Sandia Heights

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Sunlight pours through the office window, catching the dust in the air and tracing the edges of the woman before him. She waits contemplatively, elbows propped on the dark wood. Her nameplate says V. Simpson, Academic Coach, but when they’d shaken hands earlier, she had asked him to call her Vera.

“So it’s impossible?” Jimmy says, finally.

Vera frowns. “Not impossible,” she says carefully. Everything about her is careful: from the way her dark bob hangs just above her shoulders, to the way she shuffles through his college transcripts, laying them out at right angles on her desk. “See if you can bring up your GPA a point or two with these last few credits, and get a good enough score on your LSATs… no, not impossible.”

Shelves of mottled grey ringbinders line the peeling, peach-colored walls. On the spines, new white labels barely obscure the black writing of older stickers beneath. Admiss. May 1988 - Apr 1989; Eval. 85 - 87.

Vera continues: “If you set your sights on something attainable, something with a later admissions deadline—April, maybe—you might be able to get into one of the smaller colleges for fall term next year.”

“Next year?” Jimmy says sharply, turning back to her. “Like, August?”

Vera offers another careful smile. “That’s right.”

Jimmy exhales, settling in his chair. It’s one of those old, fifties school chairs: metal legs and a hard wooden seat and back. He rubs his right hand over his knee and bites his lip, staring absently at the spines of the admissions folders.

Vera clears her throat. At his returning glance, her eyes flick down to his papers again. “James,” she says, and she looks back up. “You were lucky to get late admission for summer classes. As it is, most students picked their courses more than a month ago, and the popular ones have already filled up. With night school your options are going to be even more limited. You need one more business course for the credit requirement, but otherwise I’d suggest picking something you think you can do very well in. Otherwise these”—she taps his papers—“these grades, I’m sorry to say, are really not going to cut it.”

There’s a long silence, then Jimmy says, “Right.”

Vera’s gaze softens. “I won’t lie to you, it will be a lot of work. But my brother-in-law got into the law late, and if he can do it, I’m inclined to think anyone can.” She smiles. “And you say you already think you’ll have a place at one of the firms here in town?”

Jimmy glances down at his name on the transcripts, too. He nods.

“Well then,” Vera continues, shuffling his papers together and vanishing the seriffed McGill, “I think we can make this happen. As long as you’re not afraid of hard work.”

And Jimmy thinks of cold winter mornings, of snowbanks piled against the concrete alley wall alongside Laramie Avenue. Of his father’s gloved fingers wrestling with an ice-covered lock. He thinks of opening stiff blinds so the sunrise can break through, the tall shelves casting long shadows through the air itself—darkening the dust that Jimmy was forever sweeping up off the floor and that would finally win, years later, and settle.

Vera is saying something about finding the admissions office and she’s handing him sheets of paper with course lists on them and a description of the tuition costs. Jimmy nods, watching the white sheets move in and out of the windowed sunlight as he accepts them from her. He thinks: August next year. Almost eighteen months away. And then three more years of coursework, and then the bar exam, and then—

He doesn’t know how to tell her that his grip on this already feels so tenuous he’s worried he’ll never be fast enough, that everything precious he’s trying to hang on to will go running down the drain, off to dissolve into the distant dirt somewhere out beyond the city.

That sitting here already feels like trying to keep water cupped in his hands.

Jimmy pushes through the haze of graduation gowns and cigarette smoke, holding two cups of beer. He’s looking for Kim, trying to catch a glimpse of blonde between the taller bodies and the square black caps that surround him. The place smells like spilled alcohol and cigarette smoke, like sour sweat and weed.

Loud music blares from an expensive speaker system, sending half-empty bottles of liquor trembling on the kitchen bar. Eric H. is holding court near a double fridge—it’s his house, or, Jimmy suspects, his parents’s house. He’s surrounded by other students who look just like him: the same preppy haircut, if worn a little poorer. Jimmy recognises some of them from the ceremony earlier that afternoon and pauses for a moment. It’s easier for him to see himself in these guys now than it was during the graduation, with their gowns lopsided or missing, with drinks in their hands and with dumb grins plastered on their faces.

