Authors: Jo-Ann Mapson
Hank & Chloe
The Wilder Sisters
The Bad Girl Creek Trilogy
Bad Girl Creek
Along Came Mary
SIMON & SCHUSTER PAPERBACKS
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2006 by Jo-Ann Mapson
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Owl & Moon Café: a novel / Jo-Ann Mapson.—1st Simon & Schuster pbk. ed.
1. Mothers and daughters—Fiction. 2. Restaurateurs—Fiction. 3. Restaurants—Fiction. 4. Family—Fiction. 5. Female friendship—Fiction. 6. California—Fiction. I. Title: Owl and Moon Café. II. Title.
Visit us on the World Wide Web:
To my husband, Stewart, with love:
Thirty-two years, five dogs, two horses,
and one great son. Every moment astonishing.
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.
Physiologie du goût,
said as the endless line of cars began moving forward. Twenty feet away, the Monterey exit shimmered like a desert mirage. She flipped on her blinker and waited impatiently to turn into traffic, brave the tunnel, and make her way to Lighthouse Avenue, where her mother was no doubt already preparing for the lunch crowd. Her grandmother, bless her heart for trying, was either filling salt-shakers or replacing sugar packets, stopping to rest when her legs ached. If the café was slow, she might be saying novenas for Simon, the gay cook she was certain she could get to defect to the other side. To Gammy, success hinged on bolstering his spiritual life. God and beauty products were what she believed in, which was why creams and abandoned potions cluttered the upstairs apartment. She wanted to turn back the clock, not just on her face but on the varicose veins that plagued her legs as well. To say it was hard watching someone you loved grow old didn’t begin to cover it.
Traffic stopped again. Mariah rested her forehead on the steering wheel and sighed. Highway One, the two-lane scenic byway on California’s Monterey coast, was two lanes too narrow to accommodate the tourists and commuters. A person could waste a whole morning here, breathing exhaust fumes and getting exposed to God knows what. And time was money. From now on every tick of the clock would remind her of that. This morning at six forty-five she had awakened as a thirty-three-year-old term assistant professor of sociology about to start the fall quarter. She had her master’s, and fully intended to finish her doctoral dissertation, as soon as a chunk of time came her way—coinciding with a blue moon, or a four-leaf clover, or a flying pig. By ten-fifteen
she was another unemployment statistic due to budget cuts. Her checking account was in the dismally low three figures. Of course it was. All summer she waitressed at her mother’s café and lived on tips. When fall rolled around, the coffers were low.
And then this morning the dean had called her in and explained that the term post she’d held for eight years was being phased out. Michael Howarth, Ph.D., freshly graduated from the University of Louisiana, would now cover her classes. He was twenty-eight years old and had already published a book. After eight years of promises that her job would be made permanent as soon as they got more funding, Mariah wanted to call Michael up and tell him not to get too cozy, not to hang any pictures on the walls until he got tenure.
If Mariah were to make the monthly car payment on the Subaru, the condo she and her daughter, Lindsay, rented would have to go. She could COBRA their insurance benefits—that is, if she could find a way to pay for them. At the heart of her worries was Lindsay’s tuition for Country Day Academy for Girls.
Her twelve-year-old daughter’s I.Q. tested at 175. That kind of intelligence was as much a burden as a gift. Mariah was determined to provide the right environment for her daughter’s intelligence to flourish, meaning public school was not an option. The stress would be traumatic, and such a drastic change had the potential to seal Lindsay’s fate as the too-smart geek girl to be avoided at all costs. Mariah knew that popularity was based on nothing more than the callow whim of youth. Other twelve-year-olds went to the movies, played soccer, slathered on fruit-scented lip gloss, and begged for trendy clothes. Not her daughter. Lindsay lived, breathed, and ate science. Quantum theory science. Bioethics science. Science fiction. Scientific essays with words longer than most sentences. The kinds of science a normal person could go a whole life without understanding and get along just fine.
The driver behind her leaned on the horn, startling her out of her daydream to pull forward maybe six inches. Since when did a measly half-foot merit blasting your horn? Control freak. Without even looking she knew it was a man at the wheel, ramming the palm of his hand into the horn. Just for that she’d drive slower.
