Two Short Stories by Nielson Sophann Hul

Nielson Hul was born in Cambodia and shortly after moved to Long Beach, California. He joined the U.S. Army after graduating from L.B. PolyHigh School and served for six years as a Combat Medic in the 3rd Infantry Division at Ft. Stewart, GA. After switching to the reserves from active duty, he went to Long Beach City College and transferred to UCLA where he earned his BA in English. Later, he moved to Honolulu, Hawai’i to attend the University of Hawai’i at Manoa where he earned his MA in Linguistics using Khmer as a research language. After almost a decade on O’ahu, Nielson Hul and his family have moved back to Long Beach where he now teaches English and Khmer at LBCC. He also teaches English at Los Angeles Harbor College and other area colleges.  Nielson is a father of three and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) during which he served as a Combat Medic. 

Teaching language and writing is his passion. He loves turning college students into the writers they often didn’t know they could be. He has been teaching and tutoring English for almost a decade and prides himself on lectures and classes that are active and engaging.

 

FLEUR-DE-LIS

A SHORT STORY BY NIELSON SOPHANN HUL

She lay on her back looking up into the cool, blue morning sky. Her dark brown skin contrasted with the green foliage crushed beneath her tiny frame. There was no emotion on her face, no terror. If it weren’t for a steady stream of tears running silently past her ears onto the ground, she could have been a statue. She was still and made no move to cover her breasts or the curly, dark mound of hair between smooth, brown legs that lay slightly apart. Her red floral sarong had been pushed all the way up her torso into a scrunched up band of silk across her chest. She may as well have been naked for all that it did to cover her.

Dane watched her from the street above with the rest of the men. He stood quietly beside his bike on the bridge staring at all of her. When Dane first saw her, he thought she was dead, but then again dead bodies don’t blink periodically; nor do tears run from the corners of their eyes. When he went to help her, she screamed, so he left. He ran back up and waited. Gradually, more men came, but no one could do anything, so nobody did anything. Nobody moved. Even the breeze had stopped blowing. There was nothing to do; they were only men, so they gawked silently and waited for the women to come and collect one of their own.

Dane reached into his pocket and felt the familiar soft paper of his 555 cigarettes. He pulled one out and put it in between his teeth. He searched for matches in the pockets of his black French pants and patted the breast pocket of his white shirt. He knew he’d find no matches there, but he searched anyway. Maybe it was because he desperately needed matches to light his desperately needed smoke; more likely it was because he had to move. Someone had to move. Someone had to do something and it was something for him to do.

Two women made their way from behind the crowd and down the embankment into the earthen depression where the girl lay without moving. They crept through the waist-high elephant grass approaching the girl with an amalgam of urgency and dread. The women’s lilting tones were met with the first signs of life from the girl: glottal sobs, feral wailings of shame and pain. There was nothing left for her now. She wasn’t a virgin anymore. No man would take her. She knew. She would probably have to become a whore. The women were dressed in silk sarongs and wrapped the girl up in the tatters of her floral sarong. They sat there for a while. The older one was rocking her back and forth on her lap. They brought her up to a sitting position and talked to her softly. The crowd had abated; there was no more nudity to see, just three women half buried in the tall, green grass cooing in hushed tones.

The semi-silence gave way to collective alarm. A white police car had pulled up and a French Officer got out and eyed the crowd. French soldiers were the policemen here. They were common in Kar-Kandal. Kratie was a heavily protected province within the protectorate. The soldiers all wore white and blue uniforms, crisp and clean. When they marched, Dane was always in awe of their precision.

The gold Fleur-de-Lis on the collar of the tall officer reflected the sun, catching Dane’s gaze and blinding him. The officer stuck his arm in the window of the car and honked the horn motioning for everyone to leave. No one wanted to be the first to move, afraid of the suspicion he might incur. The tall man honked the horn and motioned up the street again shouting a single phrase in Khmer over and over.​ “Go Home,” he said in an almost incomprehensible Khmer. He looked directly at Dane and then at the unlit cigarette in his mouth; Dane looked at the packed gravel below him and took the unsmoked smoke out of his mouth, stowing it in his shirt pocket as the tall officer watched him. He was very anxious to leave now. It was always a good idea to avoid the French whenever possible.

