Random Thoughts

Doctor Jack-O'-Lantern story by Richard Yates

... a story about lost love

by Ed Boyd


(In 2009, I wrote a story by Richard Yates, “Doctor Jack-O-Lantern”. I was told
by the editors of the Melrose Mirror that I should not publish my story as I had
quoted more than was acceptable. To publish my piece, I would have to get
permission. From May through July, I sought the agents responsible for the deceased
rights to Yates writing to no avail. I will assume that Yates will not mind my
paying tribute to his magnificent story.)

This is a story by Richard Yates, Doctor Jack-O’-Lantern, that I found exquisitely
touching. This is about a fourth grader from an orphanage who comes to live with
foster parents. For Miss Price, his teacher, it was enough, “…to fill her with a
sense of mission that shone from her…”

Miss Price has set her mind to save Vincent Sabella. “Even if you could ignore his
tangled black hair and grey skin, his clothes would have given him away: absurdly
new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with
the shredded remains of Mickey Mouse design stamped on his chest.” Toward the bottom
of the page, “He made an unintelligible croak and smiled fleetingly, just enough to
show that the roots of his teeth were green.”

Vincent had his lunch packed in a brown bag and sat alone eating. Miss Price decided
to make an approach to Vincent as a way of making him feeling more at ease in a
strange place. Miss Price talks at length about how it is difficult to make friends
and makes it be known that she would like him to “…consider me your friend…” “It was
probably a lucky thing that she stood up when she did, for if she’d stayed on that
desk a minute longer Vincent Sabella would have thrown his arms around her and
buried his face in the warm gray flannel of her lap…”

Miss Price had the habit of starting the day by asking for personal reports of what
happened during the weekend. The different students gave their reports and Vincent
listened. Nancy told of a movie, Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde whose brother said it
was too horrible to see. On Monday, Miss Price was surprised to have Vincent Sabella
volunteer to give his report.

“Saturday I seen that pitcha,” he announced. “Saw, Vincent,” Miss Price corrected

“That’s what I mean,” he said; “I sore that pitcha. Doctor Jack-O’-Lantern and Mr.

As Vincent tells his story it is obvious to all that the story is all fabrications,
all lies. Near the end, “…and this one bullet got my fodda in the shoulder.” The
other students were in disbelief, “…the way you look at a broken arm or a circus

Miss Price calls Vincent aside and says that his report was interesting but might
have been better if you had told us about the new wind breaker. “You do understand
what I’m trying to say, don’t you, Vincent?”

Vincent asks to be excused and vomits in the bathroom. Distraught, he wanders around
and steps into an alley. “For a minute or two he just stood there, looking at the
blankness of the concrete wall; there he found a piece of chalk in his pocket and
wrote all the dirty words he could think of, in block letters a foot high.”

It was Nancy Parker, one of the students, who led Miss Price to the alley. Miss
Price was very pale but made no announcement. At the end of the day she dismissed
the class and said, “Will Vincent Sabella please remain seated.”  Miss Price gets
Vincent to scrub the words off the wall. She gives him a long talk of hurting people
even if he didn’t intend to do so. She ends her talk, “Never forget that when you do
a thing like that, you’re going to hurt people who want very much to like you, and
in that way you’re going to hurt yourself. Will you promise me to remember that,

Vincent is accosted by two boys who insist that he tell them what Miss Price did or
say. Finally, he gives in and says, “She let her ruler do her talking for her.”
“Five times on each hand.”

As Miss Price leaves for the day, she greets the boys pleasantly. At this, the boys
become wise to Vincent.

“Ruler my eye! Jeeze, you lie about everything, don’tcha, Sabella? You lie about

Waiting for the boys to get out of sight, Vincent returns to the alley.“Choosing a
dry place, he got out his chalk and began to draw a head with great care, in
profile, making the hair long and rich and taking his time over the face, erasing it
with moist fingers and reworking it until it was the most beautiful face he had ever
drawn: a delicate nose, slightly parted lips, an eye with lashes that curved
gracefully as a bird’s wing. He paused to admire it with a lover’s solemnity; then
from the lips he drew a line that connected with the speech balloons, and in the
balloon he wrote, so angrily that the chalk kept breaking in his fingers, every
one of the words he had written that noon. Returning to the head, he gave it a
slender neck and gently sloping shoulders, and then, with bold strokes, he gave it
the body of a naked woman: great breasts with hard little nipples, a trim waist, a
dot for a navel, wide hips and thighs that flared around a triangle of fiercely
scribbled pubic hair. Beneath the picture he printed its title: "Miss Price.”

Yates ends this story and writes, “He stood there looking at it for a little while,
breathing hard, and then he went home.”

This story grabs me, as I have been witness many times to a tale of love turned on
its head. You must hurt the one you love, Yates so beautifully describes.

This is First Picador USA Edition: May 2002 The Collected Stories of Richard Yates

March 2, 2012

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