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Cottontails

From: Colorado Review
Volume 40, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 31-49 | 10.1353/col.2013.0051

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Tara pressed the phone a little harder against her ear. She was almost an expert in electronic voices, after all. The gold standard was the computer on Star Trek. No doubt, it came from a slender digital throat. Tara pictured a woman sitting behind a metal desk on an infinite beach, perfectly composed, even when counting down a self-destruct sequence. The worst electronic voice came from the grocery store’s automatic checkout: it was clipped and dropped a little too deep into the lower frequencies. “Move your… bell peppers onto the bagging area.” All the prepositions sounded sad, and the computer always seemed disappointed by the noun after the pause. Had this voice belonged to a woman, she would cake on the digital makeup, slouch as she fed her cyber cats. But regardless of how her bank’s automated menu sounded to Tara, it said her paycheck had bounced, and she was waiting for human confirmation.

“Hello. Thank you for holding. My name is Kristen,” said the banking representative, who corroborated the menu’s story.

“Could the bank cover some of the fees? It’s not my fault the check bounced.”

There was a slight pause, then Kristen said, “I’m sorry, but this was not the result of a banking error. Perhaps your employer could help?”

Tara imagined Kristen sitting in her antiseptic call-center cubicle: she would be young, wearing a headset with foam nubs to be removed and stored in a baggie after her shift. Kristen probably smelled like the local Fashion Bug and had a toddler waiting at home. Tara could have exploited the tiny crack she’d heard in the woman’s apology, could have broken the conversation wide open. Instead, she said, “That’s fi ne. I’ll talk to my boss.”

Except Tara’s boss had jetted off to Chicago weeks ago and hadn’t been heard from since. Some kind of family emergency. The company only had a dozen employees, each of whom was busier now, harder to reach.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” Kristen said, suddenly cheerful.

“No.” That’s what Tara should have said. Instead, she asked, “Why is every automated voice female?”

“What?”

“On my Gps, your automated menu, Siri—all female.”

“A triumph of feminism. Also, because of Hal.”

Tara listened to the hushed frenzy of voices on the other end of the line. There must have been thousands of cubicles, wherever she was. “It’s still dark here in Alaska,” she said.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“I’ve never been to a Fashion Bug. Do they have good deals there?”

“Ma’am, is there anything related to banking I can help you with?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Thank you for banking with us.” The line disconnected before Kristen even finished the sentence.

Tara was in a hotel room in Anchorage and leaned back a little in her soft generic office chair. There was a desk in front of her, upon which sat an untouched complimentary gift basket. It was 5:00 pm, and she called her boss again, left another message. “When you have time, can you please call me back?” It seemed like everything Tara said lately was in the subtle language of begging. She wound the phone’s cord around her finger until the tip turned white.

In the shower, Tara thought about Kristen’s voice, its lilt and the way it articulated its syllables, a harsh jump that was simultaneously artificial and pleasing. The more she thought about it, the more she doubted Kristen was an actual person. Of course corporations had designed programs to thwart people like her, people so lonely they called their bank to hear a human voice. Kristen: could it stand for something?

Later, as she sat on the bed, still wrapped in a towel, her cell phone rattled on the kitchenette counter. She jogged to it. There was a new text message, but not from her boss. Her favorite football player, @Jenoris4ever, was tweeting. There was something intriguing about his early posts, which were aphasic combinations of numbers and symbols, mostly exclamation points. But now that he’d figured out how...



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