Kerri Eglin

      Janis wheels her arm at me from behind the bread-making table, "Come here, I'd like you to try something."

      I scrape three crumbs from the board onto flour scattered footprints. Walking toward her I keep my smile relaxed, natural. Like this isn't my first day.

      "Here." She rips a sheet of paper from a small pad and hands me a pen. "Draw a picture of you and God."

      Janis knows I am Catholic. Or that I come from a Catholic family, but what does this have to do with bread making? It reminds me of something a waiter from North Carolina once told me. How he was hired over a five-minute interview, where the owner of this famous, southern restaurant asked him to stand up on a chair; You have five minutes to make me laugh. I can't remember his reaction, but later that evening when I complained about the bugs outside, he cupped his hand gently to my ear and whispered, You might take a shower, that way all of us don't have to suffer. His comment, coupled with greasy chicken food fights and clap-for-the-ugliest-golfer contests, made it easy to see why this man was hired. He fit right into this deranged scene.

      Janis' lips are pursed upward. Her smiles spills out slow and sweetly like loose pieces of long brown hair slipping from her braid; or dough between fingers.

      "What do you mean?" I ask.

      "How would you draw a picture of you and God together?" she answers in a carefree voice. "It can be anything you like."

      I used to imagine myself sitting on the pillowy lap of a white-bearded man with long, wrinkled fingers and blue, flowing robes. I wonder how I might draw this while Janis offers slices to a mom and her curly-haired kids. I watch them drizzle honey from a sticky, plastic bear onto clean white slices; the bread tilted on the tips of their fingers drips small golden puddles onto the floor. They are cherubs in Gap Kids overalls. They think that heaven means clouds. My pen stiffens at the thought of returning to this queer portrait. I am too big for God's lap anymore.

      So instead I imagine my weekend morning runs along the foothills of the Rockies, a wave of land unfolding at my feet. Each step flowing into the next, forgetting that I am just one small thing running over land. Sometimes, when I run alone, a small yellow butterfly flutters up to my side and skips along at my shoulders. It dances for awhile and I watch it play with the wind, tumbling like kids in tall grass. I laugh, and it flies away. So I think . . . yes, this is God. This is us together.

      But instead I draw a teenage girl sporting a mini-skirt with pigtails and headphones. She is blowing a bubble and waving a chocolate candy bar above her head.

      Janis looks at my drawing. Her forehead wrinkles and she cocks her head sideways like a duped pup, "Interesting," she remarks . . . "I think I'd have to know you better in order to understand."

      I don't respond. I am not a teenage girl and I don't wear mini-skirts or pigtails or headphones. I love chocolate, but this is utterly strange and I look around the bakery thinking . . . Where the hell did my butterfly go?




      I want to shape the perfect loaf of Premium White dough. I want to look up from my fumbling thumbs to the sweat gleaming faces around me and trust that my hands will know what to do next. But my eyes are fixed on my sinking palms and the softness of dough. I pull and squeeze at its smoothness thinking, maybe, if I just keep at it the shape will eventually rise out of itself.

      Tim is patient with me. He watches my hands while his keep rolling, explaining carefully how to work the dough. I follow his lead, pressing down with the heels of my thumbs, feeling the coolness against my wrists, rolling it out forward and drawing it back. I imagine that I am giving a massage, the way my grandmother used to do. Pushing her thin strong fingers deep into the muscles of my back as though remedying herself. We settle into each others breathing and the jingles of crickets out in the yard move through her hands and down my spine.

      "It's therapeutic," Jim assured me before he'd even offered the job. His eyes, distantly mellow and bluish-gray, speak to his sincerity. I imagine myself wearing a long, thin braid-a white apron tied at my waist, standing around this bread-making table talking about horses too old to ride and shaking my hips to a country ditty. Saturday night and the moon is out I'm gonna head on over to the twist and shout you're my two step partner . . .

      But standing here now, I am far removed from the rehabilitating effects of this work. The hairs on my neck, too short for braiding, arrange themselves in sweaty clumps, like pasta slapped on plaster walls. Humidity rises up through my body and presses my weight into gravity's palms. Supple and dry like a squeezed out sponge, I bake at ninety-six degrees.

