Light My Fire

I’m six years old and too feverish to sleep when my mother comes into my room at 11 pm. It is a period of firsts for me: the first winter I’ve attended school, the first time I’ve had the flu, my first experience with self-soothing. “We have to go pull a calf right now,” my mother says. “This will keep you company.” She sets up a transistor radio that I’ve never seen before, tunes it to a late-night station, and leaves. I begin to forget my pain and confusion. Things this exciting rarely happen to me.

The suspense builds during a long round of commercials, and then a song starts to play. Since this is the tinniest music I’ve ever heard, I assume there must be some kind of defect in the old radio—that is, until a man with a deep voice starts to sing. The lyrics are as nonsensical and sing-songy as a nursery rhyme (“light my fire,” “wallow in the mire,” “funeral pyre”), but I know they are really about complicated grown-up love, the kind I’ve been seeing on the afternoon soap operas I watch with my father. After a couple of verses, a repetitive instrumental begins. Later I will doubt my memory of this part of the song, believing for years to come that it was nothing more than a fever dream, but right now it is relaxing, so relaxing that I have fallen asleep by the time my mother returns to the house.

The next morning, she asks me what I heard on the radio while she was gone. “I only heard one song,” I say. “I think it was called ‘Light My Fire.’” Perhaps she’s feeling guilty for leaving me when I was so sick, for her response is uncharacteristically gentle. “We have that song on a record,” she says. “You can listen to it again.”

Until now, I have only been allowed to listen to hand-me-down children’s records, relics of my older siblings’ childhoods. I know all about Tubby the Tuba and the railroad that runs through the middle of the house, but nothing of popular music except what I hear from the muffled speakers on the school bus. Now my mother pulls out a huge green Reader’s Digest box set that she has been hiding somewhere. She flips down the table of contents and there it is—Disc 5, Side 1, Track 5—“Light My Fire,” by Jack Jones. She shows me how to find the right song on the record, and we listen to it together. It doesn’t sound exactly like what I heard the night before and seems to be much shorter than I remember, but I trust, as I always do, that my mother is right, and I am the one who is wrong.

And I do come to love this version of the song and the sweetly sexy voice of the singer. Every time my parents leave me alone in the house (which is often during calving season), I queue it up on the record player, and if there is time, I listen to other songs as well—“The Windmills of Your Mind,” “MacArthur Park,” “Marrakesh Express.” I won’t learn until years later that I have been listening to what other people call “elevator music,” that the originals of these songs are subversive, not sweet. For now, this box set is just right for me, enough to transport me to another world where I am a grown-up woman talking to a man, someone who loves me enough to always tell me the truth, even when he wants to light my fire.

Marne Wilson is a former academic librarian who lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Her writing has recently appeared in Hobart, FreezeRay, and Liquid Imagination. She is the author of a chapbook, The Bovine Daycare Center (Finishing Line, 2015). marnegrinoldswilson.wordpress.com