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Lambert stood before the table where until recently she’d kept a small, ceramic statue of a piglet. The statue vanished since she’d last completed a circuit of her room, which was more a hallway than a room. These objects lately developed a habit of disappearing and she stood instead of walked and she thought about the absence of the ceramic pig and she remembered a joke. A clown walks into a butcher’s shop. She spent her days (but here, she thought, there's no measure of that sort of thing) walking what was both perimeter and room, a square if one measured it as she had, endlessly with her steps. She could reach out with each hand and touch each wall, the distance across the space the exact 1

distance from the tip of her middle finger on her left hand to the same fingertip on her right. She preferred not to risk sitting and so she had no chairs. Sitting invited the heat. Lambert walked and if she turned left there was another hallway of equal dimensions and again and again and if she turned left each time, which she was obliged to do since there was no other path, she completed the circuit of her room and began again. The walls of Lambert’s room were cluttered with nightstands and dining room tables and desks and side tables and drawing tables and pedestals and drum tables and sideboards and vanities. Some protruded out into her path and she was forced to squeeze through whatever opening presented itself. Some tables blocked the path entirely and she was forced to crawl beneath or clamber over and whenever she was obligated to take what she thought of as such an unorthodox route, though since the route had been identical since long before she could remember, the route was quite orthodox, she controlled her body severely as any abrupt movement or sudden motion could have sent any of the innumerable ceramic animal statues crashing to the ground. If there are fifty statues there are a hundred, she thought, and if there are a hundred there are thousands and if there are thousands there are as many as many can be. As it was, each time she encountered one of these obstacles she found her body sweating, pushing it’s fluid into her clothing and she found the room growing warmer and warmer until it was unbearable. She had to move and move quickly until the heat subsided and her desiccated skin 2

regained its supple resiliency and her hair stopped smoking. She didn’t walk solely because of the heat, at least not anymore. Now she also walked because if she walked she could keep her statues in sight and they never vanished when she could see them. She wondered when she started thinking of them as hers. She didn’t choose them, nor did she choose their placement. They were hers, nevertheless and she walked and she walked because if she walked they would stay. They must stay, she thought. I must make them stay. Lambert stood still where the piglet vanished, but the

heat did not

come. There on the surface of the nightstand she noticed a fleck of gray. She bent closer, though the increased proximity yielded no fuller explanation of the object’s identity. She reached out and when her finger brushed against the fleck it melted into a dark smear across the particleboard top. “Something is missing,” she said aloud and was startled at the sound of her voice. She walked away. She decided she only meant the piglet was missing, but immediately hit herself in the thigh for being disingenuous. Like the other statues something had vanished along with the piglet and all that remained was the impression of thick hands reaching across an old, pine table to her, the knuckles a hog’s hide of thick black hair and the fingertips square and blunt. The palms are thick and cracked and the cracks are black and hard, filled with something other than skin. They smell like roadways in the 3

summer when the sun fills her eyes and her nose and her mouth and the flat absence of anything but sand and dirt forever and ever until the blue mountains, so not really forever, but almost, and it all vanishes in the closeness of the sun and the smell of hot tar. They are hands, but with no arms or torso or head. There is the smell, but with nothing exuding it. There is the sun, but there is no sky, only the interminable burning. I am small, she thinks, when the hands reach for her. Here, at the point where the clown walks into the butcher’s shop, at the very inception of the joke, she was already second guessing the plausibility of the situation. She was confident in her memory’s fidelity, at least about something so trivial, so it was the joke itself that she took issue with. How do we know this is a clown walking into a butcher’s shop? Has the clown decided to do his grocery shopping in full regalia, and what else would he be doing entering a shop that exclusively sells meat if not to shop for food. He certainly wouldn’t have been hired to entertain. A butcher’s shop is a serious operation, she imagined, and whoever stood behind the counter would have little patience for uninvited clowns doing clown activities during business hours. But assuming there is some unfathomable reason for the clown, who is dressed as a clown, to enter the shop, he enters the shop, then encounters a 4

