“Appoint the Stars"

Fiction by Kathleen Donohoe

Brooklyn, New York 1954

Finny fastened the buttons on the gray coat that was her best-ever find in the clothes barrel at church, even though the sleeves barely touched her wrists. From the kitchen, the querulous voice grew angrier in answer to the person on the other end of the phone. The drinking buddy, who would be over soon. Shoes in hand, Finny crept down the dark stairs to the heavy front door. She eased it open, anxious not to wake the tenants who lived on the brownstone’s parlor floor. 

Outside, Finny sat on the stoop and yanked on her shoes. She darted across Joralemon Street, stumbling on the cobblestones. The night carried the bitter scent of snow, and at close to 11 p.m., the streets were quiet. She undid her braid to let her long hair warm her neck. Only when she reached the corner of Hicks and Cranberry did she turn and peer down the block. Her eyes made shapes of the shadows, but when none spoke, she knew she had not been followed. 

A Christmas wreath decorated the red door of Smithwick’s Bakery. The winter curtain was drawn over the front window. Finny reached into her pocket and withdrew the key, glancing over her shoulder. The Smithwicks lived across the street in the corner brownstone. 

Her father had worked for Mr. Smithwick as a handyman. Finny used to stop by after school when she knew he’d be there. The Smithwick girls, high-schoolers, each worked a few hours a week, either on the register or waiting on customers. Blonde like their mother, brown-eyed like their father, three notes of the same pretty song. The boy, Owen, was sometimes seated at the counter, bent over a book. His sisters would ruffle his dark hair but he’d never look up. He was Finny’s own age, 12, but he went to public school, and she was at St. Charles Borromeo. 

Finny slipped the key in the lock. Always, she expected to find Mr. Smithwick on the other side of the door, his round face grave. She planned to cry if she got caught but suspected that it wouldn’t work. Maybe if she’d pried the window open and climbed in. But a key was more deliberate. 

Once inside, Finny quickly shut the door to silence the jangling bells. Upturned chairs rested on top of round tables that seated two. The glass cases held muffins and donuts in the morning, and, afternoons, cookies, cakes, puddings, and pies. Her father used to bring home day-old doughnuts that they’d heat in the oven to crisp away the staleness. 

Finny walked through to the larger room. By the window stood a Christmas tree decorated with red bells. A silver star crowned the top. Kneeling, Finny plugged in the tree. With the curtain drawn, nobody walking by could possibly see. 

She imagined her father finally returning from wherever he’d gone — a year ago now — to find only her mother home. When her parents drank together, her father’s voice grew more and more unsteady as though certain words in his sentences were drowning, while her mother got louder and louder until their upstairs neighbor was pounding on the floor. Her friend took after her. On good nights, they’d go to the bar, but payday was still two days away, on Christmas Eve. 

Finny stretched out on the small couch that sat in front of the fireplace. By skimming sleep, she managed to wake up in time to escape before the kitchen staff came in at 5 a.m. 

A faint noise woke her. A cat? Surely Mr. Smithwick wouldn’t allow one in the shop. Finally, she opened her eyes and sat up to see Owen standing by the Christmas tree. Not a meow, she realized, but the back door opening. No bells. 

Owen said, “I wish it were warmer in here for you.”

Finny had never heard him speak before. It was a strange feeling, since she knew all about him.

Taking Owen in after his mother’s sudden death was the Smithwicks’ most famous act of kindness. More than the toy drive at Christmas, or the donations of pastries to a food kitchen at Easter. Owen’s mother had been Smithwick Bakery’s full-time waitress. 

In the newspaper article, Mrs. Smithwick told how they planned to adopt Owen but first had to locate his father, so he could sign the papers. The name Owen gave them, Thomas Doyle, might not even be correct. He went by his mother’s surname. Still, they would move forward, no matter the expense. 

He was no longer Owen Culloty but Owen Smithwick, yet on Sundays, he attended services with his family at the Episcopal church, and then, alone, went to St. Charles Borromeo for mass. The boys in the neighborhood tormented Owen for this. For everything. Bastard, orphan, charity case. 

“I’ve been trying to stay awake to make sure you get out on time,” Owen said. “But sooner or later, I’m going to fall asleep.” 

“How did you know?” Finny asked. 

“My room’s in the front of the house,” he said. “One night, I looked out the window.” 

He pointed at the Christmas tree. “The light’s reflected on the ceiling. You can see it above the curtain.”

Finny looked up. There was, indeed, a circle of white light above the tree.

“He has appointed the stars to serve the greater lights,” Owen said.

Finny stared at him. Maybe he was crazy. 

“It’s an old prayer,” Owen said. “My mother used to say it after she put the star on our tree.” 

From the pocket of his winter coat, which he was wearing over his pajamas, Owen pulled out his glasses and put them on.

“What’s it mean?”

“Beats me,” he said and she laughed.

“I don’t know the title,” he said. “But I look for it in the library, in books of Irish poems.”

Finny twisted her hands in her lap. “You didn’t think I was a burglar?”

“A burglar wouldn’t plug in the tree,” he said. “I thought maybe it was my mother.” Owen gestured toward the tree again. “This used to be her job.”

