ETIQUETTE FOR A PANDEMIC: Protocols
Six Feet Apart
Because the synecdoche syndicate on Pennsylvania Avenue has
washed metaphorical hands of this thing, this Asian monster, this your-
favorite-beer with an acidic citrus twist atop--but will not wash
its literal unclean hands, we are shaking hands with death,
that anonymous stranger sporting tennis shoes, wobbling high heels,
wearing riding boots, hoisting a backpack, carrying a briefcase who
touched an escalator rail, rode the commuter train in any dismal
inner-city Howtown, its Dan Pardo voice pronouncing “Ladies
and Gentlemen, this is Grand.” We scat-wipe the scummy seat
and take our cue to exit. If we want to take dinner out, reservations
are easy. A table of 12 had an emergency cancellation, something
about garden seating elsewhere and a kiss of death in the clean fresh air.
We wander into the Osco not too far from Lincoln Park where the union
stocker refills the vodka and thinks to himself he’s lucky to have
this much before he goes to his night shift peddling Whoppers through
windows and thinks it’s so fortunate his wife’s job became a self-scan
because somebody has to watch the kids all day since there’s no school
and this is not a drill. He checks his email, reads a few internet trolls,
writes a Facebook feces-bomb @ the “Establishment” little old black
ladies taking melonballs to the church fellowship hour, wearing their
gospel parasol Sunday hats, delivering the social lozenges of casseroles
to people with the sugar worse than they have, or the swole feet, or
on the oxygen after years working the plants that closed back in the ‘80s
that a con man said were coming back to Allentown, to your town, to any
unpretty Howtown, to Appalachia, to Adirondack, to Alabama’s
Pittsburgh of the South. He hits “send,” to us all, completing the “Social
Six Feet Deep
The funeral director or some funeral-director sibling
in the wrong place in the short line of succession to
Natural State Funeral Home and Crematory is our
Wal-Mart greeter when we go to select Walt’s casket.
(That is all we have to select, since, being a prudent sort,
Cora long ago made pre-need arrangements for interment
in the actual plot). I look around and realize that the funerary
nom de plume is not Natural State for any reason related to
Job, replay the King James in my head: “Naked came I
out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart,”
but is because they realized, at a desk staffed by Bill Clinton’s
tourism guy, that “Land of Opportunity” billboards, license plates
made folks snicker even if they were from Blytheville,
Braggadoccio, MO, or a place called Hope.
This space is pure Arkansas, as we see in the many offerings
for “themed” arrangements: Granny’s skillets, “Hog” hats,
red and white jerseys, Ozark knick-knacks you could cull
from a bait & tackle by the Cashe River. We can get a pre-selected
red and white floral spray our Crimson Tide Dad would like
because the Razorback colors are close enough to sell us. Roll!
The little man with the clipboard asks about the obituary
and I’m nominated because I have “a way with words,” and
I see my journalism major sister’s saggy frown, but even she
knows the Pinteresque subtext: they want me because I won’t
“fall all to pieces” with it. I toy with the idea of cause of death
for an 83-year-old man. I think it is technically “cessation of birthdays.”
The sycophant with the clipboard voices his ruddy-cheeked praise
for Cora’s pre-need foresight about the two spaces, because it’s
so costly to be unprepared, a fact I doubt since my least favorite ex
who, I swear to God, looked like freaking Morticia Addams in her cloak
sold pre-need “packages” to black customers. She peddled sealed vaults
called The Lincoln, The Dr. King, The General Sherman, which were
just a little more expensive than the pine under the bronze-encased memorial
plaque because the Emancipation line of eternal sleeping bags would keep them
from, she said, “floating around in that soupy gunk, make you well-preserved
like Dr. King” in his sealed, seep-resistant coffin. We do not splurge on the super
gunk-resistant body carriage to ferry Dad downward. Maybe we’ll settle
for the Robert E. Lee, the Sterling Price, the Stonewall Jackson. The little man
with the clipboard he grips in chubby bratwurst fingers needs to know
whether Cora wants Walt’s headstone on the left or the right.
She looks at him funny.
“Which way did you stand at the altar?” Her hands signal confusion, because
it was a city hall window, and the reception was in the house they’d just bought
to move their combined brats into—in hopes of a “Brady Bunch” but winding up with
more of a Manson family, Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me” playing on
the massive 60s stereo console in the den, without a trace of irony in their intentions.
He prompts her: “Did your husband sleep to the left or the right of you in bed?”
We all are about to take umbrage at his indelicacy so he auto-corrects.
“You see, left is traditional for the husband. He’s buried there so when the
Rapture comes, you both will rise from the earth just the way you were married
at the altar and slept in bed.” Now she understands. “We are very traditional.”
She repeats, “Very traditional. Let’s do it that way.”
