In the Garden of Persephone (Part 7)

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A glimpse into Hannah's life in the Salvation Army and her troubled relationship with her mother.

In the church Music room, Hannah Knight gave her euphonium a quick wipe to remove any accumulated sweat and put it in its case. She opened the cupboard where she stored it and slid the case in. There was a “fellowship meeting” (which Hannah had noted always included the opportunity to eat) and her mother had ordered some fried chicken with the request that Hannah pick it up. Hannah planned on changing her uniform before picking up the order. She found the bag with a change of clothes, stood and turned--and bumped straight into her mother.

            “Sorry Mom. Didn’t see you.” It seemed to Hannah that recently her mother was everywhere she didn’t want to be and Hannah was finding it increasingly difficult to keep her temper. There was also the issue of further education and a constant subliminal pressure to choose a University and a major. Hannah wanted to study Music and her mother was praying Hannah would be called by God to be a Salvation Army officer.

            “Surprised you, huh?” Mrs. Captain Knight still had on her impeccable uniform which Hannah knew would still be on until very late tonight and the spare uniform on first thing in the morning. Very few people had ever seen Mrs. Knight out of uniform. Hannah tried to hide the bag containing her change of clothes.

            “I was in a bit of a hurry.”

            “But you still have time to change out of your uniform?” Mrs Knight said, nodding towards the bag.

            Hannah shrugged. A few other bandsmen came into the room.

            “You know Hannah,” her mother said and Hannah knew this was not only for her own benefit but for the benefit of those within hearing distance. “Our uniform is our witness. Our testimony. Anyone who sees us will know that we are children of God.”

            Hannah was desperate to add that everyone was a child of God--in or out of a Salvation Army uniform--but she didn’t want to make a scene in front of others. If she did, the chances were very high that someone would call her into a quiet corner and tell her she should be more supportive of her poor, widowed mother.

            “Well,” Hannah was getting faster at thinking up lies. “I hate the way the chicken smell sticks on my uniform. You know next week, I’ll be in the songsters and I’ll be able to smell fried chicken. Not nice for me or anyone else. And anyway, I’ll be in the van.” The van she would be driving in addition to being abnormally long and obnoxious, was emblazoned with the Salvation Army logo on the side.

            “God Bless,” her mother said, kissing her.

            As Hannah walked down the hall to the changing room, she heard someone compliment her mother on the fine job she was doing raising her daughter on her own. Hannah didn’t want to hear what her mother said in response.

            Hannah removed her bonnet and carefully placed it in its protective box. She tugged her hair free from its restrictive clip and then began the long process of returning to a sixteen year old girl. First off were the black, medium heeled pumps. Hannah used to think the only thing good about wearing a uniform had been that she was the first of her friends to be able to wear pumps without a battle from her parents. She stepped onto the cold floor tiles and wiggled her toes before placing her shoes into a bag, grateful to let her feet have a chance to be flat on the floor. Next, the tunic, which she hung on a hook, then the white blouse, which was tricky because there was a collar broach that had to be unpinned and boxed first. With the blouse off, Hannah slipped a sweatshirt on before wiggling out of her black skirt and pantyhose. She pulled on a pair of socks, then jeans and tennis shoes, immediately feeling more like a normal member of the public. It didn’t matter she would have to reverse the dressing order before she could bring the chicken to her mother. Hannah had the knack of getting in and out of uniform down to a fine art. She hung up her uniform carefully and left it on a hook for when she returned.

            Hannah walked out to the van, jingling the keys in her hand, feeling her hair swing against her back and shoulders. Several uniformed bandsmen waved to her. It seemed everyone was waiting for Hannah to pick up the chicken so they could eat their late Sunday supper, go home, change out of their uniform and do whatever they did when they weren’t in church. The thought of people depending on Hannah for their freedom made her pick up her step.

