The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  Brian didn’t lose his temper. He told Dad he had made a mistake by leaving liquor in the apartment. He said he’d allow Dad to stay, but Dad had to follow some rules, the first being that he stop drinking as long as he was there. “You’re the king of your own castle, and that’s the way it should be,” Dad replied. “But it’ll be a chilly day in hell before I bow to my own son.” He and Mom still had the white van they’d driven up from West Virginia, and he started sleeping in that.

  Lori, meanwhile, had given Mom a deadline to clean out the apartment. But the deadline came and went, and so did a second and a third. Also, Dad was always dropping by to visit Mom, but then they got into such screeching arguments that the neighbors banged on the walls. Dad starting fighting with them, too.

  “I can’t take it anymore,” Lori told me one day.

  “Maybe you’re just going to have to kick Mom out,” I said.

  “But she’s my mother.”

  “It doesn’t matter. She’s driving you crazy.”

  Lori finally agreed. It almost killed her to tell Mom she would have to leave, and she offered to do whatever it took to help her get reestablished, but Mom insisted she’d be fine.

  “Lori’s doing the right thing,” she said to me. “Sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline flowing and help you realize your potential.”

  Mom and Tinkle moved into the van with Dad. They lived there for a few months, but one day they left it in a no-parking zone and it was towed. Because the van was unregistered, they couldn’t get it back. That night, they slept on a park bench. They were homeless.

  M OM AND D AD CALLED regularly from pay phones to check up on us, and once or twice a month, we’d all get together at Lori’s.

  “It’s not such a bad life,” Mom told us after they’d been homeless for a couple of months.

  “Don’t you worry a lick about us,” Dad added. “We’ve always been able to fend for ourselves.”

  Mom explained that they’d been busy learning the ropes. They’d visited the various soup kitchens, sampling the cuisines, and had their favorites. They knew which churches passed out sandwiches and when. They’d found the public libraries with good bathrooms where you could wash thoroughly. “We wash as far down as possible and as far up as possible, but we don’t wash possible,” was how Mom put it—and brush your teeth and shave. They fished newspapers from the trash cans and looked up free events. They went to plays and operas and concerts in the parks, listened to string quartets and piano recitals in office-building lobbies, attended movie screenings, and visited museums. When they first became homeless, it was early summer, and they slept on park benches or in the bushes that lined park paths. Sometimes a cop would wake them up and tell them to move, but they’d just find some other place to sleep. During the day, they’d stash their bedrolls in the underbrush.

  “You can’t just live like this,” I said.

  “Why not?” Mom said. “Being homeless is an adventure.”

  As fall came and the days shortened and the weather cooled, Mom and Dad began spending more time in the libraries, which were warm and comfortable, and some of which remained open well into the evening. Mom was working her way through Balzac. Dad had become interested in chaos theory and was reading Los Alamos Science and the Journal of Statistical Physics. He said it had already helped his pool game.

  “What are you going to do when winter comes?” I asked Mom.

  She smiled. “Winter is one of my favorite seasons,” she said.

  I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to do whatever I could to take care of Mom and Dad, and part of me just wanted to wash my hands of them. The cold came early that year, and every time I left the psychologist’s apartment, I found myself looking into the faces of the homeless people I passed on the street, wondering each time if one of them would turn out to be Mom or Dad. I usually gave homeless people whatever spare change I had, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was trying to ease my conscience about Mom and Dad wandering the streets while I had a steady job and a warm room to come home to.

  One day I was walking down Broadway with another student named Carol when I gave some change to a young homeless guy. “You shouldn’t do that,” Carol said.


  “It only encourages them. They’re all scam artists.”

  What do you know? I wanted to ask. I felt like telling Carol that my parents were out there, too, that she had no idea what it was like to be down on your luck, with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. But that would have meant explaining who I really was, and I wasn’t about to do that. So at the next street corner, I went my way without saying a thing.

  I knew I should have stood up for Mom and Dad. I’d been pretty scrappy as a kid, and our family had always fought for one another, but back then we’d had no choice. The truth was, I was tired of taking on people who ridiculed us for the way we lived. I just didn’t have it in me to argue Mom and Dad’s case to the world.

  That was why I didn’t own up to my parents in front of Professor Fuchs. She was one of my favorite teachers, a tiny dark passionate woman with circles under her eyes who taught political science. One day Professor Fuchs asked if homelessness was the result of drug abuse and misguided entitlement programs, as the conservatives claimed, or did it occur, as the liberals argued, because of cuts in social-service programs and the failure to create economic opportunity for the poor? Professor Fuchs called on me.

  I hesitated. “Sometimes, I think, it’s neither.”

  “Can you explain yourself?”

  “I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want.”

  “Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?” Professor Fuchs asked. “Are you saying they don’t want warm beds and roofs over their heads?”

  “Not exactly,” I said. I was fumbling for words. “They do. But if some of them were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet.”

  Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. “What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?” she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. “What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?”

  The other students were staring at me.

  “You have a point,” I said.

