Countable Minutes

by Kyle Ellingson

6:06 p.m.—walking home from bus stop
I was standing around at an intersection, no traffic in sight, waiting for the walk sign to invite me lawfully across.

A woman my own age, dressed in my same length of autumnal peacoat (tall collars popped against a light wind) and headed in my same direction, halted next to but also noticeably behind me. She looked down each intersecting avenue twice, squinting (politely, for my sake, I felt) as if traffic were indeed oncoming but uniquely difficult for her to see.

She eyed me, (politely) irritated. I looked away, turning a little so as to camouflage or miniaturize my presence within the wider shape of the stoplight post beside us.

The woman spoke up:

“You don’t mind if I cross.”

“No, please,” I said, with head bowed and hand open—a butler escorting this woman ahead of him through a door. Not once did I show her my face: though firmly married, I was grateful she would not walk away with a memory of my eyes. She clacked her high-top clogs confidently out into the street, under the no-walk sign—the red, raised hand.

Ages ago, I would’ve followed her just to enjoy the small intimacy (platonic tryst) of rule-breaking; but now, 34, tired from a proctorial honk a sunglassed cop gave me last year from a far-off patrol car, I shyly refused.

I live a lot less shakily these days, pretending to be in constant view of stable authorities.


3:32 a.m.—awake in bed
Parents were my eyes before I, as a baby, could workably see—my logic before I’d put a private shape to objects of danger. My first method of survival was to trust their judgment more than my own.

Occasionally, in adulthood, I make strides in quitting the instinct.


6:08 a.m.—breakfasting, a bagel w/ neufchâtel

Young male insanity:

One life can’t hold two centerpoints—
semantics rules it out.


12:43 p.m.—at work, in skidsteer loader

Show my friend Doug a present moment and he will overemphasize its presence.

No, he’s not overfed on pop media, urging “seize the day.”

It’s that when I talk to him he asks about my life as it is at present, when I prefer to be asked about how it will be in the future, when it looks the way I intend it to.

I’ve always worried that if I step into a present moment I will die in it—and oops, it will define me.


5:46 p.m.—drowsing in backyard

The ornamental stones of my backyard (courtyard) resound with the gabbling of a small plastic fountain, which the freezing and thawing of seasons is (year by year) neutering of its jet action.

Birds are born every spring—above, among the apple leaves—and every summer I hear them learning the same bird words (I think) as the last.


6:38 a.m.—waiting at bus stop

Yes, I did spot my brother yesterday, at our bus stop. He plucked out the last inch of banana from his peel and, in camaraderie with squirrels, smushed it stuck to the jutting inch of brick that spans the foot of his apartment building.

He stood next to me at the curb, looking less pleased to see me than to see a squirrel, which is honestly a feeling I relate to about myself, mornings in my mirror.

But like he says, he didn’t know it was me; with how often I toggle between facial hairdos, I’m very hard to identify with my sun hat on; the onus falls to me, to take it off when I see him.


6:12 a.m.—breakfasting, a bowl of bran

I dreaded so easily that my dad had misled us all—worse, himself—into believing he was a gifted woodworker. Were other of his tables (gifts in homes of relatives and friends) also needing sudden and dispiriting repair, like the one he’d furnished for my breakfast nook?

Was I about to join a subculture of polite, repressed awareness as to my father’s workshop incompetences?

Here, right beneath my bowl of oats, an achievement of his was coming unfinished. Seams were opening between the planks of the tabletop. Had he forgotten to glue?

Did he even know the glue one might use?

He was the person I’d always gone to with glue questions. I started to doubt what he’d told me about glue.

But then in June, in a rise in humidity, the planks expanded, the seams closed up—of course—and I dropped my head to the table, fooled and depleted.


1:28 p.m.—lunching at desk, microwaved ham & swiss

A lab experiment has demonstrated that the more often test subjects move (twitch, rove) their eyes while seated at rest, the higher their IQ is relative to test subjects with less “ocular itinerancy.”

The writeup says, “a principal element of primate intelligence is alert visual bearing resulting in increased responsiveness to phenomena.”

Our brightest monkey forebearers looked at things, saw things coming, and put things together. I try to emulate that in my daily living.

