I stared at the black homespun dress, large bonnet, prayer cap, and starched white apron that covered her from neck to ankles. She held the hand-lettered sign that read, IOWA. I pulled off onto the shoulder. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I asked.
“Verily, I am not.” She raised her dark eyebrows and leaned over the passenger door of my 25-year-old Nissan 300ZX. I’d taken the t-tops off in preparation for a long ride on a hot summer afternoon. “Have you paused in your journey to offer me aid?”
To my left the five o’clock traffic edged up the ramp onto I-35W Southbound. I’d moved as far onto the shoulder as I could. Motorists still leaned on their horns as they crept past us.
“Yes, of course. Get in; get in.” She grabbed her Minnesota Vikings duffle bag from beside the “No Hitchhiking” road sign, opened the door, and folded her body into the passenger seat. “I’m bound for the Quad Cities,” I told her.
“Ours is a providential journey. We travel the same path. I am returning home to Kalona.” She extended her hand to me. “I am Rachel Yoder.” Lights flashed.
The Minneapolis Metropolitan Police cruiser eased up beside the Z. The Hispanic officer seated on the passenger side lowered his window as traffic backed up behind him. “A problem, sir?”
“My … girlfriend … lost her contact.”
The officer stared at Rachel’s prayer bonnet. She flashed a smile and pointed to her left eye. He nodded and turned back to me. “This is a dangerous place to stop, sir. Pull out before I ticket you. And you, Miss, fasten your seatbelt.”
“Thank you, officer.”
Rachel buckled her belt as I edged away from the squad car, shifted into second gear, and merged onto the interstate. She started laughing. “Girlfriend?”
“I didn’t think he’d believe I was your father….”
“You are gray of hair.”
“Oh, I’m old enough. But I’m not dressed for the part.” I wore a Dave Matthews concert shirt and purple jams with large white flowers.
“Yes, I see that.” She smiled. “Then I shall be your girlfriend.”
“And I will drive you home.” I focused on the crowded highway, resisting the temptation to catch another glimpse of her. “I’m John Lloyd. Jack to my family and friends. Pastor John to the members of my congregation.” The Z picked up speed. I shifted into third gear as my lane began to move. “Do Amish people even wear contact lens?”
“It is pronounced AH-mish, not AM-ish. And you are correct. Plain folk do not.”
I looked at the gas gauge. We wouldn’t need to stop until after the Iowa border. “Minneapolis is a long buggy ride from Kalona.”
“I made my journey in a red 2016 Camaro.”
“I’ve never been a Chevy fan.”
“Truly.” She mused. “Its owner treated it like a mistress.” I shifted into fourth gear.
We drove past Bloomington. “Better make sure that bonnet’s on tight,” I told her. When we reached Apple Valley, the traffic opened up. I shifted into fifth and flipped on the cruise control.
“What do you call this vehicle?” she shouted through the road noise and the wind.
“It’s a Z, a 1993 Nissan 300ZX turbo. My mid-life crisis car. I flew up to the Twin Cities to buy it, and now I get to drive it home.” She struggled in the wind. If she tilted her head the wrong way, the wind would catch her bonnet and pull her head up. “Maybe you should take the hat off?”
“Yes. That would be prudent.” She ducked her head below the windshield, carefully removed the bonnet, and tucked it behind her feet. She sat back up and smiled at me. “This is very freeing.”
“Aren’t you going to take the cap off, too?” The white cap fit snugly on her head and tied under her chin.
Rachel shook her head slowly. “If a young man can persuade an Amish girl to take off her prayer cap,” she teased, “he will presume she will do other things for him.”
“Is that how you ended up in Minneapolis? You took off your prayer cap once too often?”
“It was more complicated than that.”
When she offered no further explanation, we drove in silence until we passed the Medford exit. “I’m a Lutheran pastor.” I pointed to the Clergy sticker in the right hand corner of the windshield. “I’ve got a Bible and a clerical collar in the glove compartment.” I also had a pint of 30-year-old Guatemalan rum there, but I thought it best not to mention it. “You can tell me anything.”
Rachel stared out the windshield, slowly sinking into the leather seat. Eventually she spoke.
“Three years ago I was canning peaches and needed more Ball lids. I took the buggy to Farm and Fleet.” She sighed. “When my horse came up lame, Bill Hurst, the store manager, gave me a ride back to the farm in his Camaro.” That was all she said.
“It wasn’t not much of a story,” I told her ten miles later.
“A month later, I packed a small bag and stole away from my family in the early morning hours. Bill drove me 317 miles to a giant hardware show in the Target Center in Minneapolis, and then to the Red Roof Inn in Roseville.”
I glanced over at Rachel. “Did he mention marriage?”
“I couldn’t marry him, and he couldn’t ask. He offered other things.” Wisps of brown hair curled out from under her prayer cap and whipped about in the wind. “For a three days we only left the room for sustenance and condoms. I left my prayer cap in our room.”
“And how did that feel?”
