Lisa Cuddy interpreted the open parking space next to Payne Barker's Range Rover to be a good sign or the beginning of a "B" grade horror flick. If Zagat rated dive bars and pool halls, Paulie's Tavern on the State Highway could be used as the gold standard for places in need of arson. She felt sick to her stomach at the prospect of walking into a bar in the middle of nowhere and having a heart to heart conversation with Greg House about how to save the career of his flunky. Optimistically, Cuddy chirped the alarm on her Mercedes and wondered if she would ever see it again as she walked towards the dented steel door and the fat bouncer straddling a wobbly bar stool. Despite dressing down in jeans for the occasion, Cuddy looked out of place. The Chanel jacket was a stupid choice.
"What trade you with, darling?" inquired the heavyset bald man with Woody Woodpecker tattooed on the side of his head.
"The oldest." Cuddy answered with the first thing that came to her mind and later could not explain how she came up with that line.
The bouncer nearly fell off his stool getting up to open the door for her. She surprised herself with her boldness and decided to embrace the anonymity served up on Paulie's menu. Despite the cheap cologne, filthy biker jacket and poor quality tattoos covering his body, the bouncer wasn't that bad looking. She wondered what her sisters would say if she showed up in Miami with him in tow. Cuddy struggled to keep from laughing. On the drive to Paulie's she had given herself a long pep talk about going with the flow. No matter what happened, she vowed to laugh about it the next day.
The smoky crowded bar was unlike any place she'd been to in years. A few college attempts at slumming it had brought her to the doors of much finer establishments in hope of experiencing this level of working class recreation. Although, neither a sheltered or naïve person, she felt a bit overwhelmed by her surroundings. She refused to give into the temptation to flee.
"Lisa, you grew up in Vegas, survived med school and run a hospital. You can eat these people alive. Just imagine they're doctors." She told herself and pressed forward.
Cuddy tried to remain nonchalant about the scene unfolding around her: the waitress with the "Jersey hair", the eighties heavy metal music and red vinyl décor that might have been recovered from a fire sale. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the smoke and dim lighting. Finally, she spotted Freddie Patel waddling away from the bar with three beers precariously balanced in his hands—the same hands that made him one of the best heart surgeons in the country. She winced at the thought of him breaking a finger in a bar fight. Patel, who always seemed more at ease and happier in the absence of his neurologist wife, passed a beer to Lehman, a scrappy rat faced man, who had won the American Society for Obstetrics "Physician of the Year" award the previous December. Barker was hunched over the pool table lining up a shot, his baseball cap and Texas Rangers jersey made him look like a college student. She looked away for a moment for some reputable sign that she was conscious and not hallucinating.
Cuddy almost overlooked House before she realized that the man perched on the edge of the other pool table smoking a cigar and laughing hysterically was indeed Dr. Miserable. It was comparable to seeing a brontosaurus walking down Sixth Avenue. She could not hear him over the music, but he was smiling as he spoke to Patel. Not the smirk that occasionally surfaced at the hospital or the drunken grin she witnessed at a holiday party years before—it was genuine smile. He looked like a different person. It was intriguing and scary at the same time.
"Let's go talk to the brontosaurus," she mumbled to herself as she started towards the group of doctors incognito.
Like a huntress, she circled her prey once and attacked from behind. House wasn't wearing a bowling shirt as she initially thought—it was a gray work shirt from Mayo Brother's Plumbing that identified him as Steve. Lehman apparently worked for the same plumbing enterprise, but went by the name of Barney. The thought that Lehman and House had carried the charade far enough to necessitate matching shirts forced her to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from losing it. She had worked with all of these men for years and had no idea who they were.
Distracted by Lehman hitting on a waitress without luck, House failed to notice Cuddy sidling up to him.
"I have plumbing question, Steve, can you help me out?" She whispered in his ear trying to sound local.
House turned to face her and in a strange flurry of confusion, shock and terror lost his balance, gave a girl-like scream, fell off the edge of the pool table and being unable to catch himself landed unceremoniously on the floor. Instinctively Cuddy lunged forward to help him, but he did something else she did not anticipate. He laughed.
Barker rolled his eyes and stepped over him on the way to the bar. Patel turned an ashen color, stared at his shoes and scurried away to put more chalk on his cue stick. Lehman stared in disbelief and guzzled his beer. House stopped laughing and held his hand up to her. She took it and struggled to get him on his feet. Only after he resumed his perch on the edge of the table did he speak.
