'The Main Treatment Options'

First-place winner

'The Main Treatment Options'
Illustration by Jason Stout

"Oh, shit, Ramey," was the first thing I said when I walked in the door that morning. He'd been looking bad, but now one of his eyes was bugged out – probably twice the size of the other one. I've done a lot of reading about this since then. Usually it's because the fish swims into something sharp, probably that ceramic decorative castle I had in there.

Ramey's fins had been disintegrating for a while; over a few months his velvety banner of a tail had succumbed to an edge of white, dead flesh that came off in the water a little at a time, receding all the way back to his body. I'd gotten antibiotics for him at the vet, but they weren't helping. For the past week he'd been lolling on the bottom of the tank, flopping the fins he had left every now and then to struggle up to the surface for food and air.

Sandy Tucker toddled through the door of the daycare with her mother Jamie about five minutes later. Jamie and I went to high school together. She found Jesus as soon as we graduated; so did a lot of other people.

Little Sandy took one look at Ramey and started squealing. Jamie stood over the bowl, shifting her gaze from me to the fish and back.

"How gruesome," she said.

"I'll put him where the kids can't see him," I said. "In the cabinet."

When I picked up the bowl the smell of the water made me gag. That's the other thing about that morning – I'd just figured out I was pregnant. Accidental.

"What happened to it?" Jamie asked me.

"Fin rot," I said, using the technical term. "And the eye, I'm not sure." I was embarrassed. I took Ramey into the bathroom and put him in the cabinet under the sink, then dry-heaved over the toilet for a second, hoping Jamie couldn't hear.

"I'll take Ramey home this afternoon," I told her when I came out.

"Who? Oh. The fish," she said. "That's fine." Then she put her hand on my shoulder and looked into my face. She smelled like expensive lotion and blow-dried hair. My fingertips got sweaty.

"Beth, if you ever need any extra cash or anything, we're always looking for good sitters. Just let me know."

She and I once split a pint of vodka and drove around town with a huge American flag flying out the back window of her dad's Taurus. I smiled at her now and tried not to vomit. "Thanks," I said.


Later that morning I decided I should say something to the kids about the fish. I'm still not great at talking to them – I never know what to say and what to leave out – but this seemed important. I did it right before Outside Time, when they were all gathered in a circle on the red rug in their tiny blue jeans, motes swirling around them in the sunlight.

"Gang, I'm afraid Ramey has to leave for a while so he can try and get better," I told them.

"He's gross!" Sandy shouted.

"He's sick," I said.

"His eyeballs came out," Jake said, staring out the window.

"Well, one of his eyeballs came out. The other is still in," I said. The distinction, spoken aloud, wasn't as comforting as I'd hoped.

"I know we all love him," I went on, "so let's pray to have him back really soon." I don't necessarily believe in prayer or any of that, but I wasn't sure what else to say.


I took Ramey home that afternoon. Mama J's pickup was parked on the dirt in front of the house when I pulled up, and I admit that part of me was relieved when I saw it that I'd have an excuse not to tell Steven about the pregnancy test just yet. Mama J was lounging on the couch when I walked in.

"Surprise! How's things, Beth?"

"Been better," I said.

"In a good mood, I see."

Mama J was always in a good mood those days. She'd beaten double-cancer about a year before and had taken life by the horns. Bought the red pickup so she could drive over from Atlanta to visit us whenever she felt like it, even though she and Steven hadn't spoken since she moved away when he was thirteen. One of the first things I learned about her was she loved to hand out her pills, which was fine with me; a painkiller here or there made getting-to-know-you a little less nerve wracking.

Now she smiled at me. "Need something for that back pain?" she asked, and winked.

"Sure, Mama J," I said, setting Ramey down on the counter.

Mama J put some pills down next to the bowl and wandered down the hall toward the guest room.

"I'm taking a nap. Only one of those at a time, remember," she said over her shoulder.

I sat down at the computer to find out what to do about Ramey. I learned that pop-eye is a symptom of advanced bacterial fin rot, and that antibiotics and a salt bath are the main treatment options. "Anything else is just palliative care," said the website. I looked at Ramey with his bulging eye and rotty fins. He seemed ready for palliative care. I half-considered dropping a painkiller in his bowl, but decided against it.


Later that night I made dinner while Steven and Mama J watched television and passed her fancy new phone back and forth, cooing over it like it was a newborn or a puppy. I dug two pills out of my pocket and swallowed them – what the hell – and went about stirring the rice.

Mama J eventually wandered over to check my progress, which is when Ramey finally caught her attention. "What in the hell is this awful thing?" she said, bending over with her hands on her knees to look at him through the glass. Her face must have looked enormous from his point of view.

"That's Ramey," Steven answered. "What's wrong with him, Beth?"

"Ramey's ugly as sin," Mama J said.

"Ramey has bacterial fin rot," I told them. "He's on antibiotics but they aren't working."

"Well bless his heart," Mama J said. "You plan to flush him?"

"Not yet. I'm going to give him a warm salt bath later."

"Bacterial fin rot, the stamp of a perfect mother," Steven said. We joked that way a lot because we didn't want kids, but now it just felt mean.

"Save yourself, honey," Mama J said, also trying to joke.

"The salt bath supposedly works," I told them.


I'd gotten Ramey about six months earlier, in the parking lot of the Winn-Dixie in Jasper. I had parked far away because of a water balloon fight between a bunch of kids near the entrance, but as I got closer to them I realized it was baggies they were throwing, not balloons. Then I saw a tiny scarlet thing on the black asphalt in front of me, curling in the sunlight. Then something shiny jumped in my peripheral vision, and then suddenly they were all over the parking lot: little fish studding the pavement like rhinestones, glinting green, turquoise, crimson, orange. A little girl a few rows over was shrieking, bent over and scratching at her scalp, while three boys ran in circles around her. The girl finally shook a goldfish out of her hair and onto the ground, where, I figured, it breathed its last.

