To Kill a Mockingbird
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“Everybody who goes home to lunch hold up your hands,” said Miss Caroline, breaking into my new grudge against Calpurnia.
The town children did so, and she looked us over.
“Everybody who brings his lunch put it on top of his desk.”
Molasses buckets appeared from nowhere, and the ceiling danced with metallic light. Miss Caroline walked up and down the rows peering and poking into lunch containers, nodding if the contents pleased her, frowning a little at others. She stopped at Walter Cunningham’s desk. “Where’s yours?” she asked.
Walter Cunningham’s face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms. His absence of shoes told us how he got them. People caught hookworms going barefooted in barnyards and hog wallows. If Walter had owned any shoes he would have worn them the first day of school and then discarded them until mid-winter. He did have on a clean shirt and neatly mended overalls.
“Did you forget your lunch this morning?” asked Miss Caroline.
Walter looked straight ahead. I saw a muscle jump in his skinny jaw.
“Did you forget it this morning?” asked Miss Caroline. Walter’s jaw twitched again.
“Yeb’m,” he finally mumbled.
Miss Caroline went to her desk and opened her purse. “Here’s a quarter,” she said to Walter. “Go and eat downtown today. You can pay me back tomorrow.”
Walter shook his head. “Nome thank you ma’am,” he drawled softly.
Impatience crept into Miss Caroline’s voice: “Here Walter, come get it.”
Walter shook his head again.
When Walter shook his head a third time someone whispered, “Go on and tell her, Scout.”
I turned around and saw most of the town people and the entire bus delegation looking at me. Miss Caroline and I had conferred twice already, and they were looking at me in the innocent assurance that familiarity breeds understanding.
I rose graciously on Walter’s behalf: “Ah—Miss Caroline?”
“What is it, Jean Louise?”
“Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.”
I sat back down.
“What, Jean Louise?”
I thought I had made things sufficiently clear. It was clear enough to the rest of us: Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day. He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life.
I tried again: “Walter’s one of the Cunninghams, Miss Caroline.”
“I beg your pardon, Jean Louise?”
“That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the country folks after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets, and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.”
My special knowledge of the Cunningham tribe—one branch, that is—was gained from events of last winter. Walter’s father was one of Atticus’s clients. After a dreary conversation in our livingroom one night about his entailment, before Mr. Cunningham left he said, “Mr. Finch, I don’t know when I’ll ever be able to pay you.”
“Let that be the least of your worries, Walter,” Atticus said.
When I asked Jem what entailment was, and Jem described it as a condition of having your tail in a crack, I asked Atticus if Mr. Cunningham would ever pay us.
“Not in money,” Atticus said, “but before the year’s out I’ll have been paid. You watch.”
We watched. One morning Jem and I found a load of stovewood in the back yard. Later, a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps. With Christmas came a crate of smilax and holly. That spring when we found a croker-sack full of turnip greens, Atticus said Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him.
“Why does he pay you like that?” I asked.
“Because that’s the only way he can pay me. He has no money.”
“Are we poor, Atticus?”
Atticus nodded. “We are indeed.”
Jem’s nose wrinkled. “Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?”