Aunt Alexandra rose and smoothed the various whalebone ridges along her hips. She took her handkerchief from her belt and wiped her nose. She patted her hair and said, “Do I show it?”
“Not a sign,” said Miss Maudie. “Are you together again, Jean Louise?”
“Then let’s join the ladies,” she said grimly.
Their voices swelled when Miss Maudie opened the door to the diningroom. Aunt Alexandra was ahead of me, and I saw her head go up as she went through the door.
“Oh, Mrs. Perkins,” she said, “you need some more coffee. Let me get it.”
“Calpurnia’s on an errand for a few minutes, Grace,” said Miss Maudie. “Let me pass you some more of these dewberry tarts. ’dyou hear what that cousin of mine did the other day, the one who likes to go fishing? . . .”
And so they went, down the row of laughing women, around the diningroom, refilling coffee cups, dishing out goodies as though their only regret was the temporary domestic disaster of losing Calpurnia.
The gentle hum began again: “Yes sir, Mrs. Perkins, that J. Grimes Everett is a martyred saint, he . . . needed to get married so they ran . . . to the beauty parlor every Saturday afternoon . . . soon as the sun goes down. He goes to bed with the . . . chickens, a crate full of sick chickens, Fred says that’s what started it all. Fred says . . .”
Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled. She looked at a tray of cookies on the table and nodded at them. I carefully picked up the tray and watched myself walk to Mrs. Merriweather. With my very best company manners, I asked her if she would have some. After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.
“Don’t do that, Scout. Set him out on the back steps.”
“Jem, are you crazy? . . .”
“I said set him out on the back steps.”
Sighing, I scooped up the small creature, placed him on the bottom step and went back to my cot. September had come, but not a trace of cool weather with it, and we were still sleeping on the back screen porch. Lightning bugs were still about, the night crawlers and flying insects that beat against the screen the summer long had not gone wherever they go when autumn comes.
A roly-poly had found his way inside the house; I reasoned that the tiny varmint had crawled up the steps and under the door. I was putting my book on the floor beside my cot when I saw him. The creatures are no more than an inch long, and when you touch them they roll themselves into a tight gray ball.
I lay on my stomach, reached down and poked him. He rolled up. Then, feeling safe, I suppose, he slowly unrolled. He traveled a few inches on his hundred legs and I touched him again. He rolled up. Feeling sleepy, I decided to end things. My hand was going down on him when Jem spoke.
Jem was scowling. It was probably a part of the stage he was going through, and I wished he would hurry up and get through it. He was certainly never cruel to animals, but I had never known his charity to embrace the insect world.
“Why couldn’t I mash him?” I asked.
“Because they don’t bother you,” Jem answered in the darkness. He had turned out his reading light.
“Reckon you’re at the stage now where you don’t kill flies and mosquitoes now, I reckon,” I said. “Lemme know when you change your mind. Tell you one thing, though, I ain’t gonna sit around and not scratch a redbug.”
“Aw dry up,” he answered drowsily.
Jem was the one who was getting more like a girl every day, not I. Comfortable, I lay on my back and waited for sleep, and while waiting I thought of Dill. He had left us the first of the month with firm assurances that he would return the minute school was out—he guessed his folks had got the general idea that he liked to spend his summers in Maycomb. Miss Rachel took us with them in the taxi to Maycomb Junction, and Dill waved to us from the train window until he was out of sight. He was not out of mind: I missed him. The last two days of his time with us, Jem had taught him to swim—
Taught him to swim. I was wide awake, remembering what Dill had told me.
Barker’s Eddy is at the end of a dirt road off the Meridian highway about a mile from town. It is easy to catch a ride down the highway on a cotton wagon or from a passing motorist, and the short walk to the creek is easy, but the prospect of walking all the way back home at dusk, when the traffic is light, is tiresome, and swimmers are careful not to stay too late.
According to Dill, he and Jem had just come to the highway when they saw Atticus driving toward them. He looked like he had not seen them, so they both waved. Atticus finally slowed down; when they caught up with him he said, “You’d better catch a ride back. I won’t be going home for a while.” Calpurnia was in the back seat.