I snapped my leg in two and lost the summer—six months on crutches and I’d be lucky if I didn’t limp for the rest of my life. I went to the ground for a slide tackle in a pickup soccer game and felt what turned out to be my tibia shoot through my skin. I couldn’t believe how fucking badly it hurt, and I must have conveyed that, since I spent the next three days on morphine. They sent me home all messed up and helpless, but it’s amazing how much trouble I got myself into anyway.
This was in Missoula, Montana, where I taught a photography course in a summer program for gifted rural high schoolers. (Show the kids the big city!) Even before the leg thing, the summer wasn’t going well. I broke up with the woman I’d been seeing back East over some petty bullshit right before we were supposed to drive west together. She kept the puppy. I got through the drive with a thirty-six-hour audiobook of Lonesome Dove, by the end of which I was convinced Larry McMurtry was the American Tolstoy. Then, my rented house, in the part of town ominously called the Upper Rattlesnake, was full of mice and mold, and there was an unadvertised pickup with no tires in the backyard. I drank myself to sleep and showed up to a classroom of seven dead-eyed teenagers. I distributed battered digital cameras, showed them the button to press, and sent them away with a self-portrait assignment. Then I went outside and joined the instructor-student soccer game.
Missoula has mostly treated me well in the four summers I’ve spent here and I don’t want to come across like an asshole. But when I got hurt it was hard to get anybody to come around and help me, even though the Rattlesnake is ten minutes from downtown. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t teach, the leg hurt so much that at first I couldn’t even use the crutches unless I had to piss. On my second day home, Jim, a climbing instructor from Boston who’d gone native, left a Tupperware container of homemade granola at my front door with a note reading, “Get good, pal.” For the next couple of weeks I got to know an older church lady one of my colleagues had tipped off to my existence. She brought pasta salad and talked up Rand Paul. On days when no one came around I tried to read through the haze of pain medication, but it depressed the hell out of me. I ran out of cigarettes and didn’t want to ask anyone to bring me more. I got lazy and pissed in bottles. I took pictures of the bottles.
One day during this rough patch there was an unscheduled knock at the door.
“It’s open,” I said. “If you’re here to kill me I won’t stop you.”
“It’s Chloe,” the voice at the door said. “Jim’s wife. I brought you a pizza and beer and some cigarettes.”
Whatever Chloe looked like, I loved her. “You are an angel sent from God,” I said.
She backed through the door with the stuff stacked on the pizza box. She was pretty in a messy way—dark hair piled up on her head, a sharp, bent nose and big mouth. I guessed she was five years older than me, midthirties. She was wearing ratty pink denim shorts that looked like they were about to fall apart. She put the pizza box down on the coffee table and opened the pack of cigarettes. She took one out and tossed the pack to me. “Do you smoke in here?” she said.
“Do I have a choice?”
She glanced around the musty room and into the kitchen.
“You rented this place.”
“Sight unseen,” I said. “Should’ve kept it that way.”
“Jim said you were funny.”
“I’m really grateful to you for coming out here,” I said. “You guys live nearby?”
“No, we’re over on the north side, but I’m part-time at Rattlesnake Gardens,” she said. “Almost no-time, lately.”
“So I’m not tearing you away from your duties.”
“Well, I’m missing The Price Is Right.”
I wanted her to recognize my vulnerable position and, unbidden, lean over the couch and give me a delicate kiss. But we had a wonderful hour anyway. She was sympathetic but not full of shit, like a good nurse or teacher or police officer. In previous summers I’d had drinks with her husband, and he’d helped me on the field when I got hurt. Now I knew he had excellent taste in women.
“I’m going to go home and take a run,” Chloe said. “I’d invite you along but...”
“I’m gonna be hearing shit like that the whole goddamn summer, huh?” I said.
“If you’re nice to me.”
My eyes followed her to the door like a well-trained dog’s.
“Call when you need things,” she said. “Don’t be a pussy about it.”
It was as if her coming by opened a lock of empathy in the hearts of my acquaintances. Chris brought me a card signed by everybody in the program and a bottle of whiskey. Mary Jo, the hip painting instructor, showed up with pot. Lisa, a former student of mine who now lived in town, played Big Star songs on the ukulele and filled me in on Jim and Chloe.
“He totally doesn’t appreciate her,” she said. “He thinks he’s such a stud because he’s a climber and a biker and whatever, but he doesn’t realize he’s just, like, cool for Missoula, not for real life. She’s cool for America.”
