Fiction by Mary Ann McGuigan
Nora watched the deliberate way her mother moved each paper from one pointless pile to another—figuring out which bills could be put off—and saw that nothing would change her mind about the dance lessons. She finished drying the dishes, put the towels back on the rack, evenly folded, exactly the way her mother insisted they be hung. A poorly hung towel could trigger days of lamentation. When Nora had them just right, she promised herself she’d never hang a towel in that room again.
Before the sun rose the next morning, before anyone in the apartment was awake, Nora set out for the bus station in Journal Square, with her ballet slippers, her tap shoes, and everything else she cared about stuffed into her brother’s huge duffel bag slung over her shoulder. By the time she got on line for the bus, she was sweating, though the day was still cool. She dropped her bag in the spot behind a tall guy with a guitar case and a knapsack. He had blond hair and freckles and looked old enough to be out of high school. He wore jeans and a fatigue jacket. The other people on line were mostly men wearing raincoats and carrying briefcases. Nora’s father used to get the bus here. But he was out of the picture again, had been for months, since the day before she turned sixteen. She wondered how long he’d be away this time, how long before he returned to take things out on her mother and the emergency room became their home away from home again.
The bus pulled up hissing and wheezing, and the line straightened itself as the passengers got ready to board. Nora’s stomach felt loose and her hands were sweaty as she gave the driver her fare. New York was only a thirty-minute ride from Jersey City, but she was scared.
She didn’t want to take the seat next to the fat man in the front, and the only other one vacant was next to the blond guy. He moved his guitar off the seat so she could take it, although she was so small she could have squeezed in beside it. When she had trouble lifting her duffel bag, he stood up and put it on the overhead rack for her.
The bus lurched and swerved its way up the boulevard and their shoulders touched, a time or two more than they had to. She wanted to lean away, but the man in the seat across the aisle had lit a cigarette and he reeked of smoke and aftershave. “You okay?” the blond asked her. She nodded. He slipped a bottle of soda out of one of his coat pockets and offered her some. She took it, grateful.
“Where you headed?” he said.
He smiled, and Nora remembered the bus was a New York express. “Me too,” he said. “I have an audition.”
“Really?” She felt better hearing this, like she was in the right place.
“A guy I know—he has this band starting up—and they lost their bass player. That’s what I play.” He tapped the guitar case between his knees. “What about you?”
“I’m going to study ballet. I mean I already do, but I want to get into a better school. My dance teacher studied at Martha Graham.” Nora hoped that mentioning Miss Mullen’s name would get her in the door there, although she wondered what they’d think if they knew Miss Mullen drank now in the afternoons.
“Graham,” he nodded. “That’s the big time.”
“I’m not sure yet what’s involved in getting in. I might try out for the Rockettes in the meantime. Just to make some money.”
“Radio City? Cool. You have an audition set up?”
“Not yet.” She wasn’t sure when the tryouts were.
The blond nodded, offered his hand. “I’m Owen.”
“I’m Nora.” She extended her hand and wondered if he was holding it too long. Every move he made was making her jittery.
Owen was a talker, but that was fine with her. She looked him over, without making it obvious. He had a scar above his eye that made a space in his eyebrow and she wanted to touch it. “How did you get that scar?” she said. He grinned. “I can’t always get out of my old man’s way.” He didn’t say any more and Nora didn’t ask, didn’t want to hear about another dad who didn’t know how to be one. She leaned back, thought about New York. For almost two years, she’d been saving money in an old shoulder bag her sister Mary didn’t want anymore, money she got from babysitting and doing chores for old Mrs. Robinson and her cronies on the block. She pictured herself working in a department store or a coffee shop in midtown, if she had to, someplace where working people would come in for lunch, but of course everyone would know she was really a dancer, busy with rehearsals and auditions, studying with a great teacher. Those things happened in New York.
The light in the bus changed as they entered the Lincoln Tunnel. Nora thought Owen looked handsome in that light. “Are you coming back to New Jersey tonight?” he said.
