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Bette Howland’s Long-Lost July 4th Story, “Aronesti”

The Chicago author Bette Howland published three books in her lifetime, won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, and was lauded by Saul Bellow as “one of the significant writers of her generation”—and then she was nearly lost to history. A chance discovery of her memoir, W-3, on the dollar cart at a used bookstore has brought Bette Howland back to public attention with the publication of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (A Public Space Books). The collection spans the entirety of her career, from her first published story to her late-in-life masterpiece. “Aronesti” is Bette Howland’s debut, set over the Fourth of July and first published in Saul Bellow’s magazine Noble Savage in 1962 alongside work by Nelson Algren and Arthur Miller. 

The short story appears here courtesy of A Public Space.


“Aronesti”

Aronesti disliked the smell of the house. It flagged a cue card at him: Nostalgia; but when he sniffed—“What is it? What is this smell? What do I remember?”—his imagination dived and skidded, like a false start in a dream. That was the way that summer cabins smelled, that was all. This air of past summers trapped under the floorboards; the heat’s furry embrace: Sham. Eight years he had been coming to this town on the dunes, renting this same cabin; he had brought furniture, he had left books. But nothing changed. Whenever he returned to walk through the four small rooms, to force the fast windows and to thrust open the doors—waking up the curled wasps that would begin staggering—he sensed that he was serving a notice of eviction.

A high school biology teacher, two months’ vacation, a chance to break, every year, with routine; he knew that his would be considered a “nice life,” but not for the reasons he had chosen. Why anyone should want to break with routine, he could not understand; change filled him like a keg of murky water. But he adjusted to his summers—ate rare hamburgers, spat watermelon seeds, set mousetraps, mended window screens (since something chewed them). And in the night, if he heard the click of a mousetrap, he would give a start of satisfaction. But also, often, he would lower his book, and look about for its companions: he felt lonely and constricted when he was not surrounded by books, and had no choice of them. He lived like a prisoner who must exercise in his cell to maintain his dignity.

Why, then? Ada had wanted it. Why now? His mother wanted.

“Phew,” the old woman said, coming up to him with her nose buried in a pile of linen. “Damp; damp. This smell is bad for you. Take these sheets before I have to make the beds, and give them a hang up on the line.”

“Miasma, miasma. Smells can’t harm you.”

“But the damp—the damp smell; it gets into your lungs.” She held a sheet out in her fist.

“Why can’t you trust me? I know about such things.”

“Then go turn on light bulbs. I think we need some. I’m writing down a list for the store.” She was not writing; she hated to write; it exhausted her. But it sounded busy.

So he went around the house switching on lights, crouching in dusty corners to plug in plugs. He went out to the car and brought in the sandwiches and lemonade left over from what his mother had packed for lunch. He opened the refrigerator—the little light popped on; he felt warm and happy, and then a plunging sadness; he had forgotten for a moment where he was, that he was on this side; and on that side was the past, everything. And on this side, only he; and all eternity would not fill the gap between. He nudged the door, but it slammed with finality. The motor throbbed.

Aronesti’s mother would answer the telephone: “Who’s that?” Or the doorbell, “Who’s that?” She was still in a foreign country; she would always be. There were things she did not even care to get used to, the doorlock buzzer, for instance, which she always held down with her thumb (they lived three flights up, in the city) until the caller came right to the door. She could not believe that its only function was to unlock that door way down there.

Nevertheless, she answered their telephone. Aronesti did not like telephones: it was mere forgetfulness that he had had their summer number connected again. One night when he was ranging the house with a flyswatter, developing a style of swinging (with a hook), of sliding the dead beast off the flip end—the telephone rang. His mother was in bed. It was very late. Something imperceptible as the force of gravity pressed on his bowels.

“Hello.”

A hesitation. “Hello.” Female.

“Hello.”

“Is Jack there?” She already knew that he was not.

“Jack who?” How senseless to prolong it; he knew no Jacks.

“Jack Bramer?”

“Did you say Bramer?”

“Listen—is Jack there?”

“No. I think you must have the wrong number.”

Click.

It was not his fault. That some piece of machinery had summoned him. Rudely. He was ready.

