The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  “I want that one,” I said.

  Dad grinned. “That’s Venus,” he said. Venus was only a planet, he went on, and pretty dinky compared to real stars. She looked bigger and brighter because she was much closer than the stars. Poor old Venus didn’t even make her own light, Dad said. She shone only from reflected light. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant, and stars twinkled because their light pulsed.

  “I like it anyway,” I said. I had admired Venus even before that Christmas. You could see it in the early evening, glowing on the western horizon, and if you got up early, you could still see it in the morning, after all the stars had disappeared.

  “What the hell,” Dad said. “It’s Christmas. You can have a planet if you want.”

  And he gave me Venus.

  That evening over Christmas dinner, we all discussed outer space. Dad explained light-years and black holes and quasars and told us about the special qualities of Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Venus.

  Betelgeuse was a red star in the shoulder of the constellation Orion. It was one of the largest stars you could see in the sky, hundreds of times bigger than the sun. It had burned brightly for millions of years and would soon become a supernova and burn out. I got upset that Lori had chosen a clunker of a star, but Dad explained that. “soon” meant hundreds of thousands of years when you were talking about stars.

  Rigel was a blue star, smaller than Betelgeuse, Dad said, but even brighter. It was also in Orion—it was his left foot, which seemed appropriate, because Brian was an extra-fast runner.

  Venus didn’t have any moons or satellites or even a magnetic field, but it did have an atmosphere sort of similar to Earth’s, except it was superhot—about five hundred degrees or more. “So,” Dad said. “when the sun starts to burn out and Earth turns cold, everyone here might want to move to Venus to get warm. And they’ll have to get permission from your descendants first.”

  We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. “Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars.”

  A T TWILIGHT, ONCE the sun had slid behind the Palen Mountains, the bats came out and swirled through the sky above the shacks of Midland. The old lady who lived next door warned us away from bats. She called them flying rats and said one got caught in her hair once and went crazy clawing at her scalp. But I loved those ugly little bats, the way they darted past, their wings in a furious blur. Dad explained how they had sonar detectors kind of like the ones in nuclear submarines. Brian and I would throw pebbles, hoping the bats would think they were bugs and eat them, and the weight of the pebbles would pull them down and we could keep them as pets, tying a long string to their claw so they could still fly around. I wanted to train one to hang upside down from my finger. But those darn bats were too clever to fall for our trick.

  The bats were out, swooping and screeching, when we left Midland for Blythe. Earlier that day, Mom had told us that the baby had decided it was big enough to come out soon and join the family. Once we were on the road, Dad and Mom got in a big fight over how many months she’d been pregnant. Mom said she was ten months pregnant. Dad, who had fixed someone’s transmission earlier that day and used the money he’d made to buy a bottle of tequila, said she probably lost track somewhere.

  “I always carry children longer than most women,” Mom said. “Lori was in my womb for fourteen months.”

  “Bullshit!” Dad said. “Unless Lori’s part elephant.”

  “Don’t you make fun of me or my children!” Mom yelled. “Some babies are premature. Mine were all postmature. That’s why they’re so smart. Their brains had longer to develop.”

  Dad said something about freaks of nature, and Mom called Dad a Mr. Know-It-All Smarty-Pants who refused to believe that she was special. Dad said something about Jesus H. Christ on a goddamn crutch not taking that much time to gestate. Mom got upset at Dad’s blasphemy, reached her foot over to the driver’s side, and stomped on the brake. It was the middle of the night, and Mom bolted out of the car and ran into the darkness.

  “You crazy bitch!” Dad hollered. “Get your goddamn ass back in this car!”

  “You make me, Mr. Tough Guy!” she screamed as she ran away.

  Dad jerked the steering wheel to one side and drove off the road into the desert after her. Lori, Brian, and I braced one another with our arms, like we always did when Dad went on some wild chase that we knew would get bumpy.

