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  • An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile
  • Rick Bass (bio)

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Photo by Natalie Galatzer

[End Page 134]

It was late March in Montana, which meant fall in South America. At the bottom of the world, things were upside down. The leaves of the trees along the rivers were gold, orange, yellow. [End Page 135]

Wilson had been out of work, out of logging, for over a year. A snag had broken off when he was sawing and had fallen and shattered his ribs, punctured his lungs. Belinda had been gone almost a year by then. He hadn’t seen that coming either.

He had been drinking hard over the winter—well, longer than that; maybe a few years, depending on what hard meant—but planned to stop for this trip, spring break with the girls. Or to slow down, anyway. It was almost the same thing. It felt like stopping. The girls lived with him, in Montana, but soon enough, they would be gone altogether: grown up, departed also.

He didn’t need to drink. He liked it, but he didn’t need it. He knew that was the stance of someone who did need to drink, but he was different. Well, actually, he needed it, but he could go a little bit without it. Beer was safe. He was drinking too much, but he could stop. He would stop, he promised himself, for the trip.

In North America Belinda had told him he was a bum, but in South America he could be … well, whatever the opposite of that was. He was pretty sure he could stay off the sauce. Chile was said to be good wine country.

His older daughter, Stephanie, had just turned eighteen, and asked most of the questions in the family. Lucy, fifteen, answered them. In a few months, Stephanie would be off at college: gone forever, he believed. Though he didn’t have the money to pay for her college—there was that small detail—nor for their journey to South America, nor for much of anything else, really. Even their cabin in the woods—built by Wilson—was no longer secure. Workers’ comp hadn’t been enough and then had run out anyway. Soon enough he wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage. He felt life draining away and, panicked, topped out his last credit card. He needed this trip with the girls, one grand last hurrah before everything changed.

He’d asked Belinda to go with them. She was living in Oregon. He asked not with any hope for reconciliation—there remained only the final legal and financial disentanglements—but wanting to believe she might, for old times’ sake, come on the trip, that they might re-create some semblance of a family, if only for a short while. But she’d refused. “It’s a farce,” she said. “There’s no money.”

Nothing Wilson didn’t already know. “I’ll make it back,” he told her, though his ribs, a year later, still hadn’t fully healed and he didn’t know [End Page 136] when he’d be able to work again. “I know it’s been a little rough, but I can get us out of this.”

She refused to have anything to do with it. “Go ahead,” she told him, “burn it all. I don’t care anymore.”

He supposed he understood how she could think he was becoming a bum.

It didn’t used to be that way. The bars: Trixi’s in Ovando. The Murray in Livingston, and Gil’s. The Home Bar in Troy, site of an alarming number of shootings. Charlie B’s in Missoula. Wherever there were big trees and chain saws to cut them down with, there were good bars, where the real business was drinking, to numb sore muscles and still the vibrations of the big saws. Anyone who ran a saw knew where they were.

He was not an alcoholic back then. Each night he had walked home to his hotel from such places, weaving a bit but possessed of an athleticism that allowed him to correct any imbalance. A tightrope...


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pp. 134-163
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