Fiction: A Matchbook of a Different Kind

By Joe Frleta
“A Matchstick Man”
    It’s gonna be another one of those dog days where nothing changes and everything stays the same, John Hendersen thought as he walked through the Tenderloin on his way to work and looked at the homeless people sleeping on the streets and in doorways. Politicians like to preach a good sermon, but they’d lie to their own mothers to get elected. 
    What makes us think they’d do any different with us? 
    They pretend to care about us. They like to yank our chain and talk a good talk to get elected. Once they’re in office, nothing ever changes for the average nobody on the streets, and we all know why. They’d have to raise taxes on people who have money and we know that ain’t gonna happen because it would drain campaign funds in the backlash and we can’t have that, can we?  Besides, they lie and tell us, it would hurt the economy, drive up costs, slow down production, lower wages, and the average nobody on the streets believe this, even while the opposite happens before their eyes. Our taxes go up, our jobs are shipped overseas to maintain low wages here while the cost of living still goes up. 
    And that’s okay to them. 
    We don’t have big bank accounts to buy favors like they do. 
    We only vote these fools into office. 
    That doesn’t count. 
    Welcome to San Francisco. Come one, come all. Stay a while. Spend money. But only visit the tourist spots. We don’t want you to see what life’s really like on the streetsYou might not wanna come back again. And spend more money when you do.
    One bad apple doesn’t spoil the barrel. 
    Times ten, 
    Does it?
    As long as you try to hide the evidence and pretend it doesn’t exist. 
    John Hendersen notices one business owner waking a couple of people up and asking them to move out of his doorway so he can open up his business. 
    He gives each of them a couple of dollars. 
    He and John Hendersen exchanged a look. 
    He may not have much money himself, John Hendersen thought, but at least he’s trying to do something
    Pretty early, though. Never noticed anyone opening this early before. Except liquor stores. Maybe. Not even eight yet. Still have a little time to kill before the day begins, might as well see what he’s got in there that’s so special he can’t wait to open up
    John Hendersen looks around. There’s literally no one else on the streets other than him, and the homeless people. 
    It looked like an old antique shop from the outside but once John Hendersen got inside it looked like any other junk shop that sells junk. 
    Stopped in here to kill time, not waste it.
    He was about to turn and walk out when one object caught his eye. 
    Sitting on a display table near the counter among lamps and nightstands and other junk sits the one object that caught his attention. 
    A matchbook. 
    The price tag on it made him stop. 
    There’s a sucker born every minute, John Hendersen thought. 
    Something made him pick it up and open it to look inside and see what made it so special that the owner of the place thought he could make 20 bucks off of it. 
    Looks like an ordinary book of matches, John Hensersen thought. 
    Why the hell would anyone want to pay $20.00 for a book of matches? 
    “It’s not an ordinary matchbook,” the proprietor said. 
    “Huh, what?” John Hendersen turned and spoke. “Sorry. I didn’t realize I said that out loud.” 
    “You didn’t,” the proprietor answered. 
    “How’d you know what I said then?” John Hendersen asked, but immediately followed it up with, “Forget it. Why is this so expensive then?”
    “They’re not ordinary matches,” the proprietor repeated. “Open it.” 
    Wild goose chase, right? 
    John Hendersen had already done that and found nothing inside but ordinary matches, but he took the bait and went along with the stubborn as a mule proprietor and flipped the lid open again thinking he may have missed something initially. 
    “They look ordinary to me.” 
    “Looks are deceiving.” 
    “Yeah, like these, I imagine.” 
    “Think of a person.” 
    “The match you take out becomes the person you’re thinking of.” 
    “Wait, what…?” 
    “Think of a person.” 
    “I don’t know if I follow what you’re saying?” 
    I felt as if I’d just been caught with my pants down. 
    “Take out a match and think of someone you know and don’t care if you ever see that person again. It’s a steal at a dollar a match then.” 
    John Hendersen looked for all intents and purposes as a man who was confused as hell because that’s what he thought he heard he just didn’t believe he heard it but he did like the man said and pulled a match from the packet and because he was looking at the proprietor of the joint as he was doing this that was the person that was on his mind at that moment and the match changed into the image of the proprietor. 
    “No, no, not me,” the proprietor said as he took the match out of John Hendersen’s hand. “Somebody you know. You got the idea anyway. You see what happened when you thought of somebody,” he said as the match returned to a normal match and he put it in his vest pocket instead of tossing it into the trashcan that sat behind the counter. “Just be careful that you don’t strike the match unless you intend to use it and it’s the person you intend to use it against. That’s the only important thing you need to remember.” 
    “I don’t get it,” John Hendersen said as he looked from the book of matches and back to the proprietor again. “What the hell are you talking about?” 
    “By the look on your face, I think you understand what I’m talking about.” 
    Curiosity killed the cat, or 
    Was it beauty that killed the beast?
“Telepathy Works in Unusual Ways”
    “You’re not going to find anything like this elsewhere,” the proprietor said. 
    What a sales pitch, John Hendersen thought. Somebody who thinks he can pull the wool over any chump he sees. What people won’t do for a buck?  Gotta believe a sucker’s born every minute and this guy’s gotta think I’m one of them.
    “I’m not here to con you,” the proprietor said almost as if he knew what John Hendersen was thinking. “Just looking to help.” 
    “Yeah, yeah, making the best of a bad situation, I know. What I don’t understand is how you pulled that optical illusion trick. You’re not trying to tell me that these matches can do something more than light a cigarette, are you?” 
    “You just look like someone who could use a little help, that’s all.” 
    A blessing in disguise, or 
    A fool and his money are soon parted
    For one reason or another the only thing that ran through John Hendersen’s head at that moment was a cliché, then another one, and another one. 
    I wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole. 
    I get it, you’re only trying to tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread, I know. 
    I think a penny saved is a penny earned is a better motto to follow. 
    Okay, okay, he thought, stop yanking your own chain. You’ve never been able to save a cent, and you know it, so stop playing with yourself. You lost everything you had and you’ve been up the creek without a paddle more times than you care to remember, and it doesn’t help when you’re knee-deep in shit all the time. Shelley left because of it and you’ve been trying to put things back together again like Humpty Dumpty ever since. 