"Welcome to the wilds of South America, Cuddy, how the hell did you find us?"
"I gave every bouncer in the county $20 bucks and told them to be on the look out for a drunk with a limp."
He relit his cigar and arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Fine," he said taking a puff, "you do know that our organization is bound by secrecy and blood oaths. If you tell anyone about anything that happens here, I will tell everyone on the hospital board that you're sleeping with Lehman." He tried to focus on her as it became more obvious he was drunker than she first thought. "Since his wife is on the board," he slurred, "she would be really really really pissed."
Cuddy leaned against the edge of the pool table and tried to sound serious over the bad eighties rock ballad playing. "I came here to talk to you candidly about Bert. Can we talk?"
"Hey Steve," a high pitched female voice interrupted, "you want another beer, sweetie?"
The alien abduction smile returned to House's lips. "That would be the best thing ever, Dana." He not only sounded sincere, but also looked sincere. Cuddy caught herself staring at him.
"How about your friend? Is she thirsty?" Dana the waitress had a mallrat quality to her that Cuddy thought had died out in 1991.
House turned dramatically to face her, his nose only inches from hers. "I don't know. Darlene, are you thirsty?"
Deep down inside she knew this person. She knew the arrogant, but charming, asshole with the icy blue eyes and boyish Adam's apple. He was close enough that she could smell his aftershave.
"Dana, I'd like a dirty martini," Cuddy smiled looking up at the younger woman, "can you do that?" She added an extra challenge.
The waitress looked to 'Steve' for guidance, but he wasn't paying attention to her. "I don't know," she shrugged, "but, you'll get it in a wine glass—we broken the martini glass last Thanksgiving."
Cuddy watched the waitress retreat to the bar. House continued to stare at her either transfixed or intent upon making her as uncomfortable as possible. She refused to be unnerved by his interest. "Darlene? Is that the best you could do?"
"It's a good name. Very popular amongst the professional crowd that frequents this fine establishment. It's not too plebian for you is it?"
"Plumbing business must be great—you're wearing a fifteen hundred dollar Tag Heuer with your work shirt." She smirked at his watch.
"You wouldn't believe what I had to reach into to get this."
"You could say that—I'm being perfectly serious, though. It was disgusting. I had no idea that someone's large intestine could get that necrotic." He made a childish face.
She tried her best not to smile. "We need to talk. It's serious. Is there somewhere private—"
"Hell, no," House laughed laying back on the table, cigar clenched in his teeth, "I want an audience for this. Hell, I want footage for the bootleg internet video tape sales." He grabbed his belt buckle and started to unbuckle it.
She struggled to pull him up into a sitting position. "I have to fire Bert tomorrow morning, first thing. There's no way around it. I don't want to fire her, but I don't know what to do and that's why I'm here."
House sat up willingly. "Over the autopsy? Blame me," he shrugged, "I don't care. I could have gotten a court order for it, but it was easier on the family to be sneaky. She didn't do anything I wouldn't have. You can tell the evil meanies that I told her to do it."
"That's not going to work." She wished she had thought of the court order. "Wilson will just come up with some other reason."
House took his cigar out of his mouth. "Wilson? What does he have to do with this?"
"Everything," she raised her voice. "This is because he thinks you're at home with a gun to your head most weekends. He's protecting you."
House was silent.
"It's true," she looked at into his eyes, "it's a game."
"Damnit," he finally spoke.
Cuddy felt sick.
Dana returned with a terrible martini in a beer glass—the wine glasses were all dirty. Cuddy downed it before the waitress left and ordered a second.
House seemed impressed with Cuddy's desperation. Gently, he leaned closer and placed his hands on either side of her face. He moved in and looked at her with an honesty she had never experienced with anyone. The confusion and noise of the bar faded into the background. She would never forget his words.
"I'm not complicated, I'm just bored."
It was simple summation of his entire worldview. The end of his nose almost touched hers. "Of course," he sighed, "give me an extra inch of string and I'll hang myself every time." He pushed away from her as quickly as he had pulled her in.
"Gimme your cell phone!" House yelled at Barker as he slipped off the edge of the table and retrieved his cane from where he left it hanging off of one of the pockets. Barker tossed his phone over his shoulder blindly. House caught it one handed. Without saying anything to Cuddy he started towards the door.
