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.


I rented a zippy Ford Fiesta and headed to Holy Cross Cemetery. It’s the oldest and largest cemetery in Colma, California, a small town — population 1,500 — thirty miles south of San Francisco. This was where Patty Vance was buried. I’d located her obituary at the library months ago, but was too busy working to drive back to the city until now. I grew up in San Francisco, but never knew Colma was named “The City of Souls,” or that it was founded as a necropolis, a fancy term for a city-sized cemetery. Google didn’t exist back then. 

In 1924, due to sanitation issues and the effect on real estate prices, graves all over San Francisco were exhumed and moved. Colma was created. It gave me solace that Patty was at rest in a town where the dead outnumbered the living. I envisioned her in an underworld completely unlike the place she’d come from. It would be not so much a place of rest, or a peaceful place, but a place of rejoicing, filled with glee. Ghosts and ghouls would rollick, or waltz around, their heads thrown back in laughter.

I drove along Mission Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, eyeing the florist shops. Ava’s, Paul’s, Lester’s. I picked Flowerland. Its name sounded somehow more inviting than the others. I opened the car door and took a long whiff of the cool spring air. Inside the shop a woman in a lavender suit held a handkerchief clamped over her mouth, perhaps stifling a wail. A young woman alongside her patted her on the shoulder. 

I wandered inside, spent too much time deciding what to buy, then grabbed the first plant I saw. I set a succulent with tiny pink blooms in front of the man at the register.

“You must do a vigorous business here.” I assumed an investment in death, however peripheral, was dependable, a sure thing.

“It’s seasonal,” he said.

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

“Almost none.”  He counted the change into my hand.

I pulled up in front of the office at Holy Cross. Inside two women were ahead of me, so I found a chair in the waiting area. I picked up a copy of the Catholic San Francisco newspaper, spreading it across my knee. A half-page photograph of greeting cards children had sent to inmates at San Quentin was splashed across the front page to commemorate  “The Year of Mercy.” “Prison Pen Pals Offer Youth a Lesson in Mercy and Restorative Justice” read the headline. 

Students had cut hearts from construction paper and scribbled the words “God” and “faith” in crayon. “Don’t Lose Hope,” was the message on one. “Never Give Up,” on another. They were all signed to maintain anonymity by this eighth-grade Catholic girl, or that seventh grader. The article described restorative justice as distinct from criminal justice. The idea was to hold the offender accountable, but also to join the victim and community in the process. If offenders took responsibility for their actions, understood the harm they had caused. Ideally that would discourage them from causing further harm. The article concluded with “someone will always love you,” taken from one of the greeting cards. 

I folded the newspaper into my purse. My head was swimming with references to mercy and calls to action. I thought of those pen pal kids, of my years in Catholic school. My early training in unconditional forgiveness never stuck. Restorative justice — what a crock. The last thing I planned on doing was giving the person who killed my friend a pass. My notion of forgiveness was by definition conditional. Besides, how would the “victim” participate?  She was long gone.

The receptionist, a wisp of a woman with an inviting smile, asked how she could help me. 

“I’m here to visit an old friend. Her name is Patricia Vance.”

She tapped a few keys on her computer, licked her fingertip to get traction on a piece of paper, then placed a map on the desk between us. She wrote in boxes on the bottom of the page “Row 28, Grave 35.” Picking up a yellow highlighter, she drew the route. It formed the shape of a giant question mark on the page. Fitting. All I had were questions.

“Do you need help finding it?”

I nodded. I sat outside on the stairs waiting for a staff member, wishing I still smoked cigarettes. Efron, my guide, greeted me with his hand extended. He said something to me in spotty English I couldn’t make out. A scar ran from one corner of his mouth to his chin. Momentarily I found myself spinning a chivalrous tale, a narrative of how it came to be, its origin story. We gestured and made exaggerated movements with our bodies while we walked. I spoke broken Spanish to him. When we reached the grave, I dropped to one knee and hunched over. I felt deflated.  Efron slumped his shoulders in a show of solidarity. I remembered the seven percent rule. Ninety three percent of communication is nonverbal, seven percent verbal. There must be something to that.

“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 looked around to see if there were other spots that were unmarked.

“Yes, yes,” he said pointing to a plot of grass two rows down.

My eyes followed the line of tombstones lodged in the grass to the other empty plot.

“I’m sorry,” Efron said.

“It’s okay.”

