The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  I made money babysitting and doing other kids’ homework. I did book reports, science essays, and math. I charged a dollar per assignment and guaranteed at least an A– or the customer was entitled to a full refund. After school, I babysat for a dollar an hour and could usually do the homework then. I also tutored kids for two dollars an hour.

  We told Brian about the escape fund, and he pitched in, even though we hadn’t included him in our plans because he was only in the seventh grade. He mowed lawns or chopped wood or cut hillside weeds with a scythe. He worked after school until the sun went down and all day Saturday and Sunday and came home with his arms and face scratched from the brush he’d cleared. Without looking for thanks or praise, he quietly added his earnings to the pig, which we named Oz.

  We kept Oz on the old sewing machine in the bedroom. Oz had no plugged hole on the bottom, and the slot on the top was too narrow to work bills out, even if you used a knife, so once you’d put money into Oz, it stayed there. We tested it to make sure. We couldn’t count the money, but because Oz was translucent, we could see our cash accumulating inside when we held him up to the light.

  One day that winter, when I came home from school, a gold Cadillac Coupe DeVille was parked in front of the house. I wondered if the welfare agency had found some millionaires to be our foster parents and they had arrived to take us away, but Dad was inside the house, twirling a set of keys on his finger. He explained that the Cadillac was the new official Walls family vehicle. Mom was carrying on about how it was one thing to live in a three-room shack with no electricity, since there was a certain dignity in poverty, but to live in a three-room shack and own a gold Cadillac meant you were bona fide poor white trash.

  “How’d you get it?” I asked Dad.

  “One helluva good poker hand,” he said. “and an even better bluff.”

  We’d owned a couple of cars since we’d been in Welch, but they were true buckets of bolts, with shuddering engines and cracked windshields, and as we drove along, we could see the blur of the asphalt through the rusted-out floor panels. Those cars never lasted more than a couple of months, and like the Oldsmobile we’d driven from Phoenix, we never named them, much less got them registered and inspected. The Coupe DeVille actually had an unexpired inspection sticker. It was such a beauty that Dad declared the time had come to revive the tradition of naming our cars. “That there Caddy,” he said. “strikes me as Elvis.”

  It crossed my mind that Dad ought to sell Elvis and use the money to install an indoor toilet and buy us all new clothes. The black leather shoes I had bought for fifty cents at the Dollar General Store were held together with safety pins, which I’d tried to blacken with a Magic Marker so you wouldn’t notice them. I’d also used Magic Markers to make colored blotches on my legs that I hoped would camouflage the holes in my pants. I figured that was less noticeable than if I sewed on patches. I had one blue pair and one green pair, so my legs, when I took my pants off, were covered with blue and green spots.

  But Dad loved Elvis too dearly to consider selling it. And the truth was, I loved Elvis almost as much. Elvis was as long and sleek as a racing yacht. It had air-conditioning, gold shag upholstery, windows that went up and down with the push of a button, and a working turn signal, so Dad didn’t have to stick his arm out. Every time we drove through town in Elvis, I’d nod graciously and smile at the people on the sidewalk, feeling like an heiress. “You’ve got true noblesse oblige, Mountain Goat,” Dad would say.

  Mom grew to love Elvis, too. She hadn’t gone back to teaching and instead spent her time painting, and on the weekends we began to drive to craft fairs all throughout West Virginia: shows where bearded men in overalls played dulcimers and women in granny dresses sold corncob back scratchers and coal sculptures of black bears and miners. We filled Elvis’s trunk with Mom’s paintings and tried to sell them at the fairs. Mom also drew pastel portraits on the spot for anyone willing to pay eighteen dollars, and every now and then she got a commission.

  We all slept in Elvis on those trips, because a lot of times we made only enough to pay for the gas, or not even that. Still, it felt good to be on the move again. Our trips in Elvis reminded me how easy it was to pick up and move on when the urge struck. Once you’d resolved to go, there was nothing to it at all.

