Winter 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 1 NonfictionJanuary 31, 2023 |

Fish Tales

1.

Today, we shun the swing set. Forget the crabgrass lawn and its gravel path. The green ball is too soft for fun.

We race instead on the retaining wall, waist high and two sneakers wide. We start at the Indian paintbrush, circle the cypress, clutch the ice plants for balance. Purple streaks rune our hands. We leap the mound of lava rocks and tear for the chain-link fence. We land hard, and the fence presses diamonds into our soft palms.

Again!

We’re laughing too much. Our sneakers turn slick. My left foot wants to trade places with my right. I slip, but I do not fall.

One sneaker clings to the retaining wall. The other one drops until I am a flamingo standing on one bloody leg.

My first scar is shaped like a fish. Silver, striated, swimming.

2.

It’s your turn to lead the pack today. Figueroa and Galindo, Kwan and Kao. Nine boys and one girl, though you don’t think of yourself as a girl yet. You’re just as mud skinned and monkey armed as any kid on this block. You wear the scars to prove it.

Go left at the cactus with its arms outstretched like Christ on the Cross, with needles for eyes. You call it the cave, but it’s really a hole in the ground. Hop in.

You may find yourself in a WWII bunker shooting down Nazis from a California sky. You might stage an Indian ambush or launch a starship. When the sun is high, you’ll lean your cheek against the cool cave walls and pant like a jungle cat before the kill. You can survive here forever if you bring enough Twinkies.

Head over the crest to the other side of the mountain. Never mind the dandelion fluff in your hair and the cactus streaks on your arms. Find the stash of cardboard boxes grown round in the rain.

Race them all to the bottom, screams crammed inside your mouth, face first and belly down. Slide to the shores of Crash Car Lake.

It’s a lake only during the rainy season, and even then never more than a few inches of water. But you call it a lake anyway because it’s enough for the frogs to lay their eggs and for you to swim like a water snake through the tall grass.

Watch the dragonflies and the clouds of Thrifty Drug Store bags. Let the sun tattoo your skin. There will come a time when you think you’re too old to play in this place. Then, you’ll call it a dump.

But for now, your Keds are blue. Your skin is brown. Emerge from the reeds as white as the alkaline bottom of Crash Car Lake. Bounce on your toes until the mud crackles.

You look for the yellow-blue-green electrical wires to braid a ring. You find a line of beer cans like at Lucky supermarket. Coors, Budweiser, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, all shot up, their yeasty guts spilling onto the hard ground.

Don’t look for the shooters. Get in the car at Crash Car Lake. Ignore the cigarette butts. Strap yourself into your seat. It’s time to take off.

3.

We’re late for school. Me, my brothers, the kid in the gray VW Bug who slams on his brakes at the intersection of Wilcox and Hay.

When Phil lands in the street, he rolls, picks himself up, and walks back to the sidewalk. A girl who saw it all bunches her gym clothes into a pillow for Phil to lie down and put his head on.

He can’t be more than six or seven in his Marian School uniform. White short-sleeved shirt, salt-and-pepper corduroy pants, black dress shoes. His hair is wet-combed flat.

The cop shows up and decides Phil will live. He says, Maybe you shouldn’t run a red light.

Phil rides in an ambulance to Beverly Hospital. Mike rides with him because the cop says someone should.

This is one version.

Mom is late for school. She’s the new math teacher at Bell Gardens Intermediate School. Her boss, Mr. Dorfler, does not approve of teachers being tardy for first period. So she can’t drop us off at Marian School that day. We have to walk. You better get going, she says.

It isn’t a long walk. Down Westmoreland Drive, across the football field at Schurr Junior High, and through the maze of classrooms. We come out at the intersection of Wilcox and Hay as the teachers drive in.

One of the teachers sees it happen. He calls the principal at Bell Gardens, who tells Mr. Dorfler, who comes to Mom’s classroom and waits with her until someone can take over her class. Then he drives Mom to Schurr in her car so there won’t be two accidents in one day.

By then, the Schurr nurse has checked Phil out. Not even a scratch, she says. There are no cops. No one goes to the hospital in an ambulance. Mom takes us home, and that’s that.

This is her version.

Mike and I run across the intersection at Wilcox and Hay. Maybe the light is already yellow. For sure, Phil lags far behind. His little legs can’t keep up, and we are going to be late for school.

I never see it happen. I don’t hear the screech of the tires or the low thud of impact. There is no gray VW Bug or girls huddled around Phil. I see only a white house set on a rise with a tall retaining wall to keep the property from spilling into the street.

I scale the wall, hammer on the door, and beg to call my mommy. When I get through, it takes a long time for anyone to make heads or tails of what I’m saying. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

4.

