The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  Afterward, I called Brian. “Do you think Maureen’s on drugs?” I asked.

  “If she’s not, she should be,” he said. “She’s gone nuts.”

  I told Mom that Maureen should get professional help, but Mom kept insisting that all Maureen needed was fresh air and sunshine. I talked to several doctors, but they told me that since it sounded like Maureen would refuse to seek help on her own, she could be treated only on the order of a court, if she proved she was a danger to herself or others.

  Six months later, Maureen stabbed Mom. It happened after Mom decided it was time for Maureen to develop a little self-sufficiency by moving out and finding a place of her own. God helps those who help themselves, Mom told Maureen, and so for her own good, she would have to leave the nest and make her way in the world. Maureen couldn’t bear the idea that her own mom would kick her out onto the street, and she snapped. Mom insisted Maureen had not actually been trying to kill her—she’d just become confused and upset, she said—but the wounds required stitches, and the police arrested Maureen.

  She was arraigned a few days later. Mom and Dad and Lori and Brian and I were all there. Brian was fuming. Lori looked grief-stricken. Dad was half potted and kept trying to pick fights with the security guards. But Mom acted like her normal self—nonchalant in the face of adversity. As we sat waiting on the courtroom benches, she hummed tunelessly and sketched the other spectators.

  Maureen shuffled into the courtroom, shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit. Her face was puffy, and she looked dazed, but when she saw us, she smiled and waved. Her lawyer asked the judge to set bail. I had borrowed several thousand dollars from Eric and had the cash in my purse. But after listening to the prosecutor’s version of events, the judge shook her head grimly:. “Bail is denied.”

  In the hallway, Lori and Dad got into a loud argument over who was responsible for pushing Maureen over the edge. Lori blamed Dad for creating a sick environment, while Dad maintained that Maureen had faulty wiring. Mom chimed in that all the junk food Maureen ate had led to a chemical imbalance, and Brian started yelling at them all to shut the hell up or he’d arrest them. I just stood there looking from one distorted face to another, listening to this babble of enraged squabbling as the members of the Walls family gave vent to all their years of hurt and anger, each unloading his or her own accumulated grievances and blaming the others for allowing the most fragile one of us to break into pieces.

  The judge sent Maureen to an upstate hospital. She was released after a year and immediately bought a one-way bus ticket to California. I told Brian that we had to stop her. She didn’t know a single person in California. How would she survive? But Brian thought it was the smartest thing she could do for herself. He said she needed to get as far away from Mom and Dad, and probably the rest of us, as possible.

  I decided Brian was right. But I also hoped that Maureen had chosen California because she thought that was her true home, the place where she really belonged, where it was always warm and you could dance in the rain, pick grapes right off the vines, and sleep outside at night under the stars.

  Maureen did not want any of us to see her off. I rose just after first light the morning she was scheduled to leave. It was an early departure, and I wanted to be awake and thinking about her at the moment her bus pulled out, so I could say farewell in my mind. I went to the window and looked out at the cold, wet sky. I wondered if she was thinking of us and if she was going to miss us. I’d always had mixed feelings about bringing her to New York, but I’d agreed to let her come. Once she arrived, I’d been too busy taking care of myself to look after her. “I’m sorry, Maureen,” I said when the time came. “sorry for everything.”

  A FTER THAT, I HARDLY ever saw Mom or Dad. Neither did Brian. He had gotten married and bought a run-down Victorian house on Long Island that he restored, and he and his wife had a child, a little girl. They were his family now. Lori, who was still living in her apartment near the Port Authority, was more in touch with Mom and Dad, but she, too, had gone her own way. We hadn’t gotten together since Maureen’s arraignment. Something in all of us broke that day, and afterward, we no longer had the spirit for family gatherings.

  About a year after Maureen took off for California, I got a call at work from Dad. He said he needed to get together to discuss something important.

  “Can’t we do it over the phone?”

  “I need to see you in person, honey.”

