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The Glass Castle  玻璃城堡-Chapter 04: New York City

IT WAS DUSK WHENI got my first glimpse of it off in the distance, beyond a ridge. All I could see were the spires and blocky tops of buildings. And then we reached the crest of the ridge, and there, across a wide river, was a huge island jammed tip to tip with skyscrapers, their glass glowing like fire in the setting sun. My heart started to race, and my palms grew damp. I walked down the bus aisle to the tiny restroom in the rear and washed up in the metal basin. I studied my face in the mirror and wondered what New Yorkers would think when they looked at me. Would they see an Appalachian hick, a tall, gawky girl, still all elbows and knees and jutting teeth? For years Dad had been telling me I had an inner beauty. Most people didn't see it. I had trouble seeing it myself, but Dad was always saying he could damn well see it and that was what mattered. I hoped when New Yorkers looked at me, they would see whatever it was that Dad saw.

* * *

When the bus pulled into the terminal, I collected my suitcase and walked to the middle of the station. A blur of hurrying bodies streamed past me, leaving me feeling like a stone in a creek, and then I heard someone calling my name. He was a pale guy with thick, black-framed glasses that made his eyes look tiny. His name was Evan, and he was a friend of Lori's. She was at work and had asked him to come meet me. Evan offered to carry my suitcase and led me out to the street, a noisy place with crowds backed up waiting to cross the intersection, cars jammed together, and papers blowing every which way. I followed him right into the thick of it.

After one block, Evan put down my suitcase. "This is heavy," he said. "What do you have in here?"

"My coal collection."

He looked at me blankly.

"Just funning with you," I said and punched him in the shoulder. Evan wasn't too quick on the uptake, but I took that as a good sign. There was no reason for me to be automatically in awe of the wit and intellect of these New Yorkers.

I picked up the suitcase. Evan did not insist I give it back to him. In fact, he seemed sort of relieved that I was carrying it. We continued on down the block, and he kept glancing at me sideways.

"You West Virginia girls are one tough breed," he said.

"You got that right," I told him.

* * *

Evan dropped me off at a German restaurant called Zum Zum. Lori was behind the counter, carrying four beer steins in each hand, her hair in twin buns and speaking in a thick German accent because, she explained later, it increased tips. "Dees ees mein seester!"she called out to the men at one of her tables. They raised their beer steins and shouted. "Velkomen to New Yorken!"

I didn't know any German, so I said, "Grazi!"

They all got a chuckle out of that. Lori was in the middle of her shift, so I went out to wander the streets. I got lost a couple of times and had to ask directions. People had been warning me for months about how rude New Yorkers were. It was true, I learned that night, that if you tried to stop them on the street, a lot of them kept on walking, shaking their heads; those who did stop didn't look at you at first. They gazed off down the block, their faces closed. But as soon as they realized you weren't trying to hustle them or panhandle money, they warmed right up. They looked you in the eye and gave you detailed instructions about how, to get to the Empire State Building, you went up nine blocks and made a right and cut across two blocks and so on. They even drew you maps. New Yorkers, I figured, just pretended to be unfriendly.

* * *

Later, Lori and I took a subway down to Greenwich Village and walked over to the Evangeline, a women's hostel where she had been living. That first night I woke up at three a.m. and saw the sky all lit up a bright orange. I wondered if there was a big fire somewhere, but in the morning Lori told me that the orange glow came from the air pollution refracting the light off the streets and buildings. The night sky here, she said, always had that color. What it meant was that in New York, you could never see the stars. But Venus wasn't a star. I wondered if I'd be able to see it.

The very next day, I landed a job at a hamburger joint on Fourteenth Street. After taxes and social security, I'd be taking home over eighty dollars a week. I had spent a lot of time imagining what New York would be like, but the one thing that had never occurred to me was that the opportunities would come so easily. Aside from having to wear those embarrassing red-and-yellow uniforms with matching floppy hats, I loved the job. The lunch and dinner rushes were always exciting, with the lines backing up at the counter, the cashiers shouting orders over the microphones, the grill guys shoveling hamburgers through the flame-broiling conveyer belt, everyone running from the fixings counter to the drinks station to the infrared fries warmer, staying on top of the orders, the manager jumping in to help whenever a crisis cropped up. We got 20 percent off on our meals, and for the first few weeks there, I had a cheeseburger and a chocolate milk shake every day for lunch.

* * *

In the middle of the summer, Lori found us an apartment in a neighborhood we could afford—the South Bronx. The yellow art deco building must have been pretty fancy when it opened, but now graffiti covered the outside walls, and the cracked mirrors in the lobby were held together with duct tape. Still, it had what Mom called good bones.

Our apartment was bigger than the entire house on Little Hobart Street, and way fancier. It had shiny oak parquet floors, a foyer with two steps leading down into the living room—where I slept—and, off to the side, a bedroom that became Lori's. We also had a kitchen with a working refrigerator and a gas stove that had a pilot light, so you didn't need matches to get it going, you just turned the dial, listened to the clicking, then watched the circle of blue flame flare up through the tiny holes in the burner. My favorite room was the bathroom. It had a black-and-white tile floor, a toilet that flushed with a powerful whoosh, a tub so deep you could submerge yourself completely in it, and hot water that never ran out.

It didn't bother me that the apartment was in a rough neighborhood; we'd always lived in rough neighborhoods. Puerto Rican kids hung out on the block at all hours, playing music, dancing, sitting on abandoned cars, clustering at the entrance to the elevated subway station and in front of the bodega that sold single cigarettes called loosies. I got jumped a number of times. People were always telling me that if I was robbed, I should hand over my money rather than risk being killed. But I was darned if I was going to give some stranger my hard-earned cash, and I didn't want to become known in the neighborhood as an easy target, so I always fought back. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. What worked best was to keep my wits about me. Once, as I was getting on the train, some guy tried to grab my purse, but I jerked it back and the strap broke. He fell empty-handed to the platform floor, and as the train pulled out, I looked through the window and gave him a big sarcastic wave.

* * *

That fall, Lori helped me find a public school where, instead of going to classes, the students signed up for internships all over the city. One of my internships was at The Phoenix,a weekly newspaper run out of a dingy storefront on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, near the old Ex-Lax factory. The owner, publisher, and editor in chief was Mike Armstrong. He saw himself as a muckraking gadfly and had mortgaged his brownstone five times to keep The Phoenixgoing. The staff all used Underwood manual typewriters with threadbare ribbons and yellowed keys. The E on mine was broken, so I used the @ in its place. We never had copy paper and instead wrote on discarded press releases we dug out of the trash. At least once a month, someone's paycheck bounced. Reporters were always quitting in disgust. In the spring, when Mr. Armstrong was interviewing a journalism school graduate for a job opening, a mouse ran over her foot, and she screamed. After she'd left, Mr. Armstrong looked at me. The Brooklyn zoning board was meeting that afternoon and he had no one to cover it. "If you start calling me Mike instead of Mr. Armstrong," he said. "you can have the job."

