My good friend Talbert was a modest man, one who always preferred to remain in the shadows of history. He would laugh at my brief treatment of his final days on this planet. I can hear him saying, “Really, Thomas, is it not like that classical riddle: what goes on four, then two, and finally three? Well, here I’m now on three, at least on good days when I hobble along with the help of my cane. And though I may have all the titles placed in Faust’s mouth by Goethe, what good are they if I don’t have your love?”
Despite the protestations attesting to my love, he would move his head from side to side, his grey locks making precious waves through the air, smiling, his teeth the most wonderful ivory. He would moisten his still full lips with his tongue and challenge me once again: “No, Thomas, this is all an illusion. There is naught you can do to convince me.” And when he was in a vindictive mood, he would tag on a spiteful hiss like a serpent.
Oh, how his words stung, causing more pain than a swarm of bees on my neck, a neck that he once kissed so tenderly. I brushed off his hurtful remarks and interrupted, “But, Herr Doctor, my dearest friend – I can address you thus after so many years – you have much more to do. The opera is unfinished, the themes for a symphony need scoring. Oh, I could go on and on. And your treatise on slugs needs one more read-through.”
He held up a hand. “Genug – enough. We need talk no further.” But I knew he wished to see his adopted city once again to refresh the memories of his youth, his struggles, and his successes. “And so it shall be, so it shall be,” I told him, “you mustn’t despair. I’ve made the arrangements for us to be in Vienna in a fortnight, at the beginning of May. We will have the use of an apartment not far from St. Stephan’s Cathedral. The weather will be pleasant. You can sit in the Heldenplatz or the Rathausplatz, or both – they’re not that far apart – and watch the world go by.”
He nodded; his smile so well hidden that only someone who loved him could tell. I could see that he was pleased and set out to solidify my plans, never realizing my friend’s intention. I’m sure he had this in mind all along. But how he led me to arrange this final trip was only another sign of his genius.
He had said, “Yes, Martin, it will be nice to return to Vienna. Afterall, I spent the formative years of my life there. And strange as it may seem, being there midway between Haider’s birthday in January and his death last October seems only fitting.”
No more was said. And while I knew he favored conservative politicians, his own parents having been members of the Nazi Party early on, I…, well, I said nothing.
~ * ~
Talbert recounted several times that when he was a boy he thought he would like to become a chemist. “My parents humored me, bought me test tubes, retorts, a microscope and a variety of bottles with various elements and compounds. There was a book, a primer, and another one with various experiments. They gave me a note for the local chemist who took a fancy to me, and often brought me into the back of his shop.” Here I think he was trying to make me jealous. “He was my first instructor. I spent many joyous Sunday afternoons with him when the shop was closed, playing in that back room. But I soon lost interest after an experiment I repeated in a neighborhood boy’s wagon using ammonium nitrate went awry.”
His voice would trail off and, since I considered it of little consequence, I let the matter drop. Once, though, while we were out walking a passing car had a blowout. The explosion made us both jump. He laughed. “For a moment, I thought I was once again a little boy playing with my chemicals.”
The walk and the sunshine had made for high spirits and this time when I pressed him for further details he complied. “It was the boy. You see his family was Jewish and my father had certain ideas about Jews. Indeed, I can say now that Father had corresponded with Hitler about such matters. Of course they were right; they are a scourge on mankind. And that boy betrayed me. Claimed it was I that had set fire to his wagon. His father must have approached mine and I was told that experiments on Jews at this time were not a good idea. My father patted me on the head. “We shall have to find you another interest. I had many, and moved on. My desire for revenge simmered slowly for five years. Hitler liberated Vienna. Later when that Jewish family tried to hide in the subbasement of our building, I led the SS directly to them. The boy looked at me as they were led off and spat out, ‘Now you can have the wagon for your experiments!’”
