2 Leah and Ben
February 9, 1988
Ben Straight rubbed his palm against the fogged-up window of the front door and peered outside into the swirling snow. He pushed up his black-rimmed glasses. “Yep, sure is a blizzard,” he said as he walked back to the cash register. His wife, Leah looked up from where she was arranging a display of spices.
“It’s not often that I’m glad we live above the store,” she said, “but I’m sure glad I don’t have to drive anywhere tonight.” She walked up to the front door to have a look for herself. “Imagine having to drive home in this — and it’s almost five o’clock, too.” She shivered. “Feel my hands,” and she grabbed Ben’s hands as she walked toward the wood-burning stove in the corner of the store. She pulled the rocker a little closer to the stove and sat down.
“Cold, as usual,” Ben commented as he thought about Leah’s hands. Always busy and always cold. She had long slender fingers with fingernails bitten down to the quick. With her cool fingertips pressing gently on his eyelids, behind his ear lobes, at the base of his neck, his headaches disappeared. Pressure points she called them. He didn’t know how it worked, but he did know that her cool hands never absorbed any heat from his body. He used to think it was because she had no fat on her to keep warm; during bad times he would think that her cold hands mirrored her soul. Distant, aloof, and separate, she seemed not to need the closeness he desperately desired for them. “You’re strangling me,” she had cried once. “I need to breathe.” But he was only pursuing his need to know everything about this enigmatic woman he loved.
“I am glad we put that stove in here,” Ben admitted. “And really we haven’t used that much more wood. With us being in here all day, we’re just using the wood we would have used upstairs. And it’s sure saving on the gas bill.”
She shut her eyes and leaned her head against the back of the rocker. This store was a dream come true for her, if only it didn’t take so much arguing to get things accomplished. Leah had wanted an old-time country store from the beginning. “Why can’t we just have a regular store?” Ben had complained during one of their arguments. “We’ve got to give people what they want or they won’t come back!”
“Just because all stores are alike doesn’t mean it’s what people want,” she had retorted. “Look at this beautiful old building — we need to take advantage of its charm.” He had admitted later that most everyone commented on how nice the store looked; the homemade soup was a tremendous hit. People were even starting to drive here from far places because they had heard about the quilts and antiques they were carrying in the back room.
She had found an old Coca-cola chest for the pop and an upright chest freezer out of the forties for the frozen foods. They didn’t stock candy that couldn’t be put in glass canisters and everyone (including the kids) loved it. They bought in bulk from an Amish bulk foods distributor over in New Wilmington and put foodstuffs in barrels. She had searched and searched and finally found a potato chip company that put their snacks in plain brown paper bags with a simple label. That solved the chips/pretzels problem, but they had a terrible argument about the Doritos. Leah had wanted to put them in an oak cupboard which held the laundry soaps, dishwashing liquid, toothpaste, and deodorants. Ben was horrified. “Everyone loves Doritos. We’ve got to have them, and were not putting them with that stuff. Who wants a bag of corn chips to smell like Irish Spring?”
Leah secretly knew he was right. Even she liked a couple of Doritos now and then. But they just couldn’t be put out front in those garish red and yellow bags. It was a puzzle, which Ben himself finally solved. One winter weekend she had been in bed with a cold and Ben had gone to the food show in Pittsburgh without her. He had come back with several bags of tortilla chips packaged in a clear cellophane bag. A new company over in Ashtabula was making them and they’d be on the market next month. A fairly local company and plain packaging! It was a gold mine and she had loved him for it. He grinned at her delight. “I knew you’d like this,” he said, as he ripped open the bag for her to try one. “They’re delicious.”
But Ben wouldn’t want to do the next project she had in mind: she was planning to put a pickle barrel near the cash register. She and her mom had already put up the pickles last September. Ben had asked them last summer what in the world were they going to do with all those pickles. “Ah Leah,” she thought to herself, “you should have just told him then.” It would be so much easier if they could just agree once in awhile.
Ben was straightforward and steady and that was what she loved about him. Tall, sandy haired, with thick horn-rimmed glasses, he looked like a goofy Michael Caine. He often affected a British accent to make her laugh. She opened her eyes to look at him and found him staring at her. “What are you cooking up now, Leah? he asked. “I don’t like it when you sit in that rocking chair and do nothing. It means you’re likely thinking up a new scheme.”
“I want to put a pickle barrel there in front of the register. I’ve already got the pickles and the barrel, and we don’t have too many of the regular jars left on the shelf.”
Ben rolled his eyes and shook his head. “It was bound to be something crazy,” he muttered. “Now who’s gonna buy pickles from a barrel? They stopped that because it was unsanitary. I bet it’s against the law or something.”
“You know we sell a lot of pickles, especially in the …” But her last words were drowned out by the roar of a diesel engine pulling into the small lot out front that served as a parking area.
