A short story by Kathleen Donohoe
Brooklyn, New York, 1952
The boy even grieved awkwardly. Gabriel put a hand on Owen’s shoulder, urging him to leave the pew. Flustered, Owen both genuflected and bowed so that he would have tumbled into the aisle had Gabriel not seized his coat. Wearily, he nodded Owen forward, as if the priest and Grace’s casket might get so far ahead they could never be caught. Gabriel wished for cold water in a shot glass. Maybe he could trick himself into believing it was whiskey.
The church was decorated for Christmas, only a week away. The crèche was set up beside the altar. Red bows and sprigs of holly adorned each of the pews. A wreath was suspended from the choir loft. The double doors were open and the procession headed towards the square of gray morning.
Most of Brooklyn got louder at Christmas time, excited for it, but Dead Irish went quiet. No one had told anybody here that the Depression and the war were done and America was good these days. The neighborhood got its name from the small graveyard that ended Jarlath Street. The church it had belonged with burned down in the ‘30’s. Most of the buried were Irish immigrants; it had been a kind of Potter’s Field. Gabriel’s grandfather had a spot in the corner. Once, he’d told Owen this, trying to fill a silence between them. Unmarked, like most of the graves. Owen nodded and picked at a scab on his elbow.
Now, Owen kept his eyes on his feet. Those who’d come to mourn his mother already pitied him for being fatherless and for being the target of every bully coming and going. Gabriel himself had pummeled dozens of Owens in his time. Those, skinny, owl-eyed boys, they were all the same. Owen was only ten. He had years to go before he figured out he didn’t deserve it.
The mourners understood this. There was Grace’s boss, Mr. Smithwick, his wife, their trio of round daughters. They were a stout, satisfied couple who owned a desert restaurant–not a bakery, a real sit down place. A kitchen assistant had come and the two waitresses who could not stop crying for one of their own.
Only the cluster of old ladies who attended every morning Mass, regardless, might think that it was Owen’s loss that turned him clumsy. They probably assumed that Gabriel was his father. But if Gabriel had a son, that son would be blonde and quick, easily matched to him now: tall, his light hair fading gently to white, still holding on to something of the athlete he’d once been. The years of drinking had not caved him in or carved him up.
Grace laughed about this. How come you’re not ruined? God knows, I will be when I’m forty, she’d said. Gabriel had disagreed to be polite. He recalled his first impression of her, perched on a cold folding chair, ready to flee the church basement and the meeting. A skinny girl with sharp elbows and hips, still young, (twenty-seven, he’d learn) but already worn out. Yet she’d put on pink lipstick, tried to curl her brown hair, and pretended not to notice. Gabriel had smiled at this and she’d smiled back, at him. Her angular face, not pretty, turned almost sweet.
He learned her story in the church basement and knew as he listened that he’d hear it again, unedited, even though group members were strong discouraged from socializing out in the real world.
She was seventeen when her son was born. She meant to give him up for adoption, but she figured she’d never stop looking for him on the street. She joked that she kept him to save herself this aggravation and that she named him after the hospital bill. Owen laughed like a rabbit. Gabriel had meant to tell her to knock it off. He figured she used to scream these things at Owen but had lost the memories.
When Gabriel asked where the boy’s father was, Grace said, “Purgatory, near the exit to Hell.” Her fingers brushed her jaw. Gabriel wished he could tell her that he was a better man.
When the priest halted at the end of aisle to do the final blessing, Owen nearly bumped into the casket. Gabriel grabbed his coat and decided this one was his fault. He should have at least held the kid’s sweaty hand.
* * *
When Grace collapsed at work, one of the waitresses called Gabriel at the grammar school where he worked as a janitor. He’d been thinking about breaking the boiler. No heat, no school tomorrow, and it was going to snow. The kids would remember it forever, a Christmas gift.
Gabriel expected to hear of an accident caused by vodka.
“Aneurysm.” The jowled doctor shut his eyes, exhausted by a day of pronouncing long words.
Gabriel was relieved that something inside Grace had simply broken. She would be pleased, for Owen’s sake, but frustrated that she never got to explain herself: the slaps across the face, her voice, shrill, slurred, screaming. Where she’d been all those hours she’d left him alone. How she loved him, how she never, ever meant it.
* * *
The Smithwicks provided the after-funeral lunch, held at Grace’s apartment. Grace’s place was the same as Gabriel’s, one floor down. A kitchen, living room, bathroom. She’d given the bedroom to Owen and slept on the couch.
The mourners from the church were there and some of the building’s other tenants wandered in, hungry. When everyone had gone and the dishes were brought to the kitchen, Mr. Smithwick told Gabriel that they would be taking Owen. Gabriel stared, not sure he’d heard right. Taking him where? he’d wanted to ask but Mr. Smithwick continued talking.
They were moving to Massapequa, opening a restaurant there. Owen would have his own room in his new home.
“A nice home,” Mrs. Smithwick said. They would adopt him legally. It would all be on the up and up. There would be no chances taken that the father might turn up.
Mrs. Smithwick had been kind to Grace through pursed lips.
“Have you told—” Gabriel said.
“Of course. He’s still in shock, poor thing but he seemed glad.”
Owen prowled the apartment, ignoring the Smithwick girls as they asked him questions about school, his friends, and did he like dogs? The youngest pressed a plastic cup of Coca-Cola in his hand and he thanked her but did not drink it.
When they were alone, with his fists deep in his pockets, Gabriel asked, “You want to?”
Owen shrugged. “I’ll be all right.”