  Dad asked me to come down to the Lower East Side that evening. “And if it’s not too much trouble,” he added. “could you stop on your way and pick up a bottle of vodka?”

  “Oh, so that’s what this is about.”

  “No, no, honey. I do need to talk to you. But I would appreciate some vodka. Nothing fancy, just the cheapest rotgut they have. A pint would be fine. A fifth would be great.”

  I was annoyed by Dad’s sly request for vodka—tossing it out at the end of the conversation as if it were an afterthought, when I figured it was probably the purpose of the call. That afternoon I called Mom, who still never drank anything stronger than tea, and asked if I should indulge Dad.

  “Your father is who he is,” Mom said. “It’s a little late in the game to try to reform him now. Humor the man.”

  That night I stopped in a liquor store and bought a half gallon of the cheapest rotgut on the shelf, just as Dad had requested, then took a taxi down to the Lower East Side. I climbed the dark staircase and pushed open the unlocked door. Mom and Dad were lying in their bed under a pile of thin blankets. I got the impression they’d been there all day. Mom squealed when she saw me, and Dad started apologizing for the mess, saying if Mom would let him clear out some of her crap, they might at least be able to swing a cat in here, which got Mom accusing Dad of being a bum.

  “Good to see you,” I said as I kissed them. “It’s been a while.”

  Mom and Dad struggled up into sitting positions. I saw Dad eyeing the brown paper bag, and I passed it to him.

  “A magnum,” Dad said, his voice choked with gratitude as he eased the big bottle from the bag. He unscrewed the cap and took a long, deep pull. “Thank you, my darling,” he said. “You are so good to your old man.”

  Mom wore a heavy cable-knit sweater. The skin of her hands was deeply cracked, and her hair was tangled, but her face had a healthy pink glow, and her eyes were clear and bright. Beside her, Dad looked gaunt. His hair, still coal black except for touches of gray at his temples, was combed back, but his cheeks were sunken, and he had a thin beard. He’d always been clean-shaven, even during those days on the streets.

  “Why are you growing a beard, Dad?” I asked.

  “Every man should grow one once.”

  “But why now?”

  “It’s now or never,” Dad said. “The fact is, I’m dying.”

  I laughed nervously, then looked at Mom, who had reached for her sketch pad without saying anything.

  Dad was watching me carefully. He passed me the vodka bottle. Although I almost never drank, I took a sip and felt the burn as the liquor slid down my throat.

  “This stuff could grow on you,” I said.

  “Don’t let it,” Dad said.

  He started telling me how he’d acquired a rare tropical disease after getting into a bloody fistfight with some Nigerian drug dealers. The doctors had examined him, pronounced the rare disease incurable, and told him he had anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to live.

  It was a ridiculous yarn. The fact was that, although Dad was only fifty-nine, he had been smoking four packs of cigarettes a day since he was thirteen, and by this time he was also putting away a good two quarts of booze daily. He was, as he had put it many a time, completely pickled.

  But despite all the hell-raising and destruction and chaos he had created in our lives, I could not imagine what my life would be like—what the world would be like—without him in it. As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else ever had. I looked out the window.

  “Now, no snot-slinging or boohooing about ‘poor ol’Rex,’” Dad said. “I don’t want any of that, either now or when I’m gone.”

  I nodded.

  “But you always loved your old man, didn’t you?”

  “I did, Dad,” I said. “And you loved me.”

  “Now, that’s the God’s honest truth.” Dad chuckled. “We had some times, didn’t we?”

  “We did.”

  “Never did build that Glass Castle.”

  “No. But we had fun planning it.”

  “Those were some damn fine plans.”

  Mom stayed out of the conversation, sketching quietly.

  “Dad,” I said, “I’m sorry, I really should have asked you to my graduation.”

  “To hell with that.” He laughed. “Ceremonies never did mean diddly to me.” He took another long pull on his magnum. “I got a lot to regret about my life,” he said. “But I’m goddamn proud of you, Mountain Goat, the way you turned out. Whenever I think of you, I figure I must have done something right.”

  “’Course you did.”

