The morning before the funeral, Molly woke up to an explosion of clanging metal; sharp, aggressive chopping; and women screaming. Immediately, she pulled the sheets over her head, massaged her temples, kept tracing those tiny circles. At 25, Molly still hated mornings with the same intensity she had as a teenager. She had resigned herself long ago to never being a morning person, had always woken up feeling the ridiculous shame of existing, the shame of taking up space in this corrupt world, the shame of not being grateful that she was indeed alive, that she had been conceived by her parents in spite of higher powers hell-bent on punishing some kinds of people and not others. And it didn’t help that this morning, louder than all that was crowding her mind, she heard her mother yelling, “Stupidhead! Stupidhead! Stupidhead!”
Finally, she worked up the nerve to throw herself from the safety of her twin bed. Then she marched down the hallway to meet the day head-on.
In her mother’s tiny kitchen, Molly found a dozen middle-aged women crowded between the two counters. Cracking open coconuts in the corner, with only a dollar-fifty meat cleaver, was Ohm Yey, Molly’s old babysitter, who used to pin her down whenever Molly felt sick, coining her child-sized back with Tiger Balm until the throbbing pain of this intervention overpowered the discomfort of her mild symptoms. Not far from her, Ming Vee (the woman who called Ming Won several times a day to complain about her mother-in-law) and Ohm Lee (the devout Buddhist rumored to be having an affair with a monk) stood in front of a giant pot on the stove, throwing spices and kreun into their salaw machu, the whiff of lemongrass and garlic slapping Molly fully awake. Scattered throughout, meanwhile, chopping vegetables and rolling egg rolls and skewering beef into sach ko jakak, were women Molly had known all her life without ever committing their names to memory. She knew them as “Sam’s depressed mom,” “the Phnom Penh Noodle lady,” “The lady who wears too much fake Gucci,” and so on. And finally, at the center of the kitchen, were Ming Won and Ming Nary, each waving wooden ladles.
“STUPIDHEAD!” Ming Won shouted for what must have been the twentieth time that morning. “I don’t care what you think about anything.”
“You think I don’t know my own baby sister!” Ming Nary cried. “Peou’s favorite dessert was bai denap, not babaw poat!”
“Favorite dessert?! Are you an IDIOT? I have two hundred people to feed for the bun. We don’t have time to soak sticky rice. We don’t even have mangos or durian!”
“She just died! I want to eat my baby sister’s favorite dessert.” Just then, Ming Nary dropped her ladle and brought her hands to her face. She looked as though she were about to collapse, so Molly rushed to her aunt’s side.
“Mai,” Molly said, wrapping Ming Nary’s arm around her shoulder, “can you stop screaming at everyone?!”
“Oun! What are you doing here?!” Ming Won yelled, pointing her wooden ladle at her daughter. “Did you write the speech yet? I know you didn’t. You’re so lazy. Ever since you moved back home, all you do is sleep. Stop wasting time and go write.”
Ming Nary patted Molly on the back. “Molly, don’t waste time,” she said. “Make sure you write a good eulogy, too. We’re counting on you.”
“Oh my god,” Molly said. “How did this become an attack on me?”
“Go!” Ming Won said. “Go write! Leave! You’re in the way!”
“I already wrote it!” Molly yelled as she stormed out of the kitchen.
Back in her bedroom, Molly sat at her desk and pressed her fingers into her temples, tracing more circles. She took deep breaths and told herself that everyone processes death in their own way, and even her psycho mother had a right to express her grief in whatever fucked-up way she needed.
She stared at the eulogy-writing guide she had printed from an online website after googling “writer’s block eulogy original heartfelt.” There was a series of brainstorming questions that Molly had started to answer before giving up.
What are five qualities you would ascribe to the deceased?
“Inspiring, hardworking, cutthroat, absurd.”
What’s a funny anecdote you remember about the deceased?
“She wasn’t a funny person, but that was why she was so funny.”
How has the deceased impacted your life?
“How hasn’t she?”
And so on.
Earlier that week, Molly had actually finished writing a eulogy, but she hated it. She hated it while she wrote it, she hated it after finishing it, and this hate only festered as the funeral approached. It felt empty and vapid, what she had written, as if she knew nothing about Peou, as if she hadn’t grown up wanting to be exactly like her Ming.
Molly placed her forehead on the desk. “What do you want me to say?” she whispered into the cold wood. “How do you want to be remembered?”
