“Hidden Valley” by Elaine Barnard

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I kiss Jered goodbye with the hope he’ll be clean by the time I get back from
the desert. I don’t even know where the desert is really. I just say I’m going
there because it sounds adventurous. Something I’m not. Something I’ve
never been. Now Jered is adventurous. He’ll be the first one to tell you so.
He’ll stick a needle in his arm without hesitation. He says it takes guts to do it.
Why am I such a wimp?

Before the day I found him at it I never knew what he did while I was at
work, work being the part-time payroll clerk at the Seattle free clinic where I
first met Jered. He was the clinic counselor. You know, the guy who interviews
the candidates for rehab. Jered counseled nights, I payrolled days. And that
worked swell for sharing our moldy apartment. We never got in each other’s
way. That is, until the day I left for work early feeling sick and found Jer higher
than Mt. Rainier. He was almost beautiful like that, dancing around the stains
in the carpet, graceful as Nureyev in “Swan Lake.” Only I was afraid he’d leap
out the window on one of his inspired flights.

“Jer, for god’s sake,” I yelled as he balanced on the sill. It was a humid
summer morning. I’d opened the windows before I left for the clinic. He
faltered at my voice, pressing his nude body against the glass for support,
sweat staining his skin until it gleamed. I wanted to touch him then. I wanted
to make love to him in a way I’d never done before.

“You idiot,” he hollered as he fell from the sill and rushed toward me. “You
never know when to keep your mouth shut.”

He clenched my wrists, forcing me back to the bed. Straddling me, he
clutched my neck with thin fingers. I tried to scream but strands of his bleached
hair muffled me. It had a chemical smell, like the one that overwhelmed me the
first time I entered the clinic. I felt myself falling into a gray space. “Jer-Jer,” I
gasped, “I’m…I’m pre-pregnant.”

His body grew limp, “You’re what?”

“I’m pregnant,” I gasped again, my throat aching.

He wrenched himself from me and slammed into the bathroom. I heard the
shower run full blast, as if he wanted to rid himself of any trace of me. After
that he slumped into a depression for weeks until I convinced him it wasn’t
true. I’d lied so he’d lay offa me. But that was two years ago.

Jer is in rehab now. He’s been in and out of rehab several times. He lost his
job at the clinic when they found he was the free loader they’d been looking for.

When I leave him this time I say, “Jer-Jer…I-I might not be back…”

“I hear you, Carla, I hear you.” He slumps on the sofa. His eyes glaze like
he hasn’t heard me at all. Maybe he hasn’t. How should I know what goes on
inside his messed up head?

Jer wasn’t always like this. In the beginning it seemed like we were glued
together, dancing the tango in the clinic cafeteria after it closed for the night. I
held a rose between my teeth, its petals in full bloom, fragrant and sweet on
my tongue, like Jered making love to me in the early morning before I left for
work.

As I make my farewell exit into the spongy streets he yells after me, “If
anything’s in that pooch Carla, don’t bring it back.”

I inhale hard. Suck in my stomach until it hurts, hoping that might change
everything.

Just in case you’re thinking how brave I am to leave my lost lover for
unknown parts, let me tell you that my Aunt Duffy is picking me up at the
airport. Aunt Duffy has been picking me up for years, ever since Momma died
and Daddy skedaddled.

“Come hang out in my trailer, Carla, until you get on your feet,” she said
when I confessed I’d lost my job at the clinic. They suspect me of being in
cahoots with Jer, which in one sense is true but not in the way they think.

So here I am, no job, no apartment, two months pregnant and living by the
grace of Aunt Duffy. Life’s a real picnic, ain’t
it?

Aunt Duf lives in a dumpy trailer park on a forgotten fork offa highway 62,
somewhere outside Palm Springs, California. She’s a naturalist. That is, she
eats natural foods. Drinks water straight from the faucet. Wears no makeup.
Skinny as a snake and so on. You get the picture.

