Is this organic or not? Just one of many grocery-related questions I never asked myself before marriage. As I march nervously down the aisles of the local SaveMart, consulting a texted list of excruciatingly specific things on my phone, I think back to carefree days of my trips to the store as a bachelor. How joyful shopping used to be, gliding past infinite stocks of colorful, wonderful things that I now understand to be totally off-limits to me, things that I would buy on impulse, without a list, without reading labels, without limits.
Hunting for these crazy things that I’ll probably hate—and that, more often than not, end up being the wrong thing—is nerve-racking. As I squint to figure out what the hell difference is between brands of oat milk, I can’t help but feel another presence adding to my tension. This skinny gray robot that keeps cruising past me. I spotted it over in produce. It rolled slowly right behind me and then just stopped. Now I’m way over here in the dairy section. And he’s suddenly over here. How fast does this guy move?
He’s now all the way at the end of the aisle. Okay, the heat’s off. Back to the oat milk. No sooner do I make another life-and-death grocery decision than I look up. SHIT! A creepy set of googly eyes is staring right into mine.
Dude… can I help you with something?
I look into the robot’s eyes and I swear his crazy, dilated pupils started moving slowly in opposite, circular directions. He’s literally blocking my cart. Then his pupils fix on me, like a cell phone camera trying to focus on a target. I drop the milk carton into the cart, my heart thumping in my chest. Is this how it ends?
After a long stare, he did a slow 180 and continued down the aisle. Unlike that Chris Walken SNL sketch, I don’t feel like I “know where I stand” with this guy.
All I have to worry about there is the brand and gluten-free. I get near the shelf and DOUBLE-SHIT… there he is… waiting for me. Freakin’ Hal from 2001 A Space Odyssey is right there, like he saw my phone and knew where I was headed. Maybe he read my thoughts? He’s actually standing right between me and the linguini.
There must be 100 people in this store. What the hell?
Suddenly those big googly eyes turn bright yellow and spin, and a loud siren starts going off. Instinctively I raise my hands and take two steps back. What the fuck?!?
Human guys, not robot guys. I think one is the short-and-stocky store manager from the picture at the store entrance. The other guy is just all neck. Before I knew it i’m in some dank security office. I’m separated from my cart and directed to a small chair in front of a crappy desk.
“Tell us your name.”
I remain standing. “Dude, this is NUTS. All I know is if I don’t get this list for my wife and get home in like 30 minutes, I’m in more trouble than you can put me in.”
The store manager looks over at Igor, a tight smile appears. “Oh, I doubt that.”
“Look, all I know is I’m shopping and minding my own business when that robot thug started muscling me all around the store for no reason.”
“Marty is very good at what he does.”
Marty? Jesus. This thing has a human name.
“What is Marty accusing me of? Because, guys, I swear, all I’m doing is shopping.”
“Yea, the resemblance is striking, isn’t it?” The store manager says to Igor, who might not actually possess the gift of speech.
“Resemblance to what?”
“Six days ago we had a rather significant event in this store.” The store manager pivots to the desk and proceeds to lay out several photos which I presume came from a security camera. “There were three of them. They cleaned out an entire aisle of detergent and cleaning products.”
He pauses, waiting for my reaction. I’ve heard about these brazen robberies on the news and I literally get pissed off just thinking about the balls on these people. The real crime is suddenly coming to life right in front of me.
“And this one here…We’re pretty sure he’s the ringleader…”
Suddenly I’m looking at a close-up shot. The sandy brown hair, blue eyes, the jawline, that odd smirk. Oh man. This guy literally could be me. I freeze, speechless.
“Here’s the last pictures we got. Well, actually the pictures Marty got. Right before he smashed Marty in the head with a bottle of Tide.”
I see a bizarre montage of a man who could be me, but isn’t. It’s a monster actually, leaning over to recover a ski cap, looking up and suddenly bashing the camera lens that apparently was right on top of him at the time. This was now officially the most surreal experience of my life.
“We need your name, sir. Is this you?”
I stared at the photos for a long time before answering. No longer concerned about being implicated in this, I was suddenly confident they would see it wasn’t me who did this. This was starting to impact me differently.
“Look, I had nothing to do with this. How could I do something this awful and then come back here and start shopping like it was nothing. Who does that, seriously? I think once Marty gets a closer look at me we can clear this up.”
The manager nods at Igor, whose frame had been blocking a possible office escape. Suddenly, Marty quietly motors into the office. He was waiting just outside. He scoots right up in front of me, again demonstrating no issues whatsoever with personal space boundaries.
I can tell from the manager’s body language that he was starting to believe me. He reached behind Marty’s neck and flipped a toggle switch.
“Marty has an audio capability that we usually keep deactivated. He’s programmed to respond to basic verbal commands, either through this LED here, or with a simulated voice.”
Marty spins 90 degrees, granting the manager freer access to his features.
“Marty, take another look at this gentleman.”
I see much more in them now. A database of tens of thousands of customers’ faces. Deep concern for his handlers. Memories of evil shoplifters. Being struck hard by a heavy bottle. Eyes that had seen and processed so much.
I stared back into Marty’s eyes with new empathy.
“[SEVENTY-NINE PERCENT SURE.]” The manager’s eyebrow raises.
“Marty, a little while ago you told us you were 98 percent SURE?”
I was finally starting to feel like I knew where I stood with those disarming googly eyes. Another 20 tense seconds passed as Marty studied me.
“[NOT SURE.]” Marty’s eyes were wide with pain and regret.
The manager’s smile loosened as he flipped Marty’s secret toggle switch off. Igor moved his imposing figure away from the exit door.
“Guys, I’m really sorry about what happened here last week, but clearly I had nothing to do with it.”
“It’s been a tough time for all of us since this happened. Especially Marty.”
“He seems very… uh… loyal.”
“Funny, but the cashiers, the customer service guy, and several customers all witnessed it as it was going down, and everybody just backed off, scared. But Marty… he actually pursued the guy. Unlike people, he’s just not programmed for fear.”
Two weeks later I found myself back on the hunt-and-gather circuit, chasing down another tedious list at the SaveMart. And sure enough, while sneaking a jaunt down the forbidden potato chip aisle, there was Marty. His beady little cartoon eyes scootered in my direction. I smiled.
“Hey my guy! How’s patrol today?” I reach behind his neck for the secret compartment. I flick on his toggle switch.
Suddenly Marty’s crazy eyes start to spin yellow. Jesus!