The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  When Mom got home, I gave her the man’s card and told her about his visit. I was still in a lather. I said that since neither she nor Dad could be bothered to work, and since she refused to leave Dad, the government was going to do the job of splitting up the family for her.

  I expected Mom to come back with one of her choice remarks, but she listened to my tirade in silence. Then she said she needed to consider her options. She sat down at her easel. She had run out of canvases and had begun painting on plywood, so she picked up a piece of wood, got out her palette, squeezed some paints onto it, and selected a brush.

  “What are you doing?” I asked.

  “I’m thinking,” she said.

  Mom worked quickly, automatically, as if she knew exactly what it was she wanted to paint. A figure took shape in the middle of the board. It was a woman from the waist up, with her arms raised. Blue concentric circles appeared around the waist. The blue was water. Mom was painting a picture of a woman drowning in a stormy lake. When she was finished, she sat for a long time in silence, staring at the picture.

  “So what are we going to do?” I finally asked.

  “Jeannette, you’re so focused it’s scary.”

  “You didn’t answer my question,” I said.

  “I’ll get a job, Jeannette,” she snapped. She threw her paintbrush into the jar that held her turpentine and sat there looking at the drowning woman.

  Q UALIFIED TEACHERS were so scarce in McDowell County that two of the teachers I’d have at Welch High School had never been to college. Mom was able to land a job by the end of the week. We spent those days frantically trying to clean the house in anticipation of the return of the child-welfare man. It was a hopeless task, given all the stacks of Mom’s junk and the hole in the ceiling and the disgusting yellow bucket in the kitchen. However, for some reason he never came back.

  Mom’s job was teaching remedial reading in an elementary school in Davy, a coal-mining camp twelve miles north of Welch. Since we still had no car, the school’s principal arranged for Mom to get a ride with another teacher, Lucy Jo Rose, who had just graduated from Bluefield State College and was so fat she could barely squeeze behind the steering wheel of her brown Dodge Dart. Lucy Jo, whom the principal had more or less ordered to perform this service, took an instant dislike to Mom. She refused to say much during the trip, instead playing Barbara Mandrell tapes and smoking filter-tip Kools the entire time. As soon as Mom got out of the car, Lucy Jo made a big show of spraying Mom’s seat with Lysol. Mom, for her part, felt that Lucy Jo was woefully uninformed. When Mom mentioned Jackson Pollock once, Lucy Jo said that she had Polish blood and therefore did not appreciate Mom using derogatory names for Polish people.

  Mom had the same problems she’d had in Battle Mountain with organizing her paperwork and disciplining her students. At least one morning a week, she’d throw a tantrum and refuse to go to work, and Lori, Brian, and I would have to get her collected and down to the street where Lucy Jo waited with a scowl, blue smoke chugging up out of the Dart’s rusted-through tailpipe.

  But at least we had money. While I’d been bringing in a little extra cash babysitting, Brian was cutting other people’s weeds, and Lori had a paper route, it didn’t add up to much. Now Mom got paid about seven hundred dollars a month, and the first time I saw her gray-green paycheck, with its detachable stub and automated signatures, I thought our troubles were over. On paydays, Mom took us kids down to the big bank across from the courthouse to cash the check. After the cashier gave her the money, Mom went into a corner of the bank and stuffed it into a sock she’d safety-pinned to her bra. Then we all scurried around to the power company and the water authority and the landlord, paying off our bills with tens and twenties. The clerks averted their eyes as Mom fished the sock out of her bra, explaining to everyone within earshot that this was her way of making sure she was never pickpocketed.

  Mom also bought some electric heaters and a refrigerator on layaway, and we’d go to the appliance store and put down a few dollars every month, figuring they’d be ours by wintertime. Mom always had at least one. “extravagance” on layaway, something we really didn’t need—a tasseled silk throw or a cut crystal vase—because she said the surest way to feel rich was to invest in quality nonessentials. After that, we’d go to the grocery store at the bottom of the hill and stock up on staples such as beans and rice, powdered milk, and canned goods. Mom always bought the dented cans, even if they weren’t marked down, because she said they needed to be loved, too.

