Page 1

Lambert heard a wet, quiet noise. Surprising as well. The only noises should have come from him, but there it was, clear if he concentrated, like laughing in a puddle. Then the sound faltered and vanished and he decided it was best not to think about it since he already had a great deal to think about. He did his thinking in a short brown chair. The chrome legs allowed only a small space between the seat bottom and the dark concrete floor. Though the leather had cradled him during innumerable days of thought, it was not sunken or stretched or distressed. Sitting on his chair like a monarch, Lambert rose up over a desolate landscape of dark, scrubbed floor and dark white walls. 1

Again he heard the noise, but louder this time and unmistakably the sound of laughter. The laughter was not deep or controlled but sputtering and filled with escalations and plummets of tone and volume and inhalations. Had he himself been guilty of laughter like that he would have felt his face turn red and his hands shake even though no one was there to witness such a shameful display. Assured he himself was not laughing, he examined the room from the safety of his chair. The room was large and undivided by partition or wall. To his right a door led to a utility closet with a modest selection of cleaning products, a sink, and above the sink a small portal to send trash tumbling to the incinerator. To the left of his chair in a darkened corner sat a low desk bent at the middle. Behind him were two small windows high on the white wall, though all that could be seen through them was coarse dirt and fragments of dead roots tightly packed against the glass. The wall before him held an array of index cards, each written on in large black print, and arranged in perhaps three dozen columns and half as many rows. Lambert stared at them. I must arrange this, he thought to himself. This is my responsibility. No one else can care about them so I need to. I need to stop thinking about needing to work and work. He smiled at the impossibility of laziness. He was quite right. If he did not arrange the cards no one else would. He made the cards to list the events and people he remembered, but 2

when he long ago finished making a careful note of each, describing as well as he could what he could still see or still smell, he reviewed them and found to his dismay that many of them simply could not have happened. While it was plausible that he once loved a girl who felt differently about him, it was entirely unlikely that he helped storm the Bastille or invented hair. Other cards contained less dubious, though suspect, information such as his time as a hot-air balloon enthusiast or that same girl’s curious, imposing, constraining appetites. This will take some sorting out, he had thought to himself on his first day, though owing to the disorganization of the index he couldn't be sure it was his first day. The closet door was closed and he doubted the sound could ring out so clearly from behind the metal. The dark desk might have hidden the culprit. The sound did not come from that direction however. In fact, thought Lambert, the sound was coming from every direction at once and equally. It’s as if I’m the one making the sounds, he thought, and was immediately frustrated that he was no longer contemplating the organization of his cards and that he allowed himself such a nonsensical idea. It was quite evident that he was not the source though the acoustic evidence insisted the source had to be in the same place as he. With that thought it occurred to Lambert to look under his chair. There, between the twin columns of his legs, illuminated by the light reflected from the wall in front of him, sat a basket peeking out from beneath 3

the chair and in that basket lay an infant. The baby let out a gurgling squeal and a laugh that echoed through the room. Lambert jerked his head back and leapt onto the chair and in doing so banged his head on the ceiling. He stood there for a long moment rubbing the top of his head and thinking nothing save the fact that somehow this creature had found its way to the underside of his chair. And he thought that thought over and over until he stopped and then he crossed his legs and sat down. Perhaps I was mistaken, he thought. Perhaps nothing was there. He was immediately angry with himself for being so willfully disingenuous and struck himself on the thigh. No wonder I’m here, he thought. He leaned over the side of the chair to again peek at the baby that was unquestionably there. It was smaller than he thought it should be, but he had to admit, he had no experience with babies against which to compare the size of this one. It also seemed to have a blue tinge, but whether blue was the baby’s color or a trick of the lighting he could not tell. He decided this was a time for bravery. Either he would stay on his perch until the baby again disappeared, which could be never or now, or he would climb down and confront it on the level floor. The latter seemed more fair so he climbed down, arms and hands first. He turned, resting his weight on his palms, and bent low to see the child. Undoubtedly the child was slightly blue, but its face also bore a light dusting of some sort of white powder. It was so gently applied that some regions of the child’s face seemed entirely bereft of it, while in other places it 4