Lindsay had her father’s strawberry blond, curly hair. She was four feet five inches and had not grown in almost a year. At her checkup, the doctor joked that maybe Lindsay’s intellectual growth had stunted her body’s progress, but Mariah didn’t think that was funny. Lindsay had skipped grades four and seven, and now she was in eighth. No way was she ready for high school, Mariah thought, picturing Lindsay’s beloved posters of Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas. Lindsay so often asked to be quizzed on the periodic table of the elements that Mariah had the poster laminated. Then there was the Darwinian theory poster, and her two-by-three-foot print of the saltwater fishes of Monterey County. When they left the condo, where would the posters go? For that matter, where would she and Lindsay go?
The condo and the car were expendable—things—not vital. In the immediate future she would temporarily return to waiting tables at her mother’s café, The Owl & Moon. The restaurant was a Pacific Grove landmark. Francis Moon, 1883, read the painted marker on the front wall, a distant relative on her grandmother’s side. The exterior was weathered cedar and peeling paint, and all summer the window boxes spilled over with geraniums, pansies, phlox, and Cecil Brunner miniature roses. The Owl & Moon Café offered a wide variety of soups, all organic. Their pastries were baked on-site, daily. On Saturday mornings, the line of people waiting for a table could spill halfway down the block, even though Pacific Grove was prone to fog year-round, even when just a few blocks up the sun was shining. Mariah hated waitressing. She looked at every customer and couldn’t help placing him or her in a sociological context—this one an upper-socioeconomic misogynist, that one an abandoned wife when her husband hit his mid-fifties. But she could keep her head down and do it until she found a better-paying job. She’d given up a lot more to meet Lindsay’s needs. Men, movies, manicures; it did no good to think about it.
How could the university do that to her after eight years? How dare they wait until the last minute to tell her? Each year Mariah felt she was that much closer to a permanent hire. It was too late to apply for a teaching job anywhere else. The adjunct positions had already been snapped up. She would gather her family together and tell them…and then what? Try not to choke on her broken heart. She had sacrificed having a social life, given up time with her daughter because working hard now allowed her to invest in Lindsay’s future. Mariah was a product of public schools, marking time until she could get to college. She was determined to give Lindsay the best of the best despite having no father in the picture. Gammy Bess and Mariah’s mother had worked hard for Mariah to rise above their stations. And now she had failed.
Breathing car fumes was muddling her thinking. What she needed was a lemon tart and a cup of coffee. She’d tell Gammy the news first, grateful for any homespun wisdom her grandmother might have. “God shuts doors right and left, Mariah. I won’t tell you He doesn’t. But somewhere you least expect it, a little mouse is gnawing a hole, and right there’s the gateway to freedom.” Gammy was straitlaced and old-fashioned, but protective as a mother tiger.
Mariah’s mother was a different story.
Mariah’s head was filled with memories of her mother’s embarrassing escapades. The opposite of Gammy in every way, she was a professional protester. Sit-ins, gay pride parades, testifying before the city council on chemical runoff into the bay, defending trees slated for removal. She even fought the initiative to eradicate the deer that roamed the El Carmelo cemetery, although they were truly nuisances, causing car accidents and ruining landscapes. Though she supported causes Mariah herself believed in, such as the homeless shelter and the no-kill animal shelter, Mariah still couldn’t get over the way her mother told dirty jokes in the café. She’d gone topless on the beach and was issued a ticket for it—which she fought and won—after she pulled up her shirt to show the court that her tiny bosoms could not possibly be offensive. Later, the judge had asked her out. Her mother, in her fifties now, was moored in the “Hey, babe, what’s happenin’” way of speaking. Every Friday night she went dancing, whooped it up and closed down the bars when other women her age were taking up knitting.
Her mother’s name was actually Alice, but she insisted everyone call her Allegra, including Lindsay. “Gammy’s the only grandmother around here,” she’d said. In music, the term
meant quick, lively, and she was that. She didn’t wear a bra. She didn’t shave in any of the conventional places. “I’m a peace-loving, left-leaning hippie,” she’d proudly tell anyone who asked about her political affiliation. But while hippies had a reputation for being laid-back and accepting, Allegra was bossy and loud. She drove Mariah crazy with her advice. On more than one occasion, she’d told Mariah to “loosen up, and have more sex.” As if sex was nothing more than jogging, or painting your nails, and something you couldn’t wait to discuss with your mother.
