Painting in autumn was a mistake. I now realized that, but it was too late to stop. The wind kept sending dead leaves into the newly-painted fence, giving it a festive look. I had to stop every few minutes to peel them off the drying white paint. The temperature was better than the dead heat of summer. The cooler weather in late October kept the paint from becoming glue in fifteen minutes. I just wish I would have thought about the leaves.

My wife, Carrie, had trained my temperament to withstand the assault from things like the leaves. Years ago I would have thrown up my hands and screamed at God. Today, I just continued painting and peeling. It was tedious, but I still accomplished the job. If Carrie had survived, she would have thought of the leaves before I started painting and talked me into waiting until spring. She was the one with common sense. When she passed, most of my sense went with her.

“Find the solution. Don’t double the problem,” Carrie would always say. Normally, I would bite back at a person who made such a statement to me. Carrie always followed it with the most delicious kiss. How could a man stay mad with a woman like that? I was putty in her hands and she molded me into a gentleman.

I adjusted my ear plugs and increased the volume as “Stairway to Heaven” began to pipe through the little wires. The song still motivated me after all these years. Today’s music just didn’t have any heart. There were few tunes that measured up to classic rock. Most just sounded like regurgitated boy or girl band Disney drivel. Whatever happened to good old arena encore songs? My painting speed increased with the tempo of the song. I found myself mouthing the words, reminding myself not to sing out loud. People would pay to not hear me sing.

My wife and I had lived in this dump of a house for the twenty-five years of our marriage. I had stayed, more out of habit than anything else, for three years after her death. It was home. Friends had tried to get me to move into the city or somewhere nicer. I could certainly afford it. It was Carrie who became attached. She always had a strong sentimental link to the place. It was our first big purchase and she loved it as much as she loved me. I loved her and tolerated the house. It was a money pit for such a small home. Still, it was the last piece of her I had. I guess I was a bit sentimental myself.

I think I felt, more than heard, the crash. Zeppelin had hit the crescendo so I questioned my senses as I turned slowly to look at the back of the house. The upper window to the family room was missing half the glass. The break formed jagged teeth surrounding a foot-wide hole in the bottom left corner. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted feet running in the neighbors’ yard. I only caught a glimpse of the young legs through the slates in the fence before they disappeared around the far side of the house. My to-do list just got longer.

I pulled out the ear buds and stood up, looking over the four-foot fence. The neighbors’ yard was now empty and I saw more leaves blow into my freshly-painted fence. I held back the desire to throw the paint brush and kick the fence. Carrie’s tolerance stilled my temper. I took a deep breath and knelt down to finish the fence slat I was working on. I ordered my thoughts and figured I would finish the slat, put up the paint, find something to cover the hole in the house and then speak with the neighbors. I liked order in my brain. It may not be the best order, but the organization made my irritation easier to bear. The fence would have to wait another day.

I hadn’t met the neighbors. They had moved in a couple of months ago when I was at work. They were never outside at the same time I was. I had seen two boys and I think I spotted the mother unloading groceries once. Carrie had been the socialite. She would have had their whole history in a matter of hours. Without her, I was lucky to know the neighbors’ names after a year. The boys seemed to be in middle school, somewhere around the preteen age. The mother was maybe in her thirties. It was difficult to tell since I had never seen them up close.

I finished the slat and put the lid on the paint. I wrapped the brush in a plastic bag, hoping it would remain wet. The paint was more of a stain and clean up was a pain in the ass. I usually threw out a cheap brush instead of trying to save a good one. As long as I got back to painting in the next few days, the brush would be ready to go. I hated leaving the job undone. I would almost prefer to not start a task rather than leave it unfinished. Alas, the broken window was calling my name. I peeled a few more leaves off the fresh paint and moved the paint supplies to the garage.

I found a few pieces of cardboard and covered them with a garbage bag. Using duct tape and my waterproofed cardboard, I sealed the hole in the window from normal weather. I found a blue baseball in the family room. It had also broken a small photo frame that had been resting on an end table. It was a picture of a smiling Carrie before she had gotten ill. Luckily, only the frame was damaged and the photo was unharmed. It was a small blessing since I had so few photos of Carrie.

