Wit’s End
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Wit's End, paperback

Wit’s End, by Karen Joy Fowler
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Excerpt

Miss Time was seated with her feet on the floor and her head on the table. Her neck and back were stiff, but stiffness was her natural condition; perhaps nothing should be made of this. The kitchen curtains were pulled. There were two glasses on the counter. One was empty, the other half so. A wine bottle (red) was beside the glasses; the cork was in the sink.

A tiny clutch purse had fallen to the floor beside Miss Time’s leg. Among the contents spilling out were a lipstick, keys, and a pair of reading glasses. Someone had written something on the tablecloth, using a faint red ink, or maybe the wine. It might have been a phone number back from the days when phone numbers began with an exchange. A D and an A were clearly legible. Davenport 7, 3, and then maybe a 5 or maybe a 2. Those numbers had spread and the rest were fat and indistinct.

The purse was the size of an aspirin, the lipstick slightly larger than a grain of rice, the kitchen floor about as big as a sheet of typing paper. Poor murdered Miss Time was only three inches tall. And the whole tableau was on the bedside table under the reading light, where Rima would see it first thing every morning and last thing every night.

“I’ll have Tilda move that tomorrow,” Addison told her. “I guess you don’t need it in your bedroom. I’m so used to it I don’t even stop and think anymore how it looks to someone else.”

Rima already knew about the dollhouses. Of course she did; they were as famous as Addison was. This was the way Addison outlined her mysteries, spending the first few months of each book making a meticulous replica of the murder scene, right down to its tiny clues and tiny gore. “If I can just get the murder scene right,” she told Ms. Magazine (“A. B. Early Thinks Small,” an interview Rima kept for many years in her sock drawer and reread often), “well, then the book practically writes itself.”

The interview was accompanied by a picture of Addison making minute adjustments to a pin-size bread knife. She’d aged since then, though not much. In her middle sixties now, she was too thin, but she’d always been too thin, all bone and sharp angles, as if she’d been made from coat hangers. Deep-set eyes and Eleanor Roosevelt’s teeth.

“I got my first dollhouse when I was four,” she’d said, first in an interview with Ellery Queen, October 1985, and then in many interviews after. “And a few years later a little man and woman to live in it. Mr. and Mrs. Brown.

“I hated the Browns the second I laid eyes on them. I loved the little furniture. The little people made my skin crawl.

“I didn’t want anyone to live in it. I wanted it to be my house. Or maybe fairies, you know, that you wouldn’t ever see, but you’d pour milk into the thimble-teacups and when you came back later the milk would be gone.

“So I rigged a noose from a rubber band and hanged Mr. Brown from the banister. Mother always said that was her first clue about me. He had a name, she always said, as if it wouldn’t have been shocking at all if only I hadn’t known his name.

“But there was something so creepy about little Mr. Brown. He wore a hat you couldn’t take off.”

All A. B. Early’s books begin with a death. This one starts here, with Miss Time’s plastic head on the table in the kitchen on the nightstand in the guest room of the old Victorian house on the cliff over Twin Lakes State Beach in Santa Cruz, California.

The house was called Wit’s End. It was a bed-and-breakfast (though with a different name) when Addison bought it, and before that it had been the final home of some woman who’d survived the Donner Party. Rima heard her father say that once to her mother, she was five at the time, and for months she’d anguished over this deadly party the Donners had given. Was it the punch? She became frightened of birthdays, a fear that had never completely gone away.

Rima slept at Wit’s End before she saw it. She’d arrived late, even later if you were on Ohio time, and Addison had taken one look and brought her straight up to the guest room—her room now, Addison said, for as long as she liked, Rima was her goddaughter, after all. Which was kind of Addison, because even though Rima was her goddaughter, they didn’t know each other well and might not like each other. Rima would have said the odds of that were high. She felt that Addison was trying to make her welcome, and that the operative word there was “trying.”

The guest room was on the third floor. It was a beautiful room with ivory walls, dove-colored wainscoting, dark sloping ceilings, a fireplace, a private bath, quilts that smelled like cedar, and candles that smelled like apples. In the bed-and-breakfast days, people paid two hundred fifty dollars a night to sleep in this room. There was no corpse on the nightstand then.

Rima had only two suitcases to unpack, but she was tired enough to leave them till morning. Even so, it took her a long time to fall asleep, and maybe this was because of Miss Time.