mother and child. This part gave Lambert no pause, but she paused anyway to reflect on the feasibility of a mother hefting her child through a series of shops during the day. The child is crying and in Lambert’s limited experience with infants and toddlers and whatever else they’re called since they seem to abruptly change ages every time one turns one’s back and thus perpetually earn new appellations, these things do nothing so well as cry. The child is crying and the mother is holding the child to her breast and rocking it. The clown, presumably out of some sense of professional obligation, takes it upon himself to amuse the child until the child no longer wants to wail and drool and emit whatever other auditory and fluid issuances it feels compelled to issue, though Lambert felt that if the clown were not on the clock, he would do best to leave the child be and let its mother take care of it. But the clown does not share Lambert’s feeling on the firm division between professional and personal time, and decides to make a few faces at the child. After all, his bright red orb of a nose has a single practical application and that is to induce laughter. Here, on a dining table that stretched across the breath of the corridor, Lambert failed to find a tiny, red fox with a thick tail curled around his legs and his ears pointed and raised high. She saw a long shed alone in the sand 5

and dirt, the planks dry and bleached by the brilliance of the high, high sun. Inside, in the darkness crossed by pinhole shafts of light, a perpetual scurrying, shrill screaming, low grunts, cages stacked to the ceiling on either side and a narrow passage between. She smells ammonia and pine and calcium oxide. She carries the knife tar-hands uses, the knife she’s been admonished to never, never touch. It’s dangerous for little girls. The hands will be so proud, though. The cages never stop moving and outside the sand and dirt is still. Lambert takes issue with the nose as well since everyone knows that a bright red orb of a nose is de rigueur for clowns and one would expect to see that nose if one is seeing a clown and thus the nose simply confirmed her expectation and she felt on firm ground and firm ground does not yield much laughter. Far more unexpected, she believed, would be a clown in his complete suit and makeup, but lacking any treatment to his nose. The omission would be riotous, she thought. The child perhaps shares Lambert’s view because if anything its keening increases and now the mother and butcher are growing a touch suspicious of the clowns ministrations, though, Lambert supposed, that element is not in the joke, rather she attributed those suspicions to them. Failing to stem the aural tide with simple faces, the clown 6

feels inspiration hit. He exchanges a few whispers with the butcher and the butcher seems to catch the enthusiasm that now animates the clown. From the case the butcher extracts a hog’s head on a platter and he sets the platter on the counter. The clown then removes his nose and sets it on the tip of the cold pig’s snout. The child stops crying the moment the clown’s red nose touches the pig’s pink nose and the clown can feel a palpable upwelling of approval and admiration from the mother and the butcher. He has succeeded in his task. But ambition gets the better of the clown and he again whispers to the butcher and the butcher is this time even more excited. Lambert walked quickly and noticed a gray flake on the back of her left hand. She swept it off of her skin, but the flake dissolved into a dark smudge and her skin tingled and burned where the smudge stained her skin. In her room the little girl strikes another match and her bright eyes are dull with tears. This is a game. She holds the match head against the box and flicks it toward the window. The tip flares and dies before it can fall out of her sight. She sits on the bed and strikes another and another. A continually 7

cauterized black pit burns into her fingertip. The knife is gone and the tarhands have stopped their admonishment, but she strikes another and another match as fast as she can. The heads leave brilliant trails in her eyes and she’s sure they all fly out the window. The butcher grows so excited in fact that he hops up and down and claps his hands. The butcher hands the clown the carving knife he’s requested and the clown blocks the child’s view with his body while slicing the snout from the pig’s face. After he’s done he shoves the nose over his own and as long as he doesn’t make any particularly hasty movements, the pig’s own inert viscera gently adhere to the clown’s face. The clown covers his face with his hands and turns and reveals himself in a dramatic gesture. The child squeals in delight, overcome with a lovely fit of laughter, which, Lambert has been assured many times, is in fact a quite lovely noise, though she felt such an assertion was suspect and more used to assuage one’s doubts about a dubious decision similar to praising a pair of shoes for which one does not have an occasion and that cannot be returned. By now the mother and the butcher are in stitches as are the child and the clown. Again struck by the twin impetus of ambition and inspiration, he plucks the red nose from the platter and again places it on the tip of the pig’s nose. Faced by the 8

multiplicity of absurd muzzles, one capping the last, the shop is shaken by the volume and vehemence of the three people’s laughter. The clown, gratified by his own talents and the appreciation of those talents by the assembled audience takes a long few moments to simply stand and bask in their adoration. The butcher slowly gains control of himself and waves the clown over and informs the clown that he himself has been touched by a moment of comedic inspiration and with the clown’s indulgence and aid, he would be thrilled to try out his idea. On a tall, thin entryway table tucked into the corner where she took another of her endless turns, a horse, white with brown spots and a mane improbably long, no longer stood. Tacky, gray flakes speckled the table’s surface and all the surfaces around her and all the few remaining statues. Several more drifted down and settled with the others. And here she saw the sun and the dirt, the tall, stone wall and a slow procession. The Woman, the one who sits beside her and writes in a notebook, has bound her in a pretty gray dress and they stand on a pretty green lawn the same as when the Woman stood on the sand and dirt above Lambert in the dark while the glow of the house warmed one side of the cars and trucks and blotted out the stars. She isn’t allowed to see him as she lays on the grass, but she saw him when 9

