Alex McElroy

People Inside of People

Hamburg

Martin didn’t want to leave home. But his wife had asked for divorce. He con­sid­ered the end of his mar­riage as proof that he had grown timid and dull. He need­ed to blow up his life, to impul­sive­ly live—to become the man he had been before he was mar­ried.

Awake in his kitchen at two in the morn­ing, his wife and son sleep­ing vic­to­ri­ous­ly, Martin called for a cab to the train sta­tion. He did not leave a note. He packed a small back­pack. His gui­tar? No. That would give him away. He want­ed his fam­i­ly to think that he had been kidnapped—and tortured!—left for dead on the side of the road.

He stood on the plat­form at the Hamburg Train Station. Departing trains stir­ring the air prick­led Martin’s skin, each breeze a jolt, a bat­tery jump. He drummed a vend­ing machine. He made a fist, relaxed, made a fist, relaxed, try­ing to pump blood to his fin­gers, remem­ber­ing, with fond­ness, hands he’d nev­er actu­al­ly had: veins pip­ing over his wrists, skin­ny fin­gers cal­loused from strum­ming gui­tars. But now, in the cheddary dawn, his hands were two ashen blobs. He jammed them into his pock­ets. He slept as his train rum­bled to Spain.

 

Madrid

Madrid smelled like a deep-fry­er fry­ing per­fume. Scaffolds crossed apart­ment façades like braces caging big yel­low teeth. Chutes spilled out of win­dows. He couldn’t tell if the city was in a state of decay or revival. After walk­ing for hours he rest­ed on the ledge of a foun­tain. Water sprayed from the head of a bronze Madonna. Three women in sil­ver dress­es and heels eat­ing ham-fla­vored chips marched down the street. He fol­lowed them as far as Gran Via.

A dozen years ear­li­er he and this guy, Ali, had trav­eled through Europe lug­ging gui­tars, back­packs, Goethe, con­doms, and weed. Their trip had end­ing pre­ma­ture­ly, with a punch that broke Martin’s cheek. Nevertheless, he pined for what they had shared: thrilling itin­er­an­cy.

Martin went to a youth hos­tel. The desk clerk said, “You are twen­ty-six.” Martin shook his head. “You are twen­ty-six,” the clerk coaxed. Martin nod­ded, sud­den­ly sev­en years younger. That evening he tagged along with American stu­dents for a pub crawl put on by the hos­tel. The Americans treat­ed him like a mas­cot. He saw him­self as a prophet. He told them what mar­riage was like: a bland suf­fo­ca­tion. What it was like to hold his son in his arms: a boun­ti­ful mir­a­cle. When their inter­est waned he impro­vised and told them his fam­i­ly had died in a car wreck. “Fuck,” said the American boys. “Aww,” said the American girls. They rubbed his shoul­ders.

Guilt mud­dled his mind. So he sucked down a drink. Another. Another.

Later on, at a club, Martin grind­ed against one of the American girls. She shout­ed: You must feel so alone! She shout­ed: You must miss them so much! He test­ed his hand under her skirt. She did not push it away. At the hos­tel they clum­si­ly fucked in a broom clos­et. She repeat­ed his name, Mar-tin, Mar-tin, as he tried to cor­rect her pro­nun­ci­a­tion, Mar-teen, Mar-teen, but then he came and she came. They were hap­pi­ly done with each oth­er. In the hall­way her girl­friends lay slumped on the floor like a trio of man­nequins melt­ed over low heat.

 

Barcelona

The beach­es spoiled his con­fi­dence. He felt slimy squeez­ing through bright, slip­pery bod­ies. So he woke up at five one morn­ing to walk the beach by him­self. The ocean’s briny breeze was a relief com­pared to the sep­tic smell of the vig­or­ous city.

He dis­cov­ered a man splayed face­down by the water. The man wore only under­wear. Martin shout­ed Hola! The man didn’t move. The tide lapped at his toes. A bruise the size of a pineap­ple shad­ed his spine. Martin approached, but as he drew near he envi­sioned police, a tri­al, and jail. Being German, he knew they’d call him a Nazi. But what if the man was injured? What if he car­ried the man to the hos­pi­tal? What a fool his wife would be for divorc­ing a hero! Martin reached to check for a pulse but the man twitched awake and lunged at Martin, shout­ing, “Ooga-booga-booga-booga-boo!” Martin fell on his ass. The man slapped him, cack­led, then he raced to the water and pad­dled mad­ly away.