Duf, who doesn’t know I’m “with child,” insists I need a little desert
orientation with her long time friend, Harry. She’s been on the phone with him
ever since I arrived. “Now you’re here, you might as well see what the desert
has to offer. It’s not the wasteland you might think.”

So here we are at the bus stop at eight-thirty in the morning with layers of
Duf’s sun block on my face, Duf’s extra straw hat, her extra sunglasses and
canteens of her natural water. Duf’s in much better condition than I am even
though she’s “seventy-three going on thirty-seven,” as she confessed last night
when we were bonding over bottles of cactus cola.

There’s something about Duffy that’s kinda sad. Maybe it’s because she’s so
determined to be cheerful. I wonder if someday I’ll look just like her, waiting
with sun wrinkled arms and freckled thighs for some retired tour guide to make
my day.

Because this is a tour, even it it’s just the two of us. Duffy wouldn’t let me go
any other way, not wimpy overweight me. I know that’s one of the things Jer
hates about me now, the weight I mean. I wasn’t this heavy when we met. I
started gaining when I discovered he had a secret habit he loved more than
me. That’s when I started stashing Hershey Kisses in my underwear. I have
some Kisses in the back pocket of my overalls right now, triple wrapped against
the oncoming heat.

Fortunately my overalls are two sizes too big or the Kisses might make my
butt look even bigger. I always wear my clothes two sizes larger. That’s
another thing he dislikes about me. “Geez,” he said, “if you ever get really
pregnant you’ll look like a house waiting to be demolished.”

Fact is, I feel just like that with my bulging tummy and my boobs too big for
my bra. But I don’t give a shit. I’m not giving into it, to my lousy mood and all.
They say that happens with pregnancy. The dark days loom ahead.

Harry is kind of a macho character, big and grizzled, in his sixties maybe.
Duffy said he was a ranger before he retired. Now he has his own company,
“Desert Adventures.” He yaks non-stop on our ride to Joshua Tree. I’m glad
he’s a motor mouth because I don’t feel like talking even though Duf tries hard to
get me going. Rocking and rolling over these roads just doesn’t do much for my
attitude.

Harry pulls up for a pit stop in Yucca Valley. The air is mellow with the
fragrance of May-blooming cactus all yellow and orange in the sunlight. My
stomach’s feeling queasy so I buy a carton of skim milk. Duf stands in line for
the toilet with a few weary tourists just arriving from L.A. I didn’t drink any
coffee this morning to keep my bladder at minor emergency level, so I pass the
line and park myself under a Joshua tree. I finish off my last Hershey Kiss
before it melts and wash it down with the milk, splattering my breasts, which
feel swollen and tender as I dab them with a tissue. In seven more months
they’ll be outrageous.

Harry honks, revs up and we’re off into Hidden Valley. As far as I’m
concerned, Hidden Valley is about as hidden as my boobs. Boulders jut from
the earth as if it had a headache. It must be at least 105. My skull will burst if I
touch it so I don’t. I just stand dazed while Harry demonstrates his rusty rock
climbing skills. I think he’s showing off for Duffy. She can’t take her eyes off
him even though his skin looks like he washes with a cheese grater, cuts and
scabs everywhere.

Harry scurries up his “minor” boulder like the mountain goat I saw pictures of
at the rest stop. If this is minor then I’m more of a coward than I thought. He
dares us to join him. Duf can’t resist. “Hey,” Harry hollers, “c’mon up, Carla.
Great view from the top.”

My stomach flips. I do not want to go up, but it’s obvious Harry isn’t starting
down until I do. They’re both above me now, cheering me on. “You’re a wimp,”
I hear Jer say, “just a fat female wimp.” His words sting like a bad sunburn.
Perspiration creases my chest, trickles beneath my armpits. I smell the deep
tremor of fear.

“Hey, Duf, could you snap me on the way up?”

Duffy waves her camera and focuses as I press one shoe into a crack
between the rocks. This won’t be as hard as it looks. It’s all a matter of timing,
one foot in front of the other like the monkeys in the zoo that Jer and I used to
visit before-

God, I need some rain right now, a good deluge might clear my head, give me
some courage.

