The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  “Dad, please come, we need you!” I hollered.

  Lori and Brian and Mom and Maureen all chimed in. “We need you!” we shouted. “You’re the head of the family! You’re the dad! Come on!”

  Dad stood there looking at us for a minute. Then he flicked the cigarette he was smoking into the yard, closed the front door, loped over to the car, and told Mom to move aside—he was driving.



  B ACK IN B ATTLE M OUNTAIN, we had stopped naming the Walls family cars, because they were all such heaps that Dad said they didn’t deserve names. Mom said that when she was growing up on the ranch, they never named the cattle, because they knew they would have to kill them. If we didn’t name the car, we didn’t feel as sad when we had to abandon it.

  So the Piggy Bank Special was just the Oldsmobile, and we never said the name with any fondness or even pity. That Oldsmobile was a clunker from the moment we bought it. The first time it conked out, we were still an hour shy of the New Mexico border. Dad stuck his head under the hood, tinkered with the engine, and got it going, but it broke down again a couple of hours later. Dad got it running. “More like limping,” he said—but it never went any faster than fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Also, the hood kept popping up, so we had to tie it down with a rope.

  We steered clear of tollbooths by taking two-lane back roads, where we usually had a long line of drivers behind us, honking in exasperation. When one of the Oldsmobile’s windows stopped rolling up in Oklahoma, we taped garbage bags over it. We slept in the car every night, and after arriving late in Muskogee and parking on an empty downtown street, we woke up to find a bunch of people surrounding the car, little kids pressing their noses against the windows and grown-ups shaking their heads and grinning.

  Mom waved at the crowd. “You know you’re down and out when Okies laugh at you,” she said. With our garbage-bag-taped window, our roped-down hood, and the art supplies tied to the roof, we’d out-Okied the Okies. The thought gave her a fit of the giggles.

  I pulled a blanket over my head and refused to come out until we were beyond the Muskogee city limits. “Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy,” Mom told me. “You should learn to enjoy the comic episodes a little more.”

  It took us a month to cross the country. We might as well have been traveling in a Conestoga wagon. Mom also kept insisting that we make scenic detours to broaden our horizons. We drove down to see the Alamo— “Davy Crockett and James Bowie got what was coming to them,” Mom said. “for stealing this land from the Mexicans”—and over to Beaumont, where the oil rigs bobbed like giant birds. In Louisiana, Mom had us climb up on the roof of the car and pull down tufts of Spanish moss hanging from the tree branches.

  After crossing the Mississippi, we swung north toward Kentucky, then east. Instead of the flat desert edged by craggy mountains, the land rolled and dipped like a sheet when you shook it clean. Finally, we entered hill country, climbing higher and deeper into the Appalachian Mountains, stopping from time to time to let the Oldsmobile catch its breath on the steep, twisting roads. It was November. The leaves had turned brown and were falling from the trees, and a cold mist shrouded the hillsides. There were streams and creeks everywhere, instead of the irrigation ditches you saw out west, and the air felt different. It was very still, heavier and thicker, and somehow darker. For some reason, it made us all grow quiet.

  At dusk, we approached a bend where hand-painted signs advertising auto repairs and coal deliveries had been nailed to trees along the roadside. We rounded the bend and found ourselves in a deep valley. Wooden houses and small brick buildings lined the river and rose in uneven stacks on both hillsides.

  “Welcome to Welch!” Mom declared.

  We drove along dark, narrow streets, then stopped in front of a big, worn house. It was on the downhill side of the street, and we had to descend a set of stairs to get to it. As we clattered onto the porch, a woman opened the door. She was enormous, with pasty skin and about three chins. Bobby pins held back her lank gray hair, and a cigarette dangled from her mouth.

  “Welcome home, son,” she said and gave Dad a long hug. She turned to Mom. “Nice of you to let me see my grandchildren before I die,” she said without a smile.

  Without taking the cigarette out of her mouth, she gave us each a quick, stiff hug. Her cheek was tacky with sweat.

  “Pleased to meet you, Grandma,” I said.