  At home, we’d empty Mom’s purse onto the sofa bed and count the remaining money. There’d be hundreds of dollars, more than enough to cover our expenses until the end of the month, I thought. But month after month, the money would disappear before the next paycheck arrived, and once more I’d find myself rooting in the garbage at school for food.

  Toward the end of one month that fall, Mom announced that we had only one dollar for dinner. That was enough to buy one gallon of Neapolitan ice cream, which she said was not only delicious but had lots of calcium and would be good for our bones. We brought the ice cream home, and Brian pulled apart the carton and cut the block into five even slices. I called dibs on first choice. Mom told us to savor it because we had no money for dinner the next night.

  “Mom, what happened to it all?” I asked as we ate our ice-cream slices.

  “Gone, gone, gone!” she said. “It’s all gone.”

  “But where?” Lori asked.

  “I’ve got a houseful of kids and a husband who soaks up booze like a sponge,” Mom said. “Making ends meet is harder than you think.”

  It couldn’t be that hard, I thought. Other moms did it. I tried quizzing her. Was she spending the money on herself? Was she giving it to Dad? Was Dad stealing it? Or did we go through it quickly? I couldn’t get an answer. “Give us the money,” I said. “We’ll work out a budget and stick to it.”

  “Easy for you to say,” Mom replied.

  Lori and I did work out a budget, and we included a generous allowance for Mom to cover luxuries such as extra-large Hershey bars and cut crystal vases. If we kept to our budget, we believed, we could afford new clothes and shoes and coats, and buy a ton of coal at the cheaper off-season price. Eventually, we could install insulation, run a water pipe into the house, and maybe even add a water heater. But Mom never turned the money over to us. So even though she had a steady job, we were living pretty much like we had before.

  I’ D STARTED SEVENTH grade that fall, which meant attending Welch High School. It was a big school, near the top of a hill looking down on the town, with a steep road leading up. Kids were bused in from way up in the hollows and from coal camps such as Davy and Hemphill that were too small to have their own high school. Some of the kids looked as poor as me, with home-cut hair and holes in the toes of their shoes. I found it a lot easier to fit in than at Welch Elementary.

  Dinitia Hewitt was there, too. That summer morning I’d spent swimming with Dinitia at the public pool was the happiest time I’d had in Welch, but she never invited me back, and even though it was a public pool, I didn’t feel I could go to the free swim unless I had an invitation from her. I saw her again only when school started, and neither of us ever mentioned that day at the pool. I guess we both knew that, given the way people in Welch thought about mixing, it would be too weird for us to try to be close friends. During lunch, Dinitia hung out with the other black kids, but we had a study hall together and passed notes to each other there.

  By the time she got to Welch High, Dinitia had changed. The spark had gone out of her. She started drinking malt ale during school. She’d fill a soda can with Mad Dog 20/20 and carry it right into class. I tried to find out what was wrong, but all I could pry from her was that her mother’s new boyfriend had moved in with them, and the fit was a little tight.

  One day just before Christmas, Dinitia passed me a note in study hall asking for girls’ names that began with D. I wrote down as many as I could think of—Diane, Donna,
Dora, Dreama, Diandra—and then wrote, Why? She passed a note back saying, I think I’m pregnant.

  After Christmas, Dinitia did not return to school. When a month had gone by, I walked around the mountain to her house and knocked on the door. A man opened it and stared at me. He had skin like an iron skillet and nicotine-yellow eyes. He left the storm door shut, so I had to speak through the screen.

  “Is Dinitia home?” I asked.

  “Why you want to know?”

  “I want to see her.”

  “She don’t want to see you,” he said and shut the door.

  I saw Dinitia around town once or twice after that, and we waved but never spoke again. Later, we all learned she’d been arrested for stabbing her mother’s boyfriend to death.

  The other girls talked endlessly among themselves about who still had their cherry and how far they would let their boyfriend go. The world seemed divided into girls with boyfriends and girls without them. It was the distinction that mattered the most, practically the only one that did matter. But I knew that boys were dangerous. They’d say they loved you, but they were always after something.

