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.
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.