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 Johnsons!”
He sighed. He rather liked Phillip and Bess Johnson, their neighbors five doors down, just around the bend. “Congratulations, dear.”
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.
The 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 my friends.”
“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 color. Denied.”
“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 bedroom home?”
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 mashed potatoes.
“You're punishing them?” He took three spoonsful.
“People need to follow the rules.” She pointed to his plate. “Too much.”
He reached for the salt. “It's their door.”
“They need approval.”
“Was the color OK?”
“Well, yes, black is tasteful, but...”
“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 tomorrow.”
Howard nodded. “I know.”
“You should buy her a car. Make it up to her.”
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 her mailbox.
She turned and scowled when she saw him.
“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 tape.
“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 gestured.
“Who said anything about replacing? Bess indicated a can of spray paint. “Your wife told me to paint it.”
“You can't paint a plastic mailbox, Bess.”
“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 the box.
“That looks like shit,” she said, once she'd finished.
“It really does.”
“Think your wife's gonna' nail me again?”
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 packing.
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.