The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  When my work was done, I read the stories on the wire services. Because we never subscribed to newspapers or magazines, I’d never known what was going on in the world, except for the skewed version of events we got from Mom and Dad—one in which every politician was a crook, every cop was a thug, and every criminal had been framed. I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.

  A T TIMES I FELT LIKE I was failing Maureen, like I wasn’t keeping my promise that I’d protect her—the promise I’d made to her when I held her on the way home from the hospital after she’d been born. I couldn’t get her what she needed most—hot baths, a warm bed, steaming bowls of Cream of Wheat before school in the morning—but I tried to do little things. When she turned seven that year, I told Brian and Lori that she needed a special birthday celebration. We knew Mom and Dad wouldn’t get her presents, so we saved for months, went to the Dollar General Store, and bought her a toy set of kitchen appliances that were pretty realistic: The agitator in the washing machine twisted around, and the refrigerator had metal shelves inside. We figured when she was playing, she could at least pretend to have clean clothes and regular meals.

  “Tell me again about California,” Maureen said after she opened the presents. Although she had been born there, she couldn’t remember it. She always loved hearing our stories about life in the California desert, so we told them to her again, about how the sun shone all the time and it was so warm that we ran around barefoot even in the dead of winter, about how we ate lettuce in the farm fields and picked carloads of green grapes and slept on blankets under the stars. We told her that she was blond because she’d been born in a state where so much gold had been mined, and she had blue eyes the color of the ocean that washed onto California’s beaches. “That’s where I’m going to live when I grow up,” Maureen said.

  Although she longed for California, the magical place of light and warmth, she seemed happier than the rest of us kids in Welch. She was a storybook-beautiful girl, with long blond hair and startling blue eyes. She spent so much time with the families of her friends that she often didn’t seem like a member of our family. A lot of her friends were Pentecostals whose parents held that Mom and Dad were disgracefully irresponsible and took it upon themselves to save Maureen’s soul. They took her up like a surrogate daughter and brought her with them to revival meetings and to snake-handling services over in Jolo.

  Under their influence, Maureen developed a powerful religious streak. She got baptized more than once and was all the time coming home proclaiming that she’d been born again. Once she insisted that the devil had taken the form of a hoop snake with its tail in its mouth, and had rolled after her down the mountain, hissing that it would claim her soul. Brian told Mom we needed to keep Maureen away from those nutty Pentecostals, but Mom said we all came to religion in our individual ways and we each needed to respect the religious practices of others, seeing as it was up to every human being to find his or her own way to heaven.

  Mom could be as wise as a philosopher, but her moods were getting on my nerves. At times she’d be happy for days on end, announcing that she had decided to think only positive thoughts, because if you think positive thoughts, then positive things will happen to you. But the positive thoughts would give way to negative thoughts, and the negative thoughts seemed to swoop into her mind the way a big flock of black crows takes over the landscape, sitting thick in the trees and on the fence rails and lawns, staring at you in ominous silence. When that happened, Mom would refuse to get out of bed, even when Lucy Jo showed up to drive her to school, honking impatiently.

  One morning toward the end of the school year, Mom had a complete meltdown. She was supposed to write up evaluations of her students’ progress, but she’d spent every free minute painting, and now the deadline was on her and the evaluations were unwritten. The remedial reading program was going to lose its funding, and the principal would be either furious or just plain disgusted. Mom couldn’t bear to face the woman. Lucy Jo, who’d been waiting for Mom in the Dart, drove off without her, and Mom lay wrapped up in blankets on the sofa bed, sobbing about how much she hated her life.

  Dad wasn’t there, and neither was Maureen. Brian, typically, started doing an impersonation of Mom carrying on and sobbing, but no one was laughing, so he picked up his books and walked out of the house. Lori sat next to Mom on the bed, trying to console her. I just stood in the doorway with my arms crossed, staring at her.

