» Fiction

Fish Run

We were an inch onto the Van Wyck Expressway when the boro taxi barreled past us down the left lane—going sixty, maybe sixty-five. I’m only guessing, since Jack Sr. braked so hard to dodge it that my head hit the dashboard with a smack like fireworks behind my eyes. I wasn’t much for thought afterwards. James, who was sitting in the back of the van with the dolly and the netting, let out a bark of a laugh that cracked the air. Jack Sr. swore, guiding us onto the shoulder, yelling—“For God’s sake, James, stop laughing, Ren, are you okay? Jesus Christ, can you hear me, Ren?”—while I tried desperately not to puke, as I had never been hit so hard in my life. In my mind, I was still thinking of first impressions. I’d only just met Jack Sr. and his grandson James, only just disembarked the red-eye from Seattle-Tacoma an hour ago and climbed into their van from the January night. If I puked all over Jack Sr.’s dash and windshield I’d be forgiven, probably, but not forgotten. Jack Jr. would never let me live it down. Fucking Jack Jr. It was his fault I was here, alone in a van with his father, in the first place. I reminded myself that I loved him or some shit.


We’d been stopped on the shoulder for a couple minutes. I opened my eyes, the top of my head pounding viciously under my fingers. “I’m okay,” I managed to say. Another taxi sped past, jamming its horn for four uninterrupted seconds to let us know we were motherfuckers. I tried to find my hands stretched out in front of me. The dizziness had mostly abated, not quite the pain. “Wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. My fault. I’m okay.”


“Oh, Jesus, fuck, oh, Jesus,” said Jack Sr. a couple more times, working through—I assumed—how to tell his absent son that his boyfriend had been hospitalized after only eighteen paltry minutes in wintertime Queens. We went on like this, not listening to each other, until gradually the road and the blue-black sky sat completely still and solid in my view. It was about to snow.



It had been Jack Jr.’s idea for us to visit his family. I would fly to JFK from Seattle; Jack Jr. would come straight from his work trip in Toronto. “Easy,” Jack Jr. called it on the phone as we bought our tickets. “Spend the weekend with my parents, go home together. This is what richies do, fly all over, compound their airtime.”


“Who the fuck says that?”


I had packed, made my way to the airport, called Jack Jr. one last time, boarded. My phone blared when I turned my cellular back on when we touched ground at three a.m. Five missed calls, two texts. Snowstorm. Blocked in. A slew of voicemails documenting an hour-long fight to get to the airport through the Canada snowdrift, after which a saga of delays and road closures had resulted in Jack Jr. being marooned at the hotel until at least the afternoon. Which led me, alone and palpitating, to baggage claim, then the Terminal 2 pick-up carpool where Jack Sr.—the sixty-five-year-old, shaved-headed Korean fishmonger—clapped me on the back, herded me into his refrigerated van, and gave me what was now feeling like a concussion. This was all very funny to James, who was recording a video of us with his phone.


“Don’t sleep.” Jack Sr.’s palm was cold as a pumice stone on my forehead. “Definitely don’t sleep. I heard that’s bad for you.”


Behind us, more cars swerved, screeching their horns. Jack Sr. appeared afraid to move us any farther. I didn’t know anything about New York. There were hospitals in the city, of course, but did I dare ask to be taken to one? Was I a pussy? Jack Jr. would say I was, I know he would.


“You know what?” Jack Sr. said suddenly, posing the question with a mischievous smile before he’d even asked. I saw it a mile away. He was about to ask me to come along for the deliveries. “Why don’t you come along with James and me this morning for the deliveries? Fish market’s only an hour from here. This way I can keep an eye on you, make sure you’re okay.”


Jack Jr.’s family owned a sushi restaurant in Fort Lee. He’d told me this on our first date the previous year. “Huge Korean population, Fort Lee.”


“But,” I remembered saying, “sushi is—”


“Sushi is whatever the white man says it is,” Jack Jr. said. “Haven’t you heard? They can’t tell us apart.”


Jack Jr. said things. This got him into trouble, but also made him one of the more memorable people I’d ever met. That’s what I ended up telling my friends about him. Meanwhile Jack Sr. still ran the place himself. Still made the trip across two rivers to the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point in the middle of the night twice a week to secure the fresh catch. “He loves talking about it,” Jack Jr. said to me. “Loves. I’m really sorry.”


