Fiction and Drama
Superking Son Scores Again
The Magic Johnson of badminton
This story appears in Anthony Veasna So’s short story collection, Afterparties, which is available in the n+1 bookstore.
Superking Son was an artist lost in the politics of normal, assimilated life. Sure, his talents were often sidelined, as the store forced him to worry about importing enough spiky-looking fruits every month. (There were only so many Mings he could recruit to carry suitcases filled with jackfruit, bras padded with lychees, and panties stuffed with we-don’t-want-to-know through customs.) Sure, he reeked of raw chicken, raw chicken feet, raw cow, raw cow tongue, raw fish, raw squid, raw crab, raw pig, raw pig intestine, and raw — like really raw — pig blood, all jellied, cubed, and stored in buckets before it was thrown into everyone’s noodle soup on Sunday mornings. When we walked into the barely air-conditioned store, we pinched our noses to stop from vomiting all over aisle six, which would ruin the only aisle with American products, the one with Cokes and Red Bulls and ten-year-old Lunchables no one ate. (Though the Mas would shove their shopping carts through the vomit without blinking an eye — they’ve seen much worse.) And sure, Superking Son wasn’t nice. He could be cruel, incredibly so. Kevin won’t talk to him anymore, and Kevin was our best smasher last season.
Still, even with this in mind (and up our nostrils), even with it creeping through our common sense, and even with our aspirations for something more, we idolized Superking Son. He was a regular Magic Johnson of badminton, if such a thing could exist; a legend, that is, for the young men of this Cambo hood (a niche fan base, admittedly). The arcs of his lobs, the gentle drifts of his drops, and the lines of his smashes could be thought of, if rendered visible, as the very edge between known and unknown. He could smash a birdie so hard, make it fly so fast, we swore when the birdie zipped by it shattered the force field suffocating us, the one comprising our parents’ unreasonable expectations, their paranoia that our world could crumble at a moment’s notice and send us back to where we started, starving and poor and subject to a genocidal dictator. Word has it when Superking Son was young, he was an even better player, with a full head of hair.
Yes, to us, Superking Son was our badminton coach, our shuttlecock king. That’s who he would always be. But what was he for everyone else? Well, it’s simple — he was the goddamn grocery-store boy.
We looked to Superking Son for guidance — on how to deal with our semiracist teachers, who simultaneously thought we were enterprising hoodlums and math nerds that no speak Engrish right; on whether wearing tees big enough to cover our asses was as dope as we hoped. And every time we had exciting news, some game-changing gossip we heard from our Mas, like when Gong Sook went crazy from tending to his crop of reefer before he could even sell one bushel, we headed for Superking Grocery Store. So when Kyle informed us about the new transfer kid — Justin — who he spotted smashing birdies and doing insane lunges across the court, being all Kobe Bryant at the local open gym, we dropped our skateboards and rushed to find Superking Son.
We ran from our usual spot, the park where our peddling aunts never set up shop, the one next to the middle school that shut down from gang violence, and we ran because we couldn’t skate fast. (Our baggy shirts went down to our knees, covering our asses and compromising our mobility, but who cares about mobility when you look as fly as this?) It was February, and as chilly as a rainless California winter ever got, but we worked up a sweat doing all that running. By the time we found Superking Son in his back storeroom, we dripped beads of salty-ass water from head to toe. We were a crew of yellow-brown boys collapsed onto the floor, exhausted from excitement.
Superking Son greeted us by raising his palm against our faces. “You fools need to shut the fuck up so I can concentrate,” he said, even though we hadn’t uttered a word. He was talking to Cha Quai Factory Son about how many Khmer donuts he wanted to order that week. Superking Son stared intently at a clipboard, as if he could peer into its soul, his constant pen chewing the only sound we could hear.
“Come on, man, what’s taking you so long?” Cha Quai Factory Son grabbed the clipboard away from Superking Son. “Just go with the usual! Why do this song and dance every week?” He pulled out his own unchewed pen and signed the invoice before anyone could let out a whimper about merchandizing fraud. “Stop second-guessing yourself,” he continued while shaking his head. “God, I’ve aged ten years waiting for you to make a decision.”
“Stop giving me shit for being a good businessman. You can’t do things without thinking,” Superking Son said.
