By Rob Azevedo
Never heard of someone getting cancer of the forearm before. Not ever. Heard of the ear, the lip, the liver and gut. Heard of ladies getting cancer of the innards. That just sounds brutal. My Uncle Lou from Last Breath got cancer on his nuts six years ago when I was about fifteen. That’s some deep shit right there. I remember my mother went half mad when she found out Uncle Lou’s nuts were in for the ride of their life. Chemo, radiation, the whole deal, a total zap job.
She loved her brother Lou, my Ma. Practically raised him on her own in Last Breath when she was just a kid herself. Him and his nagging cough and dreams of becoming a pirate someday. Ma had her dreams also but they were left to burn alongside the deep resentments she felt towards my Nana – her mother — for leaving Ma alone with the roving buccaneer at that young age. But “cancer of the forearm?” What kind of shit was that?
The saddest kind, you see. That’s how I was explaining the whole deal to my new co-worker, Terry, at Mike’s Gym the other afternoon before the night classes started up. We’re both big fans of the Body Pump classes late in the day, round four. Mama delish. All kinds of stacked asses. Creases and curves galore, all favorable, some bearable, others undeniable. I was telling Terry about my Uncle Lou and how his good friend and brother-in-law, my father, Gene Atkins, was the only guy I ever knew who got cancer in the forearm. Only man I ever heard of getting cancer anywhere near the arm — never the elbow, the wrist, the finger or knuckle.
But cancer of the forearm?
I dare you to say that shit again. “Cancer of the forearm.” You motherfucker. But so it goes. Gene, my father, a good guy, not an easy man , I suppose, but solid, found out he had cancer in his forearm a year and a half ago.
“They take his arm?” Terry asks.
“I’m getting to that, buddy. Slow it down.”
So I’m telling Terry how Gene wasn’t a man without his troubles, like us all. Outwardly Gene looked complete, always fresh with a two week clipping round the ears. Never haunted by a tobacco stained goatee, though he adored cranking down on butts. His teeth were fair enough. He liked his cheap cologne, his long shiny cars, his pressed slacks and floral party shirts. They always matched. Fucking Gene. Not a great drinker, Gene. Shook too much after a heavy dose, and that in turn made his loins flabby and his breathe smell like an old asshole. An exhausting existence.
The nickel barrel vodka he swilled with Ma at the house at night played a role in his tirades about space, the essence of Al Pacino’s cool and why it mattered that we all receive communion, whether a Catholic or not.
“They aren’t gonna fuckin’ ask you!” Gene would say. “Just cup your mitts and take the wafer. Ingest the Lord.”
But consumption wasn’t what weakened Gene, and neither were the holy wafers. After a few steady weeks of him not showing up to our traditional Friday lunches at Marco’s, Gene caved in when I hammered him over the cell about his whereabouts. We use to split an antipasto and a plate of turkey tips, I say. Now what? No call? Can’t shoot me a text? Too busy being retired? I demanded to Gene. “Bring it on. I can handle it.”
Gene wondered if I ever pulled a muscle in my arm, forearm specifically.
“Have I ever pulled a muscle in my arm, Geno?” I says. “When is the last time you saw my arms?”
I’ve been wanting to talk to my father about my huge arms for sometime now, explain to him exactly what goes into building pythons like these. Did he think “Hammer” and “Might” simply sprung from the earth? Had he not noticed the dedicated hours I spent working the floor and front desk at the only gym in Last Breath? Training in that same gym for hours, every fucking morning before the doors opened? Sprints, squats, green drinks, uprights, granola crunches, you name it, I perform it.
This is what I was telling Terry before he made his ten cold calls to potential new members. Gene obviously hadn’t seen me sweat it out in the body shop, this I said. Too busy knocking down grits with Ma in the backyard to notice his boy had grown into a man. Gone were my assless years. No more did I hang out of my flannel shirts. Shirt sleeves were now turned up, stretched over Hammer and Might.
Look at that. Full cone. Fucking Gene.
But now, now I ask him a simple question. Terry listens. “Do you not know my arms have their own bloody tracking system? Nothing but live wire down there, Gene.”
This I tell him. I’m pointing to the veins across my forearm.
Terry’s not overly impressed. But he will be. Gene says, “You’re a fool.”
“I do forty reps of biceps a week, Gene.”
“Call me Dad.”
“Dad, I do forty sets of biceps a week. Straight bar, isolations, cables, you name it. Come on! Have I ever pulled a muscle in my arm? It’s all muscle!”
“Wonderful,” he says.
“Why?“ I asked him. “What’s up with your arm?”
“Think I pulled something in my forearm,” he says.
“Ya, how long has it been sore?”
Fucking Gene. Probably back at the gym, finally after years of ignorance. Got to go easy on the reverse curls, I tell him. You should be doing all reps. Fifteen a set, light weights. Walk the tread. Work the crunch machine. Now Terry is listening in deep. He loves reversing the curls. Says the reverse curl has always enhanced his own tracking system.
That day I take a ride back home and see Gene and Ma. Ma has no clue her husband has cancer in his forearm, and neither did he or anybody at that point. But Gene knew something was up. And how could he not? When I pulled Gene into the den of my childhood home in Last Breath, I told him right out, “Pull up your shirt sleeve. Let’s have a look.” So he did and mother-of-all-fuckers, there’s a football growing out of my father’s right arm. Some sort of corrupt poison had got into Gene’s bloodstream and went straight to his forearm. It was throbbing purple and covered in deep blue and maroon veins. The skin around the blob was paper thin. Had a toothpick brush against his forearm the whole thing might blow and squirt every afghan in the joint.
