It was at the Cerebus Center, which had become like home to me, that I met him, and I knew after five minutes of hearing him talk that he could be the one to make me happy again, even though he was talking to another girl, not me, and even though everyone at the Cerebus Center, me too, had Fish Rot. Needless to say, I hadn’t had sex in a long time. Definitely the last time it happened George Hubs Junior was President, or maybe George Hubs Senior was President. I’d stopped hoping, and decided my sister’s “prophetic dream” was wrong. I won’t have a baby and carry it wrapped in a blue shawl through my sister’s hallway, I thought.
“You were newly recovered from a long illness,” my sister had told me excitedly when describing her prophetic dream. “You were very happy,” she said. “You were walking down my hallway carrying a baby in your arms. It was wrapped in a blue shawl!”
Why was I at her house if I’d just had a baby? I asked. Where was my husband? She didn’t know, my sister said sadly.
I didn’t care about having a baby but liked the thought that I’d recover. I was 39. I never considered meeting a man at a detox joint where nearly every denizen had Fish Rot.
When I was down during my illness, I thought: At least I have family. Every six months my whole family went to my older sister’s house in Idaho and hung out in her mansion, hiked in the nearby woods, and soaked in her hot spring; my older sister and her husband, my nieces, ages 4 and 6, my younger sister, her husband, and our parents. None of the rest of us liked our parents, because our mother criticized us a lot and our father was a kid rubber who’d often find my nieces playing Legos or video games in the living room and start massaging their legs and backs, and none of us liked seeing it, and my nieces were too small and scared to move away or something like that, but my sister and I carried spray bottles around with us that we’d filled with water, and whenever he started massaging my nieces one of us would say quietly, “No,” and spray him until he backed off. For whatever reason, he hated water. So I got down sometimes, but I had family, those visits weren’t perfect but they meant something to me. They meant I had family. Friends, an inheritance, and a place to go if I ever lost everything, job, ability to think, stuff like that. And until I spent my savings, I had my savings, and when I got lonely, I lay in my bedroom in New York and drew the curtains and pretended my last horrible boyfriend, a screenwriter who told me I should move to Bulgaria because Bulgarian men might like me, was in the room. When I learned I got it, I called him, because my doctor said I should, and I said, “Goatboy, you might have Fish Rot.” He said, “Leah, I don’t have Fish Rot, but I’m sorry you do.” A month later I saw his picture in Tick-Tock, he’d married a girl who was dark haired, very pretty, and slender.
My older sister got it first. When she got it, I thought: Hahaha, she would get Fish Rot.Tweet
Since I got it I’d changed, but mostly for the better, in my head. At first it was hard. Most doctors I saw, the ones my insurance liked, said I needed a psychiatrist. I didn’t test positive for Fish Rot.
“But it’s an immune-system-response test,” I told them, “and Fish Rot disables the immune system.”
“But people do test positive,” they said. “And you don’t.”
I did research on the internet about Fish Rot. I told everyone I knew that Fish Rot was the fastest-spreading infectious disease in America. It was true. It was true even then, when George Hubs Senior was President.
“Then why don’t I know about it?” they said.
“Cover-up,” I said. “Look on the internet. It has to do with the Centers for Disease Control, the Infectious Disease Society of America, the FDA, Nazis, and the government.”
Then they said, “Oh, really,” but it was too complicated to explain about Pear Island, the bioterror research done under a government program in the ’50s by doctors who were also scientists, witnesses, and war criminals, and who now headed the CDC and IDSA and said that Fish Rot didn’t exist. “Fish Rot is for fish,” these doctors said. And stuff like that. “Once I had a fish rot,” they said. “So I flushed it.” These doctors and organizations said that very few people in America actually had Fish Rot, but that a lot of hypochondriacs thought they did. If anyone still had symptoms of Fish Rot after a month of oral meds, these doctors said, it was “Post–Fish Rot Syndrome,” and these people could be made happy with a vitamin B shot, or should get a cat.
Some doctors said it couldn’t be cured.
Of course, the economy wasn’t the best. Lots of people, even healthy ones, were getting cancer or having heart attacks, and 75 percent of Americans were overweight or obese, and extreme weather such as hurricanes was happening a lot on the coasts, and our American armies were struggling to subdue fanatical rebels in Iraq, so I knew that in the grand scheme I was lucky to have hands, arms, legs.
But I felt depressed because I’d spent all my money on Fish Rot. I was pretty down when I met Prince Horndrak, or Lord Kradnroh, or whatever, at the Cerebus Center, I was low as low, desperate.
My older sister got it first. When she got it, I thought: Hahaha, she would get Fish Rot.
I loved her, but she didn’t take care of herself. Worked too hard, bought bottled water at LilPrincessCafé for her kids. Every time she passed a LilPrincessCafé, and one stood on every corner of every Boise block, she stopped the car, she could be ten minutes from home in her SUV and the girls would see one and go, “We’re thirsty, LilPrincessCafé, LilPrincessCafé!” and she’d say, “Now, girls, we’re ten minutes from home, we have water we can drink for free at home,” and they’d go, “LilPrincessCafé!” and she’d stop and buy them Bottled Waters, Hot Chocolates, and Madeleines. I couldn’t afford the cheapest item at LilPrincessCafé, which was “Use the Bathroom: 50 cents.” My nieces were 4 and 6 but they had every hand-wiz, talk, and music device, they had I-Grab, SoundGenie, and Surround-Siren-V. I thought: She deserves Fish Rot. I had an ’80s-style boom box.
My sister kept working with Fish Rot. Her left leg and arm would go numb one day and she’d make her husband drive them both to work. The fingers on her left hand got soft and itchy. They puffed up and the skin cracked and bled. Then her fingers grew white, spongy, porous bulbs on them. She bought gloves. The gloves smelled like fish. She and her husband were accountants. She told her insurance company, “You’re going to pay for IV antibiotics for Fish Rot, for twelve months, for eighteen months, for as long as I want.”
Their policy was, No IV antibiotics for Fish Rot.
“No we’re not,” they said.
Mold grew between her toes.
She bathed in hydrogen peroxide every night after work, but it didn’t help.
She found a doctor, one of a group of rogue doctors called Fish Rot Society of America who’d all had Fish Rot, and so believed it existed and had learned how to treat it so they didn’t rot. Soon she was paying this doctor, known by his patients as “The Cowboy” because he rode Fish Rot into the ground and was bowlegged and had a square jaw and floppy brown hair and was sort of hot, $30,000 a month for IV antibiotics to treat her Fish Rot. This doctor believed that his patients should also get acupuncture and eat special green algae plants that pull lead from the body and all sorts of shit. My sister paid up the wazoo for this doctor’s services and soon her savings were shot. She got to lie on the cowboy’s massage bed and have the cowboy feel her breasts and tell her she needed more IV antibiotics for Fish Rot, but she spent her savings to do it. Then she spent my nieces’ college fund. Then she had to sell two of her three SUVs. Then she was out of money to spend on Fish Rot.
I thought: Good thing my sister, who’s rich, is the one who got Fish Rot.
Her husband got the spores on his tongue when they kissed, before they knew she had Fish Rot, and they colonized his head. He woke one day and pus came out of his eyes. My sister sent him to her doctor. Her doctor said, “You have Fish Rot.”
Then their bills doubled.
“Your sister makes a big deal about this ‘Fish Rot’ thing,” our father said to me on the phone. “Do you think it’s real?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“She probably needs more rest and to discipline her kids,” he said. “Maybe spank them. Nothing wrong with a little spanking when kids throw fits. I spanked you girls and it worked.”
“Yeah!” I said.
