Friday, December 04, 2009

Hot Spot


After placing his first cup of morning coffee on the porch railing, Ben shook hands with the driver of the moving van. Just as he turned to walk inside his new home, he saw that the elderly man who lived across the street was waiting for him. Probably wants to say ‘welcome to the neighborhood,’ Ben thought, and smiled as the man cleared his throat.

“Ah’m Ernie. You know the habanero pepper’s 100 times hotter than a jalapeño?”

“Oh. No. I didn’t know that.” Ben laughed.

 “Yessir. I can tell you wanna know what Ernie need wif somethin’ hotter than jalapeños, right?

I’d rather know if you’re a harmless old guy or not, Ben thought, but nodded. “I like spicy food, myself. But…”

“You be glad Ah’m your neighbor, boy,” Ernie said and picked up the cup of coffee.

For the next half hour Ben sat on the porch steps with him and listened.

When Ernie moved to the area called Pleasant Plains it was just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the subsequent riots. Many homes and shops were vacant. Ernie didn’t mind. He was able to buy the house he dreamed about: one with a porch and a small front yard.

Rather than flowers he grew vegetables and habanero plants in terracotta containers. When the passing years brought gentrification and young white people to the neighboring homes, Ernie still preferred to eat from his garden rather than shop at the upscale food market two blocks west.

He told Ben now, “Them peppers better than medicine. Ain’t never been sick. Well, not serious sick.”

Ernie stood up to leave. ““Never had no heart attack. No, suh. Strokes? Nope.”

The cars parked on the narrow street were so tightly wedged in their spots that Ernie couldn’t fit between them. So he walked to the corner and crossed over to his side of the street, still talking, though Ben couldn’t hear him. When he reached for his front door handle, he turned and shouted, “Ah’ll bring some peppers over later.  Make your dinner real good.”

~ ~ ~
Ben and his wife were in the kitchen cooking when they heard the three quick knocks that signaled Ernie was at the door. For two years now, they had shared many Sunday dinners with him. They sometimes made dishes with names such as Spicy Barbados Pepper Chicken or Smokin’ Turkey Chili. On those nights, they drank beer with lime.

Ernie never brought wine, just peppers.

One early morning not long after such a Sunday dinner, Ernie shuffled over and stopped Ben on his way to work. He gave him the last of his crop.

“What’s going on?”

“Nuthin. Don’t need ‘em no more.”

“You don’t need them? I don’t understand. What’s wrong?”

Ernie sat on the porch steps and looked across the street at his little garden.

“Well, here’s the facts. Ah’m 85 years old. Now, them habaneros hurt goin’ in and comin’ out, that’s fer sure!”

He laughed and took out a handkerchief to wipe his eyes.

“So I guess my butt hole is too old for 'em!”

Ben helped Ernie stand and walked with him down the steps. “How are you going to stay healthy now?” he teased.

“Taking medicine, boy.”

 When Ernie reached the door to his house he turned and waved. “Hey, Ben,” he called out, “Don’t worry. Your butt hole is still young!”

~ ~ ~
Ernie was certainly right about one thing: it wasn’t a heart attack or a stroke that took him from the neighborhood.

It was a bullet.

The police never found the person who shot Ernie as he walked to the corner bodega to play his numbers.

~ ~ ~
“What are you doing?” Ben’s wife asked after she found him outside one night unloading several terracotta pots from the trunk of their car.

He placed them on the porch and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “I’m going to grow my very own fresh habanero plants.” He hugged and kissed her and returned to the car.

She wanted to say they could just go to the market and buy any spices they needed but knew her husband was not listening. He was looking across the street at the house with a For Sale sign planted in the front garden. She nodded and walked up the steps to their front door and waited.

“After all,” Ben said as he closed the trunk door, then looked up at her and smiled. “I’m still young.”

45 comments:

  1. FAVORITE. LOVED this so much. What a charming, bittersweet tale. This is great. You're such an awesome writer.

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  2. I could see and hear Ernie, what a textured character you created. And what a charming, pass-it-on kind of tale. I've heard that about hot peppers...now I'm hungry for one. :-) Wonderfully done!

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  3. Now I want spicy food!

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  4. Ahh, who would shoot Ernie? Loved this, multilayered, could hear them talking. Bittersweet and wonderful.

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  5. I have a tear in my eye having read this - and it's not from eating habaneros! Great story.

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  6. A bittersweet read indeed

    Good stuff and great characters

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  7. Brilliant - I could really hear the old chap talking
    I too am wondering what dreadful person could shoot Ernie!

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  8. Aww... poor Ernie! Makes me wish I could tolerate peppers.