  A S SPRING APPROACHED and the day of Lori’s graduation drew closer, I lay awake at night, thinking about her life in New York City. “In exactly three months,” I said to her, “you’ll be living in New York.” The following week, I said. “In exactly two months and three weeks, you’ll be living in New York.”

  “Would you please shut up,” she said.

  “You’re not nervous, are you?” I asked.

  “What do you think?”

  Lori was terrified. She was not sure what she was supposed to do once she got to New York. That had always been the vaguest part of our escape plan. Back in the fall, I’d had no doubt that she could get a scholarship to one of the city’s universities. She’d been a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship, but she’d had to hitchhike into Bluefield to take the test, and she got rattled when the trucker who picked her up put the moves on her; she arrived nearly an hour late and botched the test.

  Mom, who supported Lori’s New York plans and kept saying she wished she were going to the big city herself, suggested that Lori apply to the Cooper Union art school. Lori put together a portfolio of her drawings and paintings, but just before the submissions deadline, she spilled a pot of coffee on them, which made Mom wonder aloud if Lori had a fear of success.

  Then Lori heard about a scholarship sponsored by a literary society for the student who created the best work of art inspired by one of the geniuses of the English language. She decided to make a clay bust of Shakespeare. She worked on it for a week, using a sharpened Popsicle stick to shape the slightly bulging eyes and the goatee and earring and longish hair. When it was finished, it looked exactly like Shakespeare.

  That night we were all sitting at the drafting table watching Lori put the final touches on Shakespeare’s hair when Dad came home drunk. “That does indeed resemble old Billy,” Dad said. “Only thing is, as I been telling you, he was a goddamn fake.”

  For years, every time Mom brought out Shakespeare’s plays, Dad would carry on about how they’d been written not by William Shakespeare of Avon but by a bunch of people, including someone named the Earl of Oxford, because no single person in Elizabethan England could have had Shakespeare’s thirty-thousand-word vocabulary. All this bunk about little Billy Shakespeare, Dad would say, the great genius despite his grammar-school education, his small Latin and less Greek, was a lot of sentimental mythology.

  “You’re helping perpetuate this fraud,” he told Lori.

  “Dad, it’s just a bust,” Lori said.

  “That’s the problem,” Dad said.

  He studied the sculpture, then suddenly reached over and smeared off Shakespeare’s mouth with his thumb.

  “What the hell are you doing?” Lori cried out.

  “It’s no longer just a bust,” Dad said. “Now it has symbolic value. You can call it Mute Bard.”

  “I spent days on that,” Lori shouted. “And you’ve ruined it!”

  “I elevated it,” Dad said. He told Lori he would help her write a paper that would demonstrate that Shakespeare’s plays had multiple authors, like Rembrandt’s paintings. “By God, you’ll set the literary world on edge,” he said.

  “I don’t want to set the world on edge!” Lori screamed. “I just want to win a stupid little scholarship!”

  “Goddammit, you’re in a horse race, but you’re thinking like a sheep,” Dad said. “Sheep don’t win horse races.”

  Lori didn’t have the spirit to rework the bust. The next day she smushed the clay into a big glob and left it on the drafting table. I told Lori that if she hadn’t been accepted into an art school by the time she graduated, she should go to New York anyway. She could support herself with the money we’d saved up until she fou
nd a job, and then she could apply to a school. That became our new plan.

  Everyone was mad at Dad, which gave him a case of the sulks. He said he didn’t know why he even bothered to come home anymore, since he no longer got the slightest bit of appreciation for his ideas. He insisted he wasn’t trying to keep Lori from leaving for New York, but if she had the sense that God gave a goose, she would stay put. “New York is a sorry-ass sinkhole,” he said more than once. “filled with faggots and rapists.” She’d get mugged and find herself on the streets, he warned, forced into prostitution and winding up a drug addict like all those runaway teenagers. “I’m only telling you this because I love you,” he said. “And I don’t want to see you hurt.”