  “Don’t call me Grandma,” she snapped. “Name’s Erma.”

  “She don’t like it none ’cause it makes her sound old,” said a man who appeared beside her. He looked fragile, with short white hair that stood straight up. His voice was so mumbly I could hardly understand him. I didn’t know if it was his accent or if maybe he wasn’t wearing his dentures. “Name’s Ted, but you can call me Grandpa,” he went on. “Don’t bother me none being a grandpa.”

  Behind Grandpa was a ruddy-faced man with a wild swirl of red hair pushing out from under his baseball cap, which had a Maytag logo. He wore a red-and-black-plaid coat but had no shirt on underneath it. He kept announcing over and over again that he was our uncle Stanley, and he wouldn’t stop hugging and kissing me, as though I was someone he truly loved and hadn’t seen in ages. You could smell the whiskey on his breath, and when he talked, you could see the pink ridges of his toothless gums.

  I stared at Erma and Stanley and Grandpa, searching for some feature that reminded me of Dad, but I saw none. Maybe this was one of Dad’s pranks, I thought. Dad must have arranged for the weirdest people in town to pretend they were his family. In a few minutes he’d start laughing and tell us where his real parents lived, and we’d go there and a smiling woman with perfumed hair would welcome us and feed us steaming bowls of Cream of Wheat. I looked at Dad. He wasn’t smiling, and he kept pulling at the skin of his neck as if he were itchy.

  We followed Erma and Stanley and Grandpa inside. It was cold in the house, and the air smelled of mold and cigarettes and unwashed laundry. We huddled around a potbellied cast-iron coal stove in the middle of the living room and held out our hands to warm them. Erma pulled a bottle of whiskey from the pocket of her housedress, and Dad looked happy for the first time since we’d left Phoenix.

  Erma ushered us into the kitchen, where she was fixing dinner. A bulb dangled from the ceiling, casting harsh light on the yellowed walls, which were coated with a thin film of grease. Erma stuck a curved steel handle into an iron disk on top of an old coal cooking stove, lifted it, and with her other hand grabbed a poker from the wall and jabbed at the hot orange coals inside. She stirred a potful of green beans stewing in fatback and poured in a big handful of salt. Then she set a tray of Pillsbury biscuits on the kitchen table and ladled out a plate of the beans for each of us kids.

  The beans were so overcooked that they fell apart when I stuck my fork in them and so salty that I could barely force myself to swallow. I pinched my nose closed, which was the way Mom had taught us to get down things that had gone a little bit rotten. Erma saw me and slapped my hand away. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” she said.

  There were three bedrooms upstairs, Erma said, but no one had been to the second floor in nigh on ten years, because the floorboards were rotted through. Uncle Stanley volunteered to give us his room in the basement and sleep on a cot in the foyer while we were there. “We’ll only be staying a few days,” Dad said. “until we find a place of our own.”

  After dinner, Mom and us kids went down into the basement. It was a big dank room, with cinder-block walls and a green linoleum floor. There was another coal stove, a bed, a pullout couch where Mom and Dad could sleep, and a chest of drawers painted fire-engine red. It held hundreds of dog-eared comic books—Little Lulu, Richie Rich, Beetle Bailey, Archie and Jughead—that Uncle Stanley had collected over the years. Under the chest of drawers were jugs of genuine moonshine.

  We kids climbed into Stanley’s bed. To make it less crowded, Lori and I lay down with our heads at one end, and Brian and Maureen lay dow
n with theirs at the other. Brian’s feet were in my face, so I grabbed him by the ankles and started chewing on his toes. He laughed and kicked and started chewing on my toes in retaliation, and that made me laugh. We heard a loud thunk thunk thunk from above.

  “What’s that?” Lori asked.

  “Maybe the roaches here are bigger than in Phoenix,” Brian said. We all laughed and heard the thunk thunk thunk again. Mom went upstairs to investigate, then came down and explained that Erma was hitting the floor with a broom handle to signal that we were making too much noise. “She asked that you kids don’t laugh while you’re in her house,” Mom said. “It gets on her nerves.”

  “I don’t think Erma likes us very much,” I said.

