The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  Chuck Yeager visited Welch High that year. I’d been hearing about Chuck Yeager all my life from Dad, about how he’d been born in West Virginia, in the town of Myra on the Mud River over in Lincoln County, about how he joined the air force during World War II and had shot down eleven German planes by the time he was twenty-two, about how he became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base high up on the Mojave Desert in California, and about how one day in 1947 he became the first man to break the sound barrier in his X-1, even though the night before, he’d been up drinking and had been thrown from a horse and cracked some ribs.

  Dad would never admit to having heroes, but the brass-balled, liquor-loving, coolly calculating Chuck Yeager was the one man in the world he admired above all others. When he heard that Chuck Yeager was giving a speech at Welch High and that he’d agreed to let me interview him afterward, Dad could hardly contain his excitement. He was waiting on the porch for me with a pen and paper when I got home from school the day before the big interview. He sat down to help me draw up a list of intelligent questions so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of this greatest of West Virginia’s native sons.

  What was going through your head when you first broke Mach I?

  What was going through your head when A. Scott Crossfield broke Mach II?

  What is your favorite aircraft?

  What are your thoughts on the feasibility of flying at the speed of light?

  Dad wrote up about twenty-five or thirty questions like that and then insisted we rehearse the interview. He pretended to be Chuck Yeager and gave me detailed answers to the questions he’d written out. His eyes got misty as he described what it was like to break the sound barrier. Then he decided I needed some solid grounding in aviation history, and he stayed up half the night briefing me, by the light of a kerosene lamp, on the test-flight program, basic aerodynamics, and the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach.

  The next day Mr. Jack, the principal, introduced Chuck Yeager during assembly in the auditorium. He looked more like a cowboy than a West Virginian, with his horseman’s gait and his lean leathery face, but as soon as he started speaking, his voice was pure up-hollow. As he talked, the fidgety students settled into their folding chairs and became enraptured by the legendary, world-traveled man who told us how proud he was of his West Virginia roots, and how we, too, should be proud of those roots, roots we all shared; and how, regardless of where we came from, each and every one of us could and should follow our dreams, just as he had followed his. When he finished talking, the applause about shattered the glass in the windows.

  I climbed up on the stage before the students filed out. “Mr. Yeager,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m Jeannette Walls with The Maroon Wave.”

  Chuck Yeager took my hand and grinned. “Jes’ spell my name right, ma’am,” he said. “so’s my kin’ll know who you’re writin’ about.”

  We sat down on some folding chairs and talked for nearly an hour. Mr. Yeager took every question seriously and acted like he had all the time in the world for me. When I mentioned various aircraft he’d flown, the aircraft Dad had briefed me about, he grinned again and said. “Heck, I do believe we got an aviation expert on our hands.”

  In the hallways afterward, the other kids kept coming up to tell me how lucky I was. “What was he really like?” they asked. “What did he say?” Everyone treated me with the deference accorded only to the school’s top athletes. Even the varsity quarterback caught my eye and nodded. I was the girl who had actually talked to Chuck Yeager.

  Dad was so eager to hear how the interview went that he was not only home when I got back from school, he was even sober. He insisted on helping me with the article to ensure its technical accuracy.

  I already had a lead figured out in my head. I sat down in front of Mom’s Remington and typed it out:

  The pages of the history books came alive this month when Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the sound barrier, visited Welch High.

  Dad looked over my shoulder. “Great,” he said. “But let’s juice it up a little.”

  L ORI HAD BEEN WRITING to us regularly from New York. She loved it there. She was living in a hotel for women in Greenwich Village, working as a waitress in a German restaurant, and taking art classes and even fencing lessons. She’d met the most fascinating group of people, every one of them a weird genius. People in New York loved art and music so much, she said, that artists sold paintings right on the sidewalk next to string quartets playing Mozart. Even Central Park wasn’t as dangerous as people in West Virginia thought. On the weekends, it was filled with roller skaters and Frisbee players and jugglers and mimes with their faces painted white. She knew I’d love it once I got there. I knew it, too.

  Ever since I’d started eleventh grade, I’d been counting off the months—twenty-two of them—until I would join Lori. I had my plan worked out. Once I had graduated from high school, I’d move to New York, enroll at a city college, and then get a job with AP or UPI, the wire services whose stories unspooled from the Welch Daily News Teletype machines, or with one of the famous New York papers. I’d overhear the reporters at The Welch Daily News make jokes to one another about the highfalutin writers who worked at those papers. I was determined to become one.

  In the middle of my junior year, I went to Miss Katona, the high school guidance counselor, to ask for the names of colleges in New York. Miss Katona lifted the glasses that dangled from a cord around her neck and peered at me through them. Bluefield State was only thirty-six miles away, she said, and with my grades, I could probably get a full scholarship.

  “I want to go to college in New York,” I said.

  Miss Katona gave me a puzzled frown. “Whatever for?”

  “That’s where I want to live.”

  Miss Katona said that in her view, this was a bad idea. It was easier to go to college in the state where you had attended high school. You were considered in-state, which meant acceptance was more likely and tuition was cheaper.

