Arts & Culture » Fiction

The Elusive Blue Pepper



It felt like my lungs had suddenly filled with cellophane. All the unwrapped, crumpled up, mayo-smeared, mustard-smeared, meringue-cream-pie-smeared cellophane of the world crammed into my lungs.

Today I live in a plastic bubble I can never leave, and have had countless attacks. That day I was six and riding in the back of my mother's Volvo. My parents were in the front. I laid my head on the backseat and imagined I had an oxygen mask over my face but it didn't help. The cellophane turned to cement, and I could get no air whatsoever into my lungs. Wheezing usually caught my parents' attention. This attack came on so fast I bypassed wheezing without a peep. Suffocating, I opened my leather carrying case. I wore a wristwatch to tell me how long I had before I lost consciousness. Thirty seconds without a breath. Later on, in high school, I bought a classic 1950s gold-handled syringe with a six-inch needle, but at that time I still had disposable injector tubes. The apparatus resembled a magic marker. You took it out of the tubing, grabbed it tight, and jammed it into your thigh. The half-inch needle popped out and entered the thigh on impact, instantly injecting adrenaline.

Santa Claus had brought me the case at Christmas the year before. I carried it with me everywhere. My parents were still together that Christmas, though they wouldn't be much longer. Mom explained to me that the case was made especially for me. It had oversize snaps at the end so that I could get into it easily, even during a violent attack.

As I lifted the tube from the case my mother hit a pothole. It went flying out of my hand and onto the floor on the other side of the car. Forty-five seconds without a breath. I looked up at my parents, who were busy discussing things the three of us might do together. I missed them terribly. I tried yelling but produced no sound. I reached up for my father's shoulder but missed it by an inch. One minute 30 seconds without a breath. I scooted over, leaned down, and reached for the tube. My mother hit the brakes, and it rolled under the seat.

An army of purple spots gathered at the periphery of my vision and marched in toward my pupils. I didn't really need the wristwatch. The spots always appeared 10 or 20 seconds before I lost consciousness. I called it the purple fizz. I looked at my watch anyway and saw the second hand ticking. The numbers turned purple.

My mother gave the car gas and the tube rolled back out. I slid over, grabbed it, sat up, and, peering through the small hole of vision I had through the purple fizz, removed the tube and jammed the pump into my thigh.

When I gasped the sound was so hideous my father grabbed the steering wheel, sure my mother would lose control. But she was used to my gasping howls, so the steering wheel was fine till dad knocked it. The Volvo bounced over a median, and we went airborne. Through the receding purple fizz I saw giant red Wal-Mart letters disappear below the hood then rise back into view as the car slammed into the asphalt. I flew into the front seat on impact and my face slammed into the stereo.

At the hospital, as we waited for the doctor who would come in and inform us that besides my concussion I had developed brittle asthma, which is potentially fatal, my father tried to cheer me up by telling me that my face had turned the radio on to a great song. I ended up with 36 stitches and a scar above my eye in the shape of a jalapeno pepper.

I turned 12 in the summer of 1996. It was dad's turn to keep me for a few days, and there was a convention on alternative medicine at the Los Angeles Convention Center. He brought me down from Santa Barbara, where we lived, to check out some breathing alternatives. We took the scenic drive down along the coast, on Highway One. "Better for guy talk," dad said. Ever since their divorce, mom's work had taken off at her company, a synthetic drug developer. That summer, shortly after the company's initial public offering, she had made vice president in charge of new marketing. After that, she often told me I was lucky to have such a mother, usually while handing me some treatment that had yet to be approved by the FDA. Sometimes the pills had a decent effect, helping my breathing a little. Sometimes they made household appliances tell me things about the pope's past lives. Mom usually took notes in her diary, watching as I cocked an ear toward the toaster. I never saw her write in it any other time. "Because I'm so devoted to you, Stan," she would say.

Around that time dad got interested in holistic medicine. "The holistic people would never be listed on the New York Stock Exchange," he said. "It's artificial."

"Mom said her company's IPO made her rich," I said.

Dad didn't say anything the rest of the way, except once, leaning forward and squinting at a mileage road sign. He said, "Let's see...Los Angeles 70, San Diego 200, Child Support 600."

