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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

THAT night a terrible screaming argument that all of the Ranch heard busted out in Tom-Su's apartment. The father mostly lost his lid and spit out one non-understandable sentence after another, sounding like an out-of-control Uzi. The only word we were hip to, which came up again and again, was "Tom-Su." The mother got in a few high-pitched words of her own, but mostly she seemed to take the bullet-shot sentences left, right, left, right. Whenever the mother spoke, we would hear a muffled, wailing cry that pricked every inch of our skin. The cries came from Tom-Su. The father, we guessed, must not've wanted his son at Harlem Shoemaker; he must've taken the suggestion as deeply personal, a negative on his name. We didn't understand why Mr. Kim had to rip into his family the way he did. Or how yelling could help any. Anyway, Harlem Shoemaker had a huge indoor swimming pool that we thought should've evened things up some.

On our walk to the Pink Building the next morning we discovered a blank-faced Mrs. Kim and a stone-faced Mr. Kim in the street in front of their apartment. Tom-Su stood by the door and watched them with an unshakable grin on his mug. Once, he looked our way as if casting a spell on us. Mrs. Kim had a suitcase by her side and a bag on her shoulder; she spoke quietly to Mr. Kim, but she was looking up the street. Mr. Kim, though, glared hard at the side of her head, as if he were going to bite her ear off. Then a taxi drove up, which made Mr. Kim grab her arm. He clipped some words hard into her ear as she struggled to free herself. They were quickly separated by the taxi driver, who kept Mr. Kim from his wife as she scooted into the back of the taxi and locked the door. When the cabbie let him go, Mr. Kim stepped to the taxi and tried to open the door. The Kims stared at each other through the window glass as the driver trunked the suitcase, got into the driver's seat, and drove off. Mr. Kim watched the taxi head down the street and out of sight. Then he walked up to his apartment, stopped at the door, and stared into the eyes of his son, who for some unknown reason maintained his grin. Together they looked nuttier than peanut butter. Mr. Kim glared at Tom-Su for nearly two minutes and then said one quick non-English brick of a word and smacked him on the top of the head. Tom-Su bolted indoors. Abuse like that made us glad we didn't have men in our homes.

We continued our walk to the Pink Building.

It was the next day that Tom-Su attached himself to our group for the first time. We'd stopped at the doughnut shack at Sixth Street and Harbor Boulevard and continued on with a dozen plus doughnut holes. Then we strolled along the railroad tracks for Deadman's Slip, but after spotting Tom-Su sneaking along behind us, we derailed ourselves toward the boxcars.

The railroad tracks ran between Harbor Boulevard and the waterfront. The same gray-white rocks filled every space between the wooden crossties. At Sixth and Harbor the tracks branched into four, and on the two middle tracks were the boxcars. Just to our right the Beacon Street Park sat on a good-sized hillside and stretched a ten-block length of Harbor Boulevard. From its green high ground you could see clear to Long Beach. To our left a fence separated the railway from the water.

Several times during the walk we turned our heads and spotted Tom-Su following us, foolishly scrambling for cover whenever he thought he'd been seen. Twice we stayed still and waited for him to come out from his hiding place, but only a small speck of forehead peeked around the corner. At the last boxcar we jumped to the side and climbed on its roof, laid ourselves on our stomachs, and waited to be found. When Tom-Su reached our boxcar, he walked to the front of it, looking up the tracks and then all around. Suddenly pure wonder showed itself on his face. They became air, his expression said. Poof! He turned to look back, side to side, and then straight up the empty tracks again -- nothing. Staring into the distance, he stood like a wind-slumped post. Half a mile of rail and rocks, and he waited for a hint to the mystery. I'm sure up on the roof we all had the exact same thought: why doesn't he check out the boxcar? Under it, in it, on it. It never crossed Tom-Su's mind, though, to suspect a trick. As far as he was concerned, we were magicians who'd straight evaporated ourselves! The wonder on his face was stuck there. Then we started to laugh from up high. Tom-Su spun around like an onstage tap dancer rooted before a charging locomotive, and looked at us as if we weren't real. Once again he glanced around and into the empty distance. We could disappear, fly onto boxcars, and sneak up behind him without a rattle. When he looked up at us again, all the wonder had reappeared and poured into his eyes. A click later he'd busted into a bucktoothed smile and clapped his hands hard like a seal, turning us into a volcano of laughter. We took him along.

As a morning ritual we climbed the nearest tarp-covered and twice-our-height mountain of fishing nets at Deadman's Slip. The nets usually belonged to the boat Mary Ellen, from San Pedro. Up on Mary Ellen's nets our doughnuts vanished piece by piece as we watched straggler boats heading into or back from the Pacific Ocean. All the while the yellow-and-orange-beaked seagulls stared at us as if waiting for the world to flinch.

SO the summer went. It was a nice rhythm. During the walks Tom-Su joined up with us without fail somewhere between the projects and the harbor. On the mornings we decided to head to Terminal Island or Twenty-second Street instead of to the Pink Building, we never told Tom-Su and never had to. We didn't tell him because he somehow knew what direction we'd go in, as if he'd picked up our scent. Early on we stopped turning our heads to look for him closing from behind. We knew he'd find us. As we met, Tom-Su simply merged with our group without saying a word; he just checked who held the buckets, took hold of them, and carried them the rest of the way. We knew that having a conversation with Tom-Su was impossible, though sometimes he'd say two or three words about a question one of us asked him. Words that meant something and nothing at the same time.