But it doesn’t always seem like intelligence—me sitting in the heated and sealed safety of my office, darting my eyes around redundantly, nothing new here to beware of except maybe some dust on the blinds that might be provoking, mote by mote, my postnasal drip.


12:50 a.m.—awake in bed

I’ve only beat up one trashcan; I don’t like that I beat up even one.

I hid the one I beat up (tin, fussed into a meticulously flat piece) under a wad of styrowrap and some ruptured pvc in the work dumpster.


7:02 p.m.—at dinner table w/ wife & sons, takeout chicken & rice

I had to ask myself:

Are trees and shrubs the things you love?

Are these the things you’ll have the easiest time renewing fondness for, over years?

Because you’re going to be alone with them, more or less, for the next thirty or forty years.

You’re going to be, above all, a guy who puts his hands into the thicket of a transplant shrub, searching for a bough to grip and lift by. When that’s done, you’ll operate a tree spade. That will be the way your hours go—that’s what time will fly through. You’ll be more familiar with the smell of your tree spade than with that of your home. You’ll have more complex sensitivities regarding the wellbeing of your trees than of your kids.

Maybe not, but maybe.

You’ll spend more time (have quantitatively more fun) with your employees than with your friends. You’ll talk about trees and shrubs with your wife—she’ll become, involuntarily at best, a secondhand plant expert: you two will spend a huge portion of home life exploring tree and shrub theory, and if you don’t, you’ll find hazardously little else from your life over which to commune at all.

When you’re at dinner parties, do you want to tumble into irreversible cyclones of conversation about trees and shrubs and what you do with them? Because people will be curious to know. Do you want to drive down a street conjuring up faults to find in every shrub and tree arrangement (commercial, public, and private-home) you pass? So much so that you might not hear a question your son or daughter asked your wife from the backseat—a question you would, ideally, also like to weigh in on?

But come on now, how could I have answered in advance?


9:12 a.m.—at work, in skidsteer loader

I think about Pinnochio a lot at work: the wood-man hybrid.

It’s just that if he’d stayed a doll forever, grown old in ageless wood, then expressed an old person’s opinions, he would nevertheless have been accused, all the time, at a glance, of being someone’s property.


9:31 p.m.—unloading dishwasher
In college one of my domestic techniques was to keep all my dishes dirty and only scrub the ones I needed.

The routine of a long-unsupervised child.

I sudsed up the sink water and picked at flatware with a thumbnail I had not noticed was so oddly long. In my bathroom I trimmed the nail; in my bedroom I sat in my armchair, sharing a moment alone with my groomed and adult-looking thumb.

This is my thumb—was the idea.

I catalogued, fleetingly, the finer creases of my thumb skin.

Looking closer, thousands more.

I noticed I was fostering the expectation that young skin should appear, on inspection, as wrinkle-free as plastic. This was not so. Details of my body had already done some solemn aging.

Hopping from the chair towards the kitchen and dishes, I paused, fixated, and watched the imprint of my butt rise in eerie delay from the seat cushion of the armchair—a tired spirit standing to reinhabit me.


5:27 p.m.—homebound on bus, hanging up phone

“I see,” Doug conceded hollowly on the phone—some helicopter of spirit slowly lifting off in him and nosing away from our conversation.

Is he tired at heart?

Done with hearing me inflate what a potter I am, what a diligent hobbyist, what a well-behaved guy—at a time when he, deflated, can’t think of something new and fun to woodwork?

Does he envy productivity, the word alone?

I fear I do.

But I can’t, amid the ambiguities of his withdrawn mood, help continuing and continuing to speak, probably obnoxious—

“Not that I ever listen to music about trucks,” I add, in case he assumes I do. “Like I said, no lyrics really—well, not when I’m potting. Too distracting.”

“I see,” he repeats, from inside his helicopter, figurative miles more distant.


6:21 p.m.—walking home from bus stop

I nap every day, getting home from work—I tiptoe into the house, past my family, to the bed, the couch, the hallway carpet. I dream when I nap.

A nap dream:

I sweat—cottonmouthed, dehydrated—intermittently blinded by a darting sun.

I’m curled up on a span of tile, dizzily and feebly telling my body to uncurl.

I need to figure out whether I’m naked, or in public.

But my neck can’t lift my head, or my arms my hands, and I keep dwindling back to the floor, emitting small puffs of indifference.


