Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer 's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. We lived on the main residential street in town-- Atticus, Jem and I, plus Calpurnia our cook. Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment.
Calpurnia was something else again. She was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard. She was always ordering me out of the kitchen asking me why I couldn't behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older, and calling me home when I wasn't ready to come. Our battles were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could remember.
Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence. She was a Graham from Montgomery; Atticus met her when he was first elected to the state legislature. He was middle-aged then, she was fifteen years his junior. Jem was the product of their first year of marriage; four years later I was born, and two years later our mother died from a sudden heart attack. They said it ran in her family. I did not miss her, but I think Jem did. He remembered her clearly, and sometimes in the middle of a game he would sigh at length, then go off and play by himself behind the car-House. When he was like that, I knew better than to bother him.
When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose's house two doors to the north of us, and the Radley Place three doors to the south. We were never tempted to break them.
The Radley Place was inhabited by an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end; Mrs. Dubose was plain hell.
That was the summer Dill came to us.
Early one morning as we were beginning our day's play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door in Miss Rachel Haverford's collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy-- Miss Rachel's rat terrier was expecting-- instead we found someone sitting looking at us.
Sitting down, he wasn't much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:
"Hey yourself," said Jem pleasantly.
"I'm Charles Baker Harris," he said. "I can read."
"So what?" I said.
"I just thought you'd like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin' I can do it..."
"How old are you," asked Jem, "four-and-a-half?"
"Goin' on seven."
"Shoot no wonder, then," said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. "Scout yonder 's been readin' ever since she was born, and she ain't even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin' on seven."
"I'm little but I'm old," he said.
Jem brushed his hair back to get a better look. "Why don't you come over, Charles Baker Harris?" he said.
"Lord, what a name."
"'s not any funnier 'n yours. Aunt Rachel says your name's Jeremy Atticus Finch."
Jem scowled. "I'm big enough to fit mine," he said. "Your name's longer 'n you are. Bet it's a foot longer."
"Folks call me Dill," said Dill, struggling under the fence.
"Do better if you go over it instead of under it," I said. "Where'd you come from?"
Dill was from Meridian, Mississippi, was spending the summer with his aunt, Miss Rachel, and would be spending every summer in Maycomb from now on. His family was from Maycomb County originally, his mother worked for a photographer in Meridian, had entered his picture in a beautiful Child contest and won five dollars. She gave the money to Dill, who went to the picture show twenty times on it.
"Don't have any picture shows here, except Jesus ones in the courthouse sometimes," said Jem.
"Ever see anything good?"
Dill had seen Dracula, a revelation that moved Jem to eye him with the beginning of respect. "Tell it to us," he said.
Dill was a curiosity. He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duckfluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us the old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead.
When Dill reduced Dracula to dust, and Jem said the show sounded better than the book, I asked Dill where his father was: "You ain't said anything about him."
"I haven't got one."
"Is he dead?"
"Then if he's not dead you've got one, haven't you?"
Dill blushed and Jem told me to hush, a sure sign that Dill had been studied and found acceptable.
About the book:
"To Kill a Mocking bird" is one of the most celebrated books of its time. The story is a narrative by Scout, daughter of Atticus Finch, a practitioner in law. Despite dealing with serious issues of racism, rape & murder, the book is a successful work of humor. It was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize right after its release in 1960.
Snippet from Station Eleven
- Emily St. John Mandel
Snippet from The Secret History
- Donna Tartt