            It’s like a different world, Hannah reflected as she drove. She watched cars loaded with children pass, couples perhaps on first dates, a few cars containing elderly folks no doubt driving home from church. She wondered what it would be like to have a free Sunday, to do whatever you liked. Hannah had no idea what she would do with a free Sunday. Maybe go to the beach. Since coming to Port Huron, she hadn’t had the time to check out the local beaches. Before she moved here, everyone said what great beaches Port Huron had. But maybe it had just been to cheer her up. Hannah hadn’t wanted to move, hadn’t wanted to change schools for her two final years of education. But she was stoic about it, didn’t want to hear her mother say it was what her father would have wanted.

            It was still light, though the sun was low. Hannah liked to drive and often volunteered to chauffeur the Scouts or Sunbeams or Golden Agers to various functions. She didn’t mind their sing alongs or requests to stop at cheap highway restaurants. She’d sip coffee or a milkshake, pretend to pray and think of how she was going to tell her mother she wanted to buy a car of her own.

            Hannah pulled into The Chicken Hut and looked around before she got out of the van. On more than one occasion, she had been jeered and laughed at, perhaps even felt a little threatened. Hannah was well aware not everyone thought highly of the Salvation Army.

            When Hannah opened the door of the restaurant, she heard a far off bell announce her arrival. She walked to the counter and patiently waited for someone to come out so she could pick up her order. It was very warm and the smell of seasoned frying chicken made her stomach rumble.

            She waited a few minutes before she got a little impatient. She pressed a buzzer for assistance. Nothing. She pressed again. Waited. Nothing.

            When she was just about to go around the corner and shout, a worker in a plastic apron, covered in chicken guts pushed through the door.

            Hannah immediately recognised Xan.

            Xan the Great Pretender, she had heard people call her. Often imitated but fortunately never duplicated. She hadn’t seen much of her since the day the met in the school’s bandroom.

            Hannah hadn’t been at school long enough to know very many people but she knew about Xan. She would watch Xan as she ate her school dinner on the way from the cashier to the trashcan. She’s wolf down whatever required a spoon as she walked, then pocket what would survive the journey between the cafeteria and playing field, trash what was left and head to the outside field where Zach would be practising baseball. Xan would take a puff from the cigarettes of anyone who was smoking as she passed. Xan had never said hello to Hannah, never indicated she wanted to strike up a friendship or even acknowledged her ever since the day when she saw her in the van helping Sadie. Hannah wasn’t sure if she felt sorrier for her mother who had taken on Sadie as a “project” or for Sadie who clearly did not want to be helped. A lot of people were put off by the Salvation Army but Hannah was surprised that Xan, with all her peculiarities, would be one of them. It had been so long since she had spoken to Xan that she had simply given up on making friends and here she was, standing in front of her with chicken guts, slowly sliding from her uniform with a smile on her face.

            “I’m not supposed to be out here,” Xan said, still smiling. “The person who normally waits on customers is on break,” Xan said. She was just about to duck back in the kitchen.

            “Wait--” Hannah said, quickly, then, “Please.”

            “What?”

            “My mother placed a large order of chicken. We’re all waiting for it. It’s for Captain Knight.”

            “It’s cooking,” Xan said and again made a move to duck back into the kitchen.

            “We asked for it to be ready at 6:30.”

            “Well, I thought you’d appreciate it fresh.” Hannah could see Xan was blushing. “I thought your mother would pick it up.”

            “Sorry to disappoint.” Everyone, it seemed to Hannah, preferred her mother.

            “I’m not disappointed.” Xan was looking directly at Hannah. Xan was wearing some sort of cap, dusted in flour, brown polyester trousers covered in what looked like a combination of flour and grease, a tan polo shirt and the ugliest, dirtiest boots she had ever seen. This was in addition to white plastic apron covered in chicken guts.

            Hannah couldn’t help but smile. She’d never complain about what she had to wear on Sundays again.

            “I hope you’re not going to wear that outfit to school tomorrow.” Hannah told Xan.

            “I see you’ve taken off your contribution to fashion.” Xan patted her head to indicate Hannah’s missing bonnet.

            Hannah laughed. Xan looked at the floor, still blushing.

            “How long will it be?”