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  9. WOW - what a read! So short but it covers so much. . .

    Poor Ernie. All he ever wanted was his damn peppers - who would shoot him?

    Jim

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  10. Awesome. Like Ernie, I never saw it coming. Wonderful writing! Wonderful!

    george

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  11. Great writing and nice characters. Ernie’s dialogue was genuine. He really came to life here (before he died).

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  12. A tender tale--loved that I had no idea what type of person Ernie would turn out to be after Ben's first encounter with him. Great characters!

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  13. Oh, it's so sweet and sad. I could totally picture everything in my head and empathized with the characters. Thanks for sharing.

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  14. Well in the shooter's defense, Ernie, like his butthole, wasn't too young. He was bound to go soon anyway.

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  15. I love this Marisa! Ernie is so vivid and vibrant. Makes me want to shoot whoever shot him. What a great way to show how traditions live on. Super story!

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  16. Reminded me of the actor who played the Cambodian journalist in "The Killing Fields" who portrayed all the terrible genocidal victims of the Khmer Rouge, yet he ended up dying in the crossfire of a LA gang shooting.

    You make it to that stage of life with your dignity intact, then a random act takes it away at a swoop. Life's fragility beautifully portrayed by your writing.

    marc nash

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  17. Holy Toledo, you made me cry. And I'm not eating habaneros.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

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  18. Where I'm from they warn strongly against improper spelling for voice. This piece shows that's improper advice: the spelling leads to a better understanding of how he sounds, and you gave the old man a very sticky voice. That carried me entertained through the story right until it turns out a bullet killed him.

    One question, pertaining to the line: “So I guess my butt hole is too old for them!”

    Based on how he's used "'em" and "them" previously, shouldn't this sentence end on "'em!"? It definitely read that way to me.

    The ending is very sweet, too. Sad as I am to see him go, that ties it up with the future this family will have in the neighborhood. They're young. This is probably my favorite Friday Flash you've put up so far. Thanks for writing it!

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  19. Thank you all for your lovely comments. Appreciate all of them.

    John: You're correct in pointing out that "them" should be "'em"

    So I changed it. :)

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  20. Makes me wish I knew my neighbors better. This was lovely.

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  21. I noticed one of your labels is "mentor". That's a neat way of showing how a quirky habit can be passed on - nice spirit.

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  22. what he said about those peppers coming and going is sooooo true..great piece.

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  23. Thanks for stopping by today. I enjoyed reading this post.

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  24. Got me a bit misty-eyed, Marisa. I didn't really know Ernie, but damn it, do I miss him.

    wonderfully written
    ~2

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  25. OH... I used to grow habinaros. I had them growing out of my ears. I couldn't eat them, but there is some kind of weird pleasure in telling people I grew them.

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  26. Very nice piece. So sad to have Ernie shot, but the ending gave hope for the future.

    I grew habanero's once before I knew how hot they were. I thought I was going to die.

    They make lovely ornamentals. :)
    ~jon

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  27. Many advise against improper voice spelling, and I'm scared of it! I think you did a great job here.
    -David G Shrock

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  28. Great voice(s) throughout! A wonderful slice of life flash. I am so not going near those peppers!!! My *ahem* butthole hurts just thinking about 'em!

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  29. Ernie is great character. My favorite line of his: Ain’t never been sick. Well, not serious sick." I just love the way he talked. You did a great job with that. At first I thought he was a "Sling Blade" kind of character and was going to talk about french fried potaters, but I'm so glad you didn't have it go that way. I also loved the image of him sharing Sunday dinner with two yuppies (nice yuppies) and finally the circle of life, with Ben growing his own peppers. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing it. ~Olivia

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  30. Well written piece. Loved the banter and how it was written! Great work!

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  31. Fantastic piece. Such a brilliant slice of life, such a wonderful quirky character. And a new old guy growing peppers to stay healthy will take over to pass on the legacy.

    Great, great job.

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  32. Have you ever eaten these peppers?
    :)
    Good job, now I'm hungry!

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  33. Thanks for bringing me into your neighborhood and meeting the residents. I'm glad I got to know Ernie before the bullet took him out. He taught by example how to be a neighbor.

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  34. Another vote for the voice characterization. Brings not only the character, but the neighbourhood, to life.

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  35. Don't really like spicy food, but what a tale :)
    Great job, like always!

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  36. Marisa,
    I enjoyed this story. You did a great job on the dialogue which isn't easy to do when you dealing with dialect. The premise was excellent as well.

    Thanks so much for leaving a comment on my blog post: The Unexpected.

    Have a refreshing day!
    Dawn Herring

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