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merrill

The Merrill Diaries, by my friend, Susan Tepper

My first impression of Merrill is that she is a woman on a quest or an odyssey, though that would imply a goal of some sort; apparently Merrill’s goal is to simply go. Go, and keep going.

At the beginning of Merrill’s journey we find her in a dead-end marriage to Teddy, who seems a decent enough guy, good looking, but clueless; he doesn’t like Merrill bringing up that “stupid women lib stuff” that she gets from that “commie magazine” called Ms.(yeah, they are clearly not living in the same reality). She’s also working at the perfect dead-end job, a “freaking travel agency,” that leaves her envious of her customers: “even the lowly student with a cheap Eurail pass.”

What’s a girl to do? Join a rock band, what else?

Merrill’s view of the world seems zany at times (“I won’t dye my crotch,” I whisper in his ear.), but what I find irresistible is her courage. Despite missing the aqua walls of their house, she leaves Teddy (It’s not like he didn’t have it coming after inviting the spies and their devil dog Mungo to share their house) for Eddie, the lead guitarist in the band she joins (“It’s blasting idyllic for a week, until it comes time to do the laundry.”).

Speaking of Teddy, she writes, “his gray vision forming a gray life. I take no responsibility in this outcome!” This is what I love most about Merrill; other people are responsible for their own lives and, as the story progresses, we see that Merrill holds herself to the same standard. Her successes, blunders, and mishaps are hers (even when others have a clear hand in the troubles).

Not surprisingly, the singing gig doesn’t pan out (the place she shares with Eddies burns down) and so it’s off to London to sell truffles as Merrill Kimberly and marry well, only to also leave him and go to Greece in time for the revolution. And so Merrill goes, and goes, and goes. I love a girl who is not afraid to put the wind at her back

Besides Merrill herself, I also enjoy how Tepper has constructed a unified whole of the thirty stand-alone chapters that make up The Merrill Diaries. It is an intriguing, seamless (zipless?) read that keeps us wondering, what will this girl get up to next? While reading it I was perpetually smiling and frequently laughing out loud thanks to Tepper’s wit and timing.

If someone called one of my books “a delight,” I’d probably turn snarky and ask, “What is that, a dessert?” Merrill herself might ask, “Me? A delight? You must have me confused.” But what can I say, The Merrill Dairies IS a delight, as is its eponymous irrepressible heroine. As one other reviewer noted, “I want more of Merrill!”

 

 

Al McDermid:

I just read a third account of the ghost of the Bolinas house and so thought I’d repost this.

Originally posted on Tokyo Exile:

One of my favorite authors is Richard Brautigan. I like him so much that in addition to reading his novels and poetry, I’ve also read memoirs about him (I normally do not enjoy memoirs and biographies). In two of these, Downstream From Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan, by his long time friend, Keith Abbot, and You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir, by his daughter, Ianthe, I encountered a true ghost story. I was pleased by the discovery because I’ve also recently become interested in ghost stories (both true and fictional accounts). Both authors had contact with this ghost, and provide accounts that are both close enough and different enough that I can accept them as true.  I’ve included both here so that you can judge for yourselves.

In the early 1970s, Richard Brautigan bought a house in Bolinas, California (along the coast north of…

View original 590 more words

I was thinking of you tonight, Allen Ginsberg, as I walked down Polk Street,
laid now bare by AIDS and indifference, walked under a fog-shrouded
moon, thinking of you and Kerouac and hipster Zen haiku.
In my hungry fatigue, I wandered into Safeway, that luminous
cornucopia, open 24-7 and gleaming in supernatural ecstasy, the pursuit
of bread and cheese at midnight enshrined in the Declaration.
What perfect fruit! What perfect red meat! Amber-lit aisles of
genetically modified cereal grains dosed with sugar! All America is shopping
tonight, three carts over-flowing and don’t forget the latest National Enquirer!
Is this America, this endless consumption? America still has its
nuclear bombs, so what the fuck, and what the fuck has changed–and you,
Bill Burroughs, junkie-queer, when did you fly in and what were you doing,
lingering in the produce aisle, sniffing peaches, squeezing the tomatoes?

I saw you, Allen Ginsberg, lonely and childless, grubbing among
the cleaning products, the bleach and the Pine Sol, mumbling, wondering
when America will finally come clean, and like Walt, eyeing the grocery
boys.

I heard the questions you asked America: Why are the graves full
of tears? Where are the angels of our better nature? Why are you naked?
I followed you though this labyrinth, secure in the certainty that you
had strung the string that would lead the way out.
We dragged ourselves through these canyons of splendor, fingering every
Made in China delight two dollars and twenty-seven cents, and never finding
that angry fix.

