The longing to reconnect with the people we've lost can supersede logic, even in the steadiest people – a truth discovered by the widowed speaker in the title story of Places Like These (forthcoming from Book*hug Press) by Lauren Carter.
Grieving her husband's sudden death, the widow finds herself, alone and uncomfortable, at a spiritualist retreat where mediums claim to be able to channel messages from lost loved ones. During this strange trip, Carter weaves in the story of the widow's life with her husband, and much more.
"Places Like These" is just one story in Carter's powerful collection, which is filled with Munro-esque pieces that explore relationships and the inner workings of the human heart with deep insight, all captured in Carter's fluid, streamlined prose. Arresting and honest, these are stories set against backdrops around the world telling universal truths about what we all long for.
We're sharing an excerpt from the title story in Places Like These today, which sees the widow's arrival and early experiences at the spiritualist retreat, and gives a glimpse into the everyday tragedy of her loss.
Excerpt from Places Like These by Lauren Carter:
Places Like These
For weeks, I have been seeing Robert. Turning the corner of the grocery store as I walk in for frozen dinners and yogurt, disappearing into subway cars. Always he is wearing that light brown jacket he had in the eighties and a pair of worn, baggy blue jeans. He looks like he did the summer of ’88, when we took the train to Moosonee, when we began travelling, started spending money on ourselves, when we gave up, as my mother called it right up until she died.
“He has a message for you,” Joanie told me, and said I should go. Three times in one week I heard about the place: the article in the doctor’s office, when I went for my mammogram and flipped open Budget Travel to those glossy pictures of the community’s iron gate, the summer-camp-like amphitheatre, and a medium peering down at her spread of tarot cards; then there was a book face up in a sidewalk remainders bin, bearing a black-and-white image of Victorian psychics; and finally, the reassuring baritone of Michael Enright’s voice on the radio—Next up, a town where the dead can talk—reverberating through my quiet apartment as I walked, towel-clad, to take a shower. I froze, leaned a naked shoulder against the plaster wall, felt a shiver under my skin. “You have to go,” Joanie said. “He is close. Even I feel that.”
In the hotel lobby, a framed sign says Absolutely No Séances! It’s crooked, hung on a wood-panelled pillar. A dusty Persian carpet is spread on the hardwood floor beneath a set of wicker furniture. The pink-and-red cushions clash with the rug. The place is old, smelling of mildew overlaid with the cloying fragrance of artificial vanilla from the plug-in air freshener. Out on the front veranda, half a dozen rocking chairs thump against the hollow floor. I hear people chattering, mostly women with their daughters and girlfriends, eager to reach their loved ones, find the person who can penetrate the distance, pull back the dead as if hauling fish from the depths. I’m the only one who seems to be alone, apart from a skinny white-haired man in polyester tan pants, thick-soled white shoes, and a plaid flannel shirt, even now, even in the high humid summer. He’s sitting on the wicker love seat, looking down. Against his leg he presses a glossy brochure, and even from all the way over here, in line for my turn at the desk, waiting to receive an iron skeleton key with a large purple plastic tag marked 42 in worn gold numbers, I see the tiny image of a woman, hair short and black in a polished cap like a beetle’s carapace. I wonder if she’s the one I’m meant to go to, if spotting her miniature, smiling face like this, like a slight, secret thought that pulls you up into consciousness in the empty wasteland of the night, is a sign. But when I turn back from scrawling my signature in the register, he is gone.
Robert had his heart attack after our trip to B.C. We’d hiked too much, eaten too much rich food. Oysters dredged through bowls of foamy, golden garlic butter; hard walks over the forest’s uneven floor. Everything was my idea, even the tent trailer—a two-person contraption with shrunken canvas that dragged behind us as we floored the mushy gas pedal up through the Rockies. Robert clenched the steering wheel, eyes flickering to the rear-view, embarrassed at the lineup building behind us. “Just put on your hazards,” I said, exasperated, and his finger trembled as he fumbled for the button on the dash, pressing it firmly like a final decision. By then, we’d been married for eighteen years, and there were cracks, subtle ones like the settling of foundation cement, not deep enough to do damage. “Like a house,” I told my sister, Joanie, who at fifty-one had never married, though she had birthed a child at sixteen, back home in Hearst, and given him up for adoption. Last autumn, after I was widowed, she was in the flush of new motherhood because he had found her, sent a card with a wide, choppy ocean on the front, a miniature dinghy carrying a little blond-haired girl and an orangutan, rowing. The card was creased, as if purchased years ago, never sent. “Strange choice,” I said. “He’s a veterinarian,” she told me. Her eyes had not stopped shining.