  T HAT J ANUARY IT GOT so cold you could see chunks of ice the size of cars floating down the Hudson River. On those midwinter nights, the homeless shelters filled up quickly. Mom and Dad hated the shelters. Human cesspools, Dad called them, goddamn vermin pits. Mom and Dad preferred to sleep on the pews of the churches that opened their doors to the homeless, but on some nights every pew in every church was taken. On those nights Dad would end up in a shelter, while Mom would show up at Lori’s, Tinkle in tow. At times like that, her cheerful facade would crack, and she’d start crying and confess to Lori that life in the streets could be hard, just really hard.

  For a while I considered dropping out of Barnard to help. It felt unbearably selfish, just downright wrong, to be indulging myself with an education in the liberal arts at a fancy private college while Mom and Dad were on the streets. But Lori convinced me that dropping out was a lamebrained idea. It wouldn’t do any good, she said, and besides, dropping out would break Dad’s heart. He was immensely proud that he had a daughter in college, and an Ivy League college at that. Every time he met someone new, he managed to work it into the first few minutes of conversation.

  Mom and Dad, Brian pointed out, had options. They could move back to West Virginia or Phoenix. Mom could work. And she was not destitute. She had her collection of antique Indian jewelry, which she kept in a self-storage locker. There was the two-carat diamond ring that Brian and I had found under the rotten lumber back in Welch; she wore it even when sleeping on the street. She still owned property in Phoenix. And she had the land in Texas, the source of her oil-lease royalties.

  Brian was right. Mom did have options. I met her at a coffee shop
to discuss them. First off, I suggested that she might think of finding an arrangement like mine: a room in someone’s nice apartment in exchange for taking care of children or the elderly.

  “I’ve spent my life taking care of other people,” Mom said. “Now it’s time to take care of me.”

  “But you’re not taking care of you.”

  “Do we have to have this conversation?” Mom asked. “I’ve seen some good movies lately. Can’t we talk about the movies?”

  I suggested to Mom that she sell her Indian jewelry. She wouldn’t consider it. She loved that jewelry. Besides, they were heirlooms and had sentimental value.

  I mentioned the land in Texas.

  “That land’s been in the family for generations,” Mom said, “and it’s staying in the family. You never sell land like that.”

  I asked about the property in Phoenix.

  “I’m saving that for a rainy day.”

  “Mom, it’s pouring.”

  “This is just a drizzle,” she said. “Monsoons could be ahead!” She sipped her tea. “Things usually work out in the end.”

  “What if they don’t?”

  “That just means you haven’t come to the end yet.”

  She looked across the table and smiled at me with the smile you give people when you know you have the answers to all their questions. And so we talked about movies.

  M OM AND D AD SURVIVED the winter, but every time I saw them, they looked a little worse for wear: dirtier, more bruised, their hair more matted.

  “Don’t you fret a bit,” Dad said. “Have you ever known your old man to get himself in a situation he couldn’t handle?”

  I kept telling myself Dad was right, that they knew how to look after themselves and each other, but in the spring, Mom called me to say Dad had come down with tuberculosis.

  Dad almost never got sick. He was always getting banged up and then recovering almost immediately, as if nothing could truly hurt him. A part of me still believed all those childhood stories he’d told us about how invincible he was. Dad had asked that no one visit him, but Mom said she thought he’d be pretty pleased if I dropped by the hospital.

  I waited at the nurse’s station while an orderly went to tell him he had a visitor. I thought Dad might be under an oxygen tent or lying in a bed coughing up blood into a white handkerchief, but after a minute, he came hurrying down the hall. He was paler and more gaunt than usual, but despite all his years of hard living, he had aged very little. He still had all his hair, and it was still coal black, and his dark eyes twinkled above the paper surgical mask he was wearing.

  He wouldn’t let me hug him. “Whoa, Nelly, stay back,” he said. “You’re sure a sight for sore eyes, honey, but I don’t want you catching this sonofabitch of a bug.”

  Dad escorted me back to the TB ward and introduced me to all of his friends. “Believe it or not, ol’ Rex Walls did produce something worth bragging about, and here she is,” he told them. Then he started coughing.

  “Dad, are you going to be okay?” I asked.

  “Ain’t none of us getting out of this alive, honey,” Dad said. It was an expression he used a lot, and now he seemed to find a special satisfaction in it.

  Dad led me over to his cot. A neat pile of books was stacked next to it. He said his bout with TB had set him to pondering about mortality and the nature of the cosmos. He’d been stone-cold sober since entering the hospital, and reading a lot more about chaos theory, particularly about the work of Mitchell Feigenbaum, a physicist at Los Alamos who had made a study of the transition between order and turbulence. Dad said he was damned if Feigenbaum didn’t make a persuasive case that turbulence was not in fact random but followed a sequential spectrum of varying frequencies. If every action in the universe that we thought was random actually conformed to a rational pattern, Dad said, that implied the existence of a divine creator, and he was beginning to rethink his atheistic creed. “I’m not saying there’s a bearded old geezer named Yahweh up in the clouds deciding which football team is going to win the Super Bowl,” Dad said. “But if the physics—the quantum physics—suggests that God exists, I’m more than willing to entertain the notion.”

