The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  The next day when I went to rehide the check, it was gone. Dad swore he had no idea what happened to it. I knew he was lying, but I also knew if I accused him, he’d deny it and there’d be a loud yelling match that wouldn’t do me any good. For the first time, I had a clear idea of what Mom was up against. Being a strong woman was harder than I had thought. Mom still had more than a month in Charleston; we were about to run out of grocery money; and my babysitting income wasn’t making up the difference.

  I had seen a help-wanted sign in the window of a jewelry store on McDowell Street called Becker’s Jewel Box. I put on a lot of makeup, my best dress—it was purple, with tiny white dots and a sash that tied in the back—and a pair of Mom’s high heels, since we wore the same size. Then I walked around the mountain to apply for the job.

  I pushed open the door, jangling the bells hanging overhead. Becker’s Jewel Box was a fancy store, the kind of place I never had occasion to go into, with a humming air conditioner and buzzing fluorescent lights. Locked glass display cases held rings and necklaces and brooches, and a few guitars and banjos hung on the pine-board-paneled walls to diversify the merchandise. Mr. Becker was leaning on the counter with his fingers interlocked. He had a stomach so big that his thin black belt reminded me of the equator circling the globe.

  I was afraid that Mr. Becker wouldn’t give me the job if he knew I was only thirteen, so I told him I was seventeen. He hired me on the spot for forty dollars a week, in cash. I was thrilled. It was my first real job. Babysitting and tutoring and doing other kids’ homework and mowing lawns and redeeming bottles and selling scrap metal didn’t count. Forty dollars a week was serious money.

  I liked the work. People buying jewelry were always happy, and even though Welch was a poor town, Becker’s Jewel Box had plenty of customers: older miners buying their wives a mother’s pin, a brooch with a birthstone for each of her children; teenage couples shopping for engagement rings, the girl giggling with excitement, the boy acting proud and manly.

  During the slow spells, Mr. Becker and I watched the Watergate hearings on a little black-and-white TV. Mr. Becker was captivated by John Dean’s wife, Maureen, who sat behind her husband when he was testifying and wore elegant clothes and pulled her blond hair back in a tight bun. “Hot damn, that’s one classy broad,” Mr. Becker would say. Sometimes, after watching Maureen Dean, Mr. Becker got so randy that he came behind me while I was cleaning the display case and rubbed up against my backside. I’d pull his hands off and walk away without saying a word, and that horndog would return to the television as if nothing had happened.

  When Mr. Becker went across the street to the Mountaineer Diner for lunch, he always took the key to the display case that held the diamond rings. If customers came in wanting to look at the rings, I had to run across the street to get him. Once he forgot to take the key, and when he returned, he made a big point of counting the rings in front of me. It was his way of letting me know he didn’t trust me in the slightest. One day after Mr. Becker had come back from lunch and ostentatiously checked the display cases, I was so furious that I looked around to see if there was anything in the entire darn store worth stealing. Necklaces, brooches, banjos—none of them did anything for me. And then the watch display caught my eye.

  I had always wanted a watch. Unlike diamonds, watches were practical. They were for people on the run, people with appointments to keep and schedules to meet. That was the kind of person I wanted to be. Dozens of watches ticked away in the counter behind the cash register. There was one in particular that made me ache. It had four different-colored bands—black, brown, blue, and white—so you could change your watchband to match your outfit. It had a price tag of $29.95, ten dollars short of a week’s salary. But if I wanted, it could be mine in an instant, and for free. The more I thought about that watch, the more it called to me.

  One day the woman who worked at the store Mr. Becker owned in War stopped by. Mr. Becker wanted her to give me some beauty tips. While she was showing me her different makeup applicators, the woman, who had stiff platinum hair and eyelashes tarred in mascara, told me I must be earning a truckload in commissions. When I asked her what she meant, she said that in addition to her forty-dollar-a-week salary, she made 10 percent on every sale. Her commissions were sometimes double her salary. “Hell, welfare’ll get you more than forty bucks a week,” she said. “If you’re not getting commissions, Becker’s stiffing you.”

