The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  “Chew on it, but don’t swallow it,” the nurse said with a laugh. She smiled real big and brought in other nurses so they could watch me chew my first-ever piece of gum. When she brought me lunch, she told me I had to take out my chewing gum, but she said not to worry because I could have a new stick after eating. If I finished the pack, she would buy me another. That was the thing about the hospital. You never had to worry about running out of stuff like food or ice or even chewing gum. I would have been happy staying in that hospital forever.

  When my family came to visit, their arguing and laughing and singing and shouting echoed through the quiet halls. The nurses made shushing noises, and Mom and Dad and Lori and Brian lowered their voices for a few minutes, then they slowly grew loud again. Everyone always turned and stared at Dad. I couldn’t figure out whether it was because he was so handsome or because he called people. “pardner” and. “goomba” and threw his head back when he laughed.

  One day Dad leaned over my bed and asked if the nurses and doctors were treating me okay. If they were not, he said, he would kick some asses. I told Dad how nice and friendly everyone was. “Well, of course they are,” he said. “They know you’re Rex Walls’s daughter.”

  When Mom wanted to know what it was the doctors and nurses were doing that was so nice, I told her about the chewing gum.

  “Ugh,” she said. She disapproved of chewing gum, she went on. It was a disgusting low-class habit, and the nurse should have consulted her before encouraging me in such vulgar behavior. She said she was going to give that woman a piece of her mind, by golly. “After all,” Mom said. “I am your mother, and I should have a say in how you’re raised.”

  “Do you guys miss me?” I asked my older sister, Lori, during one visit.

  “Not really,” she said. “Too much has been happening.”

  “Like what?”

  “Just the normal stuff.”

  “Lori may not miss you, honey bunch, but I sure do,” Dad said. “You shouldn’t be in this antiseptic joint.”

  He sat down on my bed and started telling me the story about the time Lori got stung by a poisonous scorpion. I’d heard it a dozen times, but I still liked the way Dad told it. Mom and Dad were out exploring in the desert when Lori, who was four, turned over a rock and the scorpion hiding under it stung her leg. She had gone into convulsions, and her body had become stiff and wet with sweat. But Dad didn’t trust hospitals, so he took her to a Navajo witch doctor who cut open the wound and put a dark brown paste on it and said some chants and pretty soon Lori was as good as new. “Your mother should have taken you to that witch doctor the day you got burned,” Dad said, “not to these heads-up-their-asses med-school quacks.”

  The next time they visited, Brian’s head was wrapped in a dirty white bandage with dried bloodstains. Mom said he had fallen off the back of the couch and cracked his head open on the floor, but she and Dad had decided not to take him to the hospital.

  “There was blood everywhere,” Mom said. “but one kid in the hospital at a time is enough.”

  “Besides,” Dad said, “Brian’s head is so hard, I think the floor took more damage than he did.”

  Brian thought that was hilarious and just laughed and laughed.

  Mom told me she had entered my name in a raffle at a fair, and I’d won a helicopter ride. I was thrilled. I had never been in a helicopter or a plane.

  “When do I get to go on the ride?” I asked.

  “Oh, we already did that,” Mom said. “It was fun.”

  Then Dad got into an argument with the doctor. It started because Dad thought I shouldn’t be wearing bandages. “Burns need to breathe,” he told the doctor.

  The doctor said bandages were necessary to prevent infection. Dad stared at the doctor. “To hell with infection,” he said. He told the doctor that I was going to be scarred for life because of him, but, by God, I wasn’t the only one who was going to walk out of there scarred.

  Dad pulled back his fist as if to hit the doctor, who raised his hands and backed away. Before anything could happen, a guard in a uniform appeared and told Mom and Dad and Lori and Brian that they would have to leave.

  Afterward, a nurse asked me if I was okay. “Of course,” I said. I told her I didn’t care if I had some silly old scar. That was good, she said, because from the look of it, I had other things to worry about.

  A few days later, when I had been at the hospital for about six weeks, Dad appeared alone in the doorway of my room. He told me we were going to check out, Rex Walls–style.

