The heat-wrinkled streets of this small Nebraska farm town grid the landscape and point to the grain silos near the abandoned train platform. People stay in the shadows to avoid the summer heat and talk about the days when the country fair was five days long.
Nobody seems to notice that the sign on the courthouse lawn needs painting. But I do. Coming back to a place you know quite well makes you notice these things. We used to climb up onto that sign to see the Fourth of July parade. I remember the smooth enamel quickness of sliding down onto my father's shoulders. The peeling flakes would make that painful now.
The stores that huddle along Main Street look about the same. But the grocery store has become a supermarket and the five-and-ten is now jut a dime store. The blank marquee of teh theater doesn't promise the Saturday night adventure that it used to. The ripped and faed posters announcing coming attractions hint that there won't be any more and haven't been for a long time. Government employees in a beige car came from Broken Bow to declare the building a fire hazard. Driving all that way was enough to convince most people that it was true.
A group of children are straddling bicycles in the shade of the empty marquee. Their purple-stained feet betray a morning spent romping under the mulberry trees. I guess their parents have to take them to Broken Bow to see the show now.
Frosted white globes on brass poles falnk the entrance to the town's library. I never quite understood how a man named Carnegie could owe anything to this town, since nobody here ever knew the fellow. Still, there it stands like a Greek temple among the easy elms, a library built for ambivalent reasons, perhaps. A dog is asleep on the smooth marble steps with his stomach pressed agaisnt the warm stone.
It's been several years since the twon had a librarian. The ladies from the women's club donate time twice a week to keep it open. Lucille Wentworth had been doing it for so long that many suspected her of having a secret romance with Carnegie. But she always seemed happy behind her clawfooted service desk. People say she ws the most sought-after girl in the 1928 graduating class. Her powdered face and red hair could always be seen through the panes of the front door, never able to blend with the browns and blacks of crusty bindings and paneled walls. Her lisptick always reminded me of the time a red crayon melted on the dashboard of our station wagon.
The basement of the library was one of the few magic places in twon. It was there, among the boxes of yellowed photographs and brittle newspapers, that Miss Wentworht spent the late evening hours. Every year she built cardboard castles and blue cellophane rivers across the tables that lined three walls. The stairway door would be locked all year, and then for a few days the children could come down and visit her sheltered storybook world. She'd walk along telling the story as every eye followed along the tabletops. She locked the door for the last time just after Christmas. I wonder why they don't hire a new librarian? Probably for teh same reason the courthouse sign hasn't been painted.
Going up onto a hill near the edge of town helps give perspective to this visit. Beyond the cluster of rooftops and trees can be seen the expanses of summer corn that stretch out in every direction. I turn to see a fragile milkweed drop its airborne seeds into a breeze that will bear them across the cornfields to distant places, where roots spread in dark soil to support a new generation's upward reach. It's like moving day when you're very young. Nobody explains where you're going, but you have the feeling that you will never be able to come back.