The Matchbook Room

First performed by an actor as part of the Liars’ League Portland (now defunct)

What I wanted to tell you about was Grin. How she collected matchbooks and how it’s a dying art form. Her full name was Grinalda. She’d inherited her father’s modest collection when she was 25. At first, she didn’t like me, thought I was a know-it-all. Most people would agree with her, but I learned to soften my delivery, how to stop being didactic after a couple of shots of Four Roses whiskey. I liked it on the rocks and without flourish, but you don’t care about that. At first, Grin kept me around because of some familiarity or softness in my dark eyes. Later, I helped her make more money and became indispensable.

Tall, lanky, awkward. Grin muddled through the streets as if she were lost in a corn maze. We met when I found her matchbook museum, well, room. I would never call Grin a phillumenist (Hint, the word comes from phil = love, and lumen = light). She had made her father’s collections into a moneymaker, modest, but worthy. Within a few minutes of conversation, it was obvious that Grin had no idea what the historical context of the artifacts on display were—a lost opportunity.

Matchbooks are quite compelling and a little historical knowledge goes a long way. That was my gift to Grin. She had the complete matchbook history by the time I printed up placards and labels for her displays. I categorized them based on year, which naturally grouped the World’s Fair pieces together, a rare set.

The truth is, I know too much about matchbooks. Growing up, I knew a guy who had an extensive collection and I was curious to know why he was so fascinated by them. I’d done quite a bit of research and knew that matches had been around since 1892. And the tips, you know what they’re made of? Sulfur, atomic number 16. Well, not exactly, it’s a solution of sulfur and phosphorus, atomic number 15. Phosphorus is highly reactive, that’s what gives matches their spark. It comes in two forms white and red. You’ve seen white tipped matches? Red? Exactly. These little anecdotes went into my spiel to Grin about a higher quality experience for her patrons. She couldn’t argue.

Most collectors remove the matches from their matchbooks by carefully prying open the staple on the book, but not Grin’s father or Grin. They kept them complete. You think you know where I’m going with this, but you don’t. Grin even had a couple of the original matchbooks with the strike strip on the inside, a design flaw that was later corrected. In any case, I helped her see that she had a hook to get people to come in. The most dangerous matchbook room in town—move too quickly and sparks will fly. Untrue, of course. All of the matches were under glass. Still, it was a nice touch. I liked to think of it like hidden embers ready to catch.

Our friendship flowered and she began to notice things about me, like the dark flecks in my coffee-bean brown eyes or the two-inch scar on my wrist from a rocky fall. At some point, I kindly suggested that I get a percentage of The Matchbook Room’s earnings. The placards had boosted her business, and my idea of “The Matchbook Room” matchbooks, for advertising, were a success.

I stayed involved by giving tours once a week. We’d often go out for a drink after my shift. Early on, during one of those nights, Grin told me about her father. She said that he was a cheapskate, always trying to get ahead, but never saving. He’d grown up on a grape farm, what we might call a winery.

“My father had always loved matchbooks,” she said. “He’d started a collection when he was a teenager. He said he liked that they had more than one use, practical and lucrative. Fire and advertising. He had special matchbooks made up for the winery. One out of every fifty had a gold star on the inside flap and that meant you won a bottle of wine from the shop.”

I told Grin I thought that was a smart idea. She shrugged.

“The first person to come in was a portly middle-aged man who wanted the most expensive bottle of wine in the shop. Instead, my father gave him a bottle of our cheapest because of his sense of entitlement.”

I listened to Grin talk. She was generous, unlike her father.

“The second person that came in with a gold starred matchbook was a teenager, somewhere around the age of fourteen. He had smears of dirt on his face, under his nails and all over his clothing. The matchbook had two matches left in it, but it was in pristine condition.”

Her father asked where he’d found the matchbook. The boy shifted his weight from one foot to the other and swallowed. He said he’d found it on the bedside table next to where his mother slept. They used it for their gas stove.

“Then my father asked how he knew to come to the winery. The kid laughed and said ‘because of the front of the matchbook, it says the name right there.’ Then the kid looked up at my father with doleful brown eyes and said, ‘could I have another matchbook?'”

“When my father realized the kid wasn’t there for free wine, he took it as an opportunity, a mutually beneficial opportunity. He worked it out to pay the kid a few bucks to distribute his matches. Essentially, he was getting, dirt cheap, widespread advertising,” she said.

I asked what happened to the kid.

“He came by often. His pay rate never changed, but he kept coming by even on days there were no deliveries. He offered to help with weeding or other household chores. I’d come home from my job in town and he’d still be there. I got the feeling he didn’t want to leave, but my father didn’t like him staying for dinner because ‘an extra mouth to feed is an extra expense we don’t need.’ My mother always invited him to stay.”

I asked about the kid’s mom.

“Yes, he talked about her, but we never met her and if he had a father, we didn’t know it. His mom got sick, it was pretty bad. My father didn’t feel sorry for him, my mother did. His mother passed just after his seventeenth birthday, I think,” she said.

Bile rose up in my throat, souring it, I sipped my whiskey.

“A few years later, he had figured it out, that my father was exploiting his lack of means and so he asked for more money, but my father wouldn’t budge. The one thing I remember from that conversation was the look in the kid’s sad brown eyes. He wasn’t really after the money. I knew that. It’s strange, it was just a feeling, really. He wanted to belong to us or with us. It just felt that way.”

My face flushed involuntarily and I asked about her father.

“I was around for another year before I left for school and the kid stopped coming around as often. He didn’t live close anymore. Then I left for school. Two years after I’d been gone, my father died and I got his collection and the farm. I guess it’s been seven years since he passed,” Grin said. Her head tilted down while she studied the marks where beer bottles with mournful determination had dented the table top.

I reached into my pocket and placed a small glass box on the table. Inside it was a matchbook in pristine condition.

Grin’s face went pale. She looked at me then—a flicker of recognition changed her features—embarrassment. Her hands flew up to her mouth and trembled there—until they got to work on opening the container. The familiar match box included a gold star and two matches still. Grin paused, studied its long history, and met my gaze with resolve.

“This should be part of our little collection,” she said.

Christi R. Suzanne has work in Midwestern Gothic, the online journals Foliate Oak and The Gravity of the Thing, among others. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death founded by Caitlin Doughty.

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