I was on a late night Walmart run when the idea for my novel, Discount, struck me. The impetus was a jar of peanut butter; I don’t remember which brand. But I do remember staring intently at the price, trying to log all the factors of its cost: farmers, tractors, fertilizer, gasoline, pesticides, truck drivers, trucks, advertisers, human resource personnel, accountants, pallet jacks, pallet jack operators, stockers, cashiers, cash registers, receipt tape, plastic bags, taxes, profit margins, and management. The calculation seemed endlessly complicated, even more so when I realized that the prices of resources and equipment plugged into their own endlessly complicated equations. The efforts of countless people were factored into this number: pennies, minute fractions of pennies.

If life is measured in time, and value is measured in money, what is our time worth? What are we worth? How do we all, somehow, fit into the calculation? The first grade teacher who taught the truck driver how to read the signs on the highway has her fraction of a penny, as does the worker who laid the asphalt. Anyone who buys–who makes a choice to patronize one store over another or one brand over another–affects the price. All of us, from the peanut farmer to the person with a deadly peanut allergy, are factored into the price, bound together inside of it.

Walmart is capitalism incarnate. In many ways, they are the ultimate consumer advocate. They are a corporation fighting other corporations in order to lower costs for themselves and their customers. They don’t build skyscrapers with the customer’s money or fly around in gilded private jets. This business model has created fantastic wealth for the people at the top, of course. But it could be argued that Walmart has made money by saving money for the consumer. What could be wrong with that? But everything is eventually manifested in the price tag. We affect the price and we are affected by it. In order to lower prices, big-box stores must devalue labor–not just the labor of sweatshop workers in third world countries, but labor in general, labor as an idea. They must devalue resources. There is an invisible price. We work and we consume. We are hurt by big-box stores, and we are sustained by them.

Every poor person I know shops at Walmart, myself included. The cocoa in our chocolate, the gas in our tanks, the lithium in our batteries—a trip to the weekly farmers’ market doesn’t cleanse us, and fair trade coffee is a dubious marketing tool. Sanctimony is expensive, and not all of us can afford it. Walmart and the embattled local grocer both benefit from the same global disparities. We (Americans) benefit from these disparities: from desperation, from lax or nonexistent labor laws and environmental regulations. Our children benefit from hungry children. I do not know what to do with this information, and I have nothing to preach. I’m glad my children are fed. And I don’t want to think about how they are fed any more than anyone else does. I benefit. I am complicit. And it gets better, because I can disavow my complicity. I have no power over this. I didn’t start a war over the oil that pushed me to the office this morning; I voted for the other guy.

Walmart’s executives enjoy the same plausible deniability. They don’t implement policies that short employees on their hours; they issue official policies that insist that their employees should be paid for every minute of work. They don’t instruct stores to fire employees for dubious reasons when they—after long years of working their ways up the ladder—are making too much money, and can be replaced with new, more cost-effective bodies; they write policies and press releases that laud the opportunities they provide. What they can do is set cost goals that are impossible for store managers to meet without resorting to these tactics. They can tighten the belt and turn a blind eye while middle-management does the dirty work. In short, they do the same damn thing we do when we shop there, when we shop anywhere. They demand and disavow.

I worked at the Walmart deli, a choice position because of the fact that you could squeeze two meals a day out of the store. Every morning Blanca[1], the woman who made the foot long sub sandwiches for the island cooler, cut an inch from the middle of each sandwich and fed them to her deli coworkers for breakfast. We looked out for managers while we stuffed cold cuts and fried chicken bits into our mouths. This was against store policy, but it was hard to feel guilty. Every day we threw away sickening amounts of perfectly edible food: roasted chickens, cold cuts, and cheeses. We filled giant gray trashcans with food and dumped it in the chute all day long.

Deborah stuffed the buffalo chicken bits into her mouth all day long, until the right side of her body seized and they measured her cholesterol above 600. She was at work the next day with one droopy eye. When I threw away the fried chicken, I made sure to leave a few piece in a bag on top of a piece of cardboard for Jim, who conditioned the island coolers and told stories about executing wounded Japanese soldiers on the beach. Louie and I smoked weed together when our lunch breaks synched up. He broke seedy, brown weed on the coffee table and loaded his pipe while his daughter lay on the floor in front of us playing Playstation.

I woke at five in the morning, even when I felt like putting my feet on the floor was impossible. I swept and mopped and scrubbed the vents on the fryer. I seasoned the chickens and burned my hands in the rotisserie oven. I worked until three and came home too exhausted to write, too exhausted to think, too exhausted to do anything but eat dinner in front of the TV, go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again. When it came time for my ninety-day performance evaluation, the manager had high praise. I received “beyond satisfactory” scores in every category. When I began to submit the novel to publishers, I included my “beyond satisfactory” ninety day evaluation at Walmart in my bio. Some of the book people were amused by this, but I was not trying to be cute. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I am proud that I was able to do it well.

I realize that it is myopic to assert that life is measured simply in time, and that value is measured simply in money. I worked on my novel, Discount, for nine years. Many nights, I started drinking coffee at 11pm, wrote until I saw the sun breaking, then tried to fall asleep before it rose. It is highly unlikely that this book will earn me more money than I would have made working the same number of hours at Walmart for seven dollars an hour. And I certainly don’t mean to assert that a human being’s worth is quantified by a paycheck. My compulsion to write this book had very little to do with money. Most of our contributions to the world are made off the proverbial clocks: reading to our children, supporting our friends, kissing our lovers on the eyelids. But we are also fractions in the number, the price. It is, in the lager context of people we will never meet or interact with, how we affect and interact with the world as a whole. We are humans: living and dying, consuming and providing, hurting and soothing, inseminating and multiplying. We are also micrograms of copper, fractions of pennies.

[1] Not her real name.


Casey Gray teaches English at New Mexico State University. His work has appeared in Ploughshares.

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