Up by the door of the Winn-Dixie, three women sat at a folding table that was covered with bags of fish. As I approached, one of the women held up a bag, its corners sharp and fat with water.

"Care for a fish, hon? We've got standard goldies and we've got Siamese fighters, spunky and gorgeous!" she said.

Happy Saturday! was scrawled in skinny letters on a sign in front of the table.

"We're just hoping to help brighten somebody's day," the woman said. "Nothing fishy! They're easy to care for. You don't even need an aquarium or an air pump. Just a bowl of water. Take this baggie, dump your fish right into the bowl, and you've got a pet!"

She looked at me with one eye screwed up against the sunshine, still holding the bag in front of her. The fish inside treaded lazily, not worried about a thing.

"Did you know they're taking these and throwing them all over the parking lot?" I asked the woman, even though the kids were in plain view from where she was sitting.

"It's just awful," the woman answered. "Little heathens. Do you work in an office? Fish are great for the office."

"I work in a day care," I told her.

"Perfect! You can teach your kids not to be little heathens with how they treat living things!"

I took the bag and examined the fish. I had to admit he was lovely. His color darkened from a grayish purple on his body to deep blue-violet on his fins. Streaks of orange flared where his tail met his torso, and he had a pale face that made him look like a little man in a fish suit. I liked him. I saw it then and I still do, he had personality. I nodded to the red-faced woman and took the fish into the store, where we commenced looking for bargains. I took him to the daycare the next Monday. The kids all drew fish portraits and we tacked them up on the walls. I don't remember how we ended up calling him Ramey.

I used to put Ramey near the window in the mornings so the sun would shine right through him. His dark purple fins turned to violet tulle and you could see where his organs were. Just like a little biology lesson. The kids would crowd in near the tank when I fed him, too, so they could hear him chewing. It was amazing; you really could hear him chewing.


By the time dinner was finished, the Demerol had already kicked in and I wasn't hungry at all. I stared out the screen door while Steven and Mama J ate; moths swooped in the yellow light on the porch and bugs buzzed right into the screen, bouncing, falling off, buzzing up again. Our cat, a big gray stupid thing, threw himself up on the screen from the outside with a little mip and hung there. He looked at me and then to the right and left below him, eyes rolling around in his head.

"Smoky get DOWN!" Mama J yelled, and he jerked his paws free and hit the ground with a little grunt.

I floated off to the bathroom and swallowed the other four pills to see what would happen.


This is what happens: an hour later, I need fresh air. I get up – it's not quite as hard as I thought it would be – and try to walk normally to the back door. I feel like Mama J and Steven are probably staring at me but I can't see straight anyway, so I put my head down and aim for the doorframe.

"I'm going for a walk," I say, "breathe a little."

On the steps outside I lose my balance and pitch forward and then I'm on the ground with wet October leaves in my nose. I'm not sure how long I stay there, but it's probably a while. Something solid lands on my back every now and then. I think it's locusts. I lie there, feeling each one thump, enjoying it.

"Beth what the hell?" I hear Mama J yell from the door. "How much did you take?"

"All of them," I say.

"God, girl! I told you no more than one!" I hear her groaning down the steps and then a few seconds later she's pulling on my arms. I'm a regular sack of sand. "If I'd known you was taking them like that I'd never of give them to you," she says.

"What time is it?" I ask her. The ground is tilting forward and I feel like I'm crumpling up into my own shoulders.

"Late. Your husband's asleep already, and you're out here like this."

"Mama J, I need you to help me," I say.

"I'm trying, Beth," she says, giving my arm one last tug. Then she adds, "I don't believe this shit." She lowers herself to the ground, huffing and heaving.

"Are you and Steven on drugs?" she asks.

"No," I answer, still on my face. I raise my chin up and try to look around. I can't see shit. "I can't see shit," I say.

I read that story once about the man who's about to be hanged from a bridge. They drop him and you figure that's it, but then the rope breaks! He escapes and runs home to his beautiful family, and it's miraculous, but then his neck snaps and the story is over. Turns out it was just a fantasy and the rope didn't break after all. Lying here on the ground I feel something like that, like I'm an electric current running a loop in a tangled cord: I can run the loop, do all kinds of things, end up right where I started, and no one will know the difference.

For instance, right now Mama J's talking and I'm having a grand time imagining her as a roly-poly. She sputters and flails on her back, rocking from side to side. It doesn't look to me like she'll ever get enough momentum to flip onto her belly. It makes me laugh.

"Keep laughing Beth because I think this is shameful," Mama J says.

For instance, this baby inside me.

"You're right Justine, it truly is," I say, and I mean that. Then I'm hauling myself up like an old drunk, vomiting between my white hands.

"Get up, Beth," Mama J says. Then she adds, "It's no wonder."

What's no wonder, I keep meaning to ask, but I can't get the question out.


I wake up on the couch in the living room, but Ramey's fish bowl throws me off and it takes me a while to figure out I'm not at the day care. I pinch my ear with my fingernails and heave-ho off the couch, listing far to the right on my way over to see how Ramey's doing.

I squinch up an eye and get down close to look at him. He's on his side near the surface, popped eyeball down. "Ol' one eye," I hear myself saying. I somehow manage to slosh the two of us into the kitchen, where I attempt to make a warm salt bath in the sink.

I've never touched Ramey with my bare hands, but now I reach in and scoop him up. He glides into the salt bath and then just floats there. I watch him for a long time.

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