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It was hard enough to be forced out of my job, but it was really humiliating to be replaced by a robot. For years robots have been doing repetitive jobs like welding the same spot on products that move down an assembly line. In the last few years they have been doing more sophisticated jobs. They can assemble financial information from the internet and create a first-rate report on the market. They can take patient’s medical history as well as a trained nurse. They can even make diagnoses better than most doctors. The best surgeons now are robots. A human surgeon has to set the thing up, but the robot does the actual cutting, and the result is better than if it had been done by a human doctor.

But I didn’t believe that a robot could replace me. I’m a grief counselor. I guide people through their mourning, through the stages of disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. How could a robot do that?

I went to my office that morning and saw that my name had been taken off the door. In its place someone had painted Dr. Alistair Sim. Not Alistair Sim, MD or Alistair Sim, Ph. D., but Dr. Alistair Sim. What was going on? Some of my patients were there, looking down when I came into the waiting room. Before I could ask what was going on, the clinic director, Charles Foster, was there.

“Sorry you had to learn it this way, Frederick,” he said. “I had hoped to catch you before you got to your office. Why don’t we go to my office,” taking me by the arm.

I should have known it was coming. A few weeks ago I blew up at one of my patients, Florence Gurdey. Florence had lost her husband almost ten years ago, and she was still grieving him. Every week I listened to the same story, over and over and over again. “How can I get along without him?” she would ask. “Life has changed so much with Reggie gone. There’s nothing left for me. Blah Blah Blah.” Then she would start crying. Her chin would begin to quiver, and pretty soon tears would be rolling down her fat cheeks. Then she would bawling out loud.

I couldn’t do anything except hand her a Kleenex and say, “There, there, there.” I got so goddamned tired of listening to her go through the same act week after week that I just lost it.

“What you could do,” I said quietly, “is get off your fat ass and do something instead of sitting around feeling sorry for yourself all the time.” Of course I apologized, but it was too late.

When we got to Charles’s office, he said, “You’ve been with us--how long is it--twenty-six years?”

He knew damned well how long I had been at the clinic. No doubt he had looked at my personnel record before he made his decision.

“You’ve done a wonderful job here, Frederick, and you have earned a rest. Some of those retirement villages in Arizona are really great, I understand. I wouldn’t mind getting out of Boston myself,” he said, pretending to shiver. The temperatures had not risen above the freezing point in over two weeks, and a heavy snow was forecast for the next day.

“But I’m not ready to retire,” I said.

“I know what you mean,” Charles said, “but we have to move with the times. They have all kinds of activities there: tennis, amateur theatre, a jazz band, a book club, swimming pools. You’ll meet some old friends. Elmer Baskins is at the place we’re sending you.” He was so smooth. He never mentioned Florence Gurdey, but he didn’t have to.

“You’ll love it there,” patting me on the arm.

No, I wouldn’t. I would hate it. I knew I would hate it. I remembered Baskins, but I was never particularly friendly with him. Really I had no friends, a lot of acquaintances, but no real friends. I had no real interests. My life for the past 26 years had been the job, and now they were taking that away from me.

“I know it’s hard to accept, Frederick,” he shrugged, “but so much has changed. We have to change with it. We really don’t have a choice.”

“The one who is replacing me, this Doctor Alistair Sim, is a robot, isn’t he?”

“I know, Frederick, but if you look around, you’ll see that more and more of our staff are robots.”

“But how can they do the things that people want? How can they relate to human beings?’ I was almost on the point of tears.

“That’s just the point. Studies have shown that they are more effective than humans as counselors.”

I glared at him.

“We don’t have to send them to graduate school. We can just upload the data into their hard drive. Then with machine learning, they can pick new information more quickly and accurately than a human can. Particularly as people get older, they find it harder to adjust to new developments in therapy.”

“Older! I’m only forty-nine!”

“That means you’ll have more years to enjoy your retirement.”

“You know what you can do with your new developments in therapy!” I yelled as I stormed out of the office.

Afterwards I regretted losing my temper. I wouldn’t have minded accepting a demotion, like just working part-time or taking only the easy cases. I would get on my knees and apologize to Florence Gurdey if I had to. I was sure something could be worked out so that I wouldn’t have to retire.

But Charles wouldn’t see me, and less than a month later I was in the Peaceful Dreams retirement village in Mesa, Arizona. I hated it as much as I thought it would. For a couple of months I didn’t even come out of my condo except to buy groceries, and I wasn’t even eating much. Most of the time I just sat there, staring at the walls, a nauseous pea-soup color that I hated.

Then one day I was sitting on my porch, and someone came up and introduced himself. “Hello, my name is Malek.”

The designers are so talented that it is hard to recognize a robot these days, but I knew Malek was a robot. “You look like a chess player,” he said.

Oh, yeah? What does a chess player look like? It was true, I used to play chess, though I was never very good at it.

He pulled a chessboard out of a little case he was carrying and set up the board on the table beside me. I knew I could never compete against a robot in playing chess. What followed was more of a chess lesson than a game. Afterwards he thanked me and left. He was back the next day, and every afternoon we played chess and talked. Over time he learned a lot about me.

There was not a lot to learn about him. Once he said to me, “My memory is not like yours. You remember events that were part of your life. I remember mostly data that has been put in my hard drive and things that I learn while interacting with humans.”

I began to think of Malek as a friend and looked forward to our afternoon sessions. Then I began to wonder: What is a robot doing at a retirement village? The next time I saw him, I asked him.

He seemed flustered almost, unable to give me an answer. “I’m just a robot, Frederick,” he said. “Mine not to reason why. I just go where they send me and do whatever they program me to do.”

A few days later he was gone. No one at Peaceful Dreams could tell me where he had gone or why he had been there, but I knew. Malek was a robot grief counselor. I felt stupid because I had not seen through it before, but it had worked. He had been sent to help me through a rough time, and it had worked.

End

My stories have appeared in Mountain Laurel, Northern New England Review, Short-Story.Me, Commuter Lit, Mad Swirl, Kennebec, Every Day Fiction, Bindweed, and Bewildering Stories among others.

 

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