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When the plane touches down in Albuquerque, Jimmy can already feel the heat. It arrives first in his chest: an uncomfortable warmth that soon climbs the back of his neck and finally settles damp beneath his collar. The cabin of the 737, of course, remains as carefully climate controlled as ever, but, as the plane’s wheels screech along the tarmac and the squat hangars of the airport drift into view, Jimmy’s skin tightens and burns like it’s already frying beneath the New Mexico sun.
One seat over, Chuck lies back with his eyes closed. He’s been feigning sleep for the last two hours, since somewhere over Iowa. A bold con, considering that everything in the man’s character over Jimmy’s thirty-two years has informed a Charles L. McGill completely incompatible with such blissful airline slumber.
A Charles L. McGill who seems more golden god than mere mortal. A Charles L. McGill who, Jimmy had decided during their last five years of non-contact, has to be more a childhood fantasy of competence and professionalism than a real brother, and who must, surely, have cracks somewhere in his shining marble exterior. But no—Chuck had arrived in the prison visitation room as celestially as ever, and through some artful wave of a hand completely dismissed the charges against Jimmy, riding the currents of the Cicero judicial system as if they were designed specifically for his use.
Jimmy examines Chuck’s profile now: the long nose lit by the sunlight that streams into the cabin. Still no cracks. Jimmy shoves out an elbow, and he can almost see the gears turning in Chuck’s head as his brother first stiffens then warily opens one eye.
“We’re here,” Jimmy says, dumbly.
“Yes, I can see that,” Chuck says, but he leans forward in his chair anyway, peering past Jimmy and out the airplane window.
Jimmy follows his gaze. Albuquerque makes a disgustingly beautiful first impression: the sky as big and curved and blue as he’s always heard it can be, streaked with paintbrush clouds. Distant mountains rise from the impossibly flat land like slumbering lizards, their skin mottled and cracked beneath the blistering desert sun.
Jimmy never thought the straight and narrow could be so vast.
Chuck speaks into a chunky, Gordon Gekko cellphone and stands off to one side as Jimmy waits for his suitcase. A wheel somewhere in the baggage carousel whistles and creaks, and the conveyor belt seems to move even slower than usual. Few suitcases emerge. The other travelers watch each new arrival with that patient drowsiness of airline travel.
Jimmy's skin crawls again, burning with discomfort and anticipation.
“Did Gurnstetter stop by?” Chuck asks whoever is on the other end of the phone call. He turns away from Jimmy slightly. “What did he say? And did you meet with him?”
The little wheel—or gear, maybe—whistles louder. After a long time, Jimmy spots his brown suitcase. It’s the same case he packed on childhood trips to Wisconsin with his parents, trips that Chuck usually couldn’t join, at least not by the time Jimmy was old enough to really remember them. Back then, Jimmy would fill this suitcase with matchbox cars to show his Grandpa, or with as many comic books as possible. Now, it’s crammed with clothes, clothes that do not even really belong to him: sagging button-down shirts and ties and slacks that he bought before leaving Cicero, exchanging his old record collection and very same comic books for luck-of-the-rack picks at his local thrift store.
“Good,” Chuck murmurs. “No—no. I’ll speak with him. He’ll come around.”
Jimmy’s suitcase seems impossibly heavy as he hauls it off the carousel. He drops it onto a trolley, then wheels about to face Chuck.
Chuck raises his eyebrows but continues his conversation without missing a beat: “Yes. That’s right. Salverson. Yes…” He turns, and Jimmy follows behind, trailing Chuck through the wide hallways.
“Albuquerque,” says the town slogan in a towering font. “It’s a trip.”
Yeah, thinks Jimmy. Only one letter off.
“I have to go into the office,” Chuck says mildly, as they pull out of the parking lot of the Albuquerque International Sunport. It’s one of those early spring days, crisp and just warm enough for short sleeves, the kind of weather that lifts your mood no matter how much you fight it.
Jimmy shrugs out of his jacket and tosses it over into the backseat. He winds down his window and feels the snap of the wind on his face and in his hair.