I had just turned eighteen. I quit my job at the hamburger joint the next day and became a full-time reporter for The Phoenix. I'd never been happier in my life. I worked ninety-hour weeks, my telephone rang constantly, I was always hurrying off to interviews and checking the ten-dollar Rolex I'd bought on the street to make sure I wasn't running late, rushing back to file my copy, and staying up until four a.m. to set type when the typesetter quit. And I was bringing home $125 a week. If the check cleared.

* * *

I wrote Brian long letters describing the sweet life in New York City. He wrote back saying things in Welch were still going downhill. Dad was drunk all the time except when he was in jail; Mom had completely withdrawn into her own world; and Maureen was more or less living with neighbors. The ceiling in the bedroom had collapsed, and Brian had moved his bed onto the porch. He made walls by nailing boards along the railings, but it leaked pretty badly out there, too, so he still slept under the inflatable raft.

I told Lori that Brian should come live with us in New York, and she agreed. But I was afraid Brian would want to stay in Welch. He seemed more of a country boy than a city kid. He was always wandering through the woods, tinkering with a discarded two-stroke engine, chopping wood, or carving a block of wood into an animal head. He never complained about Welch, and unlike Lori and me, he'd made a lot of friends there. But I thought it was in Brian's long-term interest to get out of the town. I made a list of reasons he should move to New York, so I could argue him into it.

I called him at Grandpa's and presented my case. He'd need to get a job to pay his share of the rent and groceries, I said, but jobs were going begging in the city. He could share the living room with me—there was plenty of space for a second bed—the toilet flushed, and the ceiling never leaked.

When I finished, Brian was silent for a moment. Then he said, "When's the soonest I can come?"

* * *

Just like me, Brian hopped the Trailways bus the morning after completing his junior year. The day after he got to New York, he found a job at an ice-cream parlor in Brooklyn, not far from The Phoenix. He said he liked Brooklyn better than Manhattan or the Bronx, but he also developed a habit of dropping by The Phoenixwhen he got off work and waiting for me until three or four in the morning so we could take the subway together up to the South Bronx. He never said anything, but I think he figured that, as when we were kids, we both stood a better chance if we took on the world together.

I now saw no point in going to college. It was expensive, and my aim in going would have been to get a degree to qualify me for a job as a journalist. But I now had my job at The Phoenix. As for the learning itself, I figured you didn't need a college degree to become one of the people who knew what was really going on.

If you paid attention, you could pick things up on your own. And so, if I overheard mention of something I was ignorant about—keeping Kosher, Tammany Hall, haute couture—I researched it later on. One day I interviewed a community activist who described a particular job program as a throwback to the Progressive Era. I had no idea what the Progressive Era was, and back in the office, I got out the World Book Encyclopedia. Mike Armstrong wanted to know what I was doing, and when I explained, he asked me if I had ever thought of going to college.

"Why should I give up this job to go to college?" I asked. "You've got college graduates working here who are doing what I'm doing."

"You may not believe this," he said. "but there are better jobs out there than the one you've got now. You might get one of them one of these days. But not without a college degree." Mike promised me that if I went to college, I could come back to The Phoenixanytime I wanted. But, he added, he didn't think I would.

* * *

Lori's friends told me that Columbia University was the best in New York City. Since it took only men at the time, I applied to its sister college, Barnard, and was accepted. I received grants and loans to cover most of the tuition, which was steep, and I'd saved a little money while working at The Phoenix. But to pay for the rest, I had to spend a year answering phones at a Wall Street firm.

Once school started, I could no longer pay my share of the rent, but a psychologist let me have a room in her Upper West Side apartment in exchange for looking after her two small sons. I found a weekend job in an art gallery, crowded all my classes into two days, and became the news editor of the Barnard Bulletin.But I gave that up when I was hired as an editorial assistant three days a week at one of the biggest magazines in the city. Writers there had published books and covered wars and interviewed presidents. I got to forward their mail, check their expense accounts, and do word counts on their manuscripts. I felt I'd arrived.

* * *

Mom and Dad called us now and then from Grandpa's to bring us up to date on life in Welch. I began to dread those calls, since every time we heard from them, there was a new problem: a mudslide had washed away what was left of the stairs; our neighbors the Freemans were trying to get the house condemned; Maureen had fallen off the porch and gashed her head.

When Lori heard that, she declared it was time for Maureen to move to New York, too. But Maureen was only twelve, and I worried that she might be too young to leave home. She'd been four when we moved to West Virginia, and it was all she really knew.

"Who's going to look after her?" I asked.

"I will," Lori said. "She can stay with me."

Lori called Maureen, who got squeally with excitement about the idea, and then Lori talked to Mom and Dad. Mom thought it was a great plan, but Dad accused Lori of stealing his children and declared he was disowning her. Maureen arrived in early winter. By then Brian had moved into a walk-up near the Port Authority bus terminal, and using his address, we enrolled Maureen in a good public school in Manhattan. On weekends, we all met at Lori's apartment. We made fried pork chops or heaping plates of spaghetti and meatballs and sat around talking about Welch, laughing so hard at the idea of all that craziness that our eyes watered.

ONE MORNING THREEyears after I'd moved to New York, I was getting ready for class and listening to the radio. The announcer reported a terrible traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike. A van had broken down, spilling clothes and furniture all over the road and creating a big backup. The police were trying to clear the highway, but a dog had jumped out of the van and was running up and down the turnpike as a couple of officers chased after him. The announcer got a lot of mileage out of the story, going on about the rubes with their clunker of a vehicle and yapping dog who were making thousands of New York commuters late for work.

That night the psychologist told me I had a phone call.

"Jeannettie-kins!" It was Mom. "Guess what?" she asked in a voice brimming with excitement. "Your daddy and I have moved to New York!"

The first thing I thought about was the van that had broken down on the turnpike that morning. When I asked Mom about it, she admitted that yes, she and Dad had a teensy bit of technical difficulty with the van. It had popped a belt on some big, crowded highway, and Tinkle, who was sick and tired of being cooped up, you know how that goes, had gotten loose. The police had shown up, and Dad got into an argument with them, and they threatened to arrest him, and gosh it was quite the drama. "How did you know?" she asked.

"It was on the radio."

"On the radio?" Mom asked. She couldn't believe it. "With everything going on in the world these days, an old van popping a belt is news?" But there was genuine glee in her voice. "We only just got here, and we're already famous!"

After talking to Mom, I looked around my room. It was the maid's room off the kitchen, and it was tiny, with one narrow window and a bathroom that doubled as a closet. But it was mine. I had a room now, and I had a life, too, and there was no place in either one for Mom and Dad.

