THE 1ST PLACE WINNER OF THE IMAGINE LITTLE TOKYO SHORT STORY CONTEST 2015
Fish Market In Little Tokyo
The white noise of the ocean washed over the shore and reached for the cloudless sky.
Wave after wave.
The surf rolled slowly onto the beach.
Wave after wave.
The foam met the sand, and the sand met the foam.
Yukio woke to the sound of his alarm. A monotone digital beep rang out three times before he turned it off and moved to the side of his bed. Half covered, he reached for his bedside lamp and took a moment.
In the dim light, he rubbed his eyes: the clock read ‘2 a.m.’
He showered quickly, dressed in thick, warm clothes and cracked a raw egg over his cooked rice at breakfast. At the table, he leaned back over his chair to a small bookshelf filled with notebooks. He retrieved the furthest one on the left and took a pen from his pocket.
The lines of the last marked page read:
He crossed out 17,995 and wrote on the line below it 17,996. He had had the same dream almost eighteen thousand times. He closed the notebook, replaced it on the bookshelf and returned the pen to his front pocket.
On the way out, after he had turned off the lights, he waited in the dark for a moment and then closed the door quietly behind him.
The street was hazy in the diffuse light of the streetlamps through the morning fog. The pavement was wet and cold and the sound of his boots on its surface echoed in the quiet calm. He could see his breath as he walked the twelve blocks to the fish market, the long way, winding past the temples—first the Hompa Hongwanji with its low fence and its long, white brick building, then the Koyasan, hidden beyond the narrow alley before it, then the Higashi Honganji with its tall, sloping roof, then the last few blocks without temples to watch or wonder about.
The Eijo Market, his father’s, grandfather’s and forbears’ immemorial fish shop was already busy with lights and people. The loading dock workers were preparing for the trucks, and the butchers were testing their knife blades and saws.
Yukio’s grandfather, Junichiro, had been his family’s last fisherman. His father couldn’t stomach the sea and focused on the family’s dockside business. He helped the other old family fishermen spend more time on the ocean, while he worked their markets, making the Eijo booth the largest and most important in his father’s time.
Today, as Yukio stood in front of the market, he thought about these things. These things and his dream. Fish, the market and his family had been all he had ever known. He had never married and had no sons or daughters.
His grandfather died on the sea. His boat had drifted into port with the tide. They never found his body. His father was happy with this. His grandfather had always wished to die at sea.
Did Yukio feel called to the sea? Did his soul ache for the infinite blue tones of the ocean? His grandfather had taken him out once on the ocean as a small boy, but he couldn’t remember the experience clearly, except for the seagulls—calling, always calling. Now, as an old man, would he--
“Mhm?” He looked around him.
A shop girl from the store was standing in front of him. She was wearing a yellow rubber apron.
“Eijo-san, are you coming in today?”
He nodded and they walked in together.
Inside his office, he looked over the truck schedules and the reports from the fishermen.
—Tuna would be in good supply.
—Squid would be in good supply.
—Shrimp would be hard to come by today.
He made some notes about moving the Halibut forward in the display area and keeping the small shrimp supply in the corner of the shop in order to draw the customers through the rest of his offerings first. Then, he pulled the string to the small overhead lamp above his desk and walked out to the loading dock.
The diesel engine hums of the trucks backing up to the dock made the concrete vibrate. Men on the loading dock shouted at men in the trucks, and men in the trucks shouted at men on the loading dock. The flashing lights and sound of the trucks backing up made the scene vivid and surreal to him, even after fifty years.
A boy with a clipboard came up to Yukio and presented it to him. It was the same figures he had seen in his office. Yukio looked over them again, nodded and passed the clipboard back to the boy.
Yukio paused and reflected for a moment. He must have been the boy’s age when the dream started—eighteen, maybe twenty.
He watched the scene calmly as the men shouted and the horns yelled and the lights flashed, and he thought of the dream again as it began to rain outside the loading dock’s doors.
It had rained once in the dream, in April some twenty years before. The sea was mostly calm and there was lightning on the horizon. Thunder had rolled lightly through the clouds.
Twenty tuna were unloaded from the trucks, wet like the men and the pavement. Their eyes were so blue, he thought.
He inspected the catch, picked the best, ordered them to be laid out for the best early morning customers and had the worst made into small, single sale cuts from which he would give half to the poor.
He met with Mr. Ochiban, the sushi legend, and looked through the best catch.
“Always a little different, huh? Never the same,” Ochiban said, smiling at the fish.
“Always…” Yukio trailed off.
After the morning rush had died down, Yukio called a friend who had been sick and thinking of giving up his fishing business to his son.
“Hamanaka-san, how are the fish?” Yukio asked.
“They are OK today, Eijo, maybe better tomorrow,” the old man groaned hoarsely through static on the other end of the receiver.
The man was the best fisherman Yukio had ever met. He had never brought him an unsellable fish.
Yukio nodded into the phone, silently honoring the deliberation he heard in the great man’s voice.
“Mmm.” Yukio finally said, voicing his approval and respect.
“Hai,” the fisherman spoke and then hung up, ending their daily ritual.
People came and went from the market the rest of morning—some consulting him about what he thought might be the best cuts today and some asking if they could buy scraps for stew broth or if he thought there might be better fish tomorrow. He replied thoughtfully and patiently to each question he was asked: tuna and squid would be best today; scraps were free to all and they should ask the head butcher if he still had any; the moon was waning and the forecast was hot and sunny tomorrow, so the fish would probably be less adventurous, but one can never be certain, so maybe the fish would be more favorable tomorrow. And then it was noon, and he had come to the end of his day.
He gave instructions to his floor manager to close when it became slow and he left through the back door.
The light reflecting off of the pavement was glistening from the rain, and the sun had come out from behind the scattering clouds. He walked past the sushi restaurants he supplied in his district, Little Tokyo, on his way home, as was his habit every day after work. First Hama Sushi and Komasa Sushi, which he had been to earlier that week, and then Sushi Gen where he ordered three rolls at the bar—two spicy tuna, one sweet mackerel.
Half a dozen thoughts in the back of his head wandered between the boundaries of his conscious and subconscious mind as he dipped his sushi in soy sauce or covered it in pickled ginger at the honey-colored bar.
Would Hamanaka-san be the best fisherman he would ever know? Would his grandfather be born inland in another life? What would it be like to live as a fish deep, deep in the sea? Where had the dream come from? Where was it going?
When he finished his food, he walked home.
As he came to the second floor apartment he left and returned to each day, he could hear the sound of the ocean through his door.
* In the original work, the numbers "17,993" and "17,994" are crossed with lines.