Sunday, December 29, 2013

Poem: Christmas Downtown

The parking lot at the liquor store was packed,
and the clerk at Staples badly needed a belt.
We could have hidden the presents in his butt crack.
At the A&P, a little old man held up the express lane,
buying a Santa hat, and two boxes of Milkbone dog biscuits with an expired coupon.
It's revenge of the people I went to high school with downtown.
My friends and I always held a special disdain for anyone who left town,
only to come back.
Holding my 93 year old grandmother's hand,
I push our shopping cart out to my mother's car,
and hear the muffled sounds of dogs barking behind glass.
I turn and see the little old man from the express lane,
he's wearing the Santa hat on his head.
“Ho ho ho!” he says to the two Rottweilers in the car parked next to ours,
and drops two dog biscuits through the cracked window into the backseat.
There are a lot of dogs in this parking lot,
and the little old man moves on.
"Ho ho ho!" he says to a poodle in a Mercedes,
but the car's windows are rolled up tight,
so he leaves the biscuit for the dog under a windshield wiper.
Watching the little old man as he goes,
my grandmother says to me,
"Fiona, I always enjoyed feeding the ducks so."

©Fiona Helmsley

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Poem for Sylvia Plath on the 50th Anniversary of her Death, February 11, 2013

Fifty years ago today,
You made your name,
Made your grave.
Marble- heavy,
A bag full of God.

So many chemicals:
One for love,
One for sadness;
One for baggage,
One for madness.

I think of you,
Anti-Semitic with rage,
Denying her a name,
She's just a barren womb.

Not for long, Mrs. Hughes.

I won't accuse a Thought-Fox
Of locking you in a lock- box,
Of making you look back,
Look back.
A stone in the pocket of Virginia Woolf.

A cruel truth
All artists face
Is despair can wear Calliope's face;
The same muse that moves the pen, turns on the gas,
And our best work may be our last.

©Fiona Helmsley

Tuesday, July 23, 2013



She told him everything, so she decided to tell him this, regardless of consequence (she hoped there would be no consequence).

"So, after I left the dentist, I was walking home, and I passed that shoe store downtown. I figured I’d go in and look for a pair of black kitten heels for work. You know how I hate flats, and you threw out my old pair of black kitten heels because I was always complaining about how they hurt my feet, but never would've had the heart to throw them out myself…."

He was listening intently; where was she going? She figured for now he was focused on what he viewed to be her extravagant spending habits.

"All the black kitten heels that interested me, or would have been appropriate for work were too expensive, so I decided to peruse the sale rack. A red patent leather fetish looking pair with a five inch heel caught my eye…."

"For work?" His eyes bulged.

"No, I was off the work track by then. But the shoes were so cute and inexpensive! Seventy dollars, regularly, on sale for fifteen! I mean, I spend that a day on cigarettes."

They were sitting at the kitchen table, and she got up and went down the hallway towards her sleep chamber. She returned carrying a pair of shiny, candy- apple red heels that screamed sex, sex, sex!

"Wow," he said. His "wow" was that of a jaded parent, not a suddenly insatiable lover.

She didn't put the shoes on, instead, she held them by their heels as she spoke.

"Fifteen dollars! That’s nothing, even if I never have an opportunity to wear them. I’d gladly spend fifteen dollars just to see them in my closet and smile."

He blinked hard at her logic.

She continued. "By the time I left the shoe store, it had started to rain. Not heavy, but enough to fog up my glasses. I’m carrying the shoebox, another bag with a sandwich for later, and a newspaper, and I’m holding a coffee. I thought about calling you for a ride, but it really wasn’t that bad; the worst thing about it was my glasses. I’m walking on the grass, because once you pass the shopping center, the sidewalk ends, and I’m about to go under the railroad bridge, when out of the corner of my eye, I see a car stop in the middle of the road. I turn my head, and see a brown- haired man that I recognize from my work and he asks me if want a ride."

She left out how good looking the brown- haired man was. It was a detail she wouldn't have excluded if talking with anybody else.

