The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  A few months after Mom had started working as a teacher, Brian and I passed by the Green Lantern. The clouds above the setting sun were streaked scarlet and purple. The temperature was dropping quickly, from searing hot to chilly within a matter of minutes, like it always did in the desert at dusk. A woman with a fringed shawl draped over her shoulders was smoking a cigarette on the Green Lantern’s front porch. She waved at Brian, but he didn’t wave back.

  “Yoo-hoo! Brian, it’s me, sugar! Ginger!” she called.

  Brian ignored her.

  “Who’s that?” I asked.

  “Some friend of Dad’s,” he said. “She’s dumb.”

  “Why is she dumb?”

  “She doesn’t even know all the words in a Sad Sack comic book,” Brian said.

  He told me that Dad had taken him out for his birthday awhile back. In the drugstore, Dad had let Brian pick out whatever present he wanted, so Brian chose a Sad Sack comic book. Then they went to the Nevada Hotel, which was near the Owl Club and had a sign outside saying BAR GRILL CLEAN MODERN. They had dinner with Ginger, who kept laughing and talking real loud and touching both Dad and Brian. Then all three climbed the stairs to one of the hotel rooms. It was a suite, with a small front room and a bedroom. Dad and Ginger went into the bedroom while Brian stayed in the front room and read his new comic book. Later, when Dad and Ginger came out, she sat down next to Brian. He didn’t look up. He kept staring at the comic book, even though he’d already read it all the way through twice. Ginger declared that she loved Sad Sack. So Dad made Brian give Ginger the comic book, telling him it was the gentlemanly thing to do.

  “It was mine!” Brian said. “And she kept asking me to read the bigger words. She’s a grown-up, and she can’t even read a comic book.”

  Brian had taken such a powerful dislike to Ginger that I realized she must have done something more than shanghai his comic book. I wondered if he had figured out something about Ginger and the other ladies at the Green Lantern. Maybe he knew why Mom said they were bad. Maybe that was why he was mad. “Did you learn what they do inside the Green Lantern?” I asked.

  Brian stared off ahead. I tried to see what he was looking at, but there was nothing there except for the Tuscarora Mountains rising up to meet the darkening sky. Then he shook his head. “She makes a lot of money,” he said. “and she should buy her own darn comic book.”

  S OME PEOPLE LIKED to make fun of Battle Mountain. A big newspaper out east once held a contest to find the ugliest, most forlorn, most godforsaken town in the whole country, and it declared Battle Mountain the winner. The people who lived there didn’t hold it in much regard, either. They’d point to the big yellow-and-red sign way up on a pole at the Shell station—the one with the burned-out S—and say with a sort of perverse pride. “Yep, that’s where we live: hell!”

  But I was happy in Battle Mountain. We’d been there for nearly a year, and I considered it home—the first real home I could remember. Dad was on the verge of perfecting his cyanide gold process, Brian and I had the desert, Lori and Mom painted and read together, and Maureen, who had silky white-blond hair and a whole gang of imaginary friends, was happy running around with no diaper on. I thought our days of packing up and driving off in the middle of the night were over.

  Just after my eighth birthday, Billy Deel and his dad moved into the Tracks. Billy was three years older than me, tall and skinny with a sandy crew cut and blue eyes. But he wasn’t handsome. The thing about Billy was that he had a lopsided head. Bertha Whitefoot, a half-Indian woman who lived in a shack near the depot and kept about fifty dogs fenced in her yard, said it was because Billy’s mom hadn’t turned him over at all when he was a baby. He just lay there in the same position day in and day out, and the side of his head that was pressed against the mattress got a little flat. You didn’t notice it all that much unless you looked at him straight on, and not a lot of people did, because Billy was always moving around like he was itchy. He kept his Marlboros rolled up in one of his T-shirt sleeves, and he lit his cigarettes with a Zippo lighter stamped with a picture of a naked lady bending over.

  Billy lived with his dad in a house made of tar paper and corrugated tin, down the tracks from our house. He never mentioned his mom and made it clear that you weren’t supposed to bring her up, so I never knew if she had run off or died. His dad worked in the barite mine and spent his evenings at the Owl Club, so Billy had a lot of unsupervised time on his hands.

