Herr Müller was a waiter in his own restaurant.
He was devoid of the smallest commercial bone in his body and preferred a simple employment with a satisfying salary, which happened to be only slightly higher than his colleagues’ because of his many years of experience. He was sixty-three years old and had been the owner of his parents’ restaurant for the shortest time, a couple of months, before he sold it to Herr Ehring, who from then on would be in charge of MÜLLERS. The contract drawn up between Herr Müller and Herr Ehring had two special clauses. One stipulated that Herr Müller would immediately be employed as a waiter, whereas the second one was about management. Naturally, the first clause came into effect immediately. As for the second, Herr Müller had never once seen the need to use it in four decades. It was, in his mind, a reasonable failsafe out of respect for his parents and their establishment.
Despite signs of the inevitable passage of time – advanced baldness, his white circlet hairline from the temples to the back of the skull and the occasional wrinkle around the corners of his eyes and mouth – Herr Müller was given to understand – not rarely – by Frau Unger, among others, that he was a handsome and desirable specimen for a divorcée in her fifties such as her. Frau Klodt, another bachelorette and weekly customer at MÜLLERS, also complimented him on numerous occasions on his neatly trimmed moustache, his broad, manly shoulders and his stout, reassuring frame. Herr Müller always responded to his female admirers’ compliments with a word of kindness in return – never twice the same – and light humour, maintaining enough distance not to offend, while being close enough to care genuinely. Not once did he take up any of the ladies’ invitations; out of professional and personal dignity. Although, when he dressed and looked at himself in his wife’s full-length mirror, he had to admit to himself that he did deserve the compliments. Only the wrinkles, he could have done without, and the slight paunch. But while he certainly was old from the viewpoint of the younger folks, he thought he most certainly did not look old.
Every day, Herr Müller arrived at work at eleven o’ clock and each night, he left at ten, once the last meals had been served and the kitchen closed. He then took the tram for a twenty-five-minute ride through the post-industrial décor he had known all his life. Of course, he had also seen the changes. For eighty-five years the restaurant had been at a crossroads, in the heart of a bourgeois, commercial part of town that bloomed into maturity during the early 1900s. The town seemed to be smaller then, on the photographs; horse buggies dominated proximity logistics, while motor cars were still sparse on the intersection up front. The whole family had lived in the house where MÜLLERS now was. There were two rooms behind the kitchen where Herr Müller and his brother had grown up and which had been transformed into a cold storage cellar. While the tram took him to the outskirts of the town, Herr Müller mused each night, during the ride, about how the restaurant had prospered in all those years and how the town had changed; how it had grown fat and complacent on coal and miners’ exploitation dating back over a hundred years.
Every night, when Herr Müller arrived at his place, he could still hear her calling ey bollo from somewhere in the house as he passed the threshold. He would go to the empty kitchen, heat a bowl of ready-made alphabet-noodle soup in the micro-wave and watch the late night news bulletin. Afterwards, he would climb the creaking wooden stairs to the first floor, pass by the open door to the irreproachably clean bedroom with the chequered quilt on the bed and halt at the end of the corridor. There was a single bit of rope dangling undisturbed from a trapdoor in the ceiling. The trapdoor gave way to a clanging articulated flight of aluminium stairs that unfolded automatically, almost carefully, until it connected with the carpeted floor. Herr Müller would turn half round, making sure he turned off all the lights, and ascend further upstairs.
He knew where to reach in the dark to find the string that lit the bulb under the roof. There were a few cardboard boxes, filled mostly with Marta’s belongings – her colourful dresses, carefully folded, and Polaroid boxes containing old photos of her parents, brothers and sisters, back in Medellin – and some discarded pieces of furniture. Herr Müller would take the rifle that was leaning against the back of the mustard yellow armchair, a couple of steps from the trapdoor. The rifle in one hand, he would switch the light off again with the other before he leaned back in the armchair; his elbows resting on the armrests; his hands gripping the barrel. The stock touched the ground between his feet. There, aware of the eerie feeling deep down in his gut, Herr Müller would stare patiently over the muzzle, through the darkness, at the small window. And at the night behind it. Every night.