  It was hard for me to believe that this woman with her head under the blankets, feeling sorry for herself and boohooing like a five-year-old, was my mother. Mom was thirty-eight, not young but not old, either. In twenty-five years, I told myself, I’d be as old as she was now. I had no idea what my life would be like then, but as I gathered up my schoolbooks and walked out the door, I swore to myself that it would never be like Mom’s, that I would not be crying my eyes out in an unheated shack in some godforsaken holler.

  I walked down Little Hobart Street. It had rained the night before, and the only sound was the gurgle of the runoff pouring down through the eroded gullies on the hillside. Thin streams of muddy water flowed across the road, seeping into my shoes and soaking my socks. The sole of my right shoe had come loose and flapped with each step.

  Lori caught up with me, and we walked for a while in silence. “Poor Mom,” Lori finally said. “She’s got it tough.”

  “No tougher than the rest of us,” I said.

  “Yes, she does,” Lori said. “She’s the one who’s married to Dad.”

  “That was her choice,” I said. “She needs to be firmer, lay down the law for Dad instead of getting hysterical all the time. What Dad needs is a strong woman.”

  “A caryatid wouldn’t be strong enough for Dad.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Pillars shaped like women,” Lori said. “The ones holding up those Greek temples with their heads. I was looking at a picture of some the other day, thinking, Those women have the second toughest job in the world.”

  I disagreed with Lori. I thought a strong woman would be able to manage Dad. What he needed was someone who was focused and determined, someone who would set ultimatums and stick to them. I figured I was strong enough to keep Dad in line. When Mom told me I was so focused it was scary, I know she didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I took it that way.

  My chance to prove that Dad could be managed came that summer, once school was out. Mom had to spend eight weeks up in Charleston, taking college courses to renew her teaching certificate. Or so she said. I wondered if she was looking for a way to get away from us all for a while. Lori, because of her good grades and art portfolio, had been accepted into a government-sponsored summer camp for students with special aptitudes. That left me, at thirteen, the head of the household.

  Before Mom left, she gave me two hundred dollars. That was plenty, she said, to buy food for Brian and Maureen and me for two months and pay the water and electricity bills. I did the math. It came out to twenty-five dollars a week, or a little over three-fifty a day. I worked up a budget and calculated that we could indeed squeak by if I made extra money babysitting.

  For the first week, everything went according to plan. I bought food and made meals for Brian, Maureen, and me. It had been almost a year since the welfare man had scared us into cleaning the house, and it was once again an unholy mess. Mom would have had a fit if I had thrown anything out, but I spent hours straightening up and trying to organize the huge stacks of junk.

  Dad usually stayed out at night until we were in bed, and he would still be asleep when we got up and left in the morning. But one afternoon about a week after Mom had gone to Charleston, he caught me alone in the house.

  “Hon, I need some money,” he said.

  “For what?”

  “Beer and cigarettes.”

  “I’ve got sort of a tight budget, Dad.”

don’t need much. Just five dollars.”

  That was two days’ worth of food. A half gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, two cans of jack mackerel, a small bag of apples, and some popcorn. And Dad wasn’t even doing me the honor of pretending he needed the money for something useful. He also didn’t argue or wheedle or cajole or ratchet the charm way up. He simply waited for me to fork over the cash, as if he knew I didn’t have it in me to say no. And I didn’t. I took out my green plastic change purse and pulled out a crumpled five and passed it over slowly.

  “You’re a doll,” Dad said and gave me a kiss.

  I pulled my head back. Giving him that money pissed me off. I was mad at myself but even madder at Dad. He knew I had a soft spot for him the way no one else in the family did, and he was taking advantage of it. I felt used. The girls at school always talked about how this or that guy was a user and how such and such a girl got used, and now I understood, from deep inside, the meaning of that word.

  When Dad asked me for another five bucks a few days later, I gave it to him. It made me feel sick thinking I was now ten dollars off budget. In a few more days, he asked for twenty.

  “Twenty dollars?” I couldn’t believe Dad was pushing me this far. “Why twenty?”

