The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure. She raised her hand, and I thought she was going to hit me, but then she sat down at the spool table and rested her head on her arms. Her shoulders started shaking. I went over and touched her arm. “Mom?” I said.

  She shook off my hand, and when she raised her head, her face was swollen and red. “It’s not my fault if you’re hungry!” she shouted. “Don’t blame me. Do you think I like living like this? Do you?”

  That night when Dad came home, he and Mom got into a big fight. Mom was screaming that she was tired of getting all the blame for everything that went wrong. “How did this become my problem?” she shouted. “Why aren’t you helping? You spend your whole day at the Owl Club. You act like it’s not your responsibility.”

  Dad explained that he was out trying to earn money. He had all sorts of prospects that he was on the brink of realizing. Problem was, he needed cash to make them happen. There was a lot of gold in Battle Mountain, but it was trapped in the ore. It was not like there were gold nuggets lying around for the Prospector to sort through. He was perfecting a technique by which the gold could be leached out of the rock by processing it with a cyanide solution. But that took money. Dad told Mom she needed to ask her mother for the money to fund the cyanide-leaching process he was developing.

  “You want me to beg from my mother again?” Mom asked.

  “Goddammit, Rose Mary! It’s not like we’re asking for a handout,” he yelled. “She’d be making an investment.”

  Grandma was always lending us money, Mom said, and she was sick of it. Mom told Dad that Grandma had said if we couldn’t take care of ourselves, we could go live in Phoenix, in her house.

  “Maybe we should,” Mom said.

  That got Dad really angry. “Are you saying I can’t take care of my own family?”

  “Ask them,” Mom snapped.

  We kids were sitting on the old passenger benches. Dad turned to me. I studied the scuff marks on the floor.

  Their argument continued the next morning. We kids were downstairs lying in our boxes, listening to them fighting upstairs. Mom was carrying on about how things had gotten so desperate around the house that we didn’t have anything to eat except margarine, and now that was gone, too. She was sick, she said, of Dad’s ridiculous dreams and his stupid plans and his empty promises.

  I turned to Lori, who was reading a book. “Tell them that we like eating margarine,” I said. “Then maybe they’ll stop fighting.”

  Lori shook her head. “That’ll make Mom think we’re taking Dad’s side,” she said. “It would only make it worse. Let them work it out.”

  I knew Lori was right. The only thing to do when Mom and Dad fought was to pretend it wasn’t happening or act like it didn’t matter. Pretty soon they’d be friends again, kissing and dancing in each other’s arms. But this particular argument just would not stop. After going on about the margarine, they started fighting about whether or not some painting Mom had done was ugly. Then they argued about whose fault it was that we lived like we did. Mom told Dad he should get another job. Dad said that if Mom wanted someone in the family to be punching a time clock, then she could get a job. She had a teaching degree, he pointed out. She could work instead of sitting around on her butt all day painting pictures no one ever wanted to buy.

  “Van Gogh didn’t sell any paintings, either,” Mom said. “I’m an artist!”

  “Fine,” Dad said. “Then quit your damned bellyaching. Or go peddle your ass at the Green Lantern.”

  Mom and Dad’s shouting was so loud that you could hear it throughout the neighborhood. Lori, Brian, and I looked at one another. Brian nodded at the front door, and we all went outside and started making sand castles for scorpions. We figured that if we were all in the yard acting like the fighting was no big deal, maybe the neighbors would feel the same way.

  But as the screaming continued, neighbors started gathering on the street. Some were simply curious. Moms and dads got into arguments all the time in Battle Mountain, so it didn’t seem that big a deal, but this fight was raucous even by local standards, and some people thought they should step in and break it up. “Aw, let ’em work out their differences,” one of the men said. “No one’s got a right to interfere.” So they leaned back against car fenders and fence posts, or sat on pickup tailgates, as if they were at a rodeo.

  Suddenly, one of Mom’s oil paintings came flying through an upstairs window. Next came her easel. The crowd below scurried back to avoid getting hit. Then Mom’s feet appeared in the window, followed by the rest of her body. She was dangling from the second floor, her legs swinging wildly. Dad was holding her by the arms while she tried to hit him in the face.

