The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


  Dad gave me his crooked smile. “Sounds like you’ve thought this through pretty well,” he said. He told me he had his heart set on buying a particular piece of rose quartz but didn’t have the six hundred dollars I was charging, so I cut the price to five hundred and let him have it on credit.

  Brian and I loved to go to the dump. We looked for treasures among the discarded stoves and refrigerators, the broken furniture and stacks of bald tires. We chased after the desert rats that lived in the wrecked cars, or caught tadpoles and frogs in the scum-topped pond. Buzzards circled overhead, and the air was filled with dragonflies the size of small birds. There were no trees to speak of in Battle Mountain, but one corner of the dump had huge piles of railroad ties and rotting lumber that were great for climbing and carving your initials on. We called it the Woods.

  Toxic and hazardous wastes were stored in another corner of the dump, where you could find old batteries, oil drums, paint cans, and bottles with skulls and crossbones. Brian and I decided some of this stuff would make for a neat scientific experiment, so we filled up a couple of boxes with different bottles and jars and took them to an abandoned shed we named our laboratory. At first we mixed things together, hoping they would explode, but nothing happened, so I decided we should conduct an experiment to see if any of the stuff was flammable.

  The next day after school we came back to the laboratory with a box of Dad’s matches. We unscrewed the lids of some of the jars, and I dropped in matches, but still nothing happened. So we mixed up a batch of what Brian called nuclear fuel, pouring different liquids into a can. When I tossed in the match, a cone of flame shot up with a whoosh like a jet afterburner.

  Brian and I were knocked to our feet. When we stood up, one of the walls was on fire. I yelled to Brian that we had to get out of there, but he was throwing sand at the fire, saying that we had to put it out or we’d get in trouble. The flames were spreading toward the door, eating up that dry old wood in no time. I kicked out a board in the back wall and squeezed through. When Brian didn’t follow, I ran up the street calling for help. I saw Dad walking home from work. We ran back to the shack. Dad kicked in more of the wall and pulled Brian out coughing.

  I thought Dad would be furious, but he wasn’t. He was sort of quiet. We stood on the street watching the flames devour the shack. Dad had an arm around each of us. He said it was an incredible coincidence that he happened to be walking by. Then he pointed to the top of the fire, where the snapping yellow flames dissolved into an invisible shimmery heat that made the desert beyond seem to waver, like a mirage. Dad told us that zone was known in physics as the boundary between turbulence and order. “It’s a place where no rules apply, or at least they haven’t figured ’em out yet,” he said. “You-all got a little too close to it today.”

  N ONE OF US KIDS got allowances. When we wanted money, we walked along the roadside picking up beer cans and bottles that we redeemed for two cents each. Brian and I also collected scrap metal that we sold to the junk dealer for a penny a pound—three cents a pound for copper. After we redeemed the bottles or sold the scrap metal, we walked into town, to the drugstore next door to the Owl Club. There were so many rows and rows of delicious candies to choose from that we’d spend an hour trying to decide how to spend the ten cents we’d each made. We’d pick a piece of candy and then, as we got ready to pay for it, change our minds and pick another piece, until the man who owned the store got mad and told us to stop fingering all his candy and make a purchase and get out.

  Brian’s favorite was the giant SweeTart candies, which he licked until his tongue was so raw it bled. I loved chocolate, but it was gone too quickly, so I usually got a Sugar Daddy, which lasted practically half the day and always had a funny poem printed in pink letters on the stick, like: To keep your feet / From falling asleep / Wear loud socks / They can’t be beat.

  On our way back from the candy store, Brian and I liked to spy on the Green Lantern—a big dark green house with a sagging porch right near the highway. Mom said it was a cathouse, but I never saw any cats there, only women wearing bathing suits or short dresses who sat or lay out on the porch, waving at the cars that drove by. There were Christmas lights over the door all year round, and Mom said that was how you could tell it was a cathouse. Cars would stop in front, and men would get out and duck inside. I couldn’t figure out what went on at the Green Lantern, and Mom refused to discuss it. She would say only that bad things happened there, which made the Green Lantern a place of irresistible mystery to us.