  “Goddammit, since when do I have to explain myself to my children?” Dad asked. In the next breath, he told me that he had borrowed a friend’s car and needed to buy gas so he could drive to Gary for a business meeting. “I need money to make money. I’ll pay you back.” He looked at me, defying me to disbelieve him.

  “I’ve got bills piling up,” I said. I heard my voice growing shrill, but I couldn’t control it. “I’ve got kids to feed.”

  “Don’t you worry about food and bills,” Dad said. “That’s for me to worry about. Okay?”

  I put my hand in my pocket. I didn’t know if I was reaching for my money or trying to protect it.

  “Have I ever let you down?” Dad asked.

  I’d heard that question at least two hundred times, and I’d always answered it the way I knew he wanted me to, because I thought it was my faith in Dad that had kept him going all those years. I was about to tell him the truth for the first time, about to let him know that he’d let us all down plenty, but then I stopped. I couldn’t do it. Dad, meanwhile, was saying he was not asking me for the money; he was telling me to give it to him. He needed it. Did I think he was a liar when he said he’d get it back to me?

  I gave him the twenty dollars.

  That Saturday, Dad told me that to pay me back, he had to earn the money first. He wanted me to accompany him on a business trip. He said I needed to wear something nice. He went through my dresses hanging from the pipe in the bedroom and picked out one with blue flowers that buttoned up the front. He had borrowed a car, an old pea-green Plymouth with a broken passenger-side window, and we drove through the mountains to a nearby town, stopping at a roadside bar.

  The place was dark and as hazy as a battlefield from the cigarette smoke. Neon signs for Pabst Blue Ribbon and Old Milwaukee glowed on the walls. Gaunt men with creased cheeks and women with dark red lipstick sat along the bar. A couple of guys wearing steel-toed boots played pool.

  Dad and I took seats at the bar. Dad ordered Buds for himself and me, even though I told him I wanted a Sprite. After a while, he got up to play pool, and no sooner had he left his stool than a man came over and sat on it. He had a black mustache that curved around the sides of his mouth and coal grime under his fingernails. He poured salt in his beer, which Dad said some guys did because they liked to make extra foam.

  “Name’s Robbie,” he said. “That your man there?” He gestured toward Dad.

  “I’m his daughter,” I said.

  He took a lick of foam and started asking me about myself, leaning in close as he talked. “How old are you, girl?”

  “How old do you think?” I asked.

  “About seventeen.”

  I smiled, putting my hand over my teeth.

  “Know how to dance?” he asked. I shook my head. “Sure you do,” he said and pulled me off the stool. I looked over at Dad, who grinned and waved.

  On the jukebox, Kitty Wells was singing about married men and honky-tonk angels. Robbie held me close, with his hand on the small of my back. We danced to a second song, and when we sat down again on the stools facing the pool table, our backs against the bar, he slid his arm behind me. That arm made me tense but not entirely unhappy. No one had flirted with me since Billy Deel, unless you counted Kenny Hall.

  Still, I knew what Robbie was after. I was going to tell him I wasn’t that sort of girl, but then I thought he would say I was getting ahead of myself. After all, the only thing he’d done was dance me slow and put his arm around me. I caught Dad’s eye. I expected him to come barreling across the room and whock Robbie with a pool cue for getting fresh with his daughter. Instead, he hollered to Robbie, “Do something worthwhile with those damned hands of yours. Get over here and play me a game of pool.”

  They ordered whiskeys and chalked their cues. Dad held back at first and lost some money to Robbie, then started upping the stakes and beating him. After every game, Robbie wanted to dance with me again. It went on that way for a couple of hours, with Robbie getting sloppy drunk, losing to Dad, and groping me when we danced or sat at the bar between games. All Dad said to me was. “Keep your legs crossed, honey, and keep ’em crossed tight.”

