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May 1, 2009 | Fiction

The Quality Controller

T. M. De Vos

The Quality Controller photo

He was temping at a website, one of those online radio stations that you could customize based on music you already liked. It was backed up by evidence, a tab you could click to find out which of your preferences was responsible for bringing you the changeling you had just panned. Some glitch had been causing unrelated songs to get into the mix, and his job was to view accounts at random and throw in a favorite seed song if the user clicked "I Hate It" too many times in the previous hour. It seemed an anachronistic way to handle the problem, but the work was easy and the offices were large and light. No one bothered him much—the complaint emails were diminishing already, and he had only been there a week and a half. He drained can after can of free office soda as he scanned the rows of tuned-in users for too many scowl symbols, swooping down on the unhappy ones and listening in.

It grew hard, after awhile, to focus only on music, something he had always considered a background to activity. To stay awake, he started looking people up—his cousin Steve, his friend Alex. He thought of his ex-girlfriend, Ronnie, and started when her email address pulled up an account. She had opened it on his first day, the morning after he had broken up with her over falafel. Maybe she had done it to take her mind off things. She was a bleary, pretty thing who worked in nonprofit and volunteered on committees to end human trafficking and animal cruelty, both of which he agreed were wrong, in the abstract. He felt sometimes as if her fundraisers and protests and petitions were directed at him, the way some girls slammed a door or stomped off. He ate meat and looked at porn, not caring much whether the girls had been kidnapped from their families in Moldova or not.

Ronnie would find someone else; he might. He missed her, in a physical-memory sort of way that made him feel tired rather than depressed. He dropped a song into her queue: Wilco, a group she hadn't liked, but had tolerated, while they were lying in bed between sex and sleep. Those intervals were always the same—it didn't really matter who you were with.

He waited as the song loaded: a scowl appeared over the album icon almost immediately. She was listening, she had been reminded of him. He dropped in a Pixies song they had both liked, followed by the Bloodhound Gang song they had used as an excuse to get randy on their fourth date. There was a pause before she fast-forwarded through the Pixies. The Bloodhound Gang icon had barely loaded before she skipped through that, too. He dropped in a Cure song. She accepted it. He fed her a few more of the floaty, ambient groups she liked, and she pecked at them, rewarding him with a neat row of stars.

image: Ryan Molloy


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