6:28 a.m.—waiting w/ sons at school bus stop

My wife Sen is a small woman: a more open relationship with the ground, with things or children on the ground, is available to her than to taller people. This shapes the sort of mothering she does for our sons, whose upright pirouettes often devolve into rolls on the ground.

Sen is quick to get in our sons’ business physically, to commandeer some chore they take too long with, or to straighten their shirts, shake their penises dry after tinkles, and zip their pants.

A taller mother—one with a bad lumbar or quads not as elastic as Sen’s—might make a stronger point, and sooner, of instructing her children to perform small tasks themselves.


2:30 a.m.—awake in bed

I heard my sons conversing at the kitchen island this evening. I worry about them seated so high up on the island stools, which my wife and I permit them to sit on because we want sons we can trust to sit carefully on high stools.

And they are careful boys—seem fascinated by precautions, follow rules without the typical defiant experimentalism. They sit with their backs against the backs of the stools—they don’t swivel the seats—they don’t jimmy around and tuck their legs under their butts. They never kneel. When mounting the stools, they use the wooden step-up box I built for them—their dismounts are especially slow and procedural.

They are little copies of me.

Still, whenever I hear them on their stools, I step into the kitchen and give their shoulders a pally jiggle, their stools a disguised shake: really I’m confirming the sturdiness of the doweled legs.


4:23 p.m.— on phone, in den

My phone flops shut and bounces twice on the chair cushion.

I bump my knee twice, hard, into the armrest, walking twice around the chair—the hair above my ears sprigging out between the fingers of my fists.

The objects in our tv room seem to enlarge, striking up around me like all the instruments of an orchestra flying one by one to the same high, flat note.

“Agh!” I bark, and stomp three times into the drum of the floor.

I’d mistaken our sons’ private school for a mouth lapping our money: I’d overlooked the ear, hearing other monies in the breeze.

The breeze is no musician.


8:45 p.m.—in den, watching tv

My sons asked me tonight if I felt settled on the matter of what thing I would take to the castaway’s island described in their 2nd grade assignment—a remote tropical speck in the pacific with edible flora, herbivorous fauna, and few serious storms.

I walked out of the kitchen, to the tv room.

I should say I walked out of our kitchen, to our tv room—I’d been put in an ownerly mindset. Everything was mine, my wife’s, or mine and my wife’s. I asked my possessions—which of you would come with me to castaway’s island? You, hallway picture of wedding slow dance under northwoods chandelier? Or you, butt-worn corduroy lazyboy? Or you, dog’s nylabone, chewed to a stabbing point at both ends? Or you, three-bedroom house at large?

Or would it be you, biggest of four televisions?

Or you over there, wife knitting what I know to be called a cowl, watching what I know to be called Ancient Chef?

My wife herself was not categorically “a thing,” but neither was our dog, the one my sons were already taking to their island, as depicted in their pink (dog) and green (island) crayon drawing.

Thinking about the thingness of our dog, his practical talents, got me thinking about the thingness of my wife, her practical talents, which threw me into a top-secret primordial daydream of an island wife who is totally constituted by none other than her “practical” talents, who maybe doesn’t know more words in common with me, for instance, than can serve us in building our island tree house or gathering our island fruit or stealing ourselves away from survival tasks to enjoy very regular but rejuvenatingly unschedulable sex.

I thought maybe a gun with a crate of ammunition would be a shrewd island package. Murdering of food, defense of the island. I mean, the world is filling up with people, some of whom are pirates and tourists, and the idea of a legitimately remote island is maybe a dead one—an invitation to disillusionment.

But I wondered if I hadn’t thought of the gun for the obvious ease of suicide. The issue would come up, no doubt. I wanted to shout back into the kitchen to my sons, “Don’t go! Don’t go to that island!” Because a handful of years, tops, and our dog would, like anything, die out there, and my grieving sons would be stuck with the skeleton—the bones in the ground, or always washing back to shore.


2:28 p.m.—at work, driving tree delivery semi-truck

A nap dream (had on the lawn of our backyard at sunset, in the shadow of our house):

My skin is grey from no sun all my life. My limbs and head are tangled, immobile, in the limbs and leaves of a towering, mile-long shrub.

For a terrible moment I can’t tell my white forearms apart from the white boughs I cannot bend aside.


