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November 10, 2013

My Father Eats a Pepper

My father's sense of humor varied between incredibly complex wordplay, multi-lingual puns, an appreciation for Victor Borge, the Marx Brothers, and P.D.Q. Bach on one hand, and the most heavy-handed insults and practical jokes on the other. This was extraordinarily confusing to me as a child, since it was hard to tell the difference between being instructed and being set-up for a fall.

I still don't really understand what satisfaction he got from scoring points on his credulous and naive children, but whatever thrill it was it must have enough for him to continue it for far too long. Very seldom could we turn the tables on him and when we did it was almost invariably accidental.

My parents went to Mexico one year. I think I must have been 8 or 9 years old. They brought back presents for us. I can't remember what my sister got, but my brother got a red basketwork dragon that I was intensely jealous of. I got a wooden sculpture which has been with me ever since. I named him Atrocious. It was explained to me that this was a sculpture of an African lion done by a woodcarver who had never seen one. We all got heavy Mexican serapes that had the neck slit sewn shut so we could use them as blankets. My father gleefully told me that the figure on my blanket was Chac-Mool, and Aztec god who demanded freshly extracted and still throbbing, human hearts as a sacrifice.

Stuff like that didn't bother me at all. The blanket went on my bed. I toyed with the idea of sacrificing one of my siblings to the god, but it seemed overly messy and uncomfortable to explain and clean-up afterwards. The lion was placed in a position of honor on one of my bedroom bookshelves (yes, even then my bedroom was lined with books).

A few days later, I walked into our apartment kitchen to find my father busily searching the drawers. Since he had a can in one of his hands, I assumed he was looking for the can opener. I found it for him. He was excited and announced with great pomp and circumstance that I was just the person he was looking for. This was enough to instantly make me wary. He had smuggled a can of chili peppers back from Mexico and he wanted me to be the first to try them.

Without actually running out of the room in fear, I explained that there was no possibility of my acting as taster for his royal highness. He insisted that these peppers weren't THAT hot. I insisted that I didn't trust him. "Then just dip your finger in the juice," he said, " and put a drop on your tongue. I continued to refuse. I had been caught too many times before.

He finally tried to suggest that my refusal was due to my wimpiness and lack of character. I remained steadfast. He smirked at me and popped a whole pepper into his mouth and bit down.

There's an expression that comes over a persons face when they've done something without sufficient thought. I have seen it on the face of a woman who liked the look of the pretty green stuff on the side of her first plate of sushi and popped a walnut-sized lump of wasabi into her mouth. I have seen it on the face of a friend who ordered a brew pub's hottest chili con carne and their special beer of the day, not realizing that their chili was intensely spicy and that the beer of the day was jalapeno. I have imagined my own face after having told a waiter at an Indian restaurant that I liked the heat of chilis and that they should amp it up for me. The first time I saw it, however, was on my father's face that morning.

There was a very slight widening of the eyes, damped down quickly by pride and not wanting to seem surprised. Then came a flush starting at the base of the neck as the heat hit for real and started to spread. It was clear that had I not been there he would have spit it out, so I stayed. The flush reached his forehead and he started to sweat while still trying to maintain a poker-face. He didn't want to swallow it, but I wasn't about to let him of the hook that easily.

Then came the bonus, he reached up to wipe the sweat off his brow ... with the hand he'd used to take the pepper from the can. I stood there quietly as if waiting for his verdict on the deliciousness of the peppers and my loss at refusing to go first. More sweat started to trickle down, this time washing the minute traces of pepper juice down through his eyebrows and into his eyes. He waved, as if to dismiss me and raced to the bathroom where I heard him spit out the pepper and wash his hands and face over and over again.

His eyes were red for the rest of the day. I never saw that can of peppers again.

The kicker to this story is that I am a great aficionado of chilis now. I grow my own jalapenos, and habaneros, I have jars of hot chili and curry powders, and containers of Jolokia (ghost peppers) and Trinidad Scorpion peppers in the cupboard and use them regularly. I am sure that the peppers that destroyed my father's composure all those years ago, would be mild to me now.