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The words are already written on the whiteboard when Jimmy arrives: Why are you here?
He double checks the number on the open door behind him, then looks back to the classroom. It’s smaller than the dusty upstairs room where his first business class had been held yesterday, but brighter and airier, inside one of the newer buildings. And an even longer walk from the bus stop—he’d had to pass a humming bar to get here, with people drinking and laughing out front.
There’s two students waiting in the classroom already, sat on opposite sides of a u-shaped arrangement of desks. Jimmy settles a few spaces down from one of them—a skinny, teenaged boy with long hair pulled back in a ponytail. He’s wearing an old Cedar Point sweatshirt, his thumbs stuck through holes in the sleeves. The guy opposite is a little older: heavyset with dark eyebrows, like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.
Jimmy unzips his backpack and pulls out his notepad, then looks up at the words on the board again. He leans over to the ponytailed kid and says, “This is public speaking, right?”
The kid stares back at him and shrugs. “Hope so,” he says, after a moment.
A couple more students enter, closer to Jimmy’s age, two women. They sit down on either side of the horseshoe of desks, each leaving a space or two free as a buffer as well.
After a while, the woman on Jimmy’s side, who has bangs and smudged, wire-framed glasses, leans closer to him and asks, “This is public speaking, right?”
Jimmy chuckles. He shares a glance with the kid, then says, “Sure hope so.”
The woman laughs lightly, and the group falls back into silence. The Brando-looking guy clicks his pen.
Jimmy’s business class yesterday had filled up quickly, the room becoming crowded with quiet students who were all determined to never fill the long spaces left by the balding professor—though he’d kept trying to wring the answers out of them all the same.
This class, a public speaking course that the advisor had said Jimmy could cross-credit and that he’s hoping he can breeze through, feels more like a weekend detention. Like a John Hughes movie, and the five of them are the damn Breakfast Club. Jimmy smiles to himself, looking around at everyone, figuring out who they each are—and then he glances down at his mailroom button-up and slacks and his smile drops. Fuck. Anthony Michael Hall.
He imagines the sound of laughter, a laughter that reminds him suspiciously of Marco—cackling over a beer at the sight of Jimmy with a tucked-in shirt and trimmed hair. Man, Jimmy, this imaginary Marco says, I know you said you were gonna go live with Chuck, but I didn’t realise you were gonna turn into him.
Jimmy flips the cover back on his notepad quickly—one of the yellow legal pads he took from the storeroom at HHM. He writes “Why are you here?” at the top and underlines it three times, then sets his pen down. There’s a smudge of ink on his palm from fixing a broken copy machine earlier, and he rubs at it with his thumb idly.
Another woman enters the room, but she doesn’t sit at the horseshoe of desks. Instead, she walks to the wall opposite the door and turns a small, white crank, opening a set of high windows.
“That’s better,” she says, and she moves to the front of the room. She scans them, clearly taking in the way they’re all spaced out among the desks, then she frowns. “What’s this? Everyone budge up close.” She waves a hand toward herself. “You’re not allowed to be shy in here, come on.”
She beckons her hand again. Jimmy picks up his notepad and bag and shifts down the empty desks so he’s right beside the kid with the ponytail, and everyone else similarly closes the other gaps. Clustered together, the group feels even smaller.
The woman continues speaking, introducing the class and herself—public speaking, Professor Reiss. She’s short and unassuming but speaks commandingly, and Jimmy finds himself a lot more compelled by her lesson than he was during yesterday’s business class. He writes down some notes, short bullet points about the history of public speaking, until eventually Reiss turns, and gestures at the writing on the board.
“So—Why are you here?” she reads, and then she faces them again. She pauses a moment but doesn’t seem to expect an answer because she continues: “We’re going to start this class by learning more about each other. You might think of public speaking less as a conversation between two people, but everything is an exchange.” She waves a hand between herself and the five of them. “For example, I can tell from your expressions that I’ve been talking a little too long already. So I think it’s time you introduced yourselves.”