She swallowed hard, uncertain whether or not to tell him. “I’m never coming back,” she said. She’d lain awake the night before, thinking about things she would miss, people she didn’t want to be without. She liked the smell of her brother’s aftershave when he left the bathroom and the way Mr. Margolis started history class with a joke, because then she got to hear Daryl’s laugh. Daryl was big and black and the best player on the basketball team. He moved like a dancer. She would miss watching him play. She would not miss her mother, her rigid distractions that kept her from making any real change in their lives, her inexhaustible excuses for a husband who shamed everything he touched.
“So you have a place lined up to stay?” said Owen.
He seemed surprised at this. “Have you got a piece of paper?” She didn’t. He reached into his pocket and came up with a pack of Winstons. Only one was left and he tucked it behind his ear. Then he removed the shiny silver paper that lined the pack and wrote an address and phone number down. “Listen, here’s where I’ll be. It’s downtown, on Barrow St., near Hudson.” Nora didn’t understand. “In case you have trouble finding a place.” He held out the silver paper and it caught the light and sparkled under the little reading bulb above them.
She took the paper, wondering if this was how he picked up girls. She thanked him for the address, but didn’t think she’d need it. “My friend told me about a hostel, not that far from Port Authority.” Miss Mullen had told her that dancers took care of each other. They’d share their last cracker.
People were getting up now, putting their coats on. Owen stayed with her till they got outside the Port Authority building, onto Eighth Avenue. He waved as the crowd took her in, and she hurried along with it, felt important. Her bag got heavy in just a few blocks and she stopped to rest every now and then. Stores were opening; people waved down big yellow taxis that bullied their way to the curb.
On a corner near a department store, she stopped to listen to a fiddler playing the music her grandmother liked. The sounds seemed out of place, as did he, but if there were rules about doing this in the street, no one seemed to care. Now and then someone would even put coins in his fiddle case. He wore a Yankees cap and a long, dark overcoat and when he saw Nora watching him, he nodded, began a new tune. She knew this one; it made her want to dance the way her grandmother taught her. Why not, she thought. So she did. With her arms straight down at her sides, she moved out in front of the fiddler and did her step dance. He played with more gusto now, and she added a flourish or two as her long hair bounced and passersby began to gather around them.
When the tune was over, people put more coins and bills into the case. The fiddler asked Nora her name. He had bloodshot eyes, like he hadn’t slept, hadn’t shaved, and a red mark on his chin from the fiddle. He looked old and he didn’t smell so good, like when her father returned from being away several days.
“I’m Nora,” she said.
“Well, you’re quite a dancer, Nora.” He had an accent like her grandmother’s and said his name was Samson.
“Yup. I don’t believe in stage names. And I don’t need no stage.”
Nora laughed, but she wondered if all Irishmen thought they could ignore the rules. This one, at least, like her father, seemed indifferent to anything others valued. He asked her if she wanted to dance again, but it sounded more like a demand than a request.
“I can’t. I have to be somewhere.”
“A pity. Look at the money you’ve earned us,” he said, pointing at the fiddle case. She saw the dollars, but she wanted to get over to Radio City, see when the tryouts were scheduled. “Well, pleasure meeting you.” He tipped his hat.
“Yes,” she said and turned to get her shoulder bag, but it wasn’t there. “My bag. It’s gone.”
“There’s your bag,” he said, pointing to her duffel bag.
“No, my shoulder bag. It was right there.”
Samson looked up and down the street. Nora looked as well. But they saw no one with her bag. “It’s no good leaving a purse unattended on the street,” he said.
“My money was in it. What am I going to do?”
“Dance with me here and I’ll give you half of whatever we get.”