Even before writing this eulogy, Molly had been in a rut. Ever since moving back home, two months before Peou’s death, she had been feeling like her old college roommate, the rich one who slumped into sophomore year without the ability to produce serotonin, her summer “interning in the fashion industry” having been code for taking too much MDMA while crashing parties in New York City. (Once, when Molly was complaining that her roommate never left the apartment, that all this roommate did was rattle on and on about her undiagnosed anxiety, Darren joked that Molly’s roommate had traded dependence on one Molly for another.) Now, stuck in Cambotown, after five glorious years in NYC and two years that totally kicked her ass, Molly felt completely undone, existential, and, like her old roommate, panicked that her old passions just didn’t hit the same as before.
She had a bachelor’s degree in “Illustrating the Political Self” from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, but she hadn’t drawn anything in months, not even her political self. She had recently been “let go” from her nonprofit gig and replaced by two unpaid social media interns, which prompted her now ex-boyfriend to accuse her of “lacking direction,” not caring about “their future,” and “stifling” him. She was 25 and owed $200K in student loans, with an extra $5K in credit card debt from an ill-advised semester studying painting abroad in Florence. Molly was not doing well. Plus, all her stuff—books, art, wardrobe—had yet to arrive in Cambotown from New York City. She’d tried to save money by mailing boxes through the regular post office, instead of hiring a moving company, and now everything was, according to several federal workers on the phone, nowhere to be found. The symbolism was not lost on her.
On top of this, the only saving grace of being in Cambotown had died.
Oh, Peou—the beacon of hope for Molly, the only woman in Cambotown happily unmarried, without kids, not just content to devote her life to her ambitions but proud of it. The week before Peou died, Molly had approached her about a job, as she needed to start paying back her student loans. How much longer could she lounge around the house, depressed, unmotivated to even put on real pants, getting yelled at by Ming Won?
Her Ming Peou, of course, came through. Or, she would have, had Molly not been so stubborn. When Molly told Peou about her need to find a job, Peou laughed through the phone. “You’re better than being a cashier at Happy Donuts,” she said, before offering Molly the keys to her empire. “Come work for me. I’ll teach you.”
“Except, I really just want something temporary, Ming. I don’t wanna be stuck here forever.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“You sound just like my mom.”
“Maybe you should listen to her. If two people are saying the same thing—”
“I’m tired of explaining myself. I’m an adult, and the world’s just . . . different, OK? I can’t just live the way you guys do. It’s unsustainable. And it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, Ming, your job is literally illegal.”
Then: “Ming, I need to go.”
This last conversation, looping in her head, blocked Molly from drafting a better eulogy.
At noon, Molly was still at her desk, still failing to rewrite her eulogy, when the only surviving constants of her life, her Cambo prohs, burst into the room.
Molly jumped from her chair. “Don’t fucking scare me like that!”
“Baby sis,” Vinny said. “Mai told us to make sure you’re working. So, are you working?”
“Ugh, I can’t with her!”
“Tell us something new,” Darren said, and Molly let out a bitter laugh.
“Well, if you aren’t working,” Vinny said, “you gotta come with us. We’ve been assigned a mission from the control center. Mai’s directing an orchestra out there. She’s preparing for war. She’s—”
“Fool, stop with the mixed metaphors, all right?” Darren interjected. “We’re picking up nom lort from the Lort Guy, that’s all.”
“Man, I’m pumped. Fuck—I love those green worms. Shit is some heavenly tapioca coconut abyss.”
“Fuck, you both are high,” Molly said, before looking back at the papers on her desk, the open journal filled with self-portraits over a year old, the unused drawing pens scattered over the cheap wooden surface.
Ming, I just don’t know what to write. I need help. I don’t know what to do.
Come work for me. I’ll teach you.
“And that’s a problem?” Darren said.
“The real question, baby sis,” Vinny said. “Do you also wanna get high?”
Molly crossed her arms and looked Darren and Vinny over. They hadn’t changed at all. The way Vinny stuck out his neck and bobbed his head while talking, like every sound from his mouth was a dance anthem. How Darren never focused on one person, never looked anyone in the eye, was always scanning the room for external validation, an audience. The three of them standing in her childhood room, Molly felt transported to their high school years, except they were muted versions of themselves, without her dyed hair and combat boots, their oversized T-shirts and baggy jeans. It was hard for Molly to imagine that both Vinny and Darren, as unchanged as they were, had actually found success in their careers, their passions. Unlike her.
“I have to put on real pants,” she said, expelling them from her room.
Later, in the backseat of the Corolla she’d always hated for its lack of air-conditioning, Molly found herself crammed between a pair of doofuses she had known all her life and never once taken seriously. “You two have nothing better to do than, like, follow my brother around?”
“Man, Vinny,” said Kelvin, the one who spoke with a lisp and seemed more pathetic with every pound of muscle he gained. “Why’s your sister such a bitch?”
