Lloyd brought the pipe truck to a stop by the row of twenty-foot aluminum pipes Justin was moving forward to the next watering cycle. The truck was an old International Harvester make, with hinged wooden sides on the bed that could be folded out at about any angle. Besides hauling irrigation pipe in the summer, the truck also doubled as a hay bale hauler for the herd of steers in the winter, and an all-round hauler of whatever needed hauling-which today, was irrigation pipe.
“This should do it for us,” said Lloyd. “We’ll unload half here, and the rest on the other side. No sense walking further than we have to.”
After they got the individual sections connected, they drove to another part of the field and started up the engine that pumped the water through the line. They kept the engine’s rpm’s low until the line was full and all the sprinklers were spitting water, then upped the rpm’s to about 75% of capacity. Justin enjoyed watching the sprinklers jump to life, the water arching out over the field. Tomorrow they would move the pipe line ahead again.
“Lloyd tells me that you’re courting a young lady in town,” said Connie with a smile later that evening at supper.
“Yeah,” answered Justin, “we’re making progress.”
Connie’s smile grew even bigger. “You picked a good one,” she said. “I know Samantha.”
Justin thought for a moment, not wanting to talk about it, yet wanting to tell her everything.
“I’m taking it slow,” he said, seriously.
“Slow, huh?” replied Connie, then chuckled. “You just aren’t giving her a chance, are you.”
“Huh?” Justin asked, confused. “How is taking it slow not giving her a chance?”
Connie smiled knowingly. “You’re going to find out, and sooner than you think. It’s a woman thing, Justin, and you are handling it just right.”
“Okay,” he replied uncertainly, still not sure that he understood.
“Have you ever considered finishing high school?” Lloyd and Justin were on their way to town.
“Yes,” said Justin. “But I’m not ready to go home, yet.”
“Who said anything about going home?” asked Lloyd. “We might be just a hick community in the eyes of you big city folk, but we do have a high school in town. A good one, too. If there’s any preliminary legal stuff that needs to be taken care of before you could register, I’m sure your father would be glad to handle it. Not trying to pressure you, but school begins again in little over a month.”
Justin went through the pretense of giving the idea some thought, but he knew what he was going to do. He could graduate just as well here as if he were home, and he wouldn’t have be far away from Samantha.
“Where do I make my X?” he asked Lloyd, grinning. “I hadn’t thought of going to school here. This solves a big problem for me.”
“I know,” said Lloyd. “Finishing school without leaving your lady fair. I’ll have Connie contact the school tomorrow to find out what we need to do, then I’ll call your father if necessary.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about him being reluctant,” said Justin.
“Didn’t figure so,” said Lloyd. “Do you have an idea of what classes you want to take?”
“Yes,” said Justin dryly and with a straight face. “How to avoid planning and executing escape attempts that border on the pathetic.”
Justin slid the end of the twenty foot aluminum pipe he was carrying into the end of the last pipe he had placed. He looked down the length of the sections, making sure the pipes lined up with the distant landmark he had chosen to aim them at. The hay was becoming fairly tall now-up to his knees, in fact. Another month, according to Lloyd, and it would be waist high. Lloyd had told him that soon, they would be putting on waders when moving the pipe. Justin had thought he was kidding at first, then later realized that walking through just-watered hay made one’s trousers quite soggy in no time. Satisfied that the pipe line was straight, he put the end cap in the pipe he had just placed.
“So much for that,” he said out loud, straightening up. Looking down the dirt road that bordered the field, he saw Lloyd’s truck coming from a distance, a cloud of dust in hot pursuit behind, as if it were trying to beat the truck to where Justin was standing. As the truck got closer, he saw that Lloyd had someone with him. Closer still, and his mouth turned up in a smile.
Samantha. His day had just brightened considerably.
“Look what I found coming up the walk as I was leaving the house to come get you,” said Lloyd. “Some strange critter that I’m not sure what to do with. Figured you’d have an idea.”
“Mr. Barber!” Samantha said in mild shock before bursting out laughing. “Critter, indeed.”
“Why don’t you two head over to the pump and get it fired up, then come back to the house.” Lloyd put the old truck into gear, then looked at his watch. “Figure that’ll take you about 45 minutes, just in time for supper.” Letting the clutch out, he drove slowly down the dirt road.
Justin turned and faced Samantha. “This is a nice surprise,” he said. “What-”
Samantha had the same yearning look on her face as when they had parted last time. Suddenly, she threw her arms around his neck. “Shut up, Billings,” she ordered in a low and quiet tone of voice before giving him the warmest kiss he had ever received in his life. As he wrapped his arms around her, she broke off the kiss and returned his hug, laying her head on his shoulder. After a few seconds, she tightened her hold briefly, then disengaged herself from him.
“I needed that,” she said.
Justin gave her the hint of a smile. “Well, there’s lots more where that came from,” he responded.
“I know,” she replied, “and you’ve been wonderful about not pushing things.”
