Pretty Women from Hangelar

by Sven Heuchert

He caught me out in the yard. I had my backpack in one hand and was checking the mail when he pulled open the gate. I could hear him coming before I saw him.
He stood there and said, “Hello.”
He was wearing a black leather jacket I’d never seen on him before. He looked good. Was getting sleep, no more rings under his eyes. Maybe five or six pounds lighter.
“Hello,” I said and shut the mailbox. There wasn’t any mail.
He glanced at my backpack and said, “Not a good time?”
“Not really,” I said. “Just heading out the door.”
“Where to now?”
“Belgium,” I said, and then, “Charleroi.”
He nodded approvingly. “You really get around, huh?”
“Writing about an exhibit Niels has there.”
“That Niels,” he replied. “He doing all right?”
I nodded.
“Was just in the neighborhood,” he then said. “Thought I’d drop by.”
“Now’s not great.”
Then we finally took a good look at each other.
It’s one of those situations where you can tell that a person’s changed, but it’s not clear at first how. It’s not just their weight, or a few gray hairs.
Neither of us wanted to speak, which brought a strange silence, each waiting it out.
“You lost some weight,” I said, and he smiled and said, “I did.”
We used to be better at overcoming the silence—we’d just drink another pint, which made it less of an issue. There were always other people around, in the old stadium, or in some pub, never leaving us completely on our own. So now I noticed just how little we had to say to each other.
“So what kind of car you drivin’ there?”
I stood there staring at my father.
“I’m taking the train,” I said. “Car’s not worth it, gotta watch the dough.”
He nodded. “Know what you mean.”
I was holding that backpack—ready to go—yet he just kept standing there like he was, and it was making me feel uncomfortable.
“Train doesn’t leave for another hour,” I said, and he got what I meant.
We walked side by side. I knew he had something to tell me, maybe even something important, but I also knew how tough this was for him. Just talking was; reality was.
“Fortuna won the big game,” he said.
“What I hear,” I said, “and in the ninety-fourth minute too—man, did they get lucky.”
“Yep, finally moving up a league, after all those years,” my father said. He stopped a moment and tugged on his beard. “Still going to the old stadium?”
“Not so much anymore.”
“Last time I went was with Worm.”
“That Worm,” I said. “Still alive, I take it?”
My father laughed, a good honest laugh. “Doing well too.”
Worm. The name brought back lots of memories. I’d tried to forget all the names. Worm. Sly Fox. Bakesy. It wasn’t that long ago, but it had just been long enough—for me anyway.
“You ever hear from Lilly?” he said.
“I haven’t, but then again it’s going on two years.”
“Thought you two might still be in touch.”
I shook my head. “Haven’t heard from her for a long time. Must have a new guy. It’s better that way, keeps me from thinking about it too much.”
My father stopped talking, and so we kept walking side by side, in silence again. Lilly. That was another one of those names. You don’t think about it to the point of believing you’ve forgotten it. But that’s not how it actually works. It’s still lying there under the surface, remaining all calm, and it doesn’t take much to bring it all back—all above the surface.
I can’t go blaming myself. That’s not fully true of course, but it makes me feel better thinking about it that way. For us it was wrong place, wrong time. Or better said: I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still half a child, and sucking on a bottle. It never could’ve worked out.

The train station came within view. They had this little coffee joint. We automatically headed inside. Instead of standing we found a seat in a corner and looked out the window, at the busses passing, mothers with buggies smoking, broken cobblestones, a little sunshine. I got us two coffees in paper cups. We took a drink. I looked at the newspaper rack. There it was, in the headlines of the Express: “Fortuna Snatches Victory in Final Seconds.” It left me strangely unmoved.
“I’ve met someone,” my father then said.
“How do you mean?”
He gazed at the rim of his cup. “Just like I said.”
I nodded, said nothing.
“She’s from Hangelar,” he said and smiled. He’d said this like it was some crucial detail. Hangelar: home of some federal archives, a GSG-9 anti-terror unit, and that crappy airport. I had no idea what he was trying to say.
“All the women from there are pretty,” he said and took a drink.
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“It’s true,” he said. “I’ve still yet to see a single ugly woman from there.”
He paused and stared at me. “More women used to be ugly, which you just don’t see as much anymore, meaning, well, that women are cuter now in general. But the ones from Hangelar? Man, I tell you what.”
This sounded weird coming from him, I wasn’t sure why. He then folded his hands, and his body slumped—only slightly, yet plain to see.
“So what’s she like?” I asked.
He smiled again. “What do you want me to say?”
“How should I know?”
“The main thing is, she’s young,” he said. “Well, younger than me.”
That seemed important to him. I didn’t respond.
“Does me good, that woman,” he said, turning his cup one way then the other. “We do a lot of things together.”
A bus honked, and we both looked out the window. It was just an elderly man who’d started to cross the street without looking. He’d stopped and was hitting the bus with his cane. We both laughed and, for that one moment, all was well.
I didn’t care about the pretty woman from Hangelar—she was only this vague image in my head. Yet there were those other, crystal clear images that would not be going away so easily. He exhaled noisily, and I knew what he was going to ask, and he knew that I knew.
“So,” he said and made a rotating gesture with his hand—and the rest was clear.
“If I find the time,” I said. For a split second I imagined the scene, me sitting at a table with him and his pretty woman from Hangelar. That way we’re talking, so cautious and beating around the bush the whole time, and how we’re overly nice to one another. But I only imagined it a split second, like I said.
“My train’s about to leave,” I then said, and he nodded and asked, “But you’re doing good otherwise?”
The part about the train wasn’t true. I only wanted to get rid of him. This didn’t make me feel bad or guilty—I simply wanted to be alone.
“Yeah, doing good.”
“You could’ve shown your face once in a while,” he said, “or called even.”
I nodded. “That’s true,” I said, “but I really have had lots to do and not much time.”
“Everyone’s got lots to do.” He looked past me, and lowered his head.
This had stopped being about that pretty woman from Hangelar a while ago. It was about those other things, and it was our silence about them that lent these things such weight. Many of them are still open wounds. Many of them still look nasty, but then you adjust. You live with it.
“When you back from Belgium?”
I drank the last gulp of my coffee, which had gone cold, and everything pathetic about the situation was there in that last gulp. We always get back at one another, for everything. I still believe that today.
“In a few days,” I said. “I’ll get in touch after that.”
My father smiled, just for a second, and then he leaned back and said, “’Course you won’t.”

He was right: it was years before I saw him again—it just happened to be in a bar, and there he asked me if I could loan him two hundred euros. He was about to get married and was a little low on funds. He wasn’t with the pretty woman from Hangelar anymore, of course. He was already boozed up and telling me about some sweet Pole who was going to treat him so well, but I wasn’t listening very carefully.

Back before that, though, I had stepped onto my train, stared out the window and read the names of the stations passing: Troisdorf, Porz-Rhein, Gremberghoven, and it all seemed so shabby, and I too seemed so shabby. Then I thought of my mother, and about what it once meant to have things belong together, and that now the only thing left was silence. And I remembered that one day when I, still in school then, was taking the 66 train to Bonn and these two women got on at Hangelar, more like girls really, only a little older than I, and I was in one of those strangely sentimental moods where everything got so intense, which was why I could have sworn I’d never seen such pretty girls before.

I hadn’t thought about that for a long time, about my father and the pretty women from Hangelar, not until now.