      Tim is demonstrating perfect bread-making form. "Sometimes I push the sides under like so and weave it back and forth a few times." He steps back so I can get a better look at the firmly kneaded bundle of Sunflower Whole Wheat. But I retreat, like a slow learned animal to my own approach. Over-kneading until the dough becomes too dry to work, I pull and fold until my fingers harden with clumps of flour, yeast and water.

      Tim pinches his lips tightly together and shrugs. We look down at what closely resembles a team of helpless donkeys stuck in the mud. "Or . . . some people do it different," he comments.

      And we laugh.



      The last remains of the first batch are set aside for sacrifice. Most of the regular employees don't understand exactly what this means, just that we are a Kosher bakery and such practices have become part of our normal routine.

      At first this seems strange. I had always thought of sacrifice as something more. The fourteen statues lining the doors of St. John's Church told the story of God's greatest sacrifice. Each wooden face growing slightly in torment from station to station made it impossible for any other act to be labeled sacrifice.

      "For your sins" my mother would pronounce on the car ride home. "He died for mine and your sins! The bread we eat is His body by which we acknowledge this great sacrifice." We listened intently. Partly because we didn't understand and partly because Father Duggan's threats of hell were still pumping fervently through our veins; but mostly it was my mother's voice that we were drawn to. Different than the one she used at dinner or little league baseball games. It was wildly elated, like the arms of a crazed symphony conductor, demanding our overt attention.

      The car ride to church was never as joyous an occasion. With half-tucked shirts my brothers and I would jump in the car, strap in and endure the wild rush of events that unwaveringly followed.

      "Did someone turn off the curling iron?"


      "How about the sprinkler in the back? Did someone turn off the sprinkler?"


      "Did someone grab the envelope?"

            "Anyone remember to grab the envelope?"

      We never knew who someone and anyone were. Only that it wasn't mom, who complained that she was tired of doing everything for everyone all the time. So we did what most would do upon forgetting. Blamed everyone else. And between the he-did-it-she-did-it-I didn't-do-its, my brothers managed to get in a few punches, along with tweaks and gleeks and other annoyances that I was spared, only because there were two of them and one of me. My mother managed to shout out a few threats to keep my brothers from untucking shirts and ultimately killing one another. All the while applying lipstick in the rearview mirror while cursing at the elderly couple in front of us, who no doubt arranged their morning around the sole prospect of making us late for mass.

      But something always happened to my mother in that short, forty minutes we spent wedged together, elbows and knees sparring for space. Something magical rose out of our systematic hand holding and peace-be-with-you gesturing that turned us into a real family, if only for a car ride home.

      I rarely felt the same conviction that filled our gold-paint Chevy as I knelt head bent, hands folded, chewing away at the lumpy mass we call communion. In accepting this bread I never experienced the contentment portrayed on the solemn faces of those around me. Mostly, I concentrated on prying the soggy bits from the roof of my mouth and forcing them down like paste. And I worried about the obscure implications of this act. Would He break into millions of tiny pieces and swim through my veins, through every corner of my body? Would He fix to my brain like a Russian spy device monitoring my every thought; or just pass through and leave me empty until next Sunday? And what about those who sat for communion? What happens to them? Or those who only come on Christmas and Easter? Could a single serving of Christ's sacrifice subdue an entire year's worth of sin?

      I've long given up on these questions and my mother has dutifully taken over the role of asking.

      "Did you go to mass this morning?"

      "Of course not," I say, crunching a spoonful of Raisin Bran.

      "Why not?" she protests. In the background I hear clinks of silverware and mumbles between relatives. They're probably eating a Honey Ham draped with toothpicks and pineapple slices. Aunt Dee always brings the fruit-nut jello that nobody touches. Grandma's in charge of pies, peach or rhubarb I imagine. And Aunt Pat is famous for her poppyseed potatoes and her wild laughter that is interrupting but always welcome, especially now.

      "But it's Easter," she reasons, in a softer voice.

I explain, like I normally do, that I've stopped attending mass three years ago. And I try to console her. "God and I have our own understanding."

      But she's afraid to ask me what that means. Or perhaps she is recalling one of the many occasions on which I've already tried to explain.

      "Well then lie to me," she pleads with a sort of laugh that comes out more like choking. Even though she is only breaking silence, I hang up and consider this. And I wonder if she really means it.



