Our mission to the logging camp begins in Vera's kitchen, where she holds a match on her tongue to keep from crying while she slices onions. She's making her husband enough food to last him the weekend while we're away. She's baked a cake: three layers high, pillowcase white, sealed with blackberry preserves. She calls me Dolly instead of Dolores and pats my cheek with firm benevolence. She is under the impression than I am in want of a friend, and it's likely that Ruben told her so. It is Ruben who arranged this mission to the logging camp. As an elder in our congregation, and as my husband, it is his right.
Vera promises me that we’ll leave as soon as she cleans the kitchen floor. Her sweeping is surprisingly half-hearted for such a zealous woman. She misses most of the corners, and she slides the broom under the table just long enough to scratch my calf with the bristles. Her kitchen floor is older than we are, and the linoleum is curling up and growing dark around the edges, like water and sugar turning to caramel in a pan.
In the truck, Vera tells me that she wants to go straight up the mountain to the logging camp instead of checking into the motel; she says she can't wait to start sharing the Good News with these poor men.
Of course, her fervor does not surprise me; Ruben was the same way. In the first months of our marriage, all I had to do was unwrap a steak from butcher’s paper and Ruben would start rattling on about the sinfulness of blood transfusions. Ruben loves to explain the basic principles of Jehovah's Witnesses: we do not celebrate birthdays, we do not accept blood transfusions, we do not smoke. We do not hum along with holiday music in the grocery store. We do not even eat red and green candies in December in case someone sees the colors on our teeth and mistakes us for people of this world instead of God's.
Ruben appears to forget that I grew up in a household of Witnesses. He appears to forget that every Saturday morning of my childhood was spent on a stranger's doorstep offering Bibles and tracts. He forgets that on Thursdays I went to the Kindgom Hall and thanked Jehovah for each breath. He forgets that I tried to conjure that gratitude at home, standing in the back hall that smelled of cured ham and cat litter, pressing my nose into the windowpane, worrying because I could not find that pious gratitude, despite the idea of endless life. I could imagine only a life of endless preaching, knocking on the doors of neighbors who have known me since I was born, and who already know what I am coming to say.
I have greater success when I preach with my husband. When people see Ruben, they recognize in him the manner of the converted. Perhaps they can see through his suit jacket to the spider tattoo near his clavicle. Perhaps they suspect that he has a dead tooth because he used to fight in parking lots. It seems the reformed are always more beautiful than the born-and-raised.
As she drives, Vera tries to churn our friendship with talk of our weddings. She describes her ice sculptures; I tell her that wearing my veil was like living inside a pearl and trying to see through it. She cautions me that the loggers may be rougher than the men I'm used to.
"You had the blessing of growing up in the congregation," Vera says. "You didn't do things the way I did in my twenties." She tells me about her years selling margaritas in Venice Beach. I picture her sunburned skin and metallic suit, the pinks and silvers as bold as a cut of salmon. Laughing, she tells me about the time she salted a glass for a man who was supposed to avoid sodium; he returned to her, bloated, begging for ice water.
"Can you believe that?" she says. "He knew better! He knew better!"
This is entirely believable to me. Of all the women I've preached with, Vera is the most persistent. She doesn't flinch when people ask her to go away; she shames them into taking her brochures and Bibles.
“I was no good when I was young,” she says, drawing her skirt up to her thigh and pointing at a tattoo of two swans with interlocking necks. "You're lucky you didn't do something like this to yourself." Then she corrects herself, because Witnesses don't believe in luck.
By the time we reach the logging camp in the town of Prairie Rocket, we’ve counted five bears along the mountain road. We approach a trailer that appears to be made of quilted tin. There are undershirts on the clothesline and stacks of orange juice cans in the yard.
“This must be where the foreman stays,” Vera says.
“Bullbuck, not foreman,” I tell her. “Contractors have foremen; loggers have bullbucks.”
She ignores me and my sliver of worldly knowledge and knocks on the door.
When a man answers, Vera tells him we are here to bring good news.
“Did I win the lottery?” he says.
Vera ignores this, too.
"If you're selling something, I don't have a pot to piss in. As you can see," he tells us.
"We’re not salesmen," Vera says. She tells him to imagine a world where nothing is bought or sold. A world beyond materialism. A world fortified by Godly approval.
He says, "I don't suppose you ladies drove all the way up here by accident.”
"No," Vera says. "We're taking the Lord's word as far as we can."
"I don't care where you take it, but you can follow me up to camp if you want,” he says.
As we walk, the man tells us that his name is Cyrus. He offers us cords of raw licorice, and Vera gnaws on one as we trek. Occasionally she looks at me over her shoulder and urges me to hurry.
"So how does this outfit work?" Cyrus asks. "The tall one tells the short one what to do?"
Vera is the tall one with drinking straw legs: I am the short one by default.
Rather than wait for an answer, Cyrus talks about his work. He tells us that the stumps a man leaves behind can tell you how long he's been logging, where he learned to log, if his hands were trembling when he made the first face-cut. "A stump can tell you everything about a man's logging the same way one slice of cake can tell you if a woman's ever baked in her life," Cyrus says.
When we reach the camp, the men are sitting around a fire. One of them says, "That's the longest dress I've ever seen on a hooker."
"Show some decency," Cyrus says. "They aren't hookers. They drove all the way up here to talk to us." But within minutes it is Cyrus who slips into his tent, while Vera coaxes the others into listening to her favorite proverb. Some of them roll cigarettes, one of them picks at a callous with a knife, one studies his beer, but they all listen.
I wonder if Ruben was like these men before his conversion. If he had met a woman in a logging camp back then, would it have occurred to him that she was looking for money instead of hoping to save a soul?
Vera has found twelve attentive listeners. It’s as if she has built her own little congregation, right here in Prairie Rocket around a small and dangerous fire. I wonder what it is like for these men; I wonder what it is like to be immersed in your own life and to be interrupted so unexpectedly. I wonder if anyone will ever knock on my door and ask me if I would like to leave the congregation and join the rest of the world. I try to imagine what that mission would be like. Why would anyone bother? How would anyone find us?
To find me, for example, the missionary would have to drive to the middle of nowhere, and when I answered the door Ruben would be with me, and I would tell the missionary that I am happy with my faith and that I will never question it, and the missionary would drive on. The missionary would be relieved to get back on the road, to leave our part of the country behind, to see a smear of blue water or hear the music from a truck stop or taste metallic sweat on someone’s neck. The missionary would not dream of living in such a place, surrounded by an expanse of flat land, like so many loaves of unleavened bread.