“Don’t call her a bitch, fool,” said Rithy, the one who was too nice to Molly, making her feel both infantilized and objectified. “You’re not even supposed to say ‘bitch’ anymore. Right, Molly?”
“I don’t care what you call me.”
“What she said,” Vinny replied.
Molly looked down at the notebook on her lap. She tried thinking of something heartfelt and profound to write about Peou, but couldn’t think of anything. Then the pain struck her.
“Fuck, does anyone have Advil?”
“Who just carries Advil around?” Darren asked.
If not for the incipient migraine, Molly would have rolled her eyes. Her older cousin and brother were still overgrown boys, and Molly felt, briefly, a flare of that same bitterness toward Darren’s and Vinny’s relative successes, but she brushed the feeling away, as she always did. She really did want the best for them. “Well, can we stop by a Rite Aid, then?”
One hand on the steering wheel, Vinny started rummaging through the center console, then pulled out a half-smoked joint and a lighter and handed them to Molly. “Here,” he said, “all the medicine you need.”
Molly stared at the joint. She was hardly a fan of marijuana, having spent the better part of her teenage years annoyed that Darren and Vinny were always high, but for the past two months, and this week especially, she had been teetering on such a precarious tightrope of stable emotions that . . . who knew? Maybe it would help. The piercing pain grew sharper between her eyes as it spread over her entire face.
“This isn’t gonna be enough,” Molly said, before lighting the joint and inhaling some smoke. I’m sorry, she then thought, as she placed her notebook in the webbed pocket behind the passenger seat. I know this looks bad.
Come work for me. I’ll teach you.
I’m sorry, Ming. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
“Anyway, I’m dropping these dopes off,” Vinny said, “so let’s just ask Kelvin’s mom to give us some of those Big Pharma drugs you’re fiending for. Kelvin’s house is stocked like a bunker for Y2K. Can’t ask Rithy’s mom, ’cause she’s, like, off the chain. Badass lady, but damn, she’s got zero shits together. Yo, Rithy, remember that time your mom kicked your dad out of the house because she caught him playing that online casino game? Like, how hilarious was that? She didn’t realize it was just a gambling game, with, like, virtual fake money, not real gambling with real money.”
“Fool, course I remember,” Rithy said. “It’s my life.”
“Fake money or not,” Darren said, “Cambos are just crazy like that. Everyone’s a walking case study for PTSD. We’re all desperate to protect ourselves from anything that could be considered bad. At a certain point, we aren’t even making sense anymore. Ever notice how we burn fake money for our ancestors, yet we believe in reincarnation? Like, what the fuck’s that shit? The afterlife is this current life we are living, right? And here we are acting all Chinese and shit, burning fake money for the spirits. I mean, how does no one realize the paradox in this? How does no one ever step back and wonder if the afterlife is just literally life, like, if reincarnation means we’re reborn into new bodies, then where the hell’s this magical ash money our descendants burned for us? Shit makes no sense. Sooner or later, we’re gonna start attending Christian people church and the temple, just in case heaven and hell do exist. Fuck, why not just add being Jewish in there. Sprinkle in some Islam. We gotta prepare for the end of society and adopt every fucking belief system possible.”
“Man,” Kelvin said to the car, “this is why I love this guy.” He wrapped his arm around Darren’s chest from behind the passenger seat. “Fool just, like, goes off. Sayin’ crazy shit about being Cambodian and the world. He’s a trip.”
“Fool, get off me,” Darren said, elbowing Kelvin’s arm away.
“I know Ming Peou just died,” Vinny said, “but you’re getting existential as fuck.”
“I’ve been reading too much Kant.”
“The fuck you saying?”
“I don’t care where we go,” Molly said. “Just get me some Advil.”
“Then leggggoooooooooo,” Vinny said, putting on his fake Gucci sunglasses, exhaling a giddy desperate laugh. “I want some green worms in my tummy.”
He made a sharp right onto Gardenia Street, everyone shifting in their seats, and for a brief moment, Molly thought this could jolt their world back to normal, dislodge it from the grasp of their communal grief, that when the car realigned and they were sitting upright again, Peou would no longer be dead. They would all be happy, could live in that illusion of unfulfilled promise, where their favorite Ming would always be there to bail them out.
Come work for me. I’ll teach you.
“Fucking shit, Vinny,” Darren said, clutching the car’s roof handle, and Molly knew nothing had changed.
