We found the journals in a decrepit old building in central Nebraska. From the side of the road we’d seen a crumbling structure near a hackberry tree that clung to a rusted out silo. It seemed like a good place for lunch on a hot summer day. We’d been traveling on bikes across this windswept quarter with camping gear and chocolate bars and the manic sensation that accompanies having just paid off one’s student loans.
We set up campsites in city parks where we’d drift to sleep to the sound of wooden bats cracking and baseballs striking soft leather gloves. By day we made quick friends with older women at corner stores. They sold us frosty cans of orange Crush while we studied family photos affixed to oak paneled walls. In gas stations we met men who told us about the emptying out of the Great Plains. How farms failed and schools closed, how families fractured and young kids left for Lincoln or Tucson. And still, we romanticized the region’s past. From our bicycles we saw silver grain towers stretch up defiantly toward the sun in prayer. We watched flocks of geese soar against blue sky and jet contrails while cooking rice and beans on aging picnic tables in small towns.
That day we entered the old house clasping granola bars and were startled by the scene of someone else’s life abandoned in a hurry perhaps 40 years ago. Cobwebs, shattered doorframes, crushed walls and glass, a mound of sodden books. In the room we felt only the presence of Guilt and knew that our discovery granted uncertain privileges. And yet we stayed without invitation and fingered the rutted walls and imagined big lives lived inside this house. We found the stack of wire-bounds in a corner and from their crinkled, soggy pages read loopy cursive excerpts written by a young woman who dreamed of freedom and safety yet lacked both.
“Let’s take them”, my husband said. “I don’t think she is coming back”.
“They’re journals”, I replied. Sharp light streamed through broken windows and a pair of lazy flies droned across the silent room.
In the end maybe we seized Marion’s memories, encased them in plastic grocery bags, and spirited them away because we knew she wouldn’t return to this place or this life. Whether or not these actions were betrayal or liberation seemed a consequence of time.
That night we rented a motel room from a kind family after a long day’s ride to shelter our bodies from the blazing summer sun. We stayed up late reading aloud Marion’s entries, stories about gas money and cable bills and absent parents, tales of $42 paychecks and weekend pot and dreamy gas attendants who just might be The One. Each night we read from the wire-bounds, a reward for a long day’s pedal, and patiently awaited the Frank Capra outcome of boy meets girl. But the tone of desperation and loneliness peppered with periodic hopefulness never changed. The journal entries ended abruptly after a young man entered the scene of her Nebraska life.
Stories, real and imagined, compel course corrections in our lives. For us, Marion’s uncertain future encouraged us homeward rather than onward, off of our padded bicycle seats and back to our good jobs and stable lives and fully stocked refrigerator. Along the paved roads of Nebraska we stumbled upon other ephemera– an unopened bag of Cheetos, a child’s rendering of house and home – but nothing ever rivaled the journals. Marion gifted us gratitude, an appreciation for a life that afforded us enough freedom to take a bike ride through Nebraska to live out our own rural dreams.
I like to think of the day when Marion left the house and the cable television bill and all of its other bulky contents behind.
It is Friday, what she always called her lucky day. The passenger seat of her newly repaired car is empty. Paycheck cashed and a full tank of gas, she vanishes into a landscape of her own design.