  Bertha Whitefoot took to calling Billy. “the devil with a crew cut” and. “the terror of the Tracks.” She claimed he set fire to a couple of her dogs and skinned some neighborhood cats and strung their naked pink bodies up on a clothesline to make jerky. Billy said Bertha was a big fat liar. I didn’t know whom to believe. After all, Billy was a certified JD—juvenile delinquent. He had told us that he spent time in a detention center in Reno for shoplifting and vandalizing cars. Shortly after he moved to the Tracks, Billy started following me around. He was always looking at me and telling the other kids he was my boyfriend.

  “No, he’s not!” I would yell, though I secretly liked it that he wanted to be.

  A few months after he’d moved to town, Billy told me he wanted to show me something really funny.

  “If it’s a skinned cat, I don’t want to see it,” I said.

  “Naw, it ain’t nothing like that,” he said. “It’s really funny. You’ll laugh and laugh. I promise. Unless you’re scared.”

  “’Course I’m not scared,” I said.

  The funny thing Billy wanted to show me was in his house, which was dark inside and smelled like pee, and was even messier than our house, although in a different way. Our house was filled with stuff: papers, books, tools, lumber, paintings, art supplies, and statues of Venus de Milo painted all different colors. There was hardly anything in Billy’s house. No furniture. Not even wooden spool tables. It had only one room with two mattresses on the floor next to a TV. There was nothing on the walls, not a single painting or drawing. A naked lightbulb hung from the ceiling, right next to three or four dangling spiral strips of flypaper so thick with flies that you couldn’t see the sticky yellow surface underneath. Empty beer cans and whiskey bottles and a few half-eaten tins of Vienna sausages littered the floor. On one of the mattresses, Billy’s father was snoring unevenly. His mouth hung open, and flies were gathered in the stubble of his beard. A wet stain had darkened his pants nearly to his knees. His zipper was undone, and his gross penis dangled to one side. I stared quietly, then asked. “What’s the funny thing?”

  “Don’t you see?” said Billy, pointing at his dad. “He pissed himself!” Billy started laughing.

  I felt my face turning hot. “You’re not supposed to laugh at your own father,” I said to him. “Ever.”

  “Aw, now, don’t go get all high-and-mighty on me,” Billy said. “Don’t go and try and pretend you’re better than me. ’Cause I know your daddy ain’t nothing but a drunk like mine.”

  I hated Billy at that moment, I really did. I thought of telling him about binary numbers and the Glass Castle and Venus and all the things that made my dad special and completely different from his dad, but I knew Billy wouldn’t understand. I started to run out of the house, but then I stopped and turned around.

  “My daddy is nothing like your daddy!” I shouted. “When my daddy passes out, he never pisses himself!”

  At dinner that night, I started telling everyone about Billy Deel’s disgusting dad and the ugly dump they lived in.

  Mom put down her fork. “Jeannette, I’m disappointed in you,” she said. “You should show more compassion.”

  “Why?” I said. “He’s bad. He’s a JD.”

  “No child is born a delinquent,” Mom said. They only became that way, she went on, if nobody loved them when they were kids. Unloved children grow up to become serial murderers or alcoholics. Mom looked pointedly at Dad and then back at me. She told me I should try to be nicer to Billy. “He doesn’t have all the advantages you kids do,
” she said.

  The next time I saw Billy, I told him I’d be his friend—but not his girlfriend—if he promised not to make fun of anyone’s dad. Billy promised. But he kept trying to be my boyfriend. He told me that if I’d be his girlfriend, he would always protect me and make sure nothing bad ever happened to me and buy me expensive presents. If I wouldn’t be his girlfriend, he said, I’d be sorry. I told him if he didn’t want to be just friends, fine with me, I wasn’t scared of him.

  After about a week, I was hanging out with some other kids from the Tracks, watching garbage burn in a big rusty trash can. They were all throwing in pieces of brush to keep the fire going, plus chunks of tire treads, and we cheered at the thick black rubber smoke that made our noses sting as it rolled past us into the air.

