Atlantic Menhaden: Fiction by Nicholas Servedio

Honorable Mention, Adult Category

The first time I saw all the dead fish was in early June. It was a rainy day, and my dad and I were walking along the Hudson River Greenway. The path was sandwiched between the flow of the river and the flow of traffic, and every so often a car or truck would pass by in the rightmost lane and spray muddy water and gravel onto the path. My dad was stressed out and walking quickly. He had recently been made chair of the Chemistry department, and while the new title came with a raise and a little engraved placard for his desk at home, it meant spending more time doing “administrative bullshit” and less time working on his own research. So he was hurrying along, complaining about all the things he had to do––the emails piled up in his inbox,  the meetings with other department chairs, negotiations with the grad students who were threatening to go on strike again––and I was walking alongside, nodding, half-listening, enjoying the feeling of walking and the thin rain, which was cold but not too cold, when I looked over at the water and saw a couple of fish floating there. I pointed this out to my dad and for a second, distracted, he stopped complaining and looked more closely. “Jesus,” he said, and then, looking  up and down the shoreline, “there must be hundreds of them. What the fuck could’ve happened?”  

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Pollution?”  

My dad shook his head slowly and we continued to walk. For a couple minutes he was silent. We emerged from the path at 125th Street and looked down into the water below the pier. Countless fish bobbed belly-up below us, the silver of their scales already faded to a dull gray, bodies bloated, gills flapping open. Most of them were the same size, about a half-and-a-half in length, but there were one or two bigger fish mixed in as well. My dad wrinkled his nose and squinted, though he looked more angry than disgusted. “Let’s walk back along the street,” he said. Though I was morbidly entranced, I followed him up the hill and away from the river.

At home, I looked up “dead fish in hudson river” and found a couple results, most of them from local newspapers or blogs but one or two of which looked credible enough. The official government website for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had released a short statement saying that the fish were all of the same species, Atlantic Menhaden, and that a probable cause of their death was the recent heat wave and the resulting lack of oxygen in the water. I clicked around some more. On one blog, someone had commented  “Walking my dog today and saw thousands of dead fish in the river. One or two were swimming  in circles and twitching so heartbreaking to see.” Below that, another person had commented “this whole situation sounds fishy,” and below that, someone else commented “lol.” I wandered into my older sister’s room and sat down on her bed. She was lying on her beanbag, looking at something on her phone. “Guess what I saw at the park today?” I said, picking up a fidget toy on her desk.

She didn’t look up. “What.” 

“Dead fish. Thousands of them.” 


“Don’t you think that’s kind of crazy?” 


“They all died from a lack of oxygen. They swim together in these big schools and there  wasn’t enough oxygen in the water because of an algae bloom so they all suffocated. Isn’t that  horrible?” 

She laughed. She was texting something to one of her friends. 

“Imagine being one of those fish, swimming along next to all your fishy friends and suddenly you can’t breathe.” I inhaled sharply and made a flopping motion with my body. My sister laughed again.  

“I’m gonna get one of those dead fish and name it Thomas.” Thomas was the name of her boyfriend.  


“I’m gonna get Thomas out of the river and then I’m gonna put him under your pillow.” 

“Don’t you fucking dare,” she said without looking up.  

“Guys!” my dad yelled from the other room. “Dinner!” 


The next day, I went down to the river after school and climbed onto one of the granite blocks jutting out by the water’s edge. Across the river, New Jersey rose steeply in a wall of green. I wondered if there were dead fish on the other side of the river too, or if the current had only washed them onto the New York side. Last year, Dad and I took a bike ride up Amsterdam Avenue, across the George Washington Bridge, and through the Palisades until we ran out of water. Thankfully there was a Korean supermarket close by, so we bought as many fruity aloe drinks as could fit in my small drawstring bag and then turned around for home. On the way back, we saw signs posted along the river walkway, asking if anyone had seen two boys, aged 11 and 13, who had last been seen jumping into the Hudson River off a pier at Fort Tryon Park. I wanted to stop and read the signs more closely, but Dad said, “they should take those signs down,” and kept riding. 

A little while later we stopped at a bench by a small memorial called the Amiable Child Monument to have our drinks. My dad downed two bottles of strawberry aloe vera and circled the memorial twice before he found the worn plastic sign that explained its origin and history. At home, he looked up the monument on Wikipedia and spent the next hour sitting in his sweaty cargo shorts and “I <3 Chemistry” shirt clicking through the pages of various other monuments and statues in our neighborhood.  

