“This Perfect World” by William Thompson

Helen walked down the dark, polished mahogany stairs, listening closely to the ominous sounds coming from the first floor of the house, her arms held in tight to her body to ward off the morning chill. Well, no, Helen wasn't actually walking down the stairs. She was only thinking about walking down the stairs. Helen thought about many things from the comfort of her queen sized, over-blanketed bed. And thinking about walking down the stairs was infinitely easier than actually dragging herself out of bed and sliding away from the warmth and security of her upstairs bedroom; the room with a view that stayed hidden behind permanently closed curtains.

The only light came from the blinking TV set that babbled away to itself from within its plush rosewood cabinet. Helen could have reached for the remote control and turned it off, but what would have been the point? The TV would still be on somewhere, even if she couldn't see it or hear it.That's just the way the TV is, always sticking its slimy boot in the door, grasping for attention like a spoiled five-year-old looking for a snack.

After a short period of vaguely conscious listening and staring into the darkened corners of the room, Helen got up and made her morning toilet; a quick pee and a stare in the mirror. A trembling hand passed through greasy hair and gave a quick tug at the corners of her eyes. Not so pretty anymore, not so young as she once felt herself to be. She stuck her tongue under the running tap and quenched her morning cottonmouth. Then back she went into the rumpled security of her mounded bed. Helen pulled the thick blankets and comforter up around her chin, but they did little good. Sleep was gone for the day. She didn't need to look at the bedside clock-blinking an unending sonata of 12:00am to know as much. Whether she'd last slept fourteen hours or fourteen minutes made little or no difference. She knew that she ought to get up, do something, anything. But her will to move was as limp and tired as her bony legs and flaccid arms.

There it went again. She snatched at the remote in a sharp, ferret-like manner, fumbling for a bit over the controls before finding the buttons that would turn off the sound. She was certain that she had heard something, that time. It was THAT sound again. Yes, there it went again. A quick, brittle sound, like something light dropping and breaking into a million pieces, or maybe just the tinkle of silverware on glass. And was that laughter she could hear, deep and masculine in its immediacy, coming from somewhere downstairs? It couldn't be. Helen had been alone in the house for months, and she checked the locks on the doors and windows regularly. At least that was how she remembered things to be.

Helen had barely seen a soul since the housekeeper, Mrs. Stone, had left in a sudden huff one day last September-on the day Helen had locked her bedroom door and forbade her to do any cleaning at all on the entire second floor of the house. Told her to keep her phony Mexican ass downstairs where it belonged.

Carmelita Stone had known for a good while that Helen was beginning to act like a crazy woman. But it never really registered with her that she might lose her job as a result. Carmelita just figured that all rich Marin county women acted this way. It was all the money and the idleness that made them act like leaves blown about by the wind. So when Helen handed Carmelita an extra $300 at the end of the day and told her not to come back anymore, she was hurt. And confused. But out she went. There's no arguing with a rich woman. Anybody who has ever been around one knows as much. Helen locked the door behind Carmelita and didn't even stay to watch her march down the long driveway.

Helen wasn't crazy, she knew that much to be true. She just wanted to be left alone for a while. No big deal. She missed the sounds of her family rattling around the large house and she wanted to miss them all by herself. Not such a large request. She hadn't asked to be left alone in this whale of a house, but now that she was here, now that this was all she had left to call her own, she had to at least make an attempt to make it all feel like her one true world.

It was, or at one time had been, a crushingly beautiful house. From the outside it mostly still was. Two stories, fourteen rooms and an attic, painted the color of a Rocky Mountain spring runoff and built half onto a sloping meadow-sized yard and half into a thick forest, plush on the east fall of Mt Tam. It was atypical of the other houses in the upper class suburb of Ross, singled out mostly for the crinkling edges of neglect starting to show on the outskirts of the yard. Of the plants dead in their terra cotta hangers and the carpeting of leaves and rotting newspapers that had long since taken possession of the massive front porch.