  When I asked Mr. Becker about commissions, he said they were for salespeople and I was just an assistant. The next day, when Mr. Becker went off to the Mountaineer, I opened the display case and took out the four-band watch. I slipped it into my handbag and rearranged the remaining watches to cover the gap. I had made plenty of sales on my own when Mr. Becker was busy. Since he hadn’t paid me any commissions, I was only taking what I was owed.

  When Mr. Becker came back from lunch, he studied the diamond-ring display like he always did, but he didn’t even glance at the watches. Walking home that evening with the watch hidden in my purse, I felt light and giddy. After dinner, I climbed into my bunk bed, where no one could see me, and tried on the watch with each of the bands, gesturing the way I figured rich people did.

  Wearing the watch to work was out of the question, of course. I also realized that I could run into Mr. Becker in town at any time, so I decided that until school started, I’d put the watch on only at home. Then I began to wonder how I’d explain the watch to Brian and Lori and Mom and Dad. I also worried that Mr. Becker might see something thieflike in my expression. Sooner or later, he’d discover the missing watch and would question me, and I’d have to lie convincingly, which I wasn’t very good at. If I wasn’t convincing, I’d be sent off to a reform school with people like Billy Deel, and Mr. Becker would have the satisfaction of knowing he’d been right all along not to trust me.

  I wasn’t about to give him that satisfaction. The next morning I took the watch out of the wooden box where I kept my geode, put it in my purse, and brought it back to the store. All morning I nervously waited for Mr. Becker to leave for lunch. When he was finally gone, I opened the display case, slipped the watch inside, and rearranged the other watches around it. I moved fast. The week before, I had stolen the watch without breaking a sweat. But now I was terrified that someone would catch me putting it back.

  I N LATE A UGUST, I was washing clothes in the tin pan in the living room when I heard someone coming up the stairs singing. It was Lori. She burst into the living room, duffel bag over her shoulder, laughing and belting out one of those goofy summer-camp songs kids sing at night around the fire. I’d never heard Lori cut loose like this before. She positively glowed as she told me about the hot meals and the hot showers and all the friends she’d made. She’d even had a boyfriend who kissed her. “Everyone assumed I was a normal person,” she said. “It was weird.” Then she told me that it had occurred to her that if she got out of Welch, and away from the family, she might have a shot at a happy life. From then on, she began looking forward to the day she’d leave Little Hobart Street and be on her own.

  A few days later, Mom came home. She seemed different, too. She had lived in a dorm on the university campus, without four kids to take care of, and she had loved it. She’d attended lectures and she’d painted. She’d read stacks of self-help books, and they had made her realize that she’d been living her life for other people. She intended to quit her teaching job and devote herself to her art. “It’s time I did something for myself,” she said. “It’s time I started living my life for me.”

  “Mom, you spent the whole summer renewing your certificate.”

  “If I hadn’t done that, I never would have had this breakthrough.”

  “You can’t quit your job,” I said. “We need the money.”

  “Why do I always have to be the one who earns the money?” Mom asked. “You have a job. You can earn money. Lori can earn money, too. I’ve got more important things to do.”

  I thought Mom was h
aving another tantrum. I assumed that come opening day, she’d be off in Lucy Jo’s Dart to Davy Elementary, even if we had to cajole her. But on that first day of school, Mom refused to get out of bed. Lori, Brian, and I pulled back the covers and tried to drag her out, but she wouldn’t budge.

  I told her she had responsibilities. I told her child welfare might come down on us again if she wasn’t working. She folded her arms across her chest and stared us down. “I’m not going to school,” she said.

  “Why not?” I asked.

  “I’m sick.”

  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

  “My mucus is yellow,” Mom said.

  “If everyone who had yellow mucus stayed home, the schools would be pretty empty,” I told her.

  Mom’s head snapped up. “You can’t talk to me like that,” she said. “I’m your mother.”

