The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  All the kids except me raised their hands.

  “I see our new student doesn’t agree,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to explain yourself?”

  I was sitting in the second-to-last row. The students in front of me swiveled their heads around to stare. I decided to dazzle them with the answer from the Ergo Game.

  “Insufficient information to draw a conclusion,” I said.

  “Oh, really?” Miss Caparossi asked. “Is that what they say in a big city like Phoenix?” She pronounced it. “Feeeeenix.” Then she turned to the class and said in a high, mocking voice. “Insufficient information to draw a conclusion.”

  The class laughed violently.

  I felt something sharp and painful between my shoulder blades and turned around. The tall black girl with the almond eyes was sitting at the desk behind me. Holding up the sharp pencil she had jabbed into my back, she smiled the same malicious smile I’d seen in the playground.

  I looked for Brian in the cafeteria at lunchtime, but fourth-graders were on a different schedule, so I sat by myself and bit into the sandwich Erma had made for me that morning. It was tasteless and greasy. I pulled apart the two slices of Wonder bread. Inside was a thin smear of lard. That was it. No meat, no cheese, not even a slice of pickle. Even so, I chewed slowly, staring intently at my bite marks in the bread to delay as long as possible the moment I would have to leave the cafeteria and go out to the playground. When I was the last student left in the cafeteria, the janitor, who was putting the chairs on the tabletops so the floor could be mopped, told me it was time to go.

  Outside, a thin mist hung in the still air. I pulled the sides of my lamb’s wool coat together. Three black girls, led by the one with the almond eyes, started moving toward me as soon as they saw me. A half-dozen other girls followed. Within moments, I was surrounded.

  “You think you better than us?” the tall girl asked.

  “No,” I said. “I think we’re all equal.”

  “You think you as good as me?” She punched at me. When, instead of raising my hands in defense, I kept clutching my coat closed, she realized it had no buttons. “This girl ain’t got no buttons on her coat!” she shouted. That seemed to give her the license she needed. She pushed me in the chest, and I fell backward. I tried to get up, but all three girls started kicking me. I rolled away into a puddle, shouting for them to quit and hitting back at the feet coming at me from all sides. The other girls had closed in a circle around us and none of the teachers could see what was going on. There was no stopping those girls until they’d had their fill.

  W HEN WE ALL GOT home that afternoon, Mom and Dad were eager to hear about our first day.

  “It was good,” I said. I didn’t want to tell Mom the truth. I was in no mood to hear one of her lectures about the power of positive thinking.

  “See?” she said. “I told you you’d fit right in.”

  Brian shrugged off Mom and Dad’s questions, and Lori didn’t want to talk about her day at all.

  “How were the other kids?” I asked her later.

  “Okay,” she said, but she turned away, and that was the end of the conversation.

  The bullying continued every day for weeks. The tall girl, whose name was Dinitia Hewitt, watched me with her smile while we all waited on the asphalt playground for classes to start. At lunch, I ate my lard sandwiches with paralytic slowness, but sooner or later, the janitor started putting the chairs up on the tables. I walked outside trying to hold my head high, and Dinitia and her gang surrounded me and it began.

  As we fought, they called me poor and ugly and dirty, and it was hard to argue the point. I had three dresses to my name, all hand-me-downs or from a thrift store, which meant each week I had to wear two of them twice. They were so worn from countless washings that the threads were beginning to separate. We were also always dirty. Not dry-dirty like we’d been in the desert, but grimy-dirty and smudged with oily dust from the coal-burning stove. Erma allowed us only one bath a week in four inches of water that had been heated on the kitchen stove and that all of us kids had to share.

  I thought of discussing the fighting with Dad, but I didn’t want to sound like a whiner. Also, he’d rarely been sober since we had arrived in Welch, and I was afraid that if I told him, he’d show up at school snockered and make things even worse.