  Brian and I would hide behind the sagebrush across the highway, trying to peer inside the front door when someone went in or out, but we could never see what was going on. A couple of times we sneaked up close and tried to look in the windows, but they were painted black. Once a woman on the porch saw us in the brush and waved to us, and we ran away shrieking.

  One day when Brian and I were hiding in the sagebrush, spying, I double-dared him to go talk to the woman lying out on the porch. Brian was almost six by then, a year younger than me, and wasn’t afraid of anything. He hitched up his pants, handed me his half-eaten SweeTart for safekeeping, walked across the street, and went right up to the woman. She had long black hair, her eyes were outlined with black mascara thick as tar, and she wore a short blue dress printed with black flowers. She had been lying on her side on the porch floor, her head propped up on one arm, but when Brian walked up to her, she rolled over on her stomach and rested her chin on her hand.

  From my hiding place, I could see that Brian was talking with her, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Then she reached out a hand to Brian. I held my breath to see what this woman who did bad things inside the Green Lantern was going to do to him. She put her hand on his head and ruffled his hair. Grown-up women always did that to Brian, because his hair was red and he had freckles. It annoyed him; he usually swatted their hands away. But not this time. Instead, he stayed and talked with the woman for a while. When he came back across the highway, he didn’t look scared at all.

  “What happened?” I asked.

  “Nothing much,” Brian said.

  “What did you talk about?”

  “I asked her what goes on inside the Green Lantern,” he said.

  “Really?” I was impressed. “What did she say?”

  “Nothing much,” he said. “She told me that men came in and the women there were nice to them.”

  “Oh,” I said. “Anything else?”

  “Naw,” Brian said. He started kicking at the dirt like he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “She was kinda nice,” he said.

  After that, Brian waved to the women on the porch of the Green Lantern, and they smiled real big and waved back, but I was still a little afraid of them.

  O UR HOUSE IN B ATTLE M OUNTAIN was filled with animals. They came and went, stray dogs and cats, their puppies and kittens, nonpoisonous snakes, and lizards and tortoises we caught in the desert. A coyote that seemed pretty tame lived with us for a while, and once Dad brought home a wounded buzzard that we named Buster. He was the ugliest pet we ever owned. Whenever we fed Buster scraps of meat, he turned his head sideways and stared at us out of one angry-looking yellow eye. Then he’d scream and frantically flap his good wing. I was secretly glad when his hurt wing healed and he flew away. Every time we saw buzzards circling overhead, Dad would say that he recognized Buster among them and that he was coming back to thank us. But I knew Buster would never even consider returning. That buzzard didn’t have an ounce of gratitude in him.

  We couldn’t afford pet food, so the animals had to eat our leftovers, and there usually wasn’t much. “If they don’t like it, they can leave,” said Mom. “Just because they live here doesn’t mean I’m going to wait on them hand and foot.” Mom told us that we were actually doing the animals a favor by not allowing them to become dependent on us. That way, if we ever had to leave, they’d be able to get by on their own. Mom liked to encourage self-sufficiency in all living creatures.

  Mom al
so believed in letting nature take its course. She refused to kill the flies that always filled the house; she said they were nature’s food for the birds and lizards. And the birds and lizards were food for the cats. “Kill the flies and you starve the cats,” she said. Letting the flies live, in her view, was the same as buying cat food, only cheaper.

  One day I was visiting my friend Carla when I noticed that her house didn’t have any flies. I asked her mother why.

  She pointed toward a shiny gold contraption dangling from the ceiling, which she proudly identified as a Shell No-Pest Strip. She said it could be bought at the filling station and that her family had one in every room. The No-Pest Strips, she explained, released a poison that killed all the flies.

  “What do your lizards eat?” I asked.

  “We don’t have any lizards, either,” she said.

  I went home and told Mom we needed to get a No-Pest Strip like Carla’s family, but she refused. “If it kills the flies,” she said, “it can’t be very good for us.”

