The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  “I’ve got half a mind to sneak in here some night and free these critters,” Dad said.

  “Can I help?” I asked.

  He mussed my hair. “Me and you, Mountain Goat,” he said. “We’ll carry out our own animal prison break.”

  We stopped at a bridge. Below it, in a deep pit, alligators sunned themselves on rocks surrounding a pond. “The biddy who got that mountain lion shot didn’t understand animal psychology,” Dad said. “If you let them know you’re not afraid, they’ll leave you alone.”

  Dad pointed to the biggest, scaliest alligator. “Me and that nasty-looking bastard’s going to have us a staring contest.” Dad stood on the bridge glowering at the alligator. At first it seemed to be asleep, but then it blinked and looked up at Dad. Dad continued staring, his eyes in a fierce squint. After a minute the alligator thrashed its tail, looked away, and slid into the water. “See, you just have to communicate your position,” Dad said.

  “Maybe he would have gone for a swim anyway,” Brian whispered.

  “What do you mean?” I asked. “Didn’t you see how nervous that gator got? Dad made him do it.”

  We followed Dad to the lion’s den, but the lions were sleeping, so Dad said we should leave them alone. The aardvark was busy Hoovering up ants, and Dad said you shouldn’t disturb eating animals, so we passed it by and went on to the cheetah’s cage, which was about as big as our living room and surrounded by a chain fence. The lone cheetah paced back and forth, the muscles in his shoulders shifting with each step. Dad folded his arms on his chest and studied the cheetah. “He’s a good animal—fastest four-footed creature on the planet,” he declared. “Not happy about being in this damn cage, but he’s resigned to it, and he’s no longer angry. Let’s see if he’s hungry.”

  Dad took me to the concession stand. He told the lady running it that he had a rare medical condition and couldn’t eat cooked meat so he’d like to buy a raw hamburger. “Yeah, right,” the salesclerk said. She told Dad the zoo did not allow the sale of uncooked meat, because foolish people tried to feed it to the animals.

  “I’d like to feed her lard ass to the animals,” Dad muttered. He bought me a bag of popcorn, and we returned to the cheetah cage. Dad squatted outside the fence opposite the cheetah. The animal came closer to the bars and studied him curiously. Dad kept looking at him, but not in the angry-eyed way he had stared down the alligator. The cheetah looked back. Finally, he sat down. Dad stepped over the chain fence and knelt right next to the bars where the cheetah was sitting. The cheetah remained still, looking at Dad.

  Dad slowly raised his right hand and put it up against the cage. The cheetah looked at Dad’s hand but didn’t move. Dad calmly put his hand between the iron bars of the cage and rested it on the cheetah’s neck. The cheetah moved the side of his face against Dad’s hand, as if asking to be petted. Dad gave the cheetah the kind of hardy, vigorous petting you’d give a big dog.

  “Situation under control,” Dad said and beckoned us over.

  We climbed under the chain fence and knelt around Dad while he petted the cheetah. By then a few people had begun to gather. One man was calling to us to get back behind the chain fence. We ignored him. I knelt close to the cheetah. My heart was beating fast, but I wasn’t scared, only excited. I could feel the cheetah’s hot breath on my face. He looked right at me. His amber eyes were steady but sad, as if he knew he’d never see the plains of Africa again.

  “May I pet him, please?” I asked Dad.

  Dad took my hand and slowly guided it to the side of the cheetah’s neck. It was soft but also bristly. The cheetah turned his head and put his moist nose up against my hand. Then his big pink tongue unfolded from his mouth, and he licked my hand. I gasped. Dad opened my hand and held my fingers back. The cheetah licked my palm, his tongue warm and rough, like sandpaper dipped in hot water. I felt all tingly.

  “I think he likes me,” I said.

  “He does,” Dad said. “He also likes the popcorn salt and butter on your hand.”

  There was a small crowd around the cage now, and one particularly frantic woman grabbed my shirt and tried to pull me over the chain. “It’s all right,” I told her. “My dad does stuff like this all the time.”

  “He should be arrested!” she shouted.

