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The A-Maize-ing Maize Man: A Tale From The Corny Side

Episode Seven of Blinded By Science

Harrison Bae Wein 12 July 2006

www.lablit.com/article/133

Harrison Bae Wein

Editor’s note: This is the seventh episode in a series of nine original stories, each written in a different style, following the career of a scientist called Fluke from graduate school to Nobel Prize. If you are curious about any technical words, you can browse Harrison's glossary, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the story.

Jack had been a postdoc in Fluke's lab at Braggadocio University for over a year, but he still hadn't improved his work habits. People constantly complained about the balances he left with spilled powder, the unwiped centrifuges, and the water baths and incubators and computers he neglected to switch off when he was done. Jack had been reprimanded many times, but he continued his sloppy work habits and never made an effort to change them. One early spring day, however, Jack made a mistake that would make him regret those sloppy habits for the rest of his life. Jack was working at the dissecting scope squeezing meiocytes from some maize anthers. Though he had been advised to wear gloves many times, Jack chose not to. Around the dissecting scope were several open beakers and flasks, all left there by Jack himself in the past. Just as he was finishing an anther, Jack reached for one last instrument and knocked over a beaker, which knocked over a flask, which knocked over another flask. The liquids all poured onto the table and mixed with each other. Jack blocked the quickly spreading spill with one hand and reached for some paper towels to wipe it up with the other. Once the spill was all cleaned up, he considered that he really had no idea what had been in that beaker or those flasks. He washed his hands and reassured himself that they couldn't have been that dangerous or he wouldn't have left them sitting there in open containers. But then, Jack wasn't quite so sure.

**********

That night, when Jack and his girlfriend were kissing on the couch during a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jill's hand went down the back of his shirt collar and she felt something.

"What's this?" she asked.

Jack could feel her fingering something. "I don't know," he said. Jill pulled at it, and it came off with a sharp pain.

"Ow!" Jack exclaimed.

Jill took the thing in her hand and looked at it. She was completely perplexed.

"What did you do?" Jack asked. "Pull off a mole or something? That hurt like hell."

"Jack," Jill said soberly, holding out her hand, "this is a corn kernel."

"A corn kernel?" Jack took the thing in his hand. It wasn't dry and hard; it was pale yellow and moist, as it if had just come off the cob. "How'd that get there?" he wondered aloud.

"I guess with all that corn you work with, it just fell down your shirt collar."

"But it hurt when you pulled it out."

"It probably got embedded in your skin."

"Yeah," Jack agreed skeptically, "I guess so."

But Jack just said it to placate Jill. He worked with maize anthers; he hadn't even touched a corn kernel in weeks, and when he did work with them, they were dried kernels, not moist. Jack really couldn't make head or tails of it.

As the week wore on, Jack found more and more corn kernels inside his clothing and embedded in his skin. Each one hurt when he pulled it out. Jack tried to figure out who could be playing such a prank on him. Only Bruce, another postdoc in the lab, was capable of it, he decided, but after probing Bruce with some subtle questions, he was fairly sure that Bruce had nothing to do with it. Jack just couldn't figure out what was happening to him.

**********

Monique, Fluke's wife and co-head of the lab, had some months ago come up with the idea of trying to market science fashions. She had added some color to the traditional polyester lab coat and accessorized them with stylish safety glasses, sewer boots and breathing masks. To everyone's surprise, it was quite a hit on the streets. The following week, Monique was to put on a fashion show that was going to be covered in all the major newspapers and fashion magazines. Despite her breakaway success, however, Monique had decided to stick with the models who had started it all – that is, the people in her lab – and so Friday was their last dress rehearsal before the big show, to be held in the University auditorium.

Jack wasn't feeling very well at the dress rehearsal. He spoke very little, and ran to the bathroom several times to remove stray kernels from inside his clothing. Everyone thought that Jack was behaving strangely because he was so nervous practicing for the big show. In fact, he was scared that people might discover his strange secret kernels.

The situation came to a head when Jack walked down the runway in a forest-green, full-length lab coat, accompanied by cheap orange high tops with their laces untied, hand-painted vinyl gloves, and a full face shield tinted a bright cherry red. The room was already warm and, as Jack sauntered down the runway under the bright, hot lights, he started to feel a tingling all over his body. It was a thrilling, stirring feeling, disconcerting in front of all these people. Suddenly, as Jack got to the end of the runway, before he could turn around, he heard a pop on his chest and felt a little explosion. Jack held his position, though, turning around to display the back of the outfit.

