The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  “If it is,” he said. “she ain’t got the cojones to use it.”

  “Try me,” Lori told him.

  “Go on, then,” Billy said. “Shoot me and see what happens.”

  Lori wasn’t as good a shot as me, but she pointed the gun in Billy’s general direction and pulled the trigger. I squeezed my eyes shut at the explosion, and when I opened them, Billy had disappeared.

  We all ran outside, wondering if Billy’s blood-soaked body would be lying on the ground, but he had ducked under the window. When he saw us, he hightailed it down the street along the tracks. He got about fifty yards away and started shooting at us again with his BB gun. I yanked the pistol out of Lori’s hand, aimed low, and pulled the trigger. I was too carried away to hold the gun the way Dad had taught me, and the recoil nearly pulled my shoulder out of its socket. The dirt kicked up a few feet in front of Billy. He jumped what seemed about three feet up in the air and broke into a dead run down the tracks.

  We all started laughing, but it seemed funny only for a second or two, and then we stood there looking at one another in silence. I realized my hand was shaking so bad I could hardly hold the gun.

  A little while later, a squad car pulled up outside the depot, and Mom and Dad got out. Their faces were grave. An officer got out also and walked alongside them to the door. We kids were all sitting inside on the benches wearing polite, respectful expressions. The officer looked at each of us individually, as if counting us. I clasped my hands in my lap to show I was well behaved.

  Dad squatted in front of us, one knee to the floor, his arms folded across the other knee, cowboy-style. “So what happened here?” he asked.

  “It was self-defense,” I piped up. Dad had always said that self-defense was a justifiable reason for shooting someone.

  “I see,” Dad said.

  The policeman told us that some of the neighbors had reported seeing kids shooting guns at each other, and he wanted to know what had happened. We tried to explain that Billy had started it, that we’d been provoked and were defending ourselves and didn’t even aim to kill, but the cop wasn’t interested in the nuances of the situation. He told Dad that the whole family would need to come down to the courthouse the next morning and see the magistrate. Billy Deel and his dad would be there, too. The magistrate would get to the bottom of the matter and decide what measures needed to be taken.

  “Are we going to be sent away?” Brian asked the officer.

  “That’s up to the magistrate,” he said.

  That night Mom and Dad spent a long time upstairs talking in low voices while we kids lay in our boxes. Finally, late in the evening, they came down, their faces still grave.

  “We’re going to Phoenix,” Dad said.

  “When?” I asked.


  Dad allowed each of us to bring only one thing. I ran outside with a paper bag to gather up my favorite rocks. When I returned, holding the heavy bag at the bottom so it wouldn’t split, Dad and Brian were arguing over the plastic jack-o’-lantern filled with green plastic army soldiers that Brian wanted to bring.

  “You’re bringing toys?” Dad asked.

  “You said I could take one thing, and this is my thing,” Brian said.

  “This is my one thing,” I said, holding up the bag. Lori, who was bringing The Wizard of Oz, objected, saying that a rock collection wasn’t one thing but several things. It would be like her bringing her entire book collection. I pointed out that Brian’s army soldiers were a collection. “And anyway, it’s not the entire rock collection. Just the best ones.”

  Dad, who usually liked debates on questions such as whether a bag of things is one thing, was not in the mood and told me the rocks were too heavy. “You can bring one,” he said.

  “There are plenty of rocks in Phoenix,” Mom added.

  I picked out a single geode, its insides coated with tiny white crystals, and held it in both hands. As we pulled out, I looked through the rear window for one last glimpse of the depot. Dad had left the upstairs light on, and the small window glowed. I thought of all those other families of miners and prospectors who had come to Battle Mountain hoping to find gold and who had to leave town like us when their luck ran out. Dad said he didn’t believe in luck, but I did. We’d had a streak of it in Battle Mountain, and I wished it had held.

  We passed the Green Lantern, with the Christmas lights twinkling over its door, and the Owl Club, with the winking neon owl in a chef’s hat, and then we were out in the desert, the lights of Battle Mountain disappearing behind us. In the pitch-black night, there was nothing to look at but the road ahead, lit by the car’s headlights.

