DIRECTIONS: Choose three negative situations from The Glass Castle and describe them. Support your answers with support from the text. Analyze Jeanette’s reaction to the situation and how she created positive outcomes for herself.
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|Negative Situation (include textual evidence and page numbers)
Self Reflection Writing Assignment
DIRECTIONS: Think about the things you have been through in your own life. Choose one instance where you encountered a negative situation and were able to construe a positive outcome. Below, write about the experience in detail. Include creative elements and figurative language.
The Glass Castle A Memoir
SCRIBNER New York London Toronto Sydney
I’d like to thank my brother, Brian, for standing by me when we were growing up and while I wrote this. I’m also grateful to my mother for believing in art and truth and for supporting the idea of the book; to my brilliant and talented older sister, Lori, for coming around to it; and to my younger sister, Maureen, whom I will always love. And to my father, Rex S. Walls, for dreaming all those big dreams.
Very special thanks also to my agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, for her compassion, wit, tenacity, and enthusiastic support; to my editor, Nan Graham, for her keen sense of how much is enough and for caring so deeply; and to Alexis Gargagliano for her thoughtful and sensitive readings.
My gratitude for their early and constant support goes to Jay and Betsy Taylor, Laurie Peck, Cynthia and David Young, Amy and Jim Scully, Ashley Pearson, Dan Mathews, Susan Watson, and Jessica Taylor and Alex Guerrios.
I can never adequately thank my husband, John Taylor, who persuaded me it was time to tell my story and then pulled it out of me.
Dark is a way and light is a place, Heaven that never was Nor will be ever is always true
—Dylan Thomas, “Poem on His Birthday”
I A WOMAN ON THE STREET
I WAS SITTING IN a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind
whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.
Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a blackandwhite terrier mix, played at her feet. Mom’s gestures were all familiar—the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she’d hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked. Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she’d been when I was a kid, swandiving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud. Her cheekbones were still high and strong, but the skin was parched and ruddy from all those winters and summers exposed to the elements. To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City.
It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.
I slid down in the seat and asked the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue.
The taxi pulled up in front of my building, the doorman held the door for me, and the elevator man took me up to my floor. My husband was working late, as he did most nights, and the apartment was silent except for the click of my heels on the polished wood floor. I was still rattled from seeing Mom, the unexpectedness of coming across her, the sight of her rooting happily through the Dumpster. I put some Vivaldi on, hoping the music would settle me down.
I looked around the room. There were the turnofthecentury bronzeandsilver vases and the old books with worn leather spines that I’d collected at flea markets. There were the Georgian maps I’d had framed, the Persian rugs, and the overstuffed leather armchair I liked to sink into at the end of the day. I’d tried to make a home for myself here, tried to turn the apartment into the sort of place where the person I wanted to be would live. But I could never enjoy the room without worrying about Mom and Dad huddled on a sidewalk grate somewhere. I fretted about them, but I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat.
What could I do? I’d tried to help them countless times, but Dad would insist they didn’t need anything, and Mom would ask for something silly, like a perfume atomizer or a membership in a health club. They said that they were living the way they wanted to.
After ducking down in the taxi so Mom wouldn’t see me, I hated myself—hated my antiques, my clothes, and my apartment. I had to do something, so I called a friend of Mom’s and left a message. It was our system of staying in touch. It always took Mom a few days to get back to me, but when I heard from her, she sounded, as always, cheerful and casual, as though we’d had lunch the day before. I told her I wanted to see her and suggested she drop by the apartment, but she wanted to go to a restaurant. She loved eating out, so we agreed to meet for lunch at her favorite Chinese restaurant.
Mom was sitting at a booth, studying the menu, when I arrived. She’d made an effort to fix herself up. She wore a bulky gray sweater with only a few light stains, and black leather men’s shoes. She’d washed her face, but her neck and temples were still dark with grime.
She waved enthusiastically when she saw me. “It’s my baby girl!” she called out. I kissed her cheek. Mom had dumped all the plastic packets of soy sauce and duck sauce and hotandspicy mustard from the table into her purse. Now she emptied a wooden bowl of dried noodles into it as well. “A little snack for later on,” she explained.
We ordered. Mom chose the Seafood Delight. “You know how I love my seafood,” she said.
She started talking about Picasso. She’d seen a retrospective of his work and decided he was hugely overrated. All the cubist stuff was gimmicky, as far as she was concerned. He hadn’t really done anything worthwhile after his Rose Period.
“I’m worried about you,” I said. “Tell me what I can do to help.”
Her smile faded. “What makes you think I need your help?”
“I’m not rich,” I said. “But I have some money. Tell me what it is you need.”
She thought for a moment. “I could use an electrolysis treatment.”
“I am serious. If a woman looks good, she feels good.”
“Come on, Mom.” I felt my shoulders tightening up, the way they invariably did during these conversations. “I’m talking about something that could help you change your life, make it better.”
“You want to help me change my life?” Mom asked. “I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are all confused.”
“Mom, I saw you picking through trash in the East Village a few days ago.”
“Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It’s my way of recycling.” She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. “Why didn’t you say hello?”
“I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid.”
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. “You see?” she said. “Right there. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.”
“And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”
“Just tell the truth,” Mom said. “That’s simple enough.”
II THE DESERT
I WAS ON FIRE.
It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window.
I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. Juju, our black mutt, was watching me. I stabbed one of the hot dogs with a fork and bent over and offered it to him. The wiener was hot, so Juju licked at it tentatively, but when I stood up and started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. I turned to see where it was coming from and realized my dress was on fire. Frozen with fear, I watched the yellowwhite flames make a ragged brown line up the pink fabric of my skirt and climb my stomach. Then the flames leaped up, reaching my face.
I screamed. I smelled the burning and heard a horrible crackling as the fire singed my hair and eyelashes. Juju was barking. I screamed again.
Mom ran into the room.
“Mommy, help me!” I shrieked. I was still standing on the chair, swatting at the fire with the fork I had been using to stir the hot dogs.
Mom ran out of the room and came back with one of the armysurplus blankets I hated because the wool was so scratchy. She threw the blanket around me to smother the flames. Dad had gone off in the car, so Mom grabbed me and my younger brother, Brian, and hurried over to the trailer next to ours. The woman who lived there was hanging her laundry on the clothesline. She had clothespins in her mouth. Mom, in an unnaturally calm voice, explained what had happened and asked if we could please have a ride to the hospital. The woman dropped her clothespins and laundry right there in the dirt and, without saying anything, ran for her car.
* * *
When we got to the hospital, nurses put me on a stretcher. They talked in loud, worried whispers while they cut off what was left of my fancy pink dress with a pair of shiny scissors. Then they picked me up, laid me flat on a big metal bed piled with ice cubes, and spread some of the ice over my body. A doctor with silver hair and blackrimmed glasses led my mother out of the room. As they left, I heard him telling her that it was very serious. The nurses remained behind, hovering over me. I could tell I was causing a big fuss, and I stayed quiet. One of them squeezed my hand and told me I was going to be okay.
“I know,” I said, “but if I’m not, that’s okay, too.”
The nurse squeezed my hand again and bit her lower lip.
The room was small and white, with bright lights and metal cabinets. I stared for a while at the rows of tiny dots in the ceiling panels. Ice cubes covered my stomach and ribs and pressed up against my cheeks. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small, grimy hand reach up a few inches from my face and grab a handful of cubes. I heard a loud crunching sound and looked down. It was Brian, eating the ice.
* * *
The doctors said I was lucky to be alive. They took patches of skin from my upper thigh and put them over the most badly burned parts of my stomach, ribs, and chest. They said it was called a skin graft. When they were finished, they wrapped my entire right side in bandages.
“Look, I’m a halfmummy,” I said to one of the nurses. She smiled and put my right arm in a sling and attached it to the headboard so I couldn’t move it.
The nurses and doctors kept asking me questions: How did you get burned? Have your parents ever hurt you? Why do you have all these bruises and cuts? My parents never hurt me, I said. I got the cuts and bruises playing outside and the burns from cooking hot dogs. They asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three. It was easy, I said. You just put the hot dogs in the water and boil them. It wasn’t like there was some complicated recipe that you had to be old enough to follow. The pan was too heavy for me to lift when it was full of water, so I’d put a chair next to the sink, climb up and fill a glass, then stand on a chair by the stove and pour the water into the pan. I did that over and over again until the pan held enough water. Then I’d turn on the stove, and when the water was boiling, I’d drop in the hot dogs. “Mom says I’m mature for my age,” I told them. “and she lets me cook for myself a lot.”
Two nurses looked at each other, and one of them wrote something down on a clipboard. I asked what was wrong. Nothing, they said, nothing.
* * *
Every couple of days, the nurses changed the bandages. They would put the used bandage off to the side, wadded and covered with smears of blood and yellow stuff and little pieces of burned skin. Then they’d apply another bandage, a big gauzy cloth, to the burns. At night I would run my left hand over the rough, scabby surface of the skin that wasn’t covered by the bandage. Sometimes I’d peel off scabs. The nurses had told me not to, but I couldn’t resist pulling on them real slow to see how big a scab I could get loose. Once I had a couple of them free, I’d pretend they were talking to each other in cheeping voices.
The hospital was clean and shiny. Everything was white—the walls and sheets and nurses’ uniforms— or silver—the beds and trays and medical instruments. Everyone spoke in polite, calm voices. It was so hushed you could hear the nurses’ rubbersoled shoes squeaking all the way down the hall. I wasn’t used to quiet and order, and I liked it.
I also liked it that I had my own room, since in the trailer I shared one with my brother and my sister. My hospital room even had its very own television set up on the wall. We didn’t have a TV at home, so
I watched it a lot. Red Buttons and Lucille Ball were my favorites.
The nurses and doctors always asked how I was feeling and if I was hungry or needed anything. The nurses brought me delicious meals three times a day, with fruit cocktail or JellO for dessert, and changed the sheets even if they still looked clean. Sometimes I read to them, and they told me I was very smart and could read as well as a sixyearold.
One day a nurse with wavy yellow hair and blue eye makeup was chewing on something. I asked her what it was, and she told me it was chewing gum. I had never heard of chewing gum, so she went out and got me a whole pack. I pulled out a stick, took off the white paper and the shiny silver foil under it, and studied the powdery, puttycolored gum. I put it in my mouth and was stunned by the sharp sweetness. “It’s really good!” I said.
“Chew on it, but don’t swallow it,” the nurse said with a laugh. She smiled real big and brought in other nurses so they could watch me chew my firstever piece of gum. When she brought me lunch, she told me I had to take out my chewing gum, but she said not to worry because I could have a new stick after eating. If I finished the pack, she would buy me another. That was the thing about the hospital. You never had to worry about running out of stuff like food or ice or even chewing gum. I would have been happy staying in that hospital forever.
* * *
When my family came to visit, their arguing and laughing and singing and shouting echoed through the quiet halls. The nurses made shushing noises, and Mom and Dad and Lori and Brian lowered their voices for a few minutes, then they slowly grew loud again. Everyone always turned and stared at Dad. I couldn’t figure out whether it was because he was so handsome or because he called people. “pardner” and. “goomba” and threw his head back when he laughed.
One day Dad leaned over my bed and asked if the nurses and doctors were treating me okay. If they were not, he said, he would kick some asses. I told Dad how nice and friendly everyone was. “Well, of course they are,” he said. “They know you’re Rex Walls’s daughter.”
When Mom wanted to know what it was the doctors and nurses were doing that was so nice, I told her about the chewing gum.
“Ugh,” she said. She disapproved of chewing gum, she went on. It was a disgusting lowclass habit, and the nurse should have consulted her before encouraging me in such vulgar behavior. She said she was going to give that woman a piece of her mind, by golly. “After all,” Mom said. “I am your mother, and I should have a say in how you’re raised.”
* * *
“Do you guys miss me?” I asked my older sister, Lori, during one visit.
“Not really,” she said. “Too much has been happening.”
“Just the normal stuff.”
“Lori may not miss you, honey bunch, but I sure do,” Dad said. “You shouldn’t be in this antiseptic joint.”
He sat down on my bed and started telling me the story about the time Lori got stung by a poisonous scorpion. I’d heard it a dozen times, but I still liked the way Dad told it. Mom and Dad were out exploring in the desert when Lori, who was four, turned over a rock and the scorpion hiding under it stung her leg. She had gone into convulsions, and her body had become stiff and wet with sweat. But Dad didn’t trust hospitals, so he took her to a Navajo witch doctor who cut open the wound and put a dark brown paste on it and said some chants and pretty soon Lori was as good as new. “Your mother should have taken you to that witch doctor the day you got burned,” Dad said, “not to these headsup theirasses medschool quacks.”
* * *
The next time they visited, Brian’s head was wrapped in a dirty white bandage with dried bloodstains. Mom said he had fallen off the back of the couch and cracked his head open on the floor, but she and Dad had decided not to take him to the hospital.
“There was blood everywhere,” Mom said. “but one kid in the hospital at a time is enough.”
“Besides,” Dad said, “Brian’s head is so hard, I think the floor took more damage than he did.”
Brian thought that was hilarious and just laughed and laughed.
Mom told me she had entered my name in a raffle at a fair, and I’d won a helicopter ride. I was thrilled. I had never been in a helicopter or a plane.
“When do I get to go on the ride?” I asked.
“Oh, we already did that,” Mom said. “It was fun.”
Then Dad got into an argument with the doctor. It started because Dad thought I shouldn’t be wearing bandages. “Burns need to breathe,” he told the doctor.
