The door to the entrance of the library cracked open, squeaking loud and proud, as it always did, interrupting my regular dose of holy-crap-what-am-I-going-to-do-for-the-rest-of-my-life. Working evening shifts at the Alton Public Library always turned into an examination of my future and what exactly I was going to do with it. It usually started after all the kids left, when I remembered I used to ask for a coloring page just like they did. Suddenly I’d be lost in a whirlwind of thoughts about college and finding someone and just everything that was to come.
A tall woman wearing a pair of jeans and nice button down walked through the doors, a smile bringing in a little different atmosphere to the quiet between the shelves. The smell of fall air trailed behind her. I smiled back—just lips—and said hello in my work voice. (It was a little high pitched compared to my regular voice.)
She looked at me for a second, the pencil for signing in to the computers hanging midair. “How old are you?”
“I’m 17,” I said, still putting on a smile for the patron. “I’m a junior at MOC-Floyd Valley over in Orange City.”
“Wow! Okay! That sounds really great,” she said, with the most excitement I had ever heard someone exclaim about hearing about my schooling. “Where are you going next year? What do you want to be?”
I was slightly taken aback by all the questions. “I’m probably going to go to the University of Iowa after next year,” I said, “to study English. I’m thinking about going into publishing.”
She clapped her hands together, and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, wow. You must be an amazing writer if you’re going into English, then. I’m Marilyn, by the way!”
Another patron walked in through the doors, and I murmured a quick hello.
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled again, thinking it was the end of our conversation. “I don’t know about that. I’m Caitlin.”
Most patrons smile back and go sit down at the computer, but instead, this woman named Marilyn, leaned up against the circulation desk. Her short blonde hair fell in her face and she carefully tucked it behind her ear. She seemed to be about in her 50s or so, and the subtle wrinkles on her forehead made me believe that she had done some living. She spoke softly and excitedly at the same time, “So why the University of Iowa?”
“I went to this writing program there last summer,” I started to explain, as I had a few times to other patrons. I went on to say that it was the best two weeks of my life—and not just an exaggeration of that. It—the people I wrote and laughed with—changed me. "Iowa City is amazing."
Marilyn sighed with content. “Wow,” she exhaled. I’d begun to believe that her favorite word was “wow.” For a second, she paused, a smile resting on her lips that never seemed to frown. Her green eyes gazed off into a world I couldn’t see, and for a second, I thought she would finally go sit down. Instead, she looked at me again, and said, “I want to show you some pictures of mine. I’ve got a few stories of my own.”
There was no one else in the library, so she went on to tell me her life story.
Marilyn hadn’t kept the same job for more than five years. Her life went from boyfriend to boyfriend, and one mediocre job after another. She wanted to go back to school so she could start working in a nursing home. She explained how she sometimes wrote poetry of her own, and even read me a few of her pieces.
The pictures she showed me proved that she had once been a beautiful, and independent young woman. I smiled at everything she showed me. She lived and she lived and she lived.
“Ah, and my childhood was pretty good, too.” She told me about her kindergarten best friend and how no matter what anyone else said about her, Marilyn still wanted to be there for her. Her best friend was black.
“I didn’t understand why it mattered if her skin color was different,” she said, shaking her head, showing the first sign of disapproval of anything. “We’ve all got the same color hearts, so what difference does it make?”
It took me a second to understand that she was talking about an era where racism existed and almost thrived—I felt some admiration for Marilyn.
After learning all the details she had to offer of her life, we somehow got into the topic of religion.
“I don’t have a religion,” she stated matter-of-factly.
I tried to hide my confusion—mostly because the poems she had shared with me earlier had all been relating to Christianity. “Oh?”
“I am a Believer,” she said. A laugh came along with one of her big grins. “Don’t look at me like that, Caitlin! So. For a long time, I honestly didn’t care. I was more worried about trying to live my life than I was finding a higher power.” I felt myself trying to hang on every word that flew out of her mouth. She explained that her professor in college didn’t believe in anything. After a second, she clucked her tongue. “And I guess, at the time, I didn’t believe anything existed either.
“For a while, I was living down South with a boyfriend of mine. It was the middle of the summer, and we were just taking it one day at a time. We drank, smoked, had sex—I was a little wild. One night, I was walking home,” she said. Then, offhandedly, like swatting a fly, said, “And God spoke to me.”
I couldn’t help but let my mouth drop a little. “God spoke to you?” I asked, a little incredulously.
She nodded happily. “He said, no—he whispered, ‘Marilyn, believe in Me.’ It shook me. In fact, it changed me wholly. That was the day I became a Believer. I do not believe that religion can be centered on any particular church. I believe in morals and people doing good in the world. I believe that God is real and that we are here for Him. I am a Believer. I’ve been on lots of mission trips. I’ve met incredible people. But I still feel like there’s more I can do,” she paused for a second. “Wow, my life is good.”
I shook my head. Not in disbelief, but in the idea that this woman had somehow done everything and anything she could in her life, and she still wanted to do more. She knew what she wanted and she didn’t let a single second pass her by. “You should write a book,” I told her.
She threw her head back and laughed. “Only if you publish it.”
I bit my lip, not sure if I wanted to ask my next question. “So, you’ve had a pretty fulfilling life.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Were you ever afraid of doing something wrong—like, were you scared before you decided to do something or change anything?”
“Of course I was scared, but if I was never afraid, I wouldn’t have done anything at all.”
I haven’t seen Marilyn since that night she came into the library. We talked my entire two and a half hour shift. I have absolutely no idea where she is right now in her life, but all I know is, I’m sure she’s told her life story to a hundreds of other people by now. And I’m also sure that she’s added a couple more quirky facts in there, too.
My future, my life, is waiting for me like a boy waiting on a doorstep for his date—both utterly nauseous and completely ecstatic. So, in honor of Marilyn, I’d have to say:
Wow. It’s going to be a good one.