“That’s not a pulled muscle, Dad. That’s something far worse.”
Gene took me by the throat, as he did many times when I was a skinny rack of boy bones. With his teeth on fire, Gene leaned into my face and told me that we would leave the house now and head to the ER. Terry’s looking like he’s about to pass out. He’s still got to wipe down the tanning beds before the Pump gets out of class. Those beds will busy soon enough with all that gliding, bare-assed perspiration. Oh to be a fly on the wall.
So Gene starts saying: “We leave quietly, telling your mother next to nothing. You want to show me where you work or some shit like that. Joke about your pythons. She doesn’t need to know nothing, not yet. If she sees fear in your eyes, or mine, she will be up our asses before we know it. You’re mother can’t take another bout with the poison. Not after her brother Lou’s balls went black. She just couldn’t do it all over again.”
At the ER it took about forty five minutes for them to diagnose my father’s forearm with cancer. They stuck a needle in his meat pie tumor, took a sample, shook it up and bang! There it was. Cancer of the cruelest kind. Filthy fucker. How it got there, it’s anybody’s guess. The doctor asked him about being in the service, working around asbestos, his sex life, bloodlines and shit. I was in a trance, caressing my right arm, making sure nothing but muscle was growing inside.
Gene didn’t look as scared as I thought he should. He just kept staring at me, at my right arm, my shoulders, triceps, then my left arm, my chest, traps, every inch of this strapping mausoleum. Finally, this asshole is looking at me for the first time in years, I tell Terry. I didn’t mean that. I love Gene. But he was! I feel like squatting a stack of plates.
“We can operate,” the doctor says. “Try and dig the tumor out. Sooner than later. But it’s probably best we just amputate, go with a prosthetic arm.”
At this point Terry’s eyes are blown wide open, and it has nothing to do with the hot realtor Denise from Breakheart that just walked in for the Body Pump class. Denise was older, maybe thirty, and Terry loved that about her. That and her juicy mommy tits. But even Terry couldn’t concentrate on the curvature of the realtor when all he wanted to know was what happened to Gene next.
“They take his arm?” Terry asks again.
“Easy now, Terry. We’re close.”
Gene was still staring at me in the ER as if he was purchasing one of his brand new used cars. Some kind of spark shot from his eyes, a resolution presented itself, a way out of a full amputation and twenty five years of swinging plastic. Or death. Without a hitch Gene says to me, “I think I want your right arm.”
I knew he was serious. Fucking Gene. The doctor said it was a slow night and he had much experience with reattachments, the bodily kind. He was a surgeon in the Iraq War, he said. He could easily take my father’s dead arm off, put it on ice, then amputate my righteously huge right arm, stitch it up onto Gene’s shoulder and within a few weeks Gene could be curling York 50’s.
“And what about my sorry ass, Gene?” I say to him. “I mean, Daaaaad? I’m not wearing your dead arm. Don‘t even ask me…”
Then as expected:
“You’ll wear my dead arm,“ Gene cries. “as I have for you all these years. Raising you good enough to care, even loving your skinny ass during your Ethiopic years. Now look at you, full grown, rock hard, dipped in muscle, strong, proud, a worker. My son. I’ll have that arm now.”
Hard sell. Fucking Gene. So I said Fuck It! You want me right arm, you can have it.
Gene wasn’t a perfect father but he was good enough to have my right arm, for awhile. Which he did.
For almost eight months Gene wore my ginormous right arm on his body. And I his. Odd, yes, my old bulging right arm now attached to my father’s old, man-titted body. Gene would get eight months of sheer satisfaction walking in my shoes, donning the Hammer, the Might. After we both healed up, I went back to work and Gene started joining the ladies at the Pump Class. He looked like a complete loon in class with his shorts being too short, sock pulled up to his knees, so much hair going on thigh-wise, knobby knees, belly gut, belly chest, neck cheese. A full on mess.
Still, he wore my old right arm like badge of honor and always with a cut off t-shirt. Sometimes, just one of the sleeves would be cut off. I swear Ma waxed my old gorgeous arm for Gene before he came down to the gym every night. While the whole class would be doing lunges, thirty women deep, Gene would just be looking into the wide mirror in front of him, flexing his hilltop, making it crest. He loved that arm, everything about it.
And I like to think he understood what it took to build that arm. The arm which I wore, Gene’s even more dead arm than before, the one that he opted to have operated on and now looks as if it had been run over ten times after being dug out by a Caterpillar excavator. That’s the arm I got in the deal. Layers of dusty flab, skin unseen for years, tucked away under an elbow, lost forever. It was the color of liver.
All this while Gene gleamed with sweat and bulk.
Terry starts crying. I barely know this guy. Seems alright. When Gene died, eight months later on a rainy, cold winters night after the cancer found it‘s way into his lungs, the same doctor that did the original operation did it again. A flip-flop job. I got my mountainous right arm back, all be it a few inches smaller, and Gene got his to live with in the afterworld. I was able to bring his old dead arm back to life, somewhat. Now it at least looked like a teenage boys arm, full of scars, but flat and lined with rope muscle. Good enough for heaven, I suppose.