Paris, at Night

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Today was rice day, fifty-pound sacks of white rice in trucks bearing an elephant logo. The same happy elephant appeared on the bags, its head raised to the sky, the trunk curved like an S.

"Elephant," Todd said.

He said it because a laborer was staring at it intently. Which meant he wasn't working.

"That's right," the man said. "I couldn't remember the word."

He was the only other human at the loading dock this morning. The man didn't have a name, just a number, like the rest of the robots.

"Let's get back to it, 8831, okay?"

"Yessir," the man said.

That could be me, Todd thought as he watched him work side by side with his silent mechanical counterparts, lifting, carrying, and dropping bags of rice from the back of the truck to the warehouse. A bad car accident, a bad fall from a ladder, and that could be me.

Or a bad memrip.

AT LUNCH, Todd thought of things he could sell. Everything he owned of any value, he could touch: his grandfather's watch, his grandmother's wedding ring, a gold necklace belonging to some forgotten relative. His car, too, but that was out of the question as he needed it to work.

He got up from his chair and scanned the floor below, the robots still working away, a sea of metallic shoulders rising and falling in unison, strangely beautiful in a way. Over by the forklift sat 8831, his eyes as blank as the piece of bread he was eating.

Two weeks from today was Todd's thirtieth wedding anniversary, and even if he were to pawn the watch, the ring, and the necklace, he knew he wouldn't even come close to having enough for Paris. That's where Sue had wanted to go for as long as he could remember. They didn't have the money to honeymoon there, but that was okay because back then, there had been plenty of time. They were young, both healthy and working, so they would save a little here and there and in a couple of years, they would be walking up to the Eiffel Tower at night arm in arm, find themselves underneath the arch and look up at the beacon that shined on this city of lights.

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But then came two sons and three recessions and a second mortgage. A hysterectomy for her, a double bypass for him, and now here he was, nine years short of retirement, supervising a team of robots and a retarded man, thinking about folks who could sell things they couldn't touch, like stocks and bonds and whatever else he couldn't even fathom, people with money who would pay to experience another's most cherished moments.

Silly. That would be Sue's word for it if this were a story she'd overheard. For a trip, a goddamn trip, what a silly thing to do.

But it was more than a trip. It was their life together. There was life and there was death, and it seemed to Todd that if he waited any longer, there wouldn't be a difference between the two.

He opened the filing cabinet and rifled through the folders. In all the years he'd been here, only a handful of human workers had come and gone. All of them were handicapped in some way; they came through the city welfare program, and 8831 was no exception.

Name: Lopez, Manny

Age: 46

Tax Status: Married

Disability: Neural Trauma

Neural Trauma. It was worth a shot.

Manny's wife picked up on the second ring. Todd told her who he was, and after he assured her that her husband was not hurt, he was fine, he was a great worker, he asked her what he wanted to know. She listened without interrupting him, then there was a lengthy silence.

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