The Matchsticks

One for the money, two for the show
Three to get ready, and please tell me we don’t have to go out tonight
I’ve never been more exhausted
And the good doctor can’t tell me why.

Two tiny matchsticks built a house with things they could collect for free: twigs and leaves, orange peels, pistachio shells, empty packs of Orbit, fur from itchy creatures rubbed off on tree trunks and sticky brambles. Etcetera. When the matchsticks gathered enough of the stuff they patched it into a home. The house had a hot and musty funky—but they could live with it, their dream realized.

          The matchsticks made a long and skinny mattress and slept on it foot to foot. They both feared the worst—a fiery accident, rubbing noggins in the night—but they never discussed it. One matchstick slept on a pillow of fox fur while the other, a drooler, slept on a dead otter’s pelt. Thus one end of the bed smelled like carrion in the dirt, the other: crab shells in the trash.

          The matchsticks found employment in town, about a mile down the hill. One worked as a little shim for tiny doors. He did good work on slippery old windows, wobbly tables, and shaky egos, too—when he had to. But he was a doorstop, primarily. He did come home a little smaller every day, compressed by the weight of things. There were times when his uphill commute took a few extra steps. To cope, he ate an early dinner and crawled back into bed.

          The other matchstick held up little signs for a living. GARAGE SALE @ 325 Hemlock 11a-5p Sat/Sun. Save Our Schools Vote YES on Measure B. FREE* Breakfast (*with purchase). The job was not editorial. She went into town each day and stood on the corner and held each sign to a fair height for an equal amount of time. The reliable little signpost found it tiring being so impartial, and she came home every evening as worn out as a shoe. She liked to eat an early dinner and crawl back into bed.

          “What signs did you hold today?” the doorstop would ask.

          “I don’t particularly care to talk about it,” the signpost would say. She would lie there, still thinking about the signs as she drifted off, fretting especially over the ones that were political and ill informed; thinking now of those by her friend, Denise; Denise the rubber band ball; wow, she hated holding up Denise’s signs in public; but shouldn’t she be kinder, wasn’t Denise her friend?

          The signpost would roll over and sigh. Then the matchsticks would fall asleep.


One Sunday afternoon it rained, and scents bloomed inside their trash house. There were no signs to hold. All the doors and windows in town were closed. They were stuck there. Piss and mildew smell near the entry. Salty sand and putrid oil in the kitchenette. The signpost was restless. She searched the pantry for baking soda to freshen things up. Nothing. She tried the hall closet, too, and found one box, nearly empty. Not even enough for one stinky patch of fur.

          “I’m going to the store,” said the signpost.

          The doorstop didn’t answer. The doorstop had gone back to bed.

          At the grocery store near the edge of town, the parking lot was empty. Raindrops pattered on the pavement. The signpost was almost to the automatic doors when she heard a commotion coming from behind the dumpsters. Curious, she peeked around the side of the building.

          A dozen larger matchsticks—survival grade—were standing in a circle, hooting and hollering. Some were striking themselves against the wall.

          “Oh my god!” she cried.

          Several matchsticks stood aflame, cheering each other on.

          “Heh heh heh,” bellowed a big, burly matchstick. “Step up little lady. Meet yourself.”

          There was a ring of burnt debris around them—though the rain did appear to extinguish their burning heads before they completely collapsed to the ground.

          “You’re destroying your bodies,” said the tiny matchstick.

          “Matches are made to burn, Sweetsticks.”

          “Hmff!” said the tiny matchstick.

          She stomped off through the automatic doors and down the baking soda aisle, which she needed urgently in order to inoculate the smelly mattress, now determined to wake up in it yet another day.

          But the matchstick’s preferred brand of baking soda was out of stock that afternoon. She spent thirty minutes debating substitutes, avoiding the rain outside. She was so distressed by these inconveniences that she basically wanted to die.


Somewhere the matchsticks had taken a wrong turn, or rather, there were turns they couldn’t take at the time, shouldn’t-takes, and so they had ended up several lefts off track. Now they had jobs, but their jobs were just jobs. Their home—which they had dreamed about for years—was an amalgam of trash and fur. Where they lived was just a place, and it couldn’t make them happy. Kill yourself now, thought the matchstick, standing there in the baking soda aisle. Kill yourself or call your mom—sometimes that helps. And if you can’t kill yourself, and you can’t call your mom—you can’t, you know, she’s no longer with us—then I guess you’ll have to do something else. Something. Anything at all.


Later, in the kitchen, the matchsticks fixed an early dinner.

