The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  I knew Dad wasn’t talking about buying me some extravagant present, like a pony or a dollhouse. He was asking what he could do, now that I was almost a grown-up, to make my last years as a kid everything I hoped they’d be. There was only one thing I truly wanted, something that I knew would change all our lives, but I was afraid to ask for it. Just thinking about saying the words out loud made me nervous.

  Dad saw my hesitation. He knelt so that he was looking up at me. “What is it?” he said. “Ask away.”

  “It’s big.”

  “Just ask, baby.”

  “I’m scared.”

  “You know if it’s humanly possible, I’ll get it for you. And if it ain’t humanly possible, I’ll die trying.”

  I looked up at the thin swirls of clouds high in the blue Arizona sky. Keeping my eyes fastened on those distant clouds, I took a breath and said. “Do you think you could maybe stop drinking?”

  Dad said nothing. He was staring down at the cement patio, and when he turned to me, his eyes had a wounded look, like a dog who’s been kicked. “You must be awfully ashamed of your old man,” he said.

  “No,” I said quickly. “It’s just I think Mom would be a lot happier. Plus, we’d have the extra money.”

  “You don’t have to explain,” Dad said. His voice was barely a whisper. He stood up and walked into the yard and sat down under the orange trees. I followed and sat down next to him. I was going to take his hand, but before I could reach for it, he said. “If you don’t mind, honey, I think I’d like to sit here by myself for a while.”

  In the morning Dad told me that for the next few days, he was going to keep to himself in his bedroom. He wanted us kids to steer clear of him, to stay outside all day and play. Everything went fine for the first day. On the second day, when I came home from school, I heard a terrible groaning coming from the bedroom.

  “Dad?” I called. There was no answer. I opened the door.

  Dad was tied to the bed with ropes and belts. I don’t know if he had done it himself or if Mom helped him, but he was thrashing about, bucking and pulling at the restraints, yelling “No!” and “Stop!” and “Oh my God!” His face was gray and dripping with sweat. I called out to him again, but he didn’t see or hear me. I went into the kitchen and filled an empty orange-juice jug with water. I sat with the jug next to Dad’s door in case he got thirsty. Mom saw me and told me to go outside and play. I told her I wanted to help Dad. She said there was nothing I could do, but I stayed by the door anyway.

  Dad’s delirium continued for days. When I came home from school, I’d get the jug of water, take up my position by the door, and wait there until bedtime. Brian and Maureen played outside, and Lori kept to the far side of the house. Mom painted in her studio. No one talked much about what was going on. One night when we were eating dinner, Dad let out a particularly hideous cry. I looked at Mom, who was stirring her soup as if it were an ordinary evening, and that was when I lost it.

  “Do something!” I yelled at her. “You’ve got to do something to help Dad!”

  “Your father’s the only one who can help himself,” Mom said. “Only he knows how to fight his own demons.”

  After the better part of a week, Dad’s delirium stopped, and he asked us to come talk to him in the bedroom. He was propped up on a pillow, paler and thinner than I’d ever seen him. He took the water jug I offered him. His hands were shaking so badly that he had trouble holding it, and water dribbled down his chin as he drank.

  A few days later, Dad was able to walk around, but he had no appetite, and his hands still trembled. I told Mom that maybe I had made a terrible mistake, but Mom said sometimes you have to get sicker before you can get better. Within a few more days, Dad seemed almost normal, except that he’d become tentative, even kind of shy. He smiled at us kids a lot and squeezed our shoulders, sometimes leaning on us to steady himself.

  “I wonder what life will be like now,” I said to Lori.

  “The same,” she said. “He tried stopping before, but it never lasted.”

  “This time it will.”

  “How do you know?”

  “It’s his present to me.”