  G RANDMA S MITH’S BIG white house had green shutters and was surrounded by eucalyptus trees. Inside were tall French doors and Persian carpets and a huge grand piano that would practically dance when Grandma played her honky-tonk music. Whenever we stayed with Grandma Smith, she brought me into her bedroom and sat me down at the vanity table, which was covered with little pastel-colored bottles of perfumes and powders. While I opened the bottles and sniffed them, she’d try to run her long metal comb through my hair, cursing out of the corner of her mouth because it was so tangled. “Doesn’t that goddamn lazy-ass mother of yours ever comb your hair?” she once said. I explained that Mom believed children should be responsible for their own grooming. Grandma told me my hair was too long anyway. She put a bowl on my head, cut off all the hair beneath it, and told me I looked like a flapper.

  That was what Grandma used to be. But after she had her two children, Mom and our uncle Jim, she became a teacher because she didn’t trust anyone else to educate them. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in a town called Yampi. Mom hated being the teacher’s daughter. She also hated the way her mother constantly corrected her both at home and at school. Grandma Smith had strong opinions about the way things ought to be done—how to dress, how to talk, how to organize your time, how to cook and keep house, how to manage your finances—and she and Mom fought each other from the beginning. Mom felt that Grandma Smith nagged and badgered, setting rules and punishments for breaking the rules. It drove Mom crazy, and it was the reason she never set rules for us.

  But I loved Grandma Smith. She was a tall, leathery, broad-shouldered woman with green eyes and a strong jaw. She told me I was her favorite grandchild and that I was going to grow up to be something special. I even liked all of her rules. I liked how she woke us up every morning at dawn, shouting, “Rise and shine, everybody!” and insisted we wash our hands and comb our hair before eating breakfast. She made us hot Cream of Wheat with real butter, then oversaw us while we cleared the table and washed the dishes. Afterward, she took us all to buy new clothes, and we’d go to a movie like Mary Poppins.

  Now, on the way to Phoenix, I stood up in the back of the car and leaned over the front seat between Mom and Dad. “Are we going to go stay with Grandma?” I asked.

  “No,” Mom said. She looked out the window, but not at anything in particular. Then she said. “Grandma’s dead.”

  “What?” I asked. I’d heard her, but I was so thrown I felt like I hadn’t.

  Mom repeated herself, still looking out the window. I glanced back at Lori and Brian, but they were sleeping. Dad was smoking, his eyes on the road. I couldn’t believe I’d been sitting there thinking of Grandma Smith, looking forward to eating Cream of Wheat and having her comb my hair and cuss, and all along she’d been dead. I started hitting Mom on the shoulder, hard, and asking why she hadn’t told us. Finally, Dad held down my fists with his free hand, the other holding both his cigarette and the steering wheel, and said. “That’s enough, Mountain Goat.”

  Mom seemed surprised that I was so upset.

  “Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked.

  “There didn’t seem any point,” she said.

  “What happened?” Grandma had been only in her sixties, and most people in her family lived until they were about a hundred.

  The doctors said she’d died from leuke
mia, but Mom thought it was radioactive poisoning. The government was always testing nuclear bombs in the desert near the ranch, Mom said. She and Jim used to go out with a Geiger counter and find rocks that ticked. They stored them in the basement and used some to make jewelry for Grandma.

  “There’s no reason to grieve,” Mom said. “We’ve all got to go someday, and Grandma had a life that was longer and fuller than most.” She paused. “And now we have a place to live.”

  Mom explained that Grandma Smith had owned two houses, the one she lived in with the green shutters and French doors, and an older house, made of adobe, in downtown Phoenix. Since Mom was the older of the two children, Grandma Smith had asked her which house she wanted to inherit. The house with the green shutters was more valuable, but Mom had chosen the adobe house. It was near Phoenix’s business district, which made it a perfect place for Mom to start an art studio. She’d also inherited some money, so she could give up teaching and buy all the art supplies she wanted.

  She’d been thinking we should move to Phoenix ever since Grandma died a few months back, but Dad had refused to leave Battle Mountain because he was so close to a breakthrough in his cyanide-leaching process.

