In 1983, Pamela had responded to an ad for Brilliant Concierge Agents, was hired instantly, and still worked in the building 40 years later. She worked there through the years that spanned her undergraduate degree and continued there long after earning that credential, and even now with retirement looming, she maintained her place at the desk – metaphorically speaking, of course; the lobby furniture had all been replaced more than once – she had occupied for so long. She earned full union pay which was on the low end for a big city, but not impossibly low.
A concierge is paid firstly and foremostly for being respectful, personable, friendly, gracious, attentive, courteous, and service-oriented. Pamela was also attractive, but in the case of her non-attractive coworker, a man named Blaine, his quietly understated grooming and mellifluous voice made up for any deficits he had in the symmetry of the hemispheres of his face. Only after a concierge’s emotional labor was registered did the bureaucratic and management tasks inherent in the job assert their importance. Pamela excelled at it all. In addition to her beauty, her mild and generous nature, she was a good conduit between the residents and Corporate when that was called for. She was adequately vigilant in matters involving the security systems and cameras. Her shift logs were succinct, accurate, and useful. She had never lost a package.
On the other hand there were few things Pamela enjoyed more in her life than sussing out the lives of the residents without their actual consent or even knowledge. She spent the long empty stretches of her shift writing little stories about them– blatantly fictional and often wildly inaccurate. Of course, given the fact that Pamela never formally interviewed anyone, was not a journalist, did not aim for truth, and just made up whatever pleased her, inaccuracy was to be expected. She did not aim – as Gertrude Stein did – to write anyone else’s autobiography. Nonetheless, if a resident had ever seen or been asked to judge their own story, it is likely they would have had grounds to file a complaint against article 2 of her employment: Respect the privacy, time and resources of each resident, no matter how loving or warm-spirited her stories were.
Pamela wrote her stories longhand in a series of notebooks, first three-hole punched wired notebooks, later decomposition notebooks with sewn-in leaves and pretty covers. She had tried composing on her phone or her tablet, but it made everything come out choppy. After she typed them up, she printed them at the nearby FedEx Office so she could better edit them and then she sold them under a pseudonym for as much as $50 apiece. Early on, Pamela realized that her stories must not ever be visible from the notebook where she composed them, or as printed sheets flittering in the lobby or even disposed of in the building’s dumpster, since she lived in the very building that she worked at. And she could not bear to part with them. It was the story of her own life as much as it was the residents’.
Happily, there was a solution! Her building was always over-air-conditioned in the summer and under-heated in the winter, and as she never felt sufficiently warm, Pamela softly ripped the sheets out of the notebooks and sewed them like quilting into the lining first of her jackets, then her trousers, and ultimately everything she owned until her slender body was always securely encased. She wasn’t one to get actually dirty, so she started brushing her clothes in the evenings and hanging them out like the Victorians of yore. In this way, she only rarely needed to remove the quilting from a garment on its way to the wash. She made a kind of susurration when she walked that all the tenants came to associate with her efficient, muted ministrations, not knowing that it was the sound of their own stories.
One day, as luck would have it, Pamela needed to go out of town for a week. She was meeting her sisters in the suburban community of the youngest, Courtney, whose spouse had recently passed and was due to be interred. She packed her entire wardrobe into three suitcases, so as to not leave any of her secret upholstery behind. She fell into a series of light dreams on the bus ride up.
That evening, all the sisters sat in Courtney’s yard, admiring her chickens. Courtney had upwards of 20 chickens – her husband couldn’t bear eating or selling all the fertilized eggs, so he hatched them in her laundry room and enlarged their flock past the zoning limits of the community – and Pamela liked petting the few who allowed themselves to be stroked, who deigned to come near. She was overcome with the sleekness of their satiny feathers. She tried to reciprocate by offering, as humbly as she could, her hand. She let them peck it if they wanted to, and they did want to.
It did not feel great, but it was not something she felt much of in the city where she lived, and it kept the chickens near her. Her hand glided over their smooth feathers. Chickens clustered near her lawn chair; Courtney said they were begging for mealworms, and handed a bag to Pamela, who doled them out. When she stood up to go inside, she did not even notice that her special jacket and special trousers had been pecked through in numerous places and their special lining was on its way out. Folded rectangles of notebook paper pierced with needle holes wriggled out of the holes in her clothing and were stamped into the yard by the chicken’s reptilian feet.
After supper, as she undressed for bed, she finally noticed. For an instant she thought she might go outside and look around – but the chicken stroking had been hours ago and the yard enjoyed a light but steady breeze. It was late, dark. She was tired. She shook out her nightgown, felt the padding in its bodice and skirt, and laid it out on the bed. Carefully, with nail scissors, she opened the nightie’s lining and plucked the papers out. Working methodically for a couple of hours, she made her way through all the attire in all three of the suitcases, gathered up the crumpled white mass of her oeuvre and carried it down to the trash bins in her sister’s garage.
“Well, that’s over,” she said.