Tomato: Heirloom Manitoba
by MATTHEW GIGG
For a tomato sandwich, Leonard planted a tomato plant on his apartment balcony. This year he would focus on the tomatoes, and next year he would learn how to make bread. Grow his own wheat even. It’s about control. Control the food and they control us. Henry Kissinger said something about that, and Leonard read it online:
“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people. If you are an ordinary person, then you can prepare yourself for war by moving to the countryside and building a farm, but you must take guns with you, as the hordes of starving will be roaming.”
Leonard couldn’t move to the countryside because he couldn’t afford a farm. He also didn’t have any guns, but he didn’t think that was necessary yet. First, he would learn to grow food. When the time came he would be ready.
Heirloom Manitoba Tomato: firm meaty flesh with a refreshing tangy taste; early producer, excellent; thrives in cool seasons; matures in fifty-eight to seventy days. When he bought it, it was small but robust. Thirty days, he guessed. He marked the days off on a calendar. Can’t be too organized when you’re taking control. Fifty-eight to seventy days. Thirty more. He had to be stoic.
So he began reading everything he could about tomatoes. Scientia Potentia Est. Knowledge is power. He found an old book at the library that promised to teach him everything. A tomato tell-all.
“Tomatoes were originally cultivated in Central and South America. It is believed they were first brought back to Europe by Spanish Colonizers after the fall of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City, in 1521.”
He should have known it wouldn’t be easy. Flat, unanimated history. The kind they teach in school. The talking-head kind. They fill you up so you can’t wander. Can’t wonder either. He’d have to read more. Read it all across, up and down. Right to left even. Then make the connections himself.
Emily watered her lawn every day, even if it was supposed to rain. Leonard didn’t work and neither did she. He knew she didn’t work because he didn’t see her go to work. Leonard watched her sometimes from his balcony while he tended to his tomatoes. She lived in a house across the street on a magnificent plot of land. It was covered in lawn though, probably Kentucky bluegrass or something like that. Did she know how deep those roots go? Leonard knew, and he imagined rolling up the sod like an unwanted carpet and putting something real in the dirt.
“Tomato flowers are equipped with both male and female parts—the stamen and the pistil, respectively. Consequently tomato plants, like other monoecious plants, are self-pollinating. One tomato plant is therefore capable of producing fruit on its own, without the need of planting two.”
This was a relief. Leonard didn’t know you needed two plants sometimes. He examined his little yellow blossoms. Each one a recluse. Seven eremitic stars. He grinned as he studied the folds of the flowers. Stamen and pistil.
Leonard read they were developing artificial pollinators in a lab in case bees go extinct. Farmers would then buy them to pollinate their crops. How long until you have to buy every part of the process? Bend you over and take you for all you’re worth.
He read they had developed a seed that wouldn’t produce more seeds. That’s control. Controlling life and livelihood. Come back when you’re out and we can sell you more.
The plant was crawling with aphids. Leonard gasped and rubbed his temples and paced back and forth from his kitchen to his balcony. He called the garden center where he’d bought the plant and they recommended an insecticidal spray or simple dish soap. Didn’t they understand, he screamed into the phone, that this was buying back into the system? They lost concern and hung up. On the Internet he found a suitable answer: clove oil. Heal plants with other plants. It made sense. Apply it meticulously, tickling the leaves.
Sometimes Emily watered her lawn in the afternoon with the sun beating down. Didn’t she know you’re supposed to water plants in the morning? Hadn’t she heard of evaporation? Completely ridiculous. Draining vitality. Leonard watched in disbelief. She fit the mold perfectly—either lazy or ignorant—and they’re counting on people to be one of the two.
Most supermarket tomatoes are picked green and then gassed with ethylene during transport so they can ripen just as they arrive. Leonard shook his head at this. The system is too convoluted if we have to gas our food. That’s how they keep control. Make the system so big and complex that no one has the time or energy to question it.
Leonard was anxious. Fifty days and no sign of tomatoes. Nothing at all. But he’d been meticulous with his care. Watered regularly. At precise times with precise amounts. Surely the plant must have settled into a comfortable routine. Where were the results? Every day Leonard shifted it down his patio as the sun moved, ensuring it got the daily recommended six to eight hours of sunlight. Yet there was nothing. No fertile swelling. He stared at his plant with growing disdain and questioned its virility.