The men in the crowd broke up like a dirt clod in the stream, reluctantly and piecemeal from the edges. Dane sat on his bike and watched for a while. He didn’t want to be there anymore, but he didn’t want to seem too anxious to leave. He walked his bicycle away from the crowd and up the packed gravel road making crunching sounds as he went. He stayed close to a crowd of men he didn’t know so as not to draw unnecessary attention from the police, but as soon as he was a fair distance away, he broke off and headed toward the cobblestone street back toward his uncle’s house.

As he rounded the corner, a fat, sweaty Frenchman came barreling into him and his bike knocking the boy onto his back. The Frenchman slipped on the gravel and fell forward over Dane’s bike screaming falsetto as the kickstand dug into his thigh. “Merde!” the Frenchman screamed again. Dane recovered, quickly rising out of the gravel to help the fat man off his bike by yanking his nearest arm up.

Once he’d regained his feet, he shouted, “Let go of me!” His jowls quivered as he spoke. The boy let go and took a few steps back as the Frenchman tried to regain his dignity and dust himself off. Dane took this time to heave his bike upright and returned to the Fat man apologizing profusely in French as he went. The man patted at and straightened his previously white uniform, now colored the auspicious red-brown of Cambodian earth in spots. Dane looked at his own shirt. Khmer dirt could not be brushed off that easily. He knew he’d have to wash it out later, but he washed this shirt every night anyway. It was the only one he owned. The fat man looked at the dirty, skinny child that he had run over and softened a bit.

“Excuse me.” He said in French.

“I am very sorry, Sir.”

“It’s fine, Boy. It was my fault.” He mumbled while continuing to dust off.

Dane nodded and turned to go, “Is that it?” expecting retribution.

“Yes. Wait.” A look of interest crept across his face. “You speak French very well.” The man said looking up.

“We all speak French, Mister.”

“How old are you, Boy?”

“I’m twenty-six.”

“Twenty-six? That’s not possible. You can be no older than twelve” In reply, Dane could only shrug.

“We do not age like the French, Mister.”

“Yes, but your French is excellent, Boy. Do you have a few minutes? Come with me. You can leave your bicycle here.” It was made to sound like a request, but it wasn’t.

“Yes, Mister.” Dane’s resignation was practiced. It was the byproduct of being born into a colonial space. There was no loss of pride, nor any unnecessary submissive posturing. His affirmation was a survival reflex. The accompanying flash of anger and resentment was consciously submerged beneath a compliant nod. They walked back toward the crime scene. Dane walked. The fat man did a waddling limp.

A few seconds later and they were standing in front of the car, as the very dirty, corpulent Frenchman explained to a tall one how the usual translator had been too busy to come to the scene, but as a recourse, he had run into this nice young man on a bike. The tall one eyed Dane, but spoke curtly to the fat one. “So… this one can speak French?” and then slowly to Dane. “Do. You. Speak. French?”

“Yes, Mister.”

“Where were you trained?”

“At the temple, Mister. I have been speaking French ever since I was three or four years old.” Dane looked him in the eye when he spoke. It was not a Khmer custom to look people in the eye, but the French liked it. They were so strange, these people. They had been here for so long, decades upon decades, yet they still wore layers upon layers of thick clothes: a jacket, a shirt, an undershirt, maybe short pants if they were lucky and always under a hat. They all looked so immensely uncomfortable to Dane, all the time sweating and swearing and breathing hard. They were all crazy. Strange, pale beasts dripping and grunting from hamlet to town, disgusted and intrigued by the land all at once.

For many years, Catfish the size of horses had lived in the murky deep of the Mekong River that flowed by Dane’s own house. He remembered a time when he was a ten years old. In the early evening of a full moon, Dane sat by the water waiting with his father for someone to buy the baskets of cucumbers from their efforts on the farm. Some of the Frenchmen came and inspected their produce and moved on. It was getting late and it was almost time to take what was left home. They had sold most of the crop and had only five or six Kilos left.

