Bryn Greenwood earned her M.A. in Writing from Kansas State University. After many years in Japan and
Florida, she returned to Kansas, which is slightly flatter than you imagined. Her stories and essays have
appeared in Menda City Review, Karamu, Chiron Review, and Khimairal Ink. She toils in obscurity at a large
university and blogs at www.bryngreenwood.com. "Other People's Dead Relatives" is an excerpt from her
novel-in-progress of the same name.
Other People's Dead Relatives
Dena collected other people's dead relatives. She wasn't an orphan; she had parents and grandparents, but what she wanted
were old family photos.
Except for the guests at her bed and breakfast, she lived alone. Owning the B & B allowed her to discreetly add branches to her
family tree and provided a constant supply of strangers to meet her extended family. Best of all, the photograph stories were
simpler than her personal stories; they had fewer complications and better endings.
Dena's neighbor, Patti, referred to the hunt for ancestral photos as "picture safari," with a hint of derision in her voice. Safari
seemed like a fair description of driving through rural DeSoto County, where the estate sale signs led Dena fifteen miles off the
highway on a dirt track through citrus groves and palmetto scrub to a Queen Anne house of stained cypress. For several minutes
she stood in the yard full of farm implements, admiring the lines of the house, and marveling. In all those years, no one had
defiled it with paint.
Inside, tattered artifacts of gentility filled the tall rooms. Dena bypassed the clutter of furniture, mounds of linens and dishes,
before she discovered the family photo collection in the hall outside the kitchen. Thumbing through albums that were dissolving
into primary elements, she looked for a picture that would make the trip worthwhile -- a waiflike bride of sixteen or a tragic baby,
photographed the one time in its coffin.
Although there were a few promising items, Dena found nothing special until she bent down to look under the table, where a large
framed photo nestled in a box of old magazines. The frame was intricately carved, the gilt nearly black with age, and an
undamaged glass dome covered the photo.
The hand-colored tintype showed a formidable man wearing a captain's cap and a long coat. Beside him stood a petite woman
with a lush bosom and a single inky-black eyebrow arching over her dark eyes. She looked Spanish. For several minutes, Dena
looked at the woman's face, trying to interpret the expression on it. The angle of her jaw suggested haughtiness, but her mouth
was sensual. The impenetrable eyebrow hinted at a dark mood, and in the woman's eyes, Dena read sadness. The man and
woman stood close enough that the artist who painted the clothing colors had simply guessed at the delineation between dress
and coat. Despite that closeness, the angle of the woman's body wasn't quite right; ever so slightly, she leaned away from the
"Aw, dang, there it is. I wondered where that had got to," someone said behind Dena. "Thanks for findin' my
"Yours?" She turned and looked up at a young man with flyaway dark hair and a sweet face.
"I'm the last of the family, that's why it's all going to sale. Those are the Hanrahans."
"Oh," she said, somewhat deflated. It was more difficult to lay claim to fake ancestors when she knew them too well. It was the
problem with her relatives. Hampered by facts, she couldn't make the photos her own. When she could get them, she preferred
abandoned relatives, orphaned by the deaths of their descendants, or tossed aside by the indifference of younger generations.
Looking down at the Hanrahans, however, she found the woman was no less compelling or mysterious for having been branded
The young man reached out and took hold of the other side of the picture frame. Dena didn't let go; they held it between them
like a proxy handshake.
"I ain't sure how this got out here. I hadn't planned on selling it," he said.
"Oh, no! And it's just exactly what I was looking for. You see it's got a price on it." She put a little wheedle into her voice and
smiled at him.
"The Rachel Circle ladies from the church are helping out with the sale. They musta put it out on accident," he explained, smiling
back at her. Dena suspected what he was getting at.
"You won't consider selling it? I'd give you a fair price. I think they may have under priced it."
"I reckon you just want the frame. That's all that's worth anything. You'd just throw the picture out." He spoke like a true
Florida Cracker, saying "pitcher" for picture and dropping the "r" in throw.
