Southern Fried

an excerpt

Chapter One

Fresh Baked Biscuits

Psst. Hey, hey you up there. Yep, you, you looking down all confused like. I know we're not supposed to talk, you and me, but, heck, if I'm gonna be in it up to my ears, might as well take as many innocent bystanders right along with me, right? Not that you look all that innocent, mind you, but still.

Anyway, the shit already hit the fan – fuck it, fans, plural – and damn if I didn't leave my shit-smock back in New York. Who knew it would come in handy, right? I mean, funerals are sad and all, but they're not supposed to be friggin' deadly. Least not for those of us still around to witness them, I mean. Granny, on the other hand, well now, it couldn't have been more deadly for her, I suppose. Still, from what those nice people down at the mortuary told me, she was the prettiest corpse you ever laid eyes on, which, considering she was ninety when she kicked that old proverbial bucket, that's really saying something. Heck, they said that by the time they were done with her she didn't look a day over sixty. Kind of bitter irony, I suppose: looking your best and never getting a chance to see it. Though with Granny, I wouldn't put it past her. She was probably hovering over the service the entire time.

"Wait a darn minute," I bet she was hollering over to that angel, Gabriel. "Yeah, yeah, I see your damn light; just hold your horses. Gotta find out what these folks really thought of me."

Truth was, it wasn't a whole hell of a lot. People respected her, for sure, but love is such a strong word. And so is hate. Oh, I certainly loved her, of course, but she was my granny. Only family I ever really had. But she was more of an acquired taste. Sort of like escargot. I mean, you can cover it up with rich sauces and charge a pretty penny for it, but when it comes right down to it, you're still just eating a bunch of snails. That was Granny, all right: a bit of a slug with one damn fine, pretty shell.

Sorry, Granny, but I'm not telling this nice person anything they couldn't just as easily find out for themselves. I mean, you just had to listen to the scuttlebutt outside the funeral home if you wanted to get yourself an earful. Not that they weren't trying to keep it from me, her only living relative and supposed heir to her fortune, though. Except I heard it just the same. Loud and clear.

Wait, wait. You caught that supposed heir, huh? Well, and rightly so. See, I assumed everything was coming to me, too. Like I said, we were all each other had, in terms of blood. My parents, my mom being Granny's only daughter, see, both of them were killed in a car accident when I was just a baby. No other family from what I'd been told. No aunts or uncles, maybe some distant cousins nobody ever talked about. No one sending Christmas cards who wasn't on the payroll, though. So the estate should've come to me. Lock, stock, and barrel.

Smoking barrel, as it turned out.

Cue the doom and gloom music.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. I mean, you have to be wondering why this is the first time I'd been back home in nearly ten years, right? Well, that was Granny's doing, too. Come to think of it, everything was Granny's doing. Always was. And, based on the reading of her will, would be for quite some time to come.

"Nothing for you down here, Trip," she told me, way back when, a week shy of my eighteenth birthday as she packed me up and shipped me off, first and last time she ever stepped foot inside an airport. "Just me and a bunch of pissy servants out in the middle of nowhere. Best for you to go up North, get yourself a decent education."

Not that I had a choice, really. Once she made up her mind, that was all she wrote. Besides, she was right. Granny lived deep, deep inside the South Carolina low country, and that's about as deep as a fellow can get, the nearest neighbor a good several miles away down a barely paved road. More alligators than people in those parts. Still, it was the first time I'd been away, and I was pretty near terrified. And the North? Granny was a die-hard southerner. Most I heard about the North was that it was full of people who talked too loud, too fast, and ate with their mouths open. Meaning, about all I could picture were folks with really strong jaws. Plus, there wasn't a Baptist in the bunch. Least not her kind of Baptist. But, like I said, that's what she wanted for me and that's what I got. A kiss and a hug and a wallet full of cash, and I was on my merry way.

New York City.

And, man, did I ever take a bite out of that apple. Sucked it dry, seeds and all. Two college degrees, a handful of ex boyfriends, and a closet full of Marc Jacobs later, and, wham, you got yourself the man standing before you today. All traces of the South were wiped clean the hell away. Mostly. Which is why, getting off that plane in Savannah, I felt like a fish out of water. Catfish, if I had my way. Southern fried.

Makes your mouth water, doesn't it?

Anyway, not like me and Granny didn't see each other in all that time. She'd get her chauffeur to drive her up to Atlanta, fly me down, meet me at the Peachtree Hotel, get us a couple of suites overlooking the city. She'd take me shopping, catch me up on her antics, and try to pry me for mine. Though good luck with that, right? Would've put her in her grave way before her ninetieth birthday, let me tell you. A boy can antic the hell on out in New York City. Antic enough to leak on over to New Jersey, for that matter. Suffice it to say, Granny got the watered down version. Buckets of water, really.

Oh, she knew I was gay, and all. Would've taken a whole ocean to water that little tidbit down. And let me tell you, there'd still be some flame left over. Still, the Southern Baptist in her got put on the back burner when it came to the gay stuff. Granny was a veritable fag hag when she wanted to be, in fact. Dragged me to more than my share of gay bars in Midtown Atlanta. Queen of the ball, she was. Queen of the queens of the ball, to be exact.