When we got into LA we had an early lunch at Xanthippe's Greek Buffet off the corner of Pershing Square. There was one table in the back, covered by a red-and-white-striped plastic spread, and the rest of the seating was a counter along the wall and across the window, with some scattered stools. A sign in the window by the door showcased an article written about the place in the LA Weekly in 1985 titled "Unique Greek." We were the only patrons, but already the three workers behind the glass cases were filling a long row of take-out orders: souvlaki, moussaka, and pastitsio placed in Styrofoam boxes and stacked in large white plastic bags. Dad and I sat at the window with our gyros plates. The restaurant was on the border between the new business district and the ghetto, the old business district. For most of our meal a sizable lady in pink tights and headphones rummaged through a steel-mesh trash can in front of our window.

When we were done only the jalapenos remained on our plates. Two per plate. They were light green and still had their stems. Dad nudged me and nodded down at them. "Aren't you going to eat those?" he said.

"What about you?" I nodded to him.

"Not a chance," he said. "Let's see you eat 'em."

"You wanna gimme an attack?" I said.

Dad turned around and said to the empty stools, invoking a heavy Brooklyn accent, "Hey, everybody, Stanley here's afraid to eat four lousy chili peppers."

I picked my leather case off the floor and laid it on the counter.

"Uh-oh," dad said. "He's getting serious."

I opened the case and pulled out an adrenaline thigh pump. I closed the case and placed the pump on top of it.

"If I die," I said, "it'll be your fault."

"Stop makin' excuses," he said, nudging his plate my way. "It's just some jalapeno peppers. What are y'afraid of?"

A grasshopper once triggered an attack by jumping on my bare leg at a picnic. The chili peppers in front of me gave me more than a little concern. I looked up at dad. He winked at me. I picked up one of the jalapenos and bit it off at the stem. It was slightly rubbery, juicy. I chewed fast and bit off the next one as soon as I swallowed. Dad rocked back on his stool and said, "Oh, he's using the slam method!" A mild tingle began to develop around my molars as I swallowed and bit the third pepper from its stem. Dad said, "Show those peppers who's boss!"

The next sensation was a kind of quiet. It was as if all my senses shut down. I could not taste, I could not feel. As I swallowed and bit off the fourth and final pepper, not feeling a thing, I thought I was on the verge of my biggest attack ever. Yet I knew that I was breathing fine. In fact, the heat of the peppers even seemed to be opening my nose and throat wider than normal. Dad jumped off his stool and bent toward me, hands on his knees. "That's it, attack those peppers!" I swallowed the fourth and closed my eyes. I could still see. I could see straight through my eyelids, as if the heat had melted them off.

Dad slapped my back. "You know what? Those didn't really look like jalapenos, did they? Stan? Can you hear me?" I could, but sounds seemed distant and high pitched. Dad turned to the workers. "Hey, were those jalapeno peppers you gave us?"

"No," one of the workers said. "Piquins."

"Oh, piquins!" dad said.

"Much, much hotter," the worker said.

Dad turned back around to me and said, "Holy shit, you just slammed four piquins!"

I laid four fingers over my thigh pump. "My brain is swelling," I said.

Dad raised his arms and cheered. He picked me up and carried me outside, leaving my leather case and pump behind.

At one point down on Broadway and Sixth, a block into the old business district, in front of a jewelry store and a pizza joint, dad put me down on my feet. Both my hands were clamped over my mouth, one on top of the other, and my knees buckled. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I fell face first onto the grimy pavement and rolled into the gutter. My legs began to kick wildly. Dad bent over me and said, "Good, you're kicking. That means you've passed the peak. How's your breathing?"

The water in the gutter was cool on my back. My stomach and chest were heaving. My passages were completely dilated. I smiled.

"I've never seen you breathe like that," dad said.

The breaths I could get after an injection were strained--the breathing I was experiencing there in the gutter was effortless. Even on good days I never inhaled that easily, so fully. I crossed my ankles, put one hand behind my head and propped an elbow up on the curb. Dad said, "Enjoying yourself?"

"Yes," I said.

Later, after picking up my leather case at Xanthippe's, we blew off the holistic medicine convention and went to the drag races at the LA County Raceway. Dad said to me on the drive back up to Santa Barbara, a few minutes before he had to drop me off at mom's house, "Hey--you won't let your mother know about today, right? We just went to the convention and looked around at some herbs--right?" He had bought me a drag racing T-shirt earlier, and I was wearing it. I asked him about the shirt and he said, "Tell her there was a stand at the convention center, for an upcoming drag racing convention or something. You wanted it so I bought it for you. Show her the price tag too, if you want."

When mom and I were sitting on my bed that night, mom swabbing my ears with Q-Tips as she always did after dad dropped me off, I became so relaxed and drowsy I couldn't resist answering all her questions truthfully.

