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A Box of Matches

A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker
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Emmett has a wife and two children, a cat, and a duck, and he wants to know what life is about. Every day he gets up before dawn, makes a cup of coffee in the dark, lights a fire with one wooden match, and thinks.

What Emmett thinks about is the subject of this wise and closely observed novel, which covers vast distances while moving no further than Emmett’s hearth and home. Nicholson Baker’s extraordinary ability to describe and celebrate life in all its rich ordinariness has never been so beautifully achieved.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; March 2004
ISBN 9781400076338
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: A Box of Matches
Author: Nicholson Baker
Chapter 1

Good morning, it’s January and it’s 4:17 a.m., and I’m going to sit here
in the dark. I’m in the living room in my blue bathrobe, with an
armchair pulled up to the fireplace. There isn’t much in the way of open
flame at the moment because the underlayer of balled-up newspaper and
paper-towel tubes has burned down and the wood hasn’t fully caught yet.
So what I’m looking at is an orangey ember-cavern that resembles a
monster’s sloppy mouth, filled with half-chewed, glowing bits of
fire-meat. When it’s very dark like this you lose your sense of scale.
Sometimes I think I’m steering a space-plane into a gigantic fissure in
a dark and remote planet. The planet’s crust is beginning to break up,
allowing an underground sea of lava to ooze out. Continents are tipping
and foundering like melting icebergs, and I must fly in on my highly
maneuverable rocket and save the colonists who are trapped there.

Last night my sleep was threatened by a toe-hole in my sock. I had known
of the hole when I put the sock on in the morning–it was a white tube
sock–but a hole seldom bothers me during the daytime. I can and do wear
socks all day that have a monstrous rear-tear through which the entire
heel projects like a dinner roll. But at night the edges of the hole
come alive. I was reading my book of Robert Service poems last night
around nine-thirty, when the hole’s edge began tickling and pestering
the skin of the two toes that projected through. I tried to retract the
toes and use them to catch some of the edge of the sock’s fabric,
pulling it over the opening like a too-small blanket that has slid off
the bed, but that didn’t work–it seldom does. I knew that later on,
after midnight, I would wake up and feel the coolness of the sheet on
those two exposed toes, which would trouble me, even though that same
coolness wouldn’t trouble me if the entire foot was exposed. I would
become wakeful as a result of the toe-hole, and I didn’t want that,
because I was starting a new regime of getting up at four in the

Fortunately last night I had an alternative. I’d brought a clean white
tube sock to bed with me to use as a mask over my eyes, in case Claire
was going to read late. I have to have darkness to go to sleep. I have
one of my grandfather’s eye masks, made of thick black silk probably in
the thirties, but it smells like my grandfather, or at least it smells
like the inside of his bedside table. The good thing about draping a
sock over your eyes is that it is temporary. The sock slips off your
head when you move, but by then you’ve gone to sleep and it has served
its purpose.

So when the hole in the sock on my foot became intolerable, I reached
down and pulled it off in a clean, strong motion and flipped it across
the room in the direction of the trash can–although I have to say there
is something almost painfully incongruous in the sight of an article of
underclothing that one has worn and warmed with one’s own body for many
days and years, lying bunched in the trash. And then onto my naked foot
I pulled the fresh sock that I’d had on my face. It felt so good: oh,
man, it felt good, really good. I moved my newly sheathed foot back into
the far region of the sheets and pulled the heavy blankets around me and
I took my hand and curved it and draped it over my eyes where the sock
had been, the way a cat does with its paw. Eventually Claire got into
bed. I heard her bedside light click on and I heard the pages of her
book shuffle, and then she twisted around so we could kiss good-night.
“You’ve got your hand over your eyes,” she said. I murmured. Then she
turned and shifted her warmly pajamaed bottom towards me and I steered
through the night with my hand on her hip, and the next thing I knew it
was four a.m. and time to get up and make a fire.

From the Hardcover edition.
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