The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  “Aww, I’d never do that,” he said. “Your brother was trying to tell us that you’d fallen out, but he was blubbering so damned hard we couldn’t understand a word he was saying.”

  Dad started pulling the pebbles out of my face. Some were buried deep in my skin, so he reached into the glove compartment for a pair of needle-nosed pliers. When he’d plucked all the pebbles from my cheeks and forehead, he took out his handkerchief and tried to stop my nose from bleeding. It was dripping like a broken faucet. “Damn, honey,” he said. “You busted your snot locker pretty good.”

  I started laughing really hard. “Snot locker” was the funniest name I’d ever heard for a nose. After Dad cleaned me up and I got back in the car, I told Brian and Lori and Mom about the word, and they all started laughing as hard as me. Snot locker. It was hilarious.

  W E LIVED IN L AS V EGAS for about a month, in a motel room with dark red walls and two narrow beds. We three kids slept in one, Mom and Dad in the other. During the day, we went to the casinos, where Dad said he had a sure-fire system for beating the house. Brian and I played hide-and-seek among the clicking slot machines, checking the trays for overlooked quarters, while Dad was winning money at the blackjack table. I’d stare at the long-legged showgirls when they sashayed across the casino floor, with huge feathers on their heads and behinds, sequins sparkling on their bodies, and glitter around their eyes. When I tried to imitate their walk, Brian said I looked like an ostrich.

  At the end of the day, Dad came to get us, his pockets full of money. He bought us cowboy hats and fringed vests, and we ate chicken-fried steaks in restaurants with ice-cold air-conditioning and a miniature jukebox at each table. One night when Dad had made an especially big score, he said it was time to start living like the high rollers we had become. He took us to a restaurant with swinging doors like a saloon. Inside, the walls were decorated with real prospecting tools. A man with garters on his arms played a piano, and a woman with gloves that came up past her elbows kept hurrying over to light Dad’s cigarettes.

  Dad told us we were having something special for dessert—a flaming ice-cream cake. The waiter wheeled out a tray with the cake on it, and the woman with the gloves lit it with a taper. Everyone stopped eating to watch. The flames had a slow, watery movement, rolling up into the air like ribbons. Everyone started clapping, and Dad jumped up and raised the waiter’s hand above his head as if he’d won first prize.

  A few days later, Mom and Dad went off to the blackjack table and then almost immediately came looking for us. Dad said one of the dealers had figured out that he had a system and had put the word out on him. He told us it was time to do the skedaddle.

  We had to get far away from Las Vegas, Dad said, because the Mafia, which owned the casinos, was after him. We headed west, through desert and then mountains. Mom said we should all live near the Pacific Ocean at least once in our lives, so we kept going all the way to San Francisco.

  Mom didn’t want us staying in one of those tourist-trap hotels near Fisherman’s Wharf, which she said were inauthentic and cut off from the real life of the city, so we found one that had a lot more character, in a place called the Tenderloin District. Sailors and women with lots of makeup stayed there, too. Dad called it a flophouse, but Mom said it was an SRO, and when I asked what that stood for, she told me the hotel was for special residents only.

  While Mom and Dad went out looking for investment money for the Prospector, we kids played in the hotel. One day I found a half-full box of matches. I was thrilled, because I much preferred the wooden matches that came in boxes over the flimsy ones in the cardboard books. I took them upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. I pulled off some toilet paper, lit it, and when it started burning, I threw it down the toilet. I was torturing the fire, giving it life, and snuffing it out. Then I got a better idea. I made a pile of toilet paper in the toilet, lit it, and when it started burning, the flame shooting silently up out of the bowl, I flushed it down the toilet.

  One night a few days later, I suddenly woke up. The air was hot and stifling. I smelled smoke and then saw flames leaping at the open window. At first I couldn’t tell if the fire was inside or outside, but then I saw that one of the curtains, only a few feet from the bed, was ablaze.

  Mom and Dad were not in the room, and Lori and Brian were still asleep. I tried to scream to warn them, but nothing came out of my throat. I wanted to reach over and shake them awake, but I couldn’t move. The fire was growing bigger, stronger, and angrier.

  Just then the door burst open. Someone was calling our names. It was Dad. Lori and Brian woke up and ran to him, coughing from the smoke. I still couldn’t move. I watched the fire, expecting that at any moment my blanket would burst into flames. Dad wrapped the blanket around me and picked me up, then ran down the stairs, leading Lori and Brian with one arm and holding me in the other.

  Dad took us kids across the street to a bar, then went back to help fight the fire. A waitress with red fingernails and blue-black hair asked if we wanted a Coca-Cola or, heck, even a beer, because we’d been through a lot that night. Brian and Lori said yes, please, to Cokes. I asked if I might please have a Shirley Temple, which was what Dad bought me whenever he took me to a bar. For some reason, the waitress laughed.