The doctor said bandages were necessary to prevent infection. Dad stared at the doctor. “To hell with infection,” he said. He told the doctor that I was going to be scarred for life because of him, but, by God, I wasn’t the only one who was going to walk out of there scarred.
Dad pulled back his fist as if to hit the doctor, who raised his hands and backed away. Before anything could happen, a guard in a uniform appeared and told Mom and Dad and Lori and Brian that they would have to leave.
Afterward, a nurse asked me if I was okay. “Of course,” I said. I told her I didn’t care if I had some silly old scar. That was good, she said, because from the look of it, I had other things to worry about.
* * *
A few days later, when I had been at the hospital for about six weeks, Dad appeared alone in the
doorway of my room. He told me we were going to check out, Rex Walls–style.
“Are you sure this is okay?” I asked.
“You just trust your old man,” Dad said.
He unhooked my right arm from the sling over my head. As he held me close, I breathed in his familiar smell of Vitalis, whiskey, and cigarette smoke. It reminded me of home.
Dad hurried down the hall with me in his arms. A nurse yelled for us to stop, but Dad broke into a run. He pushed open an emergencyexit door and sprinted down the stairs and out to the street. Our car, a beatup Plymouth we called the Blue Goose, was parked around the corner, the engine idling. Mom was up front, Lori and Brian in the back with Juju. Dad slid me across the seat next to Mom and took the wheel.
“You don’t have to worry anymore, baby,” Dad said. “You’re safe now.”
A FEW DAYS AFTER Mom and Dad brought me home, I cooked myself some hot dogs. I was hungry, Mom was at work on a painting, and no one else was there to fix them for me.
“Good for you,” Mom said when she saw me cooking. “You’ve got to get right back in the saddle. You can’t live in fear of something as basic as fire.”
I didn’t. Instead, I became fascinated with it. Dad also thought I should face down my enemy, and he showed me how to pass my finger through a candle flame. I did it over and over, slowing my finger with each pass, watching the way it seemed to cut the flame in half, testing to see how much my finger could endure without actually getting burned. I was always on the lookout for bigger fires. Whenever neighbors burned trash, I ran over and watched the blaze trying to escape the garbage can. I’d inch closer and closer, feeling the heat against my face until I got so near that it became unbearable, and then I’d back away just enough to be able to stand it.
The neighbor lady who had driven me to the hospital was surprised that I didn’t run in the opposite direction from any fire I saw. “Why the hell would she?” Dad bellowed with a proud grin. “She already fought the fire once and won.”
I started stealing matches from Dad. I’d go behind the trailer and light them. I loved the scratching sound of the match against the sandpapery brown strip when I struck it, and the way the flame leaped out of the redcoated tip with a pop and a hiss. I’d feel its heat near my fingertips, then wave it out triumphantly. I lit pieces of paper and little piles of brush and held my breath until the moment when they seemed about to blaze up out of control. Then I’d stomp on the flames and call out the curse words Dad used, like. “Dumbass sonofabitch!” and. “Cocksucker!”
One time I went out back with my favorite toy, a plastic Tinkerbell figurine. She was two inches tall, with yellow hair pulled up in a high ponytail and her hands on her hips in a confident, cocky way that I admired. I lit a match and held it close to Tinkerbell’s face to show her how it felt. She looked even
more beautiful in the flame’s glow. When that match went out, I lit another one, and this time I held it really close to Tinkerbell’s face. Suddenly, her eyes grew wide, as if with fear; I realized, to my horror, that her face was starting to melt. I put out the match, but it was too late. Tinkerbell’s once perfect little nose had completely disappeared, and her saucy red lips had been replaced with an ugly, lopsided smear. I tried to smooth her features back to the way they had been, but I made them even worse. Almost immediately, her face cooled and hardened again. I put bandages on it. I wished I could perform a skin graft on Tinkerbell, but that would have meant cutting her into pieces. Even though her face was melted, she was still my favorite toy.
DAD CAME HOME IN the middle of the night a few months later and roused all of us from bed.
“Time to pull up stakes and leave this shithole behind,” he hollered.
We had fifteen minutes to gather whatever we needed and pile into the car.
“Is everything okay, Dad?” I asked. “Is someone after us?”
“Don’t you worry,” Dad said. “You leave that to me. Don’t I always take care of you?”
“‘Course you do,” I said.
“That’s my girl!” Dad said with a hug, then barked orders at us all to speed things up. He took the essentials—a big black castiron skillet and the Dutch oven, some armysurplus tin plates, a few knives, his pistol, and Mom’s archery set—and packed them in the trunk of the Blue Goose. He said we shouldn’t take much else, just what we needed to survive. Mom hurried out to the yard and started digging holes by the light of the moon, looking for our jar of cash. She had forgotten where she’d buried it.
An hour passed before we finally tied Mom’s paintings on the top of the car, shoved whatever would fit into the trunk, and piled the overflow on the backseat and the car floor. Dad steered the Blue Goose through the dark, driving slowly so as not to alert anyone in the trailer park that we were, as Dad liked to put it, doing the skedaddle. He was grumbling that he couldn’t understand why the hell it took so long to grab what we needed and haul our asses into the car.
“Dad!” I said. “I forgot Tinkerbell!”
“Tinkerbell can make it on her own,” Dad said. “She’s like my brave little girl. You are brave and ready for adventure, right?”
“I guess,” I said. I hoped whoever found Tinkerbell would love her despite her melted face. For comfort, I tried to cradle Quixote, our gray and white cat who was missing an ear, but he growled and scratched at my face. “Quiet, Quixote!” I said.
“Cats don’t like to travel,” Mom explained.
Anyone who didn’t like to travel wasn’t invited on our adventure, Dad said. He stopped the car, grabbed Quixote by the scruff of the neck, and tossed him out the window. Quixote landed with a screeching meow and a thud, Dad accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.
“Don’t be so sentimental,” Mom said. She told me we could always get another cat, and now Quixote was going to be a wild cat, which was much more fun than being a house cat. Brian, afraid that Dad might toss Juju out the window as well, held the dog tight.
To distract us kids, Mom got us singing songs like. “Don’t Fence Me In” and. “This Land Is Your Land,” and Dad led us in rousing renditions of. “Old Man River” and his favorite. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” After a while, I forgot about Quixote and Tinkerbell and the friends I’d left behind in the trailer park. Dad started telling us about all the exciting things we were going to do and how we were going to get rich once we reached the new place where we were going to live.
“Where are we going, Dad?” I asked.
“Wherever we end up,” he said.
* * *
Later that night, Dad stopped the car out in the middle of the desert, and we slept under the stars. We had no pillows, but Dad said that was part of his plan. He was teaching us to have good posture. The Indians didn’t use pillows, either, he explained, and look how straight they stood. We did have our scratchy armysurplus blankets, so we spread them out and lay there, looking up at the field of stars. I told Lori how lucky we were to be sleeping out under the sky like Indians.
“We could live like this forever,” I said.
“I think we’re going to,” she said.
WE WERE ALWAYS DOING the skedaddle, usually in the middle of the night. I sometimes heard Mom and Dad discussing the people who were after us. Dad called them henchmen, bloodsuckers, and the gestapo. Sometimes he would make mysterious references to executives from Standard Oil who were trying to steal the Texas land that Mom’s family owned, and FBI agents who were after Dad for some dark episode that he never told us about because he didn’t want to put us in danger, too.
Dad was so sure a posse of federal investigators was on our trail that he smoked his unfiltered cigarettes from the wrong end. That way, he explained, he burned up the brand name, and if the people who were tracking us looked in his ashtray, they’d find unidentifiable butts instead of Pall Malls that could be traced to him. Mom, however, told us that the FBI wasn’t really after Dad; he just liked to say they were because it was more fun having the FBI on your tail than bill collectors.
We moved around like nomads. We lived in dusty little mining towns in Nevada, Arizona, and California. They were usually nothing but a tiny cluster of sad, sunken shacks, a gas station, a dry goods store, and a bar or two. They had names like Needles and Bouse, Pie, Goffs, and Why, and they were near places like the Superstition Mountains, the driedup Soda Lake, and the Old Woman Mountain. The more desolate and isolated a place was, the better Mom and Dad liked it.
Dad would get a job as an electrician or engineer in a gypsum or copper mine. Mom liked to say that Dad could talk a blue streak, spinning tales of jobs he’d never had and college degrees he’d never earned. He could get about any job he wanted, he just didn’t like keeping it for long. Sometimes he made money gambling or doing odd jobs. When he got bored or was fired or the unpaid bills piled up too high or the lineman from the electrical company found out he had hotwired our trailer to the utility poles—or the FBI was closing in—we packed up in the middle of the night and took off, driving until Mom and Dad found another small town that caught their eye. Then we’d circle around, looking for houses with forrent signs stuck in the front yard.
Every now and then, we’d go stay with Grandma Smith, Mom’s mom, who lived in a big white house in Phoenix. Grandma Smith was a West Texas flapper who loved dancing and cussing and horses. She was known for being able to break the wildest broncs and had helped Grandpa run the ranch up near Fish Creek Canyon, Arizona, which was west of Bullhead City, not too far from the Grand Canyon. I thought Grandma Smith was great. But after a few weeks, she and Dad would always get into some nasty hollering match. It might start with Mom mentioning how short we were on cash. Then Grandma would make a snide comment about Dad being shiftless. Dad would say something about selfish old crones with more money than they knew what to do with, and soon enough they’d be facetoface in what amounted to a fullfledged cussing contest.
“You fleabitten drunk!” Grandma would scream.
“You goddamned flintfaced hag!” Dad would shout back.
“You nogood twobit pudsucking bastard!”
“You scaly castrating banshee bitch!”
Dad had the more inventive vocabulary, but Grandma Smith could outshout him; plus, she had the homecourt advantage. A time would come when Dad had had enough and he’d tell us kids to get in the car. Grandma would yell at Mom not to let that worthless horse’s ass take her grandchildren. Mom would shrug and say there was nothing she could do about it, he was her husband. Off we’d go, heading out into the desert in search of another house for rent in another little mining town.
Some of the people who lived in those towns had been there for years. Others were rootless, like us— just passing through. They were gamblers or excons or war veterans or what Mom called loose women. There were old prospectors, their faces wrinkled and brown from the sun, like driedup apples. The kids were lean and hard, with calluses on their hands and feet. We’d make friends with them, but not close friends, because we knew we’d be moving on sooner or later.
We might enroll in school, but not always. Mom and Dad did most of our teaching. Mom had us all reading books without pictures by the time we were five, and Dad taught us math. He also taught us the things that were really important and useful, like how to tap out Morse code and how we should never eat the liver of a polar bear because all the vitamin A in it could kill us. He showed us how to aim and fire his pistol, how to shoot Mom’s bow and arrows, and how to throw a knife by the blade so that it landed in the middle of a target with a satisfying thwock. By the time I was four, I was pretty good with
Dad’s pistol, a big black sixshot revolver, and could hit five out of six beer bottles at thirty paces. I’d hold the gun with both hands, sight down the barrel, and squeeze the trigger slowly and smoothly until, with a loud clap, the gun kicked and the bottle exploded. It was fun. Dad said my sharpshooting would come in handy if the feds ever surrounded us.
Mom had grown up in the desert. She loved the dry, crackling heat, the way the sky at sunset looked like a sheet of fire, and the overwhelming emptiness and severity of all that open land that had once been a huge ocean bed. Most people had trouble surviving in the desert, but Mom thrived there. She knew how to get by on next to nothing. She showed us which plants were edible and which were toxic. She was able to find water when no one else could, and she knew how little of it you really needed. She taught us that you could wash yourself up pretty clean with just a cup of water. She said it was good for you to drink unpurified water, even ditch water, as long as animals were drinking from it. Chlorinated city water was for nambypambies, she said. Water from the wild helped build up your antibodies. She also thought toothpaste was for nambypambies. At bedtime we’d shake a little baking soda into the palm of one hand, mix in a dash of hydrogen peroxide, then use our fingers to clean our teeth with the fizzing paste.
I loved the desert, too. When the sun was in the sky, the sand would be so hot that it would burn your feet if you were the kind of kid who wore shoes, but since we always went barefoot, our soles were as tough and thick as cowhide. We’d catch scorpions and snakes and horny toads. We’d search for gold, and when we couldn’t find it, we’d collect other valuable rocks, like turquoise and garnets. There’d be a cool spell come sundown, when the mosquitoes would fly in so thick that the air would grow dark with them, then at nightfall, it turned so cold that we usually needed blankets.
There were fierce sandstorms. Sometimes they hit without warning, and other times you knew one was coming when you saw batches of dust devils swirling and dancing their way across the desert. Once the wind started whipping up the sand, you could only see a foot in front of your face. If you couldn’t find a house or a car or a shed to hide in when the sandstorm started, you had to squat down and close your eyes and mouth real tight and cover your ears and bury your face in your lap until it passed, or else your body cavities would fill with sand. A big tumbleweed might hit you, but they were light and bouncy and didn’t hurt. If the sandstorm was really strong, it knocked you over, and you rolled around like you were a tumbleweed.
When the rains finally came, the skies darkened and the air became heavy. Raindrops the size of marbles came pelting out of the sky. Some parents worried that their kids might get hit by lightning, but Mom and Dad never did, and they let us go out and play in the warm, driving water. We splashed and sang and danced. Great bolts of lightning cracked from the lowhanging clouds, and thunder shook the ground. We gasped over the most spectacular bolts, as if we were all watching a fireworks show. After the storm, Dad took us to the arroyos, and we watched the flash floods come roaring through. The next day the saguaros and prickly pears were fat from drinking as much as they could, because they knew it might be a long, long time until the next rain.
