I’ll explain it again: For a while when I got into trouble my father would make me sit in the little chair I kept next to my closet and count off all the wooden tiles that composed the floor of my bedroom and was told I couldn’t get up until I did. It wasn’t enough to simply count them in my head, of course––he made me count them loud enough for him to hear wherever he was in the house. This was relatively easy, with the exception of counting the tiles in my closet and under my bed and dressing table. I can remember curving my body’s upper half below the chair’s seat while wrapping my feet in its legs in order to get a look under the bed without falling over. After I had counted all the tiles once and knew how many there were, the next time I got into trouble he had me count the strips of wood contained within each single tile (if I’d known my multiplication tables I merely could have multiplied the number of strips by the number of tiles I remembered from before, but this was beyond me at the time). During these punishments I can remember staring unthinkingly at the blue room’s walls and the lemonwood dresser and the bell-headed lamp that stood a full six feet atop a bendable stalk, all while my mother shuffled passively about the kitchen making dinner.
He continued to devise new punishments for repeated offenses. One time he had me count how many names there were for each letter in the phone book; on another occasion I tallied all the squares in the booklet of yellow grid paper he used to bring to work. This became such a thing after a while of course that I started applying the exercise everywhere––at school: enumerating the pinstripes on our standard issue uniform shirts, or the drop-ceiling tiles in each of the classrooms, and if I found myself in a room where one of the tiles was missing I would get upset in a way and have to find something else to count in order to settle myself, like the composite squares of the wire meshing they placed between the double-pane windows to prevent break-ins. One day in fact I spent all lunch counting the tiles of a mosaic that was the centerpiece or school mural of sorts in the front lobby (the image depicted being that of Christ transforming a few fish into a seemingly infinite amount.) Eventually, teachers began calling my mother and telling her I wasn’t paying attention in class, which of course meant a punishment when I came home and thus a repetition of the same exercise all over again; and it wasn’t long after that I began having dreams about kaleidoscopic landscapes of shifting geometry and patterned grids of uncountable shapes that my dream-self would attempt to quantify (always unsuccessfully)––until my mother would come in and alert me to the fact that I’d likely been counting aloud in my sleep for several hours.
Next time I found myself in the chair though, the punishment was different. This time he told me that I had to count to ten thousand, which was the number of seconds I’d have to sit there. That should be roughly two hours and forty-six minutes, he reckoned. (Dad, who was a math professor at the time, could do these calculations in his head fairly quickly.) Suffice it to say the next few times I wound up in the chair I found myself counting out loud up to this number. At first, this seemed rather unimaginative and I suspected he was beginning to run out of ideas. The purpose of this task was not to make me appreciate the amount of time I’d have to spend in the chair, but rather force upon me the boredom and monotony of recording every second of my experience, and since this version of the exercise went unchanged it seemed that he was finally content with it. Apparent at first was the obvious tedium of counting the numbers off: one, two, three, four, five, six, and so on; but as the numbers got bigger and bigger, like, say, two-thousand-four-hundred-and-eighty-nine, I became aware that they took longer and longer to say, and thus the increasing length of the words would eventually surpass the amount of time they were meant to represent. The point at which this occurred to me was at seven-thousand-seven-hundred-and-seventy-seven, which took longer than one second to say (even if you said it quickly), and thus from then on there would be an obvious dilation between the time that was actually passing on the chair and how long it took to record it numerically––and that as I went on this gap would only get greater and greater. So although I had counted to ten thousand, it was clear that I had actually been in the chair quite a bit longer than my father had approximated. When I described this to him as best as my eight-year-old self could, he explained how he’d made the same discovery when he about my age: the drift between the accumulation of recorded time and time as it passes outside of the mind; and I can remember the look on his face and how deeply troubled he seemed by all of it and how after that he never punished me this way again. And it was only later, when Dad got sick for the last time, after several problematic and disabling years of this awareness in my own life, did he look up at me from the hospital bed with that same sad square look he always had and raise a single and silent digit to my face as if to say, not another syllable––
by Jared Marcel Pollen