"Not at all, no, no. It's the picture I want most of all," Dena said, hoping he'd let it go if he knew that. "I want to use it to
decorate my dining room. I have a bed and breakfast in Tampa."
"Beg pardon, ma'am?"
"A bed and breakfast. You know, like a hotel. It's just such a wonderful picture."
"I'm real sorry, ma'am," he said. Dena let the photo go then, and he tucked it under his arm. He went down the hall and stepped
up over a piece of string that had been tied across the foot of the stairs. Finding Dena still watching him, he smiled at her and
went up the stairs.
Dena turned back to the pile of deteriorating photos, but her heart wasn't in it. She wanted more time to suss out the emotion in
the woman's face. She wanted that picture. Hesitating for just a moment, she walked to the end of the hallway. Hanging from
the string at the foot of the stairs was a hand-made sign that said, "Private." Hiking up her skirt to clear the string, Dena put her
foot on the lowest stair, and was surprised at herself. She never did things like that anymore.
At the top of the stairs sat piles of boxes and a card table covered with pricing labels and markers. In the middle of the table lay
the picture. Dena's heart jumped against her ribs, and she glanced around furtively. Across the landing, a door stood open, and
in the room, the young man sat on an old camel back sofa. He looked comfortable, with a pile of magazines, a cooler, and a fan to
move the heavy air. Dark outlines of furniture on faded wallpaper -- the shapes of a vanity and a poster bed -- showed that the
room had been a bedroom. Through the sagging window glass, sunlight rippled in watery lines.
Feeling reckless, Dena stepped into the room and said, "What if I offered you sixty dollars for the picture?" It was triple what the
picture was marked, but not more than the frame was worth. The young man looked up sheepishly from the National Geographic
he had been reading.
"Oh, ma'am, I... " He seemed to think about it. Dena took it as a sign and crossed the room, reaching into her purse for her
"Okay, eighty," she said.
"I just wouldn't feel right about selling Grandma and Grandpa Hanrahan. Now that Aunt Claire's died, alls I got is the folks I come
from. It's just me," he said with a hitch in his voice. "That's why it's all got to go to sale. It's just me, and there's money owed
on the land."
He looked as though he might cry, and she saw something familiar in his face. After spending ten years learning to hide the
feeling, she knew what aloneness looked like. Leaning over him, she put her hand on his shoulder, not sure if it was a step
forward or a step back.
"I'm so sorry. It must be very hard for you," she said. She patted him consolingly, but calculated how to steer things back to the
photograph. Aloneness had narrowed her focus.
"Thank you, ma'am. That's real kind of you."
Feeling a twinge of guilt, she forced the photo out of her mind and sat down on the sofa next to him. As soon as she shifted her
weight off her feet, she knew she had made a mistake. The sofa groaned soulfully and then tried to swallow her whole. She let
out a squeak of surprise as she sank into the collapsed cushion and began tilting toward the left. Desperate, she reached for the
sofa arm, but it was a few inches beyond her reach. Struggling to get her feet back under herself, cursing the genes responsible
for how short she was, she fell against the young man. He caught her and tried to set her upright. With his help, she managed
to get one hand on the sofa arm and one hand halfway under herself, but her toes only brushed against the floor.
The threadbare upholstery gave up the ghost of an elderly woman's lavender powder, leaving Dena unaccountably maudlin. It
smelled like her piano teacher, much loved and long dead. Mortified by the stupidity of the situation and a moment away from
tears, she said, "I'm so sorry."
"No, ma'am. I'm sorry. I shoulda warned you about that end of the sofa. Aunt Claire was a good sized woman." Dena wanted
to get up, to escape from her humiliation, but with her purse canted open on her lap and both hands engaged in keeping herself
stabilized, she couldn't figure out how to manage it without spilling her purse everywhere. She tried to scoot forward to get a
firm foot back on the floor, but all she succeeded in doing was bunching her skirt up. When she glanced at the young man, he
didn't look embarrassed to have some strange middle-aged woman nearly sitting on his lap. His smile started slowly and was
lovely when it opened up. As though they longed to embrace, his front teeth leaned together and overlapped.
