Dr. David Mokotoff is a retired physician and avid writer. His works have been published in multiple journals and blogs. They most often involve the human side of medicine. He has also published a memoir and short story collection. When not writing, or reading, he is fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, gardening, or cooking.
The Last Lychee Tree
Leonard sat on his screened-in porch and watched steam rise from the street. The blacktop was so hot that rain evaporated as soon as it hit the pavement. He eyed a large green iguana staring from his perch on a mildewed coral rock in the front yard. These reptiles had taken over the Keys, and he wasn’t sure if it was eyeing him out of curiosity or fear. Leonard was an passionate fisherman and although he didn’t’ know much about plants or trees, he knew these beasts were devasting the local flora. “Maggie,” he yelled. “Bring me my machete.” She ignored him, having heard this outburst before. He kept the machete in the shed behind the house. She was convinced his requests were a feeble attempt to both aggravate and amuse her, since the only thing he had ever killed with it was tall pampas grass. A devoted wife for more than two decades, she balanced work and homemaking, and tolerated her spouse’s quirks because he was a devoted and loving man. Her only sadness was a childless marriage as a result of Leonard’s azoospermia. He continued. “You know in the islands they eat those critters. They say they taste—" “Just like chicken, I know,” she said peeking her head, that was full of curlers, outside. With the door cracked, their chocolate lab, Gunner, bolted out and chased a rat from under the monkey grass. The rodent darted under the worn and crooked wood fence. Maggie brought out the lemonade, sweat dripping off of the iced glass, and set it down on an antique wooden compass table. The lacquer had long since peeled off and he had stopped caring about ruining what was left of the finish. Next to the glass she plopped down several blood pressure and cholesterol pills. “Any bourbon in this?” he asked with a crooked smile, already knowing the answer. “In your dreams cowboy.” She wiped her hands on a threadbare apron and started to walk back inside. “Hey, Maggie,” he said. “You know you’re the love of my life.” “I know honey. And you are too. Now take your medicine and come inside for dinner.
Life hadn’t been too hard for Leonard Urban. He would joke that he was related to Keith, just not as rich or handsome. He’d spent his life playing and working in the Florida Keys. Boats were his passion. He spent most of his life on one—not relaxing or fishing, but fixing them. He was a motorhead. There wasn’t a diesel or outboard he couldn’t take apart and repair. He could rewire an old discarded boat, sand it, and re-paint it to look like new. Metal would sparkle and teak would shine. People sought him out everywhere from Melbourne to Key West. His tanned and leathery skin, baked by years of sun exposure, made him look years older than 62. It was in 2005 that his best friend and fishing buddy, Mitch had died of pancreatic cancer. This scared him and he became obsessed with thoughts of dying. So he contemplated retirement. Just fish. And do nothing. Maggie had been making enough income for both of them as a realtor. He had worked since he was a teen and saw this as an opportunity to relax. He would not miss strenuous work in the pitiless Florida heat, or the demanding customers. He might miss the pride of a job well done, of bringing a machine long thought to be dead back to full function. He wasn’t bitter. Just perplexed and bored. Maybe retirement would be quitting too early. He figured he had smoked, drank, and ate whatever he wanted. Any day over 60 was a bonus. In fact, he and Maggie had done okay…until Wilma. Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, devastating the Middle Keys. Folks just weren’t buying homes like before. When the damage was finally cleaned up, the Great Recession hit and home buying tanked again. His business was tied to the economy as well. Recessions were bad for boat sales. Few were buying, and those who could afford boats, were not inclined to maintain them. Since he had saved a fair amount, retirement had seemed like a good option. So for five years, he had fished. A former client had just got them a $5,000 settlement from BP related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. South Florida realtors and businesses thus had a temporary bailout. They were flush with cash…briefly. But their savings were dwindling. Tossing back pills into his mouth, he swallowed and slammed the glass down. He went back into the house. Maggie served his chicken and he made a sour face. “We should raise these things. Then we would have eggs and meat. We could grow us some mangoes and papayas too. Pretty soon we wouldn’t even need to shop at Publix.” “Yeah and what else you going to grow on this sorry-ass plot of limestone, Farmer John?” Maggie grinned. “I dunno,” he replied stroking his five-day old gray beard. But that did give him an idea. After dinner they sat on the porch and watched the crimson and orange sun melt into the sea. Soon the katydids and tree frogs clicked and croaked in staccato and syncopated rhythm. “I’m serious, you know, Mag. Let’s go to the tree farm in the morning.” “Oh joy,” she said. “Now we can have fruit rats too.”