  Even though I didn’t trust boys, I sure did wish one would show some interest in me. Kenny Hall, the old guy down the street who was still pining away for me, didn’t count. If any boy was interested in me, I wondered if I’d have the wherewithal to tell him, when he tried to go too far, that I was not that kind of girl. But the truth was, I didn’t need to worry much about fending off advances, seeing how—as Ernie Goad told me on every available occasion—I was pork-chop ugly. And by that he meant so ugly that if I wanted a dog to play with me, I’d have to tie a pork chop around my neck.

  I had what Mom called distinctive looks. That was one way of putting it. I was nearly six feet tall, pale as a frog’s underbelly, and had bright red hair. My elbows were like flying wedges and my knees like tea saucers. But my most prominent feature—my worst—was my teeth. They weren’t rotten or crooked. In fact, they were big, healthy things. But they stuck straight out. The top row thrust forward so enthusiastically that I had trouble closing my mouth completely, and I was always stretching my upper lip to try to cover them. When I laughed, I put my hand over my mouth.

  Lori told me I had an exaggerated view of how bad my teeth looked. “They’re just a little bucked,” she’d say. “They have a certain Pippi Long-stockingish charm.” Mom told me my overbite gave my face character. Brian said they’d come in handy if I ever needed to eat an apple through the knothole in a fence.

  What I needed, I knew, was braces. Every time I looked in the mirror, I longed for what the other kids called a barbed-wire mouth. Mom and Dad had no money for braces, of course—none of us kids had ever even been to the dentist—but since I’d been babysitting and doing other kids’ homework for cash, I resolved to save up until I could afford braces myself. I had no idea how much they cost, so I approached the only girl in my class who wore braces and, after complimenting her orthodontia, casually asked how much it had set her folks back. When she said twelve hundred dollars, I almost fell over. I was getting a dollar an hour to babysit. I usually worked five or six hours a week, which meant that if I saved every penny I earned, it would take about four years to raise the money.

  I decided to make my own braces.

  I went to the library and asked for a book on orthodontia. The librarian looked at me kind of funny and said she didn’t have one, so I realized I’d have to figure things out as I went along. The process involved some experimentation and several false starts. At first I simply used a rubber band. Before going to bed, I would stretch it all the way around the entire set of my upper teeth. The rubber band was small but thick and had a good, tight fit. But it pressed down uncomfortably on my tongue, and sometimes it would pop off during the night and I’d wake up choking on it. Usually, however, it stayed on all night, and in the morning my gums would be sore from the pressure on my teeth.

  That seemed like a promising sign, but I began to worry that instead of pushing my front teeth in, the rubber band might be pulling my back teeth forward. So I got some larger rubber bands and wore them around my whole head, pressing against my front teeth. The problem with this technique was that the rubber bands were tight—they had to be, to work—so I’d wake up with headaches and deep red marks where the rubber bands had dug into the sides of my face.

  I needed more advanced technology. I bent a metal coat hanger into a horseshoe shape to fit the back of my head. Then I curled the two ends outward, so when the coat hanger was around my head, the ends angled away from my face and formed hooks to hold the rubber band in place. When I tried it on, the coat hanger dug into the back of my skull, so I used a Kotex sanitary napkin for padding.

  The contraption worked perfectly, except that I had to sleep flat on my back, which I always had trouble doing, especially when it was cold: I liked to snuggle down into the blankets. Also, the rubber bands still popped off in the middle of the night. Another drawback was that the device took a lot of time to put on properly. I’d wait until it was dark so no one else would see it.

  One night I was lying in my bunk wearing my elaborate coat-hanger braces when the bedroom door opened. I could make out a dim figure in the darkness. “Who’s there?” I called out, but because I had my braces on, it came out sounding like. “Phoof der?”

  “It’s your old man,” Dad answered. “What’s with the mumbling?” He came over to my bunk, held up his Zippo, and flicked it. A flame shot up. “What the Sam Hill’s that on your head?”

  “My brafef,” I said.

  “Your what?”

