me I remind them of The Waltons, but I just tell ‘em, ‘You’ve obviously never been to Calhoun County.’” He sort of bristles – if Rick Bragg can be said to bristle, even fleetingly: “The reason most Southern memoirs are not more widely read is it takes a certain amount of pain to power it.” Bragg neither shies away from nor celebrates his people’s pain, even the self-inflicted variety.
“I write the pain. The violence. As a child I witnessed a man come home drunk off a three-day binge, raging at his woman because supper wasn’t ready. Shoving her, cocking his fist back. And I watched her carefully remove her eyeglasses, put them on the table, and just say ‘Please don’t break my teeth’ before he slugged her in the face, knocking her to the floor.”
Nothing quaint about that.
“Police chief Ross Tipton chained my daddy down with a heavy logging chain on the lawn of the Jacksonville square and made him work a sling blade in a circle, in front of everybody in town. I had a cousin, Sis Morrison, could out-cuss any man in Calhoun County. She shot a man in the teeth, point-blank.” Because he turned his head at the last second, the teeth were blown out sideways, and the victim lived. Cousin Sis fled across the Georgia line. “It was like crossing the Mexican border back then,” he explains.
Not exactly heartwarming Waltons fare.
But what about the opposite danger? Stories of such near-Gothic violence and brutality can evoke the worst Southern stereotypes, stoking self-righteous, wholesale condemnation. Isn’t the South already everyone’s favorite place to hate?
“You write the foibles, but with love,” he says. “I don’t write about my people from a distance, with clinical detachment.” Hillbilly Elegy comes to my mind; Bragg hasn’t read enough of it to offer an opinion. Unlike some Southern writers who may have had authentically rough rearing, but pulled themselves up and out to then write about it, Bragg points out he’s never left home for good, never pulled up roots. “I’m of these people. They are me.” He mentions one of his kin who lives in a trailer in the woods all by himself, with the hog pen in the front yard, who hasn’t worked steady in decades. Later, as a favor, he’ll go by the pawn shop to redeem the man’s truck title, which he’d bartered to fuel his latest drunk binge. We talk briefly of the 12 Steps, treatment, interventions, and enabling. Bottom line: it’s not Rick’s call; it’s a family decision, and nobody’s willing to just turn their back on one of their own.
“My Uncle Jimbo died two weeks ago, at 92. Mom’s oldest brother. I went over to White’s Gap to give the eulogy. A group of maybe 40 people in the church, but there weren’t five neckties. Jimbo was a World War II MP, a big, strong man, a roofer, a carpenter. In his later years he just rode around town telling lies and stories, like the catfish he caught that was ‘big as a Studebaker.’ He’d hang out at the Food Outlet or cruise the cemeteries for one thing: widow women. He was missing an ear – or 75 percent of it – from a misadventure; his face was ravaged, his legs had been shattered and were held together with steel rods. But still he worked. He worked in a tire shop for big trucks. I mean big trucks. The wheels were so big you had to use a sledgehammer and chisel to separate the rubber from the rim in order to fix a flat. One of my first jobs was helping him – I was the one down on my knees holding the chisel with both hands while Uncle Jimbo swung the sledge. After the first couple whacks, I got the idea that I maybe wasn’t in the best place, and I said, ‘Uh, Uncle Jimbo, what if you miss?’ Well
he stops, looks down at me straight in the eyes, and says, ‘Son, I don’t miss.’”
Despite his foibles, his flaws, his failings, Uncle Jimbo delivered, no matter what. There’s a certain nobility in that. “That’s the man I spoke about, a man who worked, who delivered.”
Bragg continues, “I realized, probably for the first time in my life, that his kind is vanishing from the face of this earth. It broke my heart to realize it. Even more so than Uncle Jimbo’s death
was the knowing that the clock is ticking for all my people. But a writer can save those stories, can make you see the dust on Uncle Jimbo’s boots, hear the slam of his sledge against the chisel, make you see that horizon that’s as far as you can chuck a rock. A writer can do that.”
Thelunch crowd vanished, Bragg settles up with the waitress (for both of us, with characteristic generosity.) Then he offers a guided tour of the hills and hollows and landmarks of the Bragg family history, including the 40 acres he bought for the cabin he had built for Mom, perched halfway up the ridge where his grandfather, a roofer and a bootlegger, “used to cook his liquor.” On the way there, Bragg points out the guardrail he bounced off of as a young driver, the ditches on both sides of the road where his people swung sling blades and picked up litter as part of Calhoun County inmate crews.
When I ask to see Possum Trot, he demurs, explaining that it really isn’t a town so much as a name locals use for a wide spot in the road where a few ramshackle dwellings are clustered. (It’s described officially as an “unincorporated area.”)
“But you know, it’s one of those things Yankees just eat up,” he says with a mischievous smirk.
My suspicions bloom anew – suspicion being an unfortunate side-effect of my previous employment. I make a note, wondering how many other colorful details he dishes up expressly for Yankee consumption.
But then I meet Mom’s menagerie of pets, strays, and rescue critters: at least 13 cats (most of them feral), a flock of game chickens, ducks, a goat, three jackasses (“all with Baldwin County pedigrees,
mind you”). And countless dogs.
“She feeds everything. Our crows are this big around,” he says, with hands like he’s holding a basketball. “She takes a sack of bread down to the pond to feed the fish.” The
newest member of the canine group is a stray shepherd mix they’ve named “Killer” because he looked like a wild, starved coyote when he wandered down the ridge behind Mom’s cabin 30 days ago.
After checking first to see if she feels up for company, he calls me in to meet Mom. It’s a very tidy, cozy room. There’s a televangelist on the TV, and a frail little lady in a robe and slippers sitting on the couch. She’s been sick; her head is covered with a kind of turban. Margaret Bragg has big, kind eyes and a tender smile.
She offers her hand, says she’s sorry she can’t get up and that she’s not really dressed for visitors. I remove my hat, squeeze her hand, and say something about how pretty her place is, with the pond and the pastures and all the animals, and what a pleasure it is to meet her, and how I admire her from what I’ve read in Rick’s books. She seems both tickled and abashed.
On the way back to town, Rick points out the old jail just off the town square, where “my daddy and many of my people spent a lot of time,” and Jacksonville State University, where he took two classes for less than a semester before dropping out.
“They invited me back there to speak, and after I was done, here comes the president of the university up on stage carrying something framed, with velvet around it, and I’m thinking, well that’s nice, they’re gonna give me an honorary degree. And then I look at what it is, and it’s my official transcript from that one semester. It reads Incomplete, and F-. Who gets an F minus?” I’m thinking, this is something you can’t make up. And I no longer harbor doubts about the authenticity of Rick Bragg. “I’ve still got it,” he says. “It’s hanging in my office.” And I can picture it there, centered between his Harper Lee Award and his Pulitzer Prize.
Mark Johnson, a former United Way CEO, is a retired detective with the Mobile Police Department. His memoir, Apprehensions and Convictions: Adventures of a 50-Year-Old Rookie Cop was published in 2016. He lives in Fairhope with his wife Nancy and is working on his first novel.