The Blue Boy


On certain Sundays I was sent alone
to the apartment on Pittsburgh Street,
its mothball and camphor-smelling hallway
cool in the steep ascent, the dim window
into an airshaft a curiosity, the knock
on glass-paned inside doorway, the wait
as slippered feet padded slowly, as the brass
knob turned and the small frail figure
of Olive Rutherford peered out,
pretended surprise, and her calm voice said,
as always, “You’ve come for tea, and cookies.”
Sweet oven smells, and cinnamon
flooded out to greet me. She had an air
of lilac and smothered roses.
The parlor was small,
the sofa seat so high my short legs dangled
as I waited for the tea tray, the fine white teapot,
the delicate curved cups, the cubed sugar,
the milk I always declined and wished she wouldn’t
fill to precarious brim in a silver pitcher.

“So nice that you prefer tea,” she always began.
“So civilized.” “Coffee,” I’d say, “is for barbarians.
I tasted it once when I was five – enough that once
for a lifetime.” She asked what I was reading, I rattled
off authors and titles: Dumas and Dickens,
last week two science fiction books: Van Vogt
and Merritt. She nodded at the classics, looked down
at the science-fiction names, said not a word
at the Superman comics I held on my lap.

To my mere ten, she seemed a thousand years old.
I wondered whether she slept, and what
she did in all the days of her solitude
(husband dead for thirteen years now).
The one bright thing in this mummy parlor
was the immense portrait on the wall
that seemed to glow with its own power.
Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” she told me.
Painted in 1770, so loved in London
that ninety thousand persons lined up
to view it for one last time
when a California millionaire bought it.

It was not the original, of course, but a copy --
to my small eyes as large as life. The boy,
in those clothes, would be bully-taffy
from here to the schoolyard: arrayed in blue
against  the dim green background of elms
and willows, he almost stepped
from canvas into the parlor.

His silk blue suit, trimmed in silver;
his dangling wide hat, outrageously feathered,
would be torn to shreds in minutes,
the petulant pout and his lips, his large,
soft eyes, doe innocent, his runaway curls
and quiff of raven hair suggest the friend
you’d like to have but would need to protect;
but the half-cape twirled on one arm
suggested a gracefulness, the ease
of incipient swordplay, the legs
in their tight bindings were well-made
for running. I looked at my shoes,
featureless leather with string laces:
his, impractically, were tied in bows.
Hard to imagine how he dressed himself,
no Boy Scout, but a pampered aristocrat.
No one in my family possessed or wore a suit.
"Is that how they dressed in 1770?"
"He painted the boy in antique costume,"
my grandmother explained. "That's what
a nobleman's son of 1670 would wear.
That's what makes paintings interesting,
riddles inside of riddles to the mind."

This is all that I remember of her: book talk
and tea. Secrets she had: she had borne
ten children. Her mother, it was whispered,
was a Mingo Indian. She had outlived
the rise and fall of the coke ovens, the mines,
the giddy little empires of bank and ruin.
Perhaps she told me things I have forgotten:
all tea becomes, with time, but a single cup.
Half-there, is a memory: on an aunt’s
porch glider, she told me strange syllables
she said were the secret names of animals.

Three years later I saw her casket,
peered at her still-jet-black hair, her
Indian nose and cheekbones, smelled
the last hint of lilac.

Cape on one arm, broad hat
outrageously feathered,
silk tunic and leggings trimmed in silver,
a pale boy stood opposite.
I nodded, the only one
to see him, silent as mine
his last respects.

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