An insight into Xan's life and work. The reader meets Dana who will have an important impact on Xan's future.
Xan thought it was true when people said she marched to the beat of a different drummer. She could feel it in her feet, which were small for her height and flat on the bottoms. If she walked in shoes for too long, it felt as if nails were driving up through the heels, forcing her to walk on tiptoes. Once, when she saw herself on a video tape, she had seen this habit gave her a peculiar bobbing gait that, coupled with her height, made her stand out from everyone else. The discomfort could be alleviated if she used shoe inserts with holes the size of quarters cut out where her heel struck the ground. The problem was she could never find the inserts when her feet were bothering her.
It was one of the many problems living in a room where one couldn’t stand up straight. Or that didn’t have lighting. Or when the mattress took up nearly the entire floor space.
She looked around at the mess in her room. It was a good job she only used this room to sleep in. There was a small freeze box she filled with ice to keep what few perishables she had fresh that was positioned at the foot of her mattress. Pulling the blankets back from the bed, she managed to find the clothes she had worn the day before. All she had really thought about that day was what Zach had said about her clothes. They weren’t quite dirty enough to be washed, she didn’t think. She sniffed under the arm of her shirt and checked the front for stains. It seemed okay to her. She sniffed the crotch of her jeans and decided that perhaps it was time to do a little laundry. For a few moments she even considered washing her sheets and blankets—they were looking a little grubby. Maybe she needed to take a day off to do a really good clean out of her room; air out the mattress even, give the floor beneath it a good sweep. It wouldn’t be like it would take long to clean such a space out.
Xan opened the door to her room. It wasn’t really a room; it was more like a closet. But it wasn’t quite a closet because those are found in houses and this closet was above an old garage that no one seemed to use. As soon as the door opened, her cat, Persephone, came in purring and looking for something to eat. Xan had a small covered dish of dried cat food which she opened and then took a few bits out for the cat to nibble from her hand. Persephone walked over Xan’s legs and plonked herself down in Xan’s lap to nibble.
So much for the great idea of cleaning the place out, Xan thought. Persephone finished her food and stood on Xan’s legs, arching her back and sniffing the air as if trying to find the source of the food. Xan petted her from the top of her head all the way to the end of her tail, loving it when Persephone arched her back into Xan’s hand as if to make better use of the stroke.
Maybe I should paint, try to make the place look a bit better, Xan thought. She was nearly sixteen and had lived in the room since she started high school. It was a real find. When her mother was around they had shared a single room that her mother complained cost a fortune. That room had a small cooker, a small toilet, a bed and (sometimes) hot water. There was just enough room for Xan to stretch out on the floor next to her mother or, if she was lucky, squeeze in on the bed with her mother if there wasn’t already a strange man filling it. She shuddered. She could tell just by looking at the men her mother brought home whether or not it was safe for her to stay. In the end, it just got more and more unsafe. She didn’t mind the sex, she minded the men’s disgusting habits, their oily hair or skuzzy teeth or the way they couldn’t control themselves.
Xan was glad Zach had more control. He was clean and he liked to talk about things other than the simple act. He had things to do and she loved the way he focused on improving his baseball. She could watch him practice his swings all day or crouch in the catcher’s position and let him practice his pitching for hours, even if her legs got cramped from being in one position for too long.
Persephone got bored of being stroked and moved off Xan’s legs with a small miaow good bye, leaving behind a small pile of hairs that could be gathered into enough of a pile that anyone could mistake it for a small mouse.
Xan got to her feet, careful not to bump her head and pulled all of her clothes from the bed, sorting them from the various blankets. She stripped the bed and put bedding to one side and clothes to the other just outside the room. With everything off the bed, she flipped over the mattress. Beneath the mattress were some clothes she hadn’t seen in a while, wrinkled but smelling okay. And she found the inserts for her shoes which she immediately put inside her shoes. Beneath those were the blankets she stored during the summer months. During the heat of the summer, the room became too warm to even use blankets but during the winter, she knew there would be nights she would fear freezing to death. She added these blankets to the pile of bedding, then thought better of it: how would she carry them? Beneath the blankets, she also found a couple of pens which she stashed in the pocket of her jeans for school. A few spiders scuttled through the various cracks in the floorboards and Xan made a mental note to steal some garbage bags from work to cover the floor so they couldn’t come out again.