  “Well, all right then.”

  We talked about the old days some and, finally, it was time to go. I kissed them both, and at the door, I turned to look at Dad one more time.

  “Hey,” he said. He winked and pointed his finger at me. “Have I ever let you down?”

  He started chuckling because he knew there was only one way I could ever answer that question. I just smiled. And then I closed the door.

  T WO WEEKS LATER, Dad had a heart attack. When I got to the hospital, he was in a bed in the emergency room, his eyes closed. Mom and Lori were standing next to him. “It’s just the machines keeping him alive at his point,” Mom said.

  I knew Dad would have hated that, spending his final moments in a hospital hooked up to machines. He’d have wanted to be out in the wild somewhere. He always said that when he died, we should put him on a mountaintop and let the buzzards and coyotes tear his body apart. I had this crazy urge to scoop him up in my arms and charge through the doors—to check out Rex Walls–style one last time.

  Instead, I took his hand. It was warm and heavy. An hour later, they turned the machines off.

  In the months that followed, I found myself always wanting to be somewhere other than where I was. If I was at work, I’d wish I were at home. If I was in the apartment, I couldn’t wait to get out of it. If a taxi I had hailed was stuck in traffic for over a minute, I got out and walked. I felt best when I was on the move, going someplace rather than being there. I took up ice-skating. I rose early in the morning and made my way through the quiet, dawn-lit streets to the rink, where I laced up my skates so tightly my feet throbbed. I welcomed the numbing cold and even the jolt of my falls on the hard, wet ice. The fast-paced, repetitive maneuvers distracted me, and sometimes I went back at night to skate again, returning home only when it was late and I was exhausted. It took me a while to realize that just being on the move wasn’t enough; that I needed to reconsider everything.

  A year after Dad died, I left Eric. He was a good man, but not the right one for me. And Park Avenue was not where I belonged. I took a small apartment on the West Side. It had neither a doorman nor a fireplace, but there were large windows that flooded the rooms with light, and parquet floors and a small foyer, just like that first apartment Lori and I had found in the Bronx. It felt right.

  I went ice-skating less often, and when my skates were stolen, I never replaced them. My compulsion to be always on the move began to fade. But I liked to go for long walks at night. I often walked west toward the river. The city lights obscured the stars, but on clear nights, I could see Venus on the horizon, up over the dark water, glowing steadily.



  I WAS STANDING ON the platform with my second husband, John. A whistle sounded in the distance, red lights flashed, and a bell clanged as the gates were lowered across the roadway. The whistle sounded again, and then the train appeared around the bend through the trees and rumbled toward the station, its massive twin headlights pale in the bright November afternoon.

  The train eased to a stop. The electric engines hummed and vibrated, and after a long pause, the doors opened. Passengers spilled out, carrying their folded newspapers and canvas weekend bags and brightly colored coats. Through the crowd, I saw Mom and Lori getting out at the back of the train, and I waved.

  It had been five years since Dad died. I had seen Mom only sporadically since then, and she’d never met John nor been to the old country farmhouse we’d bought the year before. It had been John’s idea to invite her and Lori and Brian out to the house for Thanksgiving, the first Walls family get-together since Dad’s funeral.

  Mom broke into a huge smile and started hurrying toward us. Instead of an overcoat, she was wearing what looked to be about four sweaters and a shawl, a pair of corduroy trousers, and some old sneakers. She carried bulky shopping bags in both hands. Lori, behind her, wore a black cape and a black fedora. They made quite a pair.

  Mom hugged me. Her long hair was mostly gray, but her cheeks were rosy and her eyes as bright as ever. Then Lori hugged me, and I introduced John.

  “Excuse my attire,” Mom said. “but I plan to change out of my comfy shoes into some dress shoes for dinner.” She reached into one of her shopping bags and pulled out a pair of banged-up penny loafers.

  The winding road back to the house led under stone bridges, through woods and villages, and past marsh ponds where swans floated on mirrorlike water. Most of the leaves had fallen, and gusts of wind sent them spiraling along the roadside. Through the thickets of bare trees, you could see houses that were invisible during the summer.

