The other day, on a Tuesday, shortly before the noon hour, Bert Kreischer splashed a bit of Peachtree schnapps into a glass of orange juice, topped it off with some vodka and thought he'd probably skip class. He was a student at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. Florida State had recently been named the Number One party school in the nation by an organization called the Princeton Review. This fact had been trumpeted all over the nation, in radio reports and on television. College-bound kids everywhere pricked up their ears. All of a sudden, they thought maybe they should go to Florida State and enjoy the kind of life that one might enjoy at the Number One party school in the nation. The kind of glorious life, in fact, that Bert Kreischer, age 24, an English major, had already been leading for many years now.
Bert yawned and scratched at some of the stubble on his chin. He stuck a finger into his drink, tinkling the ice cubes floating around there. He thought about the day. If he didn't go to class, he'd play Frisbee instead. In the early evening, he'd hoist a few beers here at home, then hit the bars until some o'clock in the morning. Tomorrow, maybe he would go to class. But without doubt, he'd be drinking again by around sundown. Hopefully he wouldn't black out. Odds were against his blacking out, because he hadn't in a while. Then, looking forward in time, Bert saw Thursday evening — a great big bash on his back deck, with a live band and lots of beer. And Friday evening — getting soused wherever. And, finally, Saturday — he'd be superloaded before, during and after the football game. Beyond that, into the further reaches of adulthood, he could not see. Why should he? He was deeply into the moment of now. He'd structured his entire existence — in which he always seemed to be vying for the honor of being the top partyer at the nation's top party school — around this moment of now.
Hutch strolled in. Hutch was one of Bert's three roommates. He was a tall, rangy, happy-go-lucky marketing major. Hutch said, "Oh, man, what a day! This is the most beautiful day I've ever seen!" He plopped down on the couch, laughing. "Hey, Bert, I made it to class today!" he shouted. "That's the first time it's happened in like a month and a half. When I walked in, I was like, 'What the hell?!' I couldn't recognize half my classmates!"
Bert snorted, rubbed his forehead and said, "God, it was one of those nights last night." He picked up the phone. It dangled in his hand while he stared off into space. He was wearing Birkenstocks, tan shorts and a white shirt. He looked a bit like the actor Jon Cryer, only with a good number of extra pounds tacked on. He had a man's hairy chest and belly, and a happy, round face that sometimes flushed to a bright pink when he was especially excited. He loved to laugh and crack jokes. In fact, he was the most comical guy lots of people at Florida State had ever known. He could also be highly, raucously obscene. He'd twice run for office at his fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega. The first time, he made his big campaign speech in the nude and lost. The second time, he dropped the idea of a speech; instead, he appeared before his brothers in the nude and took a crap on a pizza box. General bedlam ensued. He won by a landslide. These days, however, that triumph was not one he so willingly recalled. He'd grown some since then. He was in his sixth year at Florida State. Sometime soon he just might graduate. He didn't want to, necessarily. But it was a possibility.
"Who am I trying to call?" Bert asked. It could have been his lovely girlfriend, Kristen; his concerned dad, Al; his easygoing mom, Gege; or any one of his pals. He couldn't remember. A warm fuzziness spread across his forebrain. He shrugged and put the phone down. It had, indeed, been one of those nights. Then again, when was it not one of those nights?
Thirty thousand students attend Florida State University. According to the statisticians, these students, most of them native Floridians, enter the school with an average verbal SAT score of 580 and an average math SAT score of 590. This suggests that they aren't the best and the brightest in the land, but neither are they the thickest. Mostly they're the kind of students who attend good public universities everywhere. In the end, great numbers of them choose to major in criminology, communications and psychology, and not many fewer lean toward business, engineering, nursing and hotel management — which at Florida State is known as hospitality, as in, "Hi, I'm a hospitality major!" Basically they're good kids with stable political outlooks. According to university officials, most of them are also quite serious about getting a good education and do attend class regularly. That being the case, these officials were chagrined to learn that their institution had been named the nation's top party school, an award based on the results of a survey that asked students about drug and alcohol use, hours of study each day and the popularity of the fraternity system. Certainly the school had its partyers, even its problem partyers, but that's true of all schools. Plus, there's so much more to Florida State than parties. There's the Seminoles football team, which last year ranked Number 3; there's the marching band, the Marching Chiefs, which is the country's largest; etc.
