• Golden Boy

    Lily Meyer

    Spring 2023

    The tomato sat in a bowl of its own on the counter. “Look at him,” my dad crowed. “Golden Boy.”

    Golden Boy was fat and streaky, with rich orange veins running down his red sides. His stem gave off the faint, bitter smell of sun-cooked dirt. He had no wormholes, no soft spots, not one pucker or bruise. The chipmunks hadn’t touched him. He was misshapen, but most heirlooms are.

    “Nice tomato,” I said.

    “Nice?” Dad scooped Golden Boy from the bowl, cradling him to his chest. My dad’s knuckles were swollen with arthritis. When I last saw him, eighteen months ago, his joints had recently started aching. Now his whole body seemed stooped.

    “Naomi thinks you’re nice,” he told the tomato. “Not perfect. Not blue-ribbon quality. Nice.”

    “Blue ribbon?” I asked, dropping my backpack on the spotless, sandless kitchen floor. The marble countertop gleamed. Copper pots sparkled over the range. I smelled bleach and lemons, and I wondered who did the cleaning. Surely my father hadn’t learned, at sixty-eight, to dust and scrub.

    He lifted his chin. “What’s wrong with a blue ribbon?”

    “Nothing.” I kept my voice light. “Are you entering an ag show?”

    The answer, I knew, was no, though my father could clean up at the Truro Fair. He gardens with the zeal he once reserved for finance. In addition to heirloom tomatoes—Striped Caverns, Black Russians, Great Whites—he grows zucchini, pattypan squash, and both Japanese and Italian eggplants. He has blackberries and blueberries, which he protects from marauding birds with reflective tape and netting, and a brambly patch of raspberries that stay sour and greenish until the end of July. He has a peach tree and a stunted Braeburn apple that was here when he bought the house in 2001. He grows the Simon & Garfunkel herbs, plus basil, chives, cilantro, and some ailing lemongrass. All this, within fifty feet of the front door. The property extends further, but my father, these days, does not.

    He stroked Golden Boy, looking hurt. Out the window, a whale-watching boat cut a neat line across Cape Cod Bay, and I felt a brief and total longing to be on it. To be anywhere but my father’s gigantic beach house, once my favorite place on Earth.

    In penance, I said, “It’s a perfect tomato.”

    “Thank you.”

    “Do we get to eat it?”

    “Your brother brought a beautiful burrata from the city. I was thinking caprese for lunch.”

    My brother was on the back deck, snoring gently. A water glass sweated next to his lounger. His legs were profoundly tan. Rather than wake him, I leaned on the railing and compared the view to the one I remembered. In five years, not much had changed. The bay rolled and glittered before me. Seabirds hunted overhead, and squirrels and chipmunks rustled in the scrub pines. The neighbors’ wind chimes rang in the distance. The breeze carried all the right beach smells: hot driftwood, dried seaweed, dead fish.

    I heard Caleb stirring. “Naomi?” As I turned, he clambered upright. “Nome! You came!”

    “You asked me to.” He wrapped his arms around me, then picked me up—my giant baby brother—to whirl me in the air. “I did.”

    He set me down, grinning, and I relaxed into his side. Already I felt less sorry to be here. Under even the worst circumstances, time with Caleb was a treat.

    I reached up to ruffle the remains of his Wall Street-short curls. Four years in banking had stripped him of scruffiness, though he retained the white goal-collision scar on his forehead and the spray of blackheads on the bridge of his nose. The sun beamed down on his white smile. At twenty-six, he was thoroughly handsome. Jewish-looking, even more than Dad or me.

    “How was the trip?” he asked.

    “Fine. Easy.”

    I was lying, but not completely. The travel itself—a three-hour flight from Kansas City, then a two-hour drive down the arm of Cape Cod—had been smooth. Fast, even, for a summer Saturday. I’d expected more traffic. But what did I know? The last time I came to the Cape, I was twenty-five. Now it was at once familiar and strange to me, like catching my reflection in a car window and not recognizing it as mine. The bungalow colonies and pool-toy stores on Route 6 were decrepit as always. The churches had the same empty lots. The lobster shacks and clay tennis courts and lush, close trees were no different than I had remembered, but their saturated reds and greens still startled me.

    Caleb hugged me again, one-armed this time. “Missed you,” he said.

    “Missed you, too.”

    “Six months is too long. I should’ve come for Easter.”

    “We don’t celebrate that.”

    “Passover, then.”

    I imagined a two-person Seder at my folding table, Caleb cooking brisket in my unreliable oven, skimming fat from chicken soup to make matzoh balls. The meal would have required more shopping and cooking than I’d done since I moved to Missouri. My poor stove would have coughed its last gas fumes and died.

