The Matchstick, by Charles Tilly
I was pleasantly intoxicated the night I found out about the story. My daughter and her husband, who is twenty-two years her senior, had invited me over for dinner at the brownstone they’d just bought in Brooklyn Heights. This was more comfort than I could have imagined for her, a three-story townhouse with an eighteen-foot coffered ceiling, the kind of place I used to linger beneath on the sidewalks of my youth, stealing views through picturesque windows of crown-molding and crystal chandeliers and, my God, is that a wall of bookshelves with a rolling ladder? She couldn’t have done it on her own, not at her age. Her husband is the director of an important New York cultural institution. I won’t say the name of it but it begins with a W. She was an intern there and without any intention or effort—I know this deep in my soul—she managed to end his marriage and begin her own life with him.
I like my son-in-law. Even I can tell he’s very sexy; he has a youthful sense of humor. Would I prefer to see her with someone who couldn’t be mistaken for her father? Of course, if only because there is a kind of entitlement young women lose in such relationships. They forfeit the right to live without judgment, the right to fully celebrate the union. It isn’t so great for me either, as the actual father. It is never far from my mind, this parasitic awareness that people look at them and blame me.
As I said, they invited me over for dinner. My daughter, looking exactly like her mother when I first fell in love with her, that autumn nymph, was absolutely beaming, so I was drinking quite a lot, bracing myself for the dreaded announcement that I was going to be a grandfather. You can imagine my surprise when she revealed the actual cause of her elation. “Daddy, I read your story in the Paris Review. It was stunning. I cried, Daddy!”
“Me too, Charles,” her husband said. “Me too.”
“Are you just getting around to reading that story?” I asked. The story I thought she read was published ten years ago. Truthfully I’d wanted to see it in The New Yorker but it wasn’t up to me, and when it was swept up by the Paris Review, I was thrilled, of course. It got me my second Pushcart and foreshadowed the success of my novel that came out later that year.
My daughter looked wounded. “What do you mean? It was in the last issue.”
I choked on my wine. “I’m sorry, what story is this?”
They both laughed. “How much have you had to drink? Your story, ‘The Matchstick.’ Why are you being so secretive?”
“Oh, you know,” I said. That phrase had gotten me out of some pretty tight spots in my time.
“I don’t think he wants to talk about it, baby. Look, he’s blushing.”
“Can I see it?” I asked. “I actually haven’t gotten a copy yet.”
My daughter bounced out of her chair like a little girl and came running back with the journal in her hand. There it was. Two-hundred pages, perfectly bound, dense with print. My name on the back and in the Table of Contents. I went straight to the Contributors’ Notes, where my accomplishments were listed in modest prose. There was no mention of my latest book, not surprisingly. Whoever had written this bio obviously shared the opinion that my last book was perhaps the worst piece of serious literature to be published in this century. An important cultural critic had cited the book as a symbol of our dying empire.
I turned to the story and scanned the first line. It was not remotely close to anything I had ever written. I wondered if this had something to do with the cocaine I’d snorted, once, in the eighties. I slammed the journal shut and handed it back.
“Daddy, are you all right?”
“I’m actually not feeling very well.”
“You should lie down. Why don’t you stay here tonight?”
I never could say no to that little pixie face. We ate and changed the subject, and I slept as soundly in one of their guest bedrooms as if I had been on a Zen retreat.
Let me take a moment here to explain that I am not one for confessions. Somehow I find them dishonest. Perhaps it’s a loathsome character flaw, but I’ve done all right with it in the last fifty-plus years. Long ago when my wife accused me of cheating, I denied it to the end. She still divorced me, but it was seemingly her fault: a choice she would have made with or without my full disclosure.
