Assumptionby Percival Everett
A baffling triptych of murder mysteries by the author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier
Ogden Walker, deputy sheriff of a small New Mexico town, is on the trail of an old woman's murderer. But at the crime scene, his are the only footprints leading up to and away from her door. Something is amiss, and even his mother knows it. As other cases pile up,/i>/i>
A baffling triptych of murder mysteries by the author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier
Ogden Walker, deputy sheriff of a small New Mexico town, is on the trail of an old woman's murderer. But at the crime scene, his are the only footprints leading up to and away from her door. Something is amiss, and even his mother knows it. As other cases pile up, Ogden gives chase, pursuing flimsy leads for even flimsier reasons. His hunt leads him from the seamier side of Denver to a hippie commune as he seeks the puzzling solution.
In Assumption, his follow-up to the wickedly funny I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett is in top form as he once again upends our expectations about characters, plot, race, and meaning. A wild ride to the heart of a baffling mystery, Assumption is a literary thriller like no other.
“Half zen koan, half Jim Thompson, and 100% Percival Everett, the twined mysteries of Assumption provide all the lively satisfactions of 'genre' fiction, while describing yet another arc in the trajectory of Everett's brilliant and protean career. In these spare, funny, and violent studies of the nature of identity and truth, Everett shows again that he is a learned student of the art of fiction, in addition to being one of its most able practitioners.” Christopher Sorrentino
“Everett ranges widely in his sometimes realistic, sometimes hallucinogenic fiction, drawing on a deep understanding of literary tradition. . . to examine social issues in limpid, muscular prose. . . . I'd encourage anyone with a taste in good, thought-provoking writing to investigate.” Barbara Hoffert, Prepub Alert, Library Journal
“Everett, who has put his uniquely wacky spin on genres from Greek myths to westerns, does the same for crime fiction in his effective follow-up to I Am Not Sidney Poitier. . . . [A] shocking tale.” Publishers Weekly
“The most sidesplitting dialogue this side of Catch-22. . . . Not only is the novel smart and without a trace of pretentiousness, it shows Everett as a novelist at the height of his narrative and satirical powers.” Publishers Weekly on I Am Not Sidney Poitier
“The writing is so sharp it will make you wince and laugh at the same time. . . . Everett's storytelling can't be oversold; this is superbly written, crisp and quick-paced, punctuated with pools of simply gorgeous prose. Above all, it's damn funny.” Bookslut on I Am Not Sidney Poitier
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By Percival Everett
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2011 Percival Everett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDusk came on and the pinacate bugs were out of their holes and trudging along the wash. Ogden Walker pushed his toe into the path of one of the large beetles and watched it stand on its head. He glanced up at the shriek of a chat-little and noticed the pink in the sky and though it showed no promise of rain he walked up to higher ground to settle in for the night, remembered how quickly desert floods could occur, how his father would not drive across a dip in the road if there was even an inch of water standing in its trough. The chill of evening was already on him. He built a fire, ate the sandwich he had bought some miles back near Las Cruces, and then rolled out his sleeping bag. He stared up at the new moon and the clouds that threatened to obscure it and tried to recall the last time he had been able to sleep in the desert. The desert he and his father had shared was not like this one. The high desert was not so severe, was not so frightening, relentless, was harsh only for its lack of water. His father spoke to him, a dead voice telling Ogden that he was a fool, a fool to love the desert, a fool to have left school, a fool to have joined the army, a fool to have no answers, and a fool to expect answers to questions he was foolish enough to ask. And his father would have called him a fool for working as a deputy in that hick-full, redneck county. His mother would be waiting for him in Plata. She wouldn't call him a fool. He thought about the desert around him, thought about water and no water, the death that came with too much water, flooding that carried mice and snakes and nests and anything else in its way. To drown in the desert, that was the way to die, sinuses replete with sandy water, dead gaze to dead gaze with rattlers in the flow. Ogden closed his eyes and thanked the desert wind that it was all over.
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.
Ogden's father would never have approved of his son's job with the sheriff 's office. He wouldn't have said it outright, that had never been his way except in Ogden's dreams, but he would have made it clear that he believed Ogden to somehow be a traitor. A traitor to what would have remained forever unclear, but it would have been tinged with the language of race and social indignation. Ogden never did much like the uniform. He disliked it as much as he had disliked the one he'd worn in the army. His father had been alive for that uniform. It wasn't that the man hated the idea of his son being a soldier; he hated the idea of his being an American soldier. He'd moved to New Mexico from Maryland because there were fewer people and so, necessarily, fewer white people. He hated white people, but not enough to refrain from marrying one, Ogden's mother. Ogden's mother never flinched and always laughed off her husband's tirades as silly, which they no doubt were, but it was hard for a son to think that his father hated half of him. Perhaps this was why he was willing to care enough about the bigoted white woman who was now missing.
Sheriff Bucky Paz was a big man with a belly round enough that the general belief was that his suspenders not only held up his trousers but kept him from exploding. He didn't carry a side arm because he figured he was wide enough without one. He had once said to Ogden, "I can't do anything about my gut, but there's no reason to look sillier than god intended." He was sitting now behind his desk, eating carrot sticks and listening to Ogden's report.
"You get any more out of the neighbors?" Paz asked. "People don't like to talk in the middle of the night, but you catch them after breakfast and that's another story."
Excerpted from ASSUMPTION by Percival Everett Copyright © 2011 by 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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Meet the Author
Percival Everett is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of eighteen novels, including I Am Not Sidney Poitier, The Water Cure, Wounded, Erasure, and Glyph.
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