POETRY

Boy with Red Hair

By

1.

The boy was shy. He was quietly bored in the dark house but too nice to say so.

One afternoon at three thirty the mother didn’t show up and the boy had to take a taxi
      from school to house. He was furious with her. “He was so angry he reminded me
      of you,” the mother told her ex-husband.

I guess I inherit my absent-mindedness from her, said the boy.
He was old-fashioned, with freckles and red hair,
and when they drove through a toll booth
the man at the toll booth would say, “Hi, Red.”

The boy and his grandfather had several things in common.
Both were soft-spoken, sincere hypochondriacs.
Their favorite fruits were strawberries in summer
and pears in fall.

A parrot alighted on the boy’s shoulder.
See, the cage’s door was wide open the whole time.
Later, the boy made eye contact
with a butterfly settling on his shoe.

The boy was slow in the bathroom, thinking
while brushing his teeth.
What was he thinking about?
"Did you know Jack Nicholson played a killer
in Cry Baby Killer, his first movie?"

Hours later he couldn’t reconstruct the thought processes that had led to this moment.

2.

The boy put his yellow-and-brown-checked pajama bottoms
around his head and became Invulnerable Man.
Swinging himself around,
he knocked down a vase, which crashed.
And then he got quiet, very quiet.

The boy had a respect for silence.
He didn't say one word more than was strictly necessary.
On the phone he would say uh-huh and yes and little else.

He liked long car trips. His father asked,
What would you paint--the clouds
or the trees--if you were a painter?
The boy thought for what seemed like a long time.
He thought it would be difficult to paint the clouds.
Ladders weren’t long enough.

3.

That night he slept in the Chateau d’If.

“Do not underestimate me,” said the German commandant.
“From this prison there is no escape.”
The boy had heard these words before. He knew what came next.
The commandant needed to make an example of somebody.
He would pick a prisoner at random and have him hanged.
This would frighten the others,
and the hunger strike would be over.
In prison there was plenty of time to imagine the scene.

In prison there was time to waste, wondering why he was there,
making appeals, pleading for a hearing,
when he should have been playing on the porch
listening to the birds singing
or digging a tunnel from his bed
to the mad priest’s cell, substituting
his body for the dead man’s in the shroud
after memorizing the map of his secret treasure,
ready to return to life, to swim all the way
to Paris if necessary, a nobleman in a cape,
ready to exact his revenge.

David Lehman is a poet, writer, and editor. His eight full-length books of poetry include New and Selected Poems (2013), When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Daily Mirror (2000), and Valentine Place (1996). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry, which he founded in 1988. In 2010 he won ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for the most recent of his nonfiction books, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. He teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City.

The boy was shy. He was quietly bored in the dark house but too nice to say so.