“How could a rubber duck possibly cost five hundred drops of blood?”
Ethan picked up the small yellow animal and turned it over to double-check the number. Yep, the tag said five hundred.
He shook his head, put it back, and continued shopping.
The supermarket shelves were stocked as full as the store was with shoppers. It was a Thursday afternoon- inventory day.
Any conscientious shopper knew to come on Thursday afternoon so they could find the products worth the fewest drops. Ethan was among them, and he pushed his cart with a purpose to each item on his list.
“Ketchup ketchup ketchup…” he whispered to himself.
He found it in an aisle with other condiments that glowed with a rainbow of colors. Vibrant yellow mustard, verdant green relish, and blush-red ketchup.
“Thirty-five drops, not bad…” he pondered, then checked the price.
“Seven dollars?” no amount of human suffering would make him pay seven dollars for a bottle of ketchup. Next.
“Eighty drops for three dollars, now that’s what I’m talking about, good deal,” he grinned and grabbed the bottle, but the savvy shopper in him held back. Sometimes, if you checked the bottles, one had a different number. Maybe it came through a different supply chain, or a new manager took over at the factory in Timbuktu, who knows.
“Eighty, eighty, eighty… seventy five!” he chuckled with self-important glee and tossed the bottle into his cart.
Unlike many other shoppers, Ethan didn’t have a specific ratio of blood drops to dollars that he looked for, he just kind of felt it out. Some people tried to get 2:1 deals. Two drops for every one dollar, they wouldn’t spend more than that. Ethan didn’t follow any rule. Too much work. He knew an unacceptable price when he saw one. Next on his list was ice cream. Neapolitan. He didn’t like any other ice cream.
When he wheeled his little cart into the frozen food section, the fridges lit up and dimmed with his passing. They glowed, illuminating their contents like ladies flashing their goods on the street, then shut off the light instantly, as if miffed with rejection.
Impossible, the Neapolitan was gone!
An empty shelf in an otherwise loaded supermarket.
“Excuse me,” he asked a passing attendant in a green apron. “What happened to the…”
“Neapolitan? Whew, that sold out this morning. Only two drops a quart!”
“Two drops! Wow, American made?”
“Ahh, okay, fair enough. Thanks.”
Ethan scanned for another ice cream product to satisfy his sweet tooth. He saw Neapolitan ice cream bars. They weren’t as creamy as the real deal, but it was better than nothing. He tossed it into the cart without even checking the drops, but his conscience got the better of him.
He checked it.
“One hundred and ninety-two drops!”
Now he had a dilemma. Did he put it back or keep it? Maybe he could pretend he didn’t notice. If he walked around briskly, or with his shoulders down, then maybe others would assume he couldn’t afford to shop carefully.
“Ethan, is that you?” a woman’s voice asked from behind him.
Nope, he’d have to put it back. He placed the ice cream back with authority, disgust even, and greeted his acquaintance.
“Oh, hi Mercy, how are yah?” he rubbed his short, brownish-gray hair and smiled like he didn’t have credit card debt.
“Just dandy, thanks for asking,” she said, batting his shoulder with a playfully limp hand.
Ethan laughed nervously. Mercy was a friend from the PTA. Ethan worked for the school board, so they had frequent dealings. She always made him nervous with her bouncy personality and gut-wrenching amounts of money.
“I, uh, was just putting back those ice cream bars. Terrible. One hundred and ninety-two drops!”
She clicked her tongue and shook her head, “Now how is that possible?”
Ethan shrugged, but he knew exactly how it was possible. He looked through the glowing fridge door and stared at the little, red, blood-shaped drop with the white numbers 1-9-2 stamped on it and “HSI” printed proudly in a blue seal next to the drop.
H-S-I… Human Suffering Index.
Every product sold in agreeing nations had to bear the mark of the HSI. It was an estimation of the number of people who had to suffer, in some fashion, to produce and deliver that product.
A factory in China with six-hundred employees made your cup, which was then shipped by two underpaid airline pilots and delivered by an overworked USPS employee? Your cup got a big, red, 603 slapped on the box.
Six hundred and three people suffered in some way to get you your cup for two dollars a pop.
Ethan knew that a highly processed food, like an ice cream bar, would be made by the cheapest possible means. That means foreign factories, sweatshop labor, abused cattle, carbon barfing mega-ships, and forest-wrecking paper mills.
“So you find any good deals?” Mercy asked, breaking Ethan from his trainwreck of thought.
“Uhm, ketchup, seventy-five for three dollars.”
As soon as he said it, he knew he shouldn’t have. She was much, much, wealthier and could afford to buy Zilch products. Zilch, zero, no human suffering according to the HSI.
“Oh, that’s not bad,” she said with practiced condescension, tossing her red hair.
“I thought so.”
“Well good. See you at the next meeting?”
