In a landscape of simple white farmhouses, this one stood apart. Simple, yes. White, yes. Farmhouse. But the flashy snowmobile out front hinted at something else.
Abner Stoltzfus, probably the most notorious Amishman alive, moved into the upstairs of this house after his prison stint. When I knocked on the door recently, Abner opened it with a warm smile. “Come on up,” he said, without asking who I was, as though he had been waiting. He turned and walked up green shag-carpeted stairs with a slight limp, the residue of a childhood spent in leg braces.
He is 30 and a bachelor, and his apartment exhibits all the signs of that: the awful carpet, the collection of pool-hall trophies, the fold-up furniture. In the kitchen he stopped and turned, awkward, trying to think of what people say when they have visitors. “Want something to drink?”
I supposed aloud that he was no longer Amish, judging from the big diesel pickup parked outside, the snowmobile, computer, pack of cigarettes on the kitchen table, clear plastic phone so you can see the guts of the thing. Sweatshirt and blue jeans, baseball cap. Something in the eyes. Something of the world.
“Nah,” Abner said, as though shrugging off the old life. No longer Amish.
With that, he sat down at his tiny kitchen table and spoke openly, for hours. The public had only known the absurd punch line, back in 1998: Two Amish guys named Abner Stoltzfus (not related) had bought a whopping one-and-a-half kilos of cocaine from a biker gang called the Pagans. Then they distributed it to other Amish kids at parties called “hoedowns.” But the Amish are a close-mouthed people in general, and the Abners were silent in particular as the saga unfolded. Now, as the sun from the window eased across his kitchen floor, the words seemed to tumble from Abner, a relief to finally describe the downfall and the intrigue, the shame and the secret meetings. Sometimes he stuttered slightly, and he winced during the embarrassing parts, but mostly he spoke with the bemused manner of a man recalling some odd adolescent lapse: Can you believe I did that?
Afterward he took a long pause and sat back from the kitchen table. “You ever been on an Amish farm?” He knew I hadn’t. Few outsiders have. So why did he ask? What could he want to show me there, and why — as an outsider himself, now — would he dare?
In his truck, Abner settled into the driver’s seat as though it were a leather armchair. He cracked open the driver’s window and reached for a cigarette, which he lit with tender attention, drinking down the smoke. He checked his cell phone for messages and turned up the radio. He did these things with relish, a prince in exile who surrounds himself with the world’s luxuries. The smoke finally reappeared, leaking from his nostrils in two silver strands.
Abner left the Amish shortly after the year he spent in prison, in 2000. “I just don’t believe you have to live that way,” he said. Abner’s drug-dealing partner, whom we’ll call Abner X. Stoltzfus, joined the Amish church through baptism after serving his sentence and married an Amish girl, Lydia Reihl, who had written to the judge on his behalf and then stood by him during his imprisonment. I asked Abner whether he has a girlfriend. He laughed and looked away. He’s a handsome guy, with close-cropped hair and a dark complexion. “I guess I’ve got a lot of girlfriends,” he said.
Along the road, people waved at Abner constantly: a woman on a tractor, a man in a truck, a man in a field. Everyone knows him. We passed the Gordonville Volunteer Fire Department, where Abner works as a firefighter. He recently campaigned for the local assistant fire chief’s position, and jokes that he lost by a single vote. “Stupid me, I had voted for the other guy,” Abner said, laughing. You can take off the wide-brim hat and shave the beard, but Amish manners last forever.
Traveling through Lancaster County feels like disassembling time, with every pasture a year and every rise a decade, so that the county’s middle seems to reside a century away. The houses grow stonier and simpler, with no cars out front, with drying lines strung from homes to barns and the pure white shirts crucified, the hanged pants and dresses, the tiny children’s versions. But not the underwear. Never the underwear.
The Stoltzfus dairy sits just a mile or two from Abner’s place, a short trip even in a buggy. Abner killed his truck’s big diesel motor next to the barn, and silence came rushing in. He pulled a couple of gulps from his cigarette and stubbed it out.
He glanced around for his father, then stepped inside the barn, which was immaculate, with pristine floors and tidy racks of tools. About 50 head of cattle stood in their stalls, quietly shuffling. Abner showed them off, bending to stroke the head of a newborn calf. The horses stamped in their stalls, waiting for their yokes and the inevitable turning of the soil.
I asked Abner whether he stood to inherit the whole outfit. He looked down. “Nah.”
Then Abner’s father, John Stoltzfus, backed into the room, sweeping.