    One day at a time, okay, one day at a time. 
    I’ve been poor as a church mouse all my life trying to keep it together and barely squeezing by so long twenty bucks is twenty bucks I can’t afford to throw away.
    Yeah, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? 
    No, I’m still a little fish in a big pond everybody tries to screw over. 
    But, if this works and I had the money to burn…? 
    Shelley left for that reason, okay, not being able to keep up with the Joneses, even when I put my best foot forward, I kept taking two steps back. So, she cut the ties that bind. I’d be naked as a jaybird and probably out on the streets by now if I hadn’t found that job. 
    “That’s what the packet of matches might help with,” the proprietor said almost as if he was reading every thought that ran through John Hendersen’s head again, “a new beginning to make up for past mistakes we all make.” 
    Yeah, and Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are real, I know. 
    Tell me anything and I’ll believe it. 
    A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. 
    I guess that’s how stupid I look, right? 
    “You look like a man who could use help,” the proprietor repeated. 
    John Hendersen looked at him, then at the matchbook in his hand, then back at the proprietor, and something told him not to pass this chance by, (no, don’t do it!), as money passed from one hand to the other and he realized, yeah, there is a sucker born every day, and I might just be the biggest one of all, or I might just have found my pot of gold. 
    My ace in the hole.
    My one in a million chance
    My moment of glory
    “A word to the wise, Mr. Hendersen,” the proprietor said as John Hendersen was about to turn and walk out of his shop. “You have 19 matches left in the packet –” 
    “How’d you know my name?” John Hendersen asked. 
    “Use them wisely.” 
    “How’d you know my name?” John Hendersen repeated. 
    “It’s my business to know the names of my customers.” 
    “But I’ve never been in here before.” 
    “Use them wisely, Mr. Hendersen. That’s my advice to you. Use them wisely.” 
    I felt as if I had just been taken on a long ride off a short pier.

“A Means to an End”
    Why was I feeling like that hockshop owner was pulling one over on me? 
    “I’ve always hoped for the best, but never gotten it, that’s why.” 
    A lady walking by looked at him at his sudden outburst. 
    He didn’t even pay attention to her. 
    Have I finally hit pay dirt, will this time be different, has luck finally shined a light on me, and, if so, what are the consequences that come with it?
    If good luck has finally come my way, there’s gotta be a catch to it. 
    Those were the thoughts that ran through John Hendersen’s head once he left the hockshop and was walking down the street toward Market. 
    I don’t understand how the proprietor of that shop knew my name or how he seemed to have some kind of intuition as to what I was thinkingMaybe he just knows how to read people. It’s his job, just like mine – oh, shit, gotta hurry!  
    Can’t afford to fuck this up. 
    He was almost late for work. John Hendersen got there just in time to see the look on his supervisor’s face, smiled, then went to his desk and got right to work. 
    The day seemed to pass real slow, as usual, but John Hendersen didn’t mind. He had a job in a loan institution where the advertising made them sound better than the services they provided in equal applications of loans approved and denied, based on income, of course, he knew, which can be true or false, because he had to make sure the loans that were approved had the income available to ensure they were paid back and the profit of the company increased. The loans granted by the office came with a 40% to 50% interest rate. The staff were paid as much of a commission for loans they denied as for the ones they granted because it was seen as saving the office money over the granting of bad loans. Most applicants were able to pay their loans back. The ones who couldn’t or had a difficult time in paying their loans back because of inflated interest rates property was seized and resold, whether a car or a home or a business. Either way the company was in the green. That’s how loan offices were able to survive and stay out of the red. The problems with bad loans were the foreclosures and repossessions that came with them. 
    They cost money. 
    Not to mention employee time. 
    The bottom line was always the profit margin. 
    Since we all had to make a living. 
    Even the people we were cheating. 
    But they didn’t count. 
    When it came to us making a living off of them. 
    This is what made John Hendersen sick of the way society was the blind leading the blind the reason why politicians who were elected to office did what they did and why people who lived on the streets lived on the streets. 
    We were all busy as bees making a living off of each other. 
    Some did better. 
    And some didn’t do so well. 
    That was their problem. 
    We all had our own problems to worry about. Even politicians and other public servants. Who were better at self-serving than serving the public.

“All in a Day’s Work”
    I hope I’m not spinning my wheels for nothing
    I don’t understand why I bought this packet of matches if they actually do what I think the proprietor of that shop is implying they do, John Hendersen was thinking as he walked home after work to his apartment near Union Square off Geary Street, or what I think he was implying they do, since he didn’t actually say what they do, even when I asked what they do, he didn’t answer, he evaded the question, reeling me in whatever road to nowhere he reels people in to; but if they do do what I think they do, why did I buy them and why was I willing to pay twenty buck for them if I don’t have a clue what they do when I can go to the corner liquor store and get a packet of matches for free anytime I want to?
    I believe in miracles?
    Well, no, I don’t. 
    You can’t believe in something that you’ve never experienced before. I’m still trying to figure out that optical illusion he played on me.  I can’t get it out of my mind how the match changed into him and back to a match again. He has to do shit like that to con guys like me all the time. I’ll admit, if only to myself, that there are people out there I’d loved to have taken care of over the years, if I could get away with it and not worry about the consequences that come with it, like life in prison, or the death penalty. The times that try men’s souls. I think that’s what keeps most of us honest. 
    There was a time when I agreed with those consequences. 
    So long as they didn’t relate to me. 
    Now I just might have found a way around those consequences.

“Bringing It All Back Home”
    Ever since John Hendersen walked out of that hockshop that morning through his day at work and now in his apartment his hand was in and out of his jacket pocket to make sure the packet of matches was still there. He didn’t even take his jacket off all day. He didn’t know if the packet of matches would still be there once he put it back on. 
    He knew when the cat’s away the mice will play, and he didn’t want this to become just another flight of fancy and he hadn’t really bought them. 