The walls in my room are covered in climbing green vines and pink rose blooms that look like they’ve faded from red. There’s a double bed with shrieking springs. The coverlet is cream-coloured, with a nubby texture and a silky fringe. There is a sink in the corner, with old-fashioned taps, and shared showers and toilets across the hall. Through the single small window I can see a row of yellow, blue, and white Victorian houses, trimmed in gingerbread. Shingles hang over their stained-glass-panelled doors: Animal Medium, Tarot Card Readings, Spirit Message Work. I let the sheer white curtain fall and dim the sun. It is a beautiful August afternoon; I really should be outside. Through the metal screen, I hear happy, distant voices, and a woman at the microphone in the amphitheatre. “I’m getting an M,” she says. “I see a pile of books by a bed.”
Robert and I have no children. We tried for years. When nothing happened but my regular period, showing up each month like a surly, passive teenager, I went to an acupuncturist and drank cup after cup of bitter, dirt-tasting tea, a different one each week. In his office, I shrank back on the cold cot as he threaded stainless-steel needles through my skin. Whenever he hit a point of built-up tension, I felt the release like pure electricity, like a fingertip glancing an open circuit. It was uncomfortable. All that time, those long years, trying that and even more, were uncomfortable. Robert told me it didn’t matter, but I could never believe him, was not convinced that inside himself he didn’t harbour regret, like sediment gathered in his blood. One day, it drifted into his heart, and that’s what killed him.
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My sister shook her head when I first made this confession. She is a nurse, pragmatic, practical, always searching out the obvious. “He loved you,” she told me then, wanting to reach for my hand but resisting. Her fingers closed gently into a fist on the table’s edge. “He would have done it all over in a heartbeat.” The exact words he often used. Maybe she’d heard him say it.
We didn’t bother stopping in Vancouver. It would have been a nightmare driving through with the trailer—all those busy streets and last-second turns. At Horseshoe Bay, we caught the ferry to Nanaimo, took the space of two cars. Robert didn’t want to leave the driver’s seat. In hindsight, I think he was already getting ill, his face pasty and grey, a sheen of oily sweat on his brow. How he kept licking his lips. I should have known is what I want to say, what I want to somehow tell him, and also, I’m sorry, for the life I gave you, the loneliness you never expected. In the back of the car, his fishing gear was piled up, a special salt-water rod that wouldn’t rust, that he’d just bought. Gently, with the promise of soup and a cup of coffee, treacly sweet the way he liked it, a treat of eighteen percent cream, I enticed him to the upper decks. Outside, the wind was so strong, it lashed the sharp points of my hair into my eyes. We sought the shelter of the ship’s lee side and, alone on the deck but for the cigarette smokers and a young man with long hair that looked dry as hay, a pipe hidden in his cupped hand, we saw the killer whales. Two of them, breaching side by side, and after they dove down, a momentary pool of stillness appeared in the ocean’s dark churn. I gripped Robert’s cold hand and warmed it between my own as we stood against the railing, the smell of marijuana like incense in the air.
I wake, alone, in the late afternoon. I am still not used to the hollow that my body pushes against, the empty air where once there was form. Robert’s girth, broad-shouldered, a hefty gut on him from the time he turned forty-five. Nowadays everyone says that’s a sign, but we were never ones to baby our mortality. From the time we were young together, we enjoyed food, didn’t restrict its pleasures: ate butter, fried foods—in balance, I suppose, with organic greens and grapeseed oil in place of olive in the pan in later years. We didn’t smoke, drank too much only during those two years in Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, when Robert was getting his start in the newsroom and there was nothing else to do. We were in our thirties then. Who doesn’t do that?