“So it’s settled,” he says.
Six Feet Deep, Right Side
It was settled when we lowered her into the ground a fortnight later,
the earth reclaiming her, she reclaiming her rightful space on the bed,
waiting for the Rapture. The Bible promised it. Walt promised it, too.
The Rapture is waiting for them, waiting for all of us, preserving
our preordained spaces, at Natural State Funeral and Crematory.
An homage to the clipboard guy, I scrawled on a beige takeout napkin:
The Rapture, when it occurs, will not come to us in Ezekiel’s verse
or fall from Corinthian skies in rich pleather. Rather, The Rapture,
when and if it occurs, will feature two faces: yours and mine, and
possibly the quill of a porcupine. The Rapture, if and when it comes
to divide us by idioms of chance, to subdivide this universe we share,
will take a lawn chair and observe our quiet, slow-moving, big black hearse.
That’s settled, then.
I heard in a youth-group Revelation lock-in at Missionary Baptist Tabernacle
when I was 13 that failing to plan ahead could be very costly at the Rapture.
.06 Acre, Fenced
Selling the house is not a sentimental business, not something that will
“send you to pieces.” The house is not invested with the poetry of anyone’s
childhood. This is just a place where everyone saw the moon’s pock-
marked indifferent serial-killer face peering through the bedroom window
at night, parting a canopy of trees to take in the peep-show of our turgid
dreaming. It’s a listing, like it was when my brother-in-law bought it from/for them
to gift Walt and Cora the dignity of a forgiving landlord. I read the real estate ad
and think of Dad’s obituary I wrote, making showrooms seem like temples
of his devotion to the sleek steel American gods Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile.
I should have written obituaries like real estate or used car ads, airing
in the hyperbolic chamber: “Pre-loved, gently used. All records retained, almost;
under 90 years on it, immaculately kept, taken only to church and back,”
from suspect christening to a restful setting, as clean and sanitary as that last
hospital; which is to say, “We have taken every measure to conceal the thinly
coated veneer of fecal matter in the interior. Limited warranty applies to major systems.
Sometimes a slight rattle in the dash, could use cosmetic help, and occasionally,
in winter, tends to idle a little high without starting right away. Previous damage
to passenger upholstery from car-sickness, but residue sterilized. Dependable.”
I make a note to myself to write one of those “My Father as an Automobile”
poems by wraiths with names suggesting they should be evanescing on the moors
of Heathcliff’s longing somewhere. All the best journals are publishing them.
The man bearing the Ryder Deck Tarot 6 suggests that I am carrying stones
in my pocket to protect me from the beloved dead, to keep them in their places.
6 they call the card of departure, its arcana card The Lovers. The Lovers have left
the building, leaving for me a stash of Elvis LPs. They have flipped the script, are now
depicted in the shade of the Tree of Knowledge, with the surly snake smother-humping
its trunk, an angel circling above. This gives me the idea for a no-exit strategy:
If I pray, and I never say Amen, will God stay on the line and never leave me again?
On International Day of Prayer, my associative disorder returns with a vengeance
and I puncture the cyberbubble with the needles I share with my relapsed news junkie.
In the Rotunda and on the Ten Dooms of Alfred the Great as interpreted by Glen Beck
and that Presidential Medal of Freedom ruminating-and-purging spigot of bigotry, Rush—
little men in cheap suits line up nowhere near the sterile, polite space recommended.
They Bogart the mic, resurrecting the science fiction of Walt & Cora’s epoch--Soylent Green,
Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, all those grisly movies about the scourge that is
and always was New York to us down here, we disciples of a pinch between your cheek
and gum but yet butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths, our sluggish Southern tongues
licking pruriently at the flames of Yankee ruin. The man in the cheap suit,
with the cheap evangelical haircut I call Jesus’ combover, fiddles with the mic and
recites a Whereas:
that somewhere between apocrypha and apocalypse God will help us but maybe some
sacrifices will have to be made by the Walts and Coras and Greatest Generationers
and maybe just anybody over 55 because the plants that used to churn Walt’s bread
and butter chrome and steel, leather-upholstered, Landau-roofed Cutlass Supremes the
broad-shouldered but furtively low Deuce and a Quarters slinking dark Detroit streets
the pure crepuscular rush of those Dodge Chargers that died in the 1980s while Walt
was still selling them, were resurrected after the banks failed in 2007 but are dying again—
and more importantly, shareholder and CEO stock portfolios are itching their palms
Therefore be it HIGHLY RESOLVED:
that newer properties of man have more worth; and that reappraisal of aunts and uncles
from Walt’s inordinately large litter is perhaps warranted. Now we may all have to admit
Dad was in need of a little reupholstering, a rollback of the sluggish odometer
to make him more marketable. A little trick of the light, pinch of sugar in the engine, a
good vacuuming of the lungs. Now that you mention it, “President Trump’s Guidelines
for America” in bold letters on cheap cardstock, the CDC logo hunkering (such a
coward!) sheepishly underneath, makes me wonder whether they all could use a
little reupholstery tacking. Maybe at first we notice just the bedbugs or redbugs
burning patches into the headrests and into our necks after we’d leaned on them—
Remember how Dad always said we treated them all like pieces of furniture?
