The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  After the Rufus incident, I slept with a baseball bat in my bed. Brian slept with a machete in his. Maureen could barely sleep at all. She kept dreaming that she was being eaten by rats, and she used every excuse she could to spend the night at friends’ houses. Mom and Dad shrugged off the Rufus incident. They told us that we had done battle with fiercer adversaries in the past, and we would again someday.

  “What are we going to do about the garbage pit?” I asked. “It’s almost filled up.”

  “Enlarge it,” Mom said.

  “We can’t keep dumping garbage out there,” I said. “What are people going to think?”

  “Life’s too short to worry about what other people think,” Mom said. “Anyway, they should accept us for who we are.”

  I was convinced that people might be more accepting of us if we made an effort to improve the way 93 Little Hobart Street looked. There were plenty of things we could do, I felt, that would cost almost nothing. Some people around Welch cut tires into two semicircles, painted them white, and used them as edging for their gardens. Maybe we couldn’t afford to build the Glass Castle quite yet, but certainly we could put painted tires around our front yard to spruce it up. “It would make us fit in a little bit,” I pleaded with Mom.

  “It sure would,” Mom said. But when it came to Welch, she had no interest in fitting in. “I’d rather have a yard filled with genuine garbage than with trashy lawn ornaments.”

  I kept looking for other ways to make improvements. One day Dad brought home a five-gallon can of house paint left over from some job he’d worked on. The next morning I pried the can open. It was nearly full of bright yellow paint. Dad had brought some paintbrushes home, too. A layer of yellow paint, I realized, would completely transform our dingy gray house. It would look, at least from the outside, almost like the houses other people lived in.

  I was so excited by the prospect of living in a perky yellow home that I could barely sleep that night. I got up early the next day and tied my hair back, ready to begin the housepainting. “If we all work together, we can get it done in a day or two,” I told everyone.

  But Dad said 93 Little Hobart Street was such a dump that we shouldn’t waste time or energy on it that we could be devoting to the Glass Castle. Mom said she thought bright yellow houses were tacky. Brian and Lori said we didn’t have the ladders and scaffolding we needed.

  Dad was making no visible progress on the Glass Castle, and I knew that the can of yellow paint would sit on the porch unless I undertook the job myself. I’d borrow a ladder or make one, I decided. I was certain that once everyone saw the amazing transformation of the house begin, they’d all join in.

  Out on the porch, I opened the can and stirred the paint with a stick, blending in the oil that had risen to the surface until the paint, which was the color of buttercups, had turned creamy. I dipped in a fat brush and spread the paint along the old clapboard siding in long, smooth strokes. It went on bright and glossy and looked even better than I had hoped. I started on the far side of the porch, around the door that went into the kitchen. In a few hours, I had covered everything that could be reached from the porch. Parts of the front were still unpainted, and so were the sides, but I had used less than a quarter of the paint. If everyone else helped, we could paint all the areas I couldn’t reach, and in no time we would have a cheerful yellow house.

  But neither Mom nor Dad nor Brian nor Lori nor Maureen was impressed. “So part of the front of the house is yellow now,” Lori said. “That’s really going to turn things around for us.”

  I was going to have to finish the job myself. I tried to make a ladder from bits of scrap wood, but it kept collapsing whenever I put my weight on it. I was still trying to build a sturdy ladder when, during a cold snap a few days later, my can of paint froze solid. When it got warm enough for the paint to thaw, I opened the can. During the freeze, the chemicals had separated and the once-smooth liquid was as lumpy and runny as curdled milk. I stirred it as hard as I could and kept stirring even after I knew the paint was ruined, because I also knew that we’d never get more, and instead of a freshly painted yellow house, or even a dingy gray one, we now had a weird-looking half-finished patch job—one that announced to the world that the people inside the house wanted to fix it up but lacked the gumption to get the work done.

