June 9, 2020: “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

Tuesday is today, Story366!

Yesterday, I spoke of Tropical Storm Cristobal, which came through right after I finished my post last night. It turned out to be a pretty good rain, but not even the hardest rain we’ve had this year, maybe not even top five. Not sure why that storm needed a name, let alone the intro to a blog post (and this follow-up), but sometimes, in a daily blog, you just gotta write about the weather.

Speaking of, isn’t Donald Trump a complete fucking idiot? I keep telling the Karen that I can’t believe how low he’s sunk and she just looks at me, knowing he’ll sink lower. And she’s always right. Today, specifically, I’m talking about his post on Twitter (which he tried to close down last week), describing the seventy-four-year-old man who was pushed down by Buffalo police as an Antifa terrorist trying to take out the cops’ communications. This man also fell harder than he had to, relative to how he was pushed, you know, by the armed, armored, super-fit guy who’s fifty years younger than him. No mention if he faked the blood pouring out of his ear, but I’m not sure if the prez followed the story long enough to see that happen, to come up with a lie about it.

I could easily turn this blog (or at least the first half of it) into anti-Trump rantings—the guy gives out that much material. I’d rather not do that, however, because as they say, no such thing as bad publicity—people are actually pumped up by lefty pinkos like me getting pissed off by him. But every once in a while, I do need to check in, register my thoughts, just in case people are paying attention. If this blog is going to be a record of my life, in part, then I need to at least check in with these kind of thoughts. So, here goes: We’re living under a despotic idiot as our president, and no matter what your political party of choice is or was before 2016, his behavior has to be alarming. Total lack of compassion for his own citizens. Total lack of leadership. Dividing the country instead of uniting it.

Today, I read from Margaret Atwood‘s collection, Stone Mattress, her most recent collection of several (number nine, actually), out in 2014 from Anchor Books. I just finished an intersession course on dystopian/post-apocalyptic lit and The Handmaid’s Tale was the lead text. I hate to admit this, but I’d never read that book before this summer, so it was nice to finally check that off my list. It’s also the first novel I’ve read in quite some time—maybe a year or two?—so that was an experience, to read something and stay with it for so long. Worry yourself not, storylovers, as I also read stories the same day, and now that Stone Mattress has arrived, I’ve read that, too.

Nine story collections. Wow. What have I been doing with my life?

“The Freeze-Dried Groom” is a helluva story. This one starts with Sam and his wife parting ways, the wife telling Sam it’s over then Sam literally walking out. He walks to his business, a furniture renovation place, where he and his partner sell cheap new furniture that his partner dummies to look vintage. Sam heads off to a storage auction—where they get a lot of their stock—but he’s scheming something else in his head. He’s tracing his whereabouts, marking them with timestamps, as he’s going to have to account for himself, it seems, after he gets something out of one of the auctions he’s won. Only thing is, in one of the other units he’s bought, he comes across the titular freeze-dried groom, a corpse in a tux. Even better, right as he’s locking that unit up, wanting nothing to do with a dead body, the complementary bride shows up, looking to get her unit, and corpse, back.

“I Dream of Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth” is about three women, three friends, all of whom have had men stolen from them by the same woman, Zenia. The three now live in the wake of that disaster, recovering (along with a yippy dog), until a face from the past returns to upheave the unrest once again.

The title story, “Stone Mattress,” is another fantastic tale. This one feature Verna, a four-time widower whose widowing wasn’t all that accidental. She was kind of a pro, it turns out, in finding old men to court, marry, and watch die—Viagra is so, so bad for the blood pressure—then cash in on some sweet inheritance. Did I mention the old fellas had money?

At the outset of “Stone Mattress,” Verna is on a cruise, and in fact, she immediately notes that she didn’t set out on this journey to kill a man, just to relax. Wait, kill a man? Does she mean find another old-timer on the trip, marry him, then screw him—she’s skilled and fit—until he keels over? Or does she, in that first line, mean she’s killed someone and is about to tell the tale of the murder? Because Atwood knows what she’s doing, she of course doesn’t tell us right away.

For a while, it looks like Verna’s on the hunt again. Maybe there’s just too much temptation: The cruise has some kind of archaeological theme and there’s a lot of old retired professionals aboard, former doctors and lawyers who want to be Indiana Jones. At the pre-launch mixer, Verna surveys her prospects, running into Rogers and Toms and a whole lot of Bobs. Verna fixates on one Bob, talks to him, only to find out a shocking fact: This Bob is a guy she dated in high school, a Bob who, along with a buddy of his, dragged her into the woods, raped her, and left her in the snow, mocking her as he drove away.

The story segues to the backstory here, young, innocent, pretty Verna so happy to have an older boy—older, as in it’s illegal for them to date—interested in her. She plays along, is a willing participant, but Bob’s not interested in letters and sodas: Pretty soon, he commits the aforementioned act. Which impregnates her. Worse, her mother, ashamed of her and not hearing any of her rape nonsense, ships her out of town to a home, where she’ll have the baby, give it away, and then return as if nothing’s happened.

Of course, something did happen—Verna was date-raped by her boyfriend and his pal—and then was abandoned by her family and then had to give away her baby, never laying eyes on it. I don’t want to say it’s a one-to-one ratio, that Verna becomes a kind of a soulless manhunter because of this. At the same time, it’s not not the reason she becomes a soulless manhunter.

Back to the cruise, to Bob, fifty-plus years later, a guy who’s pursuing her again, having no idea this is the young girl he left in the snow. Did I mention he put her stockings on after the rape, danced around and sang like a fool? In any case, that first-sentence question is more or less answered, as Verna starts to plot the murder of Bob, her rapist, and she’s going to do it on this cruise. She also wants to get away with it. Remember, he’s pursuing her, following her around the boat and the dig sites like a puppy dog.

The story takes another turn here as Atwood gets all procedural, describing, in detail, how a woman like Verna, slight of frame and in her sixties, murders a man who’s twice her size, a man that everyone has seen her with—plus, there’s, like cameras everywhere—and gets away with it. Plus, there’s all kind of cruise protocols for keeping track of passengers with the specific intent of not losing anyone, no one falling overboard or getting left at one of the stops. Seems impossible.

Yet, Atwood pulls it off. What a story.

So, after not really reading much of anything by Margaret Atwood—a story here and there—I’ve read a couple of her books in the last month and am so totally glad I didn’t die before experiencing what’s she’s offered us. Kind of crazy that Stone Mattress is her ninth collection and I’ve never picked up any of them before now. Again, Story366 bails me out of some major literary embarrassment. Now to delve further into what she does, probably that Handmaid’s Tale sequel next. But if you’re like dumb me and hadn’t explored her work, don’t be dumb me and go fix that.

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One thought on “June 9, 2020: “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

  1. Pingback: June 13, 2020: “A Sacrifice” by Simon Van Booy – Story366

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