“The Billing’s axiom,” he said, standing tall and trying his best to sound officious. “Sometimes, less is more.”
As they walked to the irrigation pump, Justin reflected that he was beginning to understand what Mrs. Barber had meant about slow being faster.
“My father says that everyone has baggage,” Samantha told him, simply.
Justin knew what she was talking about, and her remark didn’t surprise him. He had known the topic would come up at some point. He was glad that his quandary about finishing high school had found a solution-and that their relationship was now strong enough for her to see past what he had been to who he was now.
At least, he hoped it was.
“Okay,” he asked, “whose bags do we open first?”
“Yours of course,” said Samantha, happily. “Then I’ll decide if mine gets opened.” After a moment’s hesitation on his part, she playfully punched him on the shoulder. “Come on, Billings,” she said. “Spill the beans and cough up. Time to rat on yourself.”
“Well,” began Justin after a little thought and a sudden flash of inspiration, “it depends on which Justin Billings you’re talking about-the old one or the new one.”
“Humor me,” requested Samantha. “Tell me about both of them, old model first.”
“Okay, the old model,” said Justin. “Let’s see…big mouth. Temper. A lot of fights because of the big mouth and the temper. Never loses a fight, however, which is why I think he never dumped the big mouth and the temper until coming here. In his short life, he managed to become an all-around pain in the collective butt of society. And…oh, yeah…he stupidly dropped out of high school in his senior year. That’s the old model.”
“You’re very good with words.”
“What’s the new model like?”
“The new model comes complete with-TA-DA!-a vastly improved temper, a quieter running mouth, same fighting skills, and…will be going back to school in about a month to finish and get a diploma.”
Samantha slowed her pace slightly. “You’re going back to school in a month?” she asked, hesitantly.
Justin detected a note of hurt in her voice and knew what was bothering her. “Yes,” he replied, quickly. “I’m going to school right here. Lloyd and Connie are making the arrangements.”
Relieved, Samantha wrapped her arms around one of his. “I’m glad-both about you finishing school and doing it here.” She laid her head against his shoulder. “Especially about doing it here. Seniors together. I like that thought.”
“So where’s our young couple?” asked Connie as Lloyd came into the house. She was setting the table a little fancier than usual. But not too fancy, she thought to herself. She didn’t want them to think it was all about them, even though it was. She really liked Samantha McCallen, though the girl had never been in her and Lloyd’s home before.
“They’re starting the irrigation pump, then walking back. Should be here shortly,” he informed her. A sly smile appeared on his face. “Besides, more time together for them can’t hurt my match-making efforts.”
“I thought match-making was a woman’s duty,” laughed Connie.
“Yeah, well, just don’t let the word get out,” said Lloyd in mock sourness. “I wouldn’t want to lose my International Macho Man club card.”
Connie looked at her husband, serious now. “You know,” she said, “when I learned that Justin and Samantha were becoming friends, I was…thrilled. To see Justin make such a dramatic turnaround with his life and now to hook up with someone like Samantha-well…not someone like Samantha, but to hook up with Samantha-”
“I know what you mean,” said Lloyd. “When Justin told me that he had met a girl that first day in town, I knew exactly who he was talking about-don’t know why, but I just knew.” Chuckling, Lloyd continued, “I told him that no one was going to accuse him of aiming too low.”
“Samantha is the finest of girls,” said Connie. “I hope Justin knows that, and appreciates what he can have if he plays it right.”
“I don’t think there’s any problem there,” replied Lloyd slowly. “I get the feeling that he knows very well how fortunate he is. That’s why he’s taking it slow with her and not pushing anything.”
At the sound of the front door opening, Lloyd and Connie ceased talking. Justin and Samantha walked in, disengaging their hands as they entered the house.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Justin upon seeing the table setting. “What’s the occasion?”
“Hi, Samantha,” exclaimed Connie. “Thank you for coming for dinner.”
“Hello, Mrs. Barber,” said Samantha. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“Well, I decided not to wait for Justin to get around to asking you,” said Connie, smiling.
“Yeah,” replied Samantha with an impish smile in Justin’s direction. “He’s a little slow about some things.”
Playing along, Justin looked in Lloyd’s direction. “Mr. Barber,” he said, pleadingly.
Lloyd looked first at Samantha, then at Connie. The odds were two-to-one. “Forget it,” he said, looking back at Justin. “You’re on your own.” Then to everyone, “How’s about we eat now?”
Samantha was suitably impressed after the meal. “That was delicious, Mrs. Barber,” she said. “I mean it. I haven’t had a meal that good in ages. Don’t get me wrong-my mother is a good cook, but this would be a little out of her league.” Turning to Justin, she asked, “Do you eat like this all the time?”
“Not this fancy,” he told her, “but always this good.”
A thought occurred to him. “How are you getting home?” he asked. “It’s dark out, now.”
“My mother is coming to pick me up, which means that you’ll get a chance to meet her.” Pursing her lips in thought, she warned, “Just don’t take what she says too seriously. She means well, but she can be a bit, ah, tactless at times.”