My fingers web in dry, itchy patches. I’m not supposed to scratch. During the day, I hide my hands in the folds of my school skirt. At night, sleep comes only with blood on the sheets. In the morning, I peel the dead layers into ribbons. Instead of skin, I wear cortisone bandages to school.

In the summer, red pustules populate the pits of my elbows, the backs of my knees, the nape of my neck. They ripen into the shade of mole poblano. I can’t help it. I have to scratch. Look at the lymph dripping down my legs. Mom says I can’t play outside anymore.

I dive into a leaf-strewn swimming pool on a hot LA night. Finally, the itching ends. I am a clown fish darting through the reef. I am a needlefish too quick to catch. On the ocean bottom I lurk like an anglerfish, mouth open, lure blinking.

When I surface, hives emerge. They’re as pale and pink as babies, soft and squishy too. Now I can’t go swimming either.

My nights are perfumed by Campho-Phenique. Calamine lotion settles in the folds of my skin. The dried-up bits flake off. I’m a snake constantly shedding old skin. Any hunter could track me, but who would want to? My ailments, visible to the world. My skin, an enemy I cannot escape.

5.

The black-and-white TV is our sun. We worship its blue light until our gills turn green. Boris and Natasha stalk across the screen. Bwa ha ha. This summer will never end.

Next Door isn’t afraid of summer. Next Door drains cans of Coors in broad daylight and tosses the empties so they roll under the cars parked in their driveway. One car for every boy, five boys in all.

Mom says Next Door is bad.

Our side of the fence is concrete and dust. We don’t play on this side. We don’t say hello to Next Door.

Their side of the fence is a jungle of jerry cans and ashtrays, stray dogs and cinder blocks. Next Door works on cars day and night. Next Door doesn’t say hello to me.

I practice Clementi sonatinas.

Next Door plays Motown at one hundred and fifty decibels. Their eardrums explode. Bird-of-paradise scatters into the skies, its roots dripping with wax. When night falls, Next Door shimmies among the car skeletons until the sweat melts their backs.

I dream about skin that sheens under the streetlight, of a car-radio bass hump hump humping an R and B throb, of boys who sport bushy ringtails, of bright red buttocks inflamed by motor oil, swinging in the hot night air.

6.

I prefer the language of my mother and her mother when they are in the motherland. Their cheeks grow plump and pink as if they were girls again on Kowloon Bay, shopping for dreams. One bag holds a husband, his face hidden among folds of silvery tissue paper. Another bag bears two sons, each with a gold ribbon around his neck like a prize carp. There is never a third bag. In the motherland, my mother and her mother say to each other, This is enough.

When my mother and her mother are not in the motherland, their mouths are always hungry. They gape like gar in a stream of fish burgers, tartar sauce, and soggy french fries. Their eyes never blink. The scales of my mother and her mother shimmer in the fluorescent light of Lucky supermarket, their shopping cart a cornucopia of the four food groups no one eats in the motherland.

When my mother and her mother speak of the motherland, their tongues tinkle like bells. Ting tong ting tong, like a China doll should, its head bobbling under a bamboo hat. When my mother and her mother speak in their mother tongue, I step away as if a foot of good, clean American air will shield me from their singsong. No one will know I’m one of them. I prefer it that way.

7.

Rain is bad for football, for the rims of my Schwinn, for sneaking a cigarette in the backyard when Mom’s not looking. It keeps us locked into piano practice or extra homework. It does not interrupt my new job of tutoring the little kids on our street in math. Mom, in the kitchen, loves to hear me explain long division. Rain is no fun.

Except when the rain gathers at the top of Westmoreland Drive. It eddies and pools into a second Crash Car Lake. When there’s no more sidewalk to hold it back, the body breaks and Westmoreland Drive turns into a giant waterslide.

Dad knows what this means. The sewers under the new freeway will back up. North Garfield Avenue will melt into a river of mud. Get in the car, Dad says.

We are the only ones headed down Wilcox Avenue. The normal people make a U-turn. Dad drives us straight into the muck.

The car takes on water. The fins submerge. We jump up and down to make the car go lower. We scream for the chance to swim around. We hang out the windows and get ourselves all wet.

Rev the engine one more time, Dad. Don’t go home yet.

8.

The plastic tray is full of bobbins. Metal and plastic wound in the colors of school uniforms, blue jeans, my mother’s homemade summer shifts. Next to the bobbins sits a compartment for needles, a seam ripper, measuring tape, elastic, and name labels. Tiny transparent poles anchor spools of thread.

