Blake Butler

We Did Division in a Concrete Room

In my fifth grade math class, the teacher whose name I cannot now remember would sit perched over an overhead projector with her face obscured among the light. She would write in nearly indecipherable longhand for an hour straight in one of several colors of dry pens. Often she wrote directly on the projector’s face and when there was no room left she’d wipe it empty with her hand. The ink drank to her hands then, and often would end up slathering her blouse’s arms and chest, her cheeks. She sweated in the room’s heat, in her large body. Even to my fifth grade mind, she seemed swallowed by the backlog of her life. The sour way she’d stare headlong into the glowbox, hunched above it, rarely acknowledging raised hands for questions, murmur sound. When she did speak to us directly, her voice came labored, as if why were any of us there¾why were we sitting in this small room made of concrete, manipulating numbers¾why any of us ever.

The woman’s way of seeming swollen inside herself set on the room an air that what we did in her room existed only ever there. Many of us slept or drew or read from other books.

We had assigned seats. Mine was at the back beside the window, looking onto the parking lot and street that framed the school’s front. Nothing during that whole hour ever seemed to go past.

Cattycorner to me sat Nick H., a kid still with the largest reddest cheeks I’ve ever seen. In the context of his body, they seemed like something ripped from off of someone else. The rest of him appeared ready to explode. Always in the same stone-washed-to-mostly-white ratty blue jean jacket, which he wore even during the summers. His puffy brown hair like cotton balls some shitty pet had used for nesting. He would not look you in the eye. He seemed like something someone with bad breath blew full of warm air every morning to keep going. He often could be seen to smile¾though never for any readable reason. He had no smell.

One day, in the back of that class, I watched Nick take a ballpoint pen to the flesh on his left hand. It began with scribbling, short intense strokes he used to elongate the hole ripped in his pant knee, which he ripped wider, burping ink. There was nothing at all about his face.

Soon his attention meandered from the pant leg to his own hand, drawing in quick flat circles on the top meat of his hand close to his knuckles. The deep blue ink squirreling his flesh. As he made more, his focus funneled, growing more and more intense, more machined. I watched him drag the pen’s blunt metal pinpoint back and forth against himself, like scratching, until by lengths the skin opened into rip. I could see the way the skin came up in short rinds.

Nick’s expression did not change from none. He dug into his hand in deep flat ink strokes, hardly blinking, while at the room’s other end the teacher droned. No one else was looking, including Nick, his eyes to nowhere.

I was the only one who saw his blood.

Later that year, that math teacher died. I don’t remember any of us ever being told what happened. She was old. Probably something grafted on her insides, eating. Something in her air. The years of ink flooding her bloodstream. At some point I learned she’d had a daughter, which I remember finding strange¾that someone had come out of that old woman’s body¾that she had nursed a child and taught a child to live and shared her home. How strange it seemed to know that this woman had a body outside of that math room, and how that body had a life.

What I do remember is how in our teacher’s death my classmates were not stilled. Some made fat jokes, mocked her drone voice as if contained inside a tomb. In the new light, kids showed up cruel. Others remained less so by not speaking of it at all, though I do not recall their silence seeming stunned. Either way, in days she became no longer mentioned. There was a replacement teacher installed in the math class location.

I do not remember anything about that room after that.

Blake Butler is the author of EVER (Calamari Press) and Scorch Atlas (Featherproof Books). He blogs at

1 comment:

  1. "...stare headlong into the glowbox, hunched above it, rarely acknowledging raised hands..."

    I like this best I guess. Blake, do me a favor and try to remember. It is an important matter.