Survival Skills: Stories

Survival Skills: Stories

by Jean Ryan


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Survival Skills: Stories by Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan's debut collection tells stories of nature and of human nature. The characters who inhabit Jean Ryan's graceful, imaginative collection of stories are survivors of accidents and acts of nature, of injuries both physical and emotional. Ryan writes of beauty and aging, of love won and lost-with characters enveloped in the mysteries of the natural world and the animal kingdom. In "Greyhound," a woman brings home a rescued dog for her troubled partner in hopes that they might heal one another-while the dog in "What Gretel Knows" is the keeper of her owner's deepest secrets. In "Migration," a recently divorced woman retreats to a lakefront cabin where she is befriended by a mysterious Canada goose just as autumn begins to turn to winter. As a tornado ravages three towns in "The Spider in the Sink," a storm chaser's wife spares the life of a spider as she anxiously waits for her husband to return. And in "A Sea Change," a relationship falls victim to a woman's obsession with the world below the waves. The world is at once a beautiful and perilous place, Jean Ryan's stories tell us, and our lives are defined by the shelters we build.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781618220219
Publisher: Byte Level Research
Publication date: 04/02/2012
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

Survival Skills


By Jean Ryan

Ashland Creek Press

Copyright © 2013 Jean Ryan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61822-021-9




This place is not like the pound—greyhounds don't bark, nor do they make any frenetic appeals for freedom, nor do their sleek bodies betray any sign of disease. Professional athletes, these dogs have been fed and watered with precision. Now, finally pardoned, they rest comfortably in their cages, and as I approach, they raise their heads and eye me warily: What am I doing here? What do I want from them?

Pick one, I keep telling myself. But how? They look away, refuse to help me.

"Do you know anything about them?" I ask the attendant, a plump blonde in a tight green uniform. "Their personalities, I mean."

"Sure." She pushes herself off the wall and points to the dog in front of us. "That's Digger Dan. He's five. Raced in eight states. He's stubborn but real smart. And that's Buck Shot. He's four, kind of skittery."

We move down the row. "Shoot the Moon's a good dog." She shrugs. "They're all good dogs." We stop at another cage and peer at a brindled greyhound the colors of a fawn. "This one's new." The blonde puts her hands on her hips and chuckles. "You know what she did? She stopped running. The gate opened one day, and she wouldn't budge."

She is lying still as a sphinx, paws neatly crossed, tail tucked away. Her deep brown eyes appraise us; there's no telling what she concludes. I stare back, and her gaze slides off.

"How old is she?" I ask.

"Three. She ran for just over a year. Clara's Gift, they called her. She was good, a favorite. Funny the way she quit."

The dog is waiting for us to leave—I can see the tension in the sculpted muscles of her back.

I wonder if, tired of racing, she planned her defection. How long did it take her to get up the nerve? Did she know when they led her to the track that day?

Or maybe the idea came to her suddenly. Maybe, as she crouched behind the gate, as the crowd filled the bleachers, she added the whole thing up and saw at long last that she was being duped: The rabbit wasn't real.

"Can I pet her?" I ask.

"They're not used to affection," the blonde says, opening the cage. "They don't understand it."

I come closer, and the dog rises to a sitting position. Her eyes are large and apprehensive. Carefully I extend my hand; she sniffs it and shrinks. When I touch her, she flinches. "Good girl," I soothe, and though she allows me to pet her shoulder, it's not much fun for either of us.

Great. I could have gone to the pound and come back thirty minutes later with a fat, tail-wagging puppy, but here I am at the greyhound shelter, 112 miles from home, offering up my heart to a dog who just wishes I'd go away.

I arch an eyebrow at the attendant, and she smiles sympathetically. "They're all like that in the beginning," she assures me, "and then, after a few weeks, they can't get enough of it." Dubious, I turn back to the dog, who is looking at my arm as if it were a rolled-up newspaper.

"Just move slowly," she says. "They don't like sudden movements. And they don't like having their crate space invaded."

"Crate space?"

She nods. "Greyhounds spend most of their time in crates—they sleep in them; they feel safe in them. These cages are like their crates."

I pull my arm out, and the dog cautiously lowers herself back down. There is no waste on this animal; she is muscle and tendon, angle and bone; even her veins have no place to hide. Her forelegs are so thin and straight I have to turn away. There must be thirty dogs here, all posed in their cages, remote and silent as statuary.

"I thought they'd be old," I say.

