The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  There were fierce sandstorms. Sometimes they hit without warning, and other times you knew one was coming when you saw batches of dust devils swirling and dancing their way across the desert. Once the wind started whipping up the sand, you could only see a foot in front of your face. If you couldn’t find a house or a car or a shed to hide in when the sandstorm started, you had to squat down and close your eyes and mouth real tight and cover your ears and bury your face in your lap until it passed, or else your body cavities would fill with sand. A big tumbleweed might hit you, but they were light and bouncy and didn’t hurt. If the sandstorm was really strong, it knocked you over, and you rolled around like you were a tumbleweed.

  When the rains finally came, the skies darkened and the air became heavy. Raindrops the size of marbles came pelting out of the sky. Some parents worried that their kids might get hit by lightning, but Mom and Dad never did, and they let us go out and play in the warm, driving water. We splashed and sang and danced. Great bolts of lightning cracked from the low-hanging clouds, and thunder shook the ground. We gasped over the most spectacular bolts, as if we were all watching a fireworks show. After the storm, Dad took us to the arroyos, and we watched the flash floods come roaring through. The next day the saguaros and prickly pears were fat from drinking as much as they could, because they knew it might be a long, long time until the next rain.

  We were sort of like the cactus. We ate irregularly, and when we did, we’d gorge ourselves. Once when we were living in Nevada, a train full of cantaloupes heading east jumped the track. I had never eaten a cantaloupe before, but Dad brought home crates and crates of them. We had fresh cantaloupe, stewed cantaloupe, even fried cantaloupe. One time in California, the grape pickers went on strike. The vineyard owners let people come pick their own grapes for a nickel a pound. We drove about a hundred miles to the vineyards, where the grapes were so ripe they were about to burst on the vine in bunches bigger than my head. We filled our entire car full of green grapes—the trunk, even the glove compartment, and Dad piled stacks in our laps so high we could barely see over the top. For weeks afterward, we ate green grapes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

  All this running around and moving was temporary, Dad explained. He had a plan. He was going to find gold.

  Everybody said Dad was a genius. He could build or fix anything. One time when a neighbor’s TV set broke, Dad opened the back and used a macaroni noodle to insulate some crossed wires. The neighbor couldn’t get over it. He went around telling everyone in town that Dad sure knew how to use his noodle. Dad was an expert in math and physics and electricity. He read books on calculus and logarithmic algebra and loved what he called the poetry and symmetry of math. He told us about the magic qualities every number has and how numbers unlock the secrets of the universe. But Dad’s main interest was energy: thermal energy, nuclear energy, solar energy, electrical energy, and energy from the wind. He said there were so many untapped sources of energy in the world that it was ridiculous to be burning all that fossil fuel.

  Dad was always inventing things, too. One of his most important inventions was a complicated contraption he called the Prospector. It was going to help us find gold. The Prospector had a big flat surface about four feet high and six feet wide, and it rose up in the air at an angle. The surface was covered with horizontal strips of wood separated by gaps. The Prospector would scoop up dirt and rocks and sift them through the maze of wooden strips. It could figure out whether a rock was gold by the weight. It would throw out the worthless stuff and deposit the gold nuggets in a pile, so whenever we needed groceries, we could go out back and grab ourselves a nugget. At least that was what it would be able to do once Dad finished building it.

  Dad let Brian and me help him work on the Prospector. We’d go out behind the house, and I’d hold the nails while Dad hit them. Sometimes he let me start the nails, and then he’d drive them in with one hard blow from the hammer. The air would be filled with sawdust and the smell of freshly cut wood, and the sound of hammering and whistling, because Dad always whistled while he worked.

