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John Cullen


Lawns orange in the porch light, that punk smell 

of wet leaves, three days before Halloween, 

we crouched behind privets and picket fences

to scout the neighborhood, lurking behind Chevys 

in gravel driveways, primed to release. Saturated with sugar 

and the gum of destruction we peeked through 

windows at black and white television shadows 

across living room walls, or crept outside a kitchen 

to catch someone’s sister lick salt from the popcorn bowl 

while she talked on the phone and stole her mother’s smokes.

Usually, we juiced ourselves to smash pumpkins.

One of us dared the others to spy on Mr. Winser, 

a bullet-headed man who worked at the Mobile factory 

pressing egg cartons and chased his kids if they failed 

to make curfew before the stuttering streetlights called night,

whipping them home with his belt. Crew cut flatter 

than “Because I told you so,” he hunched in his basement, 

and we watched through the window well.

A Genny Cream in one hand, he loosened brake 

parts, worn pads and rotors, the torque and bleeder wrenches 

beside him.  His wife staggered hauling the laundry basket 

with a burping towel asleep on her shoulder.

I wish we had witnessed a tender scene.

Man and woman at the foundation of their home

while upstairs the kids watched Boris Karloff, unwrapped

mummy costumes, and planned prize-winning staggers.

They could have embraced, but that dark dog 

who snarled behind fences and menaced us after school 

running unleashed through the neighborhood

left the woman who baked us cupcakes crying.  

We twisted the tails of a few Black Cats, lit the fuse and left 

the sputter on his concrete ledge. We ran wild 

through the neighborhood maze, past ghosts and skeletons, 

that barking hound and swaggering pirates, listening 

for explosions, not understanding the shards we let fly.

Independence Day

The tent’s orange banner screams Fire-

works For Sale, and two women dragging

dirt-smeared kids demanding ice cream 

attract dirty looks from men 

in Hanchett seed caps. It’s eleven AM.   

The radio promises one hundred

degrees by noon and no plant call backs.

We’re all sweating and looking for something to shoot

off for the 4th. One woman’s kids 

hang from her side like a gang tackle 

gone wrong, and her butterfly tattoo blurs

below her halter like oil on a puddle after rain.

How high’ll this thing go? She asks,

and the kids climb her like a jungle gym 

till she threatens: I’ll paddle your asses but good!

For a moment everyone relaxes, 

and one guy nods, Damn right.

Finally it’s my turn and everyone else can wait, 

but the kids scream for ice cream 

as they drag their feet to the truck.

A perky girl in a blue vest asks

if she can help. I tell her,

Give me the loudest damn thing you have.

John Cullen graduated from SUNY Geneseo and worked in the entertainment industry booking rock bands, a clown troupe, and an R-rated magician. Currently he teaches at Ferris State University and has recently published in Harpur Palate, Main Street Rag, Hole in the Head Review, American Journal of Poetry, The MacGuffin and other journals.

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