The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  “What the hell is going on?” he asked. He was furious. We tried to explain that it wasn’t our fault the doors blew open, but he was still angry. I knew that he was scared, too. Maybe even more scared than angry.

  “Was that a cop?” Brian asked.

  “No,” Dad said. “And you’re sure as hell lucky it wasn’t, or he’d be hauling your asses off to jail.”

  After we peed, we climbed back into the truck and watched as Dad closed the doors. The darkness enveloped us again. We could hear Dad locking the doors and double-checking them. The engine restarted, and we continued on our way.

  B ATTLE M OUNTAIN HAD started out as a mining post, settled a hundred years earlier by people hoping to strike it rich, but if anyone ever had struck it rich in Battle Mountain, they must have moved somewhere else to spend their fortune. Nothing about the town was grand except the big empty sky and, off in the distance, the stony purple Tuscarora Mountains running down to the table-flat desert.

  The main street was wide—with sun-bleached cars and pickups parked at an angle to the curb—but only a few blocks long, flanked on both sides with low, flat-roofed buildings made of adobe or brick. A single streetlight flashed red day and night. Along Main Street was a grocery store, a drugstore, a Ford dealership, a Greyhound bus station, and two big casinos, the Owl Club and the Nevada Hotel. The buildings, which seemed puny under the huge sky, had neon signs that didn’t look like they were on during the day because the sun was so bright.

  We moved into a wooden building on the edge of town that had once been a railroad depot. It was two stories tall and painted an industrial green, and was so close to the railroad tracks that you could wave to the engineer from the front window. Our new home was one of the oldest buildings in town, Mom proudly told us, with a real frontier quality to it.

  Mom and Dad’s bedroom was on the second floor, where the station manager once had his office. We kids slept downstairs in what had been the waiting room. The old restrooms were still there, but the toilet had been ripped out of one and a bathtub put in its place. The ticket booth had been converted into a kitchen. Some of the original benches were still bolted to the unpainted wood walls, and you could see the dark, worn spots where prospectors and miners and their wives and children had sat waiting for the train, their behinds polishing the wood.

  Since we didn’t have money for furniture, we improvised. A bunch of huge wooden spools, the kind that hold industrial cable, had been dumped on the side of the tracks not far from our house, so we rolled them home and turned them into tables. “What kind of fools would go waste money on store-bought tables when they can have these for free?” Dad said as he pounded the tops of the spools to show us how sturdy they were.

  For chairs, we used some smaller spools and a few crates. Instead of beds, we kids each slept in a big cardboard box, like the ones refrigerators get delivered in. A little while after we’d moved into the depot, we heard Mom and Dad talking about buying us kids real beds, and we said they shouldn’t do it. We liked our boxes. They made going to bed seem like an adventure.

  Shortly after we moved into the depot, Mom decided that what we really needed was a piano. Dad found a cheap upright when a saloon in the next town over went out of business, and he borrowed a neighbor’s pickup to bring it home. We slid it off the pickup down a ramp, but it was too heavy to carry. To get it into the depot, Dad devised a system of ropes and pulleys that he attached to the piano in the front yard and ran through the house and out the back door, where they were tied to the pickup. The plan was for Mom to ease the truck forward, pulling the piano into the house while Dad and we kids guided it up a ramp of planks and through the front door.

  “Ready!” Dad hollered when we were all in our positions.

  “Okeydoke!” Mom shouted. But instead of easing forward, Mom, who had never quite gotten the hang of driving, hit the gas pedal hard, and the truck shot ahead. The piano jerked out of our hands, sending us lurching forward, and bounced into the house, splintering the door frame. Dad screamed at Mom to slow down, but she kept going and dragged the screeching, chord-banging piano across the depot floor and right through the rear door, splintering its frame, too, then out into the backyard, where it came to rest next to a thorny bush.

  Dad came running through the house. “What the Sam Hill were you doing?” he yelled at Mom. “I told you to go slow!”

