The road I walk up is empty and ugly, flat. I live on the fringes of the city, in a neighborhood of winding streets sandwiched between major intersections, and walking in the neighborhood can feel like literally going in circles. So I walk alongside some kind of empty field, property of the city, barbed wire and beer cans along its perimeter. Almost no one drives this street, even now, at 5pm, which is nice. I feel comfortable in the solitude. Sometimes, in this neighborhood, people honk at you. It's sort of annoying.
This is what I see along the walk: discarded Pepsi containers, bundles of dead branches, a crumpled pair of doctor's scrubs, a cheap vinyl purse with the strap slit neatly. The further you get from the main road, the worse the trash gets. One part almost seems like a parody of “American Beauty,” at least 20 trashbags tangled and blowing in the skeleton trees. I think of Wes Bentley with teary eyes, “There's just so much beauty.” I laugh, but not to make fun of that film. I still like that film, even if it was overrated.
Right around the corner is a graveyard. It is a pauper's grave, I guess, because many of the gravestones aren't actually gravestones, they're just index-card-sized metal placards with typed information: name, DOB, DOD. “Tejanos in Action” the cement sign says at the entrance. Some of the graves do have gravestones, and then some are decorated with plastic floral arrangements that spell out “Mom” or “Dad.” One grave site is covered in toy cars and ceramic angels because it's a brother and sister buried there. They died on the same day. He was six, she was eight. I throw away the Wendy's bag that I'm almost certain isn't part of the decoration, then I worry that it was part of the decoration. “That little boy loved his Biggie Fries.” But surely it isn't part of the decoration. No, no, surely it's trash.
One of the metal placards is missing a nameplate — it is just an empty metal shell stuck in the dirt. I find a nameplate lying in the grass nearby, and so I slide the nameplate back on. Someone named David. Hello David. It's a small thing, a name, but it might be the biggest small thing. It makes me feel good to give David his name back. I will be the keeper of the pauper's grave, I think. (Is it paupers' or pauper's? Maybe it's just paupers.) Someone needs to keep this place up. And it will be me. I will walk here every day, clean trash and re-name dead bodies. For a second I wonder if I placed the wrong nameplate on David's grave, which seems infinitely worse than no nameplate at all. But it was lying right there. That's David. I'm sure of it.
I am kneeling over David's grave when a truck drives up and parks at the cemetery's entrance. They don't get out of the truck but just sit and wait and, I imagine, stare at the white girl with the headphones on. If they ask me anything, I will lie. I will not tell them about being the keeper of the graves. I will tell them David was a colleague. I look at his metal placard: He died in 1981. Well, it's not like the people in the truck will know that. It's not like they'll even ask, especially since they're not getting out of their car. Windows up, engine running, like they're waiting for something. Except there's nothing to wait for here. This is one of those places they mean when they say, “Nothing around for miles.” Seriously, I think, nothing around for miles, boys. Except for me. Shit.
See, that's when I realize that the pauper's grave might be the deviant's answer to daylight. At any time of the day you can drink here. You can deal drugs here. And that is what I am really, really hoping the people in the truck are doing, because you could also, of course, abduct white girls with fanciful notions of taking care of strangers' graves. White girls who sometimes get tears in their eyes when they think about how there's so much beauty in the world.
I return to walking in the neighborhood. I don't take care of the graves anymore.
Did I mention I live in a black neighborhood? It's the first black neighborhood I've ever lived in. When I was growing up, we lived in an all-white neighborhood — a family of middle-class misfits in rich-kid-crazy suburbia. When I took walks as a teenager, I always felt underdressed or like I wasn't wearing the right equipment. Now, I just feel a little silly.
“How many more laps you got?” one man shouts as I walk past.
“You want a ride?” a young black man in a basketball jersey asks me.
Later, when I tell my friend Jon Walker this he says, “And he wasn't talking about a ride in no car, either.”
Jon says things like this. He's “witty in the classic sense.” That's what my friend John Erler says about some people, that they're “witty in the classic sense.” I guess John Erler thinks people overuse the word to be synonymous with “funny.” I think people overuse the name John. I know so many Johns. Jon Walker's good friend John Young is named John. It's kind of outrageous.
When I was growing up in rich-kid-crazy suburbia, two other Sarahs were in my grade. There was Sarah E. and Sara K. and me, Sarah H. It drove me nuts. Mom says Sarah wasn't that common before 1974, like she knew she wasn't being original with my name but she didn't know how totally unoriginal she was being. She wanted to give me a name that people knew but not everyone had. Her name is Susan. My dad's name is John.
Another outrageously overused name is David. I know at least four Davids, just off the top of my head, including my friend David Snyder, who sent me a question a while ago that I've been meaning to answer which is why is Bono so cool. Only David worded it funnier, but I can't remember what he wrote now. And I think I began that answer a while ago, but couldn't really figure it, because Bono shouldn't be cool. Not by my standards at least, and Bono wasn't cool by my standards for like years, even when I listened to “Achtung Baby” so much my freshman roommate threatened to throw it out the window. But now Bono's got the whole third-world-debt thing, and the better-with-age rock star thing, and he's not so smug and political as he is just like weirdly enlightened and inspirational. And Bono has the best wail in rock music.
“Hi. How you doin this evening?” A large woman waves to me from the rocking chair on her front porch.
People wave from their porches here, which is nice. I'm accustomed to keeping my eyes on the gravel when I walk past houses, not making eye contact. I remember sometimes, in rich-kid-crazy suburbia, I would pass people in my classes, people I saw every day at school, but we wouldn't wave to each other. What was that about?
“Fine, thanks.” It's been hot all afternoon, but at this hour, the breeze has kicked in, feels good.
“Nice evening,” she says.
“Yeah. It is.”