Bara Swain

The story, a fiction response to The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,
utilizes several literary devices by James Weldon Johnson

was born in a small township of New Jersey shortly after Big Joe Turner climbed the R&B charts with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and before Albert Schweitzer accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. A lithograph of the latter, artist unknown, hung on our living room wall until the death of my mother almost five decades later.

My entrance, I am told, was less dramatic than Hurricane Hazel. Dad painted the porch trellis while my mother and a worn copy of Doctor Spock’s Baby and Child Care were whisked to Rahway Hospital in a vegetable truck. I arrived unfashionably early, a habit that, in my middle years, approaches obsession, and still induces my small circle of friends to quote illegitimate times for the occasional brunch, party and softball game. This deception has backfired on several occasions, the most recent episode coinciding with my forty-sixth birthday and a surprise party in my honor. I will not burden my readers with the finer details of that celebration that, on reflection, still causes me to reach for a cherry-flavored antacid tablet. Or two.

Notwithstanding, on the twenty-third day of October in the year 1954, Mom counted my fingers and toes and, satisfied, called my father and sisters. Cutting short Rachel’s howls of disappointment (she wanted a brother more than a Betsy McCall doll), my mother beckoned a nurse to escort her to the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, Hank’s head crowned in the toilet bowl.

I can not recollect much about the place of my birth or, from my mother’s point of view, her double-birth. We lived on one of the three streets that belonged to our township, a makeshift solution to the housing shortage that followed the Korean War, and a crisis on a much smaller scale: my oldest sister’s insistence upon consuming fried hamburgers for breakfast. Ruthie’s carnivorous craving I do not recall, and I am sure that this narrative can withstand the omission of a vague recollection dating back forty-three years. However, since the death of our beloved matriarch, I have notated in my journal a dozen times a curious phenomenon that occurs during my weekend morning strolls that, at first by coincidence and then by choice, place me in front of a 24-hour grill near the northeast corner of Allen and Stanton. From this location, I am certain that I can hear my mother’s strained voice: “If you eat one more hamburger, you will turn into a hamburger!”

First published: November 2001