  “I was only doing twenty-five!” Mom said. “You get mad at me when I go that slow on the highway.” She looked behind her and saw the piano sitting in the backyard. “Oopsie-daisy,” she said.

  Mom wanted to turn around and drag it back into the house from the other direction, but Dad said that was impossible because the railroad tracks were too close to the front door to get the pickup in position. So the piano stayed where it was. On the days Mom felt inspired, she took her sheet music and one of our spool chairs outside and pounded away at her music back there. “Most pianists never get the chance to play in the great out-of-doors,” she said. “And now the whole neighborhood can enjoy the music, too.”

  D AD GOT A JOB AS an electrician in a barite mine. He left early and came home early, and in the afternoons we all played games. Dad taught us cards. He tried to show us how to be steely-eyed poker players, but I wasn’t very good. Dad said you could read my face like a traffic light. Even though I wasn’t much of a bluffer, I’d sometimes win a hand because I was always getting excited by even mediocre cards, like a pair of fives, which made Brian and Lori think I’d been dealt aces. Dad also invented games for us to play, like the Ergo Game, in which he’d make two statements of fact and we had to answer a question based on those statements, or else say. “Insufficient information to draw a conclusion” and explain why.

  When Dad wasn’t there, we invented our own games. We didn’t have many toys, but you didn’t need toys in a place like Battle Mountain. We’d get a piece of cardboard and go tobogganing down the depot’s narrow staircase. We’d jump off the roof of the depot, using an army-surplus blanket as our parachute and letting our legs buckle under us when we hit the ground, like Dad had taught us real parachutists do. We’d put a piece of scrap metal—or a penny, if we were feeling extravagant—on the railroad tracks right before the train came. After the train had roared by, the massive wheels churning, we’d run to get our newly flattened, hot and shiny piece of metal.

  The thing we liked to do most was go exploring in the desert. We’d get up at dawn, my favorite time, when the shadows were long and purple and you still had the whole day ahead of you. Sometimes Dad went with us, and we’d march through the sagebrush military-style, with Dad calling out orders in a singsong chant—hup, two, three, four—and then we’d stop and do push-ups or Dad would hold out his arm so we could do pull-ups on it. Mostly, Brian and I went exploring by ourselves. That desert was filled with all sorts of amazing treasures.

  We had moved to Battle Mountain because of the gold in the area, but the desert also had tons of other mineral deposits. There was silver and copper and uranium and barite, which Dad said oil-drilling rigs used. Mom and Dad could tell what kind of minerals and ore were in the ground from the color of the rock and soil, and they taught us what to look for. Iron was in the red rocks, copper in the green. There was so much turquoise—nuggets and even big chunks of it lying on the desert floor—that Brian and I could fill our pockets with it until the weight practically pulled our pants down. You could also find arrowheads and fossils and old bottles that had turned deep purple from lying under the broiling sun for years. You could find the sun-parched skulls of coyotes and empty tortoise shells and the rattles and shed skins of rattlesnakes. And you could find great big bullfrogs that had stayed in the sun too long and were completely dried up and as light as a piece of paper.

  On Sunday night, if Dad had money, we’d all go to the Owl Club for dinner. The Owl Club was. “World Famous,” according to the sign, where a hoot owl wearing a chef’s hat pointed the way to the entrance. Off to one side was a room with rows of slot
machines that were constantly clinking and ticking and flashing lights. Mom said the slot players were hypnotized. Dad said they were damn fools. “Never play the slots,” Dad told us. “They’re for suckers who rely on luck.” Dad knew all about statistics, and he explained how the casinos stacked the odds against the slot players. When Dad gambled, he preferred poker and pool—games of skill, not chance. “Whoever coined the phrase ‘a man’s got to play the hand that was dealt him’ was most certainly one piss-poor bluffer,” Dad said.

  The Owl Club had a bar where groups of men with sunburned necks huddled together over beers and cigarettes. They all knew Dad, and whenever he walked in, they insulted him in a loud funny way that was meant to be friendly. “This joint must be going to hell in a handbasket if they’re letting in sorry-ass characters like you!” they’d shout.