At her prompting, the ponytailed kid grunts out his name: Ellis. He starts droning through an answer to the question on the board, too, but then Reiss holds up her hand.
“That’s okay, Ellis,” she says. “That’s your first assignment, don’t spoil it.” She points to Jimmy, but when he introduces himself, she repeats his name: “Jimmy? Short for James?”
She laces her fingers over her stomach. “Do you ever go by James?”
He thinks of that imaginary Marco again, scoffing at the thought of James McGill in college classes with a nine to five job. Calling over Merna to tell her the crazy shit he just heard.
At his silence, Reiss continues, “Names are important things. We’re going to talk a lot about other words over the next few weeks, but names, appearances, the way you carry yourself…” She snaps her fingers. “It all adds up before you even open your mouth. James is stronger. You otherwise seem professional, very clean cut.”
And there’s Marco again, pissing himself. Jimmy wonders if he’s really lost that hungry look he used to see in the hotel mirror, that back-alley edge in the corner of his eyes. He lets himself study Reiss for a moment, watching her as if across a smoky bar with Marco beside him. Her turtleneck under her oversized blazer. She’s not actually that old—easily younger than Chuck—and as he examines her, her lips twitch. He thinks that maybe she hasn’t been a professor for very long after all.
“Or maybe not,” she says quietly, as if seeing him anew.
“I think I’ll stick with Jimmy,” he says.
And he turns to the glasses-wearing woman beside him: Sam Hernandez, and this time Reiss doesn’t ask what ‘Sam’ is short for. The introductions move around the u-shape, to the other woman and the Brando-type—who, now that they’re right beside each other, are a study in contrasts. She’s in every way his opposite: tall and willowy, her face open and kind. Even her name, which she offers in full (“Yvonne Chaston,” she says, softly) while he gives his simply as Joe.
And then Reiss starts talking again, describing what’s coming up in the class. Her precise and careful words that land with force without sounding rehearsed, though Jimmy thinks they must be. As she starts in on a colorful anecdote, he lowers his pen and stares outside, the thick glass warping the darkening world beyond, adding curling tails to the lampposts in the nearby quad, to the yellow headlights on the freeway.
He understands now why Reiss opened the windows earlier, because as the sun goes down and it grows dark outside, he starts to feel closed off from the world—isolated in this room where he’s James McGill, clean-cut professional, who writes down things like specific-purpose statement and central idea with a straight face as if he couldn’t already sell water to a drowning man.
Jimmy frowns, studying the man before him assessingly. Ageing features, well-worn clothes. Hooded, almost dog-like eyes. Jimmy casts his eyes down and then up one more time, taking in the ringless finger on his right hand, taking in the ink-stained forefinger, the patient smile. “Okay, I can see it,” he says, finally.
“Well, thank you, Jimmy,” Henry says softly. “I think the whole promotion was hinging on your reaction.”
Jimmy raises his eyebrows and makes a little face as if to say, Wanna bet?
Henry chuckles. “Okay, okay. I’m very grateful. And I promise to be around more than the old guy.”
“New mailroom boss, huh?” Burt adds, folding his arms and leaning back against the table. “And that makes me second in command, right? Seniority?”
“What about me?” Kim says, but she’s smiling.
Burt waves a hand. “Prff, you’ve already got one foot out the door.”
Kim shakes her head solemnly. “I could never leave this place.”
“Not that I’m accusing you of lying, but with our numbers dwindling like this…” Henry says, and he checks his watch, an elegant old thing on a leather band, then looks back up. “Burt, I’m sorry in advance.”
Burt looks nonplussed.
Henry grins. “They should be down any minute.”
And then, right on cue—and Jimmy thinks, yeah, of course the trains already run on time in Henry’s mailroom—voices emerge from the landing, a young hesitant one and then, in response, his brother’s articulate one.
“…like to think of it as the beating heart of any law firm,” Chuck says, and he steps through into the breakroom, then looks back out through the doorway. “Ernesto? In here, please.”