Yet, for reasons still largely unknown to the people who run the school, Florida State does seem to have this reputation as one fine place at which to get blotto. Take a stroll across campus and the faintest breeze seems to carry along with it the vegetable scent of hops flowing freely from any number of just-tapped kegs. It mixes well with the natural Florida heat. The two together summon forth images of fermentation, of ripening processes. It makes people happy. In fact, you've never seen a happier student body. Everyone seems happy to be there. And once they've graduated, they're only too happy to return any time they can, arriving by the carload on football weekends, setting up tailgate parties near the grand, mortared expanse of Doak Campbell Stadium — "By God, it's got the biggest brick foundation in the entire fucking United States!" many an alum has said — to get positively hammered just like they used to, so many years ago, when they were still students at their beloved Florida State and still had a chance of becoming legendary party guys at a soon-to-be-legendary party school.
"One time we were driving home from Mardi Gras, a car pulls up next to us, and suddenly we see a naked guy hanging out the window, feet and all. It's Bert!"
"One time I went to the gym to work out, and there's a guy on the treadmill with his pants jacked up his ass, with an apple jammed in there. It's Bert!"
"I haven't met Bert yet, but he's well-known at the Tri Delt sorority. 'If you ever meet a guy named Bert, run like hell.' That's what they said. 'Run. Like. Hell.'"
"A wonderful person. The funnest guy ever."
"He's just hilarious, but he has a soft side, too."
"Could be a great salesman."
"A great person to talk to."
"I find him offensive."
"He's out of control."
"Bert can get away with anything!"
About Bert, everyone on campus seemed to have an opinion or at least a representative and highly emblematic Bert story, perhaps apocryphal, probably not. In many ways, over the years he had become larger than life — a figure of vaguely totemic proportions who could often be seen dancing joyously into the cross-town traffic on Tennessee Street, on his way to one of the many bars doing bang-up business there; or playing a mad-dash round of Frisbee golf down the broad tongue of Landis Green, bouncing the Frisbee off the steps of Strozier Library, just grazing the startled bookworms; or wheeling his black Jeep Cherokee around the fountained circle at the Wescott Building, headed for Ivy Way, where he would turn up 2Pac on his stereo so loud that all the fricking-cool black chicks would swivel their heads his way — he loved that so much. At various times, he also could be seen cruising along Stadium Drive by hallowed Doak Campbell Stadium.
Bert loved Doak. He loved the Seminoles. And he loved what was inside the stadium, on the 50-yard line, smack in the middle of the field: a Seminole Indian head painted on the hard ground, in blacks and whites, garnets and golds. It was where, one day, luck and girlfriend permitting, he hoped to enjoy some sweet, midnight-hour nooky. It was one of his most fervent college-years ambitions.
At the moment, he lived with a ton of other Florida State students in a leafy-green townhouse complex called Indian Village. Besides Hutch, who had a grade point average of 3.1, Bert had two other roommates: Blair, a 3.2-GPA marketing-major senior, the son of a heart surgeon; and Jimmy, a junior, baseball-playing communications major with a GPA of 3.0, a straight arrow until moving in here. Bert himself had a GPA of 2.27, just above failing. He grew up in Tampa, Fla., attended a private Jesuit high school; his dad was a real-estate attorney; his mom worked in early childhood development. Outside Bert's Tallahassee apartment, a thousand cigarette butts covered the ground. His Jeep Cherokee, a gift from his parents on his 22nd birthday, was nuzzled deep into the carport, facing the blue waters of the complex's suburban-dream swimming pool. Upstairs, Bert was just lounging around, goofing off, not worrying about any schoolwork that might be due that day, as he explained just how sweet life can be at Florida State.
"OK, like, here's the deal," he said with a laugh. "There are way more girls than guys at Florida State. So guys here will break up with a hot girl simply because they think they can get something better. In the real world, you get a hot girl, and you're like, 'Whew — my buddies like her; I like her; she wants me; I'm staying with her.' Well, here, you'll have a hot girl, and you'll be like, 'Screw it, I can do better.' Because you really can."