  “If you want to be treated like a mother,” I said, “you should act like one.”

  Mom rarely got angry. She was usually either singing or crying, but now her face twisted up with fury. We both knew I had crossed a line, but I didn’t care. I’d also changed over the summer.

  “How dare you?” she shouted. “You’re in trouble now—big trouble. I’m telling your dad. Just you wait until he comes home.”

  Mom’s threat didn’t worry me. The way I saw it, Dad owed me. I’d looked after his kids all summer, I’d kept him in beer and cigarette money, and I’d helped him fleece that miner Robbie. I figured I had Dad in my back pocket.

  When I got home from school that afternoon, Mom was still curled up on the sofa bed, a small pile of paperbacks next to her. Dad was sitting at the drafting table, rolling a cigarette. He beckoned to me to follow him into the kitchen. Mom watched us go.

  Dad closed the door and looked at me gravely. “Your mother claims you back-talked her.”

  “Yes,” I said. “It’s true.”

  “Yes, sir,” he corrected me, but I didn’t say anything.

  “I’m disappointed in you,” he went on. “You know damn good and well that you are to respect your parents.”

  “Dad, Mom’s not sick, she’s playing hooky,” I said. “She has to take her obligations more seriously. She has to grow up a little.”

  “Who do you think you are?” he asked. “She’s your mother.”

  “Then why doesn’t she act like one?” I looked at Dad for what felt like a very long moment. Then I blurted out. “And why don’t you act like a dad?”

  I could see the blood surge into his face. He grabbed me by the arm. “You apologize for that comment!”

  “Or what?” I asked.

  Dad shoved me up against the wall. “Or by God I’ll show you who’s boss around here.”

  His face was inches from mine. “What are you going to do to punish me?” I asked. “Stop taking me to bars?”

  Dad drew back his hand as if to smack me. “You watch your mouth, young lady. I can still whip your butt, and don’t think I won’t.”

  “You can’t be serious,” I said.

  Dad dropped his hand. He pulled his belt out of the loops on his work pants and wrapped it a couple of times around his knuckles.

  “Apologize to me and to your mother,” he said.

  “No.”

  Dad raised the belt. “Apologize.”

  “No.”

  “Then bend over.”

  Dad was standing between me and the door. There was no way out except through him. But it never occurred to me to either run or fight. The way I saw it, he was in a tighter spot than I was. He had to back down, because if he sided with Mom and gave me a whipping, he would lose me forever.

  We stared at each other. Dad seemed to be waiting for me to drop my eyes, to apologize and tell him I was wrong so we could go back to being like we were, but I kept holding his gaze. Finally, to call his bluff, I turned around, bent over slightly, and rested my hands on my knees.

  I expected him to turn and walk away, but there were six stinging blows on the backs of my thighs, each accompanied by a whistle of air. I could feel the welts rising even before I straightened up.

  I walked out of the kitchen without looking at Dad. Mom was outside the door. She’d been standing there, listening to everything. I didn’t look at her, but I could see from the corner of my eye her triumphant expression. I bit my lip so I wouldn’t cry.

  As soon as I got outside, I ran up into the woods, pushing tree branches and wild grape vines out of my face. I thought I’d start crying now that I was away from the house, but instead, I threw up. I ate some wild mint to get rid of the taste of bile, and I walked for what felt like hours through the silent hills. The air was clear and cool, and the forest floor was thick with leaves that had fallen from the buckeyes and poplars. Late in the afternoon, I sat down on a tree trunk, leaning forward because the backs of my thighs still stung. All through the long walk, the pain had kept me thinking, and by the time I reached the tree trunk, I had made two decisions.

  The first was that I’d had my last whipping. No one was ever going to do that to me again. The second was that, like Lori, I was going to get out of Welch. The sooner, the better. Before I finished high school, if I could. I had no idea where I would go, but I did know I was going. I also knew it would not be easy. People got stuck in Welch. I had been counting on Mom and Dad to get us out, but I now knew I had to do it on my own. It would take saving and planning. I decided the next day I’d go to G. C. Murphy and buy a pink plastic piggy bank I’d seen there. I’d put in the seventy-five dollars I had managed to save while working at Becker’s Jewel Box. It would be the beginning of my escape fund.