  “Okay, kids,” Dad said, “the civilians are revolting. We better skedaddle.”

  We climbed over the chain. When I looked back, the cheetah was following us along the side of the cage. Before we could make our way through the crowd, a heavy man in a navy blue uniform came running toward us. He was holding on to the gun and nightstick on his belt, which made him look like he was running with his hands on his hips. He was shouting about regulations and how idiots had been killed climbing into cages and how we all had to leave immediately. He grabbed Dad by the shoulder, but Dad pushed him off and assumed a fighting stance. Some of the men in the crowd clutched Dad’s arms, and Mom asked Dad to please do what the guard had ordered.

  Dad nodded and held out his hands in a peace gesture. He led us through the crowd and toward the exit, chuckling and shaking his head to let us kids know that these fools were not worth the time it would take to kick their butts. I could hear people around us whispering about the crazy drunk man and his dirty little urchin children, but who cared what they thought? None of them had ever had their hand licked by a cheetah.

  I T WAS AROUND this time that Dad lost his job. He said there was nothing to worry about, because Phoenix was so big and growing so fast that he could find another job at a site where they hadn’t spread lies about him. Then he got fired from his second job and from his third, and was kicked out of the electricians’ union and started doing odd jobs and day work. Whatever money Mom had inherited from Grandma Smith had disappeared, and once again we started scraping by.

  I didn’t go hungry. Hot lunch at school cost a quarter, and we could usually afford that. When we couldn’t and I told Mrs. Ellis, my fourth-grade teacher, that I had forgotten my quarter, she said her records indicated that someone had already paid for me. Even though it seemed awfully coincidental, I didn’t want to push my luck by asking too many questions about who this someone was. I ate the hot lunch. Sometimes that lunch was all I had to eat all day, but I could get by just fine on one meal.

  One afternoon when Brian and I had come home to an empty fridge, we went out to the alley behind the house looking for bottles to redeem. Down the alley was the delivery bay of a warehouse. A big green Dumpster stood in the parking lot. When no one was looking, Brian and I pushed open the lid, climbed up, and dived inside to search for bottles. I was afraid it might be full of yucky garbage. Instead, we found an astonishing treasure: cardboard boxes filled with loose chocolates. Some of them were whitish and dried-out-looking, and some were covered with a mysterious green mold, but most of them were fine. We pigged out on chocolates, and from then on, whenever Mom was too busy to make dinner or we were out of food, we’d go back to the Dumpster to see if any new chocolate was waiting for us. From time to time, it was.

  For some reason, there were no kids Maureen’s age on North Third Street. She was too young to run around with me and Brian, so she spent most of her time riding up and down on the red tricycle Dad had bought for her, and playing with her imaginary friends. They all had names, and she would talk to them for hours. They’d laugh together, carry on detailed conversations, even argue. One day she came home in tears, and when I asked her why she was crying, she said she’d gotten into a fight with Suzie Q., one of the imaginary friends.

  Maureen was five years younger than Brian, and Mom said that since she didn’t have any allies in the family around her age, she needed special treatment. Mom decided Maureen needed to enroll in preschool, but she said she didn’t want her youngest daughter dressed in the thrift-store clothes the rest of us wore. Mom told us we would have to go shoplifting.

  “Isn’t that a sin?” I asked Mom.

  “Not exactly,” Mom said. “God doesn’t mind you bending the rul
es a little if you have a good reason. It’s sort of like justifiable homicide. This is justifiable pilfering.”

  Mom’s plan was for her and Maureen to go into the dressing room of a store with an armful of new clothes for Maureen to try on. When they came out, Mom would tell the clerk she didn’t like any of the dresses. At that point Lori, Brian, and I would create a ruckus to distract the clerk while Mom hid a dress under a raincoat she would be carrying on her arm.

  We got three or four nice dresses for Maureen that way, but on one excursion, when Brian and I were pretending to punch each other out and Mom was in the process of slipping a dress under her raincoat, the saleslady turned to Mom and asked if she intended to buy that dress she was holding. Mom had no choice but to pay for it. “Fourteen dollars for a child’s dress!” she said as we left the store. “It’s highway robbery!”

