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By Percival Everett
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2011 Percival Everett
All rights reserved.
A DIFFICULT LIKENESS
Ogden Walker put his finger, a once-broken index that still held a curve, to the hole in the glass of the door through which two bullets had passed, a neat hole with spiderweb etching out and away. He felt the icy air, the rough exit hole, and he traced the netting of cracks to the wood. Neither the neighbors nor Mrs. Bickers knew who or what had been on the porch, but all were certain that he, she, or it would not be returning. Ogden marveled at the fact that Mrs. Bickers had been able to put two bullets through the same mark. He certainly could not have fired two shots like that, but still it was his job to relieve the old woman of her firearm and any others she might have. It wasn't that he believed she should not have the gun, an old woman alone like that, but that she'd pulled the trigger without so much as a glimpse at the person on the porch. It could have been the meter reader, the postman, ringing only once this time, or Ogden himself.
"I need to talk to you, Mrs. Bickers," Ogden said through the slim crack she offered at the door.
"Not now," she said, her voice hoarse, perhaps thick with the morning. She pulled her terry-cloth robe tight around her bony frame. "Can you come back?"
"No. I have to talk to you now. Okay? Open the door and let the not-yet-fully-awake deputy in." Ogden looked her in the eye. "Please, ma'am." He always sensed that the old woman didn't like him because he was black, but that was probably true for half of the white residents of the county.
She opened the door and stood away. Ogden walked past her into the tight space of the foyer. He caught sight of his tired face in the mirror of the combination coat rack/bench. He watched as she closed the door, attended to the bullet hole from the other side.
"You got any coffee, Mrs. Bickers? I'm dying for a cup." He knew that the old lady had never been comfortable with him, but he believed he could somewhat control the tension by having her feel he didn't notice.
"Don't have any coffee," she said.
"What about tea? Listen, I need to sit down with you and have a little chat. Sheriff wants me to do it. So I have to do it."
"Come on back." She led the way to the rear of the long house and into the kitchen, across the buckled linoleum to the table.
He held his holster away from his hip as he lowered himself into a chair. "A lot of excitement last night," he said. "Are you all right?" He watched as the old woman filled a mug with the coffee she'd said she didn't have and set it down in front of him. "Thank you, ma'am."
She wiped both hands on her apron.
Ogden wrapped his hands around the mug. "Strong tea," he said.
She sat. "Let's get on with it."
"Pretty fancy shooting last night, Mrs. Bickers. I'd never be able to hit a mark twice like that."
"Well, I didn't see much point in putting two holes in a perfectly good door," she said without a hint of a smile.
"No, I guess not. Mind if I take a look at your gun?"
She frowned and twirled a lock of her loose gray hair between her fingers.
"I need to see it."
She nodded, got up, and walked out of the kitchen and across the hall. She opened the door and slipped inside, closing the door behind her. Ogden watched the door and was still watching when she came back out with a long-barrel .22 target pistol.
"That's a hefty weapon, Mrs. Bickers."
"Yes, it is." She put it on the table, her hand lingering on it.
Ogden was impressed that the woman could even lift the pistol. She even seemed to have trouble raising it from her hip to the table. He figured that adrenaline had done the lifting and shooting in the darkness.
"Are you going to take it from me?" she asked.
Ogden didn't answer that question. "Is it true you didn't have any idea who was on your porch last night?"
She sat across from him. "That's true."
"You didn't even see them a little bit? How many? Man or woman? Tall or short? Wearing a jacket? Did he have a head? That's a high window, ma'am."
"I didn't see anything. I heard a noise and shot at it. That's what happened."
"Then I'm afraid I'm going to have to take your gun."
She sighed, looked past him out the window of the back door. "A person's got a right to protect herself."
"Protect is one thing. Shooting at noises in the night is another. That could have been anybody out there."
"I shot high."
"Could have been a tall somebody."
"Just take it," she snapped.
Ogden looked around the floor and then across at the litter box. "Where's your cat?"
"She's outside somewhere, been gone all morning."
"Are you sure you're all right, Mrs. Bickers?" He suddenly felt uneasy. He wondered about the way she was looking away from him.
"I'm fine." She looked him in the eye. "I had a prowler last night and I shot at him and I scared the hell out of him and now you're taking my protection away."
"Look at it this way. What if it had been me at the door?"
"What if it had been you?" She pulled hair from her face. "First off, you wouldn't have been coming around that time of night unless you had a reason and you wouldn't have pounded on the door like that."
"Prowlers don't usually knock."
"Pound, not knock."
Ogden granted the distinction with a nod. He looked for the cat again and then realized just how cold the house was.
"Go on, take it," she said.