The kid who steps through is tall and nervous looking, in a sharply-ironed button-up and thick, square glasses. “Hello,” he says, after a moment.
“Everyone, this is Ernesto Miller,” Chuck says, gesturing. “He’s just graduated from Atrisco Heritage, and he submitted a very persuasive essay for our summer internship program.” His chest swells, and he gives a small smile then says, “I’ll leave you to get introduced. Welcome to the team.”
“Thank you, Mr. McGill,” Ernesto says softly, shaking Chuck’s offered hand.
“Of course,” Chuck says. He looks between them all, nods to Jimmy, and then leaves the breakroom.
“Welcome, welcome,” Henry says, and he shakes hands with the kid, too. “Good to see you again. Now, the rest of us. Over there is Kim, and beside her is Jimmy, and if he looks familiar that’s because it’s his big brother’s name on the big sign out front—he’s a McGill as well.”
Jimmy offers his hand and Ernesto shakes it. Jimmy’s eyes are drawn to his tie; it has little seahorses on it. “Nice one,” Jimmy says, indicating it.
The kid looks down and smiles. “Thank you,” he says. “I like animals.”
“You gotta tell me where you bought it, okay?” Jimmy adds.
“Great to meet you, Ernesto,” Kim says, holding out her hand next.
Ernesto smiles hesitantly. “Uh, people usually just call me Ernie.”
“Ernie?” Jimmy repeats sombrely, eyebrows raising, and then he catches Kim’s eye—and the two of them burst immediately into warm laughter.
A moment later, Burt clicks too, and groans loudly.
“And this is—well, this is Burt,” Henry says, indicating the man.
A genuine smile breaks across Ernie's face. “No way!” Ernie says. “You’re joking, right?”
Burt slowly shakes his head, eyes wide. “Not joking.”
“I guess you’ll have to be best friends,” Henry says, looking between them.
“He’s right, no avoiding it,” Kim adds.
Burt covers his face with his hand. “How could this happen to me?” he says, voice muffled.
“Buck up,” Henry says, clapping him on the shoulder. “Why don’t you get started by helping me show him the ropes?” he says, and he leads them both out of the breakroom. Ernie holds up a hand in farewell as he leaves, eyes skittering off Jimmy’s as if scared to stare at anyone for too long.
Jimmy glances over to Kim and smiles. “I look that nervous my first day?”
“Oh, much worse,” Kim says, rinsing her mug out in the sink, and then they follow the others out into the mailroom. “Seemed like any loud noise would spook you. And you always had one eye on the exit, just trained on the glowing red sign, in case you needed to make a run for it.”
“Sounds attractive,” Jimmy murmurs, and Kim snorts. They get to work beside each other, flicking on copy machines and running down the list of memos that have arrived in the in-tray since last night.
Later that afternoon, as he and Kim are sorting mail mindlessly, passing packages between themselves to dump into different trays for the different floors, he hears the telltale whirr of a misfeed and looks out at the mailroom floor. Ernie is standing beside a machine with his hands outstretched, waving them slightly as if he can unjam it magically. Henry comes over to calmly help.
“Adorable,” Jimmy says, turning to Kim.
Kim glances over at Ernie and back. “Yeah,” she says, “but just you wait. It’s hazing time.”
“There’s hazing?” Jimmy asks, raising his eyebrows.
Kim waves a dismissive hand at him. “You got a bye. Boss’s brother.”
“I coulda taken it,” he says, shaking his head.
“I mean, we know that now,” Kim says, and she gives him a wry smile. “We’ll hang your underwear from the flagpole next time, okay?”
“Hmm,” Jimmy says, and he pretends to think for a moment, then says, “Okay.” He takes a stack of envelopes from her and files them into their cubbyholes, then turns back. “You off to the library again later?”
Kim nods slowly. “So much for graduating. Half my class are holed up in there, you know.”
“Say hi to them for me?”
Kim chuckles. She sorts through a few more parcels, hands over a couple, then looks at him. “You end up trying that new Thai place last night?”