We were sort of like the cactus. We ate irregularly, and when we did, we’d gorge ourselves. Once when we were living in Nevada, a train full of cantaloupes heading east jumped the track. I had never eaten a cantaloupe before, but Dad brought home crates and crates of them. We had fresh cantaloupe, stewed cantaloupe, even fried cantaloupe. One time in California, the grape pickers went on strike. The
vineyard owners let people come pick their own grapes for a nickel a pound. We drove about a hundred miles to the vineyards, where the grapes were so ripe they were about to burst on the vine in bunches bigger than my head. We filled our entire car full of green grapes—the trunk, even the glove compartment, and Dad piled stacks in our laps so high we could barely see over the top. For weeks afterward, we ate green grapes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
* * *
All this running around and moving was temporary, Dad explained. He had a plan. He was going to find gold.
Everybody said Dad was a genius. He could build or fix anything. One time when a neighbor’s TV set broke, Dad opened the back and used a macaroni noodle to insulate some crossed wires. The neighbor couldn’t get over it. He went around telling everyone in town that Dad sure knew how to use his noodle. Dad was an expert in math and physics and electricity. He read books on calculus and logarithmic algebra and loved what he called the poetry and symmetry of math. He told us about the magic qualities every number has and how numbers unlock the secrets of the universe. But Dad’s main interest was energy: thermal energy, nuclear energy, solar energy, electrical energy, and energy from the wind. He said there were so many untapped sources of energy in the world that it was ridiculous to be burning all that fossil fuel.
Dad was always inventing things, too. One of his most important inventions was a complicated contraption he called the Prospector. It was going to help us find gold. The Prospector had a big flat surface about four feet high and six feet wide, and it rose up in the air at an angle. The surface was covered with horizontal strips of wood separated by gaps. The Prospector would scoop up dirt and rocks and sift them through the maze of wooden strips. It could figure out whether a rock was gold by the weight. It would throw out the worthless stuff and deposit the gold nuggets in a pile, so whenever we needed groceries, we could go out back and grab ourselves a nugget. At least that was what it would be able to do once Dad finished building it.
Dad let Brian and me help him work on the Prospector. We’d go out behind the house, and I’d hold the nails while Dad hit them. Sometimes he let me start the nails, and then he’d drive them in with one hard blow from the hammer. The air would be filled with sawdust and the smell of freshly cut wood, and the sound of hammering and whistling, because Dad always whistled while he worked.
In my mind, Dad was perfect, although he did have what Mom called a little bit of a drinking situation. There was what Mom called Dad’s. “beer phase.” We could all handle that. Dad drove fast and sang really loud, and locks of his hair fell into his face and life was a little bit scary but still a lot of fun. But when Dad pulled out a bottle of what Mom called. “the hard stuff,” she got kind of frantic, because after working on the bottle for a while, Dad turned into an angryeyed stranger who threw around furniture and threatened to beat up Mom or anyone else who got in his way. When he’d had his fill of cussing and hollering and smashing things up, he’d collapse. But Dad drank hard liquor only when we had money, which wasn’t often, so life was mostly good in those days.
Every night when Lori, Brian, and I were about to go to sleep, Dad told us bedtime stories. They were always about him. We’d be tucked in our beds or lying under blankets in the desert, the world dark except for the orange glow from his cigarette. When he took a long draw, it lit up just enough for us to see his face.
“Tell us a story about yourself, Dad!” we’d beg him.
“Awww. You don’t want to hear another story about me,” he’d say.
“Yes, we do! We do!” we’d insist.
“Well, okay,” he’d say. He’d pause and chuckle at some memory. “There’s many a damned foolhardy thing that your old man has done, but this one was harebrained even for a crazy sonofabitch like Rex Walls.”
And then he’d tell us about how, when he was in the air force and his plane’s engine conked out, he made an emergency landing in a cattle pasture and saved himself and his crew. Or about the time he wrestled a pack of wild dogs that had surrounded a lame mustang. Then there was the time he fixed a broken sluice gate on the Hoover Dam and saved the lives of thousands of people who would have drowned if the dam had burst. There was also the time he went AWOL in the air force to get some beer, and while he was at the bar, he caught a lunatic who was planning to blow up the air base, which went to show that occasionally, it paid to break the rules.
Dad was a dramatic storyteller. He always started out slow, with lots of pauses. “Go on! What happened next?” we’d ask, even if we’d already heard that story before. Mom giggled or rolled her eyes when Dad told his stories, and he glared at her. If someone interrupted his storytelling, he got mad, and we had to beg him to continue and promise that no one would interrupt again.
Dad always fought harder, flew faster, and gambled smarter than everyone else in his stories. Along the way, he rescued women and children and even men who weren’t as strong and clever. Dad taught us the secrets of his heroics—he showed us how to straddle a wild dog and break his neck, and where to hit a man in the throat so you could kill him with one powerful jab. But he assured us that as long as he was around, we wouldn’t have to defend ourselves, because, by God, anyone who so much as laid a finger on any of Rex Walls’s children was going to get their butts kicked so hard that you could read Dad’s shoe size on their ass cheeks.
When Dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle. All of Dad’s engineering skills and mathematical genius were coming together in one special project: a great big house he was going to build for us in the desert. It would have a glass ceiling and thick glass walls and even a glass staircase. The Glass Castle would have solar cells on the top that would catch the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity for heating and cooling and running all the appliances. It would even have its own water purification system. Dad had worked out the architecture and the floor plans and most of the mathematical calculations. He carried around the blueprints for the Glass Castle wherever we went, and sometimes he’d pull them out and let us work on the design for our rooms.
All we had to do was find gold, Dad said, and we were on the verge of that. Once he finished the Prospector and we struck it rich, he’d start work on our Glass Castle.
AS MUCH AS DAD liked to tell stories about himself, it was almost impossible to get him to talk about his parents or where he was born. We knew he came from a town called Welch, in West Virginia, where a lot of coal was mined, and that his father had worked as a clerk for the railroad, sitting every day in a little station house, writing messages on pieces of paper that he held up on a stick for the passing train engineers. Dad had no interest in a life like that, so he left Welch when he was seventeen to join the air force and become a pilot.
One of his favorite stories, which he must have told us a hundred times, was about how he met and fell in love with Mom. Dad was in the air force, and Mom was in the USO, but when they met, she was on leave visiting her parents at their cattle ranch near Fish Creek Canyon.
Dad and some of his air force buddies were on a cliff of the canyon, trying to work up the nerve to dive into the lake forty feet below, when Mom and a friend drove up. Mom was wearing a white bathing suit that showed off her figure and her skin, which was dark from the Arizona sun. She had light brown hair that turned blond in the summer, and she never wore any makeup except deep red lipstick. She looked just like a movie star, Dad always said, but hell, he’d met lots of beautiful women before, and none of them had ever made him weak in the knees. Mom was different. He saw right away that she had true spirit. He fell in love with her the split second he laid eyes on her.
Mom walked up to the air force men and told them that diving off the cliff was no big deal, she’d been doing it since she was little. The men didn’t believe her, so Mom went right to the edge of the cliff and did a perfect swan dive into the water below.
Dad jumped in after her. No way in hell, he’d say, was he letting a fine broad like that get away from him.
“What kind of dive did you do, Dad?” I asked whenever he told the story.
“A parachute dive. Without a parachute,” he always answered.
Dad swam after Mom, and right there in the water, he told her he was going to marry her. Twentythree men had already proposed to her, Mom told Dad, and she had turned them all down. “What makes you think I’d accept your proposal?” she asked.
“I didn’t propose to you,” Dad said. “I told you I was going to marry you.”
Six months later, they got married. I always thought it was the most romantic story I’d ever heard, but Mom didn’t like it. She didn’t think it was romantic at all.
“I had to say yes,” Mom said. “Your father wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Besides, she explained, she had to get away from her mother, who wouldn’t let her make even the smallest decision on her own. “I had no idea your father would be even worse.”
Dad left the air force after he got married because he wanted to make a fortune for his family, and you couldn’t do that in the military. In a few months, Mom was pregnant. When Lori came out, she was mute and bald as an egg for the first three years of her life. Then suddenly, she sprouted curly hair the
color of a new penny and started speaking nonstop. But it sounded like gibberish, and everyone thought she was addled except for Mom, who understood her perfectly and said she had an excellent vocabulary.
A year after Lori was born, Mom and Dad had a second daughter, Mary Charlene, who had coalblack hair and chocolatebrown eyes, just like Dad. But Mary Charlene died one night when she was nine months old. Crib death, Mom always said. Two years later, I was born. “You were to replace Mary Charlene,” Mom said. She told me that she had ordered up a second redheaded girl so Lori wouldn’t feel like she was weird. “You were such a skinny baby,” Mom used to tell me. “The longest, boniest thing the nurses had ever seen.”
Brian arrived when I was one. He was a blue baby, Mom said. When he was born, he couldn’t breathe and came into this world having a seizure. Whenever Mom told the story, she would hold her arms rigid and clench her teeth and go bugeyed to show how Brian looked. Mom said when she saw him like that, she thought, Uhoh, looks like this one’s a goner, too. But Brian lived. For the first year of his life, he kept having those seizures, then one day they just stopped. He turned into a tough little guy who never whined or cried, even the time I accidentally pushed him off the top bunk and he broke his nose.
Mom always said people worried too much about their children. Suffering when you’re young is good for you, she said. It immunized your body and your soul, and that was why she ignored us kids when we cried. Fussing over children who cry only encourages them, she told us. That’s positive reinforcement for negative behavior.
Mom never seemed upset about Mary Charlene’s death. “God knows what He’s doing,” she said. “He gave me some perfect children, but He also gave me one that wasn’t so perfect, so He said, ‘Oops, I better take this one back.'” Dad, however, wouldn’t talk about Mary Charlene. If her name came up, his face grew stony and he’d leave the room. He was the one who found her body in the crib, and Mom couldn’t believe how much it shook him up. “When he found her, he stood there like he was in shock or something, cradling her stiff little body in his arms, and then he screamed like a wounded animal,” she told us. “I never heard such a horrible sound.”
Mom said Dad was never the same after Mary Charlene died. He started having dark moods, staying out late and coming home drunk, and losing jobs. One day soon after Brian was born, we were short on cash, so Dad pawned Mom’s big diamond wedding ring, which her mother had paid for, and that upset Mom. After that, whenever Mom and Dad got in a fight, Mom brought up the ring, and Dad told her to quit her damn bellyaching. He’d say he was going to get her a ring even fancier than the one he pawned. That was why we had to find gold. To get Mom a new wedding ring. That and so we could build the Glass Castle.
“DO YOU LIKE ALWAYS moving around?” Lori asked me.
“Of course I do!” I said. “Don’t you?”
“Sure,” she said.
It was late afternoon, and we were parked outside of a bar in the Nevada desert. It was called the Bar
None Bar. I was four and Lori was seven. We were on our way to Las Vegas. Dad had decided it would be easier, as he put it, to accumulate the capital necessary to finance the Prospector if he hit the casinos for a while. We’d been driving for hours when he saw the Bar None Bar, pulled over the Green Caboose —the Blue Goose had died, and we now had another car, a station wagon Dad had named the Green Caboose—and announced that he was going inside for a quick nip. Mom put on some red lipstick and joined him, even though she didn’t drink anything stronger than tea. They had been inside for hours. The sun hung high in the sky, and there was not the slightest hint of a breeze. Nothing moved except some buzzards on the side of the road, pecking over an unrecognizable carcass. Brian was reading a dogeared comic book.
“How many places have we lived?” I asked Lori.
“That depends on what you mean by ‘lived,'” she said. “If you spend one night in some town, did you live there? What about two nights? Or a whole week?”
I thought. “If you unpack all your things,” I said.
We counted eleven places we had lived, then we lost track. We couldn’t remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses we had lived in looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.
“What do you think would happen if we weren’t always moving around?” I asked.
“We’d get caught,” Lori said.
* * *
When Mom and Dad came out of the Bar None Bar, they brought us each a long piece of beef jerky and a candy bar. I ate the jerky first, and by the time I unwrapped my Mounds bar, it had melted into a brown, gooey mess, so I decided to save it until night, when the desert cold would harden it up again.
By then we had passed through the small town beyond the Bar None Bar. Dad was driving and smoking with one hand and holding a brown bottle of beer with the other. Lori was in the front seat between him and Mom, and Brian, who was in back with me, was trying to trade me half of his 3 Musketeers for half of my Mounds. Just then we took a sharp turn over some railroad tracks, the door flew open, and I tumbled out of the car.
I rolled several yards along the embankment, and when I came to a stop, I was too shocked to cry, with my breath knocked out and grit and pebbles in my eyes and mouth. I lifted my head in time to watch the Green Caboose get smaller and smaller and then disappear around a bend.
Blood was running down my forehead and flowing out of my nose. My knees and elbows were scraped raw and covered with sand. I was still holding the Mounds bar, but I had smashed it during the fall, tearing the wrapper and squeezing out the white coconut filling, which was also covered with grit.
