(Erin Paul Donovan/agefotostock/Newscom)

Power Failure

A short story by Betty Howland, AB’55, from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.

Bette Howland’s story “Power Failure” was first published in the literary journal the American Voice in 1985. Howland’s (AB’55) work is characterized by its sharp observations of others, especially her parents and extended family. In this story, atypically, she turns reflective, self-critical, nostalgic, and dreamy, imagining that her grown sons are “small again. We have it all to do over.” Read about Howland and how her work was rediscovered.—Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

I was sleeping on the couch under a pile of blankets and coats and the fire scratched in the grate.

The power was out; one of those freak spring storms that bump off trees and knock down lines. The world was a snow-swamp, the Everglades turned white. Knee-deep drifts, floating branches, limbs bent low, broken and bearded with snow. Everything bowed with age and silence.

The only other soul I’d seen all day was the caretaker who looks after that place across the way—the one that used to belong to Colonel Somebody-or-Other. The heirs are in court, squabbling about who gets what and which was promised when; and in the meantime the house just sits there—a big pink elephant, gingerbread, jigsaws, doodads and all—getting picked clean by vandals. They would have walked off with the cannon that squats on the front lawn by now, only it’s up to its cast iron neck in concrete.

The old man seems to have all this on his mind.

He comes by just about every day. I hear a car door slam, I look up, there he is, larger than life—green plaid lumber jacket and waxy yellow work boots—squeezing out of a low-slung hatchback. A Japanese make, which I mention because there seem to be so many in this neck of the woods. The local dealer must be one helluva salesman. The little cars go clattering up and down the patriotic landscape, almost a part of it; like the red brick and bow windows, the bumpy blue pyramids of the mountains, the white birches. (You think other trees are white, too, until you see birches again.)

So here he comes. Collar up, earflaps down, hands shoving into pockets over his stomach; pipe extending the angle, the purpose, of his stubborn Yankee jaw. His eyes have a nippy glitter inside his glasses; his breath in the iced air stiffens and staggers before him.

“How’s the typewriter?” That’s what he always asks, only he says “haaoww” and “typewrituh.” It’s his joke; he means me and my machine both. He’s the one who delivered it, got down on all fours under my desk to plug it in. “Well, yuh’ve gawt noh excuse naoww,” he said, scraping and grating his sandpaper hands together. “Gawt tuh get daowwn tuh wuhk naoww.”

From his baggy pants dangle wires, pliers, clippers, black electrical tape. He’s been busy rigging up traps and alarms, meaning to give the vandals a surprise: “Next time they get the shawk of their life.”

I think he’ll be sorry if there is no next time.

Today the house was safe; buried under a ton or two of savage bright stuff. You couldn’t look at the snow for the pressure of sun on it. A blue jay flashed in branches, the colors of the wintry day. Black white blue. Trees snow sky.

Spreading its wings it became a miniature landscape, something painted on a fan.

I read by the fire in earmuffs and mittens. (Have you noticed? How hard it is to turn pages with mittens on?) When it got dark—whenever that was, the clock had stopped—I cooked supper over the flames. The hamburger dripped, smoking raw. The potato burned black; ashes blew into the coffee. I was getting good and mad at myself: too lazy to take the trouble to do things right. Just because the situation was temporary. Some excuse. What isn’t temporary? If you want to get technical? As if that’s any way to live. (And how long since I’ve been meaning to buy a kerosene lamp, in case of emergency, and replace the dead batteries in my portable radio.)

By the time I went to bed, I had fed the fire just about every scrap of paper in the house; and if there’s one thing there’s plenty of around here, it’s scrap paper. All the same, the last thing I saw—turning my back to the fire, hitching up covers—the last I saw, in the red flickering glow, was the one scrap overlooked. A letter from my mother, stuck to the bottom of the wastebasket. The envelope raggedly ripped.

Even in my sleep I knew that this must be the reason for my dream.

Now please. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to embarrass anybody. I get discouraged myself, when people start talking about dreams. Especially in stories. Because what’s to keep us from telling lies? Making it all up? Are there rules? And besides, everyone knows that dreams aren’t just dreams. Someone is trying to tell you Something—with a capital S. I don’t know about you, but that makes me nervous.

All right. I apologize. But what can I do? I’m not trying to put one over on you. (I told you to begin with I was sleeping—remember?) This isn’t really a story—and I was dreaming. And I’d just like to see if I can get things straight.

In the dreams my sons are just learning to walk; bold staggering steps and shy shining faces. One light head, one dark head, at the same level. My daughter is older (though that can’t be right, can it?). Her short skirts lift and stick out in front and show her bare narrow legs, the puckered trim of her bloomers. What’s odd is her hair; smooth heavy hair, straight-hanging, as if water weighted, and so long it surrounds her. She is mantled in hair; a dark shining cloak.

Some children are born that way; right from the beginning; come into the world wrapped in the mysteries of their own personalities. You can see my daughter is one of these.

