“Trace” by Ryan Werner


My grandmother spent her last several thousand mornings highlighting the obituaries. Around mid-day she’d stand in front of the mirror with her arms crossed over her chest and ask my grandfather how she would look surrounded by purple satin.

I sat in the doorway sometimes and watched her stretch her left arm across her stomach, and raise her right arm above her head like a spiral staircase.

“Like a dancer,” she told me.

My family called it old age, the doctor called it heart failure. For years I confused the two.

I found out later that on the night she died she woke up my grandfather to say, “Rosebud. That’s funny, right?”

* * *

I learned about cremation when my grandmother peeled the labels off three travel-sized decaf coffee containers, dumped the coffee into the garbage, and wrote her name on the sides of the canisters.

The family queued up three cars deep in the woods to bury the first container. My grandfather dropped it and the dry soil flaked up around the dent when it landed. He got down on his knees and began digging with his hands until he came to a thick, ungiving root. He stood up and nudged the container into the hole with his foot.

“Got a grip?” he said.

We all stood around talking like news anchors and thinking like janitors. I was almost out of junior high and I had touched my first breast five days before, a girl named Katherine. Love seems circular now, but at the time I could only summon static in a line too short to bend.

* * *

My older sister, Wendy, calls me all the time and quizzes me about our grandparents. This is part of her ongoing diet of incomplete truths.

“You’re hiding something, I know it,” she says, driving to my house, where she will attempt to repeat the conversation.

“I’m not hiding anything,” I say. “I’m just an idiot.”

Wendy’s divorce is a long process that for now exists only as a future thought. The majority of her time is spent weighing death against do us part. She pulls into my driveway and, before hanging up, says, “Don’t you remember the kind of love that Hoyle and Amelia had?”

The truth is that I do remember their love. But what would Wendy do with that information? Wendy’s natural instinct is to eliminate the family element in favor of distance. Comfort to her is a nice pair jeans and the horror that she may someday not fit into them.

When she opens the door, I railroad her into a discussion of our own lives that is ancillary at best.

* * *

I considered appendix scars and death for most of the summer. Death because of my grandmother and appendix scars because of Katherine, who had one. I began to notice them everywhere. I’d wait for windy days and sit in the park with binoculars, looking for shirts that had blown up for just a moment.

When I started visiting my grandfather after my grandmother died, I would sit down with deli meat and thick slices of cheese on a paper plate in front of me while he recounted his lifelong courtship.

I had already known my grandparents drove around the United States for most of the 80s, living out of a teal camper, but I never understood why.

“Your grandmother would have said we were making a sketch.” He brought his hands up to explain, but put them back down again. “Tracing the land. She said it was already drawn, already written, and the best we could do was go over it and pass it off as ours.”

I flipped through scrapbooks and listened to stories about a beach, a mountain range. I would complain about my neck—iron deficiency was a term I heard on television—and crane it all around looking for a clock.

My grandfather clasped his hands together and looked up at me. “Pretty boring shit.”

“I’m meeting up with a girl.”

“What does she do?”

“She plays volleyball.”

“Fine.” He leaned back. “But what does she do to you?”

“She makes me feel pretty good, I guess.”

“Fair enough.” He put the footrest down and made the noises he needed to make to stand up, made them again and sat back down.

* * *

In 1936, Hoyle showed up at Amelia’s for the first time, twenty minutes late after stopping at the McGill residence and offering to shovel their sidewalk and driveway for a dime. Amelia’s mother let him in when he got there, told him he shouldn’t keep a girl waiting. He nodded, walked into Amelia’s room, and said, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I can buy you ice cream now.” He held the coin out in front of him, between his face and Amelia’s.

“Hoyle,” Amelia said, grabbing the dime. “Do you have enough to buy me the moon?”

“It’s not for sale,” he said.

“Do you know why it’s not for sale?”

Hoyle began to pull at his fingers behind his back. He looked at Amelia and said, “Because nobody owns it?”

“Everyone owns it, Hoyle.”

This girl makes no sense, he thought. He rolled his eyes and said, “Fine, why don’t we just go there then if it’s public property?”

“Good, we’ll go after school tomorrow.” She put the dime in his pocket and took his hand. “Let’s go ice skating at the pond.” Her hand was small and soft, and when his sweaty palm slipped away from hers, she stopped and grabbed it again—this time locking fingers—and said, “Got a grip?”

I’ve told Wendy none of this.

* * *

As long as the heat didn’t make me leave shoeprints in the blacktop, Katherine’s house was within jogging distance. So, on the days when I would visit my grandfather, I would also run to see Katherine, dripping sweat, no questions asked.

One day Katherine said, “My grandma died a couple years ago. I think she was made of magic.” Then she asked me what my grandmother was like. I said nothing, which rounded out a mysterious quirk of my personality and functioned as the truth.

We sat in her hot tub and talked about bands we liked and cars we’d drive in high school until her parents came back from work. I walked home a different way, avoiding my grandfather’s house for fear of seeing him there, alone, and having to decide how alike we really were.

* * *

When our grandmother was spending those last several years mulling over the banalities of dying, Wendy was already busy accessorizing our family. This manifested into a sweet yearning, a kind of sorrow particular to Midwestern bankruptcy.

