Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bell Pepper

I was working in the VA Hospital in New Orleans during my third year of medical school when I met "Bell Pepper." He was a patient on our internal medicine service, admitted to the hospital for a deep venous thrombosis (clot in one of the large veins of his leg), and his left leg had swelled to nearly twice its normal size.

I went about the normal task of the third-year student, gathering information about his medical history and then doing a physical examination. Aside from the obvious balloonlike appearance of the leg, the only other real oddity was the thumbnail on his right hand; it appeared wrinkled, and approximately two-thirds of the nail (toward the fingertip) had separated from the finger and was pointed upward at an oblique angle not unlike that of Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet bell.

"Has your thumbnail always been that way?" I asked, in my best stab at sounding like neither an imbecile nor an insensitive asshole.

"Naw, thass thuh hand ah use ta work the spahces inta the food I cook. They gets under mah thumbnail an it gets all loose. Ever now an then it jes peel clean off." I pictured it floating in gumbo like a bay leaf and somehow maintained composure. "You oughta come to Thibodeaux an get some good eatin' sometime."

A few days went by, his leg steadily shrank, and he seemed to be under the impression that we could have parted the sea had we wished to do so. He repeated his invitation on the day of his discharge, warning me "don't ask for Henry. Nobody there know me as Henry. Ask for Bell Pepper."

Sure enough, after much effort I got in touch with him a month later and made the short trek to Thibodeaux. And you just knew that I would have to stop at some point to ask for directions, try asking for Henry, and ultimately get my answer when I finally asked for Bell Pepper. "Wrong side of the tracks" might apply to his neighborhood, had his neighborhood seen a train in the last fifty years. His house looked like it was held together by humidity and dirt.

As he welcomed me in and I stepped across the threshold, I realized that I had been wrong; the glue keeping this house upright was aroma. I'm not sure my nose and palate have ever been so pleasantly confused by the culinary riot going on within that house. Alternately scorching hot, savory, and sweet, then back again. And like any good Louisiana native, he made sure he had enough food in reserve that I would approximate an orb by the time I made my drive home. The next day, I could still recognize each individual smell in my clothes as they lay in the laundry hamper.

I don't know what became of Bell Pepper. He was about as far "off the grid" as I can imagine a person getting - he had no phone, no car, and it seemed little contact with the outside world. I have no way of finding out whether he made it out of Katrina alive. I prefer to think so, to imagine him finding a new group of strangers that he could make happy and round. Dropping thumbnails here and there, like bay leaves, wherever he goes.

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