A son buys a dwarf citrus tree for his Key-lime-obsessed father—and digs himself into a hole.
My father loves Key lime pie. Though he's a hematologist who you'd want cooking your dinner about as badly as you'd want Mario Batali doing your bone-marrow transplant, he claims that his palate can differentiate between Key lime pies made from fresh Key lime juice and those made from concentrate. So, for his 55th birthday, I decided to buy my father a Key lime tree.
After doing a search online, I found Four Winds Growers, a California nursery that specializes in dwarf citrus trees. Most of these trees reach a maximum height of six feet, yet bear full-size fruit. For $35, I could have a one-year-old dwarf Key lime tree shipped directly to my New York City apartment within a week.
I e-mailed the service rep, Toby, at Four Winds to discuss my purchase. "I want to buy a dwarf Key lime tree for my father," I wrote, "but he lives in Massachusetts and, knowing my father, the tree probably won't get much light, water or fertilizer. Will this be a problem?"
"Yes," Toby responded. Key lime trees are extremely sensitive to cold and require eight to 12 hours of sunlight a day. What's more, he explained, most of the Key lime lore I had been taught as a youth was untrue. Key lime trees are native to Southeast Asia, not Key West, Florida. In addition, the majority of Key limes, C. aurantifolia, consumed in the United States aren't even grown in Key West; they're grown in Mexico. In fact, the Four Winds website lists the tree as "Mexican (Key)," as if to say, "This is a Mexican lime tree, but we have to put 'Key' in parentheses so that the ignoramuses among you who know nothing of citrus provenance and husbandry have some idea what we're talking about."
Toby suggested that I purchase the more hardy dwarf Meyer lemon tree instead. I weighed my options. Would a Key lime tree ever survive a Massachusetts winter? Since the sun starts to set around 4 p.m. in February, probably not. Would my father be just as happy with a Meyer lemon tree? Since you can't make Key lime pie with lemons, most definitely not.
Also, for reasons I have never fully been able to comprehend, my parents refuse to heat their house in the wintertime. When I was a shivering 12-year-old and it was the middle of January, with eight-foot snow drifts blowing against the windows, they would tell me that the heat would still not be turned on until mid-February, if then, so go put on a sweater. If my father let his own son freeze, what would happen to a helpless dwarf Key lime tree?
In the end, I bought my father the dwarf Meyer lemon tree instead. I decided I would tell him that my intentions were good, but I figured it was better to have a live Meyer lemon tree than a dead Key lime tree. He'd just have to get his Key lime pies on trips to Florida. At the very least, he would own a miniature citrus tree, a conversation piece. The conversations would be boring and about dwarf citrus trees, but at least my gift wasn't a necktie.
The tree arrived at my apartment less than a week later. It was maybe a foot tall, with about 30 dark, waxy, Kelly green leaves, and it was as cute as it's possible for a tree to be. The day before my father's birthday, I boarded the Chinatown bus to Boston (by far the cheapest and best way to transport plant matter across state lines), dwarf Meyer lemon tree in tow. The next day, I gave my father his present.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Guess," I said.
"Is it a Key lime tree?" he asked.
And that is when things went horribly wrong. My father looked at me with his bright blue eyes, tired but hopeful with the thought of his first Key lime harvest. This is it, I thought. A chance to bring some happiness into those eyes. A chance to repay him for the endless hours of playing backyard catch with a son who ended up taking ballet for phys ed credit in college. A chance to repay him for all the cars I've crashed over the years (and there have been quite a few). So, at the thought of bringing a bit of happiness into my father's limeless life, I looked him straight in the eye and lied.
"Yes. It's a dwarf Key lime tree," I said.
It turns out that my father, a Harvard professor, is more easily duped than I always thought (something it would have been nice to know in high school, when I was carefully refilling vodka bottles with water). He leaped up so suddenly that I thought he had been stung by an African killer bee, perhaps one that had been smuggled to Boston on the Chinatown bus.
"This," he said, his voice quivering, "is the greatest present anyone has ever given me."
And then he hugged me.
Flash forward about a year. My father pulled out green thumbs I never knew he had. In addition to mowing the lawn and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, he took up botany as one of his hobbies. He fertilized the tree, he watered it, he discussed current events with it. He probably would have written it a letter of recommendation for medical school if it had asked. In some ways, it was the son he never had. It didn't light off firecrackers in the basement; it didn't spend years studying the works of Milton instead of whatever it is people study in premed courses. When my father went away for a weekend in February, it didn't crank the heat to 95 degrees and throw a luau, complete with roast pig and mai tais.
The Meyer lemon tree, or, as my father referred to it, "my Key lime tree," just puttered along on the kitchen table. Eventually, it flowered, self-pollinated, and one of its tiny ovaries began to swell.
Periodically, my father called to inform me of the painfully slow growing process of what he thought was a Key lime. As it grew, so did my guilt. "It's about pea-size now," he'd report. Then, a month later, "It's probably somewhere between a grape and a small rubber ball." Then another month later, "It's about the size of a walnut." Dwarf citrus trees are like babies: They all pretty much look the same. The only difference is, of course, the fruit, and Meyer lemons don't turn yellow until the late stages of development, so there was nothing to tip my father off that what he had was not the real McCoy.
Two months went by, and I hadn't spoken to my father in some time, so I called him. We talked for a while about the weather and the Red Sox, and then I hazarded, "So, how is the Key lime?"
"Delicious!" he replied. "When it got to be just a little bit bigger than a squash ball, I snipped it off."
This is it, I thought. The jig is up.
"What did you do with it?" I asked timidly.
"Well," he said, "one isn't enough for a Key lime pie, of course, so I had a gin and tonic."
Was he toying with me? Did he know how hard it was for me to lie to him, and then to swallow that lie for over a year? How could a Key lime connoisseur like himself mistake the flavor of a Meyer lemon for that of a Key lime? How many gin and tonics had he had?
"And how was it?"
"It was interesting—when I cut the fruit open, it was yellow inside. It must be a strain I'm not familiar with."
"Must be," I said.
"Didn't matter though," he said. "It was the best Key lime I've ever had."
The tree doesn't get enough light on a Massachusetts kitchen table to produce more than one "lime" at a time, but about once a year, its little white flowers self-pollinate and a tiny fruit begins to swell. And when the Meyer lemon gets about as big as a Key lime, my father snips it off, makes a gin and tonic and garnishes it with a wedge. He doesn't seem to care that he'll never actually have enough fruit to make a pie.
Sometimes during the summer, when the days are longer, I get nervous that the tree will have a growth spurt and a lemon will grow large and yellow before my father has a chance to harvest it. But it hasn't happened yet. Other times, I worry that he'll realize there is no strain of Key lime that has golden flesh. Likely he won't, though—I suspect because he doesn't care. He loves his yearly gin-and-tonic-with-a-wedge-of-Key-lime tradition. And that's what makes my tiny lime-green lie worth it.
Charles Antin, a writer in Brooklyn, New York, has won an award for short fiction from the literary journal Glimmer Train.