  Dad devised an ingenious way to come up with extra cash. He figured out that when you made a withdrawal from the drive-through window at the bank, it took a few minutes for the transaction to register in the computer. So he would open a bank account, and a week or so later, he would withdraw all the money from a teller inside the bank while Mom withdrew the same amount from the drive-through window. Lori said it sounded outright felonious, but Dad said all he was doing was outsmarting the fat-cat bank owners who shylocked the common man by charging usurious interest rates.

  “Wear innocent expressions,” Mom told us kids the first time we dropped Dad off in front of the bank.

  “Will we have to go to a juvenile-delinquent center if we get busted?” I asked.

  Mom assured me it was all perfectly legal. “People overdraw their accounts all the time,” she said. “If we get caught, we’ll just pay a little overdraft fee.” She explained that it was sort of like taking out a loan without all the messy paperwork. But as we drove up to the teller’s window, Mom seemed to get edgy and giggled nervously as she passed the withdrawal slip through the bulletproof window. I think she was enjoying the thrill of taking from the rich.

  After the woman inside passed us the cash, Mom drove around to the front of the bank. In a minute, Dad strolled out. He climbed into the front of the car, turned around, and, with a wicked grin, held up a stack of bills and riffled them with his thumb.

  The reason Dad was having a tough time getting steady work—as he kept trying to tell us—was that the electricians’ union in Phoenix was corrupt. It was run by the mob, he said, which controlled all the construction projects in the city, so before he could get a decent job, he had to run organized crime out of town. That required a lot of undercover research, and the best place to gather information was at the bars the mobsters owned. So Dad started spending most of his time in those joints.

  Mom rolled her eyes whenever Dad mentioned his research. I began to have my own doubts about what he was up to. He came home in such a drunken fury that Mom usually hid while we kids tried to calm him down. He broke windows and smashed dishes and furniture until he’d spent all his anger; then he’d look around at the mess and at us kids standing there. When he recognized what he’d done, he hung his head in weariness and shame. Then he’d sink to his knees and pitch forward face-first on the floor.

  After Dad had collapsed, I would try to pick up the place, but Mom always made me stop. She’d been reading books on how to cope with an alcoholic, and they said that drunks didn’t remember their rampages, so if you cleaned up after them, they’d think nothing had happened. “Your father needs to see the mess he’s making of our lives,” Mom said. But when Dad got up, he’d act as if all the wreckage didn’t exist, and no one discussed it with him. The rest of us had to get used to stepping over broken furniture and shattered glass.

  Mom had taught us to pick Dad’s pocket when he passed out. We got pretty good at it. Once, after I’d rolled Dad and collected a handful of change, I pried his fingers loose from the bottle in his hand. It was three quarters empty. I stared at the amber liquid. Mom never touched the stuff, and I wondered what Dad found so irresistible. I opened the bottle and sniffed. The awful smell stung my nose, but after working up my courage, I took a swig. It had a hideously thick taste, smoky, and so hot it burned my tongue. I ran to the bathroom, spat it out, and rinsed my mouth.

  “I just took a swig of booze,” I told Brian. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.”

  Brian grabbed the bottle out of my hand. He emptied it into the kitchen sink, then led me out to the shed and opened up a wooden trunk in the back marked TOY BOX. It was filled with empty liquor bottles. Whenever Dad passed out, Brian said, he took the bottle Dad had been drinking, emptied it, and hid it in the trunk. He’d wait until he had ten or twelve, then tote them to a garbage can a few blocks away, because if Dad saw the empty bottles, he would get furious.

  “I have a really good feeling about this Christmas,” Mom announced in early December. Lori pointed out that the last few months hadn’t gone so well.

  “Exactly,” Mom said. “This is God’s way of telling us to take charge of our own fates. God helps those who help themselves.”

  She had such a good feeling that she’d decided that this year we were going to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day, instead of a week later.

