I wrote this one while working on a public benefits team and thinking about technology, the digital divide, and unevenly distributed futures. I am fascinated by the implications of our physical experiences becoming as curated and controlled as they are online — how we pay for those experiences, and what that actually costs us personally and collectively. This one also originally appeared in the 2021 Literary LEO. I’ve made a couple of edits before posting this version here. I hope you enjoy it!
Amber glances at her phone to see an automated notification from A to Z Childcare letting her know there will be an additional charge of $25 if she picks up her daughter, Dee, after 6pm. “I’m going to be cutting it close…” she thinks to herself as she walks through the automatic doors into Majors Supermarket.
An elderly man greets each customer as they walk in, but he doesn’t acknowledge Amber. She grabs a small cart, still wet from being outside, and roots through the rack of government provided Nutri-touch scanners, looking for one that actually works. She holds the scanner to her face, standing still to watch the 3-second ad for Huggies™ smart training pull-ups ’Smart parents know Huggies™ are the smart way to go’ that plays as the facial-ID recognizes her, and allows the doors to slide open.
She walks quickly, passing up the produce section. She knows she can get bread, cereal, peanut butter, cheese, and eggs for free, but she can never seem to remember which brands are allowed. It seems like it changes every time. Her first stop is to get bread, she scans a loaf and the scanner vibrates and makes an audible buzzing sound. The word “INELIGIBLE” covers the display. She scans three loaves before she finds one that is Children’s Nutrition Program (CNP) qualified. Then, before she can tap to purchase it, she has to swipe away pop-up coupons for the loaves she’d just put down. “Not enough dough? Here’s a coupon for 50 cents off Organic Valley Farms bread!”
The peanut butter in the next aisle was all brands she didn’t recognize. None of them were CNP approved. She spoke up to another woman nearby “…excuse me, ma’am, do you know if this is all the kinds of peanut butter they have…?” The woman picked up a jar and kept moving as if she didn’t see or hear Amber at all. She knows that people don’t have to pay attention to her and she can’t afford to make them. Most of the people that shop here have enough money to not see or hear anything they don’t want. Amber picked up a jar, hoping she might swap it out for a brand she could get with the nutrition program, if she could find one.
Moving through the aisles, she keeps scanning what she needs, each time having to swipe away ads for sugary cereals, snacks, and other ineligible products. When she scans the eggs, the Nutri-scanner plays a 30-second video about the nutritional value of eggs from The American Egg Board before she’s allowed to add a dozen to her cart. Every second of the video the only thing she can think about is catching the bus and picking up Dee. In her head she pictures Dee standing at the bank of windows at the daycare, nose pressed against the glass, fogging it up with each breath, waiting for her to get there.
As she is headed to the checkout she sees a Majors employee, a teenage boy, in their signature grass green vest with the slogan “We pay attention to the prices” printed on the back. She holds up the peanut butter, gestures with the scanner, and asks “Do you have the regular kind? Can you point me to it?” The kid keeps walking and a moment later the Nutri-scanner buzzes and vibrates. A notification says “At Majors we keep costs low because we pay attention to our prices — become a Majors member today for the attention you deserve.”
“I don’t have time for this shit…” She says under her breath. Determined to avoid the late charge at daycare, get her kid, and get home, she heads toward the exit.
She bags up her groceries, more ads play on the nearby screen. An ad features a smiling mom holding grocery bags overflowing with colorful vegetables in front of a smiling baby in a highchair asking “did you forget the veggies?” Amber’s groceries fit into two plastic bags with plenty of room to spare. She leaves the organic peanut butter sitting on the bagging table alongside other left-behind food, dented cans, and leaking bottles of soap. She grabs the bags and heads through the double-doors into the entryway.
In the entryway she pauses in front of the exit for one last facial scan, this one accompanied by a message from A&D Ointment reminding parents to ‘not make rash decisions when choosing the best diaper ointment.’ She steps forward in anticipation of the doors sliding open, but they don’t. A message pops up saying one of the items she has isn’t covered and needs to be paid for. Amber puts the bags down and rescans each item. All good. She stands in front of the door again. This time no ad, but the same error message and the doors still won’t open. She does it once more. Still the doors don’t open.
People are walking in to the store on the opposite side, the greeter is still greeting, and the carts are still being collected and returned to a row that separates the entrance and exit. Amber shouts over to the greeter and the guy returning the carts - “Excuse, me…I think this is not working…can you open these doors?” but again, no response.
In frustration she kicks the door. The device reminds her that she has unqualified items and that if she needs additional attention she can pay for it. She can’t pay, has already spent enough time, and isn’t leaving this food behind. As she starts to panic a woman walks toward the exit with a cart full of groceries. More than Amber has ever bought at one time. The doors open immediately and the woman keeps walking without changing her pace.
As the woman is walking out Amber runs up behind her, through the doors just before they close. In the rush she bumps into the woman. As soon as Amber crosses the threshold an alarm sounds and the woman jumps as if she’s seen a ghost. Amber is suddenly visible.
What the woman sees, isn’t just Amber, in her view Amber is followed by a glowing floating label attached that says “potential theft: has unpaid items.” The guy pushing carts through the parking lot sees her now too.
“How dare you touch me!” The woman yells. “You aren’t entitled to my attention!”
Amber keeps running, past the woman, past the guy pushing carts, through the parking lot. Hoping that she can still catch the bus and get Dee before 6. Hoping that she doesn’t get charged for that ladies attention or attract any more she can’t afford.