Today, Herr Müller overheard three elderly customers, distinguished Herr and Frau Diesch and widowed Frau Nowitzki, talking over lunch about those foreigners and how insufferable it was to see them everywhere. Such pieces of talk were of little importance to Herr Müller. It happened all the time. And, in his opinion, being a waiter, one was not supposed to listen in on customers’ conversations. He saw to it that trainees minded that simple rule. Of course, one could not help stumbling over bits and pieces of a conversation, here and there, even quite crisp ones at times, as long as one did not actually listen – or stumble.
The constant hubbub of kitchen noises, customers’ talk and employees exchanging information formed an almost tangible auditory background of varying consistency and texture which was particularly impressive at lunch and dinner. Working in a restaurant, one became accustomed to it. Herr Müller glided elegantly through it. He was alert to every sound, hearing each fork that fell to the ground, the animation in the kitchen, each sigh of delight, as well as each unsatisfied grunt. But he only overheard the conversations.
Yesterday, he overheard Frau Ingrid Klemm (she must have been close to ninety) say to her husband, Horst, over Schwarzwälder cherry pie, cream cheesecake and coffee with more cream, that she was afraid of the poor. The day before, Herr Müller remembered overhearing bald, meaty headed Herr Jobst, around forty and father of two, lecturing his wife, Ina, teenage daughter, Amelie, and child son, Lutz, with small narrow eyes that it was not surprising the government could not fix the budget deficit because of all the darkies syphoning their taxes.
Herr Müller now distinctly remembered overhearing Herr Fischer and Herr Gutmann over two pints of sewer-water-local-pride brew agreeing that the ability to work hard – real work – was not genetically the same in all races. He also remembered overhearing a business-like couple, both very smart, she, a gorgeous blonde with a tight ponytail (not older than twenty-five, while he must have been in his thirties), probably work-related friends, talk about veiled rabbits and their impressive rate of reproduction.
Usually, Herr Müller did not pay any heed to the chit-chat he overheard at MÜLLERS, for it was none of his business. And, usually, what had been overheard was soon forgotten in the trail of thoughts of his work. But not today. Today everything resonated with the murky haze of a sensation that emanated from the small solidified knot lodged deep down inside his stomach – something he was not quite able to point out, had he wanted to, but which was nevertheless there, gnawing at a remote corner of his consciousness.
On the tram back home, he thought of his brother, his elder by two years, who was a ticket controller for the railways, only a few months off retirement and whom he recalled stating, during their last encounter, that all dark-eyed and brown-skinned children should have their hair dyed blond.
As he arrived at his place, Herr Müller heated a bowl of ready-made alphabet-noodle soup in the micro-wave and watched the late night news bulletin. When finished, he went up the creaking wooden stairs past the frames of her smile and raven black hair, walked past the open door of their irreproachably lonely bedroom with her quilt on the bed and pulled on the so far undisturbed single rope of the trapdoor. At the top of the aluminium stairs, he switched the light off and leaned back in the armchair; his elbows on the armrests; the barrel in his hands; the stock between his feet. And Herr Müller, aware of the leaden haze in his stomach, stared at the small dark window.
Behind it, there was only the suburban quiet of the night. A blinding brightness suddenly flooded the room, streaming all around him and a single beam of cold hard light struck Herr Müller’s terrified eyes. The piercing ring inside his head was immeasurably louder than his scream of horror. And he pulled the trigger.
He had had that dream every night, for twenty-five years. And every morning, Herr Müller woke up at the dawn of day in the mustard yellow armchair, put the rifle away behind it and returned downstairs, to the part of the house where there had been life and happiness so many years before.
Since then, he had kept on living without any conviction other than his work. In fact, he had stopped wanting to live the day she left him. And he knew that he would join his young wife, Marta Maria Müller, born Zelada Lopez, as soon as possible. But for twenty-five years something had prevented him from doing so.
Until that morning, when Herr Müller, as he woke up in her armchair, found something was on his mind.
