Alex, Approximately: Chapter 3


“It’s not my fault you’re, like, in love with me, or something!”

—Lindsay Lohan, Mean Girls (2004)


Porter hands out the rest of his maps while the other group’s voices fade away. We then obediently follow him to the opposite side of the lobby, through the arch marked JAY’S WING, where we trade in the crisp, too-cold lobby air for musty, too-warm mansion air.

I feel like this is the part of the orientation I should be enjoying, but I’m so rattled by Porter recognizing me that I’m not paying attention to my surroundings. I want to hang back and get away from him, but there’s only like fifteen of us, and Grace merrily drags me by the arm to the front of the group. Now we’re walking right behind him—so close, he probably thinks we’re devotees of his ass, which is pretty nice, to be honest.

“There are forty-two rooms in Jay’s Wing, a.k.a. the world’s biggest man cave,” Porter says as he stops in the middle of a drawing room filled with all things trains. Train signs. Train tracks. Victorian first-class passenger train seats with stuffed velvet cushions. At the back of the room, there’s even an old-fashioned ticket booth from London that looks to have been converted into a bar.

“Our beloved insane millionaire loved hunting, gambling, railroads, booze, and pirates,” Porter said. “The pirates, especially. But who doesn’t, really?”

Okay, so the boy’s got a certain charm about him. I’m not immune to charm. And while he’s talking, I realize he’s got a low, gravelly voice that sounds like it belongs to a video game voice-over actor—easygoing and cocky at the same time. God, I bet he’s so full of himself.

Why is he giving us this tour anyway? I thought security guards were supposed to stand around, waiting to yell at punks for putting their grimy hands on paintings.

When we head into the next area, I find out why.

“This is the slot-machine room,” he says, walking backward as he talks. The room is filled with a maze of counters, at which you can sit and play one of a hundred different antique tabletop slot machines. Looks like the rarer ones are behind ropes.

Porter stops. “You might be asking yourself at this point, Are all the rooms named after what’s in them? And the answer to that is yes. The museum owners are not creative—unless it comes to stretching out the workforce, in which case they are extremely creative. Take my job, for instance. Why pay a customer service manager to handle guest disputes when you can just send in your security team? You’ll quickly find that the irrepressible Mr. Cadaver . . . sorry, Mr. Cavadini”—he gets a few snickers for that one—“likes everyone to be able to do every job, just in case you have to fill in for someone else. So don’t get comfortable, because you, too, could be giving the next wave of new hires a tour in a couple of weeks. Better memorize that map I gave you, pronto.”

Ugh. Great. I don’t like the sound of this. Maybe it’s not too late to apply for that cotton-candy-vomit-cleaner-upper job Grace was talking about earlier.

Over the next half hour or so, Porter breezily snarks us through the rooms in this wing. Rooms filled with: fake mummies (Mummy Room), weird Victorian medical equipment (Medical Equipment Room), and walls of aquariums (Aquarium Room). There’s even a collection of sideshow oddities housed inside a gigantic circus tent. It’s major sensory overload up in this place, and it’s all blurring together, because there’s no rhyme or reason to the mansion’s layout, and it’s all twisty turns and secret staircases and hidden rooms behind fireplaces. If I were a museum guest and had several hours to waste, I’d be thrilled. Total eye candy everywhere. But knowing I was supposed to memorize all this? Headache city.

At the end of the first floor, the maze opens up to a gigantic, dark room with a double-high ceiling. The walls are all fake rock, and a night sky rigged with LED stars twinkles above stuffed buffalos and mountain lions, a glowing fake campfire, and a bunch of teepees—which several members of the male half of our group decide to explore, like they’re five-year-old boys. It smells like musty leather and fur, so I opt to wait by the fake campfire with Grace.

Unfortunately, Porter joins us. And before I can slip away, he points to my name-tag sticker. “Were your parents obsessed with the circus when you were born, or did they have a thing for Irish cream whiskey?”

“Probably about as much as your parents liked wine.”

He squints at me. “I think you mean beer.”

“Whatever.” Maybe I can duck into the teepee with the others. I pretend to be looking at something across the room in hopes that he’ll ignore me and move on, a low-level evasive tactic, but one that usually works.

Not this time. Porter just continues talking. “And yes, my parents did name me after beer. It was between that and Ale, so . . .”

Grace playfully pushes Porter’s arm and chastises him in her tiny, British voice. “Shut up, they did not. Don’t listen to him, Bailey. And don’t let him start with the name thing. He called me Grace ‘Achoo’ for half of junior high . . . until I tripped his ass in gym class.”

“That’s when I knew you were harboring a secret love for me, Gracie, so I felt sorry for you and gave you a break.” He ducks away from her swat and grins, and I kind of hate that grin, because it’s a really nice boyish smile, and I’d rather it wouldn’t be.