The first few days, Tom-Su didn't catch a fish. In fact, he didn't seem to know what it was we were doing. He didn't seem to care either -- just sat alone, taking in the watery world ten feet below the Pink Building's wharf. Meanwhile, we cut pieces of bait and baited hooks, dropped lines and did or didn't pull in a wiggler. Tom-Su was and wasn't a part of the situation. Not until day four did he lower a drop line of his own. And even though he'd already been along for three days, he had no clue how to bait his hook. So we took it upon ourselves to get him up to speed. For the rest of that day nobody got the smallest nibble, which was rare at the Pink Building. It made us wonder whether Tom-Su was bad luck. We discussed it and decided that thinking that way was itself bad luck. We went home fishless. The next day we set Tom-Su up, sat down, and focused on our drop lines. For a while nobody said anything. We didn't want a repeat of the day before. Usually if no one got a bite, we'd choose to play different baits or move to a new spot in the harbor. But a couple of clicks later neither bait nor location concerned us any longer. Our new friend, so to speak, had expressed himself.

Tom-Su had been silent and calm as always. Then he got a tug on his line and jumped to his feet. He shot a freaked-out look our way. The next tug threw his rubbery legs off-balance, and he almost let go of the drop line. He reacted as if something were trying to pull him into the water.

We yelled for him to start to pull the line up -- and he did! He'd understood us. We yelled and yelled, and he pulled and pulled, as if he were saving his own life by doing so. The fish sprang into the air. It was a big, beautiful mackerel. Tom-Su wrapped his hand around the fish, popped the hook from its mouth like an expert, and took the fish's head straight into his mouth. Before we could say anything, we heard a loud skeleton crunch, and the mackerel went from a tail-whipping side-to-side to a curved stiffness. Tom-Su removed the fish from his mouth and spit the head onto the ground. Some light-red blood eased down his chin from the corners of his mouth, along with some strandy mackerel innards. Fish slime shined on his lips. Needless to say, our minds were blown away. Tom-Su stood before us lost and confused, as if he had no clue what had just happened. Then he wiped his mouth and chin with the pulled-up bottom of his shirt. He had no idea that the faces in front of him had fascination written all over them, not to mention more than a crumb of worry. Suddenly, though, Tom-Su broke into his broadest, toothiest grin ever. "Dead already," was all he said. Then he started to laugh and clap his hands like a seal, and it was so goofy-looking that we joined his lead and got to laughing ourselves. I mean, if he could laugh at himself, why couldn't we join him? Eventually we'd get used to the gore.

We tossed the chewed-into mackerel into the empty bucket and headed back to our drop lines, but not before we set Tom-Su up in his private spot. Maybe it was mean of us, but we didn't put any bait onto his hook that day. Nobody was in a rush to see another fish at the end of Tom-Su's line. Tom-Su sat off to the side and stared at the water, as if dying of thirst. Only once did he lift his head, to the sight of two gray-black pigeons flapping through the harbor sky. He wasn't bad luck, we agreed -- just a bit freaky.

We caught a good many perch, buttermouth, and mackerel that day. On the walk to the fish market and then to the Ranch we kept looking over at Tom-Su, expecting him to do something strange. Like fall to the ground and shake like an earthquake, hammer his head against a boxcar, or run into speeding traffic on Harbor Boulevard. But he was his usual goofy mellow, though once or twice we could've sworn he sneaked a knowing peek our way -- as if to say he understood exactly what he'd done to the mackerel and how it had shaken us. But mostly we looked at him and saw this crooked and dizzy face next to us.

THE next day Tom-Su caught up with us on the railroad tracks. On the right side of his forehead was a red, knuckle-sized bump. Tom-Su walked with his eyes fastened to every crosstie at his feet. When he saw a few of us balancing eagle-armed on a thin rail, he tried it and fell right on his backside. As soon as he hit the ground, he did his hand clap, and we broke out in laughter.

The day after, a Sunday, we didn't go fishing. Instead we caught the RTD at First and Pacific for downtown L.A. At City Hall we transferred to the shuttle bus for Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers against the Mets would replace the fish for a day -- if we could get discount tickets. During the bus ride we wondered what Tom-Su was up to, whether he'd gone out and searched for us or not.

MONDAY morning we ran into Tom-Su waiting for us on the railroad tracks. He had a black eye. He also had trouble looking at us -- as if he were ashamed of the shiner. A couple of us put an arm around him to let him know he'd be all right in our company. He might've understood. We did the same a few days later, when a forehead bump showed again, along with an arm bruise. As Tom-Su strolled beside us, we agreed that the next time, Pops would pay a price. We would become Tom-Su's insurance policy. Pops would step from his door one morning and get cracked on both temples and then hammered on with a two-by-four for a minute or so. In our book, being a father didn't mean he could be disrespectful. Luckily, we saw no more bruises. But compared with what was to come, the bruises had been nothing.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Sandro Meallet is a graduate of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Illustration by Pascal Milelli.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Fish Heads - 00.07 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 1; page 66-74.