Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Lou Fisher

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 here."

"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 tennis?"

"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 play."

"No, not really," he said.

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 worked."

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.

"That bad?"

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 done."

"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 gone."

"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 seemed fair.

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 raise.

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 alarms."


"Sure. We did Paul Newman’s house."

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.

"Paul Newman’s house," he said again.

Now Claire looked at him, directly, and finished her drink. "Big place?"

"Sure. You can imagine."

"Around here?"

"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 fingers.

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 said.

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 of it.

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 pants.

"I’m really a podiatrist."

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.


Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.