Polyester Road Diaries

My life in the bush of filmic ghosts

There is one marker of interest. A dilapidated sign directs me to EBR-1. The world's first nuclear-power plant, it says. I turn onto an unpaved dirt road and travel for a mile due east. I can make out some sort of structure in the distance -a quaint brick building no bigger than a schoolhouse surrounded by a vacant parking lot. There are no cars; it is almost 7 p.m. There's a welcome sign, a parking lot with handicap spaces, and a snack bar's neon sign.

I take out my cameras and begin walking around, hoping to see something others have missed, like Toto tearing back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. I walk around the entire structure and return to my car when I see something in the distance. From the direction I have just come, a cloud of smoke billows behind a small car and trailer making its way to the reactor.

I continue photographing the site and forget about the car. I go around the back side, and when I return, the car and trailer are parked a few spaces from my van. There's no one in sight. I load my stuff back into the van.

Over my shoulder, I hear a woman with a thick Southern accent. "Yoo-hoo? Yoo-hoo!? Pardon me. Sir, you got a jack or something in that van of yours?" she asks. "I think I got a flat coming down that road."

I turn to see an older woman fumbling through her purse.

"I am just really bad at these things," she continues. "Ever since my husband died, I just get so fearful of anything technical."

"Sure, I can help you," I say. I go to the back of the van, grab my toolbox and jack, and head over to the woman. She seems to be kneeling on the far side of the trailer and fidgeting with the wheel. But as I turn the corner, I notice the woman is hunched down-next to a perfectly undamaged tire. She's holding her fingers to her lips as a mother would to quiet her child.

"Don't say a word," she whispers. "They're listening to us." I stand there stupidly for a moment before she daintily tugs at my shirt, urging me to the ground.

She's whispering. "They got cameras all over this place, but they can't see us behind the trailer. Just keep pretending that you're fixing something." Her words are marked with precision and passion. I'm not sure what she is talking about, so I ask, "Are you serious?"

She shouts with youthful exuberance once again, using the voice of the stranded traveler I had perceived her to be moments ago. "So, do you think you can fix the flat? It looks like I musta run over a nail or something. Look, here it is! I think I got a spare in the trailer, but it's hard to get, so maybe you can come in and grab it."

She continues as the stranded traveler, as if she never heard my question. At this point, I am beginning to think she's crazy. I am more amused than scared.

She motions with her face to get into the trailer and quickly shouts: "Oh, you are such a lovely boy to help a little old lady like me. I think I remember seeing a tire in here somewhere."

I enter a trailer filled from floor to ceiling with maps, photographs, banners, fragments of earth, models, and graphs, like a college physics lab crammed into an 8-foot-by-14-foot space. I can't even begin to decipher most of what's in there.

She shuts the door behind me and says, "I am sorry if I freaked you out at first, but I can't let them catch on to me."

"What are you talking about?" I ask. "I thought you had a flat tire."

"I saw you back there at the road stop," she says. "I saw you taking pictures, and I could tell you were on our side."

"What side? I just stopped because I was curious, and I was trying to see where all those buses were coming from. It definitely gives me the creeps."

"That's exactly it. The buses, the fences, this token decoy reactor. It's all interconnected. It's too hard to explain, but I've been following the government's work in the area for the past 20 years. My husband was one of the first people to work with Enrico Fermi in Chicago, which is where all this mess started in the first place. Before you knew it, by the early '40s, this area was providing nuclear energy for the first atomic weapon that eventually leveled Japan. My husband and I have been working to expose the government's exploits for years."

"I thought you said your husband passed away."

"No, no, dear. He legally died in a car crash 10 years ago, but we actually made up the whole thing. Things were getting a little too scary-phones tapped, agents following us-so we had to fabricate his death. It was a little tricky, but we pulled it off."

"So where is your husband now."

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