“Fish Rot is terrible!” my sister bawled on the phone. “I feel weak! I can’t breathe!” Her list went on. She woke up at night. She could not concentrate. Her feet were always numb. Or her legs. She was swollen. Her hair fell out. Sometimes she could not think of words she wanted to say, easy words like “apple turnover,” “tax shelter,” or “contradict.” She hid this from her clients.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, thinking, It’s permanent brain damage! Thank god I’ll never get Fish Rot!
My accountant sister was a cunty bitch.
When our parents said to her, “We don’t mean to denigrate your symptoms, but a lot of people can’t concentrate, that’s called stress. We’ve never heard of this ‘Fish Rot.’”
She said, “It’s real. Do some research. Use the internet.”
And when they said that they had done research, and they’d learned that “Fish Rot” was largely an imaginary disease, she said, “You’re wrong.” She was a tough cunt.
At that time, my life was good. I wasn’t in debt. I had a job, a three-year, full-time teaching gig at Pegasus University, with hope of renewal if the job I did was good. I took the job for granted, showed up, did the work. Didn’t love it or hate it. I had a boyfriend named Scottish Pony. I met him on a Jewish dating site. I wasn’t Jewish and neither was he. We both settled. I should speak for myself. Scottish Pony had profiles on sixty-six sites, he cast a wide net. He was tall, he was awkward, I liked that about him, he wrote poetry, he liked to have a few nightcaps before bed, and he loved books, his job cataloging books, and me. Blah blah. My favorite thing in life, even though I didn’t know it at the time, was still going to my sister’s mansion in Idaho, during Christmas, and in the summer, and it was still fun, in summer and winter, even though my sister and her husband had Fish Rot.
The activities we did were pretty much the same. When we arrived, my mother would say my sister’s house smelled bad. She’d say that my sister’s carpets had mold, her sink contained grimy scum, and her dog was drinking out of the toilet. My sister would say she knew the dog drank out of the toilet and that they let him do that. My mother would say that custom was gross, and get a bowl from my sister’s cupboard and put down water for the dog and try to make the dog drink from it, and the dog would frown, and my sister would get upset, and our father would say, “Now, now, you’re criticizing,” to our mother, “let’s all get along.” Then we went to the five-dollar bowling alley so we could all bowl, my mother would say that my nieces were too skinny, and didn’t my sister feed them? and ask who wanted corn dogs from the snack shack, and our father would tell my nieces that Grandpa would help them take their sneakers off, and my sister would say No No, she and her husband would do that, and then they’d hustle over on their crutches to my nieces and use their one arm that didn’t have a PICC line attached to help the girls undo their sneakers and put their bowling shoes on. Later we’d order in Thai food and all watch a movie, something kid-friendly like Goblin Weirdos or Escape from Witch Mountain.
It was harder, in retrospect, to keep an eye on things at my sister’s house; my sister would set up her IV pole and drip medicine into her arm in a comfy chair in the living room, and her husband would do the same in another comfy chair, and it was up to me to spray our father with water when he found my nieces in the yard and started rubbing them. My father also moved away slower, I noticed, and gave me nasty looks when I sprayed. I sometimes had to spray two or three times. You were supposed to be able to train them, I thought, I’d hoped he’d learn that the word No meant water was coming, but whenever I found him rubbing a niece and said “No” without the bottle in my hand he just stared at me, and his hand kept squeezing the niece’s calf or shoulder or whatever. My sister, being sick, couldn’t keep a good eye on it, and when I complained to her about that she said, “Just keep the water bottle with you, just spritz him,” and when I said, “But what if I’m not there some time, what if you’re not either?” she rolled her eyes and stared at the IV line in her arm and said, “Leah, we both keep an eye on him. We both spray him. I’m doing everything I can. I’m working even though I’m sick. I’m struggling.”
I miss those days, in retrospect, I even miss Scottish Pony, even though he was on a lot of psychotropic medications, had to shower four times a day to keep calm, and his favorite thing was for me to wear pigtails and plaid. He didn’t like 12-year-olds, just for me to dress up like one. I was 35. He was a good egg. He liked being “Uncle Pony-Scott,” going to my sister’s and soaking in her hot spring, and he wasn’t put off that my sister had Fish Rot. I set him up with a spray bottle and we both kept an eye on my dad. “It’s cool,” Scottish Pony said, “every family has their thing. My dad used to beat the shit out of me every day after school when I was 12.” Scottish Pony ratted his dad out, told his mother and his little brother about the beatings, but neither one of them ever believed him. When I called him, years after I dumped him, to tell him that I might have inadvertently given him Fish Rot, he said, “Are you kidding me? That’s nothing. Sorry I didn’t tell you. I’ve had Fish Rot for years.”
I never considered myself lazy or slutty. But after I dumped Scottish Pony, my sister told me that I couldn’t tell my nieces that my boyfriends were “uncles” anymore, because I was a ho-bag. “Uncles are permanent,” my sister said. “You’ve brought twenty different uncles here in ten years. It’s making the girls confused. You’re a ho-bag.” She wanted them to learn moral behavior. And one time, when I complained to her that I wasn’t rich, she said kindly, “Leah, do you know why I work? Why I work full-time even though I have Fish Rot?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t.
“I do it for my daughters,” she said. “So that they can have everything that I didn’t have. Like annual tours of Europe. I do it for them. I get up early every morning and I work. I do what I have to do. This life is not about pleasure, it’s about doing what you have to do. I do what I have to do for my daughters. And that’s that. I do a helpful job that helps people and helps the world. In this way, I do my good. I take care of me and I take care of my kids. I pray the earth mother enables me to take care of them. I want them to have every opportunity, and I want them to know their family.” She paused.
“And I want them,” she said softly, “to know their grandparents, too.” She paused. “And you have to be responsible and take care of you.”
I knew she was right, pretty much. My sister worked hard. She was a good person. She was beautiful, tall, and blond. I knew my sister didn’t believe in Jesus, but she murdered a pine tree every Christmas for my nieces’ sake, she said, she killed a healthy pine tree because she liked Christmas, and decked it in tinsel and thousands of expensive miniature yachts, and when Easter came around she pretended a bunny had brought five enormous baskets of milk-chocolate candies shaped like rabbits and chickens to their house. She didn’t believe in Jesus but she believed in distinctions between good, bad, evil, and slutty, and she liked tradition.
No one I knew believed in God except my mother. She believed in the Holy Spirit, the angels, and Satan. She said, “Jesus died for us, Jesus enables us to be loved and saved.” “Satan,” she said, “appeals to our greedy side, to our vices, he encourages us to stay angry at people we’re angry at, to eat a second piece of chocolate cake, and to go shopping.” She was angry at many people, she ate chocolate cake often, she shopped all the time. She went to church. She was a prayer warrior. She prayed for President Hubs’s health. She and a couple hundred other prayer warriors knelt down for two hours in Our Lady of the Lakes every morning and took donations and requests from the local populace. They got a lot of requests, of all kinds, to pray for a sick child’s health, to pray a family’s finances would improve, to pray America would win wars in the Middle East, to pray for President Hubs. She’d heard a rumor, put out by a tabloid, that President Hubs had Fish Rot. The article said that for several months Hubs had secretly been receiving intravenous meds at a Washington clinic to kill the infection. It made sense. He loved fish. He was always taking seaport vacations to eat clams. And he’d never been good with words. But now he was worse. Verbally, he stumbled a lot. People with Fish Rot knew the signs. They saw him speak on TV and nodded and said, “Fish Rot.” My mother, who by then knew that Fish Rot was real, prayed that Hubs would recover. She prayed that good would prevail in the world, that all souls would convert to Christianity and be saved from eternal damnation, and that American soldiers would beat the Iraqi rebels in Iraq, would slay them.