When Mariah was seven years old, her mother had leaned a ladder against the café building in order to reach the sign. “All the way to the top, babe,” she said, and Mariah, who’d never been scared of heights, did as she was told, with her mother climbing up after her. But once up there, the world looked different. Cars on Ocean Avenue hurtled by so fast Mariah was sure they could never stop in time for a pedestrian. The cemetery across the street looked huge, dotted with dozens of gravestones that stuck up out of the earth like dead men’s tongues. Just to think there was a corpse under each grave made her light-headed. What if a sudden wind came up, or an earthquake knocked her off the ladder? Mariah’s stomach tied itself into a Gordian knot, but did Allegra notice? Of course not.
Her mother painted “sizing,” a substance that looked like glue, all over the carved wooden moon in the café sign. Then Allegra took from her apron pocket a perfectly ordinary package, and peeled away the tissue paper to reveal what must have been the thinnest sheet of gold in the world.
Mariah remembered thinking that her mother must have found the treasure at the end of the rainbow. Gold was the stuff of pirates, Spanish doubloons, or the queen of England’s crown. Allegra showed her how to brush gently over the fragile gold paper, teasing it away from the package, and then lightly laying it down on the now sticky wooden moon. “Go on, babe,” she said. “Paint.”
Mariah hesitated. “What if I make a mistake?”
“You can’t make a mistake,” Allegra told her. “There are no mistakes in art, just unplanned outcomes.”
Mariah painted, watching the gold catch the light. Its wrinkles disappeared as they melded with the sizing. Down on the sidewalk, the café sign had looked like a wooden plank with a badly painted owl. Up on the ladder, however, Mariah saw that the owl’s feathers were individually carved, and all together they made up the outstretched wing.
Her mother hugged her from behind, and Mariah felt the ladder wobble. “Whoops!” Allegra said, and wiggled it a second time just for fun. “Mariah Janis Joplin Moon,” she said, “you just gave that old moon a second life!”
Except Mariah had done nothing of the sort. Things weathered quickly in the beach climate, and every six months the sign required maintenance.
Her mother was open and easy with everyone else, but from Mariah she kept secrets. How many times had Mariah asked her who her father was—just his name—and each time Allegra gave a different answer. He was a vagabond sailor. An Irish traveler hiking his way across Europe. And when Mariah pushed too hard, her mother said, “He was the man in the moon! Now stop with the questions before I lose my temper.” And do what? Mariah wanted to ask. Punish me by making me listen to another
Grateful Dead Live
Her heart heavy, Mariah parked in the slot behind the café next to her mother’s ancient VW bus. Gardener’s Alley was narrow and cobbled, and fragrant with garbage. As she walked around front she looked up at the sign. It was eye-catching. Decorative, like the window boxes stuffed with miniature meadow grasses that defined Pacific Grove and its neighbor, Carmel-by-the-Sea. But The Owl & Moon wasn’t like any other place. Inside it became its own little country.
Like the kitchen of an Iowa farmhouse, the bead board walls had been painted over so many times that they looked doused with cream. The floor was old planked pine stained the color of chestnuts, and deeply distressed from years of foot traffic. On the street entrance threshold, Allegra had painted a mariner’s compass in primary colors, its needle fixed on true north. Mariah walked inside and slipped behind the counter where two customers sat on stools.
Gammy was deep in conversation with one of them, a man in his forties. Mariah waved hello and went into the kitchen. Simon, in his chef’s apron, held an industrial-size tin of ground cumin seed above a large soup vat. Yawning like he hadn’t woken all the way up, he spilled some into the soup, not even bothering to measure.
“Hi, Simon,” she said. “Where’s Allegra?”
He nodded his head toward the stairway that led to the upstairs apartment. “Catching a few z’s before the lunch crowd arrives.”
That seemed odd to Mariah, because Allegra rose with the sun and partied until last call. “Are you sure?”
Simon rolled his eyes. “Why on earth would I waste my time telling you a lie?”
“Forget I asked,” she said, making her way upstairs. Snippy as usual. I’d be like that, too, she thought, if Gammy was on my case all day about sexual preferences. Ha. At least Simon had a sexual anything. Mariah began to count up the years since she’d had a romance and quickly stopped because it was too depressing. As usual, the door was unlocked. Monterey County’s history was rich with trouble. Thieving pirates, Spanish invaders, and blatant abuse of migrant workers were a few of its more notable sins. But unlocked doors and helping strangers remained part of the town’s charm.
“Mom?” she said as she closed the door behind her. “Everything okay?”
Her mother sat up on the sofa where she’d been sleeping, her cheek branded with the weave of a throw pillow. “Babe! What a nice surprise. I didn’t expect to see you today. Let me give you a hug.”