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 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.
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 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.
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.”
We laughed about the 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.
[Dad] 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.
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.”
“I swear, honey, there are times when I think you’re the only one around who still has faith in me,” [Dad] 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.
“I wonder what life will be like now,” I said to Lori.
“The same,” she said. “[Dad] tried stopping before, but it never lasted.”
“This time it will.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s his present to me.”
“Erma can’t let go of her misery,” Mom said. “It’s all she knows.” She added that you should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. “Everyone has something good about them,” she said. “You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.”
“Are we ever going home?” I asked Dad one day.
“This is home now.”
Instead of a freshly painted yellow house, or even a dingy gray one, we now had a weird-looking half-finished patch job—one that announced to the world that the people inside the house wanted to fix it up but lacked the gumption to get the work done.
She was keeping [the wedding ring], she explained, to replace the wedding ring her mother had given her, the one Dad had pawned shortly after they got married.
“But Mom,” I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food.”
“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.”
A newspaper reporter, instead of holing up in isolation, was in touch with the rest of the world. What the reporter wrote influenced what people thought about and talked about the next day; he knew what was really going on. I decided I wanted to be one of the people who knew what was really going on.
Because we never subscribed to newspapers or magazines, I’d never known what was going on in the world, except for the skewed version of events we got from Mom and Dad—one in which every politician was a crook, every cop was a thug, and every criminal had been framed. I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.
I had always wanted a watch. Unlike diamonds, watches were practical. They were for people on the run, people with appointments to keep and schedules to meet. That was the kind of person I wanted to be.
“Why do I always have to be the one who earns the money?” Mom asked. “You have a job. You can earn money. Lori can earn money, too. I’ve got more important things to do.”
“Who do you think you are?” [Dad] asked. “She’s your mother.”
“Then why doesn’t she act like one?” I looked at Dad for what felt like a very long moment. Then I blurted out, “And why don’t you act like a dad?”
I stared at the plans. “Dad,” I said, “you’ll never build the Glass Castle.”
“Are you saying you don’t have faith in your old man?”
“Even if you do, I’ll be gone.” […] “As soon as I finish classes, I’m getting on the next bus out of here. If the buses stop running, I’ll hitchhike. I’ll walk if I have to. Go head and build the Glass Castle, but don’t do it for me.”
I wondered if [Dad] was remembering how he, too, had left Welch full of vinegar at age seventeen and just as convinced as I was now that he’d never return. I wondered if he was hoping that his favorite girl would come back, or if he was hoping that, unlike him, she would make it out for good.
“You can’t just live like this,” I said.
“Why not?” Mom said. “Being homeless is an adventure.”
“I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want.”
“Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?” Professor Fuchs asked. “Are you saying they don’t want warm beds and roofs over their heads?”
“Not exactly, I said. I was fumbling for words. “They do. But if some of them were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet.”
Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. “What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?” she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. “What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?”
I actually live on Park Avenue, I kept telling myself as I hung my clothes in the closet Eric had cleared out for me. Then I started thinking about Mom and Dad. When they had moved into their squat—a fifteen-minute subway ride south and about half a dozen worlds away—it seemed as if they had finally found the place where they belonged, and I wondered if I had done the same.
I also hoped that Maureen had chosen California because she thought that was her true home, the place where she really belonged, where it was always warm and you could dance in the rain, pick grapes right off the vines, and sleep outside at night under the stars.
“Hey,” [Dad] said. He winked and pointed his finger at me “Have I ever let you down?”
He started chuckling because he knew there was only one way I could ever answer that question. I just smiled. And then I closed the door.
A year after Dad died, I left Eric. He was a good man, but not the right one for me. And Park Avenue was not where I belonged.
I liked to go for long walks at night. I often walked west toward the river. The city lights obscured the stars, but on clear nights, I could see Venus on the horizon, up over the dark water, glowing steadily.
“Grandma Walls is different from your other grandma,” I told [Veronica].
“Way different,” Veronica said.
John’s daughter, Jessica, turned to me and said, “But she laughs just like you do.”
“We should drink a toast to Rex,” John said.
Mom stared at the ceiling, miming perplexed thought. “I’ve got it.” She held up her glass. “Life with your father was never boring.”