  “Are you sure this is okay?” I asked.

  “You just trust your old man,” Dad said.

  He unhooked my right arm from the sling over my head. As he held me close, I breathed in his familiar smell of Vitalis, whiskey, and cigarette smoke. It reminded me of home.

  Dad hurried down the hall with me in his arms. A nurse yelled for us to stop, but Dad broke into a run. He pushed open an emergency-exit door and sprinted down the stairs and out to the street. Our car, a beat-up Plymouth we called the Blue Goose, was parked around the corner, the engine idling. Mom was up front, Lori and Brian in the back with Juju. Dad slid me across the seat next to Mom and took the wheel.

  “You don’t have to worry anymore, baby,” Dad said. “You’re safe now.”

  A FEW DAYS AFTER Mom and Dad brought me home, I cooked myself some hot dogs. I was hungry, Mom was at work on a painting, and no one else was there to fix them for me.

  “Good for you,” Mom said when she saw me cooking. “You’ve got to get right back in the saddle. You can’t live in fear of something as basic as fire.”

  I didn’t. Instead, I became fascinated with it. Dad also thought I should face down my enemy, and he showed me how to pass my finger through a candle flame. I did it over and over, slowing my finger with each pass, watching the way it seemed to cut the flame in half, testing to see how much my finger could endure without actually getting burned. I was always on the lookout for bigger fires. Whenever neighbors burned trash, I ran over and watched the blaze trying to escape the garbage can. I’d inch closer and closer, feeling the heat against my face until I got so near that it became unbearable, and then I’d back away just enough to be able to stand it.

  The neighbor lady who had driven me to the hospital was surprised that I didn’t run in the opposite direction from any fire I saw. “Why the hell would she?” Dad bellowed with a proud grin. “She already fought the fire once and won.”

  I started stealing matches from Dad. I’d go behind the trailer and light them. I loved the scratching sound of the match against the sandpapery brown strip when I struck it, and the way the flame leaped out of the redcoated tip with a pop and a hiss. I’d feel its heat near my fingertips, then wave it out triumphantly. I lit pieces of paper and little piles of brush and held my breath until the moment when they seemed about to blaze up out of control. Then I’d stomp on the flames and call out the curse words Dad used, like. “Dumb-ass sonofabitch!” and. “Cocksucker!”

  One time I went out back with my favorite toy, a plastic Tinkerbell figurine. She was two inches tall, with yellow hair pulled up in a high ponytail and her hands on her hips in a confident, cocky way that I admired. I lit a match and held it close to Tinkerbell’s face to show her how it felt. She looked even more beautiful in the flame’s glow. When that match went out, I lit another one, and this time I held it really close to Tinkerbell’s face. Suddenly, her eyes grew wide, as if with fear; I realized, to my horror, that her face was starting to melt. I put out the match, but it was too late. Tinkerbell’s once perfect little nose had completely disappeared, and her saucy red lips had been replaced with an ugly, lopsided smear. I tried to smooth her features back to the way they had been, but I made them even worse. Almost immediately, her face cooled and hardened again. I put bandages on it. I wished I could perform a skin graft on Tinkerbell, but that would have meant cutting her into pieces. Even though her face was melted, she was still my favorite toy.

AD CAME HOME IN the middle of the night a few months later and roused all of us from bed.

  “Time to pull up stakes and leave this shit-hole behind,” he hollered.

  We had fifteen minutes to gather whatever we needed and pile into the car.

  “Is everything okay, Dad?” I asked. “Is someone after us?”

  “Don’t you worry,” Dad said. “You leave that to me. Don’t I always take care of you?”

  “’Course you do,” I said.

  “That’s my girl!” Dad said with a hug, then barked orders at us all to speed things up. He took the essentials—a big black cast-iron skillet and the Dutch oven, some army-surplus tin plates, a few knives, his pistol, and Mom’s archery set—and packed them in the trunk of the Blue Goose. He said we shouldn’t take much else, just what we needed to survive. Mom hurried out to the yard and started digging holes by the light of the moon, looking for our jar of cash. She had forgotten where she’d buried it.