“This guy takes one business class at comm and he thinks he’s the CEO of Cambo grocery stores. Like he’s Steve Jobs and those spoiled Chinese sausages are MacBook Airs,” Cha Quai Factory Son joked as he waved the clipboard around. “I was in that class with him, and all we ever learned was that mo’ money is better than no money.”
Superking Son crossed his arms over his semipudgy chest — over that layer of fat that seemed to have grown at a steady rate since he took over the store. “All right, everyone out of my storeroom. Y’all are sweating all over and I don’t want this asswipe smell clinging to my inventory. I sell food people put in their mouths, dammit.”
We urged Superking Son to wait, each of us frantic for approval. We raved about Justin, how he could replace Kevin as our team’s number-one player, how Kyle swore he was the best player who’d set foot in open gym all year.
“The open gym at the community college?” he said, sarcasm stretching his every syllable into one of those diphthongs we learned about in sophomore English. An entire Shakespearean monologue nestled in the gaps between his words. “That’s not saying much. At that open gym, I’ve seen players smack their doubles partners in the face with their rackets.”
We only wanted to make the team better, so Superking Son’s reaction disheartened us. Yet it wasn’t different from what we had grown to expect from Superking Son. It wasn’t worse than that time a pregnant, morning-sick Ming threw up in the frozen tuna bin and ruined a month’s worth of fishy profits, which inspired him to assign us two hundred burpees every day for a week. And it was nowhere close to that time his mom, while sweeping, slipped in the produce section and broke her hip, next to the bok choy of all places. (We’re pretty sure this was the moment he started balding. By his fifth medical payment, he looked like Bruce Willis in yellow-brown face.) We told ourselves Superking Son was simply stressed out. Everyone, including our own parents, relied on him to supply their food. He needed to restock his shelves for next month or mayhem would commence, we told ourselves, as if the store didn’t require restocking every month.
“Bring the kid to conditioning, and we’ll see how quickly one of you bastards gets whacked in the head.” He stepped over us, grabbed the door, and turned to look down on us. “I’m serious. Get out or I’m locking you guys in here.” His biceps flexed, even that small part of his body begging to be bigger than it was.
Cha Quai Factory Son started to leave first, but as he approached the door, he slid behind Superking Son and grabbed him by the shoulders. He massaged him, digging his big, dough-kneading hands into the perpetually tense tissue. We watched as Superking Son’s eyebrows furrowed in revolt while his mouth formed silent moans of pleasure. “Okay, let’s leave this big boy alone so he can think about BUSINESS,” Cha Quai Factory Son said. Then he patted Superking Son on the stomach and jolted out the door.
Superking Son reached out to grab him, almost falling over in the process. He missed, by more than he would admit. And as he leaned forward into the gaping hole of the doorway, watching Cha Quai Factory Son flee from his grasp, we could tell he wanted to scream out some last remark. But he didn’t. He probably couldn’t decide on anything to say.
There are stories of Superking Son you wouldn’t believe. Epic stories, stories that are downright implausible given the laws of physics, gravity, the limitations of the human body. There’s the one where Superking Son’s doubles partner sprained his ankle during the final match of sectionals. The kid dropped to the ground, right in the middle of the court, and Superking Son fended off the smashes of Edison’s two best varsity players by lunging over his partner’s injured body. He kept this up for ten minutes, until one of the Edison players also slipped and sprained his ankle, resulting in a historic win for our high school’s badminton team. (They later learned the floor had been polished by the janitors, who neglected to tell the badminton coaches. The guys who sprained their ankles sued the school, won a huge settlement, and now both have their own houses in Sacramento. Three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, everything you could possibly want.) Then there are the many times he’s beaten Cha Quai Factory Son in a singles match, often without letting him score a single point. Once, Superking Son bet Cha Quai Factory Son a hundred dollars he could beat him while eating a Big Mac, one hand gripped around his racket, the other around a juicy burger. Cha Quai Factory Son agreed, but wanted to triple the bet on the stipulation that Superking Son couldn’t spill even a shred of lettuce. Halfway through, Superking Son had played so well, he got his friend to throw him another Big Mac, then a box of ten McNuggets. At the end of the match, the gym floor remained spotless. Cha Quai Factory Son refused to eat at McDonald’s for ten years.
