The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  “I don’t care what happened!” he yelled.

  “But we were just protecting ourselves,” I said.

  “Brian’s a man, he can take it,” he said. “I don’t want to hear another word of this. Do you hear me?” He was shaking his head, but wildly, almost as if he thought he could keep out the sound of my voice. He wouldn’t even look at me.

  After Dad had gone back upstairs to tie into Erma’s hooch and we kids were all in bed, Brian bit my toe to try to make me laugh, but I kicked him away. We all lay there in the silent darkness.

  “Dad was really weird,” I said, because someone had to say it.

  “You’d be weird, too, if Erma was your mom,” Lori said.

  “Do you think she ever did something to Dad like what she did to Brian?” I asked.

  No one said a thing.

  It was gross and creepy to think about, but it would explain a lot. Why Dad left home as soon as he could. Why he drank so much and why he got so angry. Why he never wanted to visit Welch when we were younger. Why he at first refused to come to West Virginia with us and only at the last possible moment overcame his reluctance and jumped into the car. Why he was shaking his head so hard, almost like he wanted to put his hands over his ears, when I tried to explain what Erma had been doing to Brian.

  “Don’t think about things like that,” Lori told me. “It’ll make you crazy.”

  And so I put it out of my mind.

  M OM AND D AD TOLD us how they’d made it to Phoenix only to find that Mom’s laundry-on-the-clothesline ploy hadn’t kept out intruders. Our house on North Third Street had been looted. Pretty much everything was gone, including, of course, our bikes. Mom and Dad had rented a trailer to carry back what little was left—Mom said those foolish thieves had overlooked some good stuff, such as a pair of Grandma Smith’s riding breeches from the thirties that were of the highest quality—but the Oldsmobile’s engine had seized up in Nashville, and they’d had to abandon it along with the trailer and Grandma Smith’s riding breeches and take the bus the rest of the way to Welch.

  I thought that once Mom and Dad returned, they’d be able to make peace with Erma. But she said she could never forgive us kids and didn’t want us in her house any longer, even if we stayed in the basement and kept as quiet as church mice. We were banished. That was the word Dad used. “You did wrong,” he said, “and now we’ve all been banished.”

  “This isn’t exactly the Garden of Eden,” Lori said.

  I was more upset about the bike than I was about Erma banishing us. “Why don’t we just move back to Phoenix?” I asked Mom.

  “We’ve already been there,” she said. “And there are all sorts of opportunities here that we don’t even know about.”

  She and Dad set out to find us a new place to live. The cheapest rental in Welch was an apartment over a diner on McDowell Street that cost seventy-five dollars a month, which was out of our price range. Also, Mom and Dad wanted outdoor space we could call our own, so they decided to buy. Since we had no money for a down payment and no steady income, our options were pretty limited, but within a couple of days, Mom and Dad told us they had found a house we could afford. “It’s not exactly palatial, so there’s going to be a lot of togetherness,” Mom said. “And it’s on the rustic side.”

  “How rustic?” Lori asked.

  Mom paused. I could see her debating how to phrase her answer. “It doesn’t have indoor plumbing,” she said.

  Dad was still looking for a car to replace the Olds—our budget was in the high two figures—so that weekend we all hiked over for our first look at the new place. We walked down the valley through the center of town and around a mountainside, past the small, tidy brick houses put up after the mines were unionized. We crossed a creek that fed into the Tug River and started up a barely paved one-lane road called Little Hobart Street. It climbed through several switchbacks and, for a stretch, rose at an angle so steep you had to walk on your toes; if you tried walking flatfooted, you stretched your calves till they hurt.

  The houses up here were shabbier than the brick houses lower down in the valley. They were made of wood, with lopsided porches, sagging roofs, rusted-out gutters, and balding tar paper or asphalt shingles slowly but surely parting from the underwall. In almost every yard, a mutt or two was chained to a tree or to a clothesline post, and they barked furiously as we walked by. Like most houses in Welch, these were heated by coal. The more prosperous families had coal sheds; the poorer ones left their coal in a pile out front. The porches were every bit as furnished as the insides of most houses, with rust-stained refrigerators, folding card tables, hook rugs, couches or car seats for serious porch-sitting, and maybe a battered armoire with a hole cut in the side so the cat would have a cozy place to sleep.