“I wouldn’t usually go in on a Sunday, but they need me,” Chuck continues. “I really shouldn’t have been away for so long.” He says the latter as though it’s Jimmy’s fault—which, Jimmy supposes, it is.
“Client throwing a fit?” Jimmy asks, tapping his fingers on the clean leather of Chuck’s Mercedes. The car has that feeling of something well-used but kept in perfect condition, and part of him wants to take a surreptitious fingernail to the leather, to pick away at it where Chuck might not notice for a few days.
Chuck sniffs at Jimmy’s suggestion of a ‘fit’. “Hmm. I suppose. But Stanley Gurnstetter has good reason to be worried, and with George laid up…well,” Chuck says. He flicks on his turn signal and changes lanes smoothly. “Personal relationships are everything in this business, you know, Jimmy. A company is no more than the people in it.” The last with a side glance to the passenger seat.
“Absolutely,” Jimmy says, drawing out the ‘u’ sound.
Chuck makes another humming noise. “I’ll drop you at the hotel; it’s on the way.”
Tap tap tap. “Hotel?”
Chuck stares straight ahead, eyes fixed on the road. “I had Howard recommend something. He says the Ramada is comfortable. Reasonable. Of course, I can lend you some money if you can’t—”
“I can pay,” Jimmy says—but, hotel?
“I’m sorry, Jimmy,” Chuck says, catching the unspoken question. “Rebecca has a big recital coming up, and she’s rehearsing late into the night. You wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
“You’ll want your peace and quiet, especially after Monday. I hear things can get pretty hectic down there in the mailroom,” Chuck continues, almost absentmindedly.
The mailroom in Jimmy’s imagination: a world filled with pneumatic tubes, like an old-fashioned department store. Hundreds of frazzled employees run between them in an orchestrated dance as they transfer cylinders between the tubes to the rhythm of an artfully chosen soundtrack. A Gilliamesque bureaucratic hellscape, Jimmy thinks. The bustling engine room that drives the slick upper floors of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill—and these upper floors, too, still seem to Jimmy like something from a movie. A movie where George Hamlin sits behind an enormous desk at the end of a long room, balding in a tailored suit, some Gene Hackman character with the initials to match. And his son, who sounds from all of Chuck’s talk like a man lifted from superhero comic: Howard Hamlin, tall and blond and alliterative.
The Mercedes whips along the highway, the flat road laid out over the desert like a thin coat of paint. Businesses and warehouses rise up out of the arid land like children’s toys, new and artificial-looking after Cicero, where the ancient buildings seemed composed of the bones of the city itself. Here, the architecture feels almost temporary, as if it’s been carelessly dropped on some enormous play-mat and forgotten.
The Ramada Hotel is no exception. It’s not far from the airport, and characterless—flat and empty and devoid of detail like a model building blown up to regular size.
Chuck pulls up in front of the check in area. He lets out a long breath, then turns to Jimmy. He doesn’t unclasp his seatbelt. “Looks nice,” he says blandly.
“Sure,” Jimmy says. He twists behinds him and grabs his jacket. “Thanks, Chuck.”
“You’re certain you don’t need money?” Chuck asks.
“I can pay.” The truth, though painful.
And it doesn’t seem to impress Chuck any. “All right,” Chuck says. “Well, I’ll let you get settled in. Buy a paper, if you can, and start looking for rentals. I’ll help with your deposit, of course,” he adds, as if preempting Jimmy’s objection, then continues blithely: “Remember, the mailroom starts early. Seven o’clock. Might pay to take a taxi for your first day.”
“Right,” Jimmy says.
“And you know everything else already,” Chuck says. He reaches down and pops up the trunk of his car.
So Jimmy takes the message and slides out of his seat. He hefts his suitcase from the trunk, drops it to the concrete beside the car, and then he walks back over to the passenger window just as Chuck finishes winding it up.
Jimmy bends down and peers through the glass to his brother’s golden profile. “Hey, Chuck? Thanks.”
