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

SOMETIME in the middle of August we sat on the tarp-covered netting as usual. The sky was dull from a low marine layer clinging fast to the coastline. Tom-Su popped a doughnut hole into his mouth and took in the world around him. At times he and a seagull connected eyes for a very long minute or two. They seemed perfectly alone with each other. Then we noticed a figure at the beginning of Deadman's, snooping around the fishing boats and the tarps lying next to them. We shook Tom-Su from his stare-down, slid off Mary Ellen's netting, grabbed our buckets, and broke for the back of the Pink Building. Then we crossed the tracks, sneaked between warehouses, and waited at the end of Twenty-second Street. An hour later we knew he wouldn't find us -- or his son.

Tom-Su's father came looking again the next morning, and again we slid down Mary Ellen's stack and jetted for Twenty-second Street. Pops must've gotten hip to his son's fish smell, we thought, or had some crazy scenting ability that ran in the family. How Tom-Su got out of his apartment we never learned.

The next day we rowed to Terminal Island and headed to Berth 300, where we knew Pops would leave us alone. By our third day at 300, though, the fish had thinned out terribly, and because we had to row back across in the late afternoon, when the port was at its busiest, we needed more time to get to the fish market with our measly catches. We became frustrated with everything except the diving pelicans, though to be honest they got on our nerves once or twice with all the fun they were having. They caught ten to twenty fish to our one. Even the trailer birds had more success, robbing from the overflow. We decided to go back to the other side.

The next morning Pops didn't show himself at Deadman's Slip. After we finished our doughnuts, we strolled to the back wharf of the Pink Building, dropped our gear, unrolled our drop lines, baited hooks, and lowered the lines. The water below spread before us still and clear and flat, like a giant mirror. On its far surface you could see the upside down of Terminal Island's cranes and dry docks. Every fifteen minutes or so a ship loaded with autos, containers, or other cargo lumbered into port, so the longshoremen could make their money. The big ships were the only vessels to disturb the surface that day. As our heads followed one especially humungous banana ship moving toward the inner harbor, we suddenly spotted Tom-Su's father at the entrance to the Pink Building. He hadn't seen us yet. One of us grabbed Tom-Su by the head, shaking him from his deep water-trance, and turned him toward the entrance. His eyes focused and refocused several times on the figure at the end of the wharf. A second later Tom-Su shot down the wharf ladder, saying "No, no, no" until he'd disappeared from sight.

The father's lonely figure moved along the wharf, arms stiff at his sides and hands pushed into jacket pockets. Even from a distance his neck looked rock-hard and ruler-straight; his steps were quick and choppy. We said just a couple of things to each other before he reached us: that he looked madder than a zoo gorilla, and that if he got even a little bit crazy, we'd tackle him, beat him until he cried, and then toss his out-of-line ass into the harbor.

At ten feet he stopped and looked us each in the face. If he took another step forward, we'd rush him. But he stood still. His belly had a small paunch, his jet-black hair was combed, thick, and shiny, and his face was sad and mean, together. While the father stood still and hard, he checked our buckets and drop lines like a dock detective. Suddenly I thought that Tom-Su might go into shock if we threw his father into the water. Instead maybe we'd just beat him and drag him along the ground for a good stretch. We waited.

After he'd thoroughly examined our goods, he again checked our faces one by one. We didn't move. Pops let out a snort and moved sideways to the edge of the wharf, where he looked below and side to side. When we did the same, we saw that he saw nothing. Then he turned and walked toward the entrance -- which was now his exit. When he'd finally faded from sight, we called below for Tom-Su to come up top, but we heard no movement. Again we called, and again we heard not a sound. When one of us said the word "drowned," we all climbed down to pull Tom-Su from the water. Once we were underneath, though, we found Tom-Su with his back to us, sitting on a plank held between two pilings. He was bending close to the water. When we moved around him, we froze at what we saw Tom-Su looking at on the water. We didn't want to startle him. Tom-Su's hand traced over a flat reflection, careful not to touch the surface. The reflection was his own face in the water, but it was a regular and way less crooked face than the one looking down at it. As a matter of fact, it looked like Tom-Su's handsome twin brother. Its eyes showed intelligence, and the teeth had fully lost their buck. Overall, though, the face was Tom-Su's -- but without the tilted dizziness. The face and the water and Tom-Su were in a dream of their own that we came upon by accident. We watched as Tom-Su traced his hand over the water face. Suddenly, when the wave of a ship flooded in and soaked our shoes and pant legs, Tom-Su pulled his hand back as if from a fire and then plunged it into the water over and over again. It was the same crazy jerking motion he made after he got a tug on his drop line. When he was done grabbing at the water, he turned to see us crouched beside him.

