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 are 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...