  The people at the bar kept making jokes about women running naked out of the burning hotel. All I had on was my underwear, so I kept the blanket wrapped tightly around me. After I drank my Shirley Temple, I tried to go back across the street to watch the fire, but the waitress kept me at the bar, so I climbed up on a stool to watch through the window. The fire trucks had arrived. There were flashing lights and men in black rubber coats holding canvas hoses with big jets of water coming out of them.

  I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.

  After the hotel burned down, we lived for a few days on the beach. When we put down the backseat of the Green Caboose, there was room for everyone to sleep, though sometimes someone’s feet would be sticking in my face. One night a policeman tapped on our window and said we had to leave; it was illegal to sleep on the beach. He was nice and kept calling us. “folks” and even drew us a map to a place where we could sleep without getting arrested.

  But after he left, Dad called him the goddamn gestapo and said that people like that got their jollies pushing people like us around. Dad was fed up with civilization. He and Mom decided we should move back to the desert and resume our hunt for gold without our starter money. “These cities will kill you,” he said.

  A FTER WE PULLED UP stakes in San Francisco, we headed for the Mojave Desert. Near the Eagle Mountains, Mom made Dad stop the car. She’d seen a tree on the side of the road that had caught her fancy.

  It wasn’t just any tree. It was an ancient Joshua tree. It stood in a crease of land where the desert ended and the mountain began, forming a wind tunnel. From the time the Joshua tree was a tiny sapling, it had been so beaten down by the whipping wind that, rather than trying to grow skyward, it had grown in the direction that the wind pushed it. It existed now in a permanent state of windblownness, leaning over so far that it seemed ready to topple, although, in fact, its roots held it firmly in place.

  I thought the Joshua tree was ugly. It looked scraggly and freakish, permanently stuck in its twisted, tortured position, and it made me think of how some adults tell you not to make weird faces because your features could freeze. Mom, however, thought it was one of the most beautiful trees she had ever seen. She told us she had to paint it. While she was setting out her easel, Dad drove up the road to see what was ahead. He found a scattering of parched little houses, trai
lers settling into the sand, and shacks with rusty tin roofs. It was called Midland. One of the little houses had a for-rent sign. “What the hell,” Dad said, “this place is as good as any other.”

  The house we rented had been built by a mining company. It was white, with two rooms and a swaybacked roof. There were no trees, and the desert sand ran right up to the back door. At night you could hear coyotes howling.

  When we first got to Midland, those coyotes kept me awake, and as I lay in bed, I’d hear other sounds—Gila monsters rustling in the underbrush, moths knocking against the screens, and the creosote crackling in the wind. One night when the lights were out and I could see a sliver of moon through the window, I heard a slithering noise on the floor.

  “I think there’s something under our bed,” I said to Lori.

  “It’s merely a figment of your overly active imagination,” Lori said. She talked like a grown-up when she was annoyed.

  I tried to be brave, but I had heard something. In the moonlight, I thought I saw it move.

  “Something’s there,” I whispered.

  “Go to sleep,” Lori said.

  Holding my pillow over my head for protection, I ran into the living room, where Dad was reading. “What’s up, Mountain Goat?” he asked. He called me that because I never fell down when we were climbing mountains—sure-footed as a mountain goat, he’d always say.

  “Nothing, probably,” I said. “I just think maybe I saw something in the bedroom.” Dad raised his eyebrows. “But it was probably just a figment of my overly active imagination.”

  “Did you get a good look at it?” he asked.

  “Not really.”

  “You must have seen it. Was it a big old hairy sonofabitch with the damnedest-looking teeth and claws?”

  “That’s it!”

  “And did it have pointed ears and evil eyes with fire in ’em, and did it stare at you all wicked-like?” he asked.

  “Yes! Yes! You’ve seen it, too?”

  “Better believe I have. It’s that old ornery bastard Demon.”

  Dad said he had been chasing Demon for years. By now, Dad said, that old Demon had figured out that it had better not mess with Rex Walls. But if that sneaky son of a gun thought it was going to terrorize Rex Walls’s little girl, it had by God got another think coming. “Go fetch my hunting knife,” Dad said.

  I got Dad his knife with the carved bone handle and the blade of blue German steel, and he gave me a pipe wrench, and we went looking for Demon. We looked under my bed, where I had seen it, but it was gone. We looked all around the house—under the table, in the dark corners of the closets, in the toolbox, even outside in the trash cans.

  “C’mere, you sorry-ass old Demon!” Dad called out in the desert night. “Come out and show your butt-ugly face, you yellow-bellied monster!”

  “Yeah, c’mon, you old mean Demon!” I said, waving the pipe wrench in the air. “We’re not scared of you!”

  There was only the sound of the coyotes in the distance. “This is just like that chickenshit Demon,” Dad said. He sat down on the front step and lit up a cigarette, then told me a story about the time Demon was terrorizing an entire town, and Dad fought it off in hand-to-hand combat, biting its ears and sticking his fingers in its eyes. Old Demon was terrified because that was the first time it had met anyone who wasn’t afraid of it. “Damned old Demon didn’t know what to think,” Dad said, shaking his head with a chuckle. That was the thing to remember about all monsters, Dad said: They love to frighten people, but the minute you stare them down, they turn tail and run. “All you have to do, Mountain Goat, is show old Demon that you’re not afraid.”