Where are we going, Allen Ginsberg? The parking lot is chained and
anyway, it seems I have lost my car. Can you divine where I left it?
(I clutch your book and dream of our sojourn in California. Eureka!
Where has it gone?)

Are we lonely enough to dance together down the dark, negro streets
toward the false hope of dawn? There is no sun, no shade, and the twilight’s
last gleaming is shrouded in fog.

Shall we cross the bridges to the new America, past the rusting shells
of blue automobiles and vacant strip malls, to our cinderblock motel?
Ah, dear friend, monkish iconoclast, where is the revolution? Did it die
in Vietnam with the 58,000? Where can America go now that Charon’s outboard
has no gas? When it comes time to depart this smoking ruin, shall we swim
in the black waters of the Lethe?

Castro St., San Francisco

Castro St., San Francisco

29 August 2011
Tokyo, Japan

After Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” with references from his poems “Howl” and “America,” all of which can be found in Howl and Other Poems (1956).

“A Supermarket in San Francisco,” was first published on the Dead Beats Literary Blog on 13 September 2012.

http://www.deadbeats.eu/post/31464939890/a-supermarket-in-san-francisco-a-response-poem-by-al

Flash—Thunder

Posted: 6 June 2014 in Uncategorized

Band of Brothers HBO logo

On the plane in, some guys fingered their crosses, but I didn’t have one, so I fiddled nervously with my signal clicker, breaking it. By then we were on our feet and hooking up.

I had joined the airborne because I wanted to know that the guy fighting next to me was the best, but I’d never liked the jumping. Waiting for that green light, though, I’d watched one of the other planes break up after taking a hit, flaming paratroopers, guys I certainly knew, spilling from its door. After that, all I could think of was getting off that plane.

When I finally landed I was so surprised to be alive I momentarily forgot where I was, surrounded by the enemy, my weapon and leg bag torn from me by the plane’s prop wash, with no idea if I was anywhere near my drop zone. I crouched next to a tree, listening to the anti-aircraft guns, which didn’t sound nearly so frightening now that I was on the ground. Compared to inside the plane, where the noise had been deafening even before the shelling started, this grove where I hid was almost peaceful.

I heard movement close, but with no weapon, I feared using the password, feared giving away my position. Then I heard the sweetest word in the English language.

“Flash,” said the darkness.

“Thunder,” I said, emerging from the shadows. “Thunder.”

“One ‘thunder’ is sufficient, trooper,” came the voice of my lieutenant. I could tell he was smiling.

* Adapted from Band of Brothers, Episode 2 “Day of Days”. The HBO miniseries Band of Brothers is based on Stephen Ambrose’s history of Easy Company (506th Regiment, 101st Airborne). Episode 2, “Day of Days” recounts Easy Company’s part in the D-Day invasion of Europe, June 6, 1944, when the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions dropped into German-occupied Normandy the night before.

The challenge/response password system dates to Roman times, as recorded by Polybius, but this story recounts one of the best known recent uses of the device. The paratroopers on D-Day also used a ‘cricket’, or toy clicker, wherein one click was to be answered by two clicks.

“Flash—Thunder” appeared originally at 52/250 A Year of Flash, and is part of an upcoming collection of flash fiction and poetry entitled Kindergarten of a Thin Mind.

Terrible Gods

Posted: 19 May 2014 in Uncategorized

I’m sitting in the park, under the big maple, intent on reading some poetry, Whitman as it happens, when a fledgling drops out of the tree and lands next to me. It is so young and ugly that I cannot discern its breed, and it’s squawking like all get out, undoubtedly at the shock of suddenly not being in the nest.

I look at it for awhile, thinking I should perhaps let natural selection take its course, do nothing so this individual can’t pass on the clumsy gene, or the over-anxious gene, or whatever gene caused it to tumble from the nest. It seems of little consequence one way or the other. Thousands of birds fall from nests every year, and that’s that. Had I not been here, this one would be no different.

But this one is different. It’s flailing in the grass next to me, right now. I look up into the tree, dubious of my ability to reach even the lowest branch, let alone find the nest. Then there’s that thing about mother birds rejecting chicks handled by humans, but I don’t know if that is even true, or if it is, that it’s true for all birds.

So I pick it up, thinking that I’ll take it home and nurse it until it can fly away. As it lay in my palm, flapping its tiny wings to no avail, I see how easy it would be to close my hand and decide the issue.

And with that thought, I understand why we imagine that our gods are terrible.