  “She’s just an old woman who’s had a tough life,” Mom said.

  “They’re all sort of weird,” Lori said.

  “We’ll adapt,” Mom said.

  Or move on, I thought.

  T HE NEXT DAY WAS Sunday. When we got up, Uncle Stanley was leaning against the refrigerator and staring intently at the radio. It made strange noises, not static but a combination of shrieking and wailing. “That there’s tongues,” he said. “Only the Lord can understand it.”

  The preacher started talking in actual English, more or less. He spoke with a hillbilly accent so thick it was almost as hard to understand as the tongues. He asked all them good folk out there who’d been helped by this here channeling of the Lord’s spirit to send contributions. Dad came into the kitchen and listened. “It’s the sort of soul-curdling voodoo,” he said, “that turned me into an atheist.”

  Later that day, we got into the Oldsmobile, and Mom and Dad took us for a tour of the town. Welch was surrounded on all sides by such steep mountains that you felt like you were looking up from the bottom of a bowl. Dad said the hills around Welch were too steep for cultivating much of anything. Couldn’t raise a decent herd of sheep or cattle, couldn’t even till crops except maybe to feed your family. So this part of the world was left pretty much alone until around the turn of the century, when robber barons from the North laid a track into the area and brought in cheap labor to dig out the huge fields of coal.

  We stopped under a railroad bridge and got out of the car to admire the river that ran through the town. It moved sluggishly, with barely a ripple. The river’s name, Dad said, was the Tug. “Maybe in the summer we can go fishing and swimming,” I said. Dad shook his head. The county had no sewer system, he explained, so when people flushed their johns, the discharge went straight into the Tug. Sometimes the river flooded and the water rose as high as the treetops. Dad pointed to the toilet paper up in the branches along the river’s banks. The Tug, Dad said, had the highest level of fecal bacteria of any river in North America.

  “What’s fecal?” I asked.

  Dad watched the river. “Shit,” he said.

  Dad led us along the main road through town. It was narrow, with old brick buildings crowding in close on both sides. The stores, the signs, the sidewalks, the cars were all covered with a film of black coal dust, giving the town an almost monochromatic look, like an old hand-tinted photograph. Welch was shabby and worn out, but you could tell it had once been a place on its way up. On a hill stood a grand limestone courthouse with a big clock tower. Across from it was a handsome bank with arched windows and a wrought-iron door.

  You could also tell that the people of Welch were still trying to maintain some pride of place. A sign near the town’s only stoplight announced that Welch was the county seat of McDowell County and that for years, more coal had been mined in McDowell County than any comparable spot in the world. Next to it, another sign boasted that Welch had the largest outdoor municipal parking lot in North America.

  But the cheerful advertisements painted on the sides of buildings like the Tic Toc diner and the Pocahontas movie theater were faded and nearly illegible. Dad said bad times had come in the fifties. They hit hard and stayed. President John F. Kennedy had come to Welch not long after he was elected and personally handed out the nation’s first food stamps here on McDowell Street, to prove his point that—though ordinary Americans might find it hard to believe—starvation-level poverty existed right in their own country.

  The road through Welch, Dad told us, led only farther up into the wet, forbidding mountains and on to other dying coal towns. Few strangers passed through Welch these days, and almost all who did came to inflict one form of misery or another—to lay off workers, to shut down a mine, to foreclose on someone’s house, to compete for the rare job opening. The townspeople didn’t care much for outsiders.

  The streets were mostly silent and deserted that morning, but every now and then we’d pass a woman wearing curlers or a group of men in T-shirts with motor-oil decals, loitering in a doorway. I tried to catch their eyes, to give them a nod and a smile to let them know we had only good intentions, but they never nodded or spoke a word or even glanced our way. As soon as we passed, however, I could feel eyes following us up the street.

  Dad had brought Mom to Welch for a brief visit fifteen years earlier, right after they were married. “Gosh, things have gone downhill a little bit since we were here last,” she said.

  Dad gave a short snort of a laugh. He looked at her like he was about to say What the hell did I tell you? Instead he just shook his head.