Still, the next day I went up to Lori's apartment to see them. Everyone was there. Mom and Dad hugged me. Dad pulled a pint of whiskey out of a paper bag while Mom described their various adventures on the trip. They had gone sightseeing earlier that day, and taken their first ride on the subway, which Dad called a goddamn hole in the ground. Mom said the art deco murals at Rockefeller Center were disappointing, not nearly as good as some of her own paintings. None of us kids was doing much to help carry the conversation. "So, what's the plan?" Brian finally asked. "You're moving here?"

"We have moved," Mom said.

"For good?" I asked.

"That's right," Dad said.

"Why?" I asked. The question came out sharply.

Dad looked puzzled, as if the answer should have been obvious. "So we could be a family again." He raised his pint. "To the family," he said.

* * *

Mom and Dad found a room in a boardinghouse a few blocks from Lori's apartment. The steely-haired landlady helped them move in, and a couple of months later, when they fell behind on their rent, she put their belongings on the street and padlocked their room. Mom and Dad moved into a six-story flophouse in a more dilapidated neighborhood. They lasted there a few months, but when Dad set their room on fire by falling asleep with a burning cigarette in his hand, they got kicked out. Brian believed that Mom and Dad needed to be forced to be self-sufficient or they'd be dependent on us forever, so he refused to take them in. But Lori had moved out of the South Bronx and into an apartment in the same building as Brian, and she let them come stay with her and Maureen. It would be for just a week or two, Mom and Dad assured her, a month at the most, while they got a kitty together and looked for a new place.

One month at Lori's became two months and then three and four. Each time I visited, the apartment was more jam-packed. Mom hung paintings on the walls and stacked street finds in the living room and put colored bottles in the windows for that stained-glass effect. The stacks reached the ceiling, and then the living room filled up, and Mom's collectibles and found art overflowed into the kitchen.

But it was Dad who was really getting to Lori. While he hadn't found steady work, he always had mysterious ways of hustling up pocket money, and he'd come home at night drunk and gunning for an argument. Brian saw that Lori was on the verge of snapping, so he invited Dad to come live with him. He put a lock on the booze cabinet, but Dad had been there under a week when Brian came home and found that Dad had used a screwdriver to take the door off its hinges and then guzzled down every single bottle.

Brian didn't lose his temper. He told Dad he had made a mistake by leaving liquor in the apartment. He said he'd allow Dad to stay, but Dad had to follow some rules, the first being that he stop drinking as long as he was there. "You're the king of your own castle, and that's the way it should be," Dad replied. "But it'll be a chilly day in hell before I bow to my own son." He and Mom still had the white van they'd driven up from West Virginia, and he started sleeping in that.

Lori, meanwhile, had given Mom a deadline to clean out the apartment. But the deadline came and went, and so did a second and a third. Also, Dad was always dropping by to visit Mom, but then they got into such screeching arguments that the neighbors banged on the walls. Dad starting fighting with them, too.

"I can't take it anymore," Lori told me one day.

"Maybe you're just going to have to kick Mom out," I said.

"But she's my mother."

"It doesn't matter. She's driving you crazy."

Lori finally agreed. It almost killed her to tell Mom she would have to leave, and she offered to do whatever it took to help her get reestablished, but Mom insisted she'd be fine.

"Lori's doing the right thing," she said to me. "Sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline flowing and help you realize your potential."

Mom and Tinkle moved into the van with Dad. They lived there for a few months, but one day they left it in a no-parking zone and it was towed. Because the van was unregistered, they couldn't get it back. That night, they slept on a park bench. They were homeless.

MOM AND DAD CALLEDregularly from pay phones to check up on us, and once or twice a month, we'd all get together at Lori's.

"It's not such a bad life," Mom told us after they'd been homeless for a couple of months. "Don't you worry a lick about us," Dad added. "We've always been able to fend for ourselves."

Mom explained that they'd been busy learning the ropes. They'd visited the various soup kitchens, sampling the cuisines, and had their favorites. They knew which churches passed out sandwiches and when. They'd found the public libraries with good bathrooms where you could wash thoroughly. "We wash as far down as possible and as far up as possible, but we don't wash possible," was how Mom put it—and brush your teeth and shave. They fished newspapers from the trash cans and looked up free events. They went to plays and operas and concerts in the parks, listened to string quartets and piano recitals in office-building lobbies, attended movie screenings, and visited museums. When they first became homeless, it was early summer, and they slept on park benches or in the bushes that lined park paths. Sometimes a cop would wake them up and tell them to move, but they'd just find some other place to sleep. During the day, they'd stash their bedrolls in the underbrush.

"You can't just live like this," I said.

"Why not?" Mom said. "Being homeless is an adventure."

* * *

As fall came and the days shortened and the weather cooled, Mom and Dad began spending more time in the libraries, which were warm and comfortable, and some of which remained open well into the evening. Mom was working her way through Balzac. Dad had become interested in chaos theory and was reading Los Alamos Scienceand the Journal of Statistical Physics.He said it had already helped his pool game. "What are you going to do when winter comes?" I asked Mom.

She smiled. "Winter is one of my favorite seasons," she said.

I didn't know what to do. Part of me wanted to do whatever I could to take care of Mom and Dad, and part of me just wanted to wash my hands of them. The cold came early that year, and every time I left the psychologist's apartment, I found myself looking into the faces of the homeless people I passed on the street, wondering each time if one of them would turn out to be Mom or Dad. I usually gave homeless people whatever spare change I had, but I couldn't help feeling like I was trying to ease my conscience about Mom and Dad wandering the streets while I had a steady job and a warm room to come home to.

One day I was walking down Broadway with another student named Carol when I gave some change to a young homeless guy. "You shouldn't do that," Carol said.

"Why?"

"It only encourages them. They're all scam artists."

What do you know?I wanted to ask. I felt like telling Carol that my parents were out there, too, that she had no idea what it was like to be down on your luck, with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. But that would have meant explaining who I really was, and I wasn't about to do that. So at the next street corner, I went my way without saying a thing.

I knew I should have stood up for Mom and Dad. I'd been pretty scrappy as a kid, and our family had always fought for one another, but back then we'd had no choice. The truth was, I was tired of taking on people who ridiculed us for the way we lived. I just didn't have it in me to argue Mom and Dad's case to the world. That was why I didn't own up to my parents in front of Professor Fuchs. She was one of my favorite teachers, a tiny dark passionate woman with circles under her eyes who taught political science. One day Professor Fuchs asked if homelessness was the result of drug abuse and misguided entitlement programs, as the conservatives claimed, or did it occur, as the liberals argued, because of cuts in social-service programs and the failure to create economic opportunity for the poor? Professor Fuchs called on me.

