I vomited on the screen door that morning. We were heading into the desert. Dad was angry that I hadn’t made it to the bathroom; I was relieved that I hadn’t done it in the car. I was so often vomiting as a kid that I was constantly consumed with trying not to vomit. I actively withheld vomit and lost control with little warning. I do this now, 14 years after leaving my parent’s house for the last time. This fear, it’s about losing control of my body, unable to hold back, seeing what’s inside outside. He hosed my vomit off the door, thumping his feet, asking all the while, What the fuck? Undeterred, he drove us into the desert. When I woke, nauseated from sleeping in the car, I saw Giant Rock sticking out of the barren landscape. My father told me it was left propped up here by aliens.
My father told stories. There’s a mountain he told me about named after some distant relative. I imagine he looks like my father. Alvord Mountain is part of a range in San Bernardino County named after Charles Alvord who was murdered in 1862.
We were stuck on Lake Mead in the middle of a storm. I remember the waves. Formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, Lake Mead is one of the largest man-made lakes in the Western Hemisphere. Sudden summer storms can create waves of 5-6 feet, capsize small boats, and terrify causal boaters. My younger sister slept in the back with my mother’s hand on her body pressing her into the seat. I sat between my father’s legs, my hands gripping his thighs so tight my fingers started to tingle. He’d pat my hands to let me know I was gripping too hard. The boat would lurch to the top of a wave and slam down on the water at the bottom. Engine rev, lurch, hold tight, free fall, bang. We rode this way through the water for a long time. I don’t remember how long, only the sound of the boat crashing into the waves, the spray of the water coming up over the sides, and my father’s face fixed on the horizon. I must have felt then like he would protect me from what was outside the boat.
Charles Alvord went in search of the lost gunsight silver lode, the catalyst in naming Death Valley, one of the hottest places in the world in summertime. He found something of value and convinced others to follow him out into the desert.
Giant Rock sits north of Joshua Tree and southwest of Mojave National Park. The rock is a two-hour drive from my childhood home. The desolation of the desert is a comfort. I was the smallest, but middle in age, of three sisters. On car trips in the summer from San Bernardino to Havasu or Lake Mead or Giant Rock, I sat in the middle seat sandwiched between them. I couldn’t read or hunt word searches, or number fill-it-ins because I was so easily nauseated by motion sickness and anxiety. Anxious about vomiting; anxious about my father yelling; anxious about everything. I curled inward on myself between my sisters trying not to touch them, holding my stomach in my hands, trying not to vomit in the bag between my legs. Staring out the window, I could only watch for hours as the desert rolled by losing myself in the repetition of shrubs and sand.
Charles Alvord was left in the desert to starve when his prospecting party lost faith in his ability to find the silver lode. He emerged days later, miraculously alive.
On Lake Havasu, my father convinced me to climb on an inner-tube. He hooked a line to the tube and planned to pull me behind the boat. He said, Tubing is fun! There were signals— a thumbs up meant, Go faster! A hand slashing the throat meant, Stop! My mother climbed on behind me. Within seconds, I used the slashing signal. I said with my hand thrusting in front of my throat, Stop! I imagine my face must’ve said this too, lit up with fear and panic. He went faster. He didn’t stop. He gave me a good ride. It feels like that ride goes on forever in my memory. I don’t remember ever getting off that tube. I’m there still, holding tightly to the plastic, gritting my teeth, waving my hand in front of my throat violently, silently begging my father to stop.
Friends found Charles Alvord’s mule and shotgun next to a body that was unrecognizable because the head had been blown off with the shotgun.
We spent an afternoon in a gorge. I call up its rock wall faces, blue-green water, and glassy surface stretching as far as I could see. And sky: the color of cotton candy and clear, blemish-less. We ate sandwiches on the boat. We lay there with the shade up after, baking on the lake. He must have been trying to convince us to go tubing. All I wanted to do was tan in the sun, read a book, lay on a beach towel, shove my toes in the sand. Without warning, he turned the boat engine over, pressed the throttle down, and sped for the beach. I’m sure now that he said something or warned us in some way first: Put on the fucking life vests. He threw the giant inner tube on the beach and stamped around cursing, popping the tube in his fury. I don’t remember going back to Lake Havasu after that.
Maybe he didn’t die that day. Charles Alvord could still be out in Death Valley, searching for the gunsight silver lode. Maybe I am still on the lake gripping my father’s thighs, staring at the graffiti on the underside of Giant Rock, listening to some story about a man I never knew.
Kari Treese is an MFA candidate in prose at Mills College where she is the managing editor of 580 Split. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Punctuate, Lunch Ticket, Rivet, and others. She is a fiction reader at Atticus Review. Before writer, Kari was a casino customer service rep, hostess, Baker’s drive-thru extraordinaire, military spouse, and mother. She’s a fish person, for whatever that’s worth.