Two months living in Cambotown again, yet this was the first time in years Molly had been on Gardenia Street. The cramped single-story houses flashed through her line of vision, with their porches and chipped pastel paint, the patches of dead, yellow grass out front. A few of them had Foreclosure Sale signs posted, the block letters aggressive and blunt. They used to live here, before Ming Won and Ming Nary got jobs at the DMV. After Darren’s father, Pou Song, returned to Cambodia (bailing on the Cambo project of American resettlement once he saved enough money for a second family, a new start in a destroyed place where the land was cheap as long as there were no leftover bombs to demine), Ming Nary and Darren lived in their house, where Ming Peou had also lived. For five years, they all lived together, and it was the happiest time of Molly’s childhood, having three mothers and two older brothers for the price of one. The constant presence of Darren, Ming Nary, and Ming Peou was enough to make up for her own ignorant, shitty father.
Maybe it was the growing migraine, or the impending doom of Peou’s funeral, that final goodbye that felt pointless and false, but as Molly walked across the unkempt lawn of Kelvin’s mother’s house, her attention fixed upon a black Lexus SUV parked a few spaces behind Vinny’s Corolla and then upon the man sitting in the driver’s seat wearing a Dodgers cap—probably Chinese Cambodian—though she couldn’t place him. Paranoia trickled into the pain of her migraine. Why did this man stick out to her? What was his relevance to her world?
Then she was on the ground, crying. It was the first time she had cried since the day of Peou’s death. Trying desperately to recall some long-lost detail, she felt the gaps of her own memory, the lingering shadows of the past that had stretched into her family’s present, into Cambotown, these shadows she recognized but didn’t quite understand, even as they were beginning to fade, to diminish, along with her memory of Peou herself.
How fucked up! How unfair! To feel her Ming dying, yet again, in her mind, just days after that original, earth-shattering heartbreak. To grieve a loved one is to suffer and witness an infinite cycle of recursive deaths, Peou’s kmouys would learn, again and again.
Darren was the first to come to Molly’s side. He lifted her into an upright, sitting position, then sat down next to her, propping her up with his body like they were kids again, forced to pray with the monks during Cambodian New Year, enduring the leg cramps only by leaning against one another’s side. “It’s OK,” he said. “Everything’s all right.”
“Shit, lemme get that Advil,” Vinny said, before running into the house with Kelvin and Rithy.
Molly sat there, tears streaming down her face. Chest heaving, she could barely breathe. She felt engulfed by her surroundings. All her life, Molly had felt a sense of direction, destined, she thought, to exhibit her self-portraits all over the globe, in New York City, London, Tokyo, and Paris (where she had planned to handcuff herself to some immovable object at the Louvre, as a political demonstration meant to shed light on France’s colonization of Cambodia, how Cambo girls like her deserved a place in the most esteemed permanent collection in the world). She had always thought her life would be epic, that she would be known for her art, her speeches at protests, her general badassery. And now, here she was: crying on the street where she’d been conceived.
“I guess we can just sit here . . . outside . . . on the ground,” Darren said, in that stilted tone he used when trying to be funny. “After a while, I think, if we stay here long enough, we get squatters’ rights.” Darren raised his eyebrows and smiled, and the pressure behind Molly’s eyes eased somewhat.
“Fuck, I’m high,” Molly said.
Molly studied her cousin’s face. His bushy eyebrows lacking any curvature, flat as his self-deprecating voice. His eyes turned downward slightly—like a puppy dog’s, Ming Nary used to say—which steeped his expressions with a weariness beyond his young age. Then she glanced behind her, before turning back to Darren. She gestured for him to lean closer to her face.
“Hey,” she whispered, “you recognize that black Lexus there?”
Darren raised his head, looked straight at the car. “Am I supposed to just remember cars now?” he said loudly, obnoxiously.
Molly grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him down. “Fuck, Darren, be discreet.”
“Yeah, well, it’s pretty tacky to be driving a car that nice on this street.”
“That’s not the point. Doesn’t it seem weird that there’s a guy just . . . sitting there? Like, he’s just there. Doesn’t he have anywhere else to be?”
Just then, Vinny loped out of the house, his two henchmen trailing after him. “Kelvin’s mom came through with the drugs,” Vinny said, plopping himself right onto the ground. “She also hooked you up with some 7UP because, according to her scientific research as a paranoid Cambo mom, lemon-lime carbonation synthesizes Advil to, like, maximal potential.”
Molly popped the Advil into her mouth, threw her head back as she poured 7UP down her throat. Then, just as she was about to ask Vinny the same questions concerning the car, the man in the Dodgers hat pulled out from the curb and drove away.
“Fuck,” Molly said.
“You scared the Lexus away,” Darren said.
“What’s going on?” Vinny asked.