  Mom was an expert thrift-store shopper. She read the labels on the clothes and turned over dishes and vases to study the markings on the bottom. She had no qualms about telling a saleslady that a dress marked at twenty-five cents was worth only a dime, and she usually got it at that price. Mom took us thrift-store shopping for weeks before that Christmas, giving us each a dollar to spend on presents. I got a red glass bud vase for Mom, an onyx ashtray for Dad, a model-car kit for Brian, a book about elves for Lori, and a stuffed tiger with a loose ear that Mom helped me sew back in place for Maureen.

  On Christmas morning, Mom took us down to a gas station that sold Christmas trees. She selected a tall, dark, but slightly dried-out Douglas fir. “This poor old tree isn’t going to sell by the end of the day, and it needs someone to love it,” she told the man and offered him three dollars. The man looked at the tree and looked at Mom and looked at us kids. My dress had buttons missing. Holes were appearing along the seams of Maureen’s T-shirt. “Lady, this one’s been marked down to a buck,” he said.

  We carried the tree home and decorated it with Grandma’s antique ornaments: ornate colored balls, fragile glass partridges, and lights with long tubes of bubbling water. I couldn’t wait to open my presents, but Mom insisted that we celebrate Christmas in the Catholic fashion, getting to the gifts only after we’d attended midnight mass. Dad, knowing that all the bars and liquor stores would be closed on Christmas, had stocked up in advance. He’d popped open the first Budweiser before breakfast, and by the time midnight mass rolled around, he was having trouble standing up.

  I suggested that maybe this once, Mom should let Dad off the hook about going to mass, but she said stopping by God’s house for a quick hello was especially important at times like this, so Dad staggered and lurched into the church with us. During the sermon, the priest discussed the miracle of Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.

  “Virgin, my ass!” Dad shouted. “Mary was a sweet Jewish broad who got herself knocked up!”

  The service came to a dead halt. Everyone was staring. The choir had swiveled around in unison and were gaping openmouthed. Even the priest was speechless.

  Dad had a satisfied grin on his face. “And Jesus H. Christ is the world’s best-loved bastard!”

  The ushers grimly escorted us to the street. On the way home, Dad put his arm around my shoulder for support. “Baby girl, if your boyfriend ever gets into your panties and you find yourself in a family way, swear that it was Immaculate Conception and start mouthing off about miracles,” he said. “Then just pass around the collection plate come Sunday.”

  I didn’t like Dad when he talked like that, and I tried to move away from him, but he just held me tighter.

  Back at home, we tried to calm Dad down. Mom gave him one
of his presents, a brass cigarette lighter from the nineteen twenties in the shape of a Scottish terrier. Dad flicked it a couple of times, swaying back and forth; then he held it up to the light and studied it.

  “Let’s really light up this Christmas,” Dad said and thrust the lighter into the Douglas fir. The dried-out needles caught fire immediately. Flames leaped through the branches with a crackling noise. Christmas ornaments exploded from the heat.

  For a few moments, we were too stunned to do anything. Mom called for blankets and water. We were able to put the fire out, but only by knocking down the tree, smashing most of the ornaments, and ruining all our presents. Dad sat on the sofa the whole time, laughing and telling Mom that he was doing her a favor because trees were pagan symbols of worship.

  Once the fire was out and the sodden, burned tree lay smoldering on the floor, we all just stood there. No one tried to wring Dad’s neck or yell at him or even point out that he’d ruined the Christmas his family had spent weeks planning—the Christmas that was supposed to be the best we’d ever had. When Dad went crazy, we all had our own ways of shutting down and closing off, and that was what we did that night.

  I TURNED TEN THAT spring, but birthdays were not a big deal around our house. Sometimes Mom stuck a few candles in some ice cream and we all sang. “Happy Birthday.” Mom and Dad might get us a little present—a comic book or a pair of shoes or a package of underwear—but at least as often, they forgot our birthdays altogether.

  So I was surprised when, on the day I turned ten, Dad took me outside to the back patio and asked what I wanted most in the world. “It’s a special occasion, seeing as how it puts you into double digits,” he said. “You’re growing up damn fast, Mountain Goat. You’ll be on your own in no time, and if there’s anything I can do for you now, before you’re gone, I want to do it.”

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