overthinking (a draft)


This is a story about Alexander and what happened to him after he lived in a hole for twenty years.  (It wasn’t really a hole—more like a sub-basement—but we’ll call it a hole because that’s what he called it.)  Anyway, the story begins a couple minutes before he was about to leave said hole.  He was staring at the nuclear-powered digital clock that he’d brought with him imagining what he’d say to his family when he saw them again.  It wasn’t hard.  Julie, his wife, would get compliments on how well she looked.  He would tell her how much he loved her and missed her and that he forgave her for not visiting more often.  Tim would get a hearty handshake and a hug, if he were willing.  Finally, Gracie, who he never really knew because he left when she was still in diapers, would get no speech.  With her, he didn’t want to over-think it and decided it might be better to just improvise.  (Alexander liked to think he didn’t over-think.)

When it was time, a tiny, frail buzzer rang out.  It was an old-man alarm, gray and riddled with doubt.   It seemed unsure if this was the right time for Alexander to leave his hole.  Twenty years earlier, when he bought the clock, he had assumed he would get something with a little more oomph to mark the occasion, but he didn’t let himself dwell on the detail.  It wasn’t like he was so young anymore, so maybe an old-man alarm was fitting.

He climbed the ladder and pulled himself up over the lip of the hole, which, age being what it is, was harder than he thought it would be, and then made his way up to the first floor of his house where he found his mother smoking a Dunhill while sitting on his old paisley couch.

“Alie,” she said with a smile that swallowed her whole face.  “You finally came back.  I’ve got pancakes hot on the plate just the way you like them.”

She hadn’t called him Alie since he was a child, and he didn’t like it even then.  As a result, in adulthood, he became that person who always corrected others about his name: no Al, never Alex, and never ever Alie.  Still, she was his mother, and more to the point, she was alive.  She had died of cancer a couple years before he went down into his hole, but here she was, not only moving quickly toward his kitchen but looking younger than she did when she died.  With all of this in mind, Alexander decided to let the name-thing go.

“You sit down here,” she said pointing at the small, round table in the corner.  A teenaged girl, maybe fifteen or so, was already sitting there with a small mountain of pancakes in front of her.  She looked familiar though Alexander couldn’t place her.  “When did you grow out your beard?  It’s looking pretty full,” his mother said as she plopped three pancakes on a plate for him.

“Mom?” he hesitated to call her that.  “Are you real?”  She turned to look at him.  “You…you look well,” was all he could manage.

“Thank you, kiddo.”  She pumped her chest up with pride.  She was wearing an apron that had a cartoon of a tired middle-aged woman with a caption underneath that read: I gave up my career for this?  “I feel great,” she said as she put another pancake on his plate.  Seeing this, Alexander was put at ease.  He was sure this person had to be his mother—the goofy response built on a good foundation of shyness.  And then there were the pancakes—always pancakes with her.

Still, there were differences that kept nagging him: the woman in front of him smelled like an ashtray even though his mother had never even tried a cigarette before.  Also—and he didn’t want to be too much of a stickler for details—she was alive and his mother wasn’t.

Almost as if she knew what he was thinking, the woman in front of him took a long drag from her cigarette while pouring another pancake into the skillet and said, “Things are pretty different now.  Then again, they stay the same, too.”

Alexander wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or not and didn’t say anything.

“Now that you’re back, we should look into getting new windows installed.  There’s a draft in here, and we need to be more conscious of the environment.  Don’t you think?”

Alexander didn’t answer.  He was too busy taking the room in.  His kitchen was like the woman in front of him—familiar and different at the same time.  The refrigerator was still the same white monster that spat out ice cubes at random moments and made a racket in the process, and the table he was sitting at still had a little nick in it from when he put the thing together years before and hit it too hard with a mallet.  But the room lacked his wife’s touch.  Julie had always been the type to put tchotchkes up.  Little finger-length Hawaiian dolls that quivered and bobbled when you passed them or souvenir plates from towns on the Jersey shore that her parents had visited when they were young.  Now, the kitchen was plain and the only interesting thing about it was his dead mother smoking and blowing rings into its sterile-white walls.

“Mom, how old would you say you are now?”

“You’re not supposed to ask a woman her age, Alie.  Didn’t I teach you manners?”

“I know, but humor me.”

She stopped moving for the first time since they were in the kitchen and looked at the teenager who was staring at Alexander in a way that was making him uneasy.  “It’s a long story.  Maybe we should talk about this later.”