Gabriel tried not to think about the itch in his throat. He had real sorrow now and
it’d be simple to talk himself into a bout of self-pity, its binge. So far, he’d held off but with Owen gone too, Gabriel knew the fight would draw him all the way in and it drained him to even think about it. Aneurysm.
He had not been Grace’s husband. He had no money. Besides, a lawyer would laugh in his face. An ex-con drunk, (reformed, but so what?) wants to raise a kid he’s known for seven months and is not related to?
“Yeah,” Gabriel said. “It’ll be good, with them.”
Owen blinked at him with his mother’s blue eyes.
* * *
Mrs. Smithwick decided Owen should stay with Gabriel until Christmas Eve. She believed she was being generous, giving the boy more time. But Mrs. Smithwick, even if she didn’t realize it herself, wanted to get Owen on Christmas Eve because it would turn the day magical–a real live orphan arriving. The Smithwicks would own a happy story to recite on every Christmas to come.
On the 23rd, Gabriel helped Owen pack his things and pack up his mother’s stuff. They hardly spoke. Only once did Owen ask why he couldn’t stay here. He got himself up for school. He could even cook, a little.
“Kids can’t live alone,” Gabriel said.
Owen turned away, but not before Gabriel caught the smile, one of pity for a boy who insists that reindeer can fly.
Gabriel understood. When your mother is passed out on bathroom floor, her chin, the toilet, the floor covered in vomit, that’s alone.
Owen would do fine with the Smithwicks. The boys might be nicer at his new school, or at least not know how to hit as hard. He would have three sisters aching to spoil him. A bike. Braces. College. Owen would grow up sober.
Yet, Gabriel worried. And so, though Owen was due to be delivered to the Smithwicks at a quarter after three in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Gabriel first brought Owen to see Kring the King.
Since morning, the day had been growing steadily colder. Gabriel had the strange thought that the frost in front of their faces was not their breath but words, perhaps hundreds of words, seizing, freezing and falling away.
Kring the King had once been a magician. A vaudevillian, the best of his kind.
Based on his eyes, his age was put close to one hundred. He lived on the third floor of an apartment building just outside of Dead Irish and not quite in the next neighborhood over.
Gabriel and Owen were the second to arrive at the stoop of the building directly across the street. A woman in her fifties stood shivering, even though she wore a gray wool coat and matching hat and gloves. They exchanged brief nods.
“What are we doing?” Owen asked and Gabriel explained.
Kring the King met his wife on Christmas Eve. Before he knew her name, he’d told her he loved her. A week later, he dropped a handkerchief over her left hand and pulled it away to reveal a diamond ring on her finger. She became his wife and his assistant.
More than forty years ago, during a Christmas Eve show in a Brooklyn Heights theater, he made her disappear with a flick of his cape. It was their warm-up trick, popular with the audience, damn easy. But that night, he could not bring her back.
For a long time, Kring searched and then for a long time, he drank, Gabriel whispered. Bad, and for decades. But Kring eventually made it back to his own kind, the living. He did it for beautiful Natalie, so he’d get into heaven where he believed she’d gone, if not the night he lost her, then some Christmas since.
“He gets through every other day of the year. Christmas Eves, though…” Gabriel shook his head.
By four o’clock, others had assembled. Two men in their twenties who might have been twins but were at least brothers. A thin blonde girl trembled in a thin coat. A white-haired couple stood with their shoulders touching.
The third floor window opened and Kring the King climbed out onto his fire escape, uniformed like a crazy man in a black cape over a white nightshirt. His gray hair was unkempt as if violent hands had just run through it. He wore red mittens.
Kring held up a whiskey bottle and squinted before he settled it beneath his arm. He went back inside and came out first with a small Christmas tree, undecorated. He propped it up against the brick building. Next time, he reappeared with his hands full of flat-bottomed, white and red candles. With his mittens, he lined them up on railing of the fire escape. “They’ll fall,” Owen said, disapprovingly.
Gabriel put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, spindly even through the layers of clothes he wore.
In between the candles, he hung two stars made of silver wire and two bells of red.
Then Kring took the whiskey in both hands and let the afternoon end. Christmas lights came on in the windows above and below him, red, blue and green, captured, electric. Often, he peered down the neck of the bottle.
Gabriel shifted his own gaze from Kring’s to Owen. The boy’s brow furrowed.
Kring raised the bottle to his lips and kept it there. Gabriel knew that Kring’s heart was shaking hard as his hand. Each swallow was a lick of flame that set you on fire from inside, a slow burn, without the mercy of black smoke to smother you quick.
The blonde chewed her fingernails. “Awright, awright,” whispered one of the brothers. The woman in the wool coat shut her eyes. The old couple joined hands. Their dog whined.
When Kring the King lowered the bottle, Owen looked at Gabriel, quizzically. Gabriel smiled. “Don’t look away.”
Kring twisted the cap back on. He took the bottle by the neck and flung it off the fire escape. Halfway down, it disappeared.
Owen gave a startled, “Oh!”
Gabriel didn’t breath. If this was the one year he couldn’t…
The candles…the Christmas tree…the bells, the stars…
Kring the King made it happen.
A sigh went through the watchers that sounded like the final note of a carol or a hymn, perhaps something from another century.
“I thought,” Owen whispered, still staring, “he’d just make them light by themselves and that’d be it.”
Though it was dark, Gabriel could see that Owen’s eyes were bright with tears. He turned, his lips parted to ask the question. How? Gabriel waited anxiously. But slowly, Owen raised his eyes again. He pressed his own mittened hands together.
Gabriel smiled, almost laughed out loud. Owen got it. He would never forget. For the rest of his life, he would recognize magic when he saw it. Gabriel was all at once at peace.