  “And I was,” Dad said.

  Mom gave a snort of a laugh. “So the trouble you kids got into with Billy Deel was actually a blessing in disguise,” she said. “My art career is going to flourish in Phoenix. I can just feel it.” She turned around to look at me. “We’re off on another adventure, Jeannettie-kins. Isn’t this wonderful?” Mom’s eyes were bright. “I’m such an excitement addict!”

  W HEN WE PULLED UP in front of the house on North Third Street, I could not believe we were actually going to live there. It was a mansion, practically, so big that Grandma Smith had had two families living in it, both paying her rent. We had the entire place to ourselves. Mom said that it had been built almost a hundred years ago as a fort. The outside walls, covered with white stucco, were three feet thick. “These sure would stop any Indians’ arrows,” I said to Brian.

  We kids ran through the house and counted fourteen rooms, including the kitchens and bathrooms. They were filled with the things Mom had inherited from Grandma Smith: a dark Spanish dining table with eight matching chairs, a hand-carved upright piano, sideboards with antique silver serving sets, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with Grandma’s bone china, which Mom demonstrated was the finest quality by holding a plate up to the light and showing us the clear silhouette of her hand through it.

  The front yard had a palm tree, and the backyard had orange trees that grew real oranges. We’d never lived in a house with trees. I particularly loved the palm tree, which made me think I had arrived at some kind of oasis. There were also hollyhocks and oleander bushes with pink and white flowers. Behind the yard was a shed as big as some of the houses we had lived in, and next to the shed was a parking space big enough for two cars. We were definitely moving up in the world.

  The people living on North Third Street were mostly Mexicans and Indians who had moved into the neighborhood after the whites left for the suburbs and subdivided the big old houses into apartments. There seemed to be a couple of dozen people in each house, men drinking beers from paper bags, young mothers nursing babies, old ladies sunning themselves on the sagging, weathered porches, and hordes of kids.

  All the kids around North Third Street went to the Catholic school at St. Mary’s Church, about five blocks away. Mom, however, said nuns were killjoys who took the fun out of religion. She wanted us to go to a public school called Emerson. Although we lived outside the district, Mom begged and cajoled the principal until he allowed us to enroll.

  We were not on the bus route, and it was a bit of a hike to school, but none of us minded the walk. Emerson was in a fancy neighborhood with streets canopied by eucalyptus trees, and the school building looked like a Spanish hacienda, with a red terra-cotta roof. It was surrounded by palm trees and banana trees, and, when the bananas ripened, the students all got free bananas at lunch. The playground at Emerson was covered with lush green grass watered by a sprinkler system, and it had more equipment than I’d ever seen: seesaws, swings, a merry-go-round, a jungle gym, tether balls, and a running track.

  Miss Shaw, the teacher in the third-grade class I was assigned to, had steely gray hair and pointy-rimmed glasses and a stern mouth. When I told her I’d read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, she raised her eyebrows skeptically, but after I read aloud from one of them, she moved me into a reading group for gifted children.

  Lori’s and Brian’s teachers also put them in gifted reading groups. Brian hated it, because the other kids were older and he was the littlest guy in the class, but Lori and I were secretly thrilled to be called special. Instead of letting on that we felt that way, however, we made light of it. When we told Mom and Dad about our reading groups, we paused before the word. “gifted,” clasping our hands beneath our chins, fluttering our eyelids, and pretending to look angelic.

  “Don’t make a mockery of it,” Dad said. “’Course you’re special. Haven’t I always told you that?”

  Brian gave Dad a sideways look. “If we’re so special,” he said slowly, “why don’t you…” His words petered out.

  “What?” Dad asked. “What?”

  Brian shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.

  Emerson had its very own nurse who gave the three of us ear and eye exams, our first ever. I aced the tests. “Eagle eyes and elephant ears,” the nurse said—but Lori struggled trying to read the eye chart. The nurse declared her severely shortsighted and sent Mom a note saying she needed glasses.