  We followed the road almost to the end, where Dad pointed up at our new house.

  “Well, kids, welcome to Ninety-three Little Hobart Street!” Mom said. “Welcome to home sweet home.”

  We all stared. The house was a dinky thing perched high up off the road on a hillside so steep that only the back of the house rested on the ground. The front, including a drooping porch, jutted precariously into the air, supported by tall, spindly cinder-block pillars. It had been painted white a long time ago, but the paint, where it hadn’t peeled off altogether, had turned a dismal gray.

  “It’s good we raised you young ’uns to be tough,” Dad said. “Because this is not a house for the faint of heart.”

  Dad led us up the lower steps, which were made of rocks slapped together with cement. Because of settling and erosion and downright slipshod construction, they tilted dangerously toward the street. Where the stone steps ended, a rickety set of stairs made from two-by-fours—more like a ladder than a staircase—took you up to the front porch.

  Inside were three rooms, each about ten feet by ten feet, facing onto the front porch. The house had no bathroom, but underneath it, behind one of the cinder-block pillars, was a closet-sized room with a toilet on a cement floor. The toilet wasn’t hooked up to any sewer or septic system. It just sat atop a hole about six feet deep. There was no running water indoors. A water spigot rose a few inches above the ground near the toilet, so you could get a bucket and tote water upstairs. While the house was wired for electricity, Dad confessed that we could not at the moment afford to have it turned on.

  On the upside, Dad said, the house had cost only a thousand dollars, and the owner had waived the down payment. We were supposed to pay him fifty dollars a month. If we could make the payments on time, we’d own the place outright in under two years.

  “Hard to believe that one day this will all be ours,” said Lori. She was developing what Mom called a bit of a sarcastic streak.

  “Count your blessings,” Mom said. “There are people in Ethiopia who would kill for a place like this.” She pointed out that the house did have some attractive features. For example, in the living room was a cast-iron potbellied coal stove for heating and cooking. It was big and handsome, with heavy bear-claw feet, and she was certain it was valuable, if you took it to a place where people appreciated antiques. But since the house had no chimney, the stovepipe vented out a back window. Someone had replaced the glass in the upper part of the window with plywood, and wrapped tinfoil around the opening to keep the coal smoke from leaking into the room. The tinfoil had not done its job too well, and the ceiling was black with soot. Someone—probably the same someone—had also made the mistake of trying to clean the ceiling in a few spots, but had ended up only smudging and smearing the soot, creating whitish patches that made you realize how black the rest of the ceiling was.

  “The house itself isn’t much,” Dad apologized. “but we won’t be living in it long.” The important thing, the reason he and Mom had decided to acquire this particular piece of property, was that it came with plenty of land to build our new house. He planned to get to work on it right away. He intended to follow the blueprints for the Glass Castle, but he had to do some serious reconfigurin
g and increase the size of the solar cells to take into account that since we were on the north face of the mountain, and enclosed by hills on both sides, we’d hardly ever get any sun.

  We moved in that afternoon. Not that there was much to move. Dad borrowed a pickup from the appliance store where Uncle Stanley worked, and brought back a sofa bed that a friend of Grandpa’s was throwing out. Dad also scavenged a couple of tables and chairs, and he built some makeshift closets—which were actually kind of nifty—by hanging lengths of pipe from the ceiling with wires.

  Mom and Dad took over the room with the stove, and it became a combined living room, master bedroom, art studio, and writer’s study. We put the sofa bed there, though once we opened it, it never went back to being a sofa. Dad built shelves all along the upper walls to store Mom’s art supplies. She set up her easel under the stovepipe, right next to the back window, because she said it got natural sunlight—which it did, relatively speaking. She put her typewriters under another window, with shelves for her manuscripts and works in progress, and she immediately started thumbtacking index cards with story ideas to the walls.