 

Estación de Francia

He called home. The answer­ing machine picked up. Martin’s voice, crust­ed and hol­low, said, “You have reached Martin, Anna, and Sigfrid. Leave us a mes­sage.” The machine beeped.

We have him,” he said, in a gristly mur­mur. “We will kill him if you do not—”

His son picked up the phone: “Papa!”

 

Nice

Martin fucked an eight-fin­gered pros­ti­tute (five and three) at a scum­my hotel with a view of Terra Amata. The next morn­ing he trav­eled to Rome and remem­bered he hat­ed the city—its econ­o­my of demol­ished splen­dor, the joy it took in what it had been.

To Tuscany! There he fell in love with an olive-skinned wait­ress named Nina. He ate at her restau­rant every day. At night he envi­sioned their future togeth­er. They would live in a rus­tic vil­la over­look­ing a vine­yard. They would sleep till eleven and make love all after­noon, break­ing only to stroll through the hills. After din­ner they’d lounge on the deck sip­ping home­made limon­cel­lo from tiny glass­es blown by a crooked old man who lived in their vil­lage. Birds would speck­le the dusk as their love silent­ly swelled.

One night at the restau­rant, as Nina poured Martin’s wine, he said, “How would you feel if I stayed?”

We close at eleven,” she said.

He said, “We should see each oth­er tonight.” She under­stood and told him that that was impos­si­ble. He told her, “I am a rock star.” In truth he wrote jin­gles for Mentos and taught music, irreg­u­lar­ly, at a col­lege. He did not tell her that through­out his career he had writ­ten twen­ty-eight songs about pink bub­ble gum. She found a gui­tar and he played The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, a cou­ple of songs he’d writ­ten himself—in German they hard­ly sound­ed like jin­gles. When he fin­ished she asked him to leave.

 

Thessaloniki

He gorged him­self on grilled fish and baby goat and oniony breath-wreck­ing sal­ads. Then he explored the city. He unfas­tened tarps to peer inside aban­doned apart­ments. Mangy mama-cats lumpy with kit­ten­ful tum­mies toothily hissed from the shad­ows. At the pier: a mob of teenagers slurpi­ly kiss­ing. Every few min­utes they trad­ed part­ners. Martin admired their demo­c­ra­t­ic affec­tion. He approached them. They scat­tered.

He returned to his hotel and thought of his wife. She must be dis­turbed by his absence. His son must be fright­ened. He did not want his son to hate him for­ev­er. His fam­i­ly had suf­fered enough, he decid­ed. He called home. The machine’s record­ing had changed. His wife’s voice: “You have reached Anna and Sigfrid. Please leave us a mes­sage.”

There was no greater shame, for Martin, than neglect, and no greater embar­rass­ment than admit­ting that he’d been neglect­ed. He thought: She wants the kid­nap­pers to think she doesn’t care. He thought: She must be try­ing to low­er the ran­som. But he hadn’t named an amount. He thought: Could she not care? He thought: My god, she doesn’t care. He ham­mered the receiv­er against the table. If only she thought his life was in dan­ger! If only she thought he was dead!

But wasn’t he dead? Yes. She had killed him. Their mar­riage had killed him! Its rou­tines and sta­ble affec­tion had incin­er­at­ed the man he had hoped to become. That night Martin formed a phi­los­o­phy: Death is not the end. Death arrives dur­ing life. People are peo­ple inside of peo­ple, he thought, and only the inner­most per­son is tru­ly alive. The out­er lay­ers are corpses. As chil­dren we are dumped in a pauper’s grave. The grave is brim­ming with corpses—future ver­sions of us—and unless we climb to the sur­face, as Martin had done on this trip, we suf­fo­cate under the rot­ting thighs and stom­achs and tongues and elbows and dicks of our­selves.

