As soon as my mother walked through the classroom door, I knew why she was there. She was holding a folded copy of the Montgomery Advertiser in her hand. It was that newspaper, I knew, that would make me a star.
All morning, while my third-grade teacher had been introducing long addition, I had been fully expecting this magic to happen. I had seen the newspaper photographer take my picture the day before. I had not had to seek out his attention. I had been the only 8-year-old child at the barbecue eating two plates of food at the same time.
The photographer had asked my mother, “This your little fat boy?”
My mother had said, “Yes, his name is John Auston Bridges.”
The photographer had said, “Well, he sure does like him some barbecue, doesn’t he?”
My mother had said, “My baby likes pretty much anything you put before him.”
The photographer had said, “You mind if I take his picture for tomorrow morning’s Advertiser?”
My mother had said, “Sit up straight, Baby; the photographer’s going to take your picture.”
I knew sitting up straight was not what the Advertiser wanted. I hunched across the table and held a balsa-wood forkful of baked beans in front of my face. I waited for the camera to click. Then I held still until it stopped whirring. I did not intend to be a white-T-shirted blur in the next morning’s paper. This was the instant, I knew, when my future was being made.
It had not bothered me that the photographer had called me a little fat boy. I am relatively sure that my mother did not notice that the words were being said. After all, I was a little fat boy, one who wanted either to become an operatic soprano or dance in the Russian ballet. As far as I was concerned, it did not particularly matter which career opened up for me. There would be glamour and stage lighting either way. For that reason, this photograph, happenstance though it might be, was a stroke of good fortune. I knew it was never too early for a potentially glamorous person to begin a clipping file.
My mother wanted me to become a Church of Christ preacher. In that career, she knew, it would be deemed a good thing to be able to eat two plates of barbecue at once. What’s more, she was fully aware that if a child started early enough eating pork shoulder and spare ribs and camp stew, he was highly unlikely to pursue a line of work that required him to wear a tutu and a pair of pink tights.
I knew, however, that I was already famous. On Saturdays, when the two of us stood on a Montgomery street corner and waited for the light to change, black men leaning against nearby buildings would nudge one another and say, “Lordee, them is sure some fat legs on that little white boy.”
On the playground or in the Sunday school classroom, there was no chance of my going unnoticed. It did not strike me as odd to be pointed at by strangers on a Montgomery, Ala., sidewalk. It did not trouble me to hear the mothers of other little boys say, “Well, of course John Auston can come over in the afternoon, as long as his mama comes and gets him before supper time.” It did not bother me when the mothers of other little boys asked me, “John Auston, where does your mama buy your blue jeans?” The very chafing of my inner thighsall of them were proof of the greatness for which I was born. When my mother walked through the classroom door, my third-grade teacher paused in the middle of reading “The Chinese Brothers.” “Look, boys and girls,” she said, “it’s John Auston’s mother.”
My mother said, “Mrs. Mowsley, I’ve got something I think your boys and girls will want to see.”
In the corner, next to the filing cabinet, my mother showed Mrs. Mowsley the newspaper. I saw Mrs. Mowsley quietly raise one hand to her cheek. I could tell that my mother was laughing. I could tell that Mrs. Mowsley, still holding her hand to her cheek, was silently shaking her head.
My mother gave me a one-eyebrow-raised glance as she walked out of the classroom. Mrs. Mowsley folded the newspaper and put it on her desk. She weighted it down with a pencil box.
That afternoon, it was almost time for the buses to leave, but Mrs. Mowsley was still talking about science experiments. She was giving homework assignments and talking about a field trip to the Birmingham Zoo.
I raised my hand and said, “Mrs. Mowsley, didn’t my mama bring you something to show us?”
Mrs. Mowsley said, “Well, yes, John Auston, she did.”
I said, “I was wondering what it is. I was wondering if it was something we might all want to look at.”
Mrs. Mowsley said if there was time, she would show us the newspaper after we had had our end-of-day devotional. She read a Bible verse and made us stand to say the Lord’s Prayer.
I said, “Amen. Mrs. Mowsley, I bet whatever’s in that newspaper is something truly outstanding. I bet it’s got educational value.”
Mrs. Mowsley slid the newspaper from under the pencil box. She held it up for all the children to see and said, “John Auston has had his picture in the Montgomery newspaper. A photographer took his picture yesterday at the Labor Day barbecue. He took the picture because John Auston was eating two plates of barbecue at one time.”
I said, “I could tell you what it was like, if you want me to.”
Mrs. Mowsley said, “I think it’s time for all of you to line up for the bus.”
Just a few weeks ago, a package arrived for me at my office. It was from my sister-in-law, who likes to frame things. This time she had framed a photocopy of a picture from a 40-year-old newspaper. It was a picture of a fat little boy in a white T-shirt. He was holding a forkful of baked beans in front of his face. My sister-in-law had attached a note to the glass on the picture. The note said, “Don’t turn the picture over until you guess who this is.”
I turned the picture over. My sister-in-law had photocopied the original caption and slipped it into a clear plastic sleeve. The caption said “John Auston Bridges, son of Mr. and Mrs. Auston Bridges of Deatsville, enjoyed a feast at the Victory Club barbecue yesterday.”
That night I called my sister-in-law. She answered the phone and said, “Did you figure out who that was in the newspaper picture?”
I said, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen that picture before.”
My sister-in-law said, “I thought it was really cute. You’ve still got the same haircut.”
I said, “I’ve still got the same 38-inch waistline too.”
My sister-in-law said, “Well, I think you were just adorable.”
I said, “You’re not the one who’s still wearing that barbecue.”
My sister-in-law, who teaches special education when she is not framing things, said, “I bet that picture made you feel really important.”
I said, “Not really. On the way home on the bus, a high school kid stuck me in the butt with a straightened-out safety pin.”
My sister-in-law said, “That’s horrible.”
I said, “I don’t know. A little pain, I suppose, is just the price of fame.”