He spread his arms and gestured toward his own slightly flabby, slightly thin-of-hair self. "I mean, look at me," he said. "I'm not a great-looking guy, I'm 20 pounds overweight, but I can show you pictures of girls I've hooked up with, and you'd be like, 'Whooosh!' I'm telling you, it's just so easy to hook up here."
He went to the front door and opened it, flooding the apartment with the sunlight of yet another gorgeous Florida day. The sunlight covered the surfboards stashed away under the steps leading to the second floor, the mountain bikes, the Frisbees, the golf clubs. It caught a thousand bits of dust rising from the living-room carpet. It glanced off a couple of stray CD covers, shot back into the recesses of the kitchen, collided with a huge box of Frosted Mini-Wheats and a half-full bottle of ibuprofen tablets, then splintered off to illuminate the labels of the myriad empty liquor bottles on top of the kitchen cabinets: labels for vodkas, rums and gins; the main whiskeys (bourbon, Scotch); bad wines; syrupy concoctions such as used to make Janis Joplin bend and weep; all sorts of casked distillates that draw their potency from the fermenting of innocents — herbs, grasses, leaves, seeds, corn, barley, juniper berries, sugar cane, the cactus-like plant known as Agave tequilana weberi.
In the midmorning heat, Bert perspired lightly. Jimmy and Blair walked in and flopped down. They held forth on various sporting events, hotly. The phone rang. Bert answered it with a mock thug accent: "No, this isn't Bert. No, Bert's out partying, taking bong hits, smoking beer. Who is this?"
Afterward, he talked for a long time about his friends. "I think I've got the coolest friends in the entire world, I really do," he said. Besides Hutch, Blair and Jimmy, there were OB, Clint, Philly, Mason, Pat, Dudash, Big Country (a huge, hulking figure who actually got lots of play), Seth, Hemstreet, McBay, Trip and Grimes. Bert laughed loudly, shook his head in disbelief and slapped his knee as he told stories about each of them and their lives together, their special moments in time.
Bert grunted happily at the memories, then jumped up a flight of stairs to the bathroom to douse his scalp with Rogaine. "This is such a boom-boom school, it really is," he continued brightly. "No one goes to classes. No one's taking fucking notes in class. I think I've only been to my Introduction to Public Relations class twice — and that was for the two tests. My Shakespeare class, I have a pretty poor attendance record in, too. But I did write a paper, a critical analysis of The Taming of the Shrew. My theory was, Kate's not a bad girl, because her first words in the whole play are nice words. That means to me we're getting a good girl. It's just the circumstances. Everyone acted like an asshole to her, so she acted like a bitch back to them. She had to. Her father is a cocksucker. Her sister's a cunt. Even Petruchio was kind of an asshole." Bert paused. "I don't know if the teacher feels the same way I do, but I sure hope so."
Purposefully, Bert took no classes that started before 12:30 in the afternoon. With equal purpose, he'd seen to it that none of his classes fell on a Monday or a Friday, thus extending his pure party time. Later, he recalled a class he once took called Alcohol Use and Abuse. In it, he'd filled out a survey to see if he qualified as an alcoholic. "According to that thing, I was a raving alcoholic," Bert said with a kind of distant chuckle. "I mean, one of the questions was, 'Do you blow off prior engagements to go drink?' Well, yes. But I think we're in such a different little microcosm here. There's always something going on that includes drinking."
If it wasn't at some shindig put on by a friend, fraternity or sorority, it was at the bars. Tallahassee was loaded with them. There was A.J.'s, Po' Boys, Potbelly's, Club Park Ave., Fusions, Yiannis, Ken's, Bullwinkle's and Floyd's — with its Sunday Old Wave Night, featuring the retro sounds of the good old '70s and '80s.
As it happened, Bert viewed this multitude of options as a good thing, and sometimes his head swam with how great it all was at Florida State — the bars, the classes, the girls, the weather, the friends, the memories, everything.
"There are days where I'm like, 'Oh, my God, I'm so happy I'm living the life I'm living,'" he said. "I mean, I'm having such a great time that somebody's got to be having a shitty time. The way I see it, God had to fuck somebody, didn't he?"
That night — or maybe it was the next night, or maybe it was every night rolled into one; no one could really remember once the warm fuzziness tapped into the forebrain — Bert started off at Po' Boys, on Pensacola Street, then stopped by Yiannis, on Tennessee Street (where all the best bars were), and ended up at Potbelly's, on College Avenue. Everywhere he went, people knew who he was and raised their voices in greeting.
