Justin Billings, aka Mark Brown, awoke to the sounds of a radio playing. “You are listening to KLUV,” the announcer was saying, enthusiastically, “the only thing you need to know about radio!” And probably the only station in the entire hick valley, Justin thought to himself. Anyway, I’ll be long gone from here today, so who cares. He hoped the town had a bus station, or at least a designated place that a bus stopped at. First, though, he would have to call his father and have him wire some money. Of course, his father would want to know what he needed the money for. Justin had already come up with a good cover story for that, last night before falling asleep: Some friends had invited him to visit a friend of theirs in Hicksville-or whatever the name of the town was-then as a joke, had left without him the next morning.
With his plans solid in his mind and confident they would work, he showered, dressed and headed into the dining room.
“Good morning, Mark.” Connie Barber’s tone was polite but cool. Very cool.
Justin pretended not to notice. “What’s for breakfast?” he asked, enthusiastically.
“Oh,” she said, “you mean the meal you slept through this morning? We had that one over two hours ago.” She smiled then, tilting her head to the side. “If you’re still around at noon,” she said, “you’re welcome to join us for lunch.”
Justin stood in irritated silence for a moment. Apparently, his warning of the night before had been forgotten, or disregarded. Figures, he thought. Farmer mentality. Too stupid to even know what was good for them.
“Look,” he said. “I’ll be gone by noon, and I’m hungry now. So, the best thing you could do is fix me something to eat-or did you forget what I said to you and that hick husband of yours last night?”
If he expected her to be cowed, she wasn’t. Neither did she get angry. Folding her arms across her chest, she spoke in polite but final tones. “Lunch is at noon,” she said with no smile on her face and carefully enunciating every word. “If you are still here then, you are welcome to join us. If you have any problem with that, you can discuss it with my husband. He’s in the milking parlor.”
Breathing heavily, Justin turned and walked towards the front door. “You’re going to regret this,” he said as he walked out. “You are really going to regret this.”
Unperturbed, Connie picked up the cordless phone and punched the intercom button. “He’s on the way,” she said after a few seconds, then hung up the phone.
Justin walked towards the parlor, his irritation and anger building by the second. These people needed to have the fear of God put into them, figuratively speaking-and he was about to do just that. For starters, he would deliver a persuasive reminder to the stupid farmer of what he could do to them because of what his father was. If that didn’t get through to him, then perhaps a little physical intimidation would. Nothing serious-just a little shove or two with a warning that things could get worse. The stupid hick had probably never been in a real fight in his life, whereas, he, Justin, had had many of them. And, he was almost as tall as the farmer. If it came right down to it, he decided, he was sure he could take the old guy.
When he walked into the parlor, he found Lloyd wiping off the milk tank.
“Hey, Mark,” the man said.
Justin ignored the friendly greeting. “I guess you didn’t believe me, did you,” he said forcefully as he walked up to Lloyd. “Do you want to lose this entire pathetic excuse for a farm?” he asked, poking the stupid farmer in the chest with his finger. “Because unless you do, you’ll tell that stupid wife of yours to fix-”
In the following days and weeks, Justin would reflect on this moment numerous times, but would not be able to recall exactly what had happened. He would remember saying something to Lloyd Barber about his wife. His next memory was that of being pinned against a wall of the parlor, blood running down his nose, and the farmer’s right hand around his throat so tight that he thought he would pass out an any moment. How he got there, he would never remember. What happened from that point on, however, was very clear.
“Son,” said Lloyd in a strong and measured tone of voice, “you have no idea how lucky you are that I don’t have a temper anymore.”
Justin tried to interrupt with threats, but the only noises coming from his mouth sounded more like gurgles than intelligible speech.
“Oh, excuse me,” Lloyd said, “are you trying to apologize?” He released his hold somewhat on Justin’s throat so the boy could talk.
“You are in trouble now, mister-big trouble,” said Justin, vehemently. “When my father is done with you, you’ll be standing on a street corner with a tin cup in your hand begging for money! And maybe your wife can help you out by-”
With a grunt and a whoosh, the air expelled quickly from Justin’s lungs, his diaphragm paralyzed from the blow it had just endured.
Calmly but with resolve, Lloyd waited until the boy got his wind back. Then placing his left hand on the boys’ throat, he backhanded him hard across the right cheek. No blood was drawn, but the sharp crack and the tears that sprang to the boy’s eyes was evidence of how much the slap must have stung. Before the boy could express rage at the act or ask what the slap had been for, Lloyd caught the boys’ left cheek on his return swing. Then slowly, methodically, he kept up the punishment, first one side, then the other, not violent enough to injure, but hard enough to hurt. The boys’ attempts to protect himself against the stinging slaps were futile as Lloyd merely brushed the boys’ arms aside then quickly followed with another slap.
Justin went through a gauntlet of emotions-from expressing threats and rage to verbally admitting the pain, and finally, to tear-filled pleas to stop. At that point, Lloyd did stop, but he wasn’t through with the boy yet. Without a word, he placed Justin’s hand and wrist in some kind of hold that forced Justin’s arm to stick straight out behind him, then marched him out of the parlor.