          “You’ll never guess who I saw at the store.”

          “Then why bother guessing?” sighed the doorstop. “Sorry. Please tell me.”

          “Those big matchsticks. The survival kind.”


          “I know. Burning alive behind the dumpsters. Like trash.”

          “Why were you behind the dumpsters?”

          “Destroying their bodies. What a life.”

          “I agree,” said the doorstop.

          “But what kind of life have we got, anyway,” said the signpost, stirring the pot. “When you think about it.”

          Rain soaked their fibrous roof. A droplet fell into the soup.

          “What do you mean, Sweetsticks?”

          She dropped her wooden spoon. The doorstop had never called her Sweetsticks before. She was frightened, at first, by the idea that he had been watching her, or that somehow he could read her deepest, worst thoughts. But she quickly convinced herself that it was a coincidence, and that such a nickname may portend a new openness between them. She stepped cautiously into the fresh space he’d created calling her by that name.

          “I guess what I mean is, I’m not a signpost. And you’re not a doorstop. And yet we spend all day pretending to be. We come home worn out like two shoes. Then we crawl back into bed.”

          The doorstop acted like he didn’t hear her. He took the baking soda over to the bed, and sprinkled it on the pillows.

          “Is it a life, my love?” she pressed him. “Our best life?”

          She was on a roll now and couldn’t stop herself. “If this is all there is,” she said, stepping toward him, closer to the bed, “then maybe—just maybe—well… maybe we’re supposed to burn.”

          The doorstop spun around, facing her with his threatening red head.

          “And how are we supposed to do that!” he shouted. “Everything in our life is soft!” He began to weep. “Everything is wet!”

          “Sweetsticks,” she said. “Everything in our life can change.”

          “The only thing I’m sure about is you,” said the tiny matchstick who pretended to be a doorstop.

          “I feel the same,” said the tiny matchstick who pretended to be a signpost.


The matchsticks made no plans for change that night. The next morning they went out into the world, one as a signpost, one as a doorstop. But the rain let up that afternoon. They returned home to make an early dinner.

          “Denise—that rubber band ball—she wasn’t sure what her sign should say today, so I helped her compose one.”

          “Oh really!” said the doorstop. “What did it say?”

          “I drew a picture, actually. It was an abstract,” said the signpost.

          “That’s very interesting!” said the doorstop. He threw a piece of pasta at the wall. It plopped onto the counter. “My news isn’t as big, but I also tried something new today.”


          “I figured out how to prop open Mr. Potatoes’ shop door when I’m not there: just slip a penny in the hinge!”

          “Honey! I didn’t know you were so clever!”

          The matchsticks rearranged their bed that night, pushing the fox fur and the otter pelt side by side. They mingled the fibers in the middle so it would hold.


“It’s terrible,” said the signpost turned artist as she held up her latest creation.

          “I think it’s great,” said the doorstop turned inventor.

          “The rainy season was over. The house was dry and cakey, like a biscuit.

          “I know it stinks,” she said. “It has to, since it’s not the house.”

          “Well, I hope your drawing smells better soon. I’m off to Mr. Potatoes’. Something is wrong with the Jell-O trap I made. There are still snakes are all over the yard.”

          “I love you, Sweetsticks.”

          “I love you, too, Sweetsticks.”


The tiny matchsticks were cooking breakfast when they heard someone calling their names outside.

          “Match and Match! Match and Match!”

          “Doesn’t that sound like Mr. Potatoes?” said the artist.

          The inventor rushed to the door.

          “I’m sorry to bother you two—” said Mr. Potatoes.

          The artist joined them from the kitchen, leaning her red head on her partner.

          “Listen,” said Mr. Potatoes. “I don’t mean to embarrass you, but—it’s your house. We didn’t care much about the smell at all when it was only up here on the hill, but now it’s spread down to the town and it’s making everyone miserable! Even more miserable than they already felt before!”

          The tiny matchsticks exchanged looks.

          “Who’s miserable? Denise?” said the artist.

          “Maybe you can come outside and sniff around?” said Mr. Potatoes. “Help me come up with a solution?”


The musty funky filled the yard in its usual way—no more, no less. What was new was a finger of unusual scents drifting uphill from the town. The top layer was sweet and floral. Under that, there was an antiseptic—bleach, maybe, the matchsticks thought. But beneath it all the matchsticks detected something methaneous. It melded with the sweeter perfumes, binding each scent together.

          “I just thought you might have some ideas,” said Mr. Potatoes, shifting his weight, darting his eyes about the woods. “I’ve heard that some matchsticks have a talent for… neutralizing… unwelcome airs.”