  Dad bought a souped-up old Ford Fairlane that winter, and one weekend when the weather got cold, he announced that we were going swimming at the Hot Pot. The Hot Pot was a natural sulfur spring in the desert north of town, surrounded by craggy rocks and quicksand. The water was warm to the touch and smelled like rotten eggs. It was so full of minerals that rough, chalky encrustations had built up along the edges, like a coral reef. Dad was always saying we should buy the Hot Pot and develop it as a spa.

  The deeper you went into the water, the hotter it got. It was very deep in the middle. Some people around Battle Mountain said the Hot Pot had no bottom at all, that it went clean through to the center of the earth. A couple of drunks and wild teenagers had drowned there, and people at the Owl Club said when their bodies floated back to the surface, they’d been literally boiled.

  Both Brian and Lori knew how to swim, but I had never learned. Large bodies of water scared me. They seemed unnatural—oddities in the desert towns where we’d lived. We had once stayed at a motel with a swimming pool, and I worked up enough nerve to make my way around the entire length of the pool, clinging to the side. But the Hot Pot didn’t have any neat edges like that swimming pool. There was nothing to cling to.

  I waded in up to my shoulders. The water around my chest was warm, and the rocks I was standing on felt so hot I wanted to keep moving. I looked back at Dad, who watched me, unsmiling. I tried to push out into deeper water, but something held me back. Dad dived in and splashed his way toward me. “You’re going to learn to swim today,” he said.

  He put an arm around me, and we started across the water. Dad was dragging me. I felt terrified and clutched his neck so tightly that his skin turned white. “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Dad asked when we got to the other side.

  We started back, and this time, when we got to the middle, Dad pried my fingers from around his neck and pushed me away. My arms flailed around, and I sank into the hot, smelly water. I instinctively breathed in. Water surged into my nose and mouth and down my throat. My lungs burned. My eyes were open, the sulfur stinging them, but the water was dark and my hair was wrapped around my face and I couldn’t see anything. A pair of hands grabbed me around the waist. Dad pulled me into the shallow water. I was spitting and coughing and breathing in uneven choking gasps.

  “That’s okay,” Dad said. “Catch your breath.”

  When I recovered, Dad picked me up and heaved me back into the middle of the Hot Pot. “Sink or swim!” he called out. For the second time, I sank. The water once more filled my nose and lungs. I kicked and flailed and thrashed my way to the surface, gasping for air, and reached out to Dad. But he pulled back, and I didn’t feel his hands around me until I’d sunk one more time.

  He did it again and again, until the realization that he was rescuing me only to throw me back into the water took hold, and so, rather than reaching for Dad’s hands, I tried to get away from them. I kicked at him and pushed away through the water with my arms, and finally, I was able to propel myself beyond his grasp.

  “You’re doing it, baby!” Dad shouted. “You’re swimming!”

  I staggered out of the water and sat on the calcified rocks, my chest heaving. Dad came out of the water, too, and tried to hug me, but I wouldn’t have anything to do with him, or with Mom, who’d been floating on her back as if nothing were happening, or with Brian and Lori, who gathered around and were congratulating me. Dad kept telling me that he loved me, that he never would have let me drown, but you can’t cling to the side your whole life, that one lesson every parent needs to teach a child is. “If you don’t want to sink, you better figure out how to swim.” What other reason, he asked, would possibly make him do this?

  Once I got my breath back, I figured he must be right. There was no other way to explain it.

  “B AD NEWS,” LORI SAID one day when I got home from exploring. “Dad lost his job.”

  Dad had kept this job for nearly six months—longer than any other. I figured we were through with Battle Mountain and that within a few days, we’d be on the move again.

  “I wonder where we’ll live next,” I said.

  Lori shook her head. “We’re staying here,” she said. Dad insisted he hadn’t exactly lost his job. He had arranged to have himself fired because he wanted to spend more time looking for gold. He had all sorts of plans to make money, she added, inventions he was working on, odd jobs he had lined up. But for the time being, things might get a little tight around the house. “We all have to help out,” Lori said.