I hesitated. "Sometimes, I think, it's neither."

"Can you explain yourself?"

"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?"

The other students were staring at me.

"You have a point," I said.

THAT JANUARY IT GOTso cold you could see chunks of ice the size of cars floating down the Hudson River. On those midwinter nights, the homeless shelters filled up quickly. Mom and Dad hated the shelters. Human cesspools, Dad called them, goddamn vermin pits. Mom and Dad preferred to sleep on the pews of the churches that opened their doors to the homeless, but on some nights every pew in every church was taken. On those nights Dad would end up in a shelter, while Mom would show up at Lori's, Tinkle in tow. At times like that, her cheerful facade would crack, and she'd start crying and confess to Lori that life in the streets could be hard, just really hard.

For a while I considered dropping out of Barnard to help. It felt unbearably selfish, just downright wrong, to be indulging myself with an education in the liberal arts at a fancy private college while Mom and Dad were on the streets. But Lori convinced me that dropping out was a lamebrained idea. It wouldn't do any good, she said, and besides, dropping out would break Dad's heart. He was immensely proud that he had a daughter in college, and an Ivy League college at that. Every time he met someone new, he managed to work it into the first few minutes of conversation.

Mom and Dad, Brian pointed out, had options. They could move back to West Virginia or Phoenix. Mom could work. And she was not destitute. She had her collection of antique Indian jewelry, which she kept in a self-storage locker. There was the two-carat diamond ring that Brian and I had found under the rotten lumber back in Welch; she wore it even when sleeping on the street. She still owned property in Phoenix. And she had the land in Texas, the source of her oil-lease royalties.

Brian was right. Mom did have options. I met her at a coffee shop to discuss them. First off, I suggested that she might think of finding an arrangement like mine: a room in someone's nice apartment in exchange for taking care of children or the elderly.

"I've spent my life taking care of other people," Mom said. "Now it's time to take care of me."

"But you're not taking care of you."

"Do we have to have this conversation?" Mom asked. "I've seen some good movies lately. Can't we talk about the movies?"

I suggested to Mom that she sell her Indian jewelry. She wouldn't consider it. She loved that jewelry. Besides, they were heirlooms and had sentimental value.

I mentioned the land in Texas.

"That land's been in the family for generations," Mom said, "and it's staying in the family. You never sell land like that."

I asked about the property in Phoenix.

"I'm saving that for a rainy day."

"Mom, it's pouring."

"This is just a drizzle," she said. "Monsoons could be ahead!" She sipped her tea. "Things usually work out in the end."

"What if they don't?"

"That just means you haven't come to the end yet."

She looked across the table and smiled at me with the smile you give people when you know you have the answers to all their questions. And so we talked about movies.

MOM AND DAD SURVIVEDthe winter, but every time I saw them, they looked a little worse for wear: dirtier, more bruised, their hair more matted.

"Don't you fret a bit," Dad said. "Have you ever known your old man to get himself in a situation he couldn't handle?"

I kept telling myself Dad was right, that they knew how to look after themselves and each other, but in the spring, Mom called me to say Dad had come down with tuberculosis.

Dad almost never got sick. He was always getting banged up and then recovering almost immediately, as if nothing could truly hurt him. A part of me still believed all those childhood stories he'd told us about how invincible he was. Dad had asked that no one visit him, but Mom said she thought he'd be pretty pleased if I dropped by the hospital.

I waited at the nurse's station while an orderly went to tell him he had a visitor. I thought Dad might be under an oxygen tent or lying in a bed coughing up blood into a white handkerchief, but after a minute, he came hurrying down the hall. He was paler and more gaunt than usual, but despite all his years of hard living, he had aged very little. He still had all his hair, and it was still coal black, and his dark eyes twinkled above the paper surgical mask he was wearing.

He wouldn't let me hug him. "Whoa, Nelly, stay back," he said. "You're sure a sight for sore eyes, honey, but I don't want you catching this sonofabitch of a bug."

Dad escorted me back to the TB ward and introduced me to all of his friends. "Believe it or not, ol' Rex Walls did produce something worth bragging about, and here she is," he told them. Then he started coughing.

"Dad, are you going to be okay?" I asked.

"Ain't none of us getting out of this alive, honey," Dad said. It was an expression he used a lot, and now he seemed to find a special satisfaction in it.

Dad led me over to his cot. A neat pile of books was stacked next to it. He said his bout with TB had set him to pondering about mortality and the nature of the cosmos. He'd been stone-cold sober since entering the hospital, and reading a lot more about chaos theory, particularly about the work of Mitchell Feigenbaum, a physicist at Los Alamos who had made a study of the transition between order and turbulence. Dad said he was damned if Feigenbaum didn't make a persuasive case that turbulence was not in fact random but followed a sequential spectrum of varying frequencies. If every action in the universe that we thought was random actually conformed to a rational pattern, Dad said, that implied the existence of a divine creator, and he was beginning to rethink his atheistic creed. "I'm not saying there's a bearded old geezer named Yahweh up in the clouds deciding which football team is going to win the Super Bowl," Dad said. "But if the physics —the quantum physics—suggests that God exists, I'm more than willing to entertain the notion."

Dad showed me some of the calculations he'd been working on. He saw me looking at his trembling fingers and held them up. "Lack of liquor or fear of God—don't know which is causing it," he said. "Maybe both." "Promise you'll stay here until you get better," I said. "I don't want you doing the skedaddle." Dad burst into laughter that ended in another fit of coughing.

DAD STAYED IN THEhospital for six weeks. By then he'd not only beaten back the TB, he'd been sober longer than any time since the Phoenix detox. He knew that if he went back to the streets, he'd start drinking again. One of the hospital administrators got him a job as a maintenance man at an upstate resort, room and board included. He tried to talk Mom into going with him, but she flatly refused. "Upstate's the sticks," she said.

So Dad went alone. He called me from time to time, and it sounded like he'd put together a life that worked for him. He had a one-room apartment over a garage, enjoyed doing the repairs and upkeep on the old lodge, loved being back within walking distance of untamed country, and was staying sober. Dad worked at the resort through the summer and into the fall. As it began to turn cold again, Mom called him and mentioned how much easier it was for two people to stay warm during the winter, and how much Tinkle the dog missed him. In November, after the first hard frost, I got a call from Brian, who said that Mom had succeeded in persuading Dad to quit his job and return to the city.

"Do you think he'll stay sober?" I asked.

"He's already back on the booze," Brian said.

A few weeks after Dad got back, I saw him at Lori's. He was sitting on the sofa with an arm around Mom and a pint bottle in his hand. He laughed. "This crazy-ass mother of yours, can't live with her, can't live without her. And damned if she doesn't feel the same about me."