Something was wrong with the world. Herr Müller knew from the news he watched every night. There was so much suffering each night on the television – people fleeing wars, famine, persecution; drowning in the ocean; people being rejected at our borders and held prisoner in administrative detention camps. For those who finally got in after countless trials and tribulations, they were met with discrimination, more rejection, and abuse. For those who did not make it over the border, the future looked even bleaker than the past.
Herr Müller felt particularly confused about certain facts regarding great European aeronautics, motor and steel companies that manufactured weapons which were distributed by offshore companies and used in civil wars all over the world (this had been a news piece, too) – against the people he saw on television. Those people appeared to be the same whose presence the clients at MÜLLERS commented and complained about, every single day. Considering even only this simple fact, it seemed paradoxical to Herr Müller that people would complain about others for fleeing a situation that had been helped to create by the very country they lived in and which the refugees wanted to reach. For a moment he had even wondered which country had sold their weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces, back then. Something was indeed wrong with the world and there was not a thing anyone could do about it.
You saw the news reporting chaos and destruction in far-off regions and shook your head until the next piece of news, or entertainment, then, afterwards, football, then the weather forecast. “Destiny,” his neighbour, Frau Senrath, had commented to him a few weeks ago on the sidewalk, while taking out the garbage, after informing Herr Müller of a tragic bus accident on Sardinia in which all passengers had perished. At the time, it was difficult for Herr Müller to find an appropriate contribution to the conversation, but the feeling deep down in his stomach suggested that “destiny” was not enough, although he did not quite realize it. Something was wrong with his world.
That morning Herr Müller called his attorney to set a meeting with Herr Ehring. He wanted the restaurant’s ownership back. Herr Ehring did not understand; there had not been any incidents since he had been in charge, the figures were more than good, the management flawless, the clientele and employees were happy. Herr Müller thanked him for taking good care of his parents’ establishment, adding that MÜLLERS was going to change significantly. For the change to happen, it was imperative he regained control over the restaurant – at which point his attorney reminded Herr Ehring that there was still the second special clause of the contract which was initially meant to prevent the possibility of a future short sighted manager turning MÜLLERS into a fast food joint, or something similar and which gave Herr Müller the right to take the ownership back, if he wished to do so.
The restaurant’s status would have to change: it would become an association – and a restaurant. Apart from the restauration activity, everything about MÜLLERS would have to be different. When Herr Müller had finished explaining, he gave him the opportunity to become his associate. The association would rely on donations and Herr Müller would use his private funds to get the enterprise started. At the end of the meeting, Herr Ehring was concerned about the risks of transforming a perfectly viable establishment with a solid reputation into a high-risk enterprise that would be facing staggering odds of failure. He added that their clients were not going to like it, to which Herr Müller agreed that that was certainly going to be true about the old ones.
The next month MÜLLERS closed for renovations.
Three months later, Herr Müller unlocked the doors early on a Sunday morning in June, just after Whitsun. People had been waiting in line since daybreak; no wonder, he thought, they were starving. His staff was in place, the tables set, the menu short and diverse (five dishes from five continents, plus starters and desserts) and the three central cooking station squares ready. He had thought for some time about making a short speech but he would see how he felt about it at the opening – and now he did not feel the need for it, after all.
He took a long quiet look at all the faces that were visible in the gathering – and wondered only for a heartbeat if there could be distant in-laws among them. There were so many different regions represented that he estimated at least a dozen different countries of origin – Central Asia, the Middle East, Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa and Germany, too. Perhaps even more. All shades of skin colour; dark hair, blond hair; a prism of faces, features and colourful garments; languages he had never heard before, although he did hear German, and he was almost certain about catching some French and Spanish with South American undertones. Someone said something about el buen Muller when they saw him.
He felt he could tell the distances and the hardship some of those people had gone through from their faces, some half-covered by a veil, and their clothes. Others had come from near-by – the beggars and homeless he saw almost every day; whom passers-by looked at with pity, contempt or indifference. It was obvious that many possessed nothing but the clothes they were wearing; some were barefoot; some carried a bag; all looked ragged and tired, the old and the young alike. A few had brought vegetables, fruit, a sack of rice, even flowers. It was like a patchwork – no, he thought – more like a quilt, a living human collage.