But there were tricks that could be done. He had to calm himself down and remember his reading. There are always tricks. No need to panic. If you panic you fall right into their trap. Sometimes tomato plants don’t get enough pollinators or wind to naturally pollinate, so you had to help them along. This made sense. The apartment building and the balcony railings blocked most of the wind, and he was higher up. It wasn’t his plant that was the problem, it was the conditions it was in.
Leonard read you could shake the plant gently to imitate wind. For one week Leonard delicately wrapped his fingers around the stem and shook the plant. He felt its strength. He enjoyed watching the leaves tremble, especially if it was a windy day. He liked to sit on his couch after and smell his fingers: sour and verdant.
Emily stood on her lawn talking on her cell phone and smoking a cigarette. Leonard watched as he crouched over and shook his tomato plant. His plant that was growing food. His plant that was contributing something. He imagined the plant bursting forth with pollen as he shook it. Meanwhile Emily stood on her empty lawn. She wasn’t really doing anything. Just standing there. Leonard called her Emily because her hair reminded him of someone he’d once known, or maybe a movie star.
Still nothing. After a week of disciplined shaking. Leonard longed for the tiny green knobs of swelling tomatoes. There was one other thing: vibration. Leonard read that tomatoes could be pollinated with a vibrator. Of course they’d have commercial vibrators made specially for pollinating plants. They’re always trying to sell something. He wouldn’t bite—he had an electric toothbrush.
He placed his vibrating toothbrush on each flower. The vibration would open the flower and it would release its pollen. He did this first thing in the morning. He decided to keep shaking the plant too.
Leonard read there were hundreds of farmers in India committing suicide. It comforted him to know that even under all that control people still had the freedom to make a choice.
At last. Visible green nodules. Little green tomatoes fleshing outward. He thought back to junior high, when the girls in his class first started growing breasts. He sat and stared. Everything was so connected.
Emily watered her lawn every day, even if it was supposed to rain. Even if it looked like it was about to rain. Did she even check the weather forecast? Did she ever look up?
One special tomato, its skin starting to rouge. He cupped it delicately in his palm. It would be beautiful. He leaned in close and smelled it. Fresh and pungent. He had to hold himself back from tasting it.
Emily started mowing her lawn. He had to go inside out of disgust.
Leonard thought that Emily bought all her food at the store but he couldn’t prove it because he never saw her at the store.
This one really made him laugh. The world’s largest single tomato plant is in Lake Buena Vista, Florida: Walt Disney World. What a joke. It says something about food when the world’s largest tomato plant is in a goddamned theme park.
It hailed suddenly and brutally in mid-July. Leonard cursed himself for living on the top floor. He clenched his fists and screamed. He paced angrily. He had to calm himself quickly though, that was important. Nothing to get worked up about. Things like this happen. Nature has its own idea sometimes. You gotta have tough skin to grow your own food. Most people don’t, and that’s why most people are under control.
He looked from his crumpled plant to Emily’s lawn. The spears of grass pierced through the bed of hail, sharp green in the evening sun.
The red tomato was hanging into the dirt, limp and bruised. He brought it inside and cut it down the middle. He scooped out the seeds and put them in a glass jar, which he then placed on his balcony to dry out in the sun. Over the next few days, he held vigil. He made sure the flies never got too close and made sure the birds were always aware that he was watching.
When the seeds were ready, he put them in an envelope for storage. Next year he wouldn’t have to buy a new plant. One step further removed from the structure. One step closer to autonomy.
The final task was to dismember the plant. He wanted to mix it into the soil, to continue the cycle.
There were several tomatoes that had become mottled with black decay. Leonard pulled them off and threw them across the street, toward Emily. A few of them made it far enough and landed on the lawn. She turned slightly, raised a hand to her forehead to block the sun, and stared dumbly up at Leonard. She kept staring, so he threw one more that hit the sidewalk in front of her house.
“What the hell, man?” He jumped inside quickly and closed the blinds to his porch.
Nothing to do now but wait. Wait until next year. Plenty of time for reading. Knowledge is power. He imagined himself in heated debates with people in the streets. One by one they would wake up. He could wake them up, like he woke up. But first he had to read all he could. Arm himself with proper rebukes and pathways. Control the food and you control the people.
Matthew Gigg is a writer living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His work has appeared in the Calgary One-Act Festival, and been published in The Scores.