Maybe eternity was like that. Disembodied voices. “Who are you? Who are you? Is that you? Where are you?” Nice thought. You could look a long time. If you wanted someone. Oh God, he wanted someone.

“Ada, where are you?” His elastic heart.

She once had taped a photograph of herself on their dresser here in the bedroom. It was her only beach picture, she said, that was why. He went in and in the yellow light, his hands on the high dresser and his bald spot tallow in the mirror, peered at her face. He often did this, for long times; there was something he was looking for that he was not seeing.

The picture had been taken when she was nineteen or twenty, and it looked like all old photographs, which seem not only to fade but to freeze. In a light now dim and wintry, six girls were sitting and posing on the sand, all smiling into the camera. Except Ada. She was holding up her hand to the camera, telling the photographer to wait a minute, probably. Her black hair was short and curly and her long eyes narrowed and confused, as if someone had just made a joke and she was waiting, with good will, to have it explained.

He tried unfocusing his eyes, to blur it, to make those faces melt in his vision. But they would not unfreeze.

To look at her caused him no pain; he saw not her face, but the photograph, and that he knew. When he had looked at the bookshelves in their apartment—at the neatly torn white paper markers that Ada had, over time, placed among the first twenty or thirty pages of so many, the markers sticking up all over like simple headstones in the graveyard of her good intentions; that he knew; he could smile. But when in this summer house he had found an old handbag—a good one, that she had, because it was good, hardly ever used—when he opened it and saw within a crumpled Kleenex; a comb with two teeth missing; a chewing gum wrapper—why enumerate?—when he saw what he would find in any woman’s purse; when he smelled the sweet stale perfume rising out of it, and thought of her bending her head over it seriously, as women are serious with their purses; she seemed anonymous, a woman who had lived and died; and it pumped spasms through him that a defenseless creature, who had been endowed with the power to do such ordinary, inoffensive things as to acquire possessions and to keep them orderly, should have that power taken. If he had her here now; if he saw her standing in the hall, her chin on her chest, her knee slightly lifted to balance a purse and catch its contents to the light. Oh, now. Now.

Twice a day he went to the shul (a big, shabby house with a sign outside that said Zoned Commercial, so much frontage) where the old men from Feidelman’s Resort nearby always formed a minyan. The old men smelled like wet, crushed cigars; their white beards were stained with yellow streaks of nicotine, and they coughed up white-yellow phlegm. Aronesti prayed loudly, the sweat erupting; no more mumbling; his pronunciation had got much better; he knew the service so well that he did not have to think about the words, and they blended in the bloodstream that pulsed in this dry room.

He felt relaxed when he left, soothed by a trance.

Then he would walk home, past the screened-in porches where, because of the insects, the people were sitting; rearing their heads to look at him, their eyes nacreous in the darkness. He knew how he drew their eyes: big, but potbellied, the shiny spectacles set in his eye sockets, the shiny dome of the skullcap, from which the globes of sweat were swelling. And a black suit: he felt like an old rabbit in an astrakhan wandering among these—among these? What were these people lizards lying on the beach by day; now, like penned-in cattle, hiding from the insects that were warming up in the grass and hurtling against the resilient screens.

Twice a day; visiting hours. No one in that hospital would look you in the eye; you could wander through it like a passenger lost on a jolting subway; and see no one to ask the way of, no one who was responsible for anything—only your fellow sufferers, who would glance away from your distress and uncertainty because it might get to them. And the lights and buzzers of the corridors, going on and off like the impulses of an outsize computer brain.

They called him up in the middle of the night. He heard the ringing; his mind parted in a smile of bewilderment, and a plume of steam spit through it. He did not have to answer; even the news of her death came from the impersonal machine.

“Mort, what’s the matter, don’t you go out or do anything?”

“What is it? What do you want me to do?”

“What Iwant? What matters? You can’t sit around reading all your time.”

“If I want to?”

“You’re white like dough.” She pinched his arm. “Every time you walk in the sunlight you look so pale you scare me; your face shines. I think you’re going to faint from looking pale.”

“People don’t faint from looking pale.”

“Go outside. Get out. It’s hot in here. It’s no good for you.”

