The Updike Joke and After

by Corey Mesler

It all began at an author’s breakfast at the American Booksellers Association Convention, as it was then called. There were three authors speaking to, and eating with, the unwashed rabble: Geraldine Ferraro, Richard Ford and John Updike.

I was thrilled to meet Ms. Ferraro, whom I had voted for. And I had known Richard for years; it was always good to see him. His speech that morning was so moving, so eloquent, so genuine, that he erased the remarks of the other speakers, formidable as they were.

However, there was John Updike. If you’ve read Nicholson Baker’s U and I: A True Story, you can perhaps understand how a young reader and writer might find in Mr. Updike an exemplar of all that is right about writing, a shining star it was impossible to ignore or get around. He has to be addressed by all writers who come after him. So I thought then, and still think now. He reigns supreme. Naturally, I was skittish about approaching him.

To get my two minutes alone with Mr. U I approached while everyone, including John, was eating his or her convention-center bacon and pasty eggs. I walked straight toward his sharp, handsome face (he was on a raised dais, as he should have been), my heart thrashing in my narrow chest like a wild bird caged, and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Updike. Sorry to interrupt your breakfast, but I wanted to say that I love everything you do, novels, short stories, essays, poetry, reviews.” At the penultimate word his face lit up with a boyish smile and he said, “You like the poetry?” I assured him that I did and left him, a smile on my face as well. I had pleased John Updike simply by commending the part of his literary output for which he got the least praise.

The rest of the convention was anticlimactic.

Fast-forward to my meeting my future wife, years later, in the bookstore where I worked. She came in as a browsing customer (she was considering a set of Kipling!) and turned my heart to goo. She had chocolate brown hair and her impeccable legs were wrapped tight in black leggings. She had freckles and eyes like candlelight. She looked like Diane Keaton. My heart went pittypat. My heart went, “O Morning Star, shine on me!” What we said to each other that first day is the subject of another piece of memoir. It was magic aborning.

So, we began dating and I was gaga over her from the get-go, but, as with every first romance, one is unsure. One is tentative. One wants to make the right first impression. One wants to impress. One wants what one wants, and that is, eventually, laughs, love, passion, amorousness, commitment, adoration, and barbecue pizza.

During one of our early dates, over said pie at Coletta’s Italian Restaurant, on Summer Avenue, in Memphis, Tennessee, I made a joke that even today, Cheryl, which is the name of the heroine of this romance, credits with opening the door of her heart just wide enough for me to stick my sneakered toe in (to use metaphor in place of a disgusting bodily reference). Laughter, many women say, is what wins their heart, over wealth, handsomeness, athleticism or a nice car. Many women are lying when they say this. Cheryl Hodges, as she was then called, meant it. Being very funny herself (there is still a contest in our house, day by day, called ‘Who is the funniest Mesler?’) she could, of course, only be won by someone also funny.

So, friends, here is the joke I made that night, the joke that shall live in infamy. I told her the story about the book convention breakfast, just as I told you here, except that I changed the ending. It was this change, this epiphanic change, this out-of-the-blue change, which secured for me the woman of my dreams.

I told this dappled, chocolatey, Diane Keatonesque magnificence across the table from me, this: “I approached Mr. Updike, my heart thrashing in my narrow chest like a wild bird caged, and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Updike, for interrupting your breakfast, but….are you going to eat your bacon’?” Cheryl snorted red sauce through the openings in her freckled nose. She has a world-class laugh, the laugh God intended when he was working feverishly, late in his empyrean lab, to finalize His human creatures, a laugh that comes from someplace deep in her soul (perhaps this laugh is uncommon because not everyone has a soul) and it, the laugh, employs her entire, delicious body in its sudden, plosive grandeur. It is a laugh that makes me laugh. And, here we are, twenty-five years later, still joking, still sniggering and cackling and chortling, still campaigning, day by day, every day, to win “Who is the funniest Mesler?”

Corey Mesler
Corey Mesler

Corey Mesler has published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, numerous chapbooks, and 4 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He’s been nominated for many Pushcarts, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs a bookstore in Memphis.

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