My sister came to me when at her worst. Her gallbladder had burst from the IV antibiotics. Her colon had rotted, most of her hair had fallen out, and she couldn’t walk. She saw clients in a wheelchair. Fungus had invaded her nervous system and her knees jerked uncontrollably. My sister had no more money to buy antibiotics. She was a careful cunt who never cried. But she called me on the phone and mentioned, in a neutral voice, her situation. If she didn’t get more antibiotics, the infection would root into her bones. She might be in a wheelchair forever; she might die.
I expressed horror, concern; I had no money to lend or help.
“Yes yes,” she said. “I just called to ask your opinion of what I should do.”
“Purely academic of course,” she said. “But I value your opinion and I wanted to get your input.”
“Well,” I said. “It’s obvious. There’s no question.”
“You think so?” she said.
“Of course,” I said. “You have to do what we always said.”
What we’d said we’d do, if either one of us truly needed money, was to finally accept the parcel of ten acres of land that our father had offered each of us, should we ever want a bit of our inheritance early, and sell it. We were quite aware that we had an inheritance, and that the family land was a gold mine. It was beautiful land, in the most exclusive part of Maine: wooded mountain land with a lake view. Every family has this story. Historically, our family owned a mountain. The mountain and its road bore our surname. Our great-grandfather sold half the mountain to a local millionaire, in a moment when farming was bad and he felt blue. Our grandfather, during our lifetime, occasionally sold bits to tasteless people who moved up north from Massachusetts. He’d give them four acres at the top of the hill, gorgeous land amid blueberry fields, and say, “It’s enough for you to piss on.” He’d sell four acres like a gentleman for $50,000. The new-money people would build on two of the acres and sell two acres to more new-money people for $100,000. Those people, more tasteless, would build on one single acre, and sell the second acre for $100,000 to people more tasteless. Those people would build on a mere half acre and sell the extra half acre for $75,000. All these people built tacky mansions on their land bits and bought large motorboats to disturb wildlife and pollute the lake. At Christmas every year they made cookies and brought us down platefuls to thank us for letting them ruin our mountain. Our father’s greatest wish in life was for none of our family to sell any more land.
My sister and I had done calculations. We’d each failed calculus in high school but we weren’t math slouches. Twenty-and-a-half acres times $75,000 each was $1,500,000.
My sister and I felt the family land was cursed, what with our father’s compulsive illness and the plague of sick deer that drank from streams in our woods and roamed our backyard, their skin falling off in patches from Fish Rot, and we’d always agreed that if we were ever in dire financial need, we’d accept a ten-acre parcel from our father and sell it.
“You have to take your ten acres that Dad offered you,” I said, “and sell it.”
She sounded unsure. “You think?”
“But if I ask for my land,” she said, “he’ll want to know what I want it for. And if I tell him I’m going to sell it, he won’t give it to me. So what should I do?”
She was silent, expectant. I didn’t see her confusion. “Just lie,” I said. “Tell him you want the land so you can build a summerhouse right next to him so he can spend a lot more time with his granddaughters!”
She was silent. “But that’s not true,” she said. “I’m never going to build a house right next to him, and I don’t want him to spend more time with his granddaughters.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s why it’s a lie! Just lie!”
“Dad won’t be happy.”
I guessed my sister meant that if she fooled our dad by pretending she wanted ten acres now so she could build by him, and then grabbed the land and sold it, that our father would be so peeved that he might not give me my early-partial-inheritance if I asked. But what did I care? I didn’t have Fish Rot. I knew I’d never get it. And I didn’t want any favors from our dad. I thought about how my sister’s hair was all gone and she couldn’t eat food because her colon had rotted.
Her husband wasn’t doing well, either. First, butterscotch-colored patches appeared all over his legs and groin, then his nuts shriveled like figs and had to be cut off. A surgeon offered to make him new ones, but the cost was $20,000 a sack.
I said, “You need the money, right?”
“Then too bad,” I said.
“OK,” she said. “I just wanted to know what you thought.”
So my sister told our father she’d take her early-partial-inheritance of ten acres and then she sold it off in tiny parcels to eager people who showed up from Massachusetts, and then she was set for a long time as far as I could see.
My sister took the land-money and hired a lawyer who made Black Sword, Black Visor, her insurance company, pay her $300,000 for ten months of intravenous antibiotics for Fish Rot. Black Sword, Black Visor denied coverage the whole time, but my sister’s lawyer took them to court and used the Two Standards of Care law that says that when two standards, a shitty one and a good one, have been established for treating a disease, an insurance company must cover both. My sister’s lawyer said that their win would break ground, that a favorable ruling would establish a national precedent that would force Black Sword, Black Visor and megacompanies like it to pay out billions to provide proper treatment for millions of Americans with Fish Rot, and he might have been right because as soon as my sister’s suit began, she started receiving checks from Black Sword, for $30,000 each month, and when my sister and her lawyer got to court a scrawny guy with big teeth from Black Sword told the judge that the judge could not rule on the controversial case because through a clerical error, the scrawny guy said, my sister-cunt had been paid. Clerical error, the scrawny guy said, cunt was paid. Must dismiss. Don’t dismiss, my sister said, but she’d cashed all those checks, and the gavel came down. The judge didn’t say anything, he just sneezed.
When I remember all the great times, the best in my life, that I had hanging out at my sister’s, I also remember one mishap, really Scottish Pony’s fault, that happened the last visit before I got sick. It was no big deal, really. It happened a few days before Christmas. We’d all gone skiing, then ordered in Thai food which was particularly delicious, and then we made spiked hot chocolates, and virgin ones for my nieces, and watched Rise of the Gook Goblins in my sister’s living room, and then we decided, since it was a nice night, we’d all go for a quick dunk in the hot spring in the yard, the whole family except our father, who hated water, and I put on my suit, and was cuddled next to Scottish Pony in my sister’s hot spring, next to my sister and family, looking at the stars, and Scottish Pony rubbed my leg under the water and whispered, “Let’s go inside,” and he went first, to make things seem subtle, like we weren’t going to our room to do nooky, and I followed a minute later, and entered the house and saw him standing frozen and stiff in the door to the living room, where we’d watched the movie, and he didn’t turn around to look at me, he squeaked, “Water, water, water!” Then I saw we’d forgotten my oldest niece, who was 6, she’d fallen asleep on the couch on her tummy watching Gook Goblins and never made it to the hot spring with the rest of us and my father was leaning over her in the dark in his boxers and he’d pulled her pajamas down and was methodically rubbing, with both hands, her butt. Scottish Pony stared at me and shouted, “Water, water!” so I ran to get the water, thinking, “Christ,” Scottish Pony wasn’t the type of boyfriend to grab an iron lamp and hit my father on the head with it, and I wasn’t the type of daughter to do it either, we were both wusses, plus I felt bad for my father because he was head-sick, so I ran faster than ever and got the bottle and strode forward and sprayed my father in the face with it three times, and eventually — it took a lot of spraying — he took his hands off my niece’s butt.
I looked at him.
I sprayed him again in the face.
He backed away a little.
I pulled my niece’s pants up.
My niece looked at me.
She had a pale round face, wide-set brown eyes, and was alert. She looked scared. It was clear she’d been awake the whole time, at least once the rubbing began.
“Run to your room,” I said. “Bad, bad, bad!”
I wasn’t sure whether I meant she’d been bad, or that what had happened was bad, or that I was bad, and she wasn’t sure either. She sure fucking ran.
When I told my sister about the incident, she looked unhappy.
I said, “Maybe we should do something?”
She said, “What do you want me to do?” She still had the PICC line in her arm. She was bloated. She smelled like trout.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe we should use a gun and not water?”