The house was circled by a once meticulously weeded gravel drive that wound its way up from the quiet street, through the woods and arrived with a lazy half swing around the left side of the house before looping up to a sudden stop directly opposite the front door. No car prowled through the wood or parked in the sumptuous drive. Helen's house was most assuredly alone, unseen from the street except as a shadow in the trees. Its nearest, and only visual neighbors, a flat, one-story California ranchero style house that lay down the slope, just beyond the meadow. Helen had seen the inhabitants of the bland little white house only once, a long time ago. She had watched them taking an evening walk, coming out from between the willow trees that some previous owner had planted to mark boundary lines, stepping gingerly onto the edge of the long, long lawn that spilled down the hill like a slow motion wave. Helen had watched them stare in awe at the house they would never own, wondering what kind of supremely lucky people could live in such a place. Helen, had appeared to them, and to herself, as a ghost. Drifting alone aimlessly across the blanched redwood deck that easily had room enough for a hundred-drink held in hand like she was born with it. She didn't wave or say a word to them. That was a wall that couldn't be crossed, don't you know. Her eyes only crossing with theirs for the briefest of moments before she moved back inside her supremely perfect world.

Now, there, that was definitely something. Helen flinched involuntarily at what was beyond a doubt, the sound of a chair scraping across a wood floor. She sat bolt upright in bed, frozen in anxiety over what to do. Was she being robbed? If that was the case, it seemed from the sounds coming from downstairs, that all the robbers wanted was a place to cook breakfast.

Cautiously, slowly and with the exacting precision of a hunter stalking a deer, Helen slipped out from between the covers and edged her way to the bedroom door. Barely breathing, cracking the door an inch at a time, she bent it open just enough to slip her body through the open space. She moved down the dark hallway making less noise than her cat would have on a similar trip. She still could remember that damn cat. Well, it wasn't so much that the cat itself was memorable, but for the way her husband treated it; stuffing it full of food until it blew up like a balloon. A cat of such immense proportions that its stomach made a highly comical scraping sound as it waddled its way across the expensive wood and marble floors. So fat indeed, that its pelt, stretched taut over grizzled flesh hurt to the touch, making her lash out like the animal she was when anyone tried to show her the tiniest bit of affection by means of stroking her back or rubbing her belly. Andy, Helen's husband, had tied a tiny gold bell around her neck thinking it was the sophisticated thing to do. What a schmuck he could be sometimes. Helen remembered Andy laughing at the poor cat as she lumbered down the same hallway, tinkling and wheezing from the effort to move. Helen wondered why Andy had bothered to take the cat with him when he moved out. It wasn't the only thing that didn't make any sense. But it was pretty odd-even for Andy.

Helen and Andy had only been living in this better homes and gardens showplace for less than five weeks when Andy had packed his bags and emptied the house. Helen had come home one afternoon from her part-time job at the re-cycled toy store and found an empty, quietly hostile house. Andy had left Helen a terse note, remarkable only for its temerity, by way of good-bye. Helen remembered pulling the carefully folded white sheet off the mantel, standing all alone in the middle of the oversized living room, feeling for all the world as if she had been cast in a black a white film noir from the forties. Andy's note said that he was moving in with someone named, Betty (Betty?) and that his lawyer would be contacting her shortly. Helen found out who Betty was easily enough. There just aren't all that many people named Betty for it to remain a mystery too long. The dirty bastard. Wasn't it he who had gone on and on about how much they needed to buy this monstrosity of a home? Of how this would be the perfect place to raise their children? What a load of happy horseshit. Andy had only wanted to get the house bought (mostly with Helen's inheritence) and into both of their names before he shacked-up with his twenty-two-year-old office assistant and lost his community property rights. Helen's lawyer would make short work of that plan.