Sometimes when he walked in, people stopped and stared like he was Pablo Picasso or some other famous asshole. Occasionally, he whipped out his sunglasses and slapped them over his eyes. The shades made him look sort of raffish, like a skid-row Tom Cruise, but he wore them only so he could avoid having to say hello to people whose names he couldn't remember. For part of the night, he had his girlfriend with him, and she was indeed gorgeous. Kristen was a social-work major, trim, athletic, somewhat of a giggler, very sweet, though sometimes, it was said, a little too controlling of Bert. Tonight that wasn't the case. Bert was in high party form. Spotting a girl named Courtney, who was standing in line at the girls' bathroom, he leaned in on her and said, "You ought to see her give oral sex. Wow! I'll tell you right now!" Because Bert was Bert, Courtney laughed. In fact, because Bert was Bert, Courtney started to get into what he had said. "It's astounding!" she roared back at him. "It's astounding what I can do!"
Bert chortled and moved on. He was drinking beers and getting red in the face. He grabbed Kristen and led her through the crowd to the dance floor. They got up there, and on the front lip of the stage, Bert danced a kind of mad frug, grinning wildly, his big head bobbing up and down. He danced to the crowd, to Kristen and to himself. You could see him mouthing the words to the songs, his eyes closed in deep, soulful appreciation.
Then he and Kristen took up their beers and pushed forward, talking to their friends. Bert saw Hutch standing over by the pool tables. Hutch's eyes were blank. His expression was blank. He appeared to be floating in place. Next to him was his fiancée, Angie. Like Kristen, Angie was gorgeous — blond and very sweet, with the most mellow, liquid green eyes. She was a recent Florida State graduate, with a degree in hospitality.
"She puts no restraints on Hutch," Bert said, wonder-struck. "When he's loaded, he'll be, like, sloshing beer on her, and she'll say, 'Hon!' He'll be, 'Sorry, Toots,' and walk away; and she'll go, 'Isn't he cute?' He gets so wasted. Watch him. Slowly but surely he will black out. But he doesn't mean to hurt a soul."
Bert's friend Pat wandered up. He was a round-faced, khaki-wearing-type guy. He had just been to a job interview. He'd come away with the impression that the only thing of importance at a job interview is how you present yourself, how you come off. He'd also learned that if he got the job, he would be expected to put in a full day's work. He was stunned by this bit of news and apparently said as much to the interviewer. "I'm like, 'Oh, shit, I better rethink this whole thing!'"
Bert took a swig of beer. Lately his father had been hounding him to stop partying so much and get a job.
"This whole job hunt has really been a trip," Pat went on. "I mean, I think about some poor sack of shit sitting next to me, going, 'Oh, my God, what if I don't get this job? I've got a wife. I've got kids.' And I'm like, 'What if they offer me this job? I might have to take it!'"
This hit Bert in the funny bone. He began laughing. He knew precisely what Pat meant. "Oh, yeah," Bert sang out. "I'd rather that guy have the job. I mean, let me be in Aspen for four years. To my dad, I'd be like, 'I gotta find myself. I don't even know who Bert is!'"
A number of guys had gathered around Bert and Pat, and they were all in various states of uproar.
Bert was yelling, "'Like, how can I start working when I don't know who I am yet?' Yes! That's it! That's what I'm going to tell him."
"'Xactly right, 'xactly right," wailed Pat boozily.
Bert shook his head. "Jesus!" he said flatly. Then he noticed that his beer bottle was empty. "Uh-oh, time for another beer, guys." And then he noticed, not far away, Kristen and Angie. "Enough of this shoptalk," he piped up. "Let's talk about bitches!"
Angie said, "Stop that, Bert!"
"Sorry, sorry," Bert said, mock apologetically.
He drifted off, headed for the bar and another beer. He punched his arms into the air as he went, so that soon all you could see of him were his waving, outstretched fingers, then just the nails, then nothing, as the crowd swallowed him up. Maybe that's the way it had been for a guy named Rod. When Bert joined Alpha Tau Omega, Rod was his idol. He was good-looking, had tons of friends, always knew what to say. He drank hard, but you could never tell he was drunk; he drove a sweet Honda Accord and, later, a sweet BMW. Then Rod graduated. The last Bert knew, he was living somewhere in South Florida, selling home-alarm systems.