          “Hmm,” said the artistic matchstick, suspicious. “Maybe there is something rotting out back!” She had spoken a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “We’ll take a pass around the house real fast. You just wait here in the front yard.”

          Out of sight from Mr. Potatoes, the artist whispered to her partner: “Our house has always smelled like a living animal. It changes with the seasons. But this thing from town smells like a one-off—like it’s someone’s big mistake. Do you think Mr. Potatoes is trying to cover up something?”

          “Those sprays never work as the advertisements say,” said the inventor.

          As the matchsticks rounded the house to confront him, Mr. Potatoes panicked. He rolled and tossed himself downhill, retreating back to town.


The matchsticks lost pace wading through creepers and fallen branches. Dewy grass stuck to their legs. How quickly their little trail became overgrown! They hadn’t been to town in a while, they realized.

          The noxious odor crossed their path again and again. During their last steep descent to town the matchsticks ran and forgot to hold their breath, skidding straight into a smelly fog of it. They did not even turn their heads to vomit because there was no time to spare, not when the town was miserable.

          A crowd was gathered in the grocery store parking lot. They held their noses and their family heirlooms, wondering whether they should leave town for good. Denise the rubber band ball stood among them, her children clinging to her—she called them that, but everyone knew her children were just three rubber bands peeling free.

          “Thank goodness you’re here!” cried Denise. “We’re all afraid to go any further! Tell me, you would know: outside town, are there decent restaurants?”

          “Don’t worry about that now!” said the artist. “Are your children ok?”

          “Clingy as hell!”

          A paper plane arrived at the matchsticks’ feet.

          “Is that Mr. Potatoes sitting over there on top of the dumpster?” said Denise.

          “Yes that’s him!” said the inventor. “And he’s rocking back and forth!”

          The artist unfolded the paper and the matchsticks read it silently:

M & M,

This is all my fault. When I came to your house, I was about to ask you to do something terrible, hoping it would cover up my… private expellations. Now I am ashamed. Having come to know and care about you, I see now that my father’s quick-fix outhouse tricks were cruel. Please go back uphill to your home before you do something rash.


Mr. P

But PS: I am dying of embarrassment. The doctor says I ought to cut back on dairy, but I think it’s time I just head to the fryer—your brave friends here by the dumpster offered to help. Please don’t worry about me. It’s not your fault, of course. But oh dear, I do tremble at the thought of such burning pain!

          The inventor matchstick, usually so clever, kicked around the dirt. “Poor Mr. Potatoes. I wish we could convince him that nobody cares about his—mistakes. Nobody important anyway, just people like—”

          “Denise,” said the artistic matchstick. “Can my Sweetsticks and I have a moment alone?”

          Denise bowed gracefully back into the crowd.

          “Listen,” said the inventor. “Whatever you need me to do—”

          “It’s what we need to do,” said the artist. “Do you trust me?”


          And with that, the matchstick struck her head against her clever partner. The crowd gasped. The matchsticks’ wooden hearts rose up to their hot heads. A warm feeling flooded their fibers.

          “I’ve never felt so alive!” said a surprised matchstick.

          “Me, too!” said the other. “Every part of me is a-sparkle!”

          One of the big, burly doomsday matchsticks broke through the crowd with a bucket of water. “Please!” he cried.

          The matchsticks dunked their heads and collapsed to the ground.

          “That was the most amazing thing I have ever done,” said a tiny matchstick.

          “Yes,” said the other. “Definitely yes.”

          The matchsticks lay together in the dirt looking up at the sky. They fell asleep for a moment with their burnt heads touching.


But when they woke, Mr. Potatoes’ egregious fart still hung in the air. “Oh well,” said the matchsticks, sure it would pass. Mr. Potatoes stood on the dumpster and delivered an elaborate—but vague—apology. Denise complained, “My children are inconsolable!” but conceded that they would probably survive. Duty done, the matchsticks ran back up into the woods. The artist gave the clever one a playful shove. “Hey!” he shouted. She laughed, zig-zagging through the trees. She yelled back to her partner, “I want you to invent one new, useless contraption for me every day for the rest of our lives! Every day a new one, until I’m dead!” He chased her, screaming, “Your drawings are absolutely terrible! Garbage! Please don’t stop until our rotten house is full of them!” The matchsticks found a big flat rock and etched M + M with their charcoaly heads. The worst had finally happened, and for that reason, it was the best.

STEPH KARP will graduate from the Iowa Writers' Workshop this spring. "The Matchsticks" is her first publication.