    He was sure as he walked down the street going to work that morning he had some kind of a guilty look on his face, even sitting at work, and every person who looked at him looked at him as if they knew something fishy was going on in his head, beyond a bottomless pit, not sitting in the lap of luxury, that’s for sure. Yeah, I could make money hand over fist. Shelley left him because they lost everything and for some reason she blamed me for it, as usual, like she blamed him for everything else that went wrong in their relationship, but money could come later. It might even have won Shelley back if it wasn’t for the fact she died a year ago. Now, he could work on bringing home the bacon later if he wanted to. First and foremost, he had other things he wanted to take care of, then he could work on the finer things in life if he wanted a better job or a nicer place to live. This had to work first. 
    When he got back to his apartment, he took the packet of matches out of his pocket, took one of the matches out, thought of a former bully growing up, struck the match, and watched it burn down to nothing in the ashtray. He didn’t even bother to light a cigarette with it. It was a moment of truth. He just watched it burn. 
    Burn, baby, burn. 
    Of course, the image on the match was of a kid and obviously the kid wasn’t a kid anymore. 
    He’d be an adult now. 
    Like John Hendersen was an adult now.
    Would it still work? 
    He’d have to wait to find that out. 
    Good things come to those who wait, right?
    The next morning, he heard on the news how Jack Resener burned to death when he was driving home in his car. Around six in the evening. The same time he lit the match. He hadn’t missed the boat after all. A witness said he was on fire before his car crashed. He just burst into flames driving in his car. The police were investigating the incident.
“Life Is Made Up of Clichés”
    If you can believe your eyes and your ears 
    the things that go bump in the night and make you roll over in your grave 
    going from the frying pan into the fire 
    some of them actually come true, John Hendersen thought. 
    The kiss of death.
    A smile crossed his face. 
    All’s well that ends well
    Never say never. 
    Bat out of hell.
    Armed to the teeth
    The age of the cliché was coming in droves to him now. 
    They didn’t even need to make sense. 
    I was drowning in clichés up to my neck. 
    It’s as plain as the nose on your face, buddy boy, he thought as he looked at himself in the mirror. He had a smile a mile long. Busy as a bee. Blowing off steam. 
    Low Man on the totem pole no more.
    For some reason, John Hendersen had always liked clichés and wondered why they bothered some people just because they were seen as, well, clichés. Sure, like everyone else, he wondered how useful they were over the years, as stupid as some of them were, but at the same time he was always fascinated by them and used them often to his downfall whenever an occasion rose. Such as now, looking at himself in the mirror, as many raced through his mind in an almost endless flow, like babes in the woods boys will be boys their backs against the wall back to square one all thumbs in bliss after a first kiss. 
     As the world turns a night is as long as a day is short every cloud has a silver lining life’s too short you can’t cheat an honest man opposites attract you don’t cry over spilt milk when an apple a day keeps the doctor away laughter is the best medicine all’s fair in love and war the calm before the storm you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows you don’t rob Peter to pay Paul you kill the son-of-a-bitch instead.
    I’ve opened a can of worms and I love what I found inside
    John Hendersen didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Should he go to work this morning?  Would they notice the smile on his face and wonder what in the hell has gotten into him?  He was, after all, responsible for the death of somebody and right now he didn’t give a damn. Jack Resener was a first-class asshole and John Hendersen knew it. If anyone deserved to die, it was Jack Resener.     
    Should he be worried or frightened? 
    That someone would suspect him?
    Should he be at his wits’ end now? 
    No, he thought. 
    Hell, no!
    In a pig’s eye!
    Why should I be? 
    Why would anybody suspect him? 
    I’ve had to think inside the box my whole life it’s about time I start thinking outside the box it’s better late than never to find at the end of a rainbow my cup runneth over at the bottom of a wishing well a bald-faced liar came to the end of the line that could be a new beginning for me the proprietor said it’s not rocket science it’s easy as pie it’s like taking candy from a baby the writing’s on the wall I found you just in time [he sings while holding the packet of matches in his hand] in the nick of time when life gives you lemons make lemonade go get ‘em tiger as honest as the day is long a horse of a different color smart as a whip don’t make me laugh I can start over with a clean slate now. 
    All in a day’s work. 
    Something like this (still holding the packet of matches) will sell like hotcakes if the news ever came out. Why is the proprietor not cashing in on them?  It could make him rich. 
    They’re unique! 
    Of course, it could get him in one hell of a pot of hot water, too. 
    Depending on how someone used them. 
    Maybe that’s why he cautioned me. 
    Maybe he learned from his own mistakes. 
    Maybe he had a Jack Resener in his past. 
    Once bitten, twice shy. 
    He’s not gonna let the cat out of the bag on a good thing like this. 
    Now, being of sound mind and body, I, John Hendersen, no longer need to bend over backwards hiding behind the eight ball blind as a bat feeling second best dead as a doornail people avoiding me like the plague shot out of a cannon like a fish out of water dead upon arrival in a den of thieves where birds of a feather flock together thick as thieves knowing there’s plenty of fish in the sea but not for me when the pot calls the kettle black blood is thicker than water burning the midnight oil in a back alley brawl you can learn something new every day in a land far, far away once upon a time where life is just a dream and everyone lives happily ever after laughing themselves silly. 
    You need simply walk a mile in my shoes to know how far the crow flies and understand why the early bird catches the worm and how dark as a dungeon way down in the mine can get when the sky falls on you. 
    United we fall! 
    Divided we stand! 
    The road less traveled is where happiness runs in a circular motion while sadness is a blank wall where a frame with no picture hangs. 
    I am the frame with no picture. 
    The dark at the top of the stairs. 
    The room with no view. 
    No more. 
    Yeah, John Hendersen was high as a kite, the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence, but you had to be on the other side of the fence to find that out and he never was. Until now. It didn’t burst his bubble when he was told you can’t judge a book by its cover and he said there’s no such thing as a happy ending if you’ve never had a happy beginning and you never got to eat your piece of the pie ignorance is bliss going against the odds up the down staircase and getting nowhere fast being a pain in the ass wherever you go it’s a tough row to hoe with an ace up your sleeve ugly as sin and not know how to play it afraid of your own shadow airing your dirty laundry for everyone to see running the gambit all talk and no play hoping someone with an axe to grind armed to the teeth all bent out of shape ready to beat a dead horse with it you’d bet your bottom dollar if you had a bottom dollar to bet since you’re always find yourself between a rock and a hard place thinking the bigger they are the harder they fall when you’re the one who bites the bullet falls in a ditch kicks the bucket you don’t blow your own horn if you don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground like hit the road Jack a guy I always wanted to get even with and by god I finally did I had the means to an end to do it and I found it in a most unusual way in a most unusual place. You have to pull out the weeds if you want to grow roses. 
