Melinda Louise Gold stood upright and proud on the side of the driveway, peering out over the perfectly manicured lawn. Not one blade of grass was longer than another, not a sneaky dandelion was in sight. In front of her she saw order and structure.
“Perfect,” she sighed with a smile.
She had to admit, Frank could cut a good lawn. There wasn’t much else to be said for him, but she hadn’t married him for his personal qualities, had she? That was more to do with Nanna than anything, and—
Mustn’t dwell on that, she chided herself.
His lawn-cutting abilities were admired by all the neighbors. He was meticulous, cutting in perfect lines, and trimming the rose bushes just so, the hedges clean. Unfortunately, Frank hadn’t passed on the trait to their son Patrick. As a result, Melinda absolutely never allowed Patrick to get on the mower. The last time she had asked him to mow the lawn, it was cut so close that it was bald in spots. Her eyes still filled with tears of rage when she thought about it.
But that would not happen again. No sir-ee Bob! The only thing that concerned her about the lawn now was how to keep Ruth Goins’ dog from relieving himself on the perfect grass. She discussed this with Ruth—the old woman hadn’t even had the decency to put in her teeth as they spoke— but Ruth said that Gayhound had taken a liking to Melinda’s lawn. She’d made it clear to Melinda that she would be darned if she would keep him from his bliss.
His bliss? Why, the very idea of dogs feeling bliss! They peed on fire hydrants and licked themselves. And what was with that name? Gayhound? As if an animal could be gay. Preposterous! Gay penguins and dogs, it was all an agenda. Her own mother had assured her of this, and she would know. Nanna was a member of Focus on the Family, after all.
Thankfully, the country was being led by a righteous man now. He was good with God, possibly even chosen. Melinda had to admit that it was strange he had been struck by a bolt of lightning in the White House Rose Garden. And it was stranger still that it happened on live TV as he was giving a national address on the evils of gay marriage. But add to all that the fact that it happened on a seemingly sunny day, and Melinda was convinced that it was surely a sign. The president had survived. She had convinced herself, as had Nanna, that the bolt was nothing more than God’s index finger giving an overzealous love tap.
She fussed at her shiny blonde hair (that was not mussed) and straightened out the wrinkles from her elegant gray pant suit (that was not wrinkled), satisfied once again by the perfect facade her house presented to the neighborhood. “Look at me!” it shouted every morning.
As she turned to go back into the coolness of her air-conditioned, two-story house with wraparound porch and a patio out back, she caught a glimpse again of the new arrival on Jasper Lane. Her hand involuntarily went to her chest as if she might calm her heart by the touch.
She had heard from Cassie Bloom that his name was James. James Something-or-other. Melinda welcomed new neighbors. Why shouldn’t she? One shouldn’t judge people before meeting them. She knew that; the Bible told her so. But this man, this James, he ran around Jasper Lane half-naked, with no shirt and only a small pair of green shorts! It hardly hid his… male parts!
He was a big man, too. Strong, with large muscles that twitched and flexed as he ran. Why, it was repulsive! Immoral even! A man of such an age—surely in his late twenties—running about in the middle of the day with his chest bouncing and his nip— Melinda couldn’t even think that word! Nipples. She gasped in the realization that she had even thought the word. She had even spelled it in her mind, letter by letter, as she watched the young man approaching with bouncing, sweaty….
No! Melinda, stop!
What should she do? She couldn’t turn and walk away. Surely he had seen her by now. No. She would make her stand and let her feelings be known. It was her neighborhood as well. In fact, it was more hers than his. She had lived in the same house for ten years, for mercy’s sake!
She would put her foot down and tell him to jog wearing something more decent. Maybe he could wear a sweatshirt or a baggy T-shirt that wouldn’t show off his… nipples.
Oh, that word!
As he approached, Melinda smiled pleasantly to show him she was only ever concerned with the welfare of those around her. There were children on this street. Weren’t there? She was sure there were children somewhere. She raised her hand slightly, fingers wiggling with red nails.
“Mrs. Gold,” the young man nodded between heavy breaths. He passed her by quickly and without incident, his feet striking the pavement hard and determined.
“Wait,” she spoke, too low and too late. Her smile faded to a defeated frown.
Next time. Definitely tomorrow,she said to herself as she watched the muscular man’s sweaty back and shoulders push through the humid air. Her hand returned to her chest. She suddenly felt very strange, almost faint. Her heart beat as if it would burst from her rib cage and follow young James Something-or-other of its own accord.