They followed US 1 to a small dirt road in Marathon. The sign, broken since the hurricane, read “Gator Bob’s Nursery and Plants.” As their ancient and rusting red Ford Ranger crunched over the oyster shell driveway, they could tell the business had seen better days. There were tilted trees, blown over from wind, and cracked pottery planters strewn over the scrub grass and dollar weeds. As the Urbans lumbered out of the old truck, they saw a driftwood sign attached to a thatched hut and office that said “Going out of Business.” “Guess we came at just the right time,” Maggie scoffed. Leonard chuckled. They walked inside past some dying orchids and ferns. They saw a man in tan shorts, flips flops, and stained shirt adorned with red hibiscus flowers. His blue eyes and tasseled hair peaked out from underneath a tattered straw hat. He had one silver earing, and a beard. “You Gator Bob?” Leonard asked. “Nope,” he said, “His son, Tim.” “You open?” “You got money?” Leonard paused for a moment and then said, “Yeah.” “Then I’m open.” Maggie suppressed a giggle and watched as the two old Conchs shook hands. “What can I help with you with?” “I’m looking for fruit trees. What you got?” “Just about anything you’d want…mangoes, papaya, banana, citrus, whatever.” “I ain’t looking to spend much. Any of em on sale?’ Tim scowled and jerked his thumb up to the sign. “They’s all on sale. Make me an offer.” Leonard had brought three hundred dollars with him, but had no intention of letting on how much he had. “What can I get for $200?” Tim thought for a moment. “We’ll see.” “I don’t know much about growing stuff. I’m a boat engineer by trade. What’s easiest?” “How soon you looking for fruit?” the owner asked. “Soon as possible.” “How’s your soil?” “Mostly sand.” “Hmm,” Tim said, sliding several tanned and tattooed fingers over his scruffy jaw line. “Well, you’ll need some top soil and peat moss at least. What do you like to eat?” “Fish and steak,” Leonard joked. Tim scowled. “No…I mean what kind of fruit?” “Don’t care much.” Tim rolled his eyes and glanced over at his withering inventory. “Ok. Let me see what I can do.” He grabbed a rusted metal red wagon nestled under a half dead Palmetto palm, and pulled it over the shells. The nurseryman loaded an orange, mango, carambola, and papaya tree onto the wagon. They were small but all of them had some fruit. “This plus stuff to help them grow should get you in around $200. You need to dig a hole at least twice as wide and twice as deep as the root ball, mix up your peat and topsoil about half and half, water the ball and plant it with this here topsoil and moss. Water again. Need to water every day for at least two weeks, depending of course on how much rain we get. It being July, as you know, it’s the rainy season.” Leonard didn’t need a weather report and nodded. He looked over at Maggie who had a disinterested gaze and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Don’t ask me, this was your idea.” “Okay then. I’ll take em.” But as Tim loaded the trees, Leonard noticed in the corner a smaller dark-green leafed sapling. It had no fruit. It looked lonely and out of place. “What’s that?” he asked. Tim looked around and grinned. “That’s a lychee tree.” “What’s a lychee?” “Asian fruit. It’s kind of sweet and juicy. You never ate one?” Tim asked. “No.” “Follow me.” They walked behind the loaded squeaky wagon and went to the opposite side of the yard. There a giant tree spread out over the thatched office. It must have been 60 feet tall with a canopy at least 30 wide. Tim pulled down a long branch and plucked off a round maroon fruit. It had small spikes on the outside. He showed it to Leonard. “This here’s a lychee.” He broke open the outer shell to reveal a glistening gray object about the size and color of a ping pong ball. He handed it to Leonard. “Now be careful because there’s an actual nut inside the fruit. I don’t want you breaking a tooth.” Leonard stared at it for a moment, then bit into it. His tongue came alive with a tart yet also sweet goo. He smiled and ate some more, being careful to avoid the tough brown chicken-heart shaped kernel in the center. “Damn, that’s good. I ain’t ever tasted anything like that before.” “They grow and eat em in Asia. But they do well in our climate too.” “How old is this tree?” “Not sure…probably at least forty years.” Leonard thought for a moment. “So that other tree will have fruit like this too.” “Maybe, in two to three years, if you’re lucky. That’s the last one I got on account of some damn tree mites or bugs that infected them. Suppliers aren’t shipping anymore for a while. “ Tim could see his customer thinking and didn’t wait before saying, “I’ll throw it in with the rest of your purchase at no cost.” Leonard looked pleased and cracked a half-smile.