Once I got my breath back, I crawled along the railroad embankment to the road and sat down to wait for Mom and Dad to come back. My whole body felt sore. The sun was small and white and broiling hot. A wind had come up, and it was roiling the dust along the roadside. I waited for what seemed like a long time before I decided it was possible Mom and Dad might not come back for me. They might not
notice I was missing. They might decide that it wasn’t worth the drive back to retrieve me; that, like Quixote the cat, I was a bother and a burden they could do without.
The little town behind me was quiet, and there were no other cars on the road. I started crying, but that only made me feel more sore. I got up and began to walk back toward the houses, and then I decided that if Mom and Dad did come for me, they wouldn’t be able to find me, so I returned to the railroad tracks and sat down again.
I was scraping the dried blood off my legs when I looked up and saw the Green Caboose come back around the bend. It hurtled up the road toward me, getting bigger and bigger, until it screeched to a halt right in front of me. Dad got out of the car, knelt down, and tried to give me a hug.
I pulled away from him. “I thought you were going to leave me behind,” I said.
“Aww, I’d never do that,” he said. “Your brother was trying to tell us that you’d fallen out, but he was blubbering so damned hard we couldn’t understand a word he was saying.”
Dad started pulling the pebbles out of my face. Some were buried deep in my skin, so he reached into the glove compartment for a pair of needlenosed pliers. When he’d plucked all the pebbles from my cheeks and forehead, he took out his handkerchief and tried to stop my nose from bleeding. It was dripping like a broken faucet. “Damn, honey,” he said. “You busted your snot locker pretty good.”
I started laughing really hard. “Snot locker” was the funniest name I’d ever heard for a nose. After Dad cleaned me up and I got back in the car, I told Brian and Lori and Mom about the word, and they all started laughing as hard as me. Snot locker. It was hilarious.
WE LIVED IN LAS VEGAS for about a month, in a motel room with dark red walls and two narrow beds. We three kids slept in one, Mom and Dad in the other. During the day, we went to the casinos, where Dad said he had a surefire system for beating the house. Brian and I played hideandseek among the clicking slot machines, checking the trays for overlooked quarters, while Dad was winning money at the blackjack table. I’d stare at the longlegged showgirls when they sashayed across the casino floor, with huge feathers on their heads and behinds, sequins sparkling on their bodies, and glitter around their eyes. When I tried to imitate their walk, Brian said I looked like an ostrich.
At the end of the day, Dad came to get us, his pockets full of money. He bought us cowboy hats and fringed vests, and we ate chickenfried steaks in restaurants with icecold airconditioning and a miniature jukebox at each table. One night when Dad had made an especially big score, he said it was time to start living like the high rollers we had become. He took us to a restaurant with swinging doors like a saloon. Inside, the walls were decorated with real prospecting tools. A man with garters on his arms played a piano, and a woman with gloves that came up past her elbows kept hurrying over to light Dad’s cigarettes.
Dad told us we were having something special for dessert—a flaming icecream cake. The waiter wheeled out a tray with the cake on it, and the woman with the gloves lit it with a taper. Everyone stopped eating to watch. The flames had a slow, watery movement, rolling up into the air like ribbons.
Everyone started clapping, and Dad jumped up and raised the waiter’s hand above his head as if he’d won first prize.
A few days later, Mom and Dad went off to the blackjack table and then almost immediately came looking for us. Dad said one of the dealers had figured out that he had a system and had put the word out on him. He told us it was time to do the skedaddle.
* * *
We had to get far away from Las Vegas, Dad said, because the Mafia, which owned the casinos, was after him. We headed west, through desert and then mountains. Mom said we should all live near the Pacific Ocean at least once in our lives, so we kept going all the way to San Francisco.
Mom didn’t want us staying in one of those touristtrap hotels near Fisherman’s Wharf, which she said were inauthentic and cut off from the real life of the city, so we found one that had a lot more character, in a place called the Tenderloin District. Sailors and women with lots of makeup stayed there, too. Dad called it a flophouse, but Mom said it was an SRO, and when I asked what that stood for, she told me the hotel was for special residents only.
While Mom and Dad went out looking for investment money for the Prospector, we kids played in the hotel. One day I found a halffull box of matches. I was thrilled, because I much preferred the wooden matches that came in boxes over the flimsy ones in the cardboard books. I took them upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. I pulled off some toilet paper, lit it, and when it started burning, I threw it down the toilet. I was torturing the fire, giving it life, and snuffing it out. Then I got a better idea. I made a pile of toilet paper in the toilet, lit it, and when it started burning, the flame shooting silently up out of the bowl, I flushed it down the toilet.
One night a few days later, I suddenly woke up. The air was hot and stifling. I smelled smoke and then saw flames leaping at the open window. At first I couldn’t tell if the fire was inside or outside, but then I saw that one of the curtains, only a few feet from the bed, was ablaze.
Mom and Dad were not in the room, and Lori and Brian were still asleep. I tried to scream to warn them, but nothing came out of my throat. I wanted to reach over and shake them awake, but I couldn’t move. The fire was growing bigger, stronger, and angrier.
Just then the door burst open. Someone was calling our names. It was Dad. Lori and Brian woke up and ran to him, coughing from the smoke. I still couldn’t move. I watched the fire, expecting that at any moment my blanket would burst into flames. Dad wrapped the blanket around me and picked me up, then ran down the stairs, leading Lori and Brian with one arm and holding me in the other.
Dad took us kids across the street to a bar, then went back to help fight the fire. A waitress with red fingernails and blueblack hair asked if we wanted a CocaCola or, heck, even a beer, because we’d been through a lot that night. Brian and Lori said yes, please, to Cokes. I asked if I might please have a Shirley Temple, which was what Dad bought me whenever he took me to a bar. For some reason, the waitress laughed.
The people at the bar kept making jokes about women running naked out of the burning hotel. All I had on was my underwear, so I kept the blanket wrapped tightly around me. After I drank my Shirley
Temple, I tried to go back across the street to watch the fire, but the waitress kept me at the bar, so I climbed up on a stool to watch through the window. The fire trucks had arrived. There were flashing lights and men in black rubber coats holding canvas hoses with big jets of water coming out of them.
I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.
* * *
After the hotel burned down, we lived for a few days on the beach. When we put down the backseat of the Green Caboose, there was room for everyone to sleep, though sometimes someone’s feet would be sticking in my face. One night a policeman tapped on our window and said we had to leave; it was illegal to sleep on the beach. He was nice and kept calling us. “folks” and even drew us a map to a place where we could sleep without getting arrested.
But after he left, Dad called him the goddamn gestapo and said that people like that got their jollies pushing people like us around. Dad was fed up with civilization. He and Mom decided we should move back to the desert and resume our hunt for gold without our starter money. “These cities will kill you,” he said.
AFTER WE PULLED UP stakes in San Francisco, we headed for the Mojave Desert. Near the Eagle Mountains, Mom made Dad stop the car. She’d seen a tree on the side of the road that had caught her fancy.
It wasn’t just any tree. It was an ancient Joshua tree. It stood in a crease of land where the desert ended and the mountain began, forming a wind tunnel. From the time the Joshua tree was a tiny sapling, it had been so beaten down by the whipping wind that, rather than trying to grow skyward, it had grown in the direction that the wind pushed it. It existed now in a permanent state of windblownness, leaning over so far that it seemed ready to topple, although, in fact, its roots held it firmly in place.
I thought the Joshua tree was ugly. It looked scraggly and freakish, permanently stuck in its twisted, tortured position, and it made me think of how some adults tell you not to make weird faces because your features could freeze. Mom, however, thought it was one of the most beautiful trees she had ever seen. She told us she had to paint it. While she was setting out her easel, Dad drove up the road to see what was ahead. He found a scattering of parched little houses, trailers settling into the sand, and shacks with rusty tin roofs. It was called Midland. One of the little houses had a forrent sign. “What the hell,” Dad said, “this place is as good as any other.”
* * *
The house we rented had been built by a mining company. It was white, with two rooms and a swaybacked roof. There were no trees, and the desert sand ran right up to the back door. At night you could hear coyotes howling.
When we first got to Midland, those coyotes kept me awake, and as I lay in bed, I’d hear other sounds—
Gila monsters rustling in the underbrush, moths knocking against the screens, and the creosote crackling in the wind. One night when the lights were out and I could see a sliver of moon through the window, I heard a slithering noise on the floor.
“I think there’s something under our bed,” I said to Lori.
“It’s merely a figment of your overly active imagination,” Lori said. She talked like a grownup when she was annoyed.
I tried to be brave, but I had heard something. In the moonlight, I thought I saw it move.
“Something’s there,” I whispered.
“Go to sleep,” Lori said.
Holding my pillow over my head for protection, I ran into the living room, where Dad was reading. “What’s up, Mountain Goat?” he asked. He called me that because I never fell down when we were climbing mountains—surefooted as a mountain goat, he’d always say.
“Nothing, probably,” I said. “I just think maybe I saw something in the bedroom.” Dad raised his eyebrows. “But it was probably just a figment of my overly active imagination.”
“Did you get a good look at it?” he asked.
“You must have seen it. Was it a big old hairy sonofabitch with the damnedestlooking teeth and claws?”
“And did it have pointed ears and evil eyes with fire in ’em, and did it stare at you all wickedlike?” he asked.
“Yes! Yes! You’ve seen it, too?”
“Better believe I have. It’s that old ornery bastard Demon.”
Dad said he had been chasing Demon for years. By now, Dad said, that old Demon had figured out that it had better not mess with Rex Walls. But if that sneaky son of a gun thought it was going to terrorize Rex Walls’s little girl, it had by God got another think coming. “Go fetch my hunting knife,” Dad said.
I got Dad his knife with the carved bone handle and the blade of blue German steel, and he gave me a pipe wrench, and we went looking for Demon. We looked under my bed, where I had seen it, but it was gone. We looked all around the house—under the table, in the dark corners of the closets, in the toolbox, even outside in the trash cans.
“C’mere, you sorryass old Demon!” Dad called out in the desert night. “Come out and show your butt ugly face, you yellowbellied monster!”
“Yeah, c’mon, you old mean Demon!” I said, waving the pipe wrench in the air. “We’re not scared of you!”
There was only the sound of the coyotes in the distance. “This is just like that chickenshit Demon,” Dad said. He sat down on the front step and lit up a cigarette, then told me a story about the time Demon was terrorizing an entire town, and Dad fought it off in handtohand combat, biting its ears and sticking his fingers in its eyes. Old Demon was terrified because that was the first time it had met anyone who wasn’t afraid of it. “Damned old Demon didn’t know what to think,” Dad said, shaking his head with a chuckle. That was the thing to remember about all monsters, Dad said: They love to frighten people, but the minute you stare them down, they turn tail and run. “All you have to do, Mountain Goat, is show old Demon that you’re not afraid.”
* * *
Not much grew around Midland other than the Joshua tree, cacti, and the scrubby little creosote bushes that Dad said were some of the oldest plants on the planet. The great granddaddy creosote bushes were thousands of years old. When it rained, they let off a disgusting musty smell so animals wouldn’t eat them. Only four inches of rain fell a year around Midland—about the same as in the northern Sahara— and water for humans came in on the train once a day in special containers. The only animals that could survive around Midland were lipless, scaly creatures such as Gila monsters and scorpions, and people like us.
A month after we moved to Midland, Juju got bitten by a rattlesnake and died. We buried him near the Joshua tree. It was practically the only time I ever saw Brian cry. But we had plenty of cats to keep us company. Too many, in fact. We had rescued lots of cats since we tossed Quixote out the window, and most of them had gone and had kittens, and it got to the point where we had to get rid of some of them. We didn’t have many neighbors to give them to, so Dad put them in a burlap sack and drove to a pond made by the mining company to cool equipment. I watched him load the back of the car with bobbing, mewing bags.
“It doesn’t seem right,” I told Mom. “We rescued them. Now we’re going to kill them.”
“We gave them a little extra time on the planet,” Mom said. “They should be grateful for that.”
* * *
Dad finally got a job in the gypsum mine, digging out the white rocks that were ground into the powder used in drywall and plaster of paris. When he came home, he’d be covered with white gypsum powder, and sometimes we’d play ghost and he’d chase us. He also brought back sacks of gypsum, and Mom mixed it with water to make Venus de Milo sculptures from a rubber cast she ordered through the mail. It grieved Mom that the mine was destroying so much white rock—she said it was real marble and deserved a better fate and that, by making her sculptures, she was at least immortalizing some of it.
Mom was pregnant. Everyone hoped it would be a boy so Brian would have someone to play with other than me. When it got time for Mom to give birth, Dad’s plan was for us to move to Blythe, twenty miles
south, which was such a big town it had two movie theaters and two state prisons.
In the meantime, Mom devoted herself to her art. She spent all day working on oil paintings, watercolors, charcoal drawings, penandink sketches, clay and wire sculptures, silk screens, and wood blocks. She didn’t have any particular style; some of her paintings were what she called primitive, some were impressionistic and abstract, some were realistic. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” she liked to say. Mom was also a writer and was always typing away on novels, short stories, plays, poetry, fables, and children’s books, which she illustrated herself. Mom’s writing was very creative. So was her spelling. She needed a proofreader, and when Lori was just seven years old, she would go over Mom’s manuscripts, checking for errors.
While we were in Midland, Mom painted dozens of variations and studies of the Joshua tree. We’d go with her and she’d give us art lessons. One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.
Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”
I NEVER BELIEVED IN Santa Claus.