  Billy came up to me and pulled my arm, motioning me away from the other kids. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a turquoise and silver ring. “It’s for you,” he said.

  I took it and turned it over in my hand. Mom had a collection of turquoise and silver Indian jewelry that she kept at Grandma’s house so Dad wouldn’t pawn it. Most of it was antique and very valuable—some man from a museum in Phoenix kept trying to buy pieces from her—and when we visited Grandma, Mom would let me and Lori put on the heavy necklaces and bracelets and concha belts. Billy’s ring looked like one of Mom’s. I ran it across my teeth and tongue like Mom had taught me to. I could tell by the slightly bitter taste that it was real silver.

  “Where’d you get this?” I asked.

  “It used to be my mom’s,” Billy said.

  It sure was a pretty ring. It had a simple thin band and an oval-shaped piece of dark turquoise held in place by snaking silver strands. I didn’t have any jewelry and it had been a long time since anyone had given me a present, except for the planet Venus.

  I tried on the ring. It was way too big for my finger, but I could wrap yarn around the band the way high school girls did when they wore their boyfriend’s rings. I was afraid, however, that if I took the ring, Billy might start thinking that I had agreed to be his girlfriend. He’d tell all the other kids, and if I said it wasn’t true, he’d point to the ring. On the other hand, I figured Mom would approve, since accepting it would make Billy feel good about himself. I decided to compromise.

  “I’ll keep it,” I said. “But I’m not going to wear it.”

  Billy’s smile spread all across his face.

  “But don’t think this means we’re boyfriend and girlfriend,” I said. “And don’t think this means you can kiss me.”

  I didn’t tell anyone about the ring, not even Brian. I kept it in my pants pocket during the day, and at night I hid it in the bottom of the cardboard box where I kept my clothes.

  But Billy Deel had to go and shoot his mouth off about giving me the ring. He started telling the other kids things like how, as soon as I was old enough, me and him were going to get married. When I found out what he was saying, I knew accepting the ring had been a big mistake. I also knew I should return it. But I didn’t. I meant to, and every morning I’d put it in my pocket with the intention of giving it back, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. That ring was too darn pretty.

  A few weeks later, I was playing hide-and-seek along the tracks with some of the neighborhood kids. I found the perfect hiding place, a small tool shed behind a clump of sagebrush that no one had hid in before. But just as the kid who was It was finishing counting, the door opened and someone else tried to get in. It was Billy Deel. He hadn’t even been playing with us.

  “You can’t hide with me,” I hissed at him. “You’re supposed to find your own place.”

  “It’s too late,” he said. “He’s almost done counting.”

  Billy crawled inside. The shed was tiny, with barely enough room for one person to fit in crouched over. I wasn’t about to say so, but being that close to Billy scared me. “It’s too crowded!” I whispered. “You gotta leave.”

  “No,” Billy said. “We can fit.” He rearranged his legs so they were pressed up against mine. We were so close I could feel his breath on my face.

  “It’s too crowded,” I said again. “And you’re breathing on me.”

  He pretended not to hear me. “You know what they do in the Green Lantern, don’t you?” he asked.

  I could hear the muffled shouts of the other kids being chased by the boy who was It. I wished I hadn’t chosen such a good hiding place. “Sure,” I said.


  “The women are nice to the men.”

  “But what do they do?” He paused. “See, you don’t know.”

  “I do,” I said.

  “Want me to tell you?”

  “I want you to find your own hiding place.”

  “They start by kissing,” he said. “Ever kissed anyone?”

  In the narrow rays of light that shot through the gaps in the sides of the shed, I could see the rings of dirt around his skinny neck. “Of course I have. Lots of times.”


  “My dad.”

  “Your dad doesn’t count. Someone not in your family. And with your eyes closed. It doesn’t count unless your eyes are closed.”

  I told Billy that was about the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. If your eyes were closed, you couldn’t see who you were kissing.

