The following is an excerpt from Kathleen Donohoe’s new novel, Ashes of Fiery Weather, published August 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Described as both “gritty and graceful,” Donohoe’s novel follows the lives of six generations of women in an Irish-American family of New York City firefighters.
When the doorbell rang at nearly eleven o’clock at night, Delia was sure her mother had come back. She had been reading in bed, and she dropped her book and flew down the stairs, nearly tripping at the bot- tom. When she yanked open the door to see Claire and the child she called her little brother standing on the stoop, Delia was so confused that she actually peered around Claire’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said.
Claire wasn’t wearing a jacket, and the boy had on only a sweater that was too big for him. Delia ushered them inside. Claire came into the hallway shivering, clutching Flynn’s hand. Flynn, who Delia suspected was named after Errol Flynn, held a stuffed dog that was missing seams from his smile.
“I had a fight with my mother. She told me to get the f— to get out. I didn’t know where else to go. And I brought Flynn because” — Claire stopped —“he’s the youngest. The rest of them can take care of them- selves.”
Flynn was six. The next-oldest O’Hagan was eight. Delia closed the door.
Briskly, she offered her parents’ room. It had a double bed. Delia glanced at Flynn, who stared solemnly back at her as though he was delivered to a stranger’s house every night when he should have been long asleep.
“Or — there’s another bedroom. He can sleep there if you think he won’t be scared by himself. It’s got a view of the back of the firehouse.” There was a full-size bed that her brothers had shared and a bureau, but no other furniture. Plenty of nights, her mother had slept there. Claire shook her head. “He’s never been alone.”
“Okay. But he can always move in there later, if you change your mind.” “Later?”
“You can stay for however long.”
Claire pressed her lips to the back of Flynn’s hand. “See?” she said to him. “I told you.”
Flynn O’Hagan looked up at her, his hazel eyes expressionless, almost.
Claire was steadfast in her refusal to say what prompted her flight from her mother’s house. She allowed only that it was worse than the usual. About her boyfriend, Ray Phelan, she said even less. In the first week at Delia’s, he’d come by three times, and though Claire would not invite him in, she did consent to talk to him in front of the house. Delia watched from the front window. After Claire sent him away, he stayed on the sidewalk until she shut the front door.
Delia spoke of Flynn delicately, leaving openings for Claire to tell her the truth. Won’t your mother come looking for him? Doesn’t she want him with her? But Claire said no, her mother was sick to death of kids.
At the start of the second week, Claire went back to get the rest of their clothes when she knew her mother and the other kids were at ten o’clock Mass. Her father would probably be there, but too sick to get out of bed, if he’d made it to the bed.
Flynn stayed with Delia. After saying goodbye to Claire and watching her walk up the block, Delia closed the door and turned to see the boy sitting on the stairs. In the classroom, she had a script to follow. Outside it, she had nothing to say to a child.
Flynn surprised her by pointing at the pictures on the wall.
“Is that your father? Claire said he was a fireman.”
Delia moved closer and saw he meant the photograph of her grandfather with his fire company, taken in 1870. The rig was parked in front of the firehouse, the men posed on the horse-drawn fire wagon in their long coats with large buttons. Almost all of them had mustaches. Her grandfather’s picture was in a circle in the upper right-hand corner because he was the officer. He must have been about sixty then, she sup- posed.
“My father was a fireman,” Delia said, “but that’s my grandfather, my mother’s father. He was from Ireland.” She pointed to her parents’ wed- ding picture. “That’s my father there.”
Flynn asked, “What was his name?”
“My father was John Keegan. Jack. He once saved a woman from a fire over on State Street. She was already unconscious when he found her at the top of some stairs, and he carried her out. She was having a baby, so —” So she was heavy as hell, she’d been about to say, but cleared her throat.“ He got the Bennett Medal for it. That’s the highest honor a fireman can receive.”
Flynn regarded her shyly. “Did your grandfather save people too?” Delia knew only one story about him.
“He fought the Brooklyn Theatre fire in 18-something. It started backstage from a lantern and spread very fast. The whole building burned and collapsed. After, some of the brass — the bosses — said that there wasn’t anybody inside. My grandfather said that’s impossible. Then they looked and found almost two hundred people.”
“He saved them all?” Flynn asked.
But Delia had meant the dead. The victims had mostly been seated in the balcony and were killed in the stampede for the exit. Burned beyond recognition, many had been buried together in Green-Wood Cemetery.
“Yes,” Delia said. “All of them.”
“Holy Toledo,” Flynn said.
Delia hoped he never heard the truth. There was a good chance he wouldn’t; it was one of those forgotten tragedies. She knew of it only because her father had told her the story about her grandfather, and how every year, on the anniversary, he would lay a wreath on the victims’ grave.
“Sometimes your mother went with him,” Jack had said.
Delia recalled the affection in his voice when he spoke of Paddy, who’d died not long after she was born. As for her father’s parents, she only knew that they’d both died when he was a child.
“My grandfather and my dad worked in the firehouse around the corner,” she told Flynn. “It was when Brooklyn had its own fire department. You can see above the door it still says BFD, Brooklyn Fire Department. All the fire companies have nicknames. This one is called the Glory Devlins, after my grandfather Patrick Devlin and this other fireman. His name was Jeremiah McGlory.”
“That’s a funny name.”
“He was from Ireland too,” Delia said.
“Why’s it named after them?”
“I think because they were the first two members of the company.
We can go over to the firehouse if you want and take a look around.” Flynn’s mouth fell open. “They’d let us in?”
Delia wanted to laugh. Any kid who came to the door would be welcomed. The guys loved to show off the rigs. “Of course,” she said. “I know them.”
Kathleen Donohoe grew up in a family of Irish-American firefighters in Brooklyn. She has published several short stories in literary magazines and currently serves on the board of Irish American Writers & Artists.