How to Kill Snails and Slugs

by Charlotte E. Wilde

The words hit me with the shiver of a cold Cincinnati night. Cracked over my head like an egg into the cast-iron skillet of our breakfast, slithering down the sides by my ears, cold and wet.

There I stood, last night’s bourbon still pooling in my eye, on the high porch of his apartment with a peppermint tea and a square. I found that cigarette a particularly fragile excuse for an accomplice, both of us having been rolled tight by his fingers and forgotten the night before.  Puffs of smoky lungs snuck by while I ran my minty tongue across the sides of ragged checks and wiggled my snow-wet toes, feeling both acutely alive yet entirely absent from myself. A sentiment I imagined to be orchestrated by my Freudian mind to repress the accumulating sorrow, like a bucket lazily filling from the slow dripping leak in the roof of our love that was not.

The muted grey blue buildings on that Cincinnati skyline blurred my thoughts on the danger of words. Cruel words, the sum of them so much greater than the second it took them to slither silently, serpent-like into the ear of my soul where they’d rattle and hiss angerly at the mess for weeks. Still, that sorrow, like the loneliness of a winter highway drive, sometimes tasted like it had some merit beyond just the time to think. Like swaying telephone lines along the way I counted sloping he-didn’t-mean-to’s strung between it’s-not-as-bad-as-you-think’s, always eventually becoming distracted and starting back at zero. I measured the distance between them in the miles covered and phone calls ignored and lies lined up like road signs disappearing in the blur between point-A and point-B.

In the beginning I had been cautious, tucking fragile horns along with the rest of me back into my shell at the first sign of salt that he’d sprinkled on his window sill to keep me out. But soon I became a child with a cigar box of secrets. So precious, so intimate, that box filled with trinkets, stolen cigarettes, stranger’s skeletons and little blue glass marbles that I guarded it jealously even as I told myself it didn’t matter. Probably, if I left it on the bar next to my keys it would go unnoticed and be there waiting, with him next to it, when I returned.

At first I had been cautious but somewhere I’d forgot— the knowledge of that forgetfullness arriving like February snow, accumulating softly in the night to slice through hungover eyelids with the ostentatious glare of refracted morning light.

Hindsight’s twenty-twenty riding on my heels, I stole back inside where the fear of getting caught couldn’t keep me from peeking again at the little books filled with his poetry and whiskey thoughts. Furtive musings recorded in handwriting so perfect and crafted it imposed itself on the hands of those who read it.  Those yellowed moleskin pages told sordid tales of Rosemary olive bread, indiscretion, irreverence, and used bookstores; they held the remains of the girls before me and the ones he was lining up like little tin soldiers to come after. Despite the bitter taste of trespass I searched for him in that wreckage, looking for some sliver of understanding, some tangible sincerity, a revelatory phrase that might serve as explanation. I found none that rang any truer than what I already knew and refused to accept.

The reality was we were nothing but a game of inches; the inches between where those books were and where I left them, the inches between my cold feet and his as I lay trying not to breathe on his twin bed, the inches of flesh that he felt didn’t belong on my hips that he began to whittle off with whispers in the night and letters that came complete with little sketches of his life. Those words that he stored up in notebooks or whispered in the dark, those words that cracked over my head and slithered down cold by my ears like the egg into his breakfast skillet, he never did realize their weight. So, with burning briny toes and a sudden March thaw of resolve I strode barefoot through the slush to my car and drove away.

To my surprise, the telephone wires on the way home no longer sang of excuses but of possibility. Even with feet that burned roadsalt white and the ridges of the break’s temptation resting on every toe I never considered going back for what I’d left behind; realizing the risk that in a search for a shell, a shoe, or an answer I might forget what I was looking for, as I had so many time in the past.

The death of childish wonder and optimism was not to be mourned for out of that fertile spot grew the sturdy shoots of stern control and proud wariness pushing side-by-side, as tall and straight as Kentucky pines. Yet, years later I find I still carry his heavy words, snail-like, a shell upon my back; the weighty consequence of utterances crafted to fall like salt in open wounds, to teach caution to the careless, to consume those who linger on sills of someone else’s ugly life.

Perhaps this was a valuable lesson, but while these days I very rarely think of him, I still wonder sometimes at the price.