The Observable Characteristics of Organisms: Stories

The Observable Characteristics of Organisms: Stories

by Ryan MacDonald
The Observable Characteristics of Organisms: Stories

The Observable Characteristics of Organisms: Stories

by Ryan MacDonald


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In Ryan MacDonald’s stories, most no more than a page in length, we are given glimpses of a father and daughter at the zoo; an isolated man lamenting the absence of TV in his life; two young men atop a fridge at a party, drinking wine. These are stories of marriage and family, of the oddities of the natural world, of college parties, of web-cams and media obsession.
As MacDonald says, “I think what I’m after in the stories as well as in the video work is finding an experiential moment, nothing really stable, something pleasantly unstable, or uncomfortable . . . purposefully pleasant uncomfortable instability with moments of tenderness and definitely humor. Certainly nothing concrete, unless it needs that. A certain fear of and respect for banality. I’m after a good time, which can often turn into a really bad time, but either way, one we’ll remember forever.”
Despite the range of circumstances they reveal, these stories are unified by a brightness of vision, deft observation, and consistently sharp, funny, and unbridled language.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573661829
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ryan MacDonald is a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he received an MFA in English and an MFA in studio art. His solo and collaborative work has been exhibited or performed at Fountain Studios, New York Live Arts, The Continental Review, Flying Object, and St. Mark’s Church, and elsewhere.

Read an Excerpt

The Observable Characteristics of Organisms


By Ryan MacDonald

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2014 Ryan MacDonald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57366-849-1



In the zoo we accomplish many things. The animals are always fed and locked in their cages. Habitats are well hosed down and visitors have a decent view, even though the animals sit completely still most of the time.

My daughter is four and has a low tolerance for such things.

"The animals look so sad," she says.

"They are not sad," I assure her. "They are maybe a little homesick, they are maybe a little lonely, but they are not sad."

Yesterday I went into the penguin habitat. It smelled like chlorine and sweaty feet so I opened the door a crack to let the place breathe a bit. A penguin squeezed through the crack and ran into the pedestrian path. It was too slippery to catch. I tried to stop it from entering the polar bear cage by throwing a large rock at it. But I missed and in it went.

"To be swallowed whole!" I said triumphantly to the gasping crowd, an arm raised for emphasis.

My daughter is in the employee lounge right now dissecting owl pellets. Plucking tiny mouse skulls from them. She wants to be a zoologist.

"I like to look at things from different angles, Daddy," she says to me.

I am not for or against this idea. I do however wish she would find an interest in botany or figure skating, something less repulsive, something not as smelly. My daughter walks with a disgusting limp. This is why she will always be single, I think.

My daughter, the limping zoologist. I will love her anyway.

Today we had ice cream at the concession stand near the entrance of the zoo. I watched my daughter eat the ice cream, chocolate all over her nose and cheeks. Even a little smudge on her forehead. 'Disgusting,' I thought, and wiped her down with a wetnap.

I took her into the greenhouse to show her the plantlife. We walked carefully down the aisles, holding our hands out to brush the tops of the greenery. My daughter sang a song as she walked, something about the observable characteristics of organisms with favorable phenotypes. Afterwards we witnessed the birth of a rhinoceros. It was magical, to be sure, and difficult to watch.

When rhinos have babies they tremble, they tremble the way all mothers tremble when having babies I bet.

When it was over, the rhino circled her calf, sniffing at it with magnificent nostrils. She lifted it to its feet with her horn. I wanted to be a mother. I've always wanted to be a mother, if only to tremble, to feel the warmth of the creature leaving me.

"It will never happen!" I said triumphantly to the rhinos in their hay-smelling habitat.



The storm is coming and I am trapped in the house with Richard Gere. It could be worse I suppose, he is very good looking.

We have been watching the local news to see what's happening outside. There is a hurricane outside; the scientists have named the hurricane Norman. Hurricane Norman is a level three hurricane, they say.

Richard and I have taped up the windows. We have secured all the china in the china cabinets. Richard is very helpful.

I am in the kitchen right now fixing us cocktails. May as well have some cocktails, I said to him.

You don't have to be a celebrity to have an alcohol problem, he said, smiling at me the way he does.

I gave him the finger and went to the kitchen to fix them.

Richard is very judgmental, always squinting at me and judging me. Sometimes, at night, I go to the window and look out at the mountains, and dream of another life. I look out at the mountains and dream of another place with another celebrity, one who is not so judgmental maybe, maybe not so knowledgeable.

