For a long time, I knew what Jesus felt like as he neared his last breath, pleading for God’s presence, just as David had more than a thousand years before, just as Job had. For a long time, I knew God had purposefully hidden himself from me. And I knew why. God didn’t like being me. So I mourned the loss of God in me.
In my mourning, I gave in to sin and lived the experience of a darker me. I gained what to do with all those facts—wisdom, teaching. I imagined several easier lives I may’ve lived. Versions where I played along, dumb and happy, running a father-in-law’s business. But none of those were my way. This is:
Saralyn’s father, Bruce, drove to the barren empty desert of Eastern Utah and shot himself behind the ear with a 9mm pistol when she was thirteen. He and my father had been distant friends. Saralyn started coming to our church with a family I only knew by sight a year after her father’s suicide. I had no idea who she was. I remember my father talking to my mother on our way home from church saying, “That girl with Melinda Mutzbauer; isn’t that Bruce’s daughter?”
Dad had known Bruce better ten years earlier. They both attended Galilee Baptist Church, and were among only a handful of other worshipers. Dad had been attending for several months, when Bruce was new to town from Moab, and looking for a church home. They had become friends and Dad helped Bruce with various projects at his small business, and Bruce had helped Dad with this or that of his. They brought both families together, wives and kids and all, and ate barbeque and played games. I’m not sure why the relationship sort of fell away between them, but I had little to no memory of these occurrences.
The following Sunday, after service, Dad approached Saralyn.
“Are you Bruce’s daughter,” he said.
“I’m Saralyn, Mr. Blade,” she said. “I know you and my father were friends.”
Dad was struck with her pre-knowledge and frank politeness. And so was I, as I stood by him. “My deepest sympathy and condolences on your loss. Bruce was a good man.”
“Thank you, Mr. Blade,” she said.
“This is my son, Andy,” Dad said
“Hi, Andrew,” she said, as she reached out and shook my hand firmer than any other girl had.
“Hi.” That’s all I said. Couldn’t muster anything more. I felt like she knew me already—and far better than I knew her or wanted to. Just wanted to leave church as fast as I could. That was always the goal for me while in the building.
Big nosed Saralyn, nerdy glasses, with long dark hair and short unkempt wavy bangs, she didn’t know what to do with. Kind of greasy, like she hated to bathe or couldn’t bathe or didn’t care. And a strangeness in her green eyes. Aware and scared to death. Alive and miserable at the same time. Confident. Severely direct eye contact made with Dad and me, unlike most kids talked to adults or even to their friends. Fascinating.
Months went by and I hardly thought of Saralyn and never said one word to her. Though she went out of her way to say hello to me each and every Sunday, usually while I tossed a football with friends on the front lawn of the church, waiting for our parents.
Once, after a service where my father and I had played a trombone duet, she caught me outside.
“Hello Andrew,” she said. “You sounded good today. Well done.”
“Thanks,” I returned, embarrassed and half ignoring her.
The first envelope arrived tattered and tight, stuffed with a letter and a cassette tape. No return address. The letter said the songs were to me, and that this mystery person was my secret admirer. I sat stumped and excited and completely blown away that I had a secret admirer. Me? My mother was as curious and excited about the package as I was. I let her look at the contents and then I took the tape to my room. The tape was full of country love songs I’d never heard of. Recorded from the radio. Several songs were introduced by a DJ—personally dedicated to me.
I never listened to country music and neither did any of my friends. I had no appreciation for country music back then. Thought it was sentimental and silly. I wasn’t country—or at least tried not to be.
Over the next several weeks, four more packages from my secret admirer. Each letter began to show a little more detail concerning what was admired about me. Most of them were intangible traits like, honesty, integrity, character, stuff like that.
I honestly didn’t think Saralyn until Cassie, my older sister, started quizzing me one day.
“What about school? Is there anybody there that watches you or talks to you a lot?”
“No. Everyone hates me at school,” I said.
“Shut up,” Cassie said. “Your cousin doesn’t hate you.”