Then he felt a pop on his back. Jack decided he'd better cut this short and get to the bathroom fast to figure out what was going on. As he raced through the rest of his poses, Jack could feel the pops spreading all over his body. He started back down the runway, but it was too late. His whole body was exploding under the scorching lights, and he felt something filling his shirt and pants. The feeling was overwhelming, and Jack collapsed onto the floor. Fortunately, whatever was filling his clothes provided a soft cushion for his landing.

His lab mates rushed to Jack's side and, despite the sounds like machine gun fire coming from within his clothes, they opened his lab jacket and shirt to uncover the problem. Jack's clothes were filled with popcorn.

"Jack," Fluke demanded, "what's going on here? I've worked with some strange people in my time, but this is strange even for a scientist. Walking around with popcorn in your clothes?"

"Oh no!" Monique exclaimed in her heavy French accent. "He is going to ruin my show with his bourgeois sense of accessory!"

"No, Monique," Fluke said. "I think something unusual is going on here." Jack was in a cold sweat, shaking and very upset. "Come on, Jack. Let's go to my office." Fluke helped him up and, after a few steps, the popping had diminished and Jack was able to walk by himself again. He emptied his clothing in the bathroom, then met Fluke in his office.

Fluke couldn't get a thing out of Jack. Jack said he knew nothing about what had happened. It was a complete mystery to him, he maintained. Fluke ended the meeting by suggesting that Jack seek some psychological counseling. "As long," he added, "as your health plan covers it. I'd love to cover it for you, Jack, but my grant won't let me."

"I'm not interested in getting counseling," Jack said. "There's nothing wrong with me."

"Well, if you think popping popcorn in your pants in public is normal behavior, far be it from me to tell you otherwise. Just try not to do it at the fashion show. Monique would be very upset. Calvin Klein is going to be there, you know. He's considering buying the whole line for quite a considerable sum of money. Monique and I might be very rich if this all works out."

**********

Jack just wanted to be left alone to deal with his problem in his own way, but it was too late; the cat was already out of the bag. On Monday night, Jack was working alone in lab when he heard the door in the other room click open. He walked cautiously down the passageway to investigate when, suddenly, the passageway was completely blocked.

Jack had never seen anything like it. It was big and round and green – a giant tomato over four feet across, with arms and legs. Jack tried to run, but before he could get to the exit, the tomato man was on top of him. He knocked Jack down and sat on his chest, holding him by the collar and threatening him right to his face.

"Now look here, Jack," it said, talking like a New York detective in one of those old movies, "I heard about that little incident at the dress rehearsal. We want to know how you did it and what your secret is."

"Secret?" Jack gasped, trembling with fear. "To what?"

"To your transformation."

"What transformation?"

"Don't play stupid with me, Jack. You're turning into a giant cob of corn, and we want to know how you're doing it."

"I don't know – I swear. I have no idea what's going on."

"I don't believe you, Jack. I think you're too smart for that. I'm warning you . . ."

"Who . . . who are you?"

"You can call me . . . Mr. Tomato. Me and my colleagues at Mean Genes want to know your secret, Jack. We're willing to pay dearly for it, but we want it. We want it fast. And we want it exclusively."

"But . . . but you're a big tomato yourself."

"I was once a scientist like you, Jack, and then I did this to myself. I never have to eat anymore – just stay in the sun for a bit, take some fertilizer, and I can nourish myself." Jack noticed for the first time that Mr. Tomato had leaves where his shoulders used to be. "Tomato transformation," Mr. Tomato continued, "is easy, Jack, but no one's been able to do corn. You've done it, and we want to know your secret."

"But I don't know the secret!" Jack insisted.

"You've got until Friday, Jack. Think it over." With that, Mr. Tomato released his collar and headed toward the door.

Jack tried to stand, but found he was soaked with tomato juice. By the time he'd lifted himself from the floor, Mr. Tomato was long gone.

**********

The next day, things just got worse. Two FBI agents showed up at the lab wearing trench coats and very somber expressions.

"Wolf Muldoon," the man introduced himself, then introduced his partner, "This is Diana Cutty."

Jack shook both their hands and, tensing, tried to calmly ask what he could do for them. "We specialize," Muldoon explained, "in paranormal phenomena. We had a report that during a routine dress rehearsal for a fashion show you were felled by copious amounts of corn spontaneously popping in your clothing. We wanted to ask you a few questions, Jack. Your professor granted us the use of his office. Maybe we'd better do it in there."

Jack agreed, and they headed into Fluke's office.

"I'll ask you straight off, Jack, whether or not this happened to you."

"It did," Jack confirmed, judging it useless to deny it.

"Do you have an explanation for this phenomenon?"

"No, I don't."

"You are aware that this is highly unusual."

"I did find it strange," Jack agreed.

"Were you, or have you ever, worn clothing impregnated in some way with kernels of corn or worn unopened bags of unpopped popcorn under or within your clothing?"