Dane watched his father sitting on his box facing the road with his back to the river. The boy shifted uncomfortably on the wooden column where he sat. A mosquito buzzed in his ear and he waved it away. Just then an enormous catfish came to the surface and splashed away again. Dane caught a glimpse of the tail; it was dark green in the fading light, almost black. The water rippled and splashed against the pillars of the pier and the French men instantly became alarmed, rushing to the water and speaking in hushed tones about monsters and mermaids. Dane’s father looked over at them, amused. He smiled and packed a pipe with tobacco from a pouch he had tucked in his pants. The Frenchmen walked over and stood at the edge of the pier watching the ripples abate. This one had been a big one. It made waves large enough to rock the boats tied to the shore. They thumped together loudly to announce the churned-water comings and goings of the catfish. The alarmed Frenchmen stood staring into the black water with curiosity and terror battling for control.

“It the big fish,” someone yelled in heavily accented French. It was a young Khmer man in black French pants and a white shirt. “Very big, like a man size.” He went on.

“A fish?” They laughed and went on with a smug certainty that this backwards native had to be daft. Everyone knew there were no fish that big. Silly native boy. Dane watched their eyes as they brushed away the truth.

This tall French officer had that same look in his eyes now. Condescension. Dane looked down. It would not do for this man to take his look as some type of challenge to his authority. That would not go well for him.

“Boy, do you know what happened here?” the tall officer queried.

“I’m not sure, Mister.”

“We will go down and ask these ladies then. Yes?”

“Yes, Mister.”

The three men walked down the ravine toward the ladies. The tall one was in the lead and was followed Dane. The fat one trailed behind them. One of them looked up, and seeing the men coming, wrapped the sarong more closely around herself then said something unintelligible to the other two. The woman holding the girl pulled her closer to her chest as the men crashed through the grass closing on the little enclave. When they were only a feet away from the women, the tall one held up a white gloved hand in greeting and as a sign for the other men to hold their distance. “Good day!” He said. It was not meant to be loud, but it sounded loud to the Khmer women. The girl didn’t look to see where the voice came from. She had her head on the other woman staring off to the side. The men weren’t there at all to her. The two old women waited silently. They were dark, these women. All of them. Their hands were rough; their lips and teeth were stained red with betel nut. They were common women. Peasants. They did not trust the French. None responded with a greeting.

The officer looked at Dane urging, nodding once. Act. His look said. Do something. Dane spoke in Khmer. “What happened, Aunty?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“Someone ‘took’ her.” Dane translated to the French.

“Does she know who?” said the tall officer.

The fat man chimed in with, “What did he look like?” Dane translated to Khmer. They waited for the girl to speak, to whisper or something, but she only kept staring.

Still holding the girl, the old woman spoke louder than she intended to, “She said he smelled like a pig.” Dane didn’t translate.

“Did he say anything?” Dane asked.

“He spoke French.” Said the other woman. Dane was silent.

“What did she say?” the man with the mustache asked. “She said ‘Barang.’ I know that means French.”

“They say he was French. A Frenchman raped her.”

“A white man?” he mused, “No, that’s not possible. How could she even see in the dark?”

“That’s what she said, Mister. Would you like me to translate your question?”

“No – No don’t do that. Ask her if she’ll come to the barracks with us.” He said it reluctantly, preoccupied with the next steps in his investigation of this offense. Dane complied with the tall man’s request as the ladies first looked at each other and then eyed the French men and Dane himself with suspicion.

The women, like Dane, knew that the request was less a request than a command. They whispered to the girl and she shook her head. No. They whispered more. No. Finally, after a few minutes furious whispering, she nodded. She looked up met eyes with Dane for a split second before lowering her gaze. She was very pretty. Her lips curved up at the corners and her nose was small and sharp. She couldn’t have been more than 14 years old, barely a woman. Earlier, when she was naked, he noticed that her breasts were not full yet. They hadn’t taken on the curvature of a ripe mango, but were instead two or three spoonful of uncooked rice pushing up through her skin. She, like the women, was dark-skinned – Khmer Angkor – descended from the peoples that built the great temple left to be encased in green.

The girl stood up and they wrapped the sarong around her. There was blood smeared along the inside of her thigh. She limped back up toward the police car with the men. The door opened and they hesitated before getting in. One of the women sat in the front of the car at the tall one’s “request.” The older woman, the one that had cradled the girl’s head sat in the rear of the car with her. They stared in awe at the interior. They had never been in an automobile before and raped or not, the girl couldn’t stifle her wonderment at being inside one. She seemed almost excited about it. Had this been under other circumstances, she’d have been giddy.