None of us kids did. Mom and Dad refused to let us. They couldn’t afford expensive presents, and they didn’t want us to think we weren’t as good as other kids who, on Christmas morning, found all sorts of fancy toys under the tree that were supposedly left by Santa Claus. So they told us all about how other kids were deceived by their parents, how the toys the grownups claimed were made by little elves wearing bell caps in their workshop at the North Pole actually had labels on them saying MADE IN JAPAN.
“Try not to look down on those other children,” Mom said. “It’s not their fault that they’ve been brainwashed into believing silly myths.”
We celebrated Christmas, but usually about a week after December 25, when you could find perfectly good bows and wrapping paper that people had thrown away and Christmas trees discarded on the roadside that still had most of their needles and even some silver tinsel hanging on them. Mom and Dad would give us a bag of marbles or a doll or a slingshot that had been marked way down in an after Christmas sale.
Dad lost his job at the gypsum mine after getting in an argument with the foreman, and when Christmas came that year, we had no money at all. On Christmas Eve, Dad took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one. I had a blanket wrapped around me, and when it was my turn, I offered to share it with Dad, but he said no thanks. The cold never bothered him. I was five that year and I sat next to Dad and we looked up at the sky. Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but
their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars. We’d have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.
“Pick out your favorite star,” Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.
“You can’t give me a star!” I said. “No one owns the stars.”
“That’s right,” Dad said. “No one else owns them. You just have to claim it before anyone else does, like that dago fellow Columbus claimed America for Queen Isabella. Claiming a star as your own has every bit as much logic to it.”
I thought about it and realized Dad was right. He was always figuring out things like that.
I could have any star I wanted, Dad said, except Betelgeuse and Rigel, because Lori and Brian had already laid claim to them.
I looked up to the stars and tried to figure out which was the best one. You could see hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, twinkling in the clear desert sky. The longer you looked and the more your eyes adjusted to the dark, the more stars you’d see, layer after layer of them gradually becoming visible. There was one in particular, in the west above the mountains but low in the sky, that shone more brightly than all the rest.
“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 lightyears 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 extrafast 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.”
AT 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. KnowItAll SmartyPants 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. “blanketyblank” and. “worthless drunk soandso.” 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 onestory cinderblock building on the outskirts of town. It had a big blueand 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 pansyassed 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 handmedown 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 chainlink fence he had discovered that morning and ran into the iceberglettuce 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 halfeaten 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 Uturn, 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 oneway 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 UHaul truck. Mom explained that since only she and Dad could fit in the front of the UHaul, 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 UHaul started up and lurched forward. Maureen let loose with a loud, highpitched 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. Then
we just put our hands over our ears.
After a while, it got cold and uncomfortable in the back of the dark UHaul. 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 UHaul 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 UHaul’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 UHaul 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 UHaul. 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 UHaul slowed to a stop and Dad came running back with a flashlight.
“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 doublechecking them. The engine restarted, and we continued on our way.
BATTLE MOUNTAIN 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 tableflat desert.
The main street was wide—with sunbleached cars and pickups parked at an angle to the curb—but only a few blocks long, flanked on both sides with low, flatroofed 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 storebought 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, chordbanging 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 twentyfive!” 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. “Oopsiedaisy,” 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 outofdoors,” she said. “And now the whole neighborhood can enjoy the music, too.”
DAD 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 steelyeyed 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 armysurplus 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 militarystyle, with Dad calling out orders in a singsong chant—hup, two, three, four—and then we’d stop and do pushups or Dad would hold out his arm so we could do pullups 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 oildrilling 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 sunparched 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 pisspoor 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 sorryass 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, twentypound 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 castiron 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.
MOM AND DAD 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 secondgrade class was filled with the children of miners and gamblers, scabbykneed 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 redlightgreenlight, 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 backtalked 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. Brian 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 goodquality 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.
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 scumtopped 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. “Youall got a little too close to it today.”
NONE 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 doubledared 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 halfeaten 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. Grownup 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.
OUR HOUSE IN BATTLE MOUNTAIN 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 angrylooking 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 selfsufficiency in all living creatures.
Mom also 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 NoPest Strip. She said it could be bought at the filling station and that her family had one in every room. The NoPest 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 NoPest 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 soupedup 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.
“BAD 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 bread, 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 deviledham 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 halfgone 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.”
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 cyanideleaching 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 grownups 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.
THE 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 drugdealer husband was serving time in the 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 multiplechoice, truefalse, and fillintheblank 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 grownups 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.
ONCE MOM 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 goldleaching research.
“The only research you’re doing is on the liver’s capacity to absorb alcohol,” Mom said. Still, she found it hard to straightout 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 tendollar 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 halfgallon 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.
* * *
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.
“Yoohoo! 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 grownup, 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.”
SOME 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 yellowandred sign way up on a pole at the Shell station—the one with the burnedout 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 whiteblond 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 halfIndian 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 Tshirt 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 halfeaten 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 highandmighty 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 ovalshaped 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 hideandseek 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.”
“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 fivecard 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!”
“If it is,” he said. “she ain’t got the cojones to use it.”
“Try me,” Lori told him.
“Go on, then,” Billy said. “Shoot me and see what happens.”
Lori wasn’t as good a shot as me, but she pointed the gun in Billy’s general direction and pulled the trigger. I squeezed my eyes shut at the explosion, and when I opened them, Billy had disappeared.
We all ran outside, wondering if Billy’s bloodsoaked body would be lying on the ground, but he had ducked under the window. When he saw us, he hightailed it down the street along the tracks. He got about fifty yards away and started shooting at us again with his BB gun. I yanked the pistol out of Lori’s hand, aimed low, and pulled the trigger. I was too carried away to hold the gun the way Dad had taught me, and the recoil nearly pulled my shoulder out of its socket. The dirt kicked up a few feet in front of Billy. He jumped what seemed about three feet up in the air and broke into a dead run down the tracks.
We all started laughing, but it seemed funny only for a second or two, and then we stood there looking at one another in silence. I realized my hand was shaking so bad I could hardly hold the gun.
* * *
A little while later, a squad car pulled up outside the depot, and Mom and Dad got out. Their faces were grave. An officer got out also and walked alongside them to the door. We kids were all sitting inside on the benches wearing polite, respectful expressions. The officer looked at each of us individually, as if counting us. I clasped my hands in my lap to show I was well behaved.
Dad squatted in front of us, one knee to the floor, his arms folded across the other knee, cowboystyle. “So what happened here?” he asked.
“It was selfdefense,” I piped up. Dad had always said that selfdefense was a justifiable reason for
“I see,” Dad said.
The policeman told us that some of the neighbors had reported seeing kids shooting guns at each other, and he wanted to know what had happened. We tried to explain that Billy had started it, that we’d been provoked and were defending ourselves and didn’t even aim to kill, but the cop wasn’t interested in the nuances of the situation. He told Dad that the whole family would need to come down to the courthouse the next morning and see the magistrate. Billy Deel and his dad would be there, too. The magistrate would get to the bottom of the matter and decide what measures needed to be taken.
“Are we going to be sent away?” Brian asked the officer.
“That’s up to the magistrate,” he said.
That night Mom and Dad spent a long time upstairs talking in low voices while we kids lay in our boxes. Finally, late in the evening, they came down, their faces still grave.
“We’re going to Phoenix,” Dad said.
“When?” I asked.
* * *
Dad allowed each of us to bring only one thing. I ran outside with a paper bag to gather up my favorite rocks. When I returned, holding the heavy bag at the bottom so it wouldn’t split, Dad and Brian were arguing over the plastic jacko’lantern filled with green plastic army soldiers that Brian wanted to bring.
“You’re bringing toys?” Dad asked.
“You said I could take one thing, and this is my thing,” Brian said.
“This is my one thing,” I said, holding up the bag. Lori, who was bringing The Wizard of Oz, objected, saying that a rock collection wasn’t one thing but several things. It would be like her bringing her entire book collection. I pointed out that Brian’s army soldiers were a collection. “And anyway, it’s not the entire rock collection. Just the best ones.”
Dad, who usually liked debates on questions such as whether a bag of things is one thing, was not in the mood and told me the rocks were too heavy. “You can bring one,” he said.
“There are plenty of rocks in Phoenix,” Mom added.
I picked out a single geode, its insides coated with tiny white crystals, and held it in both hands. As we pulled out, I looked through the rear window for one last glimpse of the depot. Dad had left the upstairs light on, and the small window glowed. I thought of all those other families of miners and prospectors
who had come to Battle Mountain hoping to find gold and who had to leave town like us when their luck ran out. Dad said he didn’t believe in luck, but I did. We’d had a streak of it in Battle Mountain, and I wished it had held.
We passed the Green Lantern, with the Christmas lights twinkling over its door, and the Owl Club, with the winking neon owl in a chef’s hat, and then we were out in the desert, the lights of Battle Mountain disappearing behind us. In the pitchblack night, there was nothing to look at but the road ahead, lit by the car’s headlights.
GRANDMA SMITH’S BIG white house had green shutters and was surrounded by eucalyptus trees. Inside were tall French doors and Persian carpets and a huge grand piano that would practically dance when Grandma played her honkytonk music. Whenever we stayed with Grandma Smith, she brought me into her bedroom and sat me down at the vanity table, which was covered with little pastelcolored bottles of perfumes and powders. While I opened the bottles and sniffed them, she’d try to run her long metal comb through my hair, cursing out of the corner of her mouth because it was so tangled. “Doesn’t that goddamn lazyass mother of yours ever comb your hair?” she once said. I explained that Mom believed children should be responsible for their own grooming. Grandma told me my hair was too long anyway. She put a bowl on my head, cut off all the hair beneath it, and told me I looked like a flapper.
That was what Grandma used to be. But after she had her two children, Mom and our uncle Jim, she became a teacher because she didn’t trust anyone else to educate them. She taught in a oneroom schoolhouse in a town called Yampi. Mom hated being the teacher’s daughter. She also hated the way her mother constantly corrected her both at home and at school. Grandma Smith had strong opinions about the way things ought to be done—how to dress, how to talk, how to organize your time, how to cook and keep house, how to manage your finances—and she and Mom fought each other from the beginning. Mom felt that Grandma Smith nagged and badgered, setting rules and punishments for breaking the rules. It drove Mom crazy, and it was the reason she never set rules for us.
But I loved Grandma Smith. She was a tall, leathery, broadshouldered woman with green eyes and a strong jaw. She told me I was her favorite grandchild and that I was going to grow up to be something special. I even liked all of her rules. I liked how she woke us up every morning at dawn, shouting, “Rise and shine, everybody!” and insisted we wash our hands and comb our hair before eating breakfast. She made us hot Cream of Wheat with real butter, then oversaw us while we cleared the table and washed the dishes. Afterward, she took us all to buy new clothes, and we’d go to a movie like Mary Poppins.
Now, on the way to Phoenix, I stood up in the back of the car and leaned over the front seat between Mom and Dad. “Are we going to go stay with Grandma?” I asked.
“No,” Mom said. She looked out the window, but not at anything in particular. Then she said. “Grandma’s dead.”
“What?” I asked. I’d heard her, but I was so thrown I felt like I hadn’t.
Mom repeated herself, still looking out the window. I glanced back at Lori and Brian, but they were sleeping. Dad was smoking, his eyes on the road. I couldn’t believe I’d been sitting there thinking of
Grandma Smith, looking forward to eating Cream of Wheat and having her comb my hair and cuss, and all along she’d been dead. I started hitting Mom on the shoulder, hard, and asking why she hadn’t told us. Finally, Dad held down my fists with his free hand, the other holding both his cigarette and the steering wheel, and said. “That’s enough, Mountain Goat.”
Mom seemed surprised that I was so upset.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked.
“There didn’t seem any point,” she said.
“What happened?” Grandma had been only in her sixties, and most people in her family lived until they were about a hundred.
The doctors said she’d died from leukemia, but Mom thought it was radioactive poisoning. The government was always testing nuclear bombs in the desert near the ranch, Mom said. She and Jim used to go out with a Geiger counter and find rocks that ticked. They stored them in the basement and used some to make jewelry for Grandma.
“There’s no reason to grieve,” Mom said. “We’ve all got to go someday, and Grandma had a life that was longer and fuller than most.” She paused. “And now we have a place to live.”
Mom explained that Grandma Smith had owned two houses, the one she lived in with the green shutters and French doors, and an older house, made of adobe, in downtown Phoenix. Since Mom was the older of the two children, Grandma Smith had asked her which house she wanted to inherit. The house with the green shutters was more valuable, but Mom had chosen the adobe house. It was near Phoenix’s business district, which made it a perfect place for Mom to start an art studio. She’d also inherited some money, so she could give up teaching and buy all the art supplies she wanted.
She’d been thinking we should move to Phoenix ever since Grandma died a few months back, but Dad had refused to leave Battle Mountain because he was so close to a breakthrough in his cyanideleaching process.
“And I was,” Dad said.
Mom gave a snort of a laugh. “So the trouble you kids got into with Billy Deel was actually a blessing in disguise,” she said. “My art career is going to flourish in Phoenix. I can just feel it.” She turned around to look at me. “We’re off on another adventure, Jeannettiekins. Isn’t this wonderful?” Mom’s eyes were bright. “I’m such an excitement addict!”
WHEN WE PULLED UP in front of the house on North Third Street, I could not believe we were actually going to live there. It was a mansion, practically, so big that Grandma Smith had had two families living in it, both paying her rent. We had the entire place to ourselves. Mom said that it had been built almost a hundred years ago as a fort. The outside walls, covered with white stucco, were three feet thick. “These sure would stop any Indians’ arrows,” I said to Brian.