"You're a good boy," she said, laying me down half asleep and tucking me in.

I woke up in the middle of that night unable to get any air. The purple fizz was encroaching on traces of low light veining up from streetlights behind the curtains. I struggled to pull off my blankets, tangled and sticky from sweat, and reached under the bed for my case. I reached for the snaps, popped them open, pulled out the tube, removed it, and through a sheer wall of purple stabbed it into my thigh.

I stayed in the hospital for a few days that time. Mom brought me some cocoa, winked repeatedly as she handed it to me, and said, "Here you go, sweetie." She leaned in and whispered, "This batch could fry the warts off a bullfrog." She meant the yet-to-be-FDA-approved meds in the cocoa. She showed me the keys to her new Jaguar and promised to give me a ride, then said she had to get to a meeting. Dad swung into the room just as she headed for the door. They pulled up and turned in time to avoid physical contact. Mom came back in and passed dad as he was stepping toward me, pulling something out of his pocket. Mom grabbed the bed curtain, smiled at me and said, "Just a minute, honey." She snapped it shut. Their shadows waved on the plastic curtain. "I understand you had my son swimming in a downtown gutter yesterday," she said behind the curtain.

Dad said, "I wouldn't have described it as swimming."

"And then you took him to the drag races?" mom said. "All that smoke and exhaust, and you were already in LA?"

"Come on," dad said. "It was one of the best days we've had since the divorce."

"Well I hope you're happy," mom said. "You'll lose joint custody now."

Mom's shadow disappeared. Dad opened the curtain, smiling. He pulled a chubby red chili pepper from his pocket and handed it to me. "You know what that is?"

"No," I said, and laid it on the table next to the cocoa, which I hadn't touched.

"It's called a Red Savina habanero," dad said. "It's the hottest chili pepper in the world." He raised his eyebrows and nodded. I looked up at the TV in the corner. It was off. Dad sat on the edge of the bed and picked up my Styrofoam cup. He chugged the cold hot cocoa, then said, "I don't understand why you don't like this hospital cocoa." I grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. He watched it with me for a while, then said he needed to go call his attorney. He paused here and there on the way out of the room, poking at things, mumbling. At the door he turned to me and said that he thought he had morphed into a starfish and that he would like me to call him Freecloud.

I picked up the pepper and looked it over. I thought about how good it felt to breathe lying there in the gutter in LA. I decided on further investigation, but I wasn't about to test the world's hottest chili pepper.

My first night back in civilian clothes, I snuck down to the 7-Eleven after mom locked herself in her room with vodka and an assortment of benzodiazepines. The neighborhood was silent. I stood at the red light across the street from the store. No car was moving within sight or earshot. I could hear the traffic light ticking, tracking time till it allowed me to cross. Once inside the store, I felt comforted by all the colorful packaging and the clean, disinfected air. I got a MiniGulp cup and filled it with the dark green jalapenos from the hot dog area. A lot of the jalapeno juice went in with it. I put on a plastic lid and shelled out change for the MiniGulp.

While waiting again at the corner for the light to change I tossed the lid into the gutter. As I walked back up the street the jalapeno juice spilled over the rim and onto my hand, and the vapors made my eyes water. I stopped under a streetlight and peered into the cup. The peppers floated like green inner tubes. I looked up the street and saw my mother's bedroom light on. I drank the jalapenos in eight enormous gulps. The juice poured down my chin and onto my chest. The circular slices slid across my tongue and down my throat. The last one caught my larynx and made me cough. A mouthful of the juice sloshed back into the cup, then splashed up my nose and into my eyes. Then the heat began to kick in.

I dropped the cup, bent over, and covered my face with my hands, trying to stanch the eruptions coming from five of the seven holes in my head. I staggered up the hill to my house, fighting the jalapenos swishing in my stomach, fighting to regain my balance.

As I reached the front step, mostly blind, my head exploding, an uncontrollable surge sent the entire contents of the MiniGulp cup, along with my dinner from two hours earlier, onto the concrete. My mother flung open the front door. "Where have you been, sweetie?" she slurred. She stepped outside and knelt down in front of me. She was barefoot. "Are you having an attack?" She sniffed the air and wiggled her toes. "What is that?" she said, more curious than put off. She sniffed her drink. She looked down at her feet and said, "Has it been raining? What did it do, wash up slugs?" She stepped into the grass, holding high her vodka glass for balance, then bent over my shoulder. "Oh my god!" she yelled, jumping back. She launched her glass into the tree above us, where it clanked from branch to branch, then fell with a thud somewhere in the grass. Mom stumbled back until she hit the tree in the middle of the yard. "What the hell were you doing?" she said. "I was standing in that, you asthmatic little shit!" I was breathing perfectly again, and that night I slept without trouble.