Grace, however, is immune to its power. She just rolls her eyes. Then she volunteers more info about me. “Bailey’s new. She’ll be going to Brightsea with us in the fall.”

“Oh?” Porter says, lifting a brow in my direction. “Where are you from?”

For a moment, I genuinely don’t know how to answer. I’m not even sure why, but my brain is hung up on his question. I can’t tell if he’s asking what neighborhood my dad lives in. Maybe I should just say DC, because that’s where I’ve been living with Mom and Nate—or even New Jersey, where I was born and raised. When I don’t answer immediately, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with me. He just stares expectantly, waiting for an answer, and that makes me choke up even worse.

“Probably Manhattan,” he finally says, looking me over. “Just going by the way you’re dressed, like you’re headed to a Mad Men cocktail party. If you’re going to stand there and make me guess, that’s my guess.”

Was that a slight? How was I supposed to know that the orientation dress code was going to be shorts and flip-flops? No one told me! “Um, no. Washington, DC. And I guess you’re supposed to be part of some local famous family or something?”

“My granddad. Got a statue in town and everything,” he says. “It’s tough being legendary.”

“I’ll bet,” I mumble, unable to keep the edge out of my voice.

He squints at me and sort of chuckles, as if he’s not sure how to take that remark. We glare at each other for several long seconds, and suddenly I’m extremely uncomfortable. I’m also regretting I said anything to him. None of this is me. At all. I don’t argue with strangers. Why is this guy getting under my skin and making me say this stuff? It’s like he’s provoking me on purpose. Maybe he does this with everyone. Well, not me, buddy. Find someone else to pick on. I will evade the crap out of you.

He starts to ask me something else, but Grace interrupts—thank God. “So, which job here is the best?” she asks Porter. “And how do I get it?”

Snorting, he crosses his arms over his chest, and his jagged scars shine in the fake campfire light. Maybe Grace will tell me where Porter got the scars; I’m definitely not asking him.

“The best job is mine, and you can’t have it. The next best is café, because you’re above the main floor. The worst is ticketing. Believe me, you do not want that shit.”

“Why?” I ask, self-preservation trumping my desire to avoid interaction with him. Because if there’s a position here I need to avoid, I want to know about it.

Porter flicks a glance at me and then watches the males in our group emerge from the big teepee, one by one, laughing at some joke we missed. “Pangborn says every summer they hire more seasonals than they can afford, because they know at least five of them will quit the first two weeks, and those are always the ones running the ticket booth.”

“Seems like information desk would be worse,” Grace says.

“It’s not, believe me. I’ve worked them all. Even now, I spend half my day at ticketing, fixing problems that have nothing to do with security. It sucks, big-time. Hey, don’t touch that,” he calls out over my shoulder toward a guy who’s sticking his finger in a buffalo’s nose. Porter shakes his head and grumbles under his breath, “That one won’t last a week.”

Everyone is done exploring this room, so Porter leads us out of the Wild West and through the rest of the wing, taking a path that snakes back around to the lobby—which is empty, because we’ve beaten Pangborn’s group. While we wait for them, Porter corrals us all next to a panel in the wall near the lost and found and flips it open. Inside is a small cubby where a black phone hangs.

“I know what you’re all thinking,” he says. “This might look like an antique, but it isn’t a museum display—shocker! See, a long time ago, people used telephones with cords. And even though you might find a few rare examples of technological advances in this museum, like the 1990s security cameras, or the junked printers in the ticket booth, the museum phone system is not one of them.”

He picks up the receiver and points to three buttons on the side. “You can make outgoing calls on these, but unless it’s an emergency, you’ll probably get fired. The only reason you should ever use this fine antique is for intercomming. This green button, marked ‘SECURITY,’ will allow you to call me if there is some emergency you can’t handle alone. Like this—” He presses the button, and a little radio on his sleeve beeps. “See? It’s magic. O-o-o.”

Then he points to the red button. “This one marked ‘ALL’ pages the entiiiire museuuuum,” he says like he’s yodeling across a canyon. “The only reason you’d do that is if you work in information and are telling everyone the museum is closing or on fire. Don’t use it.”

“What does the yellow button do?” I ask. I mean, I guess it’s stupid to think I can avoid talking to the guy about work stuff, right? He has information I need. Maybe if I act professional, he’ll do the same.

He points at me. “Good question, Baileys Irish Cream. The yellow button is a lobby-only intercom—see? L-O-B-B-Y. And it’s mainly used by the information desk to page lazy dumdums who’ve lost their kids or wives.” He hits the button and an unpleasant sound crackles from unseen speakers. He holds out the receiver to me. “Go on, say something, superstar.”

I shake my head. Not happening. I don’t like the spotlight. Now I’m regretting that I asked about the yellow button.