  I did try to talk to Mom. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about the beatings, fearing that if I did, she’d try to butt in and she’d also only make things worse. I did say that these three black girls were giving me a hard time because we were so poor. Mom told me I should tell them there was nothing wrong with being poor, that Abraham Lincoln, the greatest president this country had ever seen, came from a dirt-poor family. She also said I should tell them Martin Luther King, Jr., would be ashamed of their behavior. Even though I knew these high-minded arguments would get me nowhere, I tried them anyway—Martin Luther King would be ashamed!—and they made the three girls shriek with laughter as they pushed me to the ground.

  Lying in Stanley’s bed at night with Lori, Brian, and Maureen, I concocted revenge scenarios. I imagined myself like Dad in his air force days, whupping the entire lot of them. After school, I’d go out to the woodpile next to the basement and practice karate chops and dropkicks on the kindling while laying down some pretty wicked curse words. But I also kept thinking about Dinitia, trying to make sense of her. I hoped for a while to befriend her. I’d seen Dinitia smile a few times with genuine warmth, and it transformed her face. With a smile like that, she had to have some good in her, but I couldn’t figure out how to get her to shine it my way.

  About a month after I’d started school, I was walking up some steps to a park at the top of the hill when I heard a low, furious barking coming from the other side of the World War I memorial. I ran up the stairs and saw a big, lathered-up mongrel cornering a little black kid of about five or six against the monument. The kid kept giving kicks at the dog as it barked and lunged at him. The kid was looking over at the tree line on the far side of the park, and I could tell he was calculating the chances of making it over there.

  “Don’t run!” I shouted.

  The boy looked up at me. So did the dog, and in that instant, the kid took off in a hopeless dash for the trees. The dog bounded after him, barking, then caught up with him and snapped at his legs.

  Now, there are mad dogs and wild dogs and killer dogs, and any one of them would go for your throat and hold on until you or it was dead, but I could tell this dog was not truly bad. Instead of tearing into the kid, it was having fun terrifying him, growling and pulling on his pant leg but doing no real damage. It was just a mutt who had been kicked around too much and was happy to find a creature who was afraid of it.

  I picked up a stick and raced toward them. “Go on, now!” I shouted at the dog. When I raised the stick, it whimpered and slunk off.

  The dog’s teeth had not broken the boy’s skin, but his pant leg was torn, and he was trembling as if he had palsy. I offered to take him home, and I ended up carrying him piggyback. He was feather-light. I couldn’t get a word out of him except the most minimal directions. “up there,” “that way”—in a voice I could hardly hear.

  The houses in the neighborhood were old but freshly painted, some in bright colors like lavender or kelly green. “This here,” the boy whispered when we came to a house with blue shutters. It had a neat yard but was so small that dwarves could have lived there. When I put the kid down, he dashed up the steps and through the door. I turned to go.

  Dinitia Hewitt was standing on the porch across the street, looking at me curiously.

  The next day when I went out to the playground after lunch, the gang of girls started toward me, but Dinitia hung back. Without their leader, the others lost their sense of purpose and stopped short of me. The following week, Dinitia asked me for help on an English assignment. She never said she was sorry for the bullying, or even mentioned it, but she thanked me for bringing her neighbor home that night,
and I figured that her request for help was as close to an apology as I would get. Erma had made it clear how she felt about black people, so instead of inviting Dinitia to our house to work on her assignment, I suggested that on the upcoming Saturday, I’d go to hers.

  That day I was leaving the house at the same time as Uncle Stanley. He never had the wherewithal to learn to drive, but someone from the appliance store where he worked was picking him up. He asked if I wanted a ride, too. When I told him where I was headed, he frowned. “That’s Niggerville,” he said. “What you going there for?”

  Stanley didn’t want his friend to drive me there, so I walked. When I got back home later in the afternoon, the house was empty except for Erma, who never set foot outside. She stood in the kitchen, stirring a pot of green beans and taking swigs from the bottle of hooch in her pocket.

  “So, how was Niggerville?” she asked.