    Is the glass half full, or 
    is it half empty? 
    For what it’s worth it means the same thing you never look a gift horse in the mouth just like you never fiddle with a fiddler, and you never put all your eggs in one basket you run the extra mile until you reach the end of the road to see what lies beyond the rainbow. 
    Why be down in the dumps? 
    When you can get down and dirty! 
    Dog eat dog. 
    Life’s a bitch 
    then you die. 
    So die, you bastard! 
    Don’t lick your wounds and cry over it. 
    Don’t cry for me, Argentina. 
    Nip it in the bud 
    before it nips you in the bud. 
    John Hendersen knew he had to be careful not to bite off more than he can chew in one mouthful if he didn’t want to choke on his own words. 
    He wasn’t dumb as a doornail for nothing at one time. 
    The ball was in his court now. 
    It was the ticket to ride he was always looking for. 
    He’d always wondered if you are what you eat is true, because if it was, Jack Resener must have had a steady diet of shit and piss his whole life. 
    People who don’t know you from Adam like to think they know how you should live your life when they’re living worthless lives themselves. 
    That ain’t just a mouthful of cotton and it’s neither here nor there either because you know by hook or by crook you have to take the good with the bad in life if you didn’t want to end up sweating bullets and wonder what the cat just dragged in. 
    In the end you are the only person you live with. You had to be happy with who you are and more often than not John Hendersen never had been. 
    Until now. 
    John Hendersen knew that  
    as he pulled out the next match. 
    There was more fish to fry. 
    Jack Resener was only the beginning. 
    No, it wasn’t the end of the world if things that needed to get done didn’t get done if you don’t pull your punches before you even throw a punch you don’t say to someone this will hurt me more than it will hurt you if you don’t throw a punch off the bat and you end up getting the shit kicked out of you that may sound tongue in cheek when you try to roll with the punches and not catch a sucker punch if you go full steam ahead it may be too good to be true like icing on the cake for everyone but you and that’s the god’s gospel truth in a room where you can hear a pen drop and feel the rising of the hair on the back of your neck as you watch his jaw drop and his eyes bulge as he bursts into flames and you pat yourself on the back for a job well done. 
    I’m not going to toot my own horn 
    or beat my own drum 
    but I did have one fine day today. 
    I didn’t lose my senses. 
    I finished my day’s work. 
    I didn’t get hot under the collar
    I made hay while the sun shines. 
    Opportunity doesn’t need to knock twice 
    if you make the best of a bad situation 
    from the get-go. 
    John Hendersen looked at the match in his hand. 
    There’s plenty of time for the next time. 
    He had to go and pay his last respects now. 
    Isn’t that the law of the jungle?
“The Word Backwards”
    Justice really is blind. 
    It fits the bill. 
    It was a fine kettle of fish to find yourself in. 
    When do you call a spade a spade? 
    When do you beg to ever differ with yourself? 
    When is it darkest before the dawn? 
    I think I’m facing those very questions right now, John Hendersen thought to himself, the day I attended Jack Resener’s funeral. 
    He didn’t want to eat crow. 
    But he didn’t want to eat humble pie either. 
    To add insult to injury. 
    Until I met his wife and kids. I even saw some of the old guys from the old neighborhood, who were actually surprised I was there, seeing as they felt they had to remind me how Jack used to treat me as if they thought I’d forgotten. 
    How far does a crow fly? 
    When do you remember to forget? 
    I simply told them we all grow up to see better days, that I had stopped holding grudges a long time ago; but had I really grown up, or had I held a grudge all these years against Jack and that’s why Jack’s dead now and I’m attending his funeral today? 
    Sometimes the truth can be a hard thing to swallow. 
    It’s one of the trials and tribulations of life we all have to face and deal with in life. 
    It may be one of the most difficult ones to deal with as well. 
    As I’m finding out right now trying to be bad to the bone at the same time. 
    A badge of honor ain’t always easy to wear. 
    I expressed my condolences to his wife and kids, even to his parents, who spared the rod and spoiled the child, and some of Jack’s new friends and colleagues who attended the funeral. Apparently, he had become a prominent person as an adult, something he never seemed to aspire to be as a kid growing up, at least in my eyes. 
    I felt like a fish out of water paying compliments to a person whose death I was responsible for and who when I knew him he didn’t deserve anything more than where he was now, lying dead in a coffin. I didn’t need to jog my memory, but I felt like a dog barking up the wrong tree thinking it would be easy coming here. They made him sound like he was a pillar of the community. The salt of the earth. A chip off the old block. 
    I had to remind myself they do that with everyone at a funeral. 
    I was never one to beat around the bush. The bush could beat around me. But not the other way around. I didn’t like barking up the wrong tree. 
    You can be the biggest asshole in the world, like Jack was, but at your funeral, people will make you sound like you were a saint your whole life. 
    Been there, done that in my life. 
    They’d probably do the same thing at my funeral, too, not really knowing the person I am now, but remembering the person I once was at one time, especially if they were to learn I was the one responsible for the man they’re singing the praises of right now. None of them would even bother to show up at my funeral let alone sing my praises. 
    In the old neighborhood where we all grew up in he was a bum. It doesn’t look all that different. It looks the same even though it doesn’t look the same in many ways.
    If that makes any sense, jump on the bandwagon. 
    It might depend on if you grew up here or not. It may look the same to everybody else. To me it’s different. Jack Resener is dead now. 
    They can cry all they want, but they can’t take that away from me. 
    A memory is not light as a feather if you let sleeping dogs lie and you’re never given the benefit of the doubt as if there’s no consequences for yesterday come tomorrow. 
