The Drifting Bodega
by Christopher Yusko
Issue 12: Sound | 5,269 words
Untitled, © grandfailure/Adobe Stock
I wove through unfamiliar city streets, losing myself like I’d read about on the forums, losing myself to find the Bodega. A part of me felt silly with the length of barbed wire twined around my fist. I’m a violinist, not some streetfighter! I kept my hands in my pockets to avoid drawing attention, but I couldn’t help flexing my fingers, feeling the sharp steel dimple the skin. I suppose it’s human nature to resist constraint. The pain was a reminder of my mission. A point of focus, you might say. No pun intended.
I’m not saying I was at ease. It freaked me out a little, feeling those barbs. I was months away from finishing my Masters, and our final orchestral performance counted for a full course credit. How would I perform when I cut up my hand?
I held two silver dollars in my closed fist. I was pretty sure the advice I’d read about the snack cake offering was a joke, but I dropped one into my purse as I passed a 24-hour market. Why take chances, when the little things might be so important? I was searching for my heart’s true desire. I was on my way to Oz, or the next best thing.
I’m being facetious. Heart’s true desire. That’s not my phrasing. A little too much like a fairy tale, if you ask me, but what did you expect from the internet? Flakey as the story sounded, I felt maybe a truth had been dumbed down in the retelling. Why? Maybe because no one who encountered the Attendant seemed to know what to make of her gift. The Attendant was never presented as a friendly genie. There were no guarantees.
As much as the admission pains me, something was missing from my life. True, I have talent, confidence, drive. I’ve cultivated a look, a persona. My boyfriend is a future surgeon (yes you, in case there was any doubt). Even so, I needed clarity. The semester had been punctuated by so many shocks, and for the first time, I had doubts about life after graduation. What I’m trying to say is, I’d reached a point where it didn’t matter if I believed in the Bodega or not. What could be the harm in looking? I’d be out wandering the city anyway, like I was doing most nights. Only the route would change.
Heart’s true desire. It amazed me to think it could be anything other than what I’d wanted since that day when, visiting Aunt Tiff and Uncle Tom in the city, my mother took me to that cheesy Boston Pops Orchestra performance. I was a kid then, but had things changed so much? I tried to think of what would make me happy. A mound of addys? A week of sleep? To feel at ease in my own skin?
I’m trying to be honest with you, but this is the hardest thing to admit: I screwed up. My ADHD? All made up. It’s just the addys gave me such an edge; the length of my sessions, the intricacy of my phrasing astonished me. But I let myself slide into dependency. I didn’t really think I’d be vulnerable to withdrawal, not with my willpower. It was beyond pathetic to be hooked on something so… basic! I built a tolerance to the Adderall and—this is the lowest thing—I could no longer afford what I needed.
In the weeks that followed my last pill, I could barely drag myself to rehearsal. I felt dull and sluggish. My limbs were lead bars when I started playing, and I’d soon grind down and watch the clock. Not everyone suffers that much, but I did. I almost asked if you could help me get a prescription. Thankfully I spared us that indignity.
Leading up to my search for the Bodega, the horrible listlessness had transformed into irritation and aggression. I couldn’t sleep at night, and I was lashing out at everyone. That’s right, Christian, it wasn’t PMS. Not three months’ worth (I love you dearly, but you don’t exactly counteract sexism in medicine). Whatever. I didn’t talk to you about it, and there’s nothing you could have done. My nocturnal “marathons” were the only thing that helped. I’d wander for hours. I didn’t know what else to do with myself.
I know what you’re thinking. I didn’t tell you about those outings because I couldn’t have handled the lectures. I guess Shandi thought I was spending the night at your place, if she even noticed. I can understand how all that wandering came with risk, especially for a young woman, but I’d have hurled myself from the balcony if I didn’t do something to take the edge off.
If it makes you feel any better, I was out so late I rarely ever saw anyone. And give me a little credit: I did my best to dress down. Black clothes and jeans, my cream jacket, my blonde hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. I was a bit of a mess those days, so the transition wasn’t exactly hard to manage. In a way, there was never any real danger.