I knew Talbert was born in Munich, in 1928 – he happily took me to site of the Bürgerbräukeller , the beer hall where Hitler’s putsch unraveled in 1923. “My father was there, you know.” However I was unable to determine if by that he meant that his father had actually been there on November 8th or that his father was there later. The facility was demolished in 1979, several years before I met Talbert. His father was happy to find work in Vienna in 1933.
~ * ~
There were other occasions when he reminisced about his youth. He confessed to visiting the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin-Dahlem . “Herr Fritz Haber did much of his free radical research there. Ah, how the dreams of our youth pursue us even unto old age. No matter that Fritz helped produce fertilizer, his genius enabled our Führer to manufacture Zyklon B that was so effective in the camps. Ironic that it was invented by a Jew. I read that it was used on members of his own family. Peu importe.”
My Talbert often used French for emphasis or perhaps he was still trying to impress me. Peu importe – no matter? No matter what he did I would still love him. And he, I was convinced, loved me in return. But only on his terms.
~ * ~
There are some who say even a week in Vienna couldn’t possibly do it justice while others say that a day is time enough for any expiation. Of course I had no way of knowing what was to unfold when I arranged our trip to Vienna – the home of the waltz and my Talbert.
Indeed, Talbert was old. On good days he could get about with the use of a cane. On bad days, he needed his walker. Our first day was a good day. He woke early and took care of his personal hygiene. He sat in front of the vanity, paying particular attention to his moustache. Using a boar’s hair brush and special scissors, he trimmed a few hairs which may have had a growth spurt overnight. Next he squinted and carefully removed two grey hairs growing between his eyes and another emerging from his right nostril. He turned to me and pronounced, “This will be a glorious day, Thomas. I promise a full sun will bring warmth and tempt a glorious spring into an early summer.”
Our first stop was to be Maria-Theresien Platz with the statue of Maria Theresa in the middle. Stopping first for coffee and a Vienna torte, he reminded me, “Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina was the only female ruler of the Habsburg Empire.” He didn’t care much for strong women and she was no exception. I guessed he was trying to impress me with remembering all five of her names. But when he began reciting all the countries over which she had sovereignty, I held up my hand after he’d named five. We finished our petit déjeuner; I paid and we left.
When we arrived at Dorotheergasse he saw the sign for the Jewish Museum and insisted we detour. “Dorotheer was the name of my maternal grandmother and there was a question of her having Jewish blood.” He dragged me a block farther to Bräunerstrasse. “Come, I’ll take you to Josefplatz and the Hofburg Palace with its Austrian National Library since you like books so much.”
I was tempted to strike back and ask him if the library had any books by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese Jew whose plays picked at the shallowness of the Austrian military ethos and the society which had nourished Talbert’s family between the wars. But I kept my own counsel.
However, he may well have read my mind; squaring his shoulders, he marched on, stabbing the sidewalk with his cane, his face set against the pain. We came to the square and he stretched to his full height. A quick glance to insure there was no one nearby and then he swung his cane into action, pointing out the different parts of the Hofburg Palace as if he were a tour guide. The effort cost him dearly for when he was through he coughed twice, asked me if I had any questions, and then said we should go on to the Heldenplatz. “I think there’ll be little trouble finding an vacant bench where I can sit in the sun.” It was late morning and we did have some difficulty finding a bench that commanded a good view of the open space, statues, and museums. He sat locked into himself, until a butterfly with a yellow spot on one wing flitted by, permitting him to speculate that it could have escaped from the Schmetterlinghaus (Butterfly Museum) across the square. Thirty minutes later he said he was tired and I should call a taxi to take us back to the apartment.
~ * ~
The following morning he slept late and, forgetting that we were not in a hotel, asked that a light repas be brought to our room. I volunteered to go out and bring back coffee and some food from a nearby restaurant. There were several, including the one near the “verdamte Yiddishe museum” on Dorotheergasse that he cursed. I went there in a spiteful mood. Yesterday he had sneered when he saw the armed guards outside with their automatic weapons. “They’re a weak race that needs German machine guns for protection!”
