People Inside of People
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 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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.