The God of Storms
IIt was the day of the great storm. I remember it well because my
father—Mendel Liebermann—had suggested that we meet for
coffee at The Imperial. I had a strong suspicion that something
was on his mind. . . .
A roiling mass of black cloud had risen from behind the Opera
House like a volcanic eruption of sulphurous smoke and ash. Its dimensions
suggested impending doom—an epic catastrophe on the
scale of Pompeii. In the strange amber light, the surrounding buildings
had become jaundiced. Perched on the rooftops, the decorative
statuary—classical figures and triumphal eagles—seemed to have
been carved from brimstone. A fork of lightning flowed down the
mountain of cloud like a river of molten iron. The earth trembled and
the air stirred, yet still there was no rain. The coming storm seemed to
be saving itself—building its reserves of power in preparation for an
The streetcar bell sounded, rousing Liebermann from his reverie
and dispersing a group of horse-drawn carriages on the lines.
As the streetcar rolled forward, Liebermann wondered why his father
had wanted to see him. It wasn’t that such a meeting was unusual;
they often met for coffee. Rather, it was something about the manner
in which the invitation had been issued. Mendel’s voice had been curiously
strained—reedy and equivocal. Moreover, his nonchalance
had been unconvincing, suggesting to Liebermann the concealment of
an ulterior—or perhaps even unconscious—motive. But what might
The streetcar slowed in the heavy traffic of the Karntner Ring, and
Liebermann jumped off before the vehicle had reached its stop. He
raised the collar of his astrakhan coat against the wind and hurried
toward his destination.
Even though lunch had already been served, The Imperial was
seething with activity. Waiters, with silver trays held high, were
dodging one another between crowded tables, and the air was filled
with animated conversation. At the back of the café, a pianist was
playing a Chopin mazurka. Liebermann wiped the condensation off
his spectacles with a handkerchief and hung his coat on the stand.
“Good afternoon, Herr Doctor.”
Liebermann recognized the voice and without turning replied,
“Good afternoon, Bruno. I trust you are well?”
“I am, sir. Very well indeed.”
When Liebermann turned, the waiter continued. “If you’d like to
come this way, sir. Your father is already here.”
Bruno beckoned, and guided Liebermann through the hectic
room. They arrived at a table near the back, where Mendel was concealed
behind the densely printed sheets of the Wiener Zeitung.
“Herr Liebermann?” said Bruno. Mendel folded his paper. He was
a thickset man with a substantial beard and bushy eyebrows. His expression
was somewhat severe—although softened by a liberal network
of laughter lines. The waiter added, “Your son.”
“Ahh, Maxim!” said the old man. “There you are!” He sounded a
little irritated, as though he had been kept waiting.
After a moment’s hesitation, Liebermann replied, “But I’m early,
Mendel consulted his pocket watch.
“So you are. Well, sit down, sit down. Another pharisäer
and . . . Max?” He invited his son to order.
The waiter executed a modest bow and was gone.
“So,” said Mendel. “How are you, my boy?”
“Very well, Father.”
“You’re looking a bit thinner than usual.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Are you eating properly?”
Liebermann laughed. “Very well, as it happens. And how are you,
“Ach! Good days and bad days, you know how it is. I’m seeing that
specialist you recommended, Pintsch. And there is some improvement,
I suppose. But my back isn’t much better.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Mendel dismissed his son’s remark with a wave of his hand.
“Do you want something to eat?” Mendel pushed the menu
across the table. “You look like you need it. I think I’ll have the topfenstrudel.
Liebermann studied the extensive cakelist: apfeltorte, cremeschnitte,
It ran on over several pages.
“Your mother sends her love,” said Mendel, “and would like to
know when she can expect to see you again.” His expression hovered
somewhere between sympathy and reprimand.
“I’m sorry, Father,” said Liebermann. “I’ve been very busy. Too
many patients . . . Tell mother I’ll try to see her next week. Friday, perhaps?”
“Then you must come to dinner.”
“Yes,” said Liebermann, suddenly feeling that he had already committed
himself more than he really wanted. “Yes. Thank you.” He
looked down at the menu again: dobostorte, guglhupf, linzertorte.
Chopin mazurka ended on a loud minor chord, and a ripple of
applause passed through the café audience. Encouraged, the pianist
played a glittering arpeggio figure on the upper keys, under which he
introduced the melody of a popular waltz. A group of people seated
near the window began another round of appreciative clapping.
Bruno returned with the coffees and stood to attention with his
pencil and notepad.
” said Mendel.
please,” said Liebermann.
Mendel stirred the cream into his pharisäer
—which came with a
tot of rum—and immediately started to talk about the family textile
business. This was not unusual. Indeed, it had become something of a
tradition. Profits had risen, and Mendel was thinking of expanding
the enterprise: another factory, or even a shop, perhaps. Now that
the meddling bureaucrats had lifted the ban on department stores, he
could see a future in retail—new opportunities. His old friend Blomberg
had already opened a successful department store and had suggested
that they might go into partnership. Throughout, Mendel’s
expression was eager and clearly mindful of his son’s reactions.
Liebermann understood why his father kept him so well informed.
Although he was proud of Liebermann’s academic achievements, he
still hoped that one day young Max would step into his shoes.
Mendel’s voice slowed when he noticed his son’s hand. The fingers
seemed to be following the pianist’s melody—treating the edge of the
table like a keyboard.
“Are you listening?” said Mendel.
“Yes. Of course I’m listening,” Liebermann replied. He had become
accustomed to such questioning and could no longer be caught
out, as was once the case. “You’re thinking of going into business with
Liebermann assumed a characteristic position. His right hand—
shaped like a gun—pressed against his cheek, the index finger resting
gently against the right temple. It was a “listening” position favored by
“So—what do you think? A good idea?” asked Mendel.
“Well, if the existing department store is profitable, that sounds
“It’s a considerable investment.”
“I’m sure it is.”
The old man stroked his beard. “You don’t seem to be very keen on
“Father, does it matter what I think?”
Mendel sighed. “No. I suppose not.” His disappointment was palpable.
Liebermann looked away. He took no joy in disappointing his
father and now felt guilty. The old man’s motives were entirely
laudable, and Liebermann was perfectly aware that his comfortable
standard of living was sustained—at least in part—by Mendel’s exemplary
management of the family business. Yet he couldn’t ever
imagine himself running a factory or managing a department store.
The idea was ludicrous.
As these thoughts were passing through his mind, Liebermann noticed
the arrival of a gentleman in his middle years. On entering the
café, the man removed his hat and surveyed the scene. His hair was
combed to the side, creating a deep side parting, and his neatly
trimmed mustache and beard were almost entirely gray. He received a
warm welcome from the head waiter, who helped him to take his coat
off. He was immaculately dressed in pin-striped trousers, a widelapeled
jacket, and a “showy” vest. He must have made a quip, because
the head waiter suddenly began laughing. The man seemed in no
hurry to find a seat and stood by the door, listening intently to the
waiter, who now appeared—Liebermann thought—to have started
to tell a story.
Mendel saw that his son had become distracted.
“Know him, do you?”
Liebermann turned. “I’m sorry?”
“Dr. Freud,” said Mendel in a flat voice.
Liebermann was astonished that his father knew the man’s identity.
“Yes, I do know him. And it’s Professor
“Professor Freud, then,” said Mendel. “But he hasn’t been a professor
for very long, has he?”
“A few months,” said Liebermann, raising his eyebrows. “How did
you know that?”
“He comes to the lodge.”
Mendel scowled. “B’nai B’rith.”