The job was turning out to be much more complicated than she had thought. It was bad enough she would have to go to work early; she would also have to come back from work to sort everything out again.
Stuffed beneath a plank was a metal box which Xan kept her valuables. Suddenly, she wanted to touch the contents within it. Lifting the plank, she took out the box and used a key kept around her neck to open it. Inside was a smaller box made from the bark of a birch tree and decorated with porcupine needles arranged to look like flowers. Xan held the box to her nose and inhaled. It still smelled of the sweet grass. Under this box was her cash: 18-100 dollar bills. She liked collecting one hundred dollar bills and always asked her boss to set them aside so she could cash smaller bills up. The big bills were so much more efficient and tidy. Setting the boxes aside, she held the cash and did some calculations:
1) There were about 100 weeks left before she could go to university
2) On a good week, she would have about 100 dollars left over after buying essentials
3) It cost about 5,000 dollars per year to attend university
4) If she played her cards right, she would have enough money in two years’ time to pay for two years of university.
5) She had no plans for how she would come up with the rest of the money
Xan knew there were such things as scholarships and loans but she did not consider herself smart enough for a scholarship or desperate enough for a loan. Stashing the money away to its place, she put the boxes back to order and set everything back to where it belonged. Then she grabbed her clothes to be washed, put on the clothes she wore for work and was off.
Work was as she had left it: spotlessly clean. She went about the kitchen, turning on various appliances. In the back of the kitchen were huge sinks, usually piled high with the dishes she had to wash before she could leave. She put the plug in the sink and turned on the hot water. When the bottom of the sink had filled with water, she added a few squirts of detergent and added her dirty clothes.
Making the coleslaw was next. From the refrigerator, she took the cabbage, onions, carrots and special sauce to the vegetable processor. This routine she could do almost blind folded. She chopped and scraped the vegetables and then passed them through the processor, added the sauce and then with long gloves, reached inside the tub to mix them together. That done, she returned to her clothes which were soaking in the sink. There was a large, metal spoon and she used this to agitate the water which she was surprised to see was gray: her clothes really did need a wash.
Then it was time to begin making the chicken. This had its own routine too and she followed it because somehow the owner of the shop had a way of knowing when she hadn’t. There was no way she wanted to aggravate him: he would have no difficulties in “giving her the sack” as he liked to remind her often enough. The chicken had to be dunked in a special liquid no more and no less than seven times. Then it had to be hand rolled in special flour no more and no less than thirteen times. Then dunked back in the special liquid another seven times then rolled in special flour no more and no less than thirteen times. The arrangement of the chicken on the wire rack was also prescribed: the wings, backs and legs on the outside, the thighs and breasts on the inside. It was a job she would have to do nine or ten times on a busy night.
With the chicken cooking, she could again turn her attention to her clothes. She pulled the chain to release the plug, adding more hot water to rinse them.
“Xan, you’re ahead of yourself.” Xan jumped.
The very last thing she wanted was for Gary, her boss, to see her washing her underwear in the sink used to wash dishes. Using a long handled spoon, she scooped up her clothes and threw them into a bucket which she could only hope was clean. Just as Gary came around the corner, she was able to shove the bucket under the sink.
“Well, you know I’m always hoping to make a bit more money. . .”
“Forget it. It’s a flat rate of $20 a night. Unless you can think of other things you might want to do.” He eyed her breasts with interest. Xan hated wearing bras and opted for t-shirts under everything she wore. It wasn’t as if she had much to cover anyway but seeing the way Gary stared at what she did have was enough to convince her that perhaps she should opt for something a little sturdier.
“You mean maybe doing something that would bring a smile to your face?” She turned her back to him.
“Something like that,” he whispered. A chill went down Xan’s spine. It felt as if he were whispering directly into her ear and she could almost feel her hair move with his breath.
“How about I tell you joke?”
“No thanks. I’d rather you get on with the biscuits.”
Xan sighed with relief and laid out the ingredients for the biscuits and got to work on them. There was gravy to be made too. When she first started, she had to make a long list which she had to consult every second in order to make sure nothing was forgotten. On her first day she had forgotten the gravy and was nearly sacked. The radio was switched on and she could hear Gary busying himself with folding boxes and lining them with paper. When she thought he was suitably distracted, she stopped with the biscuits and checked her laundry.