Picking up the glass challenged my temper again. I sliced my hand by moving it too quickly. The cut started between the thumb and index finger, leading half an inch toward the center of the palm. One of those injuries you know will take a long time to heal because of its location. I fisted a Kleenex to stem the blood flow as I finished cleaning the glass more carefully with my good hand. At least the cut wasn’t too deep. More blood than pain. I ran a vacuum through the room to make sure I found all the glass. I would have to make sure the replacement glass was tempered.

I dislike uncomfortable conversations. I don’t avoid them; I just dislike them. They had a way of ruining everyone’s day. It would have been a lot easier if the kids had just owned up to the window and saved us all from a crappy conversation. Once I had the bleeding stopped, I headed over to the neighbors with the blue baseball. Their house was built around the same time as mine. Somewhere around the 1970s. It was a small ranch with wood siding that had been painted a few too many times. They had a nice dark blue door to match the blue shutters that framed the windows.

There was tape over the doorbell indicating it was out of service. I knocked and waited. After a few moments, I knocked a bit louder. I was surprised and a little embarrassed when the door swung open in between one of my louder sets of knocks. A woman in black jeans and a black collared shirt stood at the door with an expression somewhere between exasperated and perturbed. She was barefoot and had a dish towel in her left hand. I placed her at the tail end of her thirties with coarse brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her face showed a bit of the wear and tear of a hard life. She had a large mole just below the left side of her chin. Not that she was ugly, she was just looked like the teller you would avoid if you wanted a nice trip to the bank.

“Hi, I’m Todd Wilkerson from next door,” I introduced myself smiling. I held out my left hand since the right still wanted to bleed a bit.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Wilkerson?” the woman responded while ignoring my hand. I was a bit taken aback by the curt response. I expected her name or at least a return smile. I got a pure business-only look from her. I dropped my hand to my side.

“I think this may belong to one of your sons,” I said, holding up the blue ball. I dropped my smile and mirrored her serious look. This was going to be less than cordial. The woman looked at the ball then back at me.

“It may be. Is there a problem?” she asked. Her face relaxed a little and I could see her shoulders lose some of their rigidness. I relaxed my expression as well.

“It went through my back window. I think it came from your backyard,” I answered trying to soften the blow with a calm tone. Carrie and I were never blessed with kids so I didn’t know how it felt to have someone complain about them. I was sure I would have taken it personally.

“Oh my! I am so sorry,” she stammered, “I thought you were another subdivision Nazi.” She stood away from the door and opened it wider. “Please come in, Todd.” She gave me a hesitant smile which warmed the conversation. I stepped into her front room which was rather sparse. It still had some unpacked boxes in the corner and all the walls were empty.

“I’m Nancy. Nancy Hobart,” she said as I walked into the room. “The last two neighbors who stopped by told me my door was painted an illegal color and the mailbox isn’t to spec. I shouldn’t have been so rude.”

“The new subdivision president is a bit of an ass,” I agreed, “he did get the front entry cleaned up though.” I tried to remain conversational as I handed the ball to Nancy, “I am sure you can get a variance for the door. They just like to see it on paper.” I didn’t want to tell her that the mailbox is a hard limit with those folks. For some reason they wanted all the lawn lights and mailboxes to be exactly the same. It was all rather draconian for such an old neighborhood.

“This looks like Bobby’s,” Nancy admitted as she looked at the baseball. She took a few steps into the hallway and shouted, “Bobby! You and your brother get in here.” I noticed Nancy’s jeans were tight in the waist. She must have gained some weight recently. Black really wasn’t her color either, but I really wasn’t Mr. Fashion myself. I wondered if she knew the tight jeans made her ass look big. I also wondered why she never had the mole removed. She may not be my type, but I was happy she was dealing with the window issue.

Two young boys came slowly around the corner. I assumed they could tell from their mother’s tone that this wouldn’t be something pleasant. Both boys had the same brown hair as Nancy although it looked like it hadn’t been combed in a while. The boys looked meaty, but not fat. The kinds of boys who tended toward the bully side in school.

“Bobby, where do you think Mr. Wilkerson found your ball?” Nancy queried with tight lips. Bobby was obviously the older since he was a full hand taller than his brother.