She reminds me monthly of a trip to Memphis I took with our grandparents shortly before they sold the teal camper. “Tell me if I’m envisioning it right,” she says. “Hoyle in Tennessee, Amelia in Arkansas. Nothing but the Mississippi River between them. Talking on walkie-talkies so they can each take a picture of the other taking a picture of the other.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. Except I was there, too.”

“With Hoyle or Amelia?”


“Fine. So they’re there doing all that stuff and you’re standing there doing whatever. Hoyle takes a step to the left and holds the flashlight up towards where Amelia is on the other side. Says Hello? and Is this the right spot? into the walkie-talkie. After not hearing anything he gets back on the walkie-talkie and asks if she’s taken the picture yet. Then Amelia asks him how cold does he think the water is. Then, nothing.”

I told her the story once, when I was eight years old, right after I got back from the trip. She’s envisioning it right because she always envisions it right.

After my grandmother didn’t say anything, my grandfather and I jumped into the camper and drove to the other side of the river. We got out and saw a pair of empty sandals, one and then the other leading towards the river. He shook his head and said Goddammit. She was fifteen feet away, where she had been the whole time, barefoot but dry. They stood there on thin legs with fat veins.

Wendy extends her fingers and waves them slowly out in front of her. “And they wade into the water slowly, West Memphis shaking in the background.”


“It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”

“I remember it being cold.”

Wendy hates both the real and fabricated parts of my aloofness. She would also hate that I was with my grandfather when he sent the second coffee canister down the Mississippi River, not long after burying the first one. She would hate that I watched him run along the bank beside the canister as it went with the current, that I watched him stop and feel his heart through his shirt, watched his legs give way and fold. What she would love is the image of me helping him up and watching him look down the river, his shoes untied and his face blank enough for her to draw West Memphis in his eyes.

* * *

“Forget the old people shit,” my grandfather said, setting a different scrapbook on my lap. And there he and my grandmother were, riding a gigantic stuffed rhinoceros in front of a Sinclair station near Montgomery, Alabama. They were carving cherry belle radishes at a Pagan Women’s Shelter in Millsboro, Delaware. Cleaning Vermont’s stray dogs in ’88 and then passing out sandwiches to homeless Californians in ’91. Raking leaves with Cincinnati girl scouts. Dumping canteens of water at the base of a Nevada sand dune and making castles from the sludge.

I reached the end of the book and looked up at my grandfather. “Katherine asked about grandma the other day, what she was like. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.”

He held up a hand and nodded his head.

There were more pictures. Hoyle balancing on the train tracks behind the haunted Denny’s in Billings, Montana. Amelia hanging out of a TECO car in Ybor City, Florida. Amelia at the Stations of the Cross near the base of the largest cross in the western hemisphere in Groom, Texas, looking at the camera as if to say, My face, it’s dirty too, you know?

* * *

It was mid-day and muggy, but the sheet over my grandfather was a drought, and had been since the night before when he pulled it up to the bridge of his nose and fell asleep and died. Weeks before, we sat in his living room and I told him about Katherine’s hands—both pinky fingers broken at birth, a nice settlement from the hospital and a charming predilection toward penguin flippers—and he asked me how she holds things: porcelain or tin. I was about to answer when he said, “I’m going to die soon.”

I glanced at a picture on the table: Amelia throwing rocks at Mount St. Helens.

When I found him, I took the sheet off slowly. The day he told me he was going to die, he also told me to grab the third coffee can from the nightstand and unscrew the lid. She wants to enfold me, he told me. To have me as her center. Until the moon goes up for sale.

I steadied my hand and began shaking the ashes onto the bed around my grandfather. I started at his head and moved down his neck, slowly, even slower past his shoulders, tracing down his arms and past his thighs, over his calves, around his toes and back up in symmetry before curving back over his head and reaching the beginning, the end.

* * *

Katherine died, too, shortly before we graduated from high school. Icy roads, semi-truck. It was a single car accident so ordinary that we felt it as a tragedy, but were forced to treat it as a shame. Wendy brings it up when she wraps herself too tightly in the love of our grandparents and has to unwind.

“What are you doing when you think of Katherine?” she asks. “And then what do you do right after thinking of her?”

Like most things, I tell her that I don’t know. Like most things, the truth is that I can’t tell the difference.

Ryan Werner is a janitor living in the Midwest. He is the author of the short-short story collection Shake Away These Constant Days (Jersey Devil Press, 2012), and runs Passenger Side Books, a small chapbook press. Learn more about Ryan at www.RyanWernerWritesStuff.com, or follow him on Twitter @YeahWerner.

Read Ryan Werner’s comments on Wendy Fox’s “The Car.”

Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
This quiet story of love and loss really struck a chord with me. The piece is beautifully delivered, and the understated tone matches the themes perfectly. There’s something wonderful about how this piece so perfectly describes the indescribable, and how the narrator seems forever just on the outside. That discord made the piece work that much more effectively for me. Really well done.

Comments on this story by Rosie Hopegood, author of “As You Lie Dying”
In “Trace,” Ryan Werner skillfully slips between past and present, using seamless transitions to tell the story of three disparate relationships: one that lasts a lifetime, one cut short by death, and one that has soured. The characters are vivid and well drawn. The grandparents, in particular, are strikingly authentic in their eccentricities: the bond between them is raw, hard and real. Werner manages themes, which have the potential to be over sentimental, without a trace of sappiness.

I was struck by the story’s exploration of the impact that our childhoods and our families have in the way in which we view ourselves and our relationships.

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