“Nah,” Jimmy says. He flicks through the letters, reading names—Howard Hamlin, Howard Hamlin, Carl Vernon, Howard Hamlin—then hums to himself. “Maybe tonight. Go on an adventure.” He glances up at her. “I’ll let you know.”
“Okay,” Kim says quietly. She pauses. “I’ll call you later then, maybe?”
Jimmy shrugs. “Sure.”
Kim nods. She tucks the last of the letters away in their right cubbyholes, then turns to head out, brushing past him and moving toward the door.
“Hey,” Jimmy says.
She turns back. Today, her blue cardigan almost perfectly matches the accents on the walls behind her. Her earrings are small hoops, points of gold that shine under the harsh fluorescent lights.
He shrugs. “Call sooner if you need a rescue, all right?” He waves a vague, all-encompassing hand. “I’ll come over and burn the whole place to the ground.”
Kim smiles, and the tired corners of her eyes crinkle back to life. “Deal.”
The next morning, Jimmy sits on the bus, his head tipped back against the seat. It’s hot weather already, the air-con barely cutting through it. Sleep tugs at him insistently, like sinking into warm water.
In his backpack: the heavy textbook for his public speaking class and the yellow legal pad whose empty ruled lines had haunted Jimmy last night as he sat at his tiny kitchen table, doodling in the margins or tracing over the letters again one by one: Why are you here?
Nothing he could think of to write beneath it had seemed good enough.
And Kim hadn’t called him after all, but he’d barely expected her to. Part of him was glad of it, as he sat there with his head propped up, forcing his eyes to keep moving over his business class readings, trying to remember what Kim’s pages of notes usually looked like. He was sure she managed to find more than one sentence to write down per page, that she could fill sheet after sheet with precise records of everything, bullet points of all the most important bits.
He doesn’t know how to tell what’s most important. Back at DuPage, with Lisa and his other two roommates crammed inside that tiny two room apartment, hiding from the landlord, Jimmy had never even opened a textbook. He’d bragged to anyone who’d listen that he didn’t need to, that he could just out-bullshit the professor on the final exam.
It’s not hard to imagine the dry look that’d appear on Kim’s face if he ever told her that.
The bus slows, and a few people drift on board. Jimmy shifts over to let an elderly man sit beside him and then stares out the window.
They pass a construction site, rows of new houses growing out of the ground like pale skeletons waiting for flesh. Every week it seems like there’s something new being built along this route: earthmovers gathering along the road like migrating animals, ready to level another empty lot and eventually fill it with more restaurants or buildings in the same familiar style as the rest of Albuquerque.
It’s a few minutes’s walk from the bus stop to Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill, and today Jimmy’s shirt is sticking to his shoulders by the time he steps inside the cool, dark lobby, where Brenda is setting up at the reception desk, a cup of coffee clasped in her hands, the computer before her booting up in moving lines of text.
The elevator doors open with a trill and Chuck steps out. He spots Jimmy and holds up a hand in greeting then walks over.
“Hey, Chuck,” Jimmy says. He swipes his bangs back from his forehead—his hair’s damp with sweat. “You get in early today?”
Chuck makes a noise of agreement. “The Cordero case is heating up. Listen, I’m glad I ran into you. Amendola sent over some aged steaks last week as a congratulations, so Rebecca and I are throwing a little dinner party tonight.”
Jimmy pauses for a moment, and then realises the implication. “Tonight?” he repeats.
“Mmm,” Chuck says. “Should we say seven? It can’t be any earlier, Howard has a late meeting.”
“Wonderful,” Chuck says, and he starts to move away, but—
“I have plans,” Jimmy says. In the silence that follows he knows he should elaborate but he can’t think of anything else to say, so eventually he just repeats: “I have plans.”
Chuck finally nods, and he looks at Jimmy blankly. “Some other time, then.”
“Sure,” Jimmy says lightly.
Chuck moves on without saying anything further, heading down one of the hallways on the first floor and vanishing around the corner.
