Joyland

San Francisco |

Sourdough and Outer Lands

by Meg Pokrass

edited by Kara Levy

SOURDOUGH My sister Jane was full of secrets about the art of making world-famous sourdough bread. Pretty in an apron, too. She had seven aprons, custom-made, hanging in the pantry. A photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle lined them up and made a photo, and then made a photo of Mom and I. We were the backdrop, he said. That was true. Nobody would catch me smoking outside, readying for the sight of Tom looping his brown arms around Jane's tiny waist inside the Cliff House. Things were growing serious between them. The waves were rushing in and out, the sound was abrasive — the summer fog gathering syrupy thick. Hard to believe there was such a thing as summer in other places. The bay and the ocean surrounded us with a never-just-right scent. There was no way to win. Tom's daddy was in jail sometimes, sometimes not. No big crimes, just little embarrassing ones that grew like the scrub brush around Lands End. That cliff was so beautiful, nobody trusted it. But Tom had Jane, and Tom was perfect — all kind, clean-shaven, and well liked. Jane was his prize. I wanted to climb him. Tom looking out of the corner of his eyes at me and standing stock still, a stunned rabbit. Nobody saw what only Jesus knew — how I would bring Tom relief when Jane had her migraines, a thing he said he never knew was possible. Jane was born to win. She wouldn't tell anybody why her bread was the crustiest but the softest too. That was why she was famous, her picture on the cover of a cookbook. Who wouldn't be proud? But, I told myself this: I was one essential ingredient in the secret recipe of Jane's success. It was my job to sample Tom. To knead his long body, make him rise and glow. I wanted to dislike my sister, with so many rules, like Mom's, that seemed too breakable. But she would sing to me at night when Mom was dead to the world — when my devil leg jitters made me buck and kick. Good old Jane would tell jokes, too. So delicate, my sister's wrists and ankles. I wished I could keep her. I'd even allow my brain to say, "Doll." Jane, whose lips would never curl around a man's body and shiver. ....................................................................... OUTER LANDS John said so, even before we built our home in the Outer Lands neighborhood by the ocean — there would be nothing but wind. It gusted so hard, and so often, the effect was comical. Wind puffed at us like stolen cigarettes. When we were young and first married, we'd laugh at the extremity we faced. The big girls, my little sisters, would dance crazy and free with me — we'd still turn Ma's living room into a field, that's why my sisters loved me, though they envied me gone and married. I was still a child in many ways, my legs a gust and a gust of air. John said he was born with warm palms, covered my icy fingers for hours some evenings. I sketched his big rough hands: Sometimes they were pinecones, other times baby rabbits. My skin found them in the middle of the night. Our seed evaporated, got blown into the dunes, the Outer Lands — one speck of a baby, then another — the blood would always wait two months. Hats blew off my head, two thousand times in one year. Tiny grains of sand filled the corners of our eyes. John watched the ocean with his face lined. He took to working seven days, hired an assistant. This routine attached to that routine. I became his long, slow evening. Ma said, "That wind tricked you." Years later, when Ma was gone and my sisters didn't have time to visit (so many children to worry about, and later, the children's children) I had a big warm lap cat and strong tea. Sketched my own hands. John didn't make it home many nights. Walking alone, I'd listen to the tireless, dark singing of the waves. Wind spit ocean onto my face. Sand invaded the seams of my boots. John started to carry pots for me, then heavy dishes, then the cat. I couldn't bend down, but he could. When the cat lay so still, John said he'd take her inland for a rest.