Nora looked away so he wouldn’t see how close she was to tears. If she danced all day, she’d never replace the money she’d saved. Samson began something slow and melancholy, then picked up the pace, as if to coax her, and she began. The circle changed with each tune, faces became new faces, new smiles. Nora danced for a very long time. She avoided looking at anyone, focused on the bikes whizzing by, the busses hissing and heaving their way up the street. Everything moved with her, keeping time. Sometimes she went so fast, the little crowd would cheer or clap their hands.
The morning light changed, turned harsher, reflecting off surfaces she hadn’t noticed before. Her head was light, her legs heavy. Someone behind her was calling to her. No, jeering. She didn’t want to turn, but she couldn’t help herself. Three teen-age boys stood outside the circle, heckling. Their antics made a few people laugh. She lost her footing. No one had ever mocked her dancing before. No one. At home, at school, at the dance studio, Nora had come to take compliments as her due.
She missed another step, stumbled. Sampson slowed down, and she walked toward him, head down. The boys got bored and moved along. The people left.
“You did good,” Samson said. But Nora didn’t think so. The laughter had shaken her. She couldn’t imagine what she’d been thinking to come to a city like New York and expect to dance. What a fool she was.
Sampson tucked his fiddle between his legs, stretched his arms. “You wore me out. How much we got?” he said.
Nora squatted beside the case. Bills were inside and more had fallen nearby. She gathered only the paper money and stood up to count it. “Eighteen dollars,” she told him.
“Take nine for yourself.”
She noticed he didn’t offer to share the coins.
“Thanks,” she said and began to count off her share.
“Just leave a single in the case.”
“Power of suggestion.” He knelt, placed the fiddle down gently and gathered the coins into a small pouch.
“Thank you,” Nora said.
He looked up, smiling, as if he knew something about her she didn’t understand yet. “It was a pleasure. I hope you’ll come back.”
I may have to, she thought, and nodded.
“Good luck to you then,” he said.
At Forty-sixth Street she headed toward Sixth Avenue. The lights of the marquees were still out, as if the theaters were sleeping late. The marquee for Radio City was huge, curving around the corner of the building, lit in red and blue, but the theatre itself was dark. She walked up to a set of glass doors. Inside, a man was sweeping. He looked up from his work and she waived, tried to open the door, but it was locked. He came over and opened it a crack. “Theatre is closed,” he grumbled. He was old with very dark skin and very white hair.
“Yes, I know. I was wondering about the Rockettes.”
“Like I said, theatre is closed.”
“Do you know where they hold their tryouts?”
“Don’t know anything about that. Anyway, the theatre is closed.” He pulled the door shut and stepped away.
Nora pounded on the glass.
He returned, irritated.
“Do you know how I can find out?” she said.
“Look what you’re doing to the glass. I just cleaned those doors.”
Couldn’t he just answer a simple question? “I’m trying to find out about the auditions.”
“For Chrissake,” he muttered, opening the door to let her in. “Wait here. Maybe there’s something in the office.” He disappeared through a door a few steps away.
Nora had been to Radio City only once before, when her father had taken her and Mary to the Christmas show. The lobby was just as magnificent as she remembered, with its huge chandelier and the wide staircase that led to a landing with a beautiful mural. But without the crowds, without the anticipation of a show about to begin, the air still, it felt more like a church now, like a sacred place that would receive her prayer, welcome it even, if she offered it with the reverence that a great theater like this deserved. And so she did. She prayed that one day she would dance in New York.
The old man returned, handed her a flyer, and shooed her out the door. She leaned against a car to read it. The first requirement listed was age. You had to be eighteen, and you had to prove it. Nora felt as if she’d been accused of something she hadn’t done. What difference did a year and a half make anyway? She was just as good a dancer now as she would be then, just as ready to learn, and what clutz couldn’t kick her legs in the air. Maybe she could use Mary’s birth certificate. Mary wouldn’t care. She could send it in the mail. She wondered if the hostel let you receive mail.