"I’m going to be honest with you, and I hope you don’t get mad. Before meeting you, the man in the car was the only man to ever come into my work that I had even a remote passing interest in. But I found out pretty quickly that he was married, and gave up on it."

He took a sip of his coffee.

"But we still talk whenever he comes in, and there’s always been this sort of flirtatious vibe on his end. I did wonder if he was just really friendly, but I always ended up siding more with flirtatious. He has a daughter whose super smart, maybe even autistic smart, and a wife who is pretty, but heavy. He comes into my work with both of them, so it’s not like he's tried to hide his commitments. I didn't really think. I saw a familiar face, it was raining, so I figured, ok, I’ll get in the car."

He lit one of her cigarettes, and pulled the ashtray across the table.

"It was some kind of four- door Ford jobber, and I was surprised to see that the inside was a mess. There was stuff everywhere, garbage, and books, and he was listening to the Rolling Stones. I didn’t expect that. The mess, not the Stones. His daughter is so smart... They are always at the book store looking for books, so I guess I made the unconscious assumption that a person as scholarly as he appeared to be would have a neater car. Not that I ever thought about him, and his car, specifically, and not that I don't know that genius and disorder tend to go hand and hand. As soon as I sat down, I was aware of this tension. He asked me where I lived, and then mentioned that if it was far, we should go back into town and get gas. I wasn't sure how to respond to that, because the way that he said it, it sounded like an invitation. Let's go back into town and get gas.The tension was overwhelming to me, so I started babbling away, thinking I could talk over it, talk as a way of covering it up. I told him about going to the dentist, going to the shoe store, and then... and I realized that I had screwed up right away. I took the shoes out of the shoebox, and the whole undercurrent that I had been trying to hide from, I put it right out there in the open. And he said, just like you, he said, "Those shoes, for work?" And I tried to rescue myself. I said, "Nooo, they would be far too distracting for work." I was stepping in landmines of my own creation all over the place! And out of the corner of my eye, I could see that he had this weird smile on his face, like it was all out there now, the shoes proving that I was a sexual person, that I probably liked sex, and kinky sex too…."

She paused and put the shoes on the table.

"...And now that all that was confirmed, all he would have to do was create some other kind of opportunity. So of course he did. When we finally got to the house, he turns to me, and he says, "You know, we actually live pretty close together, and you like to walk, don't you? It would be nice to have a walking partner. Maybe you and I could go walking together, and you could bring those shoes..."

Monday, July 15, 2013


When I was in junior high, as an English assignment, the teacher had us write a paper about a fantasy dinner party, The Great Dinner Party of the Mind. Anybody could come to the party, living or dead.  She wanted old monarchs mingling with modern day celebrities, assassinated presidents sitting next to grandparents. I didn't take the assignment all that seriously, and remember two of my guests: Sid Vicious and Sharon Tate. I had known very little loss at that point in my life.

She was beautiful,
really she was.
But you’ll have to take my word for that now.
Harry Houdini promised his wife and friends
that after his death
they would hear from him.
But they never heard a sound.
I imagine her there with Houdini,
near the head of the table,
at the Great Dinner Party of My Mind.
A slightly different version from the one we wrote about for 8th grade English class,
the guest list amended by tragedy and time.
Whatever Houdini found once he got there,
I’d like to believe it was so great
he didn’t want to ruin the surprise.
But death may be one dinner party
where no guest dares to interrupt the host.

 © Fiona Helmsley

Sunday, June 2, 2013


He spotted her over the head of a life- sized Taylor Swift promotional cut- out for jeans.

Taylor Swift, a young country singer, who, at least in this ad campaign, appeared to only smile with one side of her mouth.

But this girl, she was not smiling with any part of her mouth. She was doing her job like a bitter automaton. Bitter was an assumption, but she did not look at all happy.

But how many Saturday night Wal-Mart cashiers were?

He wheeled his cart, filled only with two XXL children’s button down shirts, over to her check- out line. He cupped his breath and smelled it. He was thankful for the check-out conveyor belt; it would ensure a marked distance between her and what he had just smelled in his hand.

He was on the spot, so his woo- lines would have to be old standards.

Perhaps something along the lines of, “Give me your phone number or a tissue, because if you don’t give me those digits, I’m going to cry.”

Her name tag read Bonnie. Bonnie in Scots- Gaelic meant beautiful.

Beautiful was a bit generous, but, if, on any slow night, light on the customers, her co-workers were to throw together a hastily organized Employee Beauty Competition (as the blue collars liked to say, “for shits and giggles”), competing against all the old folks and tax deductibles on staff, she just might win. Her looks were the stuff of big fish in small ponds. As the prize announcing her victory, he envisioned a plastic tiara ganked from the toy aisle.

Tuesday would be the 2008 presidential election. Obama/Biden vs. McCain/Palin. He decided to use this in his opening.

“Is it true that Wal-Mart has been pressuring its employees to vote Republican?”

He had heard this on the news. Undercover of hastily arranged morale pep talks, Wal-Mart honchos stood accused of haranguing their employees to vote pachyderm.

“Huh?” she replied. She had a red state drawl.

He repeated the question.

“Is it true that Wal-Mart has been pressuring its employees to vote McCain/Palin?”

“You’re looking for a can for paintin’?”

“Nothing, forget it.”

He felt stupid, though she deserved the honor more. His shame only made her that much more attractive. Light brown hair to her shoulders, real, honest- to- goodness cerulean eyes, freckles across the bridge of a button nose. Twentyish, thin, shapely in the legs. She was clearly wearing stretchy jeans similar to the ones that Taylor Swift had been promoting in the life- sized promotional cut-out. He couldn’t decipher her breasts with the loose cashiers smock covering them, but her legs became discernible as she leaned away from the conveyor belt to turn off her register’s glowing light.

Never one to quit while ahead, he decided to try again.

“Do you get an employee discount?”

“I get a discount on everything,” she bragged. “Twenty percent. But if you’re askin’ me to discount these shirts for you, the answer’s no.”

Her southern twang would be fun to imitate.

“If I was your friend, would you let me use your discount?”

“Maybe. But you’re not my friend. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

He picked up the pen available to customers for filling out checks and signing credit card slips and scribbled on the back of his receipt.

“Here’s my phone number. Call me. Maybe we can be friends. And someday, you’ll let me use your discount.”

It was all so perfectly trashy. Wal-Mart, discounts, political ignorance, the scruff on his chin, the way his breath smelled. Her snotty disdain for no reason and tight- fitting Taylor Swift jeans.

When he had sex with her later that night, he didn’t use a condom. It was the perfect trailer park coda and he liked good endings. She, the Wal-Mart cashier with two kids at home, babysat by her mother, with absolutely no fear of getting pregnant by him, the smelly stranger, who bought his clothes 20 years too small.

©Fiona Helmsley

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Meet Cute

FH: Barry was a good guy. He was my favorite counselor. I remember he wore black leather pants.

SF: He was the only staff member there that I respected, besides some of the nurses…

SF: …So you came into Barry’s office, high and crying about your dog being missing, and sometime after that Barry saw your public access show on TV. He knew nothing about punk rock and at first I thought he had to be talking about George Tabb’s Destroy Television. This is going to sound horrible, but I had met so many scumbags at the clinic that when Barry told me about the show and that you were into punk, only then did I decide to talk to you. I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. A few days later you brought in a video of the show and I loved it. I was like, Quelle Surprise! This girl could be interesting.

FH: My dog was never really missing, he was just hiding in the closet…

SF: And seeing the public access show and your talent just made me want to kill that Tommy guy more. I mean, cognitively, I knew he wasn’t to blame for your problems. I’ve been blamed for other people’s problems and I knew it wasn’t fair, but it was so obvious to anyone watching that if you were in your right mind you would not have been with him at all. How old were you? Twenty-two, twenty-three? He was at least fifty, maybe 60, and he wore green acid- washed jeans!

FH: Then I saw you at the Suckdog show at Acme Underground.

SF: Are you trying to change the subject?

FH: It makes me uncomfortable. It’s like talking about another person, another person who is doing terrible, horrible things to themselves. Especially when it comes to that guy, Tommy.

SF: I think it’s important. It’s a definite low. But at the same time, one of the things that was so endearing about you was that as you went through so much of it…well, you didn’t wear it. That’s why I think the opening quote of your book is so perfect. I remember doing paperwork with you and you going on and on about that scumbag and how he had gone to the same high school as Jim Carroll, as if hallway proximity to Jim Carroll gave him some kind of fucking creditability! I remember you trying to convince me that he was a regular guy, that you and he had a regular relationship, that you two were going to the movies that afternoon. And as soon as you said "movies" I knew that that dirtbag had gotten the free movie passes that we gave to any client at the clinic who agreed to take an AIDS test first…

© Fiona Helmsley

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Cold Feet

While homeless in New York City, my friend Marie and I became friendly with a man known as Starr. Starr presented himself to us as a person well-versed in the ways of the street, a person more than willing to help look out for a pair of eighteen year old punk rock girls from the suburbs. Starr was African-American, with cookie- cutter shaped stars tattooed on his temples. He wore black leather pants that looked like they had become one with his body from continuous wear, like he had a darker, second skin from the waist down. One day, the three of us were sitting on a street corner asking people for spare change to buy heroin when an Indian man drinking a beer in a brown paper bag set down next to us. The man was friendly and a little drunk, and over the course of the conversation let it be known he would like to get to know me better, and flashed a wallet full of cash. I wanted to get high, but was by no means desperate enough to agree to have sex with the man. But before I could give him the brush off, Starr took me aside. “You won’t have to do anything with him,” he said. “Just tell him you know a spot by the river where you two can go.” Starr opened the small bag he carried with him wide enough so that I could see that there was a brick inside. As I walked with the man towards the East River, I felt like I was outside of myself, watching my body as it ambled down the streets with this drunken stranger. Starr slunk behind us, keeping his distance, trying to conceal himself behind monuments and people. The Indian man held my hand without a care in the world, babbling away. Closing in on the East River Park, I had to confront the fact that no third option was going to present itself, no deus ex machina was going to fall from the sky and save the man from Starr’s brick and line my pockets with gold. I stopped and turned to the man. “You need to get out of here,” I said. “My friend is going to rob you.” He looked at me, confused. “You need to go,” I said firmly. We had stopped in the middle of the block and when Starr rounded the corner, he expected us to be farther ahead, so he made no effort to hide himself. Finally, the man understood what was about to happen to him and took off. “What happened?” Starr asked, cradling his bag under his arm. “I don’t know,” I answered. “He said he couldn’t do it, that he didn’t have it in him. I think he got cold feet.”
© Fiona Helmsley

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


You sold dope for a short period of time (a junkie seller never works out, but all seem willing to try to buck the trend) and kept the bags inside the silver foil wrappers of a Juicy Fruit gum pack. You thought your ingenuity genius, what cop is going to think to look through a pack of gum? Your customers would hand over their ten dollar allotments, often times in the same spare change denominations they had begged, and you would reach into your bag, pull out your pack of Juicy Fruit, and give them as many sticks of gum.
One day, three of your most unsavory customers, one an ex-boxer with teeth as gnarled as his English, surrounded you on a street corner in broad daylight.  Junkies without dope in the morning are like bombs waiting to be diffused. “Give us the dope,” they said. Funny, how just the day before you would have considered them friends.  You didn’t make it easy for them; it was your only line of defense. They went through your bag, your pockets, bloodied your eye. You made them do the guesswork, and every lead you withheld was another punch.

 “Where’s the fucking dope!”  

Finally, they found it. You'd put it in your socks.

Later, you reported seeing the empty foil wrappers, discarded on the street, riding the wind. Shiny and reflective, they were everywhere, and seemed to dance on the air. The street in front of you seemed to be peppered with oblong streaks of silver. You weren’t sure if it was real, or because of the damage they’d done to your head, but it struck you, for a fleeting moment, as beautiful.

©Fiona Helmsley