  Dad stuck his head out the window as he drove, hollering at Mom, calling her a. “stupid whore” and a. “stinking cunt” and ordering her to get back into the car. Mom refused. She was ahead of us, bobbing in and out of the desert brush. Since she never used curse words, she was calling Dad names like. “blankety-blank” and. “worthless drunk so-and-so.” Dad stopped the car, then jammed down the accelerator and popped the clutch. We shot forward toward Mom, who screamed and jumped out of the way. Dad turned around and went for her again.

  It was a moonless night, so we couldn’t see Mom except when she ran into the beam of the headlights. She kept looking over her shoulder, her eyes wide like a hunted animal’s. We kids cried and begged Dad to stop, but he ignored us. I was even more worried about the baby inside Mom’s swollen belly than I was about her. The car bounced on holes and rocks, brush scratching against its sides and dust coming through the open windows. Finally, Dad cornered Mom against some rocks. I was afraid he might smush her with the car, but instead he got out and dragged her back, legs flailing, and threw her into the car. We banged back through the desert and onto the road. Everyone was quiet except Mom, who was sobbing that she really did carry Lori for fourteen months.

  Mom and Dad made up the next day, and by late afternoon Mom was cutting Dad’s hair in the living room of the apartment we’d rented in Blythe. He’d taken off his shirt and was sitting backward on a chair with his head bowed and his hair combed forward. Mom was snipping away while Dad pointed out the parts that were still too long. When they were finished, Dad combed his hair back and announced that Mom had done a helluva fine shearing job.

  Our apartment was in a one-story cinder-block building on the outskirts of town. It had a big blue-and-white plastic sign in the shape of an oval, and a boomerang that said: THE LBJ APARTMENTS. I thought it stood for Lori, Brian, and Jeannette, but Mom said LBJ were the initials of the president, who, she added, was a crook and a warmonger. A few truck drivers and cowboys had rooms at the LBJ Apartments, but most of the other people who lived there were migrant workers and their families, and we heard them talking through the thin Sheetrock walls. Mom said it was one of the bonuses of living at the LBJ Apartments, because we’d be able to pick up a little Spanish without even studying.

  Blythe was in California, but the Arizona border was within spitting distance. People who lived there liked to say the town was 150 miles west of Phoenix, 250 miles east of Los Angeles, and smack dab in the middle of nowhere. But they always said it like they were bragging.

  Mom and Dad weren’t exactly crazy about Blythe. Too civilized, they said, and downright unnatural, too, since no town the size of Blythe had any business existing out in the Mojave Desert. It was near the Colorado River, founded back in the nineteenth century by some guy who figured he could get rich turning the desert into farmland. He dug a bunch of irrigation ditches that drained water out of the Colorado River to grow lettuce and grapes and broccoli right there in the middle of all the cactus and sagebrush. Dad got disgusted every time we drove past one of those farm fields with their irrigation ditches wide as moats. “It’s a goddamn perversion of nature,” he’d say. “If you want to live in the farmland, haul your sorry hide off to Pennsylvania. If you want to live in the desert, eat prickly pears, not iceberg pansy-assed lettuce.”

  “That’s right,” Mom would say. “Prickly pears have more vitamins anyway.”

  Living in a big city like Blythe
meant I had to wear shoes. It also meant I had to go to school.

  School wasn’t so bad. I was in the first grade, and my teacher, Miss Cook, always chose me to read aloud when the principal came into the classroom. The other students didn’t like me very much because I was so tall and pale and skinny and always raised my hand too fast and waved it frantically in the air whenever Miss Cook asked a question. A few days after I started school, four Mexican girls followed me home and jumped me in an alleyway near the LBJ Apartments. They beat me up pretty bad, pulling my hair and tearing my clothes and calling me a teacher’s pet and a matchstick.

  I came home that night with scraped knees and elbows and a busted lip. “Looks to me like you got in a fight,” Dad said. He was sitting at the table, taking apart an old alarm clock with Brian.

  “Just a little dustup,” I said. That was the word Dad always used after he’d been in a fight.

  “How many were there?”

  “Six,” I lied.

  “Is that split lip okay?” he asked.

  “This lil’ ol’ scratch?” I asked. “You should have seen what I did to them.”