If she had to, she’d wait it out. That’s all. She’d find another way to make money, get a place to live. There were a million stores in this area. One of them had to need a salesgirl or a stock clerk. She headed back the way she came. The streets were crowded now, noisy. At the corner someone rushing to cross the street jostled her as the light was changing. She looked for the fiddler, but he was gone. Her stomach felt the way it did when her father left them on their own, when she couldn’t imagine how her mother would find the money to eat or pay the rent.
Near one of the theatres, a woman sat in a doorway, her legs stretched out in front of her. She wore knee-high white boots and her bare thighs showed below a short black skirt. Her hair was wild and thick and the color of a fire truck. Nora got closer, tried not to stare. The woman lifted her chin and let out a stream of cigarette smoke, gave Nora a nod that was more like a dare than a greeting. Nora stopped, nodded back, although she wasn’t sure that’s what was wanted.
“You home on leave,” the woman said, pointing to the duffle bag at Nora’s feet.
She was very young, maybe even a teenager. Her elaborate eye makeup reminded Nora of when she’d played dress-up with Mary, raiding their mother’s cosmetic case. It dawned on her then what this girl was, but she’d imagined prostitutes were older, not as pretty.
“I’m from New Jersey.” Nora looked over her shoulder, wondering if she should just move on.
“Don’t be so quick to admit that,” the girl chuckled, exhaling again. Her lipstick left a bright red ring on the filter. “I’m from the great state of Texas.” She had an accent.
“Except my part of it wasn’t so great.” The girl pulled in her long legs and sprang up to her full height, almost as tall as Nora. “I’m Dee Dee,” she said and flicked her cigarette butt to the curb.
Nora didn’t offer her hand, didn’t want to touch her.
“You hungry?” the girl said.
Nora didn’t know what to make of the sudden invitation, but she hadn’t eaten all morning. “Yeah,” she said.
“Let’s go get something.”
Dee Dee sized her up, seemed to be deciding something. “You got any money?”
“I have some. Yes,” Nora said. Immediately, she wondered if that was the right thing to say.
They crossed the street to a coffee shop, and Dee Dee got an unpleasant look from the man behind the counter. He was short with a very dark, thick mustache that quivered with annoyance. “Don’t worry, Nick,” she told him. “I ain’t staying long. She led the way to a table in the back and the waitress who brought their menus wasn’t happy to see her either. She tossed them down and left without a greeting. “Bitch is always on the rag,” mumbled Dee Dee.
“Why do you come here?” Nora whispered. “They don’t seem very friendly.”
“I’m fussy about my eggs,” she said, and studied the menu.
“God, I’m starving.”
“Have whatever you want,” Dee Dee told her. “The hospitality sucks, but the grub is good and the price is right.”
They both ordered pancakes; only Dee Dee wanted coffee and bacon. She lit a cigarette and held it between her lips while she wiggled out of her jacket. Her sweater had a deep scoop neckline trimmed with little blue rhinestones. Her breasts were big and pushed up. “So you ain’t in school?” Dee Dee said, squinting through the smoke.
“Sort of,” said Nora. She wasn’t sure how much she should tell this girl. “I’m planning to live here. I’m a dancer.”
“There’s no smoking in here,” Nick yelled to them. “No smoking.”
“Asshole,” Dee Dee mumbled, crushing the cigarette under her heel. “So what’s the problem?” she said to Nora. “People don’t dance in New Jersey?”
“All the serious dancers are here in New York.”
Dee Dee laughed hard, made Nora wish she hadn’t said that. The girl moved the sugar and ketchup aside, as if they were blocking what she had to say. “Really appreciate you springing for breakfast like this. I’m a little short.”
Nora wasn’t surprised at this. “It’s okay. I earned some money today.”
“Earned how?” said Dee Dee, with a look that made Nora uncomfortable.
“Dancing. With a guy who plays the fiddle.”
Dee Dee seemed relieved at this.
“My shoulder bag was stolen. So he let me dance for a while and gave me some of the money we earned.”
“So you need money?”
“You ain’t gonna make it dancing for dimes.”