Nothing ever really happened in Kar Kandal. There was no crime. There were roughly a thousand people in the village; of which two or three hundred were transient French, coming and going each year, visiting the savages and moving on back to civilization where they could talk to their friends about how they had seen the green heart of darkness and returned no more mad than when they’d left. The barracks housed a company of soldiers from France. Every 12 months they rotated out and a new company of men would come in to occupy the small garrison. The men that were there now had only arrived two weeks prior from Phnom Penh. The soldiers spent two years in Kampuchea and moved on to other assignments. Like all soldiers, they were a disciplined bunch, but as dogs of war do, some go feral when off the leash for too long. But, the French policed their own. They were determined to bring civility to the sad, savage race living in these jungles. They were there to bring their long-haired white God to wash the brown off of them, to make them clean and white.

The tall French commander paused by the car after the women had gotten in. He stood for a second and removed his hat revealing a thin pate of wispy black hair plastered to his red scalp. He produced a linen handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his head, replacing the hat after he had finished. He sighed and looked at Dane and measured him with a long gaze – too long. “We will not need you to come with us, Boy,” he reached into his pocket, “but I thank you for your help.” In his hand was a beautiful silver Zippo lighter with a gold Fleur-de-lis on it. He handed it to Dane.

“Thank you, Mister.” He said taking the lighter from him. The fat one smiled at Dane and nodded to him as he got into the front seat.

The French police, fat and tall, had slipped unceremoniously into their car and driven off, leaving Dane alone on the bridge above the heavily vegetated gulch. There was no crowd now. The white automobile drove off. He watched it until it disappeared around the bend.

Dane opened his hand and let the silver lighter fall to the ground. He walked toward his bike and took the cigarette out of his shirt pocket and put it back to his lips. When he reached into his pocket for matches, he remembered that he had none. He looked back. A few feet away, lying in the dirt, the Fleur-de-lis shined fiercely in the late morning sun.

 

CURL ACTIVATOR

A SHORT STORY BY NIELSON SOPHANN HUL

Sope leaned against the fender of the shit colored car and waited. It was a hot, smoggy day and he’d left his curl activator in the scooter. He could feel his hair starting to dry out and he knew his shit was going to start frizzing out. He looked down at his light blue Fila suit. His eyes drifted down to his shoes and he frowned at a scuff on his white Adidas.

“Fuck,” he whispered in exasperation.

He bent down and tried to rub the stain off with his thumb. No luck. He licked his thumb and tried again. The mark faded enough that he felt satisfied. He stood up and pushed the wet locks of his Jheri curl away from his face. He looked at his Rolex. It was only 2:30 pm. He had another 10 minutes to wait.

He looked around at the parking lot. It could have been a junkyard. The cars were all rusted and falling apart. Hoopties is what they were called in the hood – cars that poor and middle class parents gave to their children so they wouldn’t have to worry too much. If the car got fucked up, ‘Hey, no worries; it’s just a hooptie.’ Most of the cars in Poly’s parking lot were used or fucked up, or used and fucked up. I mean this wasn’t exactly the best school around.

In fact, when people thought of inner city high schools, Long Beach Poly is what came to mind. That’s what it was: An inner city high school filled with the children of people who couldn’t afford to send their kids to a school named after a saint. But it wasn’t exactly what you’d expect that to be. See, the statistics told a different story. Academically, it was probably one of the best public schools in Southern California and they had a great football team. Sope and his best friend, Tim, used to watch them practice until late in the evening because neither of them wanted to go home. Around four o’ clock, practice would end and the bleachers would empty. They’d light up a joint and sit there smoking that chronic until there was nothing but a roach left. If they couldn’t afford the chronic, they’d get some Mexican stress weed, but these days they never wanted for anything. They always had the best, dankest weed that could be gotten.

One night, they had been sitting there waiting for everyone to leave when a football came sailing in at Sope’s head. Tim reached out with his big ass black hand and caught that shit right out of midair. Tim was a beast. He didn’t lift weights or exercise. He was just born that way. Some people just have those kinds of genetics. People always looked at him crazy because of how huge he was. Sope looked like a toddler standing next to him, being barely five foot three inches tall. Tim stood at six and a half feet and weighed about 250 pounds. He reared back and threw the ball over 60 yards to the other side of the field. Sope could see the face of the skinny white kicker from where the ball had originated and read his lips saying, “Holy shit!”

