Random Thoughts

A Richard Yates story

... a second good one

by Ed Boyd

I was motivated to write this piece as a tribute to Richard Yates. I am a retired psychologist for thirty years and often have been witness on many times what Yates captures. It wants to be repeated.     

            RICHARD YATES, DOCTOR JACK-O’-LANTERN

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

The rest of 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 freak.”

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, dear?”

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 everything.”  

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.”

You must hurt the one you love, Yates so exquisitely describes.

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



November 4, 2016
                                    


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