So he took his book outside, and a chair, and sat under the apple tree. On a branch he noticed a bag, an envelope of cotton candy; caterpillars, twisted like the burned-out wicks of candles, were writhing within. Two hundred maybe. He moved his chair; he could feel the caterpillars wiggling under his collar, and they might be crawling in his hair. Bits fell on his pages; bits of what? Animal? Vegetable? He did not know; he could not read. Birds yacked, dogs barked, women yelled, children cried. Nature. For the two hundredth time he rubbed his ticklish nose.

Every sound. Outside. In. These houses flimsier than the worst tenements of the city, more crowded. Shacks. Shanties. Overrun with kids. Everyone barefoot. The husbands show up on the weekends; the orphanage in the valley.

And the nights, too, could be noisy; teenagers walking up the road singing, a neighbor whistling for his dog—the sounds sudden and confused, as if they did not know what messages they carried in the darkness. Late at night, he had heard quarreling, the people next door: the man had a voice like an announcer, smooth and consistent, cake batter dripping from a spoon. Like the commentator for ERPI Classroom Films. Aronesti had to sit through a film, two showings in a row, once a month. The sound of student feet shuffling into the assembly hall, over the desperate buzz of the projector palpitating, a stream of light on the vacant screen, colors jerking. So, a bazaar in China. And then the voice, the voice that had introduced a canning factory the month before. “Why, this isn’t the real thing,” Aronesti would think, looking about with embarrassment at the sweet, young, light-suffused profiles; the voice was too clever, condescending; it would pretend excitement, but knew better. Awful, to be in an argument with a voice like that!

Two little boys walked in the dirt road, towels under their arms, their legs streaked with sand. One had a belly like an Aborigine. They stood at the screen door pounding and calling. Must be locked. He heard bare feet running through the house. Must be bare, bouncing. The mother appeared, a pale shadow, smudge of red lipstick, behind the door. She undid the hook and held the door open for them, stretching out her arm, the white inside blue veined, the bas-relief of a tendon.

That white arm. She looked like Ada. Ada, lying on the couch with those white arms behind her head. Ada, slowly smiling. Then her smile subsided, sinking back into her soul. “Ada,” he had whispered. She turned her head. “What were you thinking, just now?” Her head lolled back; she shrugged her uplifted arms and laid her chin into her chest. It made no difference; it was not the explanation that he wanted: but the connection, the connection, the current of life that had passed through her and had passed him by.

It was the Fourth of July. Late, the sound of fireworks began in earnest, the explosions curiously soft, muffled in the absorbent darkness. Pale moths were fastened to the screen, like dull faces peeking in. His mother came wandering through, past her bedtime, making noise to show that she had no intention of disturbing him.

“How could I sleep?” she said when he looked up at her; and sat down at once beside him. “That fan is wasting its breath in here.”

“Turn it off.”

“That’s an answer.” Her hair was wet and she smelled of lipstick, which had been applied raggedly. And her breath smelled somewhat like lipstick—artificial, stale; close. Close, the smell of old people. Everything locked up in there all that time.

“You never try to be a help,” she said.

Justly, too. A hot, noisy night; he knew she had not fixed herself up at this hour for nothing; so he gave in, and they went for a walk. It was pitch dark; the deep lights of the houses kept to themselves; the crickets were jittering like hot wires dropped in the grass. With warning tremors, a car approached, its beams of light thick and swarming, cutting a swath of pale leaves and black shadows. The hedges loomed around them, intricate, gleaming fretwork. The car rolled on, turned a corner. An explosion crumbled through the darkness.

The feeling the night gave you when these dense sounds diffused in it.

But the length of it. Nothing took time anymore. Take? Did he want them to take his time from him? There were moments when he could hear time going, as if a movie screen had filled with luminous significance, and he could hear the projector churning. The depths of silence. The depths of the night. Fireworks; thunder. Rain.

Rain in profusion, striking the bricks, the cement, the stone steps; teeming in the gutters. Spending itself for nothing. They were safe in bed. In the freak blind light of the window he would see her, sleeping on her side, her back to him, and her hand reaching over covering her shoulder; the naked hand; the one without the ring. He would lean over her, her hair swept up and the soft shiny underside of it exposed; her particular odor rising freely in the warmth of sleep; he would whisper—not to wake her; in the abundance of the night, no need to wake her; only to nudge some response from her as she repossessed her dream.