  Erma was always going on about. “the niggers.” Her and Grandpa’s house was on Court Street, on the edge of the black neighborhood. It galled her when they started moving into that section of town, and she always said it was their fault that Welch had gone downhill. When you were sitting in the living room, where Erma always kept the shades drawn, you could hear groups of black people walking into town, talking and laughing. “Goddamn niggers,” Erma always muttered. “The reason I have not gone out of this house in fifteen years is because I do not want to see or be seen by a nigger.” Mom and Dad had always forbidden us to use that word. It was much worse than any curse word, they told us. But since Erma was my grandmother, I never said anything when she used it.

  Erma kept stirring the beans. “Keep this up and people are going to think you’re a nigger lover,” she said.

  She gave me a serious look, as if imparting a meaningful life lesson I should ponder and absorb. She unscrewed the cap from her bottle of hooch and took a long, contemplative swallow.

  As I watched her drinking, I felt this pressure building in my chest and I had to let it out. “You’re not supposed to use that word,” I said.

  Erma’s face went slack with astonishment.

  “Mom says they’re just like us,” I continued. “except they have different complexions.”

  Erma glared at me. I thought she was going to backhand me, but instead she said, “You ungrateful little shit. I’ll be damned if you’re eating my food tonight. Get your worthless ass down to the basement.”

  Lori gave me a hug when she heard I’d told off Erma. Mom was upset, though. “We may not agree with all of Erma’s views,” she said, “but we have to remember that as long as we’re her guests, we have to be polite.”

  That didn’t seem like Mom. She and Dad happily railed against anyone they disliked or disrespected: Standard Oil executives, J. Edgar Hoover, and especially snobs and racists. They’d always encouraged us to be outspoken about our opinions. Now we were supposed to bite our tongues. But she was right; Erma would boot us. Situations like these, I realized, were what turned people into hypocrites.

  “I hate Erma,” I told Mom.

  “You have to show compassion for her,” Mom said. Erma’s parents had died when she was young, Mom explained, and she had been shipped off to one relative after another who had treated her like a servant. Scrubbing clothes on a washboard until her knuckles bled—that was the preeminent memory of Erma’s childhood. The best thing Grandpa did for her when they got married was buy her an electric washing machine, but whatever joy it had once given her was long gone.

  “Erma can’t let go of her misery,” Mom said. “It’s all she knows.” She added that you should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. “Everyone has something good about them,” she said. “You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.”

  “Oh yeah?” I said. “How about Hitler? What was his redeeming quality?”

  “Hitler loved dogs,” Mom said without hesitation.

  I N LATE WINTER, Mom and Dad decided to drive the Oldsmobile back to Phoenix. They said they were going to fetch our bikes and all the other stuff we’d had to leave behind, pick up copies of our school records, and see if they could rescue Mom’s fruitwood archery set from the irrigation ditch alongside the road to the Grand Canyon. We kids were to remain in Welch. Since Lori was the oldest, Mom and Dad said she was in charge. Of course, we were all answerable to Erma.

  They left one morning during a thaw. I could tell by the high color in Mom’s cheeks that she was excited about the prospect of an adventure. Dad was also clearly itching to get out of Welch. He had not found a job, and we were dependent on Erma for everything. Lori had suggested that Dad go to work in the mines, but he said the mines were controlled by the unions, and the unions were controlled by the mob, and the mob had blackballed him for investigating corruption in the electricians’ union back in Phoenix. Another reason for him to return to Phoenix was to gather his research on corruption, because the only way he could get a job in the mines was by helping reform the United Mine Workers of America.

  I wished we were all going together. I wanted to be back in Phoenix, sitting under the orange trees behind our adobe house, riding my bike to the library, eating free bananas in a school where the teachers thought I was smart. I wanted to feel the desert sun on my face and breathe in the dry desert air and climb the steep rock mountains while Dad led us on one of the long hikes that he called geological survey expeditions.

  I asked if we could all go, but Dad said he and Mom were making a quick trip, strictly business, and we kids would only get in the way. Besides, he couldn’t go taking us out of school in the middle of the year. I pointed out that it had never bothered him before. Welch wasn’t like those other places we had lived, he said. There were rules that had to be followed, and people didn’t take it kindly when you flouted them.

