Debora Warner: "Tomaniac"
Catalogue essay for "An Empty Space"
Essay also titled "Stranger Fruit"
Akira Ikeda Gallery
Close on: tomato plant, two tomatoes hang side by side. A distinctive thread encircles the tomatoes—as if they’re skins are stitched.
Wider shot: tomato garden on plantation. South Carolina: 1840s.
In the vines. White limbs, and black. Plants rustle. The limbs: entangled in sex.
Sniffing hounds. Horses. A manhunt.
A lynch mob, quiet.
Close: the naked back of a black man. A white man’s arm swings upward. A whip?
No, a scythe. Makes two deep cuts under the shoulder blades.
Close, on a white man’s lips. Southern accent.
Strange fruit, or stranger fruit?
White hands, digging into the incisions; the back of the man writhes in agony.
Close on: the lungs, pulled out of the incisions. As the victim takes a sudden breath, the lungs inflate to taut bloody orbs, which resemble ...
MATCH CUT TO:
EXT. CLOSE UP: TWO TOMATOES HANGING SIDE BY SIDE.
EXT. THE SAME TOMATO GARDEN, 170 YEARS LATER.
Two young men, two young women (one blonde, one brunette) sit around a fire pit.
Susie, the brunette:
That never happened.
It did. Read it in the archives.
INT. LAB. MORNING.
The four arrive for work. They don white coats. Agricultural research. Susie and Trevor, foreground. Trevor attends to a DNA model on a giant screen—rendered overnight.
Are you sure these are heirloom tomatoes?
Yeah, absolutely. Those are the tomatoes they were growing here in 1847. I have seed samples and a journal entry—
Oh, so you have been in the archives? So you know about the tomaniac?
(a little scared)
Two disappearances in 1971, and again in 77 and 79.
Trevor, turning his attention back to the giant screen, points out his findings.
So, what you see here: that’s very unusual. It looks like a sequence of DNA from, well, from a primate.
Like a human?
Jose, sipping his Fiji Artesian Water, has made a surprising discovery at the microscope. He calls over Susie, Trevor, and Alice, the second woman and fourth researcher.
Hey, look at this.
Alice, Trevor and Susie take turns at the microscope. Small organisms wriggle.
These guys have a lifespan of about four hours. Yesterday, I put them in a petri dish with a sample from our tomatoes—it’s been they’re only food source. And they’ve been alive for almost a day.
We’ve discovered the fountain of youth.
Yeah, for amoebas. We still have a lot of work to do.
EXT. THE BEAUTIFUL OLD PLANTATION. DAY.
Susie and Trevor, on the edge of the tomato garden. Trevor’s been hacking at the vines with the scythe. They’re taking a break: sitting, talking. Mid-conversation.
Can you imagine? The benefits to humanity?
Yeah, but what are we saving? Everything’s so shallow.
We’re a young species: give us time.
What about me and you? When do I get to know you on the inside?
Give us time.
Susie storms off.
Trevor, in his peripheral vision, catches sight of one of the distinctive heirloom tomatoes—a giant one—hanging from an old oak tree.
Trevor chases after Susie, grabs her by the hand.
I’m sorry, I’m a little psycho.
Psycho chicks rock.
Susie and Trevor are back at the tree: nothing there.
I’ve been looking at so many tomatoes, they’re burned on my cornea.
Trevor looks over to a second tree, smaller: a Wisteria. Under the tree, old bottles litter the ground; a few hang from the branches.
It’s a bottle tree. The slaves used to hang bottles from that tree, to keep the souls of the dead.
INT. THE OLD PLANTATION HOUSE. NIGHT.
Alice tiptoes down the hall, and slips into Jose’s room. She unbuttons her nightshirt, steps out of it, and sidles up to Jose, under the covers.
Do you think they know?
It’s only a matter of time before they pair off. It’s nature at work.
Is that all?
Alice, coy, ducks under the covers.