“I don’t know,” Bobby responded quietly, staring at the ground. His feet were fidgeting back and forth.

“Do you know, Mark?” Nancy addressed the younger boy.

“Bobby threw it,” Mark replied quickly, pointing at his brother. Mark looked a bit panicked that the conversation had moved to him.

“Mark missed it,” Bobby countered.

“You threw it over my head,” Mark battled back.

“That’s enough!” Nancy ended the blame game, “you should have told me as soon as it happened. I want you to apologize to Mr. Wilkerson right now.” I received a chorus of “sorrys” with contrite expressions. It looked like the boys had practiced their puppy-dog eyes their whole lives.

“I accept your apologies,” I said formally. I was successfully holding back a smile. I still remembered making my mistakes at that age. I thought it was good that their mother was making them own up to it.

“Now! I want you both in your rooms thinking about how you’re going to pay for a new window. Off you go!” Nancy said as the boys scampered quickly back down the hall. Her expression softened when she turned back to me. “Let me know how much it costs and I’ll write you a check. I would also like to apologize to Mrs. Wilkerson.”

“My wife passed away three years ago,” I said carefully. “I haven’t called a window company yet, but I suspect the glass shouldn’t be too much.” Nancy’s eyes changed. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. It was almost like she was looking inside me instead of at me. I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. I gestured toward the door. “I’ll let you know the cost as soon as I can.”

“Your hand is bleeding,” Nancy said with a worried expression.

“Just a small cut. It’s in a bad spot so it’s going to take some time to heal,” I responded while looking at my hand. I was still slowly moving toward the door.

“Nonsense. You sit down. I have some antiseptic that will take care of that,” Nancy ordered as she headed off to the kitchen. She moved quicker than I could decline so I sat on the couch and waited for her return. I would have preferred to just head home and fist some more Kleenex. I decided to accept her determination instead of being rude.

Nancy returned with a small first aid kit. She pulled up a small wooden chair in front of me and opened the kit. She held out her hand and smiled. “Hand, please,” she instructed. I placed my hand, palm up, in hers. I hoped she didn’t sense the uncomfortableness in the smile I returned to her.

Nancy gently straightened my hand, causing the cut to open and a little blood to flow. She expertly swabbed the blood with a small gauze pad until the bleeding slowed. I suspect she had practiced on her boys many times in the past. She applied a small amount of antiseptic on a clean gauze pad and carefully spread it across the wound. It almost felt like she was caressing my hand and moving slower than necessary.

“I’m sorry to hear about your wife,” Nancy declared softly. I had a formal answer to that statement I had developed over the months following Carrie’s death. I dropped it for something much shorter.

“Thank you,” I said abruptly. I really didn’t want to discuss anything more with Nancy.

“Any kids?” Nancy asked.

“No, we weren’t blessed with any,” I answered reluctantly. I was probably imagining things, but I thought I felt her pulling my hand closer to her. I wasn’t interested her in any way. In fact, she was kind of the opposite of the woman I would choose if I was playing the field, which I wasn’t. Being alone never scared me and no one would ever come close to Carrie. I tried to slowly retrieve my hand.

“Let me just tape that so it doesn’t get infected,” Nancy urged and pulled my hand closer. She put on a fresh gauze pad and softly secured it with surgical tape. I had to admit it was a job well done. “You should probably let this breath during the night, but keep it covered during the day,” she instructed, “that should speed the healing.” I muttered a “thank you” while looking at the wrapping.

A loud whistle came from a teapot in the kitchen. Nancy grabbed the bloody gauze pads and the first aid kit. “Give me a second to get that,” she said and quickly headed toward the kitchen. I didn’t act quickly enough to begin leaving and thought it rude to yell a goodbye to someone who just gave me first aid. I remained seated and tried to plan a graceful exit

I was dismayed to see Nancy return a few moments later with a tea tray. “Nancy, thank you for fixing my hand, but I don’t think I can stay,” I said with a little embarrassment. I hated to exit like that, but tea and Nancy didn’t really appeal to me.

