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pamela langley

New Nonfiction


by Pamela Langley

      Some years back I was strangled nearly unconscious by a secret service agent at a hip pool hall in Pasadena, California. For nearly a week I sported nickel-sized bruises which I explained as hickies after being told by certain powers that be that I was not to make a big deal about being attacked by a trained enforcer.
      I had landed a job at a lux hotel as an administrative assistant in the Executive Offices. This was the usual hotel job where you are vastly underpaid “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen;” where your fine appearance must equal your ardent devotion; where a superior could stop you and ask what the mission statement of the hotel was, and—if you didn’t recite it verbatim—could send you to the hotel boot camp otherwise known as Human Resources to be “written up.” There you’d endure the interrogation of one, or both, of the most venomous women you’d ever have to ass-kiss. They’d pluck your color-coded employee file out of a metal cabinet, grab form P-16—the record of non-compliance with hotel protocol form—write a pointed notation in their frosty handwriting, and explain to you how important it was to the C.E.O, the General Manager, indeed to the corporation as a whole, that you embrace how together we were all on a mission, and that we must convey the most nuanced aspects of that mission. After all, they’d lecture, a top New York City PR firm crafted each word of that mission statement. They’d point to where you were to miserably sign.
      Finished, and now friendly, they’d grin and dig for dirt about people in your department. If that failed, they’d shift to the relationship status of some hunky chef in the kitchen, or whether it was true that the Rooms Division manager spent just a little too much time inspecting the rooms—if you know what they meant, wink, wink.
      And on the dismal way back to your desk you’d pass through a hallway—as comforting as an MRI tube—painted in high-gloss Swiss coffee with signature cobalt blue platitudes cursively drawn to remind you about service, decorum and how best to please our “ladies and gentlemen” guests.
      These ladies and gentlemen called the executive office with unrelenting demands which it was my job to address. For instance, one pleasant, spring afternoon I received a call from a woman in an executive corner suite who was trying to nap but couldn’t for a trilling songbird outside her window.
      “There’s a bird in a tree that won’t stop singing. I can see it. Can you send someone over to stop it?”
      “I apologize, ma’am, I’ll send someone from engineering right over to scare it away.”
      “It has a nest, it won’t scare. Tell him to bring something that will kill it.”
      Or the time Housekeeping, unable to understand his rant, forwarded a call from a CEO so livid about a maid tucking his specially-requested, memory-foam pillow upside down in the bed that he was panting. I promised to instruct her as to which end was up. On a given day there would be complaints because a club level room was missing a robe, had unfolded toilet paper upon check-in, a fingerprint on the slider, or did not provide the air-purifier or VIP organic fruit bowl as expected au gratis. These were ladies and gentlemen who, if their blood pressure soared high enough could locate the disguised executive offices door and barge in, insisting that Carmelita, or Lupe, or the bellman, Jason, or the concierge, Natalie, who didn’t, didn’t, goddammit did not do whatever was expected of them, be fired. And no amount of apologizing for Carmelita, who had just worked three back-to-back double shifts returning home each night to care for a sick grandbaby; or Lupe, who took the bus from El Monte each morning at 4:45 to make her 6:30AM shift; or Jason, a local college student who worked thirty hours a week while carrying a full academic load; or Natalie, who simply made a mistake, would suffice. It was my daily duty to appease the irate ladies and gentlemen we served.
       The discontent of our wealthy guests seemed perpetual, but it was management that wielded the menacing hatchet. Rules were endless and unyielding. Women who weren’t provided with uniforms were mandated to wear dresses or skirts. The expectation in my department was business suits, tough for secretaries paid $11.50/hour. We were issued one brass name tag per employee to be worn every day, no exceptions. If you forgot, you were sent home, or could purchase one through Human Resources for $8.00 and the additional punishment of being written up on a form P-16. Three P-16s and you were out. There were streams of meetings and seminars on proper grooming techniques or how to speak with a compliant cadence, and after the meetings, tests and evaluations. Employees were ruthlessly fired, loyalties endlessly tested. Bearing in mind the revolving door, you learned to watch your back.