“What about church? Are there any girls that stare at you? How bout Paula? She’s nice.”
“Yeah right,” I laughed. “I’m sure it’s Pastor’s daughter.”
“What about Melinda Mutzbauer’s daughter Maleeta or her new friend she brings?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
But truthfully, that started my mind in the right direction. By the next Sunday, I was ninety percent sure Saralyn was my admirer. Denial is a powerful thing. I think I wished it not to be her. I had eliminated her as a possibility in my mind, simply because I thought she was weird and a little scary.
That Sunday I just watched her intently. I noticed her take a few glances my direction.
The following Friday, a church youth group function placed us both in the same home with ten other teenagers playing games, inside and out. I played basketball outside with other guys. Saralyn wore a denim baseball cap low over her eyes, the bill resting on top of her glasses. She held her head low and kept very much to herself. Weirdness confirmed for me. But as we ran outside and played some kind of chase game, she talked to me.
“Do you remember me, from when we were kids?” she said.
“No. Not really,” I said.
“I used to take you to this ditch behind my father’s old shop to catch crawdads”
“How old were we?”
“Four or five,” she said.
“I don’t remember that.”
“Our Dads used to be really good friends.”
“Hmm,” I said.
The following afternoon, I looked her up in the phone book. I him-hawed around for half an hour and then thought I’d just call her.
“Hi Saralyn, this is Andy Blade.”
“Have you been sending me secret admirer letters and tapes?”
Then a long pause. A pause long enough to confirm and make me doubt all at once.
“Okay,” I said.
“I just think you’re a really good person,” she said.
“We should get together and talk some time,” I said.
“Maybe. I have to go. I’ll see you on Sunday,” she said and hung up the phone.
Saralyn’s mom dropped her off at my house on a Saturday afternoon. We walked and talked through alfalfa fields and across vacant dirt and found our way to a local elementary school playground. We sat on the grass and began to know each other.
The wind blew and I noticed her tight, curvy little body under all her loose-fitting clothes. Perky round breasts and a flat belly awakened my interest in Saralyn. At that moment, a need was birthed in me, and it had everything to do with sexuality and primal urges I’d only imagined.
We talked about her Dad like she was comfortable with it but also in a tone saying she just wanted to get it out and over with. Plain and dry with the details. She said little of her feelings other than she and her father were very close. I didn’t ask why he did it, but I wanted to. She didn’t offer and maybe she didn’t know. I didn’t know what to say. It was all new to me. I tried to relate by talking about my dad’s meager suicide attempt six years earlier. But I knew it offered little consolation since my dad still lived and drove me to church on Sundays. She told me the news of her father’s death came while she soaked in the tub. I didn’t know how to take that except that I then began to imagine her naked body more vividly. I had a girlfriend the previous summer. A girlfriend I spent time with holding hands and kissing. But Saralyn had never experienced more than a crush.
“This is a big deal,” she said, over and over. “I’ve never done this.”
“This walk isn’t a big deal. We’re just talking.”
“It is a big deal. I’m here with you.”
She cut right to it. Made me small and again I didn’t know what to say. She sprung off her heels, gleeful. I played bashful and a little embarrassed—afraid I might be seen by my friends. But I liked the feeling it all gave me
We agreed to talk on the phone. I called her after we both arrived home from marching band practice. We talked until my mom would call for dinner or one of my sisters wanted the phone.
We became an ‘item’ after our first official date a couple months later. A double date with Joel Herschauer and Melinda Mutzbauer. Saralyn and I sat in the back seat of Joel’s recently rebuilt 1970 Nova on our way to the bowling alley. First we stopped for dinner at a fast-food joint. We piled back in the car. Joel turned the key and an awful noise filled the parking lot. Joel looked mortified. He didn’t say a word. He got out of the car and lifted the hood. Then he went to the trunk and pulled out some wrenches. We all got out of the car and noticed the large amount of fluid draining from the car’s front end. Joel put a pair of wrenches down on the car next to the radiator and then walked back inside the restaurant. He came back out and said, “My Dad will be here soon.”