“I was kind of hoping you would explain how to get a variance,” Nancy pleaded while she set the tea service down on the coffee table. I had opened my mouth about her blue door. If I left now I would feel like an unneighborly jerk the rest of the day. ‘Find the solution. Don’t double the problem,’ I reminded myself. I really wished Carrie was here.

“I guess I can spare a few more minutes,” I responded with a weak smile. What was five or ten minutes out of my day? It wasn’t like I would return to the fence tonight. I relaxed into the seat and decided to be neighborly.

“Good,” Nancy smiled, “this is some herbal tea of my own creation. Don’t be afraid to tell me if you hate it.” She poured the steaming greenish-brown tea into two cups. “Do you take sugar or cream?” she asked. I didn’t really drink tea. I take my coffee black so I figured that would work out well.

“No, plain is fine,” I answered while I reached for the cup and saucer. Nancy pulled the other cup and saucer to her lap.

“So, Todd, how do these variances work?” Nancy asked. I took a sip of the tea to be polite. I fully expected to dislike it, but pretend to enjoy. A bitter, woodsy flavor washed over my tongue. That was followed by what could only be described as the taste of raw sewage. I resisted the urge to spit it back into the cup, and, against my better judgment, swallowed. It took all my willpower to suppress a disgusted expression.

“The association has a form you fill out,” I responded without gagging, “you list what you intend to do or, in your case, what was done. As long as it isn’t something outlandish, they will okay it at the next meeting.” Nancy smiled at my response. It was a prettier smile than I expected. It felt good to help her so I offered more, “I can give Ken, the president, a call and get you a form if you like?”

“That would be wonderful, Todd,” Nancy replied. Her smile grew larger and her face became softer. I absently took another sip of the tea. It wasn’t as offensive as the first sip. The flavor kind of grew on me. I wasn’t sure if it was the herbal blend or the thought that Nancy made it just for me. She was a lot prettier than I had first thought. The way her hair caressed her face was particularly inviting. Without thinking, I drained the cup.

“This tea is really quite good,” I commented. Nancy picked up the teapot and leaned over to refill my cup. She looked so pleased I was enjoying the tea. I couldn’t help but notice a bit of cleavage when she leaned over. I felt a little aroused. She was really a lot more striking than I had first thought. I gave her a genuine smile.

“I’m so glad you liked it, Todd. I made it just for you,” Nancy added. I could have sworn she just pushed her chest out at me. I couldn’t believe she made the tea just for me. When was the last time anyone did something just for me? Nancy was amazing. I wondered what a woman like her would be like in bed. She had the perfect body for sex. Everything about her was just so perfect. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t notice before. Without thinking, I drained my cup again.

“Nancy, I was going to replace the windows in my house anyway,” I said, trying to impress her with my nonchalance, “there is no need for you to pay for the window.” Nancy rose from her chair gracefully and slid next to me on the couch. I was surprised how much I wanted her there next to me. I have never had such a beautiful woman pay this kind of attention to me. I felt her hand on my knee as she leaned close.

“I love it when a man takes care of me,” Nancy whispered in my ear and kissed my cheek. I felt an erection tighten in my pants. Her hand slowly moved up my thigh. “I simply find it irresistible.” I was being seduced by Aphrodite. This was what I was born for. I vowed then that Nancy would want for nothing for the rest of her life. I felt so lucky she wanted me.

“You are so beautiful,” I admitted as I put my arm around her to pull he close. Nancy raised her ruby lips to mine and kissed me hard. I felt her hand cover the erection that had grown in my pants. I couldn’t believe how hot this woman was. Her lips parted and I felt a tentative tongue tickle along my teeth. I tangled my tongue with hers and our passion increased. She was stroking my hard-on through my pants. I could feel the cool wetness of my pre-cum along my leg. She slowly separated from me and rose.

“Come, let me please you,” Nancy said seductively as she held out her hand. I stood up quickly, forgetting about the tea cup and saucer that fell to the carpet. I cringed, thinking it would displease her. She calmed me with her glorious smile. “Leave it. You can clean the room later.” Of course I could; there was plenty of time left in the day. I carefully grasped her hand and followed her to the bedroom. The anticipation of what was about to happen had me on pins and needles. Watching her cute ass sway back and forth as it led the way was very enticing.