* * *

All of us kids had our own lives by then. I was in college, Lori had become an illustrator at a comic-book company, Maureen lived with Lori and went to high school, and Brian, who had wanted to be a cop ever since he'd had to call a policeman to our house in Phoenix to break up a fight between Mom and Dad, had become a warehouse foreman and was serving on the auxiliary force until he was old enough to take the police department's entrance exam. Mom suggested we all celebrate Christmas at Lori's apartment. I bought Mom an antique silver cross, but finding a gift for Dad was harder; he always said he never needed anything. Since it looked like it was going to be another hard winter, and since Dad wore nothing but his bomber jacket in even the coldest weather, I decided to get him some warm clothes. At an army-surplus store, I bought flannel shirts, thermal underwear, thick wool socks, the kind of blue work pants that auto mechanics wear, and a new pair of steel-toed boots.

Lori decorated her apartment with colored lights and pine boughs and paper angels; Brian made eggnog; and to demonstrate that he was on his best behavior, Dad went to great lengths to make sure there was no alcohol in it before he accepted a glass. Mom passed around their presents, each wrapped in newspaper and tied with butcher's twine. Lori got a cracked lamp that might have been a Tiffany; Maureen, an antique porcelain doll that had lost most of her hair; Brian, a nineteenth-century book of poetry, missing the cover and the first few pages. My present was an orange crewneck sweater, slightly stained but made, Mom pointed out, of genuine Shetland wool.

When I passed Dad my stack of carefully wrapped boxes, he protested that he needed and wanted nothing. "Go ahead," I said. "Open them."

I watched as he carefully removed the wrapping. He lifted the lids and stared at the folded clothes. His face took on that wounded expression he got whenever the world called his bluff. "You must be mighty ashamed of your old man," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You think I'm some sort of goddamn charity case."

Dad stood up and put on his bomber jacket. He was avoiding all our eyes.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

Dad just turned up his collar and walked out of the apartment. I listened to the sound of his boots going down the stairs.

"What did I do?" I asked.

"Look at it from his perspective," Mom said. "You buy him all these nice new things, and all he has for you is junk from the street. He's the father. He's the one who's supposed to be taking care of you."

The room was quiet for a while. "I guess you don't want your presents, either," I said to Mom.

"Oh, no," she said. "I love getting presents."

BY THE FOLLOWINGsummer, Mom and Dad were heading into their third year on the streets. They'd figured out how to make it work for them, and I gradually came around to accepting the notion that whether I liked it or not, this was how it was going to be. "It's sort of the city's fault," Mom told me. "They make it too easy to be homeless. If it was really unbearable, we'd do something different."

In August, Dad called to go over my course selection for the fall semester. He also wanted to discuss some of the books on the reading lists. Since he'd come to New York, he'd been borrowing my assigned books from the public library. He read every single one, he said, so he could answer any questions I might have. Mom said it was his way of getting a college education along with me.

When he asked me what courses I had signed up for, I said, "I'm thinking of dropping out."

"The hell you are," Dad said.

I told him that while most of my tuition was covered by grants and loans and scholarships, the school expected me to contribute two thousand dollars a year. But over the summer, I had been able to save only a thousand dollars. I needed another thousand and had no way to come up with it.

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Dad asked.

Dad called a week later and told me to meet him at Lori's. When he arrived with Mom, he was carrying a large plastic garbage bag and had a small brown paper bag tucked under his arm. I assumed it was a bottle of booze, but then he opened the paper bag and turned it upside down. Hundreds of dollar bills—ones, fives, tens, twenties, all wrinkled and worn—spilled into my lap.

"There's nine hundred and fifty bucks," Dad said. He opened the plastic bag, and a fur coat tumbled out. "That there's mink. You should be able to pawn it for fifty, at least."

I stared at the loot. "Where did you get all this?" I finally asked.

"New York City is full of poker players who wouldn't know their ass from a hole in the ground."

"Dad," I said. "you guys need this money more than I do."

"It's yours," Dad said. "Since when is it wrong for a father to take care of his little girl?"

"But I can't." I looked at Mom.

She sat down next to me and patted my leg. "I've always believed in the value of a good education," she said.

So, when I enrolled for my final year at Barnard, I paid what I owed on my tuition with Dad's wadded, crumpled bills.

A MONTH LATER,I got a call from Mom. She was so excited she was tripping over her own words. She and Dad had found a place to live. Their new home, Mom said, was in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. "It's a tad run-down," she admitted. "But all it really needs is a little TLC. And best of all, it's free."

Other folks were also moving into abandoned buildings, she said. They were called squatters, and the buildings were called squats. "Your father and I are pioneers," Mom said. "Just like my great-greatgrandfather, who helped tame the Wild West."

Mom called in a few weeks and said that although the squat still needed a few finishing touches—a front door, for example—she and Dad were officially accepting visitors. I took the subway to Astor Place on a late spring day and headed east. Mom and Dad's apartment was in a six-story walk-up. The mortar was crumbling and bricks had come loose. All the windows on the first floor had been boarded up. I reached to open the building's front door, but where the lock and handle should have been, there was only a hole. Inside, a single naked lightbulb hung from a wire in the hallway. On one wall, chunks of plaster had crumbled away, revealing the wooden ribs and pipes and wiring. On the third floor, I knocked on the door to Mom and Dad's apartment and heard Dad's muffled voice. Instead of the door swinging inward, fingers appeared on both sides, and it was lifted out of the frame altogether. There was Dad, beaming and hugging me while he went on about how he'd yet to install door hinges. As a matter of fact, they'd only just gotten the door itself, which he'd found in the basement of another abandoned building.

Mom came running up behind him, grinning so widely you could see her molars, and gave me a big hug. Dad knocked a cat off a chair—they had already taken in a few strays—and offered me a seat. The room was crammed with broken furniture, bundles of clothes, stacks of books, and Mom's art supplies. Four or five electric space heaters blasted away. Mom explained that Dad had hooked up every squat in the building to an insulated cable he'd hot-wired off a utility pole down the block. "We're all getting free juice, thanks to your father," Mom said. "No one in the building could survive without him."

Dad chuckled modestly. He told me how complicated the process had been, because the wiring in the building was so ancient. "Damnedest electrical system I've ever seen," he said. "The manual must have been written in hieroglyphics."

I looked around, and it hit me that if you replaced the electric heaters with a coal stove, this squat on the Lower East Side looked pretty much like the house on Little Hobart Street. I had escaped from Welch once, and now, breathing in those same old smells of turpentine, dog hair, and dirty clothes, of stale beer and cigarette smoke and unrefrigerated food slowly going bad, I had the urge to bolt. But Mom and Dad were clearly proud, and as I listened to them talk—interrupting each other in their excitement to correct points of fact and fill in gaps in the story—about their fellow squatters and the friends they'd made in the neighborhood and the common fight against the city's housing agency, it became clear they'd stumbled on an entire community of people like themselves, people who lived unruly lives battling authority and who liked it that way. After all those years of roaming, they'd found home.

