ut 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 THE hospital 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 FOLLOWING summer, 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-great-grandfather, 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 MOM and 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’re worried 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 marble- floored 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 ERIC was 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 WORKING as 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 u p 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. B u t 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 one-way 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 HARDLY ever 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. V THANKSGIVING I WAS STANDING ON the platform with my second husband, John. A whistle sounded in the distance, red lights flashed, and a bell clanged as the gates were lowered across the roadway. The whistle sounded again, and then the train appeared around the bend through the trees and rumbled toward the station, its massive twin headlights pale in the bright November afternoon. The train eased to a stop. The electric engines hummed and vibrated, and after a long pause, the doors opened. Passengers spilled out, carrying their folded newspapers and canvas weekend bags and brightly colored coats. Through the crowd, I saw Mom and Lori getting out at the back of the train, and I waved. It had been five years since Dad died. I had seen Mom only sporadically since then, and she’d never met John nor been to the old country farmhouse we’d bought the year before. It had been John’s idea to invite her and Lori and Brian out to the house for Thanksgiving, the first Walls family get-together since Dad’s funeral. Mom broke into a huge smile and started hurrying toward us. Instead of an overcoat, she was wearing what looked to be about four sweaters and a shawl, a pair of corduroy trousers, and some old sneakers. She carried bulky shopping bags in both hands. Lori, behind her, wore a black cape and a black fedora. They made quite a pair. Mom hugged me. Her long hair was mostly gray, but her cheeks were rosy and her eyes as bright as ever. Then Lori hugged me, and I introduced John. “Excuse my attire,” Mom said. “but I plan to change out of my comfy shoes into some dress shoes for dinner.” She reached into one of her shopping bags and pulled out a pair of banged-up penny loafers. The winding road back to the house led under stone bridges, through woods and villages, and past marsh ponds where swans floated on mirrorlike water. Most of the leaves had fallen, and gusts of wind sent them spiraling along the roadside. Through the thickets of bare trees, you could see houses that were invisible during the summer. As he drove, John told Mom and Lori about the area, about the duck farms and the flower farms and the Indian origin of our town’s name. Sitting beside him, I studied his profile and couldn’t help smiling. John wrote books and magazine articles. Like me, he had moved around a lot while growing up, but his mother had been raised in an Appalachian village in Tennessee, about a hundred miles southwest of Welch, so you could say our families hailed from the same neck of the woods. I’d never met a man I would rather spend time with. I loved him for all sorts of reasons: He cooked without recipes; he wrote nonsense poems for his nieces; his large, warm family had accepted me as one of their own. And when I first showed him my scar, he said it was interesting. He used the word. “textured.” He said. “smooth” was boring but. “textured” was interesting, and the scar meant that I was stronger than whatever it was that had tried to hurt me. We pulled into the drive. Jessica, John’s fifteen-year-old daughter from his first marriage, came out of the house, along with Brian and his eight-year-old daughter, Veronica, and their bull mastiff, Charlie. Brian hadn’t seen much of Mom since Dad’s funeral, either. He hugged her and immediately started ribbing her about the plucked-from-the-Dumpster presents she’d brought for everyone in the shopping bags: rusting silverware, old books and magazines, a few pieces of fine bone china from the twenties with only minor chips. Brian had become a decorated sergeant detective, supervising a special unit that investigated organized crime. He and his wife had split up around the time Eric and I did, but he had consoled himself by buying and renovating a wreck of a town house in Brooklyn. He put in new wiring and plumbing, a new firebox, reinforced floor joists, and a new porch all on his own. It was the second time he’d taken on a true dump and restored it to perfection. Also, at least two women were after him to marry them. He was doing pretty darn well. We showed Mom and Lori the gardens, which were ready for winter. John and I had done all the work ourselves: raked the leaves and shredded them in the chipper, cut back the dead perennials and mulched the beds, shoveled compost onto the vegetable garden and tilled it, and dug up the dahlia bulbs and stored them in a bucket of sand in the basement. John had also split and stacked the wood from a dead maple we’d cut down, and climbed up on the roof to replace some rotted cedar shingles. Mom nodded at all our preparations; she’d always appreciated self- sufficiency. She admired the wisteria that wrapped around the potting shed, the trumpet vine on the arbor, and the big grove of bamboo in the back. When she saw the pool, an impulse seized her, and she ran out onto the green elastic cover to test its strength, Charlie the dog loping after her. The cover sagged beneath them, and she fell down, shrieking with laughter. John and Brian had to help pull her off as Brian’s daughter, Veronica—who hadn’t seen Mom since she was a toddler—stared wide- eyed. “Grandma Walls is different from your other grandma,” I told her. “Way different,” Veronica said. John’s daughter, Jessica, turned to me and said, “But she laughs just like you do.” I showed Mom and Lori the house. I still went into the office in the city once a week, but this was where John and I lived and worked, our home —the first house I’d ever owned. Mom and Lori admired the wide- planked floorboards, the big fireplaces, and the ceiling beams made from locust posts, with gouge marks from the ax that had felled them. Mom’s eye settled on an Egyptian couch we’d bought at a flea market. It had carved legs and a wooden backrest inlaid with mother-of-pearl triangles. She nodded in approval. “Every household,” she said. “needs one piece of furniture in really bad taste.” The kitchen was filled with the smell of the roasting turkey John had prepared, with a stuffing of sausage, mushrooms, walnuts, apples, and spiced bread crumbs. He’d also made creamed onions, wild rice, cranberry sauce, and squash casserole. I’d baked three pies with apples from a nearby orchard. “Bonanza!” Brian shouted. “Feast time!” I said to him. He looked at the dishes. I knew what he was thinking, what he thought every time he saw a spread like this one. He shook his head and said. “You know, it’s really not that hard to put food on the table if that’s what you decide to do.” “Now, no recriminations,” Lori told him. After we sat down for dinner, Mom told us her good news. She had been a squatter for almost fifteen years, and the city had finally decided to sell the apartments to her and the other squatters for one dollar apiece. She couldn’t accept our invitation to stay awhile, she said, because she had to get back for a board meeting of the squatters. Mom also said she’d been in touch with Maureen, who was still living in California, and that our kid sister, whom I hadn’t spoken to since she left New York, was thinking of coming back for a visit. We started talking about some of Dad’s great escapades: letting me pet the cheetah, taking us Demon Hunting, giving us stars for Christmas. “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.” We raised our glasses. I could almost hear Dad chuckling at Mom’s comment in the way he always did when he was truly enjoying something. It had grown dark outside. A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order. About the Author Jeannette Walls lives in New York City and on Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor. She is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.