Paul Newman's House
O’Toole’s was empty except
for a woman drinking vodka at the bar. Emil took first a deep
breath, then the seat next to her. He never would have been in a
place like this, let alone daring to move in close, but what good
had come from prowling the aisles at Barnes & Noble, from
tending the machines at the Laundromat, or even from mingling with
the shoppers at the mall after work. There seemed only this left
to pursue, the neighborhood bar in his sad new neighborhood.
"I’m Emil," he said.
Her laugh rattled the still air.
"C’mon now. What kind of name is Emil?"
"Good enough for my
grandfather," he told her.
"Yeah, I suppose." The
woman shifted toward him, crossing her legs on the bar stool,
forcing the skirt high above one knee. Though the knee caught Emil’s
attention, he didn’t want to dwell on it. So quickly up from
there and past the sweater of small breasts he paused at a deep
red mark on the bridge of the woman’s nose and then came to the
mess of brown hair, all heavy and dingy, like a mop wrung out of
basement water. She said, "Your grandfather, he wasn’t born
"Well, no," Emil
admitted in a whisper.
He was glad when his scotch
arrived. Such jerky kid stuff, being teased about a name—though,
yes, it had gone on in medical school, too. Now that he thought
about it, how about his boss at the clinic, that pinch-nosed
crumb, always calling him Emil instead of Doctor. And every time
he was the least bit late with Susan’s check, she would wail his
name over the phone and make it sound like a bird dying.
Why was all that?
Meanwhile, the woman had wet her
lips with vodka. In that more focused way she said, "People
ought to change their names when they come to America, don’t you
think?" Then she turned aside, set down the glass, ran her
forefinger around and around the rim. Her face, in profile, seemed
thinner, the corner of her mouth etched with spidery lines that
brought her closer to his age. Her chin was pointy, but not too
pointy, and it gave her a determined look. "I’m
clear," she added, still toying with the glass.
"Clear about what?" he
wanted to know.
"Listen," she said.
"Claire—not clear." She studied him, a sideways
glance. And though a spark seemed to come to her expression, it
wasn’t enough to brighten the bar or even to compete with the
dim Tiffany lamp above their heads. "Do you play
"Well, I’d like to,
probably." He felt a rush of breath at the thought of it. To
be darting around. Swinging at a ball. With someone. "You do,
Claire? You’re good at tennis?"
"Helps that I’m
left-handed," she said, and Emil saw now that her drink stood
next to his, with that closer hand formed into an imaginary grip
on a racquet. "Lefties hit the ball with a different spin and
it scoots the opposite way," she explained. "You should
see." But even as he attempted to picture a ball’s bounce,
the tint of excitement drained from Claire’s face and her chin
became an arrowhead aimed at his throat. "You don’t
"No, not really," he
Then he caught her looking at
his chest, at the loose silver watch on his wrist, and he knew she’d
not give him credit for any sport, and she was right. Last year,
though, after Susan left, he took swimming lessons. Now he could
float. He could also paddle across the YMCA pool the short ways,
in the shallow end, if he pushed off hard with his legs.
He tried to sit up stronger and
straighter, but on the stool the tendency was to lean in, for
balance. Made him feel even shorter than he was. Through a long,
obvious silence he thought of leaving the bar. Mumbling good
night. Just going.
But wait . . . that would be
giving up, yet again, maybe from then on, maybe forever. During
his second shave of the day, and right into his own doubtful eyes,
Emil had promised himself a full try.
"So where do you
work?" he asked the woman.
"I’m sorry," Claire
replied in a mumble. "What?"
"I asked you where you
There was again no answer.
Instead she peered over her right shoulder as two gray-haired men
whispered by and settled, or huddled, further down the bar, almost
to the very end. The lanky bartender stood there, too, just beyond
them, wearing unframed half-glasses and reading a tabloid. The
tables were still empty.
"God," she said
finally, coming all the way around to refocus on Emil.
Her stare went blank.
"Your job," he said.
"Oh, that. Well, sure it’s
bad. Hey, what job isn’t? Listen, every day I take a million
shitty numbers and type them into the computer." Claire
showed him how, pianoing her fingertips across the bar. Her nails
were cut short but slapped with thick red polish. "By
afternoon the screen gets to my head," she continued.
"Glows in through my eyes, so awful and deep . . . even
aspirin doesn’t help." She gave him another sample of that
rattling laugh. "Hey, what does the company care? They’ve
got so many bookkeepers."
"Quit," Emil said.
"Quit my job?"
"Yes. Right." He hadn’t
yet told her that he was a podiatrist. In a clinic at the shopping
mall. Lower level. He was never sure why people found that so
secretly amusing, what they snickered at—was it the feet or the
mall? Maybe if his patients would stop taking off their socks in
the middle of the glass-walled reception room. Ought to be a sign
posted there, he thought. At any rate, fungus toes, dry cracked
heels, bunions, corns, deep-rooted regenerative warts . . .
distasteful, if anything. How had he ever fallen in love with
Susan after smelling her feet? Well, the camphor liniment, that
had helped. "You should just quit," he advised the woman
at the bar, "and find something you like better."
"As easy as that?"
