You would do anything to have your astigmatism back. As you stare at the police line-up through the one-way mirror, you see the guy who ripped off your knock-off Sean Jean t-shirt, the toys from your 10-step childhood, your one and only pair of ‘Lanes discovered in the Clybourn Salvation Army bin and the plastic rosary your tía gave you after your first detention. This old thug, this guy who has passed in and out of your line of vision since you started wearing bullet-proof dork-glasses, he scares the shit out of you. Even with a wall of tinted glass separating you from his criminal world, you feel like he sees through his own reflection in the polished glass al otro lado, all the way to the other side. You feel him looking into you, prying through your skin until he sniffs the stuttering of your heart. Even before he walks back with the number 4 tied around his neck like a make-believe noose, he knows it’s over, but he wants to fuck with you so he turns around and smirks through his own face, smirks through polished glass, smirks through his reflection one last time. And it doesn’t matter that he had it coming all along. It doesn’t matter that he deserves the concrete and steel wonderland he’s got coming. None of that shit matters except the distance between you.
Even though every one of your neighbors got their shit lifted at least once in the past ten years, somehow you’re the fucking rat. You’re alone now cuz you called la cana. You don’t like cops, and they can smell your fear all the way from Pulaski Street. But this transgression will help you sleep at night, even if it hurts a little, so you go ahead with the karmic bitchslap anyway cuz you’ve got two little brothers and a tía strung out on Jesus.
The detective asks you if you want the catwalk again. You shake your head. You already know what you know. You’ve known since the lights were turned on in the holding room, since the stage was lit up like a pageant show for the criminal underworld. Like your neighbors on Augusta Street, you don’t have any problem identifying Manuel Cardona, the pungita who stole everyone’s nest egg, one beat-up apartment at a time. He’s a legend: a blur of New Balance running shoes that scale up brick and plaster walls like a stocky ninja, the corners of the buildings so close they nuzzle each other, the rain gutters always one gust of wind away from a kiss. You used to watch the Cabrón scaling up fire escapes and bouncing between brick walls for years, but you didn’t tell a fucking soul, ni una palabra. When Manuel Cardona broke into Señora Flores’s apartment in March, you pretended you didn’t see him walking through her front door an hour later with a heart-shaped purple velvet jewelry box in his arms. When he crawled into Pastor Olberto’s window in May, the next morning, you lied and told his wife you hadn’t heard a thing the night before cuz you’d been on a date with a girl from the other side of Western Avenue where all the skinny white girls graze. When you saw the Cabrón running out of Pelly Sanchez’s duplex with an old TV set and a pile of women’s clothes, you heated up mama’s leftover arroz con gándules and watched Ghost in the Shell 2 for the fifth time that week. And during Las Fiestas Puerrtoriqueñas, when practically everyone and her cousin Rosa was outside, parading down the boulevard in souped-up SUV’s, giant Puerto Rican flags flapping in the sweltering afternoon sun like a goddamn military parade, Boricuas dressed in bathing suits, Whitesox caps and jean shorts, shouting and waving at strangers, even then, you didn’t tell a fucking soul about the viuda’s one and only son, walking out of your neighbors place with a creaky VCR, six musty speakers and a case of Modelo Negro. For as long as you could remember, for as long as it served you, you did nothing cuz el Cabrón fascinated you in a bad and sleazy way: in your god view, you knew everything worth talking about in your neighborhood. In fact, you celebrated the Schadenfreude, or whatever your English teacher calls it when bad things happen to bad people, at least those that used to call you the Zit Monster behind your back when you were just a kid trying to survive, a little sad and mostly broken like a one-armed action figure.
It was only when your ten collector’s edition Astro Boys still in the original factory-sealed cases got ripped off, each one with a shooting hydraulic fist and ejectable turbo boots (which happened while you were playing Halo II with some of your high school IM buddies who were every bit as geeky as you were and every bit as misplaced in the analog world too), it was only when he stole your shit, only when you lost the pieces of your life collection, when your memory was wiped clean by that half-mythic bastard with razor scars on his left ear and kitchen cutlery for teeth, that’s when you finally realized you were the only asshole in the whole barrio who could do something about the widow’s only son, about abuela’s lost angel, about the fabled cabrón, you, the dorky math whiz who once admired his greed and dexterity, his contempt and his fearlessness. You almost loved him, felt connected by secret knowledge, even looked for him through the tangled vines of your French Blinds when you felt alone. Sometimes, walking home from school, you fantasized about discovering his treasure trove, stuffed beyond your imagination with glistening piles of pirate loot: sapphire rings that belonged on the fingers of moody women, old stereo consoles, brand new powerbooks, smashed-up chandeliers, smelly mink coats, slutty Samba dresses and iPod Nanos still hibernating inside plastic cases. You admired the cabrón, almost loved him like a local superhero and you’re not the kind of boy that usually cares for dudes that way. But then he walked into your bedroom and stole your childhood, it was like he was indicting your silence, making you an accomplice to his junk, like he was making a declaration to every fucking person in Humboldt Park that you were just a nene and a bitch, a collaborator and a geek. And he used to be right about everything. Todo.
Now, you turn to the detective and point to number four and tap the glass with your finger as if to say: Take that, motherfucker. He nods and scribbles something down on his notepad. As you stand there, biting your lips, you wonder how long it will take the police department to do their math and figure out you just pointed to the pungita who left your mother when you were ten, back when you and mama were stranded at the optometrist’s office, the rancid sunlight spoiling the air outside, mama squeezing your hand so tight, the blood throbbing your veins until your arm felt dead inside.
Jackson Bliss has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame where he was the Fiction Fellow and the 2007 Sparks Prize winner for his debut novel BLANK. He also has a PhD in English/ Creative Writing from USC where he worked with Aimee Bender, Percival Everett and TC Boyle. He was the 2013 1st Runner-Up for P&W’s California Exchange Award in Fiction. His work has appeared in the Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Fiction, Quarterly West, ZYZZYVA, Fiction International, Notre Dame Review, African American Review, Kartika Review, Stand (UK), Quarter After Eight, Connecticut Review and 3:am Magazine, among others.