"Oh, no. Two years of racing is about the norm. Some of them run longer—you can tell by their paws." She points to a large black-and-white hound. "Like that one. See how his front toes are twisted? The oval track does that. Most of these dogs are retired because of injury, or because they stop winning."

"Or running," I add, bringing my gaze back to Clara's Gift, realizing I have made my choice. And she knows, too, even before I tell the attendant. Alarmed, she gets to her feet, prepares to submit. It breaks my heart how good she is about being taken away, how dignified her walk to my truck. What price has she paid to behave like that?

Figuring she might enjoy some scenery for a change, I let her ride in the cab. She perches on the bench seat, taking up almost no space, and looks worriedly out the window. I keep murmuring assurances, but my voice doesn't calm her. As soon as we merge onto the highway and the Oregon mountains begin rushing by, she crawls off the seat and into the back of the cab.

* * *

The dog is a present for Holly, a surprise. She thinks I'm running errands for the store, picking up organic lettuces and local honey. That's where we met, my health food store. She came in one day and showed me the patches of eczema on her arms and asked me what she could do about them. I told her she might try using a humidifier. and I sold her some B-complex vitamins and a bar of oatmeal soap. Not long after that she moved in with me, and six years later we're still together, and still battling that eczema.

Not every day, of course—it comes and goes like magic. For weeks, even months, her limbs are as smooth and pale as the creamy hollows of a seashell. Most of the bouts are mild—mainly on her arms and the back of her hands—but there are times when the rash terrifies us both, when it moves up her neck and down her chest, turning the skin into a silvery crust, till she hides herself even from me. Those are the times she can't sleep, and I find her on the back steps rocking herself in the moonlight.

This has been a tough year for Holly—four episodes already—and two weeks ago, at the start of another flare-up, she quit her job at the Talking Turtle Day Care Center. The parents were making comments, she told me. "They get edgy at the sight of a rash, especially on an adult."

"What about the children?" I asked. "What do they say?"

"Oh, they don't mind. They just want to know if it hurts."

I have persuaded her to take at least six months off, hoping some private time will hush her demons (of course I don't mention this, for fear of jinxing her). I must admit I like the idea of her at home, making cheese lasagna and repotting plants. Still, it's a shame about the day care center: Nobody's better with children than Holly. She can remember their world, can still lose herself gazing at a puddle of tadpoles. She is childlike even in appearance, with her thin limbs and small, sharp features. People can't believe she is thirty-nine years old.

A dog, I thought, would be a good idea, would satisfy Holly's nurturing needs while presenting fewer challenges than a roomful of children bored with their toys. So when I saw the ad for adopting a retired greyhound, I couldn't ignore the serendipity.

* * *

Now, halfway home, glancing at the pile of literature they gave me, I'm having second thoughts. Greyhounds come with a list of warnings: Did I know they shouldn't be left alone? Is my neighborhood quiet? Any toddlers in the house? And is there a fenced-in field nearby? Once these dogs start running, God knows where they'll end up.

All I can see of Clara's Gift are her front paws; she hasn't moved in over an hour, hasn't offered so much as a sigh. I don't expect her to jump around joyfully, but why, on the other hand, doesn't she whimper? For all she knows, we could be heading for another racetrack.

I think of her sticklike limbs; they remind me of invalids, of nursing homes and wheelchairs. Suddenly I don't think I can do this. I am a large woman, big-boned—you wouldn't guess, looking at Holly and me, that I'm the squeamish one. Truth is, I can't stomach the suffering of animals; I can't even walk into a pet store. An exit sign appears, and I move into the right lane. Would it be so unforgivable, bringing back this damaged dog?

But I don't. I take her home to Holly, as I do the fallen fledglings I find, and all the other hapless creatures I don't know how to fix.

* * *

"She needs a special diet. And we have to walk her twice a day." I'm citing the drawbacks right away, letting Holly know what we're up against. "And, ah, she isn't housebroken either—none of them are."

But Holly is scarcely listening. Sitting on her heels, facing the dog, she is already smitten.

"She's so delicate," Holly says. "Like a deer, or like one of those tiny primeval horses."

"We'll have to run her in the soccer field, a couple times a week," I add. "Greyhounds need to run."

"What did you say they called her?"

"Clara's Gift."

"What kind of a name is that?" Holly shakes her head. "No. We'll call her"—she pauses, smiles—"we'll call her Fawn." At the utterance of this word, soft and perfect, the dog lifts her small folded ears.