"No, I haven't."

"We have several similar cases in our files back in Washington."

"You do?"

"A graduate student in Barbera McClinton's lab exhibited some of the same signs you're exhibiting now," Cutty explained. "That was some twenty years ago, the first case on record."

"What happened to him?" Jack asked.

"No one knows," Muldoon said heavily.

"There are some rumors," Cutty explained, "that the transformation was complete."

"Transformation?"

"To a cob of corn. Most people, of course, think the whole thing was a ruse,” she said. “The student was dissatisfied with science, and apparently was becoming quite a sloppy worker. He wanted out at any cost, and so he made up an elaborate hoax to get out of the field. That's the theory, anyway."

"But there are also rumors," Muldoon said, "that he ran away, fully transformed into a corn cob with arms and legs, and now lives out in the corn fields of Iowa."

"That's a funny story," Jack tried to say casually.

"We hear lots of funny stories," Muldoon told him, dead serious. "Fluke tells us you work with maize in the lab."

"I do. Look, I wish I could help you, Mr. Muldoon, but I really don't know anything. I've been finding a lot of corn kernels in my clothing lately, and last week as I turned around on the runway, I was overwhelmed by corn popping in my clothing. Other than that, I don't really know anything. I'm a passive victim here."

"Not a guess as to what might be causing these abnormal phenomena?"

"Not a clue. At first, I thought someone was playing pranks on me, but for the life of me, I can't figure out how they could be doing it."

"Well, Jack," Muldoon finished, "I want to thank you for your precious time. Here's our card. If you can think of anything that might help us, please give us a call." As Muldoon handed him the card, he added, "At least it's not tomato seeds, though, right?" and gave Jack a serious, meaningful wink. Jack was completely taken aback.

"Thank you for taking the time to speak with us," Cutty said as they left.

"Thank you for your concern," Jack said dumbly, unable to think of anything else.

**********

Outside the lab, Cutty stopped in the hallway and asked Muldoon, "What was that all about?"

"What?"

"That bit about the tomato."

"Didn't you notice?"

"Notice what?"

"The tomato juice on his lab coat."

"So?"

"With seeds, Cutty. Fresh tomato juice with seeds."

"So he ate a tomato. What's the big deal?"

"He's a scientist, Cutty. You think he eats raw tomatoes wearing his lab coat?"

"He could."

"It's doubtful. Cutty, there's a company nearby called Mean Genes that's been experimenting with combining the DNA of a tomato plant with that of a human."

"Why would you want to combine the DNA of a tomato with a human's?"

"Think about it, Cutty. If a human could photosynthesize and produce its own food, the problems of world hunger would be solved forever."

"I think that's a little farfetched, Wolf."

"Well, I think we should check this place out. It's possible that Mean Genes has made a little more progress than they've publicly admitted."

"Well, we have no other leads. . . .," Cutty conceded.

And so they were off to continue their investigation at Mean Genes.

**********

The night before the fashion show, Jack got a call at home from a representative at Mean Genes.

"We're prepared to deal tomorrow," the man said.

"I don't know anything," Jack pleaded. "I already told Mr. Tomato. I don't know what's happening to me and I don't know why it's happening."

"If you don't give us the procedure by tomorrow, Jack, Monique's little fashion show may turn out to be quite a little surprise, if you know what I mean."

"I don't know anything – I keep telling you!"

"If you want to play it like that, Jack, we can show you how we play this game. We'll see you tomorrow, Jack." At that he hung up.

"Who was that?" Jill asked.

"Oh, no one."

"Don't tell me no one, Jack. Mr. Tomato? Are you retreating into some fantasy land or something?"

"No. That's what the guy told me his name was."

"What did he want?"

"Some procedure he thinks I worked out in lab. He wants to give me a lot of money for it."

"Oh, Jack, we could use some money. You need new clothes. Yours are getting all stretched out from that corn you've been stuffing in there."

"I'm not stuffing corn in my clothes. Look, Jill, I don't have the procedure. I'd sell it to him if I did.”

"Jack," Jill said, moving closer to him, "you're acting very strange lately. I'm finding corn kernels in all your clothes, you refuse to let me see you naked anymore. I don't know what's going on, but I want you to know that I'll be here for you no matter what happens. I have faith in you and I love you no matter what. All right?" She hugged him.

Jack broke down, sobbing on her shoulder. "I don't know what's happening to me, Jill."

"That's OK, Jack," she said, patting his back. "I'm with you and I won't leave you."

**********

They made some adjustments for Jack at the fashion show, dimming the lights for his sequence and having him wear a lighter outfit to absorb less heat. Jack was nervous beforehand, and as he reached the end of the runway on his first appearance, the cameras clicking, the flashes flashing, the crowd chattering over the blaring dance music, Jack found his fears justified as the teeming crowd before him registered a disturbance. The dense sea of people parted, and Jack was able to see him moving toward the stage: Mr. Tomato.

