weekend-readsThe Wheel of History

Phong Nguyen

The wheel of history will run you over.
—Khmer Rouge slogan


History begins at 2:10 p.m. The chairs are attached to their desks, arranged in jagged rows from a full day’s use. The walls are blocks of peach stucco, and a lone poster in the corner half-heartedly asks its viewers to “Make a Difference.”

It is the third month of eighth grade, and I want to step outside of my metal-cage seat and crouch on the floor. When you sit on one of these bone-hard chairs of indeterminate material, it presses back with such force that it leaves marks on the flesh. I am used to wearing down my knees picking beans and the dull ache of a stooping back. But eight hours of sitting leaves my elbows and ass cheeks red and sore. Eventually, I will become used to it, and sitting will be as natural as walking.

When my friend Jason stands up to use the bathroom, the legs of his desk-chair jerk back, making a scraping sound against the tile floor. Jason and I hold spitting contests, and he challenges me to a race nearly every day. Even his loud standing is like throwing a stone. He seems to be saying, Now it’s yourturn.

Hanging out at his place after school, we have been known to wrestle until the first nosebleed, to out-lie each other with stories of our imagined sexual exploits, and to enter into spontaneous chip-eating contests. We’ve grown fat on each other’s company.

• •

During the revolution, I was just a chubby kid on the side of the road as the army passed. I was strangely unfrightened by their blood-red headbands. Their loose black clothes. Their bayoneted rifles.

“Do you speak French?” they said, their eyes like spear-points.

“No,” I said. At five, I barely even spoke Cambodian.

“That’s good, that’s good. Everything we’ve ever had was stolen from us by the French, then sold back to us. The colonials are responsible for all our troubles, Comrade. Don’t you agree?”

I agreed. I must have agreed, because I lived.

They gave me a wet cigarette, and promised to be back someday to make me a soldier.

After they passed, looking back at the place they were leaving, I saw what appeared to be a bonfire. The wooden stakes our neighbors used to hold up the sheets when they bathed were now skewers for the dead.

• •

In History class, when we finish watching a documentary on the Vietnam War, Mrs. Lee starts directing her questions at me. I know hardly anything about the American Presidents, and nothing at all about the anti-war movement. “Why do you think Johnson escalated the war, even though there was no clear path to success? . . . Map?”

“I think, maybe, Johnson was a hard-working man. He was like a coffin-maker,” I say.

“A coffin-maker?” says Mrs. Lee, skeptically.

When put under a spotlight, I tend to ramble. “He cannot think too hard about what he’s making, or else he will stop. But if he stops, it does not keep the armies from making more dead.”

“OK . . . ” Mrs. Lee says. “Anyone else?”

I used to say “I don’t understand,” if I didn’t want to speak up in class. But Jason knows my English is good, and he would call me out on it. That’s the way we are: best friends who tell on each other.

“Yeah, my dad fought in ’Nam and he says we could have won if we just kept on fighting,” Jason says. “It was the Americans at home who wussed out.”

“OK . . . ” Mrs. Lee says. “And what would winning mean, in that case?”

“Defeating the enemy,” Jason says, with enviable simplicity. “Beating them.”

• •

The old man said, “Go away!” It was just something the old man said. He had said it to kids around the neighborhood a hundred thousand times. If they buzzed around him like flies, he tolerated them like flies. If they skimmed too close to his ear, he waved his arms and shouted again in impotent rage: “Go away!”

But when they heard the old man shout, “go away,” these Khmer Rouge kids in their war-costumes stung like wasps. They seized him by the arms and dragged him into the market, where among the bitter melon and durian, he was clubbed with rifle butts and kicked by twelve little feet, shod in sandals cut from old tire.

So the children beat the man. I cannot express what a strange feeling it provoked in me. I had seen a man beating a child before. But never had I seen a child beating a man. With every strike, the earth seemed to wobble on its axis until the tilt of the earth was changed. The horizon was horribly askew; the vegetable carts seemed to roll themselves.

While the thrashing continued, one tall boy with a cracked voice stood facing the gathering crowd with his hands held behind his back, his shoulders straight and his chin raised at attention. “This man is an enemy of Khmer and has been involved with numerous Western plots against Angkar. Do not feel sympathy for him. Do not defend him. He is a prisoner.” The word he used, neok theos, meant both “prisoner” and “guilty person.”

“What is his name?” asked one woman, full with child, sweating in the heat, a basket on her hip.

For a moment, the soldier looked almost friendly, then quickly resumed the mask-like expression of his office. “Don’t concern yourself with who he is. Go home and take care of your children. They are the future of Khmer, and they are Angkar’s children too.”

And the crowd immediately fell to crumbs like stale bread, going their separate ways as though scattered by the wind. I kept on staring at the old man on the floor; I could not help it. One soldier pointed his automatic rifle at the prisoner.