But that was the side of Granny only I ever got to see, when she let her hair down, kicked up her heels. Orthopedic though they were. Back at the mansion, and, yes, it was as antebellum as Tara ever was, she was a prim and proper and very, very bible-toting-southern lady: hair in a bun, blouse buttoned up to her neck, lips pursed, eyes steely gray. The woman put the fear of God into you, she did. Me included, most times.

And, man, was it ever hard to go back there, what with her gone. Place was soulless. All shell, the snail now in nothing but plain old wood. I gulped, standing on the porch, a trail of sweat bee-lining down my face, luggage off to the side. Then I rang the bell, I Wish I Was in Dixie gonging from within as I took a deep breath, the fragrant smell of magnolia blossoms wafting languidly up my nostrils, with jasmine close behind.

"Old times there are not forgotten," I sang, tapping my foot as the door creaked on open.

"Trip, that you?" came the familiar voice, her head poking out, a smile spreading wide across her dark, round face.

My smile instantly matched hers. "Pearl?" I managed, my heart very nearly bursting at the seams.

The door continued moving open. "Who else would it be, boy?"

She held out her arms to me, rolls of fat dangling down, swinging like a pendulum. I ran in and gave her a hug, face buried in layers of cotton and breast. She smelled like fresh cut corn and okra, a splash of vanilla with a dash of Kentucky bourbon. She smelled, in fact, like my childhood. Her arms closed in tight, the hug like a vice as a tear streamed down her cheek before tickling my forehead.

"You're looking good, Pearl," I managed, voice muffled.

She laughed. "All you seeing is titty, boy," she chided, slapping me on the shoulder.

"Well, could be worse," I retorted, backing up an inch. "You could be much taller and I could be much shorter."

She paused, letting that image splash across her brain. Then she laughed and smacked me twice as hard. "You're a foul talking boy, Trip Jackson. Who done taught you how to talk that way?" She winked and led me inside.

"My lips are sealed," I replied, closing the door behind me, the smell of magnolia replaced by Pine Sol, jasmine by fresh baked biscuits. "You got strawberry jam to go with those?" I asked, head craning from side to side, taking it all in after being away for so very long.

"With butter and honey," she told me, grabbing my hand and leading me inside the belly of the beast, not a stick of furniture moved in well over a decade, and all of it clean as a whistle, not a speck of dust to be found. Pearl saw me staring and nodded. "She's gone in body only, sugar. I swear, I think she's still around watching me like she always did. Making sure I keep it just like she likes it. Fussy old biddy."

I laughed, despite myself. "That any way to talk about the dead, Pearl?"

We walked into the kitchen, the yeasty aroma so intoxicating it very nearly made me hard in my jeans. Then she replied to my question. "Trust me, boy, that's saying it nicely." She moved to the oven and removed the tray of biscuits, flaky and perfect, just a smidgen of brown around the edges. She cut one open for me, a puff of steam rising up, before she smeared a slab of butter on top, a swirl of honey, a glob of jam over it all. Then she served it to me on Granny's favorite china, a glass of whole milk set to the side.

I smiled wide. "It's a miracle her heart didn't go out long before now," I remarked, taking in Lord only knew how much cholesterol and fat. Gleefully. It went down smooth as silk, blocking several arteries along its murderous path.

Pearl returned my smile with one of her own, big and white against a sea of honey-colored brown. "Boy, it's a miracle her liver didn't go out long before that. Only reason she died was because we plum ran out of that Jack Daniels of hers." She made the sign of the cross over her chest. "God rest her soul."

"And bless her liver, too," I added, mimicking the gesture.


She joined me at the kitchen table, two biscuits to my one. "Funeral's tomorrow, huh?" I asked, almost in a whisper. She merely nodded. "Hard to believe she's gone." Again the nod, half a biscuit downed. "Then what happens, Pearl?" I looked at her like I did when I was a little boy and I broke something, something Granny was going to be awfully pissed about me breaking. Pearl always knew the right thing to say to comfort me. Sadly, I wasn't a boy any longer, much as I felt like one right at that moment.

She swallowed and then gulped. "Her attorney is in London. Can't get back until a couple of days from now. He's got the will in a safe up in Charleston and then there'll be a reading as soon as he retrieves it and brings it on down here. That what you meant by then what happens?" she asked, in between another hearty bite.

I swallowed too, but not because I had a thick slab of biscuit gliding down my throat. "I suppose. I mean, it is a pretty big estate, huh?"

She craned her head this way and that, multiple chins sloshing about as she started in on biscuit number two. "I think that's what you'd call a gross understatement, Trip." She laughed, crumbs flying to and fro from between lips so thick they'd make Mick Jagger jealous.

See, in terms of money, Granny was rich as Rockefeller and twice as ornery. My family had always been rich, going back to the Civil War. Rich from cotton. Fields and fields of it. All spared from Grant's torch. Marched right on past us and decided on Atlanta instead. Thank goodness. Anyway, the house stayed put, every last white column and stick of silver of it, all of it passed down, down, down. Stopping dead in its tracks with me, I supposed. There's that bitter irony again, right? Last living relative is queer as a three dollar bill, which, needless to say, they didn't have in confederate money. The genes were staying put in my, well, jeans, so to speak. Still, I'd never laid eyes on Granny's will before. The inheritance was all assumption on my part, and would be until the lawyer arrived.

