Published in Azure: A Journal of Literary Thought, 2018.
Excerpt from “Menage a Trois, With Horse”
(Setting: Cafe Central, Vienna, 1912.)
I let Brendan delineate our trip, forcing a smile when the man, Anton, stolidly middleaged, glanced at me with a discomfiting fondness. He insisted we take our chairs and small tapered espresso cups to his table. After the round of introductions Anton informed us Leon was a war correspondent for a Kiev newspaper and back from the front only yesterday, from Sofia. “Belgrade,” Leon corrected him.
I graded Leon the brightest-looking of an unusually intelligent four, impressed by his rich black hair, a thick black mustache and intense dark eyes behind steelrimmed glasses. Brendan said, “I’ve not heard there is a war on.”
In halting English Leon explained the Austro-Hungarian Empire wasn’t involved in it. “The Balkan nations. The Greeks. They resist the Ottomans.”
Brendan was coming alive, more than I’d felt in some time, in discussion with these new acquaintances. “Who’s winning?”
In a meld of English and French Leon asserted that’s a question those ask who don’t go to war. No one wins a war. Shaking his head as one does in pain he told of his visits to hospitals for the wounded. Anton managed a simplified translation: “Many are still in the battle. They have nightmares at night. Sometimes during the day, while awake. Shooting. Running. Seeing comrades die. Over and over.”
Leon’s features clenched at the agony he was describing. Anton addressed a question to an average-looking highbrowed man with a skimpy mustache, wearing pince-nez glasses. “Herr Doctor Alfred, can these men be restored to normal lives?”
“It is possible,” replied the doctor in an Austrian accent, “with personal psychiatry. Without relying on preconceived ideas of treatment.”
“Or quackery,” hinted Anton.
The doctor made a light smile. “By which you mean ideology. My approach would differ from the pre-eminent theory of our time. These wounded men are isolated. They have forgotten where they belong. I would have them describe their pre-war memories and re-connect them to their lives.”
“Your dispute in the community is well-known.”
“Therefore I prefer not to dwell on it. I shall not respond to— his ruthless attacks in the same manner. Herr Professor Joy wants followers. My course is to break off pointless conflict.”
Anton took a small sip of his cup of mokka. “Fortunately the professor comes here no longer.” He glanced at me to discern if I guessed whom they were discussing. “His new favorite is the Landtmann.”
The doctor murmured, “Das bessere für uns.“ I sent Anton an inquiring glance. He whispered, “Better for us.”
Leon made an observation in German and the doctor replied in German. Anton told Brendan, “Combating illness and overthrowing a sick government have less in common than Leon would like.”
Brendan looked puzzled, intrigued. The fourth man, an overweight theater director named Egon, leaned forward, confiding, “Adolf is at the window. He is looking inside.”
Anton shrank in apprehension. “Does he seem inclined to enter?”
“He lives in a home for indigent men. Poverty has turned him bitter.” The table fell silent and in minutes a thin man approached, carefully managing a large black portfolio under his arm. Anton asked how his sales were going. Adolf shook his head. In German Anton suggested, “Show our lady friend your new watercolors.”
“Englisch?” inquired Adolf.
Adolf opened his portfolio and displayed three street scenes one after the other. Anton informed him, “Sie ist ein Künstler, auch.” He shifted to English, “What do you think, my dear?”
My reply carried a faintly appeasing tone I couldn’t suppress. “They are professional. That building there, I recognize it.”
Anton interpreted in German and Adolf tied the portfolio shut, looking miffed at the paucity of my enthusiasm for his work, not, I guessed, a new experience for him. Adolf launched into a rapid rant in German. Brendan smiled. “I know not the words but I envy the blarney.”
I sent Anton a questioning look and he explained, “He is upset about the state of the arts in his fatherland. The academy fails to appreciate his work while accepting inferior works of the style academics are fond of. He calls them fools who reward their flatterers and have no feeling for art.”
The others waited Adolf out in silence, Leon with a wry smile. Adolf turned his diatribe on Leon. After a brief exchange between them Adolf tied his portfolio and stalked out. I said to Anton. “Obviously they aren’t friends.”
“Adolf accused Leon and his fellow Russians of child’s play, intellectuals and revolutionaries hiding under false names. Leon writes about the war under a pseudonym. He has used many. As a Jew he has good reason. His compatriot Vladimir has taken the surname Lenin. He did not come here today. The solitary Russian who never comes here, short, thin, pockmarked, he calls himself Steel.”
Brendan shifted in his chair. The doctor offered, “He is a cold one, that Yosef. And more intelligent than one may expect from his peasant features.”
Egon eyed the doctor. “If he has any mental defect he hides it, unlike Adolf, also a solitary individual. Adolf wears his passions on his sleeve.” He scanned the table. “Has anyone ever seen those two together, Adolf and Yosef? I think not. Should they meet, Adolf would talk Yosef to death. His own. Yosef hates verbosity. He would end the conversation by drawing his knife, he carries one, you know, and could kill Adolf for his pleasure. Both are, what would our Anglo-Saxon friends say, stuck? Herr Doctor, your profession pronounces no mental disease incurable?”
The doctor named Alfred humored Egon’s amateurish analysis. “That must be our working assumption.”
“My question is simpler. Can you cure any mental disease?”
“Not so simple, sir. We have no pill to undo years of damage. The talking remedy requires time, often many years.”
“Until the patient dies,” argued Egon. “Or tires of his illness and in boredom he goes on to some other form of entertainment.”