We didn’t believe the stories at first. We thought, Superking Son’s talking out of his ass. He wants to talk himself up to kids more than a decade younger than him. That was why he let us practice skating tricks in the parking lot and gave us free Gatorades (albeit the neon-green flavor no one bought, never light blue). Then when we started high school, Superking Son took over as coach of our badminton team. Just as he’d carried the team on his back as a class-ditching player in the ’90s, he coached us to two regional championships. (There weren’t opportunities to go to state or nationals, no D1 recruiters scouting matches with athletic scholarships in their butt pockets. This was badminton, for god’s sake.) Superking Son launched our team to the top of the California Central Valley standings — the first time we called ourselves number one at anything. But more than that, it was from the little gestures — the fluid flair of Superking Son’s wrists when demonstrating how to hit, the way he picked up birdies and sent them flying across the gym to any player he chose, the way he tapped into rallies, held his racket with his left hand so as not to annihilate the player he was coaching — that we realized the stories were true.
Justin was not impressed. He was the new kid who showed up driving a brand-new Mustang and parked it next to Kyle’s minivan, one of those beat-up machines abandoned at the local car shop and then flipped and sold to Cambo ladies like Kyle’s mom, who were praying for the day their eldest children could start driving around the youngest. (The Mustang didn’t have flames on it, but we could tell from the way Justin spiked his jet-black hair into pointy peaks that he had the clearest intentions to paint red, yellow, and blue flames on its side.) So no, Justin was not impressed with the abandoned parking lots we hung out in, the pop-up restaurants located in Cambo-rented apartments where we ate steaming cups of noodle soup in clean but still roach-infested kitchens, the mall that did so badly Old Navy closed down, and he definitely did not see what we saw in Superking Son.
But Justin, despite the pretensions, was a damn good badminton player. Plus after school he bought us rounds of dollar-menu chicken sandwiches, giving us rides in his Mustang while we inhaled that mystery meat. And we saw where he was coming from, because this year Superking Son was indeed off.
Conditioning was a shit show. Two weeks of Superking Son showing up late, his shirt pits stained with sweat (we hoped it was sweat), fish guts and pig intestines stuck in his hair and stinking up the joint. Two weeks of him never knowing what exercises he wanted us to do, miscounting lunges and crunches and not stopping us from planking until we fell to the ground in pain — he was constantly checking his phone instead of keeping track of what we were doing. And he kept forgetting Kyle’s name, Kyle whose dad went into Superking Grocery Store every week to buy lottery tickets and fish-oil pills (“Gotta be healthy for when I’m rich,” Kyle’s dad often said, kissing both his ticket and pills for good luck), Kyle who Superking Son practically watched grow up, as Superking Son’s Ma used to babysit Kyle when he was a baby. (Babysitting for her meant pushing a naked Kyle in a shopping cart through every aisle of the store.)
“What’s up with your coach?” Justin asked one day while driving a couple of us home after practice. “I don’t mean to be a hater, but I could get better conditioning doing tai chi with the old Asian ladies in the park. Only the left half of my body is getting a workout, man, like if I kept doing this, my muscles will get all imbalanced and I’ll topple over.”
Not sure of ourselves, we told him there was nothing to worry about because sometimes Superking Son got caught up with the store. Sometimes Superking Son was so stressed out he didn’t think straight.
“It’s amazing that store makes money looking the way it does. It’s such a dump. I hope you guys are right, though. My mom is getting on my case about college applications. She wants me to quit badminton and join Model UN, but I keep telling her that the coach is supposed to be this legend and the team can win a bunch of tournaments. Don’t get me wrong, I wanna keep playing badminton, but . . . I mean, Model UN does have some cute girls . . . girls that wear cute blazers . . . and know stuff about the world . . .”
As Justin trailed off, thinking about all the girls he could woo with his faux diplomacy and political strategy, we saw him slowly slipping away from our world. We saw this college-bound city kid, this Mustang-driving badminton player, how he might be too good for our team, our school, our community of Cambos. Sure, Justin was Cambodian, but he seemed so different. That’s what happens when your dad is a pharmacist, we thought, you can just whip out Model UN skills whenever you want.
We had the mind to throw an intervention for Superking Son. We needed to do something to keep Justin around. For a week, we met as a team — sans Superking Son — to discuss intervention strategies, talking points, and counterarguments, who would say what and in what order and where each of us would stand to demonstrate the appropriate amount of solidarity. We even made contingency plans, which detailed what to do if Superking Son freaked out and threw produce at our heads to chase us from the premises (it happened more often than not). But when we got to the store, ready for a confrontation, we found Superking Son in the back storeroom surrounded by what looked like a militia, minus the rifles and bulletproof vests. We saw our Hennessy-drenched uncles, the older half-siblings no one talked about, and those cousins who attended our school but never seemed to be present at roll call.