We sat at the dining room table, the window at my back. Talbert played with his food, crumbling the Kaiser roll which was stuffed with wurst and cheese. The weather was dreary and he decided we should take a taxi around the Ring. “We can go past the circus with its ferris wheel and skirt the Danube before being deposited in front of the courthouse.”
That decided, he finished dressing, the coffee on the table grew cold. The kuchen – heaven forbid a meal in Vienna without kuchen – no longer looked appetizing. It didn’t matter. When he came back into the living room there was a smile on his face. “Splendid, I’m sure the taxi is waiting, knowing you.”
He was right; I had called, and our hired car was waiting at the door. I was surprised when he told the driver that we should first go past the Hundertwasser apartments on Löwengasse. “I find it amusing that someone who despised a straight line could be so successful. Jews seem to have a way of destroying civilization. Seeing the circus will be more of the same. Could you even imagine what he would have done with the ferris wheel?”
Talbert with his superior airs often referred to places where large groups of people congregated “circuses” and the Prater evidently qualified. There were times when I found his snobbery annoying. I was surprised then when he asked to be driven slowly over the Reichsbrűcke so he could look at the Wasserspielplatz on Donauinsel, the water park on Danube Island. I could only assume that his parents had brought him here when he was a young boy before the war.
I could see that these brief visits into his past wore him out and wasn’t surprised when he asked the driver to bring us back into town. “I would be happy if you can take us to a nice restaurant across from Rathausplatz. Later we will walk in the park.”
Talbert was a trouper. The sun had come out and he suspected that I would like to stretch my legs after lunch, to walk and get a feel for the city and its people. He was correct but overestimated his own energy. After lunch we did start out crossing the park but it was obvious that he was tired. I insisted that we return to the main street and hail a taxi. Thirty minutes later we were back in our apartment. I made him comfortable on the chaise. With his feet up and a light blanket for a cover, he was soon asleep, leaving me time to select a restaurant for dinner and plan the next day’s activities.
~ * ~
Political talk was never forbidden over dinner and that night we discussed Jörg Haider, a far-right politician and past leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Or rather Talbert talked and I listened. Haider’s parents were Austrian Nazis even before the Anschluss and he must have inherited their nationalistic and xenophobic views. I believe Talbert’s views were similar.
When they served dessert, he prophesied, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more of this popularism both in Europe and America. When the economy suffers and the belts need to be tightened there will always be a despot in the wings willing to point a finger at one minority or another.” He paused, smacked his lips and said, “And there’s always the Jews.” I blamed the wine we had with dinner. He ignored me when I said the second bottle was unnecessary. “Yes, they will say anything in order to win elections.”
When they served coffee. Talbert laughed – discreetly enough so that only I heard; no heads turned in our direction. “I just remembered the tempest that raged in the papers when Haider praised members of the Waffen-SS , as ‘decent people of good character.’ It’s unfortunate that we have so many people of good character. In the United States there are many who hide under white hats and sheets.” He laughed once again when he finished his coffee. “My dear boy, remembering the past is always a dreary and tiring toil.”
When we were once again on the street he suggested we should walk slowly back to our apartment. “The weather is exceptionally mild and this way I will have time to think.” No more was said of politics and politicians but I could see that he was disgruntled. I kept my peace.
We stayed up and read for an hour. Talbert had found a copy of Mann’s Dr. Faustus in the bookcase and was quickly reading through it. I could sense something was wrong and mechanically turned pages in the book on my lap. Talbert said “Goodnight” so softly I barely heard him. I simply nodded and wished him pleasant dreams.
~ * ~
I had kaffee und kuchen waiting on the kitchen table the following morning. Talbert appeared in pain but insisted everything was fine when I asked. He grimaced when he raised the cup to his lips. “Perhaps I’m a little bit tired. Remembering the past is always a dreary and tiring toil.”
I raised an eyebrow. Talbert was not in the habit of repeating himself. Something wasn’t quite right. And when he suggested that I go out by myself, I wasn’t surprised.