“But she died,” Finny said. 

Owen nodded. “That’s why I just stayed at my window and watched. Then I saw you leave.” 

“If it had been your parents . . .” 

“They’re asleep by ten o’clock,” Owen said. “And they aren’t my parents.”

“Well . . .” 

“I mean, they’re nice people and all.” Owen sat slowly in the chair that was opposite the couch. 

“My dad always said they were fair,” Finny said. 

“The key is his?” Owen asked. 

Finny took it out of her pocket and set it on the arm of the couch. “Yeah.” 

Mr. Smithwick, who must have heard that Jack Malone wasn’t only absent from his job but gone from the neighborhood, had come by to collect the key. Finny watched as her mother sourly handed it over. But Finny knew that her father had a copy. If he ever lost the one he’d been given, he’d be responsible for replacing the lock. Better to have a secret spare. At the beginning of December, Finny came upon it in a cluttered kitchen drawer, marked by a piece of curling tape on which was written, Smthwk.

“Do you know what they’ll do if they find out?” Owen asked.

“Call the police,” Finny said. 

“I think you know they won’t.”

“They’d help me?” Finny whispered what she had not admitted to herself, that each time she opened the red front door, she had wanted not to be caught, but rescued. 

“They’d keep you.” Owen reached over and flicked a bell on the tree. It gave a tinny ring. “And tell you how grateful you are, for the rest of your life.” 

“You would have gone to an orphanage,” Finny said.

“Maybe. This is better than that.” Owen smiled thinly. “You can change your name back when you’re 18.”

“Back?” Finny said. 

“Patricia hates being called Pat. She never let the girls have nicknames. I hope you like whatever Finny’s short for.”

She hesitated and then said, “Fiona.” 

“Fiona Smithwick,” he said.

Finny’s expression must have given away her distaste, because Owen laughed.

“It sounds like an old lady,” she said.

“You start answering to both names is all,” Owen said. “Listen, you’ve got to know that nothing happens unless your mom says yes.”

But Finny knew her mother wasn’t mad at her father for going. She was mad at him for going first. Drunk, disappeared, dead. Of those three things that a parent could be, Owen’s, at least, had an ending. 

“She will.” Finny rushed on. “And they’d have to get my father to say yes, too. Like they did with yours?” 

“The lawyer never turned him up,” Owen said. “The judge ruled abandonment.”

“But I know my dad’s name.”

When the boys followed behind him, jeering, when they shoved him, Owen kept walking, shoulders hunched like a boy in a blizzard. Likewise, at her words, he flinched but then looked at her steadily.

“Hey, listen —” Finny stopped. She’d been about to say that the girls didn’t hit, but they said things to each other just loud enough for you to hear. But Owen had moved to the edge of his chair, as though he were about to leave. 

“Forget it,” she said.

“Say they find your dad and he says no,” Owen said. “Say he says yes.”

“I figure it’s worth finding out,” Finny said. “If I stay here all night. . . .”

“No,” Owen said. “I’ll tell. But it’s got to be the first time I found you here.” 

  “Tonight?” She felt strangely panicked. “Will they let me go home to get my stuff?”

Owen shook his head. “They’ll say there’s nothing worth bringing.”

Finny cataloged her belongings. Clothes, not many. Three books that she’d never returned to the library. The broken watch that had been her First Communion gift. The only thing of value she owned was the key to this place. 

“There isn’t.”

Owen sighed and it made him sound old. “But we should wait. Christmas Eve,” he said. “It’ll be a better story.”

They left together, cautiously. After Finny locked the door, she turned around.

“Christmas Eve then?” she said. 

Owen nodded and offered her his hand to shake. She accepted, though she nearly laughed. No other boy she knew would do that. 

At home, the remains of her mother’s night were in the living room, her bedroom door shut tight. Relieved, Finny went into her own room. She opened her closet door and climbed up the ladder onto the roof, which had served as her Smithwick’s throughout the spring and summer.

Up there, she looked down at Brooklyn, spread out before her, the dull yellow of regular lights broken by sparks of color. Christmas lights. 

Imagining her dad’s answer to the Smithwicks, Finny got the same sense of seeing every direction at once, and as well, the certainty of a long tumble if she leaned too far over the edge. 

He would say no. Nothing would change. He would say no, but realize that he’d been wrong to run away alone. He’d say yes, and Finny would go live in the Smithwicks’ brownstone, with its staircase that you were allowed to climb from garden to parlor to the third floor. All of it was yours. Still, it wasn’t the rooms Finny wanted, but the quiet in them, and now, to join the sad and restless Owen, who was free to miss a mother who’d recited prayers and had not meant to leave. 

Finny searched the night sky but she did not find the North Star. At Christmastime, she always tried. Tonight, she didn’t mind. Indeed, it meant that she could hold the other as the star that mattered most, the one that had given her away with its electric light. 

Kathleen Donohoe has published short fiction in several literary magazines, including Hampton Shorts and Washington Square Review. Her debut novel, “Ashes of Fiery Weather,” was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this fall.