“Will, you’re an amiable child,” he said to me when I walked into the room after  showering. He laughed.  

“Thanks, Dad,” I said.  

At the river, I picked up a stick and used it to poke at a matted brown coconut husk stuck in a crevice by my feet. Below the coconut, the glassy eyes of a dead fish stared up at me. I poked it with my stick. It was surprisingly firm. When I flipped it over, the other side was pale and rotting with the bones showing through, like a leaf skeleton. I felt bile rise in my throat and  fixed my eyes on the New Jersey shoreline. Then I flipped the fish back so that its good side was  up and nudged the coconut shell with my foot to more or less cover it.  

There were a couple other fish carcasses caught in between the rocks. The tide must have  washed them ashore, I realized, and now they were just baking there in the sun. Just then the  wind shifted. I gagged and turned away. As I turned back onto the path, I almost collided with a  biker who swerved and swore at me in what sounded like German and flipped me off with his  hand behind his back. For a moment I imagined chasing him, jamming my stick in his wheels or  knocking him off the bike but by then he was long gone and a father pushing a stroller was  walking past in the opposite direction. I felt a sudden flush of heat to my face. I dropped my  stick, crossed the bike path, and started walking home.  

Dinner was artichoke soup with canned clams and tuna. In the past few months, as my Ahgong’s condition had worsened and my mom had been spending more and more time with  him in Boston, Dad had gotten into a routine of cooking “dinner” ––basically whatever he could scrounge up from the back of the fridge and the bottom of the cabinet. It was his way of trying to  feel helpful around the house, even though he would be the only one who would ever eat it. Off  to the side, there was a small tupperware of fried rice that Mom had made a couple days ago. My  sister and I saw it at the same time, but she got to it first. She cackled and grinned at me. Dad was already scarfing down the soup.  

“So, anything fun happen today?” he asked.  

“Izzy, give me some of the fried rice,” I said.  

“No.” She looked at me as if I had asked her to run around the block naked. “Have the soup.” 

“Yeah, have the soup,” my dad said. “It’s good.” He laughed.  

“Izzy, give me some of the fucking rice,” I said.  

“Hey!” my dad yelled. “What’s up with the cursing, huh? The soup I made isn’t good enough for you? And Izzy, what are you, four? You can’t share?”  

My sister looked at me pointedly and rolled her eyes. She scored the fried rice down the middle and started spooning a portion into another bowl.  

“Forget it,” I said. “You’re pathetic. I’ll just have Cheerios.” I went into the kitchen.  When I came back, my sister was on her phone and my dad was slurping away at a clam.  We sat in silence. “Oh, Izzy, did you hear about the dead fish we saw in the park?” my  dad asked.  

“Will already told me. Atlantic Menhaden, right?” She looked up at me.

I raised my eyebrows. “Oh, so you were actually listening, huh?” 

“Of course I was listening!” Izzy pretended to look hurt. “You think I wouldn’t pay attention to my own brother?” 

I ignored her and took a bite of Cheerios. Dad furrowed his brow, as if he was trying to  understand what was going on. Then I realized he was actually just digging with his tongue for a piece of artichoke behind his molars.  

“Did you find out anything else, Will?” my dad asked.  

“Not really. They’re not sure why the fish died, but they think it might have been a heat wave.” 

“Oh yeah?” said my dad as he chewed a piece of clam thoughtfully. He lifted his bowl to his mouth and drained the rest of the broth.  

“Yeah,” I said. 

My dad took a gulp of water. Izzy picked at a piece of fried rice while scrolling  disinterestedly through Instagram. “Oh––Dad, would it be okay if I went over to Thomas’s  country house next weekend?”  

My dad groaned. “Again? Is this gonna become a weekly occurrence now? Didn’t you go over there just last week?” 

“No, it was two weeks ago. And it would be really nice if you would let me go since this is the last time his family is going up for a while. His dog is getting surgery on Tuesday and is going to have to stay in the house for a few weeks.”  

“I don’t give a shit if his dog has anal cancer. It’s ridiculous to have you go prancing off to Connecticut every other weekend. Plus,” he added, “we’re supposed to visit your grandfather  this weekend.”