“Jesus,” she said. “He’s our father.”
Later that visit, Scottish Pony looked at me and said, “Your house is fucked up.” That’s when I decided to dump him.
When I got the signs of Fish Rot I ignored it for one full year because I didn’t frigging want to have it. I am strong and smart. Also a writer, a professor, I teach at Pegasus University, one of the best universities in America. A fever was first, then some eye things — gook coming out of them, swollen up at night, very dry. I bought eyedrops. After that my hands went numb. I broke a lot of drinking glasses. I was 36. I yelled at my roommates, “Who the fig is breaking all the glasses?!” It was hard to remember names. I heard my roommate come home once, I was lying in bed, I yelled, “Yay, Tonyella’s home!” but my roommate’s name was Stacy. I did that because Stacy was black and spunky and I liked her, and I had a graduate student at Pegasus named Tonyella who was black and spunky who I liked, too. Stacy said, “Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. White person thing.”
After that I grew smarter.
I kept a map in front of me, hidden behind some books, when I taught. The “map” had all my students’ names. I called on students by name to show I could. Sometimes I couldn’t think of the Vice President’s name, I’d say, “That Vice President guy, ha!”
They’d say, “Pullwool?”
I’d say, “Ya! Haha!”
It was witty, I thought. I thought, Smart people can overcome anything.
But I started talking bad. It got worse. I saw things, too. Things that weren’t really there. Everywhere I looked, kitchen drawer, coat closet, trash bin, I saw snakes, or silverfish, thousands of them sliding together over the tops of things. Bats flapped in dark corners when I looked in my closets, it sounds cliché but it’s true, I saw bats in my closets, stuff like that.
My cunty sister saved me. “It’s Fish Rot,” she said. “The earlier you hit it, the better off you’ll be.”
So I saw five doctors my insurance liked. I saw doctors my insurance liked because they were cheaper. When I saw them, my insurance paid.
“You could lose weight,” they said. “But that’s about it. Also get the ugly look off your face.”
“OK,” I said. I thought: Maybe Botox?
“You don’t have Fish Rot,” an infectious disease specialist who purported to specialize in Fish Rot said. “But I’ll check you for celiac.” He peered at me. “And lupus.”
“You’re over 35,” an in-network neurologist said. “And not married. And all the symptoms you’re describing — peripheral neuropathy, brain fog, headaches, hallucinations, memory and word loss — are signs of depression.” He offered me a prescription for Happizap.
“See my doctor,” my cunty sister said. “You should have hit it six months ago, when you had a chance of kicking it.” She’d been cured. “There are doctors who know how it works,” my sister said, “and who’ll treat it. Don’t be a rube. If you ever want to recover from an illness, you have to see an out-of-network doctor. You have to pay to be cured. I know the Cowboy’s out-of-network, but he’ll help you, so it’s worth the money.”
That was the beginning of my great depression.
Also my awakening.
I realized that I’d do anything to get money.
I vowed to get cured, and not get the permanent brain damage.
At my sister’s urging, I flew to Idaho to see my sister’s medical doctor, the Cowboy, and also, eventually, her naturopathic doctor, the Ivory Witch, and later, the Ivory Witch’s nutritionist, and later, her nutritionist’s chiropractor. I spent my book advance and my savings. Then I started in on my credit cards. When I started, I had a zero balance on my credit cards.
Soon I was near broke.
“You’re not getting better,” the Cowboy said, “I’m not sure why. It’s like you’re retarded. I guess you need heavy-metal chelation and a lot more expensive treatments.”
I told him I was near broke.
He shrugged. “Got someone who can help ya? Or something you can sell?”
I thought — for two seconds — about asking my father for my land. I didn’t think he might say no. I just thought, Eff that. Not asking him for jack. Nohellno.
I cashed out my retirement account.
Eventually, the Cowboy took pity on me. He said, “You don’t have to fly to Idaho to see me, you know. Go see Dr. Cerebus, at the Cerebus Center. It’s in New York, where you live. It’s an exclusive clientele. But on my word, he will let you in and chelate you. He’s kind of an expert at it.”
I hadn’t known there was anywhere in New York that treated Fish Rot. Neither had anyone else in New York, or at least, neither had most people. The Cerebus Center was a secret — for the lucky and rich.
“The Cerebus Center?” my sister said. “What the frig?”
I told her that her doctor had recommended it.
“Well I recommend my doctor,” she said, “and no one else. The Cerebus Center sounds weird.”
At the Cerebus Center they put me on oral antibiotics, then IV antibiotics, and a lot of pills. My cunt sister wrote my insurance a letter saying, “You’ll pay for intravenous antibiotics for my sister for Fish Rot, or else she’ll sue using the Two Standards of Care law,” and she cited, for why they should pay for my antibiotics, how I’d become retarded, getting the tremors at night, and not knowing my students’ names, hallucinating, and pretending all through teaching my classes that I was just kooky when really I could not think straight.
She was right that I was not professional. Sometimes I did not write the comments for my students’ stories, instead I made gingerbread cookies in the shapes of characters from my students’ stories, and when I got to class I arranged the cookies in a tableau on our discussion table and said, “These cookies constitute my response.” One time I tried to write the notes all teachers at Pegasus were required to write for their students, but it hurt my head and I could not narrowize my thoughts, so my typed comments turned out to be sixteen pages and single-spaced. In that case I thought the student would be angry, because sixteen pages of me blah-blah-blahing is not helpful to a young Manhattanite who wants to be a writer and is paying fifty grand a year to learn the keys and the tricks. I had not told this student the keys and the tricks because I knew if I did he would kill me. Or hate me. Or both. So instead I blahblahblah. But the sixteen pages kid, he was 56 years old, was not mad, during our conference about his story he said, “You are the nicest teacher ever, I can’t believe you wrote me sixteen pages of comments, no one has ever done that!”
I was scared of this student. Not only was he 56, he was a trust-fund journalist. His father went to Yale and so did he. When he said this, we were sitting in my office. Really it was the office of a Genius Prize–winning, Diet Coke–addicted, Iraq War–veteran poet, but the poet was not around school much, so twenty of us non-tenure-track teachers had “hours” when we could squat in his enormous, book-lined, sun-filled office. The scary journalist was sitting in a wicker chair with a green velvet seat. I leaned forward. I was sweaty. I’d stopped using deodorant long ago, when the Ivory Witch told me it was toxic. The journalist’s story was set in the future. It was about two women. They were fat, fatter than most, half-tonners. The women in the story did not do anything. They rode around in a car being fat. I blushed.
“Listen Ajax,” I said. “I am going to tell you something that I am sort of nervous to say.”
The journalist blunk. Was he used to women making confessions? I thought.
He had that average, chubby-cheeked, pink-skin confide-in-me look that some men who went to Yale have.
“The reason I wrote sixteen pages,” I said, “is because your story is so good.”
He liked that, and from then on, when I was not able to read or type comments for students’ stories because of my head hurting and Fish Rot, I just came to class anyway and said, “I did not type comments for the stories this week because they were so good.” I told my students that their stories were so dense and sophisticated that I needed more time.
My evaluations that year said, “Leah is strange. Her comments are late. She is also late. She tries hard and is enthusiastic, that’s true. She smells bad. It is difficult to concentrate when she smells like salmon. She makes good cookies. Her discussions are not at a graduate level. She says weird things. What level are they at? Is it kindergarten?”
I had a boss. His name was Dad Cloud. One day he said, “I read the evaluations.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I blubbered a bit. Just out of one eye, which had stuff coming out of it anyway, because of Fish Rot.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Your evals are OK. We don’t care much what students say around here. They can suck it.”
