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Gun Smoke and Jack-o-Lanterns

Kate Kingston

Literary: Poetry

During the pandemic my poetry focuses on personal responses to social-distancing, quarantine, masks, disinfecting, handwashing, and the subtle nuances that are changing our behavior and interaction. The poem “Changing Tires” is a response to the necessity of moving ahead with practical demands, balancing new social restraints, as well as coping with the loss of my brother. “Unwrapping a Bar of Soap” is a tribute to his memory. “Gun Smoke and Jack-o-Lanterns,” just published by Sugar House Review, reaches back to the sixties, the day Kennedy was shot, to remind us we’ve been through turmoil before and pulled through.

Gun Smoke and Jack-o-Lanterns


The day Kennedy was shot, I was in art class
brushing oil from a palette of Celestial Blue
onto a canvas of unripe pumpkins. Jackie
in her pillbox hat, waved from the backseat
as the warehouse window opened
and a rifle barrel protruded. Years later I rode
the Dallas Red Line to the warehouse
museum. The tram clicked to the rhythm of Jack,
Jackie, Jack-be-quick, jack-o-lanterns,
a chant bringing to mind the butcher knife
I used to create hollow eyes, a jagged grin,
like that summer my sister dared me
to raid Peterson’s field, and I poached
those golden spheres in the crease of night.

A shot rang out and we sprinted at a dead-run
back to the pick-up, nervous leaps heaving
our bodies over the tailgate where we landed
on the hard corrugated flesh of orange
and more orange. Hank, my sister’s boyfriend,
power-shifted into first, third, fourth
and sped down County Road K, laughter
trailing over potato fields while Mr. Peterson
re-cocked his rifle, took aim at the North Star.


Back in town I climbed the white pickets,
smashed the neighbor’s candle–lit grins,
climbed up backstairs that creaked
like tattle-tales. I pulled the maroon sheet
over my eyes and faked sleep.
My mother’s flashlight fueled the hallway
with orange-red splinters, and I thought
of Jackie, her dress smeared with blood
as the agent used his own body as a shield.
I didn’t go back to art class that week,
didn’t paint anything blue or purple,
because those oily pigments lurk in the body,
surface through a wound, turn crimson. 

First published in Sugar House Review #20, Spring/Summer 2020

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