Johnsonham, Junior by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature

Now any one will agree with me that it is entirely absurd for two men to fall out about their names; but then, circumstances alter cases. It had its beginning in 1863, and it has just ended.

In the first place, Ike and Jim had been good friends on the plantation, but when the time came for them to leave and seek homes for themselves each wanted a name. The master’s name was Johnson, and they both felt themselves entitled to it. When Ike went forth to men as Isaac Johnson, and Jim, not to be outdone, became James Johnsonham, the rivalry began. Each married and became the father of a boy who took his father’s name.

When both families moved North and settled in Little Africa their children had been taught that there must be eternal enmity between them on account of their names, and just as lasting a friendship on every other score. But with boys it was natural that the rivalry should extend to other things. When they went to school it was a contest for leadership both in the classroom and in sports, and when Isaac Johnson left school to go to work in the brickyard, James Johnsonham, not to be outdone in industry, also entered the same field of labor.

Later, it was questioned all up and down Douglass Street, which, by the way, is the social centre of Little Africa–as to which of the two was the better dancer or the more gallant beau. It was a piece of good fortune that they did not fall in love with the same girl and bring their rivalry into their affairs of the heart, for they were only men, and nothing could have kept them friends. But they came quite as near it as they could, for Matilda Benson was as bright a girl as Martha Mason, and when Ike married her she was an even-running contestant with her friend, Martha, for the highest social honors of their own particular set.

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It was a foregone conclusion that when they were married and settled they should live near each other. So the houses were distant from each other only two or three doors. It was because every one knew every one else’s business in that locality that Sandy Worthington took it upon himself to taunt the two men about their bone of contention.

“Mr. Johnson,” he would say, when, coming from the down-town store where he worked, he would meet the two coming from their own labors in the brickyard, “how are you an’ Mistah Johnsonham mekin’ it ovah yo’ names?”

“Well, I don’ know that Johnsonham is so much of a name,” Ike would say; and Jim would reply: “I ‘low it’s mo’ name than Johnson, anyhow.”

“So is stealin’ ham mo’ than stealin’,” was the other’s rejoinder, and then his friends would double up with mirth.

Sometimes the victorious repartee was Jim’s, and then the laugh was on the other side. But the two went at it all good-naturedly, until one day, one foolish day, when they had both stopped too often on the way home, Jim grew angry at some little fling of his friend’s, and burst into hot abuse of him. At first Ike was only astonished, and then his eyes, red with the dust of the brick-field, grew redder, the veins of his swarthy face swelled, and with a “Take that, Mistah Johnsonham,” he gave Jim a resounding thwack across the face.

It took only a little time for a crowd to gather, and, with their usual tormentor to urge them on, the men forgot themselves and went into the fight in dead earnest. It was a hard-fought battle. Both rolled in the dust, caught at each other’s short hair, pummeled, bit and swore. They were still rolling and tumbling when their wives, apprised of the goings on, appeared upon the scene and marched them home.

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After that, because they were men, they kept a sullen silence between them, but Matilda and Martha, because they were women, had much to say to each other, and many unpleasant epithets to hurl and hurl again across the two yards that intervened between them. Finally, neither little family spoke to the other. And then, one day, there was a great bustle about Jim’s house. A wise old woman went waddling in, and later the doctor came. That night the proud husband and father was treating his friends, and telling them it was a boy, and his name was to be James Johnsonham, Junior.

For a week Jim was irregular and unsteady in his habits, when one night, full of gin and pride, he staggered up to a crowd which was surrounding his rival, and said in a loud voice, “James Johnsonham, Junior–how does that strike you?”

“Any bettah than Isaac Johnson, Junior?” asked some one, slapping the happy Ike on the shoulder as the crowd burst into a loud guffaw. Jim’s head was sadly bemuddled, and for a time he gazed upon the faces about him in bewilderment. Then a light broke in upon his mind, and with a “Whoo-ee!” he said, “No!” Ike grinned a defiant grin at him, and led the way to the nearest place where he and his friends might celebrate.

Jim went home to his wife full of a sullen, heavy anger. “Ike Johnson got a boy at his house, too,” he said, “an’ he done put Junior to his name.” Martha raised her head from the pillow and hugged her own baby to her breast closer.

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“It do beat all,” she made answer airily; “we can’t do a blessed thing but them thaih Johnsons has to follow right in ouah steps. Anyhow, I don’t believe their baby is no sich healthy lookin’ chile as this one is, bress his little hea’t! ‘Cause I knows Matilda Benson nevah was any too strong.”

She was right; Matilda Benson was not so strong. The doctor went oftener to Ike’s house than he had gone to Jim’s, and three or four days after an undertaker went in.

They tried to keep the news from Martha’s ears, but somehow it leaked into them, and when Jim came home on that evening she looked into her husband’s face with a strange, new expression.

“Oh, Jim,” she cried weakly, “‘Tildy done gone, an’ me jes’ speakin’ ha’d ’bout huh a little while ago, an’ that po’ baby lef thaih to die! Ain’t it awful?”

“Nev’ min’,” said Jim, huskily; “nev’ min’, honey.” He had seen Ike’s face when the messenger had come for him at the brickyard, and the memory of it was like a knife at his heart.

“Jes’ think, I said, only a day or so ago,” Martha went on, “that ‘Tildy wasn’t strong; an’ I was glad of it, Jim, I was glad of it! I was jealous of huh havin’ a baby, too. Now she’s daid, an’ I feel jes’ lak I’d killed huh. S’p’osin’ God ‘ud sen’ a jedgment on me–s’p’osin’ He’d take our little Jim?”

“Sh, sh, honey,” said Jim, with a man’s inadequacy in such a moment. “‘Tain’t yo’ fault; you nevah wished huh any ha’m.”

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“No; but I said it, I said it!”

“Po’ Ike,” said Jim absently; “po’ fellah!”

“Won’t you go thaih,” she asked, “an’ see what you kin do fu’ him?”

“He don’t speak to me.”

“You mus’ speak to him; you got to do it, Jim; you got to.”

“What kin I say? ‘Tildy’s daid.”

She reached up and put her arms around her husband’s brawny neck. “Go bring that po’ little lamb hyeah,” she said. “I kin save it, an’ ‘ten’ to two. It’ll be a sort of consolation fu’ him to keep his chile.”

“Kin you do that, Marthy?” he said. “Kin you do that?”

“I know I kin.” A great load seemed to lift itself from Jim’s heart as he burst out of the house. He opened Ike’s door without knocking. The man sat by the empty fireplace with his head bowed over the ashes.

“Ike,” he said, and then stopped.

Ike raised his head and glanced at him with a look of dull despair. “She’s gone,” he replied; “‘Tildy’s gone.” There was no touch of anger in his tone. It was as if he took the visit for granted. All petty emotions had passed away before this great feeling which touched both earth and the beyond.

“I come fu’ the baby,” said Jim. “Marthy, she’ll take keer of it.”

He reached down and found the other’s hand, and the two hard palms closed together in a strong grip. “Ike,” he went on, “I’m goin’ to drop the ‘Junior’ an’ the ‘ham,’ an’ the two little ones’ll jes’ grow up togethah, one o’ them lak the othah.”

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The bereaved husband made no response. He only gripped the hand tighter. A little while later Jim came hastily from the house with something small wrapped closely in a shawl.

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