      Father Duggan says we should all be afraid. He says we're going to be damned someday. But that's a ways off-I'm only thirteen.

      "DAMNED, PEOPLE!!" he shouts, as if to demand, "What about that don't you understand?"

      His face, purple atop his white robe, beams through loose, silvery hairs that dangle over his sweat-dripping forehead. I don't know if he's more flushed with anger or with age, but his expression droops like the ten-foot stone Jesus clinging to the wire fixtures above him. Getting no reaction, his voice drops to a low grumble. He forfeits his offertory drudgery, sinking deep into the lap of a newly upholstered purple altar chair. He looks like he's ready to go. I mean really go.

      We are sinners.

      The large black women in blue robes swaying back and forth on my television screen do not seem afraid. Don't they know what's coming? I wonder. I think about them every Sunday-their joyful hands fluttering back and forth like birds, or small brown angels. They don't look like damned people. No stone Jesus peering down-no threat of Him letting go and spitting their sinful thoughts out onto the altar. I fantasize about becoming one of them. I'd stand up on the center pew, throw up my arms and put that old-wrinkly organ player to shame with my smooth and melodic . . . Oh yeah . . . uh huh . . . Alleluia-Praise His name!

      But this doesn't happen. Not once in my church-going life does the spirit move me to actually perform this demonstration of . . . dare I say, faith? And looking back now I believe that my parents, in their perfected state of Catholic conformity, wouldn't have been as proud as I then imagined.

      So I've learned to conform as well.

      This is the body of Christ.


      I step aside and the line moves on . . .



      "The bakery's custom of bread-burning is not really a sacrifice, though I can see how you might interpret it this way," Rabbi Jack explains over the phone. "It's more of a letting-go."

      I occasionally ask for his insight on the Jewish traditions we perform because I'm tired of just doing that, performing. I'm hoping to understand why we, believers and bread-makers, immerse ourselves in these ancient practices that lose their shape through generations of forgetting.

      "The burning ritual acknowledges bread as the first thing that people actually created," he says. "There is a particular awe surrounding bread . . . It is the center of people's food and so crucial to life."

      The exhortative quality of his voice matches my own affinity for the thought of bread making. It is easy to become part of this experience. To lose yourself in the atmosphere of heat, sweat and rising dough. Between kneading, rolling, rotating and shaping, we fall into patterns, rhythms and stories. We talk about our families and where we come from. I'm one of three at this table who drove west from New York and dropped off at the mountains. We miss apple cider and Buffalo chicken wings, Great Lakes and beaches, Adirondacks and the smell of autumn. We revel in all the bite-sized attachments that go unnoticed until left behind; find comfort in matching old memories.

      "But bread burning symbolizes detachment," explains Rabbi Jack. "It is a realization that we don't own things. That we just be able to part with our own creations, even those that we perceive to be at the center of life."



      Grandpa says, "The rain will come when the man upstairs sends it." I admire his faith and constant patience. But perhaps patience is the wrong word; rather tiredness and indifference toward corn fields and broken-down tractors.

      "I've got no pep left," he complains and shuffles off to his chair.

      Still, I admire his indifference because it makes him predictable, constant.

      Uncle Tom wanders in off the back porch, "Colorado Girl," he says in his drawn out voice that sounds like chewing hay. He tips back a jar of hard apple cider and squeezes the back of my neck. "My, my," wiping the sourness from his mustache. "They've just upped and grown too quickly."

      Twenty-six grandchildren and I'm the first female to wander away from the farm.

      "She's spreading her wings," my mother adds. She is always quick to defend my leaving but I don't doubt she suffers from an ongoing case of 'Where'd-I-go-wrong'?

      "When's your school done?" my grandmother asks, which really means, When are you coming home?

      "I'm not sure," I tell her. "Another year or two." Which in translation says, I'm not.

      She shifts her glance between my mother and me. She wants to blend us together. To make us stick like brown sugar and batter. Her hands wind the apple slow like a spiral staircase, dropping skin into a large metal bowl, exposing its clean white belly. I watch them turn in perfect circles, like instruments. Like wooden rolling pins thinning dough on this table. My elbows now pressed where our chins would sit, my cousins and I lined up like clothespins, eating the corners when no one was looking. She'd thumb a perfect trail of rolling valleys along the edges of the pie. Our dull-witted fingers would try to imitate, using tiny forks to shape the landscape. But we were never quite sure how to listen to our hands, so our pies would come out oozing raspberry goo.