  “Do you think they’ll come back?” Brian asked as Mom and Dad drove off.

  “Of course,” I said, though I had been wondering the same thing. These days we seemed more of an inconvenience than we used to be. Lori was already a teenager, and in a couple of years, Brian and I would be, too. They couldn’t toss us into the back of a U-Haul or put us in cardboard boxes at night.

  Brian and I started running after the Oldsmobile. Mom turned once and waved, and Dad stuck his hand out the window. We followed them all the way down Court Street, where they picked up speed and then turned the corner. I had to believe they’d come back, I told myself. If I didn’t believe, then they might not return. They might leave us forever.

  After Mom and Dad left, Erma became even more cantankerous. If she didn’t like the look on our faces, she would hit us on the head with a serving spoon. Once she pulled out a framed photograph of her father and told us he was the only person who had ever loved her. She talked on and on about how much she’d suffered as an orphan at the hands of her aunts and uncles who hadn’t treated her half as kindly as she was treating us.

  About a week after Mom and Dad left, we kids were all sitting in Erma’s living room watching TV. Stanley was sleeping in the foyer. Erma, who’d been drinking since before breakfast, told Brian that his britches needed mending. He started to take them off, but Erma said she didn’t want him running around the house in his skivvies or with a towel wrapped around him looking like he was wearing a goddamn dress. It would be easier for her to mend the britches while he was still wearing them. She ordered him to follow her into Grandpa’s bedroom, where she kept her sewing kit.

  They’d been gone for a minute or two when I heard Brian weakly protesting. I went into Grandpa’s bedroom and saw Erma kneeling on the floor in front of Brian, grabbing at the crotch of his pants, squeezing and kneading while mumbling to herself and telling Brian to hold still, goddammit. Brian, his cheeks wet with tears, was holding his hands protectively between his legs.

  “Erma, you leave him alone!” I shouted.

  Erma, still on her knees, twisted around and glared at me. “Why, you little bitch!” she said.

  Lori heard the commotion and cam
e running. I told Lori that Erma was touching Brian in a way she ought not to be. Erma said she was merely mending Brian’s inseam and that she shouldn’t have to defend herself against some lying little whore’s accusations.

  “I know what I saw,” I said. “She’s a pervert!”

  Erma reached over to slap me, but Lori caught her hand. “Let’s all calm down,” Lori said in the same voice she used when Mom and Dad got carried away, arguing. “Everybody. Calm down.”

  Erma jerked her hand out of Lori’s grasp and slapped her so hard that Lori’s glasses went flying across the room. Lori, who had turned thirteen, slapped her back. Erma hit Lori again, and this time Lori struck Erma a blow in the jaw. Then they flew at each other, tussling and flailing and pulling hair, locked together, with Brian and me cheering on Lori until we woke up Uncle Stanley, who staggered into the room and pushed them apart.

  Erma relegated us to the basement after that. A door in the basement led directly outside, so we never went upstairs. We weren’t even allowed to use Erma’s bathroom, which meant we either had to wait for school or go outside after dark. Uncle Stanley sometimes sneaked down beans he’d boiled for us, but he was afraid if he stayed talking, Erma would think he’d taken our side and get mad at him, too.

  The following week, a storm hit. The temperature dropped, and a foot of snow fell on Welch. Erma wouldn’t let us use any coal—she said we didn’t know how to operate the stove and would burn the house down—and it was so cold in the basement that Lori, Brian, Maureen, and I were glad we all shared one bed. As soon as we got home from school, we’d climb under the covers with our clothes on and do our homework there.

  We were in bed the night Mom and Dad came back. We didn’t hear the sound of the car pulling up. All we heard was the front door opening upstairs, then Mom and Dad’s voices and Erma beginning the long narrative of her grievances against us. That was followed by the sound of Dad stomping down the stairs into the basement, furious at all of us, me for back-talking Erma and making wild accusations, and Lori even more for daring to strike her own grandmother, and Brian for being such a pussy and starting the whole thing. I thought Dad would come around to our side once he’d heard what had happened, and I tried to explain.

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