    The man from the antique shop was there. We looked at each other. I think he knew what I was thinking and why I was here. It was written on my face. 
    “How?” I asked. 
    “You never question a gift,” he said. 
    “It wasn’t exactly a gift,” I said. 
    “You know what I mean, Mr. Hendersen,” he replied. 
    “Yeah, yeah, beggars can’t be choosers, I know.” 
    I’ve used a number of clichés a number of times in my life and I felt another one coming on like gang busters but I didn’t want them to sound hackneyed or overused in my conversation, so I held onto this one for dear life and thought I’d save it for a rainy day and use a couple of new ones, here or there, in its place, or if I use some of the same ones, I’d use them sparingly. I didn’t want to sound as if I was as smug as a bug in a rug because I knew one day soon it was only a matter of time before you only live once ends and you don’t want to upset the applecart when you’re under the same roof up to your ears in trouble with three strikes and you’re out waiting for the cows to come home. 
    “I don’t want to intrude on you in your moment of, shall we say, sorrow, Mr. Hendersen,” the proprietor said to me as we stood next to each other apart from the group of mourners at the funeral, “but I should impart to you the fact that if anything were to happen to me, it is in your best interest to know that a ledger is kept of each person who has purchased a packet of matches at my establishment. Each match inscribes its use into this ledger, with an explanation of how it was used, along with any newspaper articles, if any, like your friend here today, with who did what to whom with its use. It’s a safety measure, you understand, if anything were to happen to me, so to speak, under suspicious circumstances. Otherwise, the inscriptions self-destruct under normal circumstances, or upon the use of the last match. I hope we understand each other, Mr. Hendersen.” 
    Cat got your tongue? 
    “Yeah, sure, you have my full attention and nothing to worry about from me as far as I’m concerned. Why are we even talking about this?”     
    “Your first match, Mr. Hendersen. Remember your first match?” 
    “That’s because I was looking at you. You were the first person to pop into my head. You’d have to be blind as a bat to think otherwise.”
    “I understand, Mr. Hendersen. As I said, this is a precautionary measure. It was developed to keep a record of each purchase of a packet of matches long before you entered my shop. You only need to understand this. You are the first person to use them in such a careless manner. You have nothing to fear on my end otherwise. I was glad to be of service to you,” nodding toward the casket Jack Resener was lying in. 
    “So am I. I consider these matches, words fail me, my wakeup call. You might say I’m on cloud nine. For some reason, though, I think you already know this.”
    “I know yesterday, Mr. Hendersen. Today when it comes. But I do not see into what is not yet here. To use one of your clichés, every coin has two sides, and a guilty conscience can be a dangerous thing if it slips.” 
    “You have nothing to fear but fear itself,” I told him.
“According to No Plan”
    I felt like death warmed over the rest of the funeral. 
    My mood was fitting for a funeral now. 
    I’d wondered if this “gift” came with a cost. 
    I hope it wasn’t an arm and a leg. 
    The hockshop owner left after he said what he had to say. He could turn me in anytime he wanted, but wouldn’t, because it would also implicate him. 
    If he were dead, it was beyond his control, he said. 
    In other words, the person who was responsible for his death wouldn’t get away with it. It was one of the birds and bees of life a person needed to learn in order to grow up. 
    It was a precautionary measure, as he put it, as much for my benefit as his. 
    Okay, I said, but if I wanted to put you in the crosshairs, what would prevent me from using the last match on you? 
    He said that wasn’t a worry of his once I understood the proper way to use the matches and a fear like that was the farthest thing from his mind. 
    Not if I played my cards right, I countered, that would kill two birds with one stone. 
    He said he understood that, too, but knew I wasn’t that type of person. 
    Then why are we talking about this, I asked again. 
    “Because you need to understand the consequences if you make the same mistake you made that day with the first match and you struck it before you realized how to use them correctly and a police officer were to show up at your door unannounced. Make sure the person you intend to use the match against is the person represented on the match and not the first image that enters your mind by accident. Imagine if you had struck the match that day before I relieved you of it?  You were busy looking at me not at the match.” 
    I wasn’t upset. 
    He wasn’t upset. 
    It was just an unusual conversation. I told him I had forgotten all about the first match incident, but now I hoped it wouldn’t be the first thing on my mind. 
    He just repeated to be cautious in how I used them and that this discussion would be helpful that way. He didn’t ask for the remaining matches back. I was glad of that. He said he trusted me in that regard, and nobody had ever said that to me before. 
    People who put their cart before the horse never get anywhere but that’s how I’ve always lived my life. I was used to it. I told him I wasn’t always sharp as a tack. 
    He said he knew that. 
    That’s why he sold one of the packets of matches to me in the first place. 
    He just wants me to use them wisely. 
    It’s as much for my benefit as it is for his, he repeated once again, since if a mistake were to happen like the one before, and I had not yet used the last match, the ledger would be discovered, and I would be left to suffer the consequences. 
    “You must keep a clear head at all times when you are using the matches,” he said. 
    I told him I understood.

“Par for the Course”
    Patience is a virtue I never had. 
    When you start out from scratch it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and the things that dreams are made of when you stand out on a limb like a sore thumb. 
    I always tried to stay in the background. 
    John Hendersen was back at his apartment. The radio was on. He had it on K-Earth 101. The song that was playing was “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by Status Quo.
    How appropriate, he thought. 
    “Hold Your Head Up High” by Argent followed. 
    “Don’t you just love the oldies!” he shouted. 
    I was flying high again! 
    Yeah, John Hendersen was holding his head up high, because he knew Jack Resener was now six feet beneath the green, green grass of home. 
    It wasn’t just a day shot to hell like he was thinking after attending Jack Resener’s funeral and being the kid who got caught taking the last cookie in the cookie jar. 
    No one has eyes in the back of their head. The unknown is how most of us live our lives. Not wanting to upset the apple cart. The things that keep us awake at night. 
    I was always the party pooper. 
    I was the stick in the mud. 
    I never stopped to smell the roses. 
    But these two songs made me smile. 
