The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  This time both Brian and I chased after them. Even though they outnumbered us, they were enjoying the game of taunting us too much to make a stand. They rode down to the first switchback and got away.

  “They’ll be back,” Brian said.

  “What are we going to do?” I asked.

  Brian sat thinking, then told me he had a plan. He found some rope under the house and led me up to a clearing in the hillside above Little Hobart Street. A few weeks earlier, Brian and I had dragged an old mattress up there because we were thinking of camping out. Brian explained how we could make a catapult, like the medieval ones we’d read about, by piling rocks on the mattress and rigging it with ropes looped over tree branches. We quickly assembled the contraption and tested it once, jerking back on the ropes at the count of three. It worked—a minor avalanche of rocks rained onto the street below. It was, we were convinced, enough to kill Ernie Goad and his gang, which was what we fully intended to do: kill them and commandeer their bikes, leaving their bodies in the street as a warning to others.

  We piled the rocks back on the mattress, rerigged the catapult, and waited. After a couple of minutes, Ernie and his gang reappeared at the switchback. Each of them rode one-handed and carried an egg-sized rock in his throwing hand. They were proceeding single file, like a Pawnee war party, a few feet apart. We couldn’t get them all at once, so we aimed for Ernie, who was at the head of the pack.

  When he came within range, Brian gave the word, and we jerked back on the ropes. The mattress shot forward, and our arsenal of rocks flew through the air. I heard them thud against Ernie’s body and clatter on the road. He screamed and cursed as his bike skidded. The kid behind Ernie ran into him, and they both fell. The other two turned around and sped off. Brian and I started hurling whatever rocks were at hand. Since they were downhill, we had a good line of fire and scored several direct hits, the rocks dinging off their bikes, nicking the paint and denting the fenders.

  Then Brian yelled, “Charge!” and we came barreling down the hill. Ernie and his friend jumped back on their bikes and furiously pedaled off before we could reach them. As they disappeared around the bend, Brian and I did a victory dance in the rock-strewn street, giving our own war whoops.

  A S THE WEATHER warmed, a sort of rough beauty overtook the steep hillsides around Little Hobart Street. Jack-in-the-pulpits and bleeding hearts sprouted wild. White Queen Anne’s lace and purple phlox and big orange daylilies blossomed along the road. During the winter you could see abandoned cars and refrigerators and the shells of deserted houses in the woods, but in the spring the vines and weeds and moss grew over them, and in no time they disappeared altogether.

  One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by. Mom really piled up on books. She came home from the Welch public library every week or two with a pillowcase full of novels, biographies, and histories. She snuggled into bed with them, looking up from time to time, saying she was sorry, she knew she should be doing something more productive, but like Dad, she had her addictions, and one of them was reading.

  We all read, but I never had the feeling of togetherness I’d had in Battle Mountain when we all sat around in the depot with our books. In Welch, people drifted off to different corners of the house. Once night came, we kids all lay in our rope-and-cardboard beds, reading by flashlight or a candle we’d set on our wooden boxes, each of us creating our own little pool of dim light.

  Lori was the most obsessive reader. Fantasy and science fiction dazzled her, especially The Lord of the Rings. When she wasn’t reading, she was drawing orcs or hobbits. She tried to get everyone in the family to read the books. “They transport you to a different world,” she’d say.

  I didn’t want to be transported to another world. My favorite books all involved people dealing with hardships. I loved The Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, and especially A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I thought Francie Nolan and I were practically identical, except that she had lived fifty years earlier in Brooklyn and her mother always kept the house clean. Francie Nolan’s father sure reminded me of Dad. If Francie saw the good in her father, even though most people considered him a shiftless drunk, maybe I wasn’t a complete fool for believing in mine. Or trying to believe in him. It was getting harder.

  One night that summer, when I was lying in bed and everyone else was asleep, I heard the front door open and the sound of someone muttering and stumbling around in the darkness. Dad had come home. I went into the living room, where he was sitting at the drafting table. I could see by the moonlight coming through the window that his face and hair were matted with blood. I asked him what had happened.