“Molly thinks we’re being followed.”
“Yo, that’s pretty funny.”
“Guys, I’m being serious,” Molly said. “It’s was just, like, fucking weird.”
“It’s the weed, baby sis. Like, this is some extra-strength, medical-grade shit.”
“Yeah,” Rithy said. “I smoked too much of this shit the other week and lost my mind. Legit thought I was gonna fall into my phone screen and, like, into some new dimension.”
“Team,” Vinny said, springing to his feet, “we need to stop getting distracted from the mission! OK? Plus, we got new orders, and fuck us if we fuck up Ming Peou’s funeral. We need that lort!”
“Yeah, my mom,” Kelvin chimed in, “she found out you guys are hitting the Lort Guy up, and now she wants us to get a palm tree pod from his backyard.”
“Why the fuck does she need a palm seed?” Molly asked.
“Woman, I don’t know,” Kelvin said. “Probably for the funeral.”
“Palm seeds are for weddings,” Molly said. “Fucking idiot.”
“I dunno, someone’s always getting married,” Darren said, standing up and then helping Molly to her feet. “For every funeral there’s, like, five weddings, you know?”
“It’s motherfucking wedding season!” Vinny yelled, sprinting back to his car.
They piled back into Vinny’s Corolla and drove three blocks, parking on Lemon Avenue, where they all stared at the faded pink house owned by the Lort Guy’s mother. The blinds locked upward in every window, the driveway empty, the house scowled a poker face, projected an eerie silence, at least when compared to the other residences on the block, which had driveways overfilled with tandem-parked cars.
“No one’s home?” Rithy said.
“Well, someone’s gotta be there,” Darren said. “Like ten whole persons live in this house, I’m pretty sure.”
After ringing the doorbell to no response, the five of them were about to call it a day, resign themselves to returning to their mothers empty-handed, proving once again their utter ineptitude and immaturity, when Molly noticed a flutter in the window blinds adjacent to the front door and a wary eye peeking outside to scope them out.
Molly banged on the door. “Hello! Is someone there?”
The door cracked open, and a sliver of a 60-year-old woman’s face appeared—the Lort Guy’s mother. Then a rush of words: “What do you want?”
“We’re here to pick up the nom lort,” Molly said. “The nom lort for Ming Peou’s funeral.”
The Lort Guy’s mother’s bloodshot eyes widened, and her head jolted backward. “NO ONE IS HERE,” she said, slamming the door shut.
Their jaws dropped, confusion stifling their words.
“What the fuck was that?” Darren said.
Another moment passed, and they still hadn’t moved from the porch. Then the Lort Guy’s mother materialized in the window through the blinds.
“NO ONE IS HERE,” she yelled again, more or less audibly.
“OK. WE GOT IT,” Vinny responded with mock exasperation.
Back in Vinny’s car, the five of them, still shaken from that previous antagonism, were at a loss for what to do next, where they would go from there, how they would keep distracting themselves from all there was to ruminate over and sink into forever. Kelvin and Rithy scrolled through the messages on their phones. Vinny kept tapping the steering wheel, punctuating the mood with an anxious beat. Darren’s legs quivered, like they had been doing in his philosophy seminars, and when they started to bump up against the dashboard, the sound messing with Vinny’s tapping beat, Vinny slapped Darren’s left thigh, held it in place, before saying, “Can you fucking stop that?”
Darren smacked Vinny’s hand away, firing a hostile expression to go with the gesture, but didn’t say anything, so the two cousins just stared each other down, Darren with his touch-me-again-at-your-own-risk-I-dare-you front and Vinny reciprocating a bemused look of yeah-sure-let’s-fight-I-got-nothing-to-do-right-now-but-fuck-up-my-dear-cousin.
“Jesus,” Molly said, “what gives?” She had been wading through her confusion about the Lort Guy’s mother, leaning forward in her middle seat, her hands fishing through the roots of her hair, on either side of her head, with arms circling counterclockwise, periodically, rhythmically, a fruitless resetting, before she was dragged back to reality by Darren and Vinny. Sure, of course, she had been thinking, Peou’s job as the Counter meant that some Cambos found her presence uneasy. Especially if those Cambos had owed a significant sum of money. But wasn’t Peou the very person trusted to make sure everyone got paid? That no one was cheated by anyone too selfish to pay back their dues. Hadn’t Peou had everyone’s best interests in mind? That’s how the Circle of Money was supposed to work, right? What the hell was up with the Lort Guy’s mother, who, as far as Molly knew, had been decently close to Peou, to her family?
“Ah, fuck,” Kelvin abruptly said. “I can’t go home without a palm pod. My mom’ll kill me.”