  Dad showed me some of the calculations he’d been working on. He saw me looking at his trembling fingers and held them up. “Lack of liquor or fear of God—don’t know which is causing it,” he said. “Maybe both.”

  “Promise you’ll stay here until you get better,” I said. “I don’t want you doing the skedaddle.”

  Dad burst into laughter that ended in another fit of coughing.

  D AD STAYED IN THE hospital for six weeks. By then he’d not only beaten back the TB, he’d been sober longer than any time since the Phoenix detox. He knew that if he went back to the streets, he’d start drinking again. One of the hospital administrators got him a job as a maintenance man at an upstate resort, room and board included. He tried to talk Mom into going with him, but she flatly refused. “Upstate’s the sticks,” she said.

  So Dad went alone. He called me from time to time, and it sounded like he’d put together a life that worked for him. He had a one-room apartment over a garage, enjoyed doing the repairs and upkeep on the old lodge, loved being back within walking distance of untamed country, and was staying sober. Dad worked at the resort through the summer and into the fall. As it began to turn cold again, Mom called him and mentioned how much easier it was for two people to stay warm during the winter, and how much Tinkle the dog missed him. In November, after the first hard frost, I got a call from Brian, who said that Mom had succeeded in persuading Dad to quit his job and return to the city.

  “Do you think he’ll stay sober?” I asked.

  “He’s already back on the booze,” Brian said.

  A few weeks after Dad got back, I saw him at Lori’s. He was sitting on the sofa with an arm around Mom and a pint bottle in his hand. He laughed. “This crazy-ass mother of yours, can’t live with her, can’t live without her. And damned if she doesn’t feel the same about me.”

  All of us kids had our own lives by then. I was in college, Lori had become an illustrator at a comic-book company, Maureen lived with Lori and went to high school, and Brian, who had wanted to be a cop ever since he’d had to call a policeman to our house in Phoenix to break up a fight between Mom and Dad, had become a warehouse foreman and was serving on the auxiliary force until he was old enough to take the police department’s entrance exam. Mom suggested we all celebrate Christmas at Lori’s apartment. I bought Mom an antique silver cross, but finding a gift for Dad was harder; he always said he never needed anything. Since it looked like it was going to be another hard winter, and since Dad wore nothing but his bomber jacket in even the coldest weather, I decided to get him some warm clothes. At an army-surplus store, I bought flannel shirts, thermal underwear, thick wool socks, the kind of blue work pants that auto mechanics wear, and a new pair of steel-toed boots.

  Lori decorated her apartment with colored lights and pine boughs and paper angels; Brian made eggnog; and to demonstrate that he was on his best behavior, Dad went to great lengths to make sure there was no alcohol in it before he accepted a glass. Mom passed around their presents, each wrapped in newspaper and tied with butcher’s twine. Lori got a cracked lamp that might have been a Tiffany; Maureen, an antique porcelain doll that had lost most of her hair; Brian, a nineteenth-century book of poetry, missing the cover and the first few pages. My present was an orange crewneck sweater, slightly stained but made, Mom pointed out, of genuine Shetland wool.

  When I passed Dad my stack of carefully wrapped boxes, he protested that he needed and wanted nothing. “Go ahead,” I said. “Open them.”

  I watched as he carefully removed the wrapping. He lifted the lids and stared at the folded clothes. His face took on that wounded expression he got whenever the world called his bluff. “You must be mighty ashamed of your old man,” he said.

  “What do you mean?” I asked.

  “You think I’m some sort of goddamn
charity case.”

  Dad stood up and put on his bomber jacket. He was avoiding all our eyes.

  “Where are you going?” I asked.

  Dad just turned up his collar and walked out of the apartment. I listened to the sound of his boots going down the stairs.

  “What did I do?” I asked.

  “Look at it from his perspective,” Mom said. “You buy him all these nice new things, and all he has for you is junk from the street. He’s the father. He’s the one who’s supposed to be taking care of you.”

  The room was quiet for a while. “I guess you don’t want your presents, either,” I said to Mom.

  “Oh, no,” she said. “I love getting presents.”

  B Y THE FOLLOWING summer, Mom and Dad were heading into their third year on the streets. They’d figured out how to make it work for them, and I gradually came around to accepting the notion that whether I liked it or not, this was how it was going to be. “It’s sort of the city’s fault,” Mom told me. “They make it too easy to be homeless. If it was really unbearable, we’d do something different.”

  In August, Dad called to go over my course selection for the fall semester. He also wanted to discuss some of the books on the reading lists. Since he’d come to New York, he’d been borrowing my assigned books from the public library. He read every single one, he said, so he could answer any questions I might have. Mom said it was his way of getting a college education along with me.

  When he asked me what courses I had signed up for, I said, “I’m thinking of dropping out.”

  “The hell you are,” Dad said.

  I told him that while most of my tuition was covered by grants and loans and scholarships, the school expected me to contribute two thousand dollars a year. But over the summer, I had been able to save only a thousand dollars. I needed another thousand and had no way to come up with it.

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