Herr Lippert stood in line the same as everyone else did. He liked to talk, talk nonsense about politics when his views weren’t of the dumpling-and-kidney variety. In those days who had kidneys anyway? He liked snitzel and snoodle, dark beer and that year’s Grinzing wine.
A woman was on his mind as he moved with the line, a woman he’d seen the day before serving food. He didn’t belong there. He knew it. She could see that he didn’t belong there. Behind his smile was an aristocrat.
Moving in line he shuffled from foot to foot, a rich drifter. Right a rich drifter. Having showered, he picked up a tray. He didn’t need to shower. He showered at home. Hot mocha soon. Refills. Sure. She smiled as she poured him a cup of mocha.
“So you’re back,” Pauline said, trying to concentrate on filling his cup. Herr Lippert waited until the line disappeared before returning for a third one. Just how she held her head. He liked that. This time she smiled a smile as warming as the mocha.
Obviously, he could’ve paid for a meal somewhere else. Pauline wondered about that.
“Wonder what I look like to her?” he thought. Dressed better than anyone else. Yes, she was paying attention.
“Wait, wait. Maybe we can talk later,” he said.
“Maybe,” she chuckled, flattered by the attention. He wasn’t just another sad face in a long line. Made him feel a bit self-conscious. Perhaps she’d understand sarcasm better.
Afraid of the world, she is; trying to make sense of the world, yes, that’s why she’s here, he thought. A do-gooder, her nature; how stupid. Seems to be sincere. Even more stupid.
“It’s me again.” Afraid she’d become annoyed.
She was coy. Curious. Seemed to like him.
He thought he could get a row out of her, get something at least, when he said, “We’re all idiots. We’re stupid to have lost the war. Now it’s worse for us.” He watched her for a reaction that didn’t come. She passed the test, a test he contrived.
Then he went back to his table, cupped his hands around his cup and grinned. Grinned. Actually he didn’t believe in anything. Then why was he grinning?
She watched him out of the corner of her eye.
Swine. She wasn’t impressed. Next time she’d make him pay, or so she thought.
Ludwig watched Lippert. He didn’t want anything from him, from his kind, he thought, as he watched him from afar. He bristled over the thought that Lippert was ripping off Gumpendorferstrasse. Looking for a handout, no. No reasoning with his old friend. Wanted to shake him. But not so fast. He was very much like Lippert. He saw that when they first met. When that happened: figuratively speaking: dangerous sort of. Ludwig glanced around. No one was paying attention. No, wrong. There was this woman serving at Gumpendorferstrasse who was.
Oh, Lippert, when would you ever learn? The thing he held against Lippert most: Viennese charm was as much at odds with the world as Lippert. But you couldn’t trust Lippert. Or hold him accountable. Pity. To waste all those brains.
Forgot where they first met. They went to the university at the same time. He knew that. Ah, yes, the university. That seemed so long ago. Yes. In Wien that was. In the classes. Got the same dismissal. Ludwig smiled when he thought of that. Friends after that. There was this woman serving at Gumpendorferstrasse. Yes, Ludwig knew her before Lippert did.
Ludwig tried to explain how people turned to music, or dove into German history and mythology to escape their misery. Why Wagner then more than ever? Why Wagner at all? Why music when people were getting a short stick? He tried to make sense of it all.
With empty disks for eyes, few of them could see beyond the next day. But with joyful melodies and strains of sentiment, they could forget what they couldn’t change.
Never was Vienna more dedicated to pretending. The Merry Widow sung her heart out, cooing and twilling those high notes with perfection. And with medals on their chests, gentlemen still serenaded women. Left with nothing, they turned to wine, women, and song. And smiled a great deal. There was no use pining for a life they had. Johann Strauss, Kirk Wield, oh my they still went to the opera.
They all knew the routine, the same routine everyday: first to Gumpendorferstrasse for food, then to a warming room in Erdberg, and then back to the shelter in time for a shower and a meal. Had to get there early.