    We’re always told to watch our p’s and q’s half the time we don’t know if we’re coming or going while we sail down the river in a boat without a paddle simply going with the flow even when we’re going against the wind just getting out on the wrong side of the bed in the morning at the 11th hour not having anywhere to go and not knowing what to do once we get there can be a problem. There was no accounting for taste half the time. 
    The other half of the time we were in bed asleep. 
    I don’t like sticking my nose in other people’s business, and I don’t like anybody sticking their nose in mine, but the proprietor has given me something to think about. 
    I’m sure he knows more than he’s letting on. 
    He can’t let all his cats out of the bag with just anyone. 
    He doesn’t have to play all his cards with me. 
    And I am truly in his debt for the gift he gave me. 
    As he so aptly puts it. 
    You only live twice, John Hendersen thought to himself, now, and after you weather the storm, but you’re only young and foolish once. During this time, you work like a dog your whole life in order to scratch out a meager living for yourself waiting for your ship to come in even while the other shoe on your other foot is about to fall off because life has never given you an even break when all you’ve ever wanted was to simply bask in the afterglow of life when you ride off into the sunset on your rocking horse and there’s no one around the next bend to even give you the right time of day. We’d all like to be able to burn the candle at both ends, but some people don’t even have a candle to burn. 
    I’ve always been in the latter group. 
    Maybe that’s why I wish I could help the homeless 
    but for some reason I was never given the means to 
    and those who have the means could care less to. 
    Maybe one of these days I will be able to 
    after I take care of the business that needs to be taken care of 
    Everyone seems to enjoy stepping on your toes and you’re given wooden nickels in return every time you turn around come push or shove and you’re supposed to feel sorry about it if they get their comeuppance and for once in your life you’re able to get even with someone who made your life miserable from the beginning every chance he got. 
    Cat got your tongue now, Jack? 
    You want me to knock that chip off your shoulder again, Jack? 
    Well, I guess I just did, didn’t I, Jack? 
    Every rat has its day. 
    And you had yours. 
    Rot in hell, Jack! 
    I hope I don’t join you there one day; but after this, I’ve got a feeling I got one foot in hell knocking on heaven’s door, because I know it’s not gonna end with you, Jack.
    What goes around comes around. 
    This is the stuff that dreams are made of. 
    Okay, so he grew up and got married and made something out of his life after he helped contribute to making mine a mess years ago and I’ve always felt like the odd ball out over it so I don’t care to hear any cock and bull stories about how great a guy he was. 
    Shit like that is a dime a dozen. 
    There’s no accounting for taste. 
    My two cents is he got what he deserved. I took the bull by the horn like a bull in a China shop. I blew my own horn LOUD and he paid through the nose for it. I’m keeping an ear to the ground. I’m never gonna throw in the towel. Even on laundry day. 
    When the going gets tough, the tough get going! 
    There ain’t no stopping me now!
    I’m gonna go for the gusto! 
    With every fiber of my body! 
    I’m gonna go the extra mile, Jack! 
    I’m gonna shoot for the moon!
“The Sword is Mightier than the Pen”
    Six to one, half a dozen of the other. 
    Yeah, the sword can kill you quicker. The pen takes its sweet time and kills you slowly but surely, day by day, over time. Yes, that’s the one I’d prefer. It would have been nice to watch Jack suffer, for years, that’s how I see the way he used to treat me. 
    But I’ll have to settle for the former here. 
    He couldn’t pull the wool over his own eyes. 
    I like a fine kettle of fish like anybody else, but give me a break, okay? 
    I see now what the proprietor saw in me that day and technically he has my number and I his in the same way he has it over me if anything were to go wrong. 
    He says the first match that I drew came up him. So he read a wrong message into it. I know he saw something else in me when he stared into my eyes. He has nothing to fear from me, I think he knows that, like I know he has a business to run. 
    I’ve never been one to count my chickens before they hatch. 
    Someone scared to death of life all his life sitting on the edge of the cliff scared out of his wits he’ll fall over the ledge his teeth always on edge. 
    The road to hell is always paved with good intentions. 
    You always reap what you sow at the end. 
    None of us has reinvented the wheel to the point where we can cut through the mustard of everyday bullshit like there’s no tomorrow. He knew he couldn’t put one over on himself. 
    Cutting through red tape ain’t ever easy.
    Come hell or high water, though, I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. 
    I just wanted to even the playing field a little. 
    That’s what gets my goat in the end. 
    People don’t care about the consequences of their actions. 
    I may feel sorry for the Jack of today because of his wife and kids but in no way over the one I remembered yesterday who made my life a living hell growing up. 
    An eye for eye. 
    A tooth for a tooth. 
    There’s always light at the end of the tunnel once you find your way out. It’s a case of mistaken identity otherwise. You have to know where to draw the line. 
    Accidents happen. 
    There’s no tomorrow otherwise. 
    You can’t bang your head against a brick wall forever. 
    But you can hang onto a dream.
“The Back Pages of My Memory”
    Cut to the chase. 
    Better safe than sorry. 
    You’re told to never bite the hand that feeds you. 
    You also don’t kiss the ass that shits on you. 
    John Hendersen had 18 matches left. That was either more than enough than he needed to take care of what he needed to take care of to make things right with the people he wanted to make things right with or it wasn’t enough for all the people he wanted to remember to forget all his life. That’s the long and short of it. 
    He knew you can’t kill two birds with one stone. That was one of the clichés he liked but always thought didn’t make sense. But at the same time if he kept his fingers crossed to try to kill as many as he could with the stone he threw if he threw it again. 
    And again.
    The third match took care of Sandy, the fourth one Arthur, the fifth one Lucy. 
    The kiss of death hit them. 
    They kicked the bucket. 
    They died with their boots on 
    They got their socks knocked off. 
    John Hendersen didn’t care which. 
    He knew there was more than one way to skin a cat. 
    The only problem that presented itself was the police were wondering how all of a sudden people burst into flames like that out of nowhere, driving in their car, sitting at home watching television, taking a shower, walking their dog. 
    It didn’t make sense. 
    You can’t hit a ball if one’s not thrown. You’d fall by the wayside. Flat on your face. Swinging at air. You have to be fresh as a daisy before you went full steam ahead. 
    They had to know that much 
    if John Hendersen did. 
