On Being Asked by a Child to Teach Her How to Tell Time

By J.R. Solonche

Well, I really don’t think I should teach you how to tell time. It’s against my better judgment. But if I don’t teach you, someone else will, just as someone else taught you how to spell C-A-T and how to get 4 by adding 2 and 2 and how to drink from a glass without spilling, so I guess I will teach you how to tell time even though it’s such a foolish thing to learn. How to tell time is reading a clock for some kinds of time and reading a calendar for other kinds of time. This is confusing because there is only one kind of time, which also is confusing because there are really no kinds of time at all. Anyway, it is all just adding and subtracting. (Remember 2 and 2 is 4?) But at some time in the future, you will discover for yourself that it is all subtracting and no adding. How to tell time by a clock is looking at the big had and the little hand. They are two foreigners, one tall one short, who don’t speak English. They are standing at the fork in a road in a country you are visiting but whose language you don’t understand. You want to know where you are and which way to go, so you ask directions. The tall one points one way. The short one points another way. Sometimes they both point the same way. However, they agree for only a minute, and then they point different ways again. Anyway, this doesn’t matter. At some point on your journey through this foreign country, you will find out for yourself that there is no fork in the road and no road and no country. How to tell time by calendar is much easier. It’s the same as reading a book with only 19 words. Sometimes there are other words, but they are always the names of holidays. You make up the story as you turn the pages. The problem is the faster you turn them, the shorter the story becomes. But that doesn’t matter. Just be careful not to turn to the last page to see what happens at the end. Well, I guess that doesn’t matter either. The last page is always the same. There. I’ve taught you how to tell time. And I’m very sorry for it. I should have taught you something else. I should have taught you what to tell time. I should have taught you, for instance, to tell time this: You know him for what he is, a liar, a braggart, and a boor. And that he doesn’t have to wear a smile for you or you for him. And I should have taught you to tell time “Thank you” for whatever he gives you, but that you cannot give him much of your time, not even the time of day, because you’re too busy to pass the time with him. And although he’s been around for so long, he’s not much wiser for it. There are lots of other things I wish I had taught you to tell time, but he’s very impatient (as I see you are getting to be) and his attention span is quite limited. But I’m most sorry that I didn’t teach you to tell time this: That you learned this from me, whom you knew just as briefly.

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J.R. Solonche is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and Best of the Net nominee. He has been published in magazines, journals, and anthologies since the early ’70s. He is coauthor of Peach Girl: Poems for a Chinese Daughter (Grayson Books) and author of Beautiful Day, forthcoming from Deerbrook Editions.

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