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The Prince of Frogtown

Bragg, Rick Author

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In this final volume of the beloved American saga that began with All Over but the Shoutin’ and continued with Ava’s Man, Rick Bragg closes his circle of family stories with an unforgettable tale about fathers and sons inspired by his own relationship with his ten-year-old stepson.

He learns, right from the start, that a man who chases a woman with a child is like a dog who chases a car and wins. He discovers that he is unsuited to fatherhood, unsuited to fathering this boy in particular, a boy who does not know how to throw a punch and doesn’t need to; a boy accustomed to love and affection rather than violence and neglect; in short, a boy wholly unlike the child Rick once was, and who longs for a relationship with Rick that Rick hasn’t the first inkling of how to embark on. With the weight of this new boy tugging at his clothes, Rick sets out to understand his father, his son, and himself.

The Prince of Frogtown documents a mesmerizing journey back in time to the lush Alabama landscape of Rick’s youth, to Jacksonville’s one-hundred-year-old mill, the town’s blight and salvation; and to a troubled, charismatic hustler coming of age in its shadow, Rick’s father, a man bound to bring harm even to those he truly loves. And the book documents the unexpected corollary to it, the marvelous journey of Rick’s later life: a journey into fatherhood, and toward a child for whom he comes to feel a devotion that staggers him. With candor, insight, tremendous humor, and the remarkable gift for descriptive storytelling on which he made his name, Rick Bragg delivers a brilliant and moving rumination on the lives of boys and men, a poignant reflection on what it means to be a father and a son.

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About the Author:

Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, I Am a Soldier, Too, and Somebody Told Me are available in Vintage paperback.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The ditch cleaved frogtown into two realms, and two powerful spirits heldsway,one on each side. One was old, old as the Cross, and the other had aged only a few days in a gallon can. Both had the power to change men’s lives. On one side of the ditch, a packed-in, pleading faithful fell hard to their knees and called the Holy Ghost into their jerking bodies in unknown tongues. On the other side, two boys, too much alike to be anything but brothers, flung open the doors of a black Chevrolet and lurched into the yard of 117 D Street, hallelujahs falling dead around them in the weeds. In the house, a sad-eyed little woman looked out, afraid it might be the law. When your boys are gone you’re always afraid it might be the law. But it was just her two oldest sons, Roy and Troy, floating home inside the bubble of her prayer, still in crumpled, cattin’-around clothes from Saturday night, still a little drunk on Sunday morning. They were fine boys, though, beautiful boys. They were just steps away now, a few steps. She would fry eggs by the platterful and pour black coffee, and be glad they were not in a smoking hulk wrapped around a tree, or at the mercy of the police. She thought sometimes of walking over to the church to see it all, to hear the lovely music, but that would leave her boys and man unsupervised for too long. Her third son was eleven or so then. He could hear the piano ring across the ditch, even hear people shout, but he could smell the liquor that was always in the house on a Sunday and even steal a taste of it when no one was looking, so it was more real.


The holy ghost moved invisible, but they could feel it in the rafters, sense it racing inside the walls. It was as real as a jag of lightning, or an electrical fire.

The preacher stood on a humble, foot-high dais, to show that he did not believe he was better than them. “Do you believe in the Holy
Ghost?” he asked, and they said they did. He preached then of the end of the world, and it was beautiful.

They were still a new denomination then, but had spread rapidly in the last fifty years around a nation of exploited factory workers, coal
miners, and rural and inner-city poor. Here, it was a church of lintheads, pulpwooders and sharecroppers, shoutin’ people, who said
amen like they were throwing a mule shoe. Biblical scholars turned their noses up, calling it hysteria, theatrics, a faith of the illiterate. But in a place where machines ate people alive, faith had to pour even hotter than blood.

It had no steeple, no stained glass, no bell tower, but it was the house of Abraham and Isaac, of Moses and Joshua, of the Lord thy
God. People tithed in Mercury dimes and buffalo nickels, and pews filled with old men who wore ancient black suit coats over overalls,
and young men in short-sleeved dress shirts and clip-on ties. Women sat plain, not one smear of lipstick or daub of makeup on their
faces, and not one scrap of lace at their wrists or necks. Their hair was long, because Paul wrote that “if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given her for a covering.” Their hair and long dresses were always getting caught in the machines, but it was in the Scripture, so they obeyed. Some wore it pinned up for church, because of the heat, but before it was over hairpins would litter the
floor.

They listened as the preacher laid down a list of sins so complete it left a person no place to go but down.

“They preached it hard, so hard a feller couldn’t live it,” said Homer Barnwell, who went there as a boy.