Joel’s father showed a few minutes later. Joel had his radiator unhooked and sitting on the curb. Joel went to his father’s truck and put the leaky radiator in the back then pulled a smaller radiator out of the truck and walked back to his Nova. Apparently his new flex fan had dug into the larger radiator and caused a leak. Joel and his father worked rapidly and had the car back in commission within twenty minutes. I was amazed.
Bowling was awkward and filled with embarrassing forgettable moments. Joel belonged to a league so he kicked the crap out of the rest of us.
Afterward, we piled back into Joel’s car. As we drove toward Melinda’s house, I reached over and held Saralyn’s hand. Our fingers intertwined and warmed together. She looked down over and over and smiled bigger every time. I knew it was another one of her big deals.
She learned to hate my friends because they lived to party and experience youth in excess. She already thought we’d always be together. She wanted me to grow up all at once and settle down with her. And I wanted to believe it, too. I tried and said I did. I can see now that she always tried to change and moralize me. That she saw an ocean of potential in me and thought she could be the one to tap in. But I had to disappoint her.
I’d get drunk with my friends and curse Saralyn as they joined me. But I’d go to sleep thinking of those sweet perky tits of hers, and inevitably call her the following morning. This was a pattern: I’d spend one weekend night with her and one with my friends. A compromise we’d come to.
On a Wednesday morning, ditching school, we raided Saralyn’s vacant house. I knew no one would be there. We took one bottle of wine and a handful each from a mixed can of half dollar and dollar coins. Then we drove to the industrial center of town and parked under a bridge. We pooled our loot on the roof of Duane’s white Corolla. Seventy two dollars and a bottle of cheap cherry wine. So, we spent the afternoon at the arcade playing pool followed by a large Burger King dinner.
Life in the desert is a constant search. A search for the next thing. The next thrill. The next event. Because a horizon without an event, quakes you with boredom, a burden no one should bear.
We planned a small party at Brian’s house because his parents were out of town for the weekend. Finding alcohol was always the focus of those party planning days. Duane knew a couple possible contacts and so did Greg and me. But this time it worked out perfectly.
Brian stole two big bottles from the restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher. Vodka and rum became the menu features for the evening. Bring your own mixer, we agreed to tell everyone invited. I brought cranberry juice for the vodka.
Greg brought orange juice and Jen DiCanillo. A fun girl. And Greg knew this because he ditched Geology with her weekly to go to his vacant nearby house and fuck around. She was a man-thirsty girl. Funny, I always liked her in a casual way, and she was never thirsty for me.
The party built up to nothing. Brian got drunk and then wanted to make frozen pizzas. I watched Greg go in and out of Brian’s room where Jen lay waiting over and over. She’d appear for a few minutes, hair mussed, no bra, eyes squinted, and slam a couple shots. Then she’d retreat back to the dark and wait for Greg.
The rest of us stiff and jealous. Talk and nervous social statuses reminded us of our fragile childish selves. But we never would’ve admitted it.
Around midnight, a car pulled in the drive. None of us knew who they were. Brian peaked around the curtains and then hit the lights, and told us all to hide and keep quiet. I hid in his family room on the floor in a comfortable position on my back, behind the shadow of a tall square sofa. Those were long happy moments, to feel my mind still spinning at party speed, and then go to a quiet and dark moment. I soothed blissful in my dark spot and thought it would never be interrupted, but then it was. The guests had a key, and opened the door as Brian stood from his hiding spot to greet them. An aunt and uncle from Moab passing through town. Brian’s parents knew they were coming but purposefully didn’t tell Brian, practicing some kind of security measure.
Brian knew he couldn’t quiet a handful of drunks in his house for long, so he came clean and told his uncle that we’d been hanging out and drinking. And the uncle was cool and promised not to say anything to Brian’s parents about it, as long as we weren’t too loud, because he and his wife had been traveling all day on their way back to Moab and were desperate to sleep.