Earlier we were watching the local news and Richard says to me out of nowhere, did you know, he says, did you know Pyrrhus of Epirus, a fearless warrior who fought the battle of Argos atop an elephant, was killed when an old lady threw a roofing tile at his head?

No I did not know that Richard.

The wind is picking up outside, I can hear hail tinking off the roofing tiles. Richard is leaning in the kitchen doorway, smiling and watching me with those dark eyes of his as I put ice in the cocktails. The ice cracks in the glasses.

I look up at him and he shows me his teeth in an expression I find excruciating.



The moment my mother released me, they say, I took stock of the situation. I scrutinized the doctor's decisions. Dr. Havershamp held me in one hand and scooped mucus from my mouth with a cold latex finger. I did not cry but squinted deep into his eyes looking for secrets. One thing I already knew about this world, was that everyone had secrets.

When the doctor told my parents they could take me home, I repeated the word home several times, noting the pleasure of the long vowel.

I had been given the name Canto, meaning the principle form of division in a long poem. I immediately set out to write my first book of poems but found my fine motor skills needed time to develop.

I spent my first days getting to know my grandfather, an exceedingly gentle and interesting man. On the third day he was killed by a coronary. I distinctly remember the wake, the endless Hail Marys, the meaningful mourning. When it came time, my father carried me up for the viewing of the body.

I squinted deep at my grandfather looking for secrets, but I found only questions. Why are we made to be expressionless? Should we not be made to look disappointed, or angry? Why, in our caskets, are we not placed in fetal position?

Four days in and our little poodle with the unfortunate name of Jacques, after the famous sea explorer, drowned in the plastic kiddie pool. I was the only one comfortable enough with death to bury him near the swing set. Death comes at us, or death comes from in us, it depends, that is all.



Man in bookstore finds pile of brown hair smashed in book, purchases book. Man rides horse home. Rides the back off that horse home. Man bounces on careening horse across rough landscape. Horse slides into corral, dust clouds. Man slips off horse's back, looks in satchel, book still there. Man runs fingers through hair. Man rubs bad bruise on leg. Man strides toward house. Man trips on way up stairs, knocks out front tooth. Man bleeds on porch, hand to face. Horse whinnies. Woman breaks wood out back. Woman snaps branch over knee. Branch splinters. Woman smells wood in arms while walking inside. Woman sees man at table, blood on towel, hand to mouth. Woman looks at man. Man looks at woman. Woman stokes fire with wood. Woman takes man's hand from mouth, looks in mouth, sighs. Man tongues hole. Woman steps out on porch. Horse whinnies. Woman looks for tooth, finds tooth, puts tooth in jar, puts jar in satchel. Man strides out back, lifts ax, chops wood. Woman mounts horse. Horse whinnies. Woman rides horse to town. Rides the back off that horse to town. Woman bounces on careening horse, face in mane. Woman enters bookstore, browses shelves. Woman takes jar from satchel, takes tooth from jar, takes book from shelf, puts tooth in book, closes book, puts book on shelf, puts jar in satchel. Woman rides horse home. Man chops wood. Man lifts ax. Man swings ax.



Someone's goddamn kid at the Lollipop Lane has scabies.

I went to pick up my four-year-old daughter from the daycare center after work as usual. Patricia put her hand on my shoulder and said she needed to speak with me in private. She said there was a slight problem with one of the children.

Patricia's hand was powdery. Her sleeves were rolled up and there were bits of dried plaster stuck in her arm hair. She led me away from the children.

I was thinking, "Who is messing with my daughter now?"

Chelsea is not well liked among her peers. I think it has to do with the outfits she chooses to wear, frilly red tutus and whatnot.

"One of the children has come down with what we believe to be, scabies," sang Patricia, smug-like, as though talking to a toddler. Her dusty white fingers were still on my shoulder leaving traces on my blue blouse.

"Scabies?" I said to her.

"Scabies is caused from an infestation of the skin by the human itch mite." She said this as though it had happened before, as though she had done her research.

"I know what scabies are ... is," I said.

My face felt hot. Patricia's cakey hand massaged my shoulder.

She gave me a well-rehearsed look and continued. "The mite burrows into the upper layer of the skin where it lives and lays eggs."

I wanted my daughter. I wanted to take her by her tiny hand and get the hell out of there.

"Now, it's usually spread by direct, skin-to-skin contact, and they can lay dormant for months. So we're going to have to close Lollipop Lane for a while."