It was early April when I made my pilgrimage. Gentle spring rain blurred the whole city. A swollen gibbous moon hung overhead. There was a touch of magic to the evening. All the signs were exactly right. I kept my focus on my next step, cutting through side streets on whim alone, resisting the temptation to glance at street signs. It was reckless, I suppose. I could have ended up anywhere, although I’d charged my phone and I could always call for a car. I’d also taken to keeping pepper spray in my handbag.
I had finally wandered into an unfamiliar section of the city, a worn entertainment district full of bars and diners with so many tacky slogans you’d think it was a zoning requirement (Big Dave’s Grill—We Put the South in your Mouth! or Angelos—Tastes Homemade… Because It Is). Smokers lounged outside. The buzz of electric guitars exploded into the street whenever the doors opened, played at volumes that compensated for a lack of talent.
Energized by my project, I rediscovered some of the old spark. I worked up a sheen as I walked, and I remember thinking that even if the night was a bust, I might still reach that good kind of exhaustion that would allow me to sleep.
During the worst nights of withdrawal, I’d lie awake and turn over and over, winding my sheets around me like some bulky toga until I kicked out my fury against the mattress. Far easier to give up. At those times I’d invariably reach for my laptop and stream something (there was a lot of Dr. Phil; it was comforting to watch people whose lives were more pathetic than mine) or look up whatever popped into my sleep-starved mind. Who knows what I searched for? Interviews. Gossip blogs. Medical advice. I guess.
My nights were an endless fog. That’s when I started walking. If that didn’t work, I’d come home to read online insomnia support groups as the gray winter sunrise filtered through my blinds. One night, I delurked to share my miserable routine, and someone joked that I should keep an eye out for the Bodega. From there, forums devoted to urban legends became a bit of an obsession; the story of the Bodega captivated me most of all.
There are so many rumors that it’s hard to sort them all out. The shop definitely existed; you can find archival photos on a site dedicated to the phenomena. Though it’s just the Bodega now, the store was once called The Commerce Comet, and it operated just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium.
The Comet was run by a Bangladeshi family (or Bolivians or a couple from Dayton—it depends on who you believe). It was the kind of shop that aimed to be all things to all people, a brick-and-mortar flea market where you could find anything you wanted, as long as you checked the expiration dates. True to bodega form, a huge tabby prowled the aisles, deterring vermin from moving in on its turf.
Someone on the forum once made a list of all the things people claimed to have found there. Aside from the obvious stuff, The Comet was a trove of discontinued chip flavors, exotic energy drinks, jerseys, obscure yellowed paperbacks, stoner kitsch, VHS cassettes, gripe water (with alcohol), decades-old packs of trading cards, fireworks, lube, and dreamcatchers. The owners went out of their way to sell anything that might turn a profit, and so The Comet became a graveyard of buried trends. You probably could have found Pogs there.
One day, the shop burned down. The most common story is that the owner(s) either fell behind on protection money or refused to pay. Other versions have it that someone, usually said to be an immigrant teenager—racism runs wild on these sorts of forums—lobbed a Molotov into the store. Some say the owners set the fire for insurance money, which sounds unlikely, since all versions of the story agree that no one made it out alive.
Whatever the truth, people from all over the world claim to have found the burned remains of the Bodega in their city. There are sightings in London. Jakarta. Mumbai. San Francisco. Abu Dhabi. Beijing. The shop can appear anywhere. When you walk in, you recognize it from the desolation, ash falling all around. If you’re brave enough to approach, you might meet what remains of the Attendant. And, if you bring the right form of payment, you might be given a token of your desire.
Maybe it’s a winning lottery ticket that helps you launch a business. Maybe a crumpled MTA bus map leads you to your future lover, or a one-of-a-kind study guide helps you ace the LSAT. Other stories of tokens received are darker. A woman struggling under the responsibilities of family might be offered a box of rat poison, for example. And let’s just get this out of the way: some people say that the Attendant kills unworthy supplicants. Some of the more extreme stories say she leaves victims opened up, organs piled around the body in a ring. I don’t buy that, and besides, no one has produced credible evidence.