The next day I cleaned out the contents of my leather case and filled it with jalapeno peppers. The thigh jammer I replaced with the classic 50s syringe with the gold scissors handle and six-inch needle. It was mainly for show.

The jalapenos worked well at first, but after the first few months I no longer experienced that special breathing, that feeling of purest and cleanest oxygen flowing into my lungs, no matter how many I ate. I had to keep eating more and more to keep my attacks at bay. When my chest began to get tight, I increased the dosage. When it became evident that no amount of jalapenos would work any longer, I had to go to the next hottest pepper. The rocotilla, then the serrano, the rocoto, the chiltepin.

Despite having to eat chili peppers constantly, I led a fairly normal life. No more impotent doctors with shiny cold pulse-amplifying necklaces probing me, questioning, lying, winking. No more fear of everyday things and events, no more self-loathing. I had become a teenager, and I made up for lost time. I wasn't interested in sleeping, and never felt much of a need to. I read widely and ran track, I was an honor student, I dated, and I became a gourmet cook specializing in chili peppers.

Finally, about a year ago, I had to admit that the power of the chili peppers was running out. I was eating 60 orange habaneros a day. That left only the Red Savina habanero, and once I developed a tolerance to them, it would all be over for me. I would have to restock my leather carrying case with a pharmacy full of asthma medicines. No more track, no more cooking. No more living.

Then one day my prospects changed. It was after track practice at the beginning of my senior year in high school. It was a gorgeous Indian summer day, nearing twilight. I was sitting on the asphalt edge of the high-jump pit, leaning against the big blue landing cushions. The fiberglass bar stretched above me between two steel poles. I was reading a book I'd checked out of the school library on Che Guevera. I opened my case, and as I ate orange habaneros I read about Che's journey to Bolivia in the 60s. Not the trip to Bolivia when he was finally hunted down and killed, the story that had piqued my interest in him. According to this book, written by the daughter of one of the men who went there with him, Che had been to Bolivia before. On this trip, having been chased up the Amazon by the Bolivian state police, Che and his fellow travelers came across a plant growing blue chili peppers. Starving, the group ate some, and all agreed they were the hottest thing they had ever eaten. Che took some of the blue peppers back to Cuba.

I got off the track and went home to call the publisher of the book, Mondo Iglesias. They said the author was dead. I asked about the blue chili peppers. They said the author's nephew, who ran a film company called Guevara Entertainment out of Key West, might be able to help.

During the next few days, while I tried unsuccessfully to locate information on Guevara Entertainment, the orange habaneros stopped working entirely, and I had to switch to the Red Savina habanero, the hottest chili pepper in the world. My options were running out.

I invited each of my parents, without informing either about the other, to dinner at Freedom House, a new post-9/11 restaurant chain started by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. One of the restaurant's original concepts was a drive-through that cut across the dining room.

I sat us at a table in the middle of the restaurant right next to the cars waiting in line. Mom and dad both loved to wave at the passengers coming through. Signs posted throughout the restaurant read "Say Whatever the Heck You Want" and "They're Just Jealous." First on the list of burgers, which was all the restaurant served, was the You Got a Problem With Freedom, Pal? burger. It was three regular-size half-pound patties stacked on top of each other. Other burgers on the menu included the Osama bin Laden, which was cooked extremely well done and was far and away the best seller, and the Why They Hate Us burger, which was served raw.

"Is this burger free?" dad always asked our server when his burger was brought.

Our server, always Melanie, smiley and popping turquoise bubble gum, said, "No, but you're free to try to leave without paying for it."

Things were fine till a screwup at the drive-through window held up traffic, leaving a Dodge pickup blowing exhaust directly onto us.

"This is not sane," I said, covering my nose with an American flag napkin.

"We have to support our freedom, Stan," dad said, biting into his Freedom Lover burger.

"I know it's idiotic, Stanley, but it looks bad if you don't," mom said, biting into her Axis of Freedom burger.

"What do you want, Stan?" dad said, peering at mom through half-closed eyes.

"I'm going to Key West for a while," I said.

"For how long?" they said at once.

"For as long as it takes to find some blue chili peppers," I said. I put four Red Savina habaneros on my Gung-Ho burger and bit into it.