Helen hadn't heard from Andy himself in months. He was holed up with that bimbo in a rented condo, not two blocks away. He had taken their two daughters with him so he could attempt to play a childish game of emotional handball to try to get himself onto the uphill side in the coming fight over the house. Helen, if she had read her mail, would have seen the salvos that arrived once or twice a week from Andy's lawyer. Helen had, as her first and last logical act, made a phone call to the family attorney-the Honorable Lawrence Bronstein, a fat, liverish, pit bull of a lawyer whose firm had represented her father and his father before him. She called Mr. Bronstein, sent a sizeable check to cover any and all possibilities and locked her doors against the world.

Helen wondered where Andy and the kids were at this exact second. And why they never called her to tell her why they were gone. It would have made her cry if she wasn't so angry, sad if she wasn't so sick and rotted inside. But no, Andy didn't call. The house got colder and colder with each gray, slumping day. And Helen got darker and stranger, alone in her crabbed-in room. The solid arc of her continually blathering TV set , her only remaining conduit to the outside world.

Helen moved down the stairs. Slowly, one step at a time. Trying her best not to make a sound as she listened to the steady ring of chatter and general kitchen noises coming from down the stairs. She started and almost fell as she heard the phone ring. Telephones were evil implements of destruction, bringing only lawyers and contractors and bad news. Helen could still hear the voices from the kitchen, chatting blithely away, ignoring the steady warble of the phone. "Why doesn't somebody pick up the phone, can't they hear the damned thing," she thought as she stepped of the staircase onto the first floor landing and made her way with infinite stealth down the paneled wall of the hallway. The phone kept ringing and the voices just raised louder, as if consciously attempting to drown it out-a competition of distractions heating up like a summer morning in the desert. Helen wanted to answer the phone herself, wanted to do anything to shut the damn thing up, and thought briefly about hurrying back upstairs to the bedroom extension. But no, that wouldn't work, she answered herself automatically. The phone would surely stop ringing before she could make it halfway up the stairs. The only other phones were the kitchen wall extension and the green lacquer antique phone Andy had kept like a treasured pet in his study. In any event, Helen would have to cross through the kitchen to get to the study, so it was really as if there was only one phone available to her. This was beginning to feel like a sophisticated torture. Probably was some kind of elaborate plot by that sonovabitch Andy. This movie was rapidly shifting from an early forties Merle Oberon picture to something from the mid-fifties starring Vincent Price. The kind of movie where an evil husband plots to make his wife go nutzo so he can inherit the mansion.

Well, Helen was having none of that. She decided, probably rashly, to just barge right on in to the kitchen, startle the hell out of whoever was making all the racket and answer the damn phone herself. She'd never been the heroine type, but she was marked with a certain obstinate recklessness that had gotten her into and out of trouble all her life. Her abilities at fearlessness were a deep pocket she drew upon from instinct, never taking the time to think about what she was doing or where she was headed. A bull in a china closet. That's what her father used to call her. But Helen liked thinking of herself as a bull. It made her feel powerful, even if that bull was out of control most of the time.

So without thinking too much about what she was getting into Helen pushed through the split oak swinging doors and into the kitchen. Like a switch being pulled, the phone sat silent, brooding in its cradle, pretending that it had never made a sound. And the voices she had heard as clear as the first day of Spring were also engaged in a conspiracy of silence. There was no one in the kitchen. Not a chair or a pot or a wooden spoon was out of place. Helen hadn't really used the kitchen in a while and a thin cover of dust had begun to assert itself over the counter tops and corner breakfast nook. Helen felt the cold sweat a lunatic must feel in the single, brief moment of clarity when he realizes that his pants are down around his ankles and the entire world is staring and laughing at him.

"Alright, you can come out now. Good joke." Helen spoke aloud to her missing audience. Nothing stirred. Helen went back out through the swinging doors and ran through the rest of the downstairs, expecting to find a room full of people around every corner. Silence and dust. That was all she could raise. When she entered the last room on the ground floor, her husband's study, she stopped. Why was the gun case, so horridly displayed on the south wall, open? Helen had never had a key-never even wanted to touch those stupid shotguns and rifles and pistols. She had never understood what it was that made Andy feel the need to go out a couple of times a year and shoot little birds and deer. It must be a sickness she supposed. A sickness only barely tolerated by Helen as long as it was kept a considerable distance from her line of sight.

