She’s in the corner when they get here, but they don’t notice her at first. They walk straight to the bar, past the plump hostess and vinyl-backed chairs, and ask the man with pointed sideburns and greasy ’50s hair what’s on tap. They have never been to Lincoln Square but know what to expect, or think they do, and they want something authentic and German, or that they can pretend is so.
They left the Davis over an hour ago and found themselves in this place. They’d come to see an Oscarnom for cheap and found something quiet in the empty theater, a moment they wanted to hold still. But it moved on and so did they.
They walked through the misty night in silence, away from the timeless old sign and past the faded green gate, to a Lincoln Avenue bar whose name they already forgot, where they drank their beers and talked, then came in here to drink some more.
Something shifts and they look up. Over in the corner, past the chessboard dance floor, an old man is onstage, alone at the keyboard, with an abandoned drum set and upright bass standing mute and grim behind him. He starts this plaintive tune that’s as out of place in a German brauhaus as it is on his lips. It’s the one from Casablanca, and he’s butchering it. And that’s when they notice her.
She’s sitting stage left in a crowded corner booth. Waiting for her moment. The people she sits with are loud and laughing, but she looks bored. Listless. Like things are happening around her but not yet to her. God, though—she’s a knockout, and the overhead light is only on her.
The lanky one sees this from the bar and punches his friend on the arm. Like he can’t believe it’s real. But the song is playing and the girl is there, and they both see the soft light on her face. They see the delicate features and strong resolve, the burning look behind the bored expression.
Then they see the arm behind her neck, touching the booth but not the girl, and they hate the man it belongs to, though they want to be in his place. She seems to keep her distance. He seems unconcerned, unaware. He’s a dick, they know, or at least they tell themselves that. She’s tough but sweet, silent but yearning, and she could knock you down with one word, melt your heart with one smirk. All you need to do is get close. But they don’t, or can’t.
She’ll leave a few songs after this, and they’ll leave a few after that. They’ll take the Blue Line in to work, and she’ll take the Brown. They’ll forget about her soon enough. And if they see a dirty blonde in a vintage dress walking through the Loop one morning, past the sun-drenched new buildings and colorful weekday crowds, they won’t pause or linger on her face. They’ll think she’s cute and move on. Go about their business and call it a day.
But for now they sit and watch, on this hazy Sunday night, her life an image, their thoughts a dream, and the old man with the grainy voice in back singing a classic song off-key.