Make a Muscle

Mike Karpa

My grandmother is strapped to a gurney in her South Texas nursing home lobby. She spits curses as my mother argues with the managing nurse. My grandmother doesn’t know me, my mom, anyone. All that’s left of the woman she used to be is belligerence. Turns out, you can write poetry, dress down a sitting governor, be able to talk the hind leg off a donkey, and still have everything taken away, so all that’s left is the crap, so that when your daughter tries to bring you back to the nursing home after an emergency hospital stay, nurse Joyce will say to your daughter: No. We will not take her back. We got her out, and there’s no way she’s moving back in here.

I’m standing beside my grandmother’s gurney. A fraction of an inch separates me from the bicep of the powerful paramedic who has piloted the gurney here from the hospital. I feel attraction, danger. It’s 1995, only a couple years since a Texas judge gave a couple straight guys a year’s probation for killing a gay man. It took some convincing for my mother to get me here, but I’m nice, so I’m helping out. It’s the height of a Corpus Christi summer of scorching car seats and parking lots too hot to walk across. The song on every radio is “La Niña Fresa,” telling of a spoiled girl being plied with tepache. Tepache is an only mildly alcoholic brew, but still la niña refuses: ¿Tepache yo? ¿Qué te pasa? Para nada.

Mom is relentless. Where are we supposed to go? she demands. We have nowhere else.

Mom looks ready to break. We started several years ago in a home that smelled of orange blossoms and hibiscus and have since worked our way down, each facility smelling more of urine than the last. Mom glares at Joyce, who is corralled in a circular reception station. But Joyce glares back, not the least bit intimidated. She looks like she will surely emerge triumphant from this contest, corral or no.

An old guy, maybe eighty-five, small, white-haired, very frail, clasps the counter that edges the reception station as he walks. A not-quite-as-old woman criss-crosses the lobby in a virtual web, mumbling and mumbling as she paces—Ayudame por favor. Do you love me? Ayudame por favor. Do you love me?

I stand beside my grandmother as she yells—God damn it! God DAMN it!—and I think when my time comes I will be accepted eagerly into a nursing home because I am meek. A rib twinges, as if the thought cracked cartilage. The frail old guy grips his way along the circular countertop. He nudges against me and stops. I am in his way. He is not going around.

A door opens somewhere. Another radio is playing:

¿Qué le sirvan tepache? ¡No, no!

¿Qué le sirvan cerveza? ¡No, no!

The old woman mumbles for help and love as the little guy wobbles there, unseeing. He’s blind.

Ayudame por favor. Do you love me?

I shift to make space for the blind man, but am hemmed in by the paramedic. He’s young, he’s handsome, with dark hair that looks soft as the back of a dove, and his arms and chest swell with strength. To let the blind fellow pass I will need to physically push against the paramedic’s arm.

This is an arm I can fall in love with—it would not be the first time. I’m someone who never had biceps. When I was in junior high somebody made a muscle, and I asked, How do you do that? I thought there was a trick to it. Every single guy in my gym class laughed. I was already the boy who had been trapped in weightlifting. They had put me in the bench press machine and I couldn’t budge the bar. They took off weight after weight, until finally all they had left was the frame, no weights, and no, I couldn’t lift that either. The bar descended to my scrawny chest and I was pinned like a formaldehyded bug. I was pinned for decades. But now I’ve claimed my space in gyms. I drink carbohydrates within the first half-hour of working out and consume the requisite grams of protein within the first hour, six days a week. I’ve built long-twitch fibers strand by strand until I, too, can make a muscle.

As my grandmother curses, the old lady mumbles, and the old man bumps and bumps against me like a fly at a window, I think, maybe my grandmother has done something right. Who wants to be left with nice? I press against the paramedic’s swelling bicep to clear the way for the walking man. I don’t know if this guy is straight or gay, but why not go down swinging, like my grandmother. I smile at the paramedic. His nametag reads Joe.

Ayudame por favor. Do you love me?

Make a muscle.

San Francisco writer and translator Mike Karpa’s short fiction has appeared in SixfoldFaultline and other literary magazines. He is a member of the Castro Writers’ Cooperative and currently preparing the latest of many final edits of a novel of hapless drug smugglers in 1990s Tokyo, entitled Criminals.