  L ITTLE H OBART S TREET led up into one of those hollows so deep and narrow that people joked you had to pipe in the sunlight. The neighborhood did have lots of kids—Maureen had real friends for the first time—and we all tended to hang out at the National Guard armory at the foot of the hill. The boys played tackle football on the training field. Most of the girls my age spent their afternoons sitting on the brick wall surrounding the armory, combing their hair and touching up their lip gloss and pretending to get all indignant but secretly loving it if a crew-cut reservist wolf-whistled at them. One of the girls, Cindy Thompson, made a special effort to befriend me, but it turned out that what she really wanted was to recruit me for the junior Ku Klux Klan. Neither putting on makeup nor wearing a sheet had much appeal for me, so I played football with the boys, who would waive their guys-only rule and let me join a team if they were short a player.

  The better-off folk of Welch had not exactly flocked to our part of town. A few miners lived along the street, but most of the grown-ups didn’t work at all. Some of the moms had no husbands, and some of the dads had black lung. The rest were either too distracted by their troubles or just plain unmotivated, so pretty much everyone grudgingly accepted some form of public aid. Although we were the poorest family on Little Hobart Street, Mom and Dad never applied for welfare or food stamps, and they always refused charity. When teachers gave us bags of clothes from church drives, Mom made us take them back. “We can take care of our own,” Mom and Dad liked to say. “We don’t accept handouts from anyone.”

  If things got tight, Mom kept reminding us that some of the other kids on Little Hobart Street had it tougher than we did. The twelve Grady kids had no dad—he’d either died in a mine cave-in or run off with a whore, depending on whom you listened to—and their mom spent her days in bed suffering from migraines. As a result, the Grady boys ran completely wild. It was hard to tell them apart, because they all wore blue jeans and torn T-shirts and had their heads shaved bald to keep away lice. When the oldest boy found their dad’s old pump-action shotgun under their mom’s bed, he decided to get in some target practice on Brian and me, firing buckshot at us as we ran for our lives through the woods.

  And then there were the Halls. All six of the Hall children had been born mentally retarded, and although they were now middle-aged, they all still lived at home with their mom and dad. When I was friendly to the oldest, Kenny Hall, who was forty-two, he developed a powerful crush on me. The other kids in the neighborhood teased Kenny by telling him that if he gave them a dollar or stripped down to his skivvies and showed them his wanker, they’d arrange for me to go on a date with him. On a Saturday night, if he’d been set up like that, he’d come stand on the street in front of our house, sobbing and hollering about me not keeping our date, and I’d have to go down and explain to him that the other kids had played a trick on him and that, although he did have many admirable qualities, I had a policy against dating older men.

  The family who had it the toughest on Little Hobart Street, I would have to say, was the Pastors. The mother, Ginnie Sue Pastor, was the town whore. Ginnie Sue Pastor was thirty-three years old and had eight daughters and one son. Their names all ended with Y. Her husband, Clarence Pastor, had black lung and sat on the front porch of their huge sagging house all day long, but he never smiled or waved at passersby. Just sat there like he was frozen. Everyone in town said he’d been impotent for years and none of the Pastor kids was his.

  Ginnie Sue Pastor pretty much kept to herself. At first I wondered if she lay around in a lacy negligee all day, smoking cigarettes and waiting for gentlemen callers. Back in Battle Mountain, the women lounging on the front porch of the Gr
een Lantern—I’d long since figured out what they really did—wore white lipstick and black mascara and partially unbuttoned blouses that showed the tops of their brassieres. But Ginnie Sue Pastor didn’t look like a whore. She was a blowsy woman with dyed yellow hair, and from time to time we saw her out in the front yard, chopping wood or filling a scuttle from the coal pile. She usually wore the same kinds of aprons and canvas farm coats worn by the rest of the women on Little Hobart Street. She looked like any other mom.

  I also wondered how she did her whoring with all those kids to look after. One night I saw a car pull up in front of the Pastor house and blink its headlights twice. After a minute, Ginnie Sue came running out the door and climbed into the front seat. Then the car drove off.

  Kathy was Ginnie Sue Pastor’s oldest daughter. The other kids treated her like a total pariah, crowing that her mother was a. “hoor” and calling her. “lice girl.” Truth was, she did have a pretty advanced case of head lice. She kept trying to befriend me. One afternoon on the way home from school, when I told her we’d lived for a while in California, she lit up. She said her mama had always wanted to go there. She asked if maybe I’d come over to her place and tell her mama all about life in California.