“It’s just one weekend! Ahgong won’t even realize that I’m not there!” 

“I’m not arguing this with you. Take it up with your mom,” Dad said.  

“Will?” Izzy looked at me pleadingly.  

I finished chewing my Cheerios slowly. “I mean, you have gone there like every other weekend,” I said. “I don’t see why missing one weekend makes such a difference. And for the record, I think Thomas is a creep.” 

“You’re such a little piece of shit. I don’t know why I even asked your opinion,” Izzy  said.  

“Izzy,” my dad said.  

“And you,” she said, turning to him, “are just sad.” She shoved the bowl of fried rice towards me. “Here. I don’t fucking want it anymore.” She grabbed her phone off the table and a second later we heard the door to her room slam shut.  

My dad sighed and pulled out his laptop. I started to take a bite of the fried rice but then decided against it and put it in the fridge. My dad was frowning and typing something quickly. I  picked up my bowl of Cheerios and went into my room.  

After sitting on my bed for a moment, I realized the Cheerios were beginning to get soggy, so I lifted the bowl to my lips and gulped the rest down. Almost all the lights were off in the building across the street, though it was only 8pm. The smell of the Halal cart wafted up from three stories below.  

I pulled out my phone and texted Izzy, sorry about dinner. She saw it immediately but left me on read. Whatever. At least I had tried to apologize. I mean, she had gone over there literally every weekend, and Thomas was creepy, what with his gelled hair and starched private school uniform. He had never tried to talk to me the few times he came over for dinner. I wasn’t even sure he knew my name.

After a minute or two my anger evaporated and I mostly just felt bloated from having eaten too quickly, and hollow and a little sad. I pulled the window shade down and laid on my carpet. Often, in the summer, I liked to lie in this same position, put my headphones in, turn the fan on, and stare up at the ceiling. I would play all kinds of music, depending on my mood:  Oscar Peterson, Tupac, Bach (my dad’s favorite), the Beatles (my mom’s favorite). Sometimes, at night, I would get up and dance with the lights off, but usually I’d just lie down and listen, and often after three or four songs I would start to feel drowsy and doze off. Ten or fifteen minutes later I’d wake up feeling a little sore but feeling mostly refreshed. Once, though, having fallen asleep around midnight, I woke at 4am with a pounding sinus headache and the sense that I had been violently dropped into another dimension.  

A couple hours later, I took my bowl to the kitchen and put it in the sink. Dad was still sitting at the dining room table, scrolling through email or some article on the New York Times with a bag of peanuts and a cup of wine beside him. His eyes looked slightly bloodshot and in the yellow light I could see the five-o-clock shadow like a faint coffee stain on his face. He  looked up as I passed through to grab my phone charger. “You going to bed, Will?” he asked. His voice sounded hoarse.  

I nodded. 

He exhaled heavily. “Hopefully Mom is gonna come home sometime next week. I talked  to her today, it sounds like the doctors are thinking your grandfather will have to be put into hospice care pretty soon. They’re not sure what else they can do for him.” 

I nodded again, slowly.  

He took a gulp of his wine and sighed again. “You know I have trouble when your mom isn’t here. Speaking of which, I forgot to put away the soup.” The ladle was still in the pot, right behind his computer.  

“It’s okay. You’re going to be the only one eating it.” 

He looked a little offended. “Your loss. Hey, did you see the Mets game tonight?” “Yup.” I had been watching the game on and off in my room but had turned it off after the third inning. “My god, do they suck this year or what?” He switched to the Mets website on his computer. “Look, now it’s fifteen-three.” He snorted. “And Altuve just hit his third home run  of the night. Great.” He reached for the bag of peanuts but knocked over his cup of wine. “Oh fuck,” he said. Then he leaned over and started slurping it off the table before it could spill onto the floor. 

I laughed. “Jesus, Dad, you’re disgusting.” 

He looked up and grinned. “Don’t tell your mom.” He went back to slurping. I turned to go.  

“Oh, Will––” he paused and looked up at me. “I have a meeting at the office tomorrow morning and then I’m supposed to see the cardiologist, so I’ll be out for most of the day. Can you try to do a laundry and take out the trash when you get a chance? If you can clean up the living room a little that would be great too.” 

“Sure,” I said, though I doubted I’d remember any of that. 