I felt hopeful. “Really?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Not really. You better not be late anymore. Do you KNOW what those kids pay per YEAR? Get their comments to them on time from now on, or else. I know ninety people offhand who want your job.”
“OK,” I said. “No problem. I’ll make sure I do that from now on.”
My boss smiled. “Just kidding,” he said. “We honestly don’t take student evals that seriously.” He grinned. “Students bitch and carp about every little thing.”
“Thank god,” I said. “I’ve been longing to tell you. I have Fish Rot.”
“Sorry to hear that,” my boss said. “I heard that sucks. By the way. Have you been writing?”
I blunk. “No,” I said. “I have Fish Rot.”
“Listen,” my boss said. “People get Fish Rot and get better all the time. My cousin had it. Most people at Yaddo had it. They recovered in a month. I hired you because you were writing. If you’re not writing now, you’ll be gone. And if you think we don’t care about student evals here at Pegasus, you’re a moron. We love our students, we treat them like gold, we do our best by them, and we honor what they say. We’re here to serve them.”
“Fig,” I said. “Fudge, fig, fuck.”
So my sister-cunt put all that in the letter to my insurance company. She said, “If you don’t obey the Two Standards of Care law, she will sue because of the big damage to her mental abilities, which are, or once were, worth a lot.” That was a lie. My mental abilities were never worth much.
But they paid. My sister was good at scaring insurance.
I got a PICC line and a port, a tube went into my arm and spit out in my heart. Every day I dripped a pound of liquid Azithromycin into my heart. It was awesome. I gained ninety pounds. That’s when I stopped having lovers. I was already “curvy.” I bought, using my credit cards, whatever my doctors told me I needed to buy to be cured. I bought a $20,000 nanomolecular oxygen box, $2,000 worth of plant stem cells in vials, I bought resveratrol, cat’s claw, devil’s root, CoQ10, fish oil, turmeric, artemisia, B-12 shots, cholestyramine, garlic pills, yucca extract, mushroom powders, hundreds of bottles of pills made from rainforest plants, all sorts of tinctures, amino acids in tubs, digestive enzymes from the stomachs of silkworms, dozens of tiny $100 vials of ozonated antifungal oils, an electricity machine with ear clips that sends jolts through your head to make you think straight, I bought bags of $1,000 red clay from New Mexico that, if swallowed, absorbs all toxins, I bought chlorella, I bought doxycycline, Mepron, Rifampin, Malarone, Azithromycin, Alinia, Trental, blood thinners, vasodilators, Levaquin, I turned yellow from Alinia, I tried to buy Vivi-Dick for use as a vasodilator but was refused coverage because I’m a girl, and I bought and drank wheatgrass juice every day. But in all that time, fat as a cow, sweating at night, digesting food only if I ate ten capsules of digestive enzymes, I never met a guy who wanted to help me recover from Fish Rot.
I didn’t think I was lonely, but I was. I tried to follow my sister’s advice and work hard. I hoped work would cure me. By telling my creative writing students they were very good writers, I was able to convince them I had no dementia. I did not tell them the tricks and the secrets. I blabbed clichés, told them, “Writing is like juggling,” “Set up three threads in the first chapter of a novel,” “To write hot, write cold,” “Use tertiary characters to beat the shit out of your main character,” and things like that.
I wrote some things myself, thinking, So what if I have worms, bad diarrhea, and fungal yeast, I can still tell a story. Boy did I write, 30,000 words at least, three different times. Whenever I wrote, I knew I was writing the best I’d ever written. Political, universal, important, heartbreaking. When I went to type it up, it was gibberish. I typed it up anyway, sent it to my agent.
“I don’t think you want me to send this out,” he said.
“OK,” I said. “I take your word.”
“Feel better,” he said. “Heard you got herpes.”
“No,” I said. “Fish Rot.”
“Ah . . . whatever,” he said.
“Thank you for keeping me as your client,” I said.
“Goodbye,” he said.
When I emailed my boss at Pegasus to ask him what class I should teach that spring, a seminar or a workshop, he said, “I think we filled all our classes for next semester,” and when I said, “But what about the next semester?” he said, “We will not be requiring your services.”
I moved in to a cheap place with nine roommates. I went to a guy I knew who gave out tutoring gigs, asked if he could get me tutoring. “Do you know math?” he said. “Economics? French?” I shook my head. I sold my books, my extra clothes, and my dead grandma’s diamond ring. I applied to work at LilPrincessCafé. I got rejected. Then I prayed. “Dear Jesus,” I said. “I know I’ve been a bad person . . . all my life . . . plus I never believed in you . . . Now I do . . . Please help me recover from Fish Rot.” I waited for an answer. “Jesus . . . ?” I said. I called my sister and asked for money. “I’ll give you some,” she said. “I love you very much. You know I’ll always do what I can to help. I’ll always do what I can.”
“Thank you so much,” I said.
“But we’ll have to keep track, and you’ll have to pay me back,” she said. “My finances are tight too.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m fine with that.”
“By the way,” she said, “I know you’re a writer. But I value my privacy and don’t want you to write about me. And if you ever write about my daughters, and how we have to spray our father with water, then my Mama Bear instincts will really come out.”
I was confused, probably mostly because I had Fish Rot. I thought, Mama Bear. Mama, I thought. Mama Bear? Mama? Bear? I thought how in Idaho, where my sister lives, you can see the stars. From her hot spring at night, you could see thousands, but I never could tell where the bear constellation was. I could definitely see the soup ladle and the archer. Was there a mother constellation? I didn’t think so. If there was, I couldn’t tell where that was either.
Sometimes, when patients sat around the Cerebus Center, we wondered how we got Fish Rot.
“I’ve always been sick ever since I was a child,” one woman who’d run marathons before getting Fish Rot said. “If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Allergies, pneumonia, bronchitis, mono, you name it. My whole family’s crazy. My parents divorced when I was young. It probably affected my immune system. I’m sure it’s connected to my getting Fish Rot.”
“My family’s crazy too,” a divorce lawyer said.
“My family’s crazy,” a hotel chain owner said. “But I don’t think that’s why I got Fish Rot.”
“How do you think you got Fish Rot?” the former marathon runner asked.
The hotel chain owner blunk. He was a big tall guy who always wore Wrangler jeans and leather boots and made business calls while dripping.
He yelled, “I got it because I ate fish!”
A housewife nodded.
“I used to eat fish,” she said. “Sushi every day. Crab. Lobster. If I’d only known. Sashimi! I LOVED sushi. Mussels. Oysters! Now I NEVER eat fish. I made my whole family stop, too. But it’s too late.” She looked down at her bloated body and the tube attached to her arm. She added, “What is this world coming to?”
“You don’t always get it from fish,” a young woman who had Fish Rot and lupus said. “I never ate fish, but I still got Fish Rot.”
“How do you think you got it, then?” the hotel chain owner asked.
The girl with lupus looked down.
“The microbes are everywhere,” she said. “I mean, I drink water, and the water comes from the ocean, it’s sanitized with toxic chemicals by the city of course, but the ocean gets in the air, and makes the rain that goes in the reservoirs. I used to not have a good water filter.”
Someone said that the disease was a result of industrial contamination coming from China. Someone else said the virus came from Haiti. Someone else said the disease was a judgment upon Earth and society.
“Well, I got it from my wife,” an accountant said. “I told her she smelled fishy. She didn’t believe me. She said I was being a jerk. Now I got Fish Rot.”
“Are you still married?” the girl with lupus asked.
“I love her,” he said. “It’s not her fault. She just has a terrible sense of smell.”
“I didn’t know it was transmittable,” someone said.
Several people looked down and nodded.
“It doesn’t matter how you got it,” the accountant said. “Anyone can get it. Especially if your immune system’s down. If you’re stressed. The important thing is to take the medicine and get rid of it. That’s what matters.”