  Of course I went. I’d never gotten inside the Green Lantern, but now I’d get an up-close look at a genuine prostitute. There were lots of things I wanted to know: Was whoring easy money? Was it ever any fun, or was it just gross? Did Kathy and her sisters and her father all know Ginnie Sue Pastor was a whore? What did they think of it? I didn’t plan on flat out asking these questions, but I did think that by getting inside the Pastors’ house and meeting Ginnie Sue, I’d come away with some idea of the answers.

  Clarence Pastor, sitting on the porch, ignored Kathy and me as we walked by. Inside, there were all these tiny rooms connected together like boxcars. Because of the way the house was settling on the eroding hillside, the floors and ceilings and windows tilted at different angles. There were no paintings on the walls, but the Pastors had taped up pictures of smartly dressed women torn from Sears Roebuck catalogs.

  Kathy’s little sisters scampered around noisily, half dressed. None of them looked alike; one was redheaded, one a blonde, one had black hair, and there were all different shades of brown. Sweet Man, the youngest, crawled along the living room floor, sucking on a fat dill pickle. Ginnie Sue Pastor sat at the table in the kitchen. At her elbow was the carcass of a big expensive roaster, the kind we could hardly ever afford. She had a tired, lined face, but her smile was cheerful and open. “Pleased to meet you,” she said to me, wiping her hands on her shirttail. “We ain’t used to getting visitors.”

  Ginnie Sue offered us seats at the table. She had heavy breasts that swayed when she moved, and her blond hair was dark at the roots. “You-all help me with this bird, and I’ll fix you a couple of Ginnie Sue’s special chicken rolls.” She turned to me. “You know how to pick a chicken clean?”

  “I sure do,” I said. I hadn’t had anything to eat all day.

  “Well, show me, then,” Ginnie Sue said.

  I went for a wing first, pulling apart the spindly double bones and getting all the meat trapped there. Then I set to work on the leg and thigh bones, snapping them at the joints and peeling off the tendons and digging out the marrow. Kathy and Ginnie Sue were also working on the bird, but soon they stopped to watch me. From the tail, I pulled that nice piece of meat that everybody misses. I turned the carcass upside down and scraped off the jellied fat and meat flecks with my fingernails. I stuck my arm elbow-deep into the bird to excavate any meat clinging to the rib cage.

  “Girl,” Ginnie Sue said. “in all my days, I have never seen no one pick a chicken clean like you.”

  I held up the spear-shaped cartilage in the breast bone, which most people don’t eat, and bit down with a satisfying crunch.

  Ginnie Sue scraped the meat into a bowl, mixed it with mayonnaise and Cheez Whiz, then crushed a handful of potato chips and added them. She spread the mixture onto two slices of Wonder bread, then rolled each slice into a cylinder and passed them to us. “Birds in a blanket,” she said. They tasted great.

  “Mama, Jeannette lived in California,” Kathy said.

  “That so?” Ginnie Sue said. “Live in California and be a stewardess, that was my dream.” She sighed. “Never got beyond Bluefield.”

  I told her and Kathy about life in California. It quickly became clear they had no interest in desert mining towns, so I told them about San Francisco and then about Las Vegas, which wasn’t exactly in California, but they didn’t seem to care. I made the days we had spent there seem like years, and the showgirls I’d seen from a distance seem like close friends and neighbors. I described the glittering casinos and the glamorous high rollers, the palm trees and the swimming pools, the hotels with ice-cold air-conditioning and the restaurants where hostesses with long white gloves lit flaming desserts.

  “It don’t get no better than that!” Ginnie Sue said.

  “No, ma’am, it sure don’t,” I told her.

  Sweet Man came in crying, and Ginnie Sue picked him up and let him suck some mayonnaise off her finger. “You did good on that bird,” Ginnie Sue told me. “You strike me as the kind of girl who’s one day going to be eating roast chicken and those on-fire desserts just as much as you want.” She winked.

