The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  Mom was also hard at work on her writing. She bought several typewriters—manuals and electrics—so she’d have backups should her favorite break down. She kept them in her studio. She never sold anything she wrote, but from time to time she received an encouraging rejection letter, and she thumbtacked those to the wall. When we kids came home from school, she’d usually be in her studio working. If it was quiet, she was painting or contemplating potential subjects. If the typewriter keys were clattering away, she was at work on one of her novels, poems, plays, short stories, or her illustrated collection of pithy sayings—one was. “Life is a bowl of cherries, with a few nuts thrown in”—which she’d titled. “R. M. Walls’s Philosophy of Life.”

  Dad joined the local electricians’ union. Phoenix was booming, and he landed a job pretty quickly. He left the house in the morning wearing a yellow hard hat and big steel-toed boots, which I thought made him look extra handsome. Because of the union, he was making steadier money than we’d ever seen. On his first payday, he came home and called us all into the living room. We kids had left our toys out in the yard, he declared.

  “No, sir, we didn’t,” I said.

  “I think you did,” he said. “Go out and take a look.”

  We ran to the front door. Outside in the yard, parked in a row, were three brand-new bicycles—a big red one and two smaller ones, a blue boy’s bike and a purple girl’s bike.

  I thought at first that some other kids must have left them there. When Lori pointed out that Dad had obviously bought them for us, I didn’t believe her. We had never had bicycles—we had learned to ride on other kids’ bikes—and it had never occurred to me that one day I might actually own one myself. Especially a new one.

  I turned around. Dad was standing in the doorway with his arms crossed and a sly grin on his face. “Those bikes aren’t for us, are they?” I asked.

  “Well, they’re too damn small for your mother and me,” he said.

  Lori and Brian had climbed on their bikes and were riding up and down the sidewalk. I stared at mine. It was shiny purple and had a white banana seat, wire baskets on the side, chrome handlebars that swept out like steer horns, and white plastic handles with purple-and-silver tassels. Dad knelt beside me. “Like it?” he asked.

  I nodded.

  “You know, Mountain Goat, I still feel bad about making you leave your rock collection back in Battle Mountain,” he said. “But we had to travel light.”

  “I know,” I said. “It was more than one thing, anyway.”

  “I’m not so sure,” Dad said. “Every damn thing in the universe can be broken down into smaller things, even atoms, even protons, so theoretically speaking, I guess you had a winning case. A collection of things should be considered one thing. Unfortunately, theory don’t always carry the day.”

  We rode our bicycles everywhere. Sometimes we attached playing cards to the forks with clothespins, and they flapped against the spokes when the wheels turned. Now that Lori could see, she was the navigator. She got a city map from a gas station and plotted out our routes in advance. We pedaled past the Westward Ho Hotel, down Central Avenue where square-faced Indian women sold beaded necklaces and moccasins on rainbow-colored serapes they’d spread on the sidewalk. We pedaled to Woolworth’s, which was bigger than all the stores in Battle Mountain put together, and played tag in the aisles until the manager chased us out. We got Grandma Smith’s old wooden tennis rackets and pedaled off to Phoenix University, where we tried to play tennis with the dead balls other people had left behind. We pedaled to the Civic Center, which had a library where the librarians recognized us because we went there so much. They helped us find books they thought we’d like, and we filled up the wire baskets on our bicycles and pedaled home right down the middle of the sidewalks, as if we owned the place.

  Since Mom and Dad had all this money, we got our own telephone. We had never owned a telephone before, and whenever it rang, we kids all scrambled for it. Whoever got there first summoned up a super-snooty English accent:. “Walls residence, the butler speaking, may I help you?” while the rest of us cracked up.

