Guest Post: “Red Apples Like Baseballs” by Kathleen Donohoe

Kathleen Donohoe is up next in my guest blogger series. Kathleen runs the blog BookStory, which she describes as “…every book you read has at least two stories. There is the one the author has written, and the one about how it came to be in your hands.  This blog is about books I have read and books I am currently reading, and why.”

Her guest post, “Red Apples Like Baseballs,” isn’t about baseball, sadly. It’s a recollection of when she first realized she was a writer. But it’s more than mere recollection, it’s a conjuring of images and sights and sounds and smells that a good writer should always incorporate into their writing. For me, a native New Yorker, I could feel so much about where this story takes place, the borough of Brooklyn.

It’s an excellent story. But don’t just take my word for it.

Kathleen’s bio: Kathleen Donohoe has published short fiction in several literary journals including Washington Square, Harpur Palate, New York Stories, Web Conjunctions,SNReview and The Recorder: Journal of the American Irish Historical Society. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and now lives there with her husband and son, Liam.

Now, without further ado…“Red Apples Like Baseballs.”

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Red Apples Like Baseballs

November Before It Gets Grim

The Muppets and St. Dymphna

In our kitchen, a statue of St. Dymphna sat on a shelf rarely dusted. She kept company with a beer mug full of pennies, a little yellow dish that held nickels and dimes for the Flatbush Avenue bus, an old can of Billy Beer and a piece of Palm, grown brown at the edges. About six inches high, she wore vivid robes of red and blue and a crown. She had long, light hair. An open book lay across one palm and in her other hand she held a staff. Her contour made me want to fling her into the air with a spin, a holy baton, just to see if I could catch her. She is an Irish saint, patroness of the mentally ill, runaways and knitters. I was standing beneath her feet when I realized that I was a writer.

I was eight years old, the middle daughter, the dark-haired one between two blondes. It was a bright, chilly afternoon, early in November. Winter coats were hibernating deep inside the house. Boots were not a thought. But my father had already put the storm door in and the sun lit the scratches on the glass so that they looked like confetti, tossed in the air and stilled. We’d gone apple picking recently in an upstate New York town with enough open space to astonish girls from Brooklyn, where backyards come in slices and running is done from curb to curb. Against the wall beneath the shelf, there were three paper bags of McIntoshes, red apples the size of baseballs.

That day, I was fetching an apple and thinking about what I wanted to be. My third grade teacher had recently asked the question. Mrs. T— was feared throughout Our Lady Help of Christians. There was a rumor that she’d been a nun and I believed it. She yelled, threw books to the floor, banged boys’ heads against the blackboard. Most of the class gave the same answers: cop, fireman, teacher, nurse. Nobody, however, said priest or nun and Mrs. T— got mad. Often she interrupted her classes for tirades that grabbed her like coughing fits and we all froze like rabbits in knee socks and neckties, hoping to escape a predator. She was angry that never, ever had one student of hers had a vocation. Didn’t any of us give a thought to the church? We needed to pay attention in case God gave us a sign. He might try more than once. God is persistent.

I had lied and said nurse because my mother was a nurse. Girls weren’t firefighters in those days. And there, beneath the statue, beside the apples, I panicked. What else was there? What did you do if you didn’t become what your parents were? Then I thought, I’ll write books. There was no epiphany involved, only a certainty that still puzzles me, though I’d loved books for a long time already, and the need to write belonged to me at once, like something bequeathed. How do you write a book?

A week ago, I’d turned eight, and the new girl in my class, a blonde with a flighty voice had built up her gift to me throughout my party. Her mother picked it out, she said. She wished she was getting it. I opened it to find a packet of Muppet stationery and matching envelopes–the worst present I’d ever gotten. I did not write letters. But obviously, a book deserved better than notebook paper. The stationery became provident. I left the apples behind as I dashed from the kitchen and up the stairs to the bedroom where my birthday gifts sat in a pile beneath my bureau, as yet unassimilated into the room at large. On sheets of paper that had Muppets cavorting in the red borders, I began to write.

The story had been in my head since the second grade at least. I’d titled it The Secret Tree. I told it to myself during class, but had never thought of writing it down, something that astonished me that day. I was not prepared for it to be hard. Yet I quickly discovered that the words on paper could not live up to the images in my head. But with the crackpot optimism every writer must have, I put that book aside and began again, something new. I’ve never stopped writing.

And after that day, I read books differently too. They became textbooks that taught by example, maps that illustrated how a story unfolds from beginning to end. Writers must possess the ability to be still, an appreciation of silence, and the courage to fill it from their own imaginations. Reading is practice.

The white letters, bright against the building’s pale brick read, “Brooklyn Public Library,” or they had until the B, the P and the L were stolen one Halloween night. I would go to the gunmetal gray fiction shelves, find the place where my name would come and slip my hand between two books, creating a space, a void to fill.

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