  “I got in a fight with a mountain,” he said. “and the mountain won.”

  I looked at Mom asleep on the sofa bed, her head buried under a pillow. She was a deep sleeper and hadn’t stirred. When I lit the kerosene lamp, I saw that Dad also had a big gash in his right forearm and a cut on his head so deep that I could see the white of his skull. I got a toothpick and tweezers and picked the rocky grit out of the gash. Dad didn’t wince when I poured rubbing alcohol on the wound. Because of all his hair, I had no way to put on a bandage, and I told Dad I should shave the area around the cut. “Hell, honey, that would ruin my image,” he said. “A fellow in my position’s got to look presentable.”

  Dad studied the gash on his forearm. He tightened a tourniquet around his upper arm and told me to fetch Mom’s sewing box. He fumbled around in it for silk thread but, unable to find any, decided that cotton would be fine. He threaded a needle with black thread, handed it to me, and pointed at the gash. “Sew it up,” he said.

  “Dad! I can’t do that.”

  “Oh, go ahead, honey,” he said. “I’d do it myself, except I can’t do diddly with my left hand.” He smiled. “Don’t worry about me. I’m so thoroughly pickled, I won’t feel a thing.” Dad lit a cigarette and placed his arm on the table. “Go ahead,” he said.

  I pressed the needle up against Dad’s skin and shuddered.

  “Go ahead,” he said again.

  I pushed the needle and felt a slight tug when it pierced the skin. I wanted to close my eyes, but I needed to see. I pushed a little harder and felt the resistance of Dad’s flesh. It was like sewing meat. It was sewing meat.

  “I can’t, Dad, I’m sorry, I just can’t do it,” I said.

  “We’ll do it together,” Dad said.

  Using his left hand, he guided my fingers as they pushed the needle all the way in through his skin and out the other side. A few droplets of blood appeared. I pulled the needle out and then gave the thread a gentle jerk to tighten it. I tied the two ends of the thread together, like Dad told me to, and then, to put in a second stitch, did it again. The gash was pretty big and could have used a few more stitches, but I couldn’t bring myself to stick that needle in Dad’s arm one more time.

  We both looked at the two dark, slightly sloppy stitches.

  “That’s some fine handiwork,” Dad said. “I’m mighty proud of you, Mountain Goat.”

  When I left the house the next morning, Dad was still asleep. When I came home in the evening, he was gone.

  D AD HAD TAKEN TO disappearing for days at a time. When I asked him where he’d been, his explanations were either so vague or so improbable that I stopped asking. Whenever he did come home, he usually brought a bag of groceries in each arm. We’d gobble deviled-ham sandwiches with thick slices of onion while he told us about the progress of his investigation into the UMW and his latest moneymaking schemes. People were always offering him jobs, he’d explain, but he wasn’t interested in work for hire, in saluting and sucking up and brownnosing and taking orders. “You’ll never make a fortune working for the boss man,” he said. He was focused on striking it rich. There might not be gold in West Virginia, but there were plenty of other ways to make your pile. For instance, he was working on a technology to burn coal more efficiently, so that even the lowest-grade coal could be mined and sold. There was a big market for that, h
e said, and it was going to make us rich beyond our dreams.

  I listened to Dad’s plans and tried to encourage him, hoping that what he was saying was true but also pretty certain it wasn’t. Money would come in—and with it, food—on the rare occasion that Dad landed an odd job or Mom received a check from the oil company leasing the drilling rights on her land in Texas. Mom was always vague about how big the land was and where exactly it was, and she refused to consider selling it. All we knew was that every couple of months, this check would show up and we’d have plenty of food for days at a time.

  When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight. Sometimes Mom popped up a big batch of popcorn for dinner. It had lots of fiber, she pointed out, and she had us salt it heavily because the iodine would keep us from getting goiters. “I don’t want my kids looking like pelicans,” she said.