seeped into the fine fissures of its skin. In addition to the mewling and laughing, the baby’s mouth issued a small quantity of saliva that mixed with the white powder and the resulting paste coated the baby’s chin and gave it the appearance of a pastry almost ready for the oven. Forgetting himself, Lambert leaned forward so far that his face was only inches from the infant’s face. Perhaps shaken by its prolonged laughter or frightened by the features hovering above, the infant expelled three short streams of white and yellow fluid from its mouth, the first of which splashed against Lambert’s nose, ran in rivulets down the seams that bracketed his mouth, and dribbled from his chin. The subsequent eruptions simply rained back down upon the child who, once it had finished expelling as much as it cared to, resumed its laughter, though now with a greater ratio of gurgling to tittering. He raced to the closet door, alternately breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell of the slick fluid coating his nose and breathing through his nose to avoid allowing it entry to his mouth, neither of which strategies yielded the desired result. In his haste he stumbled over a broom and mop leaning against the wall. After righting them and returning them to their designated places, he stood at the sink scrubbing at his face with a white cloth, gently swearing. How dare this little insect come barging into his home when he had work to do? He slapped his pink, scrubbed cheek. That’s precisely the kind of distraction in which I have no need to indulge, he 5

thought. If there is a creature under me laughing and vomiting, then I simply must keep working. It gives me no excuse. He draped the soiled rag over the sink’s edge, turned off the light, and closed the door. A moment later he opened the door again, took a moist rag and a dry one, and once more left the closet. He bent down to see the infant and was greeted by a stench that seemed to cling to the floor. Clearly the thing had, in his absence, befouled itself in a more significant manner than before. Lambert reached under the chair and, while sparingly breathing and keeping it at arm’s length, he tugged at the basket and dragged it to the desk. He had little experience in the ablutions of others, but he was certain the two cloths would be ample for him and thus more than adequate for such a small creature. It bothered him that he found himself bending over the child and gently unwrapping the cloth in which it was cocooned. He felt no fondness for the creature. It had done nothing during their brief acquaintance but distract him from his work and yet here he stood, trying to suppress the spasms in his throat and stomach in order to perform a service that the infant could not perform itself. All thoughts disappeared in an instant, however, when he finally unwrapped the final layer of cloth and revealed the source of the odor. The two cloths would not be adequate. He retreated to the closet, sparing a glance for the cards on the wall. He noticed a card on the lower right about his father’s lack of hair and 6

remembered that his father had not been bald at all. In fact, yes he remembered, his father had dark hair, full and long that stuck up all over, and he had that same hair until his end, which might have had less to do with his follicular strength than the age at which he died. As soon as I finish with this, thought Lambert, I’ll make a new card. I’ll have to remember. Again in the closet he added several damp and dry cloths to those he already held. He also grabbed a bottle of cleanser. The thick, foul liquid he uncovered was bound to find its way all over the desk at the very least and he had to be prepared. As he bent to fetch the bottle from the metal shelf his eye caught the door to the incinerator. He stopped. Even if he cleaned the creature he would just be inviting it to again soil the room and the room’s air. He would be inviting himself to neglect his work. The door was big enough. He would never hear a giggle or see another fluid. He stood with the bottle in his hand. I’ll decide when I get back, he thought. Not right now. Now is no time to make decisions. I need to remember my father's hair. He walked back to the desk. The basket lay empty. Neither the child nor its effluvium remained. Only a pile of clean and dry wrappings bore evidence of its recent presence. He realized then that the sounds were absent and no smell remained. Oh good, he thought as he arranged the dry cloths in a folded pile crowned by the moist ones and set the bottle beside them. “Now I don’t have to decide,” he said to himself and he was a little 7

startled at the sound of his voice. As comforting as this pronouncement was to him, he knew as he said it that he was lying. Decisions would have to be made, but at the moment the thing was gone and he could ignore it. He decided to forget the cleaning supplies and go back to the chair. He knew there was something he intended to change. He sat in the chair staring at the rows and columns and tried to remember. His father, he remembered that much, or someone like that. Something about fur, perhaps? He remembered then the stacks of rabbit hutches in the shed. In his memory they extended far higher and farther than he could see, perhaps on forever, though that was obviously nonsense. The shed was not quite as large as forever. The ceiling stood high, though, and supported a single track of fluorescent lights. The steady light did not reach the backs of the cages, especially at the lower levels. The creatures crawled over and under and around each other when his father sent him to select one and once the selection was made the others understood and stopped. The only sound came from the chosen one and that too stopped soon enough. Each time their panic raised a cloud of dust and dander that settled on his shoulders and in his hair. He brushed it off on his way to the kitchen where his father waited with the knife in his thick, cracked hands. The rabbits were true, a memory, solid as the chair, as the cards, as the child. No matter the mutations suffered by the other cards, this one shone 8

