The block could be so beautiful if only Maeve had a bit more credibility. The streets were wide. Trash cans successfully domesticated the garbage. The hedges were decently trimmed. Decently.
Two doors down from Maeve stood the Faucet house, with bright purple pots that outshone its grey door. A child with the gusto of a whole baseball team had left the lawn littered with toys, as though to invite burglars with its abundance. “Come steal from me, I have too many to clean up.”
Maeve always sighed as she drove past in her SUV. It was a car for a woman with children or a woman from whom neighbors readily accepted rides. Maeve was neither.
It wasn’t the toys on the Faucet lawn that bothered her. The boy was untamed — that was undeniable — but he was just a child, after all. He still existed in a world in which his parents were responsible for his actions. Then, all of a sudden, the child would come of age, and the parents would be off the hook. He would no longer be a neglected little boy — he would be an ill-behaved man. Adults were always held responsible for their decisions, whether or not they had any agency. Which Maeve doubted the Faucet boy had. She believed the science, even if few others did.
Mrs. Faucet needed relief. She was a deeply anxious woman, even Maeve knew that. And Maeve was not a part of the neighborhood social scene. She had been deliberately expelled from the book club, which everyone knows is simply a gossip front. If small convenience stores can disguise drug transactions, then a 300-page bestseller that confronts but does not dismantle systemic racism can disguise a group of white ladies’ whispers regarding whose child might be held back in school.
Maeve worked in Human Resources. The club’s first book was on the futility of all Human Resource departments. They had to start with a softball, after all, before they were ready to tackle one as racially charged as The Vanishing Half. As the ladies willed themselves to choose carrot sticks over pita chips before reaching for the room-temperature hummus, they went in a circle and shared the worst thing a Human Resources person had ever done to them. One woman blamed her company’s recruiter for her own 15 lb weight gain. Another called them by Number 1 Agents of the Patriarchy. Another claimed her son couldn’t go to college because of an HR person. Each stared at Maeve as they bit into their dry cheese and her spirit.
Maeve never attended another session. She didn’t feel welcomed, which didn’t bother her. She just didn’t want to burden them.
Maeve thought people ought to have the right to choose exactly who belonged in their book club. “I don’t want to impose upon any club that won’t have me,” she said, paraphrasing that line Woody Allen once paraphrased. It didn’t matter that she’d gotten the quote wrong — she was only saying it to herself. Maeve forgave her neighbors.
Each house on their block was grey. One grey house seems like a perfectly fine idea. A block full of them is a bit dour. But how does the owner of a grey house stop their neighbor from also painting their house grey? “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but having a grey house was my extremely original idea?”
No. Once set in motion, there was no stopping an entirely grey block. It was like fog.
Maeve moved to the street fully aware of its greyness. Her husband’s job necessitated it. What with the economy, and all. When the street turned against her, she recognized the darkness that enshrouded them, and she wanted to shine a light on it. She could brighten the block. An orange peel to delight a translucent cocktail. Maeve could make their block so delightfully charming and inhabitable that all the women stopped taking their afternoon valiums and started enjoying the company of their own children. That they no longer needed to get high off excluding others. That one woman’s child and another’s career would no longer take up residence in their conversations.
Maeve understood they weren’t aggressive, they just had nowhere else to turn. Maeve could help them. She just needed a window to their doors.
Maeve’s door was vivid yellow — her favorite. She’d painted it herself. Her husband had acquiesced once he’d heard the magic words, “I’ll pay for it.” After that, he stopped listening. He’d barely listened to her since she lost the baby. She didn’t want to dwell on it. She may as well lose her husband, too, while she was at it. It was best to get it all over with at once. Maeve was grateful he’d given her that chance. Maeve had thought she could give him a baby to heal him, but she’d failed at doing so. So how could she put the blame on him?
A grey house with a yellow door. That’s not bad, is it? Yellow’s an awkward color — shared by a popular condiment, which is never a good sign. But it’s a patch of hope, one small weapon with which to begin leveling an assault on the grey.
Now, take a step back. A grey house with a yellow door, next to a grey house with a purple door, next to a grey house with a green door, next to a grey house with a blue door, next to a grey house with a red door, next to a grey house with an orange door. That was a beautiful block.
Maeve had the buckets. She spent months indulging her fantasies. She’d stand on her porch and close her eyes as she shook her body to the tune (but not the rhythm) of “Let’s Get It On.” Behind the shades of her own eyelids, she could picture it. People would remember their block. Willow Street, between Dixon and 3rd. With the bright doors. They’d be a spectacle. Joggers would plan their routes to look at the unusual colors. Mothers pushing strollers would say, “maybe we should do that to our block.” Like the time sculptures of cows erupted all over New York City. That was a mark to leave on a town.
