Jem kicked off his shoes and swung his feet to the bed. He propped himself against a pillow and switched on the reading light. “You know something, Scout? I’ve got it all figured out, now. I’ve thought about it a lot lately and I’ve got it figured out. There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.”
“What about the Chinese, and the Cajuns down yonder in Baldwin County?”
“I mean in Maycomb County. The thing about it is, our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks.”
I told Jem if that was so, then why didn’t Tom’s jury, made up of folks like the Cunninghams, acquit Tom to spite the Ewells?
Jem waved my question away as being infantile.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve seen Atticus pat his foot when there’s fiddlin’ on the radio, and he loves pot liquor better’n any man I ever saw—”
“Then that makes us like the Cunninghams,” I said. “I can’t see why Aunty—”
“No, lemme finish—it does, but we’re still different somehow. Atticus said one time the reason Aunty’s so hipped on the family is because all we’ve got’s background and not a dime to our names.”
“Well Jem, I don’t know—Atticus told me one time that most of this Old Family stuff’s foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s. I said did that include the colored folks and Englishmen and he said yes.”
“Background doesn’t mean Old Family,” said Jem. “I think it’s how long your family’s been readin’ and writin’. Scout, I’ve studied this real hard and that’s the only reason I can think of. Somewhere along when the Finches were in Egypt one of ’em must have learned a hieroglyphic or two and he taught his boy.” Jem laughed. “Imagine Aunty being proud her great-grandaddy could read an’ write—ladies pick funny things to be proud of.”
“Well I’m glad he could, or who’da taught Atticus and them, and if Atticus couldn’t read, you and me’d be in a fix. I don’t think that’s what background is, Jem.”
“Well then, how do you explain why the Cunninghams are different? Mr. Walter can hardly sign his name, I’ve seen him. We’ve just been readin’ and writin’ longer’n they have.”
“No, everybody’s gotta learn, nobody’s born knowin’. That Walter’s as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy. Nothin’s wrong with him. Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
Jem turned around and punched his pillow. When he settled back his face was cloudy. He was going into one of his declines, and I grew wary. His brows came together; his mouth became a thin line. He was silent for a while.
“That’s what I thought, too,” he said at last, “when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time . . . it’s because he wants to stay inside.”
Calpurnia wore her stiffest starched apron. She carried a tray of charlotte. She backed up to the swinging door and pressed gently. I admired the ease and grace with which she handled heavy loads of dainty things. So did Aunt Alexandra, I guess, because she had let Calpurnia serve today.
August was on the brink of September. Dill would be leaving for Meridian tomorrow; today he was off with Jem at Barker’s Eddy. Jem had discovered with angry amazement that nobody had ever bothered to teach Dill how to swim, a skill Jem considered necessary as walking. They had spent two afternoons at the creek, they said they were going in naked and I couldn’t come, so I divided the lonely hours between Calpurnia and Miss Maudie.
Today Aunt Alexandra and her missionary circle were fighting the good fight all over the house. From the kitchen, I heard Mrs. Grace Merriweather giving a report in the livingroom on the squalid lives of the Mrunas, it sounded like to me. They put the women out in huts when their time came, whatever that was; they had no sense of family—I knew that’d distress Aunty—they subjected children to terrible ordeals when they were thirteen; they were crawling with yaws and earworms, they chewed up and spat out the bark of a tree into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.