We kids ran through the house and counted fourteen rooms, including the kitchens and bathrooms. They were filled with the things Mom had inherited from Grandma Smith: a dark Spanish dining table with eight matching chairs, a handcarved upright piano, sideboards with antique silver serving sets, and glassfronted cabinets filled with Grandma’s bone china, which Mom demonstrated was the finest quality by holding a plate up to the light and showing us the clear silhouette of her hand through it.
The front yard had a palm tree, and the backyard had orange trees that grew real oranges. We’d never lived in a house with trees. I particularly loved the palm tree, which made me think I had arrived at some kind of oasis. There were also hollyhocks and oleander bushes with pink and white flowers. Behind the yard was a shed as big as some of the houses we had lived in, and next to the shed was a parking space big enough for two cars. We were definitely moving up in the world.
* * *
The people living on North Third Street were mostly Mexicans and Indians who had moved into the neighborhood after the whites left for the suburbs and subdivided the big old houses into apartments. There seemed to be a couple of dozen people in each house, men drinking beers from paper bags, young mothers nursing babies, old ladies sunning themselves on the sagging, weathered porches, and hordes of kids.
All the kids around North Third Street went to the Catholic school at St. Mary’s Church, about five blocks away. Mom, however, said nuns were killjoys who took the fun out of religion. She wanted us to go to a public school called Emerson. Although we lived outside the district, Mom begged and cajoled the principal until he allowed us to enroll.
We were not on the bus route, and it was a bit of a hike to school, but none of us minded the walk. Emerson was in a fancy neighborhood with streets canopied by eucalyptus trees, and the school building looked like a Spanish hacienda, with a red terracotta roof. It was surrounded by palm trees and banana trees, and, when the bananas ripened, the students all got free bananas at lunch. The playground at Emerson was covered with lush green grass watered by a sprinkler system, and it had more equipment than I’d ever seen: seesaws, swings, a merrygoround, a jungle gym, tether balls, and a running track.
Miss Shaw, the teacher in the thirdgrade class I was assigned to, had steely gray hair and pointy rimmed glasses and a stern mouth. When I told her I’d read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, she raised her eyebrows skeptically, but after I read aloud from one of them, she moved me into a reading group for gifted children.
Lori’s and Brian’s teachers also put them in gifted reading groups. Brian hated it, because the other kids were older and he was the littlest guy in the class, but Lori and I were secretly thrilled to be called special. Instead of letting on that we felt that way, however, we made light of it. When we told Mom and Dad about our reading groups, we paused before the word. “gifted,” clasping our hands beneath our chins, fluttering our eyelids, and pretending to look angelic.
“Don’t make a mockery of it,” Dad said. “‘Course you’re special. Haven’t I always told you that?”
Brian gave Dad a sideways look. “If we’re so special,” he said slowly, “why don’t you…” His words
“What?” Dad asked. “What?”
Brian shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.
* * *
Emerson had its very own nurse who gave the three of us ear and eye exams, our first ever. I aced the tests. “Eagle eyes and elephant ears,” the nurse said—but Lori struggled trying to read the eye chart. The nurse declared her severely shortsighted and sent Mom a note saying she needed glasses.
“Nosiree,” Mom said. She didn’t approve of glasses. If you had weak eyes, Mom believed, they needed exercise to get strong. The way she saw it, glasses were like crutches. They prevented people with feeble eyes from learning to see the world on their own. She said people had been trying to get her to wear glasses for years, and she had refused. But the nurse sent another note saying Lori couldn’t attend Emerson unless she wore glasses, and the school would pay for them, so Mom gave in.
When the glasses were ready, we all went down to the optometrist. The lenses were so thick they made Lori’s eyes look big and bugged out, like fish eyes. She kept swiveling her head around and up and down.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. Instead of answering, Lori ran outside. I followed her. She was standing in the parking lot, gazing in awe at the trees, the houses, and the office buildings behind them.
“You see that tree over there?” she said, pointing at a sycamore about a hundred feet away. I nodded.
“I can not only see that tree, I can see the individual leaves on it.” She looked at me triumphantly. “Can you see them?”
She didn’t seem to believe me. “The individual leaves? I mean, not just the branches but each little leaf?”
I nodded. Lori looked at me and then burst into tears.
On the way home, she kept seeing for the first time all these things that most everyone else had stopped noticing because they’d seen them every day. She read street signs and billboards aloud. She pointed out starlings perched on the telephone wires. We went into a bank and she stared up at the vaulted ceiling and described the octagonal patterns.
At home, Lori insisted that I try on her glasses. They would blur my vision as much as they corrected hers, she said, so I’d be able to see things as she always had. I put on the glasses, and the world dissolved into fuzzy, blotchy shapes. I took a few steps and banged my shin on the coffee table, and then I realized why Lori didn’t like to go exploring as much as Brian and I did. She couldn’t see.
Lori wanted Mom to try on the glasses, too. Mom slipped them on and, blinking, looked around the
room. She studied one of her own paintings quietly, then handed the glasses back to Lori.
“Did you see better?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t say better,” Mom answered. “I’d say different.”
“Maybe you should get a pair, Mom.”
“I like the world just fine the way I see it,” she said.
But Lori loved seeing the world clearly. She started compulsively drawing and painting all the wondrous things she was discovering, like the way each curved tile on Emerson’s roof cast its own curved shadow on the tile below, and the way the setting sun painted the underbellies of the clouds pink but left the piledup tops purple.
Not long after Lori got her glasses, she decided she wanted to be an artist, like Mom.
* * *
As soon as we’d settled into the house, Mom threw herself into her art career. She erected a big white sign in the front yard on which she had carefully painted, in black letters with gold outlines, R. M. WALLS ART STUDIO. She turned the two front rooms of the house into a studio and gallery, and she used two bedrooms in the back to warehouse her collected works. An art supplies store was three blocks away, on North First Street, and thanks to Mom’s inheritance, we were able to make regular shopping expeditions to the store, bringing home rolls of canvas that Dad stretched and stapled onto wooden frames. We also brought back oil paints, watercolors, acrylics, gesso, a silkscreening frame, india ink, paintbrushes and pen nibs, charcoal pencils, pastels, fancy rag paper for pastel drawings, and even a wooden mannequin with movable joints whom we named Edward and who, Mom said, would pose for her when we kids were off at school.
Mom decided that before she could get down to any serious painting, she needed to compile a thorough art reference library. She bought dozens of big looseleaf binders and lots of packs of lined paper. Every subject was given its own binder: dogs, cats, horses, farm animals, woodland animals, flowers, fruits and vegetables, rural landscapes, urban landscapes, men’s faces, women’s faces, men’s bodies, women’s bodies, and handsfeetbottomsandothermiscellaneous body parts. We spent hours and hours going through old magazines, looking for interesting pictures, and when we spotted one we thought might be a worthy subject of a painting, we held it up to Mom for approval. She studied it for a second and okayed or nixed it. If the photo made the grade, we cut it out, glued it on a piece of lined paper, and reinforced the holes in the paper with adhesive Os so the page wouldn’t tear out. Then we got out the appropriate threeringed binder, added the new photograph, and snapped the rings shut. In exchange for our help on her reference library, Mom gave us all art lessons.
Mom was also hard at work on her writing. She bought several typewriters—manuals and electrics—so she’d have backups should her favorite break down. She kept them in her studio. She never sold anything she wrote, but from time to time she received an encouraging rejection letter, and she thumbtacked those to the wall. When we kids came home from school, she’d usually be in her studio working. If it was quiet, she was painting or contemplating potential subjects. If the typewriter keys were clattering away, she was at work on one of her novels, poems, plays, short stories, or her illustrated
collection of pithy sayings—one was. “Life is a bowl of cherries, with a few nuts thrown in”—which she’d titled. “R. M. Walls’s Philosophy of Life.”
* * *
Dad joined the local electricians’ union. Phoenix was booming, and he landed a job pretty quickly. He left the house in the morning wearing a yellow hard hat and big steeltoed boots, which I thought made him look extra handsome. Because of the union, he was making steadier money than we’d ever seen. On his first payday, he came home and called us all into the living room. We kids had left our toys out in the yard, he declared.
“No, sir, we didn’t,” I said.
“I think you did,” he said. “Go out and take a look.”
We ran to the front door. Outside in the yard, parked in a row, were three brandnew bicycles—a big red one and two smaller ones, a blue boy’s bike and a purple girl’s bike.
I thought at first that some other kids must have left them there. When Lori pointed out that Dad had obviously bought them for us, I didn’t believe her. We had never had bicycles—we had learned to ride on other kids’ bikes—and it had never occurred to me that one day I might actually own one myself. Especially a new one.
I turned around. Dad was standing in the doorway with his arms crossed and a sly grin on his face. “Those bikes aren’t for us, are they?” I asked.
“Well, they’re too damn small for your mother and me,” he said.
Lori and Brian had climbed on their bikes and were riding up and down the sidewalk. I stared at mine. It was shiny purple and had a white banana seat, wire baskets on the side, chrome handlebars that swept out like steer horns, and white plastic handles with purpleandsilver tassels. Dad knelt beside me. “Like it?” he asked.
“You know, Mountain Goat, I still feel bad about making you leave your rock collection back in Battle Mountain,” he said. “But we had to travel light.”
“I know,” I said. “It was more than one thing, anyway.”
“I’m not so sure,” Dad said. “Every damn thing in the universe can be broken down into smaller things, even atoms, even protons, so theoretically speaking, I guess you had a winning case. A collection of things should be considered one thing. Unfortunately, theory don’t always carry the day.”
We rode our bicycles everywhere. Sometimes we attached playing cards to the forks with clothespins, and they flapped against the spokes when the wheels turned. Now that Lori could see, she was the navigator. She got a city map from a gas station and plotted out our routes in advance. We pedaled past the Westward Ho Hotel, down Central Avenue where squarefaced Indian women sold beaded
necklaces and moccasins on rainbowcolored serapes they’d spread on the sidewalk. We pedaled to Woolworth’s, which was bigger than all the stores in Battle Mountain put together, and played tag in the aisles until the manager chased us out. We got Grandma Smith’s old wooden tennis rackets and pedaled off to Phoenix University, where we tried to play tennis with the dead balls other people had left behind. We pedaled to the Civic Center, which had a library where the librarians recognized us because we went there so much. They helped us find books they thought we’d like, and we filled up the wire baskets on our bicycles and pedaled home right down the middle of the sidewalks, as if we owned the place.
* * *
Since Mom and Dad had all this money, we got our own telephone. We had never owned a telephone before, and whenever it rang, we kids all scrambled for it. Whoever got there first summoned up a supersnooty English accent: “Walls residence, the butler speaking, may I help you?” while the rest of us cracked up.
We also had a big record player in a wooden cabinet that had been Grandma’s. You could put a stack of records on it, and when one was finished playing, the needle arm automatically swung out and the next record dropped down with a happy slap. Mom and Dad loved music, especially rousing stuff that made you want to get up and dance, or at least sway your head or tap your foot. Mom was always going to thrift stores and coming back with old albums of polka music, Negro spirituals, German marching bands, Italian operas, and cattle roundup songs. She also bought boxes of used high heels that she called her dancing shoes. She’d slip on a pair of dancing shoes, put a stack of records on the phonograph, and crank the volume way up. Dad danced with her if he was there; otherwise she’d dance alone, waltzing or jitterbugging or doing the Texas twostep from room to room, the house filled with the sounds of Mario Lanza, or oompahing tubas, or some mournful cowboy singing. “The Streets of Laredo.”
Mom and Dad also bought an electric washing machine that we kept out on the patio. It was a white enamel tub up on legs, and we filled it with water from the garden hose. A big agitator twisted back and forth, making the entire machine dance around on the cement patio. It had no cycles, so you waited until the water got dirty, then put the clothes through the wringer—two rubber rolling pins rigged above the tub that were turned by a motor. To rinse the clothes, you’d repeat the process without soap, then let the water drain into the yard to help the grass grow.
Despite our wondrous appliances, life in Phoenix wasn’t total luxury. We had about a gazillion cockroaches, big, strong things with shiny wings. We had just a few at first, but since Mom was not exactly a compulsive cleaner, they multiplied. After a while, entire armies were scuttling across the walls and the floors and the kitchen counters. In Battle Mountain, we’d had lizards to eat the flies and cats to eat the lizards. We couldn’t think of any animal that liked to eat roaches, so I suggested we buy roach spray, like all our neighbors did, but Mom was opposed to chemical warfare. It was like with those Shell NoPest strips, she said; we’d end up poisoning ourselves, too.
Mom decided handtohand combat was the best tactic. We conducted roach massacres in the kitchen at night, because that was when they came out in force. We armed ourselves with rolledup magazines or shoes—even though I was only nine, I already wore sizeten shoes that Brian called. “roach killers”— and sneaked into the kitchen. Mom threw the light switch, and we kids all started the assault. You didn’t even have to aim. We had so many roaches that if you hit any flat surface, you were sure to take out at
least a few.
The house also had termites. We discovered this a few months after we moved in, when Lori’s foot crashed through the spongy wood floor in the living room. After inspecting the house, Dad decided that the termite infestation was so severe nothing could be done about it. We’d have to coexist with the critters. So we walked around the hole in the living room floor.