There was just one small hiccup — you couldn’t very well paint someone else’s door. Well, perhaps you could, but you ran the risk of getting run off the block.
It wasn’t legality that held Maeve back. She could envision her future block. Mrs. Faucet’s potted plants could match her home’s facade. Mr. Leary could match the orange tree on his lawn, like fraternal twins whose parents valued twee over unique identities. Mrs. Pinetti would have a glorious, neon exterior, as artificially bright as her personality.
But Maeve didn’t want to force these changes on any of these women. She wanted them to want it for themselves. Half the delight of any desire was simply identifying it. What’s better — your birthday, or telling your partner what you want for your birthday? The latter, surely, especially since he likely won’t get it for you anyway. That had always been Maeve’s experience.
Maeve started with Mrs. Pinetti. She was the least intimidating woman on the block. Case in point: she wasn’t even in the book club. She never stood up for Maeve, but she hadn’t contributed to her ostracism, either, and that ought to count for something. The night after that book club meeting, Maeve put Mrs. Pinetti’s name in her gratitude journal. Some days are hard, and on those days, it could be enough to remember those who weren’t cruel.
“Mrs. Pinetti, I’m Maeve,” said Maeve.
“I know, Maeve. We’ve known each other for years. Why do you always reintroduce yourself every time we chat?”
Maeve knew how humiliating it could be not to remember the name you really should know. She saw the anguish in their eyes when confronted with the impossible social situation. She hadn’t experienced it herself, as she had a near-photographic memory for faces. Ah, the shame of a perfect memory attached to an unmemorable person! She wanted to spare Mrs. Pinetti.
“I just know I don’t have the most distinct face. People tell me that a lot,” said Maeve. Maeve wasn’t lying, although she could lie when it would make someone else feel better. Every day, she told her husband she was happy to see him. “Say, if you’re not too busy, I was thinking maybe we could spruce this neighborhood up.”
“Honey, I get what you’re saying, but we’ve talked to her, and I just don’t think we can fix the Faucet’s lawn. I mean, that boy — so sad. But he’s unruly. They throw out these diagnoses now, probably to make the parents feel better, but we all know a hopeless case when we see one.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean — ”
“I hate seeing his trash out there on the lawn as much as anyone, but we’ve got to have empathy. And maybe in a month or so, we can call another neighborhood meeting to discuss it. You know, I wouldn’t give up hope that they might just downsize. What, with the economy and all.”
Whatever color Mrs. Pinetti painted her door, it should be an artificial one.
“Oh, I don’t think we need to clean their lawn,” said Maeve. She drew her chin into her neck and chuckled, to let Mrs. Pinetti know she was on her side, though. “I was actually wondering if you might be interested in painting your door green.”
“Maybe neon green?”
“With what, paint?”
“Oh, I can supply the paint!” Maeve responded. If that were the only hurdle, there’d be no problem at all.
“And why are you doing this, my dear? I’ve heard you’re very busy at work. Surely, you don’t have time for a little paint project.”
“I just want to do something nice! For the block!” Maeve let the words tumble out of her mouth before she could process Mrs. Pinetti’s implication. Fortunately, Maeve didn’t have children. She didn’t remember how people spoke to a child.
“Huh.” Mrs. Pinetti didn’t relate, and she didn’t draw her chin into her neck to let Maeve know she was on her team. But saying no was harder than saying yes.
“Well, okay. I do get bored of how boring-looking this street is. And how boring the people on it are. And I’m not one to turn down anything free. Not with the economy, and all.”
Mr. Gerald lived across the street from Maeve. He’d waited so long to marry that he became a man who’d waited too long to marry, and therefore, something must be wrong with him, hence, no one was willing to marry him. He had no kids. Therefore, he felt his life had no meaning. Same as when you have kids.
“Hello, Mr. Gerald,” said Maeve, waving as though her exuberance could wash away decades of disappointment. It would not.
“Oh,” said Mr. Gerald.
“It’s Maeve here.”
Maeve bounded towards him. The man was lonely, so she wanted to give him the opportunity to speak first. If this were one of his only social interactions of the week, she should offer a home to his unspoken thoughts. She knew the frustration of thinking something unique, different, not covered in an op-ed you’d already read, and having no one with whom to share it. Maeve felt that way when she’d decided the TV show Riverdale had the same plot as the novel The Secret History. Her husband thought she shouldn’t watch shows for teenagers.
