I looked around the crowd. It was a summer’s night, but the men were dressed, most of them, in overalls and denim shirts buttoned up to the collars. I thought they must be cold-natured, as their sleeves were unrolled and buttoned at the cuffs. Some wore hats pulled firmly down over their ears. They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”
The man did not hear me, it seemed.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin‘ along?”
Mr. Walter Cunningham’s legal affairs were well known to me; Atticus had once described them at length. The big man blinked and hooked his thumbs in his overall straps. He seemed uncomfortable; he cleared his throat and looked away. My friendly overture had fallen flat.
Mr. Cunningham wore no hat, and the top half of his forehead was white in contrast to his sunscorched face, which led me to believe that he wore one most days. He shifted his feet, clad in heavy work shoes.
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to sense the futility one feels when unacknowledged by a chance acquaintance.
“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?” Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.
“He’s in my grade,” I said, “and he does right well. He’s a good boy,” I added, “a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”
Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in. Mr. Cunningham displayed no interest in his son, so I tackled his entailment once more in a last-ditch effort to make him feel at home.
“Entailments are bad,” I was advising him, when I slowly awoke to the fact that I was addressing the entire aggregation. The men were all looking at me, some had their mouths half-open. Atticus had stopped poking at Jem: they were standing together beside Dill. Their attention amounted to fascination. Atticus’s mouth, even, was half-open, an attitude he had once described as uncouth. Our eyes met and he shut it.
“Well, Atticus, I was just sayin‘ to Mr. Cunningham that entailments are bad an’ all that, but you said not to worry, it takes a long time sometimes… that you all’d ride it out together…” I was slowly drying up, wondering what idiocy I had committed. Entailments seemed all right enough for livingroom talk.
I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. Atticus said nothing. I looked around and up at Mr. Cunningham, whose face was equally impassive. Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.
“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.
Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”
As they had come, in ones and twos the men shuffled back to their ramshackle cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed, and they were gone.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird