by Fiona Helmsley
The first time I ever saw a dead body was on a subway platform. It was the body of a white man, dressed business casual, in khaki pants, and black dress shoes. I couldn’t see his face or the upper part of his body, it had been covered with plastic. He was slumped backwards on a bench, his body held up by the wall behind it. He was freshly dead, The New York Times he’d been reading at his feet, sections on Business, and ironically, Living, loose on the ground. I can only guess what it was that had caused the people around him to take notice. Maybe it was the newspaper slipping from his hands, and his not reaching to pick it back up.
My mother tried to avert three sets of eyes: mine, my brother’s, and my sister’s, but there was no way I wasn’t going to look. I read about death all the time, and here it was, close. The man was a stranger, and his death provoked no emotion in me, so it was easy to gawk. When I started having sex a few years later, I would feel a similar way about my partners. I always felt the most comfortable having sex with people I felt nothing for.
Though he had probably died of a heart attack, or in some way clean of the violence New York City was famous for at the time, my mother still thought to herself that she’d made the right choice in leaving the city. When she had found out that she was pregnant with my older sister, she and my father had packed their bags and left.
But she still wanted us to have an appreciation, so a few times a year, we would go– Christmas, over February vacation, and in the summer. FAO Schwarz was the store I was always the most excited to visit, though we never bought anything. My mother would have to steal money from my dad’s pants pockets in order to fund these trips. My parents hadn’t spoken a word to each other for close to three years. Sometimes my father would leave notes in his pants pockets for my mother to find. “Stop thief!” one of them read, but my mom did not stop.
FAO Schwarz was a rich person’s toy store and a poor person’s tourist attraction. We went as tourists, to look at the Cabbage Patch Kid Village, and the piano that Tom Hanks danced on in Big. But the year I saw the dead man, I was 13, and my interests had started to change. The store I most wanted to visit was Trash and Vaudeville, in the East Village. It was the only store I knew of that sold punk rock t-shirts, spiky bracelets, and Doc Martens, items that were only mail-order accessible at the time, and required buying catalogs from ads that ran in the back of skateboarding magazines or Rolling Stone first. Not that my mother ever let me order any of those things. But trips to the city were considered special occasions, and at Trash and Vaudeville that morning, I had been able to convince her to let me buy a “Sid Lives” t-shirt with my Christmas money.
The world went on around the dead man. The subway platform became more densely populated with people waiting for the train.
“Are they just going to leave him?” my brother asked. He was nine, with a chubby face, and chunky body. Husky was what it said on the label inside of his pants. At home, he watched professional wrestling obsessively, one hand in a bowl of Doritos, the other gripping a Pepsi. He was the go-between in the communication of our parents, the tin can whenever it was absolutely necessary for them to play telephone. Precociously aware that much of what he needed to communicate for them was better off bowdlerized, he also acted as their censor, and translator. On the train into Grand Central, I had let him put me in a sleeper hold, and had passed out for a few seconds, drooling all over myself.
“They must be waiting for an ambulance,” my mother said.
“Ambulance?” my sister interrupted. “He needs a body bag.” She was fifteen, and held a shopping bag in her hand from The Strand. Inside were books by Henry Miller and D.H Lawrence. It was because of her interest in infamous writers that we’d schlepped to the Chelsea Hotel that afternoon. At first I’d been resistant.
“You’re such a poser,” my sister said. “Nancy Spungen died there. I can’t believe you don’t want to go.”
“That was the hotel?” I said. “I thought maybe it was a chain, like Howard Johnson’s.”
She was right. I was a poser. I’d write things in my journal like, “I’m not going to live ‘til I’m 21,” but had yet to do a thing that put my life in peril. She’d proven the point to me the week before. I had a Sid Vicious poster on the wall of our bedroom that read Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive. After waking up to it so many mornings, I had the words memorized, and took the time necessary to write the voluble quote all over everything.
“I don’t give a hoot, I’m dissolute,” my sister wrote in the notebook that she kept next to her bed, and filled with quotations from books that she’d read and found to be meaningful. With a jagged dash that looked like a lightening bolt on its side, she attributed the words to Sid. We snooped through each other’s things all the time, and as soon as I’d read the quote, I began writing it everywhere, as she’d known that I would. Once I’d thoroughly saturated my life’s tangible objects in the words, she told me the truth.
“Hahahahahaha!” she said. “If I just attach the right name to it, you’ll recite it, dedicate your life to it. I don’t give a hoot! I’m dissolute! You are so going to join a cult.”
Policemen arrived on the platform. They marked a sloppy perimeter that cut across the plastic covering the man with yellow tape. The Times was picked up from the ground in front of him, and placed onto the bench.
“Bet that suit wasn’t expecting to meet his maker today,” a man said, standing somewhere near us on the platform. I turned towards his voice, but it was hard to get a good look at him. His features were completely obscured by the fur lined hood of his winter coat. “Dare you to touch ‘em,” he said. “You know you want to.” He resembled a sort of faceless Eskimo.
“Stop staring, Fiona,” my mom said.
“Do you think they’re holding the subway ‘til they move the body?” my brother asked. He had on his shit-face, the grimace he made whenever he was anxious, or had to use the bathroom.
“No, honey,” my mother said. “They’d make some kind of announcement, if that was the case.”
“If you’re not going do it, I’m gonna do it,” the man in the hood said. “I’m gonna tag that dead suit.”
My mother’s gestures tightened. It was rush hour, and trains continued to arrive on the station’s other tracks. She moved the three of us into a tight group as the platform continued to fill with people. “Hold hands,” she said. My sister and I ignored her.
“Don’t be a puss,” the man said. He towered above the other people on the platform, though he may have been standing on his tippy-toes. “Those cops?” his hood turned in the direction of where the closest police officers stood. There were only two in the area of the bench. “They ain’t gonna stop you.”
“I’m not going to tell you again, Fiona,” my mother said.
There were so many things she didn’t want me to see. Every homeless person. ACT-UP activists. Black Muslims. Packages of edible, strawberry and peach flavored underwear, at Trash and Vaudeville. A woman’s exposed vagina, on a painting, in the lobby of the Chelsea. What was it about New York City that she wanted me to appreciate?
“Where do you think they get the plastic from?” my sister asked. “Do they just keep a roll of it down here, in a closet somewhere, in case someone dies?”
Before my mother could shush her, or in someway intimate that her words were aggravating my brother’s nervous condition, a woman’s static- heavy voice came over the speaker system.
“Due to an ongoing investigation, only the first five cars of the arriving uptown 6 train will be boarding at the platform.”
“Last chance,” the man in the hood said. “Go, go Godzilla.”
“We have to move up,” my mother said, sounding relieved.
“It’s now or never,” said the man. “Make your bones.”
We had to walk past the bench. My mother looked at me, then my brother, and my sister. Her little ducks, we were all in a row. She looped her arm around my brother’s, like a vine. “Come on,” she said. There were so many people on the platform, we would have to weave through them, in a formation that resembled a conga line.
One of the cops stood next to the garbage can, looking at something. The other had moved up the platform, and was refereeing a heated exchange between an Asian man and a white woman in a dirty fur coat. I put a few steps between me and sister fussing with my Trash and Vaudeville bag. I would use the garbage can as a cover, and feign throwing something away. I made a fist with my hand, as if there were something inside of it. My heart raced.
I could see the side of the man’s face. Where the plastic touched his nose, it rose up, creating a gap. He was much younger than I had expected, maybe 40, or 50, and wore a pair of wire- rimmed glasses. I could see one tight, cork-screw sideburn. His mouth hung agape. “Agape” meant that God loved us. I had been taught this at C.C.D.
“Hey! What are you doing?” the police officer next to the garbage can said, finally looking up. I swung around, so I was facing him. “Use the can up the platform,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, catching sight of what he had been looking at. It was the dead man’s newspaper. It had been moved from the bench. He had been using the cover of the garbage can as a tabletop to support the paper as he flipped through it. He moved to throw it out.
“I’ll take it,” I said. “For my mom. For the train.”
He pushed it towards me with a look of disdain. He didn’t like that he’d been caught slacking on the job by a kid.
As if saying her name was a conjuring spell, my mother appeared at my side.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” he said turning to her. Not deterred by her heavy sweater and winter coat, his eyes fixed on her chest. “We try to be fast, clean them up quick, but you know.”
“What are you doing?” my mother said, without looking at him. She was exasperated. “Come on.”
“I got you the paper,” I said, but the sound of the subway entering the station made it hard to hear.
As the doors opened, I saw the man with the furry hood board. It was a miracle that the four of us got a seat, but we did, and he did, too. He sat across from us, and down a bit, but he was no longer interested in me. I tried to get his attention, waving the newspaper in his direction when my mother wasn’t looking, but he kept his head down, and never looked up. If my mother had heard what I’d said about the paper being for her, she never asked me for it, and I didn’t mention it again. When we got off the subway to transfer to the Metro North train that would take us the rest of the way home, I buried it in the bottom of my Trash and Vaudeville bag.
Three years later, when my father dropped dead of a heart attack while wobbly walking the line at a DWI checkpoint, his car, with the newspaper he’d bought that morning left on the back seat, would be towed back to our house. When no one was looking, I’d sneak out to the car, and grab the paper. I’d keep it as a souvenir, too.
Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and the forthcoming Best Sex Writing 2015 and online at websites like Jezebel, The Weeklings, The Hairpin, The Fanzine and The Rumpus. Her book of essays, stories, and poems, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers will be released later this year.