He remembered how the coach had asked Tim to come try out. Tim was all about it. He was like, “Yeah, man. I’ll be there! Shit yeah, Cuz! Bet!” When that day rolled around, they were sitting on a rock at Shoreline Village smoking out.

Wasn’t you supposed to be somewhere today, Tim?

Yeah, I think so…

Where was it?

Fuck, Sope… I dunno, Cuz.

Sope knew. They kept smoking and then went to the homie’s house to drink some night train with grape Kool-aid.

The bell rang and Sope looked up. He knew she’d be coming out of the side entrance and didn’t want to miss her. All kinds of kids started pouring out of that gate. The Mexicans came out in large groups. Some tried to mad dog him. Sope stared them down. Courage is finite in the hood – the less you show, the more your enemies will have. It’s one of the first lessons he learned on the street. They kept walking.

Two black girls wearing beads and braided corn rows in their hair came out of the gate and headed toward him. Katie’s friends without Katie. They walked toward him and whispered in that way fifteen year-old girls whisper when they want something from a boy that they don’t yet understand. The one with blue and white beads leaned her head over and whispered to her friend, cupping her mouth as if afraid that Sope could read her lips. He didn’t have to read her lips. She smiled coyly and they giggled together as they neared. “Hi Sofine!” they sang in unison as they approached.

“What’s up?”​ He nodded and stood with his head tilted slightly back, his hands in his pockets. “Where Katie at?”

“She got sent to the nurse,” one of them said, “and I think they sent her home.”

“What? For real?! I been here twenty minutes!”

The other girl jumped in, “Yeah, she at home, Sofine.” She did a cute little half-shrug, “Sorry. Did she know you was coming?”

Sope shook his head. “Goddammit…” He muttered under his breath as he walked away.

“Bye, Sofine!” they lilted. He raised a hand without looking and waved them off, waited a few seconds and then risked a quick look behind him as they walked away. He loved round asses. Oh man, Katie would have fucking stabbed him in the neck if she had caught him doing that! He turned back around and kept walking like a good boy.

Sope walked around the corner to where his ride was parked. He was always sort of relieved when he saw his little blue scooter still sitting where he parked it. This was Long Beach and he knew that eventually someone was gonna jack it when he wasn’t around. It was a light blue Honda scooter that maxed out at 40 mph. It smelled and sounded like a lawnmower and was a cheap Japanese version of the Vespa. He loved his bike, though. It was the first thing he bought when he started making money. He could hear Earl’s voice. Most new niggas in the dope game gon’ go out, buy a Caddie, and roll it on gold Daytons. Stupid. Stupid as fuck. Earl owned the garage on Anaheim Street where Sope used to buy his weed. He got to be good friends with him. One day, Earl asked him if he could drop off a brown paper bag down the street. It was perfect. Who would question a 13 year old, myopic Cambodian on a girl’s BMX bike? When he came back, Earl gave him $75 dollars. Yeah. It was that easy. Fuck washing dishes for $3 bucks an hour.

The scooter was parked in the alley. He unlocked the seat, flipped it open, and reached in to get his helmet, slipping the rolled up bag of rock from his sleeve into the hidden compartment above the visor. Underneath the helmet was a bottle of curl activator and a shower cap. He sprayed his hair and slipped the shower cap on, making sure that the elastic band ran up to his hairline. He didn’t want to have an indented red line on his forehead when he went to see Katie.

When he came home with a fresh wet Jheri curl, his mother was sitting on the floor eating cucumbers and Tuk Kreung, a sort of salty fish puree, and rice. She jumped, almost knocking over her tumbler of Hennessey and ice, but recognition set in and then she laughed, “Hahahaha! I thought you were a black guy coming to rob the store! Hahahaha!” She guffawed. Sope’s mother and father owned a market on 10th Street. He and his brother, Nick, shared a little room behind the counter while his mother and father shared a studio apartment at the back with his baby brother and sister. It would seem like poverty to some people, but they never lacked anything that they really needed. Of course, it didn’t sync with what Sope saw on T.V. every night either.