I finished my biscuit and drank my milk. It went down cold and satisfying. Then I washed my plate and glass and turned again to Pearl. "Mind if I go and have a look around?" I asked. "Been a long while."

She shrugged. "Suit yourself, boy. Place'll be all yours soon enough, I reckon." She smiled, her eyes softening. "I missed you, Trip," she added.

I moved in and placed a warm, wet kiss on her cheek. "Same here, Pearl. Same here."

And then I excused myself and started my tour. So strange to be back after so long a time. And, yet, it felt like I hadn't left at all, because Granny never, ever moved anything or bought anything new. The furniture had been around long before any of us where even glimmers in our rebel ancestors' cotton-pickin' minds. Still, it did my heart good to run my hand across the smooth, wooden banister, to sit on the sofa, to touch the lace that draped over it. It was like feeling my past. Her past, too, I suppose. Generations of pasts all piled high.

I stared at her portrait over the mantelpiece. It was Granny when she was in her thirties. Less dour, if only by a hair. There was a scowl on her face as she stared down at me, as if to say, get your filthy jeans off my sofa, boy. In other words, I jumped up and off. "I was done sitting there anyway," I said to the painting, turning away as I stuck my tongue out, just in case she really was hanging around up there.

I walked back into the hallway, staring up the winding staircase, massive chandelier hanging high overhead, dripping with crystals, ancestral portraits arranged along the side of the wall, older as you made your way up. I touched the picture of my mom and dad. She was pregnant with me, smiling big and broad. I echoed her smile as I made my way past, instinctively heading for my old room.

The door creaked open. Granny never oiled it. Said she liked knowing when I was up to no good, which was often enough. My room, like the rest of the mansion, was just as I'd left it. It was all teenage boy, posters on the wall, glee club trophies, debate plaques, comic books neatly stacked. Nerdy chic, I called it. I sighed as I hopped on the bed, smaller than I remembered it to be. Ironically, my bedroom in New York wasn't any bigger, despite my staggering rent.

I stood up and walked to the dresser, staring at the pictures, me when I was a teenager, Granny still old, barely a meager smile if any at all. I touched her face behind the glass, a chill riding shotgun down my back. "Hope you're in a better place, Granny," I whispered, then realized that where she had been wasn't too shabby. Not by a long shot. I giggled at the thought. Then my eye caught the light twinkling from outside.

I moved to the window and stared down, the pool off to the corner of the yard, the sweeping lawn cascading over and down, trimmed with magnolias and loblolly pines, water oaks, Spanish moss hanging down off the branches like grayish green locks of unkempt hair. A white egret took flight off the lake in the rear of the property. "Fuck it, Granny; you were in a damn fine place already." Again I laughed, once more noticing the sunlight as it reflected off the pool. Only this time I spotted movement, as well.

It was hard to see him from my vantage point, too far down and off to the side. Still, it was a man, shirtless, tan arms, his body rife with hair. Then I saw the fluid motion of a net swiping the top of the water, retrieving leaves and debris. That was my job as a kid, but now the hired help's. I gulped when he came into view, at the sight of his broad hairy chest, etched belly, love trail disappearing into tight work slacks. Handsome fella, super tan, short hair, graying at the sides. Early forties with the body of a twenty year old's. My jeans bulged at the sight of him.

"Who are you, I wonder?" I asked, aloud, craning my neck over, cheek against the cool glass, trying and failing for a better shot of him. "Better view from Granny's sewing room," I added, with a snap of my fingers. "That'll look straight down on to him."

I left my bedroom and hot-footed it across the hall and around the corner, flinging open the sewing room door. I stopped, dead in my tracks. "Oh, uh, fuck, sorry," I yelped, frozen to the spot. As was he. He had his pants around his ankles, hand at mid-stroke. Obviously, whoever this guy was, he'd had the same thought as I did. "You, uh, you want to put that away?"

His face went beet red, then an even deeper crimson. "Come in, quick, before Pearl hears us." I jumped inside and shut the door quietly behind me. "She doesn't like the help in the house," he informed, reaching for his shorts and then stuffing his rather fetching stiffy inside. Dude was my age, or near about, shorter than me by several inches, cute as all get out, with eyes a startling blue, blue as that pool outside, of the sky on a hot August day. I gazed out the window at what he'd been staring at. He followed my eyes downward. "Jake," he told me.

"Jake," I echoed, with a nod, my heart beating hummingbird-fast. "And you are?"

He laughed, nervously, his zipper rising up, shorts now buttoned. "Zebulon. But everyone calls me Zeb. I take care of the horses." His eyes stayed locked on mine, boring down deep, a smile wide on his tanned face, cheeks sprinkled with a day's growth of hair. "And you are?"

I gave him the quick run down. He'd heard of me, of course, then apologized again, pleading with me not to tell Pearl. As if, I thought. She was scarier than Granny when she wanted to be. And she usually wanted to be. Besides, I loved having the upper hand. "Does Jake know you're watching him?" I asked, an inch closer now, then two, both of us staring longingly down at him.

"I reckon not, not if I want to live to tell about it," came the reply, hand pushing down at his still hard prick, now sadly encased in denim. "Promise not to tell?"

I grinned, that upper hand quickly put into play. "But Pearl doesn't want you in the house," I said, all smiles, again staring down as Jake emptied the net, his chest flexing, biceps massive, sweat trickling down between his bulging pecs, which looked like boulders after a morning rain. "Not smart to go against Pearl's wishes. I learned that the hard way." Emphasis on the hard.