* * *

Shortly after arriving, Fawn wedges herself behind the sofa. "The room is too big," I explain to Holly. We find a cardboard carton in the garage, and Holly covers the bottom of it with an afghan her mother crocheted. We place the box next to the sofa, and, quick as a card trick, Fawn is inside.

* * *

For the next few days Fawn spends most of her time in that makeshift crate, calmly watching us drink our coffee, read the mail, open and close the drapes. At night, though, when Holly and I are in bed, I sometimes see her dark silhouette in the doorway. "Come here, Fawn," I coax, "come here, girl." But she declines the invitation, and after a while I hear her nails clicking down the hall as she makes her way back to her box. Whatever she needs, it's not our company.

As far as upkeep, she's no trouble at all. In fact, she's already housebroken. All I did was lay down some newspaper in a corner, and each morning I moved the papers a little closer to the back porch, and by the third day she was waiting at the door. There is something uncanny about this dog, some kind of age-old wisdom behind those luminous eyes. I get the feeling she is smarter than me and obeys out of politeness. Not that I need to issue many commands; Fawn comports herself so flawlessly I am embarrassed to put her on a leash. They told me to hold her firmly, that the twitch of a squirrel's tail would make her bolt. Well, we've seen plenty of squirrels, and even a few jackrabbits zigzagging through the scrub oak, and Fawn ignores them all. We've tried everything, from throwing sticks and Frisbees to jogging way ahead of her, and the thing is, she just won't run.

* * *

I am sitting on the sofa studying vitamin catalogs. Holly is lying on the carpet next to Fawn; over and over, her hand moves down the smooth slope of the dog's neck. Fawn no longer needs the box, and while she doesn't exactly ask for affection, she doesn't object to it either (unless you try to hug her—she can't bear that).

I spend too much time on these catalogs. They used to be newsprint pamphlets; today they're slick with photos, hefty as phone books. When I opened Earthly Goods eighteen years ago, there wasn't a pill in the place, just brown rice and bulgur and some bug-ravaged produce. I liked it that way; I liked the weirdly shaped tomatoes and the warm hayloft smell when I opened the door each morning. Now I'm buying amino wafers and colloidal silver, royal jelly and blue-green algae. I had to cut back on the produce to make room for the bodybuilding products. Half of the back wall is devoted to nothing but B vitamins. I want to reduce my inventory, but everything sells: grape-seed extract, lutein, selenium, milk thistle, bovine cartilage. People are frantic for elixirs, and I'm the town supplier. I'm not even culpable when the potions don't work: The fault could lie in the alignment of the stars, in the user's lack of faith. That's the key to this booming business—the disclaimer's built right in.

I push aside the catalogs and consider the raw patches of skin on Holly's arms. Certainly nothing on my shelves has worked any miracles here. I wonder why the rash is so persistent this time and how bad it will get. Holly claims she has no secrets, no private well of grief; I can't believe this. I want to ask all the old questions, one by one, to see if there's something we've missed.

"Such soft fur," Holly says, her hand moving slowly, reverently down the dog's back. "They used to have wiry coats, like Airedales, but that's been bred out of them." Holly has been reading everything she can find on the subject of greyhounds. "Their eyes weren't this big either—the breeders decided that big eyes would make them see the lure better, so they elongated the head and made the occipital cavities larger—the sense of smell was impaired in the process, but nobody cared about that."

She sighs. "They even changed the tails, made them longer so they could work like rudders. The only trouble is, they keep breaking. Puppies break their tails all the time. Their legs break, too, especially the Italian greyhounds."

I think of the times I've seen Fawn gingerly lick her legs, or stare at them in a kind of bewilderment. At first we thought she might be in pain, which would explain her reluctance to run, but the vet said no, she was fine. "She's still a young dog," he said. "You really should run her—otherwise she'll get fat, and then she really will have problems."

Fawn's gaze is fixed on the carpet. Greyhounds originated in Egypt, Holly told me, and were called "gazehounds." I observe Fawn's glistening brown eyes, their dark depths keeping the secrets of the pharaohs. How can we make it up to her? How can we explain this powder-blue carpet to an animal that once roamed the banks of the Nile?

"I've never seen her wag her tail," I say. "Have you?"

"No," Holly says softly. She raises her hand and cups the small blameless dome of Fawn's head; the dog responds with a look of forbearance in which I can glimpse the burgeoning of devotion.

"Fawn has never been alone," Holly says. "She's lived her whole life with other dogs. Maybe we should let her spend some time with Maxine and Crash."