6:59 p.m.—wiping kitchen counter, waiting for water to boil

Last night my parents popped by our house with takeout, to feed me and my family. I quickly hid away the broccoli I’d begun to chop for a stir fry, dropping the cut pieces into the only empty container in the cupboard above me—a mason jar I found no lid for.

My wife demanded to reimburse them on the dinner bill, worried that if I didn’t they would guess our funds were insufficient. My mother insisted that they pay, and my wife, as if distinguishing shrewdly with her toes the territory of a fellow autonomist, withdrew with affable shrugs.

And anyway, we had no money anywhere to pay them with.

From experience, my wife knew that if she’d made us seem thin on funds, my parents would sneak a fold of cash into the shaving drawer of our bathroom cabinet, or into a pocket of my jacket on their way out. To their minds their money belongs to those of their family who would feel any twinge of convenience at having it—which is all of us.

To them a twinge is an injury.

Belittled, we would use their cash for groceries, warming to belittlement because it had fed us, and beginning to associate belittlement itself with food and gasoline.

Soon a tendency might settle in us, me, my wife, my adult siblings. For us our dealings might take a homeward lean.

Home, my parent’s lair of generosity and cash.

I might wind up shoaling my family back into my childhood bedroom, now titled my adult bedroom.


5:57 a.m.—making bed

I pull the single coil of sheets and blankets from our bed. I peel and tug the articles apart.

I throw the sheet up, held at two corners, then the comforter: each billows and settles squarely on the bed.

Graceful alignment of beddings—a skill of mine?

Why do I, having the skill, not incorporate into my days the regular performance of bed-making?

I’ve been neglecting a mode of talent.

Talents: the unforeseen scarcities.

But then I caught sight of myself in the near future, making a bed back at my parents’ house, making it to meet my mother’s standards (square, taut), and I fell away in a funk from my chore, bed untucked, half-made, and left early for work.


7:37—on bus, plucking idly at crack in phone screen

It’s been an alienating long time since I called or saw Doug. He has become an adversary in my dreams.

A nap dream:

Enter—two men of equivalent facial gauntness and skeletal delicacy. The lower hemispheres of their eyeballs are comparably bloodshot.

The men are pseudo-twins.

Societal curiosity as to who would govern whom in a fight intensifies in direct correlation to their bodies’ proximity in space.

All we do is glare at each other and pace clockwise, opposite one another, around a shrinking circle.


9:34 a.m.—at clay center, a Saturday

At the clay center, where I rent floor- and kiln-space, our cubicle walls range within a foot of our high ceilings. None of my neighboring potters have yet put a ladder up or stood on a table to peek down into my workstation. Of all environments and communities in my life, I am shyest (most hermitic) at the clay center—I have invited no one in to view my one large, dubious bowl-in-progress.

Nor have I caught anyone attempting to peep in through the slatted blinds of my alleyside window.

Competitive snooping does thrive at our clay center, but is fairly timid in scope, there being an equally competitive urge, among us, never to be accused of competitive snooping.


2:43 p.m.—at clay center, a Sunday

So as to probe and shape the remote clay interiors of my enormous growing bowl, I duct-taped a bulbous sponge like a soft fingertip to the end of a broom handle, a month later bolting to the first handle a second one of equal girth, so as to elongate this, my surrogate finger.

Then today—up on the ladder I stand atop in order to work the inside of my moist, slow-spinning bowl—my eyes wobbled for a second in my head, and below, in a crescent shadow the light of my headlamp cast onto the floor of the bowl, I saw my wife sprawled on her back, riding the spin of the bowl, looking bored: glass-eyed and deliberately deaf.

I descended my ladder and phoned my wife: no reason, I told her, just a call. She was surprised and flattered. We had a nice talk.
But would she still care to believe it was the allure of her spouseliness that compelled my call, if she knew it was her ghost who had spooked me to it?


7:12 p.m.—dinner out with friends, coal-fired pizza

Back when we got married, my wife inducted 12 bridesmaids into her bridal party, plus one maid of honor. On our wedding day she was emotionally divisible by 14—me + 13 women.

I disliked this symbolism—but did so without words. Only a roasting pinkening of my forehead, beneath my swoop of bangs.

