Friday, December 04, 2009
“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.”