She left the aisle. He didn’t see her put anything in her basket, and her waistline made him suspect she hadn’t touched ice-cream in years. She probably just came through the aisle to stroke her conscience. At least she wasn’t buying ice cream. Ice cream is a luxury, but not a real luxury. It’s a luxury that poor people can afford, and therefore is loaded with high HSI numbers.
Ethan turned to watch her slip away around the corner. Her easy-going gait said all he needed to know. It didn’t matter if her gas-guzzling SUV wrecked the atmosphere or if her husband lent extortionate loans for bail bonds. Her shopping cart was humanitarian. She hadn’t yet met a pang of guilt she couldn’t bribe into a dull throb.
His pride wounded, Ethan crossed a couple of things he didn’t need off his list and made for the produce section. Produce was always comforting. He could afford to buy from local suppliers, very low numbers there.
Six yams, a bag of tomatoes, a bag of onions, and a sack of potatoes; six drops.
He made for office supplies.
Pencils, eight drops, scratch that, twenty drops. They were out of Ticonderoga so he bought a cheaper variant.
“Haha oh my god look at this one!” he heard a child guffaw from behind him. Ethan knew the voice. It was Keith Cunnerman. This kid had reached a level of douchebaggery not seen since WWII. He was internet-famous, whatever that meant, and had made a brief but successful career making prank videos and shock-content.
“Two thousand drops!” he shouted at the phone in his friend's hand while holding up a stapler. No doubt they were making another episode of “Blood Bath”, a series where he and his friends tried to get the most blood drops with just one hundred dollars. They could usually crack one hundred thousand after fifty bucks.
“Oh hey! What up Mr. Chode!” Keith shouted at Ethan.
“It’s Shodd, but I wouldn’t expect you to be able to pronounce it, based on your grades,” Ethan bit back.
His friends “ooed” and “ohhed” at Keith, who took the burn with annoying grace. He was on camera. He was infallible.
“Hey, Mr. Shodd,” he corrected himself, “what’s the most drops you have in your basket right now?”
Ethan looked, it was probably still the ketchup.
“Ketchup, seventy five,” he said proudly.
“Why not Zilch brand?” Keith asked.
Ethan should have known better than to be dragged into an argument with a teenager. He rolled his eyes.
“You didn’t answer my question! Why not Zilch brand? It’s only ten bucks for a bottle… why not Zilch? I mean, personally I know I buy Bergman Brother’s ketchup because it’s got that gnarly four hundred drop count, but you care about your footprint, right? It’s not zero, so what’s the difference? I agree man, ten bucks isn’t worth seventy-five people’s lives. Why not Zilch right? It’s only ten bucks. Why not Zilch?”
Ethan pushed his cart away, not answering the child.
“Why not Zilch?” he fumed, “Let’s see that kid pay for a house and a car and a college education, then ask ‘why not Zilch’. Why not Zilch? A fucking mortgage that’s why.”
The jingle “Don’t buy filth, why not Zilch?” played in his head. It was catchy even if it was a bad rhyme, or was the bad rhyme part of it? Maybe that’s why it was easy to remember. Did the HSI take earworm into account? Because commercial jingles were definitely a form of suffering too.
Ethan made the rest of his trip quickly, caring less and less about the drops as the trip grew longer and longer. Soon, he was rushing. He hit a woman’s ankle with his cart, tossed a can so hard it dented, and he knocked over a mannequin. He made the mistake of looking at the checkout line which wrapped halfway to the pharmacy and back. This made him go even quicker. Thirty drops here, twenty there, whatever. The products were already made, right? So why did it matter what he bought? Why should he have to nickel and dime it just because someone else lost the birth-nation lottery? Maybe Keith was right. Just buy what you’re going to buy if it’s not zero. What’s the difference between twenty drops or a hundred drops? Wouldn’t he be happier with a debt-free life than a guilt-free conscience? And once he had enough money, he could afford to do both!
He was so distracted that he nearly ran into a young woman exiting the clothing section.
“Oh my god! I’m so sorry. Are you alright?” he asked in one breath before he recognized her. It was Abigail Cole, a math teacher from the high school.
She checked herself and her basket for any damaged goods, but all was well.
“Fancy running into you,” he tried to joke, but he rushed it and it sounded mean.
“Sorry, my fault,” she apologized.
Now he felt extra bad. He almost ran into her and now she was the one apologizing.
“No no, it’s my fault,” he said, but now it sounded like a useless platitude. Nonetheless, she smiled and hefted her basket onto the edge of his cart to adjust her arm.
He tried to peek into the basket, but couldn’t get a good look.
“Thanks,” she said, picking the basket back up. “My shoulder’s been all out-of-sorts this morning.”
“You’re too young for that,” Ethan said.
“Softball,” she said, throwing a mock pitch.
They stood there only another moment before he tried to move on.
“Are you okay?” She asked as he started to move his cart.
