In Barbara Langhorst's Want (Palimpsest Press), Delphine's life is happy and calm. She and her husband, Hugo, live in peace on a small hobby farm in the Prairies, studiously oblivious to contemporary issues and conflicts. But when an innocent misunderstanding around online shopping exposes the cracks in her marriage, the results are as sharply funny as they are poignant and insightful. In the midst of domestic strife, Delphine's brother Paul arrives on the scene, obsessing about the end times and bringing the darkness of the wider world to the farm's idyllic setting. Family secrets, the quest for survival both emotional and literal, and complicated relationships all come together to form a story that is darkly hilarious, wisely meditative, and deeply relatable.
We're thrilled to be able to share an excerpt from Want exclusively here on Open Book, courtesy of Palimpsest Press. This passage takes readers into Delphine's life in Saskatchewan, how she and Hugo first met, and that moment of consumerist zeal that kicks off a series of unpredictable, and irreversible, events in their lives.
Excerpt from Want by Barbara Langhorst:
Seconds later, when i opened my car door, I was greeted by the sound of the mower whirring far away. He must be out working on the back forty, as we called it, the yard and gardens we’d built from scratch that first year, when we were new to Saskatchewan and newer still to acreage living, before we’d become acquainted with the endless chores that hobby-farming held for those dreaming the life pastoral. I unpacked the car, trudged up the stone path to the house, and Lucky bounded over.
Here was someone glad to greet me, anyway. When I’d scritched the black lab’s ears and fussed over him for a few minutes, I managed to open the screen door and cross the threshold before he did: it was important to maintain one’s position in the pack, people were always telling me that. The two of us were crowded onto the small landing, and I reached over the dog to hang up my jacket. When I slipped off my boots, my socks got wet, and Lucky and I tangled our way up the stairs to the kitchen. I tried to think of something delicious to eat to console myself. I opened the refrigerator, and found that the last piece of pecan pie was gone. Hugo must have beaten me to it. I looked for the Genoa salami I’d bought last week, but it was already greeny-grey; the slices reproached me with their dead white eyes of fat. Suddenly, I wasn’t hungry. Lucky, however, was not so fussy; he tried to help himself to the cheese sticks on the lower shelf, but I pulled him back by his collar.
In a few minutes I finished some peanut butter on two pieces of raisin toast and a quick glass of instant iced tea, but I was not what anyone would have called satisfied.
The work wasn’t going to do itself, so I wandered into the dining room to clear the table—Mom’s table—so that I’d have room to code the latest batch of surveys. Lucky knew the drill and settled on the floor with a soft thump. Hugo had picked up the mail and, as usual, had left it a jumble on the table. I tut-tutted to myself as I sorted the mess: catalogues, mammogram notice, an envelope thick with unsolicited labels from the Red Cross, the atrociously high SaskPower bill. But before I even started, I spied it there, lying in wait beneath the letters, the thing that promised me an hour of pure, uncomplicated relief.
The latest Homeward magazine.
As I touched it, a chime rang out and I jumped, drawing my hand back, just for a second. But it was only the wall clock Hugo’s parents had given us for a wedding present, more than three decades ago. I was so used to it that I rarely heard it, but this time it was enough to make me glance over to check the time. It was only one-thirty. I told myself a quick looksee would revive me, sustain me through the tedium of the work I needed to do. “Lose yourself in the kitchen reno issue, SIX Before & Afters,” the cover called. I couldn’t resist, but I forced myself to remain standing as I flipped through, pausing now and then to study an image or read a description. It was all so fresh, so utterly charming. Before I knew it, I’d pulled up a chair at the table and had started back at the beginning, reading slowly through ads and articles alike, lingering over page after page of glossy photos. Kitchens far less miserable than mine went under the saw, the hammer, the roller—and emerged elegant, refined, soothing. It was all perfectly logical. If the kitchen was the heart of the home, ours was on life support and I didn’t recall signing a DNR.
Hugo and I are impulsive people, though you would never guess it from looking at Hugo. We love the strange and the quirky, and it was in one of those odd situations that we met. I was struggling to speak Swedish when a tall stranger strode into the museum where I was interning, the Liljevalchs Konsthall. He seemed to bring the single glorious day of sun we were granted that foggy October I was in Stockholm. Before long, he’d asked all manner of questions about the collection—in charming English, of course. Before many days had passed, we were chatting over the world-famous desserts at the Blå Porten, the café next door to the museum.
Humboldt, SK (population 5,000) is a far cry from Stockholm, but seven years ago, after three children and two careers together, Hugo and I moved to our acreage, a complete 180 from life in Edmonton, AB (population one million). Humboldt’s little gallery hosted an ambitious line-up of coffeehouse nights featuring local bands playing golden oldies spliced with poetry readings and sing-alongs, children’s studio programs in two languages, and a series of professional workshops, not to mention rotating art shows and regular gallery hours. We did outreach to small towns within a radius of 75 km, with free seminars for seniors and cost-recovery for the rest on topics ranging from stained-glass to linocuts to salt-glazed ceramics and textile arts and of course, portraits in oil. Those last were officially my area, though I was sad to say I couldn’t remember the last time I had painted for pleasure. All my time was taken up with my colleague Marie on a SSHRC research project, a full grant to survey my absolu-tively favourite thing, as my daughter Gina would say, so-called “shelter rags,” or home décor magazines.
