Nick needs his wine. Merlot, Malbec, good dark-colored wines, wines that have just that tinge of bitterness to them but aren’t completely devoid of sweetness. Every night, he pours a glass. Promises himself it’ll be just one glass. But he swigs it in ten minutes straight, feeling the rush of dreaminess, the sense of elegance. He inevitably goes for the second glass, turns on Tchaikovsky or Debussy. Clair De Lune is his go to piece on the most depressing of nights, piano chords that offer tinkling company, the nights after faculty offer unwarranted advice or another student doesn’t understand his comments on a story or another and needs explanation. How do you explain in plain English that a story simply isn’t good?
Wine and music create a kind of odd harmony. Besides, it’s about more than the booze. It’s about the seductive luxury, the dreamworlds it induces. The grace of glasses, the glug of emptiness being filled, the motion of raising the glass, a cheer raised in an empty room. The notion of deserving. Nick’s a fiction instructor, the recipient of teaching evaluations rife with abstractions like pedantic, not fun, reactionary, and tightass. He tries to sort these things out like puzzle pieces, but they never fit, tries to come up with theories. After all, he can pontificate about Hemingway’s iceberg theory and the things that are beneath the ice, the real stories. But he can’t put together a single coherent theory now.
Nick is a believer in structures. Characterization, good, real, but dynamic dialogue. And yes, he lacks patience for footnotes, for subverted chronologies, for stories that are mere dreams in disguise. He makes these things known clearly. He wants, he says, work that produces Nabokov’s sob in the spine of the artist reader, not mere spectacle.
But Nick gets vampire stories, it-was-all-a dream pieces, and stories grounded in bodily harm being inflicted on people. Some half-decent runaway parent stories, but even those hold the weight of his own past, anxiety whooshing, a tidal wave.
On top of that, he stands on the periphery at faculty parties, sometimes talking about Tobias Wolff or Joyce Carol Oates, trying to smile. But the popular faculty gather and proclaim their triumphs, quoting their evaluations verbatim. Kickass, brings essays to life, someone I’d have a beer with, abstractions again, yet precise in their meaning. Nick, of course, just stands there, wine glass in hand, drinking something that’s always too sweet and commenting on the weather or politics even.
Two glasses a night turn to three, four. Nick buys plastic wine bottles too, that he drinks out in his parking place, the farthest one possible from the English building, Reddy Hall. He watches the students moving past his car, conquering the parking lots and sidewalks, heading toward the buildings, neo-Stalinist looking structures among the more elegant Gothic revival edifices. They are shoving, laughing, proclaiming cheerfully harsh nicknames like douchebag, dumbass, motherfucker, and he wonders how they gain popularity. How they fit into these groups, clusters rife with skimpy tank and halter tops, baggy blue jeans with bleach stains and ragged at the edges, Capris, sweatpants. Girls with big glasses and nerdy cheer, six-foot guys with neat raven-colored hair, commanding grins, and litanies of bad jokes. Is it something they work at or is it something simply given to them, a blessing, a curse?
He wonders the same about faculty.
Nick tries telling jokes in class. But his jokes go down dark rabbit holes. No laughter in response to the one about Hemingway blowing his brains out in Idaho. Just bodies shifting, a sigh or two, a few grunts. No gaps bridged when he mentions that Shakespeare used yo mama jokes in several plays. Just a muttered cool and whispered comments about Shakespeare’s irrelevance. Striding out of the classroom afterwards, his voice trails him, squeaky, tentative, cracked, replayed over and over.
Nick drinks when the initial taste is gone, he drinks until it’s very, very dark, and he can sink into bed, still in his Khakis and polo shirt, trying not to think of better teaching evaluations, but thinking of them anyway. He tries to imagine a wonderful evaluation, the sensation of reading it, the sweet words unfurling like rose petals. And he tries to imagine the evaluation coming tomorrow, the day after. Nick even tries to relinquish wine, surrendering to caffeine again. But with each new critique, each admonition to be more personable, to relate to the younger generation, he feels the sweetness pulling him and he moves toward it, even while the shame tugs harder and harder, the distance between him and shame growing, each swig widening, the sweetness numbing.