A SHORT STORY:
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 his ride. 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 breakdancer 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.
“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.
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.