A Novelist Walks Into A Bar . . .

NaBloPoMo 2007November 25, 2007

Basking in all that moonlight last night gave me a strange energy today. Even though I’d had little sleep, I was up before dawn. I knitted some, and then started reading Sandra Gilbert’s Death’s Door, a 500-page academic study of, in the words of the subtitle, “modern dying and the ways we grieve.” The process of grieving is at the heart of my novel. I’ve owned this book for more than a year (bought at Emily Dickinson Camp in August of 2006 and autographed by the author, who is a Dickinson scholar), but had only paged through it before. Partly I failed to start reading because I lack the discipline to read for long periods when I am at home, and partly I shied away from actually delving into what could be an emotionally difficult read. Out here, everything seems possible, and I read for several hours, confident that my muse was not going to let me come apart.

One member of the group went home to Montana for the weekend, so there were only five of us left about the place. The other novelist did not spend much of her time today on the other side of the wall we share. The three remaining artists left together early in the morning for a field trip to Devil’s Tower, about two hours east. I am acutely sensitive to the presence of the energy of others when I am working. Even though we women gathered here all have private spaces across three buildings and really do not get in one another’s way, I did have the sense today of being home alone, of having just an extra measure of solitude.

I accomplished a great deal during the day. The material I read did turn out to be emotionally difficult, but it led me to explore some of my own history of loss and grief. Some of that exploration became fodder for character development, a process that can be very tiring for me. By 6:00, when the Devil’s Tower visitors returned, I was ready for a change of pace.

And so I found myself a passenger in a Toyota Matrix driving thirty miles through what seems like the middle of nowhere into the town of Sheridan, Wyoming, to visit the Mint Bar.

The Mint opened in 1907, when Sheridan was even more of a rootin’ tootin’ Western town than it is now. During Prohibition it had a speakeasy in the back. The decor includes burlwood booths and a long mahogany bar, mounted game heads and a splayed eight-foot 35-button rattlesnake hide, an antique Wurlitzer jukebox, and cattle brands carved into every wooden wall surface not covered by an historic photo.

Here’s what one reviewer said about the Mint: 

Honestly, don’t go out of your way to dine at the Mint Bar. There is nothing to eat and the drinks are minimal. Basically, people come to this place on the Main Street of Sheridan, Wyoming to drink beer or whiskey or both. So when the bartender asks, “What’re you having, sweetie?” we advise not asking her for a brandy Alexander or a frozen margarita. Instead, request “a ditch.” That’s High Plains terminology for whiskey and water.

That gave me pause. I don’t go to bars much. That’s just not how I socialize. I don’t really drink much either, although wine with a fine dinner out pleases me, and of course I am enthusiastic about the two months of Holiday White every night after a long day of party planning and other fa-la-la. Nevertheless, I remain the only member of the group who hasn’t bought something at the liquor store beside the supermarket. In conversation I’ve made references to my love for the Amish and the other plain people, to praying while knitting or baking bread, and the manuscript excerpts I’ve shared treated matters of faith. The two who set the table on Thursday weren’t sure if they should pour a glass of wine for me. I think they think I’m a Mennonite.

I’m not. I just don’t drink much and have little experience in bars. So I arrived at the Mint a little nervous. I did not want to look stupid.

It was early in the evening still, and the place was full but not crowded. We arranged ourselves along the bar. The bartender was an attractive big-boned blonde in a mint green tank top with lavender bra straps showing. She had a few tattoos on the backs of her arms, and wore a silver amulet on a leather cord around her neck. She smiled as she scooped up the empty glasses and the dollar bills and change the previous patrons had left, and she actually did say, “What’re you having, sweetie?”

I looked at the bottles on the wall and the taps in front of me. The middle one was Coors Light and the others were brands I had never heard of. Why come way out here to have something you can get any old time at home, I wondered. The companions on either side of me each asked for a glass of Alaskan Amber. I liked the name. “I’ll have the same,” I said, feeling confident, sophisticated, almost normal.

Eventually we moved to a table because it was too difficult to enjoy each other’s company strung out in a row along the bar. We have been working steadily since we arrived, and I’ve been keeping to myself a lot, both out of a need to make the most of this opportunity and my natural shyness as well. This evening at the Mint was the most time I had spent socializing with the others. It was different in character and duration from the time we spent at Thanksgiving dinner. The Alaskan Amber loosened the guard I keep around myself but did not make me stupid. I found that I like these women, and I think maybe they like me. Or at least no longer think I am a Mennonite.

Back at the ranch (a cliché right out of a western novel!) we gathered in the upstairs tv room to watch Project Grizzly, a quirky, often funny, possibly satirical documentary about a man who builds a suit of armor that will allow him to encounter grizzly bears with impunity. It was funny and silly and was the perfect end to a night away from the more or less serious and sometimes tedious work of fiction writing.

I see another week of productive endeavor ahead. And next Saturday? Next Saturday I want to go to the Crazy Woman Saloon. How can you be way out here and not go to a saloon!

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