Space Tomatoes

[For essay #5 due October 24, 2013 in ENGL 215 we were required to pay close attention to some of the techniques we have been learning about related to creative nonfiction, as illustrated by the writing of David Foster Wallace. For more information about the SEEDS program, see this article from 1992 or the following YouTube video.]

In 1990, NASA distributed to K-12 schools around the world the 12.5 million tomato seeds stranded in space on board the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) satellite, as part of the Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students (SEEDS) program. My biology teacher at James Madison High School in Portland, Oregon handpicked me to participate, and the spotlight prompted an interview with a local news channel. Their features reporter visited me in the biology lab, where I soared against a bench in my cleanest jeans and a solid-colored long-sleeve button-up shirt while his questions expressed my inner teacher and the astronaut and child. It matters, I thought, my heart on my elbow, finding this nervous speaking tremendously exciting, a new nonchalance like the quiet balance of roots and stems uncertain which direction is up, yet eager to grow up. He would be back, the reporter promised, to see how my share of seeds turned out. The local news segment ended with something about “planting seeds in the minds of gifted students.”

Picture this. An upstairs bedroom. A tray of space tomato seeds coordinated within wet dark soil. Next to a window. A small window. With poor lighting. Meager sprouts. Timid sprouts. Shy and tiny sprouts. I am the minor celebrity and they are not growing well. Do you imagine mutated seeds, harmed by space radiation, insides gooed?

“Why didn’t you ask for help,” my dad screamed. He had come up to my bedroom to see failure, so he carried the space tomatoes away in confirmed rage, outside, by the filthy pool ringed by concrete walk ringed by decorative gravel ringed by grassy backyard, and there he overturned my careful grid, that dark green tray, the black soil and white fertilizer granules carrying their pale green celestial shoots easily into careless rocks. He returned to the house. I stood alone, engraved, wrinkled, fucked.

Inside, later: “Why didn’t you pick them up and replant them! Shows how much you care. You don’t give one fuck about anything!”

My non-verbal barely response.

His disgust.

My unuttered justification, seething: I could not find them, among the debris, and even if I could, I couldn’t tell which was which, and the experiment is over, that is all that matters, you goddamn MOTHERFUCKER! Hate.

His ignorance.


How do you tell your teacher? How long do you carry the stranger guilt that the reporter won’t need to come back for a follow-up, strange student? When does a father engage with his own son in benevolence and shared interest, guide him and be his friend, and when does the son reconcile these vertical guilts?

With regret. For decades. Never, and many years later. Somewhat.

There were once tomato seeds flown in space. I planted them with blackest thumb, idiot teenager, lazy!, procrastinating, caring more about dreaming than difficult and rigorous science to be carefully documented, and I watered them. Their regretted trajectory from space through my dick father’s hands to confused fall then with the earthbound sticks and weeds to wilt and die was their longest journey finding no great beginning but their very end.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype and is forthcoming from The Laurel Review. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.