My hand was moist with sweat, so I swiped my palm across my jeans before shaking his hand. He smiled and bowed his head, then left me by myself. I plopped down on the grass. I was depleted, exhausted although it was only noon. My eyes welled up, and I mopped them with my shirt sleeve. Suddenly I was struck by what could be described as a boot-at-my-neck feeling. On occasion it snapped me erect in the middle of the night, gasping for air. I called this feeling a panic attack when I told my friends. They would understand this terminology. A boot, maybe not as much.

Towering, wind-bent Cyprus trees punctuated an anemic, patchy lawn. Workers in the distance pushed loud, churning lawn mowers. Cut grass was kicked up behind them and I caught a taste it in the back of my throat. Two mallards teetered towards me, eyeing the pot of pink flowers beside me. They circled around, tail feathers sweeping the air, and wandered off.  After a few minutes, I calmed down. 

I strolled over to the nearby chapel and entered. Nothing grand drew me inside. I wasn’t looking for catharsis. I was seeking the pews. My legs wobbled. A painting of Jesus on the cross with three disciples at his feet was mounted at the front of the room. The figure of Jesus radiated in the sunlight slanting through the windows, and I figured someone had instructed an architect to line up the windows just so that at certain hours of the day He radiated light. I dipped my finger into the font, crossed myself twice. I was tempted to submerge my entire face into it and gulp down a mouthful of holy water. The Bacon adage came to mind about how people either drank in knowledge or gargled it. Maybe I was after more than just a place to sit down. 

I sat puffy-eyed grimacing at the massive cross. Pews must be made with suffering in mind. There was no sitting still on them, but shifting around didn’t help either. My stomach gurgled. I hadn’t eaten, but I wasn’t hungry either. A loss of appetite was always the first signal I was depressed. A day or even a week could go by without a meal, depending on how long it lasted. I pushed open the chapel doors, unsure of how much time I’d spent inside. 

A concrete path wound along side a field of tombstones laid in neat columns. Further on mausoleums, marble niches, family columbaria, urn vaults, indoor and outdoor crypts formed a small-scale skyline built up on the edges of the walkway. I shivered as I stepped into their shade. There was the military section, and plots exclusively for nuns and priests. Expansive private gardens sometimes 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, surrounded by doves. I liked the idea of a secular design with no references to Catholicism. Patty was tossed out of Saint Mary Magdalen Middle School after hiking up the hemline of her skirt. She was expelled for smoking. She hated nuns. 

The woman behind the desk had a phone receiver in each ear.  I waited for her to call me over.

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

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

“Yes, her brother if he’s the only survivor.” She tugged her mouth into a thin, 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 car, drove through the giant iron gates, headed north toward Daly City. I was indignant Patty had only a marker the size of a postage stamp — a piece of real estate even tinier than the paragraph allotted her in The Chronicle. She deserved to be visible as much as anyone else. But in death as in life, hierarchies existed. 

I drove up Mission Road passing a small village of cemeteries, each with its separate distinction: The Jewish cemetery, the Mormon cemetery, the Catholic cemetery. Names of specialty cemeteries carved into mammoth marble slabs flitted past my window— Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and Serbian. 

I spotted a nail salon and slid into a parking spot. Dunking my feet in warm water and unwinding was just what I needed. A slim woman with a 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.

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

“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’d wished I lied earlier when she’d asked me to explain my visit. I could have told her I was shopping at Serramonte. I’m typically eager to tell a story, but not Patty’s story.

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

I never asked how her father died. I thought about the practice of visiting graves, about the dedication it takes to make it a routine. Before this, I’d never thought about visiting a grave. Before today, I couldn’t envision myself visiting a chapel. Maybe for a wedding.

The woman painted my toenails a lime color. My spirits lifted from the pampering for as a long as it took me to slog through the rush-hour traffic driving north over the Golden Gate Bridge. I stared out over the glassy water dotted with sailboats. The flow of cars halted. The Catholic San Francisco had spilled partway from my handbag onto the passenger seat. I slid the newspaper out and placed it on the dashboard. One of the cards in the photograph was addressed “Dear Inmate.” What if my friend’s killer had ended up in San Quentin? Coincidentally, I was coming up on the sprawling prison just as I was glancing at the photograph.  By the time I passed The Big House, cars were speeding, compensating for the earlier slow down. The gray boxy building was no more than a blur in my periphery. I pictured a shadowy figure inside that box crouched on a bunk, a heart made from construction paper pinched between his fingers. Suddenly the boot was at my neck again.

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