      "A whole platoon of unfortunate soldiers," mumbled my grandpa, a sun-beaten farmer and World War II Vet.

      He shuffles off to bed. My mother stands and gathers her sweater and grandma fixes a bag for me to take home: Vitamin C, a Mary Kay powder puff and a container of Indian salad. I thank her and tell her I'll mail the bowl back. Under a hug we cling to each other's thinness.

      I want to tell her about bread making. About learning to listen with my hands. I want her to know that flour and dough remind me of her. And how the mountains silence me, like her palms on my back. But instead we smile, let go of hands, and say goodnight.

      The barn cats watch me with glowing eyes and follow me out to the car. They loop slowly, in and out of each step, clinging loosely to my ankles like soft, silk threads.



      At 10:43 my first three loaves come out of the oven looking like mutilations of an awful war explosion. At least that's how I imagine my grandfather would phrase it.

      "They're far more interesting than the others," Tim comments.

      I can't argue that. And I reason that few can actually point to their own handiwork when it comes out of the oven.

      I edge back up to the table finding a small, out-of-the-way section to work at. Dean plunges his fists into the last batch of Premium White. He pulls back, stretching the skin and severs off a long, rope-like section. He weighs a slab and jiggles it beneath his palm declaring, "Like an old lady's bottom."

      "But much less wrinkly," Edward notes, groping the wiry hairs at his chin as though offering breakthrough medical insight.

      Every comment is an invitation to another. It is like a game of Chinese Checkers where everyone's expected to take a turn. And so far I haven't moved.

      Dean lifts the dough and the metal weight clunks down against the scale. He tosses it my way and it thumps and skids over a hump of flour. I squeeze at the edges and fill the spaces between my fingers. I pretend that the folds of dough on my knuckles are my grandmother's hands overlapping, showing me what to do. I press down and feel for something beneath the surface.

      "You might be over-kneading," suggests Dean, leaning over my hands. "Too much flour?" he asks.

      Beneath my fingers the dough is limp. It has given up on itself, lost its ability to adhere. Still, I keep kneading. Shaping after shape has resigned completely.

      "Maybe you can take that one home," Tim offers, sensing my remote attachment.

      "Or throw it away," I answer, pushing it back.

      But Tim misunderstands. He pats my shoulder and gives a sympathetic grin.



      Last night I drew another picture.

      This time I'm sitting on a park bench with a thin-figured person who I think is God. Six cartoonish butterflies, shaped like our own swirly bodies hover above us. At my feet is an empty bag and a sign in the form of a tall flower with BUS STOP scribbled in bubbly letters. God is leaning over to tell me something and the empty dialogue balloon between our heads means it is probably a secret.

      I put down my pen and lean the drawing up against my knees. Again, I'm not happy. The pigtails are still spewing from my scalp and I haven't lost the mini skirt. My smile is unduly exaggerated and God's hair is far too curly. And worst of all His expression scares me, in the way of Richard Simmons. A bit too happy for this world and slightly resembling the stranger that my parents always told me to watch out for.

      But I don't want to tear this one up just yet. There is something here that I like. So I stare for awhile, admiring at first, the purple tones of my pen and the cuteness of my cartoon butterflies. Then analyzing and interpreting possible meanings. If I am really the girl in the drawing then I should know what the secret is. And maybe I do, but I can't understand it in words or pictures.

      As I pour over this, my hands begin to move. I fold, crease and tear down the center of the page. I lay my fabricated God face down on the pillow and take another look. The severed edge of the empty balloon floats at my ear, reminding me what I've done. Oh God, I've cut God right out of the scene-How horrible! Then spotting the glittery bag at my feet, I lighten and think, maybe not.

      I admire my solitary caricature. Barefoot and smiling, her hands are folded patiently on my lap and we wait in the company of four remaining butterflies. The street is empty and I like not knowing when the bus will come, or where it is we are headed.


©Copyright Kerry Eglin