“My heavens!” she declared quietly, trying to banish that nuisance of feeling from her core.
As she watched James run farther down the street to the corner of the tree-lined avenue, a small, ugly blue vehicle rounded the turn. It swerved to the other side of the road as if James were an elephant and the driver was making gosh-golly-darned sure he was going to miss. The car ran up onto a curb and knocked over an empty trash can before correcting and getting back on course. Clearly, the driver was committing the sin of lust.
Melinda shook off her… whatever it was…, and walked back into the house, self-consciously glancing from side to side. Her painted nails played at the top buttons of her pant-suit jacket. Cassie was coming for coffee. She should start getting things ready.
Rick Cooper pulled into the driveway, his heart still pounding from his run-in with the curb. More truthfully, it was the sight of a sweaty, beefy muscle god in tiny green shorts that flustered him. He was still a tad dumbfounded by the experience. If things had gone worse, if he had run into a house instead of trash cans, there would have been serious repercussions. He only had one eye. It would be a clear-cut case to any police officer.
“Ricky, baby!” came a shout from the lawn. Terrence sat in his green lawn chair in the center of the grass, holding a very large margarita in one hand and a very small pink cell phone in the other. “I’ll call you back,” he said quickly to the person on the other end.
“Hey, Terrence,” Rick greeted, as he got out of the rusty blue Festiva.
“Is this all you brought?” Terrence asked, somewhat disappointedly as he approached the vehicle, peering in the backseat. He held his drink like a prized possession, high and out of harm’s way, sunglasses perched on his shaved head.
“I didn’t have much,” Rick answered, numbly. “Most of the stuff was Coby’s.”
“So, he gets everything? The apartment, the dog, the computer? The greedy slut!”
“Yeah, I didn’t buy too much when we were together.” Rick’s reply was simple, nonconfrontational.
“Well, how could you? I mean, he was using everything you made to support his gambling habit,” Terrence explained. “What an ass! And after your accident too.” He shook his head in disdain before taking a gulp from his glass as one hand stayed permanently fixed to his hip.
“Well, it’s over now. All I’ve got are these few boxes of clothes and CDs.”
“We’ll soon fix that, baby!” Terrence grinned. “There are some fabulous places around here to shop.”
Rick could always count on Terrence to know the best shopping venues. Even in college he could smell out a unique shopping experience a mile away. But then, unique never much appealed to Rick.
“I like the shaved look,” Rick said, gesturing to Terrence’s dome.
“Why, thank you, darlin’,” Terrence replied in a faux southern accent. “I like the eye patch. It looks good on you. You can really pull that off.”
“Whatever,” Rick shrugged.
“No, really. Gives you character. It’s sexy.”
“I lost my eye, Terrence,” Rick said. “That’s not sexy.”
“You didn’t lose it. It was taken from you by that bastard of a boyfriend and his gambling debts. And then,” he exclaimed, clearly getting more intoxicated by the minute, “he goes and breaks your glass eye! Who breaks someone’s glass eye! I mean, really! You were living in a damn Tarantino film, my friend.”
Rick laughed dryly. “It’s good to see you, Terrence,” he said, giving his friend a hug. “Thanks for this, for letting me move in. You and David are great friends.”
“Don’t mention it, hon. It’s David’s house, though. I’m just staying here for a bit too. Want a margarita before we unpack you?” David and Terrence had been the best of friends since college, yet they couldn’t have been more different. David was athletic and masculine, Terrence was artistic and a tad feminine. Somehow, though, they connected. There were times in college when Rick had felt like an outsider around the two of them—but then, Rick always felt like an outsider.
“No, thanks,” Rick declined. “What are you doing, drinking so early—and in the yard, no less?”
“David and I have been doing this for the past two weeks. You’re not the only newbie on the street.”
“A big muscle man,” Terrence moaned. “He runs by here every day. Just moved into a house down the street. Yummy! He was in the military.” His eyes lit up with mischief.
“Oh, I think I saw him. Almost caused me to run off the road.”
“Uh-huh,” Terrence said, sipping his drink. “Speaking of you and the road, are you supposed to be driving? Isn’t that dangerous with the whole Cyclops thing going on?”
Rick took a playful swipe at his friend’s cheek. “You’re the dangerous one,” he joked, as best he could.
