Fish Heads

The father's lonely figure moved along the wharf, arms stiff at his sides and hands pushed into jacket pockets. We decided before he reached us that if he got even a little bit crazy, we'd beat him until he cried and then toss him into the harbor

Pascal Milelli

SOMETIMES, that summer in Los Angeles, we fished and crabbed behind the Maritime Museum or from the concrete pier next to the Catalina Terminal, underneath the San Pedro side of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Sometimes we silently borrowed a rowboat from the tugboat docks and paddled to Terminal Island, across the harbor just in front of us, and hid the rowboat under an unbusy wharf. Then we strolled over to Berth 300 with drop lines, bait knives, and gotta-have doughnuts, all in one or two buckets. Sometimes, as an extra, we got to watch the big gray pelicans just off the edge of Berth 300 headfirst themselves into the wavy seawater, with the small trailer birds hot on their tails, hoping to snatch and scoop away any overflow from the huge bills. Sometimes, as we fished and watched the pelicans, we liked to recall that Berth 300 was next to the federal penitentiary, where rich businessmen spent their caught days. It was also where Al Capone was imprisoned many years ago.

But mostly we headed to the Pink Building, over by Deadman's Slip and back on the San Pedro side, because the fish there bit hungry and came in spread-out schools. Often the fish schools jumped greedy from the water for the baited ends of our lowering drop lines, as if they couldn't wait for the frying pan. And always, at each spot, Tom-Su sat himself down alone with his drop line and stared into the water as he rocked back and forth.


Aside from Tom-Su's tagging along, the summer was a typical one for us. We'd fish and crab for most of each day and then head to the San Pedro fish market. We sold our catch to locals before they stepped into the market -- mostly Slavs and Italians, who usually bought everything -- and we split up the money. When the catch was too meager to sell, it went to the one whose family needed it the most.

Tom-Su spoke very little English and understood even less. He was new from Korea, and had a special way of treating fish that wiggled at the end of his drop line. We'd never seen anything like it.

"Tom-Su," one of us once said, "tell us the truth. Why do you bite the heads off the fish when they're still alive?"

"Dead already." And that's all he said, with a grin.

Tom-Su had buckteeth and often drooled as if his mouth and jaw had been forever dentist-numbed. He always wore suspenders with his jeans, which were too high and tight around his waist. But we didn't know how to explain to him that it was goofy not only to have his pants flooding so hard but also to be putting the vise grip on his nuts. Me and the fellas wondered on and off just how we could make Tom-Su understand that down the line he wasn't gonna be a daddy, disrespecting his jewels the way he did. To top it off, Tom-Su sported a rope instead of a belt, definitely nailing down the super sorry look. "Tom-Su," one of us once said, "pull your pants down a little so you don't hurt yourself!"

"You welcome." And that's all he said, with a grin.

He was goofy in other ways, too. His baseball hat didn't fit his misshapen head; he moved as if he had rubber for bones; his skin was like a vanilla lampshade; and he would unexpectedly look at you with cannibal-hungry eyes, complete with underbags and socket-sinkage.

"Tom-Su," one of us once said to him, "what are you looking at?"

"That's good." And that's all he said, with a grin.

The drool and cannibal eyes made some of us think of his food intake. And if Tom-Su was hungry, we couldn't blame him. His diet was out there like Pluto. In his house once, with his father not home, we opened the fridge and saw it packed wall to wall with seaweed. Green ocean plants in jars, in plastic bags, in boxes, and open on the shelves, as if they were growing on vines. The fridge smelled of musty freon. My teeth might've bucked on me, too, with nothing but seaweed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

"Tom-Su," one of us said to him in the kitchen, "is this all you eat?"

"Pretty good." And that's all he said, with a grin, as he opened the cupboard to show us a year's supply of the green stuff.

A seaweed breakfast? Know what I'm saying? Out there. So when Tom-Su got around the live-and-kicking-for-life fish, and I mean meat and not ocean plants, well, he got very involved with the catch in a way none of us would, or could, or maybe even should. Early on I guess you could've called his fish-head-biting a hobby, or maybe a creepy-gross natural ability -- one you wouldn't want to be born with yourself.

But Tom-Su was cool with us, because he carried our buckets wherever we headed along the waterfront, and because he eventually depended on us -- though at the time none of us knew how much. Wherever we went, he went, tagging along in his own speechless way, nodding his head, drifting off elsewhere, but always ready to bust out his bucktoothed grin.