He rubbed his eyes. “Alright, thanks. I appreciate it.” 

“You got it. Goodnight, Dad,” I said. 

He was back to looking at something on his laptop. I walked down the hallway and went  into my room. 


On the last day of school, I walked up to the George Washington Bridge. When I got to the pedestrian walkway, I reached into the inner compartment of my backpack for half a joint and a lighter. The sun was just beginning to set, and from my vantage point I could see the shoreline of Manhattan curving gently to the left and the barges traveling down the middle of the river into the open harbor. If it weren’t for the wind and the narrow walkway and the cars  speeding by at 60mph, it would be a lovely spot for a stroll.  

But I had already made the trek, so I figured I might as well try to make it to New Jersey. I crouched to shield the joint from the wind and on the third try managed to light it. The day before, I had asked Dad if he wanted to do a repeat of our original Palisades bike adventure, but he had back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings all afternoon. So instead I walked on my own, taking small hits of the joint the way I imagined an old man would puff leisurely on a pipe, and  looked out every now and then at the water below. It was strange to think that, as far north as you could see, there were dead fish lining the river. And it was just three weeks ago that Dad and I had discovered them. From up on the bridge, though, I couldn’t see or smell anything, just exhaust fumes and the occasional indistinct figure running or biking on the Manhattan side of the river.  

The sound of the cars hissing by started to echo, so I put in my headphones. But even  with the music on full volume the wind and the traffic drowned out most of the sound, so I ended  up taking them off. I was trying to remember how Dad and I got down to the bike trail, but by then I was pretty high and on the New Jersey side the bridge looked like it just opened up into a highway, so I turned around and started walking back toward New York. 

I was trying to remember what it felt like the first time that Dad and I discovered the fish, the rain and the morbid curiosity I felt looking down from the top of the pier, but somehow the image that came to mind was from the night after: Dad sitting alone at the table after dinner, bags  beneath his eyes and stubble on his cheeks, his soup untouched and uneaten by anyone besides him. Would I be like that, thirty years from now? A year earlier, on another rainy walk with him, he told me that for the past twenty years or so when he woke up in the morning he felt totally  disconnected from himself, like all his memories belonged to someone else, and we, his family, were strangers. It was only a couple hours later, after drinking a cup or two of coffee, that he sort of felt like himself again. Sometimes, he told me, he would go through whole days or weeks at a time feeling like he was scrambling to find his footing, and just as he was managing to feel a little better he would wake up one morning feeling shitty all over again. I asked him if he had tried mindfulness or journaling or a gratitude practice––three things my school’s health teacher had talked about during our “self care” unit––but he said it was too late, that he was a lost cause.  Then he had patted my back and said, “It’s good, you seem really grounded. It’s good to have lots of things that give you meaning.” I had tried to ask more but he had changed the subject and  started telling me about some problem he was having in his lab. I hadn’t brought up the subject with him since.  

On the subway home, the grinning faces of Cellino and Barnes leered at me from above  the sleeping body of a homeless man stretched out on the seats. Above that, an ad read, “When  Diamonds Aren’t Forever…1-800-DIVORCE.” I sat back in my seat, holding my backpack to my chest, and closed my eyes. When I was a kid I would often have dreams that my parents were  cheating on each other. My family would get into a taxi and as soon as we got in my mom would start kissing the taxi driver. Or we’d all be eating breakfast and then my dad would bring in some  woman and introduce her to us. More often than not, though, the dreams would be about my mom leaving my dad, and somehow I always ended up taking my dad’s side. In my mind, he was  always the one being wronged; I couldn’t imagine that he would do anything to hurt others. Like me, he seemed helpless and lonely and vulnerable. I felt bad for him.  

When I finally got home it was past dark and my feet were sore from walking, even after having taken the train. I turned the key in the lock. The house was dark except for a thin sliver of  light under my sister’s door. Dad was passed out and snoring on the living room rug, his computer still open on his chest. 

About Nicholas Servedio: Nicholas Servedio (he/him) is a mixed Taiwanese- and Italian-American writer and teacher. Born in Boston and raised in New York City, Nick recently graduated from Williams College with a major in English and Africana studies, and is currently living in Yilan City, Taiwan, where he is on a Fulbright teaching English to elementary schoolers. Outside of writing and teaching, Nick enjoys biking, cooking, dancing, and spending time with friends and family.

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