The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  We fought over who got to sleep with the dogs—Tinkle, the Jack Russell terrier, and Pippin, a curly-haired mutt who had wandered down through the woods one day—because they kept us warm. They usually ended up in a heap with Mom, because she had the bigger body, and they were cold, too. Brian had bought an iguana at G. C. Murphy, the five-and-dime on McDowell Street, because it reminded him of the desert. He named the lizard Iggy and slept with it against his chest to keep it warm, but it froze to death one night.

  We had to leave the faucet under the house dripping or the water froze in the pipe. When it got really cold, the water froze anyway, and we’d wake up to find a big icicle hanging from the faucet. We tried to thaw the pipe by running a burning piece of wood along it, but it would be frozen so solid there was nothing to do but wait for the next warm spell. When the pipe froze like that, we got our water by melting snow or icicles in the tin pan on the potbellied stove.

  A couple of times when there wasn’t enough snow on the ground, Mom sent me next door to borrow a pail of water from Mr. Freeman, a retired miner, who lived in the house with his grown son and daughter, Peanut and Prissy. He never turned me down outright, but he would look at me for a minute in silence, then shake his head and disappear into the house. When he passed out the bucket, he would give me another disgusted head-shake, even after I assured him that he could have as much water from us as he wanted come spring.

  “I hate winter,” I told Mom.

  “All seasons have something to offer,” she said. “Cold weather is good for you. It kills the germs.”

  That seemed to be true, because none of us kids ever got sick. But even if I’d woken up one morning with a raging fever, I never would have admitted it to Mom. Being sick might have meant staying home in our freezing house instead of spending the day in a toasty classroom.

  Another good thing about the cold weather was that it kept odors to a minimum. By New Year’s we had washed our clothes only once since that first November snowfall. In the summer, Mom had bought a wringer washing machine like the one we’d had in Phoenix, and we kept it in the kitchen. When we had electricity, we washed the clothes and hung them on the front porch to dry. Even when the weather was warm, they’d have to stay out there for days, because it was always so damp in that hollow on the north side of the mountain. But then it got cold, and the one time we did our laundry, it froze on the porch. We brought the clothes inside—the socks had hardened into the shape of question marks, and the pants were so stiff you could lean them against the wall—and we banged them against the stove, trying to soften them up. “At least we don’t need to buy starch,” Lori said.

  Even with the cold, by January we were all so rank that Mom decided it was time to splurge: We would go to the Laundromat. We loaded our dirty clothes into pillowcases and lugged them down the hill and up Stewart Street.

  Mom put the loaded bag on her head, the way women in Africa do, and tried to get us to do the same. She said it was better for our posture and easier on our spines, but there was no way we kids were going to be caught dead walking through Welch with laundry bags on our heads. We followed Mom with our bags over our shoulders, rolling our eyes when we passed people to show we agreed with them: The lady with the bag on her head looked pretty peculiar.

  The Laundromat, with its windows completely steamed up, was as warm and damp as a Turkish bath. Mom let us put the coins in the washers, then we climbed up and sat on them. The heat from the rumbling machines warmed our behinds and spread up through our bodies. When the wash was done, we heaved the armfuls of wet clothes into the dryers and watched them tumbling around as if they were on some fun carnival ride. Once the cycle was over, we pulled out the scorching-hot clothes and buried our faces in them. We spread them on the tables and folded them carefully, lining up the sleeves of the shirts and the seams on the pants and balling the paired-up socks. We never folded our clothes at home, but that Laundromat was so warm and cozy, we were looking for any excuse to extend our stay.

  A warm spell in January seemed like good news, but then the snow started melting, and the wood in the forest became totally soaked. We couldn’t get a fire to do anything but sputter smoke. If the wood was wet, we’d douse it with the kerosene that we used in the lamps. Dad was disdainful of a fire starter like kerosene. No true frontiersman would ever stoop to use it. It wasn’t cheap, and since it didn’t burn hot, it took a lot to make the wood catch fire. Also, it was dangerous. Dad said that if you got sloppy with kerosene, it could explode. But still, if the wood was wet and didn’t want to catch and we were all freezing, we would pour a little kerosene on it.