But Jimmy moves on, through more bodies and out the sliding door to the front deck. It’s dark but still warm, the sun only just set, and porch lights illuminate everyone on the balcony—though the party is thinner here, the music quieter.

And there’s Kim again, finally, her graduation cap tilted back on her head, leaning against the rail. Like most of the other graduates here, her gown is black with red accents down the sleeves and front. She’s talking to an older woman, and as Jimmy watches, Kim straightens her hood slightly, adjusting it as if, in looking at the woman before her, she’s looking in a mirror.

Her eyes shift and she spots him. “Jimmy!” she says. She takes one of the beers from him and then touches his elbow. “This is my friend, Jimmy. Jimmy, this is Professor Medina—uh, Wendy.”

Jimmy shakes the woman’s hand. “Wendy, hey,” he says, and he glances at Kim curiously.

So Kim leans closer and says, “Sidney Poitier.”

“Aha!” Jimmy says, smiling now. “Great to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“That so?” Wendy says, her eyes twinkling.

“Mhm,” Jimmy says. He nudges Kim with his shoulder. “Told her she’s your favourite professor yet?”

Kim smiles. “We hadn’t got to that.”

Jimmy gives a little grimace. “Oops!”

Wendy chuckles mildly, and has a drink of her wine. “You know, I think I usually get invited to these parties as a joke—but if I show, I’m suddenly everyone’s favourite.”

“Good deal,” Jimmy says. “Plus it must be hard to pass up that boxed wine.”

Wendy holds the glass up to him for a moment and then lowers it. “So, what do you do, Jimmy?”

Jimmy takes a long swallow of his beer, and then he forces a smile. “I, uh—”

A loud crash sounds from somewhere inside the house—porcelain shattering. Jimmy peers in the direction of the noise. Through the screen doors and the wall of students he can see a frantic Eric H. shoving aside the crowd of red and black and then returning, carrying pieces of an enormous decorative vase from one side of the room to the other. Jimmy pretends to be more compelled by this than he really is.

But Wendy only shares a few more words with Kim and then moves away, walking up to another group, who all greet her with wide smiles.

“She’s kidding,” Kim says, staring after the professor. “It was definitely the extra credit that made her our favourite.”

They lean against the balcony, looking out onto the rooftops beneath them—Albuquerque’s version of the Hollywood Hills. The suburb is nestled into the base of the Sandias and filled with beige houses and rocky landscapes and pools. Eric H.’s place has a pool out back, too, and when the noise of the party drops Jimmy can hear people back there, splashing and laughing.

“You know…” Kim starts, and she looks to him and frowns. After a moment, she shifts, turning around to face the house again, leaning back against the railing with her elbows either side of her.

Jimmy watches her, his neck twisted.

“…Most of these guys don’t know you from Adam,” she continues eventually, gesturing with her cup of beer at the students nearby. “Next time someone asks what you do, you could just… make it up.”

Jimmy frowns and faces forward again, staring out at the flat roofs. After a moment, he says, “Oh yeah?”

Kim chuckles beside him. “Sure. I mean, what’s cooler, you think? Doctor? Architect? Uh… zookeeper?”

Jimmy studies Albuquerque beneath him. They’re not really up high enough to see anything, but he wonders if the dark path twisting between the golden city lights is the Rio Grande. He hears Kim shift against the balcony beside him, and then he exhales. “Maybe a bigger promotion than that, even,” he says lightly. “I’m thinking mailroom supervisor.”

Kim huffs. There’s a moment of silence, then she says, “Come on.”

The blinking red tail-light of a plane moves slowly across the night sky, and Jimmy chews his lip, watching it. A song finishes. In the quiet he can hear the low splashing of the pool.

“All right, fair enough,” Kim murmurs, eventually. “We can do better.” She makes a humming noise. “How about a jet pilot—ooh, a deep sea explorer! You could be like Jacques Cousteau.”