  As he drove, John told Mom and Lori about the area, about the duck farms and the flower farms and the Indian origin of our town’s name. Sitting beside him, I studied his profile and couldn’t help smiling. John wrote books and magazine articles. Like me, he had moved around a lot while growing up, but his mother had been raised in an Appalachian village in Tennessee, about a hundred miles southwest of Welch, so you could say our families hailed from the same neck of the woods. I’d never met a man I would rather spend time with. I loved him for all sorts of reasons: He cooked without recipes; he wrote nonsense poems for his nieces; his large, warm family had accepted me as one of their own. And when I first showed him my scar, he said it was interesting. He used the word. “textured.” He said. “smooth” was boring but. “textured” was interesting, and the scar meant that I was stronger than whatever it was that had tried to hurt me.

  We pulled into the drive. Jessica, John’s fifteen-year-old daughter from his first marriage, came out of the house, along with Brian and his eight-year-old daughter, Veronica, and their bull mastiff, Charlie. Brian hadn’t seen much of Mom since Dad’s funeral, either. He hugged her and immediately started ribbing her about the plucked-from-the-Dumpster presents she’d brought for everyone in the shopping bags: rusting silverware, old books and magazines, a few pieces of fine bone china from the twenties with only minor chips.

  Brian had become a decorated sergeant detective, supervising a special unit that investigated organized crime. He and his wife had split up around the time Eric and I did, but he had consoled himself by buying and renovating a wreck of a town house in Brooklyn. He put in new wiring and plumbing, a new firebox, reinforced floor joists, and a new porch all on his own. It was the second time he’d taken on a true dump and restored it to perfection. Also, at least two women were after him to marry them. He was doing pretty darn well.

  We showed Mom and Lori the gardens, which were ready for winter. John and I had done all the work ourselves: raked the leaves and shredded them in the chipper, cut back the dead perennials and mulched the beds, shoveled compost onto the vegetable garden and tilled it, and dug up the dahlia bulbs and stored them in a bucket of sand in the basement. John had also split and stacked the wood from a dead maple we’d cut down, and climbed up on the roof to replace some rotted cedar shingles.

  Mom nodded at all our preparations; she’d always appreciated self-sufficiency. She admired the wisteria that wrapped around the potting shed, the trumpet vine on the arbor, and the big grove of bamboo in the back. When she saw the pool, an impulse seized her, and she ran out onto the green elastic cover to test its strength, Charlie the dog loping after her. The cover sagged beneath them, and she fell down, shrieking with laughter. John and Brian had to help pull her off as Brian’s daughter, Veronica—who hadn’t seen Mom since she was a toddler—stared wide-eyed.

  “Grandma Walls is different from your other grandma,” I told her.

  “Way different,” Veronica said.

  John’s daughter, Jessica, turned to me and said, “But she laughs just like you do.”

  I showed Mom and Lori the house. I still went into the office in the city once a week, but this was where John and I lived and worked, our home—the first house I’d ever owned. Mom and Lori admired the wide-planked floorboards, the big fireplaces, and the ceiling beams made from locust posts, with gouge marks from the ax that had felled them. Mom’s eye settled on an Egyptian couch we’d bought at a flea market. It had carved legs and a wooden backrest inlaid with mother-of-pearl triangles. She nodded in approval. “Every household,” she said. “needs one piece of furniture in really bad taste.”

  The kitchen was filled with the smell of the roasting turkey John had prepared, with a stuffing of sausage, mushrooms, walnuts, apples, and spiced bread crumbs. He’d also made creamed onions, wild rice, cranberry sauce, and squash casserole. I’d baked three pies with apples from a nearby orchard.

  “Bonanza!” Brian shouted.

  “Feast time!” I said to him.

  He looked at the dishes. I knew what he was thinking, what he thought every time he saw a spread like this one. He shook his head and said. “You know, it’s really not that hard to put food on the table if that’s what you decide to do.”

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