“Let me go!” yelled Justin, regaining some of his bravado and anger. “What are you doing? Ow!”
Lloyd forced Justin’s arm a little higher, causing Justin to bend over more to ease the pain. “You have a foul mouth and a foul mind,” he said to Justin, walking him quickly in the direction of the manure pit. “It’s time you got a taste of what you’ve been forcing others to endure for most of your sorry existence.”
Lloyd had to give the boy credit, he decided. Mark, or Justin, remained unrepentant to the end, mouthing obscenity-laced threats about the destruction he would bring down on Lloyd and his wife. Meanwhile, Lloyd had increased his pace so that as they neared the edge of the shallow end of the manure pit, he and the boy were trotting. At the pit’s edge, Lloyd released the boy’s arm and shoved him as hard as he could towards the deep end of the pit.
The boy discovered that cow manure is very slick, especially when one is stumbling and off balance. Sensing that he was not going to regain his balance, he shot both arms out in front of him, hoping to at least keep his head from going under when he fell. Simple mathematics did him in. The distance from his face to his outstretched hands was shorter than the distance from the surface of the manure to the bottom of the pit. When he lost his balance and fell forward, his head went under.
What happened next, he would decide later, was probably the worst experience of his life. When he got his legs under him and was able to stand up, he found that he didn’t dare open his eyes or breath through his nose or mouth. The first thirty seconds or so was spent, not in trying to get out of the soupy mixture of manure, rain water, and other cow manufactured liquids, but in trying to see and breath without ingesting the slimy, smelly substance that covered his face and the rest of his body. Lowering his head as if he were looking straight down enabled him to breathe through his mouth, but wiping at his eyes, even after vigorously shaking his hands about, did little good.
“Turn around and face me,” said the farmer loudly, “and I’ll hose you down with water.”
Justin obeyed. A stream of cold water hit him in the face, then moved over the rest of his body. He realized that Lloyd Barber must have had the water hose ready before hand, just in case. Without protest, Justin stood silently and let the water cleanse most of the stinking liquid from his face and head. “Open your eyes now and come out of the pit,” the farmer said.
Ten silent minutes later, Justin was relatively clean, though he felt soggy from head to toe. The farmer had done a thorough job, even shoving the end of the hose into each of his pants pockets in an effort to clean them out as much as possible.
“Follow me,” Lloyd instructed. He led Justin into a large shed that was partially filled with hay bales. The shed was totally open on all sides with just a roof to protect the hay from the elements. There, laying across one of the hay bales, were clean items of clothing. “Strip down and put those on,” said Lloyd. “There’s no one but me and the wife for miles around, so there’s no worry that someone’s going to see you. The shoes might be a little large, but better that than too small. When you’re finished changing and feel like talking, come into the house. No need to knock.”
Justin nodded in agreement, not speaking. He had been totally humiliated by this man, enough so that all the anger had drained out of him, leaving him in a very somber mood. What had really gotten to him, he decided, was Lloyd Barber’s attitude throughout the entire ordeal. The man had not acted out of anger or revenge. The punishment had been measured, deliberate, and controlled. Afterwards, the man had helped him get clean, even providing him with dry, fresh-smelling clothes.
For a long time, Justin sat on the hay bale, pondering what Lloyd Barber had told him. It’s time you got a taste of what you’ve been forcing others to endure for most of your sorry existence. He knew that he’d been a pain in the butt to a lot of people-but he hadn’t cared, responding with threats and name calling whenever they objected to the way he was acting. Well, he’d finally picked the wrong butt to become a pain in, and had gotten his obnoxiousness shoveled back at him in heaping portions. The Barbers had taken him in, fed him, and provided him with a room for the night. And what had he done in return? Thrown a tantrum when he hadn’t gotten his way, then threatened them with a lawsuit-pretty pathetic now that he thought about it, knowing that his dad would have had a real belly-laugh over that one. He had even called Mrs. Barber an idiot to her husband’s face. It was not the first time his mouth and temper had gotten him into trouble, but it was the first time he could remember that the trouble had led to such extreme consequences. He had, he decided, been skillfully taken apart by man who was doing nothing more than standing up for the honor of his wife. With that thought, he felt a deep shame wash over him. He owed these people an apology, he knew. He regretted that all he had was words to offer them as proof of his sorrow. If they couldn’t accept his words, he decided, then that would be his burden as punishment-a just punishment, in his opinion. And if it came to that, he resolved, he would find a way of convincing them. He had to. Maybe it was his way of atoning for all the other butts he had been a pain in also-he didn’t know. What he knew was that the farmer was right, his life had been a sorry existence. With that final recognition of himself, he arose from his seat on the hay bale and walked slowly towards the house, hoping for the best but resolved to accept a lot less.