Chuck winds the passenger window back down again, regarding Jimmy blandly.
“I said thanks. For everything,” Jimmy says, injecting his voice with as much sincerity as he can. “I mean it.” And he does.
“All right, Jimmy. See you Monday.”
Chuck gives Jimmy a tight-lipped smile, begins to pull out, and then hits his brakes. “Ah!” he says, rifling through his jacket pocket. He pulls out a stack of cards, removes one, and leans over the passenger seat to offer it to Jimmy. “In case you forget the address.”
Jimmy takes it. Charles L. McGill, Esq., the serifed letters proclaim. Beneath them: the HHM logo, a phone number, and the office address.
“Seven o’clock in the morning, Monday,” Chuck says, and then he peels away with the smooth rumble of a well-oiled machine.
“Monday,” Jimmy repeats tonelessly. He shoves the card in his pocket, then picks up his heavy suitcase and lugs it inside the Ramada Hotel.
Outside, the too-blue sky seems to press closer, clouds forming and dissolving above the mountains and the edgeless desert.
His room at the Ramada is musty and a bit damp, but Jimmy hangs his clothes up in the wardrobe anyway. The shirts drape on their hangers like empty shells.
Suitcase emptied, Jimmy perches on the end of the double bed. Bounces up and down halfheartedly a couple of times. The mattress is firm and seems comfortable enough, and the bathroom is clean. Local superhero Howard Hamlin was right in suggesting this as a reasonable option; Jimmy’s wad of hard-conned cash had been whittled down less than he expected when he paid for a week upfront.
Jimmy unlatches his window and pushes it open, trying to air out the room with the breeze he caught on the drive over, but the world seems sluggish now—stagnant. The clock on the bedside table reads a grim 4:49pm. He’s arranged for tomorrow’s cab already, and, better safe than sorry, asked for a six o’clock pick up.
With nothing for it, then, Jimmy leaves the musty room, bound for happy hour in the bleak and empty hotel bar he had glimpsed as he checked in earlier. It’s no less bleak and only slightly less empty when he arrives now, sliding onto a stool at the edge of the bar and ringing a bell until a bored-looking woman emerges to make him a rusty nail.
Jimmy nurses it, sipping slowly until the drink’s maybe half finished and the ice has completely melted. He’s not hungry but he knows he should eat. Across the room, some guests are picking at a sad early dinner: wilted salads and chicken-fried steak.
Two of them catch his eye—sisters, he thinks. Or close friends who happen to look alike, as close friends sometimes do. He takes another diluted sip, evaluating them through narrow eyes. The short-haired woman has the pinched-mouth appearance of someone who spends too much time around people they hate, or else finds a reason to hate everyone they’re required to spend time with. Potato potahto. She’s the weaker one, he reckons, the one who thinks she’s tough and world weary but so desperately wants everything to fit to her viewpoint she’ll believe anything that doesn’t challenge it.
It’s harder to get a read on the other woman. She looks, Jimmy thinks, tired, her dark hair pulled up in a loose bun, her salad almost untouched on her plate. Every few minutes, though, she’ll crack a smile at something the other says, bright and seemingly genuine.
He could do it. Easily. A handout, he thinks, something that will leave these women feeling good about themselves, feeling like a pair of Mother Teresas. A sick child back in Chicago and money for an emergency plane ticket home. He could do it.
But he doesn’t. His brother’s business card with its neatly-arranged letters burns a hole in his pocket. He orders a burger and fries and eats pretty much only the fries, dipping them in ketchup contemplatively as he tries to picture himself from the outside, picture himself as the victim, as the dupe, as the sucker. Thirties guy, hair already going at the temples, but long and unkempt as if he’s still clinging onto some high school dream. Patterned silk shirt straight out of the 70s. Looking for something to make him feel like a man again, probably.
Everybody wants something, Jimmy thinks. And once you figure out what it is…
He sighs. Pushes his half-finished plate of food away from himself and sculls the last of his watery drink. At the table across the bar, the two sisters laugh over some shared joke, but Jimmy walks past them without looking.