Vinny slapped both his thighs in excitement and turned around to face Kelvin, Molly, and Rithy. “Naw, we fucking got this!”
After parking farther down the street so that his car was no longer in the line of sight of the Lort Guy’s mother, Vinny led their pack to the side of the faded pink house, all of them scaling the walls and ducking underneath windows. Molly and Darren were skeptical of Vinny, as always. But it was too hot to stay in the car. Besides, who were they to question Vinny’s motives, his manic energy, which they faintly recognized as a coping mechanism not only for Peou’s death, but also for being back in Cambotown, where everyone had always underestimated him next to Darren and even Molly. They stopped at the locked fence gate leading to the backyard, still crouching, as perpendicular to the fence was another window. Looking up from the ground, they saw palm fronds striping the sky. Streaks of green cut through the clouds.
“Baby sis,” Vinny said, “we’re gonna throw you over this fence, all right?”
“What the fuck? It’s your plan; you climb the fucking tree.”
“You’re the girl here. Better for you to be harvesting those pods.”
“Yeah, versus, like, a thug covered in tattoos,” Darren said with a monotone barely concealing his annoyance toward Vinny, this situation, the whole ordeal. “Plus, you’re the best at climbing.”
“That was ten years ago,” Molly said. “We aren’t kids anymore.”
“We’re always kids in Cambotown,” Vinny said, smirking, staring at Molly until she cracked.
“Fine—god—just keep watch.”
“No one’ll give a fuck if they see you climbing this tree, anyway,” Kelvin said. “Not on this side of the fence.”
“Yeah, it’s the Lort Guy’s mom you gotta worry about,” Rithy added. “So, keep watch yourself.”
Molly felt her migraine pound against her face. This is what I get, she thought, for hanging with these fools. Then, remembering all the times she accompanied Peou on her collections, she wondered: How did Ming Peou spend her whole life dealing with dumb Cambo men? How did she manage to trust them to own up to their debts?
“C’mon, c’mon,” Vinny said. “Rithy, throw her over already.”
Stepping into Rithy’s palms, Molly was launched high enough to grab the top of the fence. Then she vaulted over with only some initial struggle, but, when landing, she buckled under her own inertia, slamming a knee into the concrete of the garden pathway. A shock pierced into her bone and spread through her right leg. With her hands, she muffled her gasp of pain.
Come work for me. I’ll teach you how to do this right. Not like an idiot.
The pain in her knee waned, thank god, as she climbed the palm tree, wrapping her thighs around its trunk and carefully locating grooves to place her hands. Planted near the back-left corner of the house, the tree was far enough from the fence—several strides away—for Molly to feel uneasy. If she turned her head, she had an oblique view into the house, through the sliding glass doors, and she checked periodically to see if the Lort Guy’s mother had caught her trespassing, though she knew there was nowhere to run or hide, really, so the best course of action, were she caught, would be to complete her task, climb down the tree, and face the consequences.
Still, the higher she climbed, the uneasier she became, this uneasiness sublimating directly into rage—rage at her brother for convincing her to retrieve these pods (and not even for their own mother) and then rage at herself for agreeing to this absurd mission; at her very skin for its vulnerability to splinters; her stupid fucking brain for being prone to migraines; her culture for having use for the guts of palm tree pods because tradition dictated that people throw white pka slas at brides and grooms, as if older Cambos needed to be hurling or projecting anymore nonsense at their Cambo youths; and also, of course, at the Lort Guy, for being fucking MIA; and the Lort Guy’s mother for making, like, zero sense; and finally, at the notion that apparently she was the only person who could be trusted to do tasks no one else wanted to do, such as scaling a palm tree, for instance, or writing a goddamn eulogy. By the time she reached the top, fronds slicing at the exposed spots of her body, Molly’s pale brown face had reddened into the emergence of a blistering sunburn.
Gripping the trunk tighter with her legs, she struggled to dislodge a pod from its base. These things are fucking giant, she thought, before imagining herself pelting pods down at the Lort Guy’s mother’s house, at her brother and his henchmen and their dumbass luck in being rappers, at her overbearing mother and dickhead father. She wanted everyone to scramble and panic in fear of her thunderous barrage. She started to tear up again.
You can’t take everything seriously, oun. It’ll kill you.