  We also had a big record player in a wooden cabinet that had been Grandma’s. You could put a stack of records on it, and when one was finished playing, the needle arm automatically swung out and the next record dropped down with a happy slap. Mom and Dad loved music, especially rousing stuff that made you want to get up and dance, or at least sway your head or tap your foot. Mom was always going to thrift stores and coming back with old albums of polka music, Negro spirituals, German marching bands, Italian operas, and cattle roundup songs. She also bought boxes of used high heels that she called her dancing shoes. She’d slip on a pair of dancing shoes, put a stack of records on the phonograph, and crank the volume way up. Dad danced with her if he was there; otherwise she’d dance alone, waltzing or jitterbugging or doing the Texas two-step from room to room, the house filled with the sounds of Mario Lanza, or oompahing tubas, or some mournful cowboy singing. “The Streets of Laredo.”

  Mom and Dad also bought an electric washing machine that we kept out on the patio. It was a white enamel tub up on legs, and we filled it with water from the garden hose. A big agitator twisted back and forth, making the entire machine dance around on the cement patio. It had no cycles, so you waited until the water got dirty, then put the clothes through the wringer—two rubber rolling pins rigged above the tub that were turned by a motor. To rinse the clothes, you’d repeat the process without soap, then let the water drain into the yard to help the grass grow.

  Despite our wondrous appliances, life in Phoenix wasn’t total luxury. We had about a gazillion cockroaches, big, strong things with shiny wings. We had just a few at first, but since Mom was not exactly a compulsive cleaner, they multiplied. After a while, entire armies were scuttling across the walls and the floors and the kitchen counters. In Battle Mountain, we’d had lizards to eat the flies and cats to eat the lizards. We couldn’t think of any animal that liked to eat roaches, so I suggested we buy roach spray, like all our neighbors did, but Mom was opposed to chemical warfare. It was like with those Shell No-Pest strips, she said; we’d end up poisoning ourselves, too.

  Mom decided hand-to-hand combat was the best tactic. We conducted roach massacres in the kitchen at night, because that was when they came out in force. We armed ourselves with rolled-up magazines or shoes—even though I was only nine, I already wore size-ten shoes that Brian called. “roach killers”—and sneaked into the kitchen. Mom threw the light switch, and we kids all started the assault. You didn’t even have to aim. We had so many roaches that if you hit any flat surface, you were sure to take out at least a few.

  The house also had termites. We discovered this a few months after we moved in, when Lori’s foot crashed through the spongy wood floor in the living room. After inspecting the house, Dad decided that the termite infestation was so severe nothing could be done about it. We’d have to coexist with the critters. So we walked around the hole in the living room floor.

  But the wood was chewed through everywhere. We kept stepping on soft spots in the floorboards, crashing through, and creating new holes. “Damned if this floor isn’t starting to look like a piece of Swiss cheese,” Dad said one day. He told me to fetch him his wire cutters, a hammer, and some roofing nails. He finished off the beer he was drinking, snipped the can open with his wire cutters, hammered it flat, and nailed it over the hole. He needed more patches, he said, so he had to go out and buy another six-pack. After he polished off each beer, he used the can to repair one of the holes. And whenever a new hole appeared, he’d get out his hammer, down a beer, and do another patch job.

  A LOT OF OUR NEIGHBORS on North Third Street were kind of weird. A clan of Gypsies lived down the block in a big, falling-apart house with plywood nailed over the porch to create more indoor space. They were always stealing our stuff, and one time, after Brian’s pogo stick had disappeared, he saw one of the old Gypsy women bouncing down the sidewalk on it. She wouldn
’t give it back, so Mom got into a big argument with the head of the clan, and the next day we found a chicken with its throat cut on our doorstep. It was some kind of Gypsy hex. Mom decided, as she put it, to fight magic with magic. She took a ham bone out of the beans and went down to the Gypsies’ house, waving it in the air. Standing on the sidewalk, she held up the bone like a crucifix at an exorcism, and called down a curse on the entire Gypsy clan and their house, vowing that it would collapse with the lot of them in it and that the bowels of the earth would open up and swallow them forever if they bothered us again. The next morning Brian’s pogo stick was lying in the front yard.

