by Kat Hausler
Jogging was the last thing Ralf felt like doing, but he’d gained ten kilos since the divorce. Even his old sweatpants dug into his waist. At forty-six, his metabolism wasn’t what it used to be. Luise has accused him of wasting her best years – what had he done with his own? He panted, going so slow a dogwalker cruised past. After half an hour, he felt as tired as he’d ever been.
Limping to the door of his building, he reached into his pocket and couldn’t find his keys. He groaned and started retracing his steps. Maybe they’d only just fallen out. Luise had often accused him of not paying attention, though she hadn’t been talking about keys. It was September, but he shivered in his sweat-soaked shirt as it started to rain. He didn’t have the energy to keep jogging for warmth.
By the time he got back to the trail along the canal, it was sticky with mud, and his keys were nowhere in sight. He was hungry and had to go to the bathroom, but where? He had no money for a café or even a pay toilet. Without his phone, he couldn’t call anyone, not even Luise, who still had her keys to their place so she could come get the rest of her boxes. He couldn’t be sure any of his friends would be home, even if he’d had any friends close enough to drop in on.
He sneezed, probably he was catching a chill. His knees ached, and he had blisters on his heels that might get infected if he kept walking through puddles. Then he remembered Aunt Ursula.
She wasn’t really his aunt but a boring housebound cousin of his grandmother’s. He often intended to visit her but hadn’t for a year, maybe two. He could see it now, her surprise giving way to delight when she saw him. He wouldn’t mention his keys. She’d offer him a towel and coffee with the usual stale cookies. Her apartment would be stuffy as always – or cozy, as he now imagined it would seem. After a brief chat, he’d ask to use her phone. Luise’s number was one of the few he had memorized. She’d lend him her keys, even though she’d probably accuse him of pulling one of his stunts again.
He couldn’t remember Aunt Ursula’s address, but he’d take the subway to her street and walk until he recognized the building. No one ever checked for subway tickets on the weekend, anyway. With any luck, he’d have time to shower and eat before meeting his friends for a few hands of skat. At the very least, he’d be back in time to tell them he wouldn’t be able to make it.
He sneezed again three times waiting for the train, and his skin crawled with goosebumps. His stomach no longer paused between growls. For once, he didn’t mind the crowded train, glad of the body heat, even if no one wanted to stand near him.
Three stops before Aunt Ursula’s, two ticket inspectors got on. They were incognito, but had the typical beefy build that clashed with their fanny packs. They made eye contact with each other from opposite ends of the car.
Ralf considered making a break for it, but there were too many people in the way. Running would only make him look guilty. He was an upstanding citizen who always bought a ticket, even if his muddy clothes suggested otherwise. They’d understand. It was like when Luise had moved out: These things happened, and they were no one’s fault, least of all his.
The taller, bearded inspector approached. Ralf avoided eye contact while keeping a neutral smile on his lips. The other passengers made way, sensing the inspector closing in for the kill.
“It’s at home. I’m locked out.”
“So you don’t have one?” The inspector would want to fine him or make him get off at the next station.
“Here’s what happened.” He told him everything, even mentioning Luise in a play for sympathy when he noticed the man’s wedding band. “What would you have done?” he asked as they pulled in.
“Something else. Come on now.”
That was it, wasn’t it? Something that kept a ring on your finger and your T-shirt flat; something you didn’t need to explain away. Something that made this man have all the dignity here, and Ralf none. That was the difference between Ralf and happier, better people. That was what he’d failed to see today and all the days before: He could’ve – should’ve – done something else. He wished he could call Luise to tell her.
What did the fine matter now? In fact, what would an arrest matter? He crossed his arms, considering, until the inspectors grabbed him and hustled him off the train. In the doorway, Ralf felt his pants catch on something.
Standing on yet another chilly platform, the fight went out of him, and he gave only meek replies to the bearded inspector who was writing up his fine.
“Hey,” the other one said, looking down at the tracks where the train had pulled out. “Are those yours?”
Ralf shuffled over, careful not to look like he was running away. Down among the stones and broken bottles, next to a dry patch of vomit, were his keys. He reached into the pocket of his chafing sweatpants. Feeling around, he noticed a small hole, his keys must’ve dropped through the hole, stayed caught, and been jogged loose as he left the train. If only he’d felt them in his pants before — if only he’d done something else back in his neighborhood, he could’ve been somewhere else now, warm, dry, and fed.
Unlike Ralf, the bearded inspector didn’t have to feel he should have done something else because he wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place. Unlike Ralf, he must’ve exercised so often it was all routine, with his family at home to let him in if he needed, and close friends he could give spare keys to.
“Yes, they’re mine.” Lying there like trash in the trackbed, they were the keys to the only home he had. And if there was something else he could do about that, he wouldn’t know until it was too late.