"I'll come by and check on you now and again," he said. He picked up the pistol. "It's warm." Ogden observed that there was no clip. He pulled back the slide and saw that a round had been chambered. He removed it.
"I don't need no babysitter."
"I said I don't need no babysitter."
"Yes, ma'am." He took another sip of coffee. "I like your coffee. And where's the clip?"
"I took it out," she said.
"Do you have any other guns?"
"No. That's the only gun I have." She coughed.
"I can take only this gun because you discharged it," Ogden told her. "But, personally, I'd like to know if you have another. In case I get a call late some night."
"That's the only gun in the house."
"Okay. I'm still going to need that clip. I'm not expected to round up every stray bullet, but I will need that clip."
She got up and walked back to the same room. She came back and handed him the magazine. The clip was full, not missing a single shell. Ogden slipped it into his jacket pocket.
"Thank you." He stood and again felt the cold air. "How about I bring in some wood for you? It's a little chilly in here."
"You don't have to do that."
"I insist. Maybe I'll see your cat while I'm out there." Before she could protest again he was at the door. He stepped out and made the only set of prints in the fresh snow. Ogden had a bad feeling about something but he couldn't nail it down. As he loaded his arms with wood he looked back at the house, at the windows of the kitchen and the room she'd gone into for the pistol. That shade was drawn. He guessed that it was her bedroom. And where was her cat? Maybe she was acting strange simply because she was strange, because she had never liked Ogden's skin color, though she had never said as much. But he knew. Anyway, something wasn't right. A full clip? Why would she have replaced the missing bullets so quickly? A chambered round?
Back on the stoop, he stomped his boots free of snow and then stepped inside. Mrs. Bickers stayed close to him all the way to the front room where he set down his load next to the stove.
"I can take it from here," the old woman said.
"You want me to open your bedroom door and let it warm up?" he said and looked for a reaction.
"Oh, I will, I promise."
Her agreeable response rang strangely. Ogden had imagined her biting his head off, telling him that she'd lived alone long enough to know how to take care of herself and that she didn't need some half-brained deputy telling her how to heat a house.
Ogden smiled at the woman and walked to the front door. "You know, it'd be no trouble for me stroll around awhile and look for your cat. What, did she just scoot out when you had the door open, something like that?"
"He'll be home soon."
Ogden was out of the house and walking, almost to his car, when he turned around and looked. As he was about to fall in behind the wheel he saw Mr. Garcia standing at his door. Ogden walked toward him.
"Buenos días, again," Ogden said. He kicked at the snow in the corners of the steps and looked up at Garcia, now on his porch.
"Everything straightened out?" the man asked. He held an unlit cigarette between his lips.
The deputy shrugged. "Seems under control." He stepped onto the porch and stood next to the shorter man and together they looked across the street at the old woman's house. "Report says you heard shots last night. I know you didn't see anybody, but is there anything else you remember? Even before the shots?"
Garcia blew into his hands and then shoved them into the pockets of his thick sweater. "Like what?"
"Anything at all. Anybody suspicious hanging around the last few days? Ever, for that matter. Strange cars. Spaceships landing in her backyard."
"The spaceship was a couple of weeks ago."
"You don't like Mrs. Bickers much, do you?" Ogden asked.
"Do you?" he asked.
Ogden looked at the gray sky. "Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Garcia."
Ogden walked to his rig and got in this time, started the engine, and drove away. He stopped when he was sure his car couldn't be seen from Mrs. Bickers's house. He sat there behind the wheel for some minutes, nibbling from a bag of chips he'd bought the night before, trying to figure out what to do, trying to think of what was bothering him about the situation, if there was a situation.
He watched the postman drive down the road, depositing mail in the boxes. He could see the old lady's box, but she didn't come out to get her mail. The old people around there were paranoid about letting their mail sit in the box; too many checks had been stolen. Ogden had even seen Mrs. Bickers on occasion meet the postman at the roadside.
He got out and climbed a fence and made his way through the backyards to the old woman's house. He slipped through the barbed wire that kept a fat calf in the neighbor's yard and moved low until he was seeing the old woman's house from behind the woodpile. The calf came to the place where he had crossed the fence and stared at him, lowed a complaint. Ogden stared back at the house. His heart was racing now and he focused on breathing more slowly.
He would have felt like a fool trying to dash across the yard unseen. With winter, all the shrubs were bare and there was no hiding. So he walked to the house casually, but quickly. He was glad he had taken the old woman's pistol. When he had returned to the house with the wood, he had been the one to close the door. He hadn't locked it and maybe it was still unlocked. He ducked and passed beneath the bedroom window and stepped up to the door. He gripped the knob gently, but surely, and gave it a slow twist. It was open. He heard nothing, nothing at all. If there was nothing wrong he was going to have a hell of a time explaining himself. He could tell the truth, that she had been acting strange and he was worried that something was wrong and then he would lie, saying he'd knocked on the back door and when there was no answer he became more concerned. The only lie was the part about knocking.