Right now, Bert couldn't be seen in the crowd. He was in there somewhere, though, and sometime later was heard to shout, "Hey, hey — who am I? Who is Bert?" his voice rising with quite some clarity through the early morning howl and din.
In a manner of speaking, everyone knew what would happen to Hutch. At Florida State, he was anyone's equal in the drinking department. But it was perfectly clear what would become of him after graduation and after marrying Angie. He was a truly gifted, talented salesman. For several summers in a row, he'd sold books door-to-door for the Southwestern Publishing Company, earning numerous awards and enough money to put himself through college, with lots left over. No matter where he got a job, he would be a great, thundering success. It wouldn't even have to be in sales. He could do anything. This was a fact, just like it was with Blair, who had clearly inherited his heart-surgeon father's smarts and also would end up wealthy and successful.
Those who knew Bert, however, didn't know what he would do after college. It was unclear. They thought he had prospects — but prospects in what, no one could say. It was a mystery, a great big mystery, to everyone, including Bert himself. Sometimes late at night, over pizza, he would talk about it with Kristen.
"I'd love to be a stand-up comic, get drunk and hook up with prostitutes every night," he would say. "I'd love to open a bar and name it Bar Flies. I'd love to write a book called How to Raise a Virgin. Seriously, I think a book about that would sell. I'd love to be a movie star. That'd be great. But I lost the looks awhile ago. They slipped right through my hands like sand in an hourglass." He paused for a time. "You know what's funny, Kristen? I just can't picture me doing anything. I don't know if there's anything I can do."
Kristen: "There's lots you can do, Bert."
Bert [grunting]: "Sure, sure, there's lots of things I can do, but I don't think anyone's going to pay me to sit around the office and get loaded and crack jokes all day."
Kristen: "Bert, someday you're going to have to start thinking realistically and not the way you think."
Bert eyed the pizza parlor's television, some huckster on it blaring, "Don't have the credit? You can get credit! At Tallahassee Mitsubishi, your job is your credit! No matter what your past credit is ..."
"'Your job is your credit,'" Bert muttered. "My dad has taken care of so many of my credit problems. My big mistake was changing my billing address to Tallahassee. They used to send everything right to my dad, and he'd pay it." Bert chewed on his pizza.
Then he said, "What I really think is, I would make a good heir."
In the morning, Bert felt a little unsteady. He had a crick in his neck that wouldn't go away. Also, he'd begun to notice that after drinking, he was having a harder time sleeping. He sat down on the toilet. Behind him, on the wall was a note taped there by Hutch. "This is the beginning of a new day," it started off. "God has given me this day to use as I will. I can waste it or use it for good. What I do today is important because I'm exchanging a day of my life for it. ..." A few minutes later, Bert tramped downstairs and announced to no one in particular, "Wulp, I've just dropped the kids off at the pool."
Hutch glanced up. "Golly, last night was fun. I was blind!"
"I've got a class at 12:30," Bert said.
"Gee, that sucks," Hutch said.
The phone rang. Bert's dad was on the line. Bert's dad had finagled Bert an interview at a law firm. He wanted Bert to call the law firm to make an appointment. Bert looked pained. He hung up the phone and debated calling. "What if they're like, 'We need you in here at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning'?" he asked. "Gosh," he whispered, with a sort of wonder in his voice. He could feel stuff pushing in on him. His dad with this job. And now Kristen wanted him to get an AIDS test. He didn't want to get an AIDS test. He didn't have AIDS. He couldn't have AIDS. But if he did have AIDS, he didn't want to know about it. This made Kristen really mad. She cut Bert off from nooky. He could just forget about the Seminole head on the 50-yard line at Doak Stadium. So Bert had things on his mind today. And he had that unsteady feeling. He busied himself, getting ready for class.
On the way in, he stopped by his fraternity. The ATO building was a run-down affair in a marginal neighborhood. Inside, some brothers were talking about the movie Grumpy Old Men. A brother named Justin had to write a paper on it for his multicultural-film class. He hadn't seen the movie, so he wanted help, which Bert generously offered.
Speaking with great expansiveness, Bert said, "When you look at it deeply, the whole thing is about two old men who fall in love. It's a gorgeous thing. The sex scene was my favorite."
