Monday, May 29, 2006

Coover's Cockroaches and the Power of a Single Incident

I've never read anything by Robert Coover. From what I understand, he's a fine writer. But whenever I think of Coover, I think of cockroaches. In the fall of 1966, I was living with my mother and younger brother on Hudson Street in Iowa City. My parents had divorced the previous year, and my mother was working as an instructor at Iowa while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts. We weren't financially well-off. Hudson Street, which lay right under the flight path of the Iowa City Airport, was an inexpensive place to live, and seemed to attract single parents. The ex-wife of poet W.D Snodgrass and their daughter lived right across the street. For some reason, our rented house either had no stove, or the existing stove no longer worked. The landlord told my mother to buy a used stove, and she'd be reimbursed.

Robert Coover, a visiting faculty member at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had a stove for sale. I remember that it was a Roper--a brand I had never heard of before. One Saturday he came by with the stove He seemed like a nice guy. My mom bought the stove.

Several days later, we began seeing cockroaches in the kitchen. Hundreds of them. It couldn't have been a coincidence. Robert Coover had sold us a stove with a major roach infestation. To be fair, it's possible Coover didn't realize the stove was full of roach eggs. But because of that one incident, Coover and cockroaches will always be linked in my mind.

Fast forward to the fall of 2002. My daughter Sarah is a senior at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She's at the student health office to get her medications. An attractive, dark-haired woman comes in from the outside. She's left her rented SUV running while she takes care of her daughter's medications. She's very demanding, and expects special treatment. Because she is Demi Moore, she gets it. Her daughter, Rumer Willis, is a freshman. (She's not at Interlochen now, i.e, 2006). Just about everyone has an opinion of Demi Moore. (When Kathleen saw the cover of Cigar Aficianado showing Moore with a cigar and headlined something like "Demi Moore's secret," she said, "Demi Moore has no secrets.") But for Sarah, Demi Moore will always be the pushy woman who fouled the pristine Michigan air with exhaust fumes.

Another fast-forward, to May, 2003. We're back at Interlochen for Sarah's graduation. Bruce Willis, Rumer's father, is there. I'm prepared to dislike him His movies were mostly violent ones. More important, he had been a vocal supporter of the American invasion of Iraq. Virtually no Interlochen student (including Rumer) supportes the war. But for all that I dislike about him, he's far more likeable than his ex-wife. Sarah's roommate, who wears socks with images from Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, says Willis complimented her on her socks. Later we see him at the Melody Freeze (the school's ice cream stand), standing in line with everyone else. No pushing, no asserting his privileges--just another parent. At commencement, when the valedictorian makes a strong antiwar statement, he applauds with everyone else (maybe a little too loudly, but I'll forgive that). And when he has to leave early, he does so as unobtrusively as possible.

Single incidents, like first impressions, are sometimes unfair. But they do have staying power.


Peter said...

You have a point.

Elizabeth Taylor shoved my sister into some seats when she was coming from another direction down a train aisle and saw some VIP's behind my sister. My sister was eleven years old.

When I was thirteen (on the same one-time trip to California), Ruth Buzzi caused me to trip over a newsstand when she entered a hotel lobby with her loud, startling laugh.

I mean, how did these people ever build a fan base? Bruce Willis gets it.

Patry Francis said...

Your image of the stove that spewed roaches is so vivid, I'll never think of Coover without remembering it.

You increased my respect for Bruce Willis though.