He tries to coax me into taking it with that laid-back voice of his, but his eyes are 100 percent challenge, like this is some sort of contest, and he’s trying to see who’ll break first. “Come on. Don’t get shy on me now, glamour girl.”

Again with the catty nicknames? What is his problem? Well, he can forget it. Now it’s a matter of principle. I cross my arms over my chest. “No.”

“It’s just a little-bitty intercom,” he says, wiggling the receiver in front of me.

I shove his hand away. Okay, maybe I kind of slap it away. But I’ve just about had it with him. I’m genuinely irritated.

And I’m not the only one. The easy-breezy manner leeches out of his face, and I can tell he’s kind of pissed at me now too. I don’t really care. He’s not my boss, and I’m not doing it.

His jaw flexes to one side for a moment. Then he leans closer and says in a calm, condescending voice, “You sure you’re cut out for this? Because speaking on the intercom is part of your job description.”

“I . . .” I can’t finish my thought. I’m angry and embarrassed, and I’m freezing up all over again like I did when he asked me where I was from. Part of me wants to cut and run, and another part of me wants to slug Porter in the stomach. But all I can do is stand there like a dying fish with my lips flopping open and closed.

It takes him all of five seconds to lose patience with me. I see the moment his eyes flick to the waiting crowd behind us—the moment he realizes he’s supposed to be talking to them, not me—and something close to embarrassment crosses his face. Or maybe I imagined it, because it’s gone a heartbeat later.

He holds the phone up to his mouth. “Testing,” he says, and it echoes around the cavernous lobby. “My name is Bailey, and I’m from DC, where apparently mismatched shoes are the latest trend.”

A few people chuckle as I glance down at my feet. And to my horror, he’s right. I’m wearing the same style flats: one black, one navy. I have three pairs in three different colors, and because they’re small and comfortable, I packed a pair in my carry-on. I was in such a frenzy to iron my dress this morning, I threw them on without looking before I walked out the door. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?

And, to top it all off, I now realize that Porter was never checking out my legs—he’d been staring at my shoes the entire time.

My cheeks catch fire. I want to melt into a puddle and slide under the tacky orange carpet. I can’t look at him now, much less come up with a witty response. My mind has flipped on the autopilot switch and blanked out, and all I’m aware of is the sound of my own pulse throbbing in my ears. I’m so numb, I can’t even manage to feel anything more than the smallest drop of relief when Pangborn shows up and swaps groups with Porter so we can tour the other wing.

I swear, if I never see that boy again, it’ll be too soon. And if life is the least bit fair, I’ll be assigned a job that’s light-years away from him. I’ll do anything. Clean toilets. Take out trash. I’ll even make announcements on that stupid-ass phone. As long as it means I’ll have little to no contact with Porter freaking Roth, I’ll do it with a smile. Because one of his job requirements seems to be Getting a Laugh at Bailey’s Expense, and I would rather get on a plane and fly back home to Mom and Nate if that’s how things are going to be around here.

I think about Alex, and how much better I’d feel if I could go home and tell him about all this. He would definitely sympathize. And I need someone to vent to, because, really, could this day get any worse?

When the tour is over, and we get our schedule assignments from Mr. Cavadini, I find out the answer to that is: yes, oh hell yes, it sure enough can.

I stare at my printed schedule in disbelief. I’ve been assigned to ticketing.

LUMIÈRE FILM FANATICS COMMUNITY PRIVATE MESSAGES>ALEX>NEW!

@mink: I started my summer job today. It was terrible. I hate it more than Dick Van Dyke’s fake accent in Mary Poppins.

@alex: WHOA. That’s a lot of hate, gov’ner! Are you still working with your mom like last summer? Or am I not supposed to ask? Is this a Forbidden Zone topic? I’m mentally checking the list and don’t see it on there.

@mink: Not my mom. (It’s on the list, but I’ll give you a break this time. The list IS kinda long.)

@alex: You can shorten it any time you’d like. Say the word and I’ll give you my e-mail. Or even my *gasp* real name!

@mink: o.O

@alex: All right, all right. Tell me about your terrible, no-good, really bad day. Does your boss suck?

@mink: Eh. Too soon to tell. I got stuck with the crap assignment and one of my coworkers is a colossal dickbag. He’s going to make my life miserable. I can already tell.

@alex: Make him miserable right back. You are Mink! Hear you roar!

@mink: *cough* *sputter* *broken meow*

@alex: Chin up. You’ll best this loser. Boys are dumb.

@mink: So true. How was your day, BTW?

@alex: Not bad. Now that summer’s started, I’m back to the full-time, two-job routine. Usually I get all the dimwit coworkers at my main job, but maybe they sent them your way. Besides, I’m still holding out hope that my groovy friend Mink might get up the nerve to come visit her dad this summer and come see North by Northwest at the film festival with me. How can you resist Hitchcock? (And you call yourself a film snob. Prove it!)


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