 

“Terrible Gods” appeared originally at 52/250 A Year of Flash (http://52250flash.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/terrible-gods-by-al-mcdermid/), and is part of an upcoming collection of flash fiction and poetry entitled Kindergarten of a Thin Mind.

Lucky Number’s Father

Posted: 6 May 2014 in Uncategorized
St. Mark's Place & 1st Avenue, NYC

St. Mark’s Place & 1st Avenue, NYC

When Lucky became old enough to know that names were given by parents, in his case, by his mother, and realized that she could have named him anything, he was not happy knowing that she had chosen to name him ‘Lucky’. His sister, Fortuna, couldn’t understand why he was so upset. “You don’t have a dog’s name,” he had told her.

His mother, Prima, had said it was because his father, Wrong, had been, well, just wrong, and she had wanted him to be something more. “When I was dating your father,” his mother had said, “my mama told me, ‘that man is wrong for you.’ I thought she was making a bad joke, but turned out she was right and he was wrong.”

The Number family lived in Manhattan, near the corner 5th Street and 3rd Avenue, but Wrong was always ending up at the corner of 3rd Street and Thompson (what would have been 5th Avenue had the numbering system stretched into Greenwich Village), wandering around looking for his apartment. Most of the people in that neighborhood came to know him and someone would eventually call Lucky to come and collect him.

Wrong had perhaps been Prima’s mistake (one her mother never let her forget), but he was not always wrong; the confusion he experienced with numbers gave him insights others lacked, allowing him to become a brilliant cryptographer. When he managed to find his office, which was somewhere near 53rd Street and 1st Avenue, that is. Yeah, you can see the problem.

Then somehow, while on his way to a cryptology conference in Munich, Wrong managed to get on a plane flying to Manila. A few weeks later, after no word at all, Lucky received a postcard from his father. The front of the card was of the Banaue rice terraces; the back read:

“I’m living in a small village with no addresses. I think I’ll stay awhile.”

 

A marginally shorter version of “Lucky Number’s Father” appeared originally at 52/250 A Year of Flash (http://52250flash.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/lucky-numbers-father-by-al-mcdermid/), and is part of an upcoming collection of flash fiction and poetry entitled Kindergarten of a Thin Mind.

The Last Payphone

Posted: 26 April 2014 in Uncategorized

Originally posted on Tokyo Exile:

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The city’s last payphone rings as I pass it. I reach for it, then hesitate. In the days before disposable burner phones, drug dealers used the pay phones. What if I pick it and find myself in the middle of a sting? Or kidnapper running the bagman to hell and gone before revealing the drop site. Clearly, I watch too much crime drama.

Despite realizing I have nothing to fear by answer it, I decide to walk on but the phone is insistent. I look up and down the darkening street. On both sides, I see empty old foundations interspersed with a few ramshackle two-story houses, their windows broken, their paint faded and peeling. A sheaf of yellowed newspaper blows across the street. The remaining trees have long shed their leaves. I see no one, no people and no cars. The phone is still ringing, so I pick it up.

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The Last Payphone

Posted: 15 April 2014 in Uncategorized

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The city’s last payphone rings as I pass it. I reach for it, then hesitate. In the days before disposable burner phones, drug dealers used the pay phones. What if I pick it and find myself in the middle of a sting? Or kidnapper running the bagman to hell and gone before revealing the drop site. Clearly, I watch too much crime drama.

Despite realizing I have nothing to fear by answer it, I decide to walk on but the phone is insistent. I look up and down the darkening street. On both sides, I see empty old foundations interspersed with a few ramshackle two-story houses, their windows broken, their paint faded and peeling. A sheaf of yellowed newspaper blows across the street. The remaining trees have long shed their leaves. I see no one, no people and no cars. The phone is still ringing, so I pick it up.

“Hello?” I say as if guessing at an answer.

An operator comes on and says, “Long distance for Mr. Smith.” Her voice has a tinny quality, as if coming from out of the past, from before direct dialing.

“John Smith?” I say, confused.

“Yes, sir,” the operator says. “Are you Mr. Smith?”

“Yes,” I say, suddenly unsure. “This is John Smith.”

“Please hold. I’ll connect you.”

The line momentarily goes dead, and then another woman comes on. “John?” she says in a voice as sweet as a forgotten dream. I struggle and fail to match a face to her voice.

“Speaking?” I say.

“Don’t bother,” she says. This time I catch a hint of an accent I can’t place.

“Don’t bother?”

“Si, don’t bother?”

Si? That explains the accent, but it doesn’t help. I want her to say something else, anything. I want to ask her name but I don’t. What if she’s someone I should know?