He and Maggie waited until after the late afternoon storms had passed. Although it was still steamy, at least the sun was covered by lingering clouds and the temperature had dropped to a balmy 82 degrees. There was a nice sea breeze. They raked and cleared the shells from the sparse dirt in the front yard and dug holes. Still wet, the meager topsoil yielded soon to rake and shovel. They separated each hole by about five feet and planted. Drenched in sweat they gazed out at the new garden. For a moment he felt dizzy and limp. Assuming he was dehydrated, he drank some water, and then realized they had forgotten the lychee. There was no more room in front. Looking around he saw a nice spot in the sunny side yard. Using up the remaining topsoil and peat moss, they placed the lonely tree opposite the kitchen window. Suddenly he was too weak to move. Maggie chugged some water and asked him if he liked his new project. He mumbled something unintelligible. He could not pronounce any real words. That was the last thing he remembered before collapsing.
“Mr. Urban, how many fingers am I holding up?” a paramedic yelled. Leonard could not reply. Just stare. The ambulance took Leonard to the small local hospital where he was diagnosed with a stroke. His whole right side was paralyzed. Doctors and nurses barked questions at him but he still could not speak. His thoughts were jumbled and he could only see shades of gray and faces surrounded by penumbras. People in white coats buzzed around him as if he were in a beehive. He was semi-conscious when they loaded him into the medi-evac chopper and took off to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Time was compressed and he felt numb. More people poked and prodded him. He felt like he was watching a movie about himself. Feeling naked and alone, he was aware of being cold and inside a hard metal cylinder, that made a “ker-chunk” sound. He would later learn it was an MRI machine and it had diagnosed a blood clot in the main artery going to the left side of his brain. A clot busting medicine was given to him by vein and within minutes he could speak and move his right side. His dizziness was gone and he was alert. Glancing up at Maggie by his bedside he asked, “Did we get that last tree planted?’ “Yes, darling. We sure did.”
Leonard completed physical and speech therapy. He also saw an occupational therapist who watched him move dominoes around on a board. The therapist said his coordination was good enough to work on engines again. She asked if he wanted to do that. He thought for a moment, and nodded. Leonard unretired. Before too long the Urbans were preparing a small Christmas tree. The winter that followed was fierce. It even snowed in Ft. Lauderdale, which hadn’t happened in decades. The citrus tree and the papaya succumbed to the hard freeze. In spring the remaining citrus had either canker or greening, both untreatable and fatal to the tree. By next summer the front yard only had a mango, that did not bear new fruit, and the Carambola that Leonard said tasted like wax and made him gag. The lychee had survived but bore no fruit. The Urbans still had to shop at Publix. Real estate was slow to recover in the Keys and Leonard was able to get Social Security disability for an insubstantial income and one year later was able to get Medicare health insurance. Before long two years had passed. He started tinkering with engines again and enjoyed doing some small non-strenuous repair jobs. He found that by working fewer demanding jobs, he could enjoy his trade again. Maggie sold some homes and they were able to scrape by on her small income, some savings, and his social security.
Dr. Steven Carlson was head of the Agriculture Department at the University of Florida. First he thought the reports were flukes. It seemed that lychee trees were either dying, or were sterile, in various central and southern counties of the state. Mites, bacteria, and fungus were ruled out. He was not aware of viruses attacking the plant. Lychees were not a huge part of Florida’s agricultural exports, so there was no grant money to study the problem. He looked at the dead specimens sent to him and suspected canker. Canker referred to different plant diseases that appear with small areas of dead tissue and progress over years. Some are minor but others lethal. In short, he was stumped. He needed to contact his colleagues in Southeast Asia. One early summer morning, Leonard stood at his kitchen window sucking down his third cup of black coffee. He stared at the bird feeder and let his eyes wander to the lychee tree, now four years old. “Maggie,” he yelled. “Come over here and take a look.” “Is it another crow at the feeder?” she asked “Nope. Look at the tree.” She stared for a moment. “Yep. I see a tree.” “Look closer,” he said, waving his arms. “Is that fruit?” “Yep.” The couple ran out the side door into the still humid air. Sure enough, hanging from the vines were brown buds about the size of a golf ball. “Well I’ll be damned.” Leonard’s whole body shook with excitement. “I believe we’ve got lychees!” Plucking a specimen, he stared at it for what seemed like hours. “Well, you going to eat it or frame it?” his wife asked. Slowly he dug his nail under the dark pointy husk and stripped it away. Inside was a grayish glistening globe that dripped sweetness. Placing it in his mouth, the explosion of soft juices lit him up. He smiled. The liquid oozed out of the corner of his mouth. He opened another one and offered it to his wife. After eating it, she circled her arms around his waist and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Why Leonard, I believe I married a farmer.”
