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

 

Distancing”

 

sequence.

 

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.

6-Minute Poem

 

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 

                                                      whose voice

 

is not that of a 

wispy-voiced 

 

Cranberries singer. 

 

I’m going to make it less than

66                                          c   h   a  r  a  c  t  e  r  s

 

per line 

 

and

                                           even though

 

it is the recommended length

 

of 40 lines or less

 

I am going to use

 

            My quarantine    

 

S              P               A              C           E

 

to assure you I am an artist

 

in residency

 

at 6 Joaquin Valley Lane

 

and 25 pages is needed

 

for my sprawling

 

Manifest Destiny

 

Barbaric yawp

                                                              . . .& all that


 

and because I am mad

 

at The Natural State

 

for all these damn

                                                                                                  random

                                                                                                     trees

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—”

 

Floor 6

 

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

gall

 

to make all sorrow sing. 

I could swear I never touched any of them.

 

I could swear I always kept my distance.

*Editors note: this poem is best viewed on desktop. Our mobile site does not reflect all of Pamela's lineation choices.

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

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