December 3: “Damage Control” by Amber Dermont

Saturday it up, Story366! Today is a rainy Saturday, and it’s kinda cold, but I guess that makes sense because it’s December. Usually on Saturday, the family and I head out for a walk on a trail in some majestic Missouri woodland. Not today, as we like neither rainy nor cold when getting our casual family exercise and fresh air break. We did have Indian buffet for lunch, though, and experienced the rare occurrence where this place had chicken korma on the buffet, chicken korma being my favorite of the popular Indian buffet (or menu) dishes. That’s like a one-in-twenty occurrence, which made the trip worthwhile: I actually had wanted to go for Big Macs and General Tso’s chicken, but once we uttered the words “Indian food,” the kids had their hearts set, and that was that. Still, chicken korma on the buffet is no small reward.

Hey, Mike, you might be wondering, why did you want to get a Big Mac and some General Tso’s today? Well, I’m glad I imagined you asking that, folks. This past week, fast food lost two icons, the creators of the Big Mac and General Tso’s chicken, Michael James Delligatti and Peng Chang-kuei, respectively. Delligatti died on Monday and Peng on Wednesday. Both were 98—what are the odds of that? Not quite John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both dying on Fourth of July, 1826, or Shakespeare and Cervantes both dying on April 23, 1616, but it’s a distant third, don’t you think? I’m not a huge Big Mac fan—in fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had one, as I prefer the Quarter Pounder with Cheese—but General Tso’s is my take-out Chinese dish of choice half the time (sharing that honor with Kung Pao). More than anything, this is America, and when two people who contributed so much to making us as a nation (and me especially) so fat, we have to doff our caps and bow our heads. One day soon (maybe tomorrow), I will sit down with Tso and have a meal in honor of his maker.

My fear: Since these things come in threes, I’m now worried that the inventor circus peanuts or that peanut butter and jelly that comes together all striped in a jar is going to go, too. Can, we, as a nation, bear such a loss?

Today I read a few stories from Amber Dermont‘s collection Damage Control, out from St. Martin’s Press. Before I go any further, I’ll point out two facts: 1) I’ve somehow never rad an Amber Dermont story before today. 2) Amber Dermont is now one of my favorite writers. I’ve only gotten through a few of these, as noted, but already, I can tell that Dermont is exactly the kind of writer that I will read and read and read, one who speaks to me and my tastes and my aesthetic as much as anyone. That said, let’s discuss the title story!

“Damage Control” is about his guy named Martin Foster who teaches at a Southern belle etiquette school outside of Houston. At the outset of the story, he’s in the midst of a class, “Handshaking and Courteous Touching” when he gets a call his girlfriend—who’s also his boss’s daughter—a call he doesn’t take because it’s exactly the type of thing he’s trying to teach in his classes (which include other topics, such as “Husband Hunting,” “Rising Above Your Social Station,” and “How to Behave at the White House”). It’s kind of important that he gets the call, though, as Landon (the girlfriend/boss’s daughter) has been accused of some heavy-duty embezzlement, her arraignment on CourtTV; she could very easily be going to jail. Martin—Mr. Foster throughout most of the story—tries to maintain positivity, however, as he keeps telling Landon that she has nothing to worry about because she’s innocent. We find out later that this may or may not be true, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We find out that Martin has had a pretty sweet deal going at this school, which he runs for Landon’s parents. Her father, Hasty Breedlove, an eccentric millionaire Texan-type (if you couldn’t tell that from the name), saw him at a kid’s birthday party, serving pizza in a mouse costume, and offered him a job. Hasty has since died, but Martin has lived at the school since, along with Hasty’s widow and Landon’s mom, Sis, with whom he spends most of his time as her caretaker and best friend. He also has to recruit boys to attend the school—it’s more something young ladies from Houston’s economic elite are interested in—implying that they’d have their pick of some pretty wealthy young ladies if they played their cards right. Oh, and he has to satisfy the beautiful Landon’s carnal desires, too. For a guy recently dressed as a mouse at a pizza joint, it’s a pretty good gig, and maybe why he’s ignoring the fact that Landon might be going to jail and his days at the school are numbered.

Dermont gives Martin a lot to do and rotates her dialogue-heavy scenes a lot between Martin and Sis, Martin and Landon (who, surprisingly, seems genuinely into Martin, as humble as his beginnings are), backstory, and interactions with the students. There are several subplots involving the school’s students, subplots that escalate to a trio of the kids making a porno tape, as well as … well, I won’t give any more of these escapades away. What all of this scene-switching leads to is a fast-paced story, Dermont getting a handle of Martin’s crazy life just enough so we can peek in and watch. There’s also a constant creation going on, as each scene seems to introduce a new plotline, a new location, a new detail about the school, trial, or these people. Plus, all that dialogue is just spot-on, doing its job in characterizing the overly nosy students, the straight-to-the point Landon, and the increasingly befuddled Sis.

On top of everything, “Damage Control” is just a lot of fun. Martin Foster is a great protagonist, this guy who’s kind of wandered into this really privileged existence and everything he does and says and thinks just to keep the belief in this shangri-la life of his going. Really, the match has been up to the powder keg for a while—to an extent that we find out in details I’ll not reveal here—and he either just doesn’t get it or want to accept it. The whole operation has been a vicarious house of cards, the house sitting on a two-legged table at a ceiling fan store right on top of an overdue fault line. In any case, this is just one of the awesome stories I read from Damage Control today, each of the others just as inventive and funny and inciteful. Amber Dermont has other books and I need to get them, finish this one. She does what I think writing should be.