* * *

I graduated from Barnard that spring. Brian came to the ceremony, but Lori and Maureen had to work, and Mom said it would just be a lot of boring speeches about the long and winding road of life. I wanted Dad to come, but chances were he'd show up drunk and try to debate the commencement speaker. "I can't risk it, Dad," I told him.

"Hell," he said. "I don't have to see my Mountain Goat grabbing a sheepskin to know she's got her college degree."

The magazine where I'd been working two days a week had offered me a full-time job. What I needed was a place to live. For several years, I had been dating a man named Eric, a friend of one of Lori's eccentric-genius friends, who came from a wealthy family, ran a small company, and lived alone in the apartment on Park Avenue in which he'd been raised. He was a detached, almost fanatically organized guy who maintained detailed time-management logs and could recite endless baseball statistics. But he was decent and responsible, never gambled or lost his temper, and always paid his bills on time. When he heard that I was looking for a roommate to share an apartment, he suggested I move in with him. I couldn't afford half the rent, I told him, and I wouldn't live there unless I could pay my own way. He suggested that I begin by paying what I could afford, and as my salary went up, I could increase the payment. He made it sound like a business proposition, but a solid one, and after thinking it over, I agreed.

When I told Dad about my plans, he asked if Eric made me happy and treated me well. "Because if he doesn't," Dad said. "I will by God kick his butt so hard, his asshole will be up between his shoulder blades."

"He treats me fine, Dad," I said. What I wanted to say was that I knew Eric would never try to steal my paycheck or throw me out the window, that I'd always been terrified I'd fall for a hard-drinking, hell-raising, charismatic scoundrel like you, Dad, but I'd wound up with a man who was exactly the opposite.

* * *

All my belongings fit into two plastic milk crates and a garbage bag. I hauled them to the street, hailed a taxi, and took it across town to Eric's building. The doorman, in a blue uniform with gold piping, hurried out from under the awning and insisted on carrying the milk crates into the lobby.

Eric's apartment had crossbeamed ceilings and a fireplace with an art deco mantel. 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 INVITED MOMand Dad up to the apartment. Dad said he'd feel out of place, and never did come, but Mom visited almost immediately. She turned over dishes to read the manufacturer's name and lifted the corner of the Persian rug to count the knots. She held the china to the light and ran her finger along the antique campaign chest. Then she went to the window and looked out at the brick and limestone apartment buildings across the street. "I don't really like Park Avenue," she said. "The architecture is too monotonous. I prefer the architecture on Central Park West."

I told Mom she was the snootiest squatter I'd ever met, and that made her laugh. We sat down on the living room couch. I had something I wanted to discuss with her. I now had a good job, I said, and was in a position to help her and Dad. I wanted to buy them something that would improve their lives. It could be a small car. It could be the security deposit and a few months' rent on an apartment. It could be the down payment on a house in an inexpensive neighborhood.

"We don't need anything," Mom said. "We're fine." She put down her teacup. "It's you I'm worried about." "You'reworried about me?"

"Yes. Very worried."

"Mom," I said. "I'm doing very well. I'm very, very comfortable."

"That's what I'm worried about," Mom said. "Look at the way you live. You've sold out. Next thing I know, you'll become a Republican." She shook her head. "Where are the values I raised you with?"

* * *

Mom became even more concerned about my values when my editor offered me a job writing a weekly column about what he called the behind-the-scenes doings of the movers and shakers. Mom thought I should be writing exposés about oppressive landlords, social injustice, and the class struggle on the Lower East Side. But I leaped at the job, because it meant I would become one of those people who knew what was really going on. Also, most people in Welch had a pretty good idea how bad off the Walls family was, but the truth was, they all had their problems, too—they were just better than we were at covering them up. I wanted to let the world know that no one had a perfect life, that even the people who seemed to have it all had their secrets.

Dad thought it was great that I was writing a weekly column about, as he put it, the skinny dames and the fat cats. He became one of my most faithful readers, and would go to the library to research the people in the column, then call me with tips. "This Astor broad has one helluva past," he told me one time. "Maybe we should do a little digging in that direction." Eventually, even Mom acknowledged that I'd done all right. "No one expected you to amount to much," she told me. "Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you always worked hard."

I loved my new job even more than I loved my Park Avenue address. I was invited to dozens of parties a week: art-gallery openings, benefit balls, movie premieres, book parties, and private dinners in marblefloored dining rooms. I met real estate developers, agents, heiresses, fund managers, lawyers, clothing designers, professional basketball players, photographers, movie producers, and television correspondents. I met people who owned entire collections of houses and spent more on one restaurant meal than my family had paid for 93 Little Hobart Street.

True or not, I was convinced that if all these people found out about Mom and Dad and who I really was, it would be impossible for me to keep my job. So I avoided discussing my parents. When that was impossible, I lied.

A year after I started the column, I was in a small, overstuffed restaurant across the table from an aging, elegant woman in a silk turban who oversaw the International Best Dressed List.

"So, where are you from, Jeannette?"

"West Virginia."

"Where?"

"Welch."

"How lovely. What's the main industry in Welch?"

"Coal mining."

As she questioned me, she studied what I wore, assessing the fabric and appraising the cost of each item and making a judgment about my taste in general.

"And does your family own coal mines?"

"No."

"What do your parents do?"

"Mom's an artist."

"And your father?"

"He's an entrepreneur."

"Doing what?"

I took a breath. "He's developing a technology to burn low-grade bituminous coal more efficiently."

"And they're still in West Virginia?" she asked.

I decided I might as well go all out. "They love it there," I said. "They have a great old house on a hill overlooking a beautiful river. They spent years restoring it."

MY LIFE WITH ERICwas calm and predictable. I liked it that way, and four years after I moved into his apartment, we got married. Shortly after the wedding, Mom's brother, my uncle Jim, died in Arizona. Mom came to the apartment to give me the news and to ask a favor. "We need to buy Jim's land," she said. Mom and her brother had each inherited half of the West Texas land that had been owned by their father. The whole time we kids were growing up, Mom had been mysteriously vague about how big and how valuable this land was, but I had the impression that it was a few hundred acres of more or less uninhabitable desert, miles from any road.

"We need to keep that land in the family," Mom told me. "It's important for sentimental reasons."

"Let's see if we can buy it, then," I said. "How much will it cost?"

"You can borrow the money from Eric now that he's your husband," Mom said.

"I've got a little money," I said. "How much will it cost?" I'd read somewhere that off-road land in parched West Texas sold for as little as a hundred dollars an acre.