The hotel alarm blares sharp and piercing the next morning. Jimmy groans and hauls himself out of bed. He twists open the blinds: it’s that time just before sunrise when the sky fills with soft, pale light—magic hour. The roads are empty and washed with grey, the windows of distant buildings dark.
He dresses by the glow of his bedside lamp, numbly pulling on the clothes he picked out last night. Brushes his teeth, shaves, and combs his hair mechanically above the sink. Flashes a smile to the ghostly figure looking back at him. The very model of a modern mailroom man.
The hotel is sleep-ridden. Jimmy descends the stairs quietly, passing by the empty reception desk—“Ring for after hours service,” says a handwritten sign—and pushing through the glass doors at the front. Outside, the air still smells of night, and the world feels quiet and slumbering.
His taxi hasn’t shown up yet. Jimmy claps the palms of his hands together and blows into them, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. In the impatient silence, his thoughts grow louder: this is it, this is it, this is the rest of his life, his last chance, the straight and narrow. A cog in the HHM machine: well-oiled and operational. He can’t think of the last time he approached something with such sincerity—if ever.
But he was being honest when he told Marco this was an opportunity. If Jimmy closes his eyes, he can still smell his mildewy concrete cell in Cook County Jail, can still feel the pinch of the cuffs over his wrists and the rubber-gloved hands of the admissions officer. Can still hear the raspy laughter of Chet through the visitation glass.
The taxi arrives. The driver grunts at him, and Jimmy slides into the backseat—another backseat in a very different world. Since that cop car, since his mother’s voice on the other side of a crackly phone line, since Chuck frowning at him over a metal table, Jimmy has felt cut off, untethered from the land. Floating above it all, unbound, as if he’s waiting for his life to begin again—or begin for the first time, thinks a quiet and oddly hopeful voice somewhere deep in his mind. He takes Chuck’s business card from his pocket and stares at it, the letters searing into him. Partner. Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill.
The sun finally blinks over the mountains as they drive through downtown Albuquerque. Great orange clouds swell upwards, reaching for the soft blue sky.
And the offices of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill seem born of this very same blueness, clean and glossy, a perfect headquarters for his brother.
The taxi draws to a stop before the lobby.
It’s barely 6:20am, and the foyer looks dark, the reception desk unmanned. The cab driver taps on the meter reader on the dashboard, and Jimmy hands over some cash then steps out and stands on the curb, feeling completely clueless as the cab screeches away.
The darkened interior of HHM leers at him. And dammit, Jimmy thinks, life’s so much easier when you’re breaking the rules. Following the rules is what’s near-on impossible. Should he knock? Wait?
But, thankfully, as he stands there dumbly like the proverbial donkey trapped between two haystacks, a balding man in a business suit approaches the doors, drinking a coffee.
The man nods at Jimmy, then juggles the cup awkwardly as he fumbles for his keys in his pockets. “Early one, huh?” the man calls over. He wrestles a key into the lock and then pulls the door wide, evidently holding it open for Jimmy.
“Sure is!” Jimmy says brightly, striding past him and over the threshold and making for the bank of elevators like he knows where he’s going. The man's footsteps ring out behind him, so Jimmy just as smoothly approaches the stairwell, pushing through the doorway and onto the landing without breaking step.
And then Jimmy stops. He lets out a long breath and closes his eyes. Feels Chuck’s business card in his pocket. Remembers the resignation in Chuck’s tone yesterday, the default pessimism: In case you forget the address.
So he turns around, exits the stairwell, and approaches the balding man where he waits before the bank of elevators.
“Hi,” Jimmy says, and he holds out his hand. “I’m new here. Jimmy.”
“Oh!” the man says, eyes widening. He shifts his coffee to his left hand and shakes Jimmy’s. “Welcome to HHM.” The elevator doors open with a little musical scale. “You going up?”
Jimmy peers inside. “I’m in the mailroom.”