But the wood was chewed through everywhere. We kept stepping on soft spots in the floorboards, crashing through, and creating new holes. “Damned if this floor isn’t starting to look like a piece of Swiss cheese,” Dad said one day. He told me to fetch him his wire cutters, a hammer, and some roofing nails. He finished off the beer he was drinking, snipped the can open with his wire cutters, hammered it flat, and nailed it over the hole. He needed more patches, he said, so he had to go out and buy another sixpack. After he polished off each beer, he used the can to repair one of the holes. And whenever a new hole appeared, he’d get out his hammer, down a beer, and do another patch job.
A lOT OF OUR NEIGHBORS on North Third Street were kind of weird. A clan of Gypsies lived down the block in a big, fallingapart house with plywood nailed over the porch to create more indoor space. They were always stealing our stuff, and one time, after Brian’s pogo stick had disappeared, he saw one of the old Gypsy women bouncing down the sidewalk on it. She wouldn’t give it back, so Mom got into a big argument with the head of the clan, and the next day we found a chicken with its throat cut on our doorstep. It was some kind of Gypsy hex. Mom decided, as she put it, to fight magic with magic. She took a ham bone out of the beans and went down to the Gypsies’ house, waving it in the air. Standing on the sidewalk, she held up the bone like a crucifix at an exorcism, and called down a curse on the entire Gypsy clan and their house, vowing that it would collapse with the lot of them in it and that the bowels of the earth would open up and swallow them forever if they bothered us again. The next morning Brian’s pogo stick was lying in the front yard.
The neighborhood also had its share of perverts. Mostly, they were shabby, hunched men with wheedling voices who hung around on street corners and followed us to and from school, trying to give us boosts when we climbed a fence, offering us candy and loose change if we would go play with them. We called them creeps and hollered at them to leave us alone, but I worried about hurting their feelings because I couldn’t help wondering if maybe they were telling the truth, that all they wanted was to be our friends.
At night Mom and Dad always left the front door and the back door and all the windows open. Since we had no airconditioning, they explained, we needed to let the air circulate. From time to time, a vagrant or a wino would wander through the front door, assuming the house was deserted. When we woke up in the morning, we’d find one asleep in a front room. As soon as we roused them, they shambled off apologetically. Mom always assured us they were just harmless drunks.
Maureen, who was four and had a terrible fear of bogeymen, kept dreaming that intruders in Halloween masks were coming through the open doors to get us. One night when I was almost ten, I was awakened by someone running his hands over my private parts. At first it was confusing. Lori and I slept in the same bed, and I thought maybe she was moving in her sleep. I groggily pushed the hand away.
“I just want to play a game with you,” a man’s voice said.
I recognized the voice. It belonged to a scraggly guy with sunken cheeks who had been hanging around North Third Street recently. He’d tried to walk us home from school and had given Brian a magazine called Kids on a Farm, with pictures of boys and girls wearing only underpants.
“Pervert!” I yelled and kicked at the man’s hand. Brian came running into the room with a hatchet he kept by his bed, and the man bolted out the door. Dad was out that night, and when Mom slept, she was dead to the world, so Brian and I ran after the man ourselves. As we got to the sidewalk, lit by the purplish glow from the streetlights, he disappeared around the corner. We searched for him for a few blocks, Brian whacking at the bushes with his hatchet, but we couldn’t find him. On our way home, we were slapping each other’s hands and pumping our fists in the air, as if we’d won a boxing match. We decided we had been Pervert Hunting, which was just like Demon Hunting except the enemy was real and dangerous instead of being the product of a kid’s overactive imagination.
The next day, when Dad came home and we told him what had happened, he said he was going to kill that lowlife sonofabitch. He and Brian and I went out on a serious Pervert Hunt. Our blood up, we searched the streets for hours, but we never did find the guy. I asked Mom and Dad if we should close the doors and windows when we went to sleep. They wouldn’t consider it. We needed the fresh air, they said, and it was essential that we refuse to surrender to fear.
So the windows stayed open. Maureen kept having nightmares of men in Halloween masks. And every now and then, when Brian and I were feeling revved up, he’d get a machete and I’d get a baseball bat and we’d go Pervert Hunting, clearing the streets of the creeps who preyed on kids.
* * *
Mom and Dad liked to make a big point about never surrendering to fear or to prejudice or to the narrowminded conformist sticksinthemud who tried to tell everyone else what was proper. We were supposed to ignore those benighted sheep, as Dad called them. One day Mom went with us kids to the library at the Civic Center. Since the weather was sweltering, she suggested we cool off by jumping into the fountain in front of the building. The water was too shallow to swim in, but we paddled around pretending to be crocodiles until we attracted a small crowd of people who kept insisting to Mom that swimming was forbidden in the fountain.
“Mind your own beeswax,” Mom replied. I was feeling kind of embarrassed and started to climb out. “Ignore the fuddyduddies!” Mom told me, and to make it clear she paid no nevermind to such people or their opinions, she clambered into the fountain and plopped down beside us, sending gallons of water sloshing over the sides.
It never bothered Mom if people turned and stared at her, even in church. Although she thought nuns were killjoys and she didn’t follow all the Church’s rules word for word—she treated the Ten Commandments more like the Ten Suggestions—Mom considered herself a devout Catholic and took us to mass most Sundays. St. Mary’s was the biggest, most beautiful church I had ever seen. It was made of sandcolored adobe and had two soaring steeples, a gigantic circular stainedglass window, and, leading up to the two main doors, a pair of sweeping staircases covered with pigeons. The other mothers dressed up for mass, wearing black lace mantillas on their heads and clutching green or red or yellow handbags that matched their shoes. Mom thought it was superficial to worry about how you
looked. She said God thought the same way, so she’d go to church in torn or paintsplattered clothes. It was your inner spirit and not your outward appearance that mattered, she said, and come hymn time, she showed the whole congregation her spirit, belting out the words in such a powerful voice that people in the pews in front of us would turn around and stare.
Church was particularly excruciating when Dad came along. Dad had been raised Baptist, but he didn’t like religion and didn’t believe in God. He believed in science and reason, he said, not superstition and voodoo. But Mom had refused to have children unless Dad agreed to raise them as Catholics and to attend church himself on holy days of obligation.
Dad sat in the pew fuming and shifting around and trying to bite his tongue while the priest carried on about Jesus resurrecting Lazarus from the dead and the communicants filed up to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. Finally, when Dad was unable to stand it any longer, he’d shout out something to challenge the priest. He didn’t do it to be hostile. He hollered out his point in a friendly tone: “Yo, Padre!” he’d say. The priest usually ignored Dad and tried to go on with his sermon, but Dad persisted. He’d challenge the priest about the scientific impossibility of the miracles, and when the priest continued to ignore him, he’d get mad and yell out something about Pope Alexander VI’s bastard children, or Pope Leo X’s hedonism, or Pope Nicholas III’s simony, or the murders committed in the name of the Church during the Spanish Inquisition. But what could you expect, he’d say, from an institution run by celibate men who wore dresses. At that point the ushers would tell us we’d have to leave.
“Don’t worry, God understands,” Mom said. “He knows that your father is a cross we must bear.”
CITY LIFE WAS GETTING to Dad. “I’m starting to feel like a rat in a maze,” he told me. He hated the way everything in Phoenix was so organized, with time cards, bank accounts, telephone bills, parking meters, tax forms, alarm clocks, PTA meetings, and pollsters knocking on the door and prying into your affairs. He hated all the people who lived in airconditioned houses with the windows permanently sealed, and drove airconditioned cars to ninetofive jobs in airconditioned office buildings that he said were little more than gussiedup prisons. Just the sight of those people on their way to work made him feel hemmed in and itchy. He began complaining that we were all getting too soft, too dependent on creature comforts, and that we were losing touch with the natural order of the world.
Dad missed the wilderness. He needed to be roaming free in open country and living among untamed animals. He felt it was good for your soul to have buzzards and coyotes and snakes around. That was the way man was meant to live, he’d say, in harmony with the wild, like the Indians, not this lordsofthe earth crap, trying to rule the entire goddamn planet, cutting down all the forests and killing every creature you couldn’t bring to heel.
One day we heard on the radio that a woman in the suburbs had seen a mountain lion behind her house and had called the police, who shot the animal. Dad got so angry he put his fist through a wall. “That mountain lion had as much right to his life as that sour old biddy does to hers,” he said. “You can’t kill something just because it’s wild.”
Dad stewed for a while, sucking on a beer, and then he told us all to get in the car.
“Where are we going?” I asked. We hadn’t been on a single expedition since we moved to Phoenix. I missed them.
“I’m going to show you,” he said. “that no animal, no matter how big or wild, is dangerous as long as you know what you’re doing.”
We all piled into the car. Dad drove, nursing another beer and cussing under his breath about that innocent mountain lion and the chickenshit suburbanite. We turned in at the city zoo. None of us kids had ever been to a zoo before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Lori said she thought zoos should be outlawed. Mom, who had Maureen in one arm and her sketch pad under the other, pointed out that the animals had traded freedom for security. She said that when she looked at them, she would pretend not to see the bars.
At the entrance gate, Dad bought our tickets, muttering about the idiocy of paying money to look at animals, and led us down the walk. Most of the cages were patches of dirt surrounded by iron bars, with forlorn gorillas or restless bears or irritable monkeys or anxious gazelles huddled in the corners. A lot of the kids were having fun, gawking and laughing and throwing peanuts at the animals, but the sight of those poor creatures made my throat swell up.
“I’ve got half a mind to sneak in here some night and free these critters,” Dad said.
“Can I help?” I asked.
He mussed my hair. “Me and you, Mountain Goat,” he said. “We’ll carry out our own animal prison break.”
We stopped at a bridge. Below it, in a deep pit, alligators sunned themselves on rocks surrounding a pond. “The biddy who got that mountain lion shot didn’t understand animal psychology,” Dad said. “If you let them know you’re not afraid, they’ll leave you alone.”
Dad pointed to the biggest, scaliest alligator. “Me and that nastylooking bastard’s going to have us a staring contest.” Dad stood on the bridge glowering at the alligator. At first it seemed to be asleep, but then it blinked and looked up at Dad. Dad continued staring, his eyes in a fierce squint. After a minute the alligator thrashed its tail, looked away, and slid into the water. “See, you just have to communicate your position,” Dad said.
“Maybe he would have gone for a swim anyway,” Brian whispered.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Didn’t you see how nervous that gator got? Dad made him do it.”
We followed Dad to the lion’s den, but the lions were sleeping, so Dad said we should leave them alone. The aardvark was busy Hoovering up ants, and Dad said you shouldn’t disturb eating animals, so we passed it by and went on to the cheetah’s cage, which was about as big as our living room and surrounded by a chain fence. The lone cheetah paced back and forth, the muscles in his shoulders
shifting with each step. Dad folded his arms on his chest and studied the cheetah. “He’s a good animal —fastest fourfooted creature on the planet,” he declared. “Not happy about being in this damn cage, but he’s resigned to it, and he’s no longer angry. Let’s see if he’s hungry.”
Dad took me to the concession stand. He told the lady running it that he had a rare medical condition and couldn’t eat cooked meat so he’d like to buy a raw hamburger. “Yeah, right,” the salesclerk said. She told Dad the zoo did not allow the sale of uncooked meat, because foolish people tried to feed it to the animals.
“I’d like to feed her lard ass to the animals,” Dad muttered. He bought me a bag of popcorn, and we returned to the cheetah cage. Dad squatted outside the fence opposite the cheetah. The animal came closer to the bars and studied him curiously. Dad kept looking at him, but not in the angryeyed way he had stared down the alligator. The cheetah looked back. Finally, he sat down. Dad stepped over the chain fence and knelt right next to the bars where the cheetah was sitting. The cheetah remained still, looking at Dad.
Dad slowly raised his right hand and put it up against the cage. The cheetah looked at Dad’s hand but didn’t move. Dad calmly put his hand between the iron bars of the cage and rested it on the cheetah’s neck. The cheetah moved the side of his face against Dad’s hand, as if asking to be petted. Dad gave the cheetah the kind of hardy, vigorous petting you’d give a big dog.
“Situation under control,” Dad said and beckoned us over.
We climbed under the chain fence and knelt around Dad while he petted the cheetah. By then a few people had begun to gather. One man was calling to us to get back behind the chain fence. We ignored him. I knelt close to the cheetah. My heart was beating fast, but I wasn’t scared, only excited. I could feel the cheetah’s hot breath on my face. He looked right at me. His amber eyes were steady but sad, as if he knew he’d never see the plains of Africa again.
“May I pet him, please?” I asked Dad.
Dad took my hand and slowly guided it to the side of the cheetah’s neck. It was soft but also bristly. The cheetah turned his head and put his moist nose up against my hand. Then his big pink tongue unfolded from his mouth, and he licked my hand. I gasped. Dad opened my hand and held my fingers back. The cheetah licked my palm, his tongue warm and rough, like sandpaper dipped in hot water. I felt all tingly.
“I think he likes me,” I said.
“He does,” Dad said. “He also likes the popcorn salt and butter on your hand.”
There was a small crowd around the cage now, and one particularly frantic woman grabbed my shirt and tried to pull me over the chain. “It’s all right,” I told her. “My dad does stuff like this all the time.”
“He should be arrested!” she shouted.
“Okay, kids,” Dad said, “the civilians are revolting. We better skedaddle.”
We climbed over the chain. When I looked back, the cheetah was following us along the side of the cage. Before we could make our way through the crowd, a heavy man in a navy blue uniform came running toward us. He was holding on to the gun and nightstick on his belt, which made him look like he was running with his hands on his hips. He was shouting about regulations and how idiots had been killed climbing into cages and how we all had to leave immediately. He grabbed Dad by the shoulder, but Dad pushed him off and assumed a fighting stance. Some of the men in the crowd clutched Dad’s arms, and Mom asked Dad to please do what the guard had ordered.