                                                                                          * * *

      One morning I charged in four minutes late to find two rigid men in dark suits sitting in front of the general manager’s office. I turned to my co-worker, Peggy, and whispered, “Who are they?”
       “They’re Secret Service agents,” she responded without lowering her voice. The men heard.
       Shifting their eyes without moving their heads, they checked me from across the room. One glanced at his watch. When I plopped into my chair their chins lowered by approximately one-eighth of an inch. They observed us for nearly an hour as we worked. I swiveled to face Peggy and their gaze followed.
      “They’re freaking me out, why are they here?”
      “I can’t tell you—it’s confidential.”
      “Peggy, you told me they’re Secret Service agents. How confidential can it be? Secret Service agents only come with dignitaries, or presidents,” I considered, “is the President coming?”
      At that moment the door to the general manager’s office opened and the agents stood in unison and marched in, freeing up Peggy’s natural tendency to tell.
      “Oh my God, Pam, there’ll be a boatload of celebrities here, and the President!” She gushed, continuing to furnish details down to the menu for the party, the tally and names of the agents, the date and time of the event, and who we needed to schmooze to get close to the action. Then she threw in a bit about the Club Level Concierge sleeping with the Rooms Division Manager because she couldn’t stop the momentum.
      Those of us in the Executive Offices were privy to confidential details. We were brought into a special meeting where management briefed us on the nature of the event, what celebrity was hosting, and what celebrities would be attending. They reminded us of the “ladies and gentleman standard,” and how we were expected to be professional enough not to allow one aberrant word to slip out to anyone concerning the big to-do. We were further directed to provide the agents with whatever they requested. And then a fuzzy cautionary statement about the presumed level of our discretion was directed to the single women, so we wouldn’t be tempted to invite the government suits out after hours.
      In the days leading up to the event, the Secret Service guys largely ignored us. They unnerved me. They’d drift so close we’d crash into them if we switched direction. We never heard them approaching. I’d pull a fax off of the machine for one of them, only to find him standing beside me hand reaching. Their faces were expressionless, their movements concerted and graceful with bursts of unexpected action. They generated a buzz and rumors began to fly about what they were trained to do. I passed through the hotel kitchen one afternoon as the chefs plated up a banquet.
      “These guys can snap your neck in one fluid motion,” said Jared, one of the Garde Manger chefs, as he carved radishes into roses for garnish. “They’re trained to give their lives without hesitation.”
      “They can shoot a guy behind them directly in the heart without even turning around,” piped one of the cooks hunched over the grill that heated his face to hot-flash red.
      “A nice party trick,” I wisecracked.
      “Hey, you wouldn’t want to be on their bad side,” he cautioned.
      We’d watch them taking notes about every facet of the hotel’s operations. Walking to Purchasing with a list of needs for the event, I was startled by one who stepped from the curtained shadows of an empty ballroom. When I balked and screeched, he gestured with his clip board and mumbled, “Checking the entrances.” On the way to lunch Gloria and I watched a pair at the fringes of the property, assessing the high branches of trees, and thumping their beefy fists up and down a pillar along the colonnade. Over in Laundry they derided the foreign workers who couldn’t comprehend their terse demands. But much of the staff—particularly the guys in Security—were star-struck, impressed by their concealed weapons.