 

Istanbul

Martin called Ali. They had hard­ly spo­ken since their trip togeth­er, a dozen years ear­li­er, but lone­li­ness, even stronger than love, had abbre­vi­at­ed the pas­sage of time. In Martin’s mind, the years thinned to an instant. On the phone, his eager­ness exceed­ed Ali’s reluc­tance. “Sure,” Ali said, “you can vis­it. But I warn you that I will be busy.”

In the Istanbul train sta­tion Martin spied Ali stand­ing alone on the plat­form. Briefly, his friend appeared twelve years younger—ragged hair to his shoul­ders, enor­mous glass­es, har­mon­i­ca tipped in his breast pocket—but the specter dis­solved, and there was Ali kind­ly mold­ed by time: thick hair and a pru­dent­ly mus­cu­lar build, his smile frag­ile but poised.

They walked through Istanbul amid lamb spin­ning in win­dows, past spices col­or­ful­ly spilling from sacks. Martin was fight­ing a limp. Sores crust­ed the top of his feet. Sweat, feces, lemon, and mint: his clothes reeked of it all. Sleepless nights on train had frayed his atten­tion. He ram­bled. He nod­ded mind­less­ly as Ali described his new work. “A lucra­tive job. Dangerous but it pays very well. I’m always busy. Very busy.” He point­ed to a pager strapped to his belt, as evi­dence. He said, “I need to trav­el tomor­row. A long trip. You can have fun here, in the city.”

Martin’s insides clenched at the prospect of being alone. “I’ll go with you,” he insist­ed.

Ali chewed the idea. He agreed to take Martin along.

That night over din­ner, Martin con­fessed that his wife had divorced him. The words fell like rocks from his mouth. How much lighter he felt! He said: “I need her to think I am hurt.”

Ali promised to help. He found them a room at the finest hotel in the city. In Ali’s room, he called Martin’s wife. He said: “We are going to hurt him.”

Martin snick­ered.

Ali said: “Pay us or we send him to you in pieces.”

Martin imag­ined his wife, tens­ing, her hand over her mouth, bit­ing her knuck­les.

Ali said: “We will slide nee­dles under his eye­lids and scoop out his cornea.”

Martin coughed. He tried to inter­rupt. She must under­stand. Why con­tin­ue? But Ali bat­ted away Martin’s hand and he said: “We will string his fin­gers into a neck­lace.”

And: “Children will skip rope with his innards.”

And: “We will send you his head stuffed in a sack knit from his stom­ach.”

As Ali worked through Martin’s body Martin gripped the cor­re­spond­ing appendages: ears, neck, elbows, kneecaps, and ankles. “His dick will be chopped into rings and fed to a hawk.” Ali, tit­ter­ing, pressed the phone to his chest. Martin’s bow­els tight­ened and bur­bled. He smiled bro­ken­ly. Laughter crack­led out of the receiv­er. Martin wrenched it away and hung up. He vowed to nev­er see his fam­i­ly again.

 

The Desert

In the morn­ing they drove south­east. Cappadocia’s cock-shaped rocks and whim­si­cal gar­dens shriv­eled to high­ways flanked by desert where mesas shoul­dered the sky. Martin saw the blur­ry tip of a tent. Then a sec­ond tent, a third. A small camp fuzzed at the foot of a pair of plateaus. Ali parked. Outside, the air scraped Martin’s nos­trils. His tongue was as dry as a pencil’s eras­er. He felt sticky, dizzy with joy and fore­bod­ing.

The men who lived in the camp were tan and heav­i­ly-beard­ed, skin bur­nished, and when Martin told them his name they laughed enor­mous­ly, eye­lids pinch­ing to squints, bar­ing their crum­bling teeth. Ali was pulled aside by four of the men. Then he motioned for Martin, and togeth­er the six men walked to an over­turned bar­rel a hun­dred meters from camp. An auto­mat­ic rifle lay on the bar­rel. A white-beard­ed man held out the rifle to Martin.

Martin had nev­er fired a gun. He declined.

Target prac­tice,” Ali coaxed. He point­ed at a pair of hay bales in the dis­tance. In the shim­mer of after­noon heat the hay appeared to be trem­bling.