  “Help!” Mom screamed. “He’s trying to kill me!”

  “Goddammit, Rose Mary, get back in here!” Dad said.

  “Don’t hurt her!” Lori yelled.

  Mom was swinging back and forth. Her yellow cotton dress had gotten bunched up around her waist, and the crowd could see her white underwear. They were sort of old and baggy, and I was afraid they might fall off altogether. Some of the grown-ups called out, worried that Mom might fall, but one group of kids thought Mom looked like a chimpanzee swinging from a tree, and they began making monkey noises and scratching their armpits and laughing. Brian’s face turned dark and his fists clenched up. I felt like punching them, too, but I pulled Brian back.

  Mom was thrashing around so hard that her shoes fell off. It looked like she might slip from Dad’s grasp or pull him out the window. Lori turned to Brian and me. “Come on.” We ran inside and up the stairs and held on to Dad’s legs so that Mom’s weight wouldn’t drag him through the window as well. Finally, he pulled Mom back inside. She collapsed onto the floor.

  “He tried to kill me,” Mom sobbed. “Your father wants to watch me die.”

  “I didn’t push her,” Dad protested. “I swear to God I didn’t. She jumped.” He was standing over Mom, holding out his hands, palms up, pleading his innocence.

  Lori stroked Mom’s hair and dried her tears. Brian leaned against the wall and shook his head.

  “Everything’s okay now,” I said over and over again.

  T HE NEXT MORNING, instead of sleeping late the way she usually did, Mom got up with us kids and walked over to the Battle Mountain Intermediate School, which was across the street from the Mary S. Black Elementary School. She applied for a job and was hired right away, since she had a degree, and there were never enough teachers in Battle Mountain. The few teachers the town did have were not exactly the pick of the litter, as Dad liked to say, and despite the shortage, one would get fired from time to time. A couple of weeks earlier, Miss Page had gotten the ax when the principal caught her toting a loaded rifle down the school hall. Miss Page said all she wanted to do was motivate her students to do their homework.

  Lori’s teacher had stopped showing up around the same time Miss Page was fired, so Mom was assigned to teach Lori’s class. Her students really liked her. She had the same philosophy about educating children that she had about rearing them. She thought rules and discipline held people back and felt that the best way to let children fulfill their potential was by providing freedom. She didn’t care if her students were late or didn’t do their homework. If they wanted to act out, that was fine with her, as long as they didn’t hurt anyone else.

  Mom was all the time hugging her students and letting them know how wonderful and special she thought they were. She’d tell the Mexican kids never to let anyone say they weren’t as good as white kids. She’d tell the Navaho and Apache kids they should be proud of their noble Indian heritage. Students who were considered problem kids or mentally slow started doing well. Some followed Mom around like stray dogs.

  Even though her students liked her, Mom hated teaching. She had to leave Maureen, who was not yet two, with a woman whose drug-dealer husband was serving time in t
he state prison. But what really bothered Mom was that her mother had been a teacher and had pushed Mom into getting a teaching degree so she would have a job to fall back on just in case her dreams of becoming an artist didn’t pan out. Mom felt Grandma Smith had lacked faith in her artistic talent, and by becoming a teacher now, she was acknowledging that her mother had been right all along. At night she sulked and muttered under her breath. In the morning she slept late and pretended to be sick. It was up to Lori, Brian, and me to get her out of bed and see to it that she was dressed and at school on time.

  “I’m a grown woman now,” Mom said almost every morning. “Why can’t I do what I want to do?”

  “Teaching is rewarding and fun,” Lori said. “You’ll grow to like it.”

  Part of the problem was that the other teachers and the principal, Miss Beatty, thought Mom was a terrible teacher. They’d stick their heads into her classroom and see the students playing tag and throwing erasers while Mom was up front, spinning like a top and letting pieces of chalk fly from her hands to demonstrate centrifugal force.