  We kids all slept in the middle room. At first we shared one big bed that had been left by the previous owner, but Dad decided we were getting a tad old for that. We were also too big to sleep in cardboard boxes, and there wasn’t enough room on the floor for them, anyway, so we helped Dad build two sets of bunk beds. We made the frames with two-by-fours; then we drilled holes in the sides and threaded ropes through. For mattresses, we laid cardboard over the ropes. When we finished, our bunk beds looked sort of plain, so we spray-painted the sides with ornate red and black curlicues. Dad came home with a discarded four-drawer dresser, one drawer for each of us. He also built each of us a wooden box with sliding doors for personal stuff. We nailed them on the wall above our beds, and that was where I kept my geode.

  The third room at 93 Little Hobart Street, the kitchen, was in a category all its own. It had an electric stove, but the wiring was not exactly up to code, with faulty connectors, exposed lines, and buzzing switches. “Helen Keller must have wired this damn house,” Dad declared. He decided it was too convoluted to bother fixing.

  We called the kitchen the loose-juice room, because on the rare occasions that we had paid the electricity bill and had power, we’d get a wicked electric shock if we touched any damp or metallic surface in the room. The first time I got zapped, it knocked my breath out and left me twitching on the floor. We quickly learned that whenever we ventured into the kitchen, we needed to wrap our hands in the driest socks or rags we could find. If we got a shock, we’d announce it to everyone else, sort of like giving a weather report. “Big jolt from touching the stove today,” we’d say. “Wear extra rags.”

  One corner of the kitchen ceiling leaked like a sieve. Every time it rained, the plasterboard ceiling would get all swollen and heavy, with water streaming steadily from the center of the bulge. During one particularly fierce rainstorm that spring, the ceiling grew so fat it burst, and water and plasterboard came crashing down onto the floor. Dad never repaired it. We kids tried patching the roof on our own with tar paper, tinfoil, wood, and Elmer’s glue, but no matter what we did, the water found its way through. Eventually we gave up. So every time it rained outside, it rained in the kitchen, too.

  At first Mom tried to make living at 93 Little Hobart Street seem like an adventure. The woman who had lived there before us left behind an old-fashioned sewing machine that you operated with a foot treadle. Mom said it would come in handy because we could make our own clothes even when the electricity was turned off. She also claimed you didn’t need patterns to sew, you could get creative and wing it. Shortly after we moved in, Mom, Lori, and I measured one another and tried to make our own dresses.

  It took forever, and they came out baggy and lopsided, with sleeves that were different lengths and armholes in the middle of our backs. I couldn’t get mine over my head until Mom snipped out a few stitches. “It’s stunning!” she said. But I told her I looked like I was wearing a big pillowcase with elephant trunks sticking out of the sides. Lori refused to wear hers outdoors, or even indoors, and Mom had to agree that sewing wasn’t the best use of our creative energy—or our money. The cheapest cloth we could find cost seventy-nine cents a yard, and you needed more than two yards for a dress. It made more sense to buy thrift-store clothes, and they had the armholes in the right places.

  Mom also tried to make the house cheerful. She decorated the living room walls with her oil paintings, and soon every square inch was covered, except for the space above her typewriter reserved for index cards. We had vivid desert sunsets, stampeding horses, sleeping cats, snow-covered mountains, bowls of fruit, blooming flowers, and portraits of us kids.

  Since Mom had more paintings than we had wall space, Dad nailed long shelf brackets to the wall, and she hung one picture in front of another until they were three or four deep. Then she’d rotate the paintings. “Just a little redecorating to perk the place up,” she’d say. But I believed she thought of her paintings as children and wanted them to feel that they were all being treated equally.

  Mom also built rows of shelves in the windows and arranged brightly colored bottles to catch the light. “Now it looks like we have stained glass,” she announced. It did, sort of, but the house was still cold and dank. Every night for the first few weeks, lying on my cardboard mattress and listening to the sound of rainwater dripping in the kitchen, I dreamed of the desert and the sun and the big house in Phoenix with the palm tree in the front and the orange trees and oleanders in the back. We had owned that house outright. Still owned it, I kept thinking. It was ours, the one true home we’d ever had.