Finally, the pod was in her hands, severed from the tree. She looked at the ground. From this angle, she could no longer see Vinny or Darren ducked behind the fence, yet she felt the vague sense of being watched, by them, by every house in the neighborhood, by all of Cambotown. She looked west and saw the shores of the beach, the horizontal slab of ocean. She thought about the fact that she’d barely visited the beach as a child, the perimeter between Cambotown and the rest of Long Beach having seemed all but impassable. From above, the five blocks of Cambotown, of pastel-colored buildings, appeared all-encompassing yet compressed and squat. For maybe the first time she could remember, having passed from the unquestioning devotion of childhood straight into the eternal resentment of adolescence and then straight into early adulthood’s chronic avoidance—all the visits postponed, the holidays cut short—Molly’s feelings toward Cambotown lacked . . . precision. Of course, she had felt abysmal when she first moved back from New York. But that was before Peou’s death. Now she had no idea, really, not even how she should feel.
Forcing herself back into the task at hand, she threw the pod so that it landed softly onto a bush near the side of the house, then checked if anyone in the house had caught her atop the palm tree. Through one of the glass doors into the house’s kitchen, she recognized the Lort Guy standing in front of the fridge. You could tell it was him. The premature potbelly. The awkward duck stance of his stumpy legs. The bald spot stamped onto the back of his head.
Is this how I’d turn out, Molly wondered, if Ming Peou weren’t dead, if I’d taken her up on her offer, if I dedicated myself to this town? Would I be living at home, almost 40, looking like . . . this? Then it dawned on her—the Lort Guy standing in his kitchen, shoveling food into his mouth, even as his mother was covering for him, both of them refusing to engage with Molly’s family. The only explanation Molly could think of for this refusal, though she couldn’t gauge the deeper reasons, was Peou’s death. Everything was out of order now, wasn’t it?
She felt the lightheadedness of being elevated into the clouds, the gravity urging her toward the earth. Chills spread through her nerves, a numbing shock, even after she’d climbed down, even after she found herself back in Vinny’s car, lodged between Rithy and Kelvin, a palm tree pod laid across their three laps. She couldn’t shake the feeling that some inexorable force was at work, beneath the faded, sun-drenched surface of Cambotown, some tectonic shift about to split the very ground beneath their feet. And yet, within these unsettling chills, this growing paranoia, Molly felt an odd comfort, as though high up in that palm tree, she had retrieved a parcel of validation. It was small, yes, and infinitesimal compared to her grief. But, for now, it was enough.
Later that night, Molly was sitting at her desk again, staring at that blank page in her notebook. She chewed a lock of her black hair, tapped her pen against the desk, itched at the spot where the threadbare interior of her sweatpants scraped her thigh. An hour had passed since she had sat down to work on the eulogy, all the words, sentences, and language dammed up against the reservoir walls of her mind. The Lort Guy stuffing his face, in open contempt of the funeral—his image consumed her. Eventually, she found herself marking the blank page. Barely even caring anymore. What did it matter? Slowly, a face formed in those scratches of ink, the roughness of that shading, the jagged sloppiness of her lines, all those stylistic flourishes, those bad habits her college teachers had tried to train right out of her practice.
There it was, that familiar face: high cheekbones; eyebrows an attack of angles; hair cropped above her broad shoulders, pushed behind ears; and then that pointed chin. Her eyes, a glimmer of condescension in the stare, pupils lifted, buoyed by the white of the sclera, to the ceiling of her eyelids. That look had made Molly feel protected as a child. It was as though her Ming were always scoping out the space, the air, right above her head, the height she’d one day reach.
By the time the portrait had fully emerged, Molly was in tears, but this time her crying was just that—a spilling forth. No hyperventilating. No crushing weight in her chest. No feeling of nothingness seizing her mind. And when she finished, the cloudy water draining from her vision, it finally hit her, that indirect lightning of purpose. She turned the page, resting Peou’s face in the confines of her notebook, and began writing.
“All the good men died,” Ming Peou often told me.
When my mother first asked me to write this eulogy, that’s the first thought that came to me. She first told me this after everyone found out about my first boyfriend, who was, I hate to admit, a few years older than me, an upperclassman in high school, who picked up his sister, one of my best friends at the time, from our middle school every afternoon. He and I never did anything, I swear. We mostly emailed each other love letters, innocent stuff, really. He’d talk about the vacations he’d whisk me away on, how he wanted to marry me, that he believed in true everlasting love, but one day my mother found my email open on our family computer, and of course she knew exactly how much older my boyfriend was than me, being friends with his mother, so naturally, as you can imagine, all hell broke loose.
Then, when Ming Peou heard about him, these emails, she slapped me across the face, right in the same spot my mother had slapped me the day before, because how could I degrade myself like that? How could I let a boy, who was almost a man, have power over me like that? How could I be so stupid to trust someone who could hurt me? Who wanted nothing but to fulfill his own selfish desires? Didn’t I know not to trust men? “Oh, oun,” she said, when I shook my head, unable to speak because I was sobbing, my cheek burning from her slap.