The gun was heav­ier than Martin expect­ed. The han­dle singed his fin­gers. He tugged his sleeves over his palms. He fired. The kick­back knocked him onto the dirt. He wrig­gled into a stand. Sturdier now he emp­tied a clip in the hay. “Give me anoth­er!” he said. He imag­ined the hay was the life he had led, stiff and bristly, dis­tant and pale, blend­ing in with the scorched, indif­fer­ent land­scape. What have I even achieved? he won­dered. He feared the answer was noth­ing. He mar­ried, he fathered a son. But his fam­i­ly had dis­card­ed him. He had been out of work for two months and was yet to call his supe­ri­or, afraid his absence hadn’t been noticed. Twelve emp­ty years rat­tled inside of his skull. He had wast­ed one-third of his life. He should’ve been liv­ing in Turkey, with Ali, liv­ing beard­ed and lean, tanned the col­or of almonds.

He emp­tied a sec­ond clip in the hay then slammed the gun on the ground and danced errat­i­cal­ly, twist­ing his tor­so, pump­ing his arms. The men clapped. Ali said, “You are one of them now!” Martin felt crowned by the words.

The white-beard­ed man point­ed his twig of a fin­ger at the tar­gets. He spoke to Ali. Ali shook his head. Calm, the white-beard­ed man repeat­ed him­self, adding a shrug. Ali shout­ed. He paced while point­ing from the gun to the hay to the gun to the hay to the gun to the hay to the gun to the gun to the gun to the ground to the hay. Had Martin done some­thing wrong?

Ali said, “We should go.”

But you said I am one of them now,” he said as soft­ly as a child.

The youngest man—hardly a man but a boy—jogged to the hay and joy­ous­ly lift­ed his arms. He dragged a limp body out from behind the hay. He let it slide from his arms to the dirt. Then he dragged a sec­ond body out by its armpits. This one was larg­er; the boy was clear­ly relieved when he dropped it on top of the first. Martin saw blood on the chests of the bod­ies. With a machete the boy chopped at the neck of the top body. The men imi­tat­ed Martin’s errat­ic dance, wav­ing their arms, jerk­ing their heads, wag­ging their tongues. The boy jogged back loft­ing a head by its hair. Martin spun, to look for Ali, and spied his friend a hun­dred meters away. The boy swung his arm and released the head into the air.

 

Martin awoke in a tent clutch­ing his shoes. He caressed the dirt-stiff­ened laces, squeezed the tongue. Ali stood over him. He point­ed to a bot­tle of water. “Let’s go,” he said. Martin poured the water over his gluey lips.

The night returned to Martin in pieces: light fram­ing the tent, strum­ming the saz, sip­ping some­thing hot from a jug. How the hay had been trem­bling. It had been wind. The bod­ies he’d stud­ded with bul­lets were plas­tic. He had asked Ali, last night, as they gnawed lamb in front of the fire, why Ali felt he need­ed to play such a trick. Martin expect­ed an answer relat­ed to Martin’s suc­cess sell­ing his jingles—clearly, Ali was jeal­ous. Ali respond­ed, “Because I always loved see­ing you fright­ened.” Martin had laughed through his dis­com­fort. Frightened? he had thought while falling asleep. When had Ali ever seen me afraid?

In the morn­ing, as he fol­lowed Ali past the cen­ter of camp where bones were lashed to a spit, the embers beneath reluc­tant­ly glow­ing, he felt he had reached the edge of his courage, like a bird div­ing into a win­dow. His adven­tur­ous spir­it had exhaust­ed itself so quick­ly. He was fright­ened. Not of any­thing in par­tic­u­lar; this fear was per­va­sive, resource­ful, attach­ing itself to what­ev­er sur­round­ed him. He longed for the lov­ing touch of his wife—a touch he hadn’t felt in near­ly a decade—and the sound of his son bang­ing on drums. He want­ed his fam­i­ly. Their absence felt hard in his chest, a cold, stiff­en­ing thing that only they could resolve. Would they accept him, he wor­ried. Of course they would. He need­ed to go home and apol­o­gize.

