Gil closes the gate and hops back on the four-wheeler, its fenders caked with mud. It'll probably be three hours before that heifer drops her calf, he figures. Time enough for supper, a hot shower, and a cold beer.

He's in his pickup now. Ten minutes later he's at the bar to pick up a six-pack of Grain Belt, just like Dad used to drink. God, he misses him.

“Gil!” his buddy Slim yells. “Set Gil up,” he orders the bartender, who has the bottle open before Gil can protest, so he joins Slim, Rusty, and Pudge at the table. Almost everyone has a nickname here. They've known each other since grade school. It's been awhile.

They're calving, too, except Pudge, who gave up that nonsense years ago. Now, he's into soybeans and corn, which is starting to look like nonsense, too. Today, he installed the idler pulley he picked up in Fargo on Tuesday. He could've waited for his local dealer to get the part in, but he's been itching to get at those last acres of corn — what's left of it after being ravaged by an early winter.

He stopped at the farm supply store, too. Didn't really need anything, but he'd been cooped up too long. It was busy. Hardly a mask in the place.

Slim and Rusty moan about the cattle markets, but what are you gonna do? Gil mentions that one of his cows had twins today but rejected one—butted the newborn around until he separated them. Welcome to the world, young 'un. Slim's daughter isn't doing anything, though — online classes are finally over, and she'll take on a bottle calf. Problem solved.

They talk and laugh, and man, it feels like old times, like normal times, and before you know it, three hours have passed, and Gil, who's nursing his third beer, realizes that meal and hot shower will have to wait, but he's invigorated. It was good to see those guys. Anyway, he hasn't phoned ahead, so his wife won't be disappointed if he misses supper. She knows how calving goes.

It's a breech, wouldn't you know, but he gets the calf turned around and after that, no problems. A new life.

A few days later, Gil notices the neon-yellow tulips at the old farmstead and with his jackknife, neatly saws off six stems. On the way home, he drops them off at Mom's to cheer her up. She's still not right after a bout with walking pneumonia a couple months ago, and she misses Dad something fierce.

She smiles wanly, puts the tulips in a vase, pours some coffee, and they talk about everything except the obvious void. Five days later, she's short of breath. It's nothing, she says, but four days after that she's with Dad.

Gil watches the service online. The chapel's empty. Just the minister and echoes. Pudge wouldn't have made it, anyway. He tested positive, too. Says he's wrung out, but that he'll be fine. Mom loved Pudge.

Rusty's son, who's back from college, is minding Gil's cows for now, but he lost a calf today, he tells Gil on the phone. “Them's the breaks,” Gil says absently, vacantly, in the shadows.

He can't stop thinking about the tulips.

Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum News Service.