  An hour passed before we finally tied Mom’s paintings on the top of the car, shoved whatever would fit into the trunk, and piled the overflow on the backseat and the car floor. Dad steered the Blue Goose through the dark, driving slowly so as not to alert anyone in the trailer park that we were, as Dad liked to put it, doing the skedaddle. He was grumbling that he couldn’t understand why the hell it took so long to grab what we needed and haul our asses into the car.

  “Dad!” I said. “I forgot Tinkerbell!”

  “Tinkerbell can make it on her own,” Dad said. “She’s like my brave little girl. You are brave and ready for adventure, right?”

  “I guess,” I said. I hoped whoever found Tinkerbell would love her despite her melted face. For comfort, I tried to cradle Quixote, our gray and white cat who was missing an ear, but he growled and scratched at my face. “Quiet, Quixote!” I said.

  “Cats don’t like to travel,” Mom explained.

  Anyone who didn’t like to travel wasn’t invited on our adventure, Dad said. He stopped the car, grabbed Quixote by the scruff of the neck, and tossed him out the window. Quixote landed with a screeching meow and a thud, Dad accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.

  “Don’t be so sentimental,” Mom said. She told me we could always get another cat, and now Quixote was going to be a wild cat, which was much more fun than being a house cat. Brian, afraid that Dad might toss Juju out the window as well, held the dog tight.

  To distract us kids, Mom got us singing songs like. “Don’t Fence Me In” and. “This Land Is Your Land,” and Dad led us in rousing renditions of. “Old Man River” and his favorite. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” After a while, I forgot about Quixote and Tinkerbell and the friends I’d left behind in the trailer park. Dad started telling us about all the exciting things we were going to do and how we were going to get rich once we reached the new place where we were going to live.

  “Where are we going, Dad?” I asked.

  “Wherever we end up,” he said.

  Later that night, Dad stopped the car out in the middle of the desert, and we slept under the stars. We had no pillows, but Dad said that was part of his plan. He was teaching us to have good posture. The Indians didn’t use pillows, either, he explained, and look how straight they stood. We did have our scratchy army-surplus blankets, so we spread them out and lay there, looking up at the field of stars. I told Lori how lucky we were to be sleeping out under the sky like Indians.

  “We could live like this forever,” I said.

  “I think we’re going to,” she said.

  W E WERE ALWAYS DOING the skedaddle, usually in the middle of the night. I sometimes heard Mom and Dad discussing the people who were after us. Dad called them henchmen, bloodsuckers, and the gestapo. Sometimes he would make mysterious references to executives from Standard Oil who were trying to steal the Texas land that Mom’s family owned, and FBI agents who were after Dad for some dark episode that he never told us about because he didn’t want to put us in danger, too.

  Dad was so sure a posse of federal investigators was on our trail that he smoked his unfiltered cigarettes from the wrong end. That way, he explained, he burned up the brand name, and if the people who were tracking us looked in his ashtray, they’d find unidentifiable butts instead of Pall Malls that could be traced to him. Mom, however, told us that the FBI wasn’t really after Dad; he just liked to say they were because it was more fun having the FBI on your tail than bill collectors.

  We moved around like nomads. We lived in dusty little mining towns in Nevada, Arizona, and California. They were usually nothing but a tiny cluster of sad, sunken shacks, a gas station, a dry-goods store, and a bar or two. They had names like Needles and Bouse, Pie, Goffs, and Why, and they were near places like the Superstition Mountains, the dried-up Soda Lake, and the Old Woman Mountain. The more desolate and isolated a place was, the better Mom and Dad liked it.

  Dad would get a job as an electrician or engineer in a gypsum or copper mine. Mom liked to say that Dad could talk a blue streak, spinning tales of jobs he’d never had and college degrees he’d never earned. He could get about any job he wanted, he just didn’t like keeping it for long. Sometimes he made money gambling or doing odd jobs. When he got bored or was fired or the unpaid bills piled up too high or the lineman from the electrical company found out he had hot-wired our trailer to the utility poles—or the FBI was closing in—we packed up in the middle of the night and took off, driving until Mom and Dad found another small town that caught their eye. Then we’d circle around, looking for houses with for-rent signs stuck in the front yard.