  I thought of what I could do to contribute, besides collecting bottles and scrap metal. “I’ll cut the prices on my rocks,” I said.

  Lori paused and looked down. “I don’t think that will be enough,” she said.

  “I guess we can eat less,” I said.

  “We have before,” Lori said.

  We did eat less. Once we lost our credit at the commissary, we quickly ran out of food. Sometimes one of Dad’s odd jobs would come through, or he’d win some money gambling, and we’d eat for a few days. Then the money would be gone and the refrigerator would be empty again.

  Before, whenever we were out of food, Dad was always there, full of ideas and ingenuity. He’d find a can of tomatoes on the back of a shelf that everyone else had missed, or he’d go off for an hour and come back with an armful of vegetables—never telling us where he got them—and whip up a stew. But now he began disappearing a lot.

  “Where Dad?” Maureen asked all the time. She was a year and a half old, and these were almost her first words.

  “He’s out finding us food and looking for work,” I’d say. But I wondered if he didn’t really want to be around us unless he could provide for us. I tried to never complain.

  If we asked Mom about food—in a casual way, because we didn’t want to cause any trouble—she’d simply shrug and say she couldn’t make something out of nothing. We kids usually kept our hunger to ourselves, but we were always thinking of food and how to get our hands on it. During recess at school, I’d slip back into the classroom and find something in some other kid’s lunch bag that wouldn’t be missed—a package of crackers, an apple—and I’d gulp it down so quickly I would barely be able to taste it. If I was playing in a friend’s yard, I’d ask if I could use the bathroom, and if no one was in the kitchen, I’d grab something out of the refrigerator or cupboard and take it into the bathroom and eat it there, always making a point of flushing the toilet before leaving.

  Brian was scavenging, too. One day I discovered him upchucking behind our house. I wanted to know how he could be spewing like that when we hadn’t eaten in days. He told me he had broken into a neighbor’s house and stolen a gallon jar of pickles. The neighbor had caught him, but instead of reporting him to the cops, he made Brian eat the entire jarful as punishment. I had to swear I wouldn’t tell Dad.

  A couple of months after Dad lost his job, he came home with a bag of groceries: a can of corn, a half gallon of milk, a loaf of b
read, two tins of deviled ham, a sack of sugar, and a stick of margarine. The can of corn disappeared within minutes. Somebody in the family had stolen it, and no one except the thief knew who. But Dad was too busy making deviled-ham sandwiches to launch an investigation. We ate our fill that night, washing down the sandwiches with big glasses of milk. When I got back from school the next day, I found Lori in the kitchen eating something out of a cup with a spoon. I looked in the refrigerator. There was nothing inside but a half-gone stick of margarine.

  “Lori, what are you eating?”

  “Margarine,” she said.

  I wrinkled my nose. “Really?”

  “Yeah,” she said. “Mix it with sugar. Tastes just like frosting.”

  I made some. It didn’t taste like frosting. It was sort of crunchy, because the sugar didn’t dissolve, and it was greasy and left a filmy coat in my mouth. But I ate it all anyway.

  When Mom got home that evening, she looked in the refrigerator. “What happened to the stick of margarine?” she asked.

  “We ate it,” I said.

  Mom got angry. She was saving it, she said, to butter the bread. We already ate all the bread, I said. Mom said she was thinking of baking some bread if a neighbor would loan us some flour. I pointed out that the gas company had turned off our gas.

  “Well,” Mom said. “We should have saved the margarine just in case the gas gets turned back on. Miracles happen, you know.” It was because of my and Lori’s selfishness, she said, that if we had any bread, we’d have to eat it without butter.

  Mom wasn’t making any sense to me. I wondered if she had been looking forward to eating the margarine herself. And that made me wonder if she was the one who’d stolen the can of corn the night before, which got me a little mad. “It was the only thing to eat in the whole house,” I said. Raising my voice, I added. “I was hungry.”

 
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