He gulped, eyes wide. Like a deer caught in the headlights. "Oh, come on now; I was just having me some fun. Nobody needs to know nothin'." His smile made a forced return, nervous if not downright adorable. My heart went thump, thump, thump inside my chest.

I paused for effect, hand rubbing my chin as I pretended to think it over. "I suppose so," I relented. "Fun is fun. Too bad I spoiled yours, though." Now it my turn to stare, drilling home the point. "I mean, you should always finish what you start, right? Granny always told me that. Nothing worse than a job half-finished."

"Nuh uh," he replied, nearly breathless at what I was implying. "I mean, by all accounts, I do work for you now, but I, uh, I couldn't."

By all accounts, he was probably right. The thought, not to mention the close proximity to him, made my dick throb. "Well then, Zeb, I insist." I pointed to his shorts, nodding and smiling as I did so. When he didn't move, I unbuttoned them for him. Again he locked eyes with me, followed by another gulp, sweat glistening off his smooth forehead. Then he stared down, eyeing my hand as it grabbed a hold of the zipper for a tug, his bush coming into view, curly, black, trimmed. "Kick your boots off," I told him. He did as I asked. They landed with a dull thud off to the side. Then I pulled down his shorts, his cock springing out, arcing to the side, the wide head dripping, shimmering in the light that poured in through the window. He lifted his feet up and kicked the shorts to the side, as well. My hands then held the bottom of his t-shirt, which I lifted up in one fluid jerk. He raised his arms and the shirt came off, leaving him in nothing but his sweat socks. His taught chest raised and lowered, hard tummy in sync as he rapidly inhaled and exhaled. "Come on now, be quick about it," I told him. "Before Pearl comes on up and finds you in here."

Slowly, he gave his dick a stroke, a tug, balls swaying, legs trembling a bit. "What are you gonna be doing, Trip?" he squeaked out.

"Good question," I replied, reaching for a chair, which I leaned against the wall, placing it beneath the window. "You watch Jake down below; I watch you. Seems fair enough. Now, please put one foot up on the chair, Zeb, face to the glass."

Again he did as I asked, leg up, hand stroking as he stared at Jake, who was still busy with the pool, clueless as to our shenanigans. I stood behind him and crouched down, face to glorious ass, his cheeks parted a bit, two mounds of alabaster with a line of fine hair down the crack, balls swaying on the other side of things. "You ever see Jake like this?" I asked, fingers stroking down his crack. Zeb jumped, but remained in place, spitting down into his hand now as he jacked away.

"Jake likes the ladies, Trip. Doesn't give me the time of day. Better to, uh, to admire him from afar, I suppose."

I unzipped my fly and whipped out my prick, which was hard as granite by then, eager for release. I started a nice, easy stroke on it as I tickled Zeb's hole, fingers running rings around the soft halo of hair. "He does give good afar," I agreed, spitting into both my hands, lubing up my dick and then his hole.

Zeb pushed out his ass for me. "Yessir, that he does." He moaned as a spit-slick finger wormed its way inside of him. Boy was tight as a drum, too, sucking me in like a Hoover.

"Who knows," I said, sliding my finger in and up and back, wiggling around inside of him as the come rose steadily from my balls. "Maybe some day you'll get to see the up close and personal side."

He groaned at the thought, body trembling as I picked up the pace on his ass and on my cock, staring up between his legs as he worked his pole, fist moving lightning fast now. "M… maybe," he said, followed by a grunt, and then another, his cock shooting, thick gobs of spunk that splashed against the wall before dripping down. My own load flew out a second later, landing on the carpet beneath the chair, both of us struggling to catch our breaths as we milked out every last drop, my finger gliding out of his ass as I stood up.

He dropped his leg off the chair and turned, dick still steely stiff and dripping, the sweat making its way down his chest. He held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Trip," he said, with a laugh, the sound like a babbling brook to my ears, like water running over mossy rocks.

"Pleasure was all mine, Zeb," I replied, rocking his hand in mind.

He stared down at our two withering dicks. "Well now, not all yours." He laughed and stared up at me, those eyes of his like lasers. "You were never gonna tell Pearl on me, were you?"

I leaned in and brushed my lips against his. Then I stuffed my dick back inside my jeans. "She scares me, too, Zeb," I said, the kiss full-on now, his lips soft as down, a rush of tingles sparkling across my back. "Scares me like the dickens." I gave his dickens a grab, and with a final kiss, excused myself. Because he was right about one thing: if Pearl found us like this, we'd both be dead meat.

"See you around, Trip," he said, with a wink and a nod.

I turned again, taking him in, his body compact and perfect, socks up to his knees, smile dazzling on his endearing face, dick now dangling. Good enough to eat. Like home cooking. Southern-style. "Hope so, Zeb," I said, with a wave as I left the room, head craning left and right, making sure the coast was clear.

Thankfully, it was. Then I stared up to the ceiling, shrugging, just in case Granny was watching. "Didn't you ever hire any ugly people, Granny?" I whispered, walking back down the hall.