  It was only on the way home that I realized I hadn’t gotten answers to any of my questions. While I was sitting there talking to Ginnie Sue, I’d even forgotten she was a whore. One thing about whoring: It put a chicken on the table.

  W E FOUGHT A LOT in Welch. Not just to fend off our enemies but to fit in. Maybe it was because there was so little to do in Welch; maybe it was because life there was hard and it made people hard; maybe it was because of all the bloody battles over unionizing the mines; maybe it was because mining was dangerous and cramped and dirty work and it put all the miners in bad moods and they came home and took it out on their wives, who took it out on their kids, who took it out on other kids. Whatever the reason, it seemed that just about everyone in Welch—men, women, boys, girls—liked to fight.

  There were street brawls, bar stabbings, parking-lot beatings, wife slappings, and toddler whalings. Sometimes it was simply a matter of someone throwing a stray punch, and it would all be over before you knew it had started. Other times it would be more like a twelve-round prizefight, with spectators cheering on the bloody, sweating opponents. Then there were the grudges and feuds that went on for years, a couple of brothers beating up some guy because back in the fifties his father had beaten up their father, a woman shooting her best friend for sleeping with her husband and the best friend’s brother then stabbing the husband. You’d walk down McDowell Street, and half the people you passed seemed to be nursing an injury sustained in local combat. There were shiners, split lips, swollen cheekbones, bruised arms, scraped knuckles, and bitten earlobes. We had lived in some pretty scrappy places back in the desert, but Mom said Welch was the fightingest town she’d ever seen.

  Brian and Lori and Maureen and I got into more fights than most kids. Dinitia Hewitt and her friends were only the first in a whole line of little gangs who did battle with one or more of us. Other kids wanted to fight us because we had red hair, because Dad was a drunk, because we wore rags and didn’t take as many baths as we should have, because we lived in a falling-down house that was partly painted yellow and had a pit filled with garbage, because they’d go by our dark house at night and see that we couldn’t even afford electricity.

  But we always fought back, usually as a team. Our most spectacular fight, and our most audacious tactical victory—the Battle of Little Hobart Street—took place against Ernie Goad and his friends when I was ten and Brian was nine. Ernie Goad was a pug-nosed, thick-necked kid who had little eyes set practically on the sides of his head, like a whale. He acted as if it was his sworn mission to drive the Walls family out of town. It started one day when I was playing with some other kids on the tank parked next to the
armory. Ernie Goad appeared and began throwing rocks at me and yelling that the Wallses should all leave Welch because we were stinking it up so bad.

  I threw a couple of rocks back and told him to leave me alone.

  “Make me,” Ernie said.

  “I don’t make garbage,” I shouted. “I burn it.” This was usually a foolproof comeback, making up in scorn what it lacked in originality, but on this occasion it backfired.

  “Y’all Wallses don’t burn garbage!” Ernie yelled back. “Y’all throw it in a hole next to your house! You live in it!”

  I tried to think of a comeback to his comeback, but my mind seized up because what Ernie had said was true: We did live in garbage.

  Ernie stuck his face in mine. “Garbage! You live in garbage ’cause you are garbage!”

  I shoved him good and hard, then turned to the other kids, hoping for backup, but they were easing away and looking down, as if they were ashamed to have been caught playing with a girl who had a garbage pit next to her house.

  That Saturday, Brian and I were reading on the sofa bed when one of the windowpanes shattered and a rock landed on the floor. We ran to the door. Ernie and three of his friends were pedaling their bikes up and down Little Hobart Street, whooping madly. “Garbage! Garbage! Y’all are a bunch of garbage!”

  Brian went out on the porch. One of the kids hurled another rock that hit Brian in the head. He staggered back, then ran down the steps, but Ernie and his friends pedaled away, shrieking. Brian came back up the stairs, blood trickling down his cheek and onto his T-shirt and a pump knot already swelling up above his eyebrow. Ernie’s gang returned a few minutes later, throwing stones and shouting that they had actually seen the pigsty where the Walls kids lived and that they were going to tell the whole school it was even worse than everyone said.

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