The City of Souls

I decided to post a chapter from the book I’m trying to write about Patty Vance’s cold case.  And a photograph from the day I visited her gravesite.  The story is still a bit rough around the edges, but perhaps that’s fitting.  That might be the way I describe the emotions I feel around this project — rough around the edges.


A little over a year ago, I rented a zippy budget car and drove the 280 miles south to The Holy Cross Cemetery, the oldest and largest cemetery in Colma, California.  A close friend I’d known in junior high school, Patty Vance, is interred there. Days before my trip, I’d read up on the place known as The City of Souls and discovered the entire town was founded as a necropolis. In 1924, due to sanitation issues and the effect on real estate prices, graves all over San Francisco were exhumed and moved. It somehow gave me solace that Patty was at rest in a town called The City of Souls, a town where the population of the dead vastly outnumber the living. I liked to imagine Colma as a place akin to a summer camp for the dearly departed, or a playground for the dead, a place where endless fun and high jinx abounded and  deep, meaningful friendships were forged.  Clearly, I’m idealizing both the afterlife and summer camp.

Patty was murdered at eighteen, strangled and left under a tree alongside a parking lot on Front Street in San Francisco. She left behind a toddler-aged son. Her case was never solved. I don’t need to go into the details of how I know all this here.  What matters is the facts, not how I learned about them.  The fact that most chafes me: The San Francisco Police Department had an eight-inch file on her as of 2016, but never charged anyone with her murder.  There was a suspect back in 1980 when she was killed, but he was never charged.  (I used “he” here only because it is statistically likely it was man;I don’t know for sure the perpetrator was a man.)

I drove along Mission Boulevard, the main road through town, eyeing the florist shops: Ava’s, Paul’s, Lester’s. I stopped at Flowerland which sounded more inviting somehow.  When I stepped outside my car, the air felt cool against my face. Sluggish clouds dotted the sky. I stood outside the shop for a moment eyeing a gray-haired woman in a lavender suit through the plate-glass window. She was draped in jewelry, and a bottle cap of a hat sat atop her head. Her nose was buried in a bouquet of red roses. Flowers to commemorate the temporal — how fitting.  Not an original thought I supposed.  I went inside and wandered around, sucking the damp, fragrant air deep into my lungs. Finally, I set a flowering succulent with tiny pink blooms and matching bow at the register.  A potted plant wouldn’t die off as quickly as cut flowers I reasoned.

“You must do good business here,” I said to the hunched, wiry man ringing me up.

I figured an investment in death, however peripheral, is dependable, a sure thing.

“It’s seasonal,” he said.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “I guess you don’t get a lot of business when it rains.”

“Almost none,” he said, counting the change into my hand, frowning.

I pulled into a parking spot with a painted curb, directly in front of the office at the Holy Cross. Inside, two women were ahead of me, so I sat in the waiting area. Reading material was fanned out across a low coffee table: pamphlets for the grieving, magazines and newspapers with a Catholic slant.  I picked up the current copy of The Catholic San Francisco and rested it on my knee. 2016 was “The Year of Mercy” and a half-page photograph of brightly-colored greeting cards children have sent to inmates at San Quentin was splashed across the front page to commemorate it: “Prison pen pals offer youth a lesson in mercy and restorative justice” read the wordy headline. The construction-paper cards were cut into hearts, or decorated with crosses — many radiating light — or with the words “God” and “faith.” “Don’t Lose Hope,” was written on one. “Never give up,” on another. They were all signed to maintain anonymity by this eighth-grade Catholic girl, or that seventh-grade boy. The article described restorative justice as “the way many of our ancestors understood wrongdoing,” and as distinct from criminal justice. The idea is to hold the offender accountable, but also to join the victim and community in that process. The article concluded with a quote from a schoolgirl that read “someone will always love you.” There was an interview with Pope Francis calling for monuments of mercy: hospitals, orphanages, homes for recovering drug addicts.

I folded the newspaper into my purse. My head was spinning with references to mercy, with calls to action. I thought of those pen pal kids, of my own Catholic upbringing; my early training in unconditional forgiveness didn’t stick. The last thing I wanted to do was forgive the man who killed my friend.

