Words and Fire

Illustration by Rick Quemado

Illustration by Rick Quemado

I couldn’t find the mixtape, so I had to re-create it from memory. Who knows if I got the order right, or even accounted for all the songs? I’d remembered Texas’ “Tell Me Why,” Shona Laing’s “South” and Chick Corea’s version of “The Great Pumpkin Waltz,” but … I dunno. There might have been some Smiths on the mixtape, too, but I couldn’t remember which exact songs I’d used. I once used Smiths songs on mixtapes as a type of punctuation; they commuted sentences, closed open-ended discussions.

The revised mixtape, burned antiseptically to a CD, was playing in the car as we drove up the mountain to the cabin. My friend J nodded her head along with The The’s “The Beat(en) Generation” and smacked a pack of American Spirits against her palm in time with Hunters & Collectors’ “Back on the Breadline,” but didn’t ask me about the mixtape. In fact, she only spoke once, about halfway through the drive from McNeil Estates to Mont Blanc Way:

“This thing you’re doing, Geoffrey,” she said. “It’s fucking dumb.”

“Enjoy the music,” I said.

The mixtape was important to me because it was the first one I’d made after moving to Las Vegas a dozen years earlier. Since arriving from Southern California, I’d relied on Sunday afternoon drives to Mount Charleston to maintain my sanity; my then-girlfriend and I needed to see green things, blue things. We could no longer drive to the ocean within an hour, so the mountain had to fill in. And it was only natural that I’d make a soundtrack for the drive, just as I’d made dozens for the Pacific Coast Highway.

The mix felt more celebratory in tone than I’d remembered. I didn’t remember being particularly happy about coming to Las Vegas in 1989. But now, in July 2001, even the most melancholy songs—like Terence Trent D’Arby’s cover of “(What a) Wonderful World”—all seemed lit from within.

And as we parked in front of the cabin, I figured out why: Because at that exact moment, I was happy.

I fished the journals out of the back seat while J gathered up the Trader Joe’s bags. It was a crisp, cool 65 degrees on the mountain, and as we climbed the steps to the porch we wordlessly devoured the air, pulling it deep into our lungs and holding it there until it started to bite back. I surveyed the tree line while J unlocked the door, then I grabbed a couple of logs from the woodpile.

“I wish you wouldn’t do this,” said J. “The worst damn thing a writer can do is destroy their work. Even if they don’t like it anymore.”

“You’re right,” I said. “But I wasn’t a writer when I wrote these.”

I arranged the logs in the fireplace and lit some newspaper under them while J decanted two huge cups of chai tea and poured a bag of trail mix into a pale green ceramic bowl. She threw my mix CDs on the carousel, along with a few others: Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Moby’s Play.

I got the fire lit just as she stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it up.

“So, what’s in there that’s so awful that you can’t live with it?” she asked.

I looked at the notebooks in my hands. These were my journals, four of them in total: three that I’d written at the age of 14, and one that I’d written when I was 26. The earlier scribblings were on yellow legal pads; the later ones were in a spiral-bound notebook.

“These three legal pads are from 1981,” I said. “That was just after my parents got back together, and I still resented my dad for having left. I was also still in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so going to school was pretty much wall-to-wall angst.

“And this one,” I said, holding up the spiral-bound, “I wrote while my girlfriend, who I’d lived with for nearly six years, was cheating on me. This was late 1993. I knew what was going on, and I was lying to myself to make myself feel better. Goes up to the night she didn’t come home.”

J spoke, the cigarette dangling from her lip as if glued. “All the more reason to keep them.”

“No,” I said. “Why? I remember these things well enough. Those wounds have closed up. Reading this old shit—it’s like phantom limb pain. I don’t need it.”

“A writer needs to relive those old pains sometimes. They inspire honesty.”

“The world is all too happy to hand out new ones,” I said.

“Yeah … and no,” she said. “This is kind of like cheating. Maybe not for anyone else, but for a writer, this is cheating. You put those things down there. You have stewardship over them. You shouldn’t destroy them.”

“This isn’t destruction. It’s editing. I’m editing my life story. All the stuff from these books that I need to remember, I’ll remember. The rest can burn.”

J shook her head sadly, but said nothing more. We sipped our tea and watched the fire grow, and when it was well and truly kindled—when the logs were crackling loudly and pools of pine sap were welling up on them—I threw my journals on the flames.

“You’re gonna regret this,” J said.

“Let’s go out to the porch.”

We sat for a long time, leaning back in our chairs, our feet propped up on the railing. The smell of the fire mixed intoxicatingly with the smell of the ponderosa pine, and it made us hungry; we devoured the trail mix within a matter of minutes. We just sat, and J smoked a few more cigarettes, and the sun went down.

“Y’know, about that mixtape,” I said.


“I made it after my girlfriend and I had a huge fight,” I said. “I wanted to give us something nice to listen to as we took our weekly drive up here. I wanted her to feel like she did back in California. Like we could be happy here together.”

“Did she like it?”

“I can’t remember if she did or not. All I remember is the fight. I wasn’t keeping a journal that year.”

“What … why would you want to re-create something like that? Why would you want to listen to it?”

“Because I still like the songs,” I said. “I want to take them back. An afternoon with a friend seemed the best way to do that.”

J looked at me uncomprehendingly.

“It’s more editing, changing the story,” I said. “I took something out of a passage I wasn’t enjoying, and dropped it into one that I am.”

Her face softened, and she let out a resigned breath. She stood up and walked inside. I heard her throw another log on the fire, pop open a bottle of wine, mess with the CD player. She came out with two glasses of merlot and handed me one just as my mix came on: Stan Ridgway, “Lonely Town.”

“You gotta promise me,” she said, voice level, “that you’ll never burn up a piece of your writing again. You keep it, even if it can hurt you later. If you don’t wanna live with it, don’t look at it.”

I nodded. “It’s a deal.”

She sat back down. “Time’s gonna come when you’re going to want to remember things as they were, not as you wish they were. Tell you what: We’ll start now. I’ll make it real easy.”

She held out her glass for a toast. I clinked mine against it.

“Chapter One,” she said. “Two friends at a mountain cabin.”

Back to the Dog Days.

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