    The next death occurred at the beach. Alice was wading in the surf when all of a sudden, she burst into flames, she screamed, immediately dunked herself under the water, but it didn’t help, the match was still burning, and she burned to death while completely submerged in the ocean. Nobody could get near enough to help her because the flames prevented them. By the time they were able to get near her the flames had gone out and there was nothing left of her but charred skin over bones like all the others before her. 
    A perfect way to die, he thought.
“Seven Years Inside My Head”
    It wasn’t over till it was over. 
    It wasn’t over till the fat lady sings. 
    You never cry wolf. 
    The montage of faces that ran through John Hendersen’s mind over the next seven years were of Jim and Jenny and Henry and Harvey and Jane and Carl and Barbara and Jake and Carol and Bob and Sam and Judy just like the ones who died before them raced across his memory who died under similar circumstances and died similar deaths doing everyday things people do everyday when all of a sudden they just burst into flames talking to a next door neighbor or taking out the garbage or watering their yard or jogging through the park or buying red roses for a blue lady or simply sleeping in bed at night. 
    Houston, we got a problem, and we have no idea what it is. 
    Not everyone was in San Francisco at the time. Jake was living in Denver now when he burst into flames. Judy was on vacation in Honolulu laying on the beach at Waikiki when she burst into flames. It caused confusion in the investigations. 
    Harvey was attending a business conference in New York when all of a sudden in the middle of a meeting he burst into flames. 
    Bob had been in a car accident. He was recuperating in a hospital in New Orleans. When all of sudden he burst into flames. 
    One of the attending nurses grabbed a fire extinguisher to try and put the flames out.
    It did no good. 
    He burned to death in his hospital bed. 
    Carl burst into flames trying to light a cigarette. It was thought his lighter blew up in his face and set off a chain reaction. There was no proof otherwise, but I knew the truth. 
    This one might be a little graphic for readers with X-rated minds so you might want to skip this paragraph and go to the next one if you’re so inclined. At the time Barbara burst into flames, she had the dick of the new guy she was screwing in her mouth, and they both ended up burning to death that day. It wasn’t the way I planned it, because I had nothing against him. He just happened to be the new guy in town she was seeing now.       
    I thought I had played it cool otherwise by spacing the rest of the deaths out like that over the next seven years rather than running them back to back one after the next like I started out to do. Easy does it, as the old saying goes. So is it takes two to tango, and when you bury the hatchet, sometimes things get messy. It’s just the way the game is played. 
    I didn’t make the same mistake I made with Jack Resener. 
    I didn’t go to any of the funerals. 
    I also didn’t make the same mistake the proprietor cautioned me about. I did heed his warning and made sure that each match used was for the person I wanted to use it against before I lit it and set off the fireworks display. It doesn’t hurt to be cautious. 
    The spacing out of the deaths didn’t stop the cops or the newspapers from wondering what was going on or comparing the new deaths with the ones before them, but it didn’t make things look so obvious, either. Since incidents like mine had occurred before any of mine took place, not that I was aware of, but it did remind me of my conversation with the proprietor, but news about events prior to mine didn’t interest him, like any drive-by shooting or murders that were on the news. It seemed though when one series of deaths ended a new series began. It made me think the proprietor only sold one packet of matches at a time, because I never heard of any deaths other than my own over the seven years mine lasted. I figured the proprietor didn’t care to shoot his wad all at once, like I had when I first started, and maybe he really did do it to help people out, the luck of the draw, you might say, because he sure wasn’t doing it for the money, not at $20.00 a shot. He probably wanted to make sure nothing got out of hand, either, with dozens of people out there taking care of business the way business was supposed to be taken care of. 
    Without getting caught. 
    John Hendersen had no idea how many may have been before him. The proprietor never mentioned anything. They may have even been different instances under different circumstances. He never bothered to investigate anything to draw attention to himself. 
    What was their outcome afterwards? 
    That would have been interesting to know. 
    Our pasts are different as our lives are different, but if they were anything like John Hendersen, something drew them to the proprietor’s shop. 
    Beyond the pale morning light. 
    Obviously none of them did anything stupid to draw suspicion to themselves or to the proprietor otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to purchase a packet myself. 
    It’s water under the bridge anyway you look at it, since we know when it rains, it can sometimes pour, and lead us to do things we’ve never done before. The proprietor can be the kind of guy John Hendersen is who likes to do things cautiously. Whatever the reason, John Hendersen didn’t care how other people played their hand, since we’re all different in the way we do things. My outcome may not have been any different than their own. 
    John Hendersen had his own way of dealing his cards anyway. He’d have to go back to the drawing board each time he pulled out a new match if he tried to shuffle his deck any other way than his own. He knew everybody played the fool at one time or the other in life, but he was going to play the fool his way. The shoe was on the other foot now and it didn’t fall off this time and that’s the way John Hendersen liked it. He’d had the last laugh for once and he had the time of his life at the ole ball game doing it. 
    I knocked it out of the park 
    each and every time!
    I was a force of nature to be reckoned with. 
    I kept my nose to the grindstone. 
    I was judge, jury, and prosecutor. 
    I laid down the law! 
    I got the job done! 
    Now I had to continue dealing the hand until the game was over. 
    I had one match left. 
    Who was going to be the next victim? 
    He already knew. 
    After seven years he had every card marked and there was only one other person left he had in mind. He was saving the best for last, you might say. 
    The person who was the biggest disappointment of all in his life. 
    The straw that broke the camel’s back. 
    He smiled, as if he knew in order to erase the past you had to first change the past, but only by doing that would he know for sure. 
    John Hendersen had seven years to think and plan it all out. 
    He felt for sure he knew how to play the game by now. 
    He had thrown in everything but the kitchen sink already. 
    He struck the last match 
    and the one to burst into flames this time was 
    Fuck, was the first word that popped into his mind, if this is how hell feels, I guess I’ve prepared myself well, because I feel no sorrow or pity for any of the lives I took. 
    John Hendersen’s next reaction was to
    I had to make it look good, he remembers thinking as he made all the plans but he had no idea it would feel like he was burning in 
    I only remember thinking at the time 
    what goes around comes around 
    He didn’t think he missed the boat on anything. 