they lifted her from the dirt and his head was a slick bust, the protrusions melted away leaving a clay man, his body latticed by black fissures. She was most struck by how flat a face can look when divorced of its nose. All these hands drag her tiny body out of the heat.They drag her out, she's on her back, the heat too much for her little eyes, the embers fly skyward and vanish and she feels the embers are stationary and she's falling in fits. The clown, gregarious with the intoxication of success, feigns enthusiasm equal to the butcher’s and asks what the butcher would have him do. The butcher tells him to close his eyes and when he again opens them the clown will see another joke of the nose and while he’s sure it could never match the clown’s own genius, he hopes the clown will appreciate his humble offering. The clown readily acquiesces and closes his eyes. He hears the butcher waddle around the counter and come close. The butcher’s breath is pleasant and smells like sugar. The clown feels a pressure at the base of his septum and opens his eyes. The butcher is holding the clown’s nose in his 10

hand and laughing as are the mother and child. At first the clown doesn’t realize that his nose has been removed and it isn’t until the butcher sets it on the platter to replace the pig’s missing snout and the butcher, the mother, and the child are all quite genuinely rolling on the floor in paroxysms of laughter, does the clown realize what’s happened. The clown looks down at the three sternly and, through a curtain of red, says, “well that’s not funny.” That’s the joke. And Lambert was sure there was some sort of moral there or a lesson about something or about something else, but what she wondered was whether or not anyone still went to the butcher. She looks up through the one eye that still functions, her one eye that mostly functions and there are no stars, just her own cold eyes. There is a cold moon too, though she’s not sure what good it does her. Come to think of it the stars wouldn’t do much good either and so they may as well have vanished. She decides to stop dealing with the sky since it decided to stop dealing with her. Though she would not be opposed to a beatific vision floating down slowly from the sky framed in a warm, red glow, perhaps in the shape of the Woman, though she hasn't met the Woman yet and isn't that the Woman now walking slowly forward, her face pale, her eyes clicking back and forth 11

between the charred little girl, bald like a melted doll, and what is no longer the little girl's house, and perhaps the Woman could carry Lambert up and up. The sky is quiet and dark and Lambert decides she’ll have to do it herself. She pushes herself up on her elbows and and leans to the left a little because that feels less bad than not leaning. The Woman, the vision, stands over her and Lambert sees that the Woman has no words for the smoldering little girl. The sticky gray flakes fell and adhered to the empty surfaces. They built and accumulated, their weight causing avalanches where the breadth of the surface no longer supplied adequate support. Pillars of gray rose and the flakes fell and fell. Lambert ran now and searched. There must be at least one left, she thought though she knew it wasn’t true. She remembered nothing anymore. Perhaps my name, she thought, but that isn’t really something one remembers. She ran and she began to sweat, the fluid mixing with the flakes stuck to her skin, her arms and face coated in a thin paste that only swelled and grew the faster she ran and the more her body divested itself of its fluids. On a low table, perhaps a nightstand once, though Lambert wouldn’t have known which one it was now, she found a pile of shards, a mass of ceramic debris, white for the most part, but here a cracked eye painted black 12

and here the pink interior of a long, long ear. She no longer ran. Instead she stood in front of the table and allowed her fingers to penetrate the shards. The room grew much hotter and the gray flakes fell thicker. She could feel the closeness of the walls now that she allowed them to come close and all the way to the ceiling she heard the rattling of cages and the screams of fur. The walls much closer than the span of her arms, the walls moist and inflamed, aflame now, red and swollen and pressing in to smother her with their brilliance. And now she sat. If this is all that’s left, thought Lambert, then I may as well have a seat. She swept the fragments from the nightstand, the shards of whatever animal she’d been forced to collect, and they disappeared behind the architecture of nightstands and dining room tables and desks and side tables and drawing tables and pedestals and drum tables and sideboards and vanities. She saw nothing now and forgot why she swept them aside and why she was covered in this curious, ever expanding sheath of gray. She sat and forgot and the ash fell and fell.


Little Matchstick  

A Story by Matthew Antonio.