The house looms large, holding its breath.
In 1920 it cost plenty, maybe $10,000
on a lot so large the neighbor sits off one block.
You could saw the basement beams in half and never fear
sag or collapse, then build two houses up to code.
Old wood like that stands longer than pine,
and plaster that thick shows no seam.
Now you’ve added a perennial bed, making the place more
of you and less of former owners.
Locals call the house the “Johnson place,”
though a Johnson hasn’t lived
there, or even in town, for over fifty years.
If it weren’t for neighbors’ frowns, you vowed one stormy
night, you’d cut that oak, convinced it’s lightning’s magnet.
So you removed the fountain, the statue and lantern,
dug up grass and worked in compost, filling in beds
with shred and chips. Just one row straight but angled
from the tool shed, stones piled high along the back,
one hundred feet, and plastic edging.
The load of compost sapped plenty of sweat.
Then you worried over the neighbors’ reactions
and the one old resident who remained convinced
the Johnsons felt dead set against hydrangeas.
But Peg, this land was grass and tree before
hammers and hands built the Johnson home
in the shape their eyes dreamed real.
Now your shovel marks line and limit, and all
the work makes this your place,
for the duration of your season. Plant flowers and ponds,
let the canna flag blaze. Bring Coreopsis and Foxglove
in pots and bags from friends.
Remember Sweet William, flower and spread.
The same shoot never blooms two years in a row.
It’s one of those funny little towns.
Your grandfather sits on a rusty porch glider, frozen
in the moment, springs stretched to maximum,
ready to slingshot. Tim and Robert
shift on sticky red leather in a booth
at the Starline, staring at the teenaged waitress
who sways to the kitchen, wishing
they had something to say. Again,
the moment frozen, and everything adds up,
like the Coke and burger on the pale green slip
that waitress tucks under the empty cup of soup.
But memory is summer ice, or a walk through
an art book of the Dutch masters’ paintings
homed in the darkness of a European museum.
A Thanksgiving turkey is neither
burned nor carved, and no one complains
about your grandfather’s cheap coronas
though their smoke soaks the sofa’s fabric.
White Owl cigar bands fail to find fingers.
Eventually (which by the way is the most horrible word
in the English language) the faces blur and smudge.
The edges smooth and finally round corners.
This is the danger point, each face a grain of quicksand,
too smooth and polished for anyone’s good.
You can shore up the town, put lipstick on granddad,
or remember a brother who never existed. You can even forget
that horrible day when the milk truck killed your dog
and dream Old Puddy still sleeps at your feet.
But do you really want to pan gold and find mud?
All you end up with is a stomach filled with nails,
a school day backache and an empty memory
of Halloween candy scattered on the living room floor.
Too much love? No, it’s not too much love, but too much
ego, too much control, too much exhalation
And no room for all the dead. If you are lucky,
your father walks up, then sits in that booth
where you read the menu in its sticky plastic folder
and watch the waitress sashay toward the grill.
You know it’s time to go because your father puts on his hat
and tells you to put down your pencil.
You could tell another lie, say you need the bathroom,
but your dad tilts a smile and shakes his head.
He pauses, smiling, and you know it’s time to go.
Go now. Go quietly. Don’t say another word.
John Cullen's work has appeared recently in American Journal of Poetry and North Dakota Quarterly.