It’s become a bit of a fad to go Bodega-hunting. There’s lore dedicated to it. The barbed wire. The silver dollar. The right season, under the right moon. An offering. There are other bits of advice, but these elements come up most often.
Ahead of me, the streets thinned in activity. It was a transition I always anticipated in my wanderings; I felt a surge of pride, if somewhat ironic, in having outlasted the crowd. The city’s rhythms were changing. The air was charged with quiet melancholy. I heard the hollow drip of water from signs and awnings, the punctuating hum of passing engines, the whirr of streetcars on their tracks. There was something else in all of this, too. An undercurrent. A strain, if an expectant silence could be music. Ghost notes. You know it when you hear it, and not until then.
Synced with that rhythm, the city flowed past me. Endless stores, gated plazas where emergency lights glowed, strip malls, darkened houses and apartment complexes, street-corner scaffolding with poster bills stapled to every inch of plywood. The parks, fountains and public squares.
I entered a recently gentrified area where bright modern facades crowded out their worn predecessors. It struck me that, no matter how lost, I always moved into ever more built-up neighborhoods. I don’t think I could have found the original city if I tried.
Nothing was open except for Mega Cup. True to character, that scuzzy chain clung to life against all odds. Mega Cup’s doors will be open when the bombs fall and only roaches are left to scuttle over the ruins. Was it your brother who told us it’s a Mafia front?
The shop interior was dimly lit. At that hour, you could be forgiven for thinking the glass pane was a reservoir holding back that stagnant amber light. One life-sick clerk manned the register, his reflection in the window a mocking double. He jumped when he caught sight of me, gawking like a sailor who’d seen a mermaid. I honestly felt a little bad. I considered buying something but remembered their coffee wasn’t much better than chemical waste. Besides, I had picked up that strain again. I was headed the right way.
I found myself on autopilot, my thoughts drifting to Clara. Dumpy heart-on-her-sleeve Clara, with her big curls and goofy laugh. I wish I understood how she’d gotten first chair over me. I wouldn’t mind losing to a better musician, but you don’t get the sense that Clara is a serious person.
Did I tell you she uses beta blockers for stage fright? It’s sad. “Those are heart pills,” you’re thinking, but musicians sometimes take them to manage adrenaline when they can’t handle performance anxiety. They’re performance enhancers, basically. I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she started using them just to keep up with me.
Looking back, it’s clear that those negative emotions were drawn from me by the Attendant. There was a charge in the air, a prickling I felt all through my bones. The first acrid notes of smoke irritated my throat. There was no obvious source. If anything, I had reached the heart of the new development. Skyscrapers stood tall around me, near-impenetrable fortresses of commerce with mirrored facades and cryptic names. All those towers and glass. On one street corner, an enormous LED panel had been grafted to the wall of a historical, neoclassical building—a bank, I saw, where a homeless man slept in the vestibule. The panel aired endless advertisements for smart phones, fast food, cars, and soft drinks. Another screen was a towering wall of projected logos. It was overwhelmingly futuristic. The cold, clean beauty of it impressed me deeply; I felt I had been whisked away to the heart of a world that was both alien and powerful.
A little further on, I hit a neighborhood that was exactly the sort of place we’ve dreamed of. Wealth was flowing in. There were billboards and electronic signs everywhere. All touted exotic-sounding businesses and promised a better, more prosperous future: Crystal Paradise Spas, New Dominion Trust, Genesis Properties Firm.
I’d lost the strain again, and I stopped to collect myself on a nearby bench. A victory arch formed the entrance to a public park, and there was a statue of a winged angel perched on top. With all respect to whatever it commemorated, the arch looked totally out of place in all that gleaming modernity. It gave me the impression that the angel had climbed up top to look for a way out.
Sitting there, it dawned on me to follow the smell of smoke to the Bodega. This proved to be the right call, and I soon arrived at a leveled lot where the steel and concrete frame of a new condo had been assembled. The latticed arm of a crane, its dangling hook limp and oddly subdued, fell against the skyline. Every few feet, the perimeter fence featured placards advertising Skyhold Condominium Corporation, with an airbrushed rendition of an elegant black glass tower surrounded by green spaces. All that greenery was a lot to ask of the sloping pit of earth I saw before me. For now, the units were a darkened hive.