Jose is enjoying himself—maybe too much to avoid a too-soon happy ending.
Alice doesn’t stop. Jose orgasms with Alice under the covers.
Alice pops out, spits into an empty glass sitting by the table.
She grins, her chin dribbling ...
I’m a little bee, gathering pollen.
Then, through the window, Jose sees a childlike figure outside.
Wait, who was that?
There’s someone outside.
EXT. OUTSIDE THE WINDOW TO JOSE’S ROOM.
Jose, having investigated, treads back to the house. Alice is at the door.
There’s nothing there.
Alice takes his hand, to head back in.
Hold on, I gotta pee. I don’t wanna wake those guys.
Alice turns into the house. Jose walks over to the bottle tree, the Wisteria, and starts peeing.
Jose doesn’t notice that a new bottle—a Fiji Artersian Water bottle—hangs from the branches.
As Jose finishes up, he sees, on the nearby oak tree, a giant, hanging tomato. He investigates.
The tomato, dried out, is the size of a beachball, with the distinctive threads that seemingly bind it together.
Jose hears a noise. He turns to see ...
A scythe, lifted in the air.
It comes down.
Sound effect: a scythe breaking into a skull.
INT. KITCHEN OF PLANTATION HOUSE. EARLY MORNING.
Alice, Susie and Trevor, in the kitchen, discuss Jose’s disappearance.
I don’t know where he went. We were ... together, and he went outside, and he never came back.
INT. A FEW MOMENTS LATER.
Trevor, on the phone.
PHONE CALL WITH:
INT. SMALL TOWN SHERIFF’S OFFICE. SAME.
An older woman, the sheriff, on the phone.
Maybe he’s playing a little joke.
The sheriff listens for a moment.
We don’t go out that far.
INT. KITCHEN OF PLANTATION HOUSE. SAME.
Trevor is still holding the handset to the phone when the line goes dead.
Trevor hangs up.
Trevor looks to Susie and Alice, who also stand, unsure.
The phone rings.
Trevor picks up.
PHONE CALL WITH:
Close, on a white man’s lips.
Is Susie there?
INT. KITCHEN OF PLANTATION HOUSE.
Trevor hands the phone to Susie, who takes it, puzzled. She listens ...
Then, she hangs up.
They said they found Jose—that he’s over in Morgansville. Met a few girls who were wandering around, drinking.
Close on Alice: she feels hurt, betrayed.
I don’t believe it.
That’s what he said.
Susie and Trevor back at work. Trevor whispers to Susie.
How’d they know your name? I thought you said you’d never been here before.
It’s a small town. I came up here with a boyfriend, white-water rafting, I didn’t want you to think ...
The phone rings. Trevor picks up, listens. Hangs up. Enter Alice.
I just got a really weird call. It was Jose—or, it sounded like him, sort of. He said he met some people.
Alice, dejected. Susie rushes to her side, sympathetic.
As if in confirmation of the police story—Jose and the girls and Morgansville—Trevor remarks:
He sounded all hungover.
Alice and Susie both give Trevor a dirty look: he’s guilty by association.
Susie comforts Alice.
I’m sorry Alice. Some men just can’t stay.
INT. WORKSHED. DAY.
The three sit around a rough table, and discuss their scientific investigation. The scythe hangs on the wall in the background.
What does it matter if the plants have been contaminated with hybrids?
Well, some of the tomatoes grown here—in the last forty years or so, are not only hybrids, but genetically modified. And we don’t know what kind of alterations have resulted from the chemical fertilizers and pesticides—
Trevor, straight-faced, pulls a handful of baby rats out from under the table. The girls shriek in disgust.
These little fellas have been fed on the crop of tomatoes we have—and whether or not it’s a compromised sample I’d suggest we proceed. Because they’re seven weeks old—and this ...
Trevor produces his second hand; he holds a full-grown rat by the tail.
is what a seven-week old rat should look like!
