What we could never say for sure was when Geraldine Foggs started losing her eyes. Could have been right around when her son left town, before the 24-hour deli opened on Main, or maybe it was that summer the lemon trees dried up.
Main Street back then wasn’t anything like the strip of stores today, and Geraldine Foggs was still cleaning for the newly built two-garage houses with patio decks and clay-tile roofs. Our town is 33.1 miles from the city, and the real estate developers thought that with the state extending the train line, the yuppies would want to invest in a new house that could accommodate his-and-her cars with a reasonably square backyard to drop their two-year-olds and dogs.
Most of those button-down families had gotten their dogs first then the babies, and when Geraldine cleaned their houses, she found it sad to see aged Labradors with stains down their eyes get their earflaps tugged and poked by two-year-old fingers. Don’t worry, she would tell them. You’ll get out of here one day.
She didn’t say much to people, and rarely took off her long brown coat, even in summer, but no one knew how to shine a bathtub like Geraldine. Her signature: a hand-towel swan on the freshly made bed, making you feel like you were at one of those luxury hotels though none of us could say we had ever stayed in one, our only reference the split-second details of soap opera backgrounds.
Geraldine’s son, Parker, looked like he walked straight out of the soaps with his combed-back hair and marble nose—the gloss effect ruined only when he smiled and showed his teeth. Geraldine couldn’t afford to get him braces, so his teeth were in a decade-long battle and ended up crooked, every single one.
Parker perfected a closed-line sort of smile, slightly turned up at the corners: charming enough to make you buy a dozen candy bars, Christmas wrapping paper, then easy-to-grow flower seeds when he started his garden supply business. One year, he started selling lemon trees. He promised fresh lemonade every summer and golden-dotted gardens like Italy on the Mediterranean, and pretty soon, almost every yard had one.
That smile of his was what made half the town buy shares in his supermarket scheme. Parker had struck a deal with a national chain to build a 24-hour supermarket that would satisfy every yuppie craving: rows of ice cream for pregnant women, a pyramid of Snapple flavors, and double freezer doors of pizzas with toppings like sun-dried tomato and salmon.
Maybe some of us knew as soon as we signed the checks, had a twinge in the chest we put down to excitement. Geraldine had invested twenty years’ worth of savings.
The months after, people shouted out questions at Parker when passing him on the road, or whispered them at the bank. How’s the construction coming along? And Parker would put a hand on our shoulders or clap us on the back, Pouring the foundations as soon as the framing’s done. Any day now. Teenagers hung out at the construction site, sloped on the stack of wooden beams with smokes and drinks, laughing and mimicking the yuppies who would be pushing shopping carts down the aisle where there was still nothing but weeds and empty beer bottles.
One of the last times we saw Parker was at the movie theater, we could all agree, and we remembered how sweaty he looked that day though the air-conditioning blasted a little too high; and by the popcorn stand, he told us about how they were going to install a skylight right above the gardening section so that you could see bouquets in natural light. Geraldine had hung back from the gathered crowd, nodding proudly when her son launched in the more technical details, sometimes staring off through the theater’s glass doors as if she could see a person or creature lit by the streetlamp that none of us could.
When he left, it took a while for the fraud to surface. At first we told each other he had just gone to the city and forgot to tell his mother. A week later of calls to his dead office phone and rumors of an emptied bedroom closet, the whole town was gathered outside of Geraldine’s house. Someone, probably the Lesters’ youngest, threw a rock through the kitchen window.
Many of us lost a fat slice of our savings. Owen Michaels had to close down his tobacco and newspaper stand and move to the edge of town with his in-laws. Still, years later, by the time a real 24-hour deli opened on Main, we couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the narrow cramped aisles, and only one brand of frozen pizza—compared to the supermarket dream Parker had painted us.
No one wanted Geraldine to clean their houses anymore. How could you give your house key to the mother of a crook? People started twisting their door locks closed. The entire Michaels clan cut holes in the bottom of their mattresses to store away valuables, including the little ones who stuck toys between the springs. You never know who can wander into the house and touch all your things.
For a while she kept cleaning for the yuppies, whose clay roofs umbrellaed them from town gossip, where she could talk to the dogs all she wanted while polishing off the countertops. Eventually they left her too. The train line was on indefinite hold from a lack of state funds, and they went back to the city, leaving stretches of well-groomed lawns and “for sale” signs.
Then the summer of storms came and the lemon trees dried up. All of July, there was nothing but burning storms, and by the time the earth felt dry again to the touch, the lemons were hard as stones with bitter brown flesh under the rind.
With no sign of Parker for over a year, people lost hope in getting back their money, so they found a measure of satisfaction in chopping down their lemon trees, and Geraldine would sit at her kitchen table, pulling her brown coat closer, listening to the thwacks of axes on wood. She kept tending to the four lemon trees in the corners of her garden, though each year the fruits grew browner and stonier.
Yes it was around then that Mrs. Hayes at the post office noticed how slowly Geraldine filled out mailing forms, how she bent close to the paper and tugged at her white-speckled hair between words. A full twenty minutes it took her, Mrs. Hayes said. Just to write the address.
Then several people saw Geraldine at the grocery store, slowly smelling oranges and squeezing them instead of looking for pockmarks.
When her yuppie clients started moving back to the city, Geraldine was probably relieved. She was already seeing spots and was secretly putting in extra hours to make the floors shine like they should and to run her fingers over countertops, checking for stains her eyes missed. The casual way her clients let her go didn’t upset her: some using the same whiny voice as with their parents on the phone, others giving her an awkward pat before asking her if she could clean one more time before the move. What she would miss most was the company of their dogs, who followed her around the house as she dusted or washed the dishes. She would even miss their disapproving whimpers when she started up the vacuum.