"That's interesting," mom said. "I didn't know there were blue chili peppers."

"You don't know a lot of things," I said.

"Honey," mom said, "don't get smart with me. Do it to that guy on the other side of the table if you want, but not to me."

"Are you sure they're blue chili peppers?" dad said.

"Gotta find out," I said.

"Where did you hear of these blue chili peppers?" mom said.

"Um..." I looked away from the table, not wanting to answer.

Behind the cash register in front of the door was a Chinese girl my age. I couldn't hear her, but judging from her expression and gestures she didn't seem to be putting the "I care" into "How were your burgers?" She was wearing a fry cook's hat, the kind that looks like a boat. I got up from the table and walked over to her. She had taken the silver top off the toothpick dispenser and was looking blankly into it as she waited for the next customer.

"Hi," I said.

She looked up, held out her hand palm up, and said, "How were your burgers?"

"Can I ask you a question?" I said. Next to the register was a very well thumbed book called The Poetry of Anthony Kiedis.

"What?" she said.

"Why are you wearing that hat?"

"They make me wear it." She lifted up the front of the cap, revealing a Day-Glo green Mohawk. "Because of this."

"Is that your book?" I said, pointing to the book of poetry.

"Yeah," she said. "Do you know his work?"

"Huh-uh," I said. "Would love to have a look though." I looked over to my table. My parents were bent toward each other watching me, their hands covering their mouths, whispering. Staring back at them, I popped a Red Savina habanero.

The Chinese girl said, "Was that a habanero?"

"Yes," I said.

"You just ate an entire habanero at once?"

"Yup," I said. "I have to go. You wanna do something later?"

She said yes. I walked back over to the table. They stopped whispering and folded their arms.

"We've decided that you can go to Key West," mom said.

"When will you be leaving?" dad said.

I looked over my shoulder at the Chinese girl, then back. "Tomorrow," I said.

"Splendid," mom said.

"Terrific," dad said.

"I'll need some money," I said.

"Done," they said at once.

I didn't care what was going on with them or what they were up to. All I cared about was the blue chili pepper. And the Chinese girl at the counter.

She said her name was Ambrosia. I rubbed my fingers over her green Mohawk as we sat on the edge of the pier, our feet dangling over the dark waves of the Pacific Ocean. A cool breeze blew, and she buttoned the top button of my jacket for me.

She had graduated from high school the previous spring. I had told her the story of my asthma, Che in the Amazon, and the elusive blue pepper.

"What do you think?" I said.

"Tough choice," she said.

"I know," I said. "The Freedom House, or the open road."

She smiled.

Mom and dad spent the night together, over at mom's, where I was staying. Ambrosia and I went to her place, which was her father's house, late that night and gathered everything she wanted to take. We went back to my mother's house and spent the night in my room. We woke up midmorning to sharp laughter from down in the kitchen, my parents', mixed with the light clanking of silver on ceramic. The scent of buttered toast filtered in under my door. Coffee followed, and brought with it the perfumes of bacon and strawberry jam.

I ate a few Red Savina habaneros as we dressed, then we went downstairs to the kitchen. The curtains were all open, and the sun flooded the room with light. Mom brought a black frying pan full of sizzling bacon past us and laid it on a yellow hot pad on the table.

"Good morning, sunshine and friend," she said to us.

Dad, sitting at the table, laid aside the newspaper and poked a bacon slice with his fork. "Come on in," he said. "Have some breakfast." Mom poured orange juice into large clear glasses that sparkled in the sunlight.

Ambrosia took a step toward the table, but I pulled her back. Mom sat down at the table, and she and dad looked at us expectantly. Mom raised a hand over the coffeepot. Steam was flowing from the silver spout. "I made your favorite, East Africa Blend, honey," she said.

I remained where I was standing. My eyes watered. Ambrosia looked up at me. She hooked her index finger around my pinkie. "You OK?" she said softly.

"It's just the peppers," I said.

Mom and dad sat, unmoving, each with a fork in one hand and a knife in the other, smiling up at me. A couple pieces of bacon remained sizzling in the pan at the center of the table, next to the muffins.

"Raspberry muffins," dad said through his teeth. "Your favorite, son."