Back in the van, Jack Sr. was still waiting for an answer. James was busy editing his footage. I forced a smile. Jack Sr. beamed as though I’d just asked to be adopted. He jerked the van back into gear, and as we rocketed off down the freeway, he started asking me where I’d grown up and did I speak Korean okay and were my parents still around. While I, jet-lagged, tried to keep my eyes open and wished that Jack Jr. had made his goddamn flight.



They made the fish run every Tuesday and Thursday, Jack Sr. told me over the van’s deafening engine. Always Tuesday and Thursday, around two or three in the morning before the best of the vendors sold out. He listed them off his fingers: sea bream, snapper, Scottish salmon, Spanish mackerel, sweet shrimp, king crab legs, trout roe, littleneck clams, razor clams, abalone. “Tuna, Jesus, the tuna,” Jack Sr. said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Fifty pounds of tuna a week. It’s all people want to eat. Can’t make it fast enough. You like spicy tuna, Ren? Nice sriracha mayonnaise, scallions—”


“Not my favorite,” I managed to say.


Jack Sr. got a twinkle in his eye. “You know, Jack and I did the fish run for eight years, up until he left for college. I think he got used to it by the end, maybe even liked it. That, or he lied better than his brothers.”


He let out a booming, forceful laugh, which I didn’t doubt for its authenticity. Jack Sr. seemed like the kind of guy who laughed like that no matter the joke. He tapped the mesh behind us. “You okay, James?” James nodded silently, engrossed in a portable PlayStation. He was decked in black sweats, socks, the same slippers I’d worn to the shower in my college dorms. He had soundly ignored us after the initial hysteria of my head injury.


“My eldest boy’s son,” Jack Sr. indicated as quietly as he could over the engine. “He’s some kind of…whatever the fuck it’s called—Ticker Tocker. Right, James? How many page-hits on that video of Ren hitting his head?”


“That’s not what they’re called,” said James.


“You know, he gets stopped outside the mall for pictures,” Jack Sr. added. “He’ll take that video down if you want him to.”


“It’s really no trouble,” I said.


We hit a new patch of the highway that screamed against the wheels at regular intervals.


“Four boys, you know,” Jack Sr. said. “I’ve got hope one’ll come back to Jersey. But I suppose Jack loves Seattle.”


He said this while looking at me, waiting, I thought, for me to respond. I could give him only a placating nod, afraid to tell a lie. Fuck if I knew what Jack Jr. wanted.



Jack Sr. didn’t have an accent. He told me as we rounded the river how he’d come over when he was three and had only been back to Seoul twice in his life. He’d lived in and around the tri-state area for sixty years, furthest being Seneca Falls for a period in his teens. He unfolded a long-winded account of the all-white high school of his youth, and I gritted my teeth against an ache in my neck that hadn’t gone away since the plane. I guess it hadn’t been Jack Jr.’s fault about the snow. He’d been nervous about the work trip anyway. I hoped he was at least sleeping well, one of us ought to. We turned off the highway, coasted onto a sprawling flat of asphalt, miles wide. In the distance loomed the green-topped mile-long warehouse, serviced by slow-moving trucks that pulled away from the industrial loading bays on its side. We slowed to a stop across two parking spaces. Jack Sr. ordered me to sit tight while he and James opened up the van. With a wave he summoned me, put an arm around my shoulder and walked me up, leaving James to lug the dolly up the incline. I stamped my frozen feet against the ground. Our breaths dispersed chains of fog around our heads.


“Shit,” Jack Sr. said, looking at me. “You got a hat?”


He clicked his tongue, not waiting for an answer, and swiped his own. Over my protests he jammed it on me. After the roar of the van and the hollow din of the freeway, my ears rang as they adjusted to the silence. There were a couple others, guys working in pairs and groups of three. Several were already on their way back, dollies laden high with cellophane-wrapped iceboxes on wooden pallets. The market had moved from the Financial District in 2005 and was now twice the drive for them, Jack Sr. told me as they approached. “Worth it for the quality, you know,” he said—rubbed his pointer finger and thumb together in front of my face as he said this, illustrating for me. “You wouldn’t believe how many scam artists buy frozen,” he said. “Five-star restaurants in Manhattan! All frozen.”


He pointed up to the shadowy guys loading the trucks up front. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. Almost definitely mob guys. I mean, it’s the Bronx.”


James, tugging the dolly, batted Jack Sr.’s arm down before I could.