He stopped and looked at her. He had always had a soft spot for Abigail. She was a legalistic union supporter who made his life hell in meetings, but she always brought homemade cookies and genuinely cared for the kids. Perhaps it was because she was fresh out of college and could afford to put in the extra mile, unlike her burnt-out colleagues. Good ol’ 7–2:30 warriors. Half the staff were in their cars before the kids were on the busses but not Miss. Cole, she tutored most days and ran clubs the rest.
Ethan answered her question, “Oh, ugh, yeah I’m okay. I just ran into that Cunnerman kid.”
“No, her brother, Keith.”
“Oh, I see,” she laughed. “Yeah, he can get under your skin. Was he making another video?”
“Yeah, makes me sick,” he said sanctimoniously, “I just don’t see the joy in reveling in other people’s suffering.”
She nodded and kept her gaze on his. Without saying anything, or even prompting him to speak, he understood that he should keep talking.
“I mean, I try my best to do my part, right? I spend wisely but not out of my reach. If I were to go buy Zilch products every time I would be poor, and then what? Then I’d have to shop at a dollar tree where I might as well be a leech! Every product in there is from some third world hell-hole with a million blood drops on it at least, right? I can’t do that to myself, er, anyone else really. So I have to make some concessions, you know?”
Her blue eyes hadn’t moved. She nodded very gently but still didn’t say anything. What was it about teachers that made you keep blabbering when you knew the answer was wrong?
“I won’t stand for it!” he finally said with a righteous hand slap to the cart and a jaunty grin. “I’ll just keep buying what I can and saving drops where it counts. That’s all you can do, right?”
She nodded again, more vigorously, and her long straight hair fell away from her ears. That’s when a dazzling glint of white caught his attention.
Even before the HSI, everyone knew about the suffering diamond companies had caused.
They were no longer fashion, they were a statement: an anachronism. Since HSI started, diamonds had become tremendously unpopular. DeBeers was a shade of its former self and it shared a plinth in the museum of shitty companies right alongside Enron and Comcast. Diamonds, real diamonds, were a rare sight today.
“I like those,” he said, pointing to her ears.
He didn’t really. Well, he did but he knew she wouldn’t take it that way. He said it just to make sure she knew that he knew that she was wearing diamonds.
She rubbed her ear and smiled brilliantly. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment.
“Oh, thanks. They’re my favorite studs. They were my great grandmothers.”
“Ah, so they were bought years ago, that makes it all better I guess. It’s pretty easy to forgive an atrocity when it was executed by your ancestors,” he thought.
“That’s a neat heirloom.”
“Thanks!” her cheer was bothering him more than Keith’s cruelty.
He tried to get her to do something, anything, that would ease his mind. He had to feel superior to someone before he left the supermarket so it might as well be her.
“Say, you’re a math teacher. Maybe you could help me out with ratios.”
“Do you have an HSI ratio you use? Like 2:1 for produce or 6:10 for office supplies or something?”
She shook her head.
“Oh, okay…” he wanted her to give him a concrete answer. He wished she had said something that would let him measure his contribution to society: to quantify and weigh it against a feather on Michael’s scale.
“It’s just that Keith kid, you know? He tried to make me feel bad about buying something other than Zilch products. It’s stupid, right? No one can afford to hurt no one. And they don’t make some kinds of products! Zilch isn’t big into electronics so their smartphones are terrible. Can barely check emails on them. I mean. It’s silly right? If I buy something for one measly blood drop, then what’s the difference between that and zero? It’s statistically negligible,” he said, trying to throw in some math language.
She nodded again, not saying anything. She was doing that teacher thing.
“It’s a trick question!” he said. “Eureka, haha, what weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? I feel bad about being poor or I feel bad about others being poor. Same thing, right? So I might as well be comfortable.”
She shrugged, “If you say so.”
“Well, I’m glad I ran into you, ha! Pun intended.”
He pulled his cart back so she could pass, but before she walked away she turned back.
“You asked about ratios. Well, there is one you might be interested in.”
“It’s what you asked. The difference between one and zero.”
“What is it?”
“A ratio of 1:0 is undefined.”
He shook his head and chuckled.
“Undefined. So the answer is whatever I want it to be?”
Her earrings glimmered as she shook her head from side to side.
“It doesn’t mean nothing, but it’s not defined either. If you really wanted to define it… If you really want the difference between 1:0, it can also be expressed as infinite.”
Ethan didn’t move from that spot even after she had checked out and left.
He didn’t move when he saw Keith taking a picture of a candy bar with an eight hundred on it.
He didn’t even move when they opened up a new lane at the registers two aisles away.
He was still thinking about what she said. The difference between a zero and a one.
Someone: no one- infinity.
Ethan pushed his cart to the closest lane, apologized to the cashier, and left it on the side of the aisle.
He left the store empty-handed. He’d have to come back eventually of course, but he’d have to do some saving first.