THE REAL ONES

Once a week I go to this fancy sandwich shop across the street from the courthouse. Lawyers and courthouse staff eat there. I was standing in line to order my chipotle steak sandwich. The sandwich makers know I always order the chipotle steak sandwich so they start making it as soon as I walk in.

This lawyer I once worked for was yelling at the cashier girl.

I worked for this lawyer for about three weeks before I walked out in the middle of the day because I thought I was going to beat him to death. All he did was yell and corner me in my cubicle and throw files and staplers.

He was holding up the line. Wearing a peacoat like a real piece of shit.

I took a half-sidestep out of line, bellowing, “Hey Bob.”

He turned and saw me. His eyes went wide.

“When are you gonna die?” I asked with a dead stare.

Some people chuckled. The cashier chuckled. I wasn’t laughing. Neither was Bob. Bob’s face turned red. He stammered but nothing came out. He shut his yap and paid and took his wrapped sandwich and left.

I ate my steak chipotle sandwich. The chipotle oozed through the flank steak. I looked at the paintings and photographs covering the walls. The sandwich shop has this watercolor portrait of Jim Harrison I like to sit in front of and stare at like a deer about to be hit by a semi. The colors are psychedelic and when I stare into the painting, the painting stares back like a gateway to another world.

I used to read at this coffee shop called the Redeye. It’s near my work and the sandwich shop. The Redeye was cool. Cool music. Cool goth baristas. Cool paintings for sale on the walls. Weird abstract shit with impossible price tags. I liked to stare at them while taking quick breaks from whatever book I was reading. 

They had this giant leather couch in the backroom by the bathrooms. Everything was dark except for a little dark metal reading lamp. I’d get my 16 ounce, 3 shot Americano with an inch of room for cream and go read on the couch until I had to go back to my shitty debt collection job at the law office. Over time the couch became mine. The baristas would see me walking in and get my drink ready like I was a giant impatient baby. Overtime I became known as the weird book guy. 

But then the coffee shop closed. They got robbed a few times. It’d been around since the 90s.

I started reading in my car but it wasn’t the same. 

I bought a new phone because my old one died.

This new phone had a camera. The camera is amazing to me. I made an Instagram account and started walking around on the lunch break taking pictures of graffiti, alley cats and weird things I encountered. 

My dead friend’s symbol is tagged around the Old Town Saginaw area. I always take pictures whenever I come across a new tagging. I don’t know who tags them but they do a good job. It’s a tattoo he designed and had done behind his right ear. My friend got shot and killed. 

After eating I walked down to Niagara Street, smoking a Black & Mild. I was underneath one of the bridges taking pics of new graffiti with my phone. I feel like more people should see the things I see. Most people will never go underneath this bridge. 

It was cold. Winter. Half frozen gray soupy slush over hard crumbling concrete. All the buildings on this street are abandoned. Wind howls down the street and under the bridges like a funnel. All these buildings are broken into and covered in graffiti. Two streets down from the sandwich shop. That’s how these places exist. Right next to where lawyers eat. One street over can be a change nobody gives a fuck about.

I could take pics of the drug addicts or corner boys but I don’t feel good about putting people in my lunch pics.

One of the crackheads I know walked towards me. We were standing in the middle of the street. No cars come down here. He used to be in a wheelchair but he seemed fine now. He was by the river with his crackhead friends who weren’t as friendly. One thing about crackheads is they’re always chewing on something.

“What up, man?” he asked. Talking through the white chunk in his mouth. Maybe it was a scrunched-up straw. “We takin donations today,” he said. This is how he asks for money.

“Yeah sure. Here, man.” I gave him a dollar from my wallet. I used to buy him juice when the Redeye was open and help him get his wheelchair up the steps.

He was wearing a hoodie under an unzipped Carhart. He asked how I’d been. He hacked up a thick loogie and spat into the slush. He lit a Newport. I think he had a disease. His eyes were yellow and his skin was discolored.

He bumped me in the shoulder with the back of his hand. “It colder than a mug out.”

The cold wind blew off the river. “Yeah, dude. Its fucking cold as shit.”

We bitched to each other about rent. He was at a shelter. I was struggling. I didn’t make enough money to breathe air. Like the world wants to kill me simply because I existed. My toes were frozen from standing in the slush. I could feel the cold wet soaking through my thick slip-on canvas shoes. I have boots but I can’t wear them because right now I need the cold. It’s refreshing. I want to go back to work with the cold clinging to me. It makes me feel like I actually accomplished something for the day. Something I can’t get from sitting in front of a computer. 

A whooshing sound came from the concrete wall behind the bridge pillars. A swirling electric-blue portal opened up, lightning flashed, blue smoke rose. Three tall figures walked out of the portal followed by a little green guy in spiky metal armor and a long spear-axe weapon thing. The figure in front had bright exotic feathers draped around his neck. Like glowstick feathers.