“Do you live here, with Julie.  I know the kids must be away at college.”

“I do live here. I didn’t think you’d mind considering you’d left.  Someone had to keep the place going.”

“I didn’t leave.  I was in the basement—in my hole.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Why did I dig my hole or why did I stay in it?”

“I’m kidding.  I know exactly why you did what you did.”  She smiled at the teenager.

“How?”

“How what?” she asked.

“How could you know why?  I went down there after you…left.”

“Died, you mean.  No need for euphemisms with me, kiddo.  I’m your mother.”

“OK. Fine.  So how do you know what I did even though when I did it, you were already….”

“Dead.  I don’t know.  It’s weird isn’t it?  I guess a mother always knows.  Something like that.”

Alexander noticed that the teenager was still staring, but he didn’t let himself look at her.  If he didn’t know better, she seemed angry.  She was breathing heavy, and more than once, he thought she said something that sounded like asshole, whch was strange.  Kids were still kids, weren’t they?  “So, can I ask you where is?  And how are the kids doing?”

“It’s just complicated, Alie.  Let’s just leave it there,” she said without turning to look at him.

And then all of a sudden, the teenager slammed her fork down on the table and started to cry.  Big, well-fed tears that pinged and popped as they fell onto her plate until she got up and ran out of the room.

“Wow, that was weird.”

“Yup.” His mom said taking the teenager’s seat.  “But you can’t really blame her.”

“Who?”

“Julie.”

“The little girl?  The one who just called me an ass…”

“Hey there!”  She put her spatula dangerously close to Alexander’s nose.  “We don’t need a replay.”

“But she’s a teenager.”

“I told you.  Things have changed. Now eat your pancakes because they’re getting cold.  With all the starving kids out there,” she paused, again, pointing her spatula towards the window towards a place, no doubt, where there were kids lacking their daily dose of pancakes. “Enough said,” she added as she lit another cigarette.

“Mom,” he said in a loud voice that surprised her, but then didn’t say anything else.  She looked nothing like the cartoon-woman on her apron.  Blowing rings of smoke toward the ceiling, she looked calm and content.  His mom had not only come back from the dead, but she had become a kind of chain-smoking Buddha in the process.

“I don’t know where I learned to do that,” she said blowing a perfect circle, “but it’s a pretty neat trick, don’t you think?”

Alexander spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with his mother.  He helped her clean up and watched her smoke while she sat in front of the TV.  It was a flat screen, but it didn’t seem to work very well.  Someone had rigged up what looked like an antenna and his mother kept having to adjust it as she watched repeats of Falcon Crest and Fantasy Island.  “Jane Wyman knows how to be a real meanie,” his mother announced at one point, but then didn’t say another word for an hour or so.  All the while Alexander waited.  He wanted to turn the TV off and ask her more questions.  It’s not every day that you can sit and watch bad TV with your long-dead parent.  But at the same time, he was held back by what you might call a sense of decorum caused by the fact that his mother wasn’t acting the way he thought a dead woman should.  She just sat there blowing smoke rings as if it were normal for people to come back from the dead and blow smoke rings and watch old TV programs, which, in turn, made Alexander feel like, dead or not, she did belong there and it wasn’t ok for him to keep questioning it.

Still, by the time Ricardo Montalban was welcoming his guests to the island for the third time, he got up to take a look around the house and search for clues.  Julie was obviously punishing him for staying in his hole so long, and maybe he deserved it.  Twenty years might’ve been a bit excessive, but there was a reason why he left.  (Alexander knew this, though he didn’t want to over-think what that reason was.)

“Where are you going, Alie?” His mother asked.

“Just getting up.  I need to stretch my legs.”

“I’d think about taking a shower if I were you.  I didn’t want to say anything, but you’re giving off a smell and it’s pretty strong.” She took a drag on her cigarette.

“What kind of smell?”

“Hmm.  Forget I mentioned it.   Listen, go wherever you want in the house, but can you please not go into my room?  Just promise me that.”

“Which one is your room?”

“The big room upstairs at the end of the hall.”

“The master bedroom?  That’s my room.  Julie and I sleep there.”

Alexander’s mom didn’t say anything.  She was focused on the screen where a commercial for CrazyGlue was playing.  “The country’s gone crazy—crazy for Crazy Glue.”  He hadn’t heard the jingle since he was a kid.  Then he heard Mr. Roarke talking to Tattoo about one of the guests, which was followed up by his mother complaining that she’d already seen that episode.

