The summer before Finn turns four, Jed Colton wins the contract for mowing the I-80 median between exits 237 and 306, and John – "Oh hell, I swear, Rodney, Rodney, this is so great, you're not going to believe this," – gets hired to drive a sickle-mower-loaded tractor up and down the interstate, cutting down prairie grass and brown-eyed-susans a couple of feet beyond the shoulder.
"You're going to mow grass?" Rodney asks, blinking several times in the hope it'll speed up his mental processes.
John's bouncing on the balls of his feet, halfway between the porch and the garage, the day's mail tucked beneath his arm. "It's not mowing," he says, waving the envelope Jed sent him. "I mean – sure, it's mowing, but it's . . ." He shrugs and pulls a face, perhaps trying to knock some words loose. "The tractors have lights. Big orange lights, and . . ." He makes an indiscriminate noise of glee and bounds up the porch steps, kisses Rodney hard and fast.
Rodney sets his coffee cup down on the porch rail lest there be more kissing and unfortunate spills. "Lights," he repeats, plucking the letter out of John's hand, skimming the contents.
"They're so cool," John says, and he's all but shaking with it. "They're – they flash, and the horsepower's phenomenal, and . . ."
"You go, what, sixteen miles per hour?" Rodney says.
"Yeah!" John grins at him like he just hit on the secret of life. "Exactly."
Rodney stares at him in wonder, this long, disheveled, dusty specimen of mid-life manhood who shares his bed and steals his bacon right off his plate and dangles their son by his ankles while talking about their savings account and wants to drive a tractor all summer. "Okay," he says, huffing a breath of laughter. "Okay, so – okay." And John kisses him again, fingers sliding up underneath Rodney's shirt to scratch confusing affection against his back.
Finn seems to grasp the coolness of the mowing far more quickly and readily than Rodney can – he peppers John with questions and asks when he can ride in the tractor, and somehow everything ends up with John assuring Rodney that he will never, ever let Finn run in front of a combine during harvest season and sure, he'll fetch him a beer. But on John's first day, it's Rodney who gets up when John does, who pads downstairs while John's in the shower and brews them both coffee, makes John a stack of PB&J sandwiches and stuffs cheetos into a gallon-sized ziplock bag.
"You didn't have to do that," John says, fresh-scrubbed and damp around the edges when he comes into the kitchen, stubble still dark against his jaw.
Rodney hmmphs and kisses him clumsily, just below his ear, mumbles, "Big day. Tractors. With lights," and John chuckles warmly, nips at his mouth, says, "I'll be back by three," and he's gone, out into the dark.
It's sooner than that when Rodney sees him – just beyond the West Branch on-ramp, eastbound as Rodney's west. He's singing in his cab – Rodney recognizes the tilt of his body, the open-mouthed abandon with which he croaks along to Johnny Cash when he knows no one else is listening – and his sleeves are rolled up, his tractor listing gently into the angle of the ditch, the air thick with sweet grass and clover because of his work. He still smells of both when Rodney gets home that afternoon, finds him wrangling canes around infant tomato plants, Finn rooted in the new-tilled earth making mud pies with dirt and spit and the dribbles from a hose. "Jesus, I . . ." Rodney blurts, suddenly so fond of their big dumb life and their eighty acres of nowhere and the satisfaction etched into John's frame from a morning spent mowing grass that he can't finish the sentence, can only gesture helplessly and slide a hand into John's back pocket when John wanders over, grinning right into his face.
"You figure out dark matter today?" John asks.
"Oh, you know," Rodney says, and shoves John in front of him out of self-defense when Finn tries to spray him with the hose.