And Jimmy imagines a dinner party filled with people like Chuck who could actually answer the question that still waits unanswered at the top of his legal pad—answer with well thought-out arguments and supporting statements and mountains of evidence and case law.
And if not, just an all-knowing look, like the one Chuck had given every time he’d left again for college or a clerkship and Jimmy had asked why. A look that had always seemed to say, Because there’s no other place I could be.
“Nothing from the vending machine today?” Kim asks, as Jimmy sits down at the breakroom table beside her and clears a spot for himself among her towers of notes.
Jimmy finishes re-stacking some of her textbooks and then peers inside his box of leftover Thai food. “Nah,” he says. He pokes around with a fork then looks up at her. “Gotta start penny pinching, finally get a car, you know?”
“I did wonder about that tragic sandwich yesterday,” Kim says, eyes twinkling.
Jimmy chuckles, and then he gestures with the box of pad thai. “Hey, the new place is pretty decent, though.”
“So the adventure paid off?”
Jimmy forks up a mouthful of noodles and then nods. “Big time,” he says, words muffled.
Kim nods idly, running her pen along her notes. He watches her for a while, the ballpoint hovering just above the scrawled words, and then it slows. Kim sighs. She slowly lowers her head down onto the table and groans.
Jimmy laughs gently, watching the rise and fall of her breathing. Watching the waves of blonde hair that spill from her half-ponytail, splitting in two over the back of her neck. He reaches out and rests his hand in the gap. It’s a ball of tension, tight muscles pulling down to her shoulders. He tucks his hand under the soft hair and the back collar of her shirt and then massages gently, pressing the pads of his fingers and thumb into her skin.
Kim exhales, and he feels it beneath his palm.
“Gonna be worth it in the end, right?” he says quietly.
She makes a muffled noise.
“Big shot lawyer, all the money and vending machine food you want,” he says. “Sounds pretty cushy. Otherwise, like, why are you here?”
“Right,” Kim grunts.
He smooths his hand over her neck one more time and then pulls it back. “For real, though. How would you answer that?” He waits a moment, then repeats it. “Why are you here?”
Kim looks up at him, bleary-eyed. “In the breakroom?”
Jimmy chuckles. “Sure. Breakroom, HHM, Albuquerque. Whatever.”
She studies him for a moment. “You know why I’m here, Jimmy.”
“Do I?” Jimmy says. There’s a drawn out silence. He thinks about saying, I know you needed to get away. I know you needed to escape from something you won’t tell me about, some terrible something that’s lurking there every time you mention Red Cloud—but you still won’t actually talk to me—
“To be a lawyer,” Kim says, cutting into his thoughts. “To help people.”
“Sure,” Jimmy says. “But is that why you’re here?”
Kim gives a little half laugh. She shakes her head at him and looks again to her notes, face pinching in concentration again.
“I dunno,” Jimmy says, shifting closer, and she looks back up at him. He smiles. “I mean, it’s definitely not for the coffee, right?”
And Kim returns the smile, face softening. “Yeah,” she says lightly, staring over at her half empty cup. “Is it my imagination, or is that getting worse?”
“I think they’ve realised they can start mixing in dirt and none of us will notice,” Jimmy says. He pushes his chair back and walks over to the coffee machine, pulling out the pot and sniffing it and then dumping what’s left into the sink. He fishes for a new filter and then scoops fresh coffee into the machine and sets it brewing. Leans back against the counter and watches Kim’s pen resume its careful tracing of her notes.
As Jimmy waits for the coffee to brew, Ernie appears in the doorway hesitantly, as if worried to cross the threshold. Jimmy beckons for him to sit, and he does at the far end of the table. His tie, which has little dolphins on it today, is splotched with blue ink, and when Jimmy offers him a coffee his eyes light up.
“Long day, huh?” Jimmy says, and he pours three cups then hands them around. “You’ll get used to it.”
Ernie adds creamer to his coffee and takes a sip. The three of them sit in silence, Jimmy poking at his congealed pad thai, Ernie resting his chin on his hand, and Kim reading over her notes, her lips mouthing around the words.