So instead I simply say, “All right.” And with that, she hangs up. “Hello?” I repeat uselessly, clicking the switch hook several times. I pull the handset away from my ear and look at it as if somehow that will help, as if my eyes can find her voice. I say “Hello” into the phone one more time, but she’s gone.

I return the handset to its cradle and back up, still staring at the phone. I again look up and down the deserted street trying to recall which way I had been headed. I decide it doesn’t matter and walk away slowly, glance again at the phone only when I turn the corner two blocks further along.

I return every night at the same time, hoping the phone will ring. After a week, I pick up the receiver. The line is as silent as a secret taken to a watery grave.

 

A shorter version of “The Last Payphone” appeared originally at 52/250 A Year of Flash (http://52250flash.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/the-last-payphone-by-al-mcdermid/), and is part of an upcoming collection of flash fiction and poetry entitled Kindergarten of a Thin Mind.

Sixteen-year-old Bad Haircut was having another bad hair day. In fact, she had a bad hair year. It had been so bad that, now that it was summer, she vowed to not leave the house, except to sneak out onto the roof to smoke.

One day, less than a week into her self-imposed house arrest, she was sitting in the kitchen, moping over her coffee, her mother began insist that she get out and enjoy the weather. Either that, or she could take over cooking and cleaning.

“Fine,” Bad had said, “but you’ll have to do the shopping.”

The next morning she came down to breakfast wearing Goth-Loli maid’s outfit, which she had ordered from Japan, experimenting with the Goth/emo look that had been trending at the time. She had cultivated the look to give reason for her perpetually unruly hair, but because of the hair, she gave up on the Lolita-style and went straight Goth. The look worked for her; unfortunately, the culture that came with it did not.

Sure, Bad was occasionally depressed (thanks to the hair), but she saw no reason to make a lifestyle out of it. Plus, she didn’t like boys who wore black fingernail polish. Something had to give. Next year, she’d be a senior and clearly needed a new plan.

Her older sister, Fabulous, the pretty one (Bad wasn’t exactly the smart one), did not help matters.

“Nice outfit,” her sister had said that first morning, meaning it sincerely. She was, after all, irrepressibly fabulous in all things. She, of course, was having a fabulous hair forever.

“Breakfast, dear sister?” Bad had asked, taking her new role as maid seriously. She tried, and failed, to smile sweetly.

“Sorry,” Fabulous had said, “just toast. Then I have to bounce.” Bad buttered her sister’s toast and handed it to her. Fabulous took it and bounced out of the kitchen, on her way to rescue puppies, or whatever it was she was doing to beef up her college application, her always fabulous hair bouncing along with her.

“Why can’t you be more like your sister,” her mother intoned.

“Because,” Bad had said, drawing out the pause, “I’m not. Duh.”

Disgusted, she finished washing the dishes, took off her apron, and left the kitchen to watch television. She had wanted to watch MTV, but for some inexplicable reason, they were showing reruns of the disastrous “Real World: NYC.” So she surfed through the channels until she landed on VH1 just in time to see Sinead O’Connor.

“Mom,” she had called out, “I need money for a haircut.”

“Well, okay,” her mom had said, “if it’ll get you out of the house. Would you like me to come along?”

“No, thanks,” Bad had said, smiling, “I want to surprise you.”

 

 

 

A shorter version of “Nothing Compares to You” appeared originally at 52/250 A Year of Flash (http://52250flash.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/nothing-compares-to-you-by-al-mcdermid/), and is part of an upcoming collection of flash fiction and poetry entitled Kindergarten of a Thin Mind.

Attacked by Fairies

Posted: 2 December 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,
This photo was taken in northern Oregon rather than in the Philippines (I have few photos from that time), but you get the idea.

This photo was taken in northern Oregon rather than in the Philippines (I have few photos from that time), but you get the idea.

In either late 1977 or early 1978, I was visiting my then wife’s remote village in southern Luzon in the Philippines. One day we went to visit an even more remote farm, and had to walk through the forest to get there. At one point I needed to urinate and so slipped behind a tree to do so.

That night I was struck with extreme painful constipation. There was no doctor in her village, so a traditional healer was called. After examining me, he asked if we’d been in the forest, and upon hearing that we had, asked if I’d urinated on a tree. After admitting that I had, he that was the cause, that spirit that lived there, translated for me at the time as “fairy,” was retaliating. The condition lasted until we returned to Manila.

One could argue that it was simply a reaction to food, but I had by that time been living in the Philippines for over a year and was acclimated to the diet, even to the point of eating dishes foreigners typically avoid.