                                                                                          * * *

      There was a contingent of agents assigned to the hotel the week before the big bash, but only two joined a group of us going to Q’s after work on Thursday.
      We often changed in the employee locker room next to Human Resources. Restyling our limp hair and glossing our lips, we’d step out ready for a night on the town. On this evening I emerged into the MRI hallway to find the Director of Security, Sam, a random group of male staff, and two of the men-in-black joining up with our usual collection of hotel friends. Dressed down the agents almost looked human, but I was annoyed. Q’s was for fun, and mingling with others who may be of greater interest. Q’s was where we dissed management and mocked the Gestapo atmosphere of the hotel. As we walked toward the employee parking lot, I quizzed Peggy.
      “Who the hell invited them? We’re not supposed to be out after work with them, remember?”
      “I told Sam where we were going and he wanted to join us. He must have asked them to come along. Don’t stress, it’ll be fun, we’ll get dirt on the President.”
      “Dirt, Peggy? They haven’t uttered six syllables to us all week,”
      “They’ll loosen up with some liquor. Anyway, Sam is with us and he’s management. It’ll be OK.”
       My point was they didn’t blend. But it was too late to do more than object.
      Sam’s demeanor was all unbridled hero worship as he and his guys tagged along behind the two goons. We headed into Old Town Pasadena, ladies and gentlemen who served ladies and gentlemen, along with two of the President’s men.
      I drove Gloria, Debbie, Peggy and a friend of Peggy’s from the Concierge desk who I didn’t know. Before unloading we checked the arch of our thickened brows, smacked our slick lips, and upon exiting checked our silhouettes in the car’s side panel reflection.
      When we arrived at Qs the others were already there and had started drinking. The agents were at the center of the bar with a cluster of admiring men and women semi-circling them. Sam had purchased a specialty of Q’s, a curved glass yard of beer as tall as I was. The agents were taking turns guzzling the yard to howls of encouragement from the guys. A double-line of chasers stood at the lip of the bar. Peggy and her friend eagerly joined them, while the rest of us went to our usual spot upstairs.
      There was a smaller bar there and a more casual atmosphere. We ordered our drinks and moved to a table, leaning against the railing to watch our peers below growing unruly. Snatches of expletives and off-color jokes floated up through the din. I watched Peggy’s concierge friend go off into a corner with one of the Secret Service guys. The drinking men began to hunch and lean in toward each other like birds braced against a storm, taking uncertain steps forward then backward, pivoting to steady themselves.
      “They’re getting trashed,” I noted to Gloria.
      “I know. We should leave before things get out of hand.”
      We both needed our jobs—lived paycheck to paycheck. We didn’t have the buffer of financial assistance that many of our Pasadena contemporaries did.
      “Yeah, let’s go down and say our good-byes,” I decided, “we can head over to Jake’s.”
      First we had to gather up Peggy and her friend who was sidling in the corner with the agent. You could see she was wobbly and unsure. I kept thinking she was taking a big chance—the admonition had been clear.
      “Peggy, go get your friend,” I directed, “we’re heading over to Jake’s.”
      “You go, I feel weird—they’re in it a little deep.”
      “I don’t even know her. Just tell her we’re leaving and she can go with us or find her own ride back.”
      Peggy headed for the couple. Gloria, Debbie and I waited gabbing about the impropriety of the concierge and the Secret Service agent, who was drunk for God’s sake. We heard a commotion developing in their direction. I learned later that at this point Peggy’s friend ran into trouble disengaging from the agent, who didn’t take kindly to her wish to leave. Apprehension mounted as Q’s filled to capacity, empty glasses collected in drifts, and intentions misfired.
      Without warning the drunken agent staggered into me, and grunted an obscenity into my ear. His sweaty presence and lewdness disgusted me. We started to argue. He lurched closer, and asked “What, are you a dyke?” As I searched for a ripping comeback, he fixed his loopy gaze on my face claiming he could tell I was interested. A couple of nervous guys from Security tried to draw him away from me. I watched everyone around us receding, as if it were choreographed—me left in the ring with an unruly bull and some rodeo clowns trying to distract it. I turned to leave, but the agent followed. I smelled him before he reached me. He flashed a messy smile, and flopped a grizzly paw onto my shoulder. Then with the innate coordination of his profession he slipped that paw down my wrap-around top, under my bra, and grabbed my breast in a vice grip.
      I twisted to get him off me, to loosen his repulsive grasp, but he held tight until I elbowed him hard in the arm and told him to get the fuck away from me. His partner leaped forward, and the rest of the group closed in on us. I heard someone scream as I was flipped over, nearly on my back, held up only by his twin mitts locked around my throat, thumbs pressing into my windpipe like someone might squeeze a tube of toothpaste. It’s amazing how quickly this works. There is no air. I was looking into the rigid face of a trained killer and trying to suck essential wind but there was only pipe pinched into pipe, and unyielding thumbs. Within seconds black and orange dots danced across the screen of my fading vision, and ocean noises clouded my head. I felt instant pain and panic and my legs and arms flapped like a bird’s wings in a cat’s mouth. I was very sure I was going to die. His partner must have reached him and pried him loose, and then I was on the ground, sputtering, watching a group of ten men prevent the agent from launching back onto me.
      My memory here gets blurry. I gasped and wept while a worried Sam tried to soothe me. The drunken Secret Service guy slurred curses and excuses as he decompressed, still diving toward me until he finally lolled onto his partner who, with the help of others, carted him out of the bar. I saw Peggy’s friend in the background watching. I don’t know how she got home that night, because I didn’t drive her back to the hotel. My throbbing neck was soothed with wet bar towels filled with ice. There were marks near my throat where his fingers were pried off. The bar hushed as news of the attack spread to those not close enough to see firsthand. I left embarrassed, pressing the sour towels to my neck, while Debbie and Gloria soothed me. Peggy, for once, was silent. I handed my keys to Gloria and she drove us back to the hotel.
      At home, under the green light of my bungalow bathroom I could see a choker of bruises forming on my neck.

