The Valentine’s Gig

The bar is half full when we arrive; pushing through the door, trading the Chicago streets and swirling snow for the pounding swing of live jazz music. We move slowly, almost aimlessly, towards the cluster of small round tables just beyond the band. There’s a pause as we glance at one another, eyes vaguely questioning, before sitting down.

We’re barely seated when the band takes a break. They’re an hour on, thirty minutes off, and here in this thirty minutes, we’re greeting old friends, shaking hands all around, grinning nice to meet yous to acquaintances just made.

There’s a door in the wall behind us; the kind of half-door they have in church nurseries, with a menu fastened to the top half. We stand in the gap, scanning menu items, pondering between catfish, perch, wings, nuggets. The pizza puff, we’re told, is amazing, and I order one, standing there in that half-open door.

The food comes with three minutes left in the band’s break. Paper baskets of fries, fish, chicken, with little containers of homemade barbecue sauce, fill the tiny table in front of us. I’m hungry, and curious, and the pizza puff burns my tongue; the price of not waiting for the rest of the table to be served. The drummer, the bass player- the reasons we’re here, really- rush a bite or two before returning to their instruments, their own pizza puffs emitting steam from where they’ve been bitten.

The band’s leader, a man named Greg, grabs the microphone. We sit at our table, munch our fries, while Greg’s easy manner as an entertainer fills the darkened bar. He introduces the band again; the same titles, intonations we heard 30 minutes prior. He invites a guest musician- a bright-eyed woman holding a flute- to join the group on the stand, and stand catches my ear, because it’s not a stage, but the wooden floor, the border lines of black amp cords delineate the stand as their own place- the place where music is born.

The bar fills slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the next set unfolds. The opening ceremony for the All Star game plays soundlessly on the two TVs over the bar itself, and a small ring of men has formed there. Their eyes flick to the screens occasionally, but it’s their conversations that grip them; swapping words, nods, stories, over the drinks they grasp in crossed arms.

There are two couples at the bar, their backs to one another. One woman, the outline of her black sweater almost fading into the dark behind her, gazes calmly around her, her eyes most often falling on the screen beyond her man’s head. He faces her, his hands resting on her lap, and she holds them, gentle fingers curled into his. I can’t hear their voices over the roll of the band, but I watch her look at him, listen to him, nod, speak.

Behind her, another man sits at the bar with his love. Unlike the other’s crew cut, this man has long hair twisted into locs and pulled back, away from his face. His shirt is bright red, like the woman’s beside him, and holes that have the distressed look of intentionality fill both their jeans. They must speak, I know, but I don’t catch the movement of their mouths, or the flick of recognition in their eyes. Instead, this couple moves. Seated atop her bar stool, the woman swings her shoulders to the beat of the jazz, her movements sultry, loose. He moves, too, his hands swaying, beating the air in front of him with the same easy drive.

Beyond both couples, the bar has filled as night falls with the snow outside. Men drinking beer, watching the game above. Couples out for Valentine’s Day, leaning into one another over drinks, across the tiny clothed tables. Women in red, hair neatly coiffed, out with friends, sisters, aunts. The light is dim, yet not threateningly dark, and the music rises, consumes, but never overwhelms.

Later, I step into the bathroom only to be accosted by the shouts of an angry woman. She’s in the far stall, screaming into a phone at a man I can only assume to be her boyfriend.

Later still, the band stand empties and I stomp snow off my boots outside, haphazardly brushing snow off the drummer’s car while he loads a waist-high stack of equipment into the trunk.

Not much later, he pulls the car onto the snowy street, leaving the bar- with its dancing, laughing, shouting, listening, arguing, loving people- far behind.




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