  Miss Beatty, who wore her glasses on a chain around her neck and had her hair done at the beauty parlor over in Winnemucca every week, told Mom she needed to discipline her students. Miss Beatty also told Mom to submit weekly lesson plans, keep her classroom tidy, and grade the homework promptly. But Mom was always getting confused and filling in the wrong dates on the lesson plans or losing the homework.

  Miss Beatty threatened to fire Mom, so Lori, Brian, and I started helping Mom with her schoolwork. I’d go to her classroom after school and clean her chalkboard, dust her erasers, and pick the paper up off the floor. At night Lori, Brian, and I went over her students’ homework and tests. Mom let us grade papers that had multiple-choice, true-false, and fill-in-the-blank answers—just about anything except essay questions, which she thought she had to evaluate because they could be answered correctly in all sorts of different ways. I liked grading homework. I liked knowing that I could do what grown-ups did for a living. Lori also helped Mom with her lesson plans. She’d make sure Mom filled them in accurately, and she’d correct Mom’s spelling and math.

  “Mom, double Ls in Halloween,” Lori said, erasing Mom’s writing and penciling in the changes. “Double Es as well, and no silent E at the end.”

  Mom marveled at how brilliant Lori was. “Lori gets straight As,” she once told me.

  “So do I,” I said.

  “Yes, but you have to work for them.”

  Mom was right, Lori was brilliant. I think helping Mom like that was one of Lori’s favorite things in the world. She wasn’t very athletic and didn’t like exploring as much as Brian and I did, but she loved anything having to do with pencil and paper. After Mom and Lori finished the lesson plans, they’d sit around the spool table, sketching each other and cutting out magazine photos of animals and landscapes and people with wrinkled faces and putting them in Mom’s folder of potential painting subjects.

  Lori understood Mom better than anyone. It didn’t bother her that when Miss Beatty showed up to observe Mom’s class, Mom started yelling at Lori to prove to Miss Beatty that she was capable of disciplining her students. One time Mom went so far as to order Lori up to the front of the class, where she gave her a whipping with a wooden paddle.

  “Were you acting up?” I asked Lori when I heard about the whipping.

  “No,” Lori said.

  “Then why would Mom paddle you?”

  “She had to punish someone, and she didn’t want to upset the other kids,” Lori said.

  O NCE M OM STARTED TEACHING , I thought maybe we’d be able to buy new clothes, eat cafeteria lunches, and even spring for nifty extras like the class pictures the school took every year. Mom and Dad had never been able to buy the class pictures for us, though a couple of times, Mom secretly snipped a snapshot out of the packet before returning it. Despite Mom’s salary, we didn’t buy the class pictures that year—or even steal them—but that was probably just as well. Mom had read somewhere that mayonnaise was good for your hair, and the morning the photographer was coming to school, she slathered a few spoonfuls on mine. She didn’t realize you were supposed to wash out the mayonnaise, and in the picture that year I was peering out from under one stiff shingle of hair.

  Still, things did improve. Even though Dad had been fired from the barite mine, we were able to continue living in the depot by paying rent to the mining company, since not a lot of other families were vying for the place. We now had food in the fridge, at least until it got toward the end of the month, when we usually ran out of money because neither Mom nor Dad ever mastered the art of budgeting.

  But Mom’s salary created a whole new set of problems. While Dad liked it that Mom was bringing home a paycheck, he saw himself as the head of the household, and he maintained that the money should be turned over to him. It was his responsibility, he’d say, to handle the family finances. And he needed money to fund his gold-leaching research.

  “The only research you’re doing is on the liver’s capacity to absorb alcohol,” Mom said. Still, she found it hard to straight-out defy Dad. For some reason, she didn’t have it in her to say no to him. If she tried, he’d argue and wheedle and sulk and bully and plain wear her down. So she resorted to evasive tactics. She’d tell Dad she hadn’t cashed her paycheck yet, or she’d pretend she’d left it at school and hide it until she could sneak off to the bank. Then she’d pretend she’d lost all the money.