  I thought about this for a minute. “Maybe I should move to New York City right now and graduate from high school there. Then I’d be considered in-state.”

  Miss Katona squinted at me. “But you live here,” she said. “This is your home.”

  Miss Katona was a fine-boned woman who always wore button-up sweaters and stout shoes. She had gone to Welch High School, and it seemed not to have occurred to her to live anywhere else. To leave West Virginia, even to leave Welch, would have been unthinkably disloyal, like deserting your family.

  “Just because I live here now,” I said. “doesn’t mean I couldn’t move.”

  “That would be a terrible mistake. You live here. Think of what you’d miss. Your family and friends. And senior year is the highlight of your entire high school experience. You’d miss Senior Day. You’d miss the senior prom.”

  I walked home slowly that evening, thinking over what Miss Katona had said. It was true that many grown-ups in Welch talked about how senior year in high school was the highlight of their lives. On Senior Day, something the school had set up to keep juniors from dropping out, the seniors wore funny clothes and got to skip classes. It was not exactly a compelling reason to stay on in Welch for one more year. As for the senior prom, I had about as much chance of getting a date as Dad did of ending corruption in the unions.

  I’d been speaking hypothetically about moving to New York a year early. But as I walked, I realized that if I wanted to, I could up and go. I could really do it. Maybe not right now, not this minute—it was the middle of the school year—but I could wait until I finished eleventh grade. By then I’d be seventeen. I had almost a hundred dollars saved, enough to get me started in New York. I could leave Welch in under five months.

  I got so excited that I started running. I ran, faster and faster, along the Old Road overhung with bare-branched trees, then on to Grand View and up Little Hobart Street, past the barking yard-dogs and the frost-covered coal piles, past the Noes’ house and the Parishes’ house, the Ha
lls’ house and the Renkos’ house until, gasping for air, I came to a stop in front of our house. For the first time in years, I noticed my half-finished yellow paint job. I’d spent so much time in Welch trying to make things a little bit better, but nothing had worked.

  In fact, the house was getting worse. One of the supporting pillars was starting to buckle. The leak in the roof over Brian’s bed had gotten so bad that when it rained, he slept under an inflatable raft Mom had won in a sweepstakes by sending in Benson & Hedges 100s packages we’d dug out of trash cans. If I left, Brian could have my old bed. My mind was made up. I was going to New York City as soon as the school year was out.

  I clambered up the mountainside to the rear of the house—the stairs had completely rotted through—and climbed through the back window we now used as a door. Dad was at the drafting table, working on some calculations, and Mom was going through her stacks of paintings. When I told them about my plan, Dad stubbed out his cigarette, stood up, and climbed out the back window without saying a word. Mom nodded and looked down, dusting off one of her paintings, murmuring something to herself.

  “So, what do you think?” I asked.

  “Fine. Go.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing. You should go. It’s a good plan.” She seemed on the verge of tears.

  “Don’t be sad, Mom. I’ll write.”

  “I’m not upset because I’ll miss you,” Mom said. “I’m upset because you get to go to New York and I’m stuck here. It’s not fair.”

  Lori, when I called her, approved of my plan. I could live with her, she said, if I got a job and chipped in on the rent. Brian liked my idea, too, especially when I pointed out that he could have my bed. He began making wisecracks in a lockjaw accent about how I was going to become one of those fur-wearing, pinkie-extending, nose-in-the-air New Yorkers. He began counting down the weeks until I left, just as I had counted them down for Lori. “In sixteen weeks, you’ll be in New York,” he’d say. The next week. “In three months and three weeks, you’ll be in New York.”

  Dad had barely spoken to me since I announced my decision. One night that spring, he came into the bedroom where I was up on my bunk studying. He had some papers rolled up under his arm.

  “Got a minute to look at something?” he asked.

  “Sure.”

  I followed him into the living room, where he spread the papers on the drafting table. They were his old blueprints for the Glass Castle, all stained and dog-eared. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen them. We’d stopped talking about the Glass Castle once the foundation we’d dug was filled up with garbage.

  “I think I finally worked out how to deal with the lack of sunlight on the hillside,” Dad said. It involved installing specially curved mirrors in the solar cells. But what he wanted to talk to me about was the plans for my room. “Now that Lori’s gone,” he said. “I’m reconfiguring the layout, and your room will be a lot bigger.”

  Dad’s hands trembled slightly as he unrolled different blueprints. He had drawn frontal views, side views, and aerial views of the Glass Castle. He had diagrammed the wiring and the plumbing. He had drawn the interiors of rooms and labeled them and specified their dimensions, down to the inches, in his precise, blocky handwriting.

  I stared at the plans. “Dad,” I said. “you’ll never build the Glass Castle.”

  “Are you saying you don’t have faith in your old man?”

  “Even if you do, I’ll be gone. In less than three months, I’m leaving for New York City.”

  “What I was thinking was you don’t have to go right away,” Dad said. I could stay and graduate from Welch High and go to Bluefield State, as Miss Katona had suggested, then get a job at The Welch Daily News. He’d help me with the articles, like he’d helped me with my piece on Chuck Yeager. “And I’ll build the Glass Castle, I swear it. We’ll all live in it together. It’ll be a hell of a lot better than any apartment you’ll ever find in New York City, I can guaran-goddamn-tee that.”