We hid behind the stacked crates and spied on them. Superking Son was in the center of the circle, staring intently at the floor. His hand seemed stuck to his chin. Some ghostly vision played out in front of his eyes, and it shocked the color out of him. Cha Quai Factory Son was there too, his hands on Superking Son’s shoulders, like he was both consoling him and holding him back from doing something stupid. A wave of money flashed around the circle, only stopping to be counted and recounted, probably to make sure no one had slipped any bills into his pocket. We spied on them, each of us brainstorming reasons for this meeting that were innocent and harmless, not doomed by the laws of faux-Buddhist karmic retribution. If we’re being honest with ourselves, none of us figured out a reason worth a damn.
Badminton practice only got worse. Superking Son coached everyone who wasn’t Justin and hardly acknowledged Justin’s existence, not even to reprimand him. Yet when we crowded around a Justin match and cheered as he nailed smash after smash, we swore we saw Superking Son in awe of his talent, analyzing Justin’s form and failing to find any faults. Sometimes we saw something darker, something seething, within his stares, some envy-fueled plot being calculated in his expression, but then he would break his gaze from Justin. He’d checked his phone for the thousandth time and let anxiety about his father’s store overtake, yet again, his love for badminton.
Justin reciprocated Superking Son’s snubs. He ignored Superking Son’s directions and went through practice entirely on his own agenda. That first week, Superking Son and Justin interacted only through overriding each other’s instructions to Ken, Justin’s hitting partner. Every practice, Superking Son told Ken to practice drop shots, Justin said smashes, Superking Son yelled at Ken for not doing drop shots, Justin still refused to change drills, Superking Son made Ken do laps around the court for undermining his authority, and so on until Ken bailed on practice, hid in the locker room, and smoked a cigarette for his anxiety. (He stole packs from his dad, who bought them wholesale from Costco. His dad gave them out to relatives in Cambodia like candy, in an effort to pretend he was some hotshot American business tycoon.)
Shit escalated one day when Superking Son was so late that Justin, fed up with waiting, assumed the role of the coach and started practice. We knew that Superking Son would be pissed. We’d seen him fire cashiers for not abiding by his no-double-bagging policy, butchers for using his personal office bathroom and getting pig blood on his fake granite tile. (Of course, he always rehired them because his mom heard from so-and-so’s Ming about so-and-so’s kids needing food on the table and braces to fix their messed-up teeth, because they couldn’t eat said food on the table with crooked-ass incisors.) At the same time, we were with Justin. We felt his exasperation. We looked like a gang of little assholes on the floor of the gym, sitting in our butterfly stretches, acting like we were doing something substantial so the janitors wouldn’t kick us out and start cleaning.
Justin had charisma, which allowed him to take charge of a group of teens his age without sounding like a douche. For once, practice was going smoothly, no kinks, delays, or conflicting instructions jamming the flow between our hitting drills. We became a well-oiled machine of flying birdies and perfect wrist technique. Not a single one of us smacked another in the head with a racket.
“What the hell is going on here?” Superking Son yelled. He was standing at the double doors, sweating like the pig whose blood had stained the clothes he wore. His phone seemed permanently attached to his hand, he was gripping it so hard. Muffled voices, all sinister and incomprehensible, issued from the speakers.
“You weren’t here, so I started everyone on drills,” Justin replied, without turning toward Superking Son. He resumed correcting the position of Kyle’s legs and arms, while Superking Son stormed across the gym, stepping on birdies. Soon they were standing within inches of each other, their eyes locked. Superking Son’s were fiery. Justin’s stayed cold.
“You want to repeat that, boy,” Superking Son said, straightening his posture and locking his shoulders back. He sounded like he was competing in a who-can-breathe-more-heavily contest. We noticed how much taller Justin was than Superking Son.
“We waited for almost an hour. Did you expect us to sit around doing nothing until you got here?” Justin didn’t let a whiff of emotion undercut his statements. Superking Son puffed up his chest. He was red in the face, the color rushing to his hairless scalp. We braced ourselves for Superking Son to power up into fire-breathing-angry-uncle mode, for Justin’s even-toned facade to disintegrate in the face of decades of pent-up refugee shit and the frustration of premature balding. We thought this was the last of Justin the effective team captain, the stand-in coach, or at least that this confrontation would make practices even more awkward, straight up drive Ken to become a full-blown, black-lungs kind of smoker.