Jimmy finally gives a little chuckle. “Sure, okay,” he says. He turns to face her. “Maybe one of those old timey train conductors. With the little hats.”

“Oh, I love that for you,” Kim says, tapping his shoulder with the back of her hand. “Red bandana around your neck. Reckon you know enough about trains to pull it off?’

Jimmy thinks of the breathy sound of a distant train whistle. He thinks of clambering over the tracks with Marco, picking up rocks and throwing them away to clatter along the metal. He thinks of late nights, some girl’s hand clasped in his, trying to find an empty car to sneak into. And the view from the bridges, the railyard laid out below like a tangled web, ribbons of silver. He says, “Nah.”

Kim shrugs. She downs the rest of her beer, then waves with the empty cup. “I’m gonna get another, want one?”

Jimmy looks down at his almost full beer. He shakes his head, and Kim walks off, headed back toward one of the many kegs. He watches her twisting through the black and red gowns, her hair vibrant, until she’s swallowed up.

There’s laughter and shouting from below as two people pretend to fight, grappling each other and scuffing dirt. A couple making out against the fence nearby don’t seem to notice, their silhouettes shifting steadily. Jimmy holds his cup by the edge of the lip, dangling it above the expanse. He swirls his beer around inside and watches the gold liquid wash in and out of the light.

“I know you,” a female voice says near him.

He turns. He doesn’t recognise her. She’s about his height, with severe makeup and a loose thread of hair caught over her forehead.

“I know you,” she repeats, and she steps forward and taps him on the chest. “I totally remember you. Gonna fold any more smokes in half tonight?”

And, of course, she’s one of Kim’s friends—or maybe not friend so much as endured classmate. Game Boy Girl, Jimmy thinks. It takes him a moment longer to remember her real name: Steph.

At his silence, Steph just rolls her eyes. “I know how you did that one now, anyway,” she says. “That’s old news. Eric’s been using it for months.”

Jimmy laughs lightly. “Oh has he?”

“Yeah,” Steph says blandly. She blinks and looks at something behind him for a moment, then back to his eyes. “So you got any others? Bet you could make some real cash tonight.” She smiles, a flash of white. “I can point out all the dumbasses here.”

And Jimmy feels the weight of a pair of quarters in his jacket pocket suddenly, like they’ve grown ten times their size. He slips his hand in and pinches one between this thumb and the side of his forefinger. It’s warm—body temperature. He imagines rolling it over his knuckles.

Around him, people sway like shadows in their graduation gowns.

“Nah,” Jimmy says quickly, looking back to Steph. He slides his hand back out of his pocket. “I’m a one trick pony.”

Steph sniffs and seems to study him, as if she’s already braced for another scam. Like she’s waiting for him to pull out a blackened hundred dollar bill and launch into his familiar spiel, or turn some whiskey into water.

But then, behind her, Kim emerges from the house, a red cup held aloft in each hand. She moves up and steps between them. “Here,” she says, holding out a beer. “I got you a fresh one anyway.”

Jimmy stares at it until Kim gestures again, sloshing the beer. He sets his half-empty cup down on the edge of a nearby potted plant and takes the full one from her. “Thanks.”

Kim nods. She glances between him and Steph, then says, “Wanna get some air, Jimmy?”

He looks around them and frowns.

“I mean, let’s go for a walk,” Kim says, and she waves vaguely down toward the yard.

So Jimmy shrugs. “Okay, sure.”

Kim turns, and he nods goodbye to Steph and then follows, weaving back into the house. Kim's hood is twisted around her neck again, a shining flash of purple before him. The two of them move through the living room, passing people slumped lazily on the couches, staring forward with drinks in hands; passing the kitchen bar, the glass bottles still rattling beside the enormous speakers.

And then out the front door. The pool curves around the side of the house here. It’s lit from below, glowing. Shimmered reflections ripple over the clay-colored walls.

But Kim leads him toward the front yard instead, pushing through the gate and passing between the sparse groups of people who sit or lie on the ground here. The guys who were fighting earlier are perched beside each other on a retaining wall, chatting quietly.