As he made his way through the crowded bar, his limp and dependence on the cane appeared more pronounced and Cuddy conceded that Barker was right. House had nothing to hide in front of a group of people who knew him only as a crippled plumber. The limp was much more obvious and painful to watch; yet, he seemed to be in less pain when he wasn't trying to stand up straight and obscure the fact that he had a significant disability.
Dana caught up with them at the door and gave Cuddy her martini. "Here you go, Darlene. I think this one is better than the first—it's a double."
"Thanks, Dana." Cuddy absently gave her a ten-dollar bill.
"Doing ok, Steve?" The bouncer inquired ignoring the misdemeanor Cuddy committed as she walked past him with the drink.
"About to be doing better—you've met Darlene, obviously." House traded a sly look with the bouncer as he stepped out into the cold night air.
"Damn, there's a lot of money in plumbing," he whistled.
Cuddy smiled, but said nothing having brought it all on herself.
House sat down on the hood of an old Cadillac El Dorado and dialed the cell phone. Absentmindedly, he toyed with his cane as he waited. Cuddy prayed he had not dialed Wilson.
Suddenly, he yelled into the phone. "Tippy! Pick up the goddamned phone! It's your mom she's dead!" After a moment of silence, he spoke more sedately. "Hey man, what's up?"
Cuddy stared blankly at him, not so much listening to his side of the bizarre conversation as trying to figure out who he was. Before this night she never imagined House capable of small talk let alone smiling. She did not know who Tippy was, but deduced he owed House a sizeable favor and it proved beneficial to Bert's situation. When he hung up, she hoped that Tippy was not a mafia hit man about to ice Wilson. However, there was a tiny part of her that hoped he was. It was fascinating to watch House sit there and work out a favor for a condemned friend. She liked the way he flirted with the waitress. She liked his smile, his laugh, the way he smelled and the abandonment of his FDR tactics to hide his disability. She found the utter honesty of 'Steve' to be incredibly sexy.
He gave the phone a disgusted look. "Well, hell, I've lost my lackey and two weeks of my summer. What am I going to do?"
"I thought you called in a favor?"
"I did," he answered plainly. "Tippy's Dean of Medicine at Tulane and he's been looking for a decent doc who's not afraid of working on gunshots and assorted death inducing shit. It's a hell of a job and I had to agree to teach the Huey Long Seminar next summer if he'd give it to Bert." He slid off the hood wincing slightly as his feet hit the ground. "You don't have to fire her. I'll do it myself. I'm nicer than you."
She ignored his little jab. "You have money for fund three fellows."
"Great," the usual annoyance suddenly surfaced in his voice, "you can hire the next one. Find me a jackass I can't stand."
"I've got one in mind." Her willingness to help seemed to surprise him. "He's a good doctor, but you'll hate him. Absolutely hate him, I promise."
"Good," he nodded, the edge on his voice softened. "You play pool?"
"I'm sure there's some innuendo there that I'm not going to get after two glasses of cheap gin and olive juice."
"You ruined it when you asked." He offered his hand. "Seriously, you play pool?"
Cuddy followed him back into the bar, her hand grasped in his. Her cheeks were warm from not only from the touch of his skin, but the alcohol in the two terrible martinis. House led her to the empty table he'd previously been sitting on and started digging through his pockets for quarters. Patel materialized and handed House a handful of coins, he regarded Cuddy suspiciously.
"Dr. Cuddy," his thick Indian accent made each syllable sound like a separate person, "will we all be fired tomorrow as part of your reign of terror?"
House stopped fighting with the coin slots on the old table and slapped the cardiac surgeon in the arm. "Who the hell are you talking about? This is Darlene," he feigned insult.
Barker looked up from the other table. "Steve, you take care of that problem?"
House scooped the billiards balls onto the table and started to arrange them in the rack. "Done."
