Lance Olsen



Elderly Anton and Julius decide on a whim to veer from the gravel path the color of shortbread winding through Pfaueninsel and cut across the meadow behind the imitation castle ruins.
     They have made it into their eighties, wear loose-belted, box-pleated, wool Norfolk jackets (Anton's chestnut, Julius's olive), matching wool trousers, heavy brown boots. For them almost every day has become a cold day. Inside their boots their toenails are yellow and hard. Inside their trousers their legs blotchy and blue-veined. Anton and Julius have watched themselves with curiosity and dismay impair into themselves.
     A retired sommelier at a posh hotel just off Ku'damm, Anton sports abridged gray hair, round spectacles with blackened lenses, a briar pipe. A retired concierge at the same, Julius sports no hair, no spectacles, no pipe.
     They walk arm in arm as they have walked arm in arm every pleasant day for more than half a century. The gesture became reflexive long ago, a means of closing the distance between their hearts. Over the last fifteen years—ever since Julius's tremors slowly began taking hold and Anton's vision slowly began emigrating to another country—it has developed into a necessary act of shoring up their biologies against what the years have taken from them.

Julius is doing no more than rejoicing quietly in the sun's heat upon his face, absent-mindedly recalling a song popular when he first met Anton on a break in the alley behind their job: Crimson roses gem the heather, blushing in the clasp of May—or was it June?—May or June—woods and vales and something something echo back the something else. Julius hums the melody under his breath, it striking him the German Empire wasn't even three years old when someone made up those lyrics. Wagner was busy building his opera house in Bayreuth, Schliemann poking through the clutter of Troy, Thomas Mann's algebraic sentences only an indistinct discomfort in Júlia da Silva Bruhns' belly.

Anton is doing no more than drawing pipe smoke into his mouth, letting it suffuse across his tongue, up into his sinuses, releasing it into the abundance of the audible world.
     Years ago he forgot how to remember the colors blanching out by degrees around him, the lights everywhere growing auras, the nights getting darker, the days twilighting away.
     Anton could see.
     He could see he saw less.
     He could differentiate nothing besides pastel blobs and blurs.
     He took continual solace that it could always be worse.
     Unfailingly, it will be.
     But for the present it is these sharp peacock cries reaching him from the far side of the island, and, closer, small-bird cheeps and trills and a little boy's practiced whine for ice cream and his father's fierce comeback and footfalls crackling across gravel.
     For the present these short blusters of Nordic breeze among swishing branches and a squirrel's rustle and the sandpapery sounds of a gardener's tools working loam.
     Across the meadow a group of young women and men are laughing, single words rising up from their exchange into the afternoon—clover—goose shitlicorice—and, closer still, the inexpressibly crucial noise of Julius's voice humming some out-of-tune thing Anton can't place.
Anton raises his right boot to take another step through the puffs of scruffy meadow grass only to encounter himself on break in the alley behind the hotel at which he used to work. It is 1872 and he is striking up a conversation with Julius, who has just asked if he could bum a cigarette off him, yet the conversation has already ended and Anton barely remembers anything about it except its exhilaration, because he was hired last week and—and it is a month later—how did that—Anton's job neutralizes his days, contracting each into a succession of fussy demands, blaming looks, finicky complaints, and pasty faces, exactly like the day before and the day after, only lost a little faster—no—it is a month later and Julius and he are stepping off the boat onto Pfaueninsel on their first date, tentative, unsure where this thing might lead, their surroundings prickling with prospects, and—wait—they are on their fourth outing, not their first; their sixteenth, not their tenth—except they haven't met yet, and Anton is still a little boy, his mother holding him by the wrist on a street corner outside a candy shop, bending over and wiping smeared chocolate from his lips with her own spittle wetting a handkerchief—the soothing smell of it mingles with her lavender perfume, her pushy fingertips—wondering why he is passing the same candy shop as a different person, the one who just spent his first night with Julius, the city bleared by rain, his spectacles foggy, him wanting nothing save reach his own flat to wash his face, change his shirt, give himself over fully to the experience of jumbling into romance, believing it will be gone within a week, a weekend, even as he suggests a delicious light-bodied pinot noir from Italy to a swollen pig-eyed businessman and his ringlet-haired daughter—or is she his mistress?—and—no—that was later, he is sure of it—now he is strolling through the stalls of a flea market along the Spree with another man, younger, svelter, beautiful, blond—his name is Siegfried—no—Joseph—no—Walter—it's not a man at all, but a girl named Lucie or Gretchen or Sonja, and Lucie or Gretchen or Sonja is carrying two long-stemmed roses with which Anton souvenired her as they met outside the Savignyplatz Station, Julius startled by how serious things have already gotten, and—how did that—time is hurling past—their stroll is already over, has been for more than half a decade, Anton's shoulder leaning into Julius's as they sit side by side in a pew in the cavernous Berlin Cathedral, attending with closed eyes a brilliance by Bach, the what is it called, the one everyone knows, toccata and something, that one, toccata and something in something, realizing at any juncture—the very next one—the very next out-of-control thought—his lifelong companion could be buried, realizing if he, Anton Schaeffer, born and raised among Spandau's cannon foundries and gunpowder factories, had never been on this planet nothing very much would have changed, not about that, not about anything, Julius would simply have found somebody else to love, the hotel somebody else to serve its patrons, and even his mother would have wiped chocolate off somebody else's filthy toy mouth—and sight comes—and sight goes—and nobody really cares except you—for others it's just an anecdote, just something to tell their friends about before taking the next sip of chardonnay—one day Anton Schaeffer could see, they say, and on another he couldn't, how sad and do you think it will rain again tomorrow—no—wait—it is two years from now and Anton is wandering into their cramped kitchen in search of an apple, will wander into their cramped kitchen in search of an apple, only to hear Julius leaning over the sink, swallowing what Anton at first presumes to be pills for his tremors, and he stepped up beside Julius, will step up beside him, to give him an impulsive hug, only to discover they aren't pills at all, no, but rather copper-coated pfennigs, Julius's hand shaking so awfully the water in his glass is sloshing over onto the linoleum floor, was swallowing, is swallowing, will always be swallowing coins, one after the other, and Anton instantly felt, will instantly feel, exhausted, emptied, overwhelmed, and, looking up at the ceiling to collect himself, consider how best to respond without upsetting his lover, his boyfriend, his hope, he saw, will see, has always seen death as a towering wave of black fire crashing down on them in very slow motion.