She moved along the far wall, as far as possible from the open case over to the wet bar where she poured herself a full tumbler of whisky and took a long, thick drink. She'd never until this moment truly understood what people meant when they dramatically said that they really needed a drink. Thought it nothing but posturing. But oh God, this tasted good. Two more swallows and she filled the glass again. She drank her whisky in the folds of her own silence for a while, not really conscious of the time or of the flow. It was all becoming easier. She didn't hear any more voices or telephones any longer. At least she had that bit of sanity to hang onto.

After her third glass, she became bored with Andy's study and moved out onto the porch with its wide redwood deck, reminiscent of the deck of some huge ocean liner. It was a beautiful morning. How long had it been since she had sat outside and breathed in the fresh air and listened to the singing of the birds? Too long, much too long she thought as she sipped away, eyes glowing as bright as the amber liquid she sloshed playfully around the edges of her glass.

Another whisky glinting in the fresh light. Ah, yes another drink held high in honor of the sun coming up in the East. Wasn't that a grand thing to see-an accomplishment worthy of note and embellishment? Helen thought so, and happily drained the glass. Another toast sprang to her lips. "To you, Andy, you god-damned sorry son of a bitch. I hope you fall off a cliff." Helen half fell out of her chair laughing at her rapier wit. Then the deck caught her eye again. She hated this deck. It reminded her, with its wide open spaces, of all the friends she didn't have anymore. The deck screamed silent obscenities at her, taunted her with lurid descriptions of all the parties she would never again throw; successes she would never know. She staggered a few steps and plopped herself own in one of a row of Adirondack chairs and took another huge drink of whisky. Her smile lit up again, as she stretched her legs out in front of her, flexing and basking in the sun like a young animal. She admired her legs-always her best feature her mother had told her time and again. At least they were one thing hadn't gone all to hell, she thought. Helen looked around at the limits of her perfect world, as happy as a pup with the good, smooth whisky glass in one hand and her husband's .357 magnum waving like a Chinese fan in the other.

Gary and Joanie, kneeling in the dirt of their garden and digging at the weeds, rooting them out like the miscreants they were, didn't really have the time to pay much attention to what did or didn't go on at their neighbor's house. Their morning was too full of the harmony of buzzing insects and the deep textured aroma of pungent , loamy soil and sweat that cemented them together to their place in the natural world. Joanie and Gary had a lot more important things to think about than how easy life must be for the people across the meadow in the big white house. Those kind of people most likely had a division of Japanese gardeners to pull any weeds that might trespass upon their perfect garden so they might spend their Sunday morning brunching on their yacht. Only once in a great while would Joanie's eyes touch upon the house up on the edge of the woods. She didn't need such a place to make her happy. But even so, she could sometimes feel that typically American twinge of envy for the people who somehow manage to have it all.

Joanie pulled up for a moment, stretching her back and picking a sticker out of her palm. A channel of sweat dripped into her eyes and she unconsciously wiped it away as she looked across the yard and smiled at Gary, who was stooped over in a desperate wrestle with a rotten four by four, that was until this moment, half buried in the corner of the yard nearest the fence. Since the day they had bought this tiny house, they had spent nearly every non-working hour laboring in the garden or re-modeling the interior. It seemed like ages since they had done something as simple as go out to a movie or a nice quiet dinner in a restaurant. But that was all right. At least they did nothing together.

Joanie glanced again at the house across the meadow and sighed once more for what she probably would never have. Sighed and then smiled as she bent back to work and dug into the stubborn line of weeds congregating at the base of the grapevine. Gary, giving full concentration to his half submerged, rotted wood, never even looked up from his labor.