Sope thought about the store as he slipped the shiny, black helmet carefully over his head. His brothers and sister had loved his hair. His father, usually so unimpressed and impassive, had seemed amused. Why did his mother have to clown on him all the time? He snapped the chinstrap on, locked the seat down and started his little blue scooter. He let it idle for a second because Pops told him that’s what was best for an engine, but he didn’t want to wait too long, so he put the bike in gear and rode off.

He hadn’t seen Katie in two weeks because he was making runs up to Fresno. On the night before he left, Sope took her to Signal Hill. He was animated, speaking wildly with his hands about how he was going to make it as a break dancer and then he wouldn’t have to sell anymore. They could move out of the hood and get a house in Riverside or San Diego. He paced back and forth at the top of that hill in the yellow cone of a street light, pausing at times to hold onto the pole or lean on it. She sat on the curb watching him with big, wet, round eyes taking in every word as if it were gospel. She was in love. He was in love. They were in love.

Katie wasn’t like other hoodrats. She didn’t care what he drove or where he came from. When she looked at him that way, everything felt right and he wanted to be near her all the time. He needed to feel right. Some bitches, he couldn’t even stand being around for ten minutes after he’d bust a nut. Not Katie. She was his lady. He pictured her as he was riding down PCH. Her skin so smooth and so black. There wasn’t any hair on her arms and legs at all and she didn’t even need to shave. She had a big, round ass and a tiny little waist. Her lips were fat and juicy like a couple of big, purple plums squeezed together and just as sweet. You don’t never tell a bitch you love her, Sofine. Cause’ Then, she got you. Earl. Locked up for life, but that nigga was still talking to him in his head like a fat, black Obi-wan.

He rounded the corner toward King Park and headed toward her house. Some Kinfolk were walking on the corner of Martin Luther King and PCH, so he threw up the big C. Some of them threw up Crip, but others just shouted, “What up, Sofine!” He hated his real name. Sophoann. The h was silent. It meant ‘beauty’ or something that’s beautiful to the point that it’s sublime. American teachers, having been educated in some rudimentary Greek and seeing the ph took it to mean that it must make the f sound like in ‘phone.’ Not in Khmer. In the Cambodian language, there are two different kinds of p’s one with an h and one without. He dreaded the first day of school; it would be like Jerry? Here. Tim? Here. Phil? Here. Then there’d be an uncertain pause. So… So-fawn? Here, Bitch! Even his best friend couldn’t pronounce his name. Tim was the one that started calling him Sope.

When he got jumped into Insane, someone had hit him so hard that his teeth almost went through his cheek. He was spitting up blood and his face was almost unrecognizable. A shirtless boy tattooed in ink barely a shade darker than his skin came up to Sope as he sat on the ground bleeding. He grabbed Sope’s hand and pulled him up. Sope stumbled, but the boy hugged him until he was steady on his feet. “What they gon’ call you, Crip?”

Sope thought he had asked him his name. “Sommmfaim,” he mumbled as blood continued to drip with saliva in long lines from his ruined mouth.

“Say what?” the boy asked.

“Sofunn.”

“Sofine? Nigga, you don’t look so fine.” He laughed. The other boys joined him. And so he was baptized in blood. Sofine from Insane in Long Beach, the blackest Cambodian around. Really, it was called Insane Crip Gang, but that was too long to say, so everyone just said Insane or ICG. Crippin’ ain’t about comin’ up, Nigga! It’s about surviving. It’s about family, Nigga! Earl was an O.G. Crip from Watts.

People don’t thrive in the hood. It’s impossible. When one motherfucker comes up, everyone else in the hood drags him back down. So, people can’t thrive; they survive. And the way to do that is to find your people and stick with them. When your family can’t protect you, your homies will. Tim was from Rolling Twenty Crips, a different set, but they were all Kinfolk and no one ever set trip. Back then, there were too many enemies in Long Beach for that.

Sope parked his scooter on the street in front of Katie’s Spanish style apartment building. He took his helmet and shower cap off, retrieving the bag of crack before he stowed his safety gear under the bike’s leather seat. The sun-faded green stucco of the building was wearing away to white in some places and in others there was only chicken wire where there had once been wall. All over her building and on every upright surface there were hastily spray painted tags that were only decipherable to someone in the game. One tag in green with a line spray painted through it read “ESL.” That meant the Mexican gang East Side Longos had been here and were leaving their mark. This was contested territory.