  After Dad had taken him for about eighty bucks, Robbie started muttering angrily to himself. He snapped down the cue chalk, sending up a puff of blue powder, and missed a final shot. He flung his cue on the table and announced he’d had enough, then sat down next to me. His eyes were bleary. He kept saying he couldn’t believe that old fart had beat him out of eighty bucks, as if he couldn’t decide whether he was pissed off or impressed.

  Then he told me he lived in an apartment over the bar. He had a Roy Acuff record that wasn’t on the jukebox, and he wanted us to go upstairs and listen to it. If all he wanted to do was dance some more and maybe kiss a little, I could handle that. But I had the feeling he thought he was entitled to something in return for losing so much money.

  “I’m not sure,” I said.

  “Aw, come on,” he said and shouted at Dad, “I’m going to take your girl upstairs.”

  “Sure,” Dad said. “Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He pointed his pool cue at me. “Holler if you need me,” he said and winked at me as if to say he knew I could take care of myself, that this was just a part of my job.

  So, with Dad’s blessing, I went upstairs. Inside the apartment, we pushed through a curtain made from strands of beer-can pull tabs linked together. Two men sat on a couch watching wrestling on television. When they saw me, they grinned wolfishly at Robbie, who put on the Roy Acuff record without turning down the television. He pressed me to him and started dancing again, but I knew this was not going in a direction I wanted, and I resisted him. His hands dropped down. He squeezed my bottom, pushed me onto the bed, and began kissing me. “All right!” one friend said, and the other yelled. “Get it on!”

  “I’m not that kind of girl,” I said, but he ignored me. When I tried rolling away, he pinned back my arms. Dad had said to holler if I needed him, but I didn’t want to scream. I was so angry at Dad that I couldn’t bear the idea of him rescuing me. Robbie, meanwhile, was saying something about me being too bony to screw.

  “Yeah, most guys don’t like me,” I said. “Besides being skinny, I got these scars.”

  “Oh, sure,” he said. But he paused.

  I rolled off the bed, quickly unbuttoned my dress at the waist, and pulled it open to show him the scar on my right side. For all he knew, my entire torso was one giant mass of scar tissue. Robbie looked uncertainly at his friends. It was like seeing a gap in a fence.

  “I think I hear Dad calling,” I said, then made for the door.

  In the car, Dad took out the money he’d won and counted off forty dollars, which he passed to me.
r />   “We make a good team,” he said.

  I felt like throwing the money at him, but we kids needed it, so I put the bills in my purse. We hadn’t scammed Robbie, but we’d worked him in a way that felt downright sleazy, and I’d ended up in a tight spot. If Robbie had been set up by Dad, so had I.

  “You upset about something, Mountain Goat?”

  For a moment I considered not telling Dad. I was afraid there’d be bloodshed, since he was always going on about how he’d kill anyone who laid a finger on me. Then I decided I wanted to see the guy pummeled. “Dad, that creep attacked me when we were upstairs.”

  “I’m sure he just pawed you some,” Dad said as we pulled out of the parking lot. “I knew you could handle yourself.”

  The road back to Welch was dark and empty. The wind whistled through the broken window on my side of the Plymouth. Dad lit a cigarette. “It was like that time I threw you into the sulfur spring to teach you to swim,” he said. “You might have been convinced you were going to drown, but I knew you’d do just fine.”

  T HE NEXT EVENING Dad disappeared. After a couple of days, he wanted me to go out with him again to some bar, but I said no. Dad got ticked off and said that if I wasn’t going to team up with him, the least I could do was stake him some pool-shooting money. I found myself forking over a twenty, and then another in a few days.

  Mom had told me to expect a check in early July for the lease on her Texas land. She also warned me that Dad would try to get his hands on it. Dad actually waited at the foot of the hill for the mailman and took it from him on the day it arrived, but when the mailman told me what had happened, I ran down Little Hobart Street and caught Dad before he got into town. I told him Mom had wanted me to hide the check until she returned. “Let’s hide it together,” Dad said and suggested we stash it in the 1933 World Book Encyclopedia Mom got free from the library—under. “currency.”

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