Francine met Howard at the front door.
“I got the Johnsons today.” She smiled with a wide mouth. Her
teeth were perfectly white. Her lipstick was blood-red.
Howard stepped inside, removed his coat
and handed it to the housekeeper, their third in as many months.
“Thank you...” He looked at her, trying to recall her name.
“Did you hear me, Howard? I got the
He sighed. He rather liked Phillip and
Bess Johnson, their neighbors five doors down, just around the bend.
He walked into his office and set his
briefcase on the massive oak desk Francine had insisted upon. Since
they'd married, it seemed that Francine made all the decisions. The
desk; the God-awful development they lived in; the house as well,
huge and imposing and utterly unnecessary.
“It's important work, Howard.”
“I'm sure it is.” Love certainly
was blind, he mused. For twenty years, he'd saved his money,
squirreling it away in retirement funds...CDs...stocks. But Francine
hadn't liked his house. It was too modest, she
claimed. The children—her children—needed their privacy. She
needed her privacy. And so he sold his modest house at a modest
profit and went deeply into debt.
week they moved in, four years ago this month, Francine had gotten
herself elected to the development's board of directors. In January,
she'd been assigned to the Inspection Committee. Every April, the
committee members emerged, bearing clipboards and sharpened pencils
and important expressions. They fanned down the street, walking from
house to house, pausing at each to scrutinize and frown and consult
in lowered voices. They noted infractions—lawn, siding,
trees—before moving on.
Howard frowned. “Didn't you just get
the Johnsons for something?” His wife was a carnivore, he thought.
Always after blood.
“Last year. There were weeds at the
end of their sidewalk. And a dead tree.”
“That tree wasn't dead.”
“It was ugly.” She tilted her head
at him, twirled a length of long blond hair around her index finger.
Perhaps she found the gesture coy. “Don't you want to know how I
got the Johnsons?”
“Not particularly. The Jonhsons are
“It was their mailbox.”
“What's wrong with their mailbox?”
“It's rather faded.”
“It's a mailbox.”
“Francine...” Her name was sharp
and harsh and she lived up to it completely.
“If they can't keep their house up,
they're going to have to go. Property values are going to decrease.”
He sighed and headed for the kitchen.
The table was strewn with paperwork. “What's all this?”
“This month's applications for
improvements.” She smiled and picked up a paper. “The DeNardis
want to add a shed. Denied.”
“No sketch.” She reached for
another paper. “The Smiths requested siding, but didn't specify the
“Do you ever approve anyone?”
“Mrs. Lawson wants to put in
replacement windows. She's been approved.”
“You want her to sell.”
“What does a widow put in a four
Francine began stacking the papers. She
called to the housekeeper. “Therese, you may serve.”
Therese. That was her name. Howard
snapped his fingers, following Francine to the dining room where his
wife's four children were already seated by age. “The Johnsons
didn't get approval when they painted their front door three years
ago.” Howard sat.
“Perhaps they should have. Then maybe
we wouldn't have been so...” Francine handed Howard a dish of
“You're punishing them?” He took
“People need to follow the
rules.” She pointed to his plate. “Too much.”
He reached for the salt. “It's their
“They need approval.”
“Was the color OK?”
“Well, yes, black is tasteful,
“Then what's the problem?”
“You wouldn't understand.” Francine
turned to her eldest. “Charles, tell us about your day.”
Howard salted his potatoes while
Charlie blah blahed about his teacher at the private school Howard's
retirement fund paid for. He stared at his wife, eyes shining,
hanging on Charlie's every word. Her hair, he'd noticed, was newly
tinted. Her nails had been done. “God,” he said, interrupting the
kid. “You want everything perfect, don't you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Hair. Nails. Clothes. And the
perfume.” He made a face. “And the stuff your spray whenever you
finish up in the bathroom after your morning coffee.” He laughed.
“I got news for you honey. You stink, too.”
Her face paled. “I do not stink.”
“Sometimes, you have bad breath.”
Her eyes filled with tears. She stood
and left the table.
He called after her. “You can't make
imperfection illegal, Francine.”
Charlie gazed at him. “Her birthday's
Howard nodded. “I know.”
“You should buy her a car. Make it up
Howard pushed away from the table and
slammed out the front door. When he was angry, Howard liked to walk.
He noticed, since moving to this neighborhood, he'd lost twenty
pounds. Francine claimed it was the gym membership.
He disagreed. He walked quickly,
passing the landscapers planting bulbs at Mr. Seward's place. He
wondered, briefly, if that had to have been approved by his wife.
Ahead, he saw Bess Johnson standing at
She turned and scowled when she saw
“I'm sorry, Bess.”
He studied her mailbox. The lid was
affixed with a rusty wire. “Is this a hanger?”
“Part of one.” She laughed. “You
gonna' report me to your wife?”
He gestured at the three ghostly
rectangles on the side of the mailbox. “Where's the address?”
She shrugged. “Those stickers are
always falling off.”
“The fire department...”
“Relax, Howard. The address is on the
other side of the mailbox.”
He moved around to look. The center
number—a two—was attached to the mailbox with blue painter's
“You know Phillip lost his job.”
Howard nodded. “I'm sorry.”
“We're all right. Learning how to
make do.” She grinned. “Not a bad lesson to have in your back
pocket. But painful enough to learn.”
“I can help you replace this.” He
“Who said anything about replacing?
Bess indicated a can of spray paint. “Your wife told me to paint
“You can't paint a plastic mailbox,
“I'm just doing as I'm told.” She
held up the can. “You think Sunshine Yellow is bright enough?”
She began spraying, covering the numbers clinging to the box;
covering the rusted wire; even covering the wooden post that held up
“That looks like shit,” she said,
once she'd finished.
“It really does.”
“Think your wife's gonna' nail me
He nodded. “Probably.” His cell
phone buzzed in his pocket. He extracted it and examined the screen,
making a face. “Speak of the devil. I'll be talking to you, Bess.”
“See you, Howard.”
He took the long way home. Francine was
waiting on the front porch. “Well?”
“Charlie said you were getting me a
car. A little make up gift.”
Howard laughed. “I'm giving you and
your children the best gift you'll ever receive.”
Her eyes brightened. “Really?” She
clasped her hands together.
“I'm putting the house on the market
tomorrow and moving home.” He headed into his office and glanced
over his shoulder. “You can come with me, if you like.”
Then he shut the door and began
There really is a faded mailbox committee in our development. From what I understand, it started last month, when someone complained about a family's Disney character mailbox not matching the house. The family circulated petitions and got enough signatures to protest the citation. The outcome is pending. In the meantime, many families in my neighborhood have received thin envelopes with citations about our faded mailboxes. My husband and I did re-affix our mailbox door with a hanger, now rusted. And the numbers are attached with blue painter's tape. And, being stubborn, we may just spray paint that faded plastic mailbox yellow.
We'll keep you posted...In the meantime...
For the Scriptic.org
prompt exchange this week, Tara Roberts
gave me this prompt: Tell about a favorite gift you received or one you gave. I gave Cheney
the prompt: naked chickens and weeping children.
Labels: flash fiction, scriptic.org