When I was a kid my grandmother
used to take me on walks
along the railroad tracks near her house.
After summer storms, branches
littered the rail bed. I used them
as baseball bats. Sometimes
tramps emerged from the dumps,
scarecrows knocking backdoors
for handouts. Grandmother
said they were like deadwood,
pruned by wind. She kept
the door locked, even in the daytime.
They camped, trains in-trains out,
by the clay quarry. Some slept
in the stacks of drainage pipes, others
in brush lean-tos. She wouldn’t
walk with me into the hobo jungle.
I had met one close-up before
on the sidewalk outside of the Pla-mor.
He was a bum, but he’d tapped
me on my ball cap with his knuckle,
and said, Hey pal, as he passed.
From the trestle, we watched them
knotted over their orange fire, sharing
mulligan from a coffee can.
Grandmother said, Poor things,
and then she hurried me home.
Al Ortolani has published six books of poetry, His newest collection, Francis Shoots Pool at Chubb’s Bar, was just released by Spartan Press in Kansas City. He co-edits The Little Balkans Review, a regional journal out of southeast Kansas. Currently, he is teaching English in the Kansas City area and serves on the Board of Directors of the Kansas City Writers Place. He performs his poems widely and is a member of the troupe White Buffalo Poetry and Blues.