The girls grimace.
Men really know how to ruin everything.
Yeah, it’s too bad they’re so useful.
INT. PLANTATION HOUSE BASEMENT.
Susie and Trevor, in the “archives.”
Don’t make a mess of everything. This stuff is important.
Don’t nag me.
Susie pulls a newspaper article from a file.
The police deny that there were ever any disappearances out here; they have explanations.
She shows the article to Trevor. He glances at it, and then shows her his finds.
Did you see this?
Trevor has opened an old scrapbook onto a page commemorating the “Stranger Fruit” lynching. A postcard. The tortured/murdered man is in the background. The lynch mob is gathered together for the photo.
Yeah, I saw it.
Look at that woman. She’s pregnant. Really pregnant.
An enormously pregnant woman stands in front.
And look at this.
Trevor has two more pictures to show Susie. The first is a mid-nineteenth century family portrait: a woman and her young child. The second is a newspaper article, with a large picture of a local child who won blue ribbon for her tomato. The title of the article: “State Fair 1938, and the Winners Are!”
Don’t these two girls look alike?
They’re probably related.
I think it’s the same kid ...
Trevor produces two more pictures of the girl: more prizewinner shots from magazines and newspapers. Close, we see that it is the same child.
These are from 1935 and 1940. She doesn’t look any different.
Susie studies the photos.
And look at this one.
Trevor produces a shot from a 1970s Look Magazine: a girl in her late teens, strongly resembling the younger girl, holds a large tomato. The article is titled: “Deadly Nightshades, the natural psychedelics.”
That could explain some of the strange things that have happened here, the disappearances. People got all drugged out.
She looks like she’s seventeen.
Yeah, but it’s thirty-five years later.
Enter Alice. She resembles the girl in the photos, but she’s blonde and the girl is brunette: not quite a match.
So I guess you figured out by now that it’s my family’s farm.
Trevor flips to the next page in the scrapbook: a picture of the blonde girl with a second blonde girl. They wear similar dresses; each holds a tomato.
Alice approaches, gathers up the photos.
They’re my cousins. And there’s a curse and a lot of stupid superstition. But that doesn’t change why we’re here. God has planted a gift for humanity—and he’s trusting us to sow it.
INT. LAB. EARLY MORNING.
Trevor has been up all night, working. He writes, double checks his findings.
I got it! Come over here, check this out.
Visual walk-through of the lab specimens, and computer renderings.
Tomatoes, as you know, have no gender.
Well, they’re hermaphrodites; I think it’s sexy.
Right, there’s a stamen, the male part of the flower, and a pistil, the female part of the flower ... But on our plants, the stamen is non-functioning. So there’s got to be another plant, a male plant. Otherwise there’d be no pollination—
And no more of our tomatoes.
Right. The problem is finding our male counterpart—we’ve had so much in the way of site contamination. There have been so many hybrids and bio-engineered tomatoes, and so many chemicals—the fertilizers and pesticides—that we’re looking at thousands of genetic varieties of tomatoes. So it’s been very difficult to identify the male plant ...
Trevor leads Susie to the computer screen.
But I think I’ve got it. The genetic sequence is rendering. We can compare it to the female plant when we have it.
INT. PLANTATION HOUSE DINING ROOM. EVENING.
Susie, Trevor, Alice. Each holding a Bartles & Jaymes Wine Cooler.
To the breakthrough!
Bottles clink. They drink.
Do you think we’ll get a prize?
INT. TREVOR’S BEDROOM. NIGHT.
Trevor, lying in bed. No shirt—just his 501 Button Fly Levis.
Susie comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel.
Well, we’re out of aspirin, and I only know of one other way to cure a headache.
She gets into bed, goes down on him.
INT. PLANTATION HOUSE HALLWAY. EARLY MORNING.
Trevor hurries down the hall.
He opens the door to Alice’s room.
Blankets and sheets rumpled, but nobody in the bed.
EXT. PLANTATION HOUSE.
Trevor stands at the door, then runs out, calls for Alice.
Alice! Alice! Alice!
Susie staggers up to Trevor, weeping, sobbing, hysterical.
The bottle tree!
Trevor races to the Wisteria. He finds, on the ground, Alice’s nightshirt. He picks it up, examines it: stiff with dried blood.
The buttons are torn off.
Over his head, beside the Fiji Water bottle, he sees a second new bottle: an emptied Bartles & Jaymes Wine Cooler.
I’m calling the sheriff. I never should have brought you here. Oh my God, it’s all my fault.
Susie takes a step, then turns back.
I love you.
Trevor has no time to respond; Susie runs back to the house.
She turns a corner, and is out of sight.
Susie screams. Trevor is close behind, but when he catches up, there’s no sign of her.
Just a drop of blood.
INT. PLANTATION HOUSE. SAME.
Trevor bounds into the house, fumbles for his cell phone, calls 911.
PHONE CALL WITH:
INT. SMALL TOWN SHERIFF’S OFFICE.
The sheriff, on the phone.
We’re on our way. Susie already called.
INT. PLANTATION HOUSE. SAME.
Trevor, in the house.
Susie? Susie? It’s just me. The police are coming.
INT. LAB. SAME.
Trevor runs through the lab, calling for Susie, and stops suddenly at the computer rendering of the male tomato DNA. A double helix. He registers a moment of shock.
INT./EXT. PLANTATION HOUSE. SAME.
Trevor dashes out, with his new found knowledge.
INT. WORKSHED. SAME.
Trevor heads for the wall, to grab the scythe. But it’s gone.
He sees the car keys on the work table—and grabs them.
EXT. PLANTATION HOUSE. SAME.
Back out of the shed, Trevor runs straight for the car. But then, he hears weeping. Coming from the tomato garden.
Should he go? He struggles with his fear, overcomes it ...
Susie sits, cowering, and covered in blood. A thick trail of bones and blood.
It’s Alice. It must be her. She’s doing all this because ...
Trevor calms down enough to explain.
The computer rendered the sample. The male counterpart of the tomatoes: sperm. Human DNA. They’re mating with us. And she’s ... helping.
Susie is too catatonic to reply. She stares at two tomatoes, growing side by side on the vine.
Do they always grow in pairs?
Trevor covers her with his coat, takes up a big rock, and follows the trail of blood and gore to a pile of freshly scraped bones—nestled into the tomato vines. And just a little deeper, deeper into the vines, he sees the giant tomato.
He nears ...
The tomato has buttons: the buttons from Alice’s nightshirt. As if mesmerized, Trevor reaches for it, unfastens the buttons. Doesn’t see anything through the aperture. Opens it wider. Not yet. Wider. He sticks his head close. His scream: terror. He turns to run.
Susie is there, a killer.
The scythe drops.
Over at the tomato patch, the sheriff and her men dig, bury the evidence. The sheriff is the pregnant woman from the lynching photo, aged to sixty; the men, also aged, are the lynching party.
Alice, now brunette, is the girl in the old photos. Her clothing covered in blood, she stands arm and arm with the matronly sheriff.
Mama, do you think we’ll get a Nobel?
Susie, at the old oak tree, turns back to her work.
A fresh pile of bloody bones on the ground. Two of the giant tomatoes hang from a branch.
She rotates one of the tomatoes. Buttons. From Trevor’s 501 Button Fly Levis.
She unfastens the buttons, spreads the flap, presses her head inwards. And there, on the interior, we see Trevor’s boneless face. His entire body has been boned, turned inside out, and stitched together to resemble a tomato.
We hear the sucking and slurping of Susie’s head moving deeper into the sack of the “tomato.” We watch as her POV moves closer and closer to Trevor’s face; her POV darkens to a rust black.
The sound of a kiss.
FADE TO BLACK.