Hooligan By Philipp Winkler
At the Festival Neue Literatur, a Crash Course in Contemporary German Literature
Philipp Winkler will be appearing as a featured writer at The Festival Neue Literatur, March 23–25. The following is translated by Bradley Schmidt.
I warm my new mouth guard between my palms. Use my fingers to rotate it and squeeze it a little. It’s what I do before each fight. The plastic holds firm, with just a small amount of give. It’s a fabulous piece. You almost can’t get any better. Specially made by the dental technician. Not one of those mass-produced cheapo jobs you can toss after two weeks ’cause the edges cut into your gums. Or you constantly want to gag from the horrible fit and the chemical smell of the plastic. By now, almost all of us have one of these mouth guards, except Jojo with his paltry janitor’s wages. Kai, who always has to have the finest shit. Ulf has no problem paying for it. Tomek, Töller. And some of our boys who have the right jobs. Uncle Axel, of course. He’s the one who discovered the dental technician a couple years ago. Specializes in contact sports and takes care of martial artists all over Germany. I hear the people from Frankfurt go to him and some of the boys from the East. From Dresden and Halle, Zwickau. Probably have to lay out their whole month’s check from the government, I think, and run the tips of my fingers over the ventilation holes.
“Hey, Heiko!” Kai pokes me in the side. “Your phone.” The knock-off phone buzzes between us on the seat. I reach for it, my fingers shaking. My uncle watches me in the side mirror. I press the button with the green symbol.
“Where are you? We’re waiting,” the voice of the guy from Cologne I organized the match with comes through the phone. I roll down the window so I can see better, look for any points of reference.
“We’re on highway B55 near Olpe. Should be right there.”
“Hit Desert Road. Turn right off the second traffic circle. On Bratzkopf, straight till you’ve passed the city limits. Woods on the left. Can’t miss it.”
Before he hangs up, I remind him one more time about our deal.
Fifteen men on each side. Then I hang up.
“Well?” Axel asks without turning around. He’s still watching me in the side mirror. Despite the sun’s reflection, I can recognize his piercing gaze. How he’s scrutinizing me closely. I pass along the directions and stress that I reminded the guy about the agreement.
“I heard,” he says and turns to Hinkel, who’s at the wheel as usual. Axel repeats the directions. As if Hinkel didn’t hear me, or Hinkel could only drive that way if the directions come from him. I notice how Kai is looking at me from the side. The corners of his mouth spread. In solidarity. If I look at him now, he’s probably rolling his eyes. Telling me, fucking hell, what a control freak. Something like that. But I don’t react, just see whether Hinkel takes the right turn. He grunts, which probably means he understood. Hinkel grips the wheel, his meatloaf hand at twelve o’clock. Beads of sweat are trapped in the long hairs on the back of his hand, and glitter in the sun. It looks like a comb-over in the wrong place. He lets the other hand dangle out the window.
“Axel’s been known to sample the goods. A lot of people need it for their nerves. Well, that or just ’cause they’re junkies.”
Tomek, sitting on Kai’s left, scrolls through his phone with disinterest. It’s an East Bloc thing. Always the same Slavic face. Good mood or bad. You can’t tell the difference. He’d probably have the same expression if he won the lottery. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s pissed off. After all, Kai called shotgun before him. Probably doesn’t even know it. Now he has to sit exactly where Jojo bled all over with his destroyed nose. Jojo’s snorter really suffered. And the seat padding too. And besides, that’s clearly the spot you don’t want to sit on hot days. Behind Hinkel. Even with the window open.
Kai lifts his ass an inch above the seat and slips his powder tin from the back pocket of his Hollister jeans. He unscrews the lid and shovels a pile of blow onto his thumb, holding it under one nostril then the other, snorting. The car is jostling quite a bit, but he manages not to lose any. He throws his head back. His gelled boxer haircut scratches over the greasy seat cover. He holds out the tin for me.
“Want some? Maybe then you won’t fill your pants.” He grins. I grin back and say, “Better to have your pants full than your nose, Ms. Winehouse.” He laughs. It’s been quite a while since I last took something. He extends his middle finger while screwing the lid back on. My uncle clears his throat loudly. Kai shrugs his shoulders and deposits the tin back in his jeans. He knows very well Axel can’t stand it when we mess up our heads with something before a match. Even stuff like coke, which clears your brain. But that’s one thing even Uncle Axel can’t get from people. That’s why he usually lets it slide, so long as no one gets carried away. Besides, Axel’s been known to sample the goods. A lot of people need it for their nerves. Well, that or just ’cause they’re junkies. But Axel doesn’t bring along anyone who can’t get a grip. At least not to the important matches. Like today. When it’s really about representing Hannover with honor. Kai may be a heavy hitter when it comes to blow, but he’s too good to leave home. Against him all those pumped-up boys seem as mobile as bulldozers. And thanks to me, he holds back a bit before the matches. Besides, my uncle knows very well he couldn’t count on me if he left Kai on the bench. The yellow city limit sign from Olpe flies by the passenger side window of the T5 VW van. I lean forward, my face between Hinkel and my uncle.
“Now go straight—”
“Straight to the first circle, second right,” Axel interrupts me. I fall back on my seat and respond to Kai’s rolling his eyes by rolling my own. He hands me a cigarette. I light it and take a long drag. The space between the metal supports of the headrest in front of me is completely filled by my uncle’s meaty red neck. His shoulders, so angular, as if constructed with a carpenter’s square, protrude to the left and right of the seat. I exhale a plume of smoke toward the red surface between the braces and say, “Exactly.”
We turn off onto a dry forest path. The sand crunches under the tires. We’re immediately enveloped by the shade of the rustling trees. It’s good to be out of the direct sunlight, and I notice how the slight cooling makes me somewhat calmer. It started when we left Olpe. That feeling that always comes just before things go crazy. I don’t know if it’s comparable with stage fright, I never had stage fright, after all. At any rate, it feels like something in my stomach begins to float. As if my belly was filled with helium and pressing up against my lungs from below.
“There,” Hinkel says and points ahead with his fat, hairy finger. The three of us on the backseat crane our necks just to see something. A fair ways down the path we see the motorcade from Cologne.
About the Author
Philipp Winkler was born in 1986 and grew up in the small town of Hagenburg, near Hannover, Germany. He has spent time in Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, and Japan. Winkler received the Joseph Heinrich Colbin Prize in 2008, and in 2015 the Literaturhaus Graz awarded him the Retzhof Prize for young authors based on excerpts from his unpublished novel, Hooligan, which went on to win the Aspekte Literature Prize for the best German-language debut in 2016.
Hooligan was also shortlisted for the 2016 German Book Prize. Winkler lives in Leipzig, Germany.