From within the condo’s foundation I saw a haze of smoke and falling ash. My pulse quickened. There was a moment’s vertigo as I hopped the fence and descended the slope. It made no sense, but the shop was installed in that incomplete frame with a sign that read The Commerce Comet, with from Dusk to Dawn written in looping cursive below. The windows were sooty and obscured.
A little bell chimed as I entered the Bodega. The interior was dark and hazy and meat locker cold. Ash fell endlessly, as it had done since the day the shop burned down. Aisles of heat-warped shelving filled the space; those units that hadn’t collapsed were dense with charred product. An eerie glow shone from the freezers at the back of the store.
At the front counter was a blackened metallic shutter, with soot-clouded plexiglass panes on either side. This was nothing like the photos I’d seen, with a long, open counter packed with gum and mints and lottery tickets. The shutter was closed. There was a little slot that a clerk could pull open, which made me think of a subway tollbooth.
I caught a blur of movement behind the plexiglass shield, and I realized something had been peering out at me. I croaked out a greeting, my mouth gone horribly dry. I knew I should be bold, but I couldn’t make my legs work. My heartbeat thudded in my ears. I drew a shuddering breath, and my hand came out of my pocket.
Someone weaker might have faltered. You need to be strong: if you feel disgust, swallow it down; if you feel lightheaded, push through. I clenched my fist and let the barbs sink in. Blood beaded on my fingertips and hit the floor in a soft patter.
And with this bloodletting, bitter memories rose in me. A hundred hurts and slights. I saw myself as a child—blonde, slight, serious—dragging the bow across the violin I’d rescued from grandpa’s farmhouse when they’d put the lot up for sale. I’d been determined to teach myself if they wouldn’t get me lessons. As I grew, the dream only became more refined. First violin in a world class orchestra, a life in music, the admiration of people who mattered.
But I was sick with the knowledge that true talent goes unrecognized. It’s all a popularity contest, and I’ve never been good with those little social graces. Even as a girl I lacked the right clothes, the brands, the makeup. I was the empress of third-rate music programs, an obvious prodigy. My instructors made it clear to my parents that I needed more of a challenge, but they couldn’t afford to keep up.
If I’d left the matter up to my parents, they’d have let me plod along into an unremarkable existence, as my sisters undoubtedly will. I knew from a young age that I’d have to rely on myself if I wanted to get anywhere in life, and the violin was my leverage. I’ve put in at least four hours a day since the age of seven. With the edge the addys gave me, I was doing six hours, easy. No one had ever had to force me to practice. I made myself this way.
That’s what bothers me about Clara. Such a nice person. Ready to make time for anyone at all. I bet she’d be a great mom. Clara, with her pep talks and special handshakes, one for every person in our year. The one time Clara extended her hand to me, I glared daggers.
I wish I could lend you my ears to hear her play. She botches phrasings, slouches in her seat. First chair? Concertmaster? It’s embarrassing. Paolo is an idiot. “Oh Clara, you play with heightened feeling!” As if I don’t.
All of this simmered as I moved toward the grate. I unwound the wire from my fist as I went. The slot opened, and I set down the two silver dollars. There they stayed, anointed and useless, and for the first time, I feared my offering would be rejected. The presence behind the counter radiated waves of cold. I pictured it as a shadowy blur. I pictured it flowing through the grate. Towering over me.
I surely flinched when the blackened hand finally appeared at the slot to collect the coins. It was a woman’s hand, long-fingered, once delicate. The flesh—if it was flesh—was charred, the nails broken and partially melted.
She pushed something back through the slot, a package wrapped in kitschy butcher’s paper. This happened so abruptly that I didn’t understand what I was looking at. A huge beaming anime face with coins for eyes was emblazoned in the center of the package, crowded with cutesy, emojified livestock faces. Happy Deli! was splashed below. As a vegetarian, the overall effect was offensive.
I made no move to touch the thing. “What is this?” I asked.
A ragged hum started up behind me. Startled, I realized, seconds later, it was the sound of the freezer kicking in.
“Is this a joke?” I demanded.