Superking Son sucked in a deep breath, and just when it seemed like he was going to exhale some grade-A-beef insults, hesitation rippled through his expression. Maybe he’d realized it was petty for a business owner to pick fights with a baby-faced high school badminton player. He could’ve become the level-headed coach we knew he could be. After all, Superking Son was one of the good Cambo dudes. He didn’t belong to that long legacy of guys who spent adulthood sleeping on their moms’ couches and eating their moms’ cooking. (Kevin’s older brother, for instance, literally had a full-time job at the DMV and lived with his mom, paid her jack shit in rent, and never did chores because he was too busy playing video games. One day she snapped, set his PlayStation on fire in the middle of a Call of Duty campaign, and switched the TV channel to her favorite show — Family Feud.) By taking over the grocery store, Superking Son had done right by his father’s life. He had sustained his father’s hard work — his empire of raw meat and imported fruits and baked goods baked in random Cambo apartments — and made sure his lifetime of suffering didn’t go to waste. We looked up to Superking Son. We wanted to keep it that way.
The hesitation in his face directed his sight to the phone in his hand. A dial tone emitted from the speaker, and its dull beat gradually subdued Superking Son. “Everyone go back to what you were doing,” he yelled. We watched him scramble out of the gym. He frantically called back the person he was afraid of snubbing on the phone. He disappeared into the dark hallway. We heard him chant sorry, sorry, sorry off into the distance.
The next week Superking Son posted the roster for our first meet of the season. We crowded around the sheet of paper, excited to see who would play what, ready to be disappointed or excited by our ranking, if we had made JV or varsity or — god help us, humble Buddha bless us — if we’d been cast out into exhibition matches to rot away with the freshmen. We knew Justin would be varsity rank one for singles. We had joked for weeks how he would destroy other rank-one players, even that smug kid from Edison with the thousand-dollar racket (joke’s on him, he’d been scammed into buying a counterfeit racket by Kyle’s cousin). Justin didn’t look at the roster. He just stood behind us with his arms crossed.
“Come on guys, hurry up. I wanna get some food from the gas station before practice,” he said. Each of us turned back to look at him. “What’s the deal? You know I like my steak-and-cheese taquitos.”
The revelation that Justin was not rank one, not rank two, but rank three on the varsity team stunned us. Our mouths dropped to the floor. Ken, who was rank one and unprepared to take on that burden, was breathing so heavily he was basically hyperventilating (the cigarettes didn’t help). Justin stood there, silent, staring toward the roster, though there was so much space between him and that sheet of paper, who knows where he was looking.
Justin could have thought of confronting Superking Son. He could raise hell the way his mom did when Mr. White had the gall to give him a B– on his Civil War paper. He could also quit, call it a day, and take his taquitos home to eat. Looking at his face, we couldn’t tell exactly what he was thinking. What we did see was not so much anger as pity. It was sad for Superking Son to stoop this low and fuck over a teenager half his age. Maybe we saw in Justin’s expression what we all thought ourselves.
This time we confronted Superking Son for real. We found him sitting on a footstool in the aisle at the edge of the building, where customers hardly ever went. Surrounding him were pots and pans, cheap Asian supermarket dishes, and the prayer kits Mas bought to convert their bedrooms into DIY spiritual mausoleums for those who died in the genocide.
We squinted to see him because the store lights didn’t reach this aisle, and we looked down on him because he was basically squatting on the ground. You gotta reconsider the team rankings, we said.
“Don’t you fools get tired of coming to this shithole?” he asked in a daze. He was looking through us, either at his life or at the spilled rice behind us he would need to sweep sooner or later.
We appealed that we were being serious, that it didn’t make sense for Justin to be rank three, not even in terms of stacking our roster against other teams. We would lose all our rank-one and -two matches, we argued. Superking Son sighed, not really registering our words. His face wore that mugshot look our dads got when, instead of getting bowls of noodle soup, we dragged them to eat unlimited salad, soup, and breadsticks at Olive Garden — the look of unresisting contempt.