  Every now and then, we’d go stay with Grandma Smith, Mom’s mom, who lived in a big white house in Phoenix. Grandma Smith was a West Texas flapper who loved dancing and cussing and horses. She was known for being able to break the wildest broncs and had helped Grandpa run the ranch up near Fish Creek Canyon, Arizona, which was west of Bullhead City, not too far from the Grand Canyon. I thought Grandma Smith was great. But after a few weeks, she and Dad would always get into some nasty hollering match. It might start with Mom mentioning how short we were on cash. Then Grandma would make a snide comment about Dad being shiftless. Dad would say something about selfish old crones with more money than they knew what to do with, and soon enough they’d be face-to-face in what amounted to a full-fledged cussing contest.

  “You flea-bitten drunk!” Grandma would scream.

  “You goddamned flint-faced hag!” Dad would shout back.

  “You no-good two-bit pud-sucking bastard!”

  “You scaly castrating banshee bitch!”

  Dad had the more inventive vocabulary, but Grandma Smith could outshout him; plus, she had the home-court advantage. A time would come when Dad had had enough and he’d tell us kids to get in the car. Grandma would yell at Mom not to let that worthless horse’s ass take her grandchildren. Mom would shrug and say there was nothing she could do about it, he was her husband. Off we’d go, heading out into the desert in search of another house for rent in another little mining town.

  Some of the people who lived in those towns had been there for years. Others were rootless, like us—just passing through. They were gamblers or ex-cons or war veterans or what Mom called loose women. There were old prospectors, their faces wrinkled and brown from the sun, like dried-up apples. The kids were lean and hard, with calluses on their hands and feet. We’d make friends with them, but not close friends, because we knew we’d be moving on sooner or later.

  We might enroll in school, but not always. Mom and Dad did most of our teaching. Mom had us all reading books without pictures by the time we were five, and Dad taught us math. He also taught us the things that were really important and useful, like how to tap out Morse code and how we should never eat the liver of a polar bear because all the vitamin A in it could kill us. He showed us how to aim and fire his pistol, how to shoot Mom’s bow and arrows, and how to throw a knife by the blade so that it landed in the middle of a target with a satisfying thwock. By the time I was four, I was pre
tty good with Dad’s pistol, a big black six-shot revolver, and could hit five out of six beer bottles at thirty paces. I’d hold the gun with both hands, sight down the barrel, and squeeze the trigger slowly and smoothly until, with a loud clap, the gun kicked and the bottle exploded. It was fun. Dad said my sharpshooting would come in handy if the feds ever surrounded us.

  Mom had grown up in the desert. She loved the dry, crackling heat, the way the sky at sunset looked like a sheet of fire, and the overwhelming emptiness and severity of all that open land that had once been a huge ocean bed. Most people had trouble surviving in the desert, but Mom thrived there. She knew how to get by on next to nothing. She showed us which plants were edible and which were toxic. She was able to find water when no one else could, and she knew how little of it you really needed. She taught us that you could wash yourself up pretty clean with just a cup of water. She said it was good for you to drink unpurified water, even ditch water, as long as animals were drinking from it. Chlorinated city water was for namby-pambies, she said. Water from the wild helped build up your antibodies. She also thought toothpaste was for namby-pambies. At bedtime we’d shake a little baking soda into the palm of one hand, mix in a dash of hydrogen peroxide, then use our fingers to clean our teeth with the fizzing paste.

  I loved the desert, too. When the sun was in the sky, the sand would be so hot that it would burn your feet if you were the kind of kid who wore shoes, but since we always went barefoot, our soles were as tough and thick as cowhide. We’d catch scorpions and snakes and horny toads. We’d search for gold, and when we couldn’t find it, we’d collect other valuable rocks, like turquoise and garnets. There’d be a cool spell come sundown, when the mosquitoes would fly in so thick that the air would grow dark with them, then at nightfall, it turned so cold that we usually needed blankets.

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