“No! Foolish!” the tall boy said. “Use the bayonet. Ammunition is precious.”

• •

During break, Mrs. Lee says, “Is there anything you miss about Cambodia?”

The only thing I can think of is the early-morning-time, when we all sat under the window and talked about our dreams. But that ritual had ended with the revolution.

“Why did you and your family stop talking about your dreams?” she asks.

How to explain? “The chhlop would listen outside the window, and with dreams, you cannot control them. Talking about them, you could say the wrong things.”

“What are the wrong things?” she says, genuinely curious.

Teacher, how can I explain? Saying “What are the wrong things?” could mean the end of you.

But I am not the only one who has stopped talking about dreams. Dreams in America are like secrets that are kept; it is as though they never happened at all. The only time I even hear the word is when, in history class, they play a video of Dr. Martin Luther King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Other times, the word “dream” means something that will never come to pass. “You think that Lindsay Bradner even knows who you are? You’re dreaming,” Jason says after break, while Mrs. Lee writes a series of dates on the board.

“I know she knows who I am,” I say. “She’s my tutor.”

Jason’s eyes light up like flares. “You lucky fuck.” He looks genuinely impressed, as though I had done something of my own merit. “If I forget how to speak English, do you think I could get a hot girl to tutor me?”

“It’s not . . . we’re not going out. I’m just saying, she has a good spirit. I am happy when I am with her. That’s all,” I say, warmed by the thought of her.

Jason smiles with half of his face. “Sure, I get you,” he says, nodding. “You want to make babies with her.” He pauses, struck by inspiration. “Lindsay. Bradner. . . . You want to bet to see who gets there first?”

• •

Dream #1: My American mother has given birth to a giant baby. It grows, every moment it grows, but I cannot tell her how horrible it is, I cannot tell anyone. It is forbidden to say anything about his inhuman proportions. It eats not with its mouth, but with its navel. The baby’s mouth is for crying only.

It never leaves the house, so food must be brought to it. When I bring meat, it tears the flesh and bone out of my hands and shoves it directly into the stomach. If I bring carrots, it chews them into little orange pieces, then throws them up on the floor. I stare at it, and it stares back at me, not with anger, but with stone-faced judgment.

If I fail to bring it food, what will happen then?

If it grows any bigger, how will the house remain standing?

• •

I don’t know if I remember this part correctly. We were all in bed. The man showed up alone, and he shouted before knocking on the door, “Comrade Heng!” Even though he announced himself with such authority, we were still surprised to see he was actually an officer. If it had been the chhlop, another group of Khmer Rouge kids, at least we would know what to be afraid of. But the crisp green uniform threw us all off our guard.

“Angkar needs the people’s help; our soldiers fight so that your land is not overrun by the enemy. Now you must help Angkar feed the soldiers. Your share is four crates.”

My father spoke in whispers, as though someone were sleeping. “Officer Heng, I thank you for this visit, and I will help you in any way I can. But our overseer is called Odom Oum, and we bring our crates to his outpost after every harvest. If you ask him—”

“—I am not here on behalf of the chhlop, or Comrade Odom; I am here for Angkar. Four crates, please, for the fighting men of Khmer.”

Father looked our way, with shadows all over his face, out of which shone the most hopeless eyes. “We will have to harvest them,” he said.

“I will wait,” said the officer. He sat in the swinging chair that mother had used to soothe us as babies. He unbuttoned his shirt and lit a cigarette in the dark.

The cicadas ululated over everything, moving the night with the slightest tremble. As I stepped over the grassy dunes into the fields, I secretly prayed that this was the sensation of being shaken awake. Father pointed a flashlight down where our hands scooped and plucked the immature mung beans, then emptied them through our fingers into a canvas sack. “Four crates!” My father said. “Let us please have enough for four crates!”

As I picked, I could not help but glance repeatedly toward the horizon, hoping that with the sunrise would come some kind of salvation. Instead, I saw only the dark silhouette of the thousand-fingered sleng tree, the poison-fruit tree, whose branches stabbed upward and outward and, where it ran up against the concrete wall of a prison, the branches bent back upon themselves and stabbed inward, cutting into its own bark.

When we returned to our own front porch like beggars, dirty-kneed and tired-eyed, the officer stood up from the hammock and frowned down deliberately, performing his displeasure. He was joined now by twochhlop who must have been there all along, hiding under the house, among the stilts that kept our home raised for monsoon season.

“Where have you been hiding that flashlight?” he said, gesturing lazily at my father’s full hands.

“I haven’t been hiding it. I keep it in a special place for emergencies only,” my father said.

“No,” the officer said, speaking softly, but with one hand resting threateningly on his rifle, “you wanted to have private property, just for yourself.”

“I was thinking no such thing,” my father said.

The officer continued, as though my father hadn’t spoken at all. “So you are stealing from Angkar. It is as Comrade Odom reported.”

