Home > The Great Alone(4)

The Great Alone(4)
Author: Kristin Hannah

She returned to the empty kitchen, which smelled of coffee and cigarette smoke, and flopped into a chair and opened The Call of the Wild.

Mama didn’t come out of her room for an hour.

Leni hardly recognized her. She had teased and sprayed her blond hair back into a tiny bun; she wore a fitted, buttoned-up, belted avocado-green dress that covered her from throat to wrists to knees. And nylons. And old-lady shoes. “Holy cow.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mama said, lighting up a cigarette. “I look like a PTA bake-sale organizer.” The blue cream eye shadow she wore had a little sparkle in it. She’d glued her false eyelashes on with a slightly unsteady hand and her eyeliner was thicker than usual. “Are those your only shoes?”

Leni looked down at the spatula-shaped Earth Shoes that lifted her toes the slightest bit above her heels. She had begged and begged for these shoes after Joanne Berkowitz got a pair and everyone in class oohed and aahed. “I have my red tennis shoes, but the laces broke yesterday.”

“Okay. Whatever. Let’s go.”

Leni followed her mother out of the house. They both climbed into the ripped-up red seats of their dented, primer-painted Mustang. The trunk was kept shut by bright yellow bungee cords.

Mama flipped down the visor and checked her makeup in the mirror. (Leni was convinced that the key wouldn’t turn in the ignition if her mother didn’t check her reflection and light up a cigarette.) She applied fresh lipstick, rolled her lips, and used the triangle tip of her cuff to wipe an invisible imperfection away. When she was finally satisfied, she flipped the visor back up and started the engine. The radio came on, blaring “Midnight at the Oasis.”

“Did you know there are a hundred ways to die in Alaska?” Leni asked. “You can fall down a mountainside, or through thin ice. You can freeze or starve. You can even be eaten.”

“Your father should not have given you that book.” Mama popped a tape into the player and Carole King’s voice took over. I feel the earth move …

Mama started singing and Leni joined in. For a beautiful few minutes, they were doing something ordinary, driving down I-5 toward downtown Seattle, Mama changing lanes whenever a car appeared in front of her, a cigarette captured between two fingers of the hand on the steering wheel.

Two blocks later, Mama pulled up in front of the bank. Parked. She checked her makeup again and said, “Stay here,” and got out of the car.

Leni leaned over and locked the car door. She watched her mother walk to the front door. Only Mama didn’t really walk; she sashayed, her hips moving gently from side to side. She was a beautiful woman and she knew it. That was another thing Mama and Dad fought about. The way men looked at Mama. He hated it, but Leni knew Mama liked the attention (although she was careful never to admit it).

Fifteen minutes later, when Mama came out of the bank, she was not sashaying. She was marching, with her hands balled into fists. She looked mad. Her delicate jaw was clenched tightly. “Son of a bitch,” she said as she yanked open her door and got into the car. She said it again as she slammed the door shut.

“What?” Leni said.

“Your dad cleared out our savings account. And they won’t give me a credit card unless your father or my father cosigns.” She lit up a cigarette. “Sweet Jesus, it’s 1974. I have a job. I make money. And a woman can’t get a credit card without a man’s signature. It’s a man’s world, baby girl.” She started the car and sped down the street, turning onto the freeway.

Leni had trouble staying in her seat with all of the lane changes; she kept sliding side to side. She was so focused on staying steady that it was another few miles before she realized they had passed the hills of downtown Seattle and were now driving through a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of stately homes. “Holy moly,” Leni said under her breath. Leni hadn’t been on this street for years. So many that she’d almost forgotten it.

The houses on this street oozed privilege. Brand-new Cadillacs and Toronados and Lincoln Continentals were parked on cement driveways.

Mama parked in front of a large house made of rough gray stone with diamond-patterned windows. It sat on a small rise of manicured lawn, bordered on all sides by meticulously maintained flower beds. The mailbox read: Golliher.

“Wow. We haven’t been here in years,” Leni said.

“I know. You stay here.”

“No way. Another girl disappeared this month. I’m not staying out here alone.”

“Come here,” Mama said, pulling a brush and two pink ribbons out of her purse. She yanked Leni close and attacked her long, copper-red hair as if it had offended her. “Ow!” Leni yelped as Mama braided it into pigtails that arced out like spigots from each side of Leni’s head.

“You are a listener today, Lenora,” Mama said, tying bows at the end of each pigtail.

“I’m too old for pigtails,” Leni complained.

“Listener,” Mama said again. “Bring your book and sit quietly and let the adults talk.” She opened her door and got out of the car. Leni rushed to meet her on the sidewalk.

Mama grabbed Leni’s hand and pulled her onto a walkway lined with sculpted hedges and up to a large wooden front door.

Mama glanced at Leni, muttered, “Here goes nothing,” and rang the bell. It made a deep clanging sound, like church bells, after which came the sound of muffled footsteps.

Moments later, Leni’s grandmother opened the door. In an eggplant-colored dress, with a slim belt at her waist and three strands of pearls around her throat, she looked ready for lunch with the governor. Her chestnut-colored hair was coiled and shellacked like one of those holiday bread loaves. Her heavily made-up eyes widened. “Coraline,” she whispered, coming forward, opening her arms.

“Is Dad here?” Mama asked.

Grandmother pulled back, let her arms drop to her sides. “He’s in court today.”

Mama nodded. “Can we come in?”

Leni saw how the question upset her grandmother; wrinkles settled in waves across her pale, powdered brow. “Of course. And Lenora. How lovely to see you again.”

Grandmother stepped back into the shadows. She led them through a foyer, beyond which were rooms and doorways and a staircase that swirled up to a shadowy second floor.

The home smelled like lemon wax and flowers.

She led them into an enclosed back porch with curved glass windows and giant glass doors and plants everywhere. The furniture was all white wicker. Leni was assigned a seat at a small table overlooking the garden outside.

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