Penny: A Sunshine State Eulogy
In Wauchula, they closed down the old folks’ home. And now, the stray dog that hung around the front yard has lost her friends.
Hardee County is closing Resthaven, Florida’s citrus industry is dying, and the stray dog connected to both has no place to go.
For more than 60 years, Resthaven served as my hometown’s adult congregate living facility, providing a nurturing home for hundreds of our senior citizens. Orange pickers, preachers, maids, schoolteachers, housewives, and soldiers (to name a few) spent quality final years there. Resthaven gave people a peaceful and dignified last chapter, one surrounded by fellow pilgrims reaching the end of a journey’s rich story.
Men wearing Liberty overalls and white T-shirts would sit on the large, slow swing suspended from the front yard’s live oak. There, they used rubber-tipped canes to draw pictures in the sand as they repeated tales of farms lost and battles won. The narratives never changed. Neither did the drawings.
Inside, silver-haired women watched game shows together, betting which letter would pop up next on “Wheel of Fortune” or showing off a lifetime of knowledge by beating “Jeopardy!” Days were routines, and the predictable, safe schedule was improved by a shiny yellow mutt named Penny. To be clear, there were many Pennies over the years. It seemed that the orange grove neighboring Resthaven was always producing some bright dog that received secreted-away table scraps and benevolent belly-rubs from folks who identified too well with being left alone.
Penny would lie curled at the feet of whoever needed her most that day, and her company was enough. Her fur caught the abundant sunlight; she glowed.
Penny was supposed to be an outside-only dog, but the staff tolerated her presence on front and back porches, both areas warmed and lit by frosted jalousie windows. Penny would lie curled at the feet of whoever needed her most that day, and her company was enough. Her fur caught the abundant sunlight; she glowed.
As one Penny passed, the neighboring citrus grove would produce another, usually in February, when the honey-thick scent of orange blossoms comforted the colder air. Just as the trees flowered, a happy blonde dog would come loping up out of the gray dirt middles, her pink tongue lolling from a smile-shaped mouth. This was victory season — one year’s crop already harvested, another foretold florally, and the gift of a canine friend for those facing loneliness toward life’s end.
The men called her “friend-of-mine” and “old girl” as they patted her head or rubbed her ears. The women greeted her with “Hello there” if they were initially uncertain or a “Well hey!” if they were animal-lovers. When Hardee High School chorus classes came to perform at Resthaven, Penny was loved upon by teenagers of every description. She was the portrait of fondness, given and received.
The latest iteration of Penny has no place to go: The county has shuttered Resthaven, calling it a financial burden too great to sustain. The groves are dead, long menaced by an insidious disease called Citrus Greening and further withered by hurricanes and freezes. The people have been relocated, a euphemism meaning “shipped off to lesser venues.” Penny turns circles, her brown eyes wide in confusion. She cannot return to her place of origin, but she cannot find the old souls she kept with her assuring presence.
Someone will doubtless find her on the remote east end of the county. Thinned as the skeletal orange trees, lost as a bewildered grandparent, she will come running one more time to someone who will rename her a cliché. The groves will subside into green pastures. Resthaven will stand for a while, a brick and granite monument to a prior age of care. But in the end, the era of Penny — a time with fairer light and the aroma of citrus — will surrender to the future. We will be left with flat land and hollow spaces. Memory will become our golden companion, waiting with us, settled loyally beside our aging chair.
John Davis Jr. is the author of "The Places That Hold" (Eastover Press, 2021), "Hard Inheritance" (Five Oaks Press, 2016), "Middle Class American Proverb" (Negative Capability Press, 2014) and two other books of poetry. He has received many literary awards, including the Florida Book Awards Bronze Medal and the 2021 Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. He holds an MFA from the University of Tampa. His writings appear in literary journals throughout the South and around the world. He teaches English and literature in the Tampa Bay area.