“Oh, fuck this. I’m out. I can’t stand these motherfuckers.” My crackhead friend punched his fist into his hoodie pocket, hunched his shoulders and walked back to the river shore.

The group of four approached me. I tried to ignore them by focusing on taking a pic of anime graffiti. I focused on the graffiti in an exaggerated manner, as to say: There is no possible way I can be bothered.

“You, sir.” The robed leader’s finger pointed at me with a green reptilian hand appearing from the end of his robed sleeve. He had long black claws.

I looked at them and they were all lizard people. The little green guy looked like a goblin on steroids. 

I took a drag of my Black & Mild, looked around to make sure they couldn’t possibly be talking to anyone else. “Who, me?” I said pointing at myself.

The lizard leader assured I was who they were addressing.

“Do you know if the Redeye coffee shop is still closed?” He asked.

“Uh… yeah. It’s still closed. Sorry.” I exhaled smoke.

The three lizards tossed their heads back and hissed and cackled, their forked tongues flickering into the air. Their lizard voices echoed off the ceiling of the metal bridge above. Junk cars rumbled overhead.

 I could see their sharp teeth. The goblin guy hoisted his war spear into the air, pointing it at me. I put my hands in the air as if being arrested and said, “Woah. Guys, chillout. I just answered the question.”

One of the lizard guys spoke to the goblin guy in a harsh language I can’t explain. The goblin lowered the spear but eyed me suspiciously.

The lizard to the right of the leader threw his fist into the air in frustration and shouted at the rusted graffitied bridge above us, “Please help us! We need coffee!” They all hissed in distress again.

“Alright. Alright. Jesus fucking Christ. There’s a new coffee shop over the bridge.”

“The what?”

“It’s like this new place the city opened and it’s full of food stalls and shit. The one barista who worked at the Redeye works there now.”

“Oh really? This is promising, indeed,” said the leader.

“Which barista?” Asked the lizard person to the left of the leader.

“Um.” I held my hand horizontally in a way that suggested the height of someone who is very short. “It’s that little gay guy.”

They threw their heads back and hissed in unison. “He’s our favorite!”

“Can you take us, human? You will be righteously compensated.” 

I looked at my phone. I had to be back to work in twenty-five minutes. I have an hour lunch.

“Sure, but we gotta make it quick. Come on, I parked up on Hamilton.”

They followed me up the sidewalk in a single file line like I was the leader in those old fantasy games where you trek great distances through the world map.

I drive a small four-door car that gets terrific gas mileage. I looked at the spear the goblin was carrying. It wasn’t going to fit in my car and looked extremely sharp. I opened the trunk and he was barely able to stuff it inside. The spear was heavier than it appeared. It had strange meandering runes and symbols carved into it. It cut a thin straight line through the carpet lining of my trunk. I lowered my head, shook and sighed. Regretting this already.

The leader of the lizard people got in the passenger seat, the other two lizards and the goblin piled into the back seat, the goblin sitting in the middle. I started my car. I heard a series of pops and tears, coming from the backseat of my car. I turned around to see the goblin’s spiky metal armor ripping into my seat. The goblin’s eyes darted around confused. I shook my head, swore under my breath and put my car in drive.

I took a left up to North Michigan Avenue, to the left was a Chinese restaurant with my dead friend’s symbol tagged on the sign out front. I felt a tinge of numb anger and sadness settle in my chest.

We turned right and I got on Genesee Ave. and went over the railroad tracks and the bridge. I turned right onto a little side street to park on, right by this art gallery the city was trying to open but had been under construction forever. The place was fucking busy. I’d only been to this new center a few times. I don’t like new things. I don’t like being around a lot of people. I get flustered and it can last the rest of the day.

“We’re here,” I said. Putting my car in park, throwing my Black & Mild out the window. 

“We can’t go in,” said the leader lizard. 

“Why the fuck not?” My brow cringed.

“We don’t have permission from the owner of the establishment. Also, we need to carefully break down specific energy barriers before we can enter through a new doorway.”

“What fucking barriers.” I was getting pissed.

“Sorry, human. No disrespect, but you wouldn’t understand the intricacies of interdimensional travel.”

I shrugged and told him he’s probably right and that I don’t understand a lot of things about my own dimension.

“Here is our order, human.” The lizards waved his hand in the air. Little floating glinting orbs buzzed around his hand. I saw in my head the order. Like the coffee order had been carved into my brain from birth.

The goblin needed a cup of whip cream with sprinkles.

The lizard sitting behind the leader needed a latte but with half soy, half almond milk and heated up to 260 degrees Fahrenheit.

The lizard sitting behind me needed venti coconut milk mocha Frappuccino with extra ice and extra mocha.