That summer they feasted on the luscious fruit, although it was a challenge getting to the lychees before the birds. Leonard solved this by looping a large fishing net over the now eight-foot tree. The net kept the birds from plucking off the prize. They had lychee fruit compote with whipped cream, jam to serve on toast, and a salsa on the side of fresh grilled fish. They even squeezed the fruit for lychee martinis. By the end of July all of their crop was gone. “I think I want to buy another one or two of these,” he said as they sat drinking iced-coffee. “Why not a whole garden full?” she asked. “We can sell them and make lychee marmalade and jams too.”
Dr. Carlson struck out with his contacts in Asia. They were unaware of any new diseases or problems with their lychees. He was left to conclude that the Florida trees must have acquired something new here unique to the species. He asked a couple of his graduate students to start surveying nurseries and farms in the state and conduct a stock assessment. It would be a slow process but the only way he knew to track down a nascent disease.
The Urbans could not locate any new lychee trees. The story was the same. “We can’t get them anymore” or “they won’t grow healthy.” Not being adept at computers, they never searched the Internet. If they had, they would have come across a webpage entitled www.sicklycheetrees.com. The site was linked to Dr. Steven Carlson’s email address at the University of Florida. It was another attempt to gather more information about ailing trees. But in the end, it was Dr. Carlson who would find Leonard and Margaret.
“You might want to take a look at this” was the subject line of an email awaiting the agriculture professor one Monday morning. It was from Tricia Alexander, one of his graduate students. He sipped his Cuban coffee from the department’s Café Bustelo machine. The email was short and to the point. “My uncle Tim is, or I should say was, the owner of Gator Bob’s Nursery in Marathon. He is retired now but we were at a family reunion this weekend. I told him about your research interest. He mentioned that a local couple had bought his last lychee tree a few years back just before they went out of business. He doesn’t remember their name, but thinks they lived in Islamorada and the husband fixed boats. Hope this helps.”
It took only a few minutes for a Google search to turn up the name Leonard Urban in Islamorada. He dialed the number and got a voicemail. He left a message. “Hi. This is Dr. Steven Carlson at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I am researching the disappearance of lychee trees in South Florida and understand you may still have one. I would be interested in speaking with you if this is true and it’s still alive.” He then left his private cell phone number and prayed. He waited and waited. Three days later as he was about to dig into a Cobb salad at his desk, his phone rang. There was no caller ID. With so many telemarketers and robo-callers, he usually would not answer it. But when he saw the 305-area code, he knew that the origin could be the Florida Keys. “Hello. This is Steven Carlson.” There was a pause. Then a deep voice replied. “This is Leonard Urban. I think you left a message on my home phone. I’m sorry but we don’t get many calls anymore and only my wife has a cell phone. I can’t stand those things, but guess I could get more work if I bought one. Anyway, what I can do for you?” It took less than one minute before Dr. Carlson found out that yes indeed the tree was still very much alive and bearing fruit. And yes, he was more than welcome to come down and look at the tree and take some samples. The professor thanked Leonard and made plans to drive down soon. “Was that the professor guy?” Maggie asked. “Yep,” said Leonard. “I think our tree is about to become famous.”
Jason Sullivan was a tree farmer in Homestead, Florida. His specialty was exotic tropical trees. He had inherited the business from his father in the 1990s and doubled the size of the farm. It wasn’t long until his “a tick above wholesale” pricing caught the eyes of nearby nurseries. What he lost in margin, he made up in volume. His farm, Southern Exposure Exotics, soon took over the bulk of the sapling and tree business, much like Perdue or Tyson had in the chicken world. Always with an eye to the future, he searched for ways to make his lychee trees more productive and distinctive. He tasted a Rambutan fruit on a buying trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2006. Closely related to lychees in taste and texture, the Rambutan had bigger fruit. Then he had an aha moment. He smuggled back some saplings, and grafted them to a lychee tree. He hoped for a larger and more profitable hybrid. The problem was the trees became sterile and bore no fruit. Undeterred, he produced hundreds of them that he marketed and sold as “lychee hybrids with large fruit.” After five years of the scam, word got out that his lychee trees were bad and buyers went elsewhere. However, by this time, nurseries had harvested the seeds and started to grow their own product, resulting in an almost viral spread of a beautiful but non-fruit bearing tree.
