The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Dad asked.

  Dad called a week later and told me to meet him at Lori’s. When he arrived with Mom, he was carrying a large plastic garbage bag and had a small brown paper bag tucked under his arm. I assumed it was a bottle of booze, but then he opened the paper bag and turned it upside down. Hundreds of dollar bills—ones, fives, tens, twenties, all wrinkled and worn—spilled into my lap.

  “There’s nine hundred and fifty bucks,” Dad said. He opened the plastic bag, and a fur coat tumbled out. “That there’s mink. You should be able to pawn it for fifty, at least.”

  I stared at the loot. “Where did you get all this?” I finally asked.

  “New York City is full of poker players who wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.”

  “Dad,” I said. “you guys need this money more than I do.”

  “It’s yours,” Dad said. “Since when is it wrong for a father to take care of his little girl?”

  “But I can’t.” I looked at Mom.

  She sat down next to me and patted my leg. “I’ve always believed in the value of a good education,” she said.

  So, when I enrolled for my final year at Barnard, I paid what I owed on my tuition with Dad’s wadded, crumpled bills.

  A MONTH LATER, I got a call from Mom. She was so excited she was tripping over her own words. She and Dad had found a place to live. Their new home, Mom said, was in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. “It’s a tad run-down,” she admitted. “But all it really needs is a little TLC. And best of all, it’s free.”

  Other folks were also moving into abandoned buildings, she said. They were called squatters, and the buildings were called squats. “Your father and I are pioneers,” Mom said. “Just like my great-great-grandfather, who helped tame the Wild West.”

  Mom called in a few weeks and said that although the squat still needed a few finishing touches—a front door, for example—she and Dad were officially accepting visitors. I took the subway to Astor Place on a late spring day and headed east. Mom and Dad’s apartment was in a six-story walk-up. The mortar was crumbling and bricks had come loose. All the windows on the first floor had been boarded up. I reached to open the building’s front door, but where the lock and handle should have been, there was only a hole. Inside, a single naked lightbulb hung from a wire in the hallway. On one wall, chunks of plaster had crumbled away, revealing the wooden ribs and pipes and wiring. On the third floor, I knocked on the door to Mom and Dad’s apartment and heard Dad’s muffled voice. Instead of the door swinging inward, fingers appeared on both sides, and it was lifted out of the frame altogether. There was Dad, beaming and hugging me while he went on about how he’d yet to install door hinges. As a matter of fact, they’d only just gotten the door itself, which he’d found in the basement of another abandoned building.

  Mom came running up behind him, grinning so widely you could see her molars, and gave me a big hug. Dad knocked a cat off a chair—they had already taken in a few strays—and offered me a seat. The room was crammed with broken furniture, bundles of clothes, stacks of books, and Mom’s art supplies. Four or five electric space heaters blasted away. Mom explained that Dad had hooked up every squat in the building to an insulated cable he’d hot-wired off a utility pole down the block. “We’re all getting free juice, thanks to your father,” Mom said. “No one in the building could survive without him.”

  Dad chuckled modestly. He told me how complicated the process had been, because the wiring in the building was so ancient. “Damnedest electrical system I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The manual must have been written in hieroglyphics.”

  I looked around, and it hit me that if you replaced the electric heaters with a coal stove, this squat on the Lower East Side looked pretty much like the house on Little Hobart Street. I had escaped from Welch once, and now, breathing in those same old smells of turpentine, dog hair, and dirty clothes, of stale beer and cigarette smoke and unrefrigerated food slowly going bad, I had the urge to bolt. But Mom and Dad were clearly proud, and as I listened to them talk—interrupting each other in their excitement to correct points of fact and fill in gaps in the story—about their fellow squatters and the friends they’d made in the neighborhood and the common fight against the city’s housing agency, it became clear they’d stumbled on an entire community of people like themselves, people who lived unruly lives battling authority and who liked it that way. After all those years of roaming, they’d found home.

  I graduated from Barnard that spring. Brian came to the ceremony, but Lori and Maureen had to work, and Mom said it would just be a lot of boring speeches about the long and winding road of life. I wanted Dad to come, but chances were he’d show up drunk and try to debate the commencement speaker.

  “I can’t risk it, Dad,” I told him.

  “Hell,” he said. “I don’t have to see my Mountain Goat grabbing a sheepskin to know she’s got her college degree.”

  The magazine where I’d been working two days a week had offered me a full-time job. What I needed was a place to live. For several years, I had been dating a man named Eric, a friend of one of Lori’s eccentric-genius friends, who came from a wealthy family, ran a small company, and lived alone in the apartment on Park Avenue in which he’d been raised. He was a detached, almost fanatically organized guy who maintained detailed time-management logs and could recite endless baseball statistics. But he was decent and responsible, never gambled or lost his temper, and always paid his bills on time. When he heard that I was looking for a roommate to share an apartment, he suggested I move in with him. I couldn’t afford half the rent, I told him, and I wouldn’t live there unless I could pay my own way. He suggested that I begin by paying what I could afford, and as my salary went up, I could increase the payment. He made it sound like a business proposition, but a solid one, and after thinking it over, I agreed.