                                                                                          * * *

      The next day the hotel was at full staff, knocking into each other as they set up preparations for the big event. Clattering dishes, barked instructions and carts rolling past the executive office door became white noise. The constant ingress and egress created a fervent wind as department heads scrambled into one office or another to finalize details, handle various crises, check menus, or hunt down a last-minute request.
      I focused on work, absent-mindedly tugging at my unfamiliar turtleneck. Each time I swallowed I felt the agent’s paws at my throat. Peggy avoided me by working away from her desk, and the agents stayed in the public spaces. Sam found me at lunch in the employee cafeteria. First he tried to placate, then reason with, me—telling me he was sure the guy felt awful. Then he offered to buy me something, anything, from the hotel gift shop if I didn’t mention the attack. I stared at him for a few hushed seconds before leaving to dump my uneaten food in the trash.
      Later that day, the President himself arrived. As the limos pulled up and celebrity guests disembarked for the event, the staff’s limits were challenged. There was no time for me to take action on the episode of the previous night. So I left at 5:00PM on the dot and spent the weekend nursing my fury, processing what took me too long to realize was an assault.
      When Monday arrived the Secret Service was gone. By now my bruises were in full vermillion bloom. I could tell that during the downtime of post-party Sunday the story had spread through the corridors and departments. There were too many averted eyes from my friends in the kitchen, and bland smiles from the boys at the bellstand. I could tell because no one who should have, mentioned it.
      As was my tendency, I was five minutes late clocking in. But I’d regained my sovereignty and told the general manager’s secretary that I wanted to see him when he arrived. I was bypassing H.R. Our general manager was an ex pro-football player with a buffalo head and bulldog neck. Lots of employees found him intimidating, but I got on with him. He knew I was a committed employee who went the extra mile. When the kitchen got busy, I’d run down and help, scrambling with an apron over my sale-priced Ann Taylor suit, plating desserts, stirring vats of lobster bisque, or chopping items for the Garde Manger. If needed, I unloaded shipments for the purchasing department, made arrangements for the concierge, answered the phones in restaurant reservations, and I never called in sick.
      But when I entered Mr. H’s office that afternoon, my employee file was already in front of him. He listened to my story while bending the manila corners and spinning it like a top, never looking directly at me. When I finished my complaint, I showed him the bruises. I fought to remain composed and unemotional. Then Mr. H started in on me. He reprimanded me for being out with the agents against explicit instructions. He pulled out a dozen time cards with punch-ins two to ten minutes late, even as I protested about all the times I’d worked hours of overtime when no one else would. He informed me that there had been unspecified complaints about my attitude, and that he’d been meaning to talk to me even before the events of that “unpleasant” night. Furthermore, he said, the hotel held no responsibility for what happened to me on my own time. And I realized that he had a point. But Mr. H, I said, shouldn’t someone report this guy? Shouldn’t his superiors be informed? This was a completely unprovoked attack, I said, and this guy is dangerous. What if this happened somewhere less public?
      Mr. H advised me to put the matter behind me, and sanctioned me not to discuss it during company time. He wrote me up for being consistently two to ten minutes tardy and sent me to H.R. to file the form P-16.
      I left and walked directly out the door of the executive offices to the nearest restroom. When I hit the chemical odor of air-freshener I lost my composure: I slammed my hand on the sink and then grabbed it in pain. Tears flowed, and I slumped against the wall. I thought of the ways I disliked but depended on my job. I viewed the mottling on my neck which I had covered with makeup now rubbing off onto the fabric of my turtleneck. After a while, I headed down the MRI tube to Human Resources. Eileen noticed the bruises poking out and asked what was on my neck. I told her they were hickies. I was written up for being late, lectured, and then Eileen leaned in (confidentially) and asked who I was seeing.
      I took my time returning to my desk, meandering through the hotel. Housekeeping was restoring the lavish public spaces, buffing brass door handles, vacuuming the length of cobalt blue velvet drapes, unraveling tangled fringe by hand. I absorbed the Monday vacancy and gave a subdued wave to the Front Desk. I slipped and almost fell crossing the marble lobby, but didn’t stop to see if anyone noticed.
      Back at the executive office I began working on the pile that had accumulated in my in-box. Beneath my first task was a certificate made out to me for a complimentary package of expensive spa services. At the bottom of the certificate was Mr. H’s distinctive signature. I answered my department’s ringing phone with appropriate charm and on-point phrases as instructed by our Arthur Joseph vocal awareness training. I saw Mr. H, through his open office door, pause to look my way with what I’ve always hoped was regret.
      On my way out that day, I passed through the colonnade (so recently inspected by the offending agent), which led to the glorious centerpiece pool originally built in the 1920s. My distorted image reflected on the undulating surface, barely recognizable. I reached into my purse and removed a hotel stationary envelope containing the remains of the ripped spa certificate which I tossed into the pool in random handfuls and watched float away, sodden and sticking to the tiled sides of the pool.

Pamela Ramos Langley relishes narratives that bash the ideal against the real (or vice versa). She spends her days tap-tapping on her laptop in a distant “family friendly” exurb half way between Los Angeles and San Diego. She’s had fiction, flash fiction and creative non-fiction works published or forthcoming in M Review Magazine, River Poets Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and The Story Shack. She is the new old fiction editor at Drunk Monkeys, hosts a blog over at, and is progressing from aspiring to emerging.

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