by Nicholas Siegel
A friend once told me she had a shelf in her living room dedicated to the books she would quickly grab in case of a house fire. These, she explained, were mainly first editions, signed copies, or old sentimental books from her childhood. One I remember was a copy of Green Eggs and Ham her mom had written a note in: “Read this and think of me when I can’t be with you.”
This gave me the idea to make my own in-case-of-fire shelf. Instead of just books, though, I wanted to stay more open-minded. My shelf would be for anything I wanted to quickly grab during a fire. I thought picking its contents would be easy — that the items so precious to me would call out like a vocation. This list was the best I could do.
It would go directly in the center of the shelf. If a fire were to break out, I would grab your heart, dripping with blood, and shove it into the stomach pouch of my hoodie or my pants pocket or the pocket of my jacket, the fat slick against my fingers. I’d be careful not to grip too tightly — to not accidentally squeeze and pop the delicate organ, although I’ve heard the thick blood from a popped heart can protect against natural disasters. That’s not the point. That’s not why it’s on the shelf. It’s on the shelf because there was a time when it was the only thing that made me happy. There was a time when it would have been the only thing on the shelf.
A framed picture of my border collie
When I was a kid, my sister and I had a border collie named Alex. Alex liked to go outside during thunderstorms. Before we adopted him, I’d never heard of a dog who enjoyed thunderstorms, but dogs’ personalities are as varied as our own — this I know with certainty. One day we were all coming in from a storm after church, and Alex shot under our legs and out the door. My dad chased after him for a while, but the rain was coming down so heavily it was difficult to see. He told us we’d go looking again when the storm was over. I said when the storm was over, Alex would come home anyway.
The picture is from when he was a puppy, since he never did come back, and we didn’t have any good pictures of him as an adult. It’s in a gold frame with a thick chip in the bottom right corner. I still look for him sometimes when it rains.
A Mason jar filled with sand
The Mason jar itself isn’t special, but the sand, from a beach on the Panhandle of Florida, was collected on the day I first saw an animal I didn’t recognize. It was one of those summer days when the sun reflected so brightly off the sand I couldn’t keep my eyes fully open. I waded out into the water until it was up to my waist and swam against the waves. Dark patches of seaweed floated around me — harmless shadows just under the surface. One of these shadows, however, brushed up against me, expertly weaving its way between my legs. It was slick like your heart.
I stroked backward so I could get a better look, and the thing came close to the surface of the water. I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t call anyone to me. I didn’t look it up later. I tried to consciously forget the details of its anatomy, like I had to forget the details of yours. I wanted there to be things I didn’t know.
In the days after Alex ran away, my sister and I would stay up late and talk about animals — about if there were still animals out there that no one had ever seen. I want this to be true so desperately it hurts.
The first song I ever wrote on a white cassette
You spend your life listening to music, and then you make music, and it feels like you’ve broken into the dark gear rooms of the universe and fucked around with the machinery. I wrote this song in high school on an acoustic guitar with heavy gauge strings. I rehearsed it so many times my fingers bled, and I left the blood stains on the front of the guitar because I thought it looked cool. The song was about how the world is fundamentally different when it’s stormy out. About how everything shifts a little to the left, just barely — almost imperceptibly. About how once this shift happens, you can look at people you love or places you know and hardly recognize them. Then, once the weather clears up, there is a light vibration and everything clicks back into place like a twisted throat muscle righting itself.
I recorded it on a Panasonic boombox, and you can hear the sound of my cat knocking things over in the background. I’ve always meant to go back and listen to it since I don’t play anymore, but I’m scared it won’t be quite as important as I remember, and I don’t have anything that plays cassette tapes.
Halfway into January, well past Epiphany, we still had our Christmas tree up. Most nights we joked about taking it down — that we’d get around to it eventually. Do you remember the night we originally planned to take it down? How we ordered Chinese and watched old Columbo reruns until about three in the morning when we both agreed it was an absurd time to take down a tree? How we plugged the tree in and set the lights to a slow blink before we went to bed? We wanted the neighbors to see it. We wanted them to know that sometimes Christmas can linger a little longer than usual.
Months are difficult to keep on shelves. They drip, and they don’t stay in Mason jars like sand does. You have to think about months — to make sure you don’t forget the little details, and the longer they stay there the worse they get, like food spoiling. You have to water them like plants, just not with water.
This is why I’m only saving this one for if a fire breaks out. I’ve had a lot of good months, and I’ve had a lot of bad months, but when and if I have to start over, having this one will be enough.
An unsmoked Pall Mall
One Halloween during college, I went with a group of friends to a rock concert at a hole in the wall venue downtown. The headliner, Ebony Lung, was why I wanted to write music in the first place. I had all their records, most of which were worn down. I had the pops and hisses on every track memorized.
I drank too much, and so did my friends. Once the show was over, we decided to wait outside just in case the band showed up. The sky had that faint green tint to it that sometimes precedes tornadoes. When the band finally came, we all talked and drank more. Jon, the lead vocalist, offered me a cigarette. I didn’t smoke, but I didn’t want to turn down the offer, so I took it, thanked him, and tucked it behind my ear. He glanced at it for a moment but didn’t ask why I wasn’t smoking it. His eyes were the same shade of green as the sky, like he had two holes in his head.
That night, before I got in the shower, I realized I still had the cigarette behind my ear and brushed it out. I was so drunk and tired, I didn’t think twice about it, but the next morning when I saw it on the floor by the air vent, I knew I’d always keep it.
My first motorcycle
If it weren’t for the crash, I’m not sure I’d want this one for the shelf. It was right after we met, remember? I was going to meet my friend David at his place, and all the lights on the highway were out. The weird thing about that was I made it down the highway fine. I actually crashed in David’s neighborhood — right into a tree five houses down.
It happened in a flash like they always say it does. I was driving down the street, and then a split second later I was completely still, watching smoke rise from the front of the bike and drift up into the branches. There was a bird in the tree when it happened, and even though the crash didn’t scare it off, the smoke did.
I didn’t stop riding bikes after that like I should have, but I never got rid of or had that first bike repaired. I felt a bad energy in it. Something that has that type of energy is important. You don’t just throw it away.
A letter from my first girlfriend
If you look closely at the paper, you can see where she started to write it in pencil, erased everything, and started over in pen. I’ve tried to decipher what it was she’d originally written. I’ve held it up to the light and looked through a magnifying glass at every possible angle — she did a great job of erasing it. I’m less interested in what the letter actually says than what it originally said, but in some weird way, it’s all still there.
That had been a real train wreck of a relationship. It only lasted a few months, but we liked to stay up late planning what our life together would be like — who we’d invite to the wedding, what we’d name our kids, whether or not we’d live in a new house or an old one, what type of pets we’d get.
Eventually, I grew distant. I’d make excuses to not have to see her — anything I could think of. When I couldn’t make up excuses anymore, I told her I needed to spend some time away with my friend in Nashville. I packed up, told my parents I’d be gone for a while, and disappeared. That’s when she wrote the letter. It was her way of breaking up with me, even though she never explicitly stated it in what she written. I’d never felt more manipulative. I made her do the dirty work for me, and I was free.
It stays on the shelf as a trophy. It reminds me that everyone has a breaking point, and if you push hard enough for long enough, you can break anyone.
A black rosary in a small, leather pouch
For many years, I worked at a record store. My manager saw the pouch, covered in muddy footprints, one day on the floor in the bluegrass section. For weeks, it sat under the register.
When I saw it and asked who it belonged to, she told me about finding it there on the floor — about how her first instinct was to throw it in the trash, but when she pinched the pouch open and saw the light glimmer off the cross, she thought maybe tossing it would be bad karma.
The bird from the tree I crashed into
I think it was a sparrow of some kind — I’ve never been good at identifying birds. I always wonder how a bird would be relaxed enough to stay in a tree after the impact of a motorcycle — the initial shock, the vibration, the falling leaves. Although it could have flown down after the crash; I only saw it sitting there once the realization set in that I was no longer moving down the road.
And then the smoke. That’s all it took for the bird to fly off, like it was rude for me to have polluted its resting spot with fumes. It was all I could focus on as it flew off into the sky, growing smaller and smaller until the expanse of blue subtly swallowed it whole. I wanted to watch the bird because I was afraid if I looked down, I would see that a leg was missing or that I had a gash in my side with organs spilling out into the grass. When I did look down, I saw that I was fine. The next day I had some bruises, but I was fine.
It must have taken some real courage for that bird to stay where it was — to decide that even though its home was literally shaking, it would rather wait it out until things got worse.
• • •
There’s a nail in the side of the bookshelf, and hanging from it is a burlap sack. I figure I can pretty quickly slide everything into the sack and then make my escape out the front door like some weird Santa Claus with a backdrop of flames. The month will make it heavy, and I’ll have to leave enough of an opening for the bird to get air. Your heart will pulsate in my pocket reminding me why all this is worth saving in the first place.
And all that’s left, at this point, is to wait for the fire.
Copyright © 2019 by Nicholas Siegel