Fish Out of Water

By Joshua R. Quong 

During the summer that followed my first year of teaching, I debated on whether I should return the next school year or get a job riding a garbage truck for the Lafayette County Solid Waste Department. 

I had been knocked well out of my comfort zone and felt that the best way to regain some sense of normalcy would be to visit a couple of my best friends from high school, Ferrell and Theo. 

The plan was to stay a Friday night with Ferrell in Memphis where he and his wife were living while he attended CRNA school. Then the two of us would get up early Saturday morning and crappie fish Sardis Lake. Later that afternoon, he would drop me off at the airport so I could fly out to New York City to hang out a few days with Theo, who was in the middle of an OB GYN rotation for med school. 

My visit with Ferrell was great. We hadn’t hung out in over a year and caught up quickly on our folks and the news. The morning bite was good, too. In the summer, crappie run deep and I had never trolled crankbaits before. The majority of crappie fishing I had done in the past was with jig poles during the spring when monster white perch spawn in the cypress knees. 

After a couple of hours of hauling up suspended fish, we had a good mess but only three keepers. At some point during our outing, Ferrell suggested that it would be nice to take those keepers with me to NYC as a gift for Theo who had not been back home to Mississippi in several years. 

A capital idea! What could be more curative for a bout of homesickness than fish from one’s home waters? Hell yea! 

After a shower, I quickly dressed in my travel attire: a pair of Justin work boots, Wrangler jeans, T-shirt, and ball cap. Ferrell had already packed the fish into a small soft cooler. 

“The cold packs should last the trip,” he assured me. We also decided that I should transport the fish whole and intact, as we both felt that part of the fun for Theo would be to scale and gut his precious gift on the porch of whatever rented hovel he was living in Queens. 

At the time the only piece of luggage I had was a black duffle bag I had purchased from the Army/Navy store in downtown Greenville, Mississippi. The soft cooler of fish fit perfectly atop my folded skivvies and doc kit. 

At the drop-off terminal, Ferrell and I went over my return flight details so he could pick me up a few days later. 

“Let me know how those fish go over with Theo,” said Ferrell as he dropped me off at the terminal and said goodbye. I nodded, hefted the duffle strap over my shoulder, and entered the airport. 

This was the second time I had ever traveled by plane, and the first time I had ever traveled alone. Since the then-recent attacks on 9/11, there was a definite atmosphere of seriousness and solemnity. Law enforcement was everywhere and every one bustling about had a stern countenance. 

I had plenty of time before my departure, which was good because it took me a bit to figure out where to go. When I got to the security line, I saw an elderly couple being pulled out in front of me. Airport personnel began rifling through their carry-on bags and inspecting the contents. Then they were led away to a room to the side. 

I began to sweat. If those two geezers got hauled off for what was in their bags–probably some hard candy and denture paste–I was done for. 

When it was my turn to be checked, I placed my duffle on the x-ray machine conveyor belt, and my wallet and Nokia in a little plastic tray. I then passed through the metal detector. 

No beep from the detector, which eased my nerves for a second, but I felt my blood pressure spike when I looked at the metal detector screen and saw, to my abject horror, the perfectly detailed radiographic images of three overlapping fish skeletons inside my luggage. 

The lady running the x-ray machine was beautifully plump with bright red lipstick and fantastically thick cornrows, the tresses of which cascaded from the back of her neck and over monstrous breasts. She did a double-take at the screen and then looked at me. 

Her crimson lips parted into a stunning smile, and then she said, “You have a safe trip, baby”. 

I returned her smile with one of my own, grabbed my bag and belongings, and hastily made my way through the concourse like a bank robber about to hop into the getaway car. 

Once I reached my gate, I had only a few minutes to wait before the call went out to board. I found my seat on the plane, stowed my duffle in the overhead, and then sat down. 

The flight took me from Memphis to a connection in Houston. I read through a good bit of a novel before landing in Texas. As passengers filed off the plane, I opened the door to the overhead and was met with the unmistakable waft of fish scent. 

The little boy who was seated with his parents behind me and incessantly blabbed throughout the entire flight repetitively asked his mother, “What’s that smell, Mommy? Mommy, mommy, what’s that smell?” 

I retrieved the bag from the compartment, endured the judgmental glares of the flight attendants, and exited the plane. 

I rushed to the first men’s room I could find where I discovered that the top part of my duffle was wet. I removed the soft cooler and placed it on the sink counter. It had leaked, and now sat glistening with water and crappie mucus. Not only had the cold packs melted, but the fins of the fish had poked holes in the Ziplock bag in which they were packed. 

I had about an hour before my next flight so I hurriedly rinsed the cooler in the sink, dried what I could of the duffle with bathroom paper towels and, by holding it under the hand drier, pitched the not-so-cold packs in the trash, and repacked everything best I could until I could find a shop in the airport where I could buy some more. 

There were no stores that sold cold packs, nor did I find one that sold Ziplock bags. I did, however, find a little snack shop that used plastic shopping bags. I bought some Funyuns and a Snickers, and then asked the clerk if she would throw a couple  extra plastic bags in with my purchases. She obliged. 