 

 

Hamburg

Well after mid­night. Home. On the deck were his things. Various things, he knew, the unique, man­i­fold things that made up a life—but he was too tired to dis­cern. Everything blend­ed togeth­er into a mass of rain-soaked, indis­crim­i­nate objects. His life had become box­es soft­ened and warped. A fit­ting shrine, he con­clud­ed.

His wife came to the door in a night­gown. “You’re still in one piece,” she said, smirk­ing.

Please let me into my house.”

Everything that you need is out there.”

He could see that she hat­ed him. Her ani­mos­i­ty star­tled him. He longed for the shel­ter of her pity. “I think I have done some­thing ter­ri­ble,” he said.

I know that you have.”

Worse than that. I think that I may have killed a man—two men, in the desert.” He straight­ened his back, feel­ing wretched and sexy, wait­ing for her to yank him inside. But he couldn’t deci­pher her face: Horror? Disgust? Pity? Affection? Lust?

She sloped against the door, rub­bered with laugh­ter.

 

The United States of America

At a hotel that evening, Martin stud­ied his wife’s response. How could he mean so lit­tle to some­one he’d lived with for a third of his life? How could she mean so lit­tle to him? He didn’t miss her, no, but he missed the scent of their lives—fresh sheets and sea­soned pota­toes, bath­mats, the sim­plest spritz of perfume—and felt cheat­ed know­ing he’d nev­er smell it again.

He vowed to change how he’d been liv­ing. He knew he would not get her back. No, no. But he might some­day love some­one else ful­ly, true love, the type he’d nev­er had with his wife, love that buries its dig­its deep in a heart and pulps the organ to jel­ly. However, he did not know how to change—or, for that mat­ter, what to change. How does one sud­den­ly learn to love bet­ter, after thir­ty-three years lov­ing only one­self? Martin wouldn’t have called him­self self­ish. He was only what he was. And though he sus­pect­ed that he was the prob­lem he also sus­pect­ed that he, as the prob­lem, would under­mine any solu­tion. Is this trag­ic? Or is this mere­ly life? To see what is wrong and not know how to fix it? To per­sist, unwill­ing­ly, inside of one­self?

But Martin didn’t despair. Hope eclipses despair. It push­es one forward—quickly, quickly—too fast to allow for reflec­tion. Martin delight­ed in the prospect of future affairs. He would change his ways and after­ward find a new lover. He worked through the mini­bar, to loosen him­self, then he called the women he’d loved before he was mar­ried, but the women he’d loved would not answer their phones. Finally, he reached a for­mer fling who lived in America. They had met a decade ago, when she was a Fulbright schol­ar in Goettingen.

I am in love with you,” he told her. “I must come see you.”

She hung up. When he called back the line was busy. His love for her, though fresh­ly dis­cov­ered, was potent, invi­o­lable. He called the fol­low­ing evening. A boy picked up the phone. Martin asked for his moth­er.

She’s on a date,” said the boy.

I am com­ing to see her.”

Okay.”

Ask me why.”

The boy had cap­i­tal­ized on his mother’s absence by smok­ing pot with impuni­ty. He was amused by Martin’s demands. He said: “Why are you com­ing to see her?”

Because I love her. I trav­el the world for love.” Martin told him the sto­ry of his pri­or two months, unaware that the boy, fog­gy from pot, had fall­en asleep. Every few min­utes the boy would wheeze in his sleep. To Martin, these nois­es sound­ed like gasps, like the inar­tic­u­late awe of enchant­ment. When he fin­ished the sto­ry he said, “Incredible, right?”

His excite­ment awak­ened the boy. “Yeah,” said the boy. “Yeah, yeah.”

But now I must go.” Martin hung up and opened the cur­tains, stunned by a pur­plish dawn suf­fus­ing the city. The morn­ing filled him with cheer. He show­ered. He dressed. He phoned the front desk and request­ed a cab to the air­port.

~

Alex McElroy’s work appears or is forth­com­ing in The Georgia Review, DIAGRAM, Tin House online, Indiana Review, The Offing, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, and more work can be found at alexmcelroy.org. He cur­rent­ly lives in Bulgaria, with the fic­tion writer Allegra Hyde.