After a while, her eyes drift closed, and her hand stills.
Jimmy lets her stay like that for a moment, her eyelids flickering, and then he sighs and touches her foot with his under the table. She snaps her eyes open again, and without looking at him she gets back to it, her pen again tracing invisible threads over the page.
Later, he stands in the parking garage, the air cool and soft on his bare arms. In front of him, Kim is leaning against the side of her car, the driver’s door open beside her, her briefcase and textbooks piled on the passenger seat. Her eyes are closed—losing the battle they’ve been fighting since lunch. If it weren’t for the tension in her face and shoulders, Jimmy could almost think she was asleep.
He takes the cigarette that hangs from her fingers. She doesn’t react.
Jimmy takes a long drag and exhales. Shakes his sleeve back from his wrist and checks his watch.
He can stay another five minutes and still make it to class on time.
Kim breathes out slowly. She looks like a puppet with its strings cut, and he remembers his question to her earlier and wonders if it’s really worth it after all. All the late nights and early mornings and skipped meals and later nights and earlier mornings and more skipped meals…
Finally, her eyes open again.
He holds the cigarette back out but she doesn’t take it. “You good?” he asks, after a moment.
Another nod, though this one falters halfway through. She stares off into nothing, and he shifts, twisting around and leaning against the car beside her, looking out in the same direction.
He can almost feel the turn of her thoughts in the air between them. Little whirling tornadoes in the dim garage. He takes another drag on the cigarette, scratchy on the back of his throat, then exhales.
Kim tips her head sideways onto his shoulder. He thinks of an old pattern they could fall into—him offering to take her for a drink, and Kim resisting, and then relenting, getting a few hours’s break from the relentless tumble of law books. A few hours of laughter and dumb jokes.
But instead Jimmy looks at his watch again. Shit. “Kim—I gotta go.”
She lifts her head up and looks over at him.
“I’m sorry,” he says, standing. Another look at his watch. Even if he leaves right now, he might not make it, and there’s nowhere to hide in that Breakfast Club classroom of five students. No way to sneak in and pretend he’s been there the whole time.
“You got something on?” Kim asks, raising an eyebrow.
And Jimmy ignores the wounding flash of heat he feels at the question. “Yeah,” he says quickly. “Uh, having dinner with Chuck. He got some fancy steaks or something, wants to share ‘em round.” There’s a pause, and then he adds, “I don’t wanna be late.”
“Okay,” Kim says, eyes crinkling. “Enjoy.”
He nods. Hands her back the cigarette and then, with a glance to the empty landing, leans forward and kisses her quickly. “Yeah,” he says again, as he pulls back. “Bye?”
Kim nods, smiling softly. “Bye,” she murmurs, and her eyes drift closed again.
He smiles back, even though she can’t see it, and heads for the bank of elevators. One opens as soon as he thumbs the call button, the familiar five musical notes echoing in the landing. He steps inside, the cab bouncing a little beneath his feet.
The doors close over his view of Kim silhouetted against her car, her head tipped downward, strings cut.
On the bus to the community college, he sits with his forehead against the window, feeling the vibrations drift like static through his skull.
The evening sky is lit up with pink, and they pass empty lots and wide roads that all seem to glow with that strange, peach-like hue. The skeletal ribs of new buildings rise from the dark ground, tall machines and cranes folded above them, lights blinking green against the reddening sky.
And Jimmy thinks that in a couple of hours he might know more about the strangers in his public speaking class than he does about Kim Wexler. They might offer more than her easy, “You know why I’m here, Jimmy”—said as if she can skip really telling him the truth about herself, somehow. Like if she waits long enough he’ll eventually just know, and she’ll never have to say whatever it is out loud.
In his backpack: the piece of paper with an unanswered question underlined at the top. On the yellow lines beneath it, the same name crossed out over and over, and then, weakly, My brother, and in a square at the bottom, in mock seriffed letters like on a business card: James M. McGill, Esq.
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