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Counting Men

“Men have become the tools of their tools”  - Henry David Thoreau

On the seventh day, God rested. So these men rest too. It is on the seventh day that the men relearn to say “hello” and “how do you do?”. On Sundays the men see their doctors and their nephews, on Sundays, they go home and sleep in beds. The men enjoy Sundays and they loath Sundays. You only know you’ve been trapped once you’ve seen what freedom is.

On Mondays, time begins again. They retreat up to the tower, up a winding staircase of sixty steps, into an attic of sixty seats, all alike. The men count and ring the bell once all sixty have spoken. One minute. One hour. Restarting. They lead grumpy lives, unfulfilling lives.

When a ring echoes from the tower, the townspeople know that each man has spoken sixty times and that an hour has passed. But during that hour, one man coughed, another sneezed, one dozed off and missed his cue. The hour’s been extended by twenty seconds as a result. Nonetheless, the townspeople are blindly (disturbingly) confident in the counters as keepers of their time.

I was a newcomer (an intruder), visiting my sister who moved to this town. I naively strolled into the tower while visiting her, enticed by architecture that looked as though a modern building was desperately trying to enshroud itself in a Romanesque shawl. I wanted to examine the curved gargantuan pillars that caged the building, they seemed out of place against the angular, airy quality of the tower. As if the tower was unsure of itself.  

“This is not a museum,” a man behind the front desk tells me. “We do serious work here. And it’s almost 10:02, so we’re behind schedule.”  He is very distraught by this and shakes his head. He writes a note of it, “counters are late by two minutes,” and hands it off to another person, who unfolds it, gasps, and runs up the stairs.

“The men upstairs have serious work to do.” I think he’s joking– he is completely serious.  “You’ll need to leave now.” I comply and head out, leaving the buzz of turning pages and hushed voices.

“Seventeen needs warm water, his throat is getting dry. Do you know how long it takes him to clear his throat? Do you know how much time we’re losing?”

“I’ll be back by in two hours,” my sister tells me the next morning as she leaves to run errands. So I waited. I waited to hear the first ring from the tower and waited to hear the second.

But those two hours went by too fast. Literally. If particularly restless or discontented, the men count faster (to, understandably, make the day end sooner). So when the bell rings prematurely, when it is deemed the next day even though the sun still peeks out from behind the farthest hills, the townspeople scramble, like ants. They run crazily around, gasping and glancing, bumping into each other as they run to wherever they are late to. They stare at the watches strapped tight around their wrists– they’ll need to resync them with the tower, and they worry about how long this will take. Suddenly they’re late, with too much to do, too much that hasn’t been done in the short hour they’ve let slip by.  

Time is so obviously fabricated by old men ticking off numbers in a tower, yet the townspeople live their lives by it, down to each meaningless tick. Does it occur to the counting men that time still moves without their count? That time is indifferent to their rules? Maybe it does occur, and they ignore it, so everyone ignores it, but knows.

I waited four rings, not two, from the tower for my sister to return, and I couldn’t even be angry with her for being late. When she arrives I tell her that I’ve overstayed my visit.

“Never,” she smiles.

I glance behind her at the yard. The sunflowers are looking directly up toward the sun.

“It’s been great seeing you.”

“You’re welcome anytime.” She reaches for her car keys.  “At least let me drive you.”

Another ring echoes from the tower, quickly followed by another. Two hours have gone by in two seconds– the men have fallen behind schedule, here is their desperate attempt to rectify it.  In a moment of panic, my sister, like the others in their homes, on the market, in the street, instinctively glaces at the tower, moves her right hand swiftly toward her watch, her pupils growing wide. That ring marks the fourteenth, then the fifteenth hour. It also makes her late to work.

“You know I can’t be late.”

“You can’t stay and drive me?”

“I’m already late.”

“So you can’t say goodbye to me? Do you realize I’m not going to come back?”

“You don’t understand the pressure I’m under, I’m late to work.”

“What’s there to understand? You care about your schedule more than me. You don’t have to live like this, do you understand that?” At this point, I’m begging her.

“You’re being controlled by them.”

“So are you,” she replies. I mistook her tone for calm– I realize now she was exhausted.  

I stormed out. I was angry with her for complying, for being trapped behind a glass cage and thinking it was made of concrete.

The bus station made trips out every four days. I arrived at this dystopian town on March 3rd, and I could only leave March 7th. When I arrived home, it had been a month. Now all I hear is ticking, not from inside a tower but from the wall, from the drawer, from my pocket and my wrist. Since returning, I’ve realized I left one dystopia only to arrive back home in mine. 

Men constructed time to find a rhythm they weren’t born with. We dance to ticking because we can’t make our own music. We’re imprisoned by cells that we’ve built around ourselves, so we lead grumpy lives, unfulfilling lives, governed by, dictated by seconds and minutes that don’t truly exist, but schedules and due dates that do. Men have become the tools of their tools.


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