“Thrilling. Frightening. I wanted to escape my father and the harsh life on the farm. Ultimately I could not escape from my religion.” She stared at the road as she spoke. “Even at my young age, I understood that beyond our carnal pleasure, Bill and I shared nothing.”
“So what happened?”
“On the morning after the hardware show ended, I stepped out of the shower, and he was gone. There was no note. I had no money.”
“What did you do?”
“I am Amish. I come from a strong and stubborn stock. My forefathers worshipped beside the ancient martyrs. They broke the prairie and endured one-hundred-and-sixty Iowa winters without electricity or central heating.”
“I understand,” I told her. But, of course, I didn’t. “Still, you were a young woman, alone, in a strange city…”
“Like my ancestors, I had my faith. I put on my Plain clothes. I sat on the motel bed, and I waited.”
“Pastor John Lloyd,” she scolded, “for a man of the cloth, you have little faith.”
“Guilty,” I confessed.
“I waited for God’s will to be revealed. Psalms 91.”
I dredged verse 11 from my memory bank. “‘For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.’”
“Yes.” Rachel leaned back into the sports car’s leather seats. “At noon the maid let herself in, thinking the room was empty. She saw me sitting on the bed in my Plain clothes. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked. I told her my story. ‘Rooster at the show bar next door,’ she told me, ‘helps young women in trouble.’ She explained what a show bar was. I gathered my possessions and walked there.”
Rachel’s hands rested in her lap. Her head leaned back against the seat. She was tight-lipped and her eyes were closed. “That must have been difficult,” I said noncommittally. That’s what I’d been taught in to say in counseling session.
Rachel surveyed my t-shirt, broken down Tevas, and purple jams. My apparel didn’t instill confidence. I took off my Orange County Chopper sunglasses and waited.
“I was twenty-four years old. Most women in my church are married by that age.”
“But you choose not to be?”
“My father prohibited me from marrying. My mother died when I was thirteen giving birth to her third set of twin girls.”
“Big family.” I saw the expression on her face and didn’t interrupt again.
“There were eleven of us. My two older brothers already helped Father with the farm. When Mother died, Father took my twin sister, Esther, and I aside and said the duties that had been our mother’s were now ours. Esther cared for the babies and cooked. I cleaned the house, washed clothes and cared for the other children. Mother had milked the cows twice every day from the evening of her wedding day to the morning of her death. The day she died it became my job.”
“That is a hard life.”
“Amish girls cook, sew, and bake. When harvest comes, we work in the fields beside the men. Before I walked into Rooster’s Bar, I knew no other way.”
I accelerated to pass a U-Haul pulling a trailer that was struggling to climb a hill. “So you became a stripper?”
“I most certainly did not. ‘Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost,’” Rachel said firmly. “Not that there is shame in any honest work. I was a custodian.” There was steel in her voice. “I scrubbed urinals, mopped flours, and mended costumes.” She hesitated. “I would not forsake my religion easily.”
“But you were running from something.”
Rachel looked down the ribbon of highway. “The elders considered my father the most religious man in the county. But his doctrine did not stop him from forcing my sister into an unholy union after my mother’s death.” The evening air had turned cooler. She was shivering in the seat beside me. “Tell me, Pastor John Lloyd, how could a man of God do that?”
I knew her question was rhetorical. She wasn’t looking for answers from me.
“I believe,” she said, “that I was tested….”
“God doesn’t work like that….”
“Haven’t you read Job?” Another rhetorical question. “Hasn’t your faith been tested?”
“Often.” I glanced at the speedometer and eased up on the accelerator. Tested by the death of our only child and my wife’s infidelity, I wanted to explain. Tempted by one of my parishioners. I set the cruise control and turned the fog lights on. “What happened when you walked into Rooster’s.”
“Rachel adjusted her the seat belt. “Some English, reeking of whiskey, saw me and bellowed, ‘I’ll be damned if she ain’t Amish.’ Before he could ask me for a lap dance, Rooster appeared. I inquired about a job. He offered me a bus ticket home. I declined. I could not face my father.”
“So you became a custodian?”
“I scrubbed vomit from the walls and disinfected the tables and chairs in the morning. I pretended the bar was a poorly kept barn. ‘Work makes life sweet.’ That is what I was taught. And Rooster let me live on a cot in a storeroom until I got my first paycheck. Then after three weeks he called me into his office. ‘You need another job,’ he told me.”
“You got fired?”
Rachel shook her head. An amused look appeared around her eyes. She smiled. “He said I was making the regulars nervous. It was a combination of my high standard of cleanliness, and my black dress and bonnet. He asked me to serve drinks on slow mornings, so the regulars could get to know me.”
“And how did that work?”
“I still made the regular customers nervous. They whistled at the dancers and stuffed bills in their g-strings, but were quiet when I served them shooters and beer.” Rachel’s face flushed.