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I had been teasing myself with fantasies about a new kitchen for most of my time in Saskatchewan. In March, Marie told me she was tired of watching the pile of inspiration photos colluding and whispering on my desk, said she’d help me measure the kitchen when Hugo was in town swimming laps at the pool. It was her idea to open that file, the “papers” the nameless voice had instructed me to take. It wasn’t as if I was hiding anything from Hugo. It was just that from time to time I needed to get away, lose myself in the dream, go window e-shopping.
My daughter Gina did the same thing, except with clothes. It was so simple, so harmless. You just put what-ever you wanted into your electronic shopping cart—adding items until you ran out of time or your interest waned, and then with two strokes of a key, you could run the total and then make it all disappear. As quick as a hiccup, you could start over, any time you pleased, the whole exercise as cathartic, as healing, as a sand mandala.
Since Hugo was on the back forty, neglecting me, I simply took Marie’s advice: I went online to brightideas.com and loaded the complete kitchen-planning tool. Every designer knows what marvels a new layout can do for an awkward space. And as it turned out, there was a tremendous sale on for Easter; things just got better and better. So while Hugo gave the property its spring tune-up, as he rode the lawnmower around the orchard, circled through the Summercrisp pear trees and the Jubilee cherries, the hardy Norland and the Parkland apples, the tall saskatoon bushes and the thick stands of raspberries and haskaps and high-bush cranberries, I was landscaping, too: land-e-scaping.
Yet I wasn’t ready to go down just any rabbit-hole; the first spread was too much, even for me, an oiled expanse of thick custom teak cabinets with notched-in handles and luminous soapstone counters, more like fine furniture than spaces to hide pots and pans or cans of green beans and tomatoes. Those over-the-top pieces would never fit our aesthetic, let alone our budget, if we had a budget for renovation, which we did not.
The fourth kitchen was bohemian chic, hip. That was more like it—I wanted to bring our house out of the 90s. I chose the same white cabinets the photos had, the ones with a slim Shaker profile. For contrast, I panelled the new island with rich walnut, topped it with a slab of Carrera marble, and slipped all that and five bentwood stools with chic crossed backs into my online cart. To balance the room, I added more veneer on the new pantry wall, kitted it out with double ovens, a built-in Espresso machine, and, of course, a convection microwave. Into my cart I plopped stainless steel appliances, as there are no fingerprints in fantasy, a six-burner gas stove and a glowing refrigerator with French doors and a bottom freezer. The island would feature a bank of drawers, including one for unwieldy items like my professional mixer, with a special hoist to lift it up to counter height.
I could feel the room evolve around me. The cabinets ran to the ceiling, and a small row at the top had glass doors and interior lighting for tasteful displays of our finest things. The backsplash of pale marble tiles rippled in a herringbone pattern. Unvarnished brass hardware would age with a delicate patina. Three hand-blown glass pendants hung centred in a row above the island. Acres of countertop would boast a large mango-wood bowl full of artichokes and a glass cube vase with pear-coloured hydrangeas or bluish-purple delphiniums or thin branches popping with pink ornamental plum blossoms.
The sun was low in the living room windows, and a band of apricot-coloured haze stretched long across the wooden floors. Lucky, still sleeping, lay zebra-striped, a product of light and shadow slanting through the dog gate. At last I was done. I checked my order, prepared to run the total. That was my favourite part of the online binge: the exorcism. The process reminded me of looking at cookbooks, where, after an hour of salivating over which treat I wanted, my head would swim, I’d feel tired of thinking, and I could relax into the roast chicken breast, whole-wheat pasta, and frozen peas that were really on my cardio diet.
As I looked over the order, I wondered how much money the store must be making to be able to offer such a sale and still turn a profit. Maybe it was the strange spring, maybe I was having a mid-life crisis. Blame it on the apocalypse—but as I clicked Total I felt a rush of pressure in my ears, that high ringing on the left side. Something shivered me from throat to liver.
The thing that was never supposed to happen had happened. The price was reasonable.
I couldn’t think. Thoughts rushed by, a silver school of darting fishes. I had to slow things down, create order, no, really, that was the problem—I must not create the order.
The kitchen sale ended on Thursday; the bedroom event was starting on Friday for Easter weekend. Surely if we paid in instalments, we could afford it. Surely we could. Kitchens sold houses, that was common knowledge. Hugo would agree with me, he always did. Happy wife, happy life...didn’t they always say that on those home reno shows? Honestly, could we afford NOT to?
I heard bootsteps on the back deck, followed by a loud clang-thud-clang as the door swung open and slammed shut behind Hugo. Suddenly he was there, stomping the grass clippings from his feet, tossing his gloves into the basket.
He called up cheerfully, “Delphine? Supper ready yet?”
Born and educated in Edmonton, AB, Barbara Langhorst teaches writing and literature at St. Peter’s College in Muenster, SK. Her first book, Restless White Fields (NeWest 2012), won Poetry Book of the Year Awards in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Want is her debut novel. She lives in Humboldt, SK.