Rain, that very afternoon that she was buried. Scant—as if that made any difference. He stood at the window, watching the dark splotches erupting on the pavement, the stone steps slickening. So she had become part of that.

From far down the beach, from the pier decorated like a bandstand with crepe-paper streamers, the fireworks were shooting out over the water, bursting needles melting into the black lake. All along the shore there were people looking up restlessly at the sky. Their faces flickered with the colors—yellow, orange, red, purple—a special sigh for purple. Like the selections from Tchaikovsky the school band was always playing, this display; no one seemed to know how to end it. Long tails of firecrackers popping off, the rockets beginning all over again. On the stage, Mr. Riga, the conductor, turning his stiff chin to the audience. As if knowing their impatience. (How could he help but?) As if dragging things out just for spite. The players, mostly girls in sticky white blouses, planting and squirming their ballet-slippered feet. The music lurching on indestructibly, the audience asking with one heart, Now? Now? Now? When? Pop Pop Pop Boom.

It was a few moments before the crowd started to disperse.

His mother took his arm, took full possession of it, slipping her narrow elbow through his and clasping his wrist with her other hand. She did not lean on him, but he could feel the stiffness of her bones, the heavy pacing of her steps, the strange distribution of her weight. Now her expression had lapsed interest; she knew she was out of it.

So, who was not out of it?

It was no darker, no cooler, no quieter than it had been an hour before. It was not getting any later. The summer night was opening, opening, opening; porous and fragrant. And the restless crowd scenting it; hovering, swarming; ranging the darkness—for the center of it, the heart of it. The instinct for yearning.

He knew. He felt it too. The clumsy, cumbrous feeling, some old yearning rousing itself. Some old yearning that you had never had. Just some old impatience, this vague rousing nothing but impatience. And impatience with nothing, nothing but the night.

The traffic lights were set to blinking yellow late at night, but this was a holiday weekend, and the main road fed other resort towns north and south. So there was no chance of getting across; though people were gathering: the road was full, the cars moving gelatinously. Along the curb, the pedestrians collected, blinking in the headlights’ long, sticky beams, which seemed to fuse to the eyeballs before they ripped away. Like the moths hooked on the screen, their faces—moist, white, sleepy; glittering and dull.

Everyone seemed to assume, however, that something would be done; they would not be left this way. Aronesti trusted, too; he felt awed by the spectacle and yet detached, as if it were the vast activity of some other form of life. When he shut his eyes, he imagined the noises (the honking, rattling, rumbling) feeding the remote air of some night swamp where wild cattle were herding. ERPI Classroom Films again. He saw too many of them.

On the other side of the street a girl of nine or ten (skinny, large nosed, a head of frizzy blond hair) was trying to get across. Maybe she had been sent to get someone; she kept stepping off the curb and stepping right back. Her face, turned into the lights, had a tense, semiconscious expression, like the close-ups of athletes on television; she was just calculating what car to take a chance in front of, anyone could see that. Several women in housedresses and hair curlers were discussing her (“tcching” and taking in the breath). Himself—though his tongue tensed and swelled each time that she threatened to make the dash—he could not call out. There must be some reason no one else gave a yell.

Then without even seeing, he knew she had darted out; tires screeched, screeched, screeched, sticking to the asphalt; a car horn swooned; his mother pulled on his arm. He heard the women say that was good, that had scared her—she could have caused a real accident, the little dummy. And there she was, back on the curb; her shoulders hunched, her face popping out from them, ghastly, and her eyes like reflectors. Not only had she had a good scare—she had almost got herself run over, in front of all these people; so she looked ashamed and turned her head from the lights that were whipping over her face.

He felt a swarming emptiness, a stray grief, as if the headlights, penetrating him, had picked up some straggling animal—the startled eyes like a stopped heartbeat. Death was a dark world, and she was wandering through it.