  One evening in May, when we’d been saving our money for almost nine months, I came home with a couple of dollars I’d made babysitting and went into the bedroom to stash them in Oz. The pig was not on the old sewing machine. I began looking through all the junk in the bedroom and finally found Oz on the floor. Someone had slashed him apart with a knife and stolen all the money.

  I knew it was Dad, but at the same time, I couldn’t believe he’d stoop this low. Lori obviously didn’t know yet. She was in the living room humming away as she worked on a poster. My first impulse was to hide Oz. I had this wild thought that I could somehow replace the money before Lori discovered it was missing. But I knew how ridiculous that was; three of us had spent the better part of a year accumulating the money. It would be impossible for me to replace it in the month before Lori graduated.

  I went into the living room and stood beside her, trying to think of what to say. She was working on a poster that said TAMMY! in Day-Glo colors. After a moment, she looked up. “What?” she said.

  Lori could tell by my face that something was wrong. She stood up so abruptly she knocked over a bottle of india ink, and ran into the bedroom. I braced myself, expecting to hear a scream, but there was only silence and then a small, broken whimpering.

  Lori stayed up all night to confront Dad, but he didn’t come home. She skipped school the following day in case he returned, but Dad was AWOL for three days before we heard him climbing the rickety staircase to the porch.

  “You bastard!” Lori shouted. “You stole our money!”

  “What the goddamn hell are you talking about?” Dad asked. “And watch your language.” He leaned against the door and lit a cigarette.

  Lori held up the slashed pig and threw it as hard as she could at Dad, but it was empty and nearly weightless. It struck his shoulder lightly, then bounced to the floor. He bent down carefully, as if the floor beneath him could shift at any moment, picked up our ravaged piggy bank, and turned it over in his hands. “Someone sure as hell gutted old Oz, didn’t they?” He turned to me. “Jeannette, do you know what happened?”

  He was actually half grinning at me. After the whipping, Dad had jacked up the charm with me, and even though I was planning to leave, he could make me laugh when he tried, and he still considered me an ally. But now I wanted to knock him over the head. “You took our money,” I said. “That’s what happened.”

  “Well, don’t that beat all,” Dad said. He started going on about how a man comes home from slaying dragons, trying to keep his family safe, and all he wants in return for his toil and sacrifice is a little love and respect, but it seemed these days that was just too damn much to ask for. He said he didn’t take our New York money, but if Lori was hell-bent on living in that cesspool, he’d finance her trip himself.

  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a few wadded dollar bills. We just stared at him, so he let the crumpled money fall to the floor. “Suit yourself,” he said.

  “Why are you doing this to us, Dad?” I asked. “Why?”

  His face tightened with anger, then he staggered to the sofa bed and passed out.

  “I’ll never get out of here,” Lori kept saying. “I’ll never get out of here.”

  “You will,” I said. “I swear it.” I believed she would. Because I knew that if Lori never got out of Welch, neither would I.

  I went back to G. C. Murphy the next day and stared at the shelf of piggy banks. They were all either plastic or porcelain or glass, easily broken. I studied a collection of metal boxes with locks and keys. The hinges were too flimsy. Dad could pry them apart. I bought a blue change purse. I wore it on a belt under my clothes at all times. When it got too full, I put the money in a sock that I hid in a hole in the wall below my bunk.

  We started saving again, but Lori felt too defeated to paint much, and the money didn’t come as quickly. A week before school was out, we had only $37.20 in the sock. Then one of the women I’d been babysitting for, a teacher named Mrs. Sanders, told me she and her family were moving back to their hometown in Iowa and asked if I wanted to spend the summer with them there. If I came along and helped look after her two toddlers, she said she’d pay me two hundred dollars at the end of the summer and buy me a bus ticket back to Welch.

  I thought about her offer. “Take Lori instead of me,” I said. “And at the end of the summer, buy her a bus ticket to New York City.”

  Mrs. Sanders agreed.

