Nick Chandler's voice seemed to echo off the roof of the motor pool's standard issue Explorer. Brandon ignored him while they wove through traffic toward the airport at a moderate pace; despite the fact that Nick's kids were now respectively in grades that required multiplication tables and school identification cards, he still drove like and invisible child was strapped in the back seat.
"I mean, you have a choice right? About what you look like?" Nick's eyes shifted from the road back to the man at his right. "And this was your choice?"
Brandon let out a breath and shifted forward to turn the stereo up a little bit. The space between them filled up with the tambourine heavy Edgar Winter Group's "Free Ride." Nobody's winnin' at this kind of game, Brandon agreed.
"I just--" Nick cut himself off as he reached a hand over toward the passenger seat and shoved fingertips underneath Brandon's nose to briefly pet at the moustache that had been left behind in the morning's shave. "It's like a silky fuckin' caterpillar."
The last time someone had shot their hand across a moving vehicle with Brandon in the passenger's seat, he'd been eighteen under an entirely different circumstance and ended up with a broken nose that ruined the family Christmas photo. He was sure to keep still until the fingertips became one stroke away from an uncomfortable caress. His hand was gentle in the knock away.
"Anybody ever tell you to keep your hands to yourself?" Brandon shot at him as he leaned further toward the window. "And no, for the record, I don't get much of a choice. I'm not exactly the Midwestern posterboy."
"Why not? You're big and blue eyed. Put on a flannel and some overalls, talk about tractors. You look like one of those cartoon cops right now."
"I'll get a John Deere hat when I get out of the airport and we'll test that theory."
"Who the fuck is John Deere?"
"Wikipedia him later," Brandon replied. The research he'd done on attempting to assimilate to midwestern decorum had led him down a rabbit hole of useless information, including the fact that the farm tool tycoon had been born in his home city.
"But you don't think it's weird?"
"This whole Iowa thing," Nick started as his hands slid along the leatherbound wheel. "He couldn't just meet you at the office?"
"Probably," Brandon said as they coasted toward the terminal. His mouth drew up in a momentary grin. "But then it wouldn't be the Feds' way of doing things, would it?"
"No, and listen. I'm only telling you the truth now because we were friends before you were a traitor." He pulled the car into the unloading zone and threw on the hazard lights. Their timed blinking added a dramatic flare that hadn't been there previously. "You come back with a handlebar and you're gonna be on the far side of Chomo I can't justify. Remember there's a real fine line between porn and pe--"
"I got it Nicky," Brandon said with a laugh as he slid from the SUV.
He'd driven through the historic part of Dubuque with its signs of life: the strip mall, the casinos, the factories and City Hall but the further away they got from the Last Arby's on the Left the longer the stretch of cornfield got. The slowly goldening stalks leapt out of the ground at a dizzying pace that made him avert his gaze from the passenger window toward the long tongue of road that carried him to his destination as the low crackle of AM talk radio wafted in and out of signal. The driver hadn't been too keen on conversation and seemed even quicker to leave the minute that Brandon stepped out of the vehicle.
"The heat," a man said as he spit on the gravel; a thick glob of tobacco left to glisten in the Iowan sun like oil.
"I'm sorry?" Brandon asked as he adjusted the bag he'd brought with him on his shoulder. Light fare. Enough to get by while the sun reflected off the cheap wedding ring like a mirrored beacon.
"The heat," the man repeated as he swept the hat from his head and smoothed the remaining follicles of hair back toward their place from a left side part. With the hat off, Brandon could see every deep divot and wrinkle that gave the man age. He looked a worn leather shoe but his voice was strong. "Makes everything screwy. Should've had these fields cleared by now."
Brandon checked the number on the mailbox that was seated on a heavy post to be sure he hadn't gotten the addresses mixed up. It was this action that had the old man gesturing empthatically at the stalks.
"Too green. Like you, I suppose," he chuckled in a way that sounded more like a wet cough than a laugh. "Anyway, Hunt's up on the porch so I guess that's where you'll be headed. Keep up now, I ain't got time to stop."
Brandon kept pace and had soaked through the Target plaid he'd worn from the plane. Ill fitting, the red had turned to burgundy and clung to his back between his shoulder blades while he watched the fields come alive with farm hands. Their crooked backs made them look like beetles scuttling while they cleaved through old crop. The large combine gleamed at the far end of the property, clearly visible from the house that sat nestled behind a sparse tree line and his mind lent itself to several horror films.
"See you met Henry," Anthony called from the porch where he sat with an elderly woman who looked nearly as watery and vacant as the half empty glass of what might pass for lemonade that sat in front of her.
"Brought your stray," the old man, Henry as he'd been named, waved and threw the brim of his hat lower on his head as he turned toward the fields.
"Hey, yeah. I guess I have," Brandon offered as he stepped onto the porch and shook hands with the other man. "Wasn't sure I was in the right place."
"It's a little different than the coast, but I'll take you inside. This is Elaine," Anthony said as he stood up and patted the elderly woman's hand who seemed to light up the moment she was touched as though it were her switch to animation. "We'll be right back."
Entering the house was a bit like entering a time capsule with a hermetic seal. The air was tinged with a stale metal and little blue dutch decor. Plates with windmills and whimsical animals rested on small shelves. Wooden shoes filled with dried flowers and cross stitch warm welcome messages brightened every room. The floors creaked underneath both of their weight as Anthony passed through the foyer toward the sitting room and then the stairs.
"Is there a dog?" Brandon asked while they were halfway through the first flight. "A basset hound named Yeller maybe?"
"Oh," Anthony said with a somber note in his voice. "Yeah there was. He was old, so we put him down."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Out back, actually." Anthony jerked a thumb over his shoulder as he clapped his hand on the round dome of the banister. "You never read that book did you? I'm fuckin' with you."
Brandon shook his head under the weight of the grin the other man had and set his bag down on the rickety steel frame of a bed that looked like it belonged in a hospital more than a guest bedroom. Here, the pastoral scenes of Midwestern farm living seemed to dominate the walls. Brandon leaned in to inspect a blushing farm boy chasing after a blonde girl with braids.
"Elaine clipped those out of magazines," Anthony explained. "We could discuss her profile at length but it's pretty boring to be honest. She's got what we call a 'touch' out here. Not quite batshit, but close enough."
"Is she..." Brandon trailed off, trying to find a delicate way to ask what he wanted but Anthony cut him off.
"Nah, I'm not related to them. The old man out there was good friends with my dad once up on a time. They moved to Florida. Traded the farm for a tin can, but they like me well enough. We'll have to see about you." He narrowed his eyes. "And before you ask, there's indoor plumbing."
"We're staying here then?"
"For tonight. Got a surprise for you tomorrow. You'll like it."