“All the good men died,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Back in the genocide,” she said. “They worked them as slaves in the fields, tortured them, imprisoned them in S-Twenty-one and poured water over their clothed faces until they begged the soldiers to kill them, put them out of their misery. The teachers, the painters, the entrepreneurs that slowly accrued their wealth and were good to their wives and children, the intellectuals who went abroad to study in Taipei, New York, and Paris and were lured back to Cambodia by Pol Pot with promises of elite positions in policy, only to be kidnapped upon their first steps back in the homeland; the fabric weavers whose fingertips could unlock the magnificent colors and patterns of our past; the musicians who sang odes of our golden age; the architects that learned from the best French designers even as they evoked the silhouettes of those wats that were later bombed; the sculptors that shaped the curves of our Apsaras and carved Buddha’s face into our memories so that we could still hold on to our beliefs when our world was reset into terror—they were all killed, even the men with glasses, who were trained to see the world in two different ways, blindly and clear-eyed, as Pol Pot had anyone with the red marks of a frame on their nose murdered.
“Pol Pot wanted his men to adhere to only one way of life, he didn’t want beauty or history or culture or intelligence or morality or religion. Just servants to his greatness, his kingdom. Sure, he was Communist, but he was sick in the head, and his communism was to make everyone equal with the same sickness, and the ones who didn’t get sick, all the good men, they were massacred. Now we have only men obsessed with power. Which means,” Ming Peou then said, “the boys here, the prohs trying to be your boyfriend, you can’t trust them. They don’t have decent role models anymore. They will do anything, tell you anything, to get what they want. They don’t believe in true love! How could they? The singers of true love had died. The artists who captured real beauty were dead. These prohs know nothing, and no one is teaching them, so you, as a woman, oun, you need to be careful, stay on guard, stay in control of every situation you walk into the best you can.”
At the time, I thought Ming Peou was being dramatic, but now I can’t help but see the truth in what she said. She never hated our men or boys. No, she loved everyone in our community deeply. But she recognized that it was up to Cambodian women to lead our community, to whip our men into shape and rear our children. She wanted to lead us into a new era of wealth. And I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that she’s made a difference in the lives of everyone in this room. She’s responsible for any amount of success I ever achieve. She’s the reason why I did well in school, why I graduated from college.
But I want to focus on what Ming Peou meant for my fellow Cambo girls. I don’t want to spend this time just talking about men. Ming Peou—she loved to lecture her kmouys: me, Darren, and Vinny. “Don’t you know about Nokor Thom and Banteay Srei?” she’d say whenever Darren or Vinny bullied me. We always knew exactly what she meant, she repeated the story so many times, but we loved hearing her rants.
“In the old-old days,” the story started, “when they were still building the ancient temples, there was a competition. A dare. The men would build a temple city, and the women would build their own. So, the men went to building, and they built the greatest city Cambodia ever saw. They carved hundreds of faces of Lokesvara, so that walking anywhere, you felt Buddha watching your every move. Nokor Thom was great, it was big, it was impressive. But the women, they took their sweet time. What was the rush? No one put a time limit on their dare. The women had nothing to prove, so they focused on building not the greatest temple, but the most beautiful. They used pink sandstone only their hands could shape. They spent years carving flowers into their statues, made sure each surface became a work of art, that the temple carried our history on its skin. Banteay Srei ended up so beautiful, it was called the art gallery of Angkor. And guess what happened to the great, big, old temple city of Nokor Thom, versus the smaller Banteay Srei. It was bombed a hundred times over during the war! Great, giant city. What good did it do? To be great? In the end, its greatness only made it a better target to be destroyed.”
Ming Peou mourned the good men who died, but she still recognized how these men could have learned from their women counterparts. I will never be more grateful for anything than Ming Peou’s willingness to recite us stories like the legend of Banteay Srei. She wasn’t afraid to be contradictory. She gave us wisdom our parents wouldn’t. Wisdom that no Cambo men would ever want the younger generations, especially us girls, to have, so scared they are that we should become empowered. That we would have a voice. That we wouldn’t be afraid to see and speak paradoxical truths. That we would grow up to be another Peou Ros, another strong woman calling the shots, another woman who didn’t tolerate any nonsense from men, who refused to be talked down to. Peou Ros was a force of nature. All the good men died, so we needed women like Ming Peou. And now, I am heartbroken to say, we have also lost a good woman. One of the best. May you rest in peace. We will always remember you, because, as far as I’m concerned, your legacy will never die.