The Snail Collector

Submitted for Contest #102 in response to: Write about a mysterious figure in one’s neighborhood.... view prompt

15 comments

Jul 16, 2021

Drama Sad Mystery

How long have I known Steve? I first noticed him when he stopped without warning in the middle of the sidewalk and I nearly doused him with my almond-milk cappuccino. He was barefoot, wearing tattered jeans and a grimy oversized winter coat.


He was clearly a tramp, a bum, a vagrant, a hobo. Yes I know the PC police would no doubt frown at my description and insist I use ‘unhoused person’ or some such nonsense. Anyway, he was doubled over, staring intently at something on the ground. A piece of food perhaps, or a cast-way cigarette butt probably, but I didn’t stop to look, I was hurrying to secure a spot on an empty park bench.


I was sitting there sipping my coffee when he walked by, palm outstretched and resting on it, a small brown creature, an insect of some sort. He was looking at it with an odd reverence. Like it was something special, delicate, and his sole job was to protect it. 


Later than day I ran into him again. He was leaning against a metal railing along the river and called out, You’re gorgeous, when I walked by. I didn’t say anything back, I suspected he had some mental health issues. 


How long ago was that? Well, it’s November now. Four months ago I suppose. I kept running into him, nearly every day I’d see him wandering along the sidewalk, or meandering along the tow path.


The first time I saw him on this bend of the river, he was shuffling along, cupping something in his hands. He looked up as I passed, and said, This one’s Herman.


No, I didn’t stop to look, I didn’t want to get sucked into some strange conversation with a homeless man, who’d probably ask for money.


How do I know his name? He told me. After I asked him. He said, Stephen or maybe Stevie. Then he curled his fingers into a fist, holding it out, waiting for me to bump it with my knuckles. Which I did, but I disinfected my hands with anti-bac gel at the coffee shop as soon as possible. You never know what diseases they could be carrying.


I saw him again in early August. He was leaning over a short brick wall to someone’s back garden. I thought maybe he was casing the place. When I got closer, I could see he was letting a snail crawl from his hand to a branch in the yard. He just stood there, waiting for the creature to inch off his finger to the tree, as he if had all the time in the world.


He gave me a goofy grin and said, Snails are good for gardens. My Momma told me that. They eat the bad insects. This one’s Dave.


A lady in her sixties came out of the house and I thought she was going to yell at Steve but she just waved and waddled over to the back fence, which isn’t much a fence, it’s only a few feet high and wide enough for people to sit on. Ooh, that’s big ‘un, she’d said, when she saw the snail.


Should someone tell her about Steve? I know where she lives. Her name's Louise and she's got a ground floor apartment on Redriff Road.


No, I don't know her last name. I got to know her a bit better in September. That was the day I locked myself out of my house without my phone or wallet. I was really freaked out. I couldn’t even call a locksmith, or take the bus to a friend’s house. I headed to the coffee shop, thinking that I could use their phone to call a locksmith, but when I got there, it was closed. It was a holiday weekend and most people had already left.


I was sitting outside the café trying to figure out what to do next when Steve moseyed by. I told him what happened and he offered me a half-eaten sandwich. I declined of course, who knows how long that was hanging out in his dirty pocket. But he said maybe Louise could help.


So we went to her house, and she let me use her phone to call a locksmith. While I waited for him to show up, we sat in the back garden, drinking tea and nibbling stale shortbread cookies. Steve wandered over to a corner in the yard, bent down and picked something up. When he returned, he was crying. He opened his hand to reveal a fat slug.


What you crying for? Louise asked him. And he said, The snail lost his home.


The last time I saw him? That would be a few days ago. The weather's changing, it's getting colder at night and he was carrying a filthy sleeping bag, rolled up in a tight coil, and slung over his back with a strap. I asked if he knew where the shelters were, and he laughed, said it wasn’t cold enough to be locked up all night.


The sleeping bag? I suppose I’d recognise it.


Yeah, that looks like it, I guess. It’s pretty wet. How long was it floating in the river?


I don’t know if he had any family. He only mentioned his mother, but I don’t know her name, or if she’s even still living.


Hey, watch your step! There’s a snail, just there. Near your boot.


Look, I never saw Steve take any drugs, so I don’t know. I hardly knew him, really. When I saw the police tape and the coast guard boat on the river, I was just curious, okay? But the way you described what you found, it sounds like Steve. And that’s his sleeping bag, so…


No, I don’t need a Kleenex. If we're done here, I’m just going to pick the little guy up. Bit late in the season for snails.


Wonder if he’s hungry. I know a perfect place where he can stay.


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15 comments

K. Antonio
22:17 Jul 16, 2021

Damn, why was I getting emotional?! Really, I enjoyed the narrative of this, how it's structured like a conversation/interrogation. I really liked the perspective you chose and how Steve was actually endearing. Honestly, I prefer the Steve's in this world over a whole lot of people. I live in a town that has a lot of tourists and consequently A LOT of homeless people, to the point where I see several of them a day (when I go out). It's really crazy, and in a way people see them as worthless, sometimes I wonder if they're lonely, how were ...

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Heather Mc Quaid
11:27 Jul 17, 2021

Thanks, K. This story is based on personal experience. There's an unhoused person I've seen a lot recently (there aren't loads where I live, so I notice when the familiar ones leave, and new folks come in), and I've talked with him briefly, in passing. I saw him on the park bench the other day, near the tow path, and I wondered whether I ought to go talk to him. In the end, I didn't, and now I kinda regret that decision, because I've not seen him around for a few days. Anyway, glad this hit an emotional nerve, and got us thinking about the...

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Shea West
21:53 Jul 16, 2021

This was sadly endearing....the invisible people we see every single day and how we interact with them. Like they're a pillar of your daily goings on, but once they're gone it feels so somber. We had a guy in our neighborhood like this growing up. When he passed away, we all missed his presence because he always used to be there. I like this take on the prompt. I felt her sadness. No sure if you're missing (he) between if and knew in this sentence? I asked if knew where the shelters were, and he laughed, said it wasn’t cold enough to ...

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Heather Mc Quaid
11:33 Jul 17, 2021

Shea! Thanks, i fixed the missing 'he'. Well spotted. This story (based on a few real-life observations), was also another exercise from Gardner's book, but I tweaked it quite a bit. Basically, it's about writing a monologue from a person whose perspective you don't totally agree with. The narrator isn't particularly sympathetic (esp in the beginning), but by the end, you get a sense that she's truly affected by the loss. And maybe she'll be kinder to snails of all shapes and sizes. Also glad that this brought up special memories for you...

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A.G. Scott
18:15 Jul 16, 2021

I'm reading this as the character answering the investigator's questions (took me longer than I'd like to admit to figure out lol). Really cool, and you can feel the kind of disorganized response one could expect. Heartbreaking reminder that sometimes, all a "snail" needs is to be let over the garden wall.... Great work.

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Heather Mc Quaid
11:23 Jul 17, 2021

A.G., Thanks for much for reading and commenting. I'm glad you figured out what was going on in the story. I was hoping that readers would gradually put the pieces together from the context, so if it took you a little while to do that, that was the intention. :) Also, as you say, it's a reminder to be kind to snails, it doesn't cost anything.

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Thom Brodkin
23:56 Jul 20, 2021

Heather this is such a great take on the prompt. It elicits such emotion. I worked at a Burger King back in college and our dining room stayed open until 2. It was a bitter cold night when a disheveled woman came in at about 10. When we closed the dining room at 2 I let her stay while I cleaned up but finally at 4 we closed the drive through and it was time to leave so I told her she would need to leave. As she walked out the door I asked her if she would be ok. I’ll never forget the pained look on her face when she said, “No, I have nowhere...

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Heather Mc Quaid
15:30 Jul 21, 2021

Thanks, Thom, and thanks for sharing your story. A little kindness goes a long way, and you did what you could. The world is harsh place for a lot of people. I appreciate you dropping by. :)

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Beth Connor
23:15 Jul 18, 2021

This was really touching, and a bit heartbreaking- I wish I had better words right now to describe the emotions it evoked.

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Heather Mc Quaid
09:50 Jul 19, 2021

thanks, Beth. :)

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A.Dot Ram
07:19 Jul 18, 2021

Nice. People who give bugs the right of way are special. I liked the parallels you drew between Steve and the snails, carrying their houses on their backs. The narrator's emotional progression through the story was touching. It took me a while to realize she was talking to the police. It all made sense and seemed obvious when I re-read it, so I'm not sure how it could be more clear. But it made this paragraph a little confusing: Are you going to tell her about Steve? I can show you where she lives. Her name is Louise and her house is on Redr...

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Heather Mc Quaid
09:39 Jul 19, 2021

Thanks, Anne! I've fixed the missing word. I suppose I try to write a story in the way I'd like to read it...with enough clues to keep my interest, but there's a fine line. I don't want to totally confuse or frustrate readers either. I'm hoping that there's an element of 'fun', as folks put the pieces together, but maybe I could re-work the paragraph you highlighted. thanks again!

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Nina Chyll
18:00 Jul 22, 2021

Hey! I got a little emotional towards the end as well. While I do think maybe giving the main character a little more time and arc to establish the gentle change going on with them would benefit the story, I also liked on the other hand how innate the shift feels, like stepping into the suddenly empty Steve shoes. I really enjoyed the end where we see more of the silent interaction with the police / coast guard / whatnot towards the end. I like how the questions by then seem obvious yet they're concealed. It's a lovely touch! A great job ...

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Lauren Seaton
21:32 Jul 21, 2021

A very interesting story that showed your 'guarded' compassion. I felt your apprehension as Steve tried to converse with you and show you how concerned he was about the 'lowly snail' that eventually lost its house. You noticed the sleeping bag slung over his shoulder and his reluctance to sleep in a shelter. And later you recognized the wet sleeping bag that most likely belonged to Steve. It was then you began to notice the slugs that meant so much to him. Very touching story. Interesting parallels- the snail and his house on his back and St...

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Heather Mc Quaid
07:58 Jul 22, 2021

Hi Lauren, Thanks for reading and commenting. Glad you saw the parallels between Steve and the snail, that's what I was aiming for without making it too obvious. :)

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