Dad nodded and held out his hands in a peace gesture. He led us through the crowd and toward the exit, chuckling and shaking his head to let us kids know that these fools were not worth the time it would take to kick their butts. I could hear people around us whispering about the crazy drunk man and his dirty little urchin children, but who cared what they thought? None of them had ever had their hand licked by a cheetah.
IT WAS AROUND this time that Dad lost his job. He said there was nothing to worry about, because Phoenix was so big and growing so fast that he could find another job at a site where they hadn’t spread lies about him. Then he got fired from his second job and from his third, and was kicked out of the electricians’ union and started doing odd jobs and day work. Whatever money Mom had inherited from Grandma Smith had disappeared, and once again we started scraping by.
I didn’t go hungry. Hot lunch at school cost a quarter, and we could usually afford that. When we couldn’t and I told Mrs. Ellis, my fourthgrade teacher, that I had forgotten my quarter, she said her records indicated that someone had already paid for me. Even though it seemed awfully coincidental, I didn’t want to push my luck by asking too many questions about who this someone was. I ate the hot lunch. Sometimes that lunch was all I had to eat all day, but I could get by just fine on one meal.
One afternoon when Brian and I had come home to an empty fridge, we went out to the alley behind the house looking for bottles to redeem. Down the alley was the delivery bay of a warehouse. A big green Dumpster stood in the parking lot. When no one was looking, Brian and I pushed open the lid, climbed up, and dived inside to search for bottles. I was afraid it might be full of yucky garbage. Instead, we found an astonishing treasure: cardboard boxes filled with loose chocolates. Some of them were whitish and driedoutlooking, and some were covered with a mysterious green mold, but most of them were fine. We pigged out on chocolates, and from then on, whenever Mom was too busy to make dinner or we were out of food, we’d go back to the Dumpster to see if any new chocolate was waiting for us. From time to time, it was.
* * *
For some reason, there were no kids Maureen’s age on North Third Street. She was too young to run around with me and Brian, so she spent most of her time riding up and down on the red tricycle Dad had bought for her, and playing with her imaginary friends. They all had names, and she would talk to them for hours. They’d laugh together, carry on detailed conversations, even argue. One day she came home in tears, and when I asked her why she was crying, she said she’d gotten into a fight with Suzie Q., one of the imaginary friends.
Maureen was five years younger than Brian, and Mom said that since she didn’t have any allies in the
family around her age, she needed special treatment. Mom decided Maureen needed to enroll in preschool, but she said she didn’t want her youngest daughter dressed in the thriftstore clothes the rest of us wore. Mom told us we would have to go shoplifting.
“Isn’t that a sin?” I asked Mom.
“Not exactly,” Mom said. “God doesn’t mind you bending the rules a little if you have a good reason. It’s sort of like justifiable homicide. This is justifiable pilfering.”
Mom’s plan was for her and Maureen to go into the dressing room of a store with an armful of new clothes for Maureen to try on. When they came out, Mom would tell the clerk she didn’t like any of the dresses. At that point Lori, Brian, and I would create a ruckus to distract the clerk while Mom hid a dress under a raincoat she would be carrying on her arm.
We got three or four nice dresses for Maureen that way, but on one excursion, when Brian and I were pretending to punch each other out and Mom was in the process of slipping a dress under her raincoat, the saleslady turned to Mom and asked if she intended to buy that dress she was holding. Mom had no choice but to pay for it. “Fourteen dollars for a child’s dress!” she said as we left the store. “It’s highway robbery!”
Dad devised an ingenious way to come up with extra cash. He figured out that when you made a withdrawal from the drivethrough window at the bank, it took a few minutes for the transaction to register in the computer. So he would open a bank account, and a week or so later, he would withdraw all the money from a teller inside the bank while Mom withdrew the same amount from the drive through window. Lori said it sounded outright felonious, but Dad said all he was doing was outsmarting the fatcat bank owners who shylocked the common man by charging usurious interest rates.
“Wear innocent expressions,” Mom told us kids the first time we dropped Dad off in front of the bank.
“Will we have to go to a juveniledelinquent center if we get busted?” I asked.
Mom assured me it was all perfectly legal. “People overdraw their accounts all the time,” she said. “If we get caught, we’ll just pay a little overdraft fee.” She explained that it was sort of like taking out a loan without all the messy paperwork. But as we drove up to the teller’s window, Mom seemed to get edgy and giggled nervously as she passed the withdrawal slip through the bulletproof window. I think she was enjoying the thrill of taking from the rich.
After the woman inside passed us the cash, Mom drove around to the front of the bank. In a minute, Dad strolled out. He climbed into the front of the car, turned around, and, with a wicked grin, held up a stack of bills and riffled them with his thumb.
* * *
The reason Dad was having a tough time getting steady work—as he kept trying to tell us—was that the electricians’ union in Phoenix was corrupt. It was run by the mob, he said, which controlled all the construction projects in the city, so before he could get a decent job, he had to run organized crime out of town. That required a lot of undercover research, and the best place to gather information was at the bars the mobsters owned. So Dad started spending most of his time in those joints.
Mom rolled her eyes whenever Dad mentioned his research. I began to have my own doubts about what he was up to. He came home in such a drunken fury that Mom usually hid while we kids tried to calm him down. He broke windows and smashed dishes and furniture until he’d spent all his anger; then he’d look around at the mess and at us kids standing there. When he recognized what he’d done, he hung his head in weariness and shame. Then he’d sink to his knees and pitch forward facefirst on the floor.
After Dad had collapsed, I would try to pick up the place, but Mom always made me stop. She’d been reading books on how to cope with an alcoholic, and they said that drunks didn’t remember their rampages, so if you cleaned up after them, they’d think nothing had happened. “Your father needs to see the mess he’s making of our lives,” Mom said. But when Dad got up, he’d act as if all the wreckage didn’t exist, and no one discussed it with him. The rest of us had to get used to stepping over broken furniture and shattered glass.
Mom had taught us to pick Dad’s pocket when he passed out. We got pretty good at it. Once, after I’d rolled Dad and collected a handful of change, I pried his fingers loose from the bottle in his hand. It was three quarters empty. I stared at the amber liquid. Mom never touched the stuff, and I wondered what Dad found so irresistible. I opened the bottle and sniffed. The awful smell stung my nose, but after working up my courage, I took a swig. It had a hideously thick taste, smoky, and so hot it burned my tongue. I ran to the bathroom, spat it out, and rinsed my mouth.
“I just took a swig of booze,” I told Brian. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
Brian grabbed the bottle out of my hand. He emptied it into the kitchen sink, then led me out to the shed and opened up a wooden trunk in the back marked TOY BOX. It was filled with empty liquor bottles. Whenever Dad passed out, Brian said, he took the bottle Dad had been drinking, emptied it, and hid it in the trunk. He’d wait until he had ten or twelve, then tote them to a garbage can a few blocks away, because if Dad saw the empty bottles, he would get furious.
* * *
“I have a really good feeling about this Christmas,” Mom announced in early December. Lori pointed out that the last few months hadn’t gone so well.
“Exactly,” Mom said. “This is God’s way of telling us to take charge of our own fates. God helps those who help themselves.”
She had such a good feeling that she’d decided that this year we were going to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day, instead of a week later.
Mom was an expert thriftstore shopper. She read the labels on the clothes and turned over dishes and vases to study the markings on the bottom. She had no qualms about telling a saleslady that a dress marked at twentyfive cents was worth only a dime, and she usually got it at that price. Mom took us thriftstore shopping for weeks before that Christmas, giving us each a dollar to spend on presents. I got a red glass bud vase for Mom, an onyx ashtray for Dad, a modelcar kit for Brian, a book about elves for Lori, and a stuffed tiger with a loose ear that Mom helped me sew back in place for Maureen.
On Christmas morning, Mom took us down to a gas station that sold Christmas trees. She selected a
tall, dark, but slightly driedout Douglas fir. “This poor old tree isn’t going to sell by the end of the day, and it needs someone to love it,” she told the man and offered him three dollars. The man looked at the tree and looked at Mom and looked at us kids. My dress had buttons missing. Holes were appearing along the seams of Maureen’s Tshirt. “Lady, this one’s been marked down to a buck,” he said.
We carried the tree home and decorated it with Grandma’s antique ornaments: ornate colored balls, fragile glass partridges, and lights with long tubes of bubbling water. I couldn’t wait to open my presents, but Mom insisted that we celebrate Christmas in the Catholic fashion, getting to the gifts only after we’d attended midnight mass. Dad, knowing that all the bars and liquor stores would be closed on Christmas, had stocked up in advance. He’d popped open the first Budweiser before breakfast, and by the time midnight mass rolled around, he was having trouble standing up.
I suggested that maybe this once, Mom should let Dad off the hook about going to mass, but she said stopping by God’s house for a quick hello was especially important at times like this, so Dad staggered and lurched into the church with us. During the sermon, the priest discussed the miracle of Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.
“Virgin, my ass!” Dad shouted. “Mary was a sweet Jewish broad who got herself knocked up!”
The service came to a dead halt. Everyone was staring. The choir had swiveled around in unison and were gaping openmouthed. Even the priest was speechless.
Dad had a satisfied grin on his face. “And Jesus H. Christ is the world’s bestloved bastard!”
The ushers grimly escorted us to the street. On the way home, Dad put his arm around my shoulder for support. “Baby girl, if your boyfriend ever gets into your panties and you find yourself in a family way, swear that it was Immaculate Conception and start mouthing off about miracles,” he said. “Then just pass around the collection plate come Sunday.”
I didn’t like Dad when he talked like that, and I tried to move away from him, but he just held me tighter.
Back at home, we tried to calm Dad down. Mom gave him one of his presents, a brass cigarette lighter from the nineteen twenties in the shape of a Scottish terrier. Dad flicked it a couple of times, swaying back and forth; then he held it up to the light and studied it.
“Let’s really light up this Christmas,” Dad said and thrust the lighter into the Douglas fir. The driedout needles caught fire immediately. Flames leaped through the branches with a crackling noise. Christmas ornaments exploded from the heat.
For a few moments, we were too stunned to do anything. Mom called for blankets and water. We were able to put the fire out, but only by knocking down the tree, smashing most of the ornaments, and ruining all our presents. Dad sat on the sofa the whole time, laughing and telling Mom that he was doing her a favor because trees were pagan symbols of worship.
Once the fire was out and the sodden, burned tree lay smoldering on the floor, we all just stood there.
No one tried to wring Dad’s neck or yell at him or even point out that he’d ruined the Christmas his family had spent weeks planning—the Christmas that was supposed to be the best we’d ever had. When Dad went crazy, we all had our own ways of shutting down and closing off, and that was what we did that night.
I TURNED TEN THAT spring, but birthdays were not a big deal around our house. Sometimes Mom stuck a few candles in some ice cream and we all sang. “Happy Birthday.” Mom and Dad might get us a little present—a comic book or a pair of shoes or a package of underwear—but at least as often, they forgot our birthdays altogether.
So I was surprised when, on the day I turned ten, Dad took me outside to the back patio and asked what I wanted most in the world. “It’s a special occasion, seeing as how it puts you into double digits,” he said. “You’re growing up damn fast, Mountain Goat. You’ll be on your own in no time, and if there’s anything I can do for you now, before you’re gone, I want to do it.”
I knew Dad wasn’t talking about buying me some extravagant present, like a pony or a dollhouse. He was asking what he could do, now that I was almost a grownup, to make my last years as a kid everything I hoped they’d be. There was only one thing I truly wanted, something that I knew would change all our lives, but I was afraid to ask for it. Just thinking about saying the words out loud made me nervous.
Dad saw my hesitation. He knelt so that he was looking up at me. “What is it?” he said. “Ask away.”
“Just ask, baby.”
“You know if it’s humanly possible, I’ll get it for you. And if it ain’t humanly possible, I’ll die trying.”
I looked up at the thin swirls of clouds high in the blue Arizona sky. Keeping my eyes fastened on those distant clouds, I took a breath and said. “Do you think you could maybe stop drinking?”
Dad said nothing. He was staring down at the cement patio, and when he turned to me, his eyes had a wounded look, like a dog who’s been kicked. “You must be awfully ashamed of your old man,” he said.
“No,” I said quickly. “It’s just I think Mom would be a lot happier. Plus, we’d have the extra money.”
“You don’t have to explain,” Dad said. His voice was barely a whisper. He stood up and walked into the yard and sat down under the orange trees. I followed and sat down next to him. I was going to take his hand, but before I could reach for it, he said. “If you don’t mind, honey, I think I’d like to sit here by myself for a while.”
* * *
In the morning Dad told me that for the next few days, he was going to keep to himself in his bedroom.
He wanted us kids to steer clear of him, to stay outside all day and play. Everything went fine for the first day. On the second day, when I came home from school, I heard a terrible groaning coming from the bedroom.
“Dad?” I called. There was no answer. I opened the door.
Dad was tied to the bed with ropes and belts. I don’t know if he had done it himself or if Mom helped him, but he was thrashing about, bucking and pulling at the restraints, yelling “No!” and “Stop!” and “Oh my God!” His face was gray and dripping with sweat. I called out to him again, but he didn’t see or hear me. I went into the kitchen and filled an empty orangejuice jug with water. I sat with the jug next