With one eyebrow lifted, Bert studied Justin. Justin's pencil wavered over his pad of paper. He was apparently intent on copying what Bert had said word for word. He frowned. Something puzzled him. "OK, wait," he said. "The word when — that's spelling w-h-e-n, right?"
"Jesus, no!" Bert spat. "It's w-e-n, like Zen. No, no. There's a t after the n, only it's silent!"
Justin shrugged good-naturedly and promised beers to the first person who would write the paper for him.
Afterward, sitting in a classroom waiting for his public-speaking teacher to show up, Bert said, "People here just aren't using their brains a whole lot. What Florida State caters to mostly is elevating your social skills. Kids from here aren't getting top-notch jobs on Wall Street. But they are getting good jobs in a lot of the sales departments — they've got great personalities, they're real fun to be around, they always have a funny joke to leave you with. So a lot of people here become salesmen. They sell plumbing supplies. They sell medical supplies. They sell carpets."
Bert groaned and said, "That's one thing I don't want to do. I just really don't."
The teacher, a pleasant woman named Heather Donofrio, called the class to order and asked for the names of well-known people they found credible. She got: Billy Graham, Tom Brokaw, John Madden, some chick's grandpa.
"Your grandpa?" shouted Bert. "Girl, you talk so much shit!"
The girl roared with laughter.
Donofrio cleared her throat. "OK, what about Mother Teresa?"
"Of Calcutta?" said Bert.
Donofrio put on a show of looking surprised. "Bert!" she exclaimed. "You know what I'm talking about!"
Bert put on an equally big show of looking pleased, but awhile later his knees were bouncing around under his desk. He looked at his watch repeatedly. He was ready for class to be over. A bell rang, and Donofrio collected the latest assignment. Bert had nothing to give to her.
"Bert," she said. "Oh, Bert — we really do need to talk."
Bert smiled as he scooted by. It was a charming smile, very natural, very winning; but you could see how in later years it could turn into the awful, irritating, sickly, ingratiating smile of the typical Florida State carpet salesman, if that in fact ended up being Bert's route. You could almost picture his desk on the sales floor, with its coffee-stained desk blotter and the tattered Zig Zigler books in its drawers, right next to the desk belonging to Justin, that doomed but good-natured ATO numskull.
Such a thing could happen to a guy like Bert, because it had happened to lots of guys like Bert before.
One time, Bert's pal Colin woke up with a circular burn mark on his face. Blurry with pain, he moaned, "What the hell happened?" Finally it came to him. He'd passed out while firing up a bong, and the business end of the lighter had flipped over and branded its shape onto his face — without waking him up. This qualified Colin as a top partyer, but in itself, without further achievement, placed him only in the tertiary level of contenders for Top Party Guy status.
Bert, on the other hand, was rounded, in the E.M. Forster sense of the word. He had much to recommend him. He wasn't just a drinker or a guy who cut classes or a crapper on pizza boxes. He embodied the spirit of the party itself. He was all its elements — those desirable and less than desirable — rolled into one. When he and his pals were too drunk to drive, he'd call Kristen to come pick them up. He always took care of those closest to him.
Jimmy was in the downstairs bathroom, soused. "Uhhh," he went. "Uhhh." Bert opened the door. Jimmy was naked, flat on his back in the bottom of the tub. "Jimmy, you look beautiful," Bert said. Jimmy went, "Uhhh." Then Jimmy's girlfriend, Cathy, called. Cathy wanted to talk to Jimmy. Bert said, "Hey, Cath, he's really fucked up. He's like, 'Uhhh,' like he was trying to throw up. OK? You forgive him? You guys fight tonight? He was pretty fucked up tonight, huh? He gets fucked up. We all get fucked up. But, Cath, if there's any retribution to be given, he's taking it right now. The room's probably spinning around him faster than it's ever spun. OK. Bye-bye."