The yard seems bigger down at this level. It feels expensive, like the house, and it’s professionally landscaped—probably in an attempt to be something other than a desert, but there’s still nothing really green. Maybe some neighborhood code against it. There’s just rocks and faded shrubs, perfectly trimmed.

The two of them stop beside one of the large boulders. Kim holds out her drink silently, and he takes it. She slips off her heels and then climbs the boulder, twisting and sitting at the top, then pats the surface beside her and says, “Pull up a bit of rock.”

Jimmy hands the beers back over to her and then clambers up next to her and sits, his feet angled down over the uneven stone. He takes his cup and holds it loosely, his arms wrapped around his knees. Looks to the balcony where they were standing earlier.

Somebody knocks a cup over the edge and it goes flashing down into the yard: red over white. Nobody above seems to notice.

Kim shifts beside him, and Jimmy turns to see her nestling her beer into the rock and then taking off her graduation cap. Her hair is down, styled in waves that have slowly relaxed since this afternoon and now hang loosely above her shoulders.

She turns the black cap over in her hands, then says, “I can’t believe I had to pay to rent this dumb hat.”

Jimmy chuckles. “Yeah. Should just get it as a trophy,” he says. “Something to keep forever.”

“It’d make a handy little table, too,” Kim says, perching it on one knee like a second head. She gives a soft laugh and then leans back, resting on her palms, staring impassively up toward the balcony.

People drift along the edge, shadowed. Just the shapes of figures moving to and fro, hiding and revealing the balcony lights. Indistinguishable from each other in their red and black gowns.

Jimmy glances to Kim. Watches her watch the figures. After a long time, he says, “So who’d you be talking to if I wasn’t here?”

She frowns. “I guess I’d have to go find Wendy again.”

“Hanging out with the professor, huh?”

Kim shrugs. The wind lifts up and blows a strand of hair over her face, and she tucks it back behind her ear. Her face is impassive again. Still.

“I mean—who’d you be with if I’d never come here at all?” Jimmy presses. “To Albuquerque. If I’d never…”

Kim looks sideways at him. “If you’d never taken a shit through your stepdad’s sunroof?”

“He wasn’t my stepdad,” Jimmy says, and then he laughs quietly. “But yeah. If I hadn’t done that. If I was still living large back in Cicero, who’d you be talking to?”

Kim doesn’t react for a while, then she just shakes her head.

“I mean, come on,” Jimmy says, and he sits up a little straighter, peering around at the people gathered in the yard. After a moment, he points. “Maybe that guy? Norman Bates over there with the collared sweater?” And beside him, a shorter man wearing thick glasses. “Or hey, Rick Moranis. You two could nerd out together, that’d be cute.”

Kim makes a soft sound, not quite a laugh.

“Nice library date, home by nine.” He twists so he’s facing her. “Hell, Kim, you were here for years before I showed up. You didn’t make any friends?”

Kim’s eyes narrow. She folds her lips inward, then gestures to him. “What about you? Where else’d you be, hanging out with Chuck?” His brother’s name arrives sharply, clearly sharper than she intended, because she flinches. She’s silent for a time, then sighs. “What’s up, Jimmy? Do you want to go?”

He shrugs. “Nah. Just thinking.”

There’s a beat, and then she says, “Okay.”

He looks toward the fence. The couple that he saw from the balcony earlier are gone now. A handful of crushed plastic cups litter the dirt in their place. He sips his beer, and then turns back to Kim. And softer: “Well, you never have to talk to these guys now anyway, right?” He brings his leg up beneath him so he can face her better. “Law school, check! Cross that off your list. So what’s next?”

Kim closes her eyes. She lets out a long breath, then says wistfully, “Sleep.”

Jimmy laughs, but when she doesn't elaborate, he adds, “I mean, come to Albuquerque, you know…” He waves a hand in a spiral, like a wheel turning. “All that jazz. What’s next?”

Kim, eyes still closed, pauses before she says, “The bar exam.”

“Right, ‘course,” Jimmy says. “That old thing.”

