Jem seemed fascinated by a rose in the carpet. “Atticus,” he said, “she wants me to read to her.”
“Read to her?”
“Yes sir. She wants me to come every afternoon after school and Saturdays and read to her out loud for two hours. Atticus, do I have to?”
“But she wants me to do it for a month.”
“Then you’ll do it for a month.”
Jem planted his big toe delicately in the center of the rose and pressed it in. Finally he said, “Atticus, it’s all right on the sidewalk but inside it’s—it’s all dark and creepy. There’s shadows and things on the ceiling. . . .”
Atticus smiled grimly. “That should appeal to your imagination. Just pretend you’re inside the Radley house.”
The following Monday afternoon Jem and I climbed the steep front steps to Mrs. Dubose’s house and padded down the open hallway. Jem, armed with Ivanhoe and full of superior knowledge, knocked at the second door on the left.
“Mrs. Dubose?” he called.
Jessie opened the wood door and unlatched the screen door.
“Is that you, Jem Finch?” she said. “You got your sister with you. I don’t know—”
“Let ’em both in, Jessie,” said Mrs. Dubose. Jessie admitted us and went off to the kitchen.
An oppressive odor met us when we crossed the threshold, an odor I had met many times in rain-rotted gray houses where there are coal-oil lamps, water dippers, and unbleached domestic sheets. It always made me afraid, expectant, watchful.
In the corner of the room was a brass bed, and in the bed was Mrs. Dubose. I wondered if Jem’s activities had put her there, and for a moment I felt sorry for her. She was lying under a pile of quilts and looked almost friendly.
There was a marble-topped washstand by her bed; on it were a glass with a teaspoon in it, a red ear syringe, a box of absorbent cotton, and a steel alarm clock standing on three tiny legs.
“So you brought that dirty little sister of yours, did you?” was her greeting.
Jem said quietly, “My sister ain’t dirty and I ain’t scared of you,” although I noticed his knees shaking.
I was expecting a tirade, but all she said was, “You may commence reading, Jeremy.”
Jem sat down in a cane-bottom chair and opened Ivanhoe. I pulled up another one and sat beside him.
“Come closer,” said Mrs. Dubose. “Come to the side of the bed.”
We moved our chairs forward. This was the nearest I had ever been to her, and the thing I wanted most to do was move my chair back again.
She was horrible. Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase, and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet, which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin. Old-age liver spots dotted her cheeks, and her pale eyes had black pinpoint pupils. Her hands were knobby, and the cuticles were grown up over her fingernails. Her bottom plate was not in, and her upper lip protruded; from time to time she would draw her nether lip to her upper plate and carry her chin with it. This made the wet move faster.
I didn’t look any more than I had to. Jem reopened Ivanhoe and began reading. I tried to keep up with him, but he read too fast. When Jem came to a word he didn’t know, he skipped it, but Mrs. Dubose would catch him and make him spell it out. Jem read for perhaps twenty minutes, during which time I looked at the soot-stained mantelpiece, out the window, anywhere to keep from looking at her. As he read along, I noticed that Mrs. Dubose’s corrections grew fewer and farther between, that Jem had even left one sentence dangling in mid-air. She was not listening.
I looked toward the bed.
Something had happened to her. She lay on her back, with the quilts up to her chin. Only her head and shoulders were visible. Her head moved slowly from side to side. From time to time she would open her mouth wide, and I could see her tongue undulate faintly. Cords of saliva would collect on her lips; she would draw them in, then open her mouth again. Her mouth seemed to have a private existence of its own. It worked separate and apart from the rest of her, out and in, like a clam hole at low tide. Occasionally it would say, “Pt,” like some vicious substance coming to a boil.
I pulled Jem’s sleeve.
He looked at me, then at the bed. Her head made its regular sweep toward us, and Jem said, “Mrs. Dubose, are you all right?” She did not hear him.
The alarm clock went off and scared us stiff. A minute later, nerves still tingling, Jem and I were on the sidewalk headed for home. We did not run away, Jessie sent us: before the clock wound down she was in the room pushing Jim and me out of it.