“Genetics,” Joanie often says. “You can’t fight ’em.”
She says that for me but also for herself, as a way to shift the conversation. I’ve heard it all before, but I smile whenever she tells me again: the remarkable way her son, Allan now when she had named him Stuart, swings his hand to the right, fingers flipped out, in the exact same dismissive gesture she uses, how his forehead creases like hers when he’s listening hard.
Robert’s father died at fifty-eight. A massive heart attack in the underground quarry in Goderich, where he worked as foreman. They found him face down on the edge of a snowdrift of salt. The air glimmering and sharp, I imagine, because I’ve been there, because Robert and I did a tour of that place on another, different trip.
The trail to Inspiration Stump leads through the pet cemetery, which isn’t kept up. Purple-blooming periwinkle winds around a leaning wooden cross that says Fluffy in a scrawl of black paint. A clay angel sits, half melted from the rain, on the edge of the forest of tall hardwoods. Through the trunks, there is the constant shuffling of leaves, the flash of sunlight and shadow, the flicker of ribbons tied to low branches.
In the clearing, I sit on a bench for the final service of the day. Most of the people there must have eaten, because it’s my stomach that growls into the silence as the medium climbs on top of the large trunk, his eyes closed, concentrating. He leans his ear toward the audience. Embarrassed, I press the palms of both hands against my roiling insides, trying to shush my hungry belly’s complaints.
“You,” says the medium. “You in the black shirt, green scarf.” I am curled into myself, around my hollow core.
“You,” he says again, and someone nudges my shoulder. “Honey, it’s you!”
I look up.
“Kathy,” he says.
I shake my head. “No.”
Three women call out: “I’m Kathy! That’s me!”
The medium looks flustered, a wash of pink in his cheeks.
His eyes slide to the woman to my left, a gap the width of two bodies between us. Her face is tipped up, mouth slack. A friend clutches her hand, and their entwined fingers press against Kathy’s bare, bony knee. “I see a dog,” the medium says, and Kathy squints as she searches her mind.
“My cousin had a dog. He died last year.”
“Ronnie, Rowan...” the medium mumbles.
“Robby,” says Kathy.
I stare at her, then back at the medium.
“You loved this animal. You miss him. You walked with him.” He pushes his fingers against his forehead, pinching the skin over his skull. “I see water.”
Kathy looks confused.
Slowly I raise my arm, but the medium does not see me. Someone in the back has leapt up. “I had a dog named Ronnie,” she shouts, and someone behind me gasps. “When I was a child,” she says, and bursts out crying, cupping her mouth, nose, and chin in both hands. Weeping, she drops to the hard seat as the medium tells her it wasn’t her fault, this is the message he’s getting from the small grey terrier he can see now, and I stand up, push past Kathy, excusing myself, a quiver in my nerves, heart trembling, as I walk back through the woods.
You come to places like this and expect to be called on. You come, expecting glimmering eyes to fall on you, flutter closed, and a voice to speak, clear enough to not be questioned: I see him, newly passed, and he wants me to tell you he loves you, he does not blame you, you were his best friend. The trip to B.C. was the best trip ever. Those walks on Chesterman Beach. The fires at the campground in Tofino. The afternoon out on the ocean, fishing for mackerel and salmon, a surprise for his birthday. All of it. He loved it.
He loved you.
[Story continues in "Places Like These", published in the collection Places Like These by Lauren Carter]
Excerpt taken from Places Like These by Lauren Carter. Published by Book*hug Press. Copyright Lauren Carter, 2023. Reprinted with permission.
Lauren Carter is the author of four previous books of fiction and poetry, including This Has Nothing to Do with You, winner of the 2020 Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. She has also received the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer. Her debut novel, Swarm, was longlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads. Carter’s stories and poems have been published widely in journals and longlisted multiple times for the CBC Literary Prizes. Her short story “Rhubarb” won the Prairie Fire Fiction Award and was subsequently included in Best Canadian Stories in 2015. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. An Ontarian transplanted to Manitoba, Carter lives just outside of Winnipeg, where she writes, teaches writing, and mentors other writers. She writes regularly about her creative process at www.laurencarter.ca.