The hum deepened, became an unstable growl. I felt that overwhelming polar presence behind the gate, and my breath began to spill out in vapors. Still I stood firm, shivering and massaging my wounded hand.
“I’m not touching that,” I said.
The Attendant flowed back to the plexiglass window. Although the blank white face was just a smear, I knew her eyes were on me, and I could feel her hatred. A resounding crack made me flinch as the Attendant slammed her face into that smudged pane. Though blurred, it was twisted and somehow had turned black, the jaw contorted into a permanent scream. The face slid lower with a horrid squelch, then slammed into the glass again. An awful shriek filled the space. I thought hard about the stories of the Attendant’s wrath, and I grabbed the waxy parcel and scampered back out into the street.
I didn’t stop to think about my prize until I got home. I had bled all over my jacket in the escape, but didn’t realize until I walked into the apartment. Luckily, Shandi was visiting her parents that weekend. I wasn’t exactly chipper when I tossed the package onto the counter. I had the idea it would be soggy or dripping when I finally went to unwrap it.
It was organ meat, Christian. Absolutely disgusting. I didn’t know what I was looking at. Those chunks looked big enough to have come from a human being.
I almost flung it all in the trash, but I was stopped by the idea that the gift had to mean something. Like I said, the Attendant is never straightforward, and, appearances aside, I had paid for that meat. It was going to change my life. It was up to me to figure out how to use it.
Do you realize that organ meats are rich in iron? Okay, Mr. M.D., maybe you know. Could the Attendant have been trying to tell me that my recent struggles with mood were linked to iron deficiency? I had to at least entertain the idea. Of course, then I’d be forced to consume the organs. And shut up—I haven’t eaten meat since the ninth grade. Plus, unlike you, I didn’t grow up eating stuff like that. I had no idea where it came from, or how long it had been left out. Ergo, that solution was O-U-T.
So I thought maybe this was a pun on the word organs. Like maybe it was time to learn a new instrument. Or, not organs, but organics, because I had strayed a bit from healthy eating. But if that was the message, shouldn’t I have been given a way to afford better food?
All those false starts. All those guesses.
Look, I know I was awful, okay? I couldn’t handle people, not even you. At least a blockage inside me had crumbled. I felt something. Even if that something was rage, I was able to channel it into music. I had to be careful because my hand was still healing, but I could play for long stretches, play until the playing became automatic and my mind disengaged and I could think over the Attendant’s puzzle.
As for my gift, it remained a bag of organs. Shandi was such a bitch about it. “Fucking do something about it! I’m not touching that!” I have to say, it was typical of her, making so much out of nothing. The contents never spoiled. There was no smell.
Still, there’s only so much of Shandi I can take. So I… What I did isn’t that weird. In my Greek and Roman History class, we learned how priests would burn the organs of a bull or some other animal to gain insight into the future. For them, this was no more exotic than the Eucharist. I thought, What’s the harm?
I waited until Shandi was gone for the weekend, and I set fire to the meat on the range. I had a fire extinguisher on hand, but it was a bad idea. The smell! The smoke just rolled off the pan, even after the fire was put out. Eventually the super had to clear the floor.
Afterward, I felt remorseful because I had nothing to show for it. And I had this idea that the smoke somehow got inside of me. I started to sleep more, and when I did, I’d dream of the Attendant’s gift. Never what to do with it, though. The organs would appear in a picnic basket, or I’d be late for rehearsal and couldn’t find a locker to stash them in.
Sometimes I dreamed about the Attendant herself, but when I woke I never remembered details, only that she was there. In those dreams she was no longer burned beyond recognition. There was a blank suggestion of a face above the mouth, which was deepest black, with perfect porcelain teeth embedded in black gums.
I also found that I craved meat. Obsessed over it. I caught myself from time to time standing outside a steak house or a shawarma place or even just the supermarket deli, staring at the flanks hanging on hooks. I worried I might hop the counter and indulge, a la tartare.
All the while, the concert loomed. It really is okay that you missed it; I know you needed to study, and collectively, we were hardly worth seeing. All my anxiety amounted to nothing. I played well, with few signs of rust. Clara managed not to completely fuck up, and so of course she was praised to the heavens afterward.