    Caleb tipped his head toward the house. “How’s he seem to you?”

    “Well, he’s talking to a tomato.”

    “Other than that.”

    “I don’t know. Normal.” Normal, meaning he air-traffic-controlled me into the driveway, like he thought I’d back into his eggplants. Meaning he’d already tried to slip me a hundred dollars. Meaning he’d kissed the tomato’s cheek, but not mine.

    “You know he made himself an ankle monitor,” Caleb said.

    “He did not.”

    Caleb’s broad forehead wrinkled like a pit bull’s. “Did you notice he’s wearing long pants?”

    I glanced through the glass door. Dad was in the kitchen, slicing and salting Golden Boy. He had on green-stained chinos. Brooks Brothers, from a prior age.

    “He has an ankle monitor under there?”

    Caleb returned to his lounge chair. I pulled a second one close. “It’s an Apple Watch,” he said. “He set it to beep when he’s more than fifty feet from the house.”

    “Does he know actual home confinement doesn’t include gardens?”

    “How do you know?”

    “Looked it up.”

    We sat quietly for a moment, gazing at the bay. I had missed this view. Missed this house. Missed spending days at Long Nook with Caleb, playing beach volleyball and watching puppyish seals slide through the waves. I wished we could go this afternoon. Pack sandwiches, hike down the dune, dive into the frigid Atlantic, and then tilt our canvas chairs back and nap in the sun. We could stay till dusk, drinking Narragansetts from crumbling college-era coozies, cultivating a low-grade buzz that would enable us to forget, or at least ignore, the problem that brought me here after half a decade of self-imposed exile in the unincorporated Ozark town of Climax Springs, Missouri, which was that our father, Bart Friedlander, in a fit of eleven-year-late remorse for his complicity in Lehman Brothers’ 2008 crash and the global financial crisis it precipitated, had, ten weeks ago, convicted himself on three RICO charges and placed himself under permanent house arrest.

    He was a trader. A heels-on-the-desk, chair-spinning, Bloomberg-addicted mortgage securities executive who chewed pens so hard they bled ink. He took great pride in his nerve and focus and, I always thought, in his perfect embodiment of the Wall Street role. He was more born to it than the born-to-its, never mind that he worked his way to the top suite from a job as a trading-desk grunt.

    He was American by birth, but barely. My grandmother Ida was six months pregnant when she and my grandfather arrived in 1951, having spent the war in Brighton and the post-war in Tel Aviv and found neither to their liking. England was too anti-Semitic. Israel, too full of Jews. The United States was a different story, or New York was. My grandparents, proud German Jews, settled happily into Russian Jewish Queens, where they felt both safe and set apart. They might have been as poor as, if not poorer than, the Soviet refugees around them, but they knew, as my grandfather said, how to expand their horizons. We learned English and Russian both, he’d tell me and Caleb. We went to the Reform synagogue and the Orthodox one. We diversified ourselves.

    My dad taught his dad diversified. He loved drilling his parents on finance words. He took us to visit them in Rego Park every Sunday, brought us back reeking of chicken grease and asking, for the thousandth time, why Grandma called him Artie, not Bart. We loved knowing that he’d changed his name. It made him seem like the hero in some adventure novel. For a while in elementary school, I drew a comic strip about him. Undercover Artie. Caleb probably still has it somewhere.

    Our mother never came on those Queens outings. She took great pleasure in Wall Street wifehood, but family life never suited her. She outsourced me and Caleb to a string of nannies, summer camps, and boarding schools, and left Dad five months after Caleb started at Choate. Neither of us has ever been welcome in her loft in Chelsea, and she’s never even floated the idea of visiting me. When we talk, she tells me about the gallerists she’s befriended, as if I might still want representation someday. As if I’ve painted seriously since dropping out of SAIC—not that I was serious then. She refuses to accept that I was wasting time in art school. Wasting space. During the Great Recession, my classmates were taking out second student loans to buy supplies. They were sculpting abstractions and photographing Occupy protests, and I was buying coke in club bathrooms and testing polyamory with Kyles who traded pig futures. The closest I came to making art was piercing my nipples on camera for somebody else’s short film. I don’t remember what I was doing the day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. I do know I didn’t call home.

    Dad slid the door open. “Kids! Lunch on the screen porch, or inside?”

    “Porch,” Caleb and I said in unison.

    “All right. Get it while it’s hot.”

    None of the food was hot. He’d made caprese salad, as promised, and served it with smoked bluefish dip and strange, seed-covered crackers he’d baked himself. “Pretty good, right?” he said, snapping one in half.

    “Where do you get the seeds?” I asked.