“Who’s not stressed?” the hotel chain owner said. “Is anyone in New York not stressed?” His phone buzzed. He put his hand on his phone. “Jesus,” he said.
Time went fast when I was sick. An hour passed, or what seemed like an hour, but it was three; a month passed, or what seemed a month, but it was six. The problem was I missed my own subway stop, then got off the car, reversed direction, then missed my stop, then got off, reversed direction, and missed my stop again. It slowed time. Once I got a brain scan my doctor told me to get that required fasting then drinking sweet orange liquid, and when I entered the test room I told the technician, while looking at the silver, body-length tubular machine, that I was nervous, and the technician said, “Yer fine, all you neurotic bitches are, I see you, yer fine,” and I got into the machine and it scanned my head for an hour and when I got out I passed the technician at his desk watching his computer and the screen showed a bar graph beneath a picture of a brain and the bar was filled less than halfway and the screen said “38 percent,” and the technician looked at me and blushed. He said in a low voice, “Get better.” I taught classes here and there, got antibiotics, iron infusions, intravenous hydrogen peroxide drips. How did I get Fish Rot? I wasn’t sure. It was perhaps two years after I dumped Scottish Pony that my sister called me with her request and I’d almost forgotten who she was, she was familiar of course, I knew her, but she felt strange to me, and her request seemed out of the blue.
“We’ve gone on a few family vacations without you,” she said — places I wouldn’t want to go, she explained, Hawaii, Scotland/London/Paris/Madrid — they knew I wasn’t well enough and couldn’t afford it — they’d invited me of course, she said, I must have received the invitations — they’d doubtless been lost in my mail — and, she said, she and her husband had been particularly vigilant about watching our father to ensure he didn’t do any inappropriate rubbing; but unfortunately, there’d been several incidents . . .
In short, she said, she was about to take action. She would, she said, lay down a No Unsolicited Touching rule that would protect my nieces forever, she felt, and make the spray bottles superfluous . . . Great, I said . . . I adjusted the valve on my home drip line . . . and to lay down this rule, she said, all she needed me to do was write a letter to my father and say what he was, and tell him that I thought my sister’s rule was good.
“Uh,” I said.
“You’re the one who’s always been bothered by it,” she said. I guessed she meant his touching my nieces.
“Yuh,” I said.
“And you and Scottish Pony saw that thing.”
“True,” I said.
I felt confused. Since my sister had seen several “incidents,” I wondered why she needed me to write the letter. She was my big sister, after all, and they were her kids. I didn’t want to be the only one to write a letter. I wanted to be part of a team.
“Why can’t you write a letter?” I said.
She would also write a letter, my sister assured me. In her letter, she’d say that because of my letter, she supported my letter. Of course, she’d announce the guideline, too.
I paused. I wasn’t thinking much. I was thinking: Antifungal pill time. Three, or two?
I counted my antifungal pills.
“It would really help me if you’d do this,” my sister said. “I’m going to write my letter carefully, so I don’t piss them off. Even though they’re not perfect, I love our parents, and you can say things I can’t, so your letter will be stronger than mine.”
I had fifteen antifungal pills. They made five neat piles of three.
“Why can’t you say things?” I said.
I heard her breathe, like hhhhn hhhn hhhn.
I heard a 6-year-old voice say, “I’m scared.”
I ate two of the piles.
“It’s for your nieces,” my sister’s normal voice said.
“Of course!” I said.
I felt glad she was taking action. I was happy to support her.
She said, “You won’t regret it, you’re not afraid?”
Another call flashed on my phone. I glanced at the bills on my table. I didn’t recognize the phone number but guessed it was my student loan company, a debt collection company, or the prerecorded voice of the woman who called me nine times each day from one of my credit cards.
“Afraid of what?” I said.
I wrote the letter. I said, “Yer a molester.” Things like that. I said, “Not cool to rub my nieces.” “Cut it out, you.” “I support my sister’s big new guideline.” Stuff like that.
I didn’t think twice.
It was much later that I found out they’d gone on lots more family vacations without me, my parents, my sister, her husband, my nieces, my little sister and her husband, their new twin babies, New Zealand, Thailand, Europe. I was glad the guideline had worked.
Breaking News ran a special on Fish Rot. An epidemic of fungus-infected fish, the reporter said, largely coming in off the Eastern Seaboard, particularly around the areas off of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, were spreading a bacterial disease called Fish Rot. You could get it from eating infected fish, the reporter said — which might taste like ordinary fish — from intimate contact, i.e., exchange of any bodily fluid, with a person who already had Fish Rot, or — if your immune system was down — from breathing the air in the Hamptons.
If the disease was treated within three weeks of contraction, the reporter said, then the virus would not yet have morphed into a shape undetectable by the body’s immune system or invaded its bone marrow, and all that was needed for complete eradication was a one-month course of oral antibiotics.
To stay healthy, the reporter said, all East Coasters needed to do was to 1) make sure to eat only nice fish from reputable establishments, 2) avoid intimate contact with anyone who showed signs of Fish Rot, and 3) avoid stress.
Also, the reporter said, all East Coasters should keep an eye out for Fish Rot’s early warning signs:
- blurry vision
- fungus, especially mouth, hand, crotch, toe
- memory loss
- difficulty recalling words, especially movie titles and celebrities’ names
- stiff neck
- dry eye or conjunctivitis
- back pain
- loss of libido or surge in libido (which, scientists speculated, might be how the disease spread itself)
- unusual thirst
- cravings for salt, seaweed, fish, or iodine
- bulging eyes
- sore throat
- a slightly enlarged neck, and/or nodules on the thyroid
“Nodules on the thyroid!” the hotel chain owner at the Cerebus Center said when discussing the report, “Ha! I got my thyroid removed decades ago! Still I got Fish Rot!”
“Maybe you had it decades ago,” the accountant said. “And that’s why you got a bum thyroid.”
“Everybody has a bum thyroid,” a yoga instructor said. She had long blond hair, a high, beautiful forehead, creamy alabaster skin, and wide-set gray eyes. “My doctor told me that 50 percent of Americans over age 30 have nodules!”
“That’s right,” the divorce lawyer said. “They look at your thyroid, they tell you that you have nodules, or else ‘suspicious cells,’ and that the cells might be cancer, but that they can’t know for certain unless they take a look, and that to do that, they have to take the whole thyroid out! Then they cut you!!” He leaned forward and wiped sweat off his mustache. “The key is to never let them look at your thyroid in the first place.”
“But what if you’re tired . . .” the yoga instructor asked plaintively. She rubbed her hands along the pink leggings along her thighs. “And suspect you’re hypothyroid?”
The divorce lawyer shrugged. “Don’t know,” he said. “Just know you should never let ’em look, because then they’ll see your nodules and take the whole kit out. Then you’ll have to take Sim-Thy-Thy forever and your metabolism will never be the same.”
“Well I’m glad,” a housewife said, “they’re spreading the news about Fish Rot. It’s a national epidemic. Finally it’s getting attention.”
“But people still won’t know they have it,” the yoga instructor said, “because the insurance companies design the diagnostic tests, and the tests always come out negative.”
“And they’re saying all you need to cure it is one month of antibiotics,” the hotel chain owner said. His cell phone buzzed.
“If my dog got Fish Rot,” the hotel chain owner said, “I’d give it three months of antibiotics.”
“Can you get Fish Rot from your dog?” someone asked.
“Sure,” the hotel chain owner said. “All you have to do is exchange bodily fluids.”
“I probably got Fish Rot from my dog,” the divorce lawyer said.
We looked at him.
He shrugged. “My dog’s the only one I kiss,” he said.