The receptionist, a wisp of a woman with an inviting smile, asked how she could help me. I explained I was here to see an old friend. She tapped a few keys on her computer, licked the tip of her finger to retrieve a map from a stack, then placed it on the desk between us. She wrote in boxes on the bottom of the page “Row 28, Grave 35,” highlighting the route with a neon-yellow pen.

When asked if I wanted help finding it, I said yes. I was already agitated, my mind blanking out on and off as if dropping the signal of my thoughts.  I looked down at the map; the squares and words and yellow line were swimming in front of me.  Yes, I needed help.  I sat on the cold, cement stairs outside the office for one of the staff. Minutes later, a youthful, middle-aged man pushed through the double doors behind me. A patch on his shirt read Efron. He smiled congenially.  I noticed a scar running from one corner of his mouth to his chin, and I tried not to stare at it while we spoke. His English was spotty. My Spanish was rusty.  We were able to communicate by switching from one language to the other assisted by elaborate hand gestures. When we reached the grave, I instantly hunched over. I felt deflated.  Efron seemed to sense my disappointment.

“There’s nothing here,” I said.

Efron dropped to one knee, and pushed aside a tuft of grass, exposing a marker imprinted with numbers.

“Is this common? What does this mean?” I said, looking around to see if there were other spots devoid of markers.

“Yes, yes,” he said pointing to a few blank spots.

My eyes followed the line of gleaming tombstones lodged in the grass all around us to the two other empty plots.

“I’m sorry,” Efron said.

“It’s okay.”

My hand was sticky with sweat, so I swiped my palm across my jeans before reaching out to shake his hand. Efron left me alone. I plopped down on the grass, exhausted though it was just past noon. I whimpered a bit. I was crying for the loss of my old friend, but also for all the senseless violence in the world. Suddenly, I felt myself  gasping for air. I knew the routine.  This was the all-too-familiar, boot-on-my-neck feeling.  Thankfully, it was day time. It hit me harder at night when it snapped me erect without warning at some ungodly hour and kept me awake until dawn, eyes pasted on the ceiling. This sensation — as if a thick heel was crushing my windpipe — has often been the way stress affects me.

I lifted my head and dried my eyes with a corner of my sleeve.  I wasn’t practiced enough at this to have come equipped with Kleenex.  I glanced around at the towering, wind-bent Cyprus trees, the spots of patchy and anemic grass, the workers pushing loud, churning lawn mowers. The smell of cut grass drifted on the air. A flock of Mallards teetered my direction, eyeing the pot of pink flowers beside me. They circled around me, then wandered off. I stared dumbly at them, hypnotized by the metronome sweep of their tails.

I wandered over to the chapel and went inside. A painting of Jesus at the gates of the Romans was mounted at the front of the room. Sun was pouring through the windows and thick, dusty shafts of light filled the room. I crossed myself twice, once at the door, again at the pew. I am the the most aggressively atheist person I know, so I couldn’t exactly say what drew me into the chapel. It was somewhere quiet to be alone I suppose. I didn’t want anyone to see me puffy-eyed, my mouth tugged into a frown. I sat there until my stomach gurgled. I hadn’t eaten, but I didn’t feel hungry either.

I meandered along the path to the section where the wealthy and famous were interred. I stopped at Joe DiMaggio’s grave. Baseball bats rested under a black slab of marble forming a table top. A miniature Italian flag was wedged in a seam in the slabs. I’ve always been fascinated by the man — not because he’s an American icon, but because of the strange, obsessive love he had for Marilyn Monroe. Rumor had it they divorced because Monroe wasn’t a “traditional” wife. He remained loyal to her nevertheless, and I admired that in him.

I scanned the variety of tombstones lined up on either side of the path. There were mausoleums, marble niches, family columbaria, urn vaults, indoor and outdoor crypts. There was the military section, and separate plots for nuns and priests, and the expansive private gardens that housed only one tomb.

