Read All My Relations Online

Authors: Christopher McIlroy

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Short Stories

All My Relations

BOOK: All My Relations
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All My Relations

Winner of the
Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

A
LL
M
Y
R
ELATIONS

Stories by Christopher Mcllroy

© 1994 by Christopher McIlroy
Paperback edition published in 2008 by
The University of Georgia Press
Athens, Georgia 30602
www.ugapress.org
All rights reserved

Designed by Erin Kirk
Set in Berkeley Old Style Medium by Tseng Information
Systems, Inc.
Printed digitally in the United States of America

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition
of this book as follows:
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mcllroy, Christopher.
All my relations : stories/by Christopher Mcllroy.
189 p.; 23 cm.
ISBN 0-8203-1602-4 (alk. paper)
I. Title.
PS3563.C3689 A77       1994
813'.54 20      93-23006

Paperback ISBN-13:978-0-8203-3309-0
ISBN-10: 0-8203-3309-3

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available

Cover photograph:
La creación
(The Creation), Tiacuitlapa,
Mexico, 1987, © Flor Garduño

ISBN for this digital edition: 978-0-8203-4285-6

For Karen
and
for Buzz

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

“All My Relations” first appeared in
TriQuarterly
(Winter 1985) and was reprinted in
Best American Short Stories 1986
and in
TriQuarterly Fiction of the Eighties
(Spring/Summer 1990); “Simplifying” was first published in
TriQuarterly
(Fall 1989); “Hualapai Dread” in
Puerto del Sol
(Winter 1994); “The March of the Toys” in
Puerto del Sol
(Spring 1991); “From the Philippines” in
Sonora
Review (Spring 1984); “In a Landscape Animals Shrink to Nothing” in
Fiction
(1985); and “The Big Bang and the Good House” in
Missouri
Review (Winter 1992).

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and the Pryor, Montana, School District.

C
ONTENTS

All My Relations

Simplifying

Hualapai Dread

The March of the Toys

From the Philippines

In a Landscape Animals Shrink to Nothing

The Big Bang and the Good House

Builders

All My Relations

A
LL
M
Y
R
ELATIONS

When Jack Oldenburg first spoke to him, Milton Enos leaned over his paper plate, scooping beans into his mouth as if he didn't hear. Breaking through the murmur of
O'odham
conversation, the white man's speech was sharp and harsh. But Oldenburg stood over him, waiting.

Oldenburg had just lost his ranch hand, sick. If Milton reported to the Box-J sober in the morning, he could work for a couple of weeks until the cowboy returned or Oldenburg found a permanent hand.

“O.K.,” Milton said, knowing he wouldn't go. Earlier in the day his wife and son had left for California, so he had several days' drinking to do. Following his meal at the convenience mart he would hitch to the Sundowner Lounge at the edge of the reservation.

After a sleepless night Milton saddled his horse for the ride to Oldenburg's, unable to bear his empty house. As he crossed the wide, dry bed of the Gila River, leaving the outskirts of Hashan, the house ceased to exist for him and he thought he would never go back. Milton's stomach jogged over the pommel with the horse's easy gait. Two hours from Hashan, Oldenburg's Box-J was the only ranch in an area either left desert or irrigated for cotton and sorghum. Its twenty square miles included hills, arroyos, and the eastern tip of a mountain range—gray-pink
granite knobs split by ravines. The sun burned the tops of the mountains red.

Oldenburg stood beside his corral, tall and thin as one of its mesquite logs. First, he said, sections of the barbed-wire fence had broken down, which meant chopping and trimming new posts.

Milton's first swings of the axe made him dizzy and sick. He flailed wildly, waiting with horror for the bite of the axe into his foot. But soon he gained control over his stroke. Though soft, his big arms were strong. Sweat and alcohol poured out of him until he stank.

In the afternoon Milton and Oldenburg rode the fenceline.

“Hasn't been repaired in years,” Oldenburg said. “My hand Jenkins is old.” Oldenburg himself was well over sixty, his crew cut white and his face dried up like a dead man's. He had bright eyes, though, and fine white teeth. Where the fence was flattened to the ground, Milton saw a swatch of red and white cowhide snagged on the barbed wire. He'd lost a few head in the mountains, Oldenburg said, and after the fence was secure they'd round them up.

“One thing I'll tell you,” Oldenburg said. “You can't drink while you work for me. Alcohol is poison in a business.”

Milton nodded. By reputation he knew Oldenburg had a tree stump up his ass. Milton's wife C.C. had said she'd bring their son Allen back when Milton stopped drinking. For good? he'd asked. How would she know when was for good? For all anybody knew tomorrow might be the first day of for good, or 25,000 days later he might get drunk again. For a moment Milton remembered playing Monopoly with C.C. and Allen several weekends before. As usual, Milton and Allen were winning. Pretending not to be furious, C.C. smiled her big, sweet grins. Milton and the boy imitated her, stretching their mouths, until she couldn't help laughing. Milton clicked them off like a TV set and saw only mesquite, the rocky sand, sky, and the line of fence. After
his two weeks, Milton thought, he'd throw a drunk like World War Ten.

At the end of the day he accepted Oldenburg's offer: $75 a week plus room and board, weekend off. Oldenburg winced apologetically proposing the wage; the ranch didn't make money, he explained.