  When I told Dad about my plans, he asked if Eric made me happy and treated me well. “Because if he doesn’t,” Dad said. “I will by God kick his butt so hard, his asshole will be up between his shoulder blades.”

  “He treats me fine, Dad,” I said. What I wanted to say was that I knew Eric would never try to steal my paycheck or throw me out the window, that I’d always been terrified I’d fall for a hard-drinking, hell-raising, charismatic scoundrel like you, Dad, but I’d wound up with a man who was exactly the opposite.

  All my belongings fit into two plastic milk crates and a garbage bag. I hauled them to the street, hailed a taxi, and took it across town to Eric’s building. The doorman, in a blue uniform with gold piping, hurried out from under the awning and insisted on carrying the milk crates into the lobby.

  Eric’s apartment had crossbeamed ceilings and a fireplace with an art deco mantel. I actually live on Park Avenue, I kept telling myself as I hung my clothes in the closet Eric had cleared out for me. Then I started thinking about Mom and Dad. When they had moved into their squat—a fifteen-minute subway ride south and about half a dozen worlds away—it seemed as if they had finally found the place where they belonged, and I wondered if I had done the same.

  I INVITED M OM and Dad up to the apartment. Dad said he’d feel out of place, and never did come, but Mom visited almost immediately. She turned over dishes to read the manufacturer’s name and lifted the corner of the Persian rug to count the knots. She held the china to the light and ran her finger along the antique campaign chest. Then she went to the window and looked out at the brick and limestone apartment buildings across the street. “I don’t really like Park Avenue,” she said. “The architecture is too monotonous. I prefer the architecture on Central Park West.”

  I told Mom she was the snootiest squatter I’d ever met, and that made her laugh. We sat down on the living room couch. I had something I wanted to discuss with her. I now had a good job, I said, and was in a position to help her and Dad. I wanted to buy them something that would improve their lives. It could be a small car. It could be the security dep
osit and a few months’ rent on an apartment. It could be the down payment on a house in an inexpensive neighborhood.

  “We don’t need anything,” Mom said. “We’re fine.” She put down her teacup. “It’s you I’m worried about.”

  “You’re worried about me?”

  “Yes. Very worried.”

  “Mom,” I said. “I’m doing very well. I’m very, very comfortable.”

  “That’s what I’m worried about,” Mom said. “Look at the way you live. You’ve sold out. Next thing I know, you’ll become a Republican.” She shook her head. “Where are the values I raised you with?”

  Mom became even more concerned about my values when my editor offered me a job writing a weekly column about what he called the behind-the-scenes doings of the movers and shakers. Mom thought I should be writing exposés about oppressive landlords, social injustice, and the class struggle on the Lower East Side. But I leaped at the job, because it meant I would become one of those people who knew what was really going on. Also, most people in Welch had a pretty good idea how bad off the Walls family was, but the truth was, they all had their problems, too—they were just better than we were at covering them up. I wanted to let the world know that no one had a perfect life, that even the people who seemed to have it all had their secrets.

  Dad thought it was great that I was writing a weekly column about, as he put it, the skinny dames and the fat cats. He became one of my most faithful readers, and would go to the library to research the people in the column, then call me with tips. “This Astor broad has one helluva past,” he told me one time. “Maybe we should do a little digging in that direction.” Eventually, even Mom acknowledged that I’d done all right. “No one expected you to amount to much,” she told me. “Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you always worked hard.”

  I loved my new job even more than I loved my Park Avenue address. I was invited to dozens of parties a week: art-gallery openings, benefit balls, movie premieres, book parties, and private dinners in marble-floored dining rooms. I met real estate developers, agents, heiresses, fund managers, lawyers, clothing designers, professional basketball players, photographers, movie producers, and television correspondents. I met people who owned entire collections of houses and spent more on one restaurant meal than my family had paid for 93 Little Hobart Street.

  True or not, I was convinced that if all these people found out about Mom and Dad and who I really was, it would be impossible for me to keep my job. So I avoided discussing my parents. When that was impossible, I lied.

  A year after I started the column, I was in a small, overstuffed restaurant across the table from an aging, elegant woman in a silk turban who oversaw the International Best Dressed List.

  “So, where are you from, Jeannette?”

  “West Virginia.”



  “How lovely. What’s the main industry in Welch?”

  “Coal mining.”

  As she questioned me, she studied what I wore, assessing the fabric and appraising the cost of each item and making a judgment about my taste in general.

  “And does your family own coal mines?”


  “What do your parents do?”

  “Mom’s an artist.”

  “And your father?”

  “He’s an entrepreneur.”

  “Doing what?”

  I took a breath. “He’s developing a technology to burn low-grade bituminous coal more efficiently.”

  “And they’re still in West Virginia?” she asked.

  I decided I might as well go all out. “They love it there,” I said. “They have a great old house on a hill overlooking a beautiful river. They spent years restoring it.”

  M Y LIFE WITH E RIC was calm and predictable. I liked it that way, and four years after I moved into his apartment, we got married. Shortly after the wedding, Mom’s brother, my uncle Jim, died in Arizona. Mom came to the apartment to give me the news and to ask a favor. “We need to buy Jim’s land,” she said.