  “That’s my girl!” Dad said and went back to the clock, but Brian kept looking over at me.

  The next day when I got to the alley, the Mexican girls were waiting for me. Before they could attack, Brian jumped out from behind a clump of sagebrush, waving a yucca branch. Brian was shorter than me and just as skinny, with freckles across his nose and sandy red hair that fell into his eyes. He wore my hand-me-down pants, which I had inherited from Lori and then passed on to him, and they were always sliding off his bony behind.

  “Just back off now, and everyone can walk away with all their limbs still attached,” Brian said. It was another one of Dad’s lines.

  The Mexican girls stared at him before bursting into laughter. Then they surrounded him. Brian did fairly well fending them off until the yucca branch broke. Then he disappeared beneath a flurry of swinging fists and kicking feet. I grabbed the biggest rock I could find and hit one of the girls on the head with it. From the jolt in my arm, I thought I’d cracked her skull. She sank to her knees. One of her friends pushed me to the ground and kicked me in the face; then they all ran off, the girl I had hit holding her head as she staggered along.

  Brian and I sat up. His face was covered with sand. All I could see were his blue eyes peering out and a couple of spots of blood seeping through. I wanted to hug him, but that would have been too weird. Brian stood up and gestured for me to follow him. We climbed through a hole in the chain-link fence he had discovered that morning and ran into the iceberg-lettuce farm next to the apartment building. I followed him through the rows of big green leaves, and we eventually settled down to feast, burying our faces in the huge wet heads of lettuce and eating until our stomachs ached.

  “I guess we scared them off pretty good,” I said to Brian.

  “I guess,” he said.

  He never liked to brag, but I could tell he was proud that he had taken on four bigger, tougher kids, even if they were girls.

  “Lettuce war!” Brian shouted. He tossed a half-eaten head at me like a grenade. We ran along the rows, pulling up heads and throwing them at each other. A crop duster flew overhead. We waved as it made a pass above the field. A cloud sprayed out from behind the plane, and a fine white powder came sprinkling down on our heads.

  Two months after we moved to Blythe, when Mom said she was twelve months pregnant, she at last gave birth. After she’d been in the hospital for two days, we all drove out to pick her up. Dad left us kids waiting in the car with the engine idling while he went in for Mom. They came running out with Dad’s arm around Mom’s shoulders. Mom was cradling a bundle in her arms and giggling sort of guiltily, like she’d stolen a candy bar from a dime store. I figured they had checked out Rex Walls–style.

  “What is it?” Lori asked as we sped away.

  “Girl!” Mom said.

  Mom handed me the baby. I was going to turn six in a few months, and Mom said I was mature enough to hold her the entire way home. The baby was pink and wrinkly but absolutely beautiful, with big blue eyes, soft wisps of blond hair, and the tiniest fingernails I had ever seen. She moved in confused, jerky motions, as if she couldn’t understand why Mom’s belly wasn’t still around her. I promised her I’d always take care of her.

  The baby went without a name for weeks. Mom said she wanted to study it first, the way she would the subject of a painting. We had a lot of arguments over what the name should be. I wanted to call her Rosita, after the prettiest girl in my class, but Mom said that name was too Mexican.

  “I thought we weren’t supposed to be prejudiced,” I said.

  “It’s not being prejudiced,” Mom said. “It’s a matter of accuracy in labeling.”

  She told us that both our grandmothers were angry because neither Lori nor I had been named after them, so she decided to call the baby Lilly Ruth Maureen. Lilly was Mom’s mother’s name, and Erma Ruth was Dad’s mother’s name. But we’d call the baby Maureen, a name Mom liked because it was a diminutive of Mary, so she’d also be naming the baby after herself but pretty much no one would know it. That, Dad told us, would make everyone happy except his mom, who hated the name Ruth and wanted the baby called Erma, and Mom’s mom, who would hate sharing her namesake with Dad’s mom.