Before y’all stank asses rolled up in here, shit was easy…

Cambodians came to Long Beach like the Jews to Mount Sinai: broken people, tired, horrified, yet impetuously proud for no particularly good reason. They were easy prey for the Blacks and Mexicans already living in the slums, who stopped hating each other long enough to take advantage of the new opportunities for profit, which is not to say that they were in any way united. It was more like the lion and the tiger taking a break from circling one another to tear pieces off the wildebeest carcass suddenly dropped into their midst. Eventually, they were back at it. There was a tenuous cease-fire in the hood before the mass insinuation of Khmer. It took decades to draw those sanguine lines between the Black ghettos and the Mexican Barrios; time and pain had solidified the walls between the communities, insulating them. When the Khmer came, all that tenuous harmony went to shit; old lines were erased and chaos erupted on the east side.

Because of this, Sope was careful. He was always careful in the hood. He bent down on the sidewalk and took the .38 snub-nosed revolver from his ankle holster pausing to frown at the scuff on his shoe. He pulled his sleeve over it as he stood up, slipping it into his right jacket pocket and keeping it cradled in his palm to hide its bulk and weight and for quick access in case he needed it. A gun isn’t a gun if you never have a chance to use it. If you die holding a gun, you’re just some sad, ironic story that the homies would trip about. Yeah, that nigga was strapped too…

Sope punched in the security code and walked in through the newly painted black security gate and let it slam shut behind him. He smelled some kind of stew and the faint smell of coconut oil. Katie’s house was about three quarters of the way down. Some of the windows were half opened and he heard the sing-song cadence of black people talking to each other in that loud and musical way that often scared the shit out of Asians.

There was a big difference in how Cambodians thought of silence and how Americans thought of it. Sope had been taught to be quiet. For his family, silence meant purity. It represented reflection and expressionless thought. For Americans, silence meant emptiness. There was something missing. Sope had seen the old cliché in American film where the cowboy stops in the valley and looks around.

What’s wrong?

It’s too quiet. It must be a trap! At which point, some Indians that looked more like Sope than the cowboys, would jump out and start killing indiscriminately.

Sope checked his clothes one more time and knocked on the metal screen door. Some locks rattled and the door opened. Katie’s beautiful lips widened into a bright smile. She looked tired, but so happy to see him. “Hi, Sofine!” She opened the screen for him to come in.

“Hi, Katie!” he returned. ”Are you okay, Baby?” They hugged tightly. Sope shifted so that his gun wouldn’t press into her. She knew what he did, but still… He whispered into hair that smelled of cocoa butter and strawberries. “I saw your friends at school and they said you were sick.”

“Kind of. I dunno. I been throwin’ up all morning.” She talked into Sope’s neck.

Sope pulled away and studied her worried face. “Let’s go inside. Where Mary at?” He said as they walked into the apartment. Katie towed Sope inside by the hand.

“Momma at work, Sofine.” Mary was a black, single mother in the hood. She was on welfare, got food stamps, and worked under the table at a barber shop sweeping up hair. When she was done sweeping, she and the other ladies would smoke weed and talk shit about whoever wasn’t there in the back room with them. Mary grew up in the seventies and thought she was Foxy Brown’s twin sister, but twice the bitch. Sope loved her. She was nothing like his mother whose love was like a blanket of warm steel wool and nearly as deadly.

“Are you hungry?” She asked as he went to sit on the couch. “I am so hungry.” She said walking into the kitchen.

“Naw, Katie. I’m good.” He sat there on the couch trying not to acknowledge the obvious reason for why she was throwing up as Katie made a baloney sandwich in the kitchen. He put his head back and closed his eyes. A few moments later, she sat next to him on the couch and turned on the TV. She laughed in ignorance and he held her tightly.

June 26, Book Launch in Phnom Penh

The 2016 NHLJ book launch at Meta House in Phnom Penh on June 26 ( 6 pm) celebrates the publication of Vol. 8 of the Nou Hach Literary Journal and Modern Literature of Cambodia: Transnational Voices of Transformation (available through amazon.com).

Keynote speaker is Lao writer and editor Bounthanh Phongphichid who will be talking about Under the Clouds, at new collection of writing about the environment.

Vol.8.coverBookcover