Often, when he or one of his friends planned to throw a bash, Bert would take it upon himself to become a living invitation. He'd pick up his guitar, gather a few pals and make his way from sorority house to sorority house, singing songs to lure the girls to the hullabaloo. He had an especially rollicking good time whenever he showed up at Kappa Delta, if only because it was Kristen's sorority and the housemother, a stern-seeming woman with gray hair shaped like a mushroom cap, didn't like him one bit. He'd arrive around dinner time, when the girls were gathered in the dining room, and strum his guitar, making up songs on the spot — rhyming Florida State with mastrabate and then shouting, "Sorry, Mom, I had to say mastrabate 'cause orgasm doesn't rhyme with Florida State. I take it back. I take it back. OK, we've got a party tomorrow night at my house. I won't masturbate or fornicate. I promise. I swear to God, Mom!"
Mom's glare was as unyielding as a chunk of pig iron. Later, Bert wanted to know what they were having for dinner and whether he could stay.
It hadn't all been fun and games, though. For instance, there was a tendency to think that Bert had ended up a six-year man simply because he couldn't get, or refused to get, passing grades. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lots of schooling time was lost after a fraternity brother, enraged that Bert had sung a song about the brother having sex with his girlfriend, hoisted Bert into the air and dropped him on his head. That same day, Bert was found wandering around campus, crying. An MRI followed, along with the dropping of all his classes. He'd had other good reasons to account for time lost — illnesses of one variety or another, the near divorce of his parents, the usual stuff of life.
He'd even, on occasion, cut out the fun altogether. A while ago, he returned from a trip to Europe only to find out that his then-girlfriend was sleeping with his then-best friend. Bert started boozing in earnest, blacking out, gaining weight, bleaching his hair white and just in general letting himself go to seed. Then he met Kristen. They'd been introduced 25 times before. He couldn't remember her name. But at Yiannis one night, they hit it off, ending up at her place a short time later. For eight hours, they just talked. With girls in private, that's the way Bert was — a slow mover. It was a side of Bert, the well-known party guy, that Kristen hadn't seen before. She liked it. Finally, she put her head on Bert's chest. Bert said, "Hey, what are you doing that for? How'm I supposed to hook up with you?" Kristen lifted her head. "Oh, you want to kiss me? Well, you can kiss me." For the next four weeks, they didn't go to sleep until at least 5 in the morning. Then, without warning or provocation, Bert decided to see if he couldn't stop drinking. He went to Tampa to stay with his parents. He didn't drink at all. Then he returned to Tallahassee. At first, he didn't want to go out at night, but Kristen convinced him it wouldn't hurt.
He'd stayed off the sauce for a total of 29 days.
His teachers thought about him often.
"He's kind of unique, isn't he?" Pat MacEnulty, his creative-writing teacher, said. The words hung there pregnantly.
"He's one of the brighter students I've taught and one of the most entertaining people I've ever met," said Donofrio, his public-speaking teacher. "He did a speech on Rogaine. It was gutsy. He completely captivated the audience. Students came up to me afterward and said, 'Why can't I be like Bert?'"
The way people sometimes talked about Bert, it was almost like he was a rare commodity or like maybe he was someone the MacArthur grant people should consider for a genius grant, as if those such as him should be allowed to create their own place and station in life so they wouldn't get lost or have their essential Bert-like qualities extinguished by having to take jobs selling carpets or home-alarm systems in South Florida.
His parents, of course, fretted about him constantly. His mom, Gege, would bravely say, "I don't know whether the world is ready for Bert or not!" She talked about how he started walking at 10 months and was "a party in progress" starting from the age of 2. "The drinking? Does it bother me? I have eight brothers; four of them are [recovering] alcoholics, and two of those have said that Bert has the same pattern. The only thing I can do is talk openly with him." She didn't know what he would do after college, either, but it wouldn't bother her if he went after any of his more far-fetched dreams, like being a stand-up comic. "The average American has such limits on themselves and the way they think," she said. "Bert can't fit into that mode." Bert's father, though, really wished he would. Six years earlier, Al had wanted Bert to go to Duke University, because Duke wanted him to play on its baseball team. "Bert was an excellent ballplayer," Al used to say. "I was dying for him to play." Now he hoped his son would just find what he wanted out of life, but mostly he hoped Bert would find a job. He thought Bert was a creative kid, a sensitive kid, a good kid. "Also," he would say, "he's an unusual kid."