They ate at a metal table in the dining room. Milton, whose pleasure in food went beyond filling his stomach, appreciated Oldenburg's meat loaf—laced with onion, the center concealing three hard-boiled eggs. Milton couldn't identify the seasonings except for chili. “What's in this?” he asked.

“Sage, chili, cumin, and Worcestershire sauce.”

“Heyyy.”

Inside his two-room adobe, Milton was so tired he couldn't feel his body, and lying down felt the same as standing up. He slept without dreaming until Oldenburg rattled the door at daybreak.

Milton dug holes and planted posts. By noon his sweat had lost its salt and tasted like pure spring water. Then he didn't sweat at all. Chilled and shaking at the end of the day, he felt as if he'd been thrown by a horse. The pain gave him a secret exultation which he hoarded from Oldenburg, saying nothing. Yet he felt he was offering the man part of the ache as a secret gift. Slyly, he thumped his cup on the table and screeched his chair back with exaggerated vigor. Milton was afraid of liking Oldenburg too much. He liked people too easily, even those who were not
O'odham
—especially those, perhaps, because he wanted them to prove he needn't hate them.

Milton worked ten-, eleven-hour days. The soreness left his muscles, though he was as tired the fourth evening as he had been the first. Thursday night Oldenburg baked a chicken.

“You're steady,” Oldenburg said. “I've seen you Pimas work hard before. What's your regular job?”

“I've worked for the government.” Milton had ridden rodeo,
sold wild horses he captured in the mountains, broken horses. Most often there was welfare. Recently he had completed two CETA training programs, one as a hospital orderly and the other baking cakes. But the reservation hospital wasn't hiring, and the town of Hashan had no bakeries. For centuries, Milton had heard, when the Gila flowed, the
O'odham
had been farmers. Settlements and overgrazing upstream had choked off the river only a few generations past. Sometimes he tried to envision green plots of squash, beans, and ripening grains, watered by earthen ditches, spreading from the banks. He imagined his back flexing easily in the heat as he bent to the rows, foliage swishing his legs, finally the villagers diving into the cool river, splashing delightedly.

“I don't think Jenkins is coming out of the hospital,” Oldenburg said. “This job is yours if you want it.” Milton was stunned. He had never held a permanent position.

In just a week of hard work, good eating, and no drinking, Milton had lost weight. Waking Friday morning, he pounded his belly with his hand; it answered him like a drum. He danced in front of the bathroom mirror, swiveling his hips, urging himself against the sink as if it were a partner. At lunch he told Oldenburg he would spend the weekend with friends in Hashan.

When he tossed the posthole digger into the shed, he felt light and strong, as if instead of sinking fence posts he'd spent the afternoon in a deep, satisfying nap. On the way to the guest house, his bowels turned over and a sharp pain set into his head. He saw the battered station wagon rolling out the drive, C.C. at the wheel, Allen's tight face in the window.

Milton threw his work clothes against the wall. After a stinging shower, he changed and mounted his horse for the ride to Vigiliano Lopez's.

Five hours later the Sundowner was closing. Instead of his customary beer, Milton had been drinking highball glasses of straight vodka. He felt paler and paler, like water, until he was
water. His image peeled off him like a wet decal and he was only water in the shape of a man. He flowed onto the bar, hooking his water elbows onto the wooden ridge for support. Then he was lifted from the stool, tilted backward, floating on the pickup bed like vapor.

Milton woke feeling the pong, pong of a basketball bouncing outside. The vibration traveled along the dirt floor of Lopez's living room, up the couch he lay on. The sun was dazzling. Looking out the window, he saw six-foot-five, three-hundred-pound Bosque dribbling the ball with both hands, knocking the other players aside. As he jammed the ball into the low hoop, it hit the back of the rim, caroming high over the makeshift plywood backboard. A boy and two dogs chased it.

Seeing beer cans in the dirt, Milton went outside. He took his shirt off and sat against the house with a warm Bud. The lean young boys fired in jump shots, or when they missed, their fathers and older brothers pushed and wrestled for the rebound. Lopez grabbed a loose ball and ran with it, whirling for a turnaround fadeaway that traveled three feet. He laughed, and said to Milton, “When we took you home you started fighting us. Bosque had to pick you up and squeeze you, and when he did, everything came out like toothpaste.”

“Try our new puke-flavored toothpaste,” someone said, laughing.

“Looks like pizza.”

“So we brought you here.”

Milton said nothing. He watched the arms and broad backs collide. The young boys on the sidelines practiced lassoing the players' feet, the dogs, the ball. When he finished a beer, Milton started another. Later in the afternoon he sent boys to his house for the rest of his clothes and important belongings.

When the game broke up, some of the men joined the women in the shade of a mesquite. Saddling a half-broke wild colt, the boys took turns careening across the field. Lopez drove a truckload
to the rodeo arena, where a bronc rider from Bapchule was practicing. Compact and muscular, with silver spurs and collar tabs, he rode out the horse's bucks, smoothing the animal to a canter. Two of Milton's drunk friends tried and were thrown immediately. For a third, the horse didn't buck but instead circled the arena at a dead run, dodging the lassos and open gates. From the announcer's booth Lopez called an imaginary race as horse and rider passed the grandstand again and again—“coming down the backstretch now, whoops, there he goes for another lap, this horse is not a quitter, ladies and gentlemen.”

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