We share a nervous glance. Maxine and Crash live next door. Maxine is an old one-eyed mastiff; overweight, hobbled by arthritis, she still hauls herself over to the fence at the slightest provocation. Crash is a two-year-old black lab who in endless ebullience hurls his body into whatever objects lie in his path. Neither one is very bright, and they both bark too much, a habit we don't want Fawn to pick up.

"We could try it," Holly says. "We could take her over there and see how it goes."

I am weighing alternatives. There is a Chihuahua down the road who can teach Fawn nothing I want her to learn. Frank and Dora's Dalmatian would be more suitable, but they live four miles away; we'd have to drive there every time, and I really don't like Frank.

"Okay," I finally answer.

Fawn is studying the carpet again. I am sending my autistic child off to public school.

* * *

We have two rocks in our living room, boulders really; Holly rolled them in from the woods. There is a cavity in one, which she keeps filled with water; she's planted some emerald moss around it and a few tiny ferns. Miniature worlds—that's her fetish. Right now, she's working on a desert scene: a shallow clay bowl filled with sand to which she has introduced some baby cacti, a twig painted like a snake, an Ivory soap steer skull the size of a cough drop, and a prospector's shack she fashioned out of splinters from our fence. Last night she was talking about turning the hallway into a prehistoric diorama.

Holly went to art school back east and after graduation found herself on Fifth Avenue designing window displays. The winter scenes were the most fun, she said: the pumpkins and fall leaves, the sparkling drifts of plastic snow. Still, she got tired of the gaunt mannequins and the New York winters, and the next thing she knew she was in San Francisco, creating curb appeal not for clothing stores but for small restaurants. She was very successful at this, and I wonder if she ever resents the urge that brought her to Agness, Oregon. While Holly enjoys telling me about the mating rituals of the trumpeter swan or the ramifications of the greenhouse effect. she rarely imparts information about herself; most of what I know about her I've had to piece together. If she has fallen short of her goals, if she yearns for something more than me and this house we're constantly mending, she doesn't burden me with it.

* * *

We are taking Fawn over to Will and Theda's, the owners of Maxine and Crash. Will and Theda built their house out of aluminum cans and plastic jugs and God knows what else. In their backyard is an old washing machine they use as a smoker; in a gutted refrigerator next to it, they raise crayfish. There is always a chicken or two strutting around and several cats, and though I love Will and Theda, I'm getting more and more uneasy at the idea of exposing Fawn to their country chaos.

As usual, Theda is up to her elbows in flour—she bakes pies and cookies for a bakery in town—and Will is out back working on the tractor. For devotees of the simple life, they're the busiest people I know.

"How's our sweet baby girl?" Theda coos, reaching for Fawn with floured hands. Fawn ducks, backs up.

"She's nervous," I apologize. "New surroundings."

"Well, of course she is," Theda says. She settles her hands on her wide hips and beams at Fawn. "She's such a pretty little thing!"

Fawn cranes her neck, taking everything in. Back hunched, tail tight between her legs, she is standing on the linoleum as if she were poised on a flat of eggs.

We have already discussed Fawn's problem with Theda, and she's more than happy to offer her dogs as a course of treatment. "Dogs need dogs," she said, "like people need people." In no time at all, she assured us, Fawn would be running like the wind.

"Are you ready, little one?" she says, grinning, and Fawn looks up at Holly for an answer.

We follow Theda's thick blonde braid and swaying hips out of the house; sure enough, there's a pair of orange chickens pecking up dust near the back steps. "Hold her tight," I whisper to Holly—just in case. The chickens stop feeding; each aim an eye at Fawn, who is trying to slink by without any trouble. Theda stamps her Birkenstock, and they scrabble away. On the other side of the steps, a black cat is lounging in a cracked flowerpot. As we walk past, she stops washing her paw and turns her cool green gaze on Fawn; almost immediately she loses interest and resumes her bath.

Excerpted from Survival Skills by Jean Ryan. Copyright © 2013 by Jean Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Ashland Creek Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Greyhound....................     1     

Survival Skills....................     19     

A Sea Change....................     27     

What Gretel Knows....................     39     

The Spider in the Sink....................     53     

Migration....................     61     

Looks for Life....................     81     

Remediation....................     103     

Archaeology After Dark....................     123     

Waiting for Annie....................     135     

Double Take....................     155     

The Side Bar....................     167     

Paradise....................     181     

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