    He’d heard all the stories about all the people he did-in in burning-to-death details that he took it for granted that it didn’t look like such a bad way to go. 
    Did he take it lightly? 
    No pain, no gain. 
    No guts, no glory. 
    He was in the bathtub in his apartment so the building wouldn’t burn down or other people would get injured when he burnt to death. He dunked himself under the water like he remembered hearing about Barbara years ago, it didn’t ebb the flow of his body burning, or lessen the pain of being burnt alive, like it didn’t with her, the way he planned it, so he’d look like he was taking a bath like any other victim of his who died a mysterious death in broad daylight or the dead of night when all of a sudden they burst into flames. 
    He couldn’t scream all that well with his head (and body) under water and he wondered if he’d drown to death before he died while burning to death and hoped he’d drown to death first before burning to death first because burning to death 
    The match sat in an ashtray 
    on top of the toilet seat with a lit cigarette in it so it would look like he was smoking before he burst into flames. 
    He felt like dosing it out. 
    But didn’t. 
    His body was completely engulfed in flames. 
    He’d be disfigured for the rest of his life and he knew that would be just too much to deal with and his seven years of preparation would all be for nothing. 
    I decided it would be a fit way to end the game I began seven years earlier when I bought the packet of matches from the proprietor in his shop that morning
    It was a last-ditch-effort to make everything right with everyone who messed up my life. I couldn’t exclude myself from that list when I was the biggest fuck-up of all on it for allowing it to happen to me in the first place. I had finished my mission in life otherwise and we all have to pay the piper for our mistakes, don’t we?  What kind of person would I be if I didn’t?  That would make me no better than any of them, in my eyes, anyway. For once, I’m just trying to do the right thing. I’m not trying to make myself out to be a hero, that’s for sure. When push comes to shove my actions would speak louder than my words, and I wouldn’t be able to live under the same roof with myself. 
    Buddhist monks died similar deaths in protest of China’s rule. 
    That was my guiding light.     
    Sure, I would have loved to make a ton of money instead, but for what? 
    Helping the less fortunate? 
    Without Shelley, it wouldn’t be the same thing. 
    I’d had seven years to think that through. 
    In her eyes, I was a dreamer. 
    I never was a jack-of-all-trades. 
    I was more of a Johnny come lately. 
    The butt of a joke. 
    A nobody. 
    A sorry-assed sonofabitch who’d never amount to anything. I needed to be put out of my misery, and I was too much of a coward to have anyone else do it. 
    I could always chicken out. 
    Someone else might not. 
    I didn’t even give myself credit for that much. 
    Another reason to do it myself. 
    Shelley lost confidence in me, and I lost confidence in myself as a man. 
    This may be the only thing I was a success at and I doubt if that would have made her proud of me because I can’t really say I’m proud of myself because of it. 
    I’ll leave the rest to the police to try and figure out what happened like they have done with everyone else before me and come up empty-handed. I’ve had enough time to figure that much out at least. I’ll be in the clear. There’s no way they’d ever suspect me. I left no records anywhere like the proprietor said he had and whatever records he has will no longer exist once I use the last match. There’s nothing to tie anything to me. I kept nothing, no newspaper clippings, nothing. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame several times over even if I’m the only one who knows it. I’m like the fox in the hen house who sneaks in and gets away every time, the cock in the chicken coop messing with all the hens to get them to lay more eggs, the one case they’ll never solve, the one case they’ll never find an answer to, the one case they’ll close the books on, the one case that leads to a dead end each and every time they try to reopen it. They’d never suspect me. I’d be the fly on the wall sitting sight unseen in their midst singing Rosemary’s lullaby to the girl who got away, the one who never bothered to talk to me, the one who never bothered to ask my name so I could tell her it’s not him the one she loved when she spoke of love to the guy who wasn’t me, the girl I didn’t get a chance to marry, but neither did the guy she wanted to marry, either. 
    I’d get away scot-free.
    Free as a bird. 
    The only person 
    I couldn’t escape from 
    in the end 
    was me. 
    I was the last bone I needed to pick, and I had to be the one who picked it. I don’t think I could have lived with myself any other way. 
    Maybe in that regard, I wasn’t such a bad guy. 
    You can’t keep a good man down. 
    Unless he doesn’t want to get back up. 
    And I have nothing to get back up for. 
    Yeah, John Hendersen didn’t care what category he fell into, even on a dark and wintery night when he was turning all the lights off, but he was willing to consider every side of the coin, even if nobody else was. 
    He felt his life ebbing. Even as he sensed himself getting used to the idea of dying. He didn’t know if it was because he was drowning or because he was burning to death while choking on water he’d pissed in as he screamed his ass off. 
    Then it was over, and it didn’t matter anymore.
“The End Is Where the Beginning Began”
    History repeats itself. 
    We’re at the antique shop in the middle of the Tenderloin in San Francisco. 
    A lady is in the shop looking around. She sees the packet of matches with the price tag of $20.00 on it. Most people when they see it don’t even bother to look at it, they simply walk passed it, or maybe it’s not even on display when other people are in the shop, only when the proprietor knows someone is in need of assistance, like when we looked at each other when he opened up his shop that morning, the ones he knew who’d open the packet to see what’s in it to make the price so high, the ones who were curious enough to ask why the price was so high, the ones he saw something in, the ones he knew would look and look again, the ones who thought they were simply a packet of matches but were curious enough to suspect they weren’t just an ordinary packet of matches, they’d close the flap and put it back on the counter where they found it, but for some reason they’d come back to take another look, because they had nothing better to do and were curious enough to wonder why, where others could have given a damn, if it was put out for others to see, they wouldn’t care, but some, yes, some, for whatever reason, would pick up the packet again and ask why the price was so high for an ordinary packet of matches that you can get for free most anywhere else just for the asking. 
    This lady was such a person. 
    “It’s not an ordinary packet of matches, ma’am,” the proprietor told her.

Joe Frleta was born and raised in San Francisco, CA, although he now lives in southern California.  He is a writer of a number of years, as well as age, and he recently had a short story published in Roi Faineant, "Is."