Connie Barber, who knew Samantha’s mother well, smiled at the portrayal. “Very apt description,” she said, chuckling. “Very apt.”
Samantha’s mother laid on the horn, long and heavy, when she arrived.
“Is she mad at you or something?” Justin asked Samantha.
Samantha rolled her eyes. “She does this all the time,” she said. “I asked her one time why she makes such a racket on the thing. She told me, ‘This is a car horn, and it’s suppose to sound like a car horn, not like that cartoon bird who runs around making cute little meep-meep sounds’. Now, let’s go out so you can meet her.”
“Do I want to?” asked Justin, only half-jokingly.
After the hi’s and introductions were finished, Samantha informed her mother that she was going to walk Justin back to the house. With a chuckle and an embarrassing “you two take all the time you want” from the car, Samantha and Justin walked partway back to the house, stopping short of the light from the porch but out of the glare of the yard light. After a long and tender hug, Samantha lifted her head up to his.
“Thank you, Justin,” she said softly, their arms still around each other.
“For what?” he asked.
“For doing everything just right,” she replied.
Not knowing what to say to her statement, he brought his right hand up and placed it against her cheek. She tilted her head to the side, trapping his hand against her cheek and shoulder, then released the hand and looked back up at him. Gently, he lowered his head until their lips were almost touching. Slowly, her lips parted a little as her eyes closed in expectation. Her breath smelled of mint, and her perfume reminded him of fresh sea breezes on a cool morning. Longingly, Justin brushed first one corner of her mouth with his, then the other corner. He paused, then placed his lips fully but tenderly on hers. Samantha melted into him, tightening her hold on him and pressing harder with her lips against his. Justin removed his hand from her cheek and slid it down her back and around her waist, returning the pressure of her hug. Then, slowly, they separated.
“I always dreamed that someday, my knight would take me into his arms and kiss me like that,” she said, slightly breathless. “When I first met you, I knew it would be you.”
“I have thought of you a lot since we first met,” he told her. “I felt, and still do, that we knew each other very well in another time and place.” He paused, inhaling deeply, wondering how far he dared go. Samantha watched him, her face innocent and trusting. Continuing, he said, “It’s been very hard for me not to open up completely to you, Samantha McCallen. But I made a promise to you, and that’s all I’m going to say for now.”
Samantha shook her head slowly back and forth, a Mona Lisa-like smile on her face.
“What?” he asked, afraid that he had gone too far after all.
“You’ve done everything just perfectly,” she said, reaching up and stroking his cheek. “Good night, Justin.” With that, she turned and walked back to her mother’s car.
As the car pulled away, Justin smiled as a loud “Well, did you kiss him?” traveled through the night air and into his ears.
Justin stood in the yard, thumbs hooked in the back pockets of his jeans and looking at the blackness the car had disappeared into. Gone only a minute, and he missed her already.
He sighed, then voiced out loud something he had known for some time now.
“I love you, Samantha McCallen,” he said, speaking into the blackness. “And someday soon, someday very soon, you’re going to let me tell you, and you’re going to tell me the same, and then both of us will have done everything ‘just perfectly’.”
As a final cap to the evening, he looked up into the moonless night. The clear sky rewarded him with a spectacular view of millions of tiny pinpoints of light, twinkling and shimmering in the heavens. “Thank you”, he whispered, then pulled himself back to the reality of the moment.
“Time for bed, Billings,” he said. “Those cows won’t milk themselves in the morning.”
“Come on number 42!” yelled Justin. “Up-up-up! We go through this every morning! Rise and shine, 15! You can powder your nose later! Time for the morning donation! Let’s get a move on, ladies!”
Lately, Justin had been thinking about trying something he had read somewhere once: calling the cows instead of herding them. His idea was to let them get used to his voice, then come up with a unique yell that he would use every morning. When they associated that with going to the parlor, he would use the yell near them before physically walking among them and rousting them up. He just had to come up with a yell he liked. He had thought about discussing the idea with Lloyd, but decided against it. If it worked, he could surprise Lloyd. And if it didn’t work, then no one except him would know.
Later, Justin opened a stall gate and released the last cow in the parlor. Grabbing the water hose, he began washing down the cement floor. He had discovered that if there was little or no manure odor in the parlor, the cows didn’t seem to get any ideas about relieving themselves there, rather than outside. He had mentioned his observation to Lloyd, who confirmed it. “I don’t know why,” Lloyd had said in amusement, “but if the parlor smells of manure, they’re more likely to add to it.”
“Interesting,” Justin had replied, then grinned. “So in other words, if it’s clean, there’s usually no problem. If it isn’t clean, then it’s ‘plop, plop, whiz, whiz, oh what a relief it is’ for the cows.” Justin’s grin broadened when Lloyd burst out laughing at Justin’s take-off on the old Alka-Seltzer commercial melody. Several times later that day, Justin heard Lloyd quietly singing, “plop, plop, whiz, whiz, oh, what a relief it is.”