  Dad spent the summer recuperating. For days on end, he’d sit under the orange trees reading. By early fall, he had recovered most of his strength. To celebrate his new life on the wagon, and to put some distance between himself and his drinking haunts, he decided that the Walls clan should take a long camping trip to the Grand Canyon. We’d avoid the park rangers and find a cave somewhere along the river. We’d swim and fish and cook our catch over an open fire. Mom and Lori could paint, and Dad and Brian and I could climb the cliffs and study the canyon’s geological strata. It would be like old times. We kids didn’t need to be going to school, he said. He and Mom could instruct us better than any of those shit-for-brains teachers. “You, Mountain Goat, can put together a rock collection the likes of which has never been seen,” Dad told me.

  Everyone loved the idea. Brian and I were so excited we did a jig right there on the living room floor. We packed blankets, food, canteens, fishing line, the lavender blanket Maureen took everywhere, Lori’s paper and pencils, Mom’s easel and canvases and brushes and paints. What couldn’t fit in the trunk of the car, we tied to the top. We also took along Mom’s fancy archery set, the one made of inlaid fruitwood, because Dad said you never know what wild game we might find in those canyon recesses. He promised Brian and me that we’d be shooting that bow and arrow like a couple of full-blooded Indian kids by the time we came back. If we ever came back. Hell, we might decide to live in the Grand Canyon permanently.

  We started out early the next morning. Once we got north of Phoenix, past all the tract-house suburbs, the traffic thinned, and Dad started going faster and faster. “There ain’t no better feeling than being on the move,” he said.

  We were out in the desert now, the telephone poles snapping past. “Hey, Mountain Goat,” he hollered. “How fast do you think I can make this car go?”

  “Faster than the speed of light!” I said. I leaned over the front seat and watched the needle on the speedometer creep up. We were doing ninety miles an hour.

  “You’re gonna see that little needle go all the way off the dial,” Dad said.

  I could see his leg move as he stepped on the gas. We’d rolled down the windows, and maps and art paper and cigarette ashes were whipping around our heads. The speedometer needle crept past one hundred, the last number on the dial, and pushed into the empty space beyond. The car started shuddering, but Dad didn’t let up on the accelerator. Mom covered her head with her arms and told Dad to slow down, but that only made him press on the gas even harder.

  Suddenly, there was a clattering noise under the car. I looked back to make sure no important part had fallen off, and saw a cone of gray smoke billowing behind us. Just then white steam that smelled like iron started pouring out from the sides of the hood and blowing past the windows. The shuddering increased, and with a terrible coughing, clunking noise, the car began to slow. Soon it was going at no more than a crawl. Then the engine died altogether. We coasted for a few yards in silence before the car stopped.

  “Now you’ve done it,” Mom said.

  We kids and Dad got out and pushed the car to the side of the road while Mom steered. Dad lifted the hood. I watched while he and Brian studied the smoking, grease-encrusted engine and discussed the parts by name. Then I went to sit in the car with Mom, Lori, and Maureen.

  Lori gave me a disgusted look, as if she thought it was my fault that the car had broken down. “Why do you always encourage him?” she asked.

  “Don’t worry,” I said. “Dad will fix it.”

  We sat there for a long time. I could see buzzards circling high in the distance, which reminded me of that ingrate Buster. Maybe I should have cut him some slack. With his broken wing and lifetime of eating roadkill, he probably had a lot to be ungrateful about. Too much hard luck can create a permanent meanness of spirit in any creature.
  Finally, Dad shut the hood.

  “You can fix it, can’t you?” I asked.

  “Of course,” he said. “If I had the proper tools.”

  We’d have to temporarily postpone our expedition to the Grand Canyon, he told us. Our first priority now was to head back to Phoenix so he could get his hands on the right tools.

  “How?” Lori asked.

  Hitchhiking was one option, Dad said. But it might be hard finding a car with enough room to accommodate four kids and two adults. Since we were all so athletic, and since none of us were whiners, walking home would be no problem.

  “It’s almost eighty miles,” Lori said.

  “That’s right,” Dad said. If we covered three miles an hour for eight hours a day, we could make it in three days. We had to leave everything behind except Maureen’s lavender blanket and the canteens. That included Mom’s fruitwood archery set. Since Mom was attached to that archery set, which her father had given her, Dad had Brian and me hide it in an irrigation ditch. We could come back and retrieve it later.