To his surprise, there wasn’t much in the way of clues upstairs.  The two small bedrooms where the kids used to sleep were like the kitchen: nothing more than cubes of blandness.  There were no pictures on the walls, not even a bed.  Except for the living room and the kitchen and, he imagined, his mother’s room, there wasn’t much to see.  But looking out the window of one of the rooms, something did catch his eye.  There was a yellow Volvo station wagon in the driveway.  It looked familiar.

He went back down, and asked his mother whose car was it was, but she was too busy saying something to the television to answer and Alexander was too tired to wait for another commercial.  He went back down to his hole, and before going to sleep, he checked his clock to make sure it was still working.  Twenty years and eleven hours had gone by.  At least in his hole, everything made sense.

The next day, Alexander decided he was going to go visit his in-laws in order to find out where Julie had gone.  He hoped they were still alive and that they’d be willing to help.  Over another mountain of pancakes, he told his mother what he was planning.

“You think that’s a good idea—walking around?” she asked.  “Why not relax here, kick your feet up a little?  There’s a Too Close for Comfort marathon on—we could watch it, or something else.  We’ve got like five channels to choose from.”  She leaned forward to whisper.  “You might not want to go out just yet anyway.  You still kind of smell.”

“You keep saying that.”

“It’s just that some people are going to be a little upset.”

“Who are these people?”

“Well, it’s really one man.  I mean he already knows—kind of.”  She started looking around for a new pack of cigarettes.  She seemed nervous.

“Does this one man own the Volvo I saw in the driveway yesterday?  I noticed it wasn’t there this morning.  Are you sleeping with someone?”

She stopped packing the carton of cigarettes and looked at Alexander a lot the way the teenager had the day before.  “Don’t be a A-word, Alie.”

“Didn’t Mr. Stanford have a car like that?”

“Oh, Jesus.  Maybe you should get out of the house for a little while.  But if you’re really stuck on going to Julie’s parents, then take some money and go get a proper haircut and a shave first.  You’re looking a little shaggy and getting rid of all that hair might help with…maybe you should take a shower, too before you go.”

“I took a shower this morning!”

“With soap?” his mother asked.

“Yes.”

“Because I remember when you used to take those fake showers of yours?  You remember that?”  His mom laughed.  “My little Allie.”

“Yeah, when I was five, maybe.”

“I’m just saying, Alie.”

“Mom.  I’m older than you are—at least I look older.”

“Life is weird, I know.”  And with that, she got up and went in the other room to watch television.

After a second shower, and another disapproving sniff from his mom, Alexander took off for his in-laws.  Though he’d been away in his hole for twenty years, the town where he lived looked and felt the same.  There was still the same old cleaners and diners.  The old watch place was there as was place that sold German knickknacks that no one ever went to and yet somehow survived.  Twenty years and nothing changed–nothing except the people themselves.  Polite and earnest, if there had been an unspoken motto, that was it.  But for the couple blocks that he had to walk to the barbershop, and then the half-mile to his in-laws, everyone he passed seemed to be scowling—scowling and sniffing to be exact.  He didn’t recognize any of the people he passed, but like the teenager, they all seemed mad at him.

By the time he reached the barbershop, he was overwhelmed.  There was a large front window, and in it, Alexander caught a body-length glimpse of himself. Without having the world to remind him of how old he was, he’d lost track of the fact that the days were passing and that he was aging.  The process was gradual for most people.  You got older, but you had the intervening days and months and years where other people were breaking that truth to you.  Not so for Alexander, who could see the beginning of old-manness: a stoop as he walked, the lazy shuffling of feet. He wondered if maybe his age had something to do with all the scowling since almost all the scowling, sniffing people he passed were younger. Maybe older people were valued less than before.  He decided to skip the barbershop and keep walking.

By the time he reached Julie’s parents, he was exhausted and overwhelmed.  He sat down on the bench on his in-laws’ front porch, but before he could recover, Rey, Julie’s dad, had opened the door and was standing at the door scowling (and sniffing, too).  He was wearing the same navy-blue Adidas sweat suit he used to wear when Alexander first started dating Julie, except now it was faded and so big on him that he had to cinch his pants up with a belt.  Like his mother, he seemed younger than he should be.

“It’s been a long time, Rey.”  Alexander stood up slowly, his legs wobbling a bit. He put his hand out, but Rey didn’t reciprocate.

