Sunday, April 4, 2010


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In September 1977 I moved to a lesbian land collective in Durango, Colorado. With my arrival, there were five us living in the Wimmin's House, two dykes with goats outside Pagosa Springs, and two more women in another direction on land which had once been a MNS collective. My move had been ardently encouraged by one of the Wimmin's House members, Sapphora, as part of a house power struggle I was clueless about.

I was 21 and combating suicidal feelings as a result of having been brutally dumped by my lover of five years, Astrid. Overnight Astrid had taken our daughter and moved in with a woman who had been in my conscious-raising group and used my confidences there as ammunition to court Astrid. Leaving Texas and my former community had come to feel necessary to my survival.

Sapphora had promised me a job working with her in a Durango bakery and deli, the New York Bakery. After I packed up everything and moved, I discovered the job wasn't actually available. I had been in college for four years (though I took incompletes the final semester when Astrid waljed out and never did get my degree) and had only sparse fast food work experience. Durango is a tourist town, and there simply were no jobs available during the winter months.

Sapphora had run away from home at 14 and survived on the streets, eventually becoming a heroin addict from which she was rescued by a cult. She lost the cult when she came out as a dyke, and she often operated from a base of desperate dishonesty. She was glib, smart, working class, and not concerned with what I might do for income.

Another working class woman in the collective, Mary, sussed out the situation and read Sapphora the riot act, telling her to help me find work or else. Sapphora was head of the night shift at the bakery, which was really just her and a young hippie man. They came in at 10 p.m. and made all the doughnuts and pastries that went out all over Durango. At dawn the bakery owner, Brad, came in and used the same facilities to make bread. Somehow Sapphora got the hippie boy fired and me brought in, lying about my experience. I didn't find out about it until weeks later.

The bakery was well over 100 years old, a long narrow brick structure on Main Street in the middle of downtown. There was a scrap of empty lot beside it that was used for parking. It had tall, stamped tin ceilings and uneven wooden floors, with a late 1800s feel to it. Sapphora and I had the place to ourselves, but we had to work at a hard pace to get everything done each night, especially since I had no baking skills whatsoever at first.

I was healthy and strong, however, and determined to win Sapphora's approval. We'd show up, turn on the doughnut fryers, don long white aprons, and put a cassette in the dough-flecked boombox we played at full blast in the back room. Every night, over and over, we listened to three tapes we'd made from LPs: One of Cris Williamson and Meg Christian, one of Alix Dobkin's two albums, and one of Fleetwood Mac with a little Linda Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris thrown in. I still can't hear "Landslide" or "Blue Bayou" without feeling like I can smell yeast.

I learned to mix 100 lbs of raised dough in the giant Hobart mixer in the middle room, after carrying a bag of flour that weight up the steep narrow stairs from the basement. I rolled it out on a conveyor belt, cut the raised rings, crullers, and bearpaws, and set trays to rise in the proofer while I mixed 50 lbs of cake doughnuts in the Hobart again. I'd fill the hopper over the fryer and pump out three dozen into the vat of oil at a time, turning them with long sticks and burning myself with splashes eevery night. As those cooled, I mixed a second 50 lbs of old-fashioneds and fried them as well.

By that time, my dough had risen. Sapphora had been busy shaping cinnamon rolls, danish, and eclairs from another 100 lbs of raised dough. I began frying my trays while she baked hers in a room-sized rotating oven in the middle room. A massive contraption could glaze four dozen items at a time with confectioners icing, and we took turns using it. All the maple and chocolate icing had to be done by hand, along with sprinkles and filling the eclairs. By the end of the first week, skin was beginning to peel from my hands and arms because of exposure to icing, and I thought I'd never eat another doughnut as long as I lived.

But I loved the muscles I was getting, that $65 a week I took home, and working nights. I slept until noon and had the house to myself each afternoon, when Sapphora left for town to do her schmoozing and everyone else was still at work. I read everything I could get my hands on about lesbian-feminism, classism, wicca, peer counseling, vegetarianism, anti-imperialism, and living on land. I wrote long journal entries, one or two poems a day, and letters to my mama. Astrid, shocked to the core that I had left instead of waiting for crumbs of her attention, actually agreed to let our daughter come visit me for a week at Christmas. I began to think I'd make it.