'A while?' I was thinking, 'What am I going to do with Chelsea? My mother-in-law is a borderline psychotic and I cannot take time off from the ceramics testing facility without facing serious penalties on my pay.'

"I realize this is difficult," said Patricia, placing her other hand on my other shoulder. "We'll call you when we know the coast is clear."

We went back into the room. The children all occupied themselves in various pockets. At one table Jim Cronson's kid was licking what appeared to be rubber cement off a table, next to him Sarah Marshal's kid plucked and ate the raw macaroni from her greeting card. Tom Watson's kid sat on the floor crying and Frank Arthur's kid squatted silently in the corner with his hands down his pants. They all looked up at me, and a chill bristled my body.

Chelsea, who had apparently been gluing sequins to her face, came bounding up to me, "Mommy!"

When she reached for a hug I turned away from her, "Let's go," I said.

I felt nauseated buckling her into her car seat, my skin pricked with goose bumps. She kissed my cheek and when she wasn't looking, I wiped it on my sleeve. At home I sat clear across the table and watched her eat yogurt in silence, and after she went to bed, I set the house on fire. I sat in the car watching the house glow from inside until it erupted in an unbelievable blaze. The next day I rolled down the window and listened to the blackened ruins hiss and pop in the morning silence.



"Excuse me sir," said the cashier lady, "do you have your Price Chopper shopper card?"

"No," he said, hardly able to hear himself.

Two cans of beans moved down the belt.

The two of them standing there became something more of themselves together. He bit his lip and prematurely punched in his debit numbers. He felt something beneath his shoe, a hard candy of some kind. It sickened him and he kicked at it but it stuck to the floor. A faint smell of onions moved around them.

The cashier lady felt tired. Her cat had died two days ago, her father was becoming more and more despondent at the home, her car had begun to backfire, and it was getting towards the end of her shift. Her fingers had long curved nails that click-clacked on the keys as she typed in a code for the beans.

Her nails transfixed him. He had never seen nails so long and round. 'How does she manage with those things?' he thought. 'How does she change the station on her radio, or tie her shoes, or play her guitar, or wipe?' he thought. He felt stupid for thinking these things—'her guitar?' He closed his eyes and subtly mouthed the words, shut up.

As subtle as his gesture was, she had noticed.

The beans were not to be found in the system. She pulled the receiver from the wall and her voice boomed throughout the store, "Can I get a price check on thirteen?"

She watched him shift his weight from one foot to the other. She watched him stare down at her hands. She looked at the customers waiting in line behind him: a woman holding a child, a man in a green parka, hood pulled up, and a teenager with pink hair and rings in his nose and ears. She scanned the items on the belt: a chicken, a gallon of milk, Melba toast, 'What the fuck is Melba toast?' she thought. Greek yogurt, Coors Light, corn flakes, Mr. Pibb, brownie mix, tuna fish.

He bent forward, trying to get a closer look. On each nail was an extraordinarily delicate painting of a tiny scene: white horses grazed in gray fields that seemed to undulate in a breeze on the slope of a mountain. The light was such that the moon was still out, but the sun was just coming up. The grass was carefully lined so that almost every blade looked drawn in and dewy, and over the field, a soft fog had begun to gather and form.



I just don't feel the same way, he said after my trembling confession. I stuffed the rest of the pancetta into my mouth and chewed it. It tasted like sweat.

It's just too fast for me, I mean, too soon, he said.

I winced, opened my phone and dialed 7 for Roberto. It's a go, I said, and closed it with a slap.

He ignored this and stared into the trees sipping his white wine. I ordered yet another water, I was very thirsty. We did not speak.

When I saw Roberto approaching from behind him I nearly choked on the water I sipped, taking it down the wrong pipe. Roberto pulled an old T-shirt over his face to blind him, knocking over his chair and dragging him backwards toward the white van. He writhed and screamed and scratched at Roberto's huge hands.

There was a slight commotion on the patio, men stood from their chairs and gasped loudly.

What have I done? I thought.

When the van screeched away the men lowered themselves slowly to their chairs, blinking at one another.

Goodbye, I whispered to the remaining Brie, or in no particular direction, goodbye, I said.

The waiter came and asked in an accent if I knew the man who took my husband. That, I said to him, was not my husband. That, I said to him, pointing to the knocked over chair, was unrequited love. That, I said with greater emphasis, pointing at the sky, was unreciprocated feelings.

The waiter's black mustache twitched. He fell to his knees and wept onto my pant leg, wetting it. The men, startled, stood again, scraping the legs of their chairs against the pavement and dropping their forks on their plates.