  One day Brian and I climbed the hillside to try to find some dry wood while Lori stayed in the house, stoking the fire. As Brian and I were shaking the snow off some promising branches, we heard a loud boom from the house. I turned and saw flames leap up inside the windows.

  We dropped our wood and ran back down the hill. Lori was lurching around the living room, her eyebrows and bangs all singed off and the smell of burned hair in the air. She had used kerosene to try to get the fire going better, and it had exploded, just like Dad had said it would. Nothing in the house except Lori’s hair had caught on fire, but the explosion had blown back her coat and skirt, and the flames had scorched her thighs. Brian went out and got some snow, and we packed it on Lori’s legs, which were dark pink. The next day she had blisters the length of her thighs.

  “Just remember,” Mom said after examining the blisters. “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.”

  “If that was true, I’d be Hercules by now,” Lori said.

  Days later, when the blisters burst, the clear liquid inside ran down to her feet. For weeks, the fronts of her legs were open sores, so sensitive that she had trouble sleeping under blankets. But by then the temperature had fallen again, and if she kicked off the blankets, she froze.

  One day that winter, I went to a classmate’s house to work on a school project. Carrie Mae Blankenship’s father was an administrator at the McDowell County hospital, and her family lived in a solid brick house on McDowell Street. The living room was decorated in shades of orange and brown, and the plaid pattern of the curtains matched the couch upholstery. On the wall was a framed photo of Carrie Mae’s older sister in her high school graduation gown. It was lit with its own tiny lamp, just like in a museum.

  There was also a small plastic box on the wall near the living room door. A row of tiny numbers ran along the top, under a lever. Carrie Mae’s father saw me studying the box while she was out of the room. “It’s a thermostat,” he told me. “You move the lever to make the house warmer or cooler.”

  I thought he was pulling my leg, but he moved the lever, and I heard a muffled roar kick on in the basement.

  “That’s the furnace,” he said.

  He led me over to a vent in the floor and had me hold my hand above it and feel the warm air wafting upward. I didn’t want to say anything to show how impressed I was, but for many nights afterward, I dreamed that we had a thermostat at 93 Little Hobart Street. I dreamed that all we had to do to fill our house with that warm, clean furnace heat was to move a lever.

  E RMA DIED DURING the last hard snowfall at the end of our second winter in Welch. Dad said her liver simply gave out. Mom took the position that Erma drank herself to death. “It was suicide every bit as much as if she had stuck her head in the oven,” Mom said. “only slower.”

  Whatever the cause, Erma had made detailed preparations for the occasion of her death. For years she had read The Welch Daily News only for the obituaries and black-bordered memorial notices, clipping and saving her favorites. They provided inspiration for her own death announcement, which she’d worked and reworked. She had also written pages of instructions on how she wanted her funeral conducted. She had picked out all the hymns and prayers, chosen her favorite funeral home, ordered a lavender lace nightgown from JCPenney that she wanted to be buried in, and selected a two-toned lavender casket with shiny chrome handles from
the mortician’s catalog.

  Erma’s death brought out Mom’s pious side. While we were waiting for the preacher, she took out her rosary and prayed for Erma’s soul, which she feared was in jeopardy since, as she saw it, Erma had committed suicide. She also tried to make us kiss Erma’s corpse. We flat out refused, but Mom went up in front of the mourners, genuflected with a grand sweep, and then kissed Erma’s cheek so vigorously that you could hear the puckering sound throughout the chapel.

  I was sitting next to Dad. It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen him wearing a necktie, which he always called a noose. His face was tight and closed, but I could tell he was distraught. More distraught than I’d ever seen him, which surprised me, because Erma had seemed to have some sort of an evil hold over Dad, and I thought he’d be relieved to be free of it.