  “Nosiree,” Mom said. She didn’t approve of glasses. If you had weak eyes, Mom believed, they needed exercise to get strong. The way she saw it, glasses were like crutches. They prevented people with feeble eyes from learning to see the world on their own. She said people had been trying to get her to wear glasses for years, and she had refused. But the nurse sent another note saying Lori couldn’t attend Emerson unless she wore glasses, and the school would pay for them, so Mom gave in.

  When the glasses were ready, we all went down to the optometrist. The lenses were so thick they made Lori’s eyes look big and bugged out, like fish eyes. She kept swiveling her head around and up and down.

  “What’s the matter?” I asked. Instead of answering, Lori ran outside. I followed her. She was standing in the parking lot, gazing in awe at the trees, the houses, and the office buildings behind them.

  “You see that tree over there?” she said, pointing at a sycamore about a hundred feet away. I nodded.

  “I can not only see that tree, I can see the individual leaves on it.” She looked at me triumphantly. “Can you see them?”

  I nodded.

  She didn’t seem to believe me. “The individual leaves? I mean, not just the branches but each little leaf?”

  I nodded. Lori looked at me and then burst into tears.

  On the way home, she kept seeing for the first time all these things that most everyone else had stopped noticing because they’d seen them every day. She read street signs and billboards aloud. She pointed out starlings perched on the telephone wires. We went into a bank and she stared up at the vaulted ceiling and described the octagonal patterns.

  At home, Lori insisted that I try on her glasses. They would blur my vision as much as they corrected hers, she said, so I’d be able to see things as she always had. I put on the glasses, and the world dissolved into fuzzy, blotchy shapes. I took a few steps and banged my shin on the coffee table, and then I realized why Lori didn’t like to go exploring as much as Brian and I did. She couldn’t see.

  Lori wanted Mom to try on the glasses, too. Mom slipped them on and, blinking, looked around the room. She studied one of her own paintings quietly, then handed the glasses back to Lori.

  “Did you see better?” I asked.

  “I wouldn’t say better,” Mom answered. “I’d say different.”

  “Maybe you should get a pair, Mom.”

  “I like the world just fine the way I see it,” she said.

  But Lori loved seeing the world clearly. She started compulsively drawing and painting all the wondrous things she was discovering, like the way each curved tile on Emerson’s roof cast its own curved shadow on the tile below, and the way the setting sun painted the underbellies of the clouds pink but left the piled-up tops purple.

  Not long after Lori got her glasses, she decided she wanted to be an artist, like Mom.

  As soon as we’d settled into the house, Mom threw herself into her art career. She erected a big white sign in the front yard on which she had carefully painted, in black letters with gold outlines, R. M. WALLS ART STUDIO. She turned the two front rooms of the house into a studio and gallery, and she used two bedrooms in the back to warehouse her collected works. An art supplies store was three blocks away, on North First Street, and thanks to Mom’s inheritance, we were able to make regular shopping expeditions to the store, bringing home rolls of canvas that Dad stretched and stapled onto wooden frames. We also brought back oil paints, watercolors, acrylics, gesso, a silk-screening frame, india ink, paintbrushes and pen nibs, charcoal pencils, pastels, fancy rag paper for pastel drawings, and even a wooden mannequin with movable joints whom we named Edward and who, Mom said, would pose for her when we kids were off at school.

  Mom decided that before she could get down to any serious painting, she needed to compile a thorough art reference library. She bought dozens of big loose-leaf binders and lots of packs of lined paper. Every subject was given its own binder: dogs, cats, horses, farm animals, woodland animals, flowers, fruits and vegetables, rural landscapes, urban landscapes, men’s faces, women’s faces, men’s bodies, women’s bodies, and hands-feet-bottoms-and-other-miscellaneous body parts. We spent hours and hours going through old magazines, looking for interesting pictures, and when we spotted one we thought might be a worthy subject of a painting, we held it up to Mom for approval. She studied it for a second and okayed or nixed it. If the photo made the grade, we cut it out, glued it on a piece of lined paper, and reinforced the holes in the paper with adhesive Os so the page wouldn’t tear out. Then we got out the appropriate three-ringed binder, added the new photograph, and snapped the rings shut. In exchange for our help on her reference library, Mom gave us all art lessons.

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