"Why not? You do it, and it’s
"Oh, yeah, sure, don’t I
wish." Claire licked her lips, spit air, and arranged herself
more evenly on the bar stool. So, okay, he thought, the chin was
pointy. But aside from that he saw her somewhat better now. And
what’s more, he found that across the short reachable distance
she was returning his look, brushing a few strands of hair from in
front of her eyes.
"Would you like another
drink?" he asked.
"But yours is almost
"Forget it." Claire
sighed and lowered her eyes.
"Well, I just thought—"
"Look, Emil," she said
metallically. "You don’t try to buy me drinks and I won’t
try to keep you here. Is that a fair deal?"
He nodded; but lately nothing
Susan, for example, wanted a new
roof on the house she’d taken from him, and much more money by
the month. She was considering a return to court. She thought a
podiatrist was like a heart surgeon, even though she knew quite
well the meager annoying salary at the clinic. She assumed he’d
had a raise.
Dammit, he should have had a
His hand felt clammy where it
rested on the bar. He leaned over and blew on the bar top, and
afterward moved his glass more toward Claire’s. Should have
picked a better place. With music. With little wooden bowls of
pretzels or those mosaic boards under wedges of pink and white
cheese. Straightening, he caught himself in a deep and heartfelt
sigh. He was here, and he’d better do something about it because
how many more nights alone could he endure? Even if it didn’t
last with Claire, to have someone to talk to, someone to care
about . . .
"I install security
alarms," he said finally.
"Yeah?" said Claire.
"You know, security
"Sure. We did Paul Newman’s
She was looking past his head.
Her eyes were resting on something there, maybe the door to the
ladies’ room. Maybe so. They’d been sitting for almost an
hour. Anyway, he couldn’t tell if she’d heard.
house," he said again.
Now Claire looked at him,
directly, and finished her drink. "Big place?"
"Sure. You can
"Yes." He nodded a
couple of times, emphatically, as if that would make it true. And
true it might be. Why not? He was even beginning to feel strength
in his jaw, like an iron rod bent exactly to fit. "Yes,"
he went on, thus boosted, "but out in the country."
She returned a faint smile for
only a second before her mouth recovered its familiar thin
straight line. Then, as he had expected, she slid from the bar
stool and went off to the bathroom.
Waiting, he stared at his
Though the medical fees in the
shopping mall were relatively cheap and often discounted, this
afternoon the clinic had been no busier than the bar. And just as
quiet. Actually, he couldn’t recall any day he’d been burdened
with patients; even Susan, still at his expense, rarely showed up.
The more he worked there, the more he came to believe that people
with foot problems preferred to be treated at fancy professional
locations, like that stone-front building over by the lake. So
Emil, stuck alone in his cubicle, pegged away at the daily
crossword puzzle in between appointments. His boss didn’t like
him to roam the mall, especially not in the laundered white jacket
with the clinic’s name on the pocket; and the boss’s niece,
who was the receptionist, never offered to bring Emil anything,
though he’d seen other doctors get coffee, M&Ms, lottery
tickets, whatever they wanted. And besides all that, what even now
made Emil’s jaw go slack and flooded his mouth with saliva was
that someone—he’d like to know who—kept putting his time
card way high in the rack.
"That was fast," he
said when Claire returned.
She shrugged and settled on the
stool. With her left hand she wiggled the last remaining ice cube,
or what was left of it, around the bottom of the glass. After
several such swirls, she stopped and gripped the glass with both
hands. "Why doesn’t he live in California?" she asked,
head still down.
"Paul Newman," she
Emil gulped in silence until she
finally turned and met his eyes. Then he just said, "I don’t
know," and the bar seemed to close in on him.
"Well, it’s probably the
crime," Claire observed, frowning. "Out there those
people keep coming across the border in the middle of the night.
Right through the barbed wire, over the desert . . . and with
names a million times odder than Emil." She glanced at her
empty, lipsticked glass. "So what time is it?"
"When?" he said.
"Oh, must be close to
eleven." By tilting his watch, Emil managed to bounce a
little light off its face. "Look at that, Claire," he
said, himself surprised. "It’s five after."
"Five after eleven?"
"Well," she said,
"maybe one more."
Emil didn’t know what to make
Still, he signaled the bartender
and ordered himself another scotch, a vodka for Claire, and when
the drinks arrived he paid for them with the folded ten-dollar
bill he had set aside for tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch. He
lifted his glass, rich in aroma, bountifully layered with ice,
ambered full to the rim. Left-handed, Claire lifted hers, too—the
resulting collision threw a wave of scotch onto the padded front
edge of the bar. A second later the drippings hit his lap. He
tried to think of something to say, and the confession snuck out
of him while he was half focused on the sudden dampness of his
"I’m really a
Claire tilted her head.
"I take care of people’s
feet," he explained. "But you’re a tennis player, you’ve
got good feet."
"Oh, no I don’t. There
are times . . ." What started as a little squint of pain
turned into a grimace that made her let go of the glass to clench
a fist, an anguished fist that went tap-tap-tap on a dry area of
the bar. "God, Emil, what I go through."
Gently he reached over and stilled that hand,
uncurled her red-polished fingers one by one, and when he found
them each to be smoother, softer than he anticipated, he could
only hope that her toes would feel the same. "I can help
you," he said.