  “Hell, my presence here has a positively elevating effect compared to you mangy coyotes,” Dad would yell back. They’d all throw their heads back and laugh and slap one another between the shoulder blades.

  We always sat at one of the red booths. “Such good manners,” the waitress would exclaim, because Mom and Dad made us say. “sir” and. “ma’am” and. “yes, please” and. “thank you.”

  “They’re damned smart, too!” Dad would declare. “Finest damn kids ever walked the planet.” And we’d smile and order hamburgers or chili dogs and milk shakes and big plates of onion rings that glistened with hot grease. The waitress brought the food to the table and poured the milk shakes from a sweating metal container into our glasses. There was always some left over, so she kept the container on the table for us to finish. “Looks like you hit the jackpot and got something extra,” she’d say with a wink. We always left the Owl Club so stuffed we could hardly walk. “Let’s waddle home, kids,” Dad would say.

  The barite mine where Dad worked had a commissary, and the mine owner deducted our bill and the rent for the depot out of Dad’s paycheck every month. At the beginning of each week, we went to the commissary and brought home bags and bags of food. Mom said only people brainwashed by advertising bought prepared foods such as SpaghettiOs and TV dinners. She bought the basics: sacks of flour or cornmeal, powdered milk, onions, potatoes, twenty-pound bags of rice or pinto beans, salt, sugar, yeast for making bread, cans of jack mackerel, a canned ham or a fat slab of bologna, and for dessert, cans of sliced peaches.

  Mom didn’t like cooking much. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d ask us, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?”—so once a week or so, she’d fix a big cast-iron vat of something like fish and rice or, usually, beans. We’d all sort through the beans together, picking out the rocks, then Mom would soak them overnight, boil them the next day with an old ham bone to give them flavor, and for that entire week, we’d have beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the beans started going bad, we’d just put extra spice in them, like the Mexicans at the LBJ Apartments always did.

  We bought so much food that we never had much money come payday. One payday Dad owed the mine company eleven cents. He thought it was funny and told them to put it on his tab. Dad almost never went out drinking at night like he used to. He stayed home with us. After dinner, the whole family stretched out on the benches and the floor of the depot and read, with the dictionary in the middle of the room so we kids could look up words we didn’t know. Sometimes I discussed the definitions with Dad, and if we didn’t agree with what the dictionary writers said, we sat down and wrote a letter to the publishers. They’d write back defending their position, which would prompt an even longer letter from Dad, and if they replied again, so would he, until we stopped hearing from the dictionary people.

  Mom read everything: Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Henry Miller, Pearl Buck. She even read James Michener—apologetically—saying she knew it wasn’t great literature, but she couldn’t help herself. Dad preferred science and math books, biographies and history. We kids read whatever Mom brought home from her weekly trips to the library.

  Brian read thick adventure books, ones written by guys like Zane Grey. Lori especially loved Freddy the Pig and all the Oz books. I liked the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories and the We Were There series about kids who lived at great historical moments, but my very favorite was Black Beauty. Occasionally, on those nights when we were all reading together, a train would thunder by, shaking the house and rattling the windows. The noise was thunderous, but after we’d been there a while, we didn’t even hear it.

  M OM AND D AD enrolled us in the Mary S. Black Elementary School, a long, low building with an asphalt playground that turned gooey in the hot sun. My second-grade class was filled with the children of miners and gamblers, scabby-kneed and dusty from playing in the desert, with uneven home-scissored bangs. Our teacher, Miss Page, was a small, pinched woman, given to sudden rages and savage thrashings with her ruler.

  Mom and Dad had already taught me nearly everything Miss Page was teaching the class. Since I wanted the other kids to like me, I didn’t raise my hand all the time the way I had in Blythe. Dad accused me of coasting. Sometimes he made me do my arithmetic homework in binary numbers because he said I needed to be challenged. Before class, I’d have to recopy it into Arabic numbers, but one day I didn’t have time, so I turned in the assignment in its binary version.

