The Bodega At The End Of The Earth
By Emma Smith-Stevens
There were microscopic organisms in Grace’s body, and she wanted them out. She thought about pouring the contents of a hot kettle down her throat; Clorox and Drano appeared in her dreams, dressed like bandits, their labels concealed by red bandanas. When she woke up, she took a hot shower. She sat down and let the water land on her head, rushing warmth down her back, soap-water rivers wrapped around vertebrae islands. When she leaned forward, the spray became a steamy wall that her face was trapped behind, and she forgot to keep crying, because she was not sure she could breathe.
No one believed her when she told them that micro organisms had invaded her body. The doctor said she was clean. Her mother just shook her head. So one day, after she pulled herself out of the shower, she went to talk to her father.
“Sorry dad. I know it’s been a while, but I need your help.” Grace looked at his sallow face, staring up at her blankly. One of his eyes looked like an eye. The other eye looked like puddle of mercury.
“There are microscopic organisms in my body. They’re not killing me, but I can feel them all the time. They hold impromptu line-dancing sessions in my abdomen when I am trying to eat. They think my lymph nodes are snooker balls. They climb out of my bellybutton while I am sleeping, and do an Irish jig atop my knee caps”
He was unresponsive. He wasn’t listening.
“Daddy, no one believes me. What can I do?”
He just lay there with his long mangy hair draped over his boney shoulders, his body a shapeless bundle under the covers. He looked like Christ fresh off the cross. Beads of sweat bubbled at his temples. He had become a vegetable years ago and continued to vegetate in a well-staffed facility boasting lush green surroundings that he would never see, and a once weekly session with a masseuse. Grace got the hell out of there.
She hailed the last remaining checkered cab in New York City and rode to the airport. She found generic, locally unspecific settings comforting.
Then, Grace did a thing she never thought she’d do. Sure, it had occurred to her, and people warned her that, if she kept it up, she would eventually do it. They said: “Grace, if you keep going to the airport, you’re bound to get on a plane one of these days.” They would say it like it was a very clever thing to say.
It was a clever thing to say.
Grace bought a plane ticket to Iceland. Of all the places in the world, Iceland had the fewest microscopic body invaders. Grace knew this from a dream.
In Iceland, people dressed differently. They wore fur like they weren’t ashamed, and nearly everyone wore orange socks. This had also been in Grace’s dream so she was prepared and wore orange socks too. She wandered until she got to the end of Iceland, which was also the end of the earth. There was a little bodega at the end of the earth that sold chewing gum, cigarettes, house plants, and Tupperware. Whatever you need. Grace bought some gum.
She sat with her legs dangling off the edge of the earth, and she looked at the sky. It was blue with silvery-white horizontal stripes. It was clean. It was enhanced by the minty-fresh tingle of the gum she was chewing.
“You are the one who no one believes,” said a voice.
Grace recognized the voice immediately.
“I am that girl,” she said. Craning her neck, she saw her father standing in the doorway of the bodega. He had just sold her a pack of gum, but his face had been totally obscured by dozens of orange scarves wrapped around his head.
“Do you know how you became infested?”
“No.” Grace took one more look over the edge, and saw that the white and blue of the sky had begun swirling together like paint mixing in a bucket. She stood and turned to face her father.
“Many things you have, or have not done made you susceptible. When you were seven, you played in the snow for too long, without mittens or a hat. When you were thirteen, you kissed Ricky Peebles behind your school gym. You do not floss properly, and certainly not consistently. You never finished your vegetables—“
“However, the real problem came when you were sleeping. You dreamt that you were in Mali. You watched as children cooked chicken in vats of boiling oil. The oil spit at the children, giving them burns the shape of dimes. You cried out and wished to be in a place without suffering, and your dream transported you to a morgue. It was not what you had in mind. You wondered if this was the best that anyone could do, and you asked to speak to whoever was in charge. That was when you were introduced to the microscopic organisms that wake you in the night, strumming your eyelashes like the strings of a banjo.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your dream took you to the ones who could remove all suffering from your life experience. You found yourself in a bodega that sold all kinds of things. Whatever you need. A man whose face was hidden behind folds upon folds of orange scarves took you into the back. Amidst the cases of beer, stacks of newspaper and boxes of Virgin Mary candles was a small gold box. It was intricately carved, and when the man removed the lid you peered inside.”
“What did I see?”
“Nothing. And you were upset. You had already given the man fifteen dollars. But he assured you that the box was not empty. He explained that, hibernating in the plush velvet interior of the box were microscopic organisms that liked to have a good time, but that they could not really let go and party without their fuel. And lucky for you, their fuel was human suffering. You didn’t think twice. You paid an extra dollar to the man and he brought you a Diet Coke. You dumped the invisible contents of the box in your mouth, and washed it down.”
“But it was just a dream,” said Grace.
“Exactly,” said her father.
“Then why are there microscopic organisms in my body ruining my life and making me suffer?”
“That you suffer is proof that there are no such organisms within you.”
“But I was so sure,” said Grace. She looked down at her feet, and felt her ears grow hot.
“No need to be embarrassed,” said her father. “We all make mistakes.”
Grace wandered back to the airport and onto a plane It was a relief to back away from the edge, as magnificent as it was. It was too magnificent. The level of magnificence was monotonous. Her gum had lost its flavor. She was happy to return to New York City, with its grey slab buildings stuck like dirty post-its onto the sooty sky. The post-its were memos reminding her that she was O.K.. That the microscopic organisms were not, and never had been. Grace no longer suffered, and continued to disregard instructions to finish her vegetables. She visited her father more often.
Emma Smith-Stevens is 23 and a student of sociology and philosophy. She lives in the Hudson Valley in New York state. She has worked as a waitress, a gift-wrapper and, briefly, as a collections officer, which is not a job she recommends. She has never been to Iceland.
Photo "Gum" courtesy of Peter H.
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