  T HAT FALL, TWO GUYS showed up in Welch who were different from anyone I’d ever met. They were filmmakers from New York City, and they’d been sent to Welch as part of a government program to bring cultural uplift to rural Appalachia. Their names were Ken Fink and Bob Gross.

  At first, I thought they were joking. Ken Fink and Bob Gross? As far as I was concerned, they might as well have said their names were Ken Stupid and Bob Ugly. But Ken and Bob weren’t joking. They didn’t think their names were funny at all, and they didn’t smile when I asked if they were putting me on.

  Ken and Bob both talked so fast—their conversation filled with references to people I’d never heard of, like Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen—that it was sometimes hard to follow them. Although they had no sense of humor about their names, Ken and Bob did like to joke a lot. It wasn’t the sort of Welch High humor I was used to—Polack jokes and guys cupping their hand under their armpit to make fart noises. Ken and Bob had this smart, competitive way of joking where one would make a wisecrack and the other would have a comeback and the first would have a retort to the comeback. They could keep it up until my head spun.

  One weekend Ken and Bob showed a Swedish film in the school auditorium. It was shot in black and white, and had subtitles and a plot heavy on symbolism, so fewer than a dozen people came, even though it was free. Afterward, Lori showed Ken and Bob some of her illustrations. They told her she had talent and said if she was serious about becoming an artist, she needed to go to New York City. It was a place of energy and creativity and intellectual stimulation the likes of which we’d never seen. It was filled with people who, because they were such unique individuals, didn’t fit in anywhere else.

  That night Lori and I lay in our rope beds and discussed New York City. The things I had heard always made it sound like a big, noisy place with a lot of pollution and mobs of people in suits elbowing one another on the sidewalks. But Lori began to see New York as a sort of Emerald City—this glowing, bustling place at the end of a long road where she could become the person she was meant to be.

  What Lori liked most about Ken and Bob’s description was that the city attracted people who were different. Lori was about as different as it was possible to be in Welch. While almost all the other kids wore jeans, Converse sneakers, and T-shirts, she showed up at school in army boots, a white dress with red polka dots, and a jean jacket with d
ark poetry she’d painted on the back. The other kids threw bars of soap at her, pushed one another into her path, and wrote graffiti about her on the bathroom walls. In return, she cursed them out in Latin.

  At home she read and painted late into the night, by candlelight or kerosene lamp if the electricity was turned off. She liked Gothic details: mist hanging over a silent lake, gnarled roots heaving up from the earth, a solitary crow in the branches of a bare tree on the shoreline. I thought Lori was amazing, and I had no doubt she would become a successful artist, but only if she could get to New York. I decided I wanted to go there, too, and that winter we came up with a plan. Lori would leave by herself for New York in June, after she graduated. She’d settle in, find a place for us, and I’d follow her as soon as I could.

  I told Lori about my escape fund, the seventy-five dollars I’d saved. From now on, I said, it would be our joint fund. We’d take on extra work after school and put everything we earned into the piggy bank. Lori could take it to New York and use it to get established, so that by the time I arrived, everything would be set.

  Lori had always made very good posters, for football rallies, for the plays the drama club put on, and for candidates running for student council. Now she started doing commissioned posters for a dollar-fifty apiece. She was too shy to solicit orders, so I did it for her. Lots of kids at Welch High wanted customized posters to hang on their bedroom walls—of their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name, of their car or their astrological sign or their favorite band. Lori designed the names in big fat overlapping three-dimensional letters like the kind on rock albums, then painted them in Day-Glo colors, outlined in india ink so the letters popped, and surrounded them with stars and dots and squiggly lines that made the letters seem like they were moving. The posters were so good that word of mouth spread, and soon Lori had such a backlog of orders that she was up working until one or two every morning.

 
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