Mr. Gerald said nothing. Perhaps he was alone for a reason. Maeve barrelled on, undeterred. Her success with Mrs. Pinetti had swollen her ego. It was now at 30% the size of Mr. Gerald’s. He was, after all, a mediocre white man.
“Mr. Gerald, I was thinking it might be nice to spruce up the neighborhood.”
“Who can afford that? With the economy, and all.”
“Oh, Mr. Gerald, that’s such a thoughtful question, and you’re definitely right about the economy. The good news is I’m simply talking about painting everyone’s door a different bright color. I already have the paint — it shouldn’t be expensive.”
Mr. Gerald paused for a moment. “Only if mine can be red.”
He paused again. “I refuse.”
Maeve’s face wouldn’t betray her rejection, because the expectation of rejection was so internalized it no longer appeared visible. “I understand. I’m sorry to put you in a position where you had to. Thank you for your time,” she said.
Maeve turned to go.
“Wait,” said Mr. Gerald. “I didn’t say no.”
“You said, ‘I — ’ ”
“I know what I said. But I didn’t say no. Why do you want to do this? Is this some newfangled self-improvement bullshit?”
“Not at all!” Said Maeve joyfully. “I’d never try to improve myself. I just think the block could be more beautiful. And it might lift all of our spirits if we do something for ourselves.”
“You’re really concerned with beauty? This isn’t some money-making scheme?”
“How would it make money?”
Mr. Gerald stared off into space. Why was she asking him? If he knew how to make money, would he really live here?
“No! I just think it’d be fun. You don’t see a lot of blocks where every door is a different color. I think it would add character. It’d be something to talk about.”
Mr. Gerald thought helping others was self-indulgent and just a way to make ourselves feel better. Then again, he took Ibuprofen with every meal. We all do our best with the pain. Maybe the paint was her Ibuprofen. He believed she really needed it. And he was compassionate about her needs.
“No,” he said. He smiled clownishly, in a way he believed was compassionate.
“Oh,” said Maeve.
“It’s not good to take Ibuprofen with every meal. It rots the lining of your stomach.”
“What about bright beige?”
“What’s bright beige?”
Maeve didn’t have an answer, so she let it go. Well, one door could stay grey. It was variety she was after, of course.
Maeve next moved on to Mrs. Faucet. There was easy access to the woman — she was nearly always on her lawn picking up after her boy. Maeve thought it must be nice, to have a purpose. How contented Sisyphus must have been. Maeve liked to imagine him happy.
To the untrained eye, Mrs. Faucet appeared further from “stressed” and closer to “mean.” It’s funny how the absence of a smile can be misinterpreted as a frown. Especially when the un-smiler is yelling, “What the heck are you looking at? Have you never seen a child dig a hole in their own goddamn lawn before?!”
Mrs. Faucet’s efforts were futile. Her son was hellbent on destroying her handiwork, as though he were paid a commission for every flower bed he unearthed. She felt guilty for his behavior, despite assurances that it wasn’t her fault. She still believed she should be able to do something for him. Why couldn’t she bring him joy? Why wasn’t joy as simple as a brightly colored door?
Mrs. Faucet was mired in her own fears — fears that she’d be evicted for failing to maintain her home, fears that her husband would die of a brain tumor on his way home from work (or in a car crash), fears of terrorist attacks, fears of being hit by lightning.
“You know, all these anxieties are of events that are highly unlikely to transpire,” her friends would say.
“I know,” said Mrs. Faucet. “That’s why I have to have so many. Because each one is so unlikely to pass.”
Indeed, Mrs. Faucet was pregnant with a second child, which significantly increased the odds that one of her children would die by falling into a pool. So, she was not so unreasonable, after all.
“Hello, Mrs. Faucet,” chirped Maeve. She bent down to pick up a bucket and hand it to the woman. “I’m Maeve. I live down the block.”
“Yes, I know, you were in our book club for one session.”
If Maeve thought it was unkind for Mrs. Faucet to remind her of that humiliation, she didn’t let on.
“Yes, well, I just wanted to stop by and ask you about a little block rehabilitation. You see, I had this idea for how we could make our lovely street even more lovely. It just involves you doing one thing.”
Mrs. Faucet had heard this before. If they had her boy — if these people only knew — the indignity of her neighbors’ comments. From Maeve? This woman? After what she’d done to the neighborhood? The gall!