  As we walked home, Mom asked us kids if we had anything nice to say about Erma now that she had passed. We took a couple of steps in silence, then Lori said. “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.”

  Brian and I started snickering. Dad wheeled around and gave Lori such a cold, angry look that I thought he might wallop her. “She was my mother, for God’s sake,” he said. He glared at us. “You kids. You make me ashamed. Do you hear me? Ashamed!”

  He turned down the street to Junior’s bar. We all watched him go. “You’re ashamed of us?” Lori called after him.

  Dad just kept walking.

  Four days later, when Dad still hadn’t come home, Mom sent me to go find him. “Why do I always have to get Dad?” I asked.

  “Because he likes you the best,” she said. “And he’ll come home if you tell him to.”

  The first step in tracking down Dad was going next door to the Freemans, who let us use their phone if we paid a dime, and calling Grandpa to ask if Dad was there. Grandpa said he had no idea where Dad was.

  “When y’all gonna get your own telephone?” Mr. Freeman asked after I hung up.

  “Mom disapproves of telephones,” I said as I placed the dime on his coffee table. “She thinks they’re an impersonal means of communication.”

  My first stop, as always, was Junior’s. It was the fanciest bar in Welch, with a picture window, a grill that served hamburgers and french fries, and a pinball machine.

  “Hey!” one of the regulars called out when I walked in. “It’s Rex’s little girl. How ya doin’, sweetheart?”

  “I’m fine, thank you. Is my dad here?”

  “Rex?” He turned to the man next to him. “Where’s that old polecat Rex?”

  “I seen him this morning at the Howdy House.”

  “Honey, you look like you could use a rest,” the bartender said. “Sit down and have a Coca-Cola on the house.”

  “No, thank you. I’ve got kites to fly and fish to fry.”

  I went to the Howdy House, which was a notch below Junior’s. It was smaller and darker, and the only food it served was pickled eggs. The bartender told me Dad had gone to the Pub, which was a notch below the Howdy House—almost pitch black, with a sticky bar top and no food at all. There he was, in the midst of a few other regulars, telling one of his air force stories.

  When Dad saw me, he stopped talking and looked at me the way he did every time I had to track him down in a bar. It was always an awkward moment for us both. I didn’t want to be fetching him any more than he wanted his ragamuffin daughter summoning him home like a wayward schoolboy. He looked at me in this cold, strange way for just a moment, then broke into a hearty grin.

  “Hey, Mountain Goat!” he shouted. “What the hell are you doing in this dive?”

  “Mom says you have to come home,” I said.

  “She does, does she?” He ordered a Coca-Cola for me and another shot of whiskey for himself. I kept telling Dad it was time to go, but he kept putting me off and ordering more shots, as if he had to gulp a whole bunch of them down before he could face home. He staggered off to the bathroom, came back, ordered one for the road, slammed the shot glass down on the bar, and walked to the door. He lost his footing trying to open it and sprawled on the floor. I tried to help him up, but he kept falling over.

  “Honey, you ain’t getting him nowhere like that,” a man behind me said. “Here, let me give you a lift home.”

  “I’d appreciate that, sir,” I said. “If it’s not out of your way.”

  Some of the other regulars helped the man and me load Dad into the bay of the man’s pickup. We propped Dad up against a tool chest. It was late afternoon in early spring, the light was beginning to fade, and people on McDowell Street were locking up their shops and heading home. Dad started singing one of his favorite songs.

  Swing low, sweet chariot

  Coming for to carry me home.

  Dad had a fine baritone, with strength and timbre and range, and despite being tanked, he sang that hymn like the roof-raiser it is.

  I looked over Jordan, and what did I see

  Coming for to carry me home?

  A band of angels coming after me

  Coming for to carry me home.

  I climbed in next to the driver. On the way home—with Dad still singing away in the back, extending the word. “low” so long he sounded like a mooing cow—the man asked me about school. I told him I was studying hard because I wanted to become either a veterinarian or a geologist specializing in the Miocene period, when the mountains out west were formed. I was telling him how geodes were created from bubbles in lava when he interrupted me. “For the daughter of the town drunk, you sure got big plans,” he said.