  The neighborhood also had its share of perverts. Mostly, they were shabby, hunched men with wheedling voices who hung around on street corners and followed us to and from school, trying to give us boosts when we climbed a fence, offering us candy and loose change if we would go play with them. We called them creeps and hollered at them to leave us alone, but I worried about hurting their feelings because I couldn’t help wondering if maybe they were telling the truth, that all they wanted was to be our friends.

  At night Mom and Dad always left the front door and the back door and all the windows open. Since we had no air-conditioning, they explained, we needed to let the air circulate. From time to time, a vagrant or a wino would wander through the front door, assuming the house was deserted. When we woke up in the morning, we’d find one asleep in a front room. As soon as we roused them, they shambled off apologetically. Mom always assured us they were just harmless drunks.

  Maureen, who was four and had a terrible fear of bogeymen, kept dreaming that intruders in Halloween masks were coming through the open doors to get us. One night when I was almost ten, I was awakened by someone running his hands over my private parts. At first it was confusing. Lori and I slept in the same bed, and I thought maybe she was moving in her sleep. I groggily pushed the hand away.

  “I just want to play a game with you,” a man’s voice said.

  I recognized the voice. It belonged to a scraggly guy with sunken cheeks who had been hanging around North Third Street recently. He’d tried to walk us home from school and had given Brian a magazine called Kids on a Farm, with pictures of boys and girls wearing only underpants.

  “Pervert!” I yelled and kicked at the man’s hand. Brian came running into the room with a hatchet he kept by his bed, and the man bolted out the door. Dad was out that night, and when Mom slept, she was dead to the world, so Brian and I ran after the man ourselves. As we got to the sidewalk, lit by the purplish glow from the streetlights, he disappeared around the corner. We searched for him for a few blocks, Brian whacking at the bushes with his hatchet, but we couldn’t find him. On our way home, we were slapping each other’s hands and pumping our fists in the air, as if we’d won a boxing match. We decided we had been Pervert Hunting, which was just like Demon Hunting except the enemy was real and dangerous instead of being the product of a kid’s overactive imagination.

  The next day, when Dad came home and we told him what had happened, he said he was going to kill that lowlife sonofabitch. He and Brian and I went out on a serious Pervert Hunt. Our blood up, we searched the streets for hours, but we never did find the guy. I asked Mom and Dad if we should close the doors and windows when we went to sleep. They wouldn’t consider it. We needed the fresh air, they said, and it was essential that we refuse to surrender to fear.

  So the windows stayed open. Maureen kept having nightmares of men in Halloween masks. And every now and then, when Brian and I were feeling revved up, he’d get a machete and I’d get a baseball bat and we’d go Pervert Hunting, clearing the streets of the creeps who preyed on kids.

  Mom and Dad liked to make a big point about never surrendering to fear or to prejudice or to the narrow-minded conformist sticks-in-the-mud who tried to tell everyone else what was proper. We were supposed to ignore those benighted sheep, as Dad called them. One day Mom went with us kids to the library at the Civic Center. Since the weather was sweltering, she suggested we cool off by jumping into the fountain in front of the building. The water was too shallow to swim in, but we paddled around pretending to be crocodiles until we attracted a small crowd of people who kept insisting to Mom that swimming was forbidden in the fountain.

  “Mind your own beeswax,” Mom replied. I was feeling kind of embarrassed and started to climb out. “Ignore the fuddy-duddies!” Mom told me, and to make it clear she paid no nevermind to such people or their opinions, she clambered into the fountain and plopped down beside us, sending gallons of water sloshing over the sides.

  It never bothered Mom if people turned and stared at her, even in church. Although she thought nuns were killjoys and she didn’t follow all the Church’s rules word for word—she treated the Ten Commandments more like the Ten Suggestions—Mom considered herself a devout Catholic and took us to mass most Sundays. St. Mary’s was the biggest, most beautiful church I had ever seen. It was made of sand-colored adobe and had two soaring steeples, a gigantic circular stained-glass window, and, leading up to the two main doors, a pair of sweeping staircases covered with pigeons. The other mothers dressed up for mass, wearing black lace mantillas on their heads and clutching green or red or yellow handbags that matched their shoes. Mom thought it was superficial to worry about how you looked. She said God thought the same way, so she’d go to church in torn or paint-splattered clothes. It was your inner spirit and not your outward appearance that mattered, she said, and come hymn time, she showed the whole congregation her spirit, belting out the words in such a powerful voice that people in the pews in front of us would turn around and stare.

