Baptizing the Dead

Michael Palmer

On October 17, 2007, a Union Pacific employee called the Tooele Police Department and reported a vacated truck in the Salt Lake desert. The truck was parked next to the train tracks, and had been there since just before noon. The police asked for the license plate number. The truck was registered to Stephen Krommenhoek. He was 23 years old and lived in Salt Lake City. They sent an officer to check it out. When the officer arrived, he found the truck windows rolled down. There were two boxes of unused ammunition and an empty water bottle on the floor of the truck.

On the other side of the train tracks, fresh shells were sprinkled on the ground. An old office chair and some Bud Light bottles were set up in the distance as targets. Past those, over a small hill and closer to the water, there was a body lying on the salty ground. The call from Union Pacific came in around five and the officer found the body around seven. An ambulance was called; family was notified. The body was lifted up and hauled away.

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After Steve died, that was about all of the story I was able to tell, despite trying to eulogize him several times. Whether writing an essay or drinking with my friends, I was never able to get far into the story without turning back or shutting it down. I couldn’t handle the image of Steve lying there, face down in the salt, with the distant I-80 traffic zooming past him. Every time I tried to tell the story, I just wanted to put him back in his truck, and to bring him home.

Tamara, Steve’s girlfriend, responded to his death in the opposite way. She couldn’t not talk about it. In any context, to anyone. She couldn’t go a day without bringing Steve up. It didn’t stop her if her audience didn’t know Steve, nor would she pause for those who knew him well. In my case, she didn’t mind if I just listened without saying anything, and we started to spend a lot of time together—much more than we did when Steve was alive.

In some of Tamara’s versions she recounted what Steve must have done that day. Other times she blamed herself for being in San Diego when it happened. And sometimes she presented the story as a small blip of something much bigger—something as long as eternity. When Tamara talked about Steve’s death as part of the eternal scheme of things, she started by telling me that he prayed every night. That was something I didn’t know about him.

Tamara and Steve were both Mormon. So was I, to some extent. I grew up Mormon, at least. Sometimes Tamara took comfort in her religion. Other times she said that the pressures of being a righteous priesthood holder drove Steve to the pawn shop, and the inability of the church to find a place for nuance put the .357 Magnum in his hand.

Still, Tamara was occasionally able to calm herself down when thinking about two things: 1) that she’d be able to see Steve again after she died and 2) that at some point while reclining in the passenger seat of his truck before he walked off and shot himself, Steve was comforted, and felt some kind of peace in the Salt Lake desert before he left.

That was one reason why I couldn’t tell Steve’s story as freely or as well. When I imagined him leaning the seat of his truck back as far as it would go, I saw him staring at the brown metallic ceiling, and that was all.

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