Off the grass, please! the gardener shouts at their backs.
     Anton brings down his right boot on a butterfly (although he doesn't register the dainty crunch one hundred and seventy-two centimeters below his current thoughts) and without turning raises his hand in acknowledgement of the gardener's command as Julius begins steering them both back toward the shortbread path.
     The couple steps through a swarm of gnats busying their faces.
     Anton declares: A telling.
     Give me a telling.
     Right. We—yes—we just walked through the most heavenly patch of tiny white flowers.
     A light snow spread out across the grass. Among them, dandelions.
     The meadow?
     The dandelions?
     The color yellow?
     I can't. I'm sorry.
     What else do you have?
     Do you remember the lilacs we used to buy at the shop down the street?
     I wonder why we stopped.
     You said the smell didn't count without the rest of it.
     I said that?
     I was wrong.
     And a single giant gnarled oak.
     Just passed?
     Profuse vines covering the trunk.
     Profuse. What a word. Next to the folly?
     Of Roman ruins.
     The Havel, blue under sun, gray under cortical clouds. Plush villas on the far shore set into the tree line.
     Five or six. In the water. Seven. A white wedge gliding.
     And that.
     Animal in the undergrowth.
     No. Another.
     Yes. Gardener's wheelbarrow?
     Pram. Girl. Early twenties. Alone before a hedge. She's stationary, staring ahead, mouth open slightly like a turtle, as if stumped, rolling the pram forward an arm's length and back with the anger and disappointment of a short lifetime built into the action.
     The elation of bringing another indulgence into the—
     Anton bark-laughs.
     Julius joins him.
     They give each other's arm a squeeze and advance toward the dock where a boat, then bus, then train will carry them back to 52°30'04.6” North and 13°18'12.4” East and an orange tabby named Oscar Wilde.




"Algebraic Sentences" is an excerpt from my novel, My Red Heaven (Dzanc, forthcoming 2020), an historical collage fiction about Berlin in 1927, the moment everything seemed more or less right and no one could imagine what lay only a few years off.