Oh, I know what you're thinking now. Taking advantage of a poor, misbegotten youth. Shame on you, Trip Jackson. Shame on you. But, truth be told, it was no piece of cake growing up gay in the South. In fact, it was downright scary. Granny, after all, couldn't protect me outside the mansion; I had to cover my own damn tracks most of the time. That is to say, all the time. And having sex, gay sex, wasn't in the cards for me back then. Too risky when everyone knew your business and was all too happy to blab about it. So, you see, that fling with Zeb was me just finally getting a shot at sewing some wild oats. And that was a sewing room back there, after all. Go figure.

Anyway, no harm, no foul. Just some much needed relief from what was still yet to come. I had me a dreaded funeral to go to, you know. And then the reading of the will. And then, well, I was going to have to play that one by ear. One step at a time, I figured, one step at a time. And damn if I didn't have some big shoes to fill for those steps. Again, orthopedic though they were.

Then, sure enough, I rounded the bend and ran smack into some more big shoes, easily size twelve. "Jeeves!" I hollered, frightened like a little bunny rabbit.

"Trip!" he hollered back, hand reaching for his chest. "Make some noise next time, please; you're likely to scare a person half to death." He stared down at me, menacingly. "And please don't call me Jeeves; you know how I hate that."

I laughed, feeling the teenager in my well up. "All butlers are called Jeeves, Jeeves."

"Unless they're called Walter, Trip," he said, with a frown, eyes cast downward. He'd aged poorly. Ten years looked more like twenty. Then again, ten years in Granny's hire probably felt more like fifty. But he was, truth be told, still ruggedly handsome.

"You don't look like a Walter, Jeeves," I told him, smart-mouthed as always. "Besides, even Granny called you Jeeves."

He sighed and straightened out his vest. "Your grandmother called me many things, Trip; Jeeves was better than most of them by far. Still, my checks said Walter, and that was all that mattered." He squinted at me, scratching his jowly chin. "You've grown."

I couldn't help but laugh, which is something people rarely did around him. "Ten years will do that to a person, Jeeves. You're looking well, yourself." Which wasn't exactly true. The compliment was just my southern manners poking on through. "Pearl's cooking is keeping you healthy, I see."

He snickered, which was creepy. "Pearl's cooking is to be avoided at all costs, Trip. Doctor's orders." He patted his belly, also creepy. "That woman refuses to cook in anything other than lard, the milk is always whole, and butter is astoundingly plentiful. It's a miracle your grandmother stayed so thin." Undeniable, to be sure. Probably due to her cast-iron will. Plus, she flat out refused to gain any weight. Hated going clothes shopping. I shuddered at the very thought. "She was a fine woman, your grandmother," he quickly added, more for my benefit, I was sure. The brunt of her ill-humor generally fell on him, you see.

"Thank you, Jeeves," I replied, avoiding eye contact. "Thank you for caring for her all these many years."

"Thirty, to be exact, sir," he corrected. "Her will, I'm sure, will reflect that." Unavoidably, our eyes met at the word will. His gaze was like ice, the comment leaving me arctic-cold, and rightfully so. Still, I chose to ignore it, despite its hanging in the air like the moss hung from the trees outside. Tenaciously, that is.

"I'm sure it will," I managed, stepping around him and then past. "Good to see you," I added, quickly heading in the direction opposite to his, just like I had done as a child. Age had made him no less easy to be around. Creepy, as I said. It bears repeating. He nodded as I went by, barely registering my existence, much as he did throughout my childhood. He was Granny's butler, her chauffeur, not mine, of course. Pearl attended to me when Granny couldn't, which was most of the time. And thank the Lord almighty for that. Granny, after all, had about as much maternal instinct as a water snake, of which we already had plenty of in the lake out back.

When he was out of sight, I stopped in place and breathed again, staring down over the railing into the greeting room. I'd done this so often as child, watching my grandmother attend to her various guests. See, Granny stood at the pinnacle of the social circle, even at her age. Our family name assured that much. And they always dropped by to pay their respects, our neighbors and their neighbors in turn, a smile and a wave up at me as I stared down. I waved back if I liked them. More often than not, I just slunk into the shadows, where a good little sissy boy belonged. Pardon my bitterness. Like I said, it wasn't easy, mansion or no mansion, butler and chauffeur and cook and pool boy and stable boy or not.

Or maid, for that matter.

"Hello, may I help you?" she asked, awakening me from my reverie, causing me to jump in place.

"Oh, uh, sorry," I blurted out. "I'm, uh, Trip. Mary Jackson's grandson."

She smiled and nodded. "Betty," I was told. She was a woman in her early thirties, if the dim overhead light was any indication, dressed entirely in black, a feather duster in her hand. Pale white, stick thin, hair in a tight bun. Granny's type of maid, to be sure. "You look like your pictures," she told me, her features softening once she realized who I was. "Though I suppose you would, right?"

I smiled, too, nodding, as well. "Which pictures?" I asked, aware of only the boyhood ones in my bedroom; and ten years out I barely looked like that person any longer.

Her smile broadened. She was pretty, in a stiff sort of way. Then she led me down the hall, up the last remaining flight of stairs. I knew where we were headed. A feeling of dread suddenly overcame me. Still, I followed. She opened the ancient oak door, the sunlight from within temporarily blinding me. We walked into Granny's bedroom, the silence nearly deafening, the room lifeless, missing its sole occupant.

