A poem from

Slow Trains Overhead

Chicago Poems and Stories

by Reginald Gibbons


Again in this early spring
the scents of wet earth and
new green arrive
like hesitant recruits in the old
neighborhoods. The handsome
and ugly brick buildings
whisper their forgotten war
stories to the acidic city
air night and day,
in snow and sun, presiding
over streets named for
forgotten local Shermans
and Grants who used to gather
with their admirers in the old
forerunners of these present-
day eateries and bars—
the insider reticence, the cool
iced tea and beer in summer,
shots and hot coffee
in winter, among the ex-
officers and enlisted men,
soldiers and sailors who did
something for the Union …

Then came the Great Fire,
then the double-zero year,
then another war, and electricity—
safer than gas—and automobiles
got heavier and faster,
the horses gone, the veterans
of the Great War came home

looking for work, worked,
some of them kept tiny
gardens on their back landings
and in window boxes …

Clean-shaven, short-
haired young men
in jackets and ties who had
graduated or not from
the old high school
made lives or lost them
on the job or in the big
next war, the next
and the next. Finally the settlement
house that had seen off
a whole long-ago regiment
closed, the Wobblies’ hall
became a rock club,
the grocery store small offices,
the theater a maze of video
rentals, comics, pillows,
candy and jeans and shoes,
the church is vacant, someone
removed the small memorial
tablet that remembered eighty
or one hundred bronze
names from this unpolished parish.

On a Saturday morning in
the old hardware store
with scuffed wooden floors,
an old man helps me—
so present to me that he
fully commits me
to his cause—which is only
that he knows of or will
discover everything that might
be asked for in such
a store: a man’s kind
knowledge. He finds
exactly the few oddments
I am seeking and then
with a miniature key in his hand
he goes to a glass cabinet,
he unlocks it and reaches in
to get for me the small
knife I want to buy.

My little daughter was with me
that day, he smiled at her
and asked her where she
was going to school and when
she told him, he said
that was where he’d gone,
too, when he was a boy.
“That one, and then the middle
school, and the high school, too.
But I wasn’t smart—I left
the high school before
I graduated,” he was saying.
“Went into the army.
Funny thing is,
my son did exactly the same
in World War Two.”
He handed me the knife.
“I had three sons
in World War Two.”
He returned the key to his pocket.
“Two of them didn’t come back.”
Without making any
sound he started to cry
and turned half away
to half touch at his eyes
with his thick fingertips. “It killed
my wife. Took nine years
to do it, but it killed her.”
He looked at us again.

            Shying. “Anything
else you need?” He touched
my child’s hair for an instant.
“I grow tulips. Have
a thousand of them now.
My whole back yard’s
tulips, the front yard, too.
The best ones are from
Holland, you know.”
often does the defining
pain still come
through him?
                      He bent down
toward the small girl,
my child, and said to her,
“You’d like seeing them. They’re
pretty little fellows.”

Copyright notice: "City," a poem excerpted from Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories by Reginald Gibbons, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Reginald Gibbons
Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories
©2010, 120 pages
Cloth $20.00 ISBN: 9780226290584
Also available as an e-book

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories.

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