“Perhaps you can be my eyes; I’ve a list of places I would like you to visit.” I was startled when he added, “They say you can see whole worlds in your beloved’s eyes.”
He took out a slip of paper from his dressing gown and gave it to me. I glanced at it quickly and then folded it and put it in my shirt pocket directly over my heart. “I’ll leave then; I need only finish my coffee and freshen up. Is there anything you’d like me to bring back?”
He went over to the large windows overlooking the street. He turned to face me and the morning sun created a halo behind his head. He smiled. “No need to rush. And you can be my taster too. I would be pleased if you ate at the little Italian restaurant near the Opera House. The address is on the list. Eat slowly and enjoy.”
If I had only listened carefully, perhaps I would have detected something in his voice, but I was in a hurry to leave and then return. Being apart for a full day was too difficult and I thought unfair. But Talbert knew I would faithfully visit all the addresses he had given me, even making notes in a notebook I was sure to bring along that would go with the pictures I would dutifully take on the smart phone he had given me on my last birthday.
I set out at a fast pace. From a quick glance at his numbered list it was clear that he had plotted out the most efficient route – I simply had to follow the numbers. It was as if he were walking along with me, his head close to mine, all the time whispering, “Now turn left at Kaisergasse, straight ahead for two more blocks.” I was tempted to throw the list away and find an open museum – perhaps even visit the Schmetterlinghaus and take a picture of the butterfly he claimed had escaped. I would purchase a picture postcard of a monarch butterfly since it acted as if it was royalty. But I trooped on, lockstep along the route that he had carefully laid out, as he knew I would.
It was after 1:00 when I finally entered the Italian restaurant on his list. It was on a side street, three blocks from the Opera House. I must say, I was not impressed and wondered at the time if he had sent me here by way of punishment. Perhaps he would have preferred visiting Munich where he was born; his parents having moved to Vienna when he was four. Talbert had said it was for work and I ignored the quotes he made in the air with both hands. Perhaps…but then he should have said.
~ * ~
Perhaps I am the one to blame. I remember how after we had attended a performance of Madame Butterfly, he had waved his hand in dismissal. “Bourgeois, Thomas, bourgeois.” And he started to sing the opening of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung then waved away the gloomy melody, switching to a theme from Siegfried. Ah, what a voice, what a talent.
When he finished singing, he turned to me and through lips pinched together confessed that if he could only walk, he would have liked to visit Munich one more time. “…the English Gardens.” Now I can see it clearly. Talbert accompanied by his dachshund Eva, walking the trails where his parents had walked before he was born. He would visit the site of the Bürgerbräukeller, take out a flask and offer a toast to the gods. “And it all started here!”
~ * ~
It was close to 3:00 when I ascended the stairs to our apartment. I knocked gently on the door as a courtesy and then let myself in. Initially the quiet made me think Talbert was napping or that, feeling better, he had decided to go out on his own. But the silence was oppressive. I went into the dining room and saw an envelope propped against his morning coffee cup. On the front was my name written in a flowery Gothic script. I opened the folded notepaper. There were two sentences across the page in his handwriting:
Ich bin schuldig [I am guilty.] Ich habe seine Wagen verbrannt. [I burned his wagon.]
In the corner, he had signed “T.”
~ * ~
I went into the bedroom. He was lying on the bed, a light blanket drawn up to his chin. His lips were a pale shade of blue. There was a faint smell of almond. I gently touch his forehead. It was cold. Even had I foregone lunch, he would still have been dead. I moved to the vanity and turned the chair before sitting. I was exhausted and felt betrayed. I was unable to shed a tear. Five minutes later I called the police.
I went into my bedroom to lie down until the police arrived. There was another envelope on my pillow. I gave it to the police and now three months later am still waiting for its return. But the words remain with me.
My dearest friend. I do apologize for all the inconvenience that will be caused by my departure. But retribution is required and while I know one shouldn’t be both judge and jury, justice does require an executioner and I was the only one at hand.