Some of us found it strange that as soon as the “for sale” signs went up, the yuppies’ dogs started running away. We would find their dogs everywhere: sleeping in a heap on the soccer field, some behind woodpiles, one on the playground underneath the slide, one was found in a stack of mail at the post office, licking all the stamps. The owners would show up full of sorry’s and thanks. But the dogs would just run again, and soon all the lampposts in town were covered in missing dog flyers.
We noticed how Geraldine read those flyers, her fingers tracing every letter H-a-z-e-l-n-u-t, three-year old pug missing since Sunday… It was only a matter of time before the doctor would recommend going on disability and getting a service dog, but Geraldine didn’t want one sent by the state. She wanted one that chose her.
One night she woke up to find a black mutt with the snout of a Labrador and the ears of a Terrier rummaging in her compost pile. The couple who owned him were getting divorced and only too happy to let her adopt the dog who peed in front of the TV and barked at dawn. She renamed him Bobby Day after the soul singer.
As the town grew, her cataracts grew. After the deli came the discount store, the department store, and the frozen yogurt place that lets you scoop as many blueberries as you want. On the rare occasions we saw her out, Geraldine walked with a blind stick and Bobby Day panting at her shins.
Some of us heard her talking to the dog. What are we going to eat tonight, Bobby Day? Been a real long time since we’ve had liver. Must be a nice day, isn’t it Bobby Day? I can feel the sun.
Someone saw her kissing his black furry ears in front of the pharmacy. Kids saw her at the soccer field in the mornings, letting Bobby Day play with other stray dogs and feeding them from her coat pockets. Mrs. Hayes swore that her pockets were full of stony lemons, which was why her coat hung so low and heavy around the ankles.
One night, two high schoolers out looking for a make-out spot saw Geraldine dancing and singing in her garden. Rockin’ Robin, Tweedle-lee-dee-dee. The dog lay at the feet of the dried-up lemon trees, and licked and licked its paws.
The story of her midnight dance was munched on for weeks, but then we found new stories with more to bite, like how the department store manager brought his mistress to the store after hours, and they ran around naked and tasted all the cakes with their fingers, or when we found the dead coyote on the edge of town who held a bird in its locked jaws but no one knew who shot it.
We couldn’t say for sure who first found the news about Parker that October day. It was nothing more than a two-paragraph story in a Florida newspaper about the arrest of twenty-three-year-old Parker Foggs, accused of robbing the savings of a retirement home for a supermarket scheme. By nightfall the whole town was reciting it as if new facts could grow from repetition.
At first we rushed to each other’s houses to look for someone new to tell, then we started gathering on Main. Our sideways cars blocked the road. We cleaned out the deli of chips and liquor. Owen Michaels rolled a keg over from his in-laws’ house. People were laughing, clapping backs and spilling drinks, hanging from the backs of pickup trucks. Someone started cracking off fireworks.
We ran out of cups and started filling any open receptacle with beer: coffee mugs, plastic soup bowls, buckets we carried over from car to car with jumbo straws. The bank manager and his son sat on the road, propped against their car tires with a bottle of tequila and low-fived anyone within reach. The department store manager threw up behind his car; his yellow-tinted vomit trickled past the empty chip bags, around the clean white sneakers of high school girls rolling their eyes at boys, and stuck to smashed beer bottles growing like glass weeds out of concrete.
We heard the tap of her cane before we saw her. Geraldine came towards us, her feet neat on the yellow centerline. Bobby Day came with her, and his black fur faded in the darkness between lampposts. A stray dog joined them: a speck of white in the distance. Then other dogs. Some crawled out from the roadside ditch; others appeared behind trashcans at the department store and leaped onto the road. Some came from behind the trees, their knotted fur illuminated for a moment by the streetlight they crossed. There were grays and browns, wiry ones and puffed-up ones. There was a humming sound made from their collective growls: low and calm through closed jaws.
She stopped one lamppost away from the crowd, now silent except for a few leftover laughs and dropped beer cans rolling away. One of the Lester boys—some said it was Tommy whose hair is redder than the rest—started crushing beer cans together then lobbed the ball of aluminum rivets and tabs still dripping with beer in a fine shot at Geraldine’s head. A black-nosed mastiff came leaping out and caught the beer can ball before it got close and spat it back out, rolling between our feet. Swearing, Tommy rummaged in the trunk for a baseball bat until one of the elder Lesters yanked him by the back of his neck and shoved him in the backseat.
Another mongrel, all dirty golden fur and boxer snout, came barking at us, its mouth so wide and red we could count teeth. Parents started tugging at their kids to stay close and quiet. Other dogs crept closer; one of them bit off the burger in the bank manager’s hand, another pawed at his son until he dropped the bottle of tequila that was still hours away from empty. The high school girls gave a quickly stifled shriek at the flying glass. The post office manager dropped his keys and had to crawl under a truck to find them, startling Mrs. Hayes who slipped in vomit and sprained her wrist.
Head tilted up at the night, Geraldine listened as if the growls, wet snapping fangs, and smashed glass were a soaring symphony. Her face began to turn side to side like a sweeping spotlight. She advanced through the crowd with Bobby Day, and we parted to let them through, some of us stepping back too far and crushing a neighbor’s foot. Though no word or gesture acknowledged our presence, as she passed us, it felt like she was touching each of us on the cheek, softly with the back of her hand.
She continued on Main and turned at the next street, her long brown coat swaying at the tap of her cane. We began to stir. Some of us packed away the food and beers, picked up the trash; a few tried to kick debris from the firecrackers off the road. Crumbs were patted off, engines started, and children shoved into backseats. We drove home, already wrapping this night in silence. The wild dogs stayed, no one could say for how long, but we knew they watched until the last of us were gone.