When the NEA called and told me I'd won a fellowship, I hung up the phone and cried like a baby. It seemed to me a transitional moment: validation for the writing I've done so far, motivation for the work I plan to do in the future. I am grateful to the judges, the NEA, and the United States government for honoring me with this award.
The grant will buy me time from teaching to work on my novel-in-progress, entitled Code of the Worst. It focuses on the misadventures of two bumbling criminals trying to make their way in the modern-day West, specifically Wyoming. I'm looking forward to traveling around the state, exploring its culture and people. I'm also looking forward to sitting in a basement for uninterrupted hours and turning these explorations into fiction.
Thanks again to the NEA for this vote of confidence.
Excerpt from "Winter Bar"
I went to the bar, saddled up, and bought a pitcher of beer. I sat a couple seats away from the girl I had talked to earlier; she was so far gone she could barely stand, her boyfriend propping her up, throwing back shots. I poured myself a glass, drank it, poured another. By this time Winter Bar had mostly thinned out, except for the group crowding around the bar, the ones all beaten to hell. I couldn't help but stare. One old fella -- toothless, nose mashed to the side, ears swelled up like meat patties -- peacefully considered the shot and beer sitting in front of him, a kid in a candy store; he downed the shot, ordered another, and sipped the beer. A young guy had an arm over the old man's shoulder, and he had a shaved head, a dark black bruise seeping from the crown of his head down to his left eyebrow. I thought they all might be from some kind of group home, but there were no buses parked outside -- and what kind of home would sponsor a trip to a bar? The bartenders -- there were two of them -- seemed the unsociable type, or I would have asked them. They were glad to pour out drinks and uncap beers but that was about it, not a lot of chitchat.
Finally, at the tail end of my second pitcher, the show began, if one could call it that. It was more of a spectacle, a sick performance. One of the bartenders picked up an aluminum bat he had stashed behind the bar, walked around to the front door, locked it, and stood there, a sentry. I looked at the clock: 2:00 a.m., closing time. The other bartender retrieved a wooden bat from under the cash register. The crowd at the end of the bar suddenly realized what was happening: they awoke from their stupor, a flash of fear charging them. A few slid down from their barstools, stumbling about, bracing for some kind of action, and I could tell it wouldn't be pretty. And then the bartenders converged on the group and started swinging their bats.
"Why? Why?" cried an older woman, her arms raised, her sagging flesh a sorry protection.
"You know why," the bartender said, crashing the bat into her ribs.
And then it was mayhem, sloppy mayhem, a bunch of drunks seeking cover, staggering into corners, bunching up to save themselves. The bartenders had at it. Glitter girl got a bat to the knee and she collapsed; her boyfriend was punched in the neck and started choking. I was suddenly afraid and readied myself to fight off the onslaught. What kind of town had I stumbled on? I'd seen bar fights before, too many of them, and in general I tried to avoid them, though I'd been dragged into dust-ups not a few times. But this was unlike anything I'd ever witnessed. As the bats flew, thudded into bodies, I realized that this was it, my wake up call: I had to settle down, stop wandering, stop drinking, find a good woman to take care of and set up a life. If I could just survive Winter Bar, I'd leave town immediately.
But then, as quickly as it had started, it stopped. One of the bartenders unlocked the door, handed his bat across to his partner, and they both began wiping down the bar, cleaning up. I looked around at the mess: people were groaning, weeping, pulling themselves together. A few limped to the bar, holding hands to their faces to stanch the flow of blood; the bartenders handed them clean paper towels from a stack that had suddenly appeared. Everyone started leaving, silently, carrying each other out, and after a few minutes the room was almost empty. I exited with the last straggler.
The next morning I was a little more cloudy than usual, but nothing I couldn't handle. I showered and shaved and tanked up on coffee and arrived at work ten minutes early. Von was standing outside the warehouse with his own coffee in hand, enjoying the first light of the day.
"How'd it go last night?" I asked.
"She threw a fit when I first got home, but I gave the baby a bath, sang some songs, put him to bed, and she was fine. Then I cracked open a beer in your honor. I felt bad, leaving early on the celebration of your first day on the job."
"Don't worry about it."
"How late did y'all stay?"
"I was there till closing. Big Ed left a couple hours before."
"Yeah, he doesn't like to stay to the end. It disturbs him. He said it in just those words: ‘it disturbs me.' I don't know about that, but it is messed up. You saw the beat down, right?"
"I did. Unbelievable."
"Yeah," Von laughed. "That's Winter Bar."
I stopped short of asking him more. I didn't quite know what to ask. I had to think about it some more. Get on the forklift and think about it and ease into the day.
I settled for vending machine food for lunch once again -- the grocery store near the room I rented didn't open until 7:30. I made a point to get there before closing, stock my mini-fridge with sandwich meat and bread. Out in the parking lot, I didn't hesitate to sit with the fellas.
"You look like hell," Big Ed said. I probably did -- we all did -- but you had to plug on. Men like us didn't call in sick from a little drinking the night before.
"Von tells me you stayed till closing at Winter Bar," Mark said. "Fun stuff, huh?" He tipped back a can of Coke.
I'd been turning it over all morning and was ready to ask about it. "Why do they stay? Why would they want that?"
"Didn't you notice?" Big Ed asked.
"Free drinks. All night long. If you can get up and leave before 2:00 a.m., you're free to go. But most people can't, not if the drinks are free. They always stay to the end, get their asses kicked. I can't watch it anymore. It's disturbing."
I smiled at Von about Ed's "disturbing" comment. "You're right -- now it makes sense. The bartender kept asking me if I was paying for my drinks or not."
"They like it," Diego said. "They're punishing themselves for having no common sense. No self-control. They need to be punished. It makes them feel better in the end, even if a couple bones are broken."
Von shook his head. "Way too much thinking, Diego. It's just about the free drinks. And it's a test, to see if you can get out before 2:00. All in good fun."
Before turning to writing and teaching, Paul Bergstraesser worked as a legal proofreader, house painter, bookseller, and in the kitchen of several restaurants. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in the Barcelona Review, Portland Review, Other Voices, Stone's Throw, Paradigm, Another Chicago Magazine, and Sojourn. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and the Chicago Bar Association's Goodnow Memorial Award in Fiction. At present, he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Wyoming, and lives in Laramie with his wife and son.
Photo by Michelle Jarman