Good morning from Joy, Illinois. It’s 5:30 am. This is not my usual waking time, but when the low, pink, and orange sunrise steals into your bedroom, it’s insistent.
Begin your day, it said.
The just-awake robins and finches are chattering in the tall maple trees in the side yard and the massive oak tree in the front yard next to the driveway. The intermittent croaks of the young toads are quieting down in the muddy section of the pasture—they’re thinking about moving to the bushes higher up on the hill.
The big bull—mottled with a cream and sable hide and two curving horns that span at least two feet—turns to look at me and flicks his tail. He stands between me and the two black, elderly mama cows, ages twelve and fourteen, who have had their last calves.
Old girls, the neighbor called them. They probably wouldn’t last the winter. They’re headed to town at the end of the summer. Their calves nudge the udders hard to bring down the milk.
Old girls, I mused. I tried not to think too much about them.
The corn started late, the neighbor said. Came up well, early actually, but then one day, it spiked to ninety degrees and it all burned up. The earth cracked, he said shaking his head. We planted again.
My son, Connor, and daughter-in-law Samantha, are new to the small town 40 minutes outside of the Quad Cities—Moline and Rock Island hail from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, while Davenport and Bettendorf nod from the Iowa side. The Mississippi River is high now from the spring rains, and it lolls back and forth against its bank moving with a laziness that is deceiving.
Not a time to go into the river, or crick, the neighbor said. He knows a swimming hole down the road that gets deeper every year because the force of the water comes over and dives straight down into the earth. It just keeps digging, the neighbor looked up at me. No end to it, he comments.
Paul and I drove fast from the airport, anxious to see our little ones (big ones too) after four months apart. He crested a hill at sixty, and we landed on a gravel road on the other side.
Goodness, I thought, someone needs to fix this stretch of road. It stretched alright—another eight miles to their house. Their road is numbered now, but it’s known as Rainbow Barn Road to everyone in Joy because of the falling-down barn on the corner where some happy family a hundred years ago painted a rainbow on the weathered boards to make their neighbors smile.
It makes me smile, Sam said. In tribute to it, (and because it is going to collapse or be torn down soon), she painted a rainbow on their brand-spanking-new chicken coop. The neighbors smile, someone told her.
The babies, as we call them, put on mud boots to play in the yard. They look comical, running through the velvet green grass, shirtless with dusty knees and elbows from where they have crawled under the bars of the fence around the barn. At three and four, they don’t pay attention to the bull staring at them with narrowed eyes. As you can guess, they get hustled back into the yard with a scolding; they don’t pay much mind.
Last night we sat on the back stoop, drinking beer, and watching the kids play on the slip-and-slide. We squirted Dawn soap on their round tummies, and when they reached the end and landed in a small pool meant to hold them back, bubbles rose into the air and drifted towards the sunset that was just passing the cornfield on its way to the other side. We forgot the soap would get in their eyes, so we rushed to wipe their faces with our shirts, not wanting them to feel any pain.
Which brings me to end of this piece. While we’ve been cocooned in this perfect world where everyone drives by and waves through the dust of the gravel road, there are families unable to speak because of their grief. They are planning funerals and sitting in the lonely silence of small bedrooms where little shoes and toys still litter the floor. Their children are gone. They will never live on Rainbow Barn Road or dance next to a staring bull, or shriek with laughter as their slick bodies fly down their newest toy. Those children lived in Columbine, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Parkland, Florida, and now Uvalde, Texas. They don’t live in Joy, Illinois.