Maybe they’re all memory-infested La-Z-Boys sponging retirement on threadbare
Herculon ottomans we’d store in the basement if we didn’t have to sell the house.
He could stay there with the sentimental OK Boomer Antiques Roadshow emcee
and later, if we needed the money, we could patch him up, let the resale dealer lay
faith-healing hands on his worn arms, rub beeswax across the wooden face,
add a dab of glue for the mortice joints. Meanwhile we can preserve stasis by finding
hidden trinkets in cushions: third mortgages, holographic wills excluding a son
as though there were anything of value for Walt to leave. Our inheritance, bereavement.
6 Joaquin Valley Lane
Walt and Cora did not like old things, were not ancestor-worshippers,
but they were polite. They respected their elders and the natural order of things.
So when Cora’s mother started putting coasters in ovens and freezing oven mitts
because she thought that was a talisman over her custard recipe (which she had brought
from Brasfield all the way to Little Rock where she and Charlie moved
after the sawmill burned for the second time, in 1936—had been rebuilt just in time
for Mr. Hoover’s Depression), she came to live with us at 6 Joaquin Valley Lane,
which my parents chose over a slutty but alluring limestone hulk with tennis courts
tucked into long-driveway-land off Cantrell. Already a snob, I was disappointed.
Grandma Potter brought her convex-frame photo of her terrifying parents
when she moved into Cora’s new, nontraditional horseshoe-shaped behemoth
with a “courtyard” plagued by cactus set into “polished river rock” that was maybe
one sedimentary layer removed from the fluff in Taco Bell’s rock garden.
Walt could have sold pea gravel as polished river rock and say he’d done you a favor,
just like when he introduced Bill Clinton as a man who could pee your leg and call it rain.
We all knew that Mary Potter, she of the blurred, crestfallen stockings,
she of the cloved cling peaches, she who folded Reynolds Wrap
into Palmolive-blessed squares for further use, who crocheted doilies and starched them
into Victorian ruff collars for smoky-blue glass table lamps spotlighting plastic grapes—
was five Vienna sausages short of a can at the end, but we respected our elders.
Walt and Cora moved into that neighborhood of decent people who regularly changed
their oil and anointed the engines Walt maybe sold them, who knew that Good People
took down the Christmas tree by Epiphany and every daylight savings change checked
their attitudes and the batteries in the smoke alarms, raked their leaves, edged curtilage,
glazed their eyes and their windows. They voted in every election as though each one
were an inflection point that could tip all the mashed potatoes on all the white plates
straight into the GE garbage disposal of every American household if you slipped up.
They knew all the Commandments and kept their mouths and their gums clean
and had well-scrubbed kids who were acceptably middle linebackers or cheerleaders.
All the neighbors were decent modern people just watching the news, just passing time
waiting rapturously for the cable-box feelies, for the late-night comedy monologues.
Still, I wished they had bought the house off Cantrell, where I could picture myself
looking through a French door at Cora, the moon’s face framed by a canopy of oaks
on a fine old macadam street, where the neighbors were way-high-up-the-drive socially
distant but politically promiscuous. This, of course, is exactly why Walt couldn’t
settle there, among people with four or five names apiece, stored up against hard times,
socially immune. Some people really could just walk down Cantrell Avenue and shoot
a resident of The Natural State with impunity, right in front of the film crew.
I take six minutes to write a “My Father in Herculon” poem.
I make plans to send it where
they don’t publish poems by anyone
is not that of a
I’m going to make it less than
66 c h a r a c t e r s
it is the recommended length
of 40 lines or less
I am going to use
S P A C E
to assure you I am an artist
at 6 Joaquin Valley Lane
and 25 pages is needed
for my sprawling
. . .& all that
and because I am mad
at The Natural State
for all these damn
on the medians
of Pleasant Valley Drive
all the way to
6 Joaquin Valley Lane
[Footnote of Eliot’s insidious intent]
I’m going to look up the 30 most popular girl names for all of
Walt and Cora’s grandchildren and marry one to a name I suspect someone
in Cantrell Heights might have and push the “Send” button, declaring
my solidarity with hoarders of Wal-Mart’s Arkansas-curated toilet paper.