“We knew you came back, but we couldn’t figure out why.”

“That’s one way to say hello.  Who told you I was coming?”

“We got a call, but it’s not like we needed one.  We could smell you a block away.”

“OK, well, smelly or not, are you going to let me come in?”

Rey didn’t budge from where he stood until Maki, who was standing behind him, told him to stop being such a jerk.  Maki had always liked Alexander better than her husband, and it seemed that that much hadn’t changed.  She pushed Rey out of the way and took a long look at her son-in-law. “So you are back.”

“I never left.”

“Tell him to go back to that hole of his, or where ever he was.”  Rey yelled from inside.

Maki looked annoyed but forced a smile.  She closed the door behind her just as Rey was screaming something else.  Alexander couldn’t make it all out, but he was pretty sure that for the second time in as many days, he’d been called an asshole.  “You can’t blame him,” Maki said.  “Julie was pretty upset when she came home yesterday, and Rey thinks it’s your fault.”

“Where is she?  Is she here?  Can I see her?”

Maki smiled without answering.  “You know once they get used to you again, they’ll forgive you.  I think the smell is going to be a challenge, though.”  She smiled and took his arm.  “Let’s go for a walk.”

“I don’t know why everyone’s so angry, but right now, all I want to do is see my wife.  If she’s angry, too, well, we can talk it through.”

“You already saw her.”

“I saw a kid, not my wife.”

“And you saw your dead mother, right?  That should tell you we’re not playing by the same rules.  It started happening about a year after you went away.  Some people started saying you were responsible.  That’s funny.  Right?”

“Alexander scratched his head and a few flakes of dandruff landed on his shoulder. “I just went into a hole for a few years.  I didn’t do anything.”

“I know.”  She rested her hand on his shoulder and just then, the breeze kicked in and he could make out her perfume—the same one Julie used to wear.  “Listen, I should go.  They probably don’t want me talking to you.”

“Who?” Alexander asked.

“Them, in the truck.”  Alexander turned around and saw a dented, black SUV idling across the street.  “I don’t think Mr. Stanford and his boys are very pleased to have you back.”

“Why?”

“You remind us of the way things were, I guess.”  She turned to leave, but Alexander stopped her.

“Where are the kids?  Are they mad at me, too?”

For the second time, Maki smiled, a faint wrinkle of a smile that made her look her age.  “There are no kids, anymore.”
The SUV had followed Alexander for a few blocks until it pulled away in a huff.  It was still early and the sun was still out, yet no one was walking around.  More than once, as he passed a house, he noticed drapes moving in the front windows.    He didn’t know why anyone would be angry with him—especially not Mr. Stanford, who’d always been a father figure to him.

On the other hand, if he wanted to put himself away in a hole for twenty years because he just needed to get away, and everyone does sometimes, that was his business.  No one suffered for it.  Maybe Julie a little and the kids, but apart from them, he told himself, he didn’t owe anyone an explanation.  If anything, he was the one who deserved something.  He deserved an explanation for why people were telling him he had no kids when he certainly did.  Or why a young girl thought she was his wife.

Frustration and anger spurred him on even though he wanted to sit down and rest his legs more than once on his way back.  For the block leading to his house, he even sped up.  He was going to demand that his mom put away the pancakes and tell him what he wanted to know.  He thought this until he reached the house and saw the yellow Volvo in the driveway.  Like all the other cars he’d seen that day, it was old and covered in rust making it look like an overripe banana.

The TV was on, he could hear it as soon as he walked in, but his mom didn’t seem to be home.  Milk was out on the counter in the kitchen, and a cracked egg had fallen onto the floor.  For a moment, he assumed she’d gone off on an errand.  She used to do the same when he was a kid—get sidetracked and leave projects undone throughout the house.  But then he heard a noise coming from the second floor, and he went up to see for himself.

He opened the door to the master bedroom and found a younger version of Mr. Stanford sitting next to his mother on the bed.  They both had their backs to him and were staring at a giant clock face that hung suspended from the ceiling.

“I was going to tell you, Alie,” his mother said without turning to look at him.  “You’ve always been so impatient about everything, but I would’ve told you, eventually.”

The ticking of the clock’s second hand caught Alexander’s attention.  It was moving, but in the wrong direction.

“It’s not the clock,” Mr. Stanford said.

“Yeah, we just do that as a way to keep track of time, but it’s just for show.”