As I was walking home the next morning, vaguely recalling the previous evening, I decided to stop into a bookstore to buy a copy of the Paris Review. I’d let my subscription lapse a long time ago, having read little of the actual contents while I was a subscriber. I went home, put on some Mozart, and opened up to the page where my story began. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. This was the best thing ever written in my name, and I knew suddenly where the inspiration had come from. This Charles Tilly, whoever he was, had perfectly understood what I’d been trying to do in my last novel. This Charles Tilly had done in sixteen pages what I hadn’t been able to do in five hundred.
Then I drank until I passed out. I spent the next several days holed up in my apartment, afraid to pick up the phone, afraid to leave. My daughter forced me out of my daze. She rang the buzzer obnoxiously for a good half-hour one morning. Cleaning myself up as quickly as I could, I ran to the door and pretended to be surprised. “What are you doing here? Were you in the neighborhood?”
“We’ve been calling you for the last three days. What the hell is wrong with you?"
“Oh, you know, when the muse calls….”
She wept into my shirt. “That was really scary. Don’t do that again.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I wasn’t thinking.”
After she left, somewhat satisfied with the state of my health, I called my agent to try and get some answers, finally understanding the scale of the situation. I went to his office and for the first time since the reviews of my last book came out, he looked happy to see me. “What the hell, Chuck? You’re sneaking submissions behind my back?”
He took a phone call, but clearly he was eager to get back to me.
“You wouldn’t believe the buzz I’m hearing about this story. They’re kicking themselves at The New Yorker.”
“Right, but, the thing is, I didn’t write that story.”
My young, cocky friend frowned at me. “Are you shitting me?”
“I don’t remember writing it.”
Then he grinned. “Oh, I get it.”
“No, really, I know I didn’t write it. I need you to find out who sent it in.”
“You sent it in, Charles.”
“I did not send it in!” I shrieked, startling us both. “I did not write that story. Call the Paris Review and, I don’t know, see if you can get ahold of the original submission. Where did the payment go? I never received a payment. I never received any acknowledgment that they were accepting my story. Someone is fucking with me, big time.”
“Jesus, Charles, you’re losing it.”
I pounded my fist on his desk. “Someone has stolen my identity. You’re the only one who can help me. You’re the only one I’ve told.”
My agent put his hand up like a man about to slap his wife. “All right, all right, I’ll look into it. But do me a favor. Lay low for a few days, until I can find something out. Can you do that?”
He came to see me the next day with the manuscript in hand. “I put everything on hold to deal with this. I think they’re a bit excited by the possibility of you losing your mind. By the way, they wanted to thank you again for donating your honorarium back to the magazine. That was extremely generous.”
I smiled, beginning to feel vindicated. “You see? I’d never do something like that. Now hand it over.”
The cover letter was on top. There was an awkwardly familiar tone to it that made me cringe.
“This is not my email address,” I pointed out. “And this is my old office number at NYU. There’s not even a mailing address. Didn’t that make anyone suspicious?”
My agent shrugged. “Maybe they figured you were homeless after your last book.”
“What about the envelope?” I said.
“Are you fucking insane? They don’t keep the envelopes.”
I thanked him and told him I would be in touch. He was of no more use to me anyhow. I went to my computer to email myself. I composed many messages, some irate, some merely curious, but sent only this: I am Charles Tilly. Who are you?
I waited for the reply that I knew would come. This was the design from the beginning. Someone was trying to make contact.
The reply came four days later.
Hello, Mr. Tilly! I am happy to finally hear from you. I apologize for the late reply. I am only allowed Internet privileges for an hour each week. Did you like the story?
I had been carrying my computer around the house like it was a crying infant. I never left its side, so when I heard from my doppelganger I was ready. Presumably we had an hour.
At 4:24 I responded. I would like you to know that I’m not angry, but I very urgently need to see you in person. As you can probably understand, I have many questions.
4:26 I understand. I am afraid meeting in person would be impossible right now for I am incarcerated.
4:27 Is this a fucking joke? Who is this?
4:28 My name is Rodney. I have been a ward of the juvenile justice system for the last three years. If all goes well (fingers crossed), I will be released in another three years when I turn twenty-one. Can you wait?