  Once, when an extra-big royalty check came in, Mom bought us a whole canned ham. We ate off it for days, cutting thick slices for sandwiches. Since we had no refrigerator, we left the ham on a kitchen shelf. After it had been there for about a week, I went to saw myself a slab at dinnertime and found it crawling with little white worms.

  Mom was sitting on the sofa bed, eating the piece she’d cut. “Mom, that ham’s full of maggots,” I said.

  “Don’t be so picky,” she told me. “Just slice off the maggoty parts. The inside’s fine.”

  Brian and I became expert foragers. We picked crab apples and wild blackberries and pawpaws during the summer and fall, and we swiped ears of corn from Old Man Wilson’s farm. The corn was tough—Old Man Wilson grew it as feed for his cattle—but if you chewed it enough, you could get it down. Once we caught a wounded blackbird by throwing a blanket over it and figured we could make a blackbird pie, like in the nursery rhyme. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to kill the bird, and anyway, it looked too scrawny to eat.

  We’d heard of a dish called poke salad, and since a big patch of pokeweed grew behind our house, Brian and I thought we’d give it a try. If it was any good, we’d have a whole new supply of food. We first tried eating the pokeweed raw, but it was awfully bitter, so we boiled it—singing. “Poke Salad Annie” in anticipation—but it still tasted sour and stringy, and our tongues itched for days afterward.

  One day, hunting for food, we climbed through the window of an abandoned house. The rooms were tiny, and it had dirt floors, but in the kitchen we found shelves lined with rows of canned food.

  “Bo-nanza!” Brian cried out.

  “Feast time!” I said.

  The cans were coated with dust and starting to rust, but we figured the food was still safe to eat, since the whole point of canning was to preserve. I passed a can of tomatoes to Brian, who took out his pocketknife. When he punctured the tin, the contents exploded in his face, covering us with a fizzy brown juice. We tried a few more, but they exploded, too, and we walked home without having eaten anything, our shirts and faces stained with rotten tomatoes.

  When I started sixth grade, the other kids made fun of Brian and me because we were so skinny. They called me spider legs, skeleton girl, pipe cleaner, two-by-four, bony butt, stick woman, bean pole, and giraffe, and they said I could stay dry in the rain by standing under a telephone wire.

  At lunchtime, when other kids unwrapped their sandwiches or bought their hot meals, Brian and I would get out books and read. Brian told everyone he had to keep his weight down because he wanted to join the wrestling team when he got to high school. I told people that I had forgotten to bring my lunch. No one believed me, so I started hiding in the bathroom during lunch hour. I’d stay in one of the stalls with the door locked and my feet propped up so that no one would recognize my shoes.

  When other girls came in and threw away their lunch bags in the garbage pails, I’d go retrieve them. I couldn’t get over the way kids tossed out all this perfectly good food: apples, hard-boiled eggs, packages of peanut-butter crackers, sliced pickles, half-pint cartons of milk, cheese sandwiches with just one bite taken out because the kid didn’t like the pimentos in the cheese. I’d return to the stall and polish off my tasty finds.

  There was, at times, more food in the wastebasket than I could eat. The first time I found extra food—a bologna-and-cheese sandwich—I stuffed it into my purse to take home for Brian. Back in the classroom, I started worrying about how I’d explain to Brian where it came from. I was pretty sure he was rooting through the trash, too, but we never talked about it.

  As I sat there trying to come up with ways to justify it to Brian, I began smelling the bologna. It seemed to fill the whole room. I became terrified that the other kids could smell it, too, and that they’d turn and see my overstuffed purse, and since they all knew I never ate lunch, they’d figure out that I had pinched it from the trash. As soon as class was over, I ran to the bathroom and shoved the sandwich back in the garbage can.

  Maureen always had plenty to eat, since she had made friends throughout the neighborhood and would show up at their houses around dinnertime. I had no idea what Mom and Lori were doing to fend for themselves. Mom, weirdly, was getting heavier. One evening when Dad was away and we had nothing to eat and we were all sitting around the living room trying not to think of food, Mom kept disappearing under the blanket on the sofa bed. At one point Brian looked over.

