From the title of this story, we might expect it to be about the town drunk; instead, it is about a quiet, gentle youth who drinks too much only one time. Tom Foster has come to Winesburg with his grandmother, who lived there in her youth. An unassuming youth, he slips into the life of the town without anyone noticing him. As Anderson says, Tom "never asserted himself."
This story is about what happened to Tom Foster one spring when the trees were all "newly clothed in soft, green leaves." The setting here, as in many of the Winesburg stories, seems to dictate the mood of the characters. Certainly Tom is aroused by the spring lushness, and he dreams of Helen White, with whom he believes he is in love. Tom, however, is aware that nothing can come of this romantic notion and, besides, he is afraid of the ugliness of sex. In his fantasies, he imagines Helen as a dangerous force: She is a flame and he is a dry tree without leaves; she is a strong wind and he is a boat on the shore of a stormy sea. Therefore, instead of approaching Helen, Tom decides to get drunk.
After his drinking bout that evening Tom meets George Willard, who helps the boy. Tom tries to tell George why he did it. "It taught me something, that's it, that's what I wanted." He wants to experience suffering, he says, and drinking, like love-making, makes one suffer. "I thought of a lot of things to do," says Tom, "but they wouldn't work. They all hurt someone else."
George Willard doesn't completely understand, but his jealous anger concerning Helen White passes and he feels "drawn toward the pale, shaken boy as he had never before been drawn toward anyone." Thus George is becoming ever more concerned and interested in the people around him. We realize that he will soon be ready to leave Winesburg, as he had said in "Mother" that he intended to do.
Although "Drink" is really Tom Foster's story and another step in the maturation of George Willard we should not ignore the remarkably fine sketch of Tom's grandmother. The old woman who has scrubbed floors for five years in Cincinnati is pictured with mop in hand: "Her hands were all twisted out of shape. When she took hold of a mop or a broom handle the hands looked like the dried stems of an old creeping vine clinging to a tree." Such a glimpse of a character is an epiphany in itself, a moment that seems to reveal the character's whole life and to suggest something timeless about the perseverance and endurance of human beings.