            “Not too long. A few minutes. Want a coke?” Xan pointed to a sign that said: “If you have to wait, we’ll give you a FREE drink”.

            Hannah nodded. Xan was about to pull out a cup, then stopped. Her hands were covered in chicken gore. “Maybe you’d better do it,” Xan told her. Hannah reached for a cup, then leaned over the counter to fill it. She stopped when it was half full.

            “I can’t come out like this,” Xan said, “But you can come ‘round back with me.”

            Hannah shrugged, surprised at Xan’s friendliness. Xan had a reputation for not talking to too many people. Except Zach. Xan led Hannah out the front door then around the back of the shop to an area reeking of rotting chicken. The combination of heat and the smell of grease and decaying fat made Hannah’s stomach do a somersault. It was sharp contrast to the inviting smell in the dining area. She took a sip of her drink to soothe herself. Xan lit what remained of a cigarette and stood next to a vat of what looked like chicken skins. With her elbow, Xan nudged the lid over the vat. She smoked for a few minutes and Hannah thought she couldn’t take much more of this place with its remains of chickens, the bits no one else wanted.

            Hannah saw that Xan knew she was uncomfortable.

            “Sorry to bring you out back here,” she started, then added somewhat sarcastically: “It’s not how we usually treat our customers.” She took another puff of her cigarette. Now Hannah could see she wanted to say something.

            “Are you getting used to everything?” Xan puffed again without waiting for an answer. “I’ll bet you and your mother get up to some adventures.”

            Hannah didn‘t want to talk about her mother. “Xan, I’m feeling a bit, well, like I wouldn’t want to be here for too much longer.”

            “Sorry Hannah.”

            Hannah turned to head back to fresh air. “I’ll just wait in the dining area.” Hannah, who earlier couldn’t wait to get out of her uniform, now longed to get back into its freshness.

            “Hannah, I have to talk to you about something.”

            Here it comes, thought Hannah. People always did this. Used her as some sort of confessional if her mother wasn’t around. She should have suspected Xan wasn’t extended a hand of friendship but laying a trap to ease her guilty conscience. Knowing the little she knew about Xan, Hannah expected it would be about Zach. Something sexual no doubt. Should they do it or should they wait?

            “It’s about that drunk at the parade. Sadie.” Her eyes were downcast.

            Hannah looked at Xan carefully. Hannah and her mother had been overloaded with words of advice. Most said the drunk wasn’t worth the bother--she would die on the streets anyway. Hannah was used to hearing stories of people who had lived on the streets, then found God, turned their lives around. But she was far more used to hearing the stories of the ones who didn’t make it, the ones who left parents, siblings, spouses and children behind. Hannah hadn’t known Xan for very long but she didn’t seem to be the kind of person who would make a donation but then donations often came from unexpected places. Hannah hated to accept money from people, would prefer if they‘d donate their time to lost causes so they‘d know what it was like to work on a hopeless cause.

            “I remember. How do people let themselves get to that state? No matter how many times I see it--”

            “I haven’t seen her for ages. I used to see her nearly every day on my way to school but recently--” Xan shrugged.

            “There’s nothing we can do unless they want us to do something.” Hannah sighed. “All we do is offer them a hot meal, a shower and maybe a clean bed for the night. Sorry.”

            Xan dismissed her with a wave of her chicken blood crusted hand. “She doesn’t mean anything to me but I need to know—“ she stopped abruptly and looked at Hannah carefully. “I just need to know where she is.”

Earthquakes, Hannah remembered. Xan was frightened of earthquakes and Sadie was always saying one was on its way.

            “Xan!” Both Hannah and Xan jumped as the back door opened. A small, man with dark hair and eyes stood in the doorway with arms folded and looking as if he had been in the middle of something important. “Chicken’s up!” Xan motioned for Hannah to go around the front as she went through the back.

            Hannah walked around the shop and made her way back inside, relieved to be away from the smell of rotting flesh. When her order came, it was delivered by a smiling, very pretty girl who wished Hannah a nice day as she handed her the change.

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