Rather than speak, Father turned to look at the crates of beans, the faintly lightening sky, and the dirty, hungry children who were his own brood.

“Let Angka Leu decide,” the officer said.

Then Father was bound in either rope or cord, he either cried or pled for mercy, and they either marched or dragged him away.

Was I standing there, surrounded by drooping beanstalks, staring down at my frayed and muddy sandals? Did we huddle together in the house, taking turns at the window, praying that we would not be next? I try to remember. I try not to remember. I want to remember. I want to not remember.

• •

My brothers claim that poor memory is a blessing. I am the youngest in my American family. Although he is only a year older than I am, Chann is in the eleventh grade, the same as Roth. My brother Sen, who is actually my uncle, is supposed to be writing college-application essays in the guidance counselor’s office right now.

Before letting us go, Mrs. Lee asks me to explain the significance of Watergate. I did the reading, but my memory fails me. I know that it led to the disgrace of an American President.

“The President . . . ” I begin, “was ashamed of his crimes, and tried to hide them?”

“Yes, and . . . ?” Mrs. Lee prompts me, “what was the effect of it all?”

“When so many people say that a man is a criminal, then he hardens his heart; he becomes a criminal because it is easier than convincing the world that he is not a criminal.”

“Did you do the reading, Map?” Mrs. Lee asks.

“Yes,” I say, honestly. “But I have trouble with it, and I am distracted.”

“OK, Map. I’m not interested in excuses. Do better tomorrow,” she says.

I walked to school this morning, as I sometimes do when I become restless waiting for the bus. Passing through the parking lot of a 7-11, I felt something hard in my shoe, and picked it out. It was a quarter. Oh no, I thought, I’ve used my good luck on something so small.

• •

Dream #2: I’m walking to school in the early morning—too early, though I do not realize it at first—and everything is strangely quiet. There are birds out, but no other living things, and even the birds are sitting still upon the telephone wire, like the crows’ own scarecrows. Then a bus rumbles in the distance until, panicking suddenly, I start to run. A high fence stands to my right, and to my left, home after identical home. And the rumble of the bus goes on.

I run so fast and so far that soon I reach a neighborhood where I’ve never been. I arrive at a playground, and I seem to be running in place, then floating through space as though upon a moving walkway, inclining gradually upward, a few feet off of the ground.

Here are gathered all the missing people. So this is where they hide the dead. Bodies mounted at the bottom of a slide; bodies piled upon a twirl-a-whirl; bodies stacked beneath the monkey bars. The larger the pile of the dead, the bigger are the flies. And the flies, confusing me for the dead, swarm around my own fragile body.

• •

“Comrade Odom, please,” my mother said, speaking with a tearful whine that I would have thought exaggerated, if I did not know, from my own agitated thoughts, that it was impossible to exaggerate her desperation. “My husband is an innocent man. He cannot be sent to face the Angka Leu.”

Odom Oum sat with his hands folded on his desk. The papers laid out in front of him were meticulously arranged. I could not take my eyes away from one particular hand-written document, two inches high, upon which was written, “Activities of Enemies.” His handwriting was so neat, so exact. He could have been a monk in ancient times.

“It is better that ten innocent men be thrown in prison than one guilty conspirator goes free,” said Odom Oum, reciting yet another party slogan.

“Comrade Odom,” my mother persisted. “I knew your father, and I knew you when you were just a naked child, and someday I hope to meet your children. When your children learn in school about these times, they will call him a hero who saves the lives of his neighbors.”

Odom Oum shook his head with a smile. “In the new state there are no heroes. There are only those who are loyal to Angkar, and counterrevolutionaries like Sangam Chey who conspire against Angkar.”

“But he is loyal, and we are loyal. I am concerned for you, because I know you are a good man, and you do not want to do something you will regret. History is unkind to those who betray their own people.” My mother must have known that these were perilous words; but desperation, like any human feeling, could be dangerous in the new state.

“History?” said Odom Oum, showing his teeth like a tiger. Then he took out his pencil and, looking down at the document in front of him, he began writing. “The wheel of history will run you over,” said Odom Oum.

• •

History is over, thank God.

“Why don’t you sign up for baseball?” Jason says. “You run good.” We are headed to study hall, the last hurdle before the end of the school day, after which Jason will be driven to baseball practice, and I will board the bus home.

“I’m too busy,” I say. “I’m behind at school.”

“Do you want to arm wrestle?” he says. I do not want to arm wrestle.

We play stick-figure wars instead, taking turns drawing hordes of stick-figure soldiers, cowboys, and flying ninjas, in an ongoing and ever-escalating battle for dominance over one wide-ruled sheet of paper.

After we are done with our war, Jason quickly becomes bored. “Let’s play pencil-break,” he says, looking at our tragically unused pencils.