"You can borrow from Eric," Mom said again.

"Well, how much?"

"A million dollars."

"What?"

"A million dollars."

"But Uncle Jim's land is the same size as your land," I said. I was speaking slowly, because I wanted to make sure I understood the implications of what Mom had just told me. "You each inherited half of Grandpa Smith's land."

"More or less," Mom said.

"So if Uncle Jim's land is worth a million dollars, that means your land is worth a million dollars."

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know? It's the same size as his."

"I don't know how much it's worth, because I never had it appraised. I was never going to sell it. My father taught me you never sell land. That's why we have to buy Uncle Jim's land. We have to keep it in the family."

"You mean you own land worth a million dollars?" I was thunderstruck. All those years in Welch with no food, no coal, no plumbing, and Mom had been sitting on land worth a million dollars? Had all those years, as well as Mom and Dad's time on the street—not to mention their current life in an abandoned tenement— been a caprice inflicted on us by Mom? Could she have solved our financial problems by selling this land she never even saw? But she avoided my questions, and it became clear that to Mom, holding on to land was not so much an investment strategy as it was an article of faith, a revealed truth as deeply felt and incontestable to her as Catholicism. And for the life of me, I could not get her to tell me how much the land was worth. "I told you I don't know," she said.

"Then tell me how many acres it is, and where exactly it is, and I'll find out how much an acre of land is going for in that area." I wasn't interested in her money; I just wanted to know—needed to know—the answer to my question: How much was that freaking land worth? Maybe she truly didn't know. Maybe she was afraid to find out. Maybe she was afraid of what we'd all think if we knew. But instead of answering me, she kept repeating that it was important to keep Uncle Jim's land—land that had belonged to her father and his father and his father before that—in the family.

"Mom, I can't ask Eric for a million dollars."

"Jeannette, I haven't asked you for a lot of favors, but I'm asking you for one now. I wouldn't if it wasn't important. But this is important."

I told Mom I didn't think Eric would lend me a million dollars to buy some land in Texas, and even if he would, I wouldn't borrow it from him. "It's too much money," I said. "What would I do with the land?"

"Keep it in the family."

"I can't believe you're asking me this," I said. "I've never even seen that land."

"Jeannette," Mom said when she had accepted the fact that she would not get her way. "I'm deeply disappointed in you."

LORI WAS WORKINGas a freelance artist specializing in fantasy, illustrating calendars and game boards and book jackets. Brian had joined the police force as soon as he turned twenty. Dad couldn't figure out what he'd done wrong, raising a son who'd grown up to become a member of the gestapo. But I was so proud of my brother on the day he was sworn in, standing there in the ranks of the new officers, straight-shouldered in his navy blue uniform with its glittering brass buttons.

Meanwhile, Maureen had graduated from high school and enrolled in one of the city colleges, but she never really applied herself and ended up living with Mom and Dad. She worked from time to time as a bartender or waitress, but the jobs never lasted long. Ever since she was a kid, she'd been looking for someone to take care of her. In Welch, the Pentecostal neighbors provided for her, and now in New York, with her long blond hair and wide blue eyes, she found various men who were willing to help out.

The boyfriends never lasted any longer than the jobs. She talked about finishing college and going to law school, but distractions kept cropping up. The longer she stayed with Mom and Dad, the more lost she became, and after a while she was spending most of her days in the apartment, smoking cigarettes, reading novels, and occasionally painting nude self-portraits. That two-room squat was cramped, and Maureen and Dad would get into the worst screaming fights, with Maureen calling Dad a worthless drunk and Dad calling Maureen a sick puppy, the runt of the litter, who should have been drowned at birth.

Maureen even stopped reading and slept all day, leaving the apartment only to buy cigarettes. I called and persuaded her to come up to see me and discuss her future. When she arrived, I scarcely recognized her. She'd bleached her hair and eyebrows platinum and was wearing dark makeup as thick as a Kabuki dancer's. She lit one cigarette after another and kept glancing around the room. When I brought up some career possibilities, she told me that the only thing she wanted to do was help fight the Mormon cults that had kidnapped thousands of people in Utah.

"What cults?" I asked.

"Don't pretend you don't know," she said. "That just means you're one of them."

Afterward, I called Brian. "Do you think Maureen's on drugs?" I asked.

"If she's not, she should be," he said. "She's gone nuts."

I told Mom that Maureen should get professional help, but Mom kept insisting that all Maureen needed was fresh air and sunshine. I talked to several doctors, but they told me that since it sounded like Maureen would refuse to seek help on her own, she could be treated only on the order of a court, if she proved she was a danger to herself or others.

* * *

Six months later, Maureen stabbed Mom. It happened after Mom decided it was time for Maureen to develop a little self-sufficiency by moving out and finding a place of her own. God helps those who help themselves, Mom told Maureen, and so for her own good, she would have to leave the nest and make her way in the world. Maureen couldn't bear the idea that her own mom would kick her out onto the street, and she snapped. Mom insisted Maureen had not actually been trying to kill her—she'd just become confused and upset, she said—but the wounds required stitches, and the police arrested Maureen.

She was arraigned a few days later. Mom and Dad and Lori and Brian and I were all there. Brian was fuming. Lori looked grief-stricken. Dad was half potted and kept trying to pick fights with the security guards. But Mom acted like her normal self—nonchalant in the face of adversity. As we sat waiting on the courtroom benches, she hummed tunelessly and sketched the other spectators.

Maureen shuffled into the courtroom, shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit. Her face was puffy, and she looked dazed, but when she saw us, she smiled and waved. Her lawyer asked the judge to set bail. I had borrowed several thousand dollars from Eric and had the cash in my purse. But after listening to the prosecutor's version of events, the judge shook her head grimly: "Bail is denied."

In the hallway, Lori and Dad got into a loud argument over who was responsible for pushing Maureen over the edge. Lori blamed Dad for creating a sick environment, while Dad maintained that Maureen had faulty wiring. Mom chimed in that all the junk food Maureen ate had led to a chemical imbalance, and Brian started yelling at them all to shut the hell up or he'd arrest them. I just stood there looking from one distorted face to another, listening to this babble of enraged squabbling as the members of the Walls family gave vent to all their years of hurt and anger, each unloading his or her own accumulated grievances and blaming the others for allowing the most fragile one of us to break into pieces.

The judge sent Maureen to an upstate hospital. She was released after a year and immediately bought a oneway bus ticket to California. I told Brian that we had to stop her. She didn't know a single person in California. How would she survive? But Brian thought it was the smartest thing she could do for herself. He said she needed to get as far away from Mom and Dad, and probably the rest of us, as possible. I decided Brian was right. But 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.