Sapphora and I would take a break halfway through our shift, firing up the grill and raiding the deli for anything that struck our fancy. The Wimmin's House was vegetarian and I was doing my best to adopt that lifestyle, but Sapphora secretly ate meat whenever she could. We wolfed down prime rib, ham steaks, pork chops or whole roasted chickens every night, along with artichoke hearts and home-fries slathered in sour cream. Despite my gorging, I steadily lost weight, which my other collective members attributed to the quinoa casseroles and sprout-heavy salads we had for House dinners.

Except on the drive to and from work, Sapphora and I didn't do a lot of talking. The music was too loud, for one thing, and we were also very busy at work. The back room where we did most of our tasks was open to the long middle room, and we kept everything but the front cafe area all lit up because it was chilly in there despite the fryers and ovens, and light helped us ignore snow and ice outside threatening our commute back into the La Platas where we lived.

When I noticed a flicker from the middle room in my right peripheral vision as I was chopping out doughnuts on the massive butcher-block table in the back room, I turned to look but saw nothing. It happened again a few minutes later, and again my direct gaze showed an empty middle room. I said nothing to Sapphora and forgot about it. For that night.

But the next night, and the one after that, I kept seeing motion across the middle room, a sense of something moving very fast at an angle from the ovens toward the far wall. It was nothing I could catch in time to get a clear look. By the third night, I had figured out it would stop by the time we took our lunch break at 2 a.m., and it wasn't starting until after midnight. I was scared, confused, and too embarrassed to bring it up to Sapphora.

A few nights later, I was frying with my back to Sapphora, who was cutting cinnarmon buns from a long roll with a bucher knife, working at her usual clip. Over the music I heard her yell "Son of a BITCH!" I wheeled around and saw her holding one hand with the other, blood dripping onto the floor. "I fucking cut my hand" she said, her pale Irish face even paler. I helped her to the grotty bathroom, where we washed her wound, decided it didn't need stitches (not that we had insurance anyway), and I bandaged it thickly.

She hesitated when it was time to walk back into the middle room. "I saw something" she said, her cheeks going pink. "I been seeing something in that other room. It caught me off guard tonight at the wrong moment."

I stared at her. "I've seen it too" I whispered.

"Don't shit me."

"I'm not" I said. "It darts across the room, right? From the ovens?"

"Yeah" she said, her blue eyes huge. "Right to left, over and over. For the last week or two."

"Not before? Not when you worked with the guy?" I asked.

"Nope. And not when I've helped Brad on the day shift, but then it's a zoo then in the middle room, anyhow. What -- what do you see?"

I swallowed. "Something -- it's not an animal. It's like a person, a short person. But not solid."

Sapphora nodded. "Whitish. And fast, she's really fast."


"It's a woman" said Sapphora. "I'm so fucking glad you don't think I'm making this up, everything thinks I lie about everything."

I didn't know enough about her yet to respond to that one. "What are we going to do?"

"Don't tell anyone else" she said emphatically. "I don't want this getting back to Brad. Or the collective."

"It's a ghost, right?"

"I'd say so. Let's do some research about the building, maybe at the library." Sapphora pronounced it as libary. "And try to get a better look at her."

"She only comes part of the night -- shit, my doughnuts!" The smell of burning had just reached me. We went back to work, temporarily cheerful from the relief of a shared visitation. On Saturday I went to the library and dug around but turned up nothing -- I didn't have my research skills yet. Sapphora went to the bakery for her check and chatted casually with Brad, finding out when the building had been constructed and examining a few old photos he had of its interior from the turn of the century. We learned the ovens had not been in place long, another room used to occupy that space, and the far brick wall next to the back door also used to have an opening into a section of the bulding that had now been torn down, where the parking lot was now.

We had verified for ourselves the path taken by the ghost. It was, in fact, a woman, short. older than 40, with her hair tied back in a bun and wearing a dress to her ankles with an equally long apron over it. She was see-through and seemed oblivious to our presence. She emerged from the ovens at a near run, her thin shoulders hunched and her arms in front of her as if she was carrying something heavy, something not visible to us. She scurried across the room and melted into the brick wall.