Nor did my wife tolerate asymmetry, in elements of our ceremony, between the bridal party and the groom’s party. Asymmetry has always been, for her, a doomy metaphor—it governs even the layout of our furniture. If 13 attendants were to stand on her half of the pastor, 13 would stand on mine.

That summer leading up to our autumn wedding, I set up lunches, brunches, and coffee dates with all my male friends and acquaintances, exhausting my capacity to generate brotherly affection where there was little, in hopes of finding groomsmen. In the end I only came up with six convincing ones, plus one best man.

So my wife and I, we faced a utilitarian calculation: Which inflicts greater pain? Cutting a bridesmaid who can’t fathom being cut; or including a groomsman who can’t fathom inclusion?

We (like all people with small sedate lives ahead?) faltered on the side of inclusion.


8:12 p.m.—loading dishwasher

In our kitchen, by our sink, I found a roomy gap in the crowd and settled there.

I glanced around at our guests, prostituting, in my expression, my urgency to attract a conversation partner. A guest glanced back in distaste (I think), so I looked up, inspectorly, at the spin of our ceiling fan.

After a while I looked down into my water cup, as if a crumb were floating there. I filled the cup a little fuller at the faucet behind me.

A woman came by to throw a plate in the trash under our sink. I was an obstacle in her way, my legs blocking the cupboard.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and fled several feet to one side.

I hadn’t thought about people needing to access the trash at an hors d’oeuvres party, those little paper plates.

“No, no,” choked the woman, in a lunging way, like I was a vase she had knocked wobbling.

That was me, an hour into my wife’s birthday party last June.


10:12 p.m.—performing foreplay on wife

I still snap into a listening pose whenever my wife speaks.

But it’s like she’s reading herself out loud to me: an article too long, layered, hard to follow.

How strenuous, to picture simple words she says, words that would be vivid were the tv saying them.

And so at least one guy on earth is still married to a woman he loves mainly at gatherings, really, when she talks (orates, burlesques) to a ring of interested listeners—outside of which he stands, glancing in.


7:00 p.m.—at gas station, refueling wife’s car

Sometimes in the car, headed out to buy something banal and necessary, my wife, in the passenger’s seat, will lock one leg over the other, then sit there tightly like that, in this shifted and serious position.

It’s one of those things I, the mournful observer, always catch.

“Need to tinkle?” I observe from the driver’s seat. “Need us to pull over?”

“I’m going to wait,” she declares to a roadside blur of pebbles.

I used to just wait a minute or two, then pull into a gas station, apologizing that I needed a coffee or to, myself, use a restroom—giving her a chance to do the same.

But my wife got wise to me, vigilant, as she is, to those of my courtesies she might thwart, thereby saving herself from marking down some minor imbalance in the ledger in her head that keeps me and her “even” or “maturely unreliant” on one another.


11:32 p.m.—awake in bed

Again today I stepped to my bus stop eyeing the vacant (professionally cleaned, but vacant) storefront straight across the one-lane street.

Each morning I note that a few of my neighbors, as they step into the weather outside their buildings, also pause to eye this deceased storefront. Accompanying our pauses is a pause of breath, in which we cast small dyspeptic frowns onto the sight of the unlit glass. Only when we spot our frowns reflected back to us do we compose expressions preferable to wear in the day ahead.

But today, spanning this storefront, hung inside the glass on suction cup hooks, was a white banner. In black ink, humorless font, no punctuation, it read, HERE SOON COFFEE.

I raised my arms (and eyebrows) happily as if the sign were bouncing across the street to hug me. Coffee—here soon! Spotting my reflection in the storefront glass, I recalled that I hadn’t exhibited as much enthusiasm for anything all year: I recoiled in a shut-eyed blush, imagining some onlooker had seen me and gleaned the proportions of my life.


7:21 a.m.—on bus, dozing

At the urban tree farm where I work winters for a wage, I walk amid the rustling girths of firs, pines, and spruces, planted in lines that halt the travel of rustling sounds.

I shimmy under a skirt of branches, handsaw out a wedge of trunk so that the crown will tip away from me.

I truck-plow out the access roads.

I sprinkle imitation wolf pee on all our edible saplings.

Kyle Ellingson lives in Saint Paul, MN, where he works seasonally at a country club. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Euphony, The Madison Review, Sou’wester, Kansas City Voices, and elsewhere.