    Behind him, an acid-green grasshopper crawled up the window frame. A goat bleated somewhere. Pollen drifted across the floor. It pleased me to see an unclean surface. I wondered whether my father kept his bedroom, or its attached bathroom and den, as immaculate as the downstairs.

    I took a bite of burrata, which was soft and creamy, its pores overflowing with Dad’s fancy olive oil. It was, I had to admit, a perfect accompaniment to Golden Boy. I hoped I would be able to digest it. I hadn’t eaten this caliber of dairy in years.

    In Missouri, I tried hard to eat simply. To eat, and also to live. When I moved to Climax Springs, I signed my trust fund over to Planned Parenthood of Southwest Missouri—who, God knows, needed it more than I did—and got a nine-dollar-an-hour job at the garden center. On my days off, I hiked alone, or volunteered at the animal shelter in Lake of the Ozarks. I concentrated on purifying myself of New York, and of my New York ideas about pleasure and ease. Clearly, my father had no desire to do the same. How could he, when he’d confined himself to a bay-view vacation house worth, last I checked, 3.8 million? The whole idea was absurd.

    But Caleb was taking it seriously. He rattled the ice in his water, then cleared his throat. “Dad,” he said. “Naomi and I were thinking.”

    Our father had a mouthful of bluefish. He swallowed and wiped his lips. “Both of you? At the same time?”

    Caleb crossed his arms. “Funny.”

    “We were thinking,” I said, “that it would be nice to go to Long Nook after lunch.”

    They swiveled their heads at me. Dad looked angry, Caleb alarmed. I was alarmed too. I had planned to let my brother do the talking. He cared about overturning the RICO conviction, not me. I was only here for moral support.

    “I miss the ocean,” I said. “I haven’t seen it for ages.”

    Caleb shoved a bite of tomato into his mouth. Poor kid. He’d probably planned a whole speech for his rescue mission, packed with clear, reasoned arguments that would roll off our father like rain.

    My brother tried arguing with me the first time he visited Climax Springs. From Thursday night to Sunday morning, he lobbied for me to come home. Out of love, I pretended to listen. I doubted Dad would do the same.

    I held out my arm. “Look at my farmer’s tan. From the garden store. I need to even it out.”

    Dad planted his elbows on the wicker table. He gave me his best trading-floor glare. “You can tan on the deck.”

    His tone was final. I knew better than to respond right away. Instead, I took a sweet, acidic bite of Golden Boy. A salt flake pricked the roof of my mouth. Sun shone through the browning pine needles outside the porch screens. It turned the distant green waves into glass.

    I wanted that sun. I wanted to protect Caleb from Dad’s disregard, but I also wanted, truly and selfishly, to go to the beach. To walk on a sandbar. To bob in the ocean like I had as a girl.

    “Remember when I was little,” I said, turning to Dad, “and the doctor told you to lose weight, and you invented the Hypothermia Diet?”

    He nodded. His face looked cramped and puckered, like he’d bitten into a sour fruit.

    “Remember how I’d come float in the water with you?”
    He gave me a second tight nod. The memory, evidently, didn’t warm him like it warmed me. I had loved drifting in the Atlantic with my father. We’d paddle for what I thought were hours, always watching the shore with its high orange dunes. We could see beachgoers tramping up and down the lone path to the parking lot, skimboarders flailing their arms like little windmills, Caleb zooming through the surf in his water wings. We laughed about his sand-eating habit, discussed the upcoming school year, debated the relative merits of lobster rolls and whole-belly fried clams. When we emerged, prune-fingered and shivering, Dad would jiggle his belly and sigh. Not gone yet, he’d say. I guess we have to do another round tomorrow.

    “That was an excuse,” I said. “Right? You just wanted me to swim with you.”

    He smiled, finally. “Busted.”

    “So now I want you to swim with me.”

    The smile vanished. Caleb dropped his head into his hands. The grasshopper leapt from the window, and my father said, “Naomi, if you’d like to swim, by all means, swim. Take your brother. You don’t need me to come.”

    “I’d like you to.”

    “You know I can’t do that. You know the fifty-foot rule. And frankly, Naomi, when I visit you in Missouri, I always abide by your rules. No treats. No excursions. Last time, we washed dogs at the SPCA.”

    He paused, waiting for me to concede. I said nothing. In five years, he’d visited four times, always via loaner jet. I had come to Truro not three months into his made-up moral quarantine. I thought the gesture warranted some credit.

    But none was forthcoming. “I’d like us to have a nice time together,” he said. “A nice family weekend. I think your brother would like that, too.” He glanced at Caleb, who moved not at all. “So go to the beach if you want. But I hope you’d rather stay home with me.”

    Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator from Washington, DC

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