The history behind “Cancer God”

Photograph courtesy Tomasz Sienicki

Jakie, a sharp-tongued retired salesman, meets a man who claims to be the god of cancer.

My father was a wonderful, ethical, funny, and loving human being, and when he died, my world was badly shaken. Several of the stories I wrote over the next few years were informed by his life and death. “Cancer God” was the first; I started sending it out in August of 2001, three months after he died. It racked up an impressive number of rejections. However, I was absolutely determined that it would see print, either on paper or online. It was finally accepted by Space and Time Magazine and published in July of 2009, and has been revived as the fourth story in The History of Soul 2065.

Damn, Jakie thought, he had to get his meds changed. He was in more trouble than he thought

Cancer God

As implied above, Jakie is loosely based on my father. Like Jakie, my father fought in the European theater in WWII and, after the war, worked as a salesman for wholesale women’s clothing companies in the 1950s/1960s NYC “rag trade” (although he eventually ended up in charge of a mail-order operation for a high-end men’s clothing company). And like Jakie, he knew how to get along with almost everyone, but didn’t take shit from anyone.

As mentioned in the entry for “Hearts and Minds,” Ben as an adult (who is only present offstage here) is somewhat based on a talented young man I knew in the 1980s who was lost in the AIDS maelstrom.

Ben’s partner Carlos is completely fictional, although if you squint hard enough you’ll probably find bits and pieces derived from several of my friends.

The hospital is — a hospital.

Jakie is a man of his time: A veteran who came home from WWII happy to have survived and unwilling to discuss it with anyone who wasn’t there. He married his childhood sweetheart, had a couple of kids, worked hard, smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes a day, and hoped to eventually retire and grow comfortably old — a hope that was cut short by those couple of packs a day. He’s cynical, innately honest, kind without admitting it, foul-mouthed when he wants to be, and not afraid to stand up for his rights because he’s seen what happened when people don’t. He’s also been through enough in his life that he knows not to reject any experience — no matter how strange — out of hand.

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