Sometimes before sundown Aronesti walked on the beach. It was filthy by then, full of ice cream sticks, dented paper cups, cigarette butts, empty squeeze bottles. From the bathhouse came shrieks, volleying in that wild, unearthly way of sounds in closed, partitioned places; catacombs, prisons. Zoos. Fat-thighed girls, their stiff sprayed hairdos glimmering like beetles’ wings, plunged gravely through the sand. Teenagers; for the beach was theirs, mostly; the people without responsibilities. They smoked, they petted, they rubbed sun oil into each other’s backs, they cracked gum; their portable radios blared at their knees. Most of all, they looked; they looked up at everyone who passed; they looked around. Afraid of missing something, someone. (It gave him a quick, log-heaving revulsion, to think of their puppy love.)

So why did they look so glum?

After all, he was a teacher. Maybe he wore some mark of it between his brows, and it was on that they fixed and followed? No, no sign of recognition; they might have been following an optometrist’s flashlight along a wall.

No, why did they look so glum?

Over the loudspeaker, a throat cleared. “Attention. We are looking for a little lost girl. She is blond, about four years old; she wears her hair in a ponytail. Her name is Kathy Lynn Begoun. She is wearing a red-and-white polka-dot swimsuit and blue sunglasses. If anyone sees this little girl will you please bring her to the beach manager’s office? Thank you.”

Routine. At least six times a day, children turning up lost or children looked for; the clear young lifeguard voices efficient, good humored; the sunbathers looking up from their blankets to listen only because it was impossible not to listen. So the faces lifted; some frowned with the sudden input of sound and sunlight; no one paid any attention.

But it touched him, this unison of listening, these heads going up unconsciously, these faces—against the background of glinting water—frowning with some rudimentary recognition. Ada looking up, frowning into the camera—the camera, however, not waiting; the moment never explained. Preserved merely; intense, dilated.

Close to the pier, two little boys were throwing stones. They threw as if they were casting a spell, lifting their arms up over their heads and opening their hands; and the stones sprinkled out on the water.

It was cooler on the pier but the air viscous. He stood with his hands on the railing looking at the water. It looked tepid and dirty; the foam floated on it like spit. Surely, people who jumped off bridges and things like that would not choose this kind of water. Unless you were doing it for the principle. Nihilism. Like going down the drain.

Back from the pier came a slight, pale woman, trailing her hand along the railing. Was that his next-door neighbor. Then those must be her dirty little boys throwing stones at the waves. But the neighbors’ boys were older maybe. Well, when she got closer. But she pivoted around on one hand and crossed her arms on the railing. He would not be able to tell now whether he knew this woman. She had given no sign of recognition.

Aronesti dreamed.

He sensed himself—some buttons on a coat, a weight; saw sometimes his shiny shoes against the cindered snow, now the hat on his head. And Ada too he hardly saw, but felt her—her arm through his, her black nubby coat, her small feet in high heels—bare, too bare for such a day—picking over the mushy ground. At last the train came. So they had been waiting for it. The el, blowing up the gritty dust in their faces. In spite of the blurred, smoky, yellow light inside, the car was cold. A window was open. No wonder. He got up and closed it. But then noticed another open. He got up and closed that too. There were people in the car, but nobody helped with the window closing; nobody even seemed to notice that there were windows open. More. No matter how hard he looked to be sure, there were more. And he had to get up—for the wind was bitter—though Ada was sitting patiently, turning her pale face to him and then back to the window; and he wanted to sit down with her. At last he noticed an old bum sitting right in front of them; a lean man, shirtless, in a dark colorless suit that he wore like a bathrobe, as if he had pulled it on only to answer the door. Dirty colorless hat; grizzled chin; bloodshot eyes. This man, he thought, is eyeing Ada. He sat down immediately and began looking out the window. Every time they passed a station, he tried to see the name of the stop somewhere; but they always pulled out too quickly, or he could see the sign but not make it out. Then it got darker; the yellow lights were strung in reflections in the windows. The old bum turned around and looked at them, only his eyes over the edge of the seat, dark and colorless, impossible to tell their expression as they slid to the corners, exposing the terrible bloodshot whites. Then in one sliding movement of the eyes, the head, he slumped to the window and died.