IN the beginning it had bugged us that Tom-Su went straight to his lonely area, sat down, and rocked, rocked, rocked. But eventually we got used to it, or forgot about him altogether. We had our fishing to do. Bait, for example, not Tom-Su's state of mind, was something we had to give serious thought to. If the fish weren't biting, we had to get experimental on them. Sometimes we'd bring anchovies for bait. They were salty and tough and held fast to the hook. The fish loved to nibble and then chomp at them. Sometimes we'd bring squid, mostly when we were interested in bigger mackerel or bonito, which brought us more than chump change at the fish market. Sometimes we'd bring lures (mostly when no bait could be found), and with these we'd be lucky to catch a couple of perch or buttermouth -- probably the dumbest and hungriest fish in the harbor. And sometimes we'd put small pear or apple wedges onto our hooks and catch smelt and mackerel and an occasional halibut. Bananas, grapes, peaches, plums, mangoes, oranges -- none of them worked, although we once snagged a moray eel with a medium-sized strawberry, and fought him for more than an hour. After the moray snapped the drop line, we talked about how good that strawberry must've been for him to want it so bad. A few times a tightly wadded piece of paper worked to catch a flounder. We caught other things with a button, a cube of stinky cheese, a corner of plywood, and an eyeball from a dead harbor cat. The last several baits were good only when the fish schools jumped like mad and our regular bait had run out and the buckets were near full. Oh, and once we caught a seagull using a chunk of plain bagel that the bird snatched out of midair. We pulled the seagull in like a kite with wild and desperate wings. Removing the hook from its beak shook loose enough feathers for a baby's pillow.

ONE afternoon, as we fought a record-sized bonito and yelled at one another to pull it up, Tom-Su sat to the side and didn't notice or care about the happenings at all; he didn't even budge -- just stared straight down at the water. At the time, we thought maybe he was trying to spot the fish moving around beneath the surface, or that maybe his brain shut down on him whenever he took a seat. But not until Tom-Su had fished with us for a good month did we realize that the rocking and the numbed gaze were about something altogether different. Like that fish-head business. Only every so often, when he got a nibble, did he come out of his trance, spring to his feet, and haul his drop line high over his head, fist by fist, until he yanked a fish from the water. Tom-Su then grabbed the fish from its jerking rise, brought it to his mouth in one fast motion, and clamped his teeth right over the fish's head.

THE previous May, Tom-Su and his mother had come to the Barton Hill Elementary principal's office. I'd been caught fighting Lowrider Louie again, this time because I looked at him a second too long, and was sent to the office. Principal Dickerson sent Louie home on his reputation alone. Tom-Su sat in the chair next to mine while his mother spoke to Dickerson at a nearby desk.

"He twelve year old," she said.

"Yes, I know, Mrs. Kim," Dickerson said. "He can't start here this summer or next fall. He's too old. Take him to the junior high -- Dana Junior High, okay?"

"Tom-Su have small problem, Mr. Dick'son," she said, and pointed to her temple with a finger. "No big problem; only small problem -- very, very small. And no speak English too good."

"Then take him to Harlem Shoemaker, Mrs. Kim," Dickerson said. Harlem Shoemaker was the school for retarded children. "I'm sure they'll have room for him there."

Tom-Su's mother gave a confused look as Dickerson wrote on a piece of paper. I looked at Tom-Su next to me. He had a little drool at the corner of his mouth, and he turned to me and grinned from ear to ear. I smiled back. That was before he ever came fishing with us.

When Tom-Su first moved in, we'd seen him around the projects with his mother. They'd moved into the old Sanchez apartment. It was average and gray-coated, with rough, grimy surfaces and grass yard enough for a three-foot run. There were hundreds of apartments like it in the Rancho San Pedro housing projects. (The Sanchezes had moved back to Mexico, because their youngest son, Julio, had been hit in the head by a stray bullet. It had traveled five or six blocks before getting to Julio.) Each time we'd seen Tom-Su, he'd been stuck glue-tight to his mother, moving beside her like a shrunken shadow of a person. As if he were scared of the sunlight. Sometimes they'd even been seen holding hands, at which point we knew something wasn't right. A mother and son holding hands? In our neighborhood it was unheard-of.

"... it's for special cases like Tom-Su," Dickerson said, handing her the note.

"No, no," his mother said, "not right school. Please. Tom-Su father no like; he get so so mad."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Kim," Dickerson said.

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.


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


Illustration by Pascal Milelli.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Fish Heads - 00.07 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 1; page 66-74.

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.


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


Illustration by Pascal Milelli.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Fish Heads - 00.07 (Part Three); Volume 287, No. 1; page 66-74.