"I am so sorry I bothered you," Dena said, looking away. "It's just that I collect old photographs and there's something about
your grandmother's picture that made me -- I'm sorry. If you'll help me up, I'll leave you alone."
"It's alright, ma'am. You didn't bother me none at all. You're real nice," he said. He slipped his arm behind her back, as though
preparing to help her up, but then he put his other hand on her thigh. Not on her skirt, which had ridden up during her battle
with the sofa, but on her bare skin.
If she'd been able, she might have pushed his hand away, just from habit. Instead she sat still, enjoying the feeling of his skin on
hers. His palm was warm and friendly, with a little charge of electricity.
She guessed that he was twenty, less than half her age. Dena had never considered herself pretty, just small and neat and
brunette. She tried to remember the last time anyone had made a pass at her and recalled an air show at MacDill Air Force Base
three years before. A sunburned and tattooed vet with a beer belly the size of a pony keg had chatted her up for nearly an hour
before she managed to brush off his overture and fade into the crowd. She knew she ought to do that: knock the young man's
hand away, jump up and stomp out of the room. Always, with any encounter, she could see the trajectory of the relationship. A
few dates, some sex, the moment when they were supposed to start revealing things about their personal lives. People always
expected her to talk about herself.
There was no trajectory in the young man's hand on her leg.
When he leaned toward her, she knew he was going to kiss her. She closed her eyes, and his mouth was cold and delicious, like a
sip of sweet tea. For a long time she had kept her desire checked with the brutal practicality of self-defense, but when the young
man slipped his hand further up her thigh, she felt flushed all over with excitement. It was beautiful to be a stranger in a strange
place, unknown, unknowing. She hoped he wouldn't say anything to spoil it.
Without breaking the kiss, he set her purse aside, eased her back on the sofa, and opened her blouse. Later, when he reached
up under her skirt to pull off her panties, she put her hands on his shoulders to hold him at bay for a moment, wanting to look
into his face. Searching for some similarity between him and his great-great-grandfather, she noted the shape of his upper lip
and the angle of his eyebrows. In forty years, maybe he would be formidable, instead of smooth-cheeked and boyish. When he
smiled at her, she smiled back. Then he unzipped his rumpled khakis and she put her arms around him.
He slept soundly while Dena got dressed, straightening her skirt over bare skin. Her panties were lost somewhere under the last
of the Hanrahans. She stepped out onto the landing, and suddenly remembered the reason she had gone upstairs. The photo
lay on the card table, sunlight winking off the dusty glass dome. Dena hurriedly made up a new price sticker, and carried the
While one of the church ladies at the cashier's table fiddled around making change, another said, "Well, look, isn't that old Mr. and
"A queer lot they were, and that Gerald's just the same," the lady at the cash box said.
"Bless his heart, but I swan, that family was always a mess o' trouble."
"Mm-hm," another one said and shook her head.
Dena wished they would be quiet and make her change. She didn't want to be rude, but she didn't want too much of the truth to
spoil the photo. It was one thing to know the woman's name -- she could forget that soon enough -- but an entirely different
matter to learn how she had lived or died. Already Dena had decided that it was a picture of her great-grandfather Silas McGarvey
and his Spanish bride, Isabella. Dena had always wanted a Spanish ancestress.
On the drive back to Tampa, her cell phone rang. She grappled with it, heard her neighbor Patti say, "So how was the sale?"
"I'm headed back now. You want to have dinner when I get in?"
"Sure. Did you find any new relatives?"
"I did, but you won't believe what happened at the estate sale."
"You saw a bunch of old dusty crap," Patti suggested.
"No, this very young man... " As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Dena wanted to call them back. Two paths diverged
-- the true story and the dead ancestor story. The photo was safe -- a story that was not about her, a story in which the ending
could be controlled. Instead of testing the McGarvey story on Patti, however, Dena heard herself say, "There was this young guy,
maybe twenty-five, and he made a pass at me. Really more than a pass."
Not wanting to hear Patti's response, Dena held the phone away from her ear. She glanced at the photo lying in the passenger
seat. It had an aura around it, the way particularly special souvenirs did.