“I’m going to find a job in a department store.”
“Good luck with that. You know how many people in this town are looking for work?”
Nora wouldn’t admit to the possibility of not finding a job, but failure now didn’t seem as remote as it had this morning.
“You got looks. You could make some real money if you wanted.” Dee Dee sounded like she was bragging. Nora looked down at the table; she didn’t want to hear how Dee Dee earned her money.
“You don’t need to put your nose up. It ain’t what you think.”
“I don’t think anything. Honest.” Nora wished Dee Dee would just drop the subject.
But she kept at it. “There’s other stuff you can do, you know. You could make bundles and still wear a white dress down the aisle. All you have to do is open your mouth, for Chrissake.”
Nora pictured what she meant, and her heart raced from the shock of it. Dee Dee made it sound like a service, like cutting someone’s hair.
The waitress brought their pancakes and Dee Dee patted the woman’s behind. “Good job, Doris.” The waitress’s surly response didn’t bother her. Dee Dee told her to bring more syrup and more coffee and another juice for Nora. She was like someone on a holiday. “Are you sure you don’t want some bacon?” she said, her mouth full.
“Thanks, no,” Nora said.
“Try the jam. It’s great.” Then she went on about all the money she’d be collecting at the end of the day, and Nora wondered why she couldn’t afford to buy her own breakfast. “Trouble is I’m a big spender. See these boots?” She stretched out her leg to show off the shiny white leather. “A hundred bucks.”
Nora couldn’t taste her food, couldn’t eat. She thought about the money it would take for the kind of ballet slippers she should have, the cost of lessons at a school like Martha Graham’s and how long it was going to take to make it all happen.
“Can’t you get diseases doing that?” Nora kept her voice low.
“Don’t believe everything the nuns tell you,” Dee Dee said. “There’s more to worry about on the toilet seats in this town.” Nora didn’t believe it could really be that easy, and Dee Dee read her look. “You just have to make up your mind what you’re willing to do.”
Nora wanted to ask what things she meant exactly. Maybe she wasn’t talking about anything that would really be that bad, but Dee Dee wasn’t looking at her anymore. She was looking at the entrance and she seemed uneasy. Nora turned. A man in a long expensive-looking overcoat had come in. He didn’t greet Nick. He just walked with slow, hammering steps toward their table. In a breath, he was beside them, leaning over, with his face in Dee Dee’s face. He didn’t look angry, but he seemed like someone who could do great harm. “I thought I told you I didn’t want you in here,” he said. His voice sounded oiled.
“Fuck off,” Dee Dee told him, but she scratched the side of her neck nervously.
The man laughed, lifted his wrist to look at his shiny watch. “Time’s a wastin, girl.”
“I ain’t wasting time. I’m talking to Nora here. She’s interested in working for you.” The man looked from one to the other, deciding whether to believe her. “It’s the truth.”
Nora felt lightheaded. She saw the toe shoes, shoes with proper padding, trimmed in silk. She saw herself tying the long ribbons around her ankles.
“Is that so?” the man said. The words slid out, coated and slimy.
Nora was too nervous to speak.
“She’s going to need training wheels,” Dee Dee told him. “But that’s no problem. Right, Len?” Nora caught Dee Dee’s look, the dare in it, noticed the man’s gold cufflinks.
“We’ll talk later on,” he said and put a hand on Dee Dee’s shoulder. But there was no affection in it, only ownership. “Four o’clock. Same address as yesterday,” he said, in the same greasy tone. “And pick me up some cigarettes when you’re finished.” He threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table in front of her and left.
“That’s Len,” Dee Dee said when the door closed behind him. “He takes care of things.” Her cheeks were flushed, but she spoke as if he’d done nothing out of the ordinary. “So you planning on sticking around?”
“I don’t know,” Nora said. She felt sick. The man had left something unsavory behind. The air seemed heavier, like when her father was in one of his moods, and her food tasted like ashes now.