The conversation devolved into dog jokes.
The world changes, it does, it morphs, it turns upside down flip flip flip when you’re not watching. One minute, people calling each other by picking up phone receivers that hang on the wall, and the next minute, everyone’s texting on cell phones. One minute, friends with Saddam Hussein, and the next minute, enemies! One minute, receiving letters in envelopes in the mail, and the next, no more letters, and instead of books on the subway, pale faces peer into tiny machines.
I did get a letter from my parents, in my mother’s handwriting, in response to mine, and it said, “Yer no more daughter of ours.” “We’re sorry you have Fish Rot . . . You’ve always been disturbed . . . We’re excellent parents . . . nothing but love . . . excellent loving Christian household . . . You were a slutty teenager . . . also disturbed . . . Yer still slutty now . . . We’ll speak to you again one day when you are ready to be truthful . . . By the way we know you convinced your sister she should fib about why she wanted her ten acres, then sell them, she regrets doing that and from now on will implement her own ideas, not yours . . . We’ve decided to give your sisters all the land when we die, because unlike you they are truthful and still part of this family . . . Keep writing your stories . . . that’s very artistic of you . . . you have a wild imagination . . . You lied and told your sister that your father did things he would NEVER do . . . We spoke with her and she understands now that yer deceitful . . . We also know you told your sister that Dad can stuff it . . . that was not respectful . . . now you stuff it . . . We pray that you prosper and find your way to the LIGHT . . . Jesus loves everyone, even you . . . you are full of lies . . . XOXO Mom and (in Dad’s handwriting) DAD.”
I did send one shameless text to my mother. I tried to buy a soy latte at LilPrincessCafé and my credit card bounced. I texted: “Can I have my ten acres?”
The text back said, “Who are you?”
Then I got mad. I thought, Christ! All I did was tell the truth! So I texted my father: “Can I get my ten acres?”
He texted back: “I don’t think so.”
I texted my sister, and it turned out her cell phone number had changed. I texted her office, and it turned out that my sister had stopped using phones entirely. “Your sister moved actually,” they said. “She switched universes. She’s not in this universe anymore at all. A new technology has developed . . . She’s not in Alpha Centauri!”
“What?” I said. “That’s ridiculous!”
“Yes I’m sorry,” they said. “It’s a very new technology. Yer sister’s gone. She’s just not in this universe anymore at all. Try Galactum Trifatta or Gigaboo Gobla. Good day!”
It’s odd that I never met Prince Horndrak before I did, because according to Subnurse at the Cerebus Center, he’d been coming to the Center forever.
I was sure I had room for one drip on my credit cards. I flew over the Sleeping East River on the Q, in what I knew would be my final visit to the center, because for two years I’d extended my Pegasus University insurance through the national “Python — Gotcha Covered!” plan, but the extension only had one day left. In reception, the nurses told me that the drip room might be full, because they’d given the last seat to Prince Horndrak. I asked who that was.
“You’ve never met Prince Horndrak???” they said.
Subnurse’s eyes went wide. “He’s here every day. He practically lives here.”
She touched her shiny bunned black hair and smiled, and her arm went around her belly. “I’ve gained ten pounds since he started coming, and I blame Prince Horndrak,” she said. “He brings these sprouted-spelt-flour milk-chocolate-chip cookies . . . the flour’s sprouted so they digest like a vegetable. They’re so delicious . . . guilt-free . . . he uses healthy clarified butter . . . bakes them himself!”
“By the way,” Subnurse said. She’d moved to the register. “Doctor Cerebus wants you to make an appointment with him because you’re not getting any better. Also, your credit card was denied last week. You owe $6,666.” Her lip curled. “Have another?”
My brain was so foggy that I guessed I could easily have bought medications I’d forgotten buying, or used the card to pay debts I’d forgotten I had.
I gave her another card.
Her hands moved behind the computer. She put on her glasses.
“No,” she said. “No, no. Not going through. Sorry.”
Subnurse looked at me sadly.
“I’m high,” she said. “It’s from the sugar. Why don’t you drip today. We’ll pretend this didn’t happen. But after today . . .” she smiled. “That’s it for you.”
Her hand steered my elbow to the drip room. It was full of sick people reclining in leather loungers and receiving intravenous antibiotics.
“The room’s full,” she said. “But there’s one seat . . .” She pointed toward a very old, very fat, wheezy, white-haired man. He looked down at his immense chest. His cheeks were filled with liver spots. Six or seven attractive women, all tall and with long lustrous hair, and all wearing skirts and high heels, clustered around him, put their manicured hands on his chest and thighs and talked to him excitedly, even though they were attached by plastic tubes to IV poles, which they’d rolled over from their own seats to his.
“There’s one seat,” Subnurse repeated loudly, and the women looked at Subnurse and frowned. Slowly, they rolled their poles toward their own chairs. Then I saw the empty seat beside the old man. “There,” Subnurse said. “By Prince Horndrak.”
As the reader can guess, given that we had to sit next to each other while we dripped our medicines, Prince Horndrak and I got to talking. Being a bad girl, pretty soon I asked him what he did for a living.
“Oh,” he sighed. “I do several different things.”
His eyes widened and he smiled.
“I work for a hedge fund,” he said. “Sold my soul, I guess. But it’s a good group, actually, a very small one. We mostly invest in eco-friendly projects. We invest in small businesses with big potential to help the world.” He paused. “You know those ‘Fair Trade’ Organic Chocolate Bars, that give fair pay to short farmers in tiny countries?”
“I invest in that.” His arm gestured.
He smiled in a friendly way. “One thing I do is, I’m a sculptor. I love to sculpt, and I own a company that sells sculpting supplies, also therapy for sculptors, to sculptors all over the world.”
“Therapy?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “when I sell the sculptors the materials for their projects, we often get to talking on the phone. And you know sculptors, artists, they’re often blocked . . . so sometimes I offer ideas for new materials or designs, and ask questions.” He paused. “It’s kind of like therapy,” he said.
His name, originally, he said, was Lord Kradnroh. His people were from Bulgaria, although they weren’t ‘Bulgarian’ per se. When they came to America, the pronunciation was too hard. The name changed to Draknohr, then Nohrdrak, then Horndrak. “I have many different names,” Prince Horndrak said. He shrugged. He smiled. “Some people just call me Bob Helman.” He had dimples when he smiled. He said, “Some people call me Buck Singer.”
It was then that I looked at him and realized that he didn’t look as old as I’d thought. In fact, he was not old but only middle-aged, at the top of young, perhaps 45, and very attractive, and he resembled, to a T, one of my favorite ex-boyfriends, a muscular, tawny-colored, 45-year-old Jewish-American Sagittarian investment banker with a high, large forehead, piercing hazel, gold-flecked eyes, a strong nose, dimpled cheeks, and a nice wide jaw who was called, for various reasons, Buck Clydesdale-Singer.
“Are you . . .” I said. “Wait . . . do I know you?”
The man . . . Lord Horndrak . . . or whoever he was, shrugged. He still had a PICC line in his arm, and vitamin C dripping into it through a tube.
“I think so,” he said, “yes, but on some subcellular, nanomolecular-particle level, everyone really knows everyone, don’t they?”
His hand was on my knee. I must say his hand felt good on my knee, and even though his hand’s being there was inappropriate, no one had touched me in a long time and I was loath to move my knee.
He looked at his hand.
“Do you mind?
I shook my head.
“Are you hungry?” he said.
I said, “We’re at a detox center!”
He shrugged. “Why can’t someone be hungry at a detox center?”
I was still looking at my favorite ex-boyfriend, Buck Singer.
“Buck?” I said.
Subnurse swung by.