  Pretty soon Dad took to showing up at school on payday, waiting outside in the car, and taking us all straight to Winnemucca, where the bank was located, so Mom could cash her paycheck immediately. Dad insisted on escorting Mom into the bank. Mom had us kids come along so she could try to slip some of the cash to us first. Back in the car, Dad would go through Mom’s purse and take the money out.

  On one trip, Mom went into the bank alone because Dad couldn’t find a place to park. When she came out, she was missing a sock. “Jeannette, I’m going to give you a sock that I want you to put in a safe place,” Mom said once she got in the car. She winked hard at me as she reached inside her bra and pulled out her other sock, knotted in the middle and bulging at the toe. “Hide it where no one can get it, because you know how scarce socks can get in our house.”

  “Goddammit, Rose Mary,” Dad snapped. “Do you think I’m a fucking idiot?”

  “What?” Mom asked, throwing her arms up in the air. “Am I not allowed to give my daughter a sock?” She winked at me again, just in case I didn’t get it.

  Back in Battle Mountain, Dad insisted we go to the Owl Club to celebrate payday, and ordered steaks for all of us. They tasted so good we forgot we were eating a week’s worth of groceries. “Hey, Mountain Goat,” Dad said at the end of the dinner, while Mom was putting our table scraps in her purse. “Why don’t you let me borrow that sock for a second?”

  I looked around the table. No one met my eye except Dad, who was grinning like an alligator. I handed over the sock. Mom gave a dramatic sigh of defeat and let her head drop down on the table. To show who was in charge, Dad left the waitress a ten-dollar tip, but on the way out, Mom slipped it into her purse.

  Soon we were out of money again. When Dad dropped Brian and me off at school, he noticed that we weren’t carrying lunch bags.

  “Where are your lunches?” Dad asked us.

  We looked at each other and shrugged.

  “There’s no food in the house,” Brian said.

  When Dad heard that, he acted outraged, as though he’d learned for the first time that his children were going hungry.

  “Dammit, that Rose Mary keeps spending money on art supplies!” he muttered, pretending to be talking to himself. Then he declared more loudly. “No child of mine has to go hungry!” After he dropped us off, he called after us. “Don’t you kids worry about a thing.”

  At lunch Brian and I sat together in the cafeteria. I was pretending to help him with his homework so that no one would ask us why we weren’t eating
when Dad appeared in the doorway, carrying a big grocery bag. I saw him scanning the room, looking for us. “My young ’uns forgot to take their lunch to school today,” he announced to the teacher on cafeteria duty as he walked toward us. He set the bag on the table in front of Brian and me and took out a loaf of bread, a whole package of bologna, a jar of mayonnaise, a half-gallon jug of orange juice, two apples, a jar of pickles, and two candy bars.

  “Have I ever let you down?” he asked Brian and me and then turned and walked away.

  In a voice so low that Dad didn’t hear him, Brian said. “Yes.”

  “Dad has to start carrying his weight,” Lori said as she stared into the empty refrigerator.

  “He does!” I said. “He brings in money from odd jobs.”

  “He spends more than he earns on booze,” Brian said. He was whittling, the shavings falling to the floor right outside the kitchen where we were standing. Brian had taken to carrying a pocketknife with him at all times, and he often whittled pieces of scrap wood when he was working something out in his head.

  “It’s not all for booze,” I said. “Most of it’s for research on cyanide leaching.”

  “Dad doesn’t need to do research on leaching,” Brian said. “He’s an expert.” He and Lori cracked up. I glared at them. I knew more about Dad’s situation than they did because he talked to me more than anyone else in the family. We’d still go Demon Hunting in the desert together, for old time’s sake, since by then I was seven and too grown up to believe in demons. Dad told me about all his plans and showed me his pages of graphs and calculations and geological charts, depicting the layers of sediment where the gold was buried.

  He told me I was his favorite child, but he made me promise not to tell Lori or Brian or Maureen. It was our secret. “I swear, honey, there are times when I think you’re the only one around who still has faith in me,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do if you ever lost it.” I told him that I would never lose faith in him. And I promised myself I never would.

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