“Absolutely,” said Mrs. Faucet.
“I haven’t asked yet.”
“There’s nothing I can do about my lawn. Evict me and drag me out of here by my ankles if you have a problem with it — it seems like the type of thing you’d like to do. But if not, leave me the heck alone.”
“It’s not that! I promise. I was just wondering if you might like to paint your door bright purple.”
Mrs. Faucet hovered close to her, as though if she ziplocked up the space between the two of them, no more words could come out of Maeve.
“You want me to do what?” Mrs. Faucet growled.
“Paint your door bright purple. I have the paint right here, I could even do it myself — ”
“And what gives you that right?”
“Oh, nothing.” Maeve laughed. “I just thought it was would be beautiful.” She didn’t want to mock Mrs. Faucet, but it was a funny image. She pictured some old man in a white wig signing the Bill of Rights and pausing to add, “Wait — have we given people the right to ask their neighbors to paint their doors bright purple?” Oh, George Washington had bigger fish to fry. They hadn’t even gotten around to freeing the slaves, after all. Nor would they.
“Why do you want to do this?”
“Well, I just thought it would be nice. Brighten the street a bit. Maybe it would bring us all a smile as we walk from our homes to our cars.”
Mrs. Faucet looked at Meave intensely for a moment. She took a slight step back. Her frown first moved downward into a harsher frown, then returned to its normal position, then moved slightly up, just a bit. It wasn’t a smile, but it had left the realm of scowls.
“What’s missing from your life, honey, is missing from mine, too,” Mrs. Faucet said.
Mrs. Faucet closed the door. Well, it was worth a try. Maeve turned around to take in the firm fall day for a moment before turning around. She heard the door open again. Mrs. Faucet was standing there with two buckets full of paint.
“Let’s paint these motherfucking doors,” Mrs. Faucet said. “If they’re going to hate you anyway, might as well do what you want.”
Maeve didn’t mean to fire Mr. Pinetti. She didn’t mean to fire Mrs. Larkin, either. She certainly didn’t mean to fire Ms. Lee four doors down. She was the Human Resources person. She didn’t make those decisions, she executed them. Stacks of paper were dropped unceremoniously on her desk. It was her husband’s choice to move onto a street where everyone worked at the same plant. It was her husband who’d made her take the job at all, claiming she couldn’t be left around the house to mope about the child. Especially not when he was unwilling to speak with her. Unable, Maeve would tell herself.
One day, though, Maeve had enough of wiping up the executives’ spills. When it came time to fire Mr. Faucet — this was too much. He had an ailing mother and an autistic son. His wife had quit her job to care for him because the school district couldn’t support special-needs students. They couldn’t afford a private school. Maeve saw Mrs. Faucet every day. She pitied the woman so overrun with anxiety she was forced to be cruel. Maeve’s life wasn’t perfect, but it was pleasant enough that she didn’t have to be callous, and for this, she felt immense gratitude. So when Mr. Faucet’s name was dropped on her desk — the very same morning she’d watched Mrs. Faucet brought to tears over a sandwich ripped apart in the car — Maeve refused. And then she herself was let go. It was to be expected — with the economy, and all. She didn’t save Mr. Faucet’s job, but she believed she was saving herself.
As it turns out, you need not ask permission to paint your neighbor’s door if you act in the dark of night. Mrs. Faucet hadn’t had so much fun since before her son was born. Maeve hadn’t had so much fun since before her son wasn’t born. But Maeve didn’t much care if she herself had fun. She was just glad Mrs. Faucet was laughing silly.
And now, the street was perfect. Maeve couldn’t believe she’d pulled it off. She mattered. She’d righted her wrongs.
Maeve could now walk down her block jubilantly, feasting her eyes on the glory of the dazzling doors. She had seen it before in her imagination, so she was no happier than she had been. That was the problem with dreams coming true — by the time you’ve envisioned such a dream, it’s already true in your brain. For the first time in a long time, Maeve was happy enough, though. She didn’t fuss over whether she’d ever been just a smidge happier.
She opened her lustrous yellow door and let herself in. Her husband had yet to comment on the magnificent colors. She didn’t hold this against him. This was simply happiness he had to look forward to. There’s no reason to rush good news for someone — they’ll be able to deposit that rush of joy at a later time. He could notice the delightful doors whenever he pleased.
He didn’t look up from the coffee he was sipping.
“We’ve got to sell the house. What, with the economy and all. It’s too expensive. So paint that stupid door a less embarrassing color.”
Photo by Lane Erickson/Adobe Stock