“Ah!” the man says. “You’ll want to head down a floor, then.” He glances at his watch—a Rolex. His suit looks expensive, too, but there’s something about him, some tension in his eyes combined with the early hour and wrinkled shirtsleeves that strikes Jimmy as desperation. “I don’t think anyone else will be there yet,” the man continues, “but there’s a kitchenette with a Keurig where you can make a coffee before Ron shows up. He’s a character, huh? Must’ve been some interview.”
Jimmy opens his mouth, wondering if he should say he didn’t interview with Ron, didn’t interview with anyone actually, when the elevator doors start to close.
The man shoots out his arm to stop them. “Sorry, Jimmy, gotta run!” he says, and he hops into the waiting elevator. “I’ll catch you around, and hey—” The doors close over his last words.
The lobby is silent again. Jimmy runs a hand over his mouth.
He presses the down elevator call button and waits. Looks at his own watch: 6:23am. He feels a gnawing in the pit of his stomach.
“Hi, I’m James McGill,” he says, gesturing to his reflection in the elevator doors. “Oh, really? Well—yes, actually, he’s my brother.”
There’s nobody else around—the lobby still dim and empty, striped with shafts of amber light.
“I’m James McGill—Jimmy. I’m Jimmy McGill.”
He watches himself like a stranger on a silver screen. He’s been so many other people, worn so many different guises beneath the smoke-thick air of Arno's (and always another one just within reach, always a second, third, fourth skin to slip into) that he’s not sure if he remembers…he’s not sure if he’s ever even known—
—but Jimmy catches the thought half-finished and shakes his head as if to clear it of water.
“Hi, I’m Jimmy,” he murmurs, spreading out his hands, watching his warped reflection in the elevator doors. “Yeah, just Jimmy. Like, you know…Cher.”
The elevator dings sympathetically, five ascending notes, and then the doors open, breaking his image in half.
The mailroom is brighter than Jimmy expected. Small, high windows let in sunlight from outside, and computers and copy machines hum comfortingly. And there’s life here already: unlike upstairs, all the lights are switched on, and he can even smell coffee brewing. The promised Keurig, he thinks.
There’s an assembly of mail carts near the landing, all empty, waiting for the day to begin. Copiers line the walls of a large central room. Filing boxes tower haphazardly in the gaps between them, and long tables occupy the central space. Down to the left, a glass door opens into a room filled with cubbyholes, and beside it another door hangs ajar, a warm light from within suggesting that it’s the breakroom.
And of course the smell of coffee.
So Jimmy follows his nose and heads for the warmly-lit room. There’s boxes of files in here too, somehow—but also lockers, a kitchenette, and a round dining table.
A blonde woman, dressed in clean lines and soft blues, sits with her back to him at the table. She’s intently focused on a thick book, her head in her hand, and she doesn’t look up at his entrance.
Nor does she look up when Jimmy makes a little coughing noise in his throat, or even after he offers an awkward hello. As he circumvents the table he discovers why: she’s asleep. Her mouth hangs open, her cheek squished upwards by her hand, and her other hand still grasping the handle of a half-full mug of coffee.
Jimmy clears his throat again. He looks up at the open doorway, then back to the woman. Other than the current sleeping situation, she’s the picture of professionalism: makeup perfect, simple jewelry, and tidy, no-nonsense clothes. She’s reading some enormous volume on criminal law, its pages riddled with sticky notes.
Probably preparing for an important case, he thinks. An all nighter before a big hearing this morning. So Jimmy reaches out and touches her shoulder gently, and she startles.
“Hi—sorry!” he says quickly, stepping back and holding up his hands.
The woman steadies herself, gripping her coffee mug as if worried she’ll spill it, then she squints up at him. “Yes?” she says.
“You were asleep,” Jimmy says.
“Jesus,” she says. She rubs her eyes with the pads of her fingers. “What time is it?”
Jimmy presses the button on his watch. “Nearly six-thirty.”