So, it ended our party groove. Jen drove home. We played hack in Brian’s backyard in the dark. But the buzz and comfort of the party vanished in the dark, while we played quiet, pretending. Duane wandered off toward the train tracks. I became depressed and sat in the dark, back up against a small globe willow tree, and watched the dry desert night.
Nothing happens for a while, and then you’re slammed awake again. Pretty soon, we realized Duane was gone and no one knew where he was. Although, we all knew Duane had a fascination with trains. He spent time growing up in Gooding, Idaho, a small railroad stop town in the middle of farm land as far as you can see. Duane used to tell stories from his past about his childhood and always messing near the tracks and playing on and around the parked trains.
We walked to the tracks and split from there. Greg and I went west, Mike and Brian went east and we agreed to meet back at Brian’s in an hour.
Only a few minutes into our walk and a train came through from the other guys’ direction. Greg and I crossed a field and waited for the two-mile train to pass. Our attention was grabbed by flashing red and blue lights from behind. We turned as a county sheriff’s deputy stopped his cruiser on the highway. He made a quick chirp with his siren and then motioned us to walk over to him.
“What are you kids out doing tonight?”
“We’re looking for our friend. He went walking down the tracks,” Greg said.
“Uh huh, what’s your friend’s name?”
“Duane,” Greg said.
“Duane Maxwell,” I said.
“And what are your names?”
Over the cop’s CB attached to his shoulder, we heard something about a train being hit or a train hitting something.
I looked over at Greg. He knew I was thinking Duane because he was thinking Duane. He dropped to his knees and sobbed, “Duane. Duane. Oh my God, Duane was hit by the train.”
“What’s wrong, kid?” the cop said.
“I heard your radio saying the train hit something,” Greg cried.
“It’s nothing. Broken window is all. Hit by a rock or something,” the cop said.
“Where do you boys live? Do you have ID?”
“My school ID is in my other pants at our friend’s house?”
“How old are you guys?”
“Fifteen,” we both said.
“We’re staying at our friend’s Brian’s house tonight,” I said.
“Hop in,” he said. “I’ll take you back over there. You know, it’s illegal to hang around the tracks, even if you are looking for someone. I could give you a ticket.”
At Brian’s house, it was all dark again. Brian’s relative’s probably turned all the lights out hoping we were gone for good and they could sleep in peace. The cop followed Greg and I up to the door after we parked on the curb. I knocked and Brian opened the door not expecting to see a cop. “Whadda you want?” he yelled as he yanked the door opened, joking with us.
“What have you guys been doing over here?” the cop asked Brian.
“Wwwwwweeeee, were just making pizzas,” Brian stuttered.
Brian stuttered like that often, and more when he was nervous, dragging sounds of the beginning of words far too long before finishing his thought all in one fast blurb. It was something he hated but had learned to deal with. We all laughed about it, and he was usually a good sport.
“Where are your parents?”
“They are in Moab seeing my grandparents.”
“Uh huh,” the cop said, as he nervously scribbled in his palm size pad of paper. “And when will they be back?”
“Tomorrow,” Brian said.
“You guys been drinking?”
“Nope. Wwwwwweeeeeee, were just making pizzas,” Brian said again.
“Is anyone else in the house other than you four?”
“My uncle Charles and his wife are sleeping in my parents’ bed. They’re passing through from Moab.”
“I’m here,” Charles said, as he slid from the shadows, shirtless and round.
“Sir, is this kid telling the truth?” the cop said to Charles.
“Yep. He’s just been hanging out here with his friends most of the night.”
“Thanks. Have a good evening. I’ll get out of your hair,” he said, wrapping up his investigation. “Stay away from those train tracks,” he concluded, as he turned his attention to us.
Duane wandered for miles along the tracks. Drunk as a skunk, depressed and languid. Greg and his dad found him the next morning seven miles across town near the Colorado River. Duane never did say why he left or decided to walk all night. Maybe he was looking for another party or an escape tunnel under the river.