DIEGO RUDNICK DECIDED HE'D BECOME A DENTIST AFTER downing three cans of root beer in under a minute and thinking long and hard about teeth. This wasn't his first trouble with soft drinks. Twelve years ago, after sucking off an entire six-pack of grape soda in under 20 minutes, Rudnick had thought long and hard about grapes; five years later he graduated from UC Davis with a Ph.D. in fermentation science and a master's in physics. Since then he'd been clean almost seven years as winemaker and then winemaster at Geyserwillow Glen until about two hours ago, when he stopped off in the employee lounge, opened the refrigerator and found the root beer.
Before he could compose himself, a cold sweat burst through his forehead and dripped into his eyes. Rudnick looked around, knew he was alone, knew he couldn't resist. After all three cans were empty, Rudnick belched lightly and wandered by candlelight among row after row of immense oak barrels. It was a journey he took often, to wind down at the end of the day. The root beer was strong, stronger than the grape soda. Rudnick began to lose his focus, his aim, his center, his reach. For 12 years he'd thought about little else but wine; now, thanks to the root beer, Rudnick began thinking about roots. And thinking, just for that moment, about roots led him to thinking long and hard about teeth.
Teeth, teeth, teeth. Rudnick leaned against a barrel for support and closed his eyes. "I would like," he whispered aloud, "to examine many people's teeth." Opened his eyes again: "And to get paid for it."
LONG AGO, RUDNICK'S MOTHER HAD ADVISED HIM, "When you have trouble making up your mind about an important life decision, try soft drinks. They certainly worked well for your father and me."
Renata Rudnick wasn't just trying to be hip; she was also trying to be helpful. It was true: For almost 30 years, Dr. Carlos Rudnick had taken one cola each evening after work; sometimes Mrs. Rudnick accompanied him on ginger ale or lemon-lime. But never more than one. It never once occurred to either elder Rudnick that anyone, least of all their own flesh and blood, ever drank more than one.
YOUNG DIEGO RUDNICK HAD READ IN A MAGAZINE that the average American over the age of 25 spends 45 percent of his life in chairs, so the first unreasonable thing he decided after drinking the sixth grape soda was to buy a new chair. He burned his easy chair in the back yard, drove down into the city, to the Staples on Van Ness at Clay, bought a black leather high-back office chair for $200, drove back home, placed the new chair right where the old one had been directly in front of a 32-inch television set and sat down to watch the war.
Twelve years later, Rudnick returned home from the winery, his blood thick with root beer, and sat in the chair for the last time.
He picked up the remote and turned on the new war. Fox News was running a special called Real Dead Close-ups an hour of macro close-ups of bombing victims, narrated by samples of James Earl Jones' voice used without his permission, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, MinuteMaid and the new Hummer H2.
Boom, boom, boom. Zoom, zoom, zoom.
"Bad teeth," Rudnick muttered at a close-up of a British soldier's lower half skull. Beyond the soldier, against a stucco wall, four arms and three legs had been stacked up beside a small armless and legless torso. The torso's head, still attached, had been propped up with a stick, for the sake of ratings. The camera poked at each limb stump, then focused on the victim's face. She couldn't have been more than 10 years old. Her jaw hung open. "Very bad teeth," Rudnick sighed.
MONDAY MORNING, RUDNICK CALLED THE UNIVERsity of Connecticut and made an appointment to meet with the dean of UConn's School of Dental Medicine, on Wednesday. Rudnick's parents were old friends of one of UConn's past presidents; admission would be no more a problem than Wednesday-night reservations at the Hartford Marriott Farmington.
By noon he had booked two roundtrip tickets from Sacramento to Hartford and was on his way into the city to buy a new chair for his new life. His old chair was dark brown and made of wood. The new chair, he thought, should be black. Black leather, or mostly leather, and padded. Sturdy arms; adjustable height; tilts back for luxurious comfort. Five-radius caster-wheeled black-steel and black-vinyl base with black-leather arms, perhaps.
Rudnick took the Trancas Street exit off Highway 29, headed down California Boulevard, hung a left on Pueblo Avenue and headed east to the 7-Eleven at Jefferson Street. There he bought two hot dogs, which he ate immediately, and a warm case of root beer. Put all but two cans in the trunk; nursed one can as he drove across the bridge and on into town; kept the second can in his jacket pocket.
TWELVE YEARS AGO, WHEN RUDNICK HAD BOUGHT his last chair at the Staples on Van Ness and Clay, he'd had the option of going to Office Depot on Geary or Harrison Street. Not so anymore. Staples, Halliburton, General Motors, David Geffen, Ralphs, Pfizer and Village Voice Media now owned everything in the world. Rudnick parked right beside the entrance, in a handicapped space, popped the trunk, extracted another warm root beer, downed it, tossed the empty can into the trash bin beside the sliding glass doors, and proceeded into the store and to the left and all the way to the back. The last can of root beer came on strong, and Rudnick took a seat in the $600 "discount executive!" chair and began scooting around the showroom.
A door at the back opened, and a sales associate named Kathy, Cathie or Cathi materialized. Rudnick had never before seen someone wearing three name tags. The woman claimed to offer help, and Rudnick knew he could use some.
"Well," he said, still seated, "I've been making wine for a very long time, and now I'm going to be a dentist."
"Are you looking for a dental chair? Because we don't "
"No," said Rudnick. "Just a chair. Just a chair that's different from the one I have now."
"What kind do you have now?"
"Empty," said Rudnick. The woman said nothing. "Just kidding," said Rudnick. "It's brown," said Rudnick. "Incidentally," said Rudnick, standing at last and pointing at the sales associate's cluster of name tags, "which is it 'Kathy,' 'Cathie' or 'Cathi'?"
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"'Cathy,'" Cathy replied, raising her eyebrows and nodding just slightly as she noticed, for the first time, the cylindrical bulge in Rudnick's jacket pocket.
"Nice to meet you, Cathy," said Rudnick, slipping a hand slowly into his jacket. "My name's Diego Rudnick. And I'm going to be a dentist. May I offer you a root beer?"