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Hot Stuff

We were talking about hot stuff, and I remembered something from back in the '70s. When it comes to peppers, I've been the soul of discretion ever since.

My cousin once bought a small bottle of what he said was pure capsicum, just for people who said foolish things like "I never can get it hot enough". I didn't try it. It was a black and evil looking paste, and perhaps should have had a skull and crossbones on the label.

The hottest thing I ever actually swallowed was by accident, and I never did find out what it was. I was visiting Lima, Peru, and decided to go down to the beach to wrestle with some waves. After a little time in the water, we repaired to a small cafe on the beach and ordered up some grilled fish and a couple of salads.

The salad was dribbled with vinaigrette, and right on the top there was a soft orangey-red looking thing about the size of the eraser on a number two pencil. It resembled that shapeless bit of pimiento you get in stuffed olives.

If I thought about it at all, I guess that's what I thought it was. I was hungry, so I didn't fool around. I just forked up a bunch of greens, chewed a couple of times, and swallowed.

I started to feel it right at the back of my throat, but it was way too late by then. By the time it got down to the level of my Adam's apple, my throat was paralyzed. I couldn't even swallow to hurry it along. Gravity is a tedious thing, when you really need it. I could tell exactly where it was, all the slooow way down, in the same way you'd be able to tell where somebody was poking you with a white hot 16 penny nail.

I could measure it's exact dimensions. There are nerves in there that nobody knows about.

Have you ever almost drowned? There is a moment when time slows. Things get real simple. And you KNOW you are going to die if you don't do something RIGHT NOW. Call it an epiphany.

I grabbed my throat. My chair turned over. I fell to my knees.

There was no water on the table. I tried to ask for some, but all that came out was something like "unhhn, hunnh, huhhhnh".

Somehow consonants are easier than vowels during torture. Maybe that's why the old Hebrews called God YHWH. Easier to pronounce when terrified. You heard it here first, folks.

When it got to the middle of my chest, I quit making noises. I'd expelled all the air in my lungs and I couldn't get any back in. By this time everything I could see - mostly my knees and the decking - was fading to a pale red wash.

The exact color of that damned thing.

Somebody handed me some water. It was nasty and green and full of bits of leaves, but I didn't care. Turns out my girlfriend had plucked the flowers from the little vase in the middle of the table and handed me that.

Probably saved my life.

Since the devil pepper had passed below my throat, I could swallow again. Sort of. I croaked out one word: "Mooore."

It finally went all the way down with the water. I was shaky and sweating and sitting on the floor. But I was breathing on my own.

By this time the proprietor had arrived in a sleet of angry Spanish. He handed me a full glass. I drank it all.

"What WAS THAT?"

"No se, senor."

"THAT! RIGHT THERE!" My throat was sore. I pointed a shaky finger at my companion's salad, and the little pink bit of hell squatting innocently on top of it. Then my cunning linguist of a girlfriend took over, and after some hurried conversation turned back to me.

"He says that's just a garnish. Nobody eats that."

But I did. And that's all I ate the rest of the day. I did have a couple of beers. Mostly I practiced breathing and walking around.

And I swear there's not a bit of exaggeration in any of this. I never did find out what it was. But if you're ever in Peru, eat slowly. You don't want to just dig in like your life depended on it.

It may.


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