“Vinnie and Bill”

Vinnie and Bill had walked for miles without exchanging a word. It was a hot day. They were both sweating and breathing heavily. They liked to hike into the hills just outside of town on Sunday mornings, thinking of it as a form of mountain climbing, though they seldom had to exert themselves to get to the top. The reward was a panoramic view of the town and countryside, miles and miles of fields and orchards laid out in neat squares and rectangles and the deep woods of their childhood and the hazy blur of the river running out to the horizon. Entering the woods they took the path that led down to the creek where they had gone swimming as boys. Vinnie had brought Nellie there once and had lain with her on the mossy bank and now Bill was marrying her. They passed the big clearing where they’d played baseball at berry- picking time. It must have been a pasture once where farmers grazed their cattle. Vinnie lagged a step or two behind. He had fashioned himself a walking stick from a dead branch and imagined swinging it at Bill’s head.

Bill turned around and said, “You wanna go back?”

“Let’s go for a swim first,” Vinnie said.

The path was strewn with pine needles. It was cooler in the woods. There was a point at which you could cross the creek on slippery rocks, so that they could leave their clothes on the other side and then come up to the highway when they finished swimming and get onto the tractor path that would take them home. Vinnie had always felt a little thrill when they made the last turn and scrambled down the steep, rocky incline and saw the clear water running its leisurely course though not without debris and the occasional water moccasin transporting itself downstream. Through the trees he saw the cloudless sky and the hot sun blazing through the branches as though it had burned the leaves away.

They stood at the edge of the water and watched it for a while. Then they took off their shoes and socks and rolled up their pants and crossed the creek a little farther down. Bill jumped in first, shouting “Yee-haw!” with great exuberance. Vinnie sat down on the bank and let his feet trail in the water. Then he eased himself in and swam across and back again while Bill treaded water and occasionally disappeared beneath the surface. “That was good,” Bill said when he came out. Vinnie lay on his back drying off. They were alone. Vinnie sucked on a blade of grass and folded his hands behind his head. Bill scaled some rocks across the water. “You gotta get a suit for the wedding,” he said.

“I’ll come as I am,” Vinnie said.

“You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“It isn’t proper.”

Vinnie laughed and said, “Well, fuck me.”

Bill didn’t argue. Usually he deferred to Vinnie, who was older. He just said, “Come on,” in a whiney kind of way. Vinnie felt something turning in his stomach, a sourness and sinking feeling, then heat rising in his head, and had to breathe deliberately to calm himself.

They dressed in silence. Vinnie lit a cigarette, sitting in the shade. The resentment was growing in him now. Bill started scaling rocks again.

“What you throwing those rocks for?” Vinnie said.

“Just fooling around,” Bill said.

“Well, quit that. I can’t hear myself think.”

“What you thinking about?”

“Whatever I want to think about.”

Vinnie threw his cigarette into the water and stood up.

“You ready to go?” Bill said.

“Not just yet.”

Bill threw a few more rocks into the water and then gave it up. He was restless and impatient to leave. Vinnie liked making him wait. “Where you going on your honeymoon?” he said.

“We haven’t decided.”

“Niagara Falls?”

“Maybe.”

“That’s stupid. Everyone goes there. You ought to go to New York and see some shows.”

“I’ll ask Nellie.”

“Does she always tell you what to do?”

“Not always.”

“A man’s got to tell a woman what to do. You have to put them in their place.”

“That isn’t the way it is.”

“You telling me I don’t know how it is?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t.” Vinnie didn’t know himself if he was being serious or just teasing Bill as he did when he was in a certain mood. For a moment he felt affection for him, but it vanished when he thought of Nell and the heat came into his face again and he breathed a little harder and wanted to kill him. The impulse rose and fell in him. He was like a caged animal being goaded with a stick. Now it pushed at him, now it blinded him.

They walked up to the highway and crossed over to the tractor path, which ran through a field of corn. Bill stopped to urinate. Vinnie looked around. They were deep in the field and couldn’t even see the road. Vinnie picked up a rock and came up behind him. He didn’t hesitate. There was nothing to think about. It was like falling through a chute or being carried down a river. He brought down the rock with all his strength. Bill didn’t make a sound when he fell. Vinnie hit him again and again. There was a little puddle of blood forming now under his head. His eyes were open but Vinnie knew he was dead.

He stared at the body for a while. Then he dragged it between the rows of corn and concealed it as best he could. He felt calmer now.

When he got to the house their father said, “Where’s your brother?”

“How should I know?” Vinnie said.

“Didn’t you go walking?”

“No,” Vinnie said.

“Then where can he be?”

“That aint no concern of mine.”

“Have you been fighting?” the father said.

Vinnie didn’t answer him. He turned away and looked out toward the hills and fields. It wouldn’t be long before they found him and then they’d know and the shame of it would outlive him, but he didn’t care. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his chest.

Fred Skolnik

About Fred Skolnik