Aronesti heard the snap and recognized it instantly, even as he started; somewhere in the house, a mousetrap had gone off. He knew he had been dreaming about Ada, and did not want to think about it. He had been grateful at first for such dreams, but now they did not lend themselves to probing: the events had become incoherent, her appearance garish (rouged and powdered, covered with brown crumbling leaves), as if the dreams themselves, with time, were decomposing. So he did not want to lie in bed. He got up and turned on the light; his glasses were on the dresser, the lower half of the lenses thick and cloudy. He took up his flashlight and, sending the light along the edges of the moulding, went looking for the trap.

It was in the kitchen, right under the sink, the thumb smear of yellow cheese untouched, and a small dark mouse underneath the snap resting its head on its paws. You were supposed to be able to remove the mouse and use the trap again. What he needed, a pencil, pry the thing up; one handed, he rolled up his pajama sleeves, and then, tucking the flashlight under his arm, picked up the trap. The slim tail hung free. With a shudder he threw the mousetrap into the garbage can. What did they cost? Eleven cents? He took the garbage can too and put it outside; there was a cantaloupe slice of a moon. Covering the flashlight with his hand, he moved quietly back to his bedroom, his fingers glowing like bloody coals.

He put the flashlight back on the dresser and without expecting it, looked up into his face. He stared at the face in the mirror—the strange walls, the strange threshold. He remembered the dream. He sat down on the bed, numbly pulling the sleeves down over his arms. This incident had actually happened. Some years before, on a cold snowy evening, on the way to a party; some poor down-and-out soul sitting right in front of them on the elevated had glanced back at them and died. They had been held up for at least an hour, too; what with getting the body off, the police, the passengers from that train and from several successive ones knocking and squeezing together like molecules trying to keep warm. They had gone on to the party; walked into the heat of the room, smoke, laughter, lightly perspiring faces turned toward them as they stamped the packed gray snow from their boots; and in that instant, without speaking, agreed to say nothing of the man who had died.

Now Aronesti sat on the bed, his elbows on his knees and his chin thrust forward, trying to see back into his dream, to get a look at those eyes. But they would not keep still for him; there was the looking toward him, the sliding away—and when they had slid away, he had to force them to turn back, himself to stare, all over again.

He had wondered, often, what the look was for. The simplest thing, of course—for help. But the man had made no sound, no sign; and he did not seem in pain. In fact, the glance was if anything reproachful. But let anyone turn to look at you—just look at you—over his shoulder; it would seem reproachful. And what if he knew—looked back for one last human contact, or, with some instinct, to see what was overtaking him? But there had been nothing like that in the look. It had been—just a look.

And here Aronesti knew that he was lying. He could not tell what was or was not in the man’s eyes or his mind; that he could never know. But he had always known what the look had meant. Why else had they waited on the cold platform, among the gum machines and defaced posters, shivering and turning away from the wind, until the dead man had been taken into other hands? How else had they known as they walked in on the party in the overheated flat, that they could not use this man’s death as an excuse for being late, as if it were an episode in the newspapers, on the radio, in the public domain. What had he seen? Frowning faces in the bony winter twilight. Faces that in the next moment would be looking on his dead body. People who would answer whatever demands his death had put on them, and then resume their temporary destinies.

When he turned, he had been looking back on his survivors.

Survivor. The word seemed like some primeval amphibian dragging itself up from a swirling sea and gasping toward the sand. Ignorant, tedious, triumphant word: containing so much of the pain and necessity of living. And he felt that there was a further significance to this word that was not beyond his comprehension; a responsibility he yearned to undertake; a connection he verged on making. He got up and pressed his hands together, tensely took off his glasses and laid them down on the dresser, on the photograph. The young, smiling faces welled up in them. He stared at the blurred, grainy faces; hers was among them; she was there. He snatched up his glasses, held them to his eyes, thumbs laid against his temples, and bent his head over the face that was still looking out, almost smiling; the eyes that were still squinting in the weakened sunlight.

Bette Howland (1937-2017) was the author of three books: W-3Blue in Chicago, and Things to Come and Go. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, after which though she continued writing but did not publish another book. Near the end of her life, her stories found new readers when a portfolio of her work appeared in a special issue of A Public Space magazine exploring a generation of women writers, their lifetimes of work, and questions of anonymity and public attention in art.

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