  A FEW MONTHS AFTER Maureen was born, a squad car tried to pull us over because the brake lights on the Green Caboose weren’t working. Dad took off. He said that if the cops stopped us, they’d find out that we had no registration or insurance and that the license plate had been taken off another car, and they’d arrest us all. After barreling down the highway, he made a screeching U-turn, with us kids feeling like the car was going to tumble over on its side, but the squad car made one, too. Dad peeled through Blythe at a hundred miles an hour, ran a red light, cut the wrong way up a one-way street, the other cars honking and pulling over. He made a few more turns, then headed down an alley and found an empty garage to hide in.

  We heard the sound of the siren a couple of blocks away and then it faded. Dad said that since the gestapo would have their eyes out for the Green Caboose, we’d have to leave it in the garage and walk home.

  The next day he announced that Blythe had become a little too hot and we were hitting the road again. This time he knew where we were going. Dad had been doing some research and settled on a town in northern Nevada called Battle Mountain. There was gold in Battle Mountain, Dad said, and he intended to go after it with the Prospector. Finally, we were going to strike it rich.

  Mom and Dad rented a great big U-Haul truck. Mom explained that since only she and Dad could fit in the front of the U-Haul, Lori, Brian, Maureen, and I were in for a treat: We got to ride in the back. It would be fun, she said, a real adventure, but there wouldn’t be any light, so we would have to use all our resources to entertain one another. Plus we were not allowed to talk. Since it was illegal to ride in the back, anyone who heard us might call the cops. Mom told us the trip would be about fourteen hours if we took the highway, but we should tack on another couple of hours because we might make some scenic detours.

  We packed up what furniture we had. There wasn’t much, mostly parts for the Prospector and a couple of chairs and Mom’s oil paintings and art supplies. When we were ready to leave, Mom wrapped Maureen in a lavender blanket and passed her to me, and we kids all climbed into the back of the U-Haul. Dad closed the doors. It was pitch black and the air smelled stale and dusty. We were sitting on the ribbed wooden floor, on frayed, stained blankets used to wrap furniture, feeling for one another with our hands.

  “Here goes the adventure!” I whispered.

  “Shhhh!” Lori said.

  The U-Haul started up and lurched forward. Maureen let loose with a loud, high-pitched wail. I shushed her and rocked her and patted her, but she kept crying. So I gave her to Lori, who whispered singsong into her ear and told jokes. That didn’t work, either, so we begged Maureen to please stop crying. Th
en we just put our hands over our ears.

  After a while, it got cold and uncomfortable in the back of the dark U-Haul. The engine made the floor vibrate, and we’d all go tumbling whenever we hit a bump. Several hours passed. By then we were all dying to pee and wondering if Dad was going to pull over for a rest stop. Suddenly, with a bang, we hit a huge pothole and the back doors on the U-Haul flew open. The wind shrieked through the compartment. We were afraid we were going to get sucked out, and we all shrank back against the Prospector. The moon was out. We could see the glow from the U-Haul’s taillights and the road we’d come down, stretching back through the silvery desert. The unlocked doors swung back and forth with loud clangs.

  Since the furniture was stored between us and the cabin, we couldn’t knock on the wall to get Mom’s and Dad’s attention. We banged on the sides of the U-Haul and hollered as loud as we could, but the engine was too noisy and they didn’t hear us.

  Brian crawled to the back of the van. When one of the doors swung in, he grabbed at it, but it flew open again, jerking him forward. I thought the door was going to drag Brian out, but he jumped back just in time and scrambled along the wooden floor toward Lori and me.

  Brian and Lori held tight to the Prospector, which Dad had tied securely with ropes. I was holding Maureen, who for some strange reason had stopped crying. I wedged myself into a corner. It seemed like we’d have to ride it out.

  Then a pair of headlights appeared way in the distance behind us. We watched as the car slowly caught up with the U-Haul. After a few minutes, it pulled up right behind us, and its headlights caught us there in the back of the cab. The car started honking and flashing its brights. Then it pulled up and passed us. The driver must have signaled Mom and Dad, because the U-Haul slowed to a stop and Dad came running back with a flashlight.

 
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