  Billy said there was an awful lot about men and women I didn’t know. He said some men stuck knives into women while they were kissing them, especially if the women were being mean and didn’t want to be kissed. But he told me he’d never do that to me. He put his face up next to mine.

  “Close your eyes,” he said.

  “No way,” I said.

  Billy smushed his face against mine, then grabbed my hair and made my head bend sideways and stuck his tongue in my mouth. It was slimy and disgusting, but when I tried to pull away, he pushed in toward me. The more I pulled, the more he pushed, until he was on top of me and I felt his fingers tugging at my shorts. His other hand was unbuttoning his own pants. To stop him, I put my hand down there, and when I touched it, I knew what it was, even though I had never touched one before.

  I couldn’t knee him in the groin like Dad had told me to if a guy jumped on me, because my knees were outside his legs, so I bit him hard on the ear. It must have hurt, because he yelled and hit me in the face. Blood started gushing out of my nose.

  The other kids heard the ruckus and came running. One of them opened the shed door, and Billy and I scrambled out, pulling on our clothes.

  “I kissed Jeannette!” Billy yelled.

  “Did not!” I said. “He’s a liar! We just got into a fight, that’s all.”

  He was a liar, I told myself all the rest of the day. I hadn’t really kissed him, or at least it didn’t count. My eyes had been open the entire time.

  The next day I took the ring to Billy Deel’s house. I found him out back, sitting in an abandoned car. Its red paint had been bleached by the desert sun and had turned orange along the rusting trim. The tires had collapsed a long time ago, and the black rag roof was peeling. Billy was sitting in the driver’s seat, making engine noises in his throat and pretending to work a phantom stick shift.

  I stood nearby, waiting for him to acknowledge me. He didn’t, so I spoke first. “I don’t want to be your friend,” I said. “And I don’t want your ring anymore.”

  “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t want it, either.” He kept looking straight ahead through the cracked windshield. I reached through the open window, dropped the ring in his lap, and turned and walked away. I heard the click and clunk of the car door opening and closing behind me. I kept walking. Then I felt a sharp sting on the back of my head as if a little rock had hit me. Billy had thrown the ring at me. I kept walking.

  “Guess what?” Billy shouted. “I raped you!”

  I turned around and saw him standing there by the car, looking hurt and angry but not as tall as usual. I searched my mind for a cutting comeback, but since I didn’t know what. “rape” meant, all I
could think to say was. “Big deal!”

  At home I looked up the word in the dictionary. Then I looked up the words that explained it, and though I still couldn’t figure it out completely, I knew it wasn’t good. Usually, when I didn’t understand a word, I’d ask Dad about it, and we’d read over the definition together and discuss it. I didn’t want to do that now. I had a hunch it would cause problems.

  The next day Lori, Brian, and I were sitting at one of the spool tables in the depot, playing five-card draw and keeping an eye on Maureen while Mom and Dad spent some downtime at the Owl Club. We heard Billy Deel outside, calling my name. Lori looked at me, and I shook my head. We went back to our card game, but Billy kept on, so Lori went out on the porch, which was the old platform where people used to board the train, and told Billy to go away. She came back in and said. “He’s got a gun.”

  Lori picked up Maureen. One of the windows shattered, and then Billy appeared framed in it. He used the butt of his rifle to knock out the remaining pieces of glass, then pointed the barrel inside.

  “It’s just a BB gun,” Brian said.

  “I told you you’d be sorry,” Billy said to me and pulled the trigger. It felt like a wasp had stung me in the ribs. Billy started firing at us all, working the pump action quickly back and forth before each shot. Brian pushed over the spool table and we all crouched behind it.

  The BBs pinged off the tabletop. Maureen was howling. I turned to Lori, who was the oldest and in charge. She was biting her lower lip, thinking. She handed Maureen to me and took off running across the room. Billy got her once or twice—Brian stood up to try to draw the fire—but she made it upstairs to the second floor. Then she came down again. She had Dad’s pistol, and she pointed it dead at Billy.

  “That’s just a toy,” Billy said, but his voice was a little shaky.

  “It’s real, all right!” I shouted. “It’s my dad’s gun!”

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