I spotted the pictures in question almost immediately. I walked inside and over to a low dresser. Six photos in six silver frames, all of me, most from the last several years, taken on various vacations and sent to Granny. My heart swelled, a tear ready to break free. I laughed rather than cried. It was easier that way, all things considered. "Yep, that's me, all right."

She moved in and stood to my side. "Miss Jackson talked of you often," she practically whispered, as if we were in a church. "She was very proud of you."

"Huh," I managed. "I was proud of her, too, I suppose. It wasn't easy being Mary Jackson. Took a lot of work." I held up a frame, the photo of me in England, arms up wide as I stood on London Bridge, the Thames gray beneath me. "How long have you worked here?" I asked. I couldn't remember Granny ever mentioning her. Then again, it wasn't like Granny to talk about the help, period. Not even Pearl, unless I asked.

She paused, thinking about it. "Five years, I suppose. Best job I ever had, too."

I laughed, despite it all. "I'm not about to walk in and fire anybody, Betty." Though the thought did suddenly form in my addled head. What would happen to all of them now that Granny was gone?

Her shoulders relaxed and she allowed the briefest of smiles. "No, it's fine working here, really. I mean, your Granny, she, she could be…"

"Difficult?" And that was putting it nicely.

"Difficult," she agreed. "Though she treated me well. I've not had it easy, you see. And she took me in and gave me a job. Hard to come by good work around these parts, so I was grateful. See, I had nothing before this. Less than that."

My smile made a triumphant return. It was good to hear that Granny was appreciated. I supposed I rarely told her so myself. Chalk it up to the ignorance of youth. In truth, she gave her time and money to so many causes, but mostly she did it on the down-low. In other words, this news from Betty was no surprise. And it made me miss Granny all the more. I wished I had just five more minutes with her, to tell her how much I too appreciated her. Things could've been so different for me when my parents died. As it was, I had a good life, and still do, all thanks to her. "She was a special woman," I said, reverently.

Betty smiled. "That's a much better word than difficult, I think."

I looked around the room, at the canopy bed, her mother's mother's, if memory served correct. Granny's housecoat hung over the edge. I walked over and lifted it up, her familiar floral perfume filling my nostrils, a flood of memories washing over my brain all at once. "Nah," I said. "Granny would've liked difficult. Always preferred to call a spade a spade. Besides, I think she took some pride in her, well, her demeanor. Nobody, pardon my French, screwed with Granny."

Betty's laughter flew out of her pursed lips, like a dam that suddenly burst. "No, Trip. That's for sure. Not and lived to tell about it."

I nodded. She wasn't speaking out of turn. Again, I looked around. All was as it has been the last time I was in the room, just before she shipped me off. Though something was missing, something strangely not where it should've been. Anything else I might've overlooked, but not this. "Her jewelry box is gone," I said, not as an accusation, just a statement of fact. "It's not on her nightstand."

Betty's laughter abruptly stopped, the thin lips returning, a nervous tic lifting up her eyebrow. "I'm sure it's around here somewhere. Maybe it got moved when she was, when she was taken away. For safe keeping, I mean. I'll ask Walter."

"Jeeves." I couldn't help but correct her.

"He hates being called that," she told me.

"Which is why I call him that."

She shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable looking. I had a suspicion that she knew where the jewelry box had up and vanished to. It was one of Granny's prized possessions. Four generations of jewelry never left her sight for very long. I'd frequently told her to put it all in a safe, but she said she preferred to have it nearby. Now it was missing. Granny, I was certain, was rolling over in her grave, in a manner of speaking, since she didn't, in fact, have one just yet. I cringed at the thought.

"If that will be all, Trip, I have work to do," she said, rather formally.

"Of course, Betty," I told her. "And thanks for showing me the pictures."

She nodded, curtly, and quickly left me alone. I sat on the bed, shoulders hunched over. I'd been home barely over an hour and just look at all the mischief I'd gotten myself into. What on earth would the next several days hold? And was I strong enough to handle it? After all, I was no Granny.

I stared up at the canopy and wagged my finger up to her. If up was in fact where she was. "Well, at least it's never boring around here." It was then I spotted it, wedged into the groove between the wood and the fabric. I stood on the bed, usually a big no-no, and retrieved it. It was a ripped piece of paper, a corner piece, blank. Pink. It gave off a strange smell. Fragrant. "Granny's stationary," I said, pocketing the fragment. I looked around, but that was all I saw.

And I didn't have time to look any further. "What on earth are you doing up there, boy?" It was Pearl, arms akimbo, a nasty glower on her face. "Get off your granny's bed this instant." I hopped down. "What're you doing up there anyway?" she asked, staring up at where the paper had been wedged.

"I, uh, nothing, Pearl. I saw a spider's web and wanted to brush it off," I lied.

She sneered. "Nonsense, boy. Ain't no spider's web up there. Your granny would've had a fit. Now get." She swatted my rump. "Go get washed up; dinner will be ready soon."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, suddenly back to being a teenager all over again. "What are we having?"

The smile returned to her face. "Fried chicken, turnip greens, and candied yams."

And then my smile joined hers. "All my favorites. You remembered!" I ran in and gave her a hug, more for my benefit than hers. I needed one right about then.

She patted my back. "As if I'd forget, boy. What, you think I'm an old woman, not remembering something as important as that?"

