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Making its way toward 59th Street, the subway was but a metal serpent slinking beneath Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Moments before, the doors of the 1 Train had slid open and four or five sleepy passengers emerged, settling with their foil-wrapped deli lunches onto blue plastic seats. It was the dance of the morning commuter and Ava Chase once knew it well, this synchronized tango of detachment performed between tiled subway walls. One woman smiled at Ava as she entered and the wide, yellow-toothed grin fell into the corned-beef air, offbeat and unreturned.

Where was the good in goodness? Ava thought. What ordinance could be drawn from the ordinary?

Exactly two days had passed since Ava’s editor called her writing “crusty.” Then, with a flitter of a French-manicured hand, she told Ava the magazine was dissolving its musical theater department. Another wave and her editor said despite the crusty writing, Ava could probably find a job at some publication that valued good but not great entertainment reporting and an ordinary style of prose.

The feeling of joblessness was similar to the feeling of weightlessness and she floated on distracted clouds since losing her position with Matte Magazine, sleeping in her navy Versace suit, keeping her two-days unwashed hair in its taut bun atop her head and riding the 1 Train to nowhere.

Crusty? Crusty was a word reserved for rhubarb pie or sunburned skin or for that sticky grit that sometimes got caught beneath fingernails. But for her writing? No.

How, Ava wondered, could her words ever be considered crusty when in her most recent story about Lionell Mann’s turn as Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris, she declared his performance “a theatrical, tap-dancing pearl inside an oyster sparkling in the Parisian sun?” Nautically infused, maybe, but writing like that was anything but crust.

It didn’t matter. She was no longer the Senior Entertainment Reporter she had been last week, the onetime Broadway baby of backstage passes to get tipsy on cheap champagne poured by 42nd Street’s finest keepers of the pas de bourrée then exit with wobbly professionalism through hidden stage doors.

Now, she was a study in monochromatic melancholia, the dismal, all-navy outline of an allegedly crusty writer without a crusted thing to write. At least she still had her green scarf, given to her last year by the Tony Award-winning falsetto star of Jersey Boys who said tying the knot of silk fabric above her collarbone brought out the elegance in her neck.

She placed her hand to the scarf and felt its smooth fabric, cold against her fingertips, cold against her damp skin. Funny that Ava’s neck was said to be marked by elegance but her words by crust …

“Whatcha readin’?”

The question came from a voice small and pinkly and belonged to a girl no older than eight. Ava couldn’t remember when or if the subway made another stop but it must have because she would’ve earlier taken note of the child sitting beside her, green socks stuffed sloppily into ballet slippers, her bright pink tutu—the kind every little girl’s ballerina dreams are made from—covered by a gray sweatshirt one size too big. She was the toe-tapping portrait of an Upper West Side dance class child: young New York City kittens who wore their jazz shoes to kindergarten, knew the underground labyrinth of subways before they knew how to speak and preferred bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, hold the onions, please and thanks.

“Hellooo? Whatcha readin’?”

Ava forgot about the book in her hand, the one that in times richer had been her faithful reporter’s notebook, always fitting, Mary-Poppins style, into whatever bag she carried to the next show. This morning it was a crimson façade between her fingers, folded open to an empty page.

Was it really two days since she’d been fired? It may have been three or six or ten days before that her editor dismissed every one of Ava’s childhood dreams to write about names she’d only admired in neon marquee lights.

“I can almost read! Let me see it!” The little girl leaned toward Ava, the pink tulle of her tutu scratching Ava’s left arm. “Hey! How come it’s blank? Don’t books come with words on ‘em?”

Ava had no time for children, especially not tiny, persistent ballerinas with high-pitched voices who couldn’t mind their own business. “It’s a special book for adults. A book to write in, not read from,” Ava blurted out with staccato exasperation. She angled away from the girl. The girl moved in closer.

“Oh! Do you write in it then? Whatcha gonna write today? Maybe something about me! I might be the best thing!”

“No, I’m just looking at my notebook.”

“Why? Why would you look and not write?”

“Because I don’t write anymore.” Ava tried to sound detached. She was. She wasn’t.

“Why not?”

Ah, innocence.

“Maybe it’s like dance,” the little girl reasoned. “My mom says I can’t go to dance anymore because of the emonomy being so bad and the classes being so ‘spensive but I still wear my tutu every day!”

Some tectonic plate inside Ava shifted, all her dreams at once realigned. “Listen,” she began with more passion than necessary for a conversation between a former Senior Entertainment Reporter and an eight-year-old ballerina. “No one can stop you from dancing.”

“No one can stop me from dancing?” The little girl repeated Ava’s words but as a question that trailed off into the sound of subway doors squelching open.

Ava was outside on 42nd Street before she even realized it. Here she stood, among the horn section of frustrated, traffic-jammed taxi drivers, among the string section of construction workers whistling to pretty pedestrians, among the wind section of a windy spring day. What act comes after the musical interlude of Manhattan? Or was this the grand finale?

Then her phone rang.

On the other end, she heard the voice of her faceless Matte Magazine editor, an offstage character in the song-and-dance number of Ava’s new, if not empty, life.

“Ava? Ava are you there?”

A quick pause and her editor continued. “I need you to cover the matinee showing of Chicago tonight. Rumors have it they’re bringing in a ringer to replace Coco Sanderson as Roxie Hart and all the magazines want to scoop the story at tomorrow’s show but Eddie called and said she’s going on tonight. Broadway’s triumphant return to relevancy or some nonsense. Anyway, can you be there in say, 20 minutes? No one else knows the choreographic history of the Cell Block Tango like you. Hello, Ava? Hello?”


  • this was a fun read.
    I need to ask this because it is something I struggle with: how are you able to describe the environment around the character and as well the appearance of the girl so well? I can never do that.

  • So glad you enjoyed the story! It was based on a sketch by a PIXAR artist and totally fun to write.
    As for your question … I recommend reading On Writing by Stephen King for really, really good writing tips but you can also check out my own mediocre tips here:
    In the most general sense, here’s what I do: Before I sit down to write, I have a somewhat vague idea about who the character is and how the world he/she lives in turns. As I write, I concentrate on alternating between the small — what the character sees, smells, hears and feels or the “environment” as you so aptly called it — and the large, those chunks of narrative that’ll move the story forward and avoid bogging it down in too much sensory detail. Like a frosting thinly squeezed from a piping bag, the details are released in little, swirling bits, and I’m always conscious of their viscosity and tendency to make the story too sweet, too heavy, too sugary to ingest. YET it’s these details (sometimes more often than the actual narrative itself) that allow a tale to come alive. You may not fully connect with a slim, moustached man leaning against a half-filled bookcase thinking about a letter he just penned to an unrequited love but you can smell the nutty, spice of the cigar smoke snaking from his mouth, hear the wind rasping cold against a nearby window …

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