  Low-lying pewter-colored clouds rested on the mountaintops around Welch on the morning of Lori’s departure. They were there most mornings, and when I noticed them, they reminded me of how isolated and forgotten the town was, a sad, lost place adrift in the clouds. The clouds usually burned away by midmorning, when the sun climbed above the steep hills, but some days, like the one Lori left, they clung to the mountains, and a fine mist formed in the valley that turned your hair and face damp.

  When the Sanders family pulled up in their station wagon, Lori was ready. She had packed her clothes, her favorite books, and her art supplies in a single cardboard box. She hugged all of us except Dad—she had refused to speak a word to him since he plundered Oz—promised to write, and climbed into the station wagon.

  We all stood watching as the car disappeared down Little Hobart Street. Lori never once looked back. I took that as a good sign. When I climbed the staircase to the house, Dad was standing on the porch, smoking a cigarette.

  “This family is falling apart,” he said.

  “It sure is,” I told him.

  T HAT FALL, WHEN I was going into the tenth grade, Miss Bivens made me news editor of The Maroon Wave. After working as a proofreader in the seventh grade, I’d started laying out pages in the eighth grade, and in the ninth grade I began reporting and writing articles and taking photographs. Mom had bought a Minolta camera to take pictures of her pictures, so she could send them to Lori, who could show them around art galleries in New York. When Mom wasn’t using it, I wore the Minolta everywhere, because you never knew when you’d see something newsworthy. What I loved most about calling myself a reporter was that it gave me an excuse to show up anyplace. Since I’d never made a lot of friends in Welch, I hardly ever went to the school’s football games or dances or rallies. I felt awkward sitting by myself when everyone else was with friends. But when I was working for the Wave, I had a reason to be there. I was on assignment, a member of the working press, with my notepad in hand and the Minolta around my neck.

  I began going to just about every extracurricular event at the school, and the kids who shunned me before now accepted me and even sought me out, posing and clowning in hopes of getting their picture in the paper. As someone who could make them famous among their peers, I was no longer a person to be trifled with.

  Even though the Wave came out only once a month, I worked on it every day. Instead of hiding in the bathroom during lunch hour, I spent it in Miss Bivens’s classroom, where I wrote my articles, edited the stories written by other students, and counted the letters in headlines to make sure they fit the columns. I finally had a good excuse for why I never ate lunch. “I’m on deadline,” I’d say. I also stayed after school to develop my photographs in the darkroom, and that had a hidden benefit. I could sneak into the cafeteria once everyone had left and dig through the garbage pails. I
’d find industrial-sized cans of corn that were nearly full and huge containers of cole slaw and tapioca pudding. I no longer had to root through the bathroom wastebaskets for food, and I hardly ever went hungry again.

  When I was a junior, Miss Bivens made me the editor in chief, though the job was supposed to go to a senior. Only a handful of students wanted to work for the Wave, and I ended up writing so many of the articles that I abolished bylines; it looked a little ridiculous having my name appear four times on the front page.

  The paper cost fifteen cents, and I sold it myself, going from class to class and standing in the hallways, hawking it like a newsboy. Welch High had about twelve hundred students, but we sold only a couple hundred copies of the paper. I tried various schemes to boost the circulation: I held poetry competitions, added a fashion column, and wrote controversial editorials, including one questioning the validity of standardized tests, which provoked an irate letter from the head of the state Department of Education. Nothing worked.

  One day a student I was trying to get to buy the Wave told me he had no use for it because the same names appeared in the paper again and again: the school’s athletes and cheerleaders and the handful of kids known as slide rules who always won the academic prizes. So I started a column called. “Birthday Corner,” listing the names of the eighty or so people who had their birthday in the coming month. Most of these people had never appeared in the paper, and they were so excited to see their names in print, they bought several copies. Circulation doubled. Miss Bivens wondered aloud if. “Birthday Corner” represented serious journalism. I told her I didn’t care—it sold papers.

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