I looked up at her. "You look even younger than the last time I saw you, Pearl."

She snickered. "Boy, if your eyes weren't so green, I'd swear you were full of shit." She pushed me away and winked. "Now go get washed up before I lose my last bit of patience."

I ran out of the room, hollering over my shoulder, "Lost it years ago, Pearl. Years ago."

I heard her laugh as I took the stairs two at a time, running into the bathroom at the end of the hall. It was bigger than my own back home by double, the shower and the tub separate, with a window overlooking the stables. I stared down and spotted Zeb grooming one of the mares. Even from a distance he was adorable, a determined look on his face as he brushed her down, her flanks trembling as he put his back into it. He turned, wiping the sweat off his brow, and noticed me, then waved. I waved in return, my prick growing hard at the very sight of him. Like we'd know each other for ages.

I got undressed, then hopped in the shower. The water felt great after such a stressful day. Returning to ones youth, after all, can be, uh, taxing. Not to mention, that looming funeral, well, loomed. I know, that's a lot of fretting, but give me a break; I'd suddenly been reorphaned and was just barely holding my shit together. Though it seemed like I was to have some bit of help with that.

I heard the door creak open and then click shut. "Pearl?" I asked, head tilted up beneath the spray of water.

He opened the curtain, smiling big and wide and bright. "Guess again."

My smile matched his. "You smell like horse, Zeb," I told him. "I think you could use a shower."

He stripped off his t-shirt. "Then I'm in the right place."

I stood with my back against the tile, dick making an upward climb. He kicked off his boots and slid out of his shorts and socks. Naked and just as hard as me, he got in and closed the curtain behind him. I put my hands on his shoulders. "I don't think the lord of the manor is supposed to sleep with the stable boy."

He winked and pressed his chest into mine. "Who's sleeping?" His lips met mine, water dripping down over our faces, our tongues colliding, his hands wrapped around my waist, rigid cock to rigid cock. I felt his hand reaching for something behind me, the soap, I realized. He pulled his face an inch away, and added, "Besides, I hear I'm quite good at cleaning the animals around here."

He grabbed my hands and placed them over my head, sapphire blue eyes locked on tight with mine as he lathered me up, head to toe, white bubbles covering up my budding summer tan. Last, but certainly not least, because, come on, he cleans horses for a living – hint, hint – he grabbed a hold of my dick with his soapy hand, a million volts of adrenalin shooting straight up my back as he mashed his mouth into mine. I sighed, exhaling down his throat. Sex and death. A heady mixture to be sure, and one that I gladly gave in to.

So, with my fist happily stroking his hefty schlong, and his working the come up from my balls for a second time that day, I temporarily forgot the miserable circumstances that brought us together. Yes, again, we'll call that the ignorance of youth. But then, who else could come twice in practically an hour?

Which is just what we did, both of us moaning and groaning, the sound ricocheting around the tiled room, swirling in my ears like a swarm of hornets as his load splattered on my lathered belly, mine on his trembling thighs and buckling knees, our faces so close together it was impossible to tell where he ended and I began. He collapsed into me, cheek on my shoulder as he fought to catch his breath. "You made a mess," I whispered into his ear.

He laughed, wrapping his hands around me and pulling me in. "Then thank goodness we're in the shower already."

My hands found his ass, my finger gently swirling around his puckered hole. "Are you bucking for a raise, Zeb?"

Again he laughed. "Did you say bucking or fucking?"

Well, suffice it to say, the witty repartee went on for quite some time. For a stable boy, he had a rather nice sense of humor. A rather nice everything, really. But once the lather got washed down the drain, reality set in. The funeral was tomorrow. And then Granny really would be out of my life forever. Meaning, my youthful ignorance was fast waning, right along with my lengthy boner.

In any case, Zeb and I toweled off and he hot-footed it out of the house. He wasn't kidding when he implied that Pearl would skin him alive if she found him in the mansion. And it wasn't something I wanted to witness either. I'd seen her do coons and crocs, deer and doves, and that was plenty enough for me, thank you kindly.

Dinner, however, wasn't any of those things; it was fried chicken, the foul purchased at the local Piggly Wiggly. So, in this instance, I was spared. Mouth watering, I sat at the kitchen table and greedily breathed in all the familiar aromas, my belly gurgling in anticipation. New York was full of fabulous restaurants, but none of them could hold a candle to Pearl's cooking. Not by a country mile. "I'm so hungry I could eat with a Yankee," I said, using one of Granny's colorful expressions.

Pearl turned and smiled. "You are a Yankee, Trip. Ten years makes it official."

I moved my head from side to side. "Nuh uh. You can take the boy out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the boy."

And then she sighed, turning back to her work, plating our meals. "And you ain't no boy no more, neither." She turned and set our meals down on the table, then put a folded piece of paper to the side of my plate.

"What's that?" I asked, my heart suddenly racing.

She sat down and looked at me. "The lawyer's office called. That there's the list of us who's expected at the reading of the will the day after tomorrow."

I lifted the paper up and unfolded it, a pit forming in my stomach where once a joyous hunger had been. "Any surprises?" I thought to ask before I read what she'd written down.

Pearl scratched her chin, pausing to think before she replied. "Surprises?" she said. "Not rightly sure, seeing as I don't know what's been left to them. I mean, your granny was a lot of things, Trip."