4:30 Listen, you little shit. If you don’t tell me who you are and where I can find you, you’ll be doing a lot more than three years.
4:33 Respectfully, I have done some research on this and am pretty sure I have not committed any crime. There is actually no precedent for what I have done. You have not told me if you liked the story. Have you heard anything? Has it been well-received? This is my first publication.
I couldn’t write another word. The acute pain in my chest made me think I was having a heart attack, with only my computer screen as witness. Later, I managed to click on a link in my email browser that said, “Show details.” It told me nothing except that Rodney’s messages had come from the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
I went to see a mid-level agent in the identity theft/fraud department of the FBI. I had printed out our brief email exchange and brought my laptop, in case they wanted to examine it, but the agent was unmoved by my situation. He asked, “Did this individual take a payment that was meant for you?”
“Does he have your social security number?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re saying he wrote a story, and published it under your name?”
“Yes, that’s what he did.”
The agent tapped his pen against his temple.
“Why would he do that?” he asked.
“I don’t know, sir. He is deranged, obviously.”
Then the man smiled. “Mr. Tilly, if you don’t mind my asking. Do you have a significant birthday coming up?”
“Yes, my sixtieth,” I said, interested in where he was going with this.
He chuckled. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s not planning a big party for you. I’m willing to bet your trickster will reveal himself then.”
And what was I supposed to do in the meantime? If I didn’t say anything, everyone would know, by the end of my sixtieth birthday party, the depth of my dishonesty. If I did tell the truth, I couldn’t imagine what the repercussions would be. I decided to ask Rodney. I decided to ask him, “What would you like me to do?”
I sent him several emails and waited weeks for another reply. My last email was returned immediately with the message, “Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently.”
* * *
My sixtieth birthday party ended up being an intimate gathering, held in a room off the wine cellar of the Blue Ribbon Bakery, a narrow, dimly-lit room where the air was the color of caramel. My son flew out from Stanford to be there, and I was impressed with how much he’d grown up, and in particular how open he was to all manners of intellectual pursuit, but I kept looking at the door, expecting other people to show up—friends, literary types—though where we would fit them I couldn’t imagine. My daughter noticed the distraction.
“You didn’t want something bigger, did you? You hate parties.”
Where did she learn that shattered look?
“This is perfect,” I said. “It’s just us, then? I can relax?”
“Relax, Charles,” her husband said. Sometimes I do wish he wouldn’t talk.
At the end of the evening, after the kitchen had closed and the congeniality of the waitstaff had long faded, I did not want to go home, to be separated from my children who’d loved me through my successes and failures. I said, “You know that story I wrote?”
They nodded, expectantly.
“It was a good story, wasn’t it?” I said.
They all agreed it was good.
“I just don’t want to be alone tonight,” I said.
My daughter took my hand, her eyes warm with pity. “No, of course not. We’re all going back to our place. We wouldn’t dream of sending you home alone.”
That’s when I thought maybe I owed it to her to put the whole incident behind me, to accept it as a gift from an admirer. For a while, when I was asked in subsequent interviews about “The Matchstick,” I said I had no recollection of writing that story. It usually came at the end of an excruciating dialogue, in which the interviewer, with rising panic, asked increasingly probing questions to tease out some proof that I had anything important to say. The story won me my third Pushcart, got me back on my feet. Where the past three years have gone, I couldn’t say. I have a new novel coming out that everyone tells me will fare better than my last one. I am ever hopeful.
But Rodney, my angel, if you’re out there, I’m waiting.
Chaitali Sen was born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA from City University of New York - Hunter College and has been teaching and writing in Austin, Texas for the last six years. Her fiction has been published by New England Review, Brink Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Kartika Review, and other journals. She lives with her husband and stepson, and is currently at work on a novel, set in a fictional country, about the turbulent marriage of a geologist and a librarian.