  I took off the contraption and explained to Dad that, because my front teeth stuck out so badly, I needed braces, but they cost twelve hundred dollars, so I had made my own.

  “Put them back on,” Dad said. He studied my handiwork intently, then nodded. “Those braces are a goddamn feat of engineering genius,” he said. “You take after your old man.”

  He took my chin and pulled my mouth open. “And I think they’re by God working.”

  T HAT YEAR I STARTED working for the school newspaper, The Maroon Wave. I wanted to join some club or group or organization where I could feel I belonged, where people wouldn’t move away if I sat down next to them. I was a good runner, and I thought of going out for the track team, but you had to pay for your uniform, and Mom said we couldn’t afford it. You didn’t have to buy a uniform or a musical instrument or pay any dues to work on the Wave.

  Miss Jeanette Bivens, one of the high school English teachers, was the Wave’s faculty adviser. She was a quiet, precise woman who had been at Welch High School so long that she had also been Dad’s English teacher. She was the first person in his life, he once told me, who’d showed any faith in him. She thought he was a talented writer and had encouraged him to submit a twenty-four-line poem called. “Summer Storm” to a statewide poetry competition. When it won first prize, one of Dad’s other teachers wondered aloud if the son of two lowlife alcoholics like Ted and Erma Walls could have written it himself. Dad was so insulted that he walked out of school. It was Miss Bivens who convinced him to return and earn his diploma, telling him he had what it took to be somebody. Dad had named me after her; Mom suggested adding the second N to make it more elegant and French.

  Miss Bivens told me that as far as she could remember, I was the only seventh-grader who’d ever worked for the Wave. I started out as a proofreader. On winter evenings, instead of huddling around the stove at 93 Little Hobart Street, I’d go down to the warm, dry offices of The Welch Daily News, where The Maroon Wave was typeset, laid out, and printed. I loved the newsroom’s purposeful atmosphere. Teletype machines clattered against the wall as spools of paper carrying news from around the world piled up on the floor. Banks of fluorescent lights hung down eighteen inches above the slanted, glass-topped desks where men wearing green eyeshades conferred over stacks of copy and photographs.

  I’d take the Wave galleys and sit at one of the desks, my back firm, a penci
l behind my ear, studying the pages for typos. The years I’d spent helping Mom check spelling on her students’ homework had given me lots of practice for this line of work. I’d make corrections with a light blue felt marker that couldn’t be picked up by the camera that photographed the pages for printing. The typesetters would retype the lines I’d corrected and print them out. I’d run the corrected lines through the hot-wax machine that made the back side sticky, then cut out the lines with an X-Acto knife and fit them over the original lines.

  I tried to remain inconspicuous in the newsroom, but one of the typesetters, a crabbed, chain-smoking woman who always wore a hairnet, took a dislike to me. She thought I was dirty. When I walked by, she’d turn to the other typesetters and say loudly, “Y’all smell something funny?” Just like Lucy Jo Rose had done to Mom, she took to spraying disinfectant and air freshener in my general direction. Then she complained to the editor, Mr. Muckenfuss, that I might have head lice and could infect the entire staff. Mr. Muckenfuss conferred with Miss Bivens, and she told me that as long as I kept clean, she’d fight for me. That was when I started going back to Grandpa and Uncle Stanley’s apartment for a weekly bath, though when I was there, I made sure to give Uncle Stanley a wide berth.

  Whenever I was at the Daily News, I watched the editors and reporters at work in the newsroom. They kept a police scanner on all the time, and when an accident or fire or crime was called in, an editor would send a reporter to find out what had happened. He’d come back a couple of hours later and type up a story, and it would appear in the next day’s paper. This appealed to me mightily. Until then, when I thought of writers, what first came to mind was Mom, hunched over her typewriter, clattering away on her novels and plays and philosophies of life and occasionally receiving a personalized rejection letter. But a newspaper reporter, instead of holing up in isolation, was in touch with the rest of the world. What the reporter wrote influenced what people thought about and talked about the next day; he knew what was really going on. I decided I wanted to be one of the people who knew what was really going on.

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