“Lord Horndrak?” she said. “Do you have any more of those cookies?”
He smiled, took a Tupperware container out of his leather briefcase, and gave it to her. She giggled.
I felt so happy, happier than I’d felt in a long, long time, maybe ever, because I was looking at a beautiful man, my ex-boyfriend, one in a long line who “hadn’t been ready for a relationship.”
“Who are you?” I said. “Whatdyou want?”
His hand moved onto my thigh.
“Not much,” he said. “To get to know you . . .” He smiled modestly. “I’ve worked hard in my life and I’ve done well . . . you’re a pretty girl . . . I’m at that . . . well . . . stage . . .” he smiled embarrassedly.
Subnurse swung by eating a cookie.
His hands spread in the air. “Since you know me you probably know . . .” his hands fell to his sides. “I’m Satan. Actually, I’ve had a crush on you for a long time. I like you. You’re a nice girl and you’re a little bit bad, let’s be frank, you’re a bad girl.”
He looked down. “You want me to list?”
“I’m good,” I said.
“I’m sure you are . . . but . . . really, should I?”
“Well,” he said, “remember that time you took $20 from your roommate’s wallet?” I nodded. He shrugged. “Tax evasion,” he said. “Every year since you’ve been paying taxes. Not patriotic. Selfish, maybe. Stealing money from your mother’s purse, we won’t count that. Wearing her underwear when she wasn’t around . . . Teasing, that doesn’t count. But insurance fraud? Using illegal narcotics? Lifting filing cabinets, potted plants, and reams of paper from your workplace?” I blushed. He tsked. “Sleeping with married men.” I blushed. “Married women,” he added. “Sexual partners, I won’t say the number, this is not bad in my eyes, but in the world’s.” He shrugged. “Remember the time you practiced voodoo on your enemies?”
“It’s considered bad. We can stop. You don’t want to do this, do you?”
I shook my head.
“We don’t have to. You’re bad. I like that. I know what I like and I’ve made up my mind. I’ve dated you for a long time.”
Satan, in the guise of my ex-boyfriend Buck Singer, looked at me. “I was Buck Singer,” he said. “I was Goatboy Lewis, Scottish Pony, Tyrone Foster, Christian Millford, Meatloaf Lebut, Marc Stroffoloni, Musad Sherif, Bobby Chung, Konyo Sakimoto, Jose Fuente . . .” he named a hundred names.
I said, “ALL of them?”
“Well,” he said, “not totally. I just went inside them for a while when they dated you . . . borrowed them.”
I thought: Oh! Well!
“You’re Satan,” I said.
Satan looked disparagingly at his arm. “Unfortunately, I’m dying of cancer.”
Subnurse walked by and patted him affectionately on the head.
“I don’t have much time left. But I have a lot of support to give, to take care of someone who could desperately use the help . . . and what time I have, I’d like to spend with you if you’ll let me . . .”
I was still looking at what appeared to be my favorite hot ex-boyfriend, Buck Clydesdale-Singer. His outline shimmered a bit, but maybe it was the Fish Rot.
“I want someone to have my baby.”
“A baby!” Subnurse said. She smiled. So did everyone in the center. Main Nurse carried in organic Thai food in cartons and distributed it to everyone. “On Lord Horndrak,” she said.
I looked at the six or seven beautiful women who’d been clustered around Lord Horndrak when I came in. They were all dipping forks into ginger chicken and shrimp pad thai. I said, “What about them?”
“Oh, well,” Lord Horndrak blushed. “Those are friends.”
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded. “I have a lot of friends,” he said. “I like people. I hope that’s OK. When you came in, we were talking about water filters.” His eyes widened. “It’s an interesting topic.”
Several of the women glanced over, lifted their forks, and waved them at Lord Horndrak. He waved back.
Reader, I won’t make a short story long. I quizzed Lord Horndrak — Satan — about the nature of good and evil and his intentions.
“Evil?” he laughed. “Evil? Did I cause Fish Rot? Please. I did not cause Fish Rot.” His voice lowered. “People’s immune systems lowered because of eating too much processed food. And I think they did something weird to wheat . . . bioengineered it or something. That wasn’t me.” The Holocaust? he said. Of course not! Just think, he asked, what religion were the Nazis? I shrugged. Christian? I said. His shoulders lifted. Extreme weather? Not him, he told me — he loved Earth, because unlike God, he spent time on it. So he supported only companies that supported the environment — eco-friendly! I asked why people said he was evil. He held his hands out palms-up.
He said, “I’m a libertarian.”
He added: “I think some people are worth more than others.”
I felt horrified.
“I support free trade and homosexual marriage.”
“Well that’s fine,” I said.
“I like chocolate cake,” he said, “salsa, spicy food, and extreme sports adventures. I like contemporary art. I enjoy rap music, sometimes I’m profane, and OK, I like sex backwards. Forwards, too, also upside down, I’ve never had it that way but I think I’d like it. I enjoy urban planning and systems design, I want to improve the world, I applaud human initiative.”
“OK,” I said.
“Plus I dislike God.”
He explained, in a nutshell, that all religions advocate surrender to God’s will. He shrugged. “I don’t like God,” he said. “I’ll admit that. Fine. You got me. I don’t believe in surrender to God’s will. God’s a fucker.”
He looked at me. “I like bad girls,” he said. “So did . . .” he named a few of my ex-boyfriends.
“Stop!” I said. “I admit I’m a ho-bag!”
“That’s the thing!” he said. “I like that! Have my baby!”
“No!” I said. “Jesus! You’re Satan!”
He told me to be realistic. He pointed out that I was 43. “You’re very cute,” he said, “and you could pass for 42. But . . . you’re broke. And you have Fish Rot. I like you . . . I want to take care of you . . . if you agree to be my girl . . . you’ll have a house in Paris, and one in Madrid, and one in Senegal . . .” his eyes widened. “Your sister will love you again . . . Your whole family will welcome you back . . . I can cure your father . . . if you want . . .” he paused. Added, “Yes. I can probably do that.”
“Really?” I said.
He rubbed his forehead. “I’m not Jesus and I can’t do magic,” he said. “But what if . . .” Satan gazed at me with Buck Singer’s earnest, inward-tilted, gold-hazel eyes. “He’ll get laid off from his current job, get a new job as a meatpacking inspector, and have a small accident in a hot-dog factory.”
He watched my face.
“That’s violent,” I said.
“He’ll be the same, but better,” he added.
“OK,” I said.
He put his hand on my thigh. “You ask a lot of your sister, by the way,” he said. “She did everything she could for you. She warned you that she couldn’t do it all. You can’t change anyone else, you know, just yourself. And honestly?” He leaned forward. “If you’re going to take a stand about something, it’s not taking a stand unless you’re prepared to stand alone.”
I thought about that. “Right.”
He tucked my hair behind my ear.
So reader, there was still one problem, an existential problem that I guess we all come to eventually. I was looking at Satan, who looked, felt, and spoke exactly like my most beautiful, sexy, funny, and talented ex-boyfriend, and he was finally, as he never had before, saying he was ready for a relationship and wanted me to have his child . . . It was a dream come true.
I whispered, “But you’re dying of cancer.”
“Hahaha,” he said. “True. Dr. Cerebus is good but even he can’t do much about that.”
He looked at his watch.
“Twelve-thirty,” he said. “We got an afternoon. Whadya say? Catch the swan boats in Central Park? Maybe after we can hit the sex museum?”
I must have flinched.
“The Neue Gallery!” he said. “Then maybe shopping in SoHo. Yes?”
I froze. I wanted it. But having Satan’s baby?
“You’ll be damned.” He shrugged. “But, by the way, I can cure you.”
Reader, may you never know what it is to have Fish Rot.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.