On the top of the pile were a few pairs of underwear, holey and stained, which she wrung out as best as she could. Next were the two t-shirts she alternated wearing. These were far less stained than the two blouses she, more often than not, couldn’t be bothered to alternate. Even wet, she could see how much cleaner they looked. With some detergent and the wire brush used for scraping the bottom of pots clean, she tried to scrub out the stains. Instead of removing the stains, she ripped the thin material of the garment completely.
“Shit,” she muttered to herself. She held the blouse up to have a better look. The rip was not along the seam but the fabric itself. Carefully, she wrung out the blouses then reached into the bucket to pull out her jeans. At first she thought that, like the blouses, had just been so dirty that they looked completely different. Then the smell of bleach hit her. “Oh God,” she groaned. The jeans on top were fine but the ones below were bleached completely white where they had been touching the disinfectant. She rinsed these again in cold water, quietly cursed Zach and his fussy hygiene habits. If he hadn’t mentioned her clothes, she wouldn’t have been there trying to wash them.
The timer on the biscuits went off followed a few seconds later by the chicken. She dropped the clothes on the side of the sink and ran to the biscuit oven. Even a few extra seconds could change the colour of the biscuits and make them unsellable. Flinging the door open, she pulled them out just in time. The chicken timer bleated without mercy.
“Xan, what the hell you doing back there?” Gary shouted.
“I’m getting it. I’m getting it,” she called.
“Well, move your ass. We’re open in five minutes.”
Xan sprang to the chicken boiler and hoisted the rack from the oil it boiled in. With a pair of tongs, she began to arrange the chicken on a rack to be put in warming ovens. She hummed a bit to herself. Seeing the product of her hard work always pleased her and she thought this satisfaction in her work would be enough to sustain her for her entire life.
The front door opened and Dana rushed in, bringing with her a stench of perfume that ruined the fragrance of the chicken. Xan walked around the corner to say hello.
“God it stinks in here,” she announced. She threw Xan a wink.
“You’re late,” Gary said.
“Oh only a few minutes,” she said sweetly. She took off her coat and puffed her chest out, pressing her breasts against her tight top. Xan saw Gary stare and smiled to herself. Dana was such a pretty girl, she could get away with anything. Once she had confided that Gary paid her nearly double the minimum wage because she was ‘the face of the restaurant.’ Rather than get upset about this, Xan immediately understood: Dana was an attraction. There were lots of regular customers who came to the chicken hut just because they wanted Dana to smile at them, say a few pleasantries and let them have a good look at her cleavage. Xan knew the regulars especially liked in when Dana turned her back to them and bent over, giving them a good look at her perky backside. There were a lot of regular customers, not just men but women too who appreciated a friendly smile, a bit of sympathy and a hot dinner they didn’t have to cook.
“Time is money. Get your uniform on and get out there serving customers like you’re supposed to. It’s coupon night.”
Xan and Dana groaned simultaneously.
“Get back to work or I’ll give you both something to groan about!”
Dana kicked off her high heels and walked barefoot through the kitchen to change. Xan followed her to get the coleslaw from the fridge.
“What are doing?” she asked Xan when she saw the clothes.
“Oh just a little laundry.”
“You know there are these fabulous machines called washing machines for that very purpose.” She flicked her hair off her shoulders, then scooped it into a quick twist and secured it with a clip.
“Well, I don’t have one.”
“No time.” Xan said quickly and shrugged.
“Then get your mother to do it,” Dana said as if it were the easiest of solutions. It was often on the tip of Xan’s tongue to tell her she didn’t have a mother but she knew it would only lead to more questions. Dana unbuttoned her blouse, revealing a purple bra then she pulled off her pants revealing matching underwear. Lingerie, Xan thought. Proper stuff. She wondered how much it cost. Dana pulled her uniform over her head, wiggling into it as it was tight around the hips.
“Cool undies,” Xan remarked.
“Rich boyfriend,” Dana replied as she applied more lipstick. It was a marvel to Xan that Dana, only a year older than she was, could make even the ugliest of uniforms look elegant. “Just one little question, Xan.”
“How are you going to dry your clothes?”
“Put them in the warming oven, of course,” Xan answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.