His attention, though, was immediately drawn to a gray Hummer pulling into the driveway behind his Festiva. The bass thumped loudly, shaking windows down the street before it was silenced.
“Who is this?” he inquired, awestruck by the massive vehicle.
“Hmmm?” Terrence said, as he turned to look at the land yacht. “Oh. It’s just David.”
“David owns a Hummer?”
“Of course not! That’s his boyfriend’s.”
“Ricky!” David’s voice called from behind the passenger-side door as it opened. He struggled to get out of the beast without falling awkwardly to the ground. “My God! Ricky! How are you?” he yelled as he ran to his friend with arms wide.
David had clearly been going to the gym recently. His arms were twice the size they once were. He’d been a wrestler all through high school and college, but he had never looked as swollen.
“I’m good, David. How are you?” Rick smiled.
“Oh, you know.” He shrugged off the question. “I’m so glad you’re going to live with us! And if that Coby or any of his gambling goons tries to come around here, we’ll sic Cliff on them.”
Rick’s question was answered as he saw the owner of the Hummer, a solid man built from muscle and veins, walking toward them in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, both of which were barely able to contain the bulges beneath.
“Rick, this is my boyfriend, Cliff,” David said with pride.
Cliff held out his huge hand with a square-jawed grin. “Hey there, Rick,” he said with a deep baritone of a voice.
“Hi,” Rick replied, taking the giant’s hand. “You’re huge.”
“Eh… it’s the steroids,” Cliff admitted, nonchalantly.
“Oh.” Was that supposed to lessen the wonder?
“Cliff, would you take Rick’s things inside?” David asked.
“You bet,” Cliff said.
He opened the Festiva’s back door, nearly tearing it from its hinges, and got almost the entire lot of clothing and CDs with one muscled embrace. He walked to the house with heavy strides as the three friends watched by the car.
“Where did you find him?” Rick inquired.
“Becky Ridgeworth, down the street,” David answered. “She knows a lot of guys in the film biz.”
“He’s an actor? I think I would remember if I saw him in anything. What has he been in?”
“You haven’t seen him in anything, believe me,” Terrence cut in, taking a break from the margarita. “You don’t watch porn.”
“He’s a porn actor?” Rick glanced at David with eyebrows raised. It was as exclamatory as he ever got.
David grinned widely and nodded. “Becky does copywriting for porn studios… on the sly, of course.”
“That’s amazing. I imagine it’s hard to breathe with that much man on top of you during sex, huh?” Rick winked.
“Oh, honey. Cliff’s a bottom,” David corrected.
Rick nearly fell over.
“Are you all right?” Terrence asked.
“Uh, yeah.” Rick steadied himself. “Depth perception,” he said, blaming his one eye. “Screws me up, that’s all.”
Cliff strode back out to the Festiva to retrieve the last bit of luggage. As he leaned into the backseat, Rick watched the muscular, steroid-enhanced ass.
“I’ll have that drink now,” he whispered to Terrence.
“So, did you see?” Melinda asked Cassie Bloom. “Another one of those boys has moved into that house. I just bet there’s a whole gang there. Can you imagine the depravity?”
She sat at her custom kitchen island with a hot cup of expensive coffee in her hand. She insisted on having only the best. So what if it came out of a monkey’s patootie in some African country? She had seen it on Oprah, and if it was good enough for Oprah, it was good enough for her.
“I don’t know what decent folk are to do.”
“Melinda,” Cassie offered. “It’s not the end of the world.” Cassie’s voice was a powerful thing, yet every word she spoke held a hint of sarcasm. “I rather like the Boys.” She had referred to her young gay neighbors as ‘the Boys’ ever since she had met them. She had felt an immediate maternal affection for them.
“Uh-uh. Not me, Cassie,” Melinda defended her position. “The neighborhood is positively going downhill. Why, just today that young man who inherited the Granger place—”
“Yes, James. Well, he came running past my house as naked as the Lord made him!”
Cassie rather enjoyed the new young man’s shirtless jogs, though telling this to Melinda would surely elicit a gasp of horror. “Melinda, darling, I saw him. He was wearing a pair of running shorts. Hardly dangerous.”
There was that sarcasm. How Melinda hated it! And Cassie didn’t seem to be enjoying her coffee either, swirling it with her spoon.
“Barely,” Melinda muttered. She took a drink from her Ten Commandments mug, looking off into space.