I turned around to tell him, as if he were a small child, that this place just uses syrup mocha, not the real powder mocha like the Redeye. He hissed in defeat, his forked tongue flickering around serrated teeth.

The leader wanted a hot grande mocha with skim milk and no whip cream and an extra shot of espresso.

I told them I’d be back in like 10 minutes and to not go anywhere. To just stay in the car.

I walked across the street. Different little shops everywhere. Some people tried handing me their business cards. They tried stopping me to tell me what it is they do at their little shop. Like fixing computers, selling magic crystals or baseball cards.

I found the coffee stall. They had a custom neon sign hanging up above the bustling shops. There were a few people in line ahead of me. I shoved my hands in my coat pocket and waited. I didn’t feel my phone. I looked around in my pants pockets but couldn’t find it there either. My new phone is humongous. I must’ve left it in the car. I thought about running back to get it. I was scared of the lizard people finding my phone and dialing 911 or downloading an interdimensional tracking app.

Fuck.

The people ahead of me were almost done and if I went back for my phone I’d never get back to work on time.

The barista recognized me.

“Hey, what’s up, dude? Haven’t seen you in a while.” The way he said “dude” was always exaggerated. Like it was something he never said, or maybe he was making fun of me.

I rubbed my hands together. “Yeah, man. Good to see you’re working again. How you like the new place?”

He said he missed the Redeye and I told him I missed it too. I missed my couch in the backroom.

I gave him the long coffee order from perfect memory. I said it like an android reciting baseline code commands to its creator.

He looked at me like he was worried. “You know what. This is weird but there were a few regulars that’d come to the Redeye with this exact order. They always came in single file and left single file. Creepy honestly.” His face contorted. His face went blank for a split second. “I can’t remember what they look like but me and Savannah used to joke that they came out of a portal. You remember Savannah, right? The girl with the hair?” He cocked a hip to the side and pointed at me with his wrist bent.

“Shit. That is fucking weird. I don’t know. Life is just so fucking weird sometimes, huh.” I spoke to him like I had an invisible gun pointed at my balls. Like I was trying to shoo him away.

He looked at me offended. We always talked about random stuff. But here I was, trying to hurry up and get coffee for lizard people. “Yeah. I’ll just get you that coffee, my dude.” He said this with a slight eye roll.

He made everything superfast. With the espresso machine bubbling and the milk steamers hissing. The blender blending. 

Whenever he finished a drink, he put it into a cupholder carrier thing. I didn’t have my phone so I stood around with my hands in my pockets like a dumbass and waited. A security guard eyed me down like they always do. All the people passing by were making me feel Claustrophobic.

The bill was $25. 

Holy fucking shit. I didn’t have enough cash so I used my card and I tipped him a $10. I’m super bad at math so I don’t know what a good tip would be and I felt bad for being an asshole so I figured the tip was fair.

I walked gingerly to the exit. Hiking my shoulders up so the coffee wouldn’t bump and spill onto anything or anyone.

Once outside I heard this blaring stereo sound coming from the parking lot. I crossed the street and as I got closer, I discovered the noise was coming from my car. The lizard people were playing death metal at top volume. They must’ve plugged my phone into the AUX cord.

Sometimes, on days I’m tired, I recline my seat all the way back, put my hood up and blast death metal. It’s like my car turns into a healing pod. Like the music replenishes me so I can get through the workday.

Now the lizards had their hands on it. Now I know what my car sounds like when I’m healing inside of it.

I walked up and set the coffee on the roof and opened the door. The deep screams blasted out, striking me in the face. The lizards were calmly sitting in my car. I yelled for the leader to turn it down. He exhaled a thick blue smoke. The music shut off when the smoke touched my phone.

“I got the coffee,” I said, handing the leader the cardboard carrier tray.

His forked tongue flickered out as he took the coffee. He handed the goblin his cup of whip cream. The goblin immediately ate the entire cup in one big inhaling chomp.

We started driving back. I had to take a little side street along the river then got on the main street to get onto the bridge. 

I heard the train whistle ahead. The train whistle in Old Town acts as a starter pistol for a race with the train. I sped up. I came around the sharp right corner of Remington Bridge, my tires squawked on the cold concrete.

The train was just coming into dock.

There was a train station on this side of the river and whenever a train arrived it sat there for about an hour. It cuts Old Town in half. The city is literally old. The infrastructure has never been updated or reconstructed. Everything is cobbled together. Most of the side streets don’t have names. Its patched concrete over patched concrete.

The train is rusty with graffiti. It clunked to a stop. The red crossing lights blinked. Traffic stopped. 

I was going to be late now. But I knew a way around.

I turned the wrong way down a one-way that went alongside the docked train.

I turned right and went over this patch of dirt connecting the road and the parking lot of an abandoned warehouse building. I sped through the vast empty parking lot, through the garbage and across the tracks of where the train hadn’t arrived yet and made my way back onto the road. I zig zagged through side streets with no names, lined with old abandoned homes from the lumber baron days.

