Cambodian Man Wandering the Streets of Long Beach
He argued with ghosts from the past. The kids watched him stumble by; they made sure he was gone before they returned to their conversation. He was just another drunk, they concluded as they got on the school bus.
The man was thin, skin darkened by the sun after years of working in the fields. At 5’5” he was of medium height for a Cambodian, but somewhat short for an American. The kids were partly right; he had been drinking all day.
His name was Ratana Sok. He’d survived the Cambodian killing fields by pretending to be a farmer while others were taken to the fields. Plastic bags muffled their screams, and bullets silenced them.
Ratana hid his name in a paper boat and watched his life float away. But when he closed his eyes at night, all he heard were the cries coming through the plastic bags. In the darkness, eyes became white, screaming.
After the refugee camps in Thailand, he found himself in Long Beach, sunny California, with a wife and two children. The older child was a girl, and the younger one a boy. But the ghosts kept returning and his wife kept on weeping. Mr. Sok threw a bottle against their bedroom wall, shattering it into smithereens. His children hid in the closet.
Today, he stumbled onto Anaheim Street, took a right on Walnut Avenue, walked straight towards the Pacific Ocean, which he’d once flown over, twenty years ago. Years before that, his parents were shot point blank by the Khmer Rouge. Their crimes: they had worked for the Americans.
The beachgoers turned, eyes squinting from the sand and sunlight, and saw a middle-aged man kicking up the sand. A young man in red trunks said, “Hey, what are you doing?” Mr. Sok mumbled something incomprehensible back and kept on walking.
The waves kept rising and crashing against his tired body. Ratana Sok kept on laughing.
Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.
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