“Badminton,” he said. “It was the only thing I was good at. My body was made for it. Never had to think, make decisions, be all stressed out when I played a match. I just, you know, did it. I used to think something about the hood, the way Cambos like me grew up, made for good badminton. We didn’t have it as good as you guys do now. We dealt with a fuckload of bullshit.” He spread his arms wide, signaling to us that the store was just that, a fuckload of bullshit. Or maybe he was referring to us, our issue with his decisions as a coach, how we looked up to him, and the pressure of living up to that, as he said, bullshit.
He continued talking, and a couple of us peeled off to grab Gatorades and snacks. We needed sustenance to keep listening to Superking Son’s tirade on the ethics of badminton. “You motherfuckers will never really get what we went through, just like how fuckers my age will never understand all that Pol Pot crap.”
Stuffing Funyuns wrapped in dry seaweed into our mouths, we asked him what this had to do with Justin’s ranking.
“How many times do I have to hammer this into your dense heads?” he asked us. “Badminton is a balancing act. You gotta have both strength and grace. You need to smash the shuttlecock with just the flick of your wrist. None of this tennis swing, use-your-whole-arm nonsense. And to create the gentle tap of a drop shot, you use the force of your entire body to lunge across the court. Then you halt your momentum right before impact and make the hit. You think your all-star is good, but I’ve seen him driving around in his fancy Mustang.” For a second, we thought he would call us out for getting rides from Justin, for buying into his richness.
“He’s a spoiled dipshit,” Superking Son continued. “His dad walks around like his fancy pharmacy degree makes him better than the rest of us. And his mom doesn’t shop here, you know. She thinks the store is beneath her. His parents are always bragging about how smart he is and how hard he studies and how he’s gonna go to a real university. You should hear the way his parents talk about him at my mom’s parties, like he’s slaving away reading SAT books. Badminton takes work — real work. You gotta practice until your wrist feels like it’s on fire. When I was your age, I used to curl every item my dad made me stock on these shelves. Ten reps each, using only my wrist, curling boxes of those fucking chips you’re eating.”
We had no response to Superking Son, partly because of his crazed logic, but mostly because we didn’t agree with him. It was real work to do well in school. And weren’t we supposed to want what Justin’s family had? Weren’t we supposed to go to college and become pharmacists? Wasn’t that what our parents worked for? But we couldn’t think of how to express this, how to reason against someone who carried so much emotional baggage we almost wanted to tip him for his labor.
“Shit.” Superking Son dropped his face into his palms. “Badminton was the only thing that made me happy. What a fucking joke.” He swung his arms in exasperation and knocked over a stack of dishes. “This place is so fucked.”
We looked around the store — at the meat counter lined with blood and guts, at the sacks of rice piled to the ceiling, at the oily Khmer donuts Cha Quai Factory Son supplied, the ones that tasted so good it was hard not to eat yourself sick. All of a sudden, the building looked paler, sparser, empty, like the walls had caught the flu. Were the fluorescent lights dying above us and messing with our vision? Had we simply never looked at the store from this last aisle? We asked Superking Son why he didn’t take a break from coaching, just for a couple of weeks. We urged him to focus on the store, assured him that we could run practices on our own in the meantime. We had Justin to watch over our drills and give us pointers. Something about the store seemed off, and we needed him to fix it.
“I can’t stay here all day. There’s no reason for me to anymore.” We watched Superking Son slowly rise to his feet. He prepared himself to face whatever had driven him to this aisle in the first place. “This store disgusts me,” he said, mostly to himself. “It always has.” He brushed his shirt off, like he saw what disgusted him crawling over his torso, like the store’s literal essence had laid claim to his body.
It was quiet the next few days. Superking Son canceled a week of practices, told us to stay at home and rest. Something strange was happening at the store, and no one, not even our gossipy Mings and Mas, knew what it was — why Superking Son closed the store randomly in the middle of the day, why he failed to appear at Kevin’s second cousin’s engagement party. Justin, too, was a mystery. He walked the halls in silence, calculating his next move against Superking Son. At lunch he talked our ears off about how canceling practice was an affront to his manhood.
The afternoon practice resumed, Justin bought us bean-and-cheese burritos from the gas station and splurged on a forty-four-ounce mango Slurpee we passed around. He didn’t mention Superking Son once the entire day. Something seemed off, but we weren’t about to turn down free food. We hadn’t received a break since Kyle’s oldest half-sister’s other half-brother was promoted to assistant store manager at the nice Walmart and every Cambo in the hood got the hookup with a 10 percent discount.