He was in the kitchen now, his boots weighing on the buckled linoleum. He knew there was no way to walk across the floor unheard, so he stepped quickly. He slipped a little on the ice he had brought in on his boots. He stopped at the closed bedroom door, looked up the hallway toward the front door, and unsnapped the trigger guard on his holster. If he opened the door and found the old lady in her altogether, she wouldn't need a gun, he'd shoot himself. He did open the door and there was no one there. He moved quickly through the rest of the house, the parlor, the spare bedroom where the old woman had apparently watched television, the bathroom. Then he opened the front door. No one. The only prints in the snow were his, one set in and one set away.
Ogden went again into the bedroom and looked around, fingered through the papers on the nightstand, mostly receipts for prescriptions. He called out the woman's name. He paused at the door, a little dizzy. He was about to leave the room when he stopped. He dropped down to look under the bed. The little white cat looked like a rag. Ogden pulled him out, the cat falling limp over his palm. He thought that maybe the animal had been squeezed to death, his eyes blood-burst and erased of all sign of life. He called out the woman's name again.CHAPTER 2
MY AMERICAN COUSIN
Ogden Walker looked out the tinted window of his little bullet-- shaped trailer and tried to wake up fully. The shadows of the sage were still long and a few rangy rabbits were milling about. It was going to be a hot day and the bunnies were finding all they could eat before they had to seek shelter from the sun. Ogden wished he could have known what the weather would be by looking at the sky or by a smell on the wind or by noticing the behavior of hawks or ants, but instead he knew because the radio had told him. At least he knew how to switch on a radio. "Another hot one," the crazy, joke-telling disc jockey had said, then added, "Chili tonight, hot tamale," then howled with laughter before playing a novelty version of "Tea for Two," a song that seemed already a novelty. He showered, dressed, and drank his morning tea-for-one while he sat on the wooden step outside his front and only door. He tossed the last of the drink out onto the ground, put his mug on the step by the door, and walked over and fell in behind the wheel of his rig. The county and the sheriff's department had chosen to maintain its modest fleet of late-seventies Ford Broncos instead of buying new vehicles. At twenty years old, his truck still functioned moderately well and handled the ice and snow of winter especially well. The engine was a little temperamental in the summer. This hot morning it took a couple of key turns and a pumped gas pedal before the motor cranked over.
Ogden drove into Plata and parked in a diagonal space in front of the office. When he stepped inside he was greeted by the lanky desk officer, Felton.
"Good morning," Ogden said.
"You're half right," Felton said.
"I wish. My neighbor decided to go and get herself some peacocks." He looked at Ogden. "You ever heard a peacock?"
Ogden shook his head.
"It's a sound from hell. Sounds like somebody put a cat in a washing machine. She has six of them."
Ogden tried to imagine it. "Sorry."
"Fuck sorry. I don't want your useless sympathy. I want you to come over and shoot the damn things."
Ogden walked to his desk. "Why don't you shoot them?"
"She's my neighbor. Plus, she's cute."
"I see. Why don't you ask her to move them to the far side of her property?"
Felton frowned. "They are on the far side of the property."
Bucky Paz stepped out of his office. "Ogden. Good, I'm glad you're here. Come on in."
Ogden walked past the big man into the room. There was a young woman sitting in the chair in front of the sheriff's desk. He nodded hello to her and turned to face Bucky.
"Ogden, this is Caitlin Alison. Miss Alison, Deputy Walker."
Ogden shook the woman's hand. "Miss Alison."
"Miss Alison here is trying to locate her cousin. She came all the way here from Ireland and can't seem to find her."
"What's your cousin's name?" Ogden asked.
"Fiona McDonough," Bucky answered the question.
"She's living here in Plata?"
"I don't think so," Caitlin said. "I don't know. I sent letters to her general delivery to the post office in San Cristobal."
"So, she's up in the mountains somewhere."
"Nobody seems to have heard of her," Caitlin said. "I showed her picture around."
"May I see it?"
Bucky took the photo from his desk and handed it to Ogden.
"Nobody's seen her," Caitlin said.
"Is Fiona from Ireland, too? Does she have an accent?"
"She's from Minnesota. Born there. I guess she has a Minnesota accent."
"Point taken," Ogden said. "I hope my accent isn't too hard on your ears. Does she have family there still?"
"Where in Minnesota?" Ogden asked.
Ogden offered Bucky a quizzical look that went ignored.
Excerpted from Assumption by Percival Everett. Copyright © 2011 Percival Everett. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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