Without all her money, which was left to her by a husband who died very mysteriously, Cassie would be nothing more than an immoral woman with short, masculine, blonde hair. But Melinda did love being seen with her. There was clout to the Bloom name all over town. Before his disappearance, Jackson Bloom held a high, secretive government position that paid him very handsomely.
“What are you afraid of, Mel?” Cassie mused, taking in the steam from her beverage.
“Patrick!” Melinda shot back, as if Cassie should know very well what she was afraid of. “Those boys and their effect on Patrick.”
“He’s still very impressionable, Cassie.” She set her mug down with a thunk. “I know my own son. I walked into the living room just yesterday, and there he was sitting there watching a soap opera, and it had two boys kissing. Two boys, Cassie!” Her eyes widened as if seeing the image for the first time. “I don’t mind him watching those shows, but I draw the line when they start advertising… homosexuals,” she whispered.
Cassie tried her best to stifle a laugh. “So, you’re fine with him watching the greed, envy, adultery, and murder on those shows, as long as they don’t have… homosexuals,” she mimicked. She smiled, shaking her head.
“We’re Christians, Cassie—good Christians. That’s all I’m saying.” She sipped from her mug, clearly perturbed and hurt. How could Cassie not understand? She had a son, after all.
Cassie leaned over and took her hand. “I’m sure your son will be just fine,” she comforted. Her eyes glanced to the wooden crucifix clock on the wall. Christ, hanging around, wasting time.
“How’s your son?” Melinda asked.
“Jason’s fine,” Cassie answered, caught off guard.
“Are you on speaking terms again? He doesn’t still blame you for his father’s… disappearance, does he?” Melinda pried.
“Dear God,” Cassie sighed, eyes still on the cross. “We’ll be fine, Melinda. Thanks for your concern, though.”
“Well, what kind of friend would I be?” Her smile was a shade too pleasant.
The doorbell rang, freeing Cassie of the conversation. Melinda rose, still smiling, and walked daintily out of the kitchen to the front door.
“Howdy!” Cassie heard Becky Ridgeworth’s booming voice.
Cassie grinned. Melinda was wildly disapproving of Becky. She did, after all, have dealings in that icky business of pornography.
“Becky,” Cassie could hear Melinda groan. “What a nice surprise. Won’t you come in?”
“Don’t worry, Melinda,” Becky said. “I’m just here for Cassie. Cassie!” she hollered over Melinda.
“Coming!” Cassie responded from the kitchen. She set down her mug, flipped off the crucifix, and walked from the room.
“Becky!” She said, smiling. They embraced as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.
“We need to add someone to the list for the party,” Becky said excitedly. She was a round little woman in her mid-thirties, her hair always tied back in a ponytail, and her cheeks always red. Cassie liked it that Becky never put on any airs. While most women in the neighborhood strutted about trying to mask their own shortcomings, Becky let them all hang out. She was perfectly at home in sweats and worn tennis shoes.
“Party?” Melinda inquired, staring from one to the other.
“Who?” Cassie asked Becky, ignoring the question posed by Melinda.
“Rick Cooper,” Becky explained. “He’s the one with the eye patch who’s moving in with Terrence and David today. He’s a cutie!”
“Eye patch, huh?” Cassie gleamed. “Now, there’s got to be an interesting story there.”
“Party?” Melinda reiterated, emphasis in her expression.
“Well… yes, dear,” Cassie finally answered, moving out the door to stand by Becky.
“You wouldn’t want to come,” Becky assured her.
“I might!” Melinda said with exasperation at the presumptuous and chubby woman.
Becky shrugged. “Ask her then,” she said to Cassie.
“All right then.” Cassie folded her arms. “Melinda, would you like to attend my gay porn party?”
Melinda’s face dropped to the floor and Becky broke into laughter.
“I told you,” Becky gasped in between guffaws.
“It won’t be for a few weeks, but you’re more than welcome to stop by if you want,” Cassie said, touching Melinda’s arm. “I’ll talk to you later, hon.”
Melinda watched as the two women walked down her driveway, Becky still giggling hysterically.
“Why do you even come over here?” Becky asked, as they walked down the sidewalk. “You know what she says about you, right?”
“That I murdered Jackson. Yes, I know.”
“Amusement, my dear,” Cassie explained. “And the fact that, deep down inside, I think Melinda Gold is just as warped as the rest of us. For God’s sake, she just served me monkey-butt coffee. The woman is damaged.”
She smiled, putting her arm around Becky’s shoulder as they walked.