At a bash at his place, with a live band thrashing on the back deck, eight kegs flowing on the lawn, a good 200 kids getting sloshed and the Tallahassee police keeping a watchful eye from a distance, Bert wore a pair of overalls, a brown ski hat, a thumb ring, a toe ring, a few earrings and some dark makeup around his eyes. "Guys don't understand it, but girls like it," he said to explain the makeup. His father, of course, would not only not understand it, he would have hated it, just as he hated Bert's goatee. He once offered Bert $500 to get rid of it. The only reason Bert had grown it was to cover his double chin. But for the bucks, he shaved it off. Seeing it gone, the first thing his father had said was, "Fat Boy!" He hadn't meant to be cruel, but Bert was hurt. Before long, the goatee was back.
Bert worked his way into the crowd. He came up to a guy who was quite clearly trying to hook up with a girl. The guy was leaning forward, the girl was leaning back. Bert appraised the situation. Though he didn't know either of them, he spoke right up, calling the guy Joe. "Joe!" he said, incredulously. "Joe — you're going to be sleeping with her tonight? OK! Yeah! And what's your name? Sarah? Gonna give him a blow job probably?"
Sarah looked shocked. "Hey ... hey," she said.
Bert started to move away. "All right, I'll go over here, if you don't mind."
When Bert had left, Sarah looked at Joe, shrugged, smiled and leaned his way just a little. She seemed to sparkle. It was like Bert had sprinkled her with some kind of sparkle dust.
When it was time to go to Tennessee Street, Kristen hopped into the driver's seat, Bert into the passenger seat and their friend OB, a rather contemplative English major, into the backseat. Every time Kristen ran over a beer bottle, it exploded. Pow! Pow! Pow! "It's a Jeep," Bert yelled. "It's a Jeep!" The three of them howled. When they arrived at Yiannis, with its long line of people waiting to get in, Bert stuck his head out the window and shouted, "OB wants pussy!" On the way inside, Bert ran into Hutch and Blair. Jimmy was there, too. By Bert's side were Kristen and OB. He was surrounded by all his friends. He had the best of all possible worlds. He was potted. His forebrain was clouded over. This was it.
That Saturday, at Bert's place, OB passed around a poem he loved. It was by e.e. cummings. OB had typed it out on a sheet of white paper.
"It's a great image," OB said.
"A leaf falls on loneliness," Bert said. "That's a shitty poem. It doesn't even rhyme. Now, Snoop's poetry sings to me a little harder."
OB said, "Think about it, Bert."
Bert said, "Think about it?"
He didn't want to think about it. It was Game Day. He had a plastic bag full of vodka stuffed into his pants, ready to be smuggled into the stadium. He hopped up. Everyone hopped up. They joined the masses of people headed to see the Seminoles in action. Bert saw a group of pretty sorority girls. "Hey, ladies!" he shouted.
"Hey, Bert!" the girls shouted back.
Some cops looked over. "You guys got the drugs?" Bert hollered. Mirthfully he clapped his hand to his mouth. "Cops! Oh, shit!" he yelped. "I'm just joking — no drugs here! Only kiddie porn — right in their satchels! You can smuggle porn into the stadium but no alcohol, right?"
Up in the stands, Bert turned to the people sitting in the bleachers behind him — a staggering number of people, hundreds of them, in row after row, mostly adults, mostly strangers.
"You guys want to dance?" he asked them all. "Maybe?"
No one looked at him. They avoided him. He took a sip of his drink. "Jesus Christ, that's a strong drink."
Suddenly, Bert grabbed a camera and turned again to the people behind him.
"Everybody!" he shouted. "I'm taking a picture. If you could crowd around real quick, I want my parents to think I have a lot of friends. Oh, by the way, I'm Bert. Now, everybody say, 'Hi, Mom!'"
"Hi, Mom!" lots of people shouted.
Bert clicked the picture. "Whoo, whoo! I made friends! I made friends! OK, now let me tell you my problems."
Everyone laughed and began talking to Bert. A few of the people said his name out loud. They said it not as if they were asking a question or wanted his attention, but just as if they were testing it out, the sound of it as it left their mouths and joined all the other sounds in the stadium. "Bert," they said.
Bert focused his attention on the field. Right in the middle, on the 50-yard line, was the Seminole head, plastered there in field paint. It was the nooky spot, representing the crowning ambition of his college years. It existed today, in the moment of now. Bert squinted at it.
"I know I can do it tonight," he said happily. "I just know I can!"