But maybe it was Berkeley and Stanford, Addison’s matched set of long-haired miniature dachshunds. “They don’t know you yet,” Addison said. “You should probably hook the door.” So the dogs spent the night in the hallway, egging each other on, clicking back and forth on the wood with their claws, and occasionally hurling their little bodies against the guest-room door to see if the hook still held.

Or maybe it was the invocation of Rima’s father. “You know I was very fond of your father,” Addison had said, which Rima did know, because her father had always said so, though her mother used to say that Addison had a mighty funny way of showing it.

Rima had heard once, or maybe read, that when someone important to you dies, they come back in a dream to say good-bye. She was still waiting for the dream about her mother, and her mother had been dead almost fifteen years. (Aneurysm.) Her little brother, Oliver, had died four years ago. (Car crash.) Probably her father (leukemia) was caught in the queue.

The stairs creaked. The window blinds rattled whenever the heat came on. Rima could hear the clock on the landing at the hour and the half-hour, and the tick, tick, tick of the dogs’ nails. The pillow was too fat unless she slept on her side, and she had a pinch in her neck from the ghastly plane seat, a clamp in her chest from everything else. There was another incessant sound, a sort of sobbing heartbeat.

After several hours of not sleeping she got up, went to the window, and opened the blinds. As soon as she saw the ocean, she realized it was the ocean she’d been hearing. It was a cloudless, moon-soaked night. There were lights in the distance—a single green one on the top of a very small lighthouse, a white cluster at the yacht harbor, and farther off, a line of lights where the wharf was. To the right of the wharf, less lit, more ghostly, she could just make out the high curves of a roller coaster, a second roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, brightly colored, but all distant and small, like something for Miss Time.

Rima recognized these things though she’d never seen them before; she had stepped into one of Addison’s books. And even as she looked right at them—the yachts, the wharf, the boardwalk—they remained make-believe, the night too bright, the ocean too black, the lighthouse too small.

In fact, wasn’t everything too small? A mocked-up, scaled-down representation of the real thing? Rima made a little mental list:

the tiny lighthouse
the tiny boardwalk, no bigger than the pane of glass in the window
Addison’s tiny dogs and their tiny teeth
Addison’s tiny dollhouses and their tiny deaths

And Rima was fine with that, relieved—in fact, eager to be little herself, to do and have and feel little things. A little room of her own. A little job for Addison. Someone else’s little life that she could just slide inside until all her emotions had shrunk enough to be manageable.

The night Rima arrived at Wit’s End she was twenty-nine years old. The list of things she’d lost over those years was long and deep. Her father used to say that when they decided to get rid of Jimmy Hoffa they should just have handed him to her. Among the missing: countless watches, rings, sunglasses, socks, and pens. The keys to the house, the post office box, the car. The car. A book report on Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone plus the library’s copy of the book plus her library card. Her mother’s dangly turquoise earrings, the phone number of a guy she met playing pool and really, really did want to see again. One passport, one winter coat, four cell phones. One long-term boyfriend. One basically functional family.

The boyfriend left when a lump in Rima’s breast turned out to be benign. “I just can’t go through this,” he said, and when she repeated that there was nothing to go through, that she didn’t have cancer or anything else, he said, “But when I thought you might, I saw that I just couldn’t go through it.”

“You’ll always have me,” Oliver used to say whenever a boyfriend went missing, but this time he wasn’t there to say it. Rima still had her father then, but they both knew about the leukemia and no one was making any promises no one would have believed even if they had.

Rima pulled the quilt from the bed, wrapped herself in it, and sat in a chair at the window. A bright road of moonlight lay on the water. She imagined herself walking it, the warp and dazzle beneath her shoes. She began to dream. It wasn’t a big dream, not like her father’s last good-bye, but Maxwell Lane was in it and she’d never dreamt of him before. She supposed it made sense that he’d show up here; she supposed, in fact, it’s just what you’d expect. Rima remembered that Addison had once called this The House That Maxwell Bought, before she learned that the original name, the name the Donner Party survivor had used, was Wit’s End.

In Rima’s dream, Maxwell Lane was walking beside her into Ice City. He put his arm around her shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said. “Everyone misplaces stuff,” which, of all the things someone could say to you, in or out of a dream, has got to be one of the nicest.

In Ice City, Maxwell Lane is Rima’s father’s archnemesis.