He noticed a police van parked within sight, at a strategic distance from the crowd which was waiting within reaching distance from the entrance. Through the great glass windows on either side they could peer inside behind him, where it was bustling with action – people with aprons and small cylindrical white hats were busily preparing their spots at the cooking stations, checking the crockery and equipment while others were carrying piles of plates and trays with glasses to the stations. The last of the first set of vegetable crates were put in place for the morning and the trolleys rolled out of the way. Herr Ehring emerged on his right with a dozen voluntaries behind them to inform him that everything was ready.
And then, water began to boil, onions were chopped and the cooking began.
That day, at 11:30 am, Herr and Frau Diesch left their apartment building in Schongauer Street 14 in a joyous mood to have lunch as was their habit every Sunday. Their favourite place was reopening. It was only a short distance from their address but Frau Diesch liked to point out that at their age the ten-minute-walk before lunch favoured the appetite; the one after lunch was good for digestion. After a right turn, half along the way, they reached Bismarck Street which they followed, sauntering slowly down the sidewalk, looking at the closed shop windows, up to the intersection.
At first, they did not notice the commotion. When they did, they dismissed it as one of those cultural events involving youth or a protest march of some sort or other. There were so many of those these days that it was hard to keep track. But as they approached, it became obvious that the gathering – with a very diverse crowd – had something to do with their destination. They noticed with some relief the police van parked a little off.
As the couple came closer to the entrance, confusion rose proportionally to their advance. It must have been sheer habit or some entitled determination that had kept them pressing on through the multicultural crowd. There were so many foreign-looking people and undesirables that it was quite unsettling to the elderly couple. It was nearly impossible to tell what was going on. But confusion gave way to the most utter puzzlement, when a young Middle-Eastern woman in a blue short-sleeved jacket and a stained apron with her hair held together in a loose charcoal ponytail at the entrance told them that there were no more free tables. Herr Diesch, feeling he and his wife were being disrespected, asked to see the manager. The girl called a first name over her shoulder into the surrounding chatter and cooking noises. Herr Müller appeared, dressed casually, contrary to his habit, wearing a plain colour printed t-shirt, jeans, sneakers and smiling broadly behind his moustache. He liked the girl because she reminded him of his wife in both appearance and temperament. He was wiping his hands on a kitchen cloth before stretching one hand out, “Good day. How can I help you?”
Herr Diesch was feeling increasingly uncomfortable about all this nonsense and answered urgently, “What’s going on here? We’d like to have a table as we are used to.”
But Herr Müller shook his head, “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Haven’t you noticed? This is no longer MÜLLERS but MÜLLER’S MOSAICO. You will have to go somewhere else, I’m sorry. If you’ll excuse me”, he winked, “There are people here who haven’t eaten a decent meal in days.” He turned round and disappeared again, into the other crowd.
Four weeks later, on Sunday morning, at 6 am, he and a handful of volunteers were redecorating the restaurant. It appeared that the previous decorations were out of focus – while rich people enjoyed having artistic drawings of the animals they were eating on the walls, it turned out that the unaccounted for enjoyed having other people around them. Every person served had been photographed in order to create a sort of collage of faces on the walls of the new restaurant. When asked how he got the idea, he said it came from his wife; but he alone knew that she, too, was there, on the largest wall – the first photo at the centre of the mosaic.
That night, Herr Müller took the last tram home. He had already eaten and went straight to the attic. There, he wrestled the mustard yellow armchair wheezing down the aluminium stairs, along the corridor and through the door. While he was catching his breath, he pondered whether it should face the window with the light orange curtains or the bed and quilt. He realized that somehow, unconsciously, he had been trying to avoid the yellow, blue and red chequered motive with the tiny butterfly in one corner for the last twenty-five years – although he quite liked it. Now he decided that since the armchair was already facing the bed he could still turn it around the next day, or any other day. He felt himself coasting into it and, as he touched down, fell asleep instantly – relieved – in Marta’s favourite armchair.