  “Stop the truck,” I said. “We can make it on our own from here.”

  “Aw, now, I didn’t mean nothing by that,” he said. “And you know you ain’t getting him home on your own.”

  Still, he stopped. I opened the pickup’s tailgate and tried to drag Dad out, but the man was right. I couldn’t do it. So I climbed back in next to the driver, folded my arms across my chest, and stared straight ahead. When we reached 93 Little Hobart Street, he helped me pull Dad out.

  “I know you took offense at what I said,” the man told me. “Thing is, I meant it as a compliment.”

  Maybe I should have thanked him, but I just waited until he drove off, and then I called Brian to help me get Dad up the hill and into the house.

  A couple of months after Erma died, Uncle Stanley fell asleep in the basement while reading comic books and smoking a cigarette. The big clapboard house burned to the ground, but Grandpa and Stanley got out alive, and they moved into a windowless two-room apartment in the basement of an old house around the hill. The drug dealers who’d lived there before had spray-painted curse words and psychedelic patterns on the walls and the ceiling pipes. The landlord didn’t paint over them, and neither did Grandpa and Stanley.

  Grandpa and Uncle Stanley did have a working bathroom, so every weekend some of us went over to take a bath. One time I was sitting next to Uncle Stanley on the couch in his room, watching Hee Haw and waiting for my turn in the tub. Grandpa was off at the Moose Lodge, where he spent the better part of every day; Lori was taking her bath; and Mom was at the table in Grandpa’s room working on a crossword puzzle. I felt Stanley’s hand creeping onto my thigh. I looked at him, but he was staring at the Hee Haw Honeys so intently that I couldn’t be sure he was doing it on purpose, so I knocked his hand away without saying anything. A few minutes later, the hand came creeping back. I looked down and saw that Uncle Stanley’s pants were unzipped and he was playing with himself. I felt like hitting him, but I was afraid I’d get in trouble the way Lori had after punching Erma, so I hurried out to Mom.

  “Mom, Uncle Stanley is behaving inappropriately,” I said.

  “Oh, you’re probably imagining it,” she said.

  “He groped me! And he’s wanking off!”

  Mom cocked her head and looked concerned. “Poor Stanley,” she said. “He’s so lonely.”

  “But it was gross!”

  Mom asked me if I was okay. I shrugged and nodded. “Well, there you go,” she said. She s
aid that sexual assault was a crime of perception. “If you don’t think you’re hurt, then you aren’t,” she said. “So many women make such a big deal out of these things. But you’re stronger than that.” She went back to her crossword puzzle.

  After that, I refused to go back to Grandpa’s. Being strong was fine, but the last thing I needed was Uncle Stanley thinking I was coming back for more of his fooling around. I did whatever it took to wash myself at Little Hobart Street. In the kitchen, we had an aluminum tub you could fit into if you pulled your legs up against your chest. By then the weather was warm enough to fill the tub with water from the tap under the house and bathe in the kitchen. After the bath, I crouched by the side of the tub and dipped my head in the water and washed my hair. But lugging all those buckets of water up to the house was hard work, and I would put off bathing until I was feeling pretty gamy.

  In the spring, the rains came, drenching the valley for days in sheets of falling water. The water ran down the hillside gullies, pulling rocks and small trees with it, and spilled across the roads, tearing off chunks of asphalt. It gushed into the creeks, which swelled up and turned a foaming light brown, like a chocolate milk shake. The creeks emptied into the Tug, which overflowed its banks and flooded the houses and stores along McDowell Street. Mud was four feet deep in some houses, and folks’ pickups and mobile homes were swept away. Over in Buffalo Creek Hollow, a mine impoundment gave way, and a wave of black water thirty feet high killed 126 people. Mom said that this was how nature took her revenge on men who raped and pillaged the land, ruining nature’s own drainage system by clear-cutting forests and strip-mining mountains.

 
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