  “Dad,” I said, “as soon as I finish classes, I’m getting on the next bus out of here. If the buses stop running, I’ll hitchhike. I’ll walk if I have to. Go ahead and build the Glass Castle, but don’t do it for me.”

  Dad rolled up the blueprints and walked out of the room. A minute later, I heard him scrambling down the mountainside.

  I T HAD BEEN A mild winter, and summer came early to the mountains. By late May, the wild bleeding hearts and the rhododendrons had bloomed, and the fragrance of honeysuckle drifted down the hillside and into the house. We had our first hot days before school was out.

  Those last couple of weeks, I’d go from feeling excited to nervous to just plain scared back to excited in a matter of minutes. On the last day of school, I cleaned out my locker and went to say goodbye to Miss Bivens.

  “I’ve got a feeling about you,” she said. “I think you’ll do all right up there. But you’ve left me with a problem. Who’s going to edit the Wave next year?”

  “You’ll find someone, I’m sure.”

  “I’ve thought of trying to entice your brother into it.”

  “People might start thinking that the Wallses are building a dynasty.”

  Miss Bivens smiled. “Maybe you are.”

  At home that night, Mom cleaned out a suitcase she’d used for her collection of dancing shoes, and I filled it with my clothes and my bound copies of The Maroon Wave. I wanted to leave everything from the past behind, even the good things, so I gave Maureen my geode. It was dusty and dull, but I told her that if she scrubbed it hard, it would sparkle like a diamond. As I cleared out the box on the wall next to my bed, Brian said. “Guess what? In one more day you’ll be in New York City.” Then he started impersonating Frank Sinatra, singing. “New York, New York” off-key and doing his lounge-lizard dance.

  “Shut up, you big dummy!” I said and hit him hard on the shoulder.

  “You’re the dummy!” he said and hit me hard back. We tossed a few more punches and then looked at each other awkwardly.

  The one bus out of Welch left at seven-ten in the morning. I needed to be at the station before seven. Mom announced that since she was not by nature an early riser, she would not be getting up to see me off. “I know what you look like, and I know what the bus station looks like,” she said. “And those big farewells are so sentimental.”

  I could hardly sleep that night. Neither could Brian. From time to time, he’d break the silence by announcing that in seven hours I’d be leaving Welch, in six hours I’d be leaving Welch, and we’d both start cracking up. I fell asleep only to be woken at first light by Brian, who, like Mom, wasn’t an early riser. He was tugging at my arm. “No more joking about it,” he said. “In two hours, you’ll be gone.”

  Dad hadn’t come home that night, but when I climbed through the back window with my suitcase, I saw him sitting at the bottom of the stone steps, smoking a cigarette. He insisted on carrying the suitcase for me, and we set off down Little Hobart Street and around the Old Road.

  The empty streets were damp. Every now and then Dad would look over at me and wink, or make a tocking sound with his tongue as if I were a horse and he was urging me on. It seemed to make him feel like he was doing what a father should, plucking up his daughter’s courage, helping her face the terrors of the unknown.

  When we got to the station, Dad turned to me. “Honey, life in New York may not be as easy as you think it’s going to be.”

  “I can handle it,” I told him.

  Dad reached into his pocket and pulled out his favorite jackknife, the one with the horn handle and the blade of blue German steel that we’d used for Demon Hunting.

  “I’ll feel better knowing you have this.” He pressed the knife into my hand.

  The bus turned down the street and stopped with a hiss of compressed air in front of the Trailways station. The driver opened up the luggage compartment and slid my suitcase in next to the others. I hugged Dad. When our cheeks touched, and I breathed i
n his smell of tobacco, Vitalis, and whiskey, I realized he’d shaved for me.

  “If things don’t work out, you can always come home,” he said. “I’ll be here for you. You know that, don’t you?”

  “I know.” I knew that in his way, he would be. I also knew I’d never be coming back.

  Only a few passengers were on the bus, so I got a good seat next to a window. The driver closed the door, and we pulled out. At first I resolved not to turn around. I wanted to look ahead to where I was going, not back at what I was leaving, but then I turned anyway.

  Dad was lighting a cigarette. I waved, and he waved back. Then he shoved his hands in his pockets, the cigarette dangling from his mouth, and stood there, slightly stoop-shouldered and distracted-looking. I wondered if he was remembering how he, too, had left Welch full of vinegar at age seventeen and just as convinced as I was now that he’d never return. I wondered if he was hoping that his favorite girl would come back, or if he was hoping that, unlike him, she would make it out for good.

  I reached into my pocket and touched the horn-handled jackknife, then waved again. Dad just stood there. He grew smaller and smaller, and then we turned a corner and he was gone.

  IV

  NEW YORK CITY

  I T WAS DUSK WHEN I got my first glimpse of it off in the distance, beyond a ridge. All I could see were the spires and blocky tops of buildings. And then we reached the crest of the ridge, and there, across a wide river, was a huge island jammed tip to tip with skyscrapers, their glass glowing like fire in the setting sun.

 
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