“Oh, thank god,” she says. She scrambles for her papers, then shoves them all inside a briefcase and snaps it closed. Downs the rest of her coffee in one big gulp, snatches up the enormous law book, and hurries out of the kitchen without even glancing back.
“Give ‘em hell!” Jimmy calls. He pours himself a cup of coffee, then sits at the table and waits.
It’s not much later when the kitchen door opens again, and a red-faced man in a wrinkled suit steps through, opens his mouth, and sneezes. Jimmy stands up—but the man holds up his hand, sneezes again, and then wipes his nose with an old-fashioned handkerchief. He tucks the handkerchief into his shirt pocket, sniffs, and says, “So you’re the baby McGill, are you?”
Jimmy nods, shifting between his feet.
“Hm. You don’t look much like Mr. McGill,” the man says critically. He runs his eye up and down Jimmy. Sniffs again. “But I guess I can see it. Welcome. I’m Ron Sheedy.”
Ron holds out a hand and Jimmy, bravely, shakes it.
“Been waiting long? Found the coffee, eh?” Ron asks, but he doesn’t wait for a reply to either question before turning on his heel (with surprising swiftness for such an unhealthy-looking man) and continuing: “Now, Mr. McGill says you have no experience at all and that I should pat you down before I send you home every day, that right?” He leads Jimmy into the large central room. “This here’s the mailroom, obviously, I see you managed to figure out that much. You got your copy machines, workstations, paper reams and supplies out the back in the storeroom there, put an order in with Patty if anything runs low—” He stops mid-step and turns to face Jimmy. “So tell me. You gonna be more trouble than you’re worth? You here to fuck over your big bro or you here to do the job?”
Jimmy blinks. Ron seems to actually expect an answer to this last question, so he says, “I’m here to do the job.”
Ron sniffs. “All right, then. So no experience working with copy machines?”
Jimmy thinks briefly of a Xerox 6500 color copier spitting out hundreds and hundreds of phony five dollar bills. “No—not really, no.”
Ron waves a hand. “No biggie. They do most of the work for you these days, eh? Beauties.” He gestures around the room, where the little red and green lights of the copy machines sparkle like some perverse version of Christmas. “I’ll take you through ‘em soon. I see you got here early, and I like that, that’s a good start, baby McGill.” He taps Jimmy on the chest. “Now, we’re assembling binders for Gurnstetter Limited v. Parsons at the moment, and it’s all hands on deck, all very stressful. Assembling is easy enough, just follow the list from upstairs, so as long as”—a loud sneeze—“as long as you can read, you’ll be fine. You can read, right?”
“Yeah, ‘course,” Jimmy says, though he’d be surprised if Ron heard his answer over the next spluttering sneeze.
Ron wipes his nose again with his handkerchief, then tucks it away and leans back against one of the big tables. “Listen. I like Mr. McGill. I was happy to agree to the request. Better some black sheep than another desperate law student, right? Long as you don’t think you’re better than.” Ron huffs, and stares vaguely at the landing area with the two elevators and flight of stairs. He wears the stillness poorly, and his greying mustache twitches a little as if preparing for his next vomit of words.
The elevator doors open with a musical trill, and a bony, older man comes out pushing a fully-loaded cart of mail. As if this is the signal Ron had been waiting for, he claps his palms together and continues his tour. It’s meandering and confusing, packed with accusatory statements and questions to which he only seems to expect a response about ten percent of the time. Jimmy tries to keep up, desperately repeating the most important information to himself, and hoping against hope someone else will take pity on him later.
At some point about halfway through Ron’s explanation of proper stamping procedure, Jimmy notices the blonde woman from earlier emerge from the stairwell. She doesn’t have her briefcase or the heavy law book now, and she strides through the room without looking around. She enters the storeroom and comes out with a box, which she sets down beside one of the tables. Not a lawyer, yet, then? Jimmy wonders, watching her settle into her space.
She rubs her fingers over her eyes, and her shoulders drop in a sigh.
Then she begins lining up blue binders along the table, one by one, like men before a firing squad.
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