Dr. Carlson made the eight-hour drive from Gainesville to Islamorada on a hot and steamy September weekend. Wisely he had avoided Labor Day but the traffic, particularly on US 1 from Miami to Key Largo, was still brutal. Pulling into the Urbans driveway in his old Subaru Forester, he thought his back would split as he opened the door. A large brown dog rose up to lick his face. “Gunner, off!” yelled Leonard. The professor fell part way out of his seat as his briefcase tumbled to the ground. “I’m so sorry,” said Leonard. “We don’t get many visitors and he still gets excited. Are you hurt?” “No. Not at all. It’s not a problem.” Steven dusted himself off and then bent down. Leonard knelt to help him, knees crackling like popcorn form arthritis. Standing up both men shook hands. “Can I get you something to drink?” Leonard asked. “Sure. Water or iced tea please.” “Sweet or unsweetened?” “Sweet would be great,” the professor said but added, “I’m sure all that sugar will give me diabetes or cancer.” Leonard shrugged, saying only “You’ve got to die of something.” The two men walked over to the front porch where they met Maggie and Leonard delivered the guest’s order. Sitting down on a creaky bamboo chair, Leonard nixed the small talk. “So you got an interest in my tree, huh?” “Yes. It seems it might be one of the few healthy lychee trees left in all of South Florida.” “Is that right?” Leonard thought about how much money some university stiff might offer. Steven told him the saga of the hybrid trees and said he had already done DNA testing on the sterile breeds. He asked Leonard if he could see the tree and take a sample from under the bark. Before he could respond, Maggie came out with two sweet teas and said, “So we would like to help you and the university any way possible. We aren’t looking for money.” Leonard almost spit out his drink. He felt his face redden and blood pressure soar. “Now Maggie, let’s just give the doctor here some time to assess the situation and see how we can help. I don’t want to just give up my favorite tree.” Steven chuckled. “Oh no. You can keep the tree. I just want to inspect and test it. I’m actually doing this on my own dime. You see the state and the university have not provided any grant money for this. It’s kind of a hobby for me.” Again Leonard thought he would fall over and plant his face onto the porch’s weathered oak planks. He bit his tongue and said nothing. Maggie came to his rescue. “Let’s go look at the tree why don’t we?” Maggie and Steven went to the side of the clapboard house and Leonard sauntered behind, his head bowed and eyes on the ground. Steven was impressed when he saw the tree. “Wow. That’s a nice tree. Did you have a lot of fruit this summer?” “Almost a hundred,” said Maggie. Leonard continued to scowl. Steven ignored him, and opened his brief case. He removed a sterile flat-blade knife and carved a thin sample from under the bark about midway up the trunk. He slipped it into a small plastic bag and sealed it. He then snapped some photos. “That’s really all I will be needing. Thanks again for your cooperation and hospitality.” He grinned. “I best be starting home.” However, before shaking Leonard’s hand, he paused. “I can see you are kind of disappointed Mr. Urban. Were you expecting some sort of a windfall here?” “Maybe,” he stammered with his face still fixed in a frown, half looking at the Professor’s head and half at the tree. Steven burst out laughing. “You don’t get it do you?” Leonard’s face flushed again and his right fist tightened, ready to land a punch on his guest’s shiny teeth. But the tone changed to solace and sympathy. “I’m sorry but you might have a gold mine here.” Leonard looked up as if the doctor had seven heads and stared. “I mean you have the last real lychee tree in South Florida. All you have to do next summer is save the seeds and plant them. After six months or so you can sell them to nurseries all over the state pretty much for any price you want.” The host’s dour expression turned into a broad smile. “I mean there might be a few real ones around to compete with, but most of the trees are now sterile due to the hybrid damage from few years back.” As he spoke, the couple beamed like they had won the lottery. Grabbing his hand and forearm at the same time, Leonard, who was near tears, could only say over and over, “Thank you, thank you.” He pumped the doctor’s arm, refusing to let go. Dr. Carlson was able to finally break away. The couple and he exchanged good-byes and he started back towards Miami. His field work was over. All that remained was some DNA testing and submitting a paper to the Agricultural & Biological Engineering Journal. 2016
The Urbans tree continued to produce plentiful and delicious fruit. As the professor had suggested, they planted the seeds and raised many saplings. However, by this time the Florida nurseries had found other suppliers of healthy trees in Asia. The bonanza that had been forecast never materialized. They did however have dozens of lychee trees and as Maggie had suggested, began making and selling all kinds of lychee products from the driveway. They wouldn’t be rich, but they sure had lots of fruit. As for other foods…well they still had to shop at Publix.