“What’s so bad about him?” I said.
“He doesn’t give her enough attention,” Lisa said. “I always see him with his buds at the Union, drunk as shit on, like, a Tuesday. And it’s, Oh, Chloe’s at home reading, or Chloe’s at the movies. It’s depressing.”
“You can’t really understand anybody’s relationship from the outside,” I said.
“I’d totally get with her if she was into that,” Lisa said. “I wouldn’t even feel bad about it.”
The next week, Jim and Chloe got me into the back of their Subaru and took me to the hospital for a checkup on my progress. I felt every bump in the road, but I tried not to make too much noise.
“I remember when I broke my ankle on a climb,” Jim said. “Getting back to camp was a bitch and a half. But I had to do it, you know? I put a stick in my mouth to bite down on when the pain got bad.”
“Maybe you were a dog in another life,” Chloe said.
The news at the hospital wasn’t good. The bone hadn’t been healing properly and they were going to have to do surgery. I’d have to rest the leg for another three months and do serious physical therapy.
“Look on the bright side,” Chloe said. “If you were a horse they’d have put you down a long time ago.”
We went back to my house and Chloe and Jim decided the only thing to do in the face of my bad news was to throw a party. I would hold court on the couch and everyone would celebrate around me. Calls were made; beer was brought. My summer colleagues straggled by, along with grad students I’d never seen before. Some of them even talked to me.
“Do you like it better here or in Tennessee?” said a chubby guy in black-frame glasses. I had a tolerable assistant-professor gig at a small college there, where I taught Intro to Craft courses and the occasional Harry Callahan elective.
“Usually here,” I said. “But stuck on a couch in the mountains is worse than stuck on a couch in the South. Out here, I’d usually be outside taking pictures of roadkill and shit. Back home, I’d be on the couch anyway, trying to stay cool. I don’t even have neighbors to stare at.”
“You could have been just like Rear Window,” the guy said.
“I’m more into front-door action myself,” I said.
“Are you on drugs or something?”
I drank a little more on top of my pain meds and things got funky. There were these people all over my house for no reason. They were out back sitting on the rusty pickup, and crowded in the living room, dancing a little. It felt like hours since I’d seen Chloe, whose fault all this was. Then she was at the foot of the couch, up at the edge of the cushion to avoid my swollen leg. She didn’t seem drunk, but I got the sense that she was lit up somehow, different. Something was activated in her.
“Have you always lived in Montana?” I said. “I grew up in Helena,” she said. “And made it all the way to Missoula.” “You could conquer the eastern states,” I said. “With your legs and everything.” “Probably,” Chloe said. Then, a couple moments later: “Jim’s not a bad guy. He knows what he’s about. He’s not trying to be something else.” “What would you say he’s ‘about’?” I said. “Climbing. Working hard,” she said. “You might think he’s kind of full of shit but he’s not. He came all the way out here to follow his passions, you know?”
“I liked him better before I knew you existed,” I said.
Chloe leaned across the couch and rubbed my head. “Aw, it wishes I was single,” she said.
I watched somebody’s black lab fending off the nipping of a mutt puppy on the floor.
“Maybe when you’re all fixed up we can talk,” she said. “As it is you’d be a sitting duck.”
I went in for the surgery a week later and it seemed to go all right, though it set me back on the movement front. It was now July and I wouldn’t be able to travel for a few months, so I took a leave of absence from the fall semester back East. After a week at home, I got bored enough to ask the head of the program if I could teach my class from my house. She said yes. Apparently Chris had been “teaching” Vietnam movies while filling in for me, and she was already getting e-mails from parents. So that Tuesday the high schoolers sat cross-legged around my couch and we talked about the photos they’d been taking. There was a lot of the usual—pictures of their feet, some blurry sub–Francesca Woodman mood pics—but there were a couple keepers. One girl had taken a series of pictures with her friends in tourist poses in which she’d deliberately put her finger in front of the lens. Another had taken photos of small children wearing her clothes.
“What do we think this is all about?” I said. “They’re her inner child?” a guy said. “Good,” I said.
I sent them home with a handout from Susan Sontag and instructions to take a photo of “some social significance.” That’d keep ’em busy. I felt so good to be teaching again that I invited Chloe and Jim over to smoke and drink beer and watch Buster Keaton movies. Halfway through The Navigator, Jim said he wasn’t into silent movies and went off to the bar.