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The Silver Star

A Novel
By Jeannette Walls

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The Silver Star

CHAPTER ONE


My sister saved my life when I was just a baby. Here’s what happened. After a fight with her family, Mom decided to leave home in the middle of the night, taking us with her. I was only a few months old, so Mom put me in the infant carrier. She set it on the roof of the car while she stashed some things in the trunk, then she settled Liz, who was three, in the backseat. Mom was going through a rough period at the time and had a lot on her mind—craziness, craziness, craziness, she’d say later. Completely forgetting that she’d left me on the roof, Mom drove off.

Liz started shrieking my name and pointing up. At first Mom didn’t understand what Liz was saying, then she realized what she’d done and slammed on the brakes. The carrier slid forward onto the hood, but since I was strapped in, I was all right. In fact, I wasn’t even crying. In the years afterward, whenever Mom told the story, which she found hilarious and acted out in dramatic detail, she liked to say thank goodness Liz had her wits about her, otherwise that carrier would have flown right off and I’d have been a goner.

Liz remembered the whole thing vividly, but she never thought it was funny. She had saved me. That was the kind of sister Liz was. And that was why, the night the whole mess started, I wasn’t worried that Mom had been gone for four days. I was more worried about the chicken potpies.

I really hated it when the crust on our chicken potpies got burned, but the timer on the toaster oven was broken, and so that night I was staring into the oven’s little glass window because, once those pies began turning brown, you had to watch them the entire time.

Liz was setting the table. Mom was off in Los Angeles, at some recording studio auditioning for a role as a backup singer.

“Do you think she’ll get the job?” I asked Liz.

“I have no idea,” Liz said.

“I do. I have a good feeling about this one.”

Mom had been going into the city a lot ever since we had moved to Lost Lake, a little town in the Colorado Desert of Southern California. Usually she was gone for only a night or two, never this long. We didn’t know exactly when she’d be back, and since the telephone had been turned off—Mom was arguing with the phone company about some long-distance calls she said she didn’t make—she had no way of calling us.

Still, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Mom’s career had always taken up a sizeable chunk of her time. Even when we were younger, she’d have a sitter or a friend watch us while she flew off to some place like Nashville—so Liz and I were used to being on our own. Liz was in charge, since she was fifteen and I’d just turned twelve, but I wasn’t the kind of kid who needed to be babied.

When Mom was away, all we ate were chicken potpies. I loved them and could eat them every night. Liz said that if you had a glass of milk with your chicken potpie, you were getting a dinner that included all four food groups—meat, vegetables, grain, and dairy—so it was the perfect diet.

Plus, they were fun to eat. You each got your very own pie in the nifty little tinfoil pie plate, and you could do whatever you wanted with it. I liked to break up the crust and mush it together with the bits of carrots and peas and the yellow gunk. Liz thought mushing it all together was uncouth. It also made the crust soggy, and what she found so appealing about chicken potpies was the contrast between the crispy crust and the goopy filling. She preferred to leave the crust intact, cutting dainty wedges with each bite.

Once the piecrusts had turned that wonderful golden brown, with the little ridged edges almost but not quite burned, I told Liz they were ready. She pulled them out of the toaster oven, and we sat down at the red Formica table.

At dinnertime, when Mom was away, we liked to play games Liz made up. One she called Chew-and-Spew, where you waited until the other person had a mouthful of food or milk, then you tried to make her laugh. Liz pretty much always won, because it was sort of easy to make me laugh. In fact, sometimes I laughed so hard the milk came shooting out of my nose.

Another game she made up was called the Lying Game. One person gave two statements, one true, the second a lie, and the other person got to ask five questions about the statements, then had to guess which one was the lie. Liz usually won the Lying Game, too, but as with Chew-and-Spew, it didn’t matter who won. What was fun was playing the game. That night I was excited because I had what I thought was an unbelievable stumper: A frog’s eyeballs go into its mouth when it’s swallowing or a frog’s blood is green.

“That’s easy,” Liz said. “Green blood is the lie.”

“I can’t believe you guessed it right away!”

“We dissected frogs in biology.”

I was still talking about how hilarious and bizarre it was that a frog used its eyeballs to swallow when Mom walked through the door carrying a white box tied with red string. “Key lime pie for my girls!” she announced, holding up the box. Her face was glowing and she had a giddy smile. “It’s a special occasion, because our lives are about to change.”

