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Jim could often be rude and intrusive, a hallmark of sorts amongst the neighbors, but Bernie felt that Jim honestly seemed to care about people, at least every once in awhile between bouts of piety, and honestly caring about anything around those parts was perhaps rare, so Bernie took the rebuke in stride. "Thanks Jim," Bernie said earnestly, "I don't know what I could've been thinking." Bernie thought that he should've known better. This was Jim, right?, and Bernie was pretty sure that Jim didn't ever consider women the way Bernie himself did, and not because of Jesus. When Bernie and Sara had first moved in the neighbors had let them in on a little secret: though they didn't have any hard evidence, the neighbors were fairly certain that when Jim did ever have considerations of a sexual nature, that Jim never considered women at all. The neighbors made sure to let Bernie and Sara know that they all felt deeply sorry for the couple and especially for Millie, his wife, because, more than likely, if the neighbors were right—and they had a pretty good feeling about this one—Jim really liked cock, probably even more than he liked Jesus. Of course they hadn't described the situation in such indelicate fashion, but Bernie had known what they were getting at. We've got it on pretty good authority that Jim, God love him, is... you know... they said, and then one of them made a lilting hand motion while the other peeked out a wry smile. And how could he possibly have a healthy relationship with his wife? Relationship fitness being paramount to personal happiness—and the neighbors were all, always, very concerned about each other's happiness—everyone knew that despite the best efforts of the Lord our God, Jim must be an unhappy creature. And, Millie, poor Millie, well, she must be the most miserable person under the sun. Of course, all of this information though aptly communicated was never flat-out spoken, as amongst the neighbors circumlocution was appreciated as the highest of arts.
"For the record, I was just pointing out that she was beautiful, Jim," Bernie said. "It was nothing lascivious."
"I didn't notice," Jim said. "You know what people are saying about Chip though?" Bernie appreciated that Jim's righteousness had not tempered his penchant for rumor-mongering.
"What's that?" Bernie asked.
"I hate to gossip," Jim said. "But word has it that he's gay."
"Jim, amigo," Bernie said, choking on a sip of beer, "Women are filing in and out of his house at all hours."
"A cover up," Jim said. "That's what people are saying. They say every woman on his arm is just a 'beard.' You know what that is? I'd never heard of it before. 'The beard.' You ever hear of that?"
Jim's wife waved at him from afar.
"I know what it is Jim," Bernie said. "I've heard tell."
Jim didn't wave back. The hole in the ground opened a little more.
"I thought the only rumor about Chip was that he was some sort of nutso serial killer," Bernie continued. "You know, murdering all those women he carries on with and then eating their brains with a spoon or poaching their eyeballs in his martinis and burying the bodies in his basement. That's what some people are saying, anyway."
"So you think he's a homicidal maniac, but not gay?" Jim asked.
"Exactly," Bernie said.
Jim raised an eyebrow and the corner of his mouth turned up with one of his cheeks puffing out; it was a look that said, "If only..."
Truth be told, Bernie was an expert of sorts on maniacs. He had three kids, 6 and 9 and 11. And just then they tore past Bernie and Jim, weaving in between the grill and the lawn chair. Bernie's eldest, a boy, allowed the two smaller children to flank him—no doubt simply toying with his quarry before coming in for the inevitable kill—and then stopped suddenly, making a quick u-turn. The boy walked slowly toward Bernie and hugged him meekly. Bernie was nonplussed. Emotional contact was not his eldest's métier. The kid composed some sort of atrocious smile on his face, and then, finally, punched Bernie hard in the gut. Bernie wheezed and doubled over, but said nothing to the boy. The punch had hurt, certainly, but Bernie had felt an odd sense of relief at the boy's act of violence. There was something to be said for predictable fulfillment of expectations, after all. Jim tousled the boy's fine golden hair and Bernie collected himself and thought, Now that's the little son of a bitch I know. And then the little son of a bitch took off again, never so much as making eye contact with either of them.
"Good kid you've got there," Jim said. Bernie grunted and rubbed his stomach. The boy left an invisible vapor trail of high-manufacture white brick bar-soap and bleached cotton and impending failure.
Sara loved the boy and cared for him vigorously. She thought he was an angel. Bernie knew better. The boy was a budding young sociopath; Bernie thought that anyone with an objective eye should've been able to see this. The boy, after all, had killed someone last winter. He'd thrown a snowball and the snowball had hit a car and the car had swerved and hit a patch of ice and the car went careening into a light pole, sending the young driver to her doom. One might wonder how the boy was still walking around free. But accidents happen, yes? And lawyers intervene. Money, in monthly installments, gets transferred from checking account to checking account. Bernie, for his part, was amazed not that the child hadn't been punished by the law, but that the neighbors had seemed to have given the boy a free pass. He couldn't have been aiming at the car. He's a good boy. The neighbors had said. He must feel so guilty. He'll probably never forgive himself. Just then Bernie noticed that his eldest had abandoned the chase of his siblings and was crouched behind a bush, wielding a croquet mallet, clandestinely stalking a neighborhood cat. Bernie opened another beer and the hole in the ground sang darkly.
Millie waved again at her husband, this time with their two kids gathered around her. Jim jammed his grill fork through a hotdog and lifted it up and put it in his mouth. He bit down hard. "These are done, I think," he said, finally waiving back to Millie and his kids. Odd thing about Jim and his family, if they had survived that day (which neither he nor any of the people there that day would), four months from then, in the late fall on a cloudy day when it was cool and the trees had stilled, Jim would've sat at his chair in his cramped little office and written a note on his personalized memo pad and folded it in thirds and sealed it up and stuck it in his topmost desk drawer and gathered up a few more things than normal at the end of the day and put them in his briefcase and gone home and eaten dinner with that family of his, and late that night, when it was perfectly dark and silent and his children and wife were tucked in, fast asleep, Jim would've removed a gun from his dresser and shot up the house and everyone in it. He would've saved the last bullet for himself. His son would've stirred and run downstairs and fled to the kitchen in an effort to escape through the back door. His son would've been found on the cold tile floor in front of the spattered stainless steel oven with bullet wounds in his palms and head; a result of having held his hands in front of his face, defensively, covering his eyes, his father standing in front of him with a gun, unimaginable. The neighbors would've been stunned. They would've never seen it coming. They would've whispered that he'd done what he'd done because of the Whole gay thing, as being gay Probably just tears people all up inside. But sometimes, as in this case, the neighbors were wrong. Jim would've killed his family not because of any issues of sexual proclivity but because Jim would've had an old-fashioned psychotic break, believing he was the second coming and that God his Father was calling him home. It would've said so, right there in his suicide note, the one he would've left in his topmost drawer. "I'm bringing my family home," it would've read. The neighbors would've all speculated as to just what, exactly, that had meant. Unfortunately for the neighbors, after today, they'd never have the opportunity to speculate about anything ever again.