  Suddenly, Mom grinned broadly. “I’ll bet there aren’t any other artists living in Welch,” she said. “I won’t have any competition. My career could really take off here.”

  T HE NEXT DAY M OM took Brian and me to Welch Elementary, near the outskirts of town. She marched confidently into the principal’s office with us in tow and informed him that he would have the pleasure of enrolling two of the brightest, most creative children in America in his school.

  The principal looked at Mom over his black-rimmed glasses but remained seated behind his desk. Mom explained that we’d left Phoenix in a teensy bit of a hurry, you know how that goes, and unfortunately, in all the commotion, she forgot to pack stuff like school records and birth certificates.

  “But you can take my word for it that Jeannette and Brian are exceptionally bright, even gifted.” She smiled at him.

  The principal looked at Brian and me, with our unwashed hair and our thin desert clothes. His face took on a sour, skeptical expression. He focused on me, pushed his glasses up his nose, and said something that sounded like. “Wuts et tahm sebm?”

  “Excuse me?” I said.

  “Et tahm sebm!” he said louder.

  I was completely bewildered. I looked at Mom.

  “She doesn’t understand your accent,” Mom told the principal. He frowned. Mom turned to me. “He’s asking you what’s eight times seven.”

  “Oh!” I shouted. “Fifty-six! Eight times seven is fifty-six!” I started spouting out all sorts of mathematical equations.

  The principal looked at me blankly.

  “He can’t make out what you’re saying,” Mom told me. “Try to talk slowly.”

  The principal asked me a few more questions I couldn’t understand. With Mom translating, I gave answers that he couldn’t understand. Then he asked Brian some questions, and they couldn’t understand each other, either.

  The principal decided that Brian and I were both a bit slow and had speech impediments that made it difficult for others to understand us. He placed us both in special classes for students with learning disabilities.

  “You’ll have to impress them with your intelligence,” Mom said as Brian and I headed off to school the next day. “Don’t be afraid to be smarter than they are.”

  It had rained the night before our first day of school. When Brian and I stepped off the bus at Welch Elementary, our shoes got soaked in the water that filled the muddy tire ruts left by the school buses. I looked around for the playground equipment, figuring I could win some new friends with the fierce tetherball skills I’d picked up at Emerson, but I didn’t see a single seesaw or jungle gym, not to mention any tetherball poles.

bsp; It had been cold ever since we arrived in Welch. The day before, Mom had unpacked the thrift-shop coats she’d bought us in Phoenix. When I’d pointed out that all the buttons had been torn from mine, she said that minor flaw was more than offset by the fact that the coat was imported from France and made of 100-percent lamb’s wool. As we waited for the opening bell, I stood with Brian at the edge of the playground, my arms crossed to keep my coat closed. The other kids stared at us, whispering among themselves, but they also kept their distance, as if they hadn’t decided whether we were predators or prey. I had thought West Virginia was all white hillbillies, so I was surprised by how many black kids there were. I saw one tall black girl with a strong jaw and almond eyes smiling at me. I nodded and smiled back, then I realized there was something malicious in her smile. I locked my arms tighter across my chest.

  I was in the fifth grade, so my day was divided into periods, with different teachers and classrooms for each. For the first period, I had West Virginia history. History was one of my favorite subjects. I was coiled and ready to raise my hand as soon as the teacher asked a question I could answer, but he stood at the front of the room next to a map of West Virginia, with all fifty-five counties outlined, and spent the entire class pointing to counties and asking students to identify them. In my second period, we passed the hour watching a film of the football game that Welch High had played several days earlier. Neither of those teachers introduced me to the class; they seemed as uncertain as the kids about how to act around a stranger.

  My next class was English for students with learning disabilities. Miss Caparossi started out by informing the class that it might surprise them to learn some people in this world thought they were better than other people. “They’re convinced they’re so special that they don’t need to follow the rules other people have to follow,” she said. “like presenting their school records when they enroll in a new school.” She looked at me and raised her eyebrows meaningfully. “Who thinks that’s not fair?” she asked the class.

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