In a food court area, I found a fountain drink machine with an ice dispenser. I took out one of the extra shopping bags and filled it with as much ice as it would hold while an airport janitor looked on and shook his head. 

I returned to the men’s room, devoured the Funyuns and Snickers, lined the soft cooler with a shopping bag, and put the fish in the shopping bag I had filled with ice. I tied the top of the bag, placed it in the soft cooler, tied the top of the bag that lined the cooler, and put the cooler back inside my duffle, confident in my ingenuity. 

My connecting flight to New York was already boarding by the time I found my gate. Amid the curious sniffs and suspicious scowls of passengers and crew, I made my way to my seat, stowed my bag again, and sat down. I went back to reading my book after take-off but only managed a few pages before falling asleep. 

I awoke to the plane descending.  

It was dark outside the oblong porthole save for the lights of the city. I had slept hard and was still groggy when the plane came to a stop at the gate after landing. Like in Houston, the overhead compartment stunk of fish; my duffle bag was soaked again. 

The airport was pure pandemonium. There were more people packed together inside a building than I had ever seen before. While swimming through the crowds, I heard all manner of conversations in tongues wholly unfamiliar. The atmosphere was overwrought, which intensified as I made it outside to find a taxi. 

Yellow cabs were parked in an outstretched row under a covered pick-up meeting point. There, people were hollering in hostile tones. I saw a couple of effeminate men: one screamed at a cab driver and the other sobbed as blood dripped from his nose. 

While mesmerized at this spectacle, I felt a strong tug at my duffle bag. A cab driver had taken hold of it. He vigorously pulled the duffle with one hand and pointed at his taxi with the other as he repeatedly asked, “You need ride?” 

I snatched my bag free from his grip, nodded, and climbed into the cab. 

As we sped away, the side-view mirror of the cab smacked the hip of the cabby getting yelled at by the sweet fella I had seen earlier. My driver yelled out what I could only infer as profanity, shaking his fist as he said it. 

The cab driver wore a headset that was connected to his cell phone, and he was heatedly speaking into it. And though I had not told him my destination, he zoomed in and out of the late- night traffic like he knew just where to go. 

After a couple of minutes of speed racing, I said, “Excuse me, sir. Here’s where I’m going.” I told him the address but he ignored me and kept to his conversation on his cell phone. 

I thought maybe he didn’t hear me so I repeated the address a bit louder. At that point he stopped talking and looked at me in the rearview mirror. 

“What?!” he exclaimed. 

“You need the address, right?” I asked. 

“Yes! Yes! What is address?” he asked. Obviously annoyed. 

I gave him the address again to which he asked, “Where is this?” 

“I have no idea, sir,” I replied. “I’m not from here. Don’t y’all have a dispatch or someone to tell y’all where places are?” I was tired, reeked of fish, alone and out of my element. 

“You are fucking moron!” the cab driver screamed at me. “You not know where you go? Fucking moron!” 

An ice-cold tingle of fear and anger prickled down my neck, and to my horror and shame I heard myself cry out:  

“Get me where I need to go, or I will fucking kill you!” 

The taxi fell silent. The driver said nothing for a few minutes, then returned to the convo on his cell phone. I began to scan the cab. I tried my best to memorize the taxi number and the driver’s name on the card pinned to the dashboard. I studied the road signs as best I could. I had made a real threat in a real way in a foreign land. I was terrified and absolutely positive that the only place this driver was going to take me was to be murdered. 

The cab swerved suddenly across two lanes of traffic onto the next exit. We blew past bright gas stations and liquor stores and into a grid of dimly lit neighborhoods. The driver turned down one of the empty streets where a solitary figure wearing a wife beater and a pair of shorts walked along the sidewalk. The cab slowed as my fear grew. 

This is his buddy, I thought. This was who the cabby was talking to on the phone. This is where they’re going to kill me

I fished my crappie-slime-covered toothbrush out of my doc kit and held it tightly by the bristle end. If this is where the battle for my life was going to happen—on a random street in New York City—then I wasn’t going out without feeding the blunt end of a Colgate to one of these bastard’s throat. 

The driver pulled the taxi over to the curb and lowered his window. 

“Excuse me,” he said to the fella in the wife beater. Then the driver asked for directions to the address I had given him. 

“Yeah, man,” replied the pedestrian. “You’re nearly there. Go up three blocks, take a left, and up two blocks and it’s on the right.” 

“Thank you,” said the driver. 

“Sure thing! Have a good night,” answered the man in the wife beater. 

As we pulled up to a little bungalow, I could see Theo sitting on the porch. The driver parked, and I got out. He lowered his passenger-side window and began yelling at me about the cab fare. I flicked a wadded-up $10 bill at him and he sped off cursing. 

“What was that all about?” Theo asked. 

“Disagreement,” I replied. 

“Dude, you stink! What the hell?” 

As we made our way up the walk to the house, I informed Theo of the gift Ferrell and I had caught for him that morning, and then recounted the day’s events. 

“JQ,” theo said. “Those things are ruined. You should have ditched them in Texas. Let’s put your shit in the washing machine and get you in the shower.” 

“Thanks,” I said. “Say, is there anywhere close where I can buy a toothbrush?” 

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