Fish Rot

We got it at Yaddo

Michaela Eichwald, Peinliche Verhörung Mit Tortor (Hand). 2010. Courtesy of Reena Spaulings, New York.

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.

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.

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