“Human, if we don’t get back to our portal on time we’ll be stuck in this realm for the foreseeable future.”

I stomped the accelerator of my tiny stupid car. My car shook, rumbled and clunked over the potholes and uneven cement. I whipped back onto Niagara after cutting through an abandoned machine shop parking lot.

I sped down the road. Made it underneath the bridge, slamming my brakes so my car stopped right in front of the swirling portal. The lizards piled out. The goblin ran and jumped into the portal like a kid with Down’s Syndrome cannonballing into a pool.

The leader turned to me and told me thank you.

I told him no worries. He looked back at the portal and seemed to hesitate.

“You don’t seem to comprehend how important this coffee is to us. If there is anything I can do to reciprocate the favor please do tell me now.”

I waved my hand and said, “honestly, dude. Don’t worry about it. It made my lunch break a little more exciting for once.”

“Do you wish for the vanquishing of any enemies?”

I gazed at him. I lowered my eyes and thought. “Um… well actually my friend got murdered a few years ago and the guy who did it is still walking around.” I almost didn’t hear myself say it. I felt like I said it more to myself than to him.

The lizard reached into his black robes and revealed a pink crystal ball. The crystal ball was cradled into a tangle of thick black vines or tree roots. The ball seemed to have a fog floating inside of it.

“If you put this crystal ball in the microwave for a minute and thirty-five seconds it will summon an assassin to kill your enemy.”

I took the cold crystal ball from him. “What?”

“If you put this crystal ball in the microwave for a minute and thirty-five seconds it will summon an assassin to kill your enemy.”

“Oh. What power setting?”

“What?” he said.

“For the microwave. What power setting?”

“The most powerful setting you have.”

I nodded.

“Farewell, friend,” he said with the wave of his green-scaly black-clawed hand before turning around and disappearing into the portal right as it closed behind him and was just once more a spot of cold gray graffitied concrete.

I walked back into work ten minutes late.

Nobody noticed.

***

I live above the law office. A little studio apartment made for me. It’s the only rent I can afford. My lawyer boss docks my rent from my pay.

The crystal ball was sitting on the round wooden table I eat my TV dinners at. I was staring into it. Trying to see what was beyond the shifting pink fog.

I sipped my beer. Feeling the wet cold foam on my mustache.

I thought of the night my friend got killed. It was at a house party.

The crystal ball started to play my memory of the night like it was a movie. I took another drink of beer and watched as the fog faded and I could see the slummy living room where it happened.

It was about two in the morning. The party was winding down. We were all lounging around the slummy living room.

My friend was standing in front of the door. It was dead winter outside. He had just put his coat on and was smiling at everyone sitting on old puffy couches before him. I asked what he was smiling about and he said he was going to miss this place.

We all laughed because nobody misses this place. Everyone tries to get out of this place and not look back and we were the ones left behind.

My friend looks younger in the crystal ball.

The gunshots started. They made me jump. They zipped through the drywall and windows. A bullet shot through the square window in the door and struck my friend in the back of the head and he collapsed dead. But we weren’t sure he was dead. That’s how it is when someone dies suddenly in front of you. You don’t know for sure. The for sureness doesn’t take effect until a moment later. A moment can be a long time when you are being shot at. But we found out. He left us behind. He was here and then he was gone. He wasn’t coming back.

The crystal ball faded back to fog as we ducked for cover from the bullets.

I sat back in the old wooden chair. I looked up at the dark ceiling.

I sighed.

I got up and looked at the microwave. I opened the microwave and looked inside. It needed to be cleaned. I picked the crystal ball up from the table and stood in the middle of my apartment. I went to the closet. I knelt down, reached inside my right boot and took out my pistol wrapped in a blue oil rag. I put the crystal ball down and I took the clip out of the pistol and looked at the bullets. I clicked the clip back in. I picked the crystal ball back up.

I had the pistol in one hand and the crystal ball in the other. I looked at my left boot. I wrapped the crystal ball in another blue oil rag and stuffed it inside my left boot. It was a tight fit. The crystal ball wedged in the calf of the boot.

I closed the closet door, shut off all the lights in my upstairs studio apartment and laid on my cold futon but couldn’t go to sleep. My chest thumped and I felt drawn to the crystal ball. But I thought about my friend before the murder. I use a technique where I envision a white eraser board filled with everything bad, everything I don’t want to think about. My hand is giant. My hand slowly erases things from the board. I erase the murder. The erased murder leaves smudges on my hand. It’s a daily struggle. I’m going to attempt to use this same technique on the crystal ball next time I look into it.

— Jon Berger lives in Saginaw, MI. His poetry collection Saint Lizard is forthcoming at Gob Pile Press.