Please, I said, you are wetting my slacks.

The waiter stood slapping his hands to his face and running, a little dramatically I thought, off the patio and into the kitchen.

The men stood slightly bent over their tables, over their pastrami sandwiches and cold beet salads, watching the swinging kitchen door. When it ceased to swing, they lowered themselves again uneasily to their chairs, tucked the napkins back into their collars, tossed the ties over their shoulders, and lifted their forks with unsteady fingers.



The sun spun. The sun went on spinning, as usual. The sum of its spinning being very much worth the effort. The sun spun and spun, the sum being so much worth the effort. The sun was spent. Was spun. So spun up it was spun out. But there it was, still spinning. Around the sun, stars. Though not really. If the sun were scaled down to the size of a period on a page . the closest star would be eight miles away. If the earth were scaled down to the size of a period on a page . the sun would be roughly the size of an orange. For the sake of the sun let's imagine the closest star, so far away. We can all imagine the sound the sun makes. The low pulsations. The droning grumble. In truth the space around the sun is vacuous. In truth, space is vacuous. So, no, no sound. However, we can all imagine what it would be, should we be able to hear it. A deep oscillation. Supposedly without the sun we would not live. But there it is spinning, and so live we do.

In the beginning we all contain the spongy hearts of reptiles. We detect the sun the way a light sensitive blind person senses a soft orangeness. We do not know what it is to breathe and so do not desire it. We do not desire. We simply absorb fluids and wait, though we have no concept of time. We have no concept. We do not know down from up, we are unaware of gravity. Some of us listen to a muffled tinkling in a strangely melodic pool around us. Most of us hear an occasional dense and desperate moan, we hear large and rhythmic thumpings and a sort of, a kind of rushing noise. We can distinguish between noises. We move, at first involuntarily, stretching and flexing, kicking and punching. We squirm. We move through periods of activity and inactivity. We sleep. We sleep soundly. We sleep so soundly we dream.



I shook the shelf, which clattered on the floorboards. My sister clambered over the couches. My father watched CHiPS on TV and in the kitchen my mother caught fire.

I heard the scream and stopped making noise. My father turned down the volume and sat forward on the chair. My sister hid behind the couch. Smoke flitted through the seams of the kitchen door. We were afraid to go into the kitchen. I could smell burning fabric and maybe hair. I could hear wailing and stomping.

My father stood up and turned off the TV. He stood there with the remote in his hand. My sister pushed herself under the couch as far as she could go, an arm and a leg sticking out.

I went to the kitchen door and opened it a crack. I could see my mother, flailing around, whipping dishtowels. Other things had caught fire too. The curtains were on fire, the plants in the windows were on fire, the stove was on fire, even the floor was on fire. My mother's dress was burning and her hair and her hands were burning. I could feel the heat of the fire on my forehead. I could feel the heat on my lips and cheeks.

I knew my father was standing behind me. He pulled the door quietly closed. He was crying; his hands were shaking.


Excerpted from The Observable Characteristics of Organisms by Ryan MacDonald. Copyright © 2014 Ryan MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Observable Characteristics of Organisms,
The Storm,
Lollipop Lane,
Carl Jung Buys Beans,
Dial 7 for Roberto,
The Sun,
The End,
The Professor, His Pupil, and His Puppy Pickle,
It Is My Understanding,
Girl, Makes Sense to Me,
Norman Mailer,
The Turning of Events,
Shifting and Plummeting,
"Tell Me with Whom You Walk and I Will Tell You Who You Are",
She Thought,
"Since We Are Lost, Let's Go to the River",
Blow the Man Down,
In the Mud, in Her Arms,
It's Only a Matter of Time,
To Be Read Aloud with a Lisp,
The Scapegoat,
Appropriately Hungry,
Charles and Rita,
So That's There?,
Wild Ass,
Quality Time,
The Hole,
Blue River Road,
Dead Skunk,
Retirement Is a Flamingo Pond,
A Small Death,
My Head Is a Punch Bowl,
The Burial,
The Recent Local Phenomenon,
My Novel,
The Beast,
A Handful,
Road Trip,
I No Longer Need Him,
Frozen Dinner,
The Punishment,
There Is a House There,
When I'm Feeling Up to It,
Brass Tacks,
I Am a Natural Wonder,
Redolent Son,
Into the Woods,
A Confluence of Occurrences,
Altered Beast,
Another Day at the A&P,
My Friend's Father,

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