Kim laughs quietly and opens her eyes. “Nights and evenings studying. Big change, huh?”

“Yeah, big change.” Jimmy watches her, her chest rising and falling as she stares upward at the house. A furrowed line appears in the middle of her forehead.

She doesn’t ask what’s next for him. He doesn’t really expect her to.

But he reaches over and takes the graduation cap from her knee anyway. It’s heavier than he thought it would be, and he runs his thumb and forefinger down the tassel, untangling some of the twisted threads. How much of a head start do these stupid cords represent? he wonders. Eighteen months and three years? The careful face of Vera Simpson, Academic Coach, frowns at him in his mind.

So he leans forward and settles it back onto Kim’s head instead. She raises her eyebrows questioningly.

“You gotta get your money’s worth out of that, right?” he says, straightening it and then letting go.

Kim nods slowly, face shadowed.

“Suits you,” he says. He nudges her with his knee until she meets his gaze, and then he inclines his head solemnly. “Hey. You did it.”

And Kim smiles. Her eyes are bright in the darkness. “Yeah,” she says. “I did it.”

Jimmy smiles back. The noise drops and he can hear the splashing from the pool, distant and low.

At lunch on Monday, they have a little celebration in the breakroom. It’s a familiar experience for Jimmy now: chips and soda and a sheet cake divided up onto paper plates. Congratulations, Kim! it had said in colorful frosting, and Jimmy now holds part of the blue ‘K’.

Kim herself wears a pointed party hat that looks like it was designed for a child. The elastic is tight around her chin, pinching the skin, but she hasn’t taken it off yet.

“Now, I know she’s too ashamed to tell you she couldn’t have done it without me,” Henry says, eyes crinkling, and Kim swats at him. He chuckles. “They always are. No love for the old guy in the mailroom. But who taught you about the auto-stapling, huh?”

Kim chuckles. “All right, all right.”

“That must’ve saved at least ten minutes of your life, if you add it all up,” Henry adds.

“Thank you Henry,” Kim says warmly, holding up her cup of soda.

Henry smiles, and taps his own cup against hers.

There’s a light knock at the door. Howard stands in the threshold, a broad smile on his face. “Kim!” he says. “Our newest graduate.” He strides forward into the breakroom, his hand extended like the bow of a ship cutting through the water. “I always knew you had it in you,” he says, shaking her hand vigorously. “The right support from HHM, and here you are! Well done.”

Kim pauses for a moment then smiles. “Thank you, Howard.”

“Of course,” Howard says, already looking away. He nods to the table. “Is that cake?”

“Yeah, devil’s food,” Kim says.

“Devil’s food?” Howard repeats, eyebrows up near his hairline. Burt slides a piece onto a plate and holds it out, and Howard takes it. He pops a bite into his mouth and chews for a moment, then nods sharply. “Very good.”

Kim pulls the party hat off her head. There’s an angry red line beneath her chin from the elastic.

Howard eats another forkful of cake, chewing efficiently, then sets his plate down. “So, Kim. You’ll be sitting the bar exam in July?”

“That’s right,” Kim says. “Well—I’ll do my best, anyway.”

“Of course,” Howard says. “And let’s get you through it on that first attempt.” He gives a self-conscious little smile, almost embarrassed. “Though it’s not uncommon to need more than one.” An almost unnoticeable pause, before: “But not you, I’m sure.”

Kim glances at Jimmy, her eyes twinkling as they meet his, then she looks away. “Thanks, Howard,” she says again.

“Right, well,” Howard says. He gives another broad grin, pauses for a moment, then extends his hand a second time. Kim shakes it, and he nods to the rest of them. “Good to see you all. Congratulations, Kim. Enjoy the rest of your devil food.”

Jimmy watches him leave, the expensive blue suit moving fluidly with his long strides. As Howard disappears into the landing, Jimmy chuckles, and turns back to the others. “All that from a guy who didn’t even teach you about auto-stapling.”

Kim snorts, smiling warmly.

“And he didn’t finish his cake, either,” Burt adds.

