When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
“Miss Maudie, this is an old neighborhood, ain’t it?”
“Been here longer than the town.”
“Nome, I mean the folks on our street are all old. Jem and me’s the only children around here. Mrs. Dubose is close on to a hundred and Miss Rachel’s old and so are you and Atticus.”
“I don’t call fifty very old,” said Miss Maudie tartly. “Not being wheeled around yet, am I? Neither’s your father. But I must say Providence was kind enough to burn down that old mausoleum of mine, I’m too old to keep it up—maybe you’re right, Jean Louise, this is a settled neighborhood. You’ve never been around young folks much, have you?”
“Yessum, at school.”
“I mean young grown-ups. You’re lucky, you know. You and Jem have the benefit of your father’s age. If your father was thirty you’d find life quite different.”
“I sure would. Atticus can’t do anything. . . .”
“You’d be surprised,” said Miss Maudie. “There’s life in him yet.”
“What can he do?”
“Well, he can make somebody’s will so airtight can’t anybody meddle with it.”
“Shoot . . .”
“Well, did you know he’s the best checker-player in this town? Why, down at the Landing when we were coming up, Atticus Finch could beat everybody on both sides of the river.”
“Good Lord, Miss Maudie, Jem and me beat him all the time.”
“It’s about time you found out it’s because he lets you. Did you know he can play a Jew’s Harp?”
This modest accomplishment served to make me even more ashamed of him.
“Well . . .” she said.
“Well what, Miss Maudie?”
“Well nothing. Nothing—it seems with all that you’d be proud of him. Can’t everybody play a Jew’s Harp. Now keep out of the way of the carpenters. You’d better go home, I’ll be in my azaleas and can’t watch you. Plank might hit you.”
I went to the back yard and found Jem plugging away at a tin can, which seemed stupid with all the bluejays around. I returned to the front yard and busied myself for two hours erecting a complicated breastworks at the side of the porch, consisting of a tire, an orange crate, the laundry hamper, the porch chairs, and a small U.S. flag Jem gave me from a popcorn box.
When Atticus came home to dinner he found me crouched down aiming across the street. “What are you shooting at?”
“Miss Maudie’s rear end.”
Atticus turned and saw my generous target bending over her bushes. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and crossed the street. “Maudie,” he called, “I thought I’d better warn you. You’re in considerable peril.”
Miss Maudie straightened up and looked toward me. She said, “Atticus, you are a devil from hell.”
When Atticus returned he told me to break camp. “Don’t you ever let me catch you pointing that gun at anybody again,” he said.
I wished my father was a devil from hell. I sounded out Calpurnia on the subject. “Mr. Finch? Why, he can do lots of things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
Calpurnia scratched her head. “Well, I don’t rightly know,” she said.
Jem underlined it when he asked Atticus if he was going out for the Methodists and Atticus said he’d break his neck if he did, he was just too old for that sort of thing. The Methodists were trying to pay off their church mortgage, and had challenged the Baptists to a game of touch football. Everybody in town’s father was playing, it seemed, except Atticus. Jem said he didn’t even want to go, but he was unable to resist football in any form, and he stood gloomily on the sidelines with Atticus and me watching Cecil Jacob’s father make touchdowns for the Baptists.