My heart glares with gladness; as dazzling, as hard to bear, as the sun burning snow. Because I know what’s going on—I recognize this dream. I’ve had it so many times before—though never in my sleep. It’s here, this is it. I’m getting my wish. My children are small again. We have it all to do over.

I can’t tell you if I had read my mother’s letter or not; ripped open doesn’t mean anything. I might have been looking to see what was inside. Lately, she has sent a few checks. “Go buy yourself something.” “How’s the money holding out?” This is something new; I’m not sure what to do. Maybe I cash them, maybe I tear them up. It all depends. No rhyme nor reason.

I see I have just confessed—and put it in writing—that I am the sort of person who opens a mother’s letters in case there might be money in them. Good. Glad that’s over. So now you know. Here we have a stock situation, the old antagonism. Mother and daughters. You’ve heard this story before.

But I’m not the only one, it’s not just me. This condition must be very widespread. (There’s safety in numbers. But is there truth?) Many friends tell me they can’t read letters they get from their mothers, either. And who can blame them? Why open up a letter and read it when you know darn well, beforehand, what it’s going to say? What has been written, predestined, foreordained, from time immemorial. A little reproach, a little punishment, a little guilt. My friends must feel the same way I do when I see my mother’s handwriting on an envelope. The postmark. The wavy lines, the canceled stamp. About the way it feels to see my name on a bill:

Remit immediately or action will be taken.

And after all she is presenting the bill. It’s that time. Payment is due, she means to collect. Only—only—it has been established by now that I am never going to come up with her currency. And she won’t accept mine. So how can I pay up? What will I use for wherewithal?

Like they say: The letter killeth.

You know how it is when you try to recover a dream.

A tug on the line; a quiver, a gleam. You grab hold, you hang on; it struggles and squirms. Maybe you catch something, bring it to light. Maybe it sinks into the depths.

Splash! Gone for good.

That’s how it is in my dream, only the other way around. In my dream I’m trying to recall real life, waking life. My own life. I have it, it’s hooked, I’m reeling it in. Then the same thing happens. A wriggle, a flash, it slips from my grasp.

I reach for the past—and it isn’t there.

I might have known. This dream was too good to last. My sons I can picture as infants; that means the past is there—somewhere. I could lay hands on it (couldn’t I?). What’s wrong is my daughter; she’s the one. Looking closer, I see that she’s not really a child at all. She is only reduced in size, in scale: a miniature. Except for her hair. It can’t be any longer and straighter now. And that’s another thing. I don’t recall girls having hair like that, when I was her age. So lustrous, so lithe, a kind of raiment: an animal’s coat.

Her eyes have the same liquid gloss.

Something tells me I am seeing my daughter in my dream just exactly as she has always been. A grave little image, a stand-in for her grown-up self.

But who got her ready for school, then? Who brushed her hair, who tied her shoelaces, who buttoned her blouses down the back? If I didn’t? Who painted orange stuff on her cuts and stuck the thermometer under her tongue? (Don’t tell me she never ran a fever, fell down and scraped and hurt herself?) Who kissed her good night? Who checked the covers? Who told her things a mother tells a daughter? Someone must have.

Who else could it have been? If it wasn’t me?

The brightness fades; a bare white light seeps through me. No fair. No fair. This isn’t my wish! Not what I bargained for, not what I meant. I said I wanted to live the past over again. I never said I wanted to lose it.

What made me say handwriting?

My mother prints, scrawled block letters. This is likewise something new. Maybe it’s too hard for her to write? She has a touch of arthritis in her wrist, it could be acting up. (I ought to know, I have it too. I’m feeling it right now.) Maybe she thinks it’s too hard for me to read? Her letters could be scribbled to a child:


And she expresses herself, more and more, in a telegraphic style.


Wait a minute. Just a minute. Whoa—hold on. So she calls herself Mom? Since when? How long has this been going on? Who calls her Mom! I call her Mother. And get introduced to her acquaintances—as all my life long—as my daw-ter.

No name, just the generic.

“Mother,” I say. “Is that manners? Is that nice? Are your friends supposed to call me Daw-ter?”

She arches up her two little pinched eyebrows plucked, picked, singed like pinfeathers—the style of movie vamps of her youth. In that mode also, her thin wine-colored lips. You smell the perfume of her lipstick as she compresses them: “And what makes you think they’d care what your name is? If I told them?”

Otherwise her features are large, dark, and dignified; the profile of a coin. The head on a buffalo nickel.

So she thinks of herself as Mom. She wants to be Mom. That’s news to me. What do you make of it? What’s in a Mom?

And while I’m at it—that reminds me. Just where does she write these letters, anyhow? (The ones I don’t read.) Since there’s no place in the whole darn house where a person can sit down, in a comfortable chair, under a decent lamp, to read or write. Naturally not; she’d be a social outcast. This is a retirement village in south Florida—where the skies are as blue as the ocean, and the clouds are as white as its wakes.