  In my mind, Dad was perfect, although he did have what Mom called a little bit of a drinking situation. There was what Mom called Dad’s. “beer phase.” We could all handle that. Dad drove fast and sang really loud, and locks of his hair fell into his face and life was a little bit scary but still a lot of fun. But when Dad pulled out a bottle of what Mom called. “the hard stuff,” she got kind of frantic, because after working on the bottle for a while, Dad turned into an angry-eyed stranger who threw around furniture and threatened to beat up Mom or anyone else who got in his way. When he’d had his fill of cussing and hollering and smashing things up, he’d collapse. But Dad drank hard liquor only when we had money, which wasn’t often, so life was mostly good in those days.

  Every night when Lori, Brian, and I were about to go to sleep, Dad told us bedtime stories. They were always about him. We’d be tucked in our beds or lying under blankets in the desert, the world dark except for the orange glow from his cigarette. When he took a long draw, it lit up just enough for us to see his face.

  “Tell us a story about yourself, Dad!” we’d beg him.

  “Awww. You don’t want to hear another story about me,” he’d say.

  “Yes, we do! We do!” we’d insist.

  “Well, okay,” he’d say. He’d pause and chuckle at some memory. “There’s many a damned foolhardy thing that your old man has done, but this one was harebrained even for a crazy sonofabitch like Rex Walls.”

  And then he’d tell us about how, when he was in the air force and his plane’s engine conked out, he made an emergency landing in a cattle pasture and saved himself and his crew. Or about the time he wrestled a pack of wild dogs that had surrounded a lame mustang. Then there was the time he fixed a broken sluice gate on the Hoover Dam and saved the lives of thousands of people who would have drowned if the dam had burst. There was also the time he went AWOL in the air force to get some beer, and while he was at the bar, he caught a lunatic who was planning to blow up the air base, which went to show that occasionally, it paid to break the rules.

  Dad was a dramatic storyteller. He always started out slow, with lots of pauses. “Go on! What happened next?” we’d ask, even if we’d already heard that story before. Mom giggled or rolled her eyes when Dad told his stories, and he glared at her. If someone interrupted his storytelling, he got mad, and we had to beg him to continue and promise that no one would interrupt again.

  Dad always fought harder, flew faster, and gambled smarter than everyone else in his stories. Along the way, he rescued women and children and even men who weren’t as strong and clever. Dad taught us the secrets of his heroics—he showed us how to straddle a wild dog and break his neck, and where to hit a man in the throat so you could kill him with one powerful jab. But he assured us that as long as he was around, we wouldn’t have to defend ourselves, because, by God, anyone who so much as laid a finger on any of Rex Walls’s children was going to get their butts kicked so hard that you could read Dad’s shoe size on their ass cheeks.

  When Dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle. All of Dad’s engineering skills and mathematical genius were coming together in one special project: a great big house he was going to build for us in the desert. It would have a glass ceiling and thick glass walls and even a glass staircase. The Glass Castle would have solar cells on the top that would catch the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity for heating and cooling and running all the appliances. It would even have its own water-purification system. Dad had worked out the architecture and the floor plans and most of the mathematical calculations. He carried around the blueprints for the Glass Castle wherever we went, and sometimes he’d pull them out and let us work on the design for our rooms.

  All we had to do was find gold, Dad said, and we were on the verge of that. Once he finished the Prospector
and we struck it rich, he’d start work on our Glass Castle.

  A S MUCH AS D AD liked to tell stories about himself, it was almost impossible to get him to talk about his parents or where he was born. We knew he came from a town called Welch, in West Virginia, where a lot of coal was mined, and that his father had worked as a clerk for the railroad, sitting every day in a little station house, writing messages on pieces of paper that he held up on a stick for the passing train engineers. Dad had no interest in a life like that, so he left Welch when he was seventeen to join the air force and become a pilot.

  One of his favorite stories, which he must have told us a hundred times, was about how he met and fell in love with Mom. Dad was in the air force, and Mom was in the USO, but when they met, she was on leave visiting her parents at their cattle ranch near Fish Creek Canyon.