Inside, the warehouse swelled into view, colder than the chill outside. Down an open walkway in the middle lay hundreds of tables, stacked boxes packed with ice, tanks spilling water out onto the floor and into the drains. We were hit by the smell first, nothing like the supermarket: entrails, brine, chum. Scallops pulsing in saltwater vats. An octopus wholesaler, laying each tangle of white and purple tentacles out like cabbages. Away from the tables were teams of guys breaking up the larger catches. Gleaming portions of red tuna cut straight from the carcass by samurai sword. Grouper and Pacific halibut speared on hooks and hoisted into the air by chains. Every so often Jack Sr. stopped near one of the tables, engaging in hushed conversation, after which several sleepy-eyed men in rubber aprons and boots would load an icebox onto James’s dolly. Jack Sr. opened each one, taking a metal hook off the dolly’s handle and hoisting a fish out of the ice by the gills, examining it carefully before laying it back down. We moved further inward, beyond the traditional fare: the specialty guys cracking open sea urchins flown in from Hokkaido, Santa Barbara, orange flesh bared to the lights as we passed. Tanks of red frog crabs, flat fish carpeting the bottoms of the glass, snails in buckets on the floor, jellyfish, red-spined sea cucumber.


“Anything special you like? We’re doing a little dinner in the restaurant, when Jack gets in.”


I declined, politely, avoiding eye contact with a tank of conger eels. I could tell it disappointed him. We crossed to the other end of the hangar, by which time James’s dolly was full. I could hear him struggling to drag it alongside us. “He’s okay,” Jack Sr. assured me, when I stooped to help. “Kid doesn’t play any sports. Told his dad it was a mistake.”


I couldn’t remember if Jack Jr. had ever told me he had a nephew. More than one, I was sure. He was the youngest of his brothers. It was something of his that I’d envied, shut up in my room when I visited home, reminded of the quiet nights, my own parents in bed by nine, television to fill the silence. I had never even shared a beer with my father. Jack Sr., now, he could talk for days if somebody let him.


“You should hear him go on about you, Ren,” Jack Sr. said to me. We were out of the warehouse through the hangar doors. I caught James’s eye for a moment, mutual commiseration, pleased to think that for a split second we could be allies. We reached the van and started loading. It was nearing four in the morning.


“Jack’s never brought anybody home before,” Jack Sr. said, tossing James a bundle of bike cables to tie it all down. “We were worried for a while whether he ever wanted to…you know—”


Of course, we’d only been together a year. I hadn’t even realized his birthday was coming around until I’d looked it up myself. And here I was. It was fast but not unreasonable. I hoped. Anyway, Jack Jr. would surely not meet my own father until way, way further down the line, considering my parents barely spoke English. My father asked only occasionally if I was dating these days, wanting no more than a yes or a no, and—I’m sure—only because my mother had made him.


It had happened so quietly, the week after I’d come home after college and told them. I didn’t know the word in Korean. After several failed attempts I gave up. “Ho-mo-sex-u-al,” I said carefully, looking between them across the kitchen table. My mother made dinner that night, my father bloviated over the news. He was in high spirits that weekend as the South Korean president had recently been imprisoned. We said goodnight and the next morning continued on without interruption. A month later, while I looked for roommates in Seattle, my father said something about a sum of money they’d saved up for my wedding that they wanted me to use to pay rent. “Why now?” I’d said.


“It’s not like you’ll—” my father trailed off, realizing I was looking straight at him. After a minute or so, he shuffled away to the kitchen. It took him another week after I’d started working to call me again. “I didn’t mean,” he said in English, which is what he did to avoid long conversations.


“I know,” I told him. He hung up.


Jack Sr. laughed, nervously, as I hadn’t said anything.


“Hey, Ren,” he offered, timidly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”


“No,” I told him, coming to. “No, it’s not that, it’s—”


We ran out of things to say. James shouted from the other side of the van.



The restaurant, still dark, was tucked behind a Chinese bakery. James, nodding off in the back with the fish, let me relieve him, and at six a.m., Jack Sr. and I hauled the pallets to the kitchen. A crew of sleepy young guys met us there, rubbing their eyes in with their forearms. They grunted in agreement with Jack Sr.’s observations, double-stock of the salmon this week for the white customers, dirt-cheap mackerel for the Asians. They set to work breaking it all down, filling the glass bar out in front with fresh cuts. It was almost five. The place was small, barely enough room for ten tables, but smelled warm and real. Jack Sr. had a few newspaper clippings up by the doors, reviews from their opening weekend, a feature in the local Fort Lee Times. A pot boiling on the stove. Jack Sr. pressed a bowl into my hands. Kimchi jjigae like my mother made, simmered a couple hours with tofu and pork belly. I brought breakfast out to James in the back of the van and sat with him, slurping the dregs and last grains of rice at the bottom of my bowl.


