“Well, just say it,” said Jem. “Have we done something?”
Our father was actually fidgeting. “No, I just want to explain to you that—your Aunt Alexandra asked me . . . son, you know you’re a Finch, don’t you?”
“That’s what I’ve been told.” Jem looked out of the corners of his eyes. His voice rose uncontrollably. “Atticus, what’s the matter?”
Atticus crossed his knees and folded his arms. “I’m trying to tell you the facts of life.”
Jem’s disgust deepened. “I know all that stuff,” he said.
Atticus suddenly grew serious. In his lawyer’s voice, without a shade of inflection, he said: “Your aunt has asked me to try and impress upon you and Jean Louise that you are not from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations’ gentle breeding—” Atticus paused, watching me locate an elusive redbug on my leg.
“Gentle breeding,” he continued, when I had found and scratched it, “and that you should try to live up to your name—” Atticus persevered in spite of us: “She asked me to tell you you must try to behave like the little lady and gentleman that you are. She wants to talk to you about the family and what it’s meant to Maycomb County through the years, so you’ll have some idea of who you are, so you might be moved to behave accordingly,” he concluded at a gallop.
Stunned, Jem and I looked at each other, then at Atticus, whose collar seemed to worry him. We did not speak to him.
Presently I picked up a comb from Jem’s dresser and ran its teeth along the edge.
“Stop that noise,” Atticus said.
His curtness stung me. The comb was midway in its journey, and I banged it down. For no reason I felt myself beginning to cry, but I could not stop. This was not my father. My father never thought these thoughts. My father never spoke so. Aunt Alexandra had put him up to this, somehow. Through my tears I saw Jem standing in a similar pool of isolation, his head cocked to one side.
There was nowhere to go, but I turned to go and met Atticus’s vest front. I buried my head in it and listened to the small internal noises that went on behind the light blue cloth: his watch ticking, the faint crackle of his starched shirt, the soft sound of his breathing.
“Your stomach’s growling,” I said.
“I know it,” he said.
“You better take some soda.”
“I will,” he said.
“Atticus, is all this behavin’ an’ stuff gonna make things different? I mean are you—?”
I felt his hand on the back of my head. “Don’t you worry about anything,” he said. “It’s not time to worry.”
When I heard that, I knew he had come back to us. The blood in my legs began to flow again, and I raised my head. “You really want us to do all that? I can’t remember everything Finches are supposed to do . . .”
“I don’t want you to remember it. Forget it.”
He went to the door and out of the room, shutting the door behind him. He nearly slammed it, but caught himself at the last minute and closed it softly. As Jem and I stared, the door opened again and Atticus peered around. His eyebrows were raised, his glasses had slipped. “Get more like Cousin Joshua every day, don’t I? Do you think I’ll end up costing the family five hundred dollars?”
I know now what he was trying to do, but Atticus was only a man. It takes a woman to do that kind of work.
Although we heard no more about the Finch family from Aunt Alexandra, we heard plenty from the town. On Saturdays, armed with our nickels, when Jem permitted me to accompany him (he was now positively allergic to my presence when in public), we would squirm our way through sweating sidewalk crowds and sometimes hear, “There’s his chillun,” or, “Yonder’s some Finches.” Turning to face our accusers, we would see only a couple of farmers studying the enema bags in the Mayco Drugstore window. Or two dumpy countrywomen in straw hats sitting in a Hoover cart.
“They c’n go loose and rape up the countryside for all ’em who run this county care,” was one obscure observation we met head on from a skinny gentleman when he passed us. Which reminded me that I had a question to ask Atticus.
“What’s rape?” I asked him that night.
Atticus looked around from behind his paper. He was in his chair by the window. As we grew older, Jem and I thought it generous to allow Atticus thirty minutes to himself after supper.
He sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.