The King of Tomatos

God knows where this came from...

I was passionate once or maybe just absentminded. I forget. Anyway this is a cautionary story about love, microwave meals, and cigarettes. Jasper was my up stairs neighbor, a quiet man. He moved in during the winter and I hardly heard a peep outta him, but come spring Jasper found himself some furious energy. Every morning before the sun came up, he'd start working on the garden behind the house. First he hauled out the broken concrete in a poorly balanced wheelbarrow. I'd watch him from my balcony - his scrawny arms straining and the wheel- barrow tipping, first right then left. I'd just be getting ready for bed and having the last cigarette of the day, letting the rich smoke trickle out of my nose. And there was this pigeon chested little old man doing the work of six healthy men. I'd just shake my head and chuckle a little bit but not too much.

Next, he hauled in some deep black dirt, pungent fertile earth. He had filled up the back of his pick up with it and it took him a full week to empty it. One day I went outside to talk to him.

"Hey there I'm your neighbor from downstairs."

"Howdy there."

He stopped working, to wipe the sweat from his eyes and lean on his shovel. And suddenly, like a thunderbolt it hit me, I was living with the King of Tomatos.

"Heh, mmm -- looks like you've really got this garden going; quite an improvement!"

His prune-like visage betrayed no emotion.

"So, uh, what are you planning on growing back here?"

I dreaded the response I was certain my unavoidable question would inevitably receive, but Jasper was not so easily coaxed into revealing his secrets. His eyes narrowed to tiny, suspicious slits.

"Could be one thing, could be another..." he mumbled vaguely. "I ain't rightly come to decide for sure."

I knew he was lying. To another man, many options would have been open at this point: to lamely finish the discussion and avoid ever having another, to attempt to win his confidence by displaying my deeply felt interest in his hobby, perhaps to humor him with suggestions and further homey questions. To me, there was only one possible course of action.

"Tell me, Jasper, where are you from? I mean originally, of course. Where do you come from originally? Tell me right now."

Martians always get flustered under pressure.

He tried to appear non-chalant but he wasn't fooling anyone. The license plates on his truck, the mystery fertilizer, and the infestation of martian snee-rodents gave it away to anyone to was looking for the signs.

"So you're the king of tomatoes," I said. The King of Tomatoes is the leader of any Martian invasion force. He plants the teleportation pods and nurtures them until they are ripe. They look suspiciously like tomatoes unless you know what to look for. In fact, in most recipes you can substitute teleportation pods for tomatoes, but you can't substitute tomatoes for teleportation pods when you have a recipe for INVASION.

"You bastard," he rasped. Suddenly his entire bearing changed. His back straightened, revealing his height to be at least four inches greater than I would have guessed. He removed a pack of D&P naturals from his back pocket, flipped one out and lit it. The oddly translucent smoke slowly drifted towards the ground. "I suppose it was the snee-rodents."

"Damn straight it was the snees -- but that wasn't your only mistake, buddy. This is a helluva sloppy operation if your game is what I think it is, and I'm pretty sure I'm right."

"My dear friend, I have no idea what you mean. I am a simple businessman, growing crops to be sold at the local farmer's market. I am playing no game at all."

His obvious sincerity mollified me completely. After gazing searchingly at me, Jasper went on:

"Listen, I wonder if you could do me a favor; my daughter will be arriving today from, well, from back home, and this is a critical time for me in the garden -- the topsoil, you know. So I wonder if you wouldn't mind taking her out for a few hours, showing her the sights, helping her get used to things here. She really doesn't know the ropes, and it seems to me you'd be the perfect guide..."

"What's your daughter's name, Jasper?"

"Her name," he said, "is Phoebe."

Alright, I thought. I can play this angle. I'll wine her and dine her, gain her confidence, and then use her to find out what good ole "Jasper" was up to.

"Well, I don't see where that would be a problem, but two young folk need a little bit of spending money to have a good time."

He thought about it for moment then nodded. He a crisp $20 out of his pocket, blew some smoke in my face, and chuckled.

"Thanks," I put the twenty in my pocket. "Mind if I bum a smoke?"

"It's my last one," he lied.

* * * * * * *

The evening found us cruising the tobacconists, my Geo Metro listing significantly to the right, complaining piteously under the weight of my passenger. Phoebe resembed her father in one respect only: her possessive lust for cigarettes. But not, of course, for any cigarettes. She had burned some sixty of her precious Tharsis Reds, without offering me one despite a number of broad and unsubtle hints, and now that she was out no other brand would do. So far, no Detroit tobacconist or convenience store clerk had even heard of them.

Phoebe was of a startling if monstrous beauty. Her skin, eyes, and hair were all the same color, a gorgeous alchemy of red gold, honey, amber, wildflowers. She towered over me at what could only have been an inch or two shy of seven feet in height, and she was voluptuous to the point of collapsing like an ancient sun under its own mass. There was a lot of Phoebe there in my little car. Just one of her splendid legs would have been difficult to squeeze into the front seat; the two of them, crossed at the ankle, naked and glowing under a short and flimsy skirt, plump to bursting -- all moisture deserted my mouth, my throat tightened.