“I made a friend, Sharon Pecksa, from the little town of Montgomery, Minnesota. She’d been the Kolacky Queen. Sharon wore a tiny plaid Catholic school uniform with a white blouse, knee socks, and a book bag. Newcomers thought I was an act like Sharon. They teased me about my ‘false’ modesty. When they asked to see me dance, I would lower my eyes and ask, ‘Why would you want me to?’”
“Actually, Miss Yoder, that doesn’t sound very innocent.”
“No,” Rachel demurred, “I suppose it was not.” She leaned back in her seat, staring at the highway. “One day the air conditioning broke down. I was hot. I had more clothes on than anyone else. I opened the top buttons of my dress. There was a commotion among the regulars. Tom Zelinka suggested that I remove my apron.”
“Did he know what he was asking?”
“I do not think he did.” Rachel rested her hands in her lap. “The white apron means that I am unmarried. When I marry I will put on a black apron and wear that until I die.”
“‘They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’”
“Yes.” She looked over to me. “But how could I explain that to this man?”
“You couldn’t. You couldn’t even try.” She nodded. “He wasn’t interested in knowing about your faith. He was only interesting in knowing you in the biblical sense.” I caught her smiling. “What happened?”
“Tom said in a most gentile voice, ‘Let me help you.’ He reached out to the strings on my apron, and I was not repelled by his gesture. Among the Plain people, an apron is more than an apron. It is a sign of a young woman’s innocence, but at Rooster’s Show Bar, it became a prop in a performance.”
As we sped past Faribault, Minnesota, I imagined for a moment that I was Tom Zelinka, standing in Rooster’s Show Bar on that hot summer day. In my daydream, I reached for her apron strings.
“So, you took off your apron for him?”
“Yes. I took it off daily from then on. My modesty made it seem like a scandalous act, but I showed these men very little. My tips improved. But I never removed more of my Plain clothes, and eventually, serving drinks became another chore, like milking.”
“But, now you’re going home?”
“Yes. My father is dead.”
For the next hour we rode in silence past Charles City, Shell Rock, and into Waverly. We stopped for gas and sandwiches at a Subway in Cedar Falls. I put on the t-tops but took off the sunroof covers so that we could watch the moon rise after sunset. We dropped down on I-380, and past Independence. We approached Cedar Rapids.
“A few months after my mother died, Esther announced she was pregnant. She was subjected to the Bann and the Meidung until Jude, a young man we had known since childhood, appeared before the church membership and made a full confession. Jude said they were bundling one cold winter evening and their desire overtook them. They asked for forgiveness. They were pardoned and readmitted to fellowship. They were married the next Thursday.”
“That was quick.”
“It does not take a lot of planning for an Amish wedding. There is no wedding dress, no tuxedo. All it takes is a clean barn and food for the guests. There is a ten-minute ceremony, a prayer and a final hymn–no honeymoon, even when the bride isn’t pregnant. After the wedding, all was forgiven. We are taught to ‘be gentle unto all men, apt to teach forbearing’– II Timothy 2:24. Esther moved from our home to Jude’s family farm. Father refused to speak her name. It was not the Amish way.”
Before I could say anything she hurried on. “After the wedding a young man, our neighbor, Abraham Aaron Holst, asked permission to marry me. Father became angry. He told Abraham to leave and to never come onto our farm again. That night my father came to my room. He said that the duties of a wife, once performed by my sister, had now fallen on me.”
“So that’s why you ran away?”
“Yes.” She shook her head, struggling with her story. “How could a man do such a thing?”
I shook my head. “I was a prison chaplain for a time. I have known men like your father, but I’ve never understood them.” I turned on my headlights to cut the twilight. “But now you’re returning home.
She looked straight ahead. “I received a letter from Esther. She told me that she and Jude joined the family for dinner last week. After supper Father put his arm around my younger sister, Mary, and said, ‘Look at what a woman she has become. I’ve decided to give her Rachel’s room.’ That night my father’s bedroom caught fire and only quick action by my brothers prevented the house from burning down. My father was killed in the blaze.” Rachel’s face was somber. Severe. Pensive.
“Do you know what started the fire?”
“I do not. I do know that Esther is shunning her husband. She asked me to come home and help with the farm. I told her I will stay until the youngest are old enough to care for themselves, if she will go back to her husband.”
“And so your road trip.”
“Yes. I said good-bye to the men I came to know at Rooster’s. I am returning to my family and to the Plain people. I will not come this way again.”
We both were silent as we approached Cedar Rapids. The lights of Quaker Oats filtered into the car through the glass of the t-tops. “I’ve taken a six-week leave from my parish. On Saturday I’ll check into the Guest House at the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque for a month of silence and simplicity among the Cistercian brothers.”
“Before you do, Pastor John Lloyd, let me repay your act of kindness. Spend the night in the parlor of our home, then break bread with my family in the morning after the cows have been milked. Share a meditation and then show my brothers your car.” She studied me for a moment. “Lodging is all that I can offer.”
“It’s more than sufficient,” I told her. The lights of the town dimmed as we approached Iowa City and beyond it was Kolona and her homestead. I eased up on the gas. There was no need for speed. “More than sufficient.”
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