As Mom cut the pie and passed the slices around, she told us that while she’d been at that recording studio, she’d met a man. He was a record producer named Mark Parker, and he’d told her that the reason she wasn’t landing gigs as a backup singer was that her voice was too distinctive and she was upstaging the lead singers.

“Mark said I wasn’t cut out to play second fiddle to anyone,” Mom explained. He told her she had star quality, and that night he took her out to dinner and they talked about how to jump-start her career. “He’s so smart and funny,” Mom said. “You girls will adore him.”

“Is he serious, or is he just a tire-kicker?” I asked.

“Watch it, Bean,” Mom said.

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Bean’s not my real name, of course, but that’s what everyone calls me. Bean.

It wasn’t my idea. When I was born, Mom named me Jean, but the first time Liz laid eyes on me, she called me Jean the Bean because I was teeny like a bean and because it rhymed—Liz was always rhyming—and then simply Bean because it was shorter. But sometimes she would go and make it longer, calling me the Beaner or Bean Head, maybe Clean Bean when I’d taken a bath, Lean Bean because I was so skinny, Queen Bean just to make me feel good, or Mean Bean if I was in a bad mood. Once, when I got food poisoning after eating a bowl of bad chili, she called me Green Bean, and then later, when I was hugging the toilet and feeling even worse, she called me Greener Beaner.

Liz couldn’t resist playing with words. That was why she loved the name of our new town, Lost Lake. “Let’s go look for it,” she’d say, or “I wonder who lost it,” or “Maybe the lake should ask for directions.”

We’d moved to Lost Lake from Pasadena four months ago, on New Year’s Day of 1970, because Mom said a change of scenery would give us a fresh start for the new decade. Lost Lake was a pretty neat place, in my opinion. Most of the people who lived there were Mexicans who kept chickens and goats in their yards, which was where they practically lived themselves, cooking on grills and dancing to the Mexican music that blared from their radios. Dogs and cats roamed the dusty streets, and irrigation canals at the edge of town carried water to the crop fields. No one looked sideways at you if you wore your big sister’s hand-me-downs or your mom drove an old brown Dart. Our neighbors lived in little adobe houses, but we rented a cinder-block bungalow. It was Mom’s idea to paint the cinder blocks turquoise blue and the door and windowsills tangerine orange. “Let’s not even pretend we want to blend in,” she said.

Mom was a singer, songwriter, and actress. She had never actually been in a movie or made a record, but she hated to be called “aspiring,” and truth be told, she was a little older than the people described that way in the movie magazines she was always buying. Mom’s thirty-sixth birthday was coming up, and she complained that the singers who were getting all the attention, like Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, were at least ten years younger than her.

Even so, Mom always said her big break was right around the corner. Sometimes she got callbacks after auditions, but she usually came home shaking her head and saying the guys at the studio were just tire-kickers who wanted a second look at her cleavage. So while Mom had her career, it wasn’t one that produced much in the way of income—yet. Mostly we lived on Mom’s inheritance. It hadn’t been a ton of money to begin with, and by the time we moved to Lost Lake, we were on a fairly tight budget.

When Mom wasn’t taking trips into L.A.—which were draining because the drive was nearly four hours in each direction—she tended to sleep late and spend the day writing songs, playing them on one of her four guitars. Her favorite, a 1961 Zemaitis, cost about a year’s rent. She also had a Gibson Southern Jumbo, a honey-colored Martin, and a Spanish guitar made from Brazilian rosewood. If she wasn’t practicing her songs, she was working on a musical play based on her life, about breaking away from her stifling Old South family, jettisoning her jerk of a husband and string of deadbeat boyfriends—together with all the tire-kickers who didn’t reach the boyfriend stage—and discovering her true voice in music. She called the play “Finding the Magic.”

Mom always talked about how the secret to the creative process was finding the magic. That, she said, was what you needed to do in life as well. Find the magic. In musical harmony, in the rain on your face and the sun on your bare shoulders, in the morning dew that soaked your sneakers and the wildflowers you picked for free in the roadside ditch, in love at first sight and those sad memories of the one who got away. “Find the magic,” Mom always said. “And if you can’t find the magic,” she added, “then make the magic.”

The three of us were magic, Mom liked to say. She assured us that no matter how famous she became, nothing would ever be more important to her than her two girls. We were a tribe of three, she said. Three was a perfect number, she’d go on. Think of it. The holy trinity, three musketeers, three kings of Orient, three little pigs, three stooges, three blind mice, three wishes, three strikes, three cheers, three’s a charm. The three of us were all we needed, Mom said.

But that didn’t keep her from going out on dates with tire-kickers.

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