“I can’t believe you let him take you along today,” James said, after a while.


I shrugged. “I think I’d rather have the coma, in hindsight.”


James smiled, fleetingly. “He wants to give it to Jack, the restaurant,” he said.


“That’s good.”


“He really did like it,” James said. “That wasn’t a lie. Before he moved to Seattle they did all the runs together.”


The soup, scalding hot, felt good collecting in my stomach. My fingers, which had been numb for hours, were starting to regain their color.


“How many views on that video, by the way?”


James dug out his phone. “14K. Nobody’s awake.” He looked at me. “I really will take it down if you want.”



The van putted through the polished development by the river. I glanced up at the houses, wondering if anybody could hear, remembering that if Jack Sr. had been clanging and roaring through Bergen County in his demented fish van for twenty years already, he wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. We let James off by a white house near a dense line of trees. They’d all be over for dinner: James’s father, Jack Jr.’s two older brothers. I felt relieved. There wasn’t much more I could do to embarrass myself. James said his goodbyes. Seized with a whoosh of hot blood through my ears I held my fist out through the open window. James considered it, then bumped his knuckles against mine. A fresh dust of snow had fallen over the green lawns as we pulled away. The sun peeked lazily up over the suburbs and their manufactured tree lines. Jack Sr. slowed us to a stop in front of the left side of a brick duplex along a massively inclined road. I felt the van’s weight redistribute as its brakes groaned their last whisper. I made a move to open the door.


“I hope I didn’t scare you back there, Ren.”


I glanced longingly up at the house, the beds inside. Jack Sr. made a couple motions in the air with his hands, starting and stopping to say what he wanted. My limbs felt filled with sand. I tried to let him know I understood.


“Your parents must be happy about you guys.”


I went to nod again, but looking across the seat divider at Jack Sr., staring fondly at me, stopped myself. I was speaking before I realized I was. I didn’t want to say it, too tired to stop myself. “They love me,” I said. “It’s just…I don’t get the feeling they understand, sometimes.”


It had come out of me in one breath. Shame bloomed up inside me. I wanted to be shown to a bed as fast as possible. Jack Sr. took his key out of the ignition. I realized that I was still wearing his hat and pulled it off me, handing it to him.


“You know,” Jack Sr. said, kneading the wool cap between his fingers, “Jack didn’t live with us for about three weeks after he came out to his mother and me. We never told him to go and he never said he was going to, but—” He tried to laugh. “We were different, things were different, which…well, you know.”


And I nodded, because I did know.


“He came back, we said we were sorry and he said he understood. Pretty soon after he started coming along for the fish runs again.” Jack Sr. smiled at me.


The van gave a click as he unlocked our doors and slid out to the ground. I followed him up to the front door where we left our shoes and tiptoed onto white prefab carpeting. Jack Sr. ushered me through the door closest to the kitchen, still dark, imbued all throughout with the cool blue light of the morning. Jack’s childhood room. A desk stood pushed to the corner, facing the window out to the street. Snow was starting to fall heavy outside, blanketing the van and the curb. The room looked sanitized, a space once made for four boys, dwindling as each left home, repurposed now for the erstwhile son home for a couple days at a time. Just one bed left. Still some books on the shelving above the bed. Plastic soccer trophy on the windowsill. Jack Sr. put his hand on my shoulder. One last time he felt my head, the back of my neck, and I let him.


“I’ll wake you if Jack calls.” The door shut behind him.


I stayed put, thinking Jack Jr., if he were here, might have put me on the sofa outside or at least might have swept the room before I’d come in. I’d seen only one picture of his from high school. A lanky kid cradling a basketball, T-shirt under the school jersey, gaps in his face and arms where he’d since filled out, grown to size. I wondered if this was the very same bed and suspected that it was if the soccer trophy—on further inspection, National Storytelling League trophy—was any indication. I lifted the covers, maneuvering myself inside. I didn’t fool myself thinking the pillow smelled like him, it couldn’t have. I lay still, looking up at the dark crease, the meeting of the wall and the ceiling above. I closed my eyes, turning my head to push my nose into the sheets, and thought about what I was going to tell him.



Jinwoo Chong

Jinwoo Chong is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, CRAFT, and Salamander and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. He is an editorial assistant at One Story.