Dee Dee shrugged. “What are you going to do? Go home to Mommy?”
“I can go home if I want.”
“Well, you better do it soon. You think your family’s going to welcome you back once you run out of luck? When you fuck up so bad they don’t want you around? It don’t work like that.”
Nora stood up, tipping over the chair. She righted it, put her jacket on.
“Yeah, me too. I gotta go,” Dee Dee said, striding toward the door.
Nora gathered her things and paid the check. When she got outside, Dee Dee was waiting. It seemed colder than before, and Nora wasn’t sure what to do. She looked at the girl, the silly makeup, the phony hair color. Yet she seemed so sure of herself. Nora didn’t know whether to run or beg her to take her along.
The girl waited for Nora to say something, but she didn’t. “Maybe I’ll see you around,” Dee Dee said.
“Yeah,” Nora said.
Dee Dee ambled into the street on her high-heeled boots, not waiting for the light to turn green. Nora watched her for a while, but soon people and passing cars blocked the way and she could see only flashes of sun in her hair.
Nora walked several blocks before she saw that she was headed toward the Port Authority. It wasn’t a decision. It was a reflex. She wanted to be some place safe, even if that meant going home. She was afraid here, afraid of what she might do.
The depot was more crowded than it had been in the morning, and she wasn’t sure which platform the bus left from. She asked a woman in uniform, who told her it was leaving right away and if she hurried she could make it. She moved as quickly as she could and the pounding rhythm of her steps put a tune into her head, one the fiddler had played. She couldn’t get rid of it.
When she reached the platform, she took her place in the slow-moving line of slouching people waiting to board the bus. She could feel the heat from inside the door as she stepped high to get in, smell how close it was going to feel in there. She looked down the aisle, saw the people settling back in their seats, closing their eyes, relieved to be finished with the city, returning home.
A man excused himself to get around her and into the aisle. He wore an overcoat that smelled musty, as if it had just been taken out from a long stay in the back of a closet. Her best hiding place had been the closet. Under the bed was no good; you could still hear the cries, the sound of fists on flesh. The closet had a door you could close and in the near silence, she could repeat the words to herself—plié, relevé, sauté—in a place so dark she didn’t even have to close her eyes to imagine the people looking up at her from the front row.
The bus driver wasn’t looking at her, didn’t notice the little stir she made as she turned without warning, bumping her bag into the man behind her as she jumped back down off the bus. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “I don’t want to go.”
The man laughed, his belly bouncing inside his tight jacket. “Then I guess you shouldn’t,” he said.
Outside, on Eighth Avenue, people coming out of the Port Authority fanned out in every direction. Traffic crawled along, and the sunlight glinted off the windshields of cars passing through the intersection. Everyone hurried along, no matter how loudly the billboards and storefront signs insisted on being noticed. Nora fell in behind two men with briefcases, not sure if she was headed uptown or down. She tried to remember the street she was on when she met Dee Dee, which direction the girl had taken.
After a block, she saw she was headed uptown, same as this morning. She quickened her pace but paused when she spotted a poster for the Joffrey tacked up on the fence of a construction site. She knew she didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, but she dug into the pocket of her jeans to see how much she had left. It was the wrong pocket and she found only a single piece of paper that didn’t feel like money. A breeze took the paper out of her hand and it skittered a few yards ahead of her until it lodged itself in a nest of debris where the construction fence met a wall. Nora didn’t give it much thought, not until she got closer and saw it sparkling in the sunlight, like Christmas tinsel. Then she remembered. And she knew she was going the wrong way.
Mary Ann McGuigan’s fiction has appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other journals. Her collection Pieces includes stories named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Mary Ann’s young-adult novels, about teens trying to make sense of the chaos grown-ups leave in their wake, are ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her novel Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award. For more about her fiction, visit www.maryannmcguigan.com.
This piece was originally published May 2016 in Youth Imagination.
Photo by Jon Tyson