Stretching and warm-up went as smoothly as ever, in the sense that Superking Son was typically late and not present. Justin offered to lead us through some drills. We were hesitant at first. “It’ll be chill,” he said, too eager in his expressions and voice to sell us on the “chill” factor. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Of course, shit went down when Superking Son walked in, looked up from his text messages, and found himself amid a shuttlecock tornado before getting whacked in the head with a racket by a freshman.
“What the fucking shit is going on here?” he yelled, after grabbing the freshman’s racket and throwing it to the ground. In response, Justin began laughing — either hysterically or fake hysterically. His body hunched over, his arms wrapped across his stomach, it seemed like he wanted to piss off Superking Son. Superking Son pointed at him. “You wanna start something, don’t ya? You’re just trying to get me riled up.”
“As a matter of fact, I am.” Everyone turned to look at Justin. He walked through the crowd of players up to Superking Son, stepping on fallen birdies on the way. “I challenge you to a match.”
Ken gasped for air, but that was probably his developing smoker’s lung.
“Oh yeah?” Superking Son said, imparting to his words as much condescension as possible.
“Yes, and if I win, you have to make me rank one.” Justin’s posture was completely upright to emphasize his height over Superking Son.
“What’s gonna happen when you lose?” Superking Son asked.
“Then I’ll quit. As simple as that. You won’t have to deal with me undermining your whole I’m-the-coach-and-I-demand-respect routine.”
“That’s boring,” Superking Son said. “You’re not offering any real stakes.”
“Fine, if I lose, I’ll not only stay at my ranking, but I’ll also serve as designated birdie collector for every single practice and meet.” Our ears pricked up at this proposal — cleaning up the mess of white feathering nubs was easily the worst thing about playing badminton.
“Deal.” Superking Son grabbed a racket out of Kyle’s hands.
We crowded around the centermost court, the only spot in the gym well lit by the crappy ceiling lights. Superking Son offered Justin the first shot, saying, “Show me what you got,” as he handed over the birdie — and when Justin served, Superking Son charged. He smashed the birdie so hard it ricocheted off the ground and whacked Ken in the face, leaving a red welt. Damns and Ooooohhhhhs came from the crowd as Ken yelled, “My face! My fucking face!”
For thirty minutes, Superking Son and Justin became dance partners. Their moves fed off each other with the intensity of two Mas shit-talking their grandchildren. Superking Son lobbed, Justin drove the birdie back. Justin lunged forward for a drop shot, Superking Son sprang forward in anticipation. Superking Son jumped for a smash, Justin crouched to retrieve it. Neither gained more than a two-point lead. Both were so effortless in their playing, so in tune with their own and each other’s bodies they seemed half asleep, steered by some master puppeteer.
The most beautiful badminton unfolded before our eyes. Birdies flew impossibly close to the net. Feet glided across the court, bouncing, lunging, leaping. Racket strings trembled. We exclaimed at every point and every unthinkable shot. We rooted until their sheer athleticism became routine, until all the incredible smashes averaged out into the same shot. Our voices fatigued and our eyes stopped caring.
The second half of the match turned downright boring. Instead of paying attention, some of us opened our textbooks and studied. Ken lay down on the bleachers with an ice pack on his swollen face. Others busted out a deck of cards and started a round of big two. (If anything, the big two game became more riveting. Kyle squandered his ace of hearts, lost ten bucks, and completely upended his weekend plans — the bet required the loser to drive the other players’ Mas to the temple, the one in the boonies next to the bad Walmart.) Superking Son and Justin were too good. They predicted each other too well. There was no drama, no tension or grit, no underdog who could bounce back and surprise us. And when Superking Son scored that final, winning shot, no one really gave a shit. Even Justin seemed apathetic.
But Superking Son gave tons of shits. He pranced around his side of the court, ran victory laps, and stomped his feet so hard we’re pretty sure our half-deaf, half-dead, he-should-retire-but-tenure-is-cushy English teacher (it’s no wonder kids barely make it to community college) heard him from across campus. He yelled, “Fuck yes!” over and over, like winning this badminton match against a high schooler was better than all the sex he’d ever had (which was probably true). He shifted into older-Cambo taunt mode, donning the same antagonism our moms did when we try to buy shoes not on sale, our dads when we prioritize our homework over the family business, our Mas and Gongs when they hear our shameful Khmer accents, and our older siblings when we complain about responsibilities they previously shouldered, about enduring what could never match what had already happened to everyone we know.
