6 Nights of Midnight: 4 – The Midnight Grill

Karl arrived in Midnight in 1975.  He knew nothing of style then, and never learned, but he knew how to poach an egg and had his own spatula.  He spoke enough German and English to get by.

He missed Prague.  Said so every day.  He missed the Charles Bridge, and the astronomical clock, and his dark mistress, the Vltava.  But he met a girl, Midnight-born, who called herself Star though her parents called her Yvette.

They married in ‘82.  She washed laundry at the Midnight Towers.  He worked a grill.  Karl mastered burgers–and I mean really mastered, with the most exquisite seasonings and the perfect thickness and exactly the right temperature.

Karl learned more English.  It was the only language Star’s parents spoke.  He taught Star enough Czech and Hebrew to pass secrets in front of them.

They lived in an apartment in the mountain.  It was a cramped place in a crowd of cramped places.  They heard their neighbors argue.  The neighbors heard them in bed.

Little Karl arrived in early ‘84.  He knew nine different words for pancakes by the time he was three.

Karl and Star and Little Karl strolled through the park, visited museums, and went to the Fairgrounds every year for the carnival.  Little Karl, who would always be Little Karl, started playing piano before he started school.

Karl added pork chops to the menu when he decided they were just right.  Star graduated from laundress to hostess and worked the front desk overnight.

In five months between 91 and 92, on either side of Christmas, both Star’s parents died.  They moved into her parents’ flat.  It was larger, and outside, and smelled of lavender no matter how much they scrubbed.  They used the small inheritance to buy Little Karl as real piano, a baby grand.  It was badly out of tune and needed a polish; three keys wouldn’t strike; another dozen liked to stick.  Little Karl had it next to perfect inside a month.

Karl discovered a sauce that was neither Italian nor French, but was impossible to ignore or forget.

On a Monday in ‘96, Star took the day shift at the Midnight Towers.  A madman with a pair of .44 Oliveri’s and unfocused rage shot Star in the chest on Tuesday.  Karl and Little Karl visited her every day in the hospital until she was able to come home again.  She became quieter, and moved a little more slowly, and never truly escaped every shadow of pain, but she was happy.

One day, an envelope arrived in the mail.  It contained cash, quite a bit of it, and a slip of paper that read, “We take care of our own, Your Uncle.”

Star didn’t think she had an uncle.  But now she didn’t have to go right back to work.

Karl and Star and Little Karl went to shows at the Palais Royal and the State Theatre and the Opera House.  Then Little Karl, when he got home, would mimic what he’d heard.  His voice was atrocious.

In ‘02, the year Karl became owner of The Midnight Grill, Little Karl met the girl of his dreams: Unna.  She’d just arrived from Berlin, so they could laugh together in both German and English.  She dreamed of cabarets and smoky nightclubs and the long blue dresses she could wear while singing.

And damn, Unna could sing.

Little Karl happened to be the man of her dreams.  They married within a year.  Karl cooked a feast, lamb and duck and rare vegetables, everything but the cake.  Mrs. Fleet baked the wedding cake.

They got a regular gig at the Palais Royal for a while, and then one of the bigger concert halls, and played shows across the entire city until Unna’s pregnancy became difficult.  She was condemned to bed for most of five months, during which time Karl the Third arrived.

Sometimes at twilight, Karl and his grandson sat on rockers on Karl’s stoop.  “I miss the Vltava,” Karl said.  “I miss the Old Town, my golden city.”  He smiled, because he repeated these things now by rote.  Karl the Third giggled.  “When I left it,” Karl said, “I had nothing but a spatula.  I didn’t know anything but how to poach an egg.”

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