"A lot," I interrupted.

"But deep on down to the roots, she was a fine woman. Took care of those that took care of her."

"Meaning, everyone is on this list?"

"Meaning that, yes." I read down the length of the paper as she recited if from memory. "There's you, of course. Me, of course, otherwise you'd never live to hear the end of it. Jeeves, listed as Walter, of course. Then the not so of courses. Betty, the maid, Jake, the pool man, Roy, the gardener, Zeb the stable boy, and Stella, the handy, uh, man."

"The handyman's name is Stella?" I couldn't help but ask.

She laughed, her jowls shaking as she did so. "Well now, boy, just you wait until you meet Stella, then you'll understand. Now let's dig in; food's gettin' cold."

"Wait," I said, my eyes landing on one more name at the very bottom of the list. "Who's this Beau Pellingham? Never heard of him before. Does he work here too?"

She shrugged. "Beats the hell out of me. Surely not that I can recall. Guess we'll find out soon enough, though."

I shrugged as well, that pit in my belly swelling. But Pearl was right, we'd just have to wait and see who he was. Then she reached out to hold my hand. I grabbed on to hers. We bowed our heads, eyes closed good and tight. "Dear Lord," she said, beginning our grace, "we thank you for the food we are about to eat. And we thank you for bringing old friends home and even older friends up to heaven with you. Please forgive her, Lord; she meant well."

"Amen," I said, squelching a laugh. Then I looked over at Pearl. "Granny didn't do anything she didn't mean to do, you know. Well or not."

She smiled. "Trust me, I know. Anyway, he knows that already, doesn't he? I was just hedging us some bets."

"Amen," I repeated, already eagerly lifting up a drumstick to my mouth.

It was hot and crisp and fried to perfection. Colonel Sanders had nothing on Pearl. The chicken was moist, cooked with tender loving care. The greens were both bitter and hot, spicy hot, smothered with some secret sauce that burned a hole through your tongue, the fire doused with iced tea that had been brewing all day in the sun. The yams were home grown, sweet and candied, with extra heaping spoonfuls of brown sugar. A plate of biscuits sat to the side, dripping with butter and honey. "Hot damn," I couldn't help but groan, in between hearty mouthfuls.

She smiled, lips wrapped around a thigh. "You got that right, boy."

Ten minutes later, we had both cleaned our plates, not a wayward crumb to be found. Though I did, of course, save some room. Peach pie was quickly proffered, topped with homemade whipped cream, steam rising up as I cut into it. "I should've come home sooner," I said, slapping down a slab onto my plate.

Pearl did the same. "But you didn't, boy, did you?"

I set my fork down and looked up at her, a frown suddenly forming on both our faces. "She wouldn't let me, Pearl," I explained. "I tried, believe me, I did. But she preferred to meet me in Atlanta or Savannah, Charleston or Hilton Head. Anywhere she could get driven to in a day's time. Then it was a vacation for both of us. Me being home, she said, took all the fun out it because she'd still have to work, as she called it." I again reached out and held Pearl's hand. "And you know there was no arguing with Granny. Would've had better luck with this piece of pie."

Her smile returned, however half-heartedly. "Pie's too good to argue with, Trip; just go ahead and eat it. Least you're home now, and that's all that counts."

Which was true, though it didn't make me feel any less guilty. Pearl had been at the mansion since I was a baby, hired to clean and cook and take care of me, mostly the latter as it turned out. Meaning, she was owed more than just my weak apology.

Finished with our meals, I excused myself and went to my room, belly so full it felt ready to burst. I got out of my clothes and slipped into my pajamas, then hopped into bed, the list again folded opened and on my lap. With the news of Granny's passing, I hadn't given much thought to the people that worked for her, for the mansion itself, to the will and all it entailed. I was a Jackson, like Granny was, but that's where the similarities ended. For better or worse, Granny made me into a Yankee. Odd but true. And a gay Yankee at that. What did that mean for all our futures? Or had Granny taken care of that as well? Guess, I'd have to wait and see. No use putting the cart in front of the horse just yet.

And speaking of horses, their handler was sneaking into my room at that very moment, a smile on his face, a plate in his hand.

"Pearl left me a snack," he said, by way of greeting, gently closing the door behind him.

I folded the paper and sat up, spotting the biscuits he was holding out for me. "Pearl's snacks can make a grown man weep," I whispered, making room on the bed for him.

He hopped in, snuggling next to me, good and tight. "Thank goodness I ain't no grown man just yet, then. Shame to get these biscuits all wet." He grabbed one and set to work. Reluctantly, so did I. Well, maybe not reluctantly. After all, I wasn't full grown just yet, either. And there was always room for one of Pearl's biscuits.

I put my arm around him and he slid into my crook, head on my shoulder, both of us contentedly chewing away. "You going to the funeral tomorrow, Zeb?" I asked, hopefully.

He laughed, despite the direness of the question. "Your granny would haunt me until the day I die if I didn't, Trip. Woman was vengeful in life; in death, Lord only knows what she'd be like."

I nodded and laughed right along with him, setting the plate on the nightstand. "Yep," I said, sinking into my down pillow as he rolled over, his hand on my chest, body soft and warm against mine. "You have a point."

His hand moved south, landing playfully on my crotch. "So do you, Trip. So do you."