The sewing kit belongs in the sewing machine cabinet. The cabinet is a clever piece of furniture with a top that flips open into a table to support the machine hiding inside. When it’s closed, the cabinet is handsome enough to stand under the big mirror by our front door to collect car keys and mail.

I’m not interested in cabinetry or keys. I want to play with the bobbins. To me, they are jewels and this plastic tray their casket. I could balance the tray on a sofa cushion the way a ring boy walks down the aisle. I could tie the bobbins into my hair and listen to them jingle. But not tonight.

Tonight, Dad doesn’t come home for dinner. His absence swirls among the rice bowls. It drifts into the fish, catches on the fins, softens in the steam until it melts into the eyeballs, so round and white.

Where he is and how he is are questions that curdle the air, but the telephone refuses to ring. Mom opens the sewing cabinet. The whir of the sewing machine wheel says good night.

My bedroom is the last one in the hall. I can see the driveway from my window, so maybe I watch for a while. Or I get under the covers and try to read, flashlight in hand.

Headlights pierce my bedroom curtains, jeweling the walls into topaz, diamond, and tigereye. The engine dies, but the car radio still croons. By the time the car door slams, everyone in the house knows Dad is home.

Normally, I’d be the one to open the front door. Happy to abandon piano practice or the day’s homework or even The Wild Wild West. Thrilled to see my father, as if it’s been weeks since we last met. Tonight, I want to see his smile more than ever, but I don’t dare leave my room. Mom is still awake, working the pedal of her sewing machine, right next to the front door.

The door opens, and Mom begins. You’re late. You’re drunk.

They argue in Chinese. I don’t understand what they’re saying. Their words batter the hallway mirror. Something crashes, and then there’s silence.

In the morning, the sewing machine cabinet is closed and the mirror is intact. No one sleeps on the living room couch.

In the kitchen trash can, the tray lies in shards, bobbins bent, threads unspooling. They writhe themselves into a knot, too tight for my shaking fingers to undo, strands fraying, colors spinning out of control.

9.

I remember a dashboard as pale and smooth as the belly of an eel. A radio with knobs that glittered like scales. A window with a handle to roll it down and, inside the handle, a red eye.

In the half-light of a Californian winter, the sky has no color and the horizon goes flat. Smog burns the throat. Better to keep the windows closed so that the car can fill with a man’s cologne.

I’m old enough to drive, but I don’t have a car. It must be after school.

If it’s after school, I’m wearing a pale blue box-pleated skirt that struggles to cover my knees. A white blouse I ironed that morning. Saddle shoes and white socks. The portrait of a child.

His name is Norm. The stepfather of my friend, the man who says, Don’t bother your mother. I’ll take you home.

I remember explaining which way to drive. Maybe we take the freeway. Maybe not. I am terrible at directions, but I don’t remember getting lost. I don’t remember the drive at all.

He parks at the curb. I thank him for the ride. He says, That’s not enough to compensate an old man like me for driving out of my way for a kid like you. I want a kiss.

Funny how I cannot recall his face, the exact shade of his fishy eyes, the murmuring shape of his fins. All I remember is a tongue, quick and cold. A tongue seeking heat. Do fish have tongues? Maybe it isn’t a fish. Maybe it’s an amphibious creature with dreams of domination. One that can defy the laws of evolution to sprout arms and legs right here in the front seat of a car. A creature with a sense of urgency.

Come on, Norm says, it’s just a kiss.

10.

Out on the street, your friend waits for you in her mom’s station wagon. As soon as you’re in, the two of you are going to the Handlebars Saloon.

You’ve planned this meticulously. The makeup, the short skirt, the tight top. What you’ll say if they ask for ID at the door. What you’ll do if one of you gets in and the other doesn’t. You’ve imagined the men tilting their beers back, the fake sawdust rubbing under your platform shoes. You hope they’ll look at you.

But you’re not there yet.

The whine of the engine shifts up half a note. The car is still there with the headlights off, radio off, no sign that your friend is willing to wait a minute longer. What will she think of you if you back out tonight? Maybe she already knows that you don’t have the guts to do this, and she would be right.

You could pretend you fell asleep. Slowly pull the curtains closed. Climb into bed and lie awake all night like you do most nights on account of the heat or the itching or the noise the neighbors make.

Instead, you slide the window open. The screen releases with a quiet click. You climb onto the desk. You step one foot out of childhood and into the hot night air.

Photo of Karen Kao

Karen Kaos debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, was published by Linen Press in 2017. Her short-form work appears in Hippocampus Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, The Common, The Shanghai Literary Review, and others. Kao has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Vestal Review Award, and Best of the Net. She lives in Amsterdam with her husband and Sam the cat. For more on Kao and her work, please visit www.inkstonepress.com.

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