“Who else wants a piece of this shit!” Superking Son yelled, beating his chest with his racket-free hand. He traversed half the gym to direct his taunts not only at Justin but at every guy in the room. “None of you have what it takes. None!” He seemed blinded with misguided passion, the bulging veins in his fat neck pumping blood straight to his eyeballs. “Get out of my fucking face!” We felt spit fly from his slobbering mouth and into our faces.
Our memories go out around the time Superking Son began challenging us to matches, even the poor freshmen on the exhibition team, pointing with his racket at kid after kid and repeating, “Come on! Show me what you got!” like a robot stuck in an infinite loop. The next thing we remember is this: the shock of watching Superking Son’s ego spurt all over the gym began to fade. Our bodies settled into pity. We looked at our coach, an overgrown son fed up with his place and his inheritance, perpetually made irritated and disgusted and paranoid by his own being, and we looked at each other. Right there in the gym, Superking Son screaming in our faces, we made the collective decision, silently, almost telepathically, that one, Superking Son was an asshole — a tragic one, but still an asshole; two, we had too many assholes in our shitty lives; and three, we didn’t have enough asswipes to deal.
Look, what can we say? We were busy. We had our own lives full of responsibilities and expectations we were always on the verge of failing. Sure, there were signs, tons of them. It’s not like Superking Grocery Store was packed with customers. There were no lines of people throwing cash into the registers. Superking Son wasn’t driving around a new Porsche. He wasn’t decked out in Rolex watches and Ralph Lauren polos.
First our Mas started complaining about the lack of fresh vegetables, about papayas as old as their concentration-camp-surviving hands decaying on the shelves of the produce section. Then shadowy Cambos started rolling into the store, not to shop for rotting papayas, that’s for sure. They rushed to the backroom, sometimes with loads of packages, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes at closing, never to be seen leaving the premises. After a while, Superking Son stopped letting us into the backroom. That giant bulky guy, the ex-army Cambo who took Kevin’s sister to the prom, guarded the door. Superking Son barely trekked back there himself, not even to play solitaire on his ancient HP computer.
We’d seen it happen to Cambo businesses before. We’d seen it when Angkor Noodles Lady hired a new cook who made soggy-ass noodles. (The old cook pulled a classic drunk dad move — he went on a bender for a week. When they finally found him, he was passed out at a roulette table in Reno and had gambled away his kids’ college fund.) Angkor Noodles Lady borrowed more and more money from the higher-up Cambos. Each month she promised to pay them back with full interest once business picked up. Business never picked up (the new noodles were gross), and the restaurant floated on Cambo community money until Angkor Noodles Lady ditched town. She ended up nursing a boxed-wine addiction from her niece’s guest room in Bakersfield until she died of liver failure.
Now Superking Son isn’t dead, don’t worry. We see him out all the time, usually at the good pho place, usually with Cha Quai Factory Son, who has been ranting about the same far-fetched business plan for years. (It involves mass-producing in neon party colors those weird suction cups that make Cambo moms look like they’re getting abused to people with white savior complexes.) When the store closed and Superking Son couldn’t even offer the higher-up Cambos his back storeroom to use as their headquarters, Superking Son’s mom saved his skin by selling her house and paying back his debts.
We don’t know how Superking Son makes a living anymore, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, Superking Son will appear at an open gym. He’ll play a match or two, give some pointers on form. His lunges and smashes will strike you as impressive for someone his age, someone who probably has knee and wrist pain. Halfway through the session, he’ll leave the player queue and sit on the bleachers. He’ll watch a crew of younger Cambos play the game that, according to him, was the only thing that made him worthwhile as a person. When open gym is over, you’ll drive home, and if you’re taking Pershing Avenue to Manchester Street, you’ll pass what remains of Superking Grocery Store. And even though the building has been empty for years, gathering dust and gang signs like flies to a pile of bloody meat, even though the community has moved on to bigger and better things, like college degrees and Costco bulk food, you’ll swear, on the graves of all those murdered Cambos, on every cupping bruise your mom self-inflicts to rid her body of trauma, we promise you’ll swear that the lingering smell of raw fish never left the air. Trust us.