"Listen, you said you had a few packs back at your dad's place -- maybe we ought to head back there. It'll only take us twenty minutes, and I'm sure it'll take us at least that long to find 'em here in Detroit..."

"No," she said flatly, her eyes remaining focused out the window. "Jasper will not be expecting us until 0800 Ante Meridian or later."

"Zer- what, eight in the morning? He doesn't want us back until eight in the morning, what does he..." I went cold, then hot, then both at once, and the road swam before me.

"Yes, that is correct. Eight in the morning -- local time."

"So, we'll be out all night, then..."

"No. Only part of the evening. Eight in the morning, local standard time."

"Wait a minute -- local standard time?"

"Yes, I have set my timepiece to local standard time, by your prime meridian. Greenwich time, WET."

Now I saw the source of the confusion. She was using Western European Time, and had forgotten that truly local time was Eastern Standard. But that still meant that Jasper didn't want us back before three in the morning -- most gardeners prefer to turn their topsoil when it's bright enough outside to see it. Still, there would be time enough for that mystery later. At the moment, I had something more urgent to attend to.

"Of course, that won't be a problem at all. But what shall we do with our time until then?" I laid a tentative hand on her massive, inviting, faintly redolent thigh.

"First we must find cigarettes."

"Do you have money, toots?"

"Yeah, I've got enough money."

Alright then, it was time to call Stan. Stan was a weasel of man but he had the knack of getting what you wanted, no matter how unusual - quick. He didn't work cheap though, and he didn't always want cash. I pulled the poorly balanced Geo over to the side of the road next to a phone booth. Phoebe twisted the rear view mirror to apply some more pink lipstick to her ample moist lips.

I got out of the car and the two driver side wheels left the pavement. I dug around in my pocket for some change, smiled and waved at Phoebe, and dialed.

"Steve...yeah its me. I need some Tharsis Reds pronto, a carton or two." Steve inhaled sharply and the whisted. "Man, what you want that for? People have been killed for less."

"What's the matter Stan, you can't deliver?" I let a whisper of contempt sneak into my voice.

"No, I can deliver, man, but do you know what you're getting into?"

"No Steve, I'm flying blind." I forced myself to make every word a sarcastic slap.

"Alright, man, so you know what you're doing, that's cool."

"How much?"

"How many microwaves can you get before 3 a.m., buddy?"

Microwaves! Why did he have to say microwaves? What the Hell did Stu want with microwave ovens, anyway? The bastard knew what he was doing though -- he knew what I would have to do. This meant an excursion to what was, after Greek Town, my least favorite Detroit neighborhood. This meant going into Tinker's Row.

As Phoebe and I lurched out of the Quik-E-Mart parking lot, my mind was racing. But it was hard for me to think productively; my mind kept returning to the ordeal ahead of me. Spend an hour among the Tinkers, and it's weeks before you're clean again. The miasma won't wash off: you have to wait until your skin cells slough off and get replaced. I shivered with revulsion, my hands felt sticky. I had to think, dammit! The Egyptian, yes, the Egyptian. I would go to the Egyptian first -- that slobbering, rancid slab of liver might have enough ovens on hand that another trip wouldn't be necessary.

At the Egyptian's great, slouching outhouse of a business establishment, Phoebe refused to leave the car -- and I couldn't blame her. Giving her a tiny, experimental buss between the knuckles of her left hand -- "for luck!" -- I headed in.

As the row upon row of merchandise entered my field of vision, I cursed Stubbs once again under my breath. "He's really done it to me this time," I thought. Rusting or shiny, ancient or modern, spread out across a workbench or still in plastic wrapping, the multitude of appliances filled me with a combination of nausea and ennui that made me want to pass out in my own vomit. The Egyptian saw me and waddled over, his flabby, molten features made still uglier by his wet, imbecile grin.

"Mister John! As always, an unexpected but a delectable pleasure! Ah, so toothsome, so succulent to see you!"

"Cut the crap, monkey-boy. Ovens. Microwave ovens. Microwave ovens that work. One year warranties. How many."

"Ah, Mister John, you come at a good time. Several items have just left my workshops with, shall we say, a functionality vastly improved over that guaranteed by the original manufacturers. I can offer you..."

"Let's start with the basics, you swine. The basics. What do you have?"

"This little GE model here, the 'Little Cookee,' you can have it for a song. Light, compact, but as powerful as you could need. Its original owner only used it to reheat pasta and to bake potatos..."

"Done. What else?"

"I have six Sony 'Micromaxes' still in the original packing, restaurant quality, you could fit a German Shepard in one, very cheap if you take all six..."

"Done. Show me more, curse you. More!"