  “What’s this?” Miss Page asked. She pressed her lips together as she studied the circles and lines that covered my paper, then looked up at me suspiciously. “Is this a joke?”

  I tried to explain to her about binary numbers, and how they were the system that computers used and how Dad said they were far superior to other numeric systems. Miss Page stared at me.

  “It wasn’t the assignment,” she said impatiently. She made me stay late and redo the homework. I didn’t tell Dad, because I knew he’d come to school to debate Miss Page about the virtues of various numeric systems.

  Lots of other kids lived in our neighborhood, which was known as the Tracks, and after school we all played together. We played red-light-green-light, tag, football, Red Rover, or nameless games that involved running hard, keeping up with the pack, and not crying if you fell down. All the families who lived around the Tracks were tight on cash. Some were tighter than others, but all of us kids were scrawny and sunburned and wore faded shorts and raggedy shirts and sneakers with holes or no shoes at all.

  What was most important to us was who ran the fastest and whose daddy wasn’t a wimp. My dad was not only not a wimp, he came out to play with the gang, running alongside us, tossing us up in the air, and wrestling against the entire pack without getting hurt. Kids from the Tracks came knocking at the door, and when I answered, they asked, “Can your dad come out and play?”

  Lori, Brian, and I, and even Maureen, could go pretty much anywhere and do just about anything we wanted. Mom believed that children shouldn’t be burdened with a lot of rules and restrictions. Dad whipped us with his belt, but never out of anger, and only if we back-talked or disobeyed a direct order, which was rare. The only rule was that we had to come home when the streetlights went on. “And use your common sense,” Mom said. She felt it was good for kids to do what they wanted because they learned a lot from their mistakes. Mom was not one of those fussy mothers who got upset when you came home dirty or played in the mud or fell and cut yourself. She said people should get things like that out of their systems when they were young. Once an old nail ripped my thigh while I was climbing over a fence at my friend Carla’s house. Carla’s mother thought I should go to the hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot. “Nothing but a minor flesh wound,” Mom declared after studying the deep gash. “People these days run to the hospital every time they skin their knees,” she added. “We’re becoming a nation of sissies.” With that, she sent me back out to play.

  Some of the rocks I found while I was exploring out in the desert were so beautiful that I could not bear the idea of leaving them there. So I started a collection. Br
ian helped me with it, and together we found garnets and granite and obsidian and Mexican crazy lace, and more and more turquoise. Dad made necklaces for Mom out of all that turquoise. We discovered large sheets of mica that you could pound into powder and then rub all over your body so you’d shimmer under the Nevada sun as if you were coated with diamonds. Lots of times Brian and I thought we’d found gold, and we’d stagger home with an entire bucketful of sparkling nuggets, but it was always iron pyrite—fool’s gold. Some of it Dad said we should keep because it was especially good-quality for fool’s gold.

  My favorite rocks to find were geodes, which Mom said came from the volcanoes that had erupted to form the Tuscarora Mountains millions of years ago, during the Miocene period. From the outside, geodes looked like boring round rocks, but when you broke them open with a chisel and hammer, the insides were hollow, like a cave, and the walls were covered with glittering white quartz crystals or sparkling purple amethysts.

  I kept my rock collection behind the house, next to Mom’s piano, which was getting a little weathered. Lori and Brian and I would use the rocks to decorate the graves of our pets that had died or of the dead animals we found and decided should get a proper burial. I also held rock sales. I didn’t have that many customers, because I charged hundreds of dollars for a piece of flint. In fact, the only person who ever bought one of my rocks was Dad. He came out behind the house one day with a pocketful of change and was startled when he saw the price tags I’d taped to each rock.

  “Honey, your inventory might move a little faster if you dropped your prices,” he said.

  I explained that all my rocks were incredibly valuable and I’d rather keep them than sell them for less than they were worth.

 
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