The people, some gasping from the brown lung, ignored the weakness in their wind and pain in their chests and sang “I’ll Fly Away”
and “Kneel at the Cross” and “That Good Ol’ Gospel Ship.” A woman named Cora Lee Garmon, famous for her range, used to hit
the high notes so hard “the leaders would stand out in her neck,” Homer said.

Then, with the unstoppable momentum of a train going down a grade, the service picked up speed. The Reverend evoked a harsh
God, who turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, and condemned the Children of Israel, who gave their golden earrings to Aaron to fashion Baal, the false god. “I have seen this people,” God told Moses, “and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, so that my wrath may wax hot against them.”

As children looked with misery on a service without end, the preacher read chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles:


And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with
one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from
heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house
where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven
tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were
all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other
tongues . . .


The congregants’ eyes were shut tight.

“Do you feel the Spirit?” the Reverend shouted.

Their hands reached high.

“Can you feel the Holy Ghost?”

They answered one by one, in the light of the full Gospel.

“Yeeeeesssss.”

Then, as if they had reached for a sizzling clothesline in the middle of an electrical storm, one by one they began to jerk, convulsing in the grip of unseen power. Others threw their arms open wide, and the Holy Ghost touched them soul by soul.

Some just stood and shivered.

Some danced, spinning.

Some leapt high in the air.

Some wept.

Some shrieked.

Some of the women shook their heads so violently that their hair came free and whipped through the air, three feet long. Hairpins flew.

The Ghost was in them now.

They began to speak in tongues.

The older church people interpreted, and the congregation leaned in, to hear the miracle. It sounded like ancient Hebrew,maybe, a little,
and other times it sounded like nothing they had heard or imagined. They rushed to the front of the church and knelt in a line, facing the
altar, so the preacher could lay his hands on them, and–through the Father, in the presence of the Holy Ghost–make them whole.

One by one, they were slain in the Spirit, and fell backward, some of them, fainting on the floor. The services could last for hours, till the congregants’ stomachs growled. “If it’s goin’ good,” Homer said, “why switch it off ?”






As strong as it was, as close, it was as if sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal, across that ditch.

“We could have by God stayed longer if you’d have brought some damn money,” griped Roy, as they meandered toward the house. It is unclear where they had been that weekend, but apparently they had a real good time. Roy, the prettiest of all of them, leaned against the car for balance, and cussed his older brother a little more.Roy’s eyes were just like my father’s, a bright blue, and his hair was black. He was tall for a Bragg, and the meanest when he drank. He was not a dandy and just threw on his clothes, but was one of those men who would have looked elegant standing in a mudhole.

Troy cussed him back, but cheerfully. He always wore snow-white T-shirts, black pants and black penny loafer shoes, and as he blithely dog-cussed his brother he bent over, took off one loafer and dumped several neatly folded bills into his hand. Then, hopping around on one foot, he waved the bills in his brother’s face.

“You lying son of a bitch,”Roy said.

Troy, his shoe still in his hand, just hopped and grinned, trying not to get his white sock dirty.

He sniffed the money, like it was flowers.

“I’ll kill you,”Roy said.
But they were always threatening to kill somebody.

Troy, in a wobbly pirouette, laughed out loud.

In seconds, they were in the dirt, tearing at clothes and screaming curses, and rolled clear into the middle of D Street, in a whirl of blood
and cinders.

The commotion drew first Velma and then Bobby from inside the house.Velma, unheard and ignored, pleaded for them to stop. Bobby,
on a binge and still dressed only in his long-handles, cackled, hopped, and did a do-si-do.

My father banged through the door and into the yard, and, like a pair of long underwear sucked off a clothesline by a tornado, was carried away by the melee.

In the rising dust, they clubbed each other about the head with their fists, split lips and blacked eyes and bruised ribs. My father, smaller than his brothers, was knocked down and almost out. Velma bent over my father, to make sure he was breathing, and yelled at the
older two: “I’ll call the law.” Then she left walking, to find a telephone.

How many times did Velma make that walk to a borrowed telephone, having to choose between her sons’ freedom and their safety?
My Aunt Juanita, driving through the village, remembers seeing her walking fast down the street. “Her heels was just a’clickin’ on the
road,” she said.

She stopped and, through the window, asked Velma if she was all right.

“The boys is killing each other,” she said.

In the yard, the boys were staggering now, about used-up. The neighbors watched from their porches, but no one got in the way. The
distant scream of a police siren drifted into the yard.Velma had found a telephone.

By the time the police came, the street was empty and quiet in front of 117, the brothers inside, ruining Velma’s washrags with their blood. Bobby had enjoyed himself immensely, and gone a half day without pants of any kind. Velma walked back, her flat shoes clicking slowly now. But her boys were safe, and nothing mattered next to that.

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