He entered the home without knocking. Lloyd and Connie Barber, who were seated at the dining room table, watched him without comment. Feeling lower than the proverbial snake’s belly in a wheel rut, he sat down at the table. Even now, he could see, there was no animosity on their faces. Their look was one of expectancy. Connie even smiled slightly at him, which deepened his shame even more.
“I…” he began, then stopped. Sincere apologies were something he didn’t have much experience with. To his embarrassment, he felt his face warming slightly, and he knew that he was blushing. He forced himself to continue anyway. “I’m sorry for what I’ve done,” he said, quietly and simply. His eyes were going back and forth between them. “If there was some way to prove it to you, I would. But there’s not. I’ve-”
Lloyd brought up his right hand and signaled Justin to stop. “Apology accepted,” he said. At Justin’s surprise, Lloyd and Connie looked at each other in amusement, then turned their attention back on Justin.
“Son,” said Lloyd, not unkindly, “how old are you? Nineteen? Twenty? My wife and I are nearly three times that age-and we’ve certainly seen a lot more of life than you have. What made you think you could intimidate us with threats of a lawsuit?”
Justin’s only reply was to hang his head in embarrassment.
“What’s your name, son?” asked Lloyd. “Your real name, this time.”
“Justin,” replied the boy with no hesitancy. “Justin Billings.”
“Honesty,” said Connie. “That’s a good start, Justin. My husband and I talked to your father yesterday.”
Justin wasn’t surprised. He had left his wallet in his pants pocket-and his dad’s calling card was in the wallet. So of course they had called his father. It was the logical thing to do. With a shake of the head at his stupidity for ever thinking that he had intimidated these good people last night, Justin asked, “Did you tell him about my threat to sue you?”
Lloyd and Connie smiled. “Yes,” said Lloyd, “and after he stopped laughing, he offered to represent us for free if you actually tried it. He also had a very interesting proposition for me.”
Justin’s look became guarded. Knowing his father, it would be something that Justin was not going to like. Justin had first-hand experience with some of the things his dad had tried in a effort to get him to straighten up. None of them had worked-for long, anyway.
“What does he want you to do?” asked Justin.
Lloyd sat back in his chair, studying Justin for a moment. “I’ve been debating all morning whether to tell you or not,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t know if you’ve got the maturity to handle it. Your father told me that you dropped out of high school last year-in your senior year. But what he proposed to me won’t work if I’m dealing with a quitter.” The last word was spoken with more than a little derision.
As Lloyd had intended it to, some of Justin’s anger returned. “Hey wait a minute,” he stated, firmly. “I am not a quitter. Anything I start that I want to finish, I do.”
“Except for high school,” said Lloyd calmly.
“I chose to leave high school,” said Justin, stubbornly. “If I had wanted to finish it, I would have.”
“You chose to quit,” said Lloyd, leaning forward. “You know what?” he added, a slight disgusted tone in his voice, “I’m not even going to waste my time explaining what your father wanted me to do. You’ll just take the coward’s way out and choose not to do it anyway, the same as you chose not to finish high school.”
“Now listen here,” said Justin, angrily. This man was judging him on something that hadn’t even occurred yet. “I-”
“No, you listen here,” Lloyd interrupted. “Your father asked me to hire you, if you can believe that. He even offered to reimburse me for your wages every month. But I need somebody I can depend on, not some self-centered me-me-me type who thinks everything ought to revolve around him.”
Justin stood, leaning across the table, his face less than foot from Lloyd’s. “If I wanted to,” he said, poking himself hard in the chest with his finger, “I could be the best hand you’ve ever had on this place!”
Lloyd’s expression was a study in unimpressed boredom, as he meant it to be. “If and could,'” he said slowly. “Mighty big claim you just made, son. The question is, are you man enough to back it up?”
Justin sat back down, realizing that his mouth had done it to him again. As he looked at Lloyd and Connie, his earlier thoughts in the hay shed came back to him. He had been wishing for some way-other than just words-to prove to them how sorry he was for his actions yesterday. Well, that way had just landed smack in the center of his lap. He lowered his head in thought, considering the possibilities. He knew what would happen if he said no. Lloyd Barber would drive him to town so he could catch a bus for home. Probably give him a little money to help him with the cost of a ticket-because that’s the kind of person Lloyd was. And Mrs. Barber would pack him a lunch, of course, because that’s the kind of person she was. Once home, he would probably fall back into his old ways-carousing around with his old friends, working short periods of time at various low paying jobs, blaming life in general for their troubles, and otherwise wasting time in the pursuit of totally worthless activities. Maybe it was time to grow up a little.
Justin brought his head up. “Are you offering me a job?” he asked.
“Depends,” answered Lloyd.
“On whether you’re serious about backing up that claim of yours.”
“I don’t know anything about farming or milking cows.”
“I’m not looking for knowing-about,” said Lloyd, “just for willing-to.”
It didn’t take Justin long to reach a decision. “I guess it’s about time I started acting like an adult,” he said solemnly. “Mister Barber, I accept your offer.”