Never forget I’m an artist and I don’t have to put up with merely aesthetic,
arbitrarily placed, capriciously shedding or color-rationing raised prosthetic
arms to the sky, the damn trees.
6-Week Expired Bread
No one knew the worm was in the apple. After all, the bread we’d left out on the deck
was still good when we came back to 6 Joaquin Valley Lane to thread shower curtain
rods with his clothes. He had the normal funeral, we had the normal hugs, he was 83
and his own heart had swung like an axe over his head for the whole 35 years they’d
been married. After Walt expired, we thought Cora would be sad at 6 Joaquin Valley
so it was settled, for her own good, that she would go to California for the dry heat.
Her two “real” daughters were there when she was put on a “breathing machine.”
“Ventilator,” I said. “No, a little machine just to help her breathe. Ventilators are for
dire cases. This can’t be that serious because they split hers with three other patients.”
A lifetime of smoking and the stiffest green and orange shag carpeting Walt could get
had left her with the respiratory system of a dry-rotted tire: COPD, sinus infections, asthma.
The steroids had made her skin like the peeling silver of a birch exposing parchment veins.
The man at the microphone says again that people like Cora would happily just die already
so the grandkids could get back to work cleaning other people’s houses in Cantrell Heights
back to the urgent work of stocking grocery shelves back to the double mocha latte with
extra froth and sprinkles and peppermint twists back to wiping fast-food countertops back to
I hear America singing each to each I do not think that they will sing to me because I live
on Joaquin Valley Lane and not in Cantrell Heights and we can’t get her back here just yet
since all the California flights are cancelled. Someone has to feed the birds and squirrels
for Cora, and they’ve eaten all the expired bread now so I wander to a 7 Eleven where
a guy is walking the parking lot in circles muttering “There’s just nothing to do here now
but shake hands with the squirrels. Shake hands with the squirrels. Shake hands with the
squirrels and it’s all settled. It’s even Stephen, shake and call it even. Shake hands—”
The last thing I remember is taking the liberty of eulogizing a pigeon in the parking lot
of the grocery store where robbers leap carts blocking the aisles and escape St. Louis’
tubby finest, The Paul Blart Mall Cops aslouch on 6 a.m. duty. We could not have a proper
funeral for Cora. We should not have wept into one another’s jackets. We should have
buried her in the sea of the internet, Skyping her to her rest. But the kids gathered and sent
her off on the steep decline of Walt’s shoulder, to his right, in her proper and stolidly
settled place. I do remember this one other thing: emptying their recycling bin, finding
at the very bottom, corner-wedged, the prophecy of a fortune cookie: “There are no
second chances to make a good first impression.”
The nurse told me that when I pierced the veil of anesthesia, I revealed that I am in fact
the governor of Mississippi with jurisdiction over the whole of Tunica and Biloxi, with
my own pier at Pass Christian where I feed Cora’s gulls and sometimes I move the portieres
at the Palladian window at my home along the Natchez Trace and look out at Doric columns,
primroses, pin oak, dangling Spanish moss that makes Arkansas so jealous its swamps
had to grow mistletoe—and did you know that I am here, that I am here mean as a Deepwater
Baptist church lady eyeballing a drunk in the choir loft singing so giddily “Come on up
to the house”—and did you know that my father told me to shut up in church once because God
might be trying to get me to listen and we can’t talk over each other, and did you know that
underneath that snake oil Dad rubbed on his chest once beat a heart of sheer dry ice?
You tell those stupid jonquils there’s a pandemic out there coming for your mama
and you’ve got a lot of nerve to lift your heads up to this rare and radiant air, you’ve got
your tenacious, audacious nerve to flaunt your frivolous color, plant your flag of life,
to build a house of gratitude out of fog, to bellow a canticle without a chorus, to pierce us
with your green spear as we bow our heads in national shame and the daily dosage of prayer,
your sheer, scallop-headed, sensate “everything will be fine” bullhorn screaming spring, your
to make all sorrow sing.
I could swear I never touched any of them.
I could swear I always kept my distance.
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Pamela Sumners’ work has been published or recognized by about 40 journals or publishing houses in the US and abroad since 2018. She was a 2018 Pushcart nominee and was selected by Halcyone/Black Mountain Press for inclusion in 64 Best Poets of 2018 and 2019. Her first poetry collection, Ragpicking Ezekiel’s Bones, was published by UnCollected Press in December 2020. Finding Helen, winner of the Rane Arroyo Prize from Seven Kitchens Press, will be released in Spring 2021. Sumners is well known for her constitutional and civil rights legal work, including cases opposing Jay Sekulow, Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore, Supreme Court wannabe Bill Pryor, and an Alabama governor who argued that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to Alabama. A native Alabamian, she now lives in St. Louis with her wife, son, and rescue dogs. www.pamelalsumners.com