Mom lowered her utensils and stood back up. She was wearing an apron, something I'd never seen her do. A cartoon on the front showed a chef cooking multicolored pills in a pan. In one of his hands was a spatula, in the other five orange plastic pill containers. Pills were pouring into the pan. The only thing on the kitchen shelves around the chef, and next to the stove, and the only thing in the opened refrigerator and freezer, were pill bottles. The chef was looking over his shoulder at us, and the caption above his head said, "Pill-lease have a seat!" Beneath the cartoon block letters read, "Kuch Pharmaceutical Distributions."

Ambrosia said into my ear, "Is breakfast here always like this?"

"My parents are divorced," I said out of the corner of my mouth. "They never had breakfast together even when they were married."

Mom walked around the kitchen and opened all the cupboards. She turned all the cans, jars, boxes, and packages so the labels were facing out. Dad picked up the newspaper, folded it neatly, held it up against his shoulder, and pointed to the headline. He wore a gaping grin, and his eyebrows bobbed up and down. The headline read, "Blue Chili Pepper Found."

"What?" I said.

Mom stepped over to the fridge. She put one hand on her hip, the other on the fridge handle, winked at me, then opened the door. All the items were pushed to the sides and back of the fridge, except one thing. At the front of the middle shelf was a jar labeled "Pickled Blue Peppers."

I looked at mom. She winked again. I looked at dad. He was still pointing at the newspaper, still pumping his eyebrows and smiling.

"I should be going," Ambrosia said.

She turned to go but I grabbed her elbow. "What about Key West?" I said.

"Um," Ambrosia said, and glanced over at my mother. Mom had taken the jar out of the fridge and was holding it to her side and up, one palm at the bottom and her other hand indicating the label with all five fingers. She opened the jar, smelled the contents, smiled and nodded to us. Ambrosia said, "It...looks like you have blue"

"They're delicious, too," dad said. "I ate 16 of them earlier this morning. Didn't I, mother?"

"You sure did, father," mom said. "Mmm."

"I should leave," Ambrosia said.

"But we're packed and everything," I said to her under my breath.

"Stanley, let go of my arm," Ambrosia said. She looked over to mom, holding the jar aloft, smiling. She looked back at me. "Just--call me tomorrow or something."

"Good-bye, Stanley's friend!" dad said.

"Thanks for stopping in, Stanley's friend!" mom said.

Ambrosia turned and quickly exited the front door.

Dad laid down the newspaper, headline facing me. "Say, mother," he said to mom. "How about some more of those delicious blue peppers?"

"Why of course, father," she said to dad, crossing the room. "As many as you'd like."

"Thanks, mother," he said, taking the jar. Before mom let go of the jar she bent down and they kissed. As they parted from the kiss they looked at me and smiled, teeth sparkling. The jar's label was facing me.

Mom sat back down, took a slice of bacon from the pan, and put it on her plate. She hated bacon. Dad pulled out a pickled blue pepper from the jar. It had the shape and texture of a cucumber. Chili peppers are smooth. It was blue though.

Dad bit into it. "Mmm," he said, and swallowed. His lips were blue. He popped the rest of the blue pepper into his mouth. The tips of his fingers were blue. "Delicious," he said. I stood there and watched as my mother ate three slices of bacon and my father ate seven pickled blue peppers, finishing off the jar. Blue water rolled from his lips and dripped off his chin.

He held the jar up to me. "Would you like one, son? Oh look at that, the jar's empty."

"Well, do you know what, father?" mom said.

"What's that, mother?" dad said.

"I can just go downstairs and get another jar," mom said.

"Why don't all three of us go downstairs together, mother," dad said.

"Excellent idea," mom said.

They stood up, and each held out a hand to me. "Come on, son," dad said. "Let's go down and get some more blue peppers."

"You'll enjoy them, Stan," mom said.

I could have run. I could have called the police. I could have called the asylum. Instead I took their hands, and we all three descended the steps together, into the family room.

The sofa and two lounge chairs had been removed. In front of the television was a bed inside a giant plastic bubble. On one side a humming machine with two long cylindrical tanks was attached to the bubble by a hose. Inside the bubble, lying on the pillow, was a jar of pickled blue peppers.

Mom nudged me in the direction of the bubble. "Go ahead, Stanley," she said.

There was a white zipper

down the side of the bubble. Dad unzipped it. "Have a pickle, son," he said.

I stood there for a while.

Through her smile mom whispered to me, "Your condition is getting worse and worse and worse."

Through his smile dad whispered to me, "Be a hero, son. Get in the bubble."

I looked at the pickled blue peppers for a long while. My parents continued smiling. I looked over at the television. The remote control was lying on top of it.

I grabbed the remote. Then I got into the bubble.

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