  Dad and some of his air force buddies were on a cliff of the canyon, trying to work up the nerve to dive into the lake forty feet below, when Mom and a friend drove up. Mom was wearing a white bathing suit that showed off her figure and her skin, which was dark from the Arizona sun. She had light brown hair that turned blond in the summer, and she never wore any makeup except deep red lipstick. She looked just like a movie star, Dad always said, but hell, he’d met lots of beautiful women before, and none of them had ever made him weak in the knees. Mom was different. He saw right away that she had true spirit. He fell in love with her the split second he laid eyes on her.

  Mom walked up to the air force men and told them that diving off the cliff was no big deal, she’d been doing it since she was little. The men didn’t believe her, so Mom went right to the edge of the cliff and did a perfect swan dive into the water below.

  Dad jumped in after her. No way in hell, he’d say, was he letting a fine broad like that get away from him.

  “What kind of dive did you do, Dad?” I asked whenever he told the story.

  “A parachute dive. Without a parachute,” he always answered.

  Dad swam after Mom, and right there in the water, he told her he was going to marry her. Twenty-three men had already proposed to her, Mom told Dad, and she had turned them all down. “What makes you think I’d accept your proposal?” she asked.

  “I didn’t propose to you,” Dad said. “I told you I was going to marry you.”

  Six months later, they got married. I always thought it was the most romantic story I’d ever heard, but Mom didn’t like it. She didn’t think it was romantic at all.

  “I had to say yes,” Mom said. “Your father wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Besides, she explained, she had to get away from her mother, who wouldn’t let her make even the smallest decision on her own. “I had no idea your father would be even worse.”

  Dad left the air force after he got married because he wanted to make a fortune for his family, and you couldn’t do that in the military. In a few months, Mom was pregnant. When Lori came out, she was mute and bald as an egg for the first three years of her life. Then suddenly, she sprouted curly hair the color of a new penny and started speaking nonstop. But it sounded like gibberish, and everyone thought she was addled except for Mom, who understood her perfectly and said she had an excellent vocabulary.

  A year after Lori was born, Mom and Dad had a second daughter, Mary Charlene, who had coal-black hair and chocolate-brown eyes, just like Dad. But Mary Charlene died one night when she was nine months old. Crib death, Mom always said. Two years later, I was born. “You were to replace Mary Charlene,” Mom said. She told me that she had ordered up a second redheaded girl so Lori wouldn’t feel like she was weird. “You were such a skinny baby,” Mom used to tell me. “The longest, boniest thing the nurses had ever seen.”

  Brian arrived when I was one. He was a blue baby, Mom said. When he was born, he couldn’t breathe and came into this world having a seizure. Whenever Mom told the story, she would hold her arms rigid and clench her teeth and go bug-eyed to show how Brian looked. Mom said when she saw him like that, she thought, Uh-oh, looks like this one’s a goner, too. But Brian lived. For the first year of his life, he kept having those seizures, then one day they just stopped. He turned into a tough little guy who never whined or cried, even the time I accidentally pushed him off the top bunk and he broke his nose.

  Mom always said people worried too much about their children. Suffering when you’re young is good for you, she said. It immunized your body and your soul, and that was why she ignored us kids when we cried. Fussing over children who cry only encourages them, she told us. That’s positive reinforcement for negative behavior.

  Mom never seemed upset about Mary Charlene’s death. “God knows what He’s doing,” she said. “He gave me some perfect children, but He also gave me one that wasn’t so perfect, so He said, ‘Oops, I better take this one back.’” Dad, however, wouldn’t talk about Mary Charlene. If her name came up, his face grew stony and he’d leave the room. He was the one who found her body in the crib, and Mom couldn’t believe how much it shook him up. “When he found her, he stood there like he was in shock or something, cradling her stiff little body in his arms, and then he screamed like a wounded animal,” she told us. “I never heard such a horrible sound.”