It was the first civil exchange she ever witnessed between the two of them. Had she ever told anyone about it, no one would have believed her. No one at the hospital would believe anything that happened inside of Paulie's. At the hospital Barker and House hated each other vehemently with police reports on file attesting to their mutual animosity. Lehman was a very conservative, socially prominent obstetrician. Patel was a quiet henpecked cardiologist who died every time he had to speak in public. At Paulie's Lehman drank cheap beer and hit on gum smacking waitresses with big hair. Patel knew all the lyrics and danced without shame to the Beastie Boys. House had a humane sense of humor and Barker could be described as relaxed. No one in their right mind, not even the ICU nurses, would ever believe that Lisa Cuddy, the iron fisted humorless Dean of Medicine, would be wearing tight jeans, drinking cheap gin and letting Gregory House lean over her to show her how to line up her shot. Might as well tell the gang back at the hospital that the moon was made of cheese and cigarettes cured cancer…
Cuddy sobered some as she endured three long games of pool with House. She expected him to be more talented, so his ineptitude caught her off guard. Balance proved to be his downfall. Fortunately, for his ego, she sank the Eight Ball back to back and he held her to the rules. Even sober, he sucked at pool. However, this alter ego didn't have a problem with it.
Near midnight, she ventured a request to be walked to her car. It was late and she was exhausted. The crowd had thinned out only a tiny bit. House agreed, but looked at her suspiciously.
"What do you expect me to do—slow them down?"
"That'll work, unless Steve knows kung fu?"
"Steve can't spell kung fu."
The night was still cold and the sky even clearer and more moonlit. Cuddy felt dangerously young as she trailed after him to her car. She wasn't quite sober, yet not entirely drunk. He had her keys and she doubted that she was going get them back. Cuddy smiled in the blue glow of the moonlight and breathed in the icy air letting it fill her lungs like an intoxicating vapor. Emboldened by the cold air and cheap gin, she caught his arm and moved closer to tell him something she had been thinking all night. "We've met before, Steve."
"Have we?" He stopped at her Mercedes and leaned against the passenger door.
"I remember you made quite an impression on me at Michigan." She stepped closer, her knees brushing against his. She watched his Adam's apple move as he swallowed.
"I recall something about that."
Her hands came to rest on his narrow hips and she stepped closer. "I wouldn't be opposed to helping you recall more."
A hint of disbelief crossed his face as he leaned down to whisper in her ear. "You know you're really talking to me, right?"
She grabbed the front of his plumber's shirt, brushing her lips against his and pressing her body even closer. "No doubt about it."
The next day Cuddy's head pounded while she listened to the canned hold music as she returned a call from world-renowned rheumatologist Rowan Chase. Despite the wicked hangover, she was in an excellent mood. With a content smile and her shoes kicked off under her desk, she remembered standing in the gravel parking lot of Paulie's with her arms wrapped around a handsome plumber named Steve.
An hour later she finished the paperwork terminating Bert Morgenstearn's fellowship in the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and initiated a three-year position for Robert Chase, the son of the famed rheumatologist. She signed both documents and headed towards the clinic to locate the other necessary signature.
The nurses shrugged guiltily when she asked if they had seen House. Cuddy groaned and swore as stomped up three flights of stairs letting the anger build to a crescendo on the fourth floor. A pathologist and an oncology intern scattered out of her way as she rounded the corner and grabbed the door. She failed to acknowledge Wilson as she tossed the papers on House's desk.
"Ever hear of clinic duty? That thing that you're supposed to do as per your contract?"
"What? That thing with the sick people?"
"Yeah, that thing with the patients," she glared at him.
House traded a childish glance with Wilson and plucked a pen out of the cup on his desk. "There are too many contagious people in the clinic and I don't want to catch something that would impair my ability to sit here all day and think about diagnostic things." He scribbled his signature on both sets of documents and handed the files back to her with an unapologetic sneer.
She snatched them out of his hand and returned the sneer. "You owe me eight extra hours next week." Cuddy's voice was razor sharp. "Skip out and I'll dock your salary. You owe me those hours and I'll hold you to it."
He rolled his eyes. "You owe me the quadriceps that you and that other harpy stole." He retorted as she stormed out the door. "Should have taken a kidney while you were at it! You vampire!" his voice trailed after her.
A broad smile formed on her lips as she walked down the hall away from the office of her arch-nemesis. Her triumphant administrator's march assumed a new superiority. This was her hospital and everything was in its proper place. Yet, it wasn't the whole world, just a tiny piece of it. Her eyes grew brighter as she drew nearer to the elevator bank and she reflected on the best advice she ever heard, "Always play golf with the people you hate."
She loved golf stories.