  Church was particularly excruciating when Dad came along. Dad had been raised Baptist, but he didn’t like religion and didn’t believe in God. He believed in science and reason, he said, not superstition and voodoo. But Mom had refused to have children unless Dad agreed to raise them as Catholics and to attend church himself on holy days of obligation.

  Dad sat in the pew fuming and shifting around and trying to bite his tongue while the priest carried on about Jesus resurrecting Lazarus from the dead and the communicants filed up to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. Finally, when Dad was unable to stand it any longer, he’d shout out something to challenge the priest. He didn’t do it to be hostile. He hollered out his point in a friendly tone:. “Yo, Padre!” he’d say. The priest usually ignored Dad and tried to go on with his sermon, but Dad persisted. He’d challenge the priest about the scientific impossibility of the miracles, and when the priest continued to ignore him, he’d get mad and yell out something about Pope Alexander VI’s bastard children, or Pope Leo X’s hedonism, or Pope Nicholas III’s simony, or the murders committed in the name of the Church during the Spanish Inquisition. But what could you expect, he’d say, from an institution run by celibate men who wore dresses. At that point the ushers would tell us we’d have to leave.

  “Don’t worry, God understands,” Mom said. “He knows that your father is a cross we must bear.”

  C ITY LIFE WAS GETTING to Dad. “I’m starting to feel like a rat in a maze,” he told me. He hated the way everything in Phoenix was so organized, with time cards, bank accounts, telephone bills, parking meters, tax forms, alarm clocks, PTA meetings, and pollsters knocking on the door and prying into your affairs. He hated all the people who lived in air-conditioned houses with the windows permanently sealed, and drove air-conditioned cars to nine-to-five jobs in air-conditioned office buildings that he said were little more than gussied-up prisons. Just the sight of those people on their way to work made him feel hemmed in and itchy. He began complaining that we were all getting too soft, too dependent on creature comforts, and that we were losing touch with the natural order of the world.

  Dad missed the wilderness. He needed to be roaming free in open country and living among untamed animals. He felt it was good for your soul to have buzzards and coyotes and snakes around. That was the way man was meant to live, he’d say, in harmony with the wild,
like the Indians, not this lords-of-the-earth crap, trying to rule the entire goddamn planet, cutting down all the forests and killing every creature you couldn’t bring to heel.

  One day we heard on the radio that a woman in the suburbs had seen a mountain lion behind her house and had called the police, who shot the animal. Dad got so angry he put his fist through a wall. “That mountain lion had as much right to his life as that sour old biddy does to hers,” he said. “You can’t kill something just because it’s wild.”

  Dad stewed for a while, sucking on a beer, and then he told us all to get in the car.

  “Where are we going?” I asked. We hadn’t been on a single expedition since we moved to Phoenix. I missed them.

  “I’m going to show you,” he said. “that no animal, no matter how big or wild, is dangerous as long as you know what you’re doing.”

  We all piled into the car. Dad drove, nursing another beer and cussing under his breath about that innocent mountain lion and the chickenshit suburbanite. We turned in at the city zoo. None of us kids had ever been to a zoo before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Lori said she thought zoos should be outlawed. Mom, who had Maureen in one arm and her sketch pad under the other, pointed out that the animals had traded freedom for security. She said that when she looked at them, she would pretend not to see the bars.

  At the entrance gate, Dad bought our tickets, muttering about the idiocy of paying money to look at animals, and led us down the walk. Most of the cages were patches of dirt surrounded by iron bars, with forlorn gorillas or restless bears or irritable monkeys or anxious gazelles huddled in the corners. A lot of the kids were having fun, gawking and laughing and throwing peanuts at the animals, but the sight of those poor creatures made my throat swell up.

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