NEA Literature Fellowships

Amber Dermont

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "The Language of Martyrs"

My sexy, nicotine-addicted mother forever insisted I follow one piece of advice. I was eight the first time I heard it. Dad had convinced us to suffer through a half-hearted Thanksgiving at his parents' minor mansion on the Gold Coast. We ate chicken instead of turkey, instant mashed potatoes weeping in thin, watery gravy. No stuffing. For dessert: a convenience store pumpkin pie. Mom knew her in-laws could do better. That the plastic tablecloth was their way of saying, "You aren't worth the trouble." After dinner the sky over Lake Michigan began to half-rain, half-snow and Mom anxious to leave, took me by the hand, whispered, "Five minutes," to Dad, and together we retreated to the safety of our Firebird. Mom, who modeled eveningwear for Spiegel and I Magnum catalogues, who had been both Miss Champaign-Urbana and a National Merit Scholar, crouched in the driver's seat with the window rolled down, hiding the brilliant burning cherry of her Lucky Strike. As mom feathered her bangs in the side-view mirror, I watched Dad kiss and embrace his mother. She held on, pulling her only son down to her bosom, stroking the back of his neck with the barbed tips of her fingernails.

Extinguishing her cigarette, Mom turned to me and said, "Lucy, my light, whatever you do, marry an orphan."

* * *

When I agreed to meet Katya Kalinnikov for lunch a week before Thanksgiving, I did not anticipate that my boyfriend's mother would bring along a mail-order bride. While Katya introduced me to this high cheek-boned czarina, this silent émigré, this Zinaida Petrova, I couldn't help but imagine Katya purchasing this skittish beauty from a website. Pointing and clicking her way to an arranged marriage. Pimping for my boyfriend, her scientist son. Zinaida and I shook hands hello. I wanted to warn Zinaida about Katya's brutality, about her love of the put-down, her need always to be right. Instead, I smiled a dimpled grin and nodded as Katya proclaimed in her glorious splintered English, "Russian women make best wives."

The three of us slid our silver trays down the steel railing of Paradime Inc.'s corporate cafeteria. Katya in Cold War paisley and wool. Zinaida in Perestroika leather and angora. Listening as they laughed in Russian, I thought of the Crimean War, the Great Purges, the Battle of Stalingrad, of all the brave soldiers and civilians who'd given their lives for their country. I bit the inside of my cheeks to keep from saying, "Widows. I thought Russian women made the best widows."

At Katya's request, I'd taken a sick day from teaching eighth graders in order to visit her at work and plan our holiday dinner menu. In my classroom in Cambridge, some unlucky substitute was being called, "Puta," by Bobby Parrilla while Damien Beauvais punched Eliot Glazer in the throat, and Whitney Barbosa sneaked off to the supply closet to hand out hand jobs. Missing even a day of work would compromise what little order and respect I'd built up in my classroom at MLK Middle. Matvei, my boyfriend of over five years had warned me against this lunch. "My mother is setting you up for failure. For her, Thanksgiving will only be a success if the turkey you cook poisons one of us."

Pushing my empty tray, I grabbed a banana, a plate of egg noodles, a carton of orange juice and followed Katya to a table beside a pair of floor-to ceiling vinyl drapes. As we sat down I pulled back the curtains hoping to reveal the sunlight, the foliage. I wound up staring into a beige concrete wall.

"Only executives have windows," Katya pointed to a private dining room. "When I get promotion Zinaida and I will eat there."

Ever since fleeing the former USSR, Katya had supported her husband and their three children as a computer programmer. Upon their arrival to Boston, Matvei's father, Ilya, a Russian Checkers Champion, declared the need to write a book about his life. "I must capture pain while it is raw. Not my memoirs, memoirs of Soviet Union." After twenty-five years, he was still laboring over the first draft. He accepted jobs as a freelance translator, but mostly he mourned. When I visited the Kalinnikovs, I was stunned to see Ilya forever lounging shirtless, his hairy belly slung over the elastic waist of a pair of cotton pajama bottoms. An amusing, depressed bear of a man still reeling from the loss of his country.

Though Paradime Inc. -- a computer and software conglomerate -- was known for its indiscriminate layoffs, Katya, with her specialized Source Code expertise, had survived every corporate restructuring. She was pink-slip-proof. Part of me admired her strength and resilience. Another part of me believed that Katya relished her power as the family's sole support. Pushing the egg noodles around my plate, I looked down into this tiny mother's deep-set chocolate eyes. Katya was short. A pocket-sized martyr, a redheaded action figure whose superhero skill-set included the badger, the guilt-grip, the supreme glare of disappointment. I fended off Katya's powers the only way I knew how -- with politeness.

Amber Dermont is the author of the novel, The Starboard Sea (St. Martin's Press, 2012), and the short story collection, Damage Control, forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Dermont received her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. Her short fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, and in the anthologies Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Worst Years of Your Life, and Home of the Brave. A recipient of fellowships from InPrint, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Sewanee Writers' Conference, she has served as writer-in-residence at Rice University. Dermont is currently an associate professor of English and creative writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.

Photo by T.W. Meyer

Author's Statement

A fiction writer's life is shaped by sustained periods of solitude and self-doubt. I am grateful to the NEA for the gift of a literature fellowship, not simply for the generous financial support, but for the vital sense of artistic community the award provides. Perhaps we read and write because we cannot know enough people, have enough friends. Hopefully all of the recipients will feel a little less alone and a little more encouraged in their work.

As the mission of the NEA is to support, "American creativity," I am eager to contribute to the wild, dazzling dream of the American imagination: Fitzgerald's blue lawns, Willa Cather's silver prairies, Ellison's invisible men, Burroughs's heroic junkies, Cheever's enormous radio, Silko's ceremonies, the rage and glamour of Kathy Acker's pirates, the searing vision of Toni Morrison's bluest eyes, Larry Kramer's bold heart, Faulkner's fury. In all its beauty, horror, and glory, the American imagination has the power to predict, inspire, instruct. Its characters and landscapes are as central and true to me as my closest family and friends. I want to give back to the writers and stories that have given me so much. I am humbled by this award and challenged by the opportunities it will provide.