  Mom and her brother had each inherited half of the West Texas land that had been owned by their father. The whole time we kids were growing up, Mom had been mysteriously vague about how big and how valuable this land was, but I had the impression that it was a few hundred acres of more or less uninhabitable desert, miles from any road.

  “We need to keep that land in the family,” Mom told me. “It’s important for sentimental reasons.”

  “Let’s see if we can buy it, then,” I said. “How much will it cost?”

  “You can borrow the money from Eric now that he’s your husband,” Mom said.

  “I’ve got a little money,” I said. “How much will it cost?” I’d read somewhere that off-road land in parched West Texas sold for as little as a hundred dollars an acre.

  “You can borrow from Eric,” Mom said again.

  “Well, how much?”

  “A million dollars.”


  “A million dollars.”

  “But Uncle Jim’s land is the same size as your land,” I said. I was speaking slowly, because I wanted to make sure I understood the implications of what Mom had just told me. “You each inherited half of Grandpa Smith’s land.”

  “More or less,” Mom said.

  “So if Uncle Jim’s land is worth a million dollars, that means your land is worth a million dollars.”

  “I don’t know.”

  “What do you mean, you don’t know? It’s the same size as his.”

  “I don’t know how much it’s worth, because I never had it appraised. I was never going to sell it. My father taught me you never sell land. That’s why we have to buy Uncle Jim’s land. We have to keep it in the family.”

  “You mean you own land worth a million dollars?” I was thunderstruck. All those years in Welch with no food, no coal, no plumbing, and Mom had been sitting on land worth a million dollars? Had all those years, as well as Mom and Dad’s time on the street—not to mention their current life in an abandoned tenement—been a caprice inflicted on us by Mom? Could she have solved our financial problems by selling this land she never even saw? But she avoided my questions, and it became clear that to Mom, holding on to land was not so much an investment strategy as it was an article of faith, a revealed truth as deeply felt and incontestable to her as Catholicism. And for the life of me, I could not get her to tell me how much the land was worth.

  “I told you I don’t know,” she said.

  “Then tell me how many acres it is, and where exactly it is, and I’ll find out how much an acre of land is going for in that area.” I wasn’t interested in her money; I just wanted to know—needed to know—the answer to my question: How much was that freaking land worth? Maybe she truly didn’t know. Maybe she was afraid to find out. Maybe she was afraid of what we’d all think if we knew. But instead of answering me, she kept repeating that it was important to keep Uncle Jim’s land—land that had belonged to her father and his father and his father before that—in the family.

  “Mom, I can’t ask Eric for a million dollars.”

  “Jeannette, I haven’t asked you for a lot of favors, but I’m asking you for one now. I wouldn’t if it wasn’t important. But this is important.”

  I told Mom I didn’t think Eric would lend me a million dollars to buy some land in Texas, and even if he would, I wouldn’t borrow it from him. “It’s too much money,” I said. “What would I do with the land?”

  “Keep it in the family.”

  “I can’t believe you’re asking me this,” I said. “I’ve never even seen that land.”

  “Jeannette,” Mom said when she had accepted the fact that she would not get her way. “I’m deeply disappointed in you.”

  L ORI WAS WORKING as a freelance artist specializing in fantasy, illustrating calendars and game boards and book jackets. Brian had joined the police force as s
oon as he turned twenty. Dad couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong, raising a son who’d grown up to become a member of the gestapo. But I was so proud of my brother on the day he was sworn in, standing there in the ranks of the new officers, straight-shouldered in his navy blue uniform with its glittering brass buttons.

  Meanwhile, Maureen had graduated from high school and enrolled in one of the city colleges, but she never really applied herself and ended up living with Mom and Dad. She worked from time to time as a bartender or waitress, but the jobs never lasted long. Ever since she was a kid, she’d been looking for someone to take care of her. In Welch, the Pentecostal neighbors provided for her, and now in New York, with her long blond hair and wide blue eyes, she found various men who were willing to help out.

  The boyfriends never lasted any longer than the jobs. She talked about finishing college and going to law school, but distractions kept cropping up. The longer she stayed with Mom and Dad, the more lost she became, and after a while she was spending most of her days in the apartment, smoking cigarettes, reading novels, and occasionally painting nude self-portraits. That two-room squat was cramped, and Maureen and Dad would get into the worst screaming fights, with Maureen calling Dad a worthless drunk and Dad calling Maureen a sick puppy, the runt of the litter, who should have been drowned at birth.

  Maureen even stopped reading and slept all day, leaving the apartment only to buy cigarettes. I called and persuaded her to come up to see me and discuss her future. When she arrived, I scarcely recognized her. She’d bleached her hair and eyebrows platinum and was wearing dark makeup as thick as a Kabuki dancer’s. She lit one cigarette after another and kept glancing around the room. When I brought up some career possibilities, she told me that the only thing she wanted to do was help fight the Mormon cults that had kidnapped thousands of people in Utah.

  “What cults?” I asked.

  “Don’t pretend you don’t know,” she said. “That just means you’re one of them.”

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