“He didn’t finish his cake! ” Jimmy says, shooting Kim a scandalised look.

“Yes, well,” Kim says, in a tonal imitation of Howard Hamlin that makes Jimmy’s grin grow even wider. “That was your mistake, Jimmy. Devil’s food? Rookie move. You should’ve got me a torte.”

Jimmy stares at her blankly and says, “Tort?”

Kim laughs brightly. “T-o-r-t-e.” She pauses, then adds, “It’s a type of cake, you dummy.”

Jimmy makes a pained noise, clutching his chest, and he turns to Burt. “Lawyers, right?” he says. “Can’t understand a word of the legalese that comes outta their mouths, and then they make fun of you for it!”

Burt shakes his head. “Not cool, Kim,” he says. A smile dawns on his face. “Hey—what do you get if you put a chameleon and a lawyer in the same room?”

Jimmy raises his eyebrows expectantly, looking around at the others.

“A cold-blooded creep and no sign of the chameleon!” Burt says—and he laughs delightedly, louder than anyone else, the sound echoing through the basement. He cuts himself another piece of cake and then forks some into his mouth, still grinning.

“Go on then Burt, let’s hear some more,” Kim says, and she beckons toward herself. “I can take it.”

“All right,” Burt says, swallowing the cake. He looks around, eyes tracking in thought, then he grins again. “Okay, so what happens if you cross a lawyer with a stop sign…?”

Later that night, Jimmy steps off the bus into the warm evening air of the road outside the Central New Mexico Community College. It’s buzzing with traffic, and heavy with the smell of gas and the lingering acidic scent of melting asphalt. He’s made it here with time to spare, but he really needs to get a car—though now that he’s looking down the barrel of years of school fees he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to afford it. Gonna have to be much more careful with his mailroom money.

The campus is set a long way back from the road, behind large parking lots that are mostly empty. Jimmy strolls alongside them, watching students filter in and out of cars. It almost feels more like a mall than a college—except for the buildings: square, brutal things that grow larger as he approaches.

He has a map in his pocket from the admissions packet that arrived at his apartment a couple of weeks ago and that he’s kept hidden in his kitchen cupboard ever since. He reaches the first building and pulls out the map, unfolds it. Checks off the classroom number one more time, then looks up. The main building, where a month ago he’d visited with the academic coach, rises before him. It looks like a tower of enormous, flat bricks, offset from each other. Like a segment removed from a much bigger wall, somehow futuristic and ancient at the same time.

The entrance doors swing open easily. There’s a flight of steps over to his right, and Jimmy climbs them, his shoes squeaking on the shiny tiles, until he reaches the third floor.

The air is musty and recycled-smelling, and there’s no outside windows, just door after door down a narrow corridor. He moves along it, counting the numbers on the rooms. The carpet feels uneven in places, as if the building's had extra wings clumsily added to it over time. The wood beneath the fabric creaks as he steps over the joined sections.

Then he sees it: a flat piece of metal embossed with the numbers 318. He closes the distance to it. Slows to a stop. Through a glass window in the door: chairs arranged around a long table, and nobody else, not yet.

He checks his watch: 5:41. Twenty minutes to go. He runs his fingers through his hair and runs his tongue over his teeth.

He wonders if they’re gonna get stickers to put on their chests. Hi, my name is…

Voices rise behind him, and a pair of students pass, moving confidently down the hallway. They’re having a loud but friendly argument about some obscure fact, and he watches them until they turn away, heading into a different classroom.

Jimmy glances down at himself. He’s taken off his tie—shoved it inside the backpack that Kim had raised a curious eyebrow at that morning—but other than that, he’s still in his mailroom get up: a short sleeved shirt tucked into his slacks. He thinks about the Fletch! tee folded in his dresser. The thick-rimmed glasses.

He presses the button on his watch.

The numbers flash up: 5:43, red and bright.

He stares at them glowing on the golden face until they vanish, and then he thumbs the button again—5:43… and now the time seems more like a countdown, so he finishes it himself, two, one, and opens the door.

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