by Beau Hulgan
My dad used to catch snails. He kept them in a dirty 5 gallon bucket in the back yard. He wanted to keep them inside but my mom insisted they not be in the house. He was afraid the snails would get too cold, or too hot, or maybe drown if it rained. But my mom stood steadfast and made him keep them in the back yard.
We lived in the suburbs. Cookie cutter houses stacked on top of one another with a meter wide side yard and back yards squeezed up to one another separated by six foot wooden plank fences. My dad said he always wanted to live on a farm and raise chickens and sheep. But my mom had no interest in his fantasy as she called it. She wanted us to live like normal people.
The closest to a farm my dad could have was his garden. It was as big a one you could have in the cramped back yard. He always had one from what I remember. I don’t know when he started catching snails, for all I know he may have been catching them since before I was born. I remember being a child and he’d take me into the back yard to let me peer into the 5 gallon bucket at all his snails slowly worming their way around covered in slim and half eaten kale greens. My dad was always excited to show me his snails and, for a little kid, I was excited too.
When I got a little older, he would have me hold out my hand where he would place a snail shell on my palm. “Wait very patiently” he said, and after a few minutes the snail would slowly ooze its head out and its little antennae would bulge as it began to slither across my open hand.
I started sharing the love of snails with my dad. I would come home from elementary school and sometimes a snail would be meandering its way across the driveway, its slime trail glistening in the afternoon sun. I’d grab the snail and run in the house. My mom would be in the kitchen washing or cooking. Smiling, I would say, “Mommy look!” and hold out the snail in my hand to show her. But as soon as she saw it she would tense, stomp her foot and point to the back door. “Get it out of here with that.” I would not be disappointed, but run to the back yard where my dad kept the 5 gallon bucket. I wasn’t strong enough yet to pry open the perforated lid, so I would gently place the snail on top and wait for my dad to come home. I would put the snail on its back and watch it slowly slither out of its shell and try and work its body back on the ground. Just before it was right again and started to crawl away, I would poke it with my finger. The snail would quickly retract back in its shell and I’d watch the whole struggle all over again.
When my dad came home he would be happy and proud that I caught a new one. He’d pop the lid off the bucket and let me place the new snail in the bottom with the rest of them before snapping the lid back on. “Now go inside and wash your hands” he said and I’d skip back in, happy to have added to the collection.
One day I was called from my room to dinner. As I sat down there was a dish with a strange green and steaming pile of something resting near my dad. My mother set down more familiar dinner dishes, but she still seemed tense and angry when she finally sat down to eat. My dad was beaming for some reason and stared intently on the mystery dish that sat near him. “What’s that?” I asked pointing to the green pile.
“Escargot” my dad replied.
“Snails. Cooked in garlic pesto. It’s one of my favorite dishes.”
“You cooked the snails?” I asked in bewilderment.
“Yep. It’s a famous French dish. You should try them.”
I scrunched my nose as I imagined all those snails sliming around one another in the bucket, but from where I sat I could smell the garlic and herbs. My dad poked around in the pile with a fork until he scooped up a little unshapely gray mass covered in the creamy sauce. He placed it on my plate a stared at me intently. I picked up my fork and poked it a little. My dad was waiting patiently and my mom sat with her elbow on the table covering her mouth. I stabbed the little gray mass and slowly placed it in my mouth.
It was a little chewy and kind of tasted like I put a coin in my mouth, but the salty garlic and herb sauce covered up any off-putting flavor and soon I chewed and swallowed.
“Yum” I said.
My dad started laughing and my mom smacked her forehead and sighed.
That was the first time I had snails or even thought they might be eatable. Now I knew why my dad started catching them. He said he wanted to wait until I was older before he cooked them and, against my mother’s wishes, he started making escargot a regular side dish about once a month.
I got a little older and I guess it was about middle school when I came home one day and there was a snail in the drive way. I picked it up and went inside to show my dad. He had been home a lot lately. He said things were a little slow at work, but nothing to be worried about. My mom was in the kitchen as usual and I passed by her silently with the snail curled up in my hand. I went to the back yard where my dad was tending his garden. The garden now took up most of the back yard and some things were growing over the fence. It didn’t seem to have any organization. Some squash grew here, some lettuce there, tomatoes and peppers on one end and herbs growing in random spots. He had had more time the past few months to tend it and plant. Usually when I got home he was hoeing or pruning or trimming.
I showed him the snail and he smiled a humbly. “Let’s put him with the rest”. He kept the 5 gallon bucket in the same spot year after year. It was probably the same bucket he’d been using since I was a child. I was strong enough now to pry the lid off the bucket so I could place the new snail in the bottom. I noticed there was quite a muck of snails, more so than I ever remembered. As I stared down at them my dad came up and threw some leafy greens in on them.
“That looks like a lot of snails” I said.
“Yep, the most we’ve ever had probably. I figured out how to breed them. We don’t have to catch them like before and wait until we have enough to eat. Now we can feast! How does an escargot fest sound to you?”
“Sounds good! But what about mom?”
“Oh, she’ll be alright. She always eats something else. We have to purge these little guys for a while to clean their systems out. Then I’ll give them red wine to drink so they’ll be already marinated. It’ll be a legendary escargot smorgasbord!” He snapped the lid back on the bucket and went back to tending his garden.
For about a month I would leave in the morning for school. My dad would be sitting at the table reading the newspaper which was strange because usually he left for work before I went to school. When I got home he was in his garden again and every day it seemed like the garden grew wilder and wilder until it was like walking into a jungle, but the snail bucket always remained in the same place.
