weekend shifts twice a month, but Michael drew the line at her working holidays. He barely saw her as it was. Sometimes, he thought she planned it that way. They weren’t a married couple anymore; they were a partnership, a nonprofit corporation working for the betterment of Tim. Michael couldn’t even remember the last time they’d had sex.

“Cynthia called last night,” Gina told him. Their spoiled next-door neighbor. “She’s got a loose board or something.”

“Loose board?” he repeated. “Where’s Phil?”

She pressed her palms to the table and stood. “Botswana. Hell, I don’t know, Michael. She just asked if you could fix it and I said yes.”

“Did you want to consult with me about that first?”

“Do it or don’t,” she snapped, tossing the rest of her coffee into the sink. “I need to get dressed for work.”

He watched her back as she made her way down the hall. Every morning was like this: Tim making a mess, them cleaning it up, then some argument about something stupid breaking out. To top things off, Barbara would be here soon, and Michael was sure his mother-in-law would find something to complain about, whether it was her aching back, her paltry social security check, or the fact that he’d given her a retarded grandson. Lately, she had taken to leaving articles on Gulf War Syndrome taped to the refrigerator, the obvious inference being that Michael had done something horrible over in Iraq that had brought this scourge on her family.

Michael went into the bedroom and dressed quickly, skipping his shower so he wouldn’t have to go into the bathroom and deal with Gina again. He saw Barbara’s Toyota pulling into the driveway and grabbed his hammer out of his toolbox, sneaking out the back door as she came in the front.

Part of the chain-link fence around the backyard had been taken out by a tree during the last ice storm and there hadn’t been any money to fix it. He hopped over the broken section, careful not to catch the cuff of his pants on the twisted metal and fall flat on his face. Again.

He knocked at the back door, glancing through the window as he waited for Cynthia to come. She took her sweet time, padding up the hall in a short, babydoll robe that was opened to reveal the camisole and thong she wore underneath. Everything was white, practically see-through. Michael wondered where Phil was. If Gina ever answered the door for Phil dressed this way, Michael would have fucking killed her.

Cynthia slowly worked the locks, bending at the waist, flashing some breast. Her long blonde hair covered her face. The camisole was so low he could see the tips of her pink nipples.

Michael hefted the hammer in his hand, feeling an electric buzz in his head. He should just turn around right now and let her fix her own board. Shit, Phil had to come home sometime; let him do it.

Cynthia flashed him a smile as she opened the door. “Howdy, neighbor.”

“Where’s Phil?”

“Indianapolis,” she said, cupping her hands around her mouth to hide a yawn. “Selling support hose to the masses so he can keep me in the style to which I’ve become accustomed.”

“Right.” He glanced over her shoulder. The kitchen was a pigsty. Crusty plates were stacked in the sink, take- out pizza boxes everywhere, cigarettes flowing out of ashtrays. He saw mold growing on a glass of what looked like orange juice.

He said, “Gina told me you have a loose board.”

She smiled like a cat. “It needs tightening.”

Michael put down the hammer. “Why did you call her?”

“Neighbors help neighbors,” she said, like it was simple. “You told Phil you’d look after me when he was away.”

Phil hadn’t meant like this.

She pulled him inside the house by his shirt collar. “You look so tense.”

“I can’t keep doing this.”

“What are you doing?” she asked, pulling him closer.

He thought of Gina, the way she never looked at him anymore, how it felt when she pushed him away. “I just can’t.”

Her hand pressed hard against the front of his pants. “Feels like you can.

Michael held his breath, his eyes following the slope of her small breasts to her firm nipples. He felt his tongue slip out between his lips, could almost feel what it would be like to put his mouth on her.

She unzipped his pants and reached in. “You like this?” she asked, moving her thumb in a circular motion.

“Jesus,” he hissed between his teeth. “Yes.”


Michael felt like shit. Hell, he was shit. The first time with Cynthia had been an accident. Michael knew that was a lame excuse, it wasn’t like you could just trip and the next thing you know, you’re in somebody’s vagina, but he really did think of it along those lines. Phil had called long-distance from California one night, frantic with worry because he couldn’t reach Cynthia. The man traveled all the time, selling women’s hosiery to the big department stores and probably wetting his whistle along the way. Michael didn’t have proof, but he had worked Vice for three years and he knew the type of businessman who availed himself of the local talent whenever he was on the road. The constant phone calls checking on Cynthia were more like guilt calls, Phil’s way of keeping tabs on her when he couldn’t keep tabs on himself.

Gina had been working nights then, already pulling away from Michael when he reached out to her. Tim’s challenges were becoming more evident and her response had been to throw herself into work, doing double shifts because she couldn’t stand the thought of coming home and dealing with her damaged son. Michael was sick with grief, exhausted from crying himself to sleep at night and just plain damn lonely.

Cynthia was available, more than willing to take his mind off things. After the first time, he had told himself it wouldn’t happen again, and it hadn’t, not for a year at least. Michael had work and Tim, and that was all he thought about until one day last spring when Cynthia had mentioned to Gina that her sink was leaking.

“Go fix it for her,” Gina had told Michael. “Phil’s gone all the time. The poor thing doesn’t have anybody to look out for her.”

He wasn’t in love with Cynthia and Michael wasn’t stupid enough to think she had those kinds of feelings for him. At the ripe old age of forty, he had learned that a woman who was eager to go down on you every time she saw you wasn’t in love-she was looking for something. Maybe Cynthia liked the thrill of banging Michael in Phil’s bed. Maybe she liked the idea of seeing Gina out the kitchen window and knowing she was taking something that belonged to another woman. Michael couldn’t let himself consider her motivations. He knew his own well enough. For those fifteen or twenty minutes he spent next door, his mind went blank and he wasn’t thinking about paying the specialists or making the mortgage or the phone call from the credit card company asking when they could expect some money. Michael was just thinking about Cynthia’s perfect little mouth and his own pleasure.

She would want something someday, though. He wasn’t so stupid that he didn’t at least know that.

“Yo, Mike,” Leo called, rapping his knuckles on Michael’s desk. “Get your head out of your ass.”

“What’s going on?” Michael asked, sitting back in his chair. The station was empty but for the two of them, Greer locked behind his office door with the shades drawn.

Michael indicated the closed door. “He jerking off in there again?”

“Got some Lurch-looking freak from the GBI with him.”

“Why?” Michael asked, but he knew why. Last night, Greer had said he was going to call in help on this one, and the next step up the ladder was the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“He don’t consult with me,” Leo said, sitting on the edge of Michael’s desk, scattering papers in the process. He did this all the time, no matter how many warnings Michael gave him.

Leo asked, “You get in trouble with the wife last night?”

“No,” Michael lied, letting his eyes travel around the squad room. The place was depressing and dark, the wall of windows looking out at the Home Depot across the street thick with grime that blocked out the morning sun. City

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