“Careful,’ Harry yells, “that rock might be loose. Test it before you climb any
higher.”

My legs feel stiff and achy. “Smile,” Duf calls, kneeling beside Harry. “Make
it look like you’re having fun. Us old coots can do it, you can too.”

Much to my surprise, I’m two thirds up. “Take another shot,” I gasp at Duffy.
“Double insurance.”

My fingers tremble. I place one hand above the other. “You’re almost there,”
Harry drones. “You’re-”

“Look this way, Carla. It’ll be a good one.”

I lift my head to smile up at Duffy. What a terrific shot to send Jer. Make him
eat his words. But just as she snaps the photo, my foot loses its hold, dangles
below me as if it had a will of its own. I cling to the rock, try to boost myself.
My knees scrape the granite. Blood trickles down my legs, saturating my socks.
Something releases inside me. Just some more blood. What’s a little blood
here and there. What’s a little-

Then I realize it’s my womb, my womb aborting its bit of life. I slip, slide in a
jigsaw down the boulder, peeling flesh from my arms, cutting my knuckles until
the bone shows bare and white like Jered’s skin in the sunlight.

Harry clambers down as fast as he can. He kneels beside me trying to
staunch the blood with his flimsy first-aid while he calls for help on his cellular.

Through a haze of sun I see Duffy, her gnarled fingers caressing me, dabbing
at me with her bottle of water. “My God, girl, you’re a mess everywhere.
Something must be wrong inside you. I can’t stop the blood.”

Harry takes off his shirt. Duffy diapers my crotch with it. Blood keeps
gushing, the dank odor of the unborn.

“Hang in there,” Duffy whispers from somewhere beyond me. “They’ll be
here soon.”

I vomit. The acrid odor makes me shudder in the heat as if I’d been
transported to the frozen side of hell. I descend into a numb dark as a final
surge of blood soaks the desert floor.

“That’s the-l-last of you, Jer…” I hear myself mumble as I reach for Duf’s warm
fingers.

A siren shatters the desert silence. Lights dazzle me. The musk smell of
cactus mixes with the blanket of sand drifting over me. Duffy caresses me, a
comforting cocoon, a sweet sensation…

I stayed with Duffy for a year before I went back to Seattle. I was hoping to
get my old job back or any job at all. I couldn’t live off Duffy forever, much as
she wanted me to. “We’re a team, Carla. Stay. You could get a job at the date
stand maybe, or that earth foods market down the road. There’s a ‘Help
Needed’ sign in the window.”

Harry drove me to the Palm Springs airport in his dusty old van. Duffy sat
beside me holding my arm like she didn’t ever want to let it go. “Here’s some
cactus candy for you,” she said before I went through security. “I made it
myself. I’ll send you more if you like it. It’s chock full of Vitamin C and stuff. You
might need it where you’re going.”

I arrived in Seattle in the rain and went straight to rehab. Crazy as it may
seem, I somehow had to see if Jer was there. I was hoping he wasn’t. I was
hoping-

The rehab clerk looked up from her computer when I inquired about Jer.
Then she scrolled her charts while I leaned against the counter for support.
“Jered was released a while back. I think he’s still around. Got a job, I hear,
with Sally’s Dance Academy downtown.”

I walk two blocks to Sally’s place, an old shoe store remodeled into a dance
space. Through the window I see Jer demonstrating a leap. The kids stand in a
circle around him trying to imitate the movement, their supple bodies silken in
white leotards and tights.

I press myself against the window absorbing him until the lesson is over and
the kids straggle home. “Jered,’ I whisper before I turn back into the rain and
hail a bus to the clinic. My breath leaves a memory on the glass.

 

 

Elaine Barnard’s fiction has been published in Kalliope, Pearl, Sage, Writers Forum (UK), Storyteller and Timber Creek Review. Several of her plays have been produced at regional and university theaters. On January 11, 2008 five of her stories were produced at the Beverly Hills Library as part of the City’s “New Short Fiction” series.  She holds an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.

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