  “Are you chewing something?” he asked.

  “My teeth hurt,” Mom said, but she was getting all shifty-eyed, glancing around the room and avoiding our stares. “It’s my bad gums. I’m working my jaw to increase the circulation.”

  Brian yanked the covers back. Lying on the mattress next to Mom was one of those huge family-sized Hershey chocolate bars, the shiny silver wrapper pulled back and torn away. She’d already eaten half of it.

  Mom started crying. “I can’t help it,” she sobbed. “I’m a sugar addict, just like your father is an alcoholic.”

  She told us we should forgive her the same way we always forgave Dad for his drinking. None of us said a thing. Brian snatched up the chocolate bar and divided it into four pieces. While Mom watched, we wolfed them down.

  W INTER CAME HARD that year. Just after Thanksgiving, the first big snow started with fat wet flakes the size of butterflies. They floated down lazily but were followed by smaller, drier flakes that kept coming for days. At first I loved winter in Welch. The blanket of snow hid the soot and made the entire town seem clean and cozy. Our house looked almost like all the others along Little Hobart Street.

  It was so cold that the youngest, most fragile branches snapped in the frigid air, and very quickly, I started feeling it. I still had only my thin wool coat with the buttons missing. I felt almost as cold in the house; while we had the coal stove, we had no coal. There were forty-two coal retailers listed in the Welch phone book. A ton of coal, which would last most of the winter, cost about fifty dollars—including delivery—or even as little as thirty dollars for the lower-grade stuff. Mom said she was sorry, but there was no room in our budget for coal. We’d have to devise other ways to stay warm.

  Pieces of coal were always falling off the trucks when they made their deliveries, and Brian suggested that he and I get a bucket and collect some. We were walking along Little Hobart Street, picking up pieces of coal, when our neighbors the Noes drove by in their station wagon. The Noe girls, Karen and Carol, were sitting in the backward-facing jump seat, looking out the rear window. “We’re working on our rock collection!” I shouted.

  The pieces we found were so small that after an hour we’d filled only half the bucket. We needed at least a bucket to keep a fire going for one evening. So while we made occasional coal-collecting expeditions, we used mostly wood. We couldn’t afford wo
od any more than we could afford coal, and Dad wasn’t around to chop and split any, which meant it was up to us kids to gather dead branches and logs from the forest.

  Finding good, dry wood was a challenge. We trekked along the mountainside, looking for pieces that weren’t waterlogged or rotten, shaking the snow off branches. But we went through the wood awfully quickly, and while a coal fire burns hot, a wood fire doesn’t throw off much heat. We all huddled around the potbellied stove, wrapped in blankets, holding out our hands toward the weak, smoky heat. Mom said we should be thankful because we had it better than pioneers, who didn’t have modern conveniences like window glass and cast-iron stoves.

  One day we got a roaring fire going, but even then we could still see our breath, and there was ice on both sides of the windows. Brian and I decided we needed to make the fire even bigger and went out to collect more wood. On the way back, Brian stopped and looked at our house. “There’s no snow on our roof,” he said. He was right. It had completely melted. “Every other house has snow on its roof,” he said. He was right about that, too.

  “This house doesn’t have a lick of insulation,” Brian told Mom when we got back inside. “All the heat’s going right through the roof.”

  “We may not have insulation,” Mom said as we all gathered around the stove. “but we have each other.”

  It got so cold in the house that icicles hung from the kitchen ceiling, the water in the sink turned into a solid block of ice, and the dirty dishes were stuck there as if they’d been cemented in place. Even the pan of water that we kept in the living room to wash up in usually had a layer of ice on it. We walked around the house wearing our coats and wrapped in blankets. We wore our coats to bed, too. There was no stove in the bedroom, and no matter how many blankets I piled on top of myself, I still felt cold. I lay awake at night, rubbing my feet with my hands, trying to warm them.

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