  “Are we ever going home?” I asked Dad one day.



  “This is home now.”

  S EEING AS HOW W ELCH was our new home, Brian and I figured we’d make the best of it. Dad had shown us the spot near the house where we were going to put the foundation and basement for the Glass Castle. He’d measured it off and marked it with stakes and string. Since Dad was hardly ever home—he was out making contacts and investigating the UMW, he told us—and never got around to breaking ground, Brian and I decided to help. We found a shovel and pickax at an abandoned farm and spent just about every free minute digging a hole. We knew we had to dig it big and deep. “No point in building a good house unless you put down the right foundation,” Dad always said.

  It was hard work, but after a month we’d dug a hole deep enough for us to disappear in. Even though we hadn’t squared the edges or smoothed the floor, we were still pretty darn proud of ourselves. Once Dad had poured the foundation, we could help him on the frame.

  But since we couldn’t afford to pay the town’s trash-collection fee, our garbage was really piling up. One day Dad told us to dump it in the hole.

  “But that’s for the Glass Castle,” I said.

  “It’s a temporary measure,” Dad told me. He explained that he was going to hire a truck to cart the garbage to the dump all at once. But he never got around to that, either, and as Brian and I watched, the hole for the Glass Castle’s foundation slowly filled with garbage.

  Around that time, probably because of all the garbage, a big, nasty-looking river rat took up residence at 93 Little Hobart Street. I first saw him in the sugar bowl. This rat was too big to fit into an ordinary sugar bowl, but since Mom had a powerful sweet tooth, putting at least eight teaspoons in a cup of tea, we kept our sugar in a punch bowl on the kitchen table.

  This rat was not just eating the sugar. He was bathing in it, wallowing in it, positively luxuriating in it, his flickering tail hanging over the side of the bowl, flinging sugar across the table. When I saw him, I froze, then backed out of the kitchen. I told Brian, and we opened the kitchen door cautiously. The rat had climbed out of the sugar bowl and leaped up onto the stove. We could see his teeth marks on the pile of potatoes, our dinner, on a plate on the stove. Brian threw
the cast-iron skillet at the rat. It hit him and clanged on the floor, but instead of fleeing, the rat hissed at us, as if we were the intruders. We ran out of the kitchen, slammed the door, and stuffed rags in the gap beneath it.

  That night Maureen, who was five, was too terrified to sleep. She kept on saying that the rat was coming to get her. She could hear it creeping nearer and nearer. I told her to stop being such a wuss.

  “I really do hear the rat,” she said. “I think he’s close to me.”

  I told her she was letting fear get the best of her, and since this was one of those times that we had electricity, I turned on the light to prove it. There, crouched on Maureen’s lavender blanket, a few inches away from her face, was the rat. She screamed and pushed off her covers, and the rat jumped to the floor. I got a broom and tried to hit the rat with the handle, but it dodged me. Brian grabbed a baseball bat, and we maneuvered it, hissing and snapping, into a corner.

  Our dog, Tinkle, the part–Jack Russell terrier who had followed Brian home one day, caught the rat in his jaws and banged it on the floor until it was dead. When Mom ran into the room, Tinkle was strutting around, all pumped up like the proud beast-slayer that he was. Mom said she felt a little sorry for the rat. “Rats need to eat, too,” she pointed out. Even though it was dead, it deserved a name, she went on, so she christened it Rufus. Brian, who had read that primitive warriors placed the body parts of their victims on stakes to scare off their enemies, hung Rufus by the tail from a poplar tree in front of our house the next morning. That afternoon we heard the sound of gunshots. Mr. Freeman, who lived next door, had seen the rat hanging upside down. Rufus was so big, Mr. Freeman thought he was a possum, went and got his hunting rifle, and blew him clean away. There was nothing left of Rufus but a mangled piece of tail.

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