  Mom said Dad was never the same after Mary Charlene died. He started having dark moods, staying out late and coming home drunk, and losing jobs. One day soon after Brian was born, we were short on cash, so Dad pawned Mom’s big diamond wedding ring, which her mother had paid for, and that upset Mom. After that, whenever Mom and Dad got in a fight, Mom brought up the ring, and Dad told her to quit her damn bellyaching. He’d say he was going to get her a ring even fancier than the one he pawned. That was why we had to find gold. To get Mom a new wedding ring. That and so we could build the Glass Castle.

  “D O YOU LIKE ALWAYS moving around?” Lori asked me.

  “Of course I do!” I said. “Don’t you?”

  “Sure,” she said.

  It was late afternoon, and we were parked outside of a bar in the Nevada desert. It was called the Bar None Bar. I was four and Lori was seven. We were on our way to Las Vegas. Dad had decided it would be easier, as he put it, to accumulate the capital necessary to finance the Prospector if he hit the casinos for a while. We’d been driving for hours when he saw the Bar None Bar, pulled over the Green Caboose—the Blue Goose had died, and we now had another car, a station wagon Dad had named the Green Caboose—and announced that he was going inside for a quick nip. Mom put on some red lipstick and joined him, even though she didn’t drink anything stronger than tea. They had been inside for hours. The sun hung high in the sky, and there was not the slightest hint of a breeze. Nothing moved except some buzzards on the side of the road, pecking over an unrecognizable carcass. Brian was reading a dog-eared comic book.

  “How many places have we lived?” I asked Lori.

  “That depends on what you mean by ‘lived,’” she said. “If you spend one night in some town, did you live there? What about two nights? Or a whole week?”

  I thought. “If you unpack all your things,” I said.

  We counted eleven places we had lived, then we lost track. We couldn’t remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses we had lived in looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.

  “What do you think would happen if we weren’t always moving around?” I asked.

  “We’d get caught,” Lori said.

  When Mom and Dad came out of the Bar None Bar, they brought us each a long piece of beef jerky and a candy bar. I ate the jerky first, and by the time I unwrapped my Mounds bar, it had melted into a brown, gooey mess, so I decided to save it until night, when the desert cold would harden it up again.

  By then we had passed through the small town beyond the Bar None Bar. Dad was driving and smoking with one hand and holding a brown bottle of beer with the other. Lori was in the front seat between him and Mom, and Brian, who was in back with me, was trying to trade me half of his 3 Musketeers for half of my Mounds. Just then we took a sharp turn over so
me railroad tracks, the door flew open, and I tumbled out of the car.

  I rolled several yards along the embankment, and when I came to a stop, I was too shocked to cry, with my breath knocked out and grit and pebbles in my eyes and mouth. I lifted my head in time to watch the Green Caboose get smaller and smaller and then disappear around a bend.

  Blood was running down my forehead and flowing out of my nose. My knees and elbows were scraped raw and covered with sand. I was still holding the Mounds bar, but I had smashed it during the fall, tearing the wrapper and squeezing out the white coconut filling, which was also covered with grit.

  Once I got my breath back, I crawled along the railroad embankment to the road and sat down to wait for Mom and Dad to come back. My whole body felt sore. The sun was small and white and broiling-hot. A wind had come up, and it was roiling the dust along the roadside. I waited for what seemed like a long time before I decided it was possible Mom and Dad might not come back for me. They might not notice I was missing. They might decide that it wasn’t worth the drive back to retrieve me; that, like Quixote the cat, I was a bother and a burden they could do without.

  The little town behind me was quiet, and there were no other cars on the road. I started crying, but that only made me feel more sore. I got up and began to walk back toward the houses, and then I decided that if Mom and Dad did come for me, they wouldn’t be able to find me, so I returned to the railroad tracks and sat down again.

  I was scraping the dried blood off my legs when I looked up and saw the Green Caboose come back around the bend. It hurtled up the road toward me, getting bigger and bigger, until it screeched to a halt right in front of me. Dad got out of the car, knelt down, and tried to give me a hug.

  I pulled away from him. “I thought you were going to leave me behind,” I said.

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