b l a k e    b u t l e r

The Sentence


The father continues reading because the sentence will not end, continuing on and on down the length of the page no matter how far he seems to go, preventing any reasonable place where he can duck out of the story for a moment to take care of his baby crying in the other room, his thirteen month old son, which his wife has left him alone with on this muggy Sunday to see a movie with her friends, and she’d made him promise he’d be there to watch the baby while she was out, to which he complied even though he had things of his own that wanted doing that afternoon, because really he felt like it was fair that she be the one to get to go out, seeing as how usually she spent all her time at home while he was at work sixty hours a week, and usually he’d stop off for drinks with his own friends at least two days out of five, so he’d only protested for a second when she asked, acquiescing barely a complaint because she really seemed like she needed to get out, and actually he’s rather glad she feels comfortable enough to leave him alone with the baby for a while again, considering what had happened that last time, not that it was his fault, he assures himself—the blame belongs to no one; it was a random accident that couldn’t have been prevented, and he's not going to feel guilty about it another second longer no matter what his brain tries to tell him—and anyway there’s this book he’s been meaning to finish, one he’d had beside the bed for weeks now, one he’d bought during a layover in Houston, and which he'd really gotten into in a way that even surprised himself, so much so that he couldn't stop turning turning the pages, couldn't stop even when they called his aisle, he'd walked straight to his seat with the book held out before him, though during the flight itself he couldn’t concentrate enough to read further thanks to the couple in the aisle behind him, bickering at the top of their lungs from takeoff to landing, battering the back of his seat as they pushed or kicked at one another or whatever they were doing and no steward tried to stop them, so he’d gotten stuck there around page 170, right when things were just getting really juicy, and then had to put it down, and hadn’t found time to pick it up until today, but even with such a gap between finds he's right back in the thick of it, the story is so engaging it's as if no time has passed at all, and so he's reading and he's reading and already the tension's made him seize, and he’s right in the middle of a particularly important scene, one which the entire narrative seems to depend upon, when the baby begins to bawl again—a sharp, nasal bawling, with deep breaths in between, like little hiccups—and as soon as the father hears it he begins reading more quickly, looking for a place to stop so that when he comes back he won’t have to pick up in mid-thought, though for some reason, the sentence won’t stop, it just keeps rambling on and on, offering details and further details, a run-on that is entirely unexpected and a particularly sore thumb in this not-too literary thriller where all of the other lines have been short and unadorned, and the father continues reading, desperate for a period, all the while hearing the baby shriek and whimper in the background, crying like it means it, like it really needs him, with the exact same timber and urgency as last time, the last time he was put in charge, when he’d left the sleeping child alone in its crib as he’d done today, and he’d gone into the kitchen and started grilling a steak, and right as he was dropping the meat against the pan, here comes the crying, sharp and horrendous just like it is right now, so he'd turned the burner off and rushed into the nursery to find that his son had somehow found a way to force his head through two of the wooden bars that make the sides of the crib and had gotten stuck there, his face so full of fear and welled with red that it looked as if it’d been marinating in a hot tub, and even as the father stood there the child was pulling back with its weight so that his temples squeezed as if in a vice, screaming louder each time he went to pull again, and when the father ran to help he found that he couldn’t figure out how to free him either, that no matter which way he turned the baby’s head it wouldn’t fit back through the bars, and so he stood there struggling with it, making his son scream even more horrifically, like now it’s really hurting, Daddy’s only making things get worse, and he could see the red marks on the side of the child’s head around the bars where he’d been trying to push through, bright red indentions that weren’t bleeding exactly but obviously hurting, sore, and so finally after a few more failed attempts, the father ran to the garage and came back with a handsaw, went to cut through the bars with a will frenzied but determined, and once the head was finally free he lifted his son into his arms, massaged and nuzzled him and whispered reassurance, crying now himself even as he ran to the phone to call a doctor and then his wife to report what he’d let happen (he had let it, hadn’t he? he should’ve done better his brain insists), and all of this is running through his mind now as he rushes to find a place to end the god–damned sentence, not so much reading now as power-skimming, though surely, he assures himself, surely the child can’t have done the same thing again, these must be hunger cries or want for a diaper change, (lighting doesn’t strike twice, don't they all say that?), though he can’t help but think maybe it has, and then from there he thinks—and even while its coming he knows he shouldn’t be having the thought, but he can’t stop it—that if indeed it has happened again, if the child has gone and stuck his head between the bars of the new crib that he'd had to buy after sawing up the old, then maybe his son is stupid, yes, stupid, because, he finds himself thinking, even a baby should’ve learned from the first time around not to go sticking parts of himself in places where they don’t belong, even dogs can recognize that, or maybe it’s not that the child is stupid exactly, damn it, but maybe cursed, destined to keep ending up in horrific and yet easily avoidable situations for the rest of his life, and maybe, he thinks, despising himself more and more as the thought progresses, maybe it would be better to let the child sit there for another moment, give him time to realize what he’s done, to allow that extra moment in which maybe his infant son will learn something, will understand this is not the correct behavior, and that he’d think about it next time before doing such a thing again, and maybe, the father goes on, still skimming the book in front of him but not actually registering any of it now, maybe if the child’s going to keep doing such things he deserves to hurt, and maybe, he finds himself thinking without really meaning it, maybe he shouldn’t do anything at all, maybe he should leave the kid in there to suffer, to deal with the damage by itself, and for a moment he even considers reading on past the current sentence if and when it ever ends, ignoring the infant’s crying, allowing the pain to settle in, to make an impression, to yes, leave a mark, though with that the father begins to feel sick about himself, disgusted by this thought of allowing trauma in his child’s life, a thing he’d never really do but has come up with all the same, and he feels horrendous that his mind could conjure something so horrible even if he didn’t mean it, as in the same way that sometimes he can’t help but imagine seeing certain people of close relation naked, or also like how sometimes he finds himself thinking even more elaborately destructive things, things that go against everything he's believed in for as long as he can remember, things such as spitting in the face of God, though he's not even sure what that means, but he still thinks it, and still feels awful, and sometimes he gets the urge to run his car off of the road into heavily populated places, schoolyards for instance, or shopping malls, where he’d really do some damage; it’s these kind of damning thoughts that he doesn’t want but still has that really scare him when they come up, no matter how resolutely he knows he doesn’t mean them, and he wonders what it is about him, why he can't make himself react to the situation normally, why he can't just put the fucking book down, and what is it about his brain, what kind of evil thing's inside him that would make him even unconsciously react to his own son’s misery with anything but true and unwavering distress, and he hates it so much that sometimes he’d almost like to beat his skull apart and never think again, and that feeling's never been more burned and intense than it is right now, and he feels he’s about to implode in a human firework, like he's really about to burst, when finally, just like that, the sentence ends, gone from the page like a train lost to a tunnel.



BLAKE BUTLER has been published or is forthcoming in Caketrain, Sleepingfish, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, Monday Night, etc. He was shortlisted in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005. His website is www.deadwinter.com.