A Cookie for Mr. Updike
Yesterday I wrote 25 things about myself to fulfill a tag request on Facebook. One of my responses was, “I once asked John Updike if he wanted a cookie. He did not.” About an hour later, I discovered that the author had passed away. The odd coincidence is unsettling not so much for my sense of timing; it marks an opportunity missed and a personal goal that is now impossible to achieve.
When I was a student at Allegheny College, I worked for a caterer that provided services for the English Department’s Reading Series. I had the honor of organizing food for a reception after John Updike read an excerpt from one of his short stories. The event was the single largest occasion I have ever worked in the food industry, and this is what made the situation so troublesome.
We were expecting about 800 people, a staggering number for a two-person operation. The college let me hire three students to help with setting up and maintaining the tables. Our diligent efforts were remarkable, a pageant of appetizers, beverages and cookies carefully arranged among a pageant of decorative settings.
I was never a big fan of crowds and navigating through the group proved to be unnerving. A sinking sensation made me feel as if I were being pulled to the ground, an invisible tug beneath the navel. But the table was set, and all was in order. This gave me the opportunity to listen.
Updike’s reading was surreal. His tone emanated a gentle authority that lulled the anxiety pressed up through the crowd to sleep. The story he read touched upon the Pennsylvania landscape, making me see my surroundings with new eyes, each detail rich with orange epiphanies.
There was an oversight.
I did a fairly good job for a twenty-year-old woman. The food was in place but it was in the wrong place for the event. Mr. Updike was greeting hundreds of fans while seated at a long table adjacent to the catered table. Unfortunately, the flow of the crowd blocked access to the table.
Visitors had one choice: talk to John Updike, or have a cookie.
Anxiety mounted as I realized that I had created a practically untouchable presentation. The food wasn’t moving and the English Department would have to pay the owner of the catering service for many cookies that would go untouched.
In my desperation, I made my way through the crowd, an awkwardly short individual navigating a tray of cookies to the guest of honor. I approached Mr. Updike from behind while he sat engaged in exchanges with gaping-eyed admirers.
“Would you like a cookie, Mr. Updike?”
For a moment, I thought he sat straight in response but he never turned toward me. I sunk away into the crowd and disappeared.
I thought that one day I would emerge again to ask the author face-to-face.