Maureen did not want any of us to see her off. I rose just after first light the morning she was scheduled to leave. It was an early departure, and I wanted to be awake and thinking about her at the moment her bus pulled out, so I could say farewell in my mind. I went to the window and looked out at the cold, wet sky. I wondered if she was thinking of us and if she was going to miss us. I'd always had mixed feelings about bringing her to New York, but I'd agreed to let her come. Once she arrived, I'd been too busy taking care of myself to look after her. "I'm sorry, Maureen," I said when the time came. "sorry for everything." AFTER THAT, I HARDLYever saw Mom or Dad. Neither did Brian. He had gotten married and bought a run-down Victorian house on Long Island that he restored, and he and his wife had a child, a little girl. They were his family now. Lori, who was still living in her apartment near the Port Authority, was more in touch with Mom and Dad, but she, too, had gone her own way. We hadn't gotten together since Maureen's arraignment. Something in all of us broke that day, and afterward, we no longer had the spirit for family gatherings.

About a year after Maureen took off for California, I got a call at work from Dad. He said he needed to get together to discuss something important.

"Can't we do it over the phone?"

"I need to see you in person, honey."

Dad asked me to come down to the Lower East Side that evening. "And if it's not too much trouble," he added. "could you stop on your way and pick up a bottle of vodka?"

"Oh, so that's what this is about."

"No, no, honey. I do need to talk to you. But I would appreciate some vodka. Nothing fancy, just the cheapest rotgut they have. A pint would be fine. A fifth would be great."

I was annoyed by Dad's sly request for vodka—tossing it out at the end of the conversation as if it were an afterthought, when I figured it was probably the purpose of the call. That afternoon I called Mom, who still never drank anything stronger than tea, and asked if I should indulge Dad.

"Your father is who he is," Mom said. "It's a little late in the game to try to reform him now. Humor the man."

* * *

That night I stopped in a liquor store and bought a half gallon of the cheapest rotgut on the shelf, just as Dad had requested, then took a taxi down to the Lower East Side. I climbed the dark staircase and pushed open the unlocked door. Mom and Dad were lying in their bed under a pile of thin blankets. I got the impression they'd been there all day. Mom squealed when she saw me, and Dad started apologizing for the mess, saying if Mom would let him clear out some of her crap, they might at least be able to swing a cat in here, which got Mom accusing Dad of being a bum.

"Good to see you," I said as I kissed them. "It's been a while."

Mom and Dad struggled up into sitting positions. I saw Dad eyeing the brown paper bag, and I passed it to him.

"A magnum," Dad said, his voice choked with gratitude as he eased the big bottle from the bag. He unscrewed the cap and took a long, deep pull. "Thank you, my darling," he said. "You are so good to your old man."

Mom wore a heavy cable-knit sweater. The skin of her hands was deeply cracked, and her hair was tangled, but her face had a healthy pink glow, and her eyes were clear and bright. Beside her, Dad looked gaunt. His hair, still coal black except for touches of gray at his temples, was combed back, but his cheeks were sunken, and he had a thin beard. He'd always been clean-shaven, even during those days on the streets.

"Why are you growing a beard, Dad?" I asked.

"Every man should grow one once."

"But why now?"

"It's now or never," Dad said. "The fact is, I'm dying."

I laughed nervously, then looked at Mom, who had reached for her sketch pad without saying anything. Dad was watching me carefully. He passed me the vodka bottle. Although I almost never drank, I took a sip and felt the burn as the liquor slid down my throat.

"This stuff could grow on you," I said.

"Don't let it," Dad said.

He started telling me how he'd acquired a rare tropical disease after getting into a bloody fistfight with some Nigerian drug dealers. The doctors had examined him, pronounced the rare disease incurable, and told him he had anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to live.

It was a ridiculous yarn. The fact was that, although Dad was only fifty-nine, he had been smoking four packs of cigarettes a day since he was thirteen, and by this time he was also putting away a good two quarts of booze daily. He was, as he had put it many a time, completely pickled.

But despite all the hell-raising and destruction and chaos he had created in our lives, I could not imagine what my life would be like—what the world would be like—without him in it. As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else ever had. I looked out the window.

"Now, no snot-slinging or boohooing about 'poor ol'Rex,'" Dad said. "I don't want any of that, either now or when I'm gone."

I nodded.

"But you always loved your old man, didn't you?"

"I did, Dad," I said. "And you loved me."

"Now, that's the God's honest truth." Dad chuckled. "We had some times, didn't we?"

"We did."

"Never did build that Glass Castle."

"No. But we had fun planning it."

"Those were some damn fine plans."

Mom stayed out of the conversation, sketching quietly.

"Dad," I said, "I'm sorry, I really should have asked you to my graduation."

"To hell with that." He laughed. "Ceremonies never did mean diddly to me." He took another long pull on his magnum. "I got a lot to regret about my life," he said. "But I'm goddamn proud of you, Mountain Goat, the way you turned out. Whenever I think of you, I figure I must have done something right."

"'Course you did."

"Well, all right then."

We talked about the old days some and, finally, it was time to go. I kissed them both, and at the door, I turned to look at Dad one more time.

"Hey," he 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.

TWO WEEKS LATER,Dad had a heart attack. When I got to the hospital, he was in a bed in the emergency room, his eyes closed. Mom and Lori were standing next to him. "It's just the machines keeping him alive at his point," Mom said.

I knew Dad would have hated that, spending his final moments in a hospital hooked up to machines. He'd have wanted to be out in the wild somewhere. He always said that when he died, we should put him on a mountaintop and let the buzzards and coyotes tear his body apart. I had this crazy urge to scoop him up in my arms and charge through the doors—to check out Rex Walls–style one last time.

Instead, I took his hand. It was warm and heavy. An hour later, they turned the machines off.

* * *

In the months that followed, I found myself always wanting to be somewhere other than where I was. If I was at work, I'd wish I were at home. If I was in the apartment, I couldn't wait to get out of it. If a taxi I had hailed was stuck in traffic for over a minute, I got out and walked. I felt best when I was on the move, going someplace rather than being there. I took up ice-skating. I rose early in the morning and made my way through the quiet, dawn-lit streets to the rink, where I laced up my skates so tightly my feet throbbed. I welcomed the numbing cold and even the jolt of my falls on the hard, wet ice. The fast-paced, repetitive maneuvers distracted me, and sometimes I went back at night to skate again, returning home only when it was late and I was exhausted. It took me a while to realize that just being on the move wasn't enough; that I needed to reconsider everything.

* * *

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 took a small apartment on the West Side. It had neither a doorman nor a fireplace, but there were large windows that flooded the rooms with light, and parquet floors and a small foyer, just like that first apartment Lori and I had found in the Bronx. It felt right.

I went ice-skating less often, and when my skates were stolen, I never replaced them. My compulsion to be always on the move began to fade. But 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.

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