“I hope he doesn’t think we still have fuel,” Ben shouted over the noise. They had taken the old pumps out just last fall. The engine idled down and within seconds a large man with a big red beard burst through the door. Wind and snow howled around him, and the noise of the storm and the truck engine threw the warm, quiet store into chaos for a moment. The trucker leaned heavily against the door and it slammed shut.
“Whooee! Sure is a big one,” he said, grinning, in a voice that was as large as he was. On second look, Leah noticed that he wasn’t very tall, just extremely round, and he had such a friendly, jovial smile that she immediately liked him.
“What are you doing driving in this?” she said to him. He had to look around to find her in the rocking chair back by the stove. “I think you’d better come back here and warm yourself up and I’ll get you a cup of soup.” She got up from the chair.
“No, no, my rig’s plenty warm,” he said. “But I would take a cup of coffee if you have any.”
She nodded and pulled the tall granite-ware coffee pot from the stove.
“Think you should wait out the storm here,” Ben suggested. “It’s bound to let up soon, and it’d be safer driving after the plow goes through.”
The trucker shook his head. “Thanks,” he said. “But I just live over in Youngstown. I got to drop this load off at the railroad yard in Adamsford, and then I’ll be home in an hour or so. I’m runnin’ late already and this storm ain’t gonna help. My wife was expectin’ me for dinner.”
“Oh, she’ll know you’ll be late in this weather,” Ben assured him.
“Ain’t been home in two weeks. Usually I just do short hauls, but this one was an emergency.” He grinned again and his blue eyes danced. “And I stand to make some cash on it.”
Leah handed him a mug of coffee. “I’m Leah, and this handsome man is Ben. And if you don’t try some of my French Onion soup I might take offense.” She tried to look stern but didn’t quite succeed.
“And I’m Ike,” he smiled, showing off perfect white teeth. “That does sound good. But I’ll just take it to go and eat in my truck.”
“You can’t eat soup while you are driving. Just sit right at this table and we’ll bring you a bowl. Soup is always on the house in a storm like this. Then you can be off again, though I should say that Ben’s right in trying to get you to wait out this storm.”
As he eased his large frame into the chair Leah had pulled out for him, he looked around the store. “You folks are real nice,” he said appreciatively. “And this is a great place.”
“Would you like a pickle, too?” Leah asked, eyeing Ben.
“Sure that’d be great!” the trucker answered.
She nodded and marched into the back room to uncover the first of her precious crocks. Ben knew by the way she walked that he had lost the argument already, and it had barely started.
He sighed. It was still snowing as hard as ever.
The pickle barrel was already in place an hour later when Elizabeth Schaeffer stopped in to get some homemade Amish butter. “It is awful out there!” she said as she brushed the snow from her shoulders.
“Elizabeth! What are you doing out in this storm?” Leah admonished the young Mennonite woman. “You don’t have the children, do you?”
“No. Mam gives all the children piano lessons in town on Tuesday. We went in early this afternoon to deliver some honey and apple butter to the market; this storm didn’t start until later. The children are spending tonight with Mam and Pop. Everyone is thrilled, and the kids are looking forward to blizzard life in town tomorrow morning.”
“Well, you’d just better sit down and wait out this storm here,” Ben ordered.
Elizabeth shook her head. “I just want to get home — John will be worried and I’m already late. Traffic is detoured through the game lands because of an accident. Everyone is being sent up Churchill Road.”
“Was it a bad accident?” Ben asked as he rang up the butter on the ornate, antique cash register.
“Very bad. I heard two people were killed. A semitruck driver and a man from Hattiesville.”
Ben shut his eyes and gripped the cash register. Leah stood up suddenly and then she felt dizzy, as if she had gotten up too fast. “Oh, dear Lord,” she whispered.
Elizabeth looked at them uncertainly; their reactions confused her. They obviously hadn’t known anything about it, yet…
“How long ago did it happen?” Ben asked.
“I’d say about an hour or so,” Elizabeth said, “but I don’t really know. What’s wrong Ben? Leah, you’re pale.”
Ben sat down heavily. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He longed for Leah’s fingers on his burning eyelids, but she was staring emptily into the pickle barrel, her eyes filling with salty tears. “I think we knew him,” Leah’s voice was quiet. “Ben tried to get him to stay, wait out the storm, but he wanted to get home to his wife.”
“Oh… his wife,” Ben moaned and dropped his head onto his arms.
Elizabeth looked from one to the other. She quietly took their hands and offered up a prayer. She squeezed Ben’s hand and left a couple of dollars on the counter for the butter. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as she hugged Leah on her way out. Safely in her van, Elizabeth leaned against her seat. She cried for the trucker who would never get home to his wife. She cried for the trucker’s wife who was probably still cooking dinner expectantly, and she cried for the unknown man from Hattiesville. She cried for Leah and Ben and their guilt and grief for a stranger known only for a few minutes. She cried for the shortness of life in this world, human frailties, hopes, and fears. And mixed with those tears for humanity, were tears for herself.