Sapphora said she thought the ghost had been pulled forth by our "woman energy". She professed to not be scared of it any more. But I sure as fuck was. I didn't go into the middle room without stopping to look at the ovens first, to make sure I wouldn't collide with her. Or whatever such an interception would be -- the idea of her passing through me made me sick to my stomach.

A couple of nights later, Sapphora asked me to mix the custard for the eclairs. This involved carrying a 50 lb bag of yellow "mix" up from the basement, dumping it in the Hobart with a few gallons of milk from the walk-in, and standing at the giant floor mixer to turn it off and scrape down the bowl sides intermittently as the custard congealed. It was hypnotic watching the two-foot-long beaters rotate, and I stood there, leaning against the top of the Hobart, mesmerized and forgetting that the ghost's track went right beside me.

Until I felt a chill and a swish on the left. I was looking down, and I saw her feet, the hem of her apron and dress, pass inches from my own feet. Her shoes had high tops and were buttoned up, presumably black leather although the only color to her was grey-white, semi-transparent. Her apron corner gave a small flip from motion as it vanished into the bricks beside the Hobart.

I stood up, icy from terror. I walked numbly into the back room and said "You have to finish the custard."


"She walked right by me. I'm not going back out there." Sapphora laughed at me but went to turn off the mixer herself.

A week later, disaster struck. Brad announced with the off season, he didn't have enough pastry orders to justify keeping us both on the night shift. Come mid October, he was moving Sapphora to bread-making at dawn with him and I'd have to do the night shift on my own.

"I can't" I told Sapphora, pleading. "I don't know if I can handle the load, for one thing, but mostly I don't want to be alone with that thing."

"The load will be cut in half, no sweat, and she's no threat, she's just doing her job every night. She doesn't know she's dead." As if that was any comfort.

I didn't have an alternative, I was lucky to be kept on the job at all. I started entering the cold middle room from the back door each night trembling with fear. I made sure I had no reason at all to leave the back room between 1 and 2 a.m., and Sapphora was right about the work, pastry orders were cut in half. I had Alix and Stevie to keep me company, and I began grilling myself minute steaks at 2:30 each night -- never got tired of steak. My not-quite-opaque coworker kept to herself, running her trays across the room during her witching hour.

A couple of weeks later, past midnight, I heard pounding on the back door. It was the two dykes from Pagosa Springs, who had stayed in town for a performance and were going to crash in town because the roads were so bad. They decided to come visit me and cadge some coffee. They served themselves and returned to the back room where I was frosting maple raised with deft twists of my wrist. Pauley stood leaned against a shelf and Sue hopped up to sit on the end of the butcher block table as they told me about their evening's entertainment.

All of a sudden, Sue swore and leaped down from the table. "Somebody's here" she hissed, looking around for a blunt object.

I wasn't sure what to do. Sapphora and I had steadfastly kept our secret. But Sue was a loose cannon, and when she picked up a heavy rolling pin, I said "There's nobody out there."

"Yes there is" she whispered, "they were heading for the bathroom, I think."

"It's a ghost" I said. I told them all about it. They kept waiting for the punchline. Sue began to look wall-eyed, and when Pauley saw the ghost again a few minutes later, they abruptly left. Our whole circle of friends knew about the ghost by noon the next day.

I gained a little cachet among those who believed the ghost was real for my guts at working alone with it each night. I kept to my avoidance and it was just another part of the schedule, like timing the rising of dough.

Until one night in November, when I sat down at the little staff table in the middle room at 2:45 for my usual steak and potatoes. My back was to the ghost's path but I was a dozen feet away from her trajectory and the active hour was past. As I lifted a forkful of food to my mouth, I heard a long exhaled breath directly behind my right ear.

Nothing there, of course. I carried my food to the back room and ate standing up. Before I left that morning, I stood in the middle room and said into cold air "You can't come up behind me. I need this job and I can't do it if you scare me. Find another way to communicate with me if it's absolutely necessary, but really, I'd rather not have anything to do with you at all. Please."

In the spring, after thaw, Sapphora, Jude and I left the Wimmin's House to move to San Francisco. For all I know, the ghost is still pounding the floorboards on her slanted scurry from one non-existent room to another. Or maybe she was released when we stopped playing women's music every night.

Copyright 2010 Maggie Jochild.

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