But I’m pleased to say that I was the more memorable violinist. When the concert was over, when the hall was empty but for us, I stood alone on stage while the players huddled around to pat each other on the back, or maybe to receive one of Clara’s stupid handshakes for the last time. From my position, I was inspired to mock my cohort with a passage from Shostakovich’s “String Quartet No. 8.” I played with ferocious speed and, in the course of playing, tore my wounded hand and bled on the fingerboard. You were sweet to be worried about my split and ugly fingers. I’m sorry I laughed. It makes me smile even now to think that you had a present for me that night. My poor Christian. The worse I treat you, the harder you try.
Still I played on. I can imagine the impression I must have left, enhanced, though I didn’t know it, by the blood that streaked my white dress. I think I gave them something to remember me by. When they think back, they’ll say, “I used to play alongside Jesse Riggs. Can you believe how they treated her?”
Graduation neared, and I had no idea what the future would bring. I was plagued by dreams. They were a poison. One night, I woke in pain and horror and found blood all over my sheets and pillow. My hand was wrapped in barbed wire, and I had been biting my fist.
Do you see why I had to go back? No one, as far as I know, had ever attempted such a thing. Would the Bodega even return to the same city? Would I still feel its compass pull? Would I be welcome?
I returned to the construction site at night and saw the same burned-out store set into the condo’s skeletal frame. It was so easy to find that I think it was waiting for me. I came empty-handed. I wasn’t there to beg. But when I started down the slope to the foundation, I faced a wall of suffocating dread. The Attendant wanted to keep me out, but I was no longer afraid of what she would do to me—not compared to what she had already done. I fixed in mind the image of my scarred hands, the sight of my poor torn mouth as I pushed my stubborn way toward the entrance. A numbing wind battered me as I forced the door. The resistance was ferocious. The hinges sang in torment as the door wavered.
I threw myself against the glass, and with that last effort, I heard the bell chime. All resistance ceased. I fell forward and gouged my arm on the push bar. I wasn’t about to show weakness, so I staggered to my feet, ready for her next assault. But I saw nothing. There was no face behind the glass. As I approached the grate, I saw only the reflected images of the charred shelves. The grate behind the counter was unlocked.
But if the Attendant is really gone, what happens to me? She was the soul of this place. Why is the Bodega still here?
This store wouldn’t have been so bad, before the fire. I checked around, and there’s more salvageable product than you’d think. I’ve been amusing myself by dreaming up music that could be piping through the speakers, coming up with the cleverest little jingles. I don’t like the word jaunty, but it fits. Alternately, little ambient loops that wouldn’t call too much attention to themselves. It makes me happy to compose them. I’m thinking of staying for a while, at least until I figure out how that parcel was my true desire.
You could join me, if you wanted. I’ve been telling you all along how to find the place, so it won’t be too hard. I want you to see what this condo is going to look like. They’ll build around us, like we got in during Platinum Launch. We’ll have music, and some of this food must have survived the fire (although I don’t seem to have an appetite). We’ll play Pog.
Maybe you won’t come, and that would be okay. I’ve said all I have to say, and I won’t write again if you don’t want to be with me. Like Dr. Phil says, “You’re only lonely if you’re not there for you.”
I’m tired now, and I’m almost ready to send this. You know, it just occurred to me. I said this wasn’t a fairy tale, but maybe it is.
I’ll listen for the sound of a bell. I hope you’ll come find me. It’s just me behind the counter now. I’m worried about what that means. Like if I’ve taken something on. And about what would happen if I tried to leave. But it’s me behind the counter, so I won’t give you a hard time. I might not recognize you at first, but that’s why I’ve given you the way forward.
Come, but not too soon. I don’t want you to see me like this, before the bandages come off. Until then, I’ll lie in the ashes, here behind the counter, blanketed in ashes.
Dreaming of music.
Dreaming of you.
Christopher Yusko spends his days working as a librarian somewhere in the frozen wastes of Canada, where he resides with his wife, two daughters, and a cat named Dave Waller. His writing also appears in the Christmas anthology Of Silver Bells and Chilling Tales.