I stopped in the office on my way out to ask if I could donate a tombstone. I had already designed one in my head: a white marble slab with Patty’s yearbook photograph etched into it and surrounded by doves. I liked the idea of a secular design with no references to Catholicism. Patty was always at odds with the nuns at her Catholic school; they tossed her out on her ear in seventh grade after she got caught smoking and pinning up her hem line one too many times. The woman behind the desk had a phone receiver in each ear. I waited.

“Only the people who own the plot can purchase a tombstone,” the receptionist said.

“So, her parents have passed. But her brother?” I said.

“Yes, her brother,” she said. “If he’s the only survivor,” she said, followed by a curt smile.

“What about a tree? Could I purchase a tree for the grounds?”

She handed me a business card.

“Call for an appointment.”

I jumped into my Ford Focus, drove out the giant iron gates, and headed north toward Daly City. I was indignant that Patty had only a plot of grass and a marker the size of a postage stamp — real estate tinier even than the paragraph allotted her in The Chronicle. I spent an entire day in the library to uncover that newspaper article, hoping the entire time I’d find the news of her murder sprawled across the front page.  It was a news blip buried on page three and lumped with two other, unrelated murders.  I wanted her to be visible. I wanted some acknowledgement that her life mattered. I understood that these “acknowledgements” were largely symbolic.  Still.  In death as in life, I suppose, there were hierarchies.

I drove up Mission Road past a small village of cemeteries: The Jewish cemetery, the Mormon cemetery, the Catholic cemetery. Names of specialty cemeteries carved into mammoth marble slabs flitted by in my window— Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and Serbian. Distinctions here in the land of the dead could be as glaring as they could be in the land of the living.

Amid a row of shops, I spotted a nail salon, Happy Nails, and slid into a parking spot a block later. Dunking my feet in warm water and unwinding was just what I needed. A slim woman with a blue surgical mask draped around her neck lowered me into the massage chair. She scrubbed my calves with a grainy gel until it chafed my skin.

“What are you doing in town?” she asked after I’d mentioned I was visiting.

“I went to the Holy Cross Cemetery. My friend is buried there,” I said.

“Oh, I visit my father in the cemetery once a month,” she said.

“It must be nice that he’s so close. Which cemetery is it? They have those cemeteries for, you know, if you’re Catholic, or Jewish.”

“Catholic. Yeah, we bring flowers. My husband and me. Lots of flowers.”

She questioned me further in her soft-spoken, tentative English, asked me what happened to my friend. I wished I’d lied earlier when asked to explain my visit. I could have told her I was shopping at Serramonte, a mega mall a few miles away.  I was typically eager to tell a story, but I no longer had much of an interest in telling Patty’s story. Not as the topic of small talk, and especially if I thought it might be upsetting for the person.

“It’s depressing,” I said, “we don’t want to talk about sad stuff.”

I never asked the woman how her father died though the questions crossed my mind. I am not a paragon of tact at times.  I thought about the practice of visiting graves, about the dedication it takes to make it a routine. Never in my life did I entertain the thought of voluntarily visiting a grave. I never imagined I’d visit a chapel — unless it was the fly-by-night sort that deals in quicky weddings — but that was exactly what I did at Holy Cross, sitting two feet from a mural of the Romans at the gate wondering if only for a fraction of a second how exactly all that Jesus business works. All I remembered from the bible classes of my childhood were the stories and how forgiveness was big.

The woman painted my toenails a lime color and my spirits were lifted from the pampering for as a long as it took me to slog through the rush-hour traffic driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. I stared out over the gray water, at the boats that dotted the bay. The flow of cars ground to a halt.  I glanced over to the passenger seat where a corner ofThe Catholic San Francisco stuck out from my handbag. I slid the newspaper out and placed it on the dashboard. One of the cards in the photograph started with the salutation “Dear Inmate.”  What if my friend’s killer too ended up in San Quentin? I thought. For some other crime of course.  My mind conjured up a shadowy figure sitting on a bunk, a pink construction-paper card pinched between his grizzled fingers. Suddenly the boot was on my neck once again.


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