  Dad carried Maureen. To keep our spirits up, he called out hup, two, three, four, but Mom and Lori refused to march along in step. Eventually, Dad gave up, and it was quiet except for the sound of our feet crunching on the sand and rocks and the wind whipping off the desert. After walking for what seemed like a couple of hours, we reached a motel billboard that we had passed only a minute or so before the car broke down. The occasional car whizzed by, and Dad stuck out his thumb, but none of them stopped. Around midday, a big blue Buick with gleaming chrome bumpers slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder in front of us. A lady with a beauty-parlor hairdo rolled down the window.

  “You poor people!” she exclaimed. “Are you okay?”

  She asked us where we were going, and when we told her Phoenix, she offered us a ride. The air-conditioning in the Buick was so cold that goose bumps popped up on my arms and legs. The lady had Lori and me pass around Coca-Colas and sandwiches from a cooler in the foot well. Dad said he wasn’t hungry.

  The lady kept talking about how her daughter had been driving down the highway and had seen us and, when she got to the lady’s house, had told her about this poor family walking along the side of the road. “And I said to her, I said to my daughter, ‘Why, I can’t leave those poor people out there.’ I told my daughter, ‘Those poor kids must be dying of thirst, poor things.’”

  “We’re not poor,” I said. She had used that word one too many times.

  “Of course you’re not,” the lady quickly replied. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

  But I could tell that she had. The lady grew quiet, and for the rest of the trip, no one said much. As soon as she dropped us off, Dad disappeared. I waited on the front steps until bedtime, but he didn’t come home.

  T HREE DAYS LATER, while Lori and I were sitting at Grandma’s old upright piano trying to teach each other to play, we heard heavy, uneven footsteps at the front door. We turned and saw Dad. He tripped on the coffee table. When we tried to help him, he cursed and lurched at us, swinging his fist. He wanted to know where that goddamn sorry-assed mother of ours was, and he got so mad when we didn’t tell him that he pulled over Grandma’s china closet, sending her fine bone china crashing to the floor. Brian came running in. He tried to grab Dad’s leg, but Dad kicked him off.

  Dad yanked out the silverware drawer and hurled the forks and spoons and knives across the room, then picked up one of the chairs and smashed it on Grandma’s table. “Rose Mary, where the goddamn hell are you, you stinking bitch?” he yelled. “Where is that whore hiding?”

  He found Mom in the bathroom, crouched in the tub. As she darted past him, he grabbed her dress, and she started flailing. They fought their way into the dining room, and he knocked her to the floor. She reached into the pile of kitchen utensils that Dad had thrown there, grabbed a butcher knife, and slashed it through the air in front of him.

  Dad leaned back. “A knife fight, eh?” He grinned. “Okay, if that’s what you want.” He picked up a knife, too, tossing it from hand to hand. Then he knocked the knife out of Mom’s hand, dropped his own knife, and wrestled her to the floor. We kids pounded on Dad’s back and begged him to stop, but he ignored us. At last, he pinned Mom’s hands behind her head.

  “Rose Mary, you’re one hell of a woman,” Dad said. Mom told him he was a stinking rotten drunk. “Yeah, but you love this old drunk, don’t you?” Dad said. Mom at first said no, she didn’t, but Dad kept asking her again and again, and when she finally said yes, the fight disappeared from both of them. Vanished as if it had never existed. Dad started laughing and hugging Mom, who was laughing and hugging him. It was as if they were so happy they hadn’t killed each other that they had fallen in love all over again.

  I didn’t feel like celebrating. After all he’d put himself through, I couldn’t believe Dad had gone back to the booze.

  With Dad drinking again, and no money coming in, Mom began to talk about moving east, to West Virginia, where Dad’s parents lived. Maybe his parents would help keep him in line. If nothing else, they could help us out financially, like Grandma Smith had done from time to time.