true, the slender neck of the animal, its drooping ears tickling his dusty hand, and then his father’s hand, immense and furry, engulfing the flaccid animal, then his father turning, always turning away. He needed a new card. He walked to the desk to fetch one and a marker. He clutched the handle and at that moment he heard the giggling, this time dry and much lower, from the leg space of the desk beside his feet. He jumped away, the drawer forgotten, and tried to peer into the dark space. Something rolled and slithered and twisted in the darkness, something white. He moved a little closer. The thing twisted over and looked at him. He squealed and jumped back. From beneath the desk rolled a skinny man, naked, lacking hair anywhere on his head or body, and coated in the same white powder as the infant. Lambert fell back against the wall as the naked man rolled onto his back and looked up at him with pale blue eyes. The naked man froze for a moment then began laughing a hard, high-pitched squeal of a laugh. He scurried back under the desk where his laughter was barely audible. Lambert pushed himself up against the wall and slowly inched his way toward the other side of the desk then to his chair. I’m shaking, he thought, and forced his hands to be still on the armrests. He stared hard at his wall, not reading, until he noticed he was calm. He allowed himself to glance at the desk. He saw nothing of the man underneath. He could hear nothing either, though he was sure the hairless man was still giggling to himself. Everyone 9

finds something very funny, he thought. I wonder what it is. He thought about this for a while, but unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, and in the absence of any sound or motion from the desk he turned his attention back to the wall and decided the best course of action was to pretend the man was not there until, if the man decided to make his presence evident, he could no longer pretend. He’s not hurting anyone, after all, thought Lambert, and I’m not using the space under the desk. It would be pointless to evict him. Worse than pointless. Just mean and a waste of energy and attention. I have responsibilities and I’m sure he does too. Bolstered by his reasoning, feeling the strength of declaration and decision, he turned back to the wall and immersed himself in the cards. He knew there was a specific region of the columns and rows he was addressing, but he could not remember which. He had gone to the desk for something so he probably had a significant enough correction to warrant a notation or even, rare as it was, a new card entirely. Oh well, he thought. If it was real or important or both, I’ll remember. He continued to survey the assemblage and then his eyes caught on a moment with a glassy-eyed girl who had forgotten his name. The low ceilings in her apartment would not allow him to stand upright on her bed, though why he had been standing on her bed he could not imagine. Strata of cast-off clothing coated the floor and mixed with styrene take-out boxes, abandoned bottles of nail polish, the colors deemed no longer suitable or perhaps now 10

unnecessary, a library of celebrity and pornographic magazines, and the detritus of living together for several weeks in a room five feet by eight. He leaned closer to the card and it occurred to him that he had forgotten her name, not she his, and it was then he heard the giggle. At the desk the hairless man’s head, white and wrinkled with mirth, peered up over the edge. When Lambert’s gaze fell on him the man squealed and ducked down only to peek over the edge again a moment later leaving dusty white finger streaks on the desk’s surface. Lambert turned back around, the wall forgotten, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. I should have put him in the incinerator, he thought. That would have shown him. He thought for a moment. Was that him? He seems too large to fit through the door. Again the sound came, the gleefulness strained and cracking as each explosion of air burst through the hairless man’s throat. The face peered over the side again. “Shut up!” Lambert screamed at the white head and pushed himself out of the chair. He stood trembling, his shoulders hunched to his earlobes, his fists clenched so tightly they looked like blocks of raw meat fused with epoxy, one to the other. The man behind the desk clenched the sides of his head in his hands leaving long ravines in the white powder while he screamed and shrieked and laughed so loudly Lambert thought the glass in the windows shook and the cards danced and swung on their pins. He charged at the man behind the desk, leapt over its top, sailed cleanly 11