But the teacher is watching, daring us to do wrong, until he grows tired of watching, and returns his attention to the document laid out in front of him.

In the He-Man cartoon, the villain is a skeleton man who sits on a skeleton throne in a skeleton castle. InInspector Gadget, a claw-handed enemy has a face that you can never see, because you are staring at the back of his chair. The Evil Emperor sits. The hero always stands.

Jason gets up again to run to the bathroom.

• •

Dream #3: I am running on a hamster wheel. Then, as I become aware of how unlikely a thing this is, other features start to emerge within the scene, and gradually I find that I am in our family room, watching morning TV, though still running around on my hamster wheel, a see-through plastic sphere that dilutes all light and sound.

And then, without warning, the walls too start to project images from the TV, and suddenly the whole room is bathed in the pale glow of a playfully violent cartoon.

Soon I notice that I am being watched like a TV myself. A chhlop is listening outside the window of my American home. And he keeps a journal of all my activities:

8:15am – Family Room – the prisoner runs with the television on. He wastes electricity indulging his appetite for diversion.

8:28am – Family Room – the prisoner keeps running. He will not stop until he, or the wheel, is broken.

The dream is so convincing that, even after I wake, I am sure that the chhlop are there, seeing all, recording all, adding up the proof of my guilt.

12:06pm – Bedroom C – the prisoner whimpers in his sleep. There is no dream so pure as revolution. A counterrevolutionary, the prisoner is having impure dreams, in which his life belongs to no one but him.

• •

“What will happen next?” I ask Mother. On the way home from the prison, she is suddenly marble-faced like Officer Heng, or like Odom Oum.

This woman, my mother, she looks up at the useless, unhusbanded world, the skin under her eyes as loose as bags of tea. When the wind blows over us, it is as though she made the wind blow. “The chhlopwill come to our home tomorrow, and they will ask if we have any shovels. Since we have no shovels, they will make us borrow shovels from our neighbors. They will put us on a truck and send us to Tuol Sleng with the others. At nighttime, we will be marched out to a fallow field.

“Then we will use our shovels to dig. Of course we know what will happen when we finish digging, but we will not refuse, because though our bodies ache, we do not ever want the digging to end. Because when the holes are finally big enough, they will flatten our heads with oxcart handles, and push us in.” My older brothers are crying. I am still too young to understand. I think she is telling a story, and I think that she is finished. But she is not finished.

“Then the neighbors will be punished,” she says.

“Punished for what, Mae Ma?”

“For owning shovels.”

• •

“So I guess you saw dead people before, right?” Jason says, waiting for the eighth period bell to ring.

He isn’t wrong, but the past tense sounds wrong to my ears. “Not since I come to America,” I say.

“Was it gross? Were there like, maggots on them and stuff?”

“I don’t remember,” I reply, honestly.

My eyes follow a path that leads from the alien-drawing scrawled on the desk to the rattling radiator beneath the sill, to the wall of blue construction-paper cut and stapled into letters that spell, “Timeline of WWII.”

“Did you ever fire a gun?” he asks.

“Yes, after Sen helped me escape,” I say.

After you escaped?”


Jason blinks a few times, waiting for a story. Outside the window, school busses queue in the semicircle driveway like patient caterpillars.

• •

Derrick—an Australian missionary—took Sen and me out to the dam, away from the refugee tents.

He wore a backpack, a ponytail, and a Mauser handgun. When he spoke he used a pidgin of English, Cambodian, and Thai. “Now the Mauser Parabellum ain’t the best arm to learn to fire on, but it’s good practice for a steady hand. Sen, you’ve used a firearm before, yeah?”

Sen nodded.

“Great, then you go first,” he said, handing Sen the gun. Derrick had set up soup cans and other repurposed food containers on a tree trunk, felled by a recent monsoon.

Sen supported his shooting arm with his other arm, squinting one eye and looking down the sight at the target. Here was my uncle, who saved me and helped me reunite with my brothers. He didn’t look at all like an imitation, as I thought he might. He looked like the real thing—a man who was imitated by the movies, rather than the other way around. When he fired, it sounded less like a bomb and more like a cracking rock, less thunderous by far than the automatic rifles used by the army. He hit three targets, and left two standing—a can of Campbell’s and a sardine tin.

Holding the gun in my own hands was a different thing. Watching was easy. But the pistol seemed to shake in my grip like an eel in a net. I thought of the old man who always warned, “Go away!” I thought of the young boy who bayoneted him, and the sound of the blade, clicking against the bone.

“Don’t be nervous. There’s no one in your line of fire. You’re aiming perfectly. Now shoot,” Derrick said.

It seemed as though the bullet might fly in any random direction. There was no way I could trust the physical world.

I shot, and hit nothing. I shot again, and hit nothing. I shot, and I shot, until I was completely sure that all the rounds were empty.

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