To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 80)

The street light on the corner cast sharp shadows on the Radley house. I heard Jem laugh softly. “Bet nobody bothers them tonight,” he said. Jem was carrying my ham costume, rather awkwardly, as it was hard to hold. I thought it gallant of him to do so.

“It is a scary place though, ain’t it?” I said. “Boo doesn’t mean anybody any harm, but I’m right glad you’re along.”

“You know Atticus wouldn’t let you go to the schoolhouse by yourself,” Jem said.

“Don’t see why, it’s just around the corner and across the yard.”

“That yard’s a mighty long place for little girls to cross at night,” Jem teased. “Ain’t you scared of haints?”

We laughed. Haints, Hot Steams, incantations, secret signs, had vanished with our years as mist with sunrise. “What was that old thing,” Jem said, “Angel bright, life-in-death; get off the road, don’t suck my breath.”

“Cut it out, now,” I said. We were in front of the Radley Place.

Jem said, “Boo must not be at home. Listen.”

High above us in the darkness a solitary mocker poured out his repertoire in blissful unawareness of whose tree he sat in, plunging from the shrill kee, kee of the sunflower bird to the irascible qua-ack of a bluejay, to the sad lament of Poor Will, Poor Will, Poor Will.

We turned the corner and I tripped on a root growing in the road. Jem tried to help me, but all he did was drop my costume in the dust. I didn’t fall, though, and soon we were on our way again.

We turned off the road and entered the schoolyard. It was pitch black.

“How do you know where we’re at, Jem?” I asked, when we had gone a few steps.

“I can tell we’re under the big oak because we’re passin’ through a cool spot. Careful now, and don’t fall again.”

We had slowed to a cautious gait, and were feeling our way forward so as not to bump into the tree. The tree was a single and ancient oak; two children could not reach around its trunk and touch hands. It was far away from teachers, their spies, and curious neighbors: it was near the Radley lot, but the Radleys were not curious. A small patch of earth beneath its branches was packed hard from many fights and furtive crap games.

The lights in the high school auditorium were blazing in the distance, but they blinded us, if anything. “Don’t look ahead, Scout,” Jem said. “Look at the ground and you won’t fall.”

“You should have brought the flashlight, Jem.”

“Didn’t know it was this dark. Didn’t look like it’d be this dark earlier in the evening. So cloudy, that’s why. It’ll hold off a while, though.”

Someone leaped at us.

“God amighty!” Jem yelled.

A circle of light burst in our faces, and Cecil Jacobs jumped in glee behind it. “Ha-a-a, gotcha!” he shrieked. “Thought you’d be comin’ along this way!”

“What are you doin’ way out here by yourself, boy? Ain’t you scared of Boo Radley?”

Cecil had ridden safely to the auditorium with his parents, hadn’t seen us, then had ventured down this far because he knew good and well we’d be coming along. He thought Mr. Finch’d be with us, though.

“Shucks, ain’t much but around the corner,” said Jem. “Who’s scared to go around the corner?” We had to admit that Cecil was pretty good, though. He had given us a fright, and he could tell it all over the schoolhouse, that was his privilege.

“Say,” I said, “ain’t you a cow tonight? Where’s your costume?”

“It’s up behind the stage,” he said. “Mrs. Merriweather says the pageant ain’t comin’ on for a while. You can put yours back of the stage by mine, Scout, and we can go with the rest of ’em.”

This was an excellent idea, Jem thought. He also thought it a good thing that Cecil and I would be together. This way, Jem would be left to go with people his own age.

When we reached the auditorium, the whole town was there except Atticus and the ladies worn out from decorating, and the usual outcasts and shut-ins. Most of the county, it seemed, was there: the hall was teeming with slicked-up country people. The high school building had a wide downstairs hallway; people milled around booths that had been installed along each side.

“Oh Jem, I forgot my money,” I sighed, when I saw them.

“Atticus didn’t,” Jem said. “Here’s thirty cents, you can do six things. See you later on.”

“Okay,” I said, quite content with thirty cents and Cecil. I went with Cecil down to the front of the auditorium, through a door on one side, and backstage. I got rid of my ham costume and departed in a hurry, for Mrs. Merriweather was standing at a lectern in front of the first row of seats making last-minute, frenzied changes in the script.

“How much money you got?” I asked Cecil. Cecil had thirty cents, too, which made us even. We squandered our first nickels on the House of Horrors, which scared us not at all; we entered the black seventh-grade room and were led around by the temporary ghoul in residence and were made to touch several objects alleged to be the component parts of a human being. “Here’s his eyes,” we were told when we touched two peeled grapes on a saucer. “Here’s his heart,” which felt like raw liver. “These are his innards,” and our hands were thrust into a plate of cold spaghetti.

Cecil and I visited several booths. We each bought a sack of Mrs. Judge Taylor’s homemade divinity. I wanted to bob for apples, but Cecil said it wasn’t sanitary. His mother said he might catch something from everybody’s heads having been in the same tub. “Ain’t anything around town now to catch,” I protested. But Cecil said his mother said it was unsanitary to eat after folks. I later asked Aunt Alexandra about this, and she said people who held such views were usually climbers.

We were about to purchase a blob of taffy when Mrs. Merriweather’s runners appeared and told us to go backstage, it was time to get ready. The auditorium was filling with people; the Maycomb County High School band had assembled in front below the stage; the stage footlights were on and the red velvet curtain rippled and billowed from the scurrying going on behind it.

Backstage, Cecil and I found the narrow hallway teeming with people: adults in homemade three-corner hats, Confederate caps, Spanish-American War hats, and World War helmets. Children dressed as various agricultural enterprises crowded around the one small window.

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