Up on the wharf we pulled in fish after fish for hours. The fog had lifted while we were down below, and the sun had bleached the waterfront. Every once in a while we'd look over at a blood-stained Tom-Su, who was hanging out with his twin brother. Around him were the headless bodies of a perch and two mackerel that had briefly disturbed their relationship. After we filled our buckets, we rolled up the drop lines, shook Tom-Su from his stupor, and headed for the San Pedro fish market. On the walk we kept staring at Tom-Su from the corners of our eyes. His bad features seemed ten times more noticeable. His teeth were now a train cowcatcher, his eyes two tar-pit traps, and his drool a waterfall. At the fish market, locals surrounded our buckets, and after twenty minutes we'd sold our full catch, three fish at a time. We split up the money and washed our hands in the fish-market restroom. Back outside we realized that Tom-Su was missing. We searched for him along the waterfront for what felt like a day, but came up empty. We went back to the Ranch.

In the morning we walked along the tracks, a couple of us throwing rocks as far down the railway yard as we could. At the last boxcar we discovered the door completely open. Somebody was snoring loud inside. We peeked in and saw Tom-Su, lying on his side in the corner, his face pressed against the wall. When we jumped in and woke him, he gave us his ear-to-ear grin. Since the same bloodstained shirt was on his back, we knew he hadn't gone home.

The next several mornings we picked Tom-Su up from his boxcar, and on Mary Ellen's netting let him eat as many doughnuts as he wanted. We fished at the Pink Building, pulled in our buckets full, heard the fish heads come off crunch, crunch, crunch, and sold our catch in front of the fish market. We brought Tom-Su soap and made him wash up at the public restroom, got him a hamburger and fries from the nearby diner, and walked him back to the boxcar. We also found him a good blanket.

Once or twice we'd seen Pops stepping along the waterfront, talking to people he bumped into. Tom-Su, we knew, had to be careful. But except for his crashing in the boxcar, things felt pretty good to us: the fish were biting well behind the Pink Building, and we were bothered by no one from early morning until late afternoon, when the sky got sleepy and dull. At those moments we sometimes had the urge to walk to Point Fermin to watch the sun ease fiery red into the Pacific, just to the right of Catalina Island. From the harbor side of Deadman's Slip we mostly missed all of that. ONE morning we came to the boxcar and found that Tom-Su was gone. He wasn't in any of the other boxcars either. We continued along the tracks to Deadman's and downed our doughnuts on Mary Ellen's netting, all the while scanning the railway yard and waterfront for Tom-Su's gangly movement. We saved his doughnuts and headed for the wharf. Later we settled with the only local at the fish market, and then stopped by the boxcar on the way to the Ranch. He still hadn't shown. After waiting till dusk, we left him the bag of doughnuts and a few dollars. It was the end of August.

That whole week before school was to start, Tom-Su seemed to have dropped completely out of sight. The doughnuts and money hadn't been touched. We decided that he'd eventually find us. Once or twice, though, one of us climbed under the wharf to make sure he wasn't hanging with the twin. Then we decided he must've moved back in with his mother, or maybe returned to Korea.

The Sunday morning before school started, we were headed to the Pink Building for the last time that summer. The project's streets were completely still except for a small cluster of people gathered in front of Tom-Su's apartment. From a block away we stood and watched the goings-on. A cab pulled up next to the crowd, and a woman stepped out. It was Tom-Su's mother, Mrs. Kim. She walked to the apartment, and we headed toward the crowd.

THAT summer we'd learned early on never to turn around and check to see if Tom-Su was coming up behind us during our walks to the fishing spots. If we did, he'd just jump out of sight and then peek around a corner, believing he was invisible. Or he'd be waiting for us at the boxcar or the netting. He could be anywhere. But that last morning, after we'd left the crowd in front of Tom-Su's place and made our way to the Pink Building, we kept turning our heads to catch him before he fully disappeared. Each time we'd see something unusual and tell ourselves it was a piece of him. Once he looked like the edge of a drainpipe, another time the bumper of a car parked among a dozen others, and yet another time a baseball cap riding by on a bus. Anywhere but inside the smaller of the two body bags that were carried out the front door of the apartment that morning. It couldn't have been him, we decided, because the bag was way too little between the grown men carrying it out. When we heard the maintenance man talk about a double hanging, we were amazed, sure; but as we headed down the railroad tracks and passed the boxcar, we were convinced he was still hiding out somewhere along the waterfront. Plus, the doughnuts and money had been taken.

AT the Pink Building we sat for a good hour and got not a single nibble. The silence around us was broken into only by a passing seagull, which yapped over and over again until it rose up and faded from sight. We stared into the water below and wondered if we shouldn't head for another spot. Suddenly, though, one of us got a bite and started to pull and pull at the drop line, with the rest of us yelling like mad, but just as we were about to grab for the fish, the drop line snapped.

As the morning turned to afternoon and the afternoon to night, we talked with excitement about the next summer. As the seagulls and pelicans settled on the roof because they'd grown tired of the day, we gathered our gear but couldn't speak anymore, because the summer was already done. And as the birds on the roof called sad and lonely into the harbor, a single star showed itself in the everywhere spread of night above.

We stood on the edge of the wharf and looked down at the faces staring up at us.

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


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 Three); Volume 287, No. 1; page 66-74.