“You know it’s your fault.  No matter what your mom says.  She’s your mom.  She can’t see it.”

“Mr. Stanford, I didn’t do anything.  I just had to get away for a while.  You remember that, right?”

“I know that me dying was hard for you, honey.  That’s what I keep saying, but no one listens.”

“Even if that’s true, Cindy.  Even if I accept that he had nothing to do with it, now everyone is confused again.  And that is his fault.”

“I just had to go away for a while.”

“Yeah, so you could think things through.  I remember you saying that.  This,” he pointed at the clock’s hand moving in the wrong diection.  “This is what happens when you start over-thinking.  This,” he pointed at his hair, “I should be bald.  Hell, I should be dead.  And your mother…I mean I’m happy you’re back, but it’s not natural.”

“I know you did it for me, Alie”

“And on top of it all, you smell.  If nothing else.  Listen, Cindy, even if he didn’t do anything, we’re going to have to blame him for it.”  He stood up and opened a window.  “Someone’s got to take a hit.”

“Take a hit?  What does that mean?”

“It’s graham crackers,” his mother said.  “Did you figure it out?”

“Yeah!  That is what it’s like.  I couldn’t quite, but that’s it.  Graham crackers.”  For a moment, Mr. Stanford seemed to shake his bad mood and was almost happy, even awkward like a kid the way Alexander remembered him.  “What do you think that means?”

“Graham crackers don’t smell bad.  They don’t really smell like anything,” Alexander said.

“Not to you.  How would you know anyway?  It’s your fault.”  The edge was back in his voice.

“You’re saying that I’m the reason graham crackers smell bad?”

“You’re a fool, you know that?” Mr. Stanford said as a drop of spittle shot out of his mouth, a tiny missile.  “All those people who died will be coming back one day.  Monica will be back, I imagine, which is good.  Though I don’t know how I’m going to explain my relationship with your mother to her.”

“So you guys are together?”

Alexander’s mom nodded at this.  “You’ll find a way, Tobias.”

“OK.  OK, maybe you’re right.  But even if Monica is ok with us, there are some other problems.  Like eventually, Hitler will be back and Mussolini and Mao, just to name a few.  My father’ll be back, too.  Do you know he died in the war fighting those idiots?”

“I don’t think he fought Mao.  We weren’t at war with China…” Alexander said.

“Oh my God!  You are a smug ass….”

“Hey now, can we just avoid the language?  Please.  ” Alexander’s mom interrupted.

“I’m sorry, Cindy, but we need to call things for what they are.  He’s just always in his head.  That’s probably why you’re the way you are—old and normal.  When my father comes back, how am I going to explain that Mussolini is back, too?  You know how I’m going to explain it?  Do you?  I won’t.  That’s the answer.  Because I’ll be a little kid, and he’s not going to listen to some little kid who he doesn’t know.  The last time I saw him, I was twenty.”

His mother patted Mr. Stanford’s leg and then got up to leave the room.  “I need a smoke.”

For a few seconds, there was silence between the two men, but off in the distance, Alexander could make out the sound of something—a siren, he thought.  He was tired and felt awful, and though he knew it would only make Mr. Stanford angrier than he already was, he couldn’t help himself.  “I need to sleep—just a little nap,” he said.  “Would that be ok?”

“Sure.  Why not?”

Alexander could hear the sirens coming closer, but he dropped down onto the bed and started to doze off.  He heard Mr. Stanford say something under his breath as he left the room to join Alexander’s mom for a smoke.  Yet again, Alexander thought just as he was falling off, someone was calling him an asshole.  It was always asshole with him.  Never fucker or jack-ass, or shit-head.  Maybe it was the only curse word people still used.  Or maybe, it was just the truth.

He didn’t want to over-think things.  Maybe there was a place and time for over thinking, for wanting to know where people go when they die, for spending years trying to figure it out while the world started rewinding.  Was he responsible?  He didn’t want to over-think it, but anything was possible.

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Tags: ,

Categories: fiction

Author:the circular runner

g. martinez cabrera currently lives in San Francisco with his lovely and talented wife. He holds degrees from Columbia and from the Harvard Divinity School where he spent three years thinking about lofty things. Since then, he tries to write some lofty and some not-so-lofty things down so others can see how lofty he sometimes is. When he’s not writing or spending time with said wife, he tortures young people with learning. He blogs at www.circularrunning.wordpress.com and Tumbls at www.circularrunning.tumblr.com

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