"This little number here, retro styling, the chassis is from an early eighties model of the classic 'bomber' type, but inside it boasts cutting edge cooking technology, and as you can see, no eighties model ever sported a control panel like this one. Its performance has been boosted to levels--"

"The settings, damn your eyes! How many settings, whoreson, cur!" I felt that my fingernail grip on consciousness was slipping, the sweat poured off my cheeks in sheets, the boundaries of my vision narrowed.

"This one," he drawled, "goes to eleven." He rolled his eyes with deep, revolting satisfaction.

Involuntarily, I gnashed my teeth. "Done! More!"

"Here -- only one owner, a charming lady of a certain age, very proper, very correct, very reserved, she never took it over medium-low, only used it on Sundays..."

In the end, I cleaned out the Egyptian's entire stock, but it still wasn't enough. By the end of two more trips, I was a wreck, my hands trembling on the wheel. But somehow Phoebe's massive presence calmed me. Her body was like a mountain, and it gurgled like a mountain stream. I groped her thigh each time I had to use the gear shift.

I was surprised when we made it to Stan's hole without needing to be towed. The driver's seat was about an inch above the asphalt, and the passenger side had been throwing sparks the whole way. The Geo was crammed with womanflesh and microwave ovens. I had been sitting on two, the back seat and the area under the rear window were crammed, there were ovens strapped to the roof -- there where Phoebe was not, were microwaves. With a courage and a sense of resolve that surprised me, I said, "Phoebe, I think I had better go in alone to close the deal. This could get ugly." I felt like Clint Eastwood. As I turned, Phoebe's image still burned onto my retina, I had an erection like a redwood.

Stu's head was barely visible in the semidark, but I could feel his smirk. He plopped two cartons on the low table between us. "These are the only two cartons in the state," he said. "You did the right thing, coming to me."

"Yeah. Maybe. I got your ovens, Steve. All the ovens you need. Get someone to help me unload them, and I guess we're square." I reached for the smokes, but his heavy hand came down on them protectively.

"Not so fast, there, buddy. You held up your end of the bargain, sure, but you don't know what I had to go through on my end. These ain't easy to get. You owe me an explanation, old buddy, old pal. What do you need these so bad, you're willing to go to the Tinkers' to come up with the scratch?"

"No dice, Stan -- we didn't make a deal for any information. Ovens for smokes. That was our deal. I guess you don't want it to get out that you're the kind of guy changes the terms of the bargain halfway through, huh? I'm not telling you a damned thing."

"Well, I guess you don't want--"

Stu's eyes widened to take in a sight somewhere behind me. At the same moment, I felt a sudden presence looming like a serene Titan at my back. The scent of roses, sunsets, ancient civilizations, primal musk filled my nostrils. Phoebe had come.

Stan looked at me in disbelief. "I, I didn't... Well, well, well. John Ebbingkraft. I had no idea you were running in these circles -- I wouldn't have... You should have said something." He turned in embarrassment to Phoebe. "With compliments, my Lady -- but wait! How foolish of me! These cigarettes are stale, past their prime. Your indulgence, please..." He moved quickly to a wall safe, and on opening it produced four more cartons of Tharsis Reds. "These, Madam, are for you."

"Of course -- ha ha! -- there is no need for payment here. The cigarettes are a gift. And if there is anything more I can do, simply alert me that my services would be useful, and I am yours to command..."

As Phoebe made her Olympian exit, Steve brought his face close to mine and hissed, "Alright you bastard, you win -- take your damned ovens and get the fuck out of here. And never, ever let me see your face again!"

Meanwhile, in a small pub in Hamtrammack, Dr. Phlibious Putrum, B.S. Ph.D. M.D. and a very expensive expert witness in tobacco litigation, was idly tapping the filter end of a Tharsis Red on the stained formica countertop. His companion, Nieva, a shrewish woman with thin wide lips and buck teeth, was rifling through a stack of coffee stained papers.

The Dr. sighed, "It's all there - the spectral analysis, the chemical composition..."

"Yes, yes, I see that," Nieva hissed, "If they aren't tobacco what are they?"

"Well, dear," He patted her knee in a platonic fashion, "Your magazine paid for the test results," The knee on her hand was suddenly anything but platonic..."But for my expert opinion..., well, let's just say you will have to ask very nicely."

She slapped him, hard. "You filthy fuck. We didn't pay you we blackmailed you and if you don't want those photos mailed you'd best cut out the shit and level with me!"

He frowned, removed his glasses, and wiped them with a white hanky. "Of course. Tharsis Reds are designed to deliver methane gas, mercury, and trace amounts of several heavy metals - orally. There are additives to make the smoke taste and smell like that of cigarettes, but if I were to light this and smoke it...well, let's just say it would be a very disturbing occurrance."


"I don't know."

Neither of them noticed when the slightly pudgy man with a pasty face got up to make a phone call. He left a full ashtray and no tip.

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