over the desk and the laughing head, and landed in a heap in the dark against the wall. I’m not accustomed to such physical activity, he thought and before he finished thinking he found himself atop the squealing man, watching his fists plunge like pistons, mechanically rising and thrusting, rising and thrusting, pounding whatever surface presented itself on the naked man’s roiling, squirming body. After a few long moments the body beneath him no longer bucked and jerked so emphatically, but degraded into a sporadic twitching. Lambert stood and wiped at his sweating brow with his shirtsleeve. His hands were covered in the white powder that now turned to paste after mixing with his own sweat and already drying to form an eggshell sheath over his fingers. The hairless man, quiet now, looked up at him. The man’s right eye had already disappeared behind a purple hood and the cheek below was depressed like a rabbit's still warm hide under the weight of a child's finger. The silent lips now bore fissures and deep gouges from the pressure of broken teeth on one side and hard meat and bone on the other and, as the naked man dragged himself back under the desk, his lips left a trail of dull red dotted with dark pieces of meat no longer part of his mouth. Lambert stood over the retreating figure, more a wounded slug now than a laughing man, until it curled up tightly in the dark under the desk. He looked down at his white shirt, torn and smeared with red, at his knuckles, scraped and swollen, coated in dull white, and he ran back to his chair and sat 12

with his knees over his mouth and chin. That hasn’t happened before, he thought. I don’t think that’s happened before. He examined the cards for confirmation and, finding no indication that he had ever indulged in such slavering, bestial brutality, wondered if he should feel relieved or alarmed, relieved because he did not make it a habit, alarmed because it was something new he might make into a habit. I shouldn’t have done that, he thought. I should apologize. He stood and, with his chin to his chest, shuffled toward the desk and the wounded man he had left there. And the gravity of the wall pulled at his back, calling him to resume his duties and make some sense of it all, to correct the degradations, the distortions of time, and then to rest. He pushed one foot forward and then the other and then he reached the desk. He was not sure how damaged the man was, how badly he'd damaged the man, but there was sure to be something in the closet to help him convalesce. He could make a bed for the man on the desk or under it. He could clean the man’s wounds and perhaps even rid him of that pervasive white powder that so readily turned to paste and adhered to every surface with which it came in contact. The cards called, but if he was ever to return to them, this man would needed his attention first. Before Lambert bent over to peer inside the cavern where the man cowered, he thought about how he felt both empty and full now. All I want is my chair and my wall and my work. But I have other work too. 13

The figure huddled in a small, clenched bundle of flesh in the back of the leg space. The bones of the spine bulged from the skin like tiny beaks pushing the surface of an egg, but too weak to pierce the membrane. Across the thin twigs of ribs appeared blue and purple blossoms, but they were faded and ringed with yellow and brown. He stood for a time staring at the back, waiting for it to notice him, though he eventually realized how foolish that was. “Hello,” he said, his voice weaker than it should have been. He cleared his throat and repeated himself. “Hello.” The figure did not respond. Already this was not going well. By this time they should have been deeply involved in binding wounds and bandaging cuts, creating a sickbed and bathing. While Lambert was convinced that fixing this creature was now a duty just as pressing and demanding as the cards, it was, in truth, a means back to the cards and, after all, there was a limit. Forgetting for a moment that the man was not privy to his concerns, Lambert thought, this creature is quite inconsiderate. I’ll need to be more insistent, for his good and my own. He reached under the desk, took hold of the man’s shoulder tightly, and with a commanding tug, pulled the figure onto its back. Upon seeing the face that greeted him, Lambert snatched back his hand and stepped away. The figure was undoubtedly a man, but shrunken and withered. His hollow stomach sank so far toward his backbone that it appeared as if a portion of his 14

abdomen must have been carved away. Even his chest, which by comparison to his stomach protruded markedly, appeared hollow, as if filled only by a vacuum and moment by moment, the resilience of the skin and bone and muscle acceded grudgingly to the insatiable appetite of absence. Even the man’s long beard which twisted away under his body lacked sufficient density to appear as anything but a threadbare theater prop. The old man lay on his back breathing sudden, shallow breaths, his shriveled hands held below his chin like a beggar’s paws, and stared up at Lambert. The man’s shoulder had four faint streaks of the white powder and Lambert looked at his hands and realized that he'd left the powder on the old man's skin. If they ever got to it, he would need a bath more than this old man who, aside from the remnants Lambert left on his shoulder, appeared devoid of the powder. Regardless of who needed to bathe more, it was time. He stood and walked toward the old man. He stopped and reached down. “On your feet now,” he said. “We have work.” The old man screamed and sprang to his feet, slapping Lambert’s arm. The old man backed away, screaming. The sound made Lambert’s eyes vibrate and his teeth hurt. Fillings he had forgotten seemed to shake loose and his heart felt hollow and battered, pulled into strange shapes that made it twitch and seize. He reached for the old man, toward the mouth full of broken and shattered teeth, a mouth far too large for his head, imploring him to be silent, to please be silent. 15