Correction. That’s at high noon. At sunrise the clouds are bashful pink, blushing, puffed-up flamingo feathers. At sunset they are gossamer—gilded—edged in radiance: translucent as an old lady’s hair.

She must write her letters at the kitchen table. Stamps and stationery she keeps in the cupboard, hiding the bottle of sweet purple wine. (The grapes on the label sweat glassy beads of dew.) My mother doesn’t drink herself, except for a drop in hot tea when she has a cold, but she does like to keep a little something on hand; just to show how broad minded she can be. And it’s no use telling her I don’t drink; even if strictly true, she’d never believe me. She knows better. I’m divorced.


What is her currency? A life she can approve of, what else? What does any mother want? Why can’t I be like her friends’ children, acquiring things, habits, for a lifetime?

Go explain to your mother that there has been a breakdown in “personal relations”—as if she didn’t know—and when that happens, when circuits short, fuses blow, lines come down, connections fail—you’re on your own. You need a lot of luck, or a lot of character.

And I only said that, about the character. Just ask my mother. How would I know?

The caretaker told me they were fixing to get the paowwuh back on during the night, and I figured I’d be the first to know. This cottage has oil heat, but an electric switch kicks it on—and I do mean kicks. The first time, I thought a deer had taken a running jump into the side of the house. I was afraid to go out and see. Do deer look before they leap? They give a whistle, I know; and their little white tails stand up and stiffen and it’s the last glimpse you get. There were deer here aplenty in the colonel’s day, when this cottage was part of the colonel’s grounds. Now no more deer, but it’s still the colonel this and the colonel that. (The license plates say Live Free or Die, but oh how New Englanders go crazy for titles.)

Anyway, the furnace gives me a start. Even in my sleep I’m listening for a thud. The night is booming: snow plopping and thumping from all those pitched roofs and pointy firs, dumping down clods and clumps, blow by blow, like wet concrete. The fire is low; flames scavenge the logs, gnawing and sharpening red rodent teeth. That is what’s real. And I want to wake up, throw off the weight of sleep and dreams and too many covers and snow loading down the backs of the trees. The burden will snap the young spring branches, with their clawing buds.

I know this is a dream. Only a dream.

Winter dusk. A pearly slush packs the skylight. Galoshes lean outside doors. Climbing stairs, I smell dinners getting cooked. Fat spits and spats in frying pans. This run-down building seems familiar. Have I been here before? People pack their bags, they move on, they leave no forwarding address. Window shades fly up with a clatter, clack like tongues. Frozen snow glazes the glass.

I’m looking for the person who raised my daughter.

The children were small, money was scarce, I got sick. That must be when my daughter was sent to strangers. That’s how come the missing years, the missing memories. It wasn’t me. It was someone else all along.

But who? Where? No one answers my knock. Streets, stairs, doors keep changing. Room after room is empty, and not just empty—deserted. No one lives here. The building is condemned. The doors are lined up like rows of fences.

I have found the past. I am in it. This is it—all that’s left of it. Not even a memory. My daughter and I have no history; only the history of mother and daughters. I know just how she is going to feel toward me. I have forfeited my one and only chance.

I didn’t tell you what it felt like when I saw that torn envelope. A jolt, a shock; it buzzed right through me. I thought the furnace had kicked, they’d got the juice going, thrown the switch. The force was so strong, I didn’t know what to call it. And what difference does it make. Call it anything you want. It’s all the same power, it all comes from the same place. So that’s the way we’re wired up.

I didn’t know there was that much left in our connection.

But what about all those years, when my children were growing up, when we were alone?



Mother Mother, why can’t you be one way or the other? So I could feel one way or the other? Why have we wasted our time like this? Why couldn’t we have called it something else? What good are checks and letters now?

Now she sits at a plastic-topped table, ballpoint pen in hand, gazing as if for inspiration at a row of newly planted palms. All lined up and wired, pliant grass-skirted utility poles. Flamingos shift on coat-hanger limbs. Her face is carved teak from the Florida sun, her lipstick glows in the dark; her eyes swim like goldfish in the cloudy depths of her glasses. You know those fishbowl lenses old people wear.

Old? Did someone say old? My mother?

The frames are mother-of-pearl, as white and luminous as her hair.

I’m numb; frozen stiff. The room is cold, the clock is stopped, the fire is out—powder and ashes. The windows are streaked in leaky gray light; cold sweat clings, a sheet wrung from the wash. It takes a minute or two for me to understand. I’m awake. It’s all right. It was a dream; only a dream. No one is going to feel that way toward me. Still, it’s not exactly a relief. Because who was she? Who is she? And what do I do now? I never had a daughter.

Excerpted from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Copyright © 2019 by the estate of Bette Howland. Reprinted with permission of A Public Space Books.

Updated 11.15.2019 to correct Bette Howland’s degrees.