top of page

Pamela Sumners

Shelf Life

We all started out with such shiny yearbook promise.

Dangling by heels from loblolly, all were the Class Prophet.

Then year by year, a life strip-mined, whittled to coal dust,

the stacked Tarot deck always dealing the Upside Down Man.

There was a girl once, in eighth grade, with eyes like

the static but awed textbook photos of Anne Frank, shining

brown marbles that too much tossing had rubbed to sepia matte.

The girl had one eye a little stray, chasing dust motes in the air.

Her face somehow had always the filthy trace of a smudged

Fudgsicle, but her clothes were pressed even down to the back

bow on her dress. She did her best with a hank of hair she set

back like curtilage with a tiny plastic pink barrette. I had seen

her duck around corners and peer back around when I passed.

She always kept to herself but that fall day, trembly as

a bottlebrush tree, she came to ask me, skittishly, would I sit

with her at lunch. She was a free lunch kid—a special line

let you know that. I was one of those shapeshifters passing time

among the socies, the smokers, the freaks, the bright-normals.

My society friends would not have sat with her unless the Sunday

sermon told them to or they needed her to prop an honors essay.

I knew this. The girl knew this. She knew I was a permeable seam.

In eighth grade, we all gave prized people our school pictures,

jockeying for theirs like baseball cards. The girl everyone called

“Country” asked at lunch for one of mine. I had given them all

but promised I would give her my wish-box one next study hall.

That afternoon her outcast brother chambered a round that

wound up in the vault of her skull. Cops said he called her uppity.

Now you look at me as though I still exist, but I left you before I

knew you. I left you for a stray-eyed college woman in 1979.

I left you for a woman with a $500 Italian briefcase in 1997 who

wanted me for the centerpiece among her table’s shiny objects.

I left you for a woman with the panicked stray eye of the hunted,

chasing a picture, evaporating into coal dust, ash, a bullet’s bore.


The woman who lived upstairs had soft red hair,

soft in tone and soft to the touch. She mistook me

for a dancer, but I was only a delicate acanthus stalk

pretending to blossom a shape, a puny, unkempt reed.

That 1860s townhouse was behind the Hawk ‘n Dove.

She had a German short-haired pointer called Deli Dog

and I had six cats who moved in somewhat like Carl

Sandburg’s fog had and just never dispelled to light. She

owned a shop of antiquarian books in Baltimore that

she may even have playfully named Nevermore. Every

night I would hear her hands flattering the ivory keys

just as they had taught her at Julliard, hear her playing

Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, almost feel her swaying

upstairs when she made for me mix tapes she left on

the landing, and I could see her sometimes standing

on those stairs, where she was humming Ray Charles,

the snarl-lip Elvis songs that no one knows like “Marie’s

the Name (of His Latest Flame),” all of Jeannie C. Riley’s

B sides. She taped for me the many versions of “Promenade

in Green” she knew, and when I heard her soft tread sneaking

away after leaving treasure, her feet on the stairs a musical

measure, I would dance to find it at my doorstep, humming

“When I go by Baltimore, need no carpet on my floor.”

When she left, as vapors should, I wanted her to write an opera,

just for me, about what good thing could come from Nazareth.

Pamela Sumners's work has been published or recognized by about 30 journals or publishing houses in the US, UK, Scotland, Ireland, and Singapore in 2018-20. A 2018 Pushcart nominee, she was selected for inclusion in both the 2018 and 2019 64 Best Anthologies. Her first collection, Ragpicking Ezekiel's Bones, is forthcoming from UnCollected Press later this year.

bottom of page