  We’d love it in West Virginia, she told us. We’d live in the forest in the mountains with the squirrels and the chipmunks. We could meet our grandma and grandpa Walls, who were genuine hillbillies.

  Mom made living in West Virginia sound like another great adventure, and pretty soon all us kids had signed on for the trip. Dad hated the idea, however, and refused to help Mom, so she plotted on her own. Since we had never retrieved the car—or any of our stuff—from the failed Grand Canyon expedition, the first thing Mom needed was a set of wheels. She said that God works in mysterious ways, and it just so happened that she had inherited some land in Texas when Grandma died. She waited until she received a check for several hundred dollars from the company that was leasing the drilling rights. Then she went to buy a used car.

  A local radio station had a promotional broadcast once a week from a car lot that we passed on our way to school. Every Wednesday the DJs and used-car salesmen would rave on-air about the incredible deals and the lowest prices around; to prove their point, they’d announce the Piggy Bank Special: some car priced under a thousand dollars that they’d sell to the first lucky caller. Mom set her sights on a Piggy Bank Special. She wasn’t taking any chances on being the first caller; she went down with her cash and sat in the dealership office while we kids waited on a park bench across the street, listening to the broadcast on a transistor radio.

  The Piggy Bank Special that Wednesday was a 1956 Oldsmobile, which Mom bought for two hundred dollars. We listened as she took to the airwaves to tell the radio audience she knew a heck of a bargain when she saw one.

  Mom was not allowed to test-drive the Piggy Bank Special before buying it. The car lurched and stalled several times on the way home. It was impossible to tell whether it was Mom’s driving or whether we had bought a lemon.

  We kids were not all that thrilled about the idea of Mom driving us cross-country. She didn’t have a valid driver’s license, for one thing, and she’d always been a terrible driver. If Dad got too drunk, she ended up behind the wheel, but cars never seemed to run right for Mom. Once we were driving through downtown Phoenix and she couldn’t get the brakes to work and she had Brian and me stick our heads out the windows and scream, “No brakes! No brakes!” as we rolled through intersections and she looked for something relatively soft to crash into. We ended up plowing into a Dumpster behind a supermarket and walking home.

  Mom said that anyone critical of her driving could help with the task. Now that we had a car, she continued, we could leave the next morning. It was October, and we had been in school for just over a month, but Mom said we had no time to tell our teachers we were withdrawing or to get any of our school records. When we enrolled in West Virginia, she’d vouch for our scholastic achievement, and once our new teachers heard us read, they’d realize we were all gifted.

  Dad was still refusing to come with us. When we left, he said, he was going to head out into the desert on his own, to become a prospector. I asked Mom if we were going to sell the house on North Third Street or rent it out. “Neither,” she said. “It’s my house.” She explained that it was nice to own something for a change, and she saw no point in selling it just because we were moving. She didn’t want to rent it, either, since she was opposed to anyone else living in her house. We’d leave it as it was. To prevent burglars and vandals from breaking in, we’d hang laundry on the clothesline and put dirty dishes in the sink. That way, Mom pointed out, potential intruders would think the house was occupied and would be fooled into believing that the people who lived there might come home any second.

  The following morning, we packed up the car while Dad sat in the living room sulking. We tied Mom’s art supplies to the roof and filled the trunk with pots and pans and blankets. Mom had bought each of us a warm coat at a thrift store so we’d have something to wear in West Virginia, where it got so cold in the winter that it snowed. Mom said we could each take only one thing, like the time we left Battle Mountain. I wanted to bring my bike, but Mom said it was too big, so I brought my geode.

  I ran into the backyard and said goodbye to the orange trees, and then I ran out front to get in the Oldsmobile. I had to crawl over Brian and sit in the middle because he and Lori had already staked out the window seats. Maureen was in the front seat with Mom, who had started the engine and was practicing her gear shifts. Dad was still in the house, so I leaned over Brian and shouted at the top of my voice. Dad appeared in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest.

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