An accidental snake

How Georgia O'Keefe brought them together… and tore them apart.

I first met Lee-Ann in a piano bar in Taos NM.

A well-known local singer-pianist was on that night and the place was full. She was at a corner table for two and kindly agreed for me to join her. We ate a light supper, enjoyed the performance and I walked her back to her motel on the edge of town which was the one I was staying at. I guess Lee-Ann was in her mid-forties – she told me that she was resigned to ‘not seeing the big four-o again’. She was divorced and had moved to Santa Fe from Portland, Oregon for the climate and because, like Portland, there was a big arts community there.

Back at the motel she invited me to her room for a nightcap. She was an attractive woman without being showy. Tall and athletic looking she had a relaxed directness I found appealing and wondered why her husband had dumped her.  We didn’t discuss that element of her past but the conversation was easy and revelatory enough to make us feel that we were friends. She was a fan of Georgia O’Keefe and had been to see the artist’s home in Abiquiu. It turned out the tour was full for the morning but had a no-show for the afternoon. ‘I didn’t like the tone of the receptionist,’ Lee said, ‘and I thought, who wants to pay thirty bucks to see a dead artist’s furniture?’

One thing led to another, which turned out to be a very pleasant experience. When I woke in the morning, Lee wasn’t there. That is, her belongings were still in the room but her car had gone. No one had seen her leave. I had appointments to keep, so I left a note with my cell number on it and set off north for Colorado Springs.

Life is too short for major regrets but I was sorry that Lee never got in touch and occasionally considered trying to locate her. It had felt like more than a casual fuck. On the other hand, if she wanted it that way, who was I to interfere?

A couple of years later I was in Albuquerque rustling up a little business. I walked into the bar at La Posada. Lee-Ann was sitting there, looking cool.

‘Hi stranger’ I said.
She started, stared and then gave me curious smile that was half pleased and half embarrassed.
‘Hi Ken’.
‘We can’t go on meeting like this’ I said to break the ice.
She relaxed a little. ‘No, we can’t.’
Then: ‘Can I buy you a drink?’
I pulled up a bar stool and sat looking at her. She gazed back defensively.
‘Why did you run out on me?’ I asked. ‘We were just getting to know each other.’
Lee-Ann gave me an ironic smile. ‘I expect you felt cheap and used,’ she said.
‘No, nothing like that, but I could have used your company at breakfast.’
Then she reached out and put her hand on mine. ‘So could I’ she said, ‘but O’Keefe and life got in the way. My mistake, as it turned out.’
‘I’m sitting comfortably,’ I said, ‘so why don’t you begin?’

‘I liked that evening, and I liked you, but it needed thinking about. I mean – sex doesn’t have to have deep meaning. Anyway, I wanted to see the desert the way Georgia saw it, and dawn was the time. I planned to take some photos to paint from. There is a very old pueblo a few miles from Abiquiu in the middle of the mesa. I thought it would be a great place to go. I probably should have left a note for you, but I’m sorry, I’m not used to telling people what my plans are.’

She had parked at a pull-in at the foot of the trail leading to the pueblo. It was barely sunrise and she climbed up the slope from the valley at the top of which she hoped to get the full sunrise.

‘I admit, I was a bit dumb. I had no hat, only shorts and trainers and a small bottle of water. The trail just went deeper and deeper into the mesa and there was no sign of the pueblo.’

The sun came up and she got her shots.

‘Then I stepped back to get a different angle and the goddamn rattler bit me on the calf.’

The pain was intense. She made a tourniquet from her camera strap and began to limp back down the trail. The pain got worse and after an hour she was crawling, dizzy and vomiting.

‘I knew the things I did were probably wrong, but I would have died out there alone. I had to reach the car.’

Then she gave a half laugh: ‘I think what kept me going was reciting that poem by D H Lawrence – do you know – it begins, ‘A snake came to my water trough on a hot, hot day, and I in my pyjamas’. I thought it so beautiful I couldn’t die, but if I did, that would be my last thought.’

By the time she reached the top of the slope she was almost unconscious, but she was in luck. A passing Highway Patrol had stopped to check the parked car and the patrolman heard her cries for help. He got her down the slope and drove her to the nearest doctor who had some anti-venom but no experience of snakebite. An ambulance eventually arrived to take her to the hospital in Santa Fe. It was nearly eight hours since the bite. By then she had reached the most dangerous stage of response and severe necrosis had set in. They took her leg off just below the knee. As she was now wearing an elegant pants suit and leather ankle boots I had of course failed to notice anything amiss.

What does one say? I expressed my sorrow.
She said, ‘It’s OK Ken. I’ve pretty much got used to it. But you can see why I thought it better not to contact you again.’
She was right in one way, but not another.
‘It wasn’t just a bit of your leg I liked.’
‘You told me I had lovely legs,’ she said.
‘I bet it’s still one and a half lovely legs.’
I was conscious of being both overly nice and dangerously sincere.

There was an awkward silence.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you,’ she said.
‘Well, here we are now’ I said, took a breath and said ‘why not pick up where we left off?’

She took my hand again.
‘I would have liked that, but I have to tell you my life has changed.’
She let my hand go and looked at her watch, then around the room.

A tall somewhat military looking man was walking towards us. He was about my age, that is, late thirties. He walked with an odd stiffness. He saw Lee-Ann and came up to us with a quizzical, but not hostile, smile.

She introduced us.
‘This is my fiancé, Paul.’

Just how Lee-Ann and I had met was not specified but our encounter was otherwise truthfully located in the past. The two of them had met in a rehab center in Denver. Paul walked stiffly because he lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan.

‘Meeting this little lady was the best thing that could have happened,’ he said, ‘pretty much worth losing the legs for.’ He took Lee-Ann’s hand and turning to me said ‘Damn lucky they were the only things I lost.’ He winked. By way of rebuke Lee punched his arm and said ‘Oh, Paul!

It was time to go.
‘Good luck, people,’ I said.

As I left the hotel, passers-by must have wondered what I was laughing at.

I wasn’t sure myself.




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