  Not much grew around Midland other than the Joshua tree, cacti, and the scrubby little creosote bushes that Dad said were some of the oldest plants on the planet. The great granddaddy creosote bushes were thousands of years old. When it rained, they let off a disgusting musty smell so animals wouldn’t eat them. Only four inches of rain fell a year around Midland—about the same as in the northern Sahara—and water for humans came in on the train once a day in special containers. The only animals that could survive around Midland were lipless, scaly creatures such as Gila monsters and scorpions, and people like us.

  A month after we moved to Midland, Juju got bitten by a rattlesnake and died. We buried him near the Joshua tree. It was practically the only time I ever saw Brian cry. But we had plenty of cats to keep us company. Too many, in fact. We had rescued lots of cats since we tossed Quixote out the window, and most of them had gone and had kittens, and it got to the point where we had to get rid of some of them. We didn’t have many neighbors to give them to, so Dad put them in a burlap sack and drove to a pond made by the mining company to cool equipment. I watched him load the back of the car with bobbing, mewing bags.

  “It doesn’t seem right,” I told Mom. “We rescued them. Now we’re going to kill them.”

  “We gave them a little extra time on the planet,” Mom said. “They should be grateful for that.”

  Dad finally got a job in the gypsum mine, digging out the white rocks that were ground into the powder used in drywall and plaster of paris. When he came home, he’d be covered with white gypsum powder, and sometimes we’d play ghost and he’d chase us. He also brought back sacks of gypsum, and Mom mixed it with water to make Venus de Milo sculptures from a rubber cast she ordered through the mail. It grieved Mom that the mine was destroying so much white rock—she said it was real marble and deserved a better fate and that, by making her sculptures, she was at least immortalizing some of it.

  Mom was pregnant. Everyone hoped it would be a boy so Brian would have someone to play with other than me. When it got time for Mom to give birth, Dad’s plan was for us to move to Blythe, twenty miles south, which was such a big town it had two movie theaters and two state prisons.

  In the meantime, Mom devoted herself to her art. She spent all day working on oil paintings, watercolors, charcoal drawings, pen-and-ink sketches, clay and wire sculptures, silk screens, and wood blocks. She didn’t have any particular style; some of her paintings were what she called primitive, some were impressionistic and abstract, some were realistic. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” she liked to say. Mom was also a writer and was always typing away on novels, short stories, plays, poetry, fables, and children’s books, which she illustrated herself. Mom’s writing was very creative. So was her spelling. She needed a proofreader, and when Lori was just seven years old, she would go over Mom’s manuscripts, checking for errors.

  While we were in Midland, Mom painted dozens of variations and studies of the Joshua tree. We’d go with her and she’d give us art lessons. One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

  Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”


  None of us kids did. Mom and Dad refused to let us. They couldn’t afford expensive presents, and they didn’t want us to think we weren’t as good as other kids who, on Christmas morning, found all sorts of fancy toys under the tree that were supposedly left by Santa Claus. So they told us all about how other kids were deceived by their parents, how the toys the grown-ups claimed were made by little elves wearing bell caps in their workshop at the North Pole actually had labels on them saying MADE IN JAPAN.

  “Try not to look down on those other children,” Mom said. “It’s not their fault that they’ve been brainwashed into believing silly myths.”

  We celebrated Christmas, but usually about a week after December 25, when you could find perfectly good bows and wrapping paper that people had thrown away and Christmas trees discarded on the roadside that still had most of their needles and even some silver tinsel hanging on them. Mom and Dad would give u
s a bag of marbles or a doll or a slingshot that had been marked way down in an after-Christmas sale.

  Dad lost his job at the gypsum mine after getting in an argument with the foreman, and when Christmas came that year, we had no money at all. On Christmas Eve, Dad took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one. I had a blanket wrapped around me, and when it was my turn, I offered to share it with Dad, but he said no thanks. The cold never bothered him. I was five that year and I sat next to Dad and we looked up at the sky. Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars. We’d have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.

  “Pick out your favorite star,” Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.

  “You can’t give me a star!” I said. “No one owns the stars.”

  “That’s right,” Dad said. “No one else owns them. You just have to claim it before anyone else does, like that dago fellow Columbus claimed America for Queen Isabella. Claiming a star as your own has every bit as much logic to it.”

  I thought about it and realized Dad was right. He was always figuring out things like that.

  I could have any star I wanted, Dad said, except Betelgeuse and Rigel, because Lori and Brian had already laid claim to them.

  I looked up to the stars and tried to figure out which was the best one. You could see hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, twinkling in the clear desert sky. The longer you looked and the more your eyes adjusted to the dark, the more stars you’d see, layer after layer of them gradually becoming visible. There was one in particular, in the west above the mountains but low in the sky, that shone more brightly than all the rest.

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