A moment after Lambert fell to his knees, cradling his ears that he was sure were about burst from the onslaught, the old man abruptly stopped. They looked at each other for a short moment before the old man’s shattered mouth split into a small smile. A giggle escaped before the old man hurdled the desk and ran through the room, his arms whirling at his sides, his head thrown back unleashing a torrent of laughter. Lambert crawled to the desk and hauled himself up to impotently watch the spectacle. He knew there was nothing else to be done. He could hope the old man would be generous enough to allow him to work at his wall, but nothing was assured. The old man continued his dancing and flying, spinning in the air, jumping into the walls and pushing himself off again, and all the while laughing and laughing. He nimbly cavorted for some time like this until, in the middle of one particularly high and enthusiastic leap the old man caught his shin on the back of the chair, sent the chair tumbling under his feet, and landed with a thud against the wall of cards. As he slid down the wall he brought the entire collection of rows and columns down, some stuck to his tiny body, some trapped under his suddenly inert form, and some drifting down like feathers around his shoulders. It was Lambert’s turn to scream and scream as he flung himself toward the collapsed form tangled with the chair and cards. The old man was suddenly on his feet and agilely dodged the charge and, still dribbling giggles behind him, threw himself over the desk and scurried below. 16

Lambert knelt by the remnants of his cards. He stretched out his arms across the floor and scraped them all together into a mound in front of his knees. He had tried innumerable systems in the time he had been there, sometimes thematic with all the women in a column and all the pets in another and all the funerals in a third, but they never fit correctly and the cards would demand to straddle rows, sometimes several rows. He tried chronological, but could never decide which admittance to the hospital happened first or which year contained a particular iteration of a holiday. He tried to arrange events and people in order of personal significance, but then a mundane morning of dusting shared its card with his brother’s hand on his neck before they helped carry the casket or writing a check to the water company shared a card with the first night of ecstasy and surprise and the moonless walk home in the snow. There had been others too. Alphabetical, geographical, statistical systems all with their merits and all fell to the same weakness. He could never be sure they were real. And now he knelt in their remains, some bent, some torn, some missing large pieces. It no longer mattered because they were now all the same. He stacked them as well as he could in a single pile, set it by the overturned chair, and stood. He noticed then that there was more laughter, no sound at all in the room. He walked to the desk and, without pausing, looked under it. He was not surprised to find the old man gone and in his place a small pile of white and gray dust, ash perhaps, but certainly far too small to account for the bulk 17

of even such a trivial, meager man. Lambert considered for a moment what to do, then went to the closet, fetched the broom and dustpan, and with three quick swipes, gathered the dust. He did not know where to put the small pile. With no reason to hurry, no duty or obligation spurring him on, one place seemed as good as the next. He could wash it down the sink or send it down to the incinerator to mix with all the other ash somewhere below. Instead he tugged open the desk drawer and flung the white and gray dust inside. He tossed the broom and dustpan back inside closet, not bothering to lean the one back in its corner and set the other in its place on the shelves, and he shuffled back to the chair and the small pile of broken cards. Lambert wrestled the chair back into an upright position facing the now empty wall and flung himself down on it. He shifted his weight forward and back and the chair rocked back and forth with his weight, no doubt due to a newly damaged leg or two. And why not, he thought. It wasn’t much of a chair to begin with. And these cards are hardly the right organizational tools. How is one to set his life in order with such faulty and vulnerable tools? I need something much more durable, I suppose, though I have nothing else. He flipped through the cards noting that many of them were just fragments and no sign remained of the missing pieces. Many were torn so badly as to be illegible. Many now simply made no sense without the cards that formerly surrounded them. Maybe I’ll start over, he thought. Where did I keep the fresh cards? But he did not move from the broken chair and did not stop 18

shuffling through the crumpled and torn bundle. He felt a tickle of anger at his laziness, but the tickle disappeared. He was too tired to be lazy, too tired to be angry at himself. He sat still and thought about the possibility of fatigue. If Lambert could have seen himself he would have seen his unblinking eyes turn glassy and an occasional fleck of dust detach from the low ceiling where he struck his head and drift down to him. After a long time, he dropped the small library of mangled cards into a pile at his feet and with his heel, kicked them under the chair.


Little Index  
Little Index  

A short story by Matthew Antonio.