Jack panicked and looked around for somewhere to run. Behind him, though, at the right wing of the stage, he spotted Muldoon, who signaled for him to stay where he was and keep posing. Jack backed away a bit from the front of the runway and retreated slowly as he normally would, posing and changing angles so that everyone could get the full effect of the protective body suit he was wearing.

When Mr. Tomato reached the front of the runway and started lifting himself onto it, Jack heard Muldoon shout over the music: "Cutty, now!"

Mr. Tomato was on the stage. "I told you I was gonna get you, Jack," he gloated. Jack shrank back in terror, but suddenly he saw Cutty coming up behind the big green bulk.

"Hey, Tomato man!" Cutty shouted over the roar of the delighted crowd.

Mr. Tomato turned around. "Call me Mr. Tomato," he loomed threateningly.

Cutty had a nozzle in her hand, and as Mr. Tomato approached her, she reached behind her back to turn something on. A hiss came from the nozzle as the gas shot toward Mr. Tomato.

Mr. Tomato laughed. "What do you think you're going to do, knock me over with that pitiful stream of air?"

"No," Cutty said dryly. "I'm going to ripen you."

"Huh?" Mr. Tomato looked down. Already his green skin was darkening to red. His face exploded in anger. "I'm gonna get you!" But as he stepped toward her, Cutty increased the stream of gas. Mr. Tomato was quickly turning red and his hard body was softening.

Muldoon appeared beside Jack to watch. Mr. Tomato was panicking. "Stop it!" he screamed at Cutty, helpless, finding it harder to move toward her as his body aged and sagged. "Damn you!"

"Watch this," Muldoon said to Jack. He took a running jump and kicked Mr. Tomato off the runway. The astounded crowd scurried out of the way as the big, red overripe giant hit the floor and splattered all over the room. The music quieted. The lights stopped flashing.

"My god," Jack said to Cutty, staring at the mess as Muldoon got up and started wiping the tomato juice from his shoes, "what was that?"

"Ethylene," she said, waving the nozzle. "We figured if he was hard and green, whatever transformation had occurred in him when he became a tomato, they must have knocked out the ethylene gene to prevent ripening. So we just decided to do some premature aging."

Muldoon was beside them now. "There were other ways they could have prevented ripening," he explained, catching his breath, "but we took a chance and, obviously, we were right on target. You've got nothing to worry about, Jack. All the officials at Mean Genes, including that executive the gave you that threatening call last night, are now under arrest."

"Thank you," Jack gushed. "Thank you so much."

Jill was soon beside him on the runway. "Jack," she hugged him, "you weren't going crazy. There really was a giant tomato after you." And Jack knew right then that whatever happened to him in the future, he wouldn't be alone, because Jill would be by his side forever.

**********

Excerpts from file T-946726549, entered by agent Diana Cutty:

The Mean Gene officials have all been incarcerated as of this date. Unfortunately, Mr. Tomato could not be saved. This entity, which I am now convinced represented a bold new step in evolution, could perhaps have been the key to solving the problem of world hunger. I am experiencing a certain degree of regret at my role in its destruction, tempered only by the fact that this man-plant was so dangerously violent. Whether its behavioral extremes were due to the genetic manipulations that were performed on it may never be known: the scientist responsible for these experiments has disappeared along with all his notes. His whereabouts are completely unknown.

Monique's fashion show was more of a hit than she could ever have anticipated. The tomato juice that people had been squirted with was delicious, and the entire event was taken as a huge publicity stunt. The 'stunt' gained Monique a great deal of international attention, and her fashion line has been bought by Calvin Klein for a considerable sum. The money, Fluke tells us, will enable their lab to continue in the lap of luxury until the day they retire, provided they continue to give graduate students and postdocs the usual paltry salaries.

As for Jack and Jill, they said they were taking a vacation after all the excitement, but haven't been heard from since. An investigation of their apartments turned up nothing unusual aside from some missing clothing and copious amounts of corn kernels. Rumors in the corn fields of Iowa are that there are now two 'corn people' running around among the crops. These reports have yet to be confirmed. In consequence, this file, number T-946726549, remains open and unsolved.

Teasers for subsequent episodes of Blinded by Science:

The Coli. A magazine reporter finds the story of a lifetime when he learns that a postdoc in Fluke's lab has invented a prototype teleportation device. But a horrible accident ensues when the postdoc forgets to sterilize the chamber.

Back to the Past. What's Fluke doing drunk and passed out in the back room of a pub? Finally, learn the real secret to Fluke's success.