At the end of the month I came home and as soon as I opened the door a waft of cooking garlic hit my nose hinted with pungent and sweet herbs. My dad was moving about the kitchen in an excited pace. Bowls were clanging, steam was hovering, wooded utensils were popping and my mom stood on the edge of the kitchen with her arms crossed and a slight scowl on her face. I went in my room to put up my books and when I came out the table was already set.
Around the edge of the table were fresh vegetables from my dad’s garden, squash and green beans, but in the middle was a big empty space and a lone trivet. I sat down at my place and my mom sat too almost hesitantly. My dad still clamored and banged in the kitchen and all at once the noise stopped.
Suddenly he appeared in the dining room doorway grinning and eye’s shining. He held a huge steaming plate with both hands as if it were a platter of gold. He proudly walked to the table and placed the large plate on the waiting trivet.
The pile of escargot rose from the plate like a mountain covered in spring grass. The garlic and herb sauce glistened in the light like daises in a green meadow. Steam spewed from the plate and rose to the ceiling like an angry rain cloud about to thunder. This was my father’s master piece and he stood with his hands on his hips admiring his creation.
I sat with my eyes wide and my jaw open. The garlic filled my nose as I stared at the gluttonous pile of snails that cast a shadow on the vegetables from the garden.
“Let’s eat!” he announced and quickly sat at his place picking up a serving spoon without hesitation. He scooped a generous helping on my plate and his and a more modest one on my mother’s. He picked up his fork and waited for us to do the same, his smile never leaving his face. I poked one of the snails and my mother hesitantly did the same. My father was savoring the moment and waited for us to take the first bite.
I bit into mine and the garlic and herb sauce coated my tongue. It was by far the best batch of snails my dad had ever made. The soft iron-y snail dissolved as I chewed and the herbs and butter coated my mouth. I involuntarily closed my eyes to savor the meal.
When I slowly opened them I looked toward my mother. She had a little green goop on the end of her fork as she moved it to her mouth she started to tremble. Her face flushed red and twisted. She threw her fork on to her plate and began to sob with her head in her hands. She pushed her chair back violently and ran out of the room crying as she went.
My dad slunk his shoulders and bowed his head. Before him lay an untouched heap of cooked snails still spewing fresh steam.
My mom stayed with her sister until my school year ended. That summer she started packing all of her things. My dad told me to do the same. One day while I was packing, I went to look for my dad and found him standing in his garden looking down at a patch of dirt where nothing grew. I stood next to him and looked at his jungle he had created over the years. It started as just a small vegetable garden, but now it had grown to the point where you could no longer see the fence.
“What will you do with your garden?” I asked my dad.
“I’ll have to cut it all out.” He said. “The realtor wants it to look like when we moved in.”
I looked at the dry patch he was staring at. Then around at his jungle. “Is it because of the snails?” I asked.
“Is what because of the snails?” he said dryly.
“Mom. Did she leave because of the snails?”
My dad snickered but didn’t shift his eyes. “No. It wasn’t because of the snails.”
“Then what was it?”
“A lot of things I guess. A lot of things.”
I went back to finish packing leaving my dad in his thoughts. Before I went inside I saw the dirty white bucket still in its place against the house.
I had to stay with my mom and aunt. It wasn’t really my choice, but both my mom and dad agreed it was best. The house was sold and my dad moved to some trailer park on the edge of town. I started to see less and less of him. Some years later my mom met a man and married him. He wasn’t a bad guy I guess, he treated her right and was nice to me. We moved in with him my last year of high school. He had a nice house, two story, with a pool. His lawn was immaculate and you could walk in the grass barefooted if you wanted. I had never seen my mom happier.
I visited my dad sometimes, but I didn’t really like where he lived. His used trailer was once white, but the paint had deteriorated to a dingy grey with black streaks. He didn’t have a yard to grow a garden, so he started growing things in pots that slowly began to take over his dilapidated porch. He said he found a job and was making pretty good money. If that was the case I never understood why he still lived in the trailer park.
I went off to college and didn’t see much of either my mom or dad. My mom would go vacationing with her husband during the summers and I would work odd jobs. I would visit my dad less and less because the apartment I rented with some friends was cleaner and more comfortable than his rotting trailer.
I finished college and found a job. I had to move farther away from my family, but it seemed neither had much interest or say in my life. My mom always seemed to be in another country with her husband and my dad began to sink deeper and deeper in his trailer.
One day I went to visit him. I don’t know how long it had been, three or four years maybe. He was still living in the same trailer. When I walked up to it, the porch was surrounded by more plants than I remember. There were more than just pots. Vines crawled up around the sides snaking up from what little dirt surrounded the shabby house. My dad slowly pushed his way out of the door to hug me, his smile beamed and his eyes sparkled even though they were almost hidden under flaps of wrinkled skin.
When I went into his trailer his garden didn’t stop at the porch, but it crept its way inside. All over his house were plants, some hanging in pots and others growing out of trou
ghs. Leaves and vines and various shades of green climbed up the walls and I half expected an animal to jump out of the foliage. It was humid inside and a thick almost decaying smell hung in the air. Every wall was covered with some kind of plant and various florescent lights hung and random spots or corners.
He led me to the back of the house to the kitchen and opened up a closet. On the floor was a dirty five gallon bucket with a perforated lid. “You know what’s in here don’t you?” he asked.
“Of course I do.” I replied with a smile.
“I’ve been purging some. You came at just the right time. Tonight we shall feast!